George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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a heavy, numbing blow came down on my hand, and the lanthorn was knocked
out, and fell with a clang under my feet in the area, while the silence
which followed showed me plainly enough that it was not the lady in the
case who had been knocked down, but the sergeant.

"Now, my lad," I said to the other policeman, as I stood rubbing and
shaking my hand, "one of us must go in; sergeant's down, safe."

"Well," he said, "you've been longest in the force, you'd best go."

"Wrong," I said; "you were in before me."

"Well, but," he said, "I'm a married man, and you ain't."

"Wrong again," I said; "I'm married, and have two little ones."

Well, perhaps, you'll say it was cowardly not to have dashed in at once
to help the sergeant. Perhaps it was; but, mind you, all this didn't
take many seconds, as we whispered together; and, besides, I knew well
enough that I should be taken at a disadvantage; for, though I couldn't
see him, I was sure enough that there was a fellow armed with a
life-preserver or a poker just behind the large window-curtain, so I
wanted to plan a bit. And, mind you, I didn't want to go; but, as my
fellow-constable did not seem disposed, and I stood close to the window,
there was nothing for it, but to take off my great coat and jump in. So
I drew out my staff, when my fingers were so numbed that I could hardly
hold it; and then I said to myself, "Now for it, my boy;" when, making
plenty of noise, I tried a very stale old trick - one that I didn't for a
moment expect would take; and I tell you what I did. I got my
fellow-constable's bull's-eye, opened it, and set it on the window-sill,
so that the light was shining into the room, and then in went one leg,
and I made believe to be jumping in with a rush; but, instead of doing
so, I pushed in my hat as far as I could reach on the end of my staff,
when "bang, crash," down came something right on the hat, beating my
staff out of my hand, and making my fingers tingle again, it came so

That was my time, though, and I leaped in so quickly that, before there
was time for another cut, I had tight hold of somebody, and there I was
engaged in the fiercest struggle I ever had. There were the chairs
knocking here, there, and everywhere, while I could feel somebody's hot
breath against my neck as, locked together, we swayed backwards and
forwards. Once I was forced right back upon the dining-room table, but
I sprang up again, and the next moment, whoever it was I struggled with
had his head through the glass; while, as to the darkness, it was
something fearful, for the lanthorn was knocked over, and only shone
just in one corner by the floor. Jangle went a piano once as I was
forced back on to it, and then the noise grew louder, for I could hear
above the wild beast, worrying noise we made, the people upstairs
screaming worse than ever.

"Well, there must be help come soon," I thought, as now down, now up, we
struggled on. I wanted to shout to my fellow-constable to come in, as
he was not wanted outside, but I suppose he did not like the job of
getting in, for he did not attempt to come, while as to calling him, I
could just as soon have flown, for my adversary seemed quite satisfied
with my company, and held on by my throat so tightly, that I was almost

All at once, for about the sixth time, I tumbled over the sergeant, and
this time down I went undermost, while my head came against one of those
tin-plate warmers, and made the most outrageous noise you ever heard in
your life. Well, this rather shook the sense out of me, tin being
rather a hard metal to catch your head against - so hard, that it seemed
to me to quite strike fire, and then taking advantage of my being a
little beaten down, this fellow got his hand inside my stock, when what
with the blow and the pressure of his knuckles in my throat, lights
began to dance before my eyes, and I felt about done. However, it
seemed to me to be now not a struggle for capture or escape, but for
life and death, and in the last despair of the moment, I got hold of the
fellow's hand between my teeth, and hung on like a bull terrier.

How long this lasted I can't say; but I remember hearing a crash, and
seeing the flashed light of a bull's-eye, when my lord rolled off me,
and then through a sort of mist I could just see the sergeant's face
looking all bloody, while directly after the light of the lanthorn was
thrown two or three times upon my face.

"How are you, my lad?" said the sergeant.

But I didn't tell him, for the simple reason that I could not just then,
but lay as still as could be, feeling afraid of tumbling, for the room
appeared to be spinning round as fast as possible.

"How are you, my lad?" said the sergeant again directly after, but this
time a little way off, and then I heard the "click, click" of the
handcuffs, as he made them fast round my dear friend's wrists.

But I did not answer then; for though the room had left off spinning so
hard, my tongue seemed to have turned sulky, and would not speak, though
it was not my fault a bit. One feeling, however, did seem to come upon
me now strong, and that was that I should like to have a look at the man
on the floor, though not an inch could I move right or left.

Well, seeing that I could not answer, the sergeant called in the outside
man, and then after a look round the room, he went and opened the
dining-room door, and called out: -

"Come down, and bring a light. We are the police."

But before he had well said the words, there came a bang like thunder,
and I could hear shot go rattling down the passage.

"Here, I say! confound you; what are you doing?" shouted the sergeant.
"Don't you hear? We're the police." When, bad as I was, I could not
help laughing to see the way our poor sergeant jumped. Though certainly
it was enough to make him, you'll say.

After a few minutes a miserable looking old gentleman, in a dressing
gown, came shivering down with one of those great brass blunderbusses in
one hand, and a candlestick in the other.

"Keep back," the old gentleman cried; "it's loaded again."

"Then the sooner you uncock it the better," said our sergeant; "or else,
perhaps, you'll be making another mistake. But now, if you'll go with
me, we will just let the other man in," and then he went and shut down
the window, and drew the curtains across.

But the old gentleman seemed so scared, that he could hardly tell
friends from enemies, and he did not appear to like the idea of the
front door being opened, for nearly all the sense seemed frightened out
of him. However, he followed the sergeant, and they unlocked the door,
let down the chain, and slipped back the bolts, and then after unlocking
the darby, they lugged in my friend who said there was a lady in the
case, brought him into the dining-room, and set him in an easy-chair in
the corner. The sergeant then set light to a pair of candles on the
chimney-piece, when I could see all that went on, for I could neither
move nor speak yet.

"Slip round to the station for more help, and the stretcher," said the
sergeant; and my fellow-constable went, though the old gentleman didn't
seem to like it, and asked if it was safe to be left with the two

Then the sergeant came and stooped over me again, and asked me how I
was; but all I could do was to look hard in his face, and wink both my

Just then he asked the old gentleman if he had a drop of brandy in the
house, when a decanter was brought out, and a glass held to my lips, and
a few drops seemed to revive me so, that I was able to sit up, when the
sergeant and the old gentleman between them got me upon a sofa, where I
lay quite still and felt better.

"Dear me, dear me," said the old gentleman: "I don't like my house being
turned into a hospital."

"P'raps not," said the sergeant; "but if it hadn't been for that poor
fellow, you might have looked queer."

Hearing the old fellow grumble seemed to rouse me, and I still went on

"It's been a stiff fight, sir," said the sergeant; "and that young
fellow - "

"And you, sergeant," I said feebly.

"Oh, come; that's cheering," said he with a pleasant look, which went
right over his shining face.

You can't tell how pleased I felt to be able to use my tongue once more,
but there was no work in me, and there I lay watching the sergeant give
a look at the two prisoners, and examine the handcuffs to see that all
was right, when all at once the fellow I had such a struggle with,
sprang up and fetched the sergeant the most savage of kicks in the
knee - one which sent him staggering back - when, in spite of all that has
been said about the police using their staves, I'm sure no one could
have blamed that sergeant for bringing his staff down on the fellow's
head, and striking him to the ground, where, as he lay, I had a good
look at him.

And a nice specimen of humanity he looked - a great six-foot fellow,
strong as a horse, while my impression is that, if the sergeant had not
come so opportunely to my aid, you would not have heard this story. But
the fellow was tolerably knocked about. Ah! and so was the sergeant,
while, no doubt, I should have been stunned at first if the chap had not
been taken in by my shallow trick.

A nice little affair that was, and I saw that I had only just got up in
time, for there were two carpet-bags on the floor crammed full of
plate - silver dishes and tea and coffee pots, while all the small parts
were filled out with forks and spoons.

All at once the old gentleman, who had been shivering about as far off
the burglars as he could, seemed to catch sight of my half-crown
gentleman's face - a face that he had not appeared so far to be very
proud of, for he had kept it hung down over his waistcoat the greater
part of the time - when all at once the old gentleman stood still and
exclaimed: -

"Why, you scoundrel, it's you, is it?" and the fellow only shrunk down
more of a heap, while the old gentleman was so enraged, that he made
believe to shoot the rascal with his blunderbuss, when the sergeant made
no more ado, but went and took it away from him.

"Come, you know," said the sergeant; "I see you won't be happy till
you've done some one a mischief with that pretty little plaything. Oh,
he was your footman, was he, and you discharged him for drunkenness, did
you, a month ago? Well, I'm not surprised a bit."

Just then three of our men came in, and they walked off our two
gaol-birds at once, and then I got hold of the sergeant's arm, and found
I could walk.

"Take a little more brandy," said the old gentleman, and he poured out
with a shaking hand about half a wine-glassful, when after I had drunk
it he said again:

"You're a brave fellow, and there's something to drink my health with."

I thanked him, and then we two walked out together, and stood on the
pavement amongst the snow, listening to the old gentleman and the
servants locking and bolting the door after us.

"Well," said the sergeant; "I think, my lad, we've done our night's
work, and after reporting at the station, we'll go off duty for a day or
two; for my head is in a queer state," and then he lifted his hat,
pressed his hand upon it, and looked at the blood-smeared palm under the
lamp. "But what did the old fellow give you?"

I opened my hand and looked, for I had not cared to look before; in
fact, I was so stupid then, and dizzy, that I felt no interest in the

"Just what I expected," exclaimed the sergeant; "Sixpence! Well, some
men have consciences."

It was a week before the sergeant was pronounced fit for duty, but it
took me a fortnight to get right; while our friends had fourteen years
each. I've often thought of the way I spent that Christmas-night - the
roughest I ever did pass; but then you see, there was a Lady in the



Whether I believe in ghosts, fetches, hobgoblins, table spirits, and the
rest of the lights and shades of the supernatural world, is a question
that we will not stop to discuss, but if these pages should meet the eye
of any person who can introduce me to a haunted house, I shall be his
debtor. Now, when I say a haunted house, I must place a few
stipulations upon my acceptance of the said house, so I will at once
state what I want.

I want one of those comfortably (old-fashioned) furnished, quaint,
gabled houses, shut up and deserted on account of supernatural tenants
who will not be evicted; a house sacred to dust, spiders, and silence,
where the damp has crept in here, and the mildew there, where dry rot
and desolation have fixed their abodes, where the owl hoots and the
chimney swallow builds, undisturbed by the cheering fumes of a fire;
where the once trim garden is weed-grown and wild; pedestals overturned;
moss and ivy rampant; fountains choked, and nature having it all her own
way as she has had it for years. That's the sort of place I want to
meet with, one that nobody will take, and when I present myself, the
agent will laugh in his sleeve, and gladly accept me as tenant on lease
for a trivial rent. Yes, the agent will laugh in his sleeve at my folly
in taking the place on lease, and eagerly getting the document prepared
and signed.

But then about the murder once committed in the far chamber - the
noises - the rustling of silk dresses - the groans - the spots on the
floor - the steps along the passages - the opening and closing doors - and
other horrors that have scared people to death? Well, by God's help,
and the exercise of a little observation, and putting of that and that
together, I fancy I could get over those little troubles in time, for if
the released souls of Hades, that once strutted upon this world's stage,
can come back to perform such pitiful duties as to get in table legs and
hats, bang doors, rattle chains, and rustle about o' nights, why e'en
let them; and as I before hinted, I'll try and get used to that part of
the trouble. The birds would still be welcome visitants, for I must own
to a weakness for the feathered tribe, while on their part I can easily
conceive that they would be discriminating in their choice of chimneys;
the mildew and damp must, of course, be ousted, along with the dust and
dry rot, while, as to the spiders and their works, why, much as their
untiring industry and patience must be admired, out they must go too.
And after all said and done, I fancy that a spider deserves a little
better treatment at our hands. As to his character: it is too bad to
associate him with so much craft and insidiousness. Why, what does the
poor thing do but toil hard for its living? and I maintain that friend
Arachne is as reputable a member of insect society as the much-vaunted
busy bee.

"Oh!" some one will say; "but look at the nasty murdering thing and the
poor flies struggling in its net, while the dear bees live upon nectar
and honey!"

Who killed and murdered most wilfully all those poor unfortunate
chuckle-headed drones this summer, eh?

But to my haunted house once more. What a crusade against rats and
mice - what inspecting of old furniture - and sending this to the
lumber-room, and that to be polished and rubbed up - what choosing of
suitable new objects, and fitting up the old-fashioned rooms again,
mingling just enough of the modern to add to the comfort of the old,
without destroying its delicious quaintness. For I like an old house,
with its crooks and corners, and bo-peep passages, and closets, and
steps, and ins and outs, wainscots, old pictures, and memories of the
past. Why, no one with a thinking apparatus of his own can be dull in
such a place for calling up the scenes of the past, and trying to trace
the old place's history.

Then, again, the garden. How glorious to leave to nature her beauties,
and only take away the foul and rank; cutting back here and rescuing
there, and bringing the neglected place into a charming wilderness - a
place that nature has robbed of its old formal primness, and, setting
art at defiance, made it her own.

Yes, if some one will kindly put me in the way of getting such a place
for a residence I shall be his or her debtor, while for recompense, as
soon as ever matters have been a bit seen to, and the place is
habitable, they shall have the honour of first sleeping in the most
haunted room in the house.

This is, I am well aware, a very choice kind of house, but that there
are such places every one is aware, and my story is to be about one of
these old man-forsaken spots, that years ago existed in Hertfordshire.
I say years ago existed, for though the house still stands, it is in a
dreadfully modernised form. Wings were pulled down, wainscotings torn
out, and the place so altered that a tenant was found, and the haunters
so disgusted with their home that the noises ceased, and the old
reputation was forgotten.

I write this story as it was told to me by a friend, in whose word I
have faith sufficient to vouch for the truth of what he heard.

There was an old legend attached to the place, something relating to the
right of possession, and some one coming home to oust the then holder of
the estate; then followed midnight murder, the concealment of the deed,
and, as 'tis said, the spirits of the murderer and murdered haunted the
scene of the dread deed.

Be that as it may, family after family took the house and left in a very
short time. Strange noises were heard, strange stories got about the
village; servants at first could only be sent from one room to another
in twos or threes for mutual protection. Jane fell down in a fit; Mary
was found staring, with her eyes fixed on nothingness, and her mouth
wide open; Betsey was lost, but afterwards found in the best bedroom,
with the whole of her person buried beneath the clothes, when she
struggled and screamed horribly at their being dragged off; cooks Number
1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 used to go about after dark with their aprons over
their heads; Mary Hann would not sleep alone; Thomas said nothing, but
took to wearing his hair standing on end like quills upon the fretful
etcetera, or better still, in this case, like a hedgehog; and all ended
by giving notice one after the other, so fast, that at last it came to a
fresh servant reaching the village, hearing the character of the house,
and then going back without even testing the place, for, like a
snowball, the horrors said to abound, increased at a fearful ratio when
slipping glibly off Rumour's many tongues. At last the house stood
empty year after year. The agent who was empowered to let it did his
best. House-hunters came, looked at it, asked questions, and then,
after a few inquiries, house-hunters went, and the house stood empty,
when, as season after season passed, the forlorn aspect of the place
became worse; the paint peeled off the window frames; the gutters
rotted; green mould settled upon the doors; grass grew up between the
steps; while the large slab was raised right out of its place by a
growth of fungus; idle boys threw stones at the windows, and then ran
for their lives; shutters became loose and flapped about; while neglect
and ruin were everywhere, and the house was said to be more haunted than

Fortunately, The Grange was the property of a wealthy man, who did not
feel the loss of the rent, and as time wore on the place was known as
"The Harnted House," and no attempt was made to let it, so that it
became at last almost untenable.

At length a new agent came to the neighbouring town, and after a few
months' stay his curiosity became aroused, and being a quiet sensible
fellow, he talked to first one acquaintance and then another, heard the
story of the haunted house from different sources, and the upstart was,
that a party of half a dozen, of whom my friend was one, agreed to sit
up with the agent in the ghostly place, and try and investigate the
matter, so as to place the strange rumours in a better light if

The night fixed upon came, and well provided with creature comforts, the
party adjourned to the Grange; Mr Hemson, the agent, having been in the
afternoon, and seen that a supply of fuel was placed ready, and at the
same time had all he could done towards making what had evidently been a
little breakfast-room comfortable.

On reaching the hall door the snow was falling heavily, while a sad
moaning wind swept round the house, and blew the large flakes in the
unwonted visitors' faces. Dreary and dismal looked the old Elizabethan
Grange, and more than one of the venturesome party felt a shiver -
perhaps of cold - pass through him as a large key was thrust into the
lock, and with a groan the door turned upon its hinges.

Mr Hemson had brought with him a bull's-eye dark lanthorn, and now
turning it on, the party found themselves in a small square hall with a
wide staircase in front, and about three doors on either side. All
looked gloomy and weird, while a sensation of chill fell upon one and
all as they passed across the earthy-smelling place, followed Mr Hemson
down a few stairs to the right, and then stood in the little
breakfast-room, where a few sparks yet remained of the large fire that
had been lit.

Every man had come loaded and ready for passing a cold winter's night in
the forsaken house; and soon candles were lit, a large fire was roaring
up the chimney, and a cloth having been spread over an old table, spirit
bottles, glasses, lemons, and sugar, all tended towards making the room
a little more cheering, while, in spite of dust and cobwebs, there was
some very good furniture about the place.

"Choose wood-seat chairs, gentlemen," said Mr Hemson, "for everything
is terribly damp."

The advice was followed, after closing the shutters, and bringing down a
cloud of dust in the performance.

Glasses round became the order of the night, and whether for the sake of
getting Dutch courage or not, I cannot say, but Hollands gin was a
favoured spirit. After this refresher, candles were trimmed, the
lanthorn turned on, and beginning with the cellars, a careful
investigation of the place was made, walls were tapped, fastenings
tried, shutters shaken, and all perfectly satisfied that no one but
themselves was in or could gain entrance to the place. Go where they
would, there was the same dull, damp, mephitic odour; dust and cobwebs,
and mildew everywhere.

But for these traces of the lapse of time, the place might have been
left but a few weeks or months. The rooms were well-furnished, good
carpets were down, the library shelves were full of books, and ornaments
upon the chimney-pieces. In the drawing-room was an old square
pianoforte, while from every wall gloomy and dark faces looked down upon
the intruders. And thus the tour of the house was completed, not a
closet even being left unscanned, while as they left each room the keys
were turned, and at length, joking and laughing, they returned to the
comparatively snug room, and assembled round the fire.

"Now," said my friend, "presuming that we have come here to listen for
the strange sounds that are heard, what course are we to adopt in the
event of anything taking our attention?"

"Not much fear," laughed one.

"Then let's have a little smoke and a song," said another.

"But really," said Mr Hemson, "I think we ought to do something,
gentlemen; for mind you, I for one fully expect that we shall hear some
strange noise, and what I want is for us to find out what it is, and see
if we can't stop it for the future."

"Did you bring any holy water, Hemson?" said one of the party.

"Come, come, gentlemen," said my friend, "business, business. Now, I
tell you what: we will all sit here and of course the first man who
thinks he hears a sound will advise the others, when we will all go
together and try and find out what it was, but in silence, mind. No man
is to speak till we get back to this room, when here is paper and you
have, most of you, pencils; let each man write down what impression that
which he has seen and heard made upon him, writing it down in as few
words as possible, and so we can compare impressions, and there will not
be, as is often the case, one person modelling his ideas upon those of

"Very good; I second that," said Mr Hemson, while, after a few remarks,
first one and then another agreed that the plan would be excellent.

Ten - eleven struck by the old church-clock, and the wind roared round
the old place, rumbling in the chimney and sending the snow with soft
pats up against the window-panes, so that more than once a member of the
party started and looked round, but the warm glow of the fire, the

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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 17 of 19)