Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xvi.

A Strange Thing.

I cannot forbear to mention a thing which happened at this time, so strange, so contrary to reason and experience, so far removed from the ordinary stories of apparitions and phantoms, that, had I not been agitated by a thousand tumultuous joys, I must have been thrown by it into great apprehensions, and perhaps have felt compelled to lay the matter before the Bishop.

The thing is concerned with my maid Jenny, of course. I have already explained that she was an active and faithful maid, clever with her needle, a good hairdresser, modest and respectful in her behaviour to me, whatever she was to others. With all these virtues, it is grievous to remember that if ever a woman was a witch, and had dealings with the devil —— why, even Mr. Hilyard, who is always most cautious in these matters, confesses that the matter is beyond his comprehension, and he knows not how to explain it, or what to say of it. Let us remember that at Blanchland she saw apparitions (though others saw none), to the terror of the village; and there also she was said to lead about a rustic whom she made to do whatever she pleased (this at the time I believed not, though now I know that it may be true). And at Dilston she acted parts either of her own invention, or imitated people, or declaimed what she had heard to such admiration that the men gazed upon her with open mouths, and the kitchen-maids dropped the dishes, and the elder women crossed themselves. Gipsy blood will show, they say; no doubt these outcasts are in some sort more liable than the rest of us to diabolical possession, and it is by this, and no other way, that they are enabled to read the future, predict fortunes, and, above all, to bewitch a man and make him do whatsoever they please.

It was on the morning after this day of gifts —— a gloomy and cloudy morning, with mist lying over the Devilswater and the meadow beneath the Hall; the gentlemen were in the fields shooting; Lady Katharine was, I suppose, in the chapel; Lady Mary was dozing in her chair; the maids were all at work below and in the kitchens. I, having nothing to do, and a heart troubled but full of joy, began to roam by myself about the great house. First I went into the library, where few ever sat. Sometimes my lord went thither to spend an hour; he was a gentleman of parts, and possessed as much learning as befits a man of his rank. An earl must not be a writer of books or a poet by trade, though he may, as Lord Rochester did, write witty and ingenious verses to be given to his mistress or to please the Court. Frank Radcliffe was often there, and sometimes Mr. Howard. To-day when I opened the door I saw the good old priest sleeping beside a great wood fire, on his knees a massive volume in calf, with brass clasps —— no doubt a learned work on theology. So, not to disturb him, I shut the door again quite softly, and went along the passages among the many old rooms, hung with tapestry, and furnished after an antique style. Some of them were occupied, but for the most part they were empty, and I looked curiously into them, half afraid of the deep shadows, in which ghosts might linger. If I entered these silent chambers, I peeped hurriedly into the mirrors, fearful lest, as has happened to many honest people, I might see a second face in addition to my own, or, which is worse than a whole procession of ghosts, not my own face at all, but quite another one —— a strange, a threatening, and an angry face —— or the face of a demon. I have often prayed to be protected from this form of visitation, of which I could tell many stories, but refrain, merely saying that it is a sure indication of great disaster thus to see a strange and angry face in the mirror instead of your own.

The house being so silent, the air without so misty, and the rooms so dark, it is not wonderful that I presently fell into that expectant spirit in which nothing seems strange, so that if all my ancestors on the Radcliffe side had with one consent marched up the corridor to greet me, I should have taken it as nothing out of the way or even unexpected. It is a condition of mind into which it is easy to fall when one is in a reverie.

Now, as I walked along the passage, I became aware of a voice: it was a low voice, which I knew very well, but did not remember whose it was (when one’s head was full of Lord Derwentwater, could one remember the voice of a servant-maid?). Without following or seeking after that voice, I walked by accident straight to the room whence it came, and, the door being open, and I not thinking one way or the other whether I ought to look or whether I ought not, I not only looked in at the door, but I walked into the room. Truly I was as one in a dream.

The thing which I saw awakened me from my dream, and I started and was seized with a horror the like of which I never felt before and hope never to feel again; because I saw with my own eyes the bewitching of a man by a woman.

It was a large low room without much furniture, and I think it had once been used for a children’s room, for there were little chairs about, and broken toys. There were only two persons in the room: one of the two was Frank Radcliffe, and the other was none other, if you please, than Jenny, my own maid. That Frank should condescend to hold conversation at all with this blackeyed gipsy girl might have filled me with wonder; yet I was not so young or so innocent (what country girl is?) as not to know that young gentlemen will often stoop to rustic wenches, to their own shame and the just ruin of the latter. But Frank was not like many of our young bloods, a mere hunting and shooting creature, born to destroy vermin for the farmers and provide game for the table. He was a gentleman of high breeding and polished, nay, delicate manners, no more capable, one would think, of being led out of himself by the flashing eyes of a village beauty than my lord himself; a scholar too, and man of books. Yet here he was; and with him, Jenny. The girl was sitting on a high chair with her back to the door, and therefore saw me not; nor did she hear my footsteps. Before her, like a boy at school before his master, stood the young man. To think that she should sit, and he be standing! But oh, heavens! what ailed him? His eyes were open, and he gazed straight before him, so that he looked into my face, but he seemed to see nothing; his arms were hanging motionless; he stood erect, like a soldier with a pike in waiting for the word of command; his cheek was pale: he seemed as one whose soul had fled while his body waits for its return, or as one entranced, or as one who walks in his sleep. Yet, for the strange feeling upon me, as if anything might happen and nothing was wonderful, I stood where I was and looked on in silence, though what I saw was beyond the power of the mind to conceive.

Were they play-acting? But in no play-acting that ever I heard of does the actor go through his performance with face so motionless. The play-acting was nothing. Jenny lifted her finger, Frank did the same. Jenny folded a paper into a kind of narrow tube and gave it him, muttering something in a low voice. Then he put the tube to his lips and made as if he were smoking a pipe.

Then Jenny made another gesture, and he dropped the paper.

‘Think next,’ she said imperiously, ‘of my own people, the gipsies. I want to know what old granny is doing, and what she is saying. If she is making a charm, tell me how she makes it.’

‘There is a gipsy camp,’ he replied slowly, but with no change in his eyes, ‘outside the houses of a village. They have drawn their carts round an open space, where there is a great fire and a pot upon it.’

‘And granny —— what is granny doing?’

‘I see an old woman lying upon the boards in one of the carts. A young man lies beside her, groaning and twisting about.’

‘What does granny say?’

‘She bids him cheer up; for what is a simple flogging at the cart-tail when once ’tis over? And what is a sore back to the rheumatism in every bone?’

‘It is my cousin, Pharaoh Lee,’ said Jenny. ‘Poor Pharaoh! He has been stealing poultry, no doubt. The back of him should be of leather by now, unless backs get the softer for flogging, like a beefsteak. Well —— Leave the camp, and think of my lord, your brother. So —— where is he?’

‘He is walking beside Tom Forster, fowling — piece on shoulder. But he looks neither to right nor left, and he is not thinking of the birds.’

‘What is he thinking of, then?’

‘He is thinking,’ replied Frank, ‘of Dorothy. His mind is quite full of her. He can think of nothing else. He has told her that he loves her, and before she goes away he will tell her so again. “Sweet Dorothy!” he says in his mind. “Fair Dorothy! There is none like Dorothy Forster.”

Now, when I heard these words it seemed to me as if the things I saw and heard were ghostly and sent from the other world, wherefore I fell into the deadly terror which seizes those who behold such things and receive such messages, and I shrieked aloud and fell into a swoon, which lasted I know not how long.

When I came to myself, I was sitting in the chair where Jenny (unless it was a vision) had been exercising her witcheries. She was kneeling at my feet, beating my palms, and putting a cold, wet towel to my forehead, with a face full of terror and surprise.

‘Ah!’ she said, ‘you are better now, my lady.’

‘What is it, Jenny?’ I cried, clutching her hand and looking around. ‘What is it? Where is he?’

‘Where is he?’ she repeated. ‘Why —— who?’

‘Mr. Francis Radcliffe.’

‘Mr. Frank? Indeed, your ladyship, I know not. I suppose he may have gone out with the gentlemen shooting, or perhaps, because he is a studious gentleman, he is in the library, or talking, maybe, to Mr. Hilyard. What should Mr. Frank be doing here?’

‘Nay —— but I saw him!’

‘Where did you see him? Oh, madam! rest a while. Your poor head is wandering. You must have had a shock.’

‘I saw him, I say —— here with you —— wicked girl! with your sorceries.’ I pushed her from me; but she looked astonished and not guilty at all —— which was most strange.

‘Alas! madam, what sorceries? I know not what you mean. I was in your own room hard by, putting up the lace for your hair, which I shall dress by-and-by’—— my own room was close at hand, but I had forgotten it ——‘when I heard a loud cry and a something fall, and ran to help —— and oh dear! —— oh dear! —— it was your ladyship lying on the floor all by yourself, with a face as white as a sheet.’

‘But I saw him —— and you ——’

I looked about the room; there was certainly no Frank Radcliffe there. Then I started to my feet; the fascination was quite gone; it went away as suddenly as it came. I determined to seek out Frank and learn the truth at once.

‘Stay here, shameless girl!’ I cried. ‘If thou hast lied thou shalt leave me this moment, even if the village folk burn thee for a witch, as they called thee at Blanchland.’

I hastened along the passages and down the stairs to the library. Oh, most wonderful! Everything, with one exception, was just as I had left it half an hour before. Father Howard slept in the quiet corner beside the fire, his great volume on his knee; on the hearth there slowly burned among its white ashes a great log; the silent books stood round the walls, and above them hung the portraits of Radcliffes dead and gone; through the windows I saw the white mists hanging over the meadow and the narrow bed of Devilswater. Everything the same, except that at a table before one of the windows sat Frank himself, two or three books before him.

‘Frank!’ I cried.

‘Dorothy! What is it? Your cheeks are white and your eyes are frightened —— what is it, Dorothy?’

‘How long have you been here, Frank?’

‘I think all the morning, Dorothy. Why?’

‘I saw —— that is, I thought I saw you, but just now, in the north corridor. Perhaps it was imagination. Yet, I thought —— were you not there, of truth?’

‘Indeed, I have not left the library since breakfast. I must have been asleep, like Mr. Howard, for I find I have not turned the page for half an hour and more. Do you think, Dorothy,’ he asked earnestly, ‘that you have seen a ghost? This Dilston, they say, is full of ghosts. But I have seen none, as yet.’

‘I know not,’ I replied, ‘what I have seen —— or what it means. Frank —— you have told me the truth?’

I could not doubt the truth of his straightforward eyes, nor the sincerity of his assurance. Wherefore, with a beating heart, I returned slowly to my own chamber, and found Jenny in tears. I thought I must have seemed harsh to her, feeling now certain that what I had seen was a vision of a disordered brain. Yet, why should the brain of a girl newly made happy by the most noble lover in the world be disordered? Therefore I bestowed upon her a frock, a hood, and a pair of warm cloth gloves, for a New Year’s gift, and told her that I must have had some dream or seen some vision, and that I blamed her no longer; though at heart I felt some suspicion still, because the dream or vision, if such it had been, remained in my mind clear and strong, so that I could not choose but think it real. And yet, that Frank should have been in the library since the morning and never once left it!

In the afternoon I told the whole to Mr. Hilyard, and confessed to him that, although I was now certain that I had been deceived or that I was under some charm, yet I felt uneasy. He received my story with great seriousness, and began to consider what it might mean.

‘Truly,’ he said, ‘if this be a vision, and not a cheat by the girl Jenny —— but how could she cheat without the assistance of Mr. Frank? —— it is a very serious and weighty business. It is a pity that you did not, before you swooned away, throw your arms about the effigies or apparition of the girl, as was done by Lord Colchester about fifty years ago, when he clasped thin air, as Ixion clasped his cloud. We may not doubt that warnings may take various shapes. Thus it is related on good authority from Portsmouth that a gentleman of that place has been lately troubled by the apparition of a man who constantly pursues him and reproaches him for some secret crime; and Colonel Radcliffe affords another instance, who is also followed continually by some unseen enemy. There is also the authentic story of the ghost of Madam Bendish, of East Ham, near London, who lately appeared to an old gentleman there, and bade him reprove an obstinate son with Proverbs, one, two, and three. There was also, only a short time ago, the young gentleman of All Hallows, Bread Street Parish, who had a vision of a burial, the cloth held by four maids, which came true of himself. And the ghost of Thomas Chambers, of Chesham, in Buckinghamshire, was after his death seen by many, but especially the maid of the house, leaning, in a melancholy posture, against a tree, attired in the same cap and dress in which they laid him out. We may no more deny these appearances than we may deny the existence of the soul or our immortal hopes. Besides which, if more testimony were wanted, Plutarch, Apuleius, and all the Roman and Grecian histories are full of such instances.’

‘But, Mr. Hilyard, is there any like my own?’

‘I know not one,’ he replied, thoughtfully; ‘for there is no threat, nor any call for repentance. You have nothing to do with gipsies and flogging of backs; and there remains the friendly and comfortable assurance, if I may make so bold as to say so, of my lord’s disposition and affection —— of which I, for one, have long been fully certain. So, Miss Dorothy, I would advise and counsel that nothing more be said or thought about this strange thing, especially to the girl, lest she be puffed up with conceit and vanity.’

What happened that same day was this, though I heard it not till long afterwards. Mr. Hilyard, on leaving me, repaired to a quiet chamber, where he would be undisturbed, and then sent for Jenny to attend him.

She came in fear and trembling.

‘Now,’ he said, shaking his fore-finger in a very terrible way, ‘what is this I hear about Mr. Francis and yourself?’

‘I know nothing, sir,’ she began.

‘About the camp, now.’

‘If Miss Dorothy thought she heard Mr. Frank tell me about my cousin Pharaoh’s back, she must have dreamed it.’

‘Now, girl, thou art caught. Know that your mistress said not one word to you of Pharaoh and his back, which I hope hath been soundly lashed for his many thieveries. Therefore, since I know it, because she told me, and since she hath not told you, pray, how do you know it? Girl, on your knees and confess, or worse will happen to thee.’

Upon this she burst into tears, fell upon her knees, and confessed a most wonderful thing, which made Mr. Hilyard’s very wig to stand on end, so strange it was.

She owned that she possessed, having learned it from her grandmother, a strange and mysterious power over certain persons; that she amused herself with trying it upon various men; that there was a poor fellow at Blanchland whom she could make to fetch and carry at her will; but that there was no one over whom she had greater power than over Mr. Frank.

Being asked if he knew, she denied it, saying that, although it pleased him to converse with her sometimes, and to learn from her the secrets of palmistry, and other little things which he persuaded her to teach him, he had no knowledge of the trance into which she could throw him at will; and that, during that period, he could tell her what people were doing anywhere in the world, and what were their thoughts; that she was exercising this gift of sorcery, the power of which belongs only to the gipsies, and to few among them, when Miss Dorothy surprised her; that she hastened to send Mr. Frank, still unconscious, back to the library, so that, when he returned to himself, he knew not that anything had happened; and thereby she was able to deceive her mistress.

‘In the name of Heaven, child!’ cried Mr. Hilyard in affright, ‘hast thou such a power over me?’

Jenny swore she had none, nor was like to have if she tried; and that she would never try upon him, being afraid of detection; nor upon his honour, Mr. Forster, as in duty bound; nor upon her mistress. But that, as to this young gentleman, he forced himself upon her, coming continually to her, and begging to have the future revealed, either by cards, or by the lines of his hand, or the shape of his head, or the circumstances of his birth; and then nothing would satisfy him but to know, and to learn for himself how, and by what rules and observations, these things were done; so that he laid himself directly open, as it were, to the Evil One; and when the young witch, for so one must now think her, essayed her art upon him, he fell a ready victim. Lastly, the girl implored Mr. Hilyard, with many tears, and on her bended knees, to forgive her, promising that never again would she speak with Mr. Frank, nor practise upon him this truly diabolical art, on penalty of being instantly dismissed the service of Miss Dorothy, and haled before a Justice of the Peace to be dealt with as a witch.

Well, Mr. Hilyard, as he afterwards confessed, was greatly concerned at this narrative, which surprised as well as terrified him. First, he endeavoured to convince the girl that she was in the hands of the Evil One, who would infallibly, unless she repented, bring her to such sufferings as she could not yet even dream of; next, that it was the height of presumption for her to exercise this dreadful power upon a young gentleman; thirdly, he promised to consider what was best to be done, and, if he could, to hide the fact, on her faithful promise to abstain for the future, to fast once a week for six months for penance, and to pray night and morning to be delivered from the Devil. So he dismissed her.

‘Next,’ he told me afterwards, ‘I fell to thinking how dreadful a thing it must be to possess this power, and how constant a temptation there would be to use it for one’s own advantage, or to gratify malice, revenge, and private spite: so that, if all possessed it, for one who would use it for the public good a hundred would use it for their own selfish ends. Further, that an unfortunate creature under this power, and compelled by this influence, might commit the most horrible crimes and know nothing about it. Why, many a poor wretch may have been hanged for things done by command of her who had bewitched him. And as for me, I confess (which shows my unworthiness) that I forgot the wickedness of tempting the Lord and the sin of Saul, and longed to consult so strange an oracle on my own account. From this I was protected by Grace.’

For my own part, I resolved to say nothing about it, thinking that we should leave Dilston in a few days, and that meanwhile I would watch diligently, and prevent the meeting together in any place of the girl and Mr. Frank. But she gave me no more trouble, and I think there was not another meeting before we went away.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51