When I was a boy almost all the folk, especially in Romsey, where I was brought up, believed in ghosts. Those that worked the breweries, the corn mills, the iron and jam makers’ works, the leather board and paper mills all had stories to tell. My mother believed in them; I believed in them; everybody believed in them. I have run many a mile from my own shadow and returned home with a certainty that I was followed the entire way.
Now, among the countless mysteries of the surrounding country there was one that seemed to torment my mind, possessing me deep into the night, far beyond the limits of its estate: an old brick house, with black shutters, said to be haunted, situated on the top of the hill.
No one ever saw the shutters open, nor even a light, except in the turret, where it burned every night without ceasing.
Any time after dark, especially after midnight, a spectre could be seen, moving to and fro, sometimes beckoning its long fingers or waving its arms toward the roadside. Rest assured that that was always a signal for the lonely wayfarer to flee for his life.
In consequence of these nocturnal manifestations the main road had about grown over with weeds, and it was indeed a stout-hearted man that would not go out of his way rather than pass the house with the black shutters in the middle of the night.
All kinds of stories were afloat about the strange noises heard at night and the rattling of chains. The place was declared to be alive with evil spirits, unrestful souls returned to make the living perform some unfinished deed, or perchance vent its wrath upon the occupants for some crime committed there.
The owner was rich, but a sort of recluse, and the house seemed to be kept practically closed. He had but one tie on earth, a beautiful young daughter, who had been sent away to school.
One day she returned to be married.
So there was to be a wedding in the haunted house. The old man opened his heart and all the neighbours were invited. Everyone was wild with excitement and curiosity, and you may be sure no one refused the invitation to get a glimpse inside the strange place.
But the merriment of the occasion, as far as I was concerned, was succeeded by a night of
Owing to a terrific storm and the great distances between the houses, some of the guests were persuaded, in fact compelled, to remain over night. I was among them.
When bedtime arrived I was shown to a room below the tower. I had fully determined to remain awake the rest of the night, and without undressing lay down on the bed.
I was young, and sleep got the better of my resolution. Almost instantly I was aroused by a sound, as I thought overhead. I listened and distinctly heard the rattling of chains and the sound of footsteps slowly descending the stairs.
The door had no lock, but I had taken the precaution to open the rusty shutters before retiring and the sharp rays of the lightning filled the room. I saw nothing, but sat bolt upright, overcome with regret at my foolhardy acceptance of the host’s hospitality.
Escape was impossible, and again I lay down. Again sleep overcame me. This time I was awakened by a sound as of heavy chains dragged up and down the room adjoining mine. All at once my door flew open; a shadowy figure entered, went to the fireplace, stirred the fire, pushed together some dying embers and a hollow voice said: —
” ‘Tis a long time since I warmed myself!”
I was thrilled with horror. I seized a stick with which I had taken the precaution to arm myself, and, with cold perspiration standing on my brow, drew back the curtains of my bed.
By the glimmer of the fire I perceived what appeared to be the emaciated form of a venerable man, half dressed, with bald head and a white beard. He was holding his shivering hands to the fire. I was deeply moved. While I was thus surveying him a flame now and then flickered from the embers. He looked thoughtfully toward the door whence he had come, then cast his eyes on the floor. He seemed to be absorbed in the profoundest grief. Traces of years of misery were imprinted upon his furrowed face.
He sank limply into a chair, buried his face in his hands and shook with emotion.
“O God! O God! How just are Thy judgements!” he muttered. I now made some noise purposely with my curtains.
“Is anybody here?” he asked. “Is anybody in that bed?” I bolted from the bed and pulled on my coat. On closer observation I was convinced he was a living person in distress. I slowly approached him. He waved his hand.
“It has been so many years since I beheld a human being to speak to that the sight of one
now overcomes me,” he faltered, looking into space.
“He robbed me! He got it all!”
Terror now gave way to pity. I took a seat beside him.
“Why have you tonight taken up your abode in this odious apartment which is never occupied?” tremulously inquired the old man. “What was that great rattling of carriages which I heard last night? Something strange must have happened here.”
I told him it was the nuptials of old Baldwin’s daughter.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am the grandfather of the young lady. My son is the master of this house now,” he
said in a broken voice.
I had heard that the father of Baldwin had died and been buried 20 years before, and now, he suddenly appeared before me at midnight.
I sprang from my seat, turned to leave, but my eyes were glued to the spectre. I could neither move nor speak. “I am not a ghost,” he said bitterly, reading my mind, “but a living human being cast off from his own people. This morning the man who brought my food to me left my door unlocked and I ventured out. But I will never see mortal again. I am here but a few days longer—farewell!”
But I opposed him. Who was this being before me? Was he really a human creature?
If so, why, why was he placed here?
“I will free you,” I insisted. “Oppression has impaired the faculties of your soul. I am here to deliver you!”
A moment ago he had appeared fully possessed of his faculties; now his mind began to wander and I found before me a poor lunatic. I tried to comfort him.
Day was breaking and the old man, exhausted by his emotions, crept back to his tomb, carrying a chair, which he used as a toy.
I was overcome by the revelations that had been forced upon my unwilling ears. Old Baldwin’s secret had been divulged.
A few days after that eventful night some one was buried by moonlight from the house on the hill with black shutters and the light in the turret went out. Though, in the many years that have passed, not a single person has given any credence to my tale: that the date of decease inscribed on the headstone was three days before my visit to the house.