Run to Earth, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 14

A Ghostly Visitant.

For nearly three years Thomas Milsom had been far away from London. He had been arrested on a charge of burglary, within a month of Valentine Jernam’s death, and condemned to five years’ transportation. In less than three years, by some kind of artful management, and by the exercise of consummate hypocrisy, Mr. Milsom had contrived to get himself free again, and to return to England his own master.

He landed in Scotland, and tramped from Granton to Yorkshire, where an accidental encounter with an old acquaintance tempted him to linger at Raynham. The two tramps, scoundrels both, and both alike penniless and shoeless, had stood side by side at the gates of the park, to see the stately funeral train pass out.

And thus Thomas Milsom had beheld her whom he called his daughter — the girl who had fled, with her old grandfather, from the shelter of his fatal roof three years before.

After that unprofitable interview with Honoria, Thomas Milsom his face Londonwards.

“The day will come when you and I will square accounts, my lady,” he muttered, as he looked up to those battlemented turrets, with a blasphemous curse, and then turned his back upon Raynham Castle, and the peaceful little village beneath it.

The direction in which Mr. Milsom betook himself, after he passed the border-land of waste ground and newly-built houses which separates London from the country, was the direction of Ratcliff Highway. He walked rapidly through the crowded streets, in which the crowd grew thicker as he approached the regions of the Tower. But rapidly as he walked, the steps of Time were faster. It had been bright noon when he entered the quiet little town of Barnet. It was night when he first heard the scraping fiddles and stamping feet of Ratcliff Highway. He went straight to the ‘Jolly Tar’.

Here all was unchanged. There were the flaring tallow candles, set in a tin hoop that hung from the low ceiling, dropping hot grease ever and anon on the loungers at the bar. There was the music — the same Scotch reels and Irish jigs, played on squeaking fiddles, which were made more inharmonious by the accompaniment of shrill Pandean pipes. There was the same crowd of sailors and bare-headed, bare-armed, loud-voiced women assembled in the stifling bar, the same cloud of tobacco-smoke, the same Babel of voices to be heard from the concert-room within; while now and then, amongst the shouts and the laughter, the oaths and the riot, there sounded the tinkling of the old piano, and the feeble upper notes of a very poor soprano voice.

Black Milsom had drawn his hat over his eyes before entering the “Jolly Tar.”

The bar of that tavern was sunk considerably below the level of the street, and standing on the uppermost of the steps by which Mr. Wayman’s customers descended to his hospitable abode, Black Milsom was able to look across the heads of the crowd to the face of the landlord busy behind his bar.

In that elevated position Black Milsom waited until Dennis Wayman happened to look up and perceive the stranger on the threshold.

As he did so, Thomas Milsom drew the back of his hand rapidly across his mouth, with a gesture that was evidently intended as a signal.

The signal was answered by a nod from Wayman, and then Black Milsom descended the three steps, and pushed his way to the bar.

“Can I have a bed, mate, and a bit of supper?” he asked, in a voice that was carefully disguised.

“Ay, ay, to be sure you can,” answered Wayman; “you can have everything that is comfortable and friendly by paying for it. This house is one of the most hospitable places there is — to those that can pay the reckoning.”

This rather clumsy joke was received with an applauding guffaw by the sailors and women next the bar.

“If you’ll step through that door yonder, you’ll find a snug little room, mate,” said Dennis Wayman, in the tone which he might have used in speaking to a stranger; “I’ll send you a steak and a potato as soon as they can be cooked.”

Thomas Milsom nodded. He pushed open the rough wooden door which was so familiar to him, and went into the dingy little den which, in the ‘Jolly Tar’, was known as the private parlour.

It was the room in which he had first seen Valentine Jernam. Two years and a half had passed since he had last entered it; and during that time Mr. Milsom had been paying the penalty of his misdeeds in Van Dieman’s Land. This dingy little den, with its greasy walls and low, smoky ceiling, was a kind of paradise to the returned wanderer. Here, at least, was freedom. Here, at least, he was his own master: free to enjoy strong drinks and strong tobacco — free to be lazy when he pleased, and to work after the fashion that suited him best.

He seated himself in one chair, and planted his legs on another. Then he took a short clay pipe from his pocket, filled and lighted it, and began to smoke, in a slow meditative manner, stopping every now and then to mutter to himself, between the puffs of tobacco.

Mr. Milsom had finished his second pipe of shag tobacco, and had given utterance to more than one exclamation of anger and impatience, when the door was opened, and Dennis Wayman made his appearance, bearing a tray with a couple of covered dishes and a large pewter pot.

“I thought I’d bring you your grub myself, mate,” he said; “though I’m precious busy in yonder. I’m uncommonly glad to see you back again. I’ve been wondering where you was ever since you disappeared.”

“You’d have left off wondering if you’d known I was on the other side of this blessed world of ours. I thought you knew I was —”

Mr. Milsom’s delicacy of feeling prevented his finishing this speech.

“I knew you had got into trouble,” answered Mr. Wayman. “At least, I didn’t know for certain, but I guessed as much; though sometimes I was half inclined to think you had turned cheat, and given me the slip.”

“Bolted with the swag, I suppose you mean?”

“Precisely!” answered Dennis Wayman, coolly.

“Which shows your suspicious nature,” returned Milsom, in a sulky tone. “When an unlucky chap turns his back upon his comrades, the worst word in their mouths isn’t half bad enough for him. That’s the way of the world, that is. No, Dennis Wayman; I didn’t bolt with the swag — not sixpence of Valentine Jernam’s money have I had the spending of; no even what I won from him at cards. I was nobbled one day, without a moment’s warning, on a twopenny-halfpenny charge of burglary — never you mind whether it was true, or whether it was false — that ain’t worth going into. I was took under a false name, and I stuck to that false name, thinking it more convenient. I should have sent to let you know, if I could have found a safe hand to take my message; but I couldn’t find a living creature that was anything like safe — so there I was, remanded on a Monday, tried on a Tuesday, and then a fortnight after shipped off like a bullock, along of so many other bullocks; and that’s the long and the short of it.”

After having said which, Mr. Milsom applied himself to his supper, which consisted of a smoking steak, and a dish of still more smoking potatoes.

Dennis Wayman sat watching him for some minutes in thoughtful silence. The intent gaze with which he regarded the face of his friend, was that of a man who was by no means inclined to believe every syllable he had heard. After Milsom had devoured about a pound of steak, and at least two pounds of potatoes, Mr. Wayman ventured to interrupt his operations by a question.

“If you didn’t collar the money, what became of it?” he asked.

“Put away,” returned the other man, shortly; “and as safe as a church, unless my bad luck goes against me harder than it ever went yet.”

“You hid it?” said Wayman, interrogatively.

“I did.”

“Where?”

Mr. Milsom looked at his friend with a glance of profound cunning.

“Wouldn’t you like to know — oh, wouldn’t you just like to know, Mr. Wayman?” he said. “And wouldn’t you just dose me with a cup of drugged coffee, and cut off to ransack my hiding-place while I was lying helpless in your hospitable abode. That’s the sort of thing you’d do, if I happened to be a born innocent, isn’t it, Mr. Wayman? But you see I’m not a born innocent, so you won’t get the chance of doing anything of the kind.”

“Don’t be a fool,” returned Dennis Wayman, in a surly tone. “You’ll please to remember that one half of Valentine Jernam’s money belongs to me, and ought to have been in my possession long before this. I was an idiot to trust it in your keeping.”

“You trusted it in my keeping because you were obliged to do so,” answered Black Milsom, “and I owe you no gratitude for your confidence. I happened to know a Jew who was willing to give cash for the notes and bills of exchange; and you trusted them to me because it was the only way to get them turned into cash.”

The landlord of the ‘Jolly Tar’ nodded a surly assent to this rather cynical statement.

“I saw my friend the Jew, and made a very decent bargain,” resumed Milsom. “I hid the money in a convenient place, intending to bring you your share at the earliest opportunity. I was lagged that very night, and had no chance of touching the cash after I had once stowed it away. So, you see, it was no fault of mine that you didn’t get the money.”

“Humph!” muttered Mr. Wayman. “It has been rather hard lines for me to be kept out of it so long. And now you have come back, I suppose you can take me at once to the hiding place. I want money very badly just now.”

“Do you?” said Thomas Milsom, with a sneer. “That’s a complaint you’re rather subject to, isn’t it — the want of money? Now, as I’ve answered your questions, perhaps you’ll answer mine. Has there been much stir down this way while I’ve been over the water?”

“Very little; things have been as dull as they well could be.”

“Ah! so you’ll say, of course. Can you tell me whether any one has lived in my old place while my back has been turned?”

The landlord of the ‘Jolly Tar’ started with a gesture of alarm.

“It wasn’t there you hid the money, was it?” he asked, eagerly.

“Suppose it was, what then?”

“Why every farthing of it is lost. The place has been taken by a man, who has pulled the best part of it down, and rebuilt it. If you hid your money there, there’s little chance of your ever seeing it again,” said Wayman.

Black Milsom’s dark face grew livid, as he started from his chair and dragged on the crater coat which he had taken off on entering the room.

“It would be like my luck to lose that money,” he said; “it would be just like my luck. Come, Wayman. What are you staring at, man?” he cried impatiently. “Come.”

“Where?”

“To my old place. You can tell me all about the changes at we go. I must see to this business at once.”

The moon was shining over the masts and rigging in the Pool, and over the house-tops of Bermondsey and Wapping, as Black Milsom and his companion started on their way to the old house by the water.

They went, as on a former occasion, in that vehicle which Mr. Wayman called his trap; and as they drove along the lonely road, across the marshy flat by the river, Dennis Wayman told his companion what had happened in his absence.

“For a year the house stood empty,” he said; “but at the end of that time an old sea-captain took a fancy to it because of the water about it, and the view of the Pool from the top windows. He bought it, and pulled it almost all to pieces, rebuilt it, and I doubt if there is any of the old house standing. He has made quite a smart little place of it. He’s a queer old chap, this Cap’en Duncombe, I’m told, and rather a tough customer.”

“I’ll see the inside of his house, however tough he may be,” answered Milsom, in a dogged tone. “If he’s a tough customer, he’ll find me a tougher. Has he got any family?”

“One daughter — as pretty a girl as you’ll see within twenty miles of London!”

“Well, we’ll go and have a look at his place to-night. We’d better put up your trap at the ‘Pilot Boat.’”

Mr. Wayman assented to the wisdom of this arrangement. The “Pilot Boat” was a dilapidated-looking, low-roofed little inn, where there were some tumble-down stables, which were more often inhabited by bloated grey water-rats than by horses. In these stables Mr. Wayman lodged his pony and vehicle, while he and Milsom walked on to the cottage.

“Why I shouldn’t have known the place!” cried Milsom, as his companion pointed to the captain’s habitation.

The transformation was, indeed, complete. The dismal dwelling, which had looked as if it were, in all truth, haunted by a ghost, had been changed into one of the smartest little cottages to be seen in the suburbs of eastern London.

The ditch had been narrowed and embanked, and two tiny rustic bridges, of fantastical wood-work, spanned its dark water. The dreary pollard~willows had vanished, and evergreens occupied their places. The black rushes had been exchanged for flowers. A trim little garden appeared where all had once been waste ground; and a flag-staff, with a bit of bunting, gave a naval aspect to the spot.

All was dark; not one glimmer of light to be seen in any of the windows.

The garden was secured by an iron gate, and surrounded by iron rails on all sides, except that nearest the river. Here, the only boundary was a hedge of laurels, which were still low and thin; and here Dennis Wayman and his companion found easy access to the neatly-kept pleasure-ground.

With stealthy footsteps they invaded Captain Duncombe’s little domain, and walked slowly round the house, examining every door and window as they went.

“Is the captain a rich man?” asked Milsom.

“Yes; I believe he’s pretty well off — some say uncommonly well off. He spent over a thousand pounds on this place.”

“Curse him for his pains!” returned Black Milsom, savagely. “He knows how to take care of his property. It would be a very clever burglar that would get into that house. The windows are all secured with outside shutters, that seem as solid as if they were made of iron, and the doors don’t yield the twentieth part of an inch.”

Then, after completing his examination of the house, Milsom exclaimed, in the same savage tone —

“Why, the man has swept away every timber of the place I lived in.”

“I told you as much,” answered Wayman; “I’ve heard say there was nothing left of old Screwton’s house but a few solid timbers and a stack of chimneys.”

Screwton was the name of the miser whose ghost had been supposed to haunt the old place.

Black Milsom gave a start as Dennis uttered the words “stack of chimneys.”

“Oh!” he said, in an altered tone; “so they left the chimney-stack, did they?”

Mr. Wayman perceived that change of tone.

“I begin to understand,” he said; “you hid that money in one of the chimneys.”

“Never you mind where I hid it. There’s little chance of its being found there, after bricklayers pulling the place to pieces. I must get into that house, come what may.”

“You’ll find that difficult,” answered Wayman.

“Perhaps. But I’ll do it, or my name’s not Black Milsom.”

Captain Joseph Duncombe, or Joe Duncombe, as he generally called himself, was a burly, rosy-faced man of fifty years of age; a hearty, honest fellow. He was a widower, with only one child, a daughter, whom he idolized.

Any father might have been forgiven for being devotedly fond of such a daughter as Rosamond Duncombe.

Rosamond was one of those light-hearted, womanly creatures who seem born to make home a paradise. She had a sweet temper; a laugh which was like music; a manner which was fascination itself.

When it is also taken into consideration that she had a pretty little nose, lips that were fresh and rosy as ripe red cherries, cheeks that were like dewy roses, newly-gathered, and large, liquid eyes, of the deepest, clearest blue, it must be confessed that Rosamond Duncombe was a very charming girl.

If Joseph Duncombe doted on this bright-haired, blue-eyed daughter, his love was not unrecompensed. Rosamond idolized her father, whom she believed to be the best and noblest of created beings.

Rosamond’s remembrance of her mother was but shadowy. She had lost that tender protector at a very early age.

Within the last year and a half her father had retired from active service, after selling his vessel, the “Vixen,” for a large price, so goodly a name had she borne in the merchant service.

This retirement of Captain Duncombe’s was a sacrifice which he made for his beloved daughter.

For himself, the life of a seaman had lost none of its attractions. But when he saw his fair young daughter of an age to leave school, he determined that she should have a home.

He had made a very comfortable little fortune during five-and-thirty years of hard service. But he had never made a sixpence the earning of which he need blush to remember. He was known in the service as a model of truth and honesty.

Driving about the eastern suburbs of London, he happened one day to pass that dreary plot of waste ground on which the miser’s tumble-down dwelling had been built. It was a pleasant day in April, and the place was looking less dreary than usual. The spring sunshine lit up the broad river, and the rigging of the ships stood out in sharp black lines against a bright blue sky.

A board against the dilapidated palings announced that the ground was to be sold.

Captain Duncombe drew up his horse suddenly.

“That’s the place for me!” he exclaimed; “close by the old river, whose tide carried me down to the sea on my first voyage five-and-thirty years ago — within view of the Pool, and all the brave old ships lying at anchor. That’s the place for me! I’ll sweep away that old ramshackle hovel, and build a smart water-tight little cottage for my pet and me to live in; and I’ll stick the Union Jack on a main-top over our heads, and at night, when I lie awake and hear the water rippling by, I shall fancy I’m still at sea.”

A landsman would most likely have stopped to consider that the neighbourhood was lonely, the ground damp and marshy, the approach to this solitary cross-road through the most disreputable part of London. Captain Duncombe considered nothing, except two facts — first the river, then the view of the ships in the Pool.

He drove back to Wapping, where he found the house-agent who was commissioned to sell old Screwton’s dwelling. That gentleman was only too glad to get a customer for a place which no one seemed inclined to have on any terms. He named his price. The merchant-captain did not attempt to make a bargain; but agreed to buy the place, and to give ready money for it, as soon as the necessary deeds were drawn up and signed. In a week this was done, and the captain found himself possessor of a snug little freehold on the banks of the Thames.

He lost no time in transforming the place into an abode of comfort, instead of desolation. It was only when the transformation was complete, and Captain Duncombe had spent upwards of a thousand pounds on his folly, that he became acquainted with the common report about the place.

Sailors are proverbially superstitious. After hearing that dismal story, Joseph Duncombe was rather inclined to regret the choice he had made; but he resolved to keep the history of old Screwton a secret from his daughter, though it cost him perpetual efforts to preserve silence on this subject.

In spite of his precaution, Rosamond came to know of the ghost. Visiting some poor cottagers, about a quarter of a mile from River View, she heard the whole story — told her unthinkingly by a foolish old woman, who was amongst the recipients of her charity.

Soon after this, the story reached the ears of the two servants — an elderly woman, called Mugby, who acted as cook and housekeeper; and a smart girl, called Susan Trott.

Mrs. Mugby pretended to ridicule the idea of Screwton’s ghost.

“I’ve lived in a many places, and I’ve heard tell of a many ghostes,” she said; “but never yet did I set eyes on one, which my opinion is that, if people will eat cold pork for supper underdone, not to mention crackling or seasoning, and bottled stout, which is worse, and lies still heavier on the stomach — unless you take about as much ground ginger as would lie on a sixpence, and as much carbonate of soda as would lie on a fourpenny-bit — and go to bed upon it all directly afterwards, they will see no end of ghostes. I have never trifled with my digestion, and no ghostes have I ever seen.”

The girl, Susan Trott, was by no means so strong-minded. The idea of Miser Screwton’s ghost haunted her perpetually of an evening; and she would no more have gone out into the captain’s pretty little garden after dark, than she would have walked straight to the mouth of a cannon.

Rosamond Duncombe affected to echo the heroic sentiments of the housekeeper, Mrs. Mugby. There never had been such things as ghosts, and never would be; and all the foolish stories that were told of phantoms and apparitions, had their sole foundation in the imaginations of the people who told them.

Such was the state of things in the household of Captain Duncombe at the time of Black Milsom’s return from Van Diemen’s Land.

It was within two nights after that return, that an event occurred, never to be forgotten by any member of Joseph Duncombe’s household.

The evening was cold, but fine; the moon, still at its full, shone bright and clear upon the neat garden of River View Cottage. Captain Duncombe and his daughter were alone in their comfortable sitting-room, playing the Captain’s favourite game of backgammon, before a cheery fire. The housekeeper, Mrs. Mugby, had complained all day of a touch of rheumatism, and had gone to bed after the kitchen tea, leaving Susan Trott, the smart little parlour-maid, to carry in the pretty pink and gold china tea-service, and hissing silver tea-kettle, to Miss Rosamond and her papa in the sitting-room.

Thus it was that, after having removed the tea-tray, and washed the pretty china cups and saucers, Susan Trott seated herself before the fire, and set herself to trim a new cap, which was designed for the especial bewilderment of a dashing young baker.

The dashing young baker had a habit of lingering at the gate of River View Cottage a good deal longer than was required for the transaction of his business; and the dashing young baker had more than once hinted at an honourable attachment for Miss Susan Trott.

Thinking of the baker, and of all the tender things and bright promises of a happy future which he had murmured in her ear, as they walked home from church on the last Sunday evening, Susan found the solitary hours pass quickly enough. She looked up suddenly as the clock struck ten, and found that she had let the fire burn out.

It was rather an awful sensation to be alone in the lower part of the house after every one else had gone to bed; but Susan Trott was very anxious to finish the making of the new cap; so she went back to the kitchen, and seated herself once more at the table.

She had scarcely taken up her scissors to cut an end of ribbon, when a low, stealthy tapping sounded on the outer wooden shutter of the window behind her.

Susan gave a little shriek of terror, and dropped the scissors as if they had been red-hot. What could that awful sound mean at ten o’clock at night?

For some moments the little parlour-maid was completely overcome by terror. Then, all at once, her thoughts flew back to the person whose image had occupied her mind all that evening. Was it not just possible that the dashing young baker might have something very particular to say to her, and that he had come in this mysterious manner to say it?

Again the same low, stealthy tapping sounded on the shutter.

This time Susan Trott plucked up a spirit, took the bright brass candlestick in her hand, and went to the little door leading from the scullery to the back garden.

She opened the door and peered cautiously out. No one was to be seen — that tiresome baker was indulging in some practical joke, no doubt, and trying to frighten her.

Susan was determined not to be frightened by her sweet-heart’s tricks, so she tripped boldly out into the garden, still carrying the brass candlestick.

At the first step the wind blew out the candle; but, of course, that was of very little consequence when the bright moonlight made everything as clearly visible as at noon.

“I know who it is,” cried Susan, in a voice intended to reach the baker; “and it’s a great shame to try and frighten a poor girl when she’s sitting all alone by herself.”

She had scarcely uttered the words when the candlestick fell from her extended hand, and she stood rooted to the gravel pathway — a statue of fear.

Exactly opposite to her, slowly advancing towards the open door of the scullery, she saw an awful figure — whose description was too familiar to her.

There it was. The ghost — the shadowy image of the man who had destroyed himself in that house. A tall, spectral figure, robed in a long garment of grey serge; a scarlet handkerchief twisted round the head rendered the white face whiter by contrast with it.

As this awful figure approached, Susan Trott stepped backwards on the grass, leaving the pathway clear for the dreadful visitant.

The ghostly form stalked on with slow and solemn steps, and entered the house by the scullery door. For some minutes Susan remained standing on the grass, horror-struck, powerless to move. Then all at once feminine curiosity got the better even of terror, and she followed the phantom figure into the house.

From the kitchen doorway she beheld the figure standing on the hearth, his arms stretched above the fireplace, as if groping for something in the chimney.

Doubtless this had been the miser’s hiding-place for his hoarded gold, and the ghost returned to the spot where the living man had been accustomed to conceal his treasures.

Susan darted across the hall, and ran upstairs to her master’s room. She knocked loudly on the door, crying —

“The ghost, master! the ghost! the old miser’s ghost is in the kitchen!”

“What?” roared the captain, starting suddenly from his peaceful slumbers.

The girl repeated her awful announcement. The captain sprang out of bed, dressed himself in trousers and dressing-gown, and ran down~stairs, the girl close behind him.

They were just in time to see the figure, in the red head-gear and long grey dressing-gown, slowly stalking from the scullery door.

The captain followed the phantom into the garden; but held himself at a respectful distance from the figure, as it slowly paced along the smooth gravel pathway leading towards the laurel hedge.

The figure reached the low boundary that divided the garden from the river bank, crossed it, and vanished amongst the thick white mists that rose from the water.

Joseph Duncombe trembled. A ghost was just the one thing which could strike terror to the seaman’s bold heart.

When the figure had vanished, Captain Duncombe went to the spot where it had passed out of the garden.

Here he found the young laurels beaten and trampled down, as if by the heavy feet of human intruders.

This was strange.

He then went to the kitchen, accompanied by Susan Trott, who, although shivering like an aspen tree, had just sufficient strength of mind to find a lucifer and light her candle.

By the light of this candle Captain Buncombe examined the kitchen.

On the hearth, at his feet, he saw something gleaming in the uncertain light. He stooped to pick up this object, and found that it was a curious gold coin — a foreign coin, bent in a peculiar manner.

This was even yet more strange.

The captain put the coin in his pocket.

“I’ll take good care of this, my girl,” he said. “It isn’t often a ghost leaves anything behind him.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/run_to_earth/chapter14.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31