The fading skies of a November night. Some dim presentiment of evil hung heavy upon my heart as I sat alone in the twilight. And yet there was seemingly nothing to make me melancholy. On the contrary, I ought to have been more than usually joyful; had I not been the recipient of a most heavenly promise from Lucinda that very afternoon!
It seemed to be strange, to be sure, that a widower far from youthful, was to marry a girl barely into her twenties. Her mother had been a housekeeper in our family, but died soon after Lucinda’s birth. So it happened that she came under our wings, as we had no children of our own. My wife treated her sympathetically, but without much warmth or feeling. It was apparent to me that despite her civility towards Lucinda, she was jealous of the girl and would, quite often, go out of her way to avoid any unnecessary encounters with her.
Poor Alice! She warned me solemnly — and most vehemently! —on her death bed never to marry again, and threatened to rise from her grave in case of such an event.
Lucinda was in her thirteenth year when my wife passed away. I sent her away to a boarding-school; and, as business called me abroad, did not see her again, until my return, eight years afterwards. I was somewhat bewildered to find a lovely woman, instead of the little girl I had left in short dresses. Of course you can guess the inevitable. I fell in love with this charming woman. There was something in the genuine tenderness of her presence that completely won my heart.
Lucinda was most unlike other girls her age and did not suffer the carefree vagaries of youth. Instead of blushing at my declaration that afternoon she turned pale, almost ashen, as if struck by a sudden chill. I noticed too, that, there was a faint tremble in her voice when she finally consented to be my wife. I was concerned that my nephew Martin had told her what Alice had said on her death-bed. And yet I was unable to accept that the man could be so inconsiderate. Somehow, I couldn’t rid my mind of that warning. Alice was the most singular of women, and would surely keep her promise, if ghosts are permitted to walk the earth. Thinking thus, my mind drifted ineluctably towards a darker realm, and I began to grow fearful of the darkening shadows in my room, and hastily rang for light.
“Why are you so late, Mary?” I asked, indignantly, as the servant entered the room.
“Indeed, sir, and it’s myself that’s been with Miss Lucinda every blessed minute, and she’s almost faint with a pain in her head.”
Could this be the consequence of our conversation this afternoon? Considerably alarmed, I questioned Mary eagerly. Martin came in while we were talking.
“Lucinda ill?” he said, with a cloud on his brow. “Is it anything to be concerned by, uncle?”
What right had he to take any special interest in Lucinda.
“Only a headache,” I replied, coldly.
“She was prone to such attacks. Bring in the tea, Mary.”
“We shall have a cheerless evening,” Martin sighed.
I almost believed that he was in love with Lucinda himself!
It was dreary, though, without Lucinda. I missed her cheerful countenance behind the tea-table. Martin left his cup untouched. My jealousy was sparked, and I watched him keenly.
As soon as we were alone, I said in an irritated tone—
“What is the matter, Martin? You look as if you the world has deserted you. I had no idea before that you liked Lucinda so well.”
“Are you not afraid to marry again?” Martin inquired, perfidiously. “You recall the warning?”
“Nonsense!” I snapped; “it will take something considerably more than a ghost to scare me out of this marriage!”
I had hardly finished speaking, when there came a sudden gust of wind and a smashing of glass, and the storm actually penetrated into the room. We glanced around us in bewilderment. The boughs of a mighty elm tree that stood facing the house had fallen against the window.
Martin gave me a very strange look as I poked the fire and then barred the window in such a way as to keep out the rain. An odd gloom enveloped us both, and we did not return to the subject we had been discussing. Our conversation was fitful, and it seemed a blessed relief that we parted at bedtime.
The anger of the storm had not abated, and I lay tossing and turning for some time listening to the wind. At last, however, I fell into an uneasy slumber. How long I had rested I know not, when I was awakened by the sensation of something icy pressing against my forehead.
I started up with apprehension. The light emitted a dim, sepulchral glow. Oh, night-bound horror! Is this flesh or—
A figure, dressed in white, came gliding towards me from the foot of the bed. I was prevented from seeing the face, but I knew from the form that it was the ghost of Alice.
“Frederick Norman,” hissed a voice from the dark, “Frederick Norman, I am here for you.
“Alice, dearest Alice, is that you?” I called out, forcing the words against my nature.
The next words were spoken as if they were whispered directly into my ears. “Your broken promises call me from my rest; it is why I must take you down into the grave with my embrace.”
I howled in terror as I felt her clutch my throat, and cried, faintly—
“You would marry Lucinda Wells would you?” hissed the ghost, mockingly. “If you do not wish to die” — and here the cold fingers pressed with such force that I gasped for breath — “promise me that you will not take a new wife.”
“Yes, I promise, I promise!” said I, half mad with terror.
“Woe be upon you if you deceive me,” answered the ghost, solemnly. And I heard no more.
It was hours later, however, before I ventured to cast a nervous glance around the room. The ghost had disappeared. The storm, too, was beginning to abate; but I could not go to sleep again, for I found it impossible to forget that spectre and its deadly grip upon my throat. I resolved to say nothing about it. Of course, people would laugh. Nevertheless, I did not dare to renege from my promise; yet how could I tell my beloved of this sudden change of purpose? The poor girl! What should I say to her?
After much reflection, I resolved to trust this delicate situation to Martin. The proposed marriage was so disagreeable to him that I was wholly confident he would justify my apparent betrayal to her, if possible.
Morning came, and I awoke in a delirious state of mind. How I dreaded to meet Lucinda at the breakfast-table, but propitiously she did not make her appearance. Had she too been visited by the spectre?
After breakfast I said to Martin, with an embarrassment I struggled to hide—
“Martin, do you remember what we were discussing yesterday evening? I have been considering this matter seriously, and am afraid that a marriage between Lucinda and myself would lead to discontent, from both sides; but I have not the nerve to brave her condemnations. Now, Martin, will you act as mediator, and make known this change of heart?”
“Why, sir,” he answered, and I was almost sure I saw a glint of opportunism in his eyes, “something exceptional must have happened. You are not what I would consider to be a fickle man.”
“We won’t pursue the matter further,” said I, in a resentful tone. “Will you, or will you not, concede to my request?”
“Most certainly,” he replied; “but it is an objectionable task. The poor girl will be so disappointed!”
I perceived a gleeful ring in his voice.
His sensitive mission was successful, however.
Late in the afternoon Lucinda appeared in the library where I was sitting. I could see that she had been crying.
“Oh, Mr. Norman,” she said, forlornly, and she was about to continue when her throat clogged, and her words dissolved into a flood of tears.
I reached tentatively out to her but she was gone. My immediate reaction was to follow her but I knew in my heart that any such discussion of my motives would lead to her dismissing me as cruel and a madman.
Was this all true? Was I abandoning a future of blissful happiness for the grim commands of a nightmare?
I need not have doubted my acceptance of such a fate, for surety came from further visits from this odious phantom. I use such extreme words for, in the afterlife, Alice had become twisted and a corruption of her former self. At night, she would visit and make me promise, again and again, that I would not consider taking a second wife. Her spectral form would appear from every conceivable nook within the room and she would creep out, making her way towards my bed in such a manner as to make every inch of my skin crawl.
“Then you never loved me?” she asked, whispering in my ear.
“Of course I loved you,” I whispered back, “but why do you haunt me so? Have I not convinced you of my vow?”
Each night, the same conversation was repeated and I grew so tired and weak from its threats and demands that I believed I would soon lose my mind completely. What had I done that I should be thus tormented? My nerves were completely shattered, and every reflection told me that I, too, had begun to take on the appearance of a ghost.
Martin would look upon my dishevelled appearance as if I had seen the devil and turned to the demon drink. The more I perceived Alice to be avoiding my presence the more it drove a dagger into my heart. How could I be denied such promise of happiness?
Again last night, it, she had come to me, and as I sat up in bed I saw her scarcely a yard away, her hands across her heart, as if comforting a wound. Then I jumped out of bed, but she vanished with a last imploring gesture. With another night like this, I knew that madness would overwhelm me.
The next night, I left the house. Darkness was coming on with speed; a piercing wind wildly scattering leaves before it, which were descending so as to completely obliterate all traces of the path through the moor and onto the cliffs. The storm had burst early in the evening over the nearby peaks. The lightning painted the hills in eerie colours, and the thunder shook through the valley until it seemed as if the heavens would fall.
I ran out to the very verge of the cliff, and stood gazing down the giddy height; a brilliant flood of moonlight streamed down upon the wild little scene, glistening across the waste of tossing waters, and throwing strange shadows upon the towering cliffs; and, there, my thoughts turned to my beautiful love, now lost to life and that beyond.
A roar like that of thunder filled the air as I stepped off the edge, followed by a sound as of waves breaking upon a rocky beach. A fierce blast of water struck my face, and I felt as if drowning for a moment , and there before me I saw the ghost of Alice drifting over the water, her arms raised as if to welcome me to a watery grave; her voice whispering, “You have come to me my love; at last, you have come to me!” I felt myself drifting towards her embrace and then a hail of stones, and sand, rushed over me, tearing my clothes, and penetrating my skin like shot.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself cradled in the arms of Lucinda. It was she that had reached out and rescued me from the dark waters where I lay.
“It is you, my love!” I cried out. “I thought I had lost you — lost you from——”
I spoke no more of it, for I knew that she would not understand.
“Oh, my love, I have been foolish,” said I. “I love you with all my heart. Let us turn back the clock, and say you will marry me—”
And in these interminable seconds, I realised I had shaken off the spectre of a former life; it now returned to the grave, by method I was unable to explain but one that had released me to live my life — a life considerably less haunted.