IT was not to be expected that Captain Barton’s changed and eccentric habits should long escape remark and discussion. Various were the theories suggested to account for it. Some attributed the alteration to the pressure of secret pecuniary embarrassments; others to a repugnance to fulfil an engagement into which he was presumed to have too precipitately entered; and others, again, to the supposed incipiency of mental disease, which latter, indeed, was the most plausible, as well as the most generally received, of the hypotheses circulated in the gossip of the day.
From the very commencement of this change, at first so gradual in its advances, Miss Montague had of course been aware of it. The intimacy involved in their peculiar relation, as well as the near interest which it inspired, afforded, in her case, a like opportunity and motive for the successful exercise of that keen and penetrating observation peculiar to her sex.
His visits became, at length, so interrupted, and his manner, while they lasted, so abstracted, strange, and agitated, that Lady L— — after hinting her anxiety and her suspicions more than once, at length distinctly stated her anxiety, and pressed for an explanation.
The explanation was given, and although its nature at first relieved the worst solicitudes of the old lady and her niece, yet the circumstances which attended it, and the really dreadful consequences which it obviously indicated, as regarded the spirits, and indeed the reason of the now wretched man who made the strange declaration, were enough, upon little reflection, to fill their minds with perturbation and alarm.
General Montague, the young lady’s father, at length arrived. He had himself slightly known Barton some ten or twelve years previously and, being aware of his fortune and connexions, was disposed to regard him as an unexceptionable and indeed a most desirable match for his daughter. He laughed at the story of Barton’s supernatural visitations, and lost no time in calling upon his intended son-in-law.
“My dear Barton,” he continued, gaily, after a little conversation, “my sister tells me that you are a victim to blue devils, in quite a new and original shape.”
Barton changed countenance, and sighed profoundly.
“Come, come; I protest this will never do,” continued the General; “you are more like a man on his way to the gallows than to the altar. These devils have made quite a saint of you.”
Barton made an effort to change the conversation.
“No, no, it won’t do,” said his visitor laughing; “I am resolved to say what I have to say upon this magnificent mock mystery of yours. You must not be angry, but really it is too bad to see you at your time of life absolutely frightened into good behaviour, like a naughty child, by a bugaboo, and as far as I can learn a very contemptible one. Seriously, I have been a good deal annoyed at what they tell me; but at the same time thoroughly convinced that there is nothing in the matter that may not be cleared up, with a little attention and management, within a week at furthest.”
“Ah, General, you do not know ——” he began.
“Yes, but I do know quite enough to warrant my confidence,” interrupted the soldier; “don’t I know that all your annoyance proceeds from the occasional appearance of a certain little man in a cap and greatcoat, with a red vest and a bad face, who follows you about, and pops upon you at corners of lanes, and throws you into ague fits. Now, my dear fellow, I’ll make it my business to catch this mischievous little mountebank, and either beat him to a jelly with my own hands, or have him whipped through the town, at the cart’s tail, before a month passes.”
“If you knew what I knew,” said Barton, with gloomy agitation, “you would speak very differently. Don’t imagine that I am so weak as to assume, without proof the most overwhelming, the conclusion to which I have been forced — the proofs are here, locked up here.” As he spoke he tapped upon his breast, and with an anxious sigh continued to walk up and down the room.
“Well, well, Barton,” said his visitor, “I’ll wager a rump and a dozen I collar the ghost, and convince even you before many days are over.”
He was running on in the same strain when he was suddenly arrested, and not a little shocked, by observing Barton, who had approached the window, stagger slowly back, like one who had received a stunning blow; his arm extended toward the street — his face and his very lips white as ashes — while he muttered, “There — by heaven! — there — there!”
General Montague started mechanically to his feet, and from the window of the drawing-room saw a figure corresponding, as well as his hurry would permit him to discern, with the description of the person whose appearance so persistently disturbed the repose of his friend.
The figure was just turning from the rails of the area upon which it had been leaning, and, without waiting to see more, the old gentleman snatched his cane and hat, and rushed down the stairs and into the street, in the furious hope of securing the person, and punishing the audacity of the mysterious stranger.
He looked round him, but in vain, for any trace of the person he had himself distinctly seen. He ran breathlessly to the nearest corner, expecting to see from thence the retiring figure, but no such form was visible. Back and forward, from crossing to crossing, he ran, at fault, and it was not until the curious gaze and laughing countenances of the passers-by reminded him of the absurdity of his pursuit, that he checked his hurried pace, lowered his walking cane from the menacing altitude which he had mechanically given it, adjusted his hat, and walked composedly back again, inwardly vexed and flurried. He found Barton pale and trembling in every joint; they both remained silent, though under emotions very different. At last Barton whispered, “You saw it?”
“It — him — some one — you mean — to be sure I did,” replied Montague, testily. “But where is the good or the harm of seeing him? The fellow runs like a lamplighter. I wanted to catch him, but he had stolen away before I could reach the hall door. However, it is no great matter; next time, I dare say, I’ll do better; and, egad, if I once come within reach of him, I’ll introduce his shoulders to the weight of my cane.”
Notwithstanding General Montague’s undertakings and exhortations, however, Barton continued to suffer from the self-same unexplained cause; go how, when, or where he would, he was still constantly dogged or confronted by the being who had established over him so horrible an influence.
Nowhere and at no time was he secure against the odious appearance which haunted him with such diabolic perseverance.
His depression, misery, and excitement became more settled and alarming every day, and the mental agonies that ceaselessly preyed upon him began at last so sensibly to affect his health that Lady L—— and General Montague succeeded, without, indeed, much difficulty, in persuading him to try a short tour on the Continent, in the hope that an entire change of scene would, at all events, have the effect of breaking through the influences of local association, which the more sceptical of his friends assumed to be by no means inoperative in suggesting and perpetuating what they conceived to be a mere form of nervous illusion.
General Montague indeed was persuaded that the figure which haunted his intended son-in-law was by no means the creation of his imagination, but, on the contrary, a substantial form of flesh and blood, animated by a resolution, perhaps with some murderous object in perspective, to watch and follow the unfortunate gentleman.
Even this hypothesis was not a very pleasant one; yet it was plain that if Barton could ever be convinced that there was nothing preternatural in the phenomenon which he had hitherto regarded in that light, the affair would lose all its terrors in his eyes, and wholly cease to exercise upon his health and spirits the baleful influence which it had hitherto done. He therefore reasoned, that if the annoyance were actually escaped by mere locomotion and change of scene, it obviously could not have originated in any supernatural agency.
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