A Deserted House, a Storm, a Ghost and an Iron Mine
IRVING stood at a window of the Wanderers _ and stared down the Avenue, his slim figure framed in a velvet rift of the great curtains. Within was that modulated serenity, that leather-cum-mahogany ease, for which the Wanderers was noted, and without New York was vibrating to the cannonading of the fiercest thunderstorm of the year. Irving’s eye caught the flat and streaming pavement, the gemmed and starry lamps, the gusts of driving rain that dimmed them, the inconceivably swift revelations of lightning. He drank it in eagerly. Something answered to this elemental call, the something that transmuted itself on his palette into masterpieces, for he was in the van of the noblest school of landscape painting that America had yet produced.
The storm increased in weight and velocity. Irving turned abruptly, his face alight with a strange infusion, his whole body tense, “Hulett, Stevenson, look here ; its magnificent.”
His voice was pitched high, so higl and taut that from the big chairs ii front of the fireplace two men scanne( mm curiously. “Lord,” he quavered it 1 could only paint that—or thator that: A long finger picked out sue cessive flashes; when, with one tornad* oí sound the thunder ceased, and th* ram dropping in heavy perpendicula: sheets, flooded the city anew.
The light died in the painter’s eyei almost as suddenly as it had fled fron the burdened clouds. He stood, peer mg mto the downpour and droppec wearily into a chair between his friends Save for themselves the big readim rooin was deserted. There was a mo ment s silence—the understandabli
silence that most men welcome. “Tha sort of scene possesses me,” he saic slowly. “It suggests a thousand un speakable things.”
His voice trailed off into a ruminative stare at the red coals. Hulett and Stevenson waited, for what they knew was coming. “Its eloquent of what we have ironed out of our infernally emasculated lives,” he went on. “We are regulated to such a degree, civilized some call it, that we miss most of the obvious vital things as well as practically all the elusive ones. We’re casehardened; we don’t feel—we are afraid to feel, for fear of being let into something that does not fit our position. I’m no spokesman for vagabondia—but just for the natural actions and reactions of the normally healthy soul that is not
Editor’s Note.—This story combines what is real, and weird, and extraordinary, in such logical sequence as to hold intense interest throughout. So vivid and picturesque are the author ’s descriptions that the story is well worth consideration from a purely literary standpoint.
always on guard. Well, Stevenson— you man of iron—what of it?
What Stevenson felt he did not say. Both he and Hulett had an enormous admiration for Irving. They bought his pictures when Irving let them, but more treasured were the rare and intimate flashes of the spirit that inspired the paint. Hulett imported cloth and sold it ; Stevenson dug iron and smelted it; both of them tributors to a wealth they had not created. But Irving, and it was for this that they honored him, was a master fabricator of dream and vision. He dwelt in high spiritual places at whose boundaries they halted —but, halting, recognized the beauty that moved within.
I suppose its passion that we so often miss,” he continued thoughtfully. The divine frenzy that animates every great creation. That’s what that storm woke in me—just unadulterated passion for I know not what. To paint it would be an instinct, an altogether lower thing than passion. I can understand a man being roused to any pitch by anything that approached such magnificence as that, to a pitch that would breed all kinds of actions at which he would afterwards blink wonderingiy and say -“Who did that.”
LIulett leaned back in his chair. “What does that remind you of, Stevenson?”
The iron master’s eyes searched the fire_ for a moment, then his head straightened up in sudden remembrance. “Twenty years ago and such a night as this. If our man of pigments could only have seen that! Irving, where were you twenty years ago?”
“Somewhere in Tunis, I think, and you?”
Stevenson nodded across at Hulett. “Tell him, old man, everything, as nearly as you can remember it. I want to watch his face while you’re talking.
“The whole thing came about through an advertisement,” began
Hulett. ‘A had been left some money by an only and most admirable aunt. The dear old soul was so anxious I should preserve the “mens sana in corpore sano” that she stipulated it should be used for the purchase of a country estate, and for that alone. So Stevenson and I went a hunting country houses. I suppose the assurance of being able to buy made me absolutely unreasonable, for we wandered about for a month, living largely upon the anticipatory hospitality of possible vendors. At the end of the month we found ourselves in the village of Barry, just near the eastern end of Pennsylvania.
Irving turned to Stevenson. “That’s where your works are.”
The big man nodded toward LIulett. “Yes, thanks to his admirable aunt.”
“Just outside Barry, and on a hill overlooking it, was the house we had come to see. Barry itself was desolate. The whole country was forbidding, but had a certain grim fascination that seemed to defy one to pass by. We looked from the window of the worst inn that ever hung out a sign, and then at each other, and laughed. But there was something beneath the laugh that we both felt and did not understand. As far as one could see the land reminded one of Childe Roland where the immortal pilgrim says: 1 never
saw such starved ignoble nature.” There were hills that were only half a hill, and valleys that only served to differentiate the ugly excrescences surrounding them. You remember “the grass that grew as scant as hair in leprosy?” Well it was that kind of grass. There was not a thing to attract, not one. But it seemed that this physical ferocity of the earth Avas eloquent of something; Ave both felt that. It was the case of a man being so ugly that his maker used him experimentally to gauge the intelligence of his felloAvs. You knoAV the kind?”
“And the house,” put in Irving suddenly.
“Was on a hill overlooking the village. A huge place rambling with stables and barns through a deserted garden. The wind had apparently torn the trees to pieces. They Avere haggard and beaten and twisted into shapes grotesque and monstrous. We surveyed it ruefully through lesening light, but impossible as it was we could not ridicule it. Then Ave \ATent down to supper ; such a supper as one gets in a crack in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania Avhen nobody is expected. We drank the
health of my aunt, as we did every evening of our search, and inveigled the landlord into talk. He was long of nose and beard, consuming quantities of tobacco. It apparently was his diet. The usual story came out—good old times—that never returned, and all the rest of it. Then we asked about the former owner.
“The landlord absorbed more tobacco, precipitated an amber stream with extraordinary accuracy into a wooden box filled with sawdust, regarded us both with solemn omniscience and said oracularly ‘Murder, gents, murder.’
“We both sat up straight. Over Stevenson’s shoulder I could see the formless bulk of the old house dominating the desolation below. Murder? it suggested murder. And yet do you know we were hardly surprised, the whole country seemed so out of joint. The long and short of it was this— two families had lived in that mansion —one that built and one that bought. Both had left for the same reason, ‘Murder!’ The landlord’s tale was direct and believable. It was the only startling thing that his memory had to turn to, and it came out with a drawling precision that left no room for doubt. The builders had lived there three years, when, on a morning that followed a terriffic thunderstorm, the owner’s eldest son was found dead, throttled in his bed. Investigation proved nothing. The body bore the imprints of extraordinary force, something demoniac and superhuman. The country was scoured. People were thinking of ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ because there was every sign of the frightful ferocity that Poe described so vividly. Nothing was discovered and the family moved away shortly afterwards.
“The second affair was much like the first : The house had been left in charge of the butler, a slight frail man who was apparently indifferent to everything except moving. Tenants were found after a year or two and soon the same ghastly thing happened again—also during a thunderstorm. The authorities are quite clear on that. This time the whole country side was searched, without avail. There was another vacating. Once more the butler stayed on in charge—older, weaker, more inoffensive than ever. Then gloom and decay began their work and after years. came Stevenson and I on a wild goose chase.
“And you and Stevenson were so fattened on a superfluity of comfort,” broke in Irving, “so tired of inspecting a purchasable perfection in the way of houses, that this forbidding thing took hold of you and demanded that you inspect it. Go on!” His eyes were brilliant with interest, his long white fingers were drumming impatiently on the brown knob of his chair.
Stevenson heaved himself up. “How do you know that?”
“Never mind. I know, my man of iron. Get on Ilulett.”
“You are quite right. We did inspect it. The mansion was still tenanted by the ghost of that ancient butler. The landlord told us we would be admitted and off we went. The night was very dark with nothing of that luminous quality dark nights sometimes have. We had only a quarter mile to go, most of it up the avenue. Not a wheel mark in the brown stream of dead leaves that marked the road. The place was astonishingly quiet, with a burden and weight in its silence. We found ourselves speaking in whispers, and all the time feeling what fools we were to waste time on an unmarketable ruin. But we were still conscious of something portentous that so far could find no expression but in this silence.
“I shall never forget the moment we saw a glimmer of light in one of the topmost windows. It was a huge house, and the windows had that blank speechless quality you see in the eyes of the dead. Then that glimmer! It was as startling as the suggestion that a man was burried with a spark of life still in him. We knocked and the roar of it seemed to boom through a thousand rooms and after that nothing—till we heard something shuffling and sliding toward the door.
“Irving, did you ever see age, hoary, tremulous age personified? That was the butler ! Bent, white-bearded, shaky-handed—I could almost hear old father Time’s creaking joints. He was a small man with a delicate waxen face, and his nose had that peculiar curve that denotes benignity but comes very near something else. He was so fragile that he reminded one of old china, and his voice was a whisper. One could almost understand his not wanting to move, he looked as if he would break. There was a good deal of dignity about him too, as he showed us over that wreck of a house. It was enormous, full of the things that one sees on the west side of the Avenue marked ‘very rare.’ A perfect fortune in furniture! We only got glimpses of it. He took us into room after room, holding up a lamp in that tremulous hand, himself the most extraordinary relic of them all.”
Hulett’s voice dropped for a moment, but Irving did not stir. Stevenson’s big bulk was motionless, his keen grey eyes fixed on the fire in a long unwinking stare. It suddenly seemed a far cry from the Wanderers to that ancient house. They had a fleeting sense of the strange immutable chance that rules the lives of men, of the puppet-like procedure of existence. Irving’s nerves were on edge. “Well?” he said, almost petulantly.
“We both had a queer sensation of the unreality of it all,” continued Hulett, leaning forward as if burdened with his memories, “and yet the whole affair seemed absolutely charged with finality. We no sooner did or said a thing than we felt at once that that was exactly what we were intended to do or say. Stevenson had precisely the same sensation. He told me about it afterwards. I’m not a fatalist, or even a premonitory person, but that was flat and unmistakable. I never felt it before or since. We were somewhere in the top of the house when the storm came. It had been gathering all day, and suddenly the skies opened with a bang and emptied themselves. We both jumped. Rain or anything else that was ordinary seemed entirely out of place in that extraordinary house. Then followed the gale and such a gale. The old man went to the nearest window. We followed and looked out. Every tree in the garden was twisting and writhing against the sky and groping at the black earth for strength. They were like human things in agony. A sheet of water would come down like a cascade and obliterate them, then a glare of lightning and a boom of thunder and we saw them again as tortured as ever. Then we heard the butler’s voice thin and squeaky, but with a note of excitement in it that we remembered afterwards.
“You must stay, gentlemen, I will make you comfortable. You must not go out in this.”
“We were between the devil and the deep sea. It was an awful night. The inn was abominable—and the house seemed full of ghosts. Stevenson laughed in that hard Scotch way of his, but I didn’t half like it, and don’t believe he did either. The old chap insisted. ‘We must stay,’ and all the time his eyes got brighter and he seemed less and less of a relic. Stevenson tossed for it, and we stayed. Now Stevenson—you tell the rest.”
The iron master took up the story in a short quick recitation. His cigar tip glowed brightly with the periodicity of the ten second beam of a revolving light. “We slept in adjoining rooms, on couches, under a pile of rugs, fairly comfortable. Next thing I remember is waking about two in the morning with that queer sensation of something near me. Storm was still on, though not so heavy. Lightning, bang, rumble, silence, then the same thing over again. Bits of silence in between. In one of these I heard something at my door. You know that sensation, nothing to show for it, but knowledge, absolute, without proof. Then a quick pad pad down the hall, then more silence.
I went in to Hulett and woke him. We waited and heard it again. This time it stopped at his door, then pad
pad along the hall; a restless, tireless, semi-audible tread that died out in the distance. We slipped out and got behind a big screen that showed up in a flicker of lightning and waited. In the next flash we saw him coming back.”
“Who?” snapped Irving with nervous impatience.
“The butler—but a different butler. The semblance of age was there—but age itself was gone. There was no feebleness. He was in a sort of sinister tension, still bent, but with some threatening expectancy. His step was like a panther’s, light and catlike. It seemed as if the whole spirit of the whole moldering place was personified in him. The landlord’s story came back as one remembers a dream—then we began to understand. Then darkness, till the next flicker and we saw he had a knife and was standing at Hulett’s door. Then pitch blackness and we lost him altogether.”
Stevenson’s deep voice paused. His lower lip was thrust out, the strong lines of his face were deeper and stronger than ever and his eyes were half closed as if on their lids was imprinted the scene that lived again. “We would have got away, I suppose, but frankly I was afraid to stir. He was between us and the stairs. That didn’t matter so much, but somehow the idea of running never struck us at all. It was all of a piece—house—butler, ourselves, storm, and the piece had to be played out. Now, mind you, if we had known where he was it would not have been so bad, but I expected to feel that knife every minute. He looked as if he could see in the dark. Hulett whispered and we moved a little toward the door. The next time we saw him he was in Hulett’s room pad-padding toward the couch, ready to stab. Then I jumped on his back and Hulett grabbed his wrist. Show Irving what you got, old chap.”
Hulett shoved up his right sleeve and rolled back his cuff. A threadlike blue line ran from just above the big wrist sinew, curving around the smooth white flesh to the soft hollow opposite the elbow. “That’s what I got. The old fellow caught me with a back draw just before he went down under Stevenson, who had most of the rest of it to do. Did you ever know a man fight like that—you gladiator?”
Stevenson shook his head. “As I see it now he wasn’t a man at all—but a demon, a regular demon, endowed with natural human exterior and supernatural force. He wasn’t half my weight, and I am a strong man, but heavens! how he fought! and all the time whimpering horrible things— while his old body turned and twisted and writhed. The lightning was tremendous. It was the only light. We got ghastly impressions of a face distorted and galvanized with bubbles on
its lips. Then there was one terrific explosion. We heard a tree crash in the garden, and on the instant the old man literally flattened out. The springs of vitality, whatever they were, had run down. I turned him over while Hulett lit a candle. For an instant his eyes caught mine. They were full of a baffled effort to speak. I put my ear to his mouth and heard the faintest unintelligible whisper. When I raised my head he was dead. Such a poor old tired frame it was. I was horrified to look at it, till I thought of Hulett’s arm.
“It didn’t take long to patch that up and get down to the inn and wake the landlord. At daylight he sent over to the nearest sheriff and coroner, and at eleven o’clock we had everything straightened out. It was a curious thing that inquest. The landlord had dropped word in the bar that we were in the old house. He reckoned we would not some back in that storm. It’s difficult to imagine just whajt the countryside really felt about the place. Not a man would put foot inside the gates. The news of us had filtered into every house represented in the bar and that meant most of the homes in the village. There was a rush to get on the coroner’s jury. Astonishment does not describe what they felt and said. The coroner addressed the body as ‘You blamed old critter.’ That expresses it best. Our hands were wrung off in congratulations and I was glad when it was all over. By noon I had wired the agent taking the property at his price.”
“You wired?” said Irving incredulously. “I thought this was Hulett’s show, and why should anyone but a furniture dealer want it anyway?
“It was my show. He took over my option,” grinned Hulett. “Proceed, you king of smelters.”
“We went into the garden for a smoke. You never saw such a place of desolation, vegetation run riot, paths grown up, everything apparently defying human influence. We wanted to talk things over and the house was full of people and noise for the first time in twenty years. Curiously enough we got back at once to the theory you gave when you were staring out of the window just now. You said you could understand a man being stirred to any pitch by a storm like we had to-night, and doing things he would stare at afterwards. That’s exactly what we came to. Not a duality of person but the submerging of part of one’s self which only becomes evident under certain conditions. The old man was subjectively linked to storms and lightning. When they occurred they dominated him and aroused a murderous instinct that was asleep at all other times. Strength came with it and ferocity and
everything akin to murder. At other times he succeeded in being what people thought him.”
“It’s perfectly true, that's what most of us are aiming at, living up to favorable opinions in the minds of others,” said Irving, thoughtfully. “But—why —did—you—buy—that house?”
“Primarily on account of a flash of lightning. You remember I told you we heard a tree struck. I wandered about in the wilderness till I found it, literally upside down, with great roots thrust into the air. I was just going back to the gates when I noticed that the earth clinging to the roots was red, and there were reddish pieces of stone sticking in the earth. I dug about and got more of it. Irving, it was iron— the best and purest iron in the state of Pennsylvania, and what I found proved afterwards to be the apex of a huge wedge of ore. I called Hulett and showed him. You see it really was his to refuse, not mine, but he made me take it up, and that’s how Hulett gets his holdings in the Barry Ironworks. Across the valley was limestone. A little farther down coal had been mined for years. That was all we wanted. Today, if you ever go there, the country will look as monstrous and uncouth as ever, but it is redeemed by the red flames of blast furnaces. At night they look like the pit itself, but that disjointed district is expressing itself in iron and steel. All in all it seems a natural expression. Can you work out the sequence?”
Irving stretched his long legs toward the fire. “I think I can.” Then he touched the bell.
A moment later a tray appeared. Irving scribbled a signature legible only to the hall porter. “Let us start at the beginning. ‘To Hulett’s Aunt,’ ” he said quizzically.
“To my Aunt,” replied Hulett.
“To your admirable Aunt,” suggested Stevenson, and the three glasses went up together.
Success, honor, fame—magic words these, that make the fiery blood of ambition surge to your brain. But forget not, they are effects, not causes; the reward for initiative, patience, industry —dreams endowed with life, vague desires vitalized, hopes struggled for. It is the inexorable law of compensation; he wins the prize who pays the price. —Kuhn.
The thing that’s called enthusiasm is wonderful when it is harnessed and curbed. Unchecked, it is a brother to fussiness and a cousin to frenzy. Often it exists entirely through ignorance, and only experience may teach the childishness and shame of it.—Thomas D. Goodwin.