The evening was already falling; the shades of autumn were shrouding the wooded hill above the Kennet, as a traveller halted to consider his way to the town of Hungerford. He had managed to gain access to the park, but could not discover any road out of it without rendering himself liable to an accusation of trespass. Here, dressed in fading light, the leaves rustled with an ominous manner, though scarce a breath of wind fanned his cheeks; and as the man thought of retracing his steps, a light suddenly twinkled out from an old manor house in the valley beckoning him to follow it.
He was about to descend the hill through the wood; indeed, he had already taken some steps in that direction, when he became conscious of someone by his side. The evening was still sufficiently light to enable him to see anyone near him, but although he fancied he could hear, and even perceive the disturbance of the leaves by his side, he could see no one.
All this while the dim light still burned in the solitary window of the house. What did it portend? Suddenly, as with the sweeping by of a mist, the intruder became aware of a female figure with a child in her arms passing before him. She was grey and silent, so too the infant. So surprised was he, that he checked himself suddenly, fell heavily, and lay for a while half-stunned.
In this plight, he was found by a labourer, who assisted him to the high road, and there he soon gained shelter, but his guide shook his head when he spoke of the woman, and hinted at some terrible deed in which the “old family” had been implicated.
“That maybe were the haunted room in which ye saw the light,” remarked the man. “Anyone will tell ye the tale of it. It’s well known hereabouts, and they say it’s true. P’r’aps she appeared to you, sir?!”
Instantly, the traveller’s mind was overwhelmed by such an inconceivable thought. Did something reach out to him? Something of the past? With some trepidation he sought to elicit all the facts from the labourer regarding the mystery — and the particulars follow in due order.
It was a dreadful night in November, decades before, when an elderly woman, whom we will call Engham, was seated in her cottage listening to the sighing of the wind which occasionally burst forth in loud blasts shaking the ill-fitting casements.
” ‘Tis a terrible night,” she muttered, as she rose and prepared for bed.
“There’s a wild lament in the wind, and I’ll to rest.”
She had scarcely gained her bedroom, when the sound of horse’s feet galloping hard along the wet road, made her pause to listen intently. Who would be journeying past her lonely cottage at that time of night? She lived some miles from any considerable town, on the borders of Wilts and Berkshire, and the traveller must have lost his way, she thought.
But her astonishment culminated in terror when she perceived that the rider halted at her door, and was already knocking loudly for admission.
“Who’s there at this time of night?” asked the woman, candle in hand, as she delayed to unbar the door.
“Open!” shouted the wayfarer. “I will not harm you. You are wanted by a lady of rank. So prepare to ride with me.”
“Ride with you? At this time o’ night!” exclaimed the woman. “No, no! I am tired and sleepy. I must to bed.”
“I tell you woman, you must come with me. It’s life or death to the lady. So open. You are wanted by someone of great consequence; a handsome reward awaits you; but you must be secret as the grave. Open while I speak it!”
The wise woman paused; then seizing a handkerchief, she threw it over her head, and donned a cloak before she opened the door to hear the dreaded secret which had excited her curiosity. Advancing the candle, she opened the door cautiously, and peered out. Scarcely had the candle gleamed out through the open door than her protecting hand was dashed aside. The light blew out in an instant, and before the woman could recover her breath to scream, she was seized by some powerful arm, the thick ‘kerchief dragged over her head and face.
Half dazed at this reception, and wholly blind, she was dragged from her cottage, her scarce-uttered screams being quickly stifled by her rough visitor.
In vain she resisted. The man would not be denied, but he reiterated his assurances of safety. Compelled to accompany him, he then conducted her to a stile hard by, where stood his steed.
“Mount quickly and ride behind me,” said the mysterious messenger. “Mount, I say !”
The poor woman, thoroughly alarmed, but, nevertheless, burning with curiosity, was assisted to the pillion; the man mounted after her, and bidding her hold firmly, as the road was rough, he set off at a brisk trot along the highway.
But, to her alarm, she soon discovered that the road had been quitted. Her companion had already dismounted, and had led the horse through a gate, and, notwithstanding the darkness and her veil, she could perceive that they had crossed a stream, or streams, and were traversing grassy ground, or fields of stubble and ploughed land.
The woman’s alarm in some degree subsided. Her companion scarcely spoke, except now and then to reassure her. At length the trampling of the steed’s hoofs announced to her their arrival in some courtyard. She had divined correctly. The horse stood still; her guide leaped off, and assisted her to alight with hurried politeness.
Still half-blinded by the ‘kerchief, she could yet see a glimmer of light of lamp or candle, and when she pulled her veil aside she found that she was standing in a passage, at the end of which was burning the light she had already noticed.
Littlecote Hall, it must be remarked, is an old Tudor mansion, erected in the sixteenth century, though considerable alterations have been made in the house since then. It stands in a spacious park, which is well-wooded and watered by the Kennet, to which, from the tree-crowned wood on one side, luxuriant meadow land extends.
The interior has quite a feudal look, the hall being especially remarkable. It is lofty and spacious, hung with armour and ancient weapons, such as bows and old fashioned firearms. There is a charming air of antiquity about the mansion.
The entrance to it is by a low door which communicates with a passage leading to the interior court already mentioned. By this passage the nurse was admitted to the house by her mysterious conductor at the end of the passage in the staircase. Ascending this staircase, said my authority, the doors of several bedrooms are passed, and into one of these rooms the nurse was quietly but rapidly conducted by her silent companion.
The silence of the mansion, the beating of the rain against the windows of the gallery beyond, the sighing of the wind, and the dead hour of the night greatly impressed the woman. She was led into a chamber, and in a moment the bandage was removed from her eyes. She gazed around her in terror and surprise.
She was in a bedroom, a “blue-furnished chamber”; the curtains of the bed and hangings, now almost threadbare, were then rich and of good colour. A lady, her patient, lay on the bed awaiting the nurse’s ministrations, and on the opposite side of the room stood a tall, powerful man of gloomy aspect and cruel demeanour, The nurse shuddered as he bade her attend to the lady, and while she did so he occupied himself in a far recess, waiting anxiously also for the result, and stirring the already blazing fire into a greater excitement and combustion.
Apparently unheeding the nurse and her gentle patient behind the curtains, the man sat glowering at the flames. His ferocious and sullen aspect appalled the poor woman, who nervously moved to and fro hidden from his gaze, veiled by the blue curtain which enclosed her and the expecting mother. The nurse knew that she was in some old mansion, but the mystery of the case alarmed her. How could she identify it if required? Were there no means by which she could recognise the room if at any future time she might enter it?
Yes; a sudden thought strikes her as she waits hidden in the luxuriant folds of the curtain at the foot of the ample bed. The fire flashes strange forms and shadows on the walls and ceiling. The glow overpowers the dim candle-light, and is seen licking the logs and darting up the wide mouth chimney in which the roaring wind awaits the smoke and hurries it to darkness overhead. Then the flames die down, only the glow only remains. The room is now almost dark. The nurse can hardly see.
Her bag is at her side, and there are scissors, some needles, thread, and sewing materials, as befitted her employment and her station. A quick, sharp snip of the scissors, another, another; a piece of the blue curtains is in her hand.
Through the small aperture she can perceive the saturnine man regarding the glowing fire; a terrible, wicked scowl upon his face, murder in his eye. What did he want there? The nurse shuddered as she looked, and recoiled in fear of him.
Then she became aware that she could not carry away the piece of tapestry. The man might turn at any moment, and see the rent through which, in horror, she was regarding him. What could she do ? Her services would be almost immediately required by her patient. No doctor was present. What could she do?
The exigencies of the situation sharpened her intellect. She must have a clue to this night’s work. Yes, she had it! She had cut out the piece of the curtain. She would rapidly replace it, and then the patchwork would be easily recognised.
No sooner had she entertained the idea than she put it into execution. Her nimble fingers had scarce replaced the piece of curtain roughly but sufficiently, when all her attention was required by her patient, whose features were almost indistinguishable behind the thick curtains, and in the absence of any light.
That the lady was young and beautiful she could perceive, but, forbidden to speak, and already threatened, the nurse did not dare to attempt any close inspection. At length her business was over; the cry of a lusty babe, a fine boy, resounded in the room, and her patient smiled and wept.
Suddenly the curtains were pushed aside, and a dull gleam of light was admitted for an instant. But before the terrified woman could exclaim in horror, the new-born babe was snatched from its young mother’s arms and carried off to a place beyond her sight.
Too frightened to protest, the nurse cried out in her terror; the young lady screamed and fainted. No assistance was at hand, and the half-fainting nurse was compelled to attempt to restore the unconscious lady.
The man had disappeared. His wild look and fierce determination had impressed the nurse; his face was photographed, as it were, upon her brain.
She felt sick at heart and physically ill when, having restored the trembling patient to consciousness, she herself staggered to a chair.
What had she done? At what crime had she assisted? How could she escape from this “accursed place,” as she considered it. These thoughts were coursing through her brain, when the piteous appeals of her delicate patient to have her babe restored to her rose above everything.
Where was the child? Who had so suddenly seized it, and why? In vain she attempted to console the “weeping mother” her ministrations met with no success. In vain she tried to soothe her; at the sound of her upraised voice the stern face of the man who had snatched the child again appeared. He seized her roughly, and in another moment she was thrust into an arm-chair, blindfolded, helpless, at his mercy.
“Hush! Not a word, or your life shall pay the forfeit,” whispered the ruffian.
“Begone! Seek not to guess the secret of this house. A reward awaits your silence and your service. Beware!”
The voice, fierce and low, was, perhaps, that of the man who had snatched away the new-born babe. What had become of it? The woman listened. She could hear no cry, no wailing note told of pain or hunger. But it had been snatched away!
“Begone!” again whispered the man. “Your guide awaits you. He will reward you on your return. Go!”
Compelled to obey, though reluctant to leave without some further clue to the child’s fate, the terrified woman quitted the apartment, which was, with the adjacent passage, strongly, pervaded by a horrible smell of burning.
The nurse stopped, pale as death.
“What means that dreadful smell?” she asked, with white lips, and trembling like to fall.
“‘Tis weeds and green wood of the grove, which the gardeners are burning without,” replied the man sullenly.
“That is no smell of weeds,” replied the nurse, clapping her bands. “Oh, heavens! If he has killed the babe! If he has burnt its flesh! If —”
“Silence, woman. Peace!” cried her conductor, placing his bare hand upon her mouth. “Be silent, for your life!”
The miserable woman could pay no more; but all her spirit rose against the dastardly and barbarous cruelty of the man. She determined to track him, and if she could, bring him to justice. No mercy should be shown to such as he — the murderer of a helpless babe!
Full of her ideas of revenge for this most appalling crime, the nurse, conducted by her former guide, descended the stairs, her eyes were most securely blinded, but her woman’s wits were wide awake; her senses all observant.
Down the stairs they went. Her arm rested on the broad baluster of the staircase; one, two, three, four, and so on she counted the stairs. In front, his fingers on her arm, stepped down the messenger. Behind, in pitchy darkness, came the nurse, he thought, secured from doing harm. The struggling moon now and then cast a gleam through stained glass mullioned window, but she saw it not. She counted all the steps in silence and in fear.
They reached the passage, and traversing it rapidly, soon gained the paved court from which the outer portal would be gained. Heavy clouds again obscured the the moon; darkness enclosed them as in shroud; but the messenger hesitated not.
“To horse!” he said.
Once more the nurse felt herself sat upon the animal. The yard was traversed in a walk, the high road gained, and even footsteps counted to the fields; but no field was reached! The man in no violent haste returned along the king’s highway and splashed the mud in all directions as they rode, a double burthen, to the cottage path again.
Here the mysterious visitor assisted the woman to dismount.
“Here’s the reward,” he said, putting a heavy purse in her willing hand.
The nurse clutched the money, and would have removed the bandage from her eyes to endeavour to identify the man but he anticipated her.
“Remain where you are,” he said, “or you will repent it. Count fifteen times before you remove the cover. Then get home, the day is breaking yonder. But be warned: Guard well thy tongue!”
He said no more. The nurse in silence reckoned up fifteen, and then tore the bandage from her eyes. The man was gone.
She stood and gazed around her. In some seconds she was unable to ascertain her whereabouts, but she discovered the path to her cottage after a while, and she returned home cold and trembling with excitement, in the possession of such a terrible secret of the lonely house.
The cottage door was still ajar as she had left it.
Stepping in, she tripped upon the candlestick, which had been dropped in the hurry of departure. The dim dawn enabled her to see a little. She fastened up the door, and retiring to her bedroom, threw herself upon the bed, and slept from sheer fatigue.
Daylight welcomed her awakening. A terrible load lay on her heart. What was it? Then, with curtains drawn, the remembrance came of all she had endured. Was it really true, or was it not rather a dream — a horrible nightmare which had so impressed her mind with its apparent reality?
She rose, and in a moment her splashed and mud-stained garments gave this supposition the lie. It was real, then! It was true that she had been carried off and had almost witnessed murder, for she was convinced that the child had been destroyed in the glowing embers of the wide hearth.
Who was the unfortunate lady? Who the villain, the cruel wretch who had so horribly destroyed her child — perhaps his own?
Turning these things over in her mind the wondering woman made for the nearest magistrate, and to him related all her woes and fears. An investigation was immediately set on foot, and search made in the surrounding country. The nurse was taken to the places she imagined might be the scene of her midnight terrors, but for a while all searching was in vain. No house she visited corresponded with her beliefs.
At length her advisers pitched on Littlecote, a few miles from Hungerford, in Berks; and as soon as the outer gate was passed the woman felt she stepped beyond the entrance but a day before. The long passage confirmed her suspicions that the ancient house of the Darrells had been the scene of a terrible crime. Ascending she counted all the stairs, and the officers of the law with her examined all the bedrooms one by one.
“Here is the blue-furnished room!” she cried. “This is the place! See, here is the piece of curtain which I cut, and sewed again that dreadful night! This is the house.”
Search for some traces of the lady and the infant was made without avail, but the nurse’s evidence led to the arrest of Will Darrell, the owner of the Hall. Further investigations resulted in the discovery that a beautiful young girl had some time previously quitted her parents to go to Avignon on the plea of entering a convent there.
But a servant at Littlecote declared that “a young lady” answering the description of the unhappy girl-mother had been seen in a casement at the Hall. However this may have been, the lady disappeared. Some authorities say that she was a waiting woman of Lady Darrell’s, and that “Wild Will” was responsible.
However, the fact remains that Will Darrell was arrested on the nurse’s evidence. She had found the room and the tapestry; and the number of steps (twenty-two) agreed with the number of stairs to the room. The suspected man was arrested, and proofs of his crime accumulated.
He was arraigned before Judge Popham, and every attempt was made to screen him, but without avail. Certain remains indicated that the poor child had been burned after death, and that its death had been caused by violence. All hope of screening Wild Darrell had passed, when an offer was made to the judge.
No one knew what this was. But it had a curious effect — not an immediate one, though. Darrell was found guilty, but the upright judge managed to save him from the death penalty, and the young man was permitted to return to his home.
“Wild” Darrell, thus set at liberty, surprised his domestics by arranging and sorting his papers and documents. He produced agreements and leases, laid them all out on the immense oaken table — still to be seen at Littlecote — a board of massive oak, black with age and usage.
Then came the judge and his retainers one black afternoon, and took a signature and signed the deeds by which he and his descendants were to have the Hall for ever. The Darrell domestics stood aghast! The old Hall was going to the stranger? They could not believe it! But when the deed was done, when the judge had rolled the parchment up, they saw “Wild” Darrell stride forth in deep despair, cursing the despoiler of his house; they saw him pass them by and fling himself upon his favourite steed, the last of his possessions.
Affrighted, some followed him at a distance; the women wept and wondered for his acts. They saw him never again. Madly he had ridden over the park and pasture. The frightened steed, spurred on, dashed over every obstacle, urged by his reckless master. On! On!
One stile remains, and now the panting steed would gladly cease the steeplechase; but “Wild” Darrell insists. He rushes at the barrier, the willing steed rises to the bar, but fails to clear it quite. He falls, his rider with him, and when the men come up he is no more.
Such is the legend attaching to the Hall. The “curse” fell on the Darrells, and his curse is held to have fallen upon others. The house still stands in the valley where the Kennet ripples over the sandy shallows by Chilton; the trout leap and play; and the imaginative visitor may picture Wild Darrell dashing out of his ancestral home through a long line of retainers, pursued by the curse which broke up the family, and which still haunts the “blue chamber” of the old Hall.
His inheritance did not bring any good luck to the successor. Both the ancient Popham and his wife died by excess and by luxury, and by cozenage of their servants; and when he died there was, I think, a hundred thousand pounds debt.
So passed away the first recipients of Wild Darrell’s inheritance. As for its haunted countenance, the “blue” chamber may be seen, and the apparition of a woman in white garments, bearing a babe in her arms, roams that gloomy chamber and, on certain nights, beyond.