A Curious Experience

Ellen Wood

First published in The Argosy, 1883.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

A Curious Experience.

What I am about to tell of took place during the last year of John Whitney’s life, now many years ago. We could never account for it, or understand it: but it occurred (at least, so far as our experience of it went) just as I relate it.

It was not the custom for schools to give a long holiday at Easter then: one week at most. Dr. Frost allowed us from the Thursday in Passion week, to the following Thursday; and many of the boys spent it at school.

Easter was late that year, and the weather lovely. On the Wednesday in Easter week, the Squire and Mrs. Todhetley drove over to spend the day at Whitney Hall, Tod and I being with them. Sir John and Lady Whitney were beginning to be anxious about John’s health—their eldest son. He had been ailing since the previous Christmas, and he seemed to grow thinner and weaker. It was so perceptible when he got home from school this Easter, that Sir John put himself into a flurry (he was just like the Squire in that and in many another way), and sent an express to Worcester for Henry Carden, asking him to bring Dr. Hastings with him. They came. John wanted care, they said, and they could not discover any specific disease at present. As to his returning to school, they both thought that question might be left with the boy himself. John told them he should prefer to go back, and laughed a little at this fuss being made over him: he should soon be all right, he said; people were apt to lose strength more or less in the spring. He was sixteen then, a slender, upright boy, with a delicate, thoughtful face, dreamy, grey-blue eyes and brown hair, and he was ever gentle, sweet-tempered, and considerate. Sir John related to the Squire what the doctors had said, avowing that he could not “make much out of it.”

In the afternoon, when we were out-of-doors on the lawn in the hot sunshine, listening to the birds singing and the cuckoo calling, Featherston came in, the local doctor, who saw John nearly every day. He was a tall, grey, hard-worked man, with a face of care. After talking a few moments with John and his mother, he turned to the rest of us on the grass. The Squire and Sir John were sitting on a garden bench, some wine and lemonade on a little table between them. Featherston shook hands.

“Will you take some?” asked Sir John.

“I don’t mind a glass of lemonade with a dash of sherry in it,” answered Featherston, lifting his hat to rub his brow. “I have been walking beyond Goose Brook and back, and upon my word it is as hot as midsummer.”

“Ay, it is,” assented Sir John. “Help yourself, doctor.”

He filled a tumbler with what he wanted, brought it over to the opposite bench, and sat down by Mrs. Todhetley. John and his mother were at the other end of it; I sat on the arm. The rest of them, with Helen and Anna, had gone strolling away; to the North Pole, for all we knew.

“John still says he shall go back to school,” began Lady Whitney, to Featherston.

“Ay; tomorrow’s the day, isn’t it, John? Black Thursday, some of you boys call it.”

“I like school,” said John.

“Almost a pity, though,” continued Featherston, looking up and about him. “To be out at will all day in this soft air, under the blue skies and the sunbeams, might be of more benefit to you, Master John, than being cooped up in a close school-room.”

“You hear, John!” cried Lady Whitney. “I wish you would persuade him to take a longer rest at home, Mr. Featherston!”

Mr. Featherston stooped for his tumbler, which he had lodged on the smooth grass, and took another drink before replying. “If you and John would follow my advice, Lady Whitney, I’d give it.”

“Yes?” cried she, all eagerness.

“Take John somewhere for a fortnight, and let him go back to school at the end,” said the surgeon. “That would do him good.”

“Why, of course it would,” called out Sir John, who had been listening. “And I say it shall be done. John, my boy, you and your mother shall go to the seaside—to Aberystwith.”

“Well, I don’t think I should quite say that, Sir John,” said Featherston again. “The seaside would be all very well in this warm weather; but it may not last, it may change to cold and frost. I should suggest one of the inland watering-places, as they are called: where there’s a Spa, and a Pump Room, and a Parade, and lots of gay company. It would be lively for him, and a thorough change.”

“What a nice idea!” cried Lady Whitney, who was the most unsophisticated woman in the world. “Such as Pumpwater.”

“Such as Pumpwater: the very place,” agreed Featherston. “Well, were I you, my lady, I would try it for a couple of weeks. Let John take a companion with him; one of his schoolfellows. Here’s Johnny Ludlow: he might do.”

“I’d rather have Johnny Ludlow than any one,” said John.

Remarking that his time was up, for a patient waited for him, and that he must leave us to settle the question, Featherston took his departure. But it appeared to be settled already.

“Johnny can go,” spoke up the Squire. “The loss of a fortnight’s lessons is not much, compared with doing a little service to a friend. Charming spots are those inland watering-places, and Pumpwater is about the best of them all.”

“We must take lodgings,” said Lady Whitney presently, when they had done expatiating upon the gauds and glories of Pumpwater. “To stay at an hotel would be so noisy; and expensive besides.”

“I know of some,” cried Mrs. Todhetley, in sudden thought. “If you could get into Miss Gay’s rooms, you would be well off. Do you remember them?”—turning to the Squire. “We stayed at her house on our way from——”

“Why, bless me, to be sure I do,” he interrupted. “Somebody had given us Miss Gay’s address, and we drove straight to it to see if she had rooms at liberty; she had, and took us in at once. We were so comfortable there that we stayed at Pumpwater three days instead of two.”

It was hastily decided that Mrs. Todhetley should write to Miss Gay, and she went indoors to do so. All being well, Lady Whitney meant to start on Saturday.

Miss Gay’s answer came punctually, reaching Whitney Hall on Friday morning. It was addressed to Mrs. Todhetley, but Lady Whitney, as had been arranged, opened it. Miss Gay wrote that she should be much pleased to receive Lady Whitney. Her house, as it chanced, was then quite empty; a family, who had been with her six weeks, had just left: so Lady Whitney might take her choice of the rooms, which she would keep vacant until Saturday. In conclusion, she begged Mrs. Todhetley to notice that her address was changed. The old house was too small to accommodate the many kind friends who patronized her, and she had moved into a larger house, superior to the other and in the best position.

Thus all things seemed to move smoothly for our expedition; and we departed by train on the Saturday morning for Pumpwater.

It was a handsome house, standing in the high-road, between the parade and the principal street, and rather different from the houses on each side of it, inasmuch as that it was detached and had a narrow slip of gravelled ground in front. In fact, it looked too large and handsome for a lodging-house; and Lady Whitney, regarding it from the fly which had brought us from the station, wondered whether the driver had made a mistake. It was built of red-brick, with white stone facings; the door, set in a pillared portico, stood in the middle, and three rooms, each with a bay-window, lay one above another on both sides.

But in a moment we saw it was all right. A slight, fair woman, in a slate silk gown, came out and announced herself as Miss Gay. She had a mild, pleasant voice, and a mild, pleasant face, with light falling curls, the fashion then for every one, and she wore a lace cap, trimmed with pink. I took to her and to her face at once.

“I am glad to be here,” said Lady Whitney, cordially, in answer to Miss Gay’s welcome. “Is there any one who can help with the luggage? We have not brought either man or maid-servant.”

“Oh dear, yes, my lady. Please let me show you indoors, and then leave all to me. Susannah! Oh, here you are, Susannah! Where’s Charity?—my cousin and chief help-mate, my lady.”

A tall, dark person, about Miss Gay’s own age, which might be forty, wearing brown ribbon in her hair and a purple bow at her throat, dropped a curtsy to Lady Whitney. This was Susannah. She looked strong-minded and capable. Charity, who came running up the kitchen-stairs, was a smiling young woman-servant, with a coarse apron tied round her, and red arms bared to the elbow.

There were four sitting-rooms on the ground-floor: two in front, with their large bay-windows; two at the back, looking out upon some bright, semi-public gardens.

“A delightful house!” exclaimed Lady Whitney to Miss Gay, after she had looked about a little. “I will take one of these front-rooms for our sitting-room,” she added, entering, haphazard, the one on the right of the entrance-hall, and putting down her bag and parasol. “This one, I think, Miss Gay.”

“Very good, my lady. And will you now be pleased to walk upstairs and fix upon the bedrooms.”

Lady Whitney seemed to fancy the front of the house. “This room shall be my son’s; and I should like to have the opposite one for myself,” she said, rather hesitatingly, knowing they must be the two best chambers of all. “Can I?”

Miss Gay seemed quite willing. We were in the room over our sitting-room on the right of the house looking to the front. The objection, if it could be called one, came from Susannah.

“You can have the other room, certainly, my lady; but I think the young gentleman would find this one noisy, with all the carriages and carts that pass by, night and morning. The back-rooms are much more quiet.”

“But I like noise,” put in John; “it seems like company to me. If I could do as I would, I’d never sleep in the country.”

“One of the back-rooms is very lively, sir; it has a view of the turning to the Pump Room,” persisted Susannah, a sort of suppressed eagerness in her tone; and it struck me that she did not want John to have this front-chamber. “I think you would like it best.”

“No,” said John, turning round from the window, out of which he had been looking, “I will have this. I shall like to watch the shops down that turning opposite, and the people who go into them.”

No more was said. John took this chamber, which was over our sitting-room, Lady Whitney had the other front-chamber, and I had a very good one at the back of John’s. And thus we settled down.

Pumpwater is a nice place, as you would know if I gave its proper name, bright and gay, and our house was in the best of situations. The principal street, with its handsome shops, lay to our right; the Parade, leading to the Spa and Pump Room, to our left, and company and carriages were continually passing by. We visited some of the shops and took a look at the Pump Room.

In the evening, when tea was over, Miss Gay came in to speak of the breakfast. Lady Whitney asked her to sit down for a little chat. She wanted to ask about the churches.

“What a very nice house this is!” again observed Lady Whitney presently: for the more she saw of it, the better she found it. “You must pay a high rent for it, Miss Gay.”

“Not so high as your ladyship might think,” was the answer; “not high at all for what it is. I paid sixty pounds for the little house I used to be in, and I pay only seventy for this.”

“Only seventy!” echoed Lady Whitney, in surprise. “How is it you get it so cheaply?”

A waggonette, full of people, was passing just then; Miss Gay seemed to want to watch it by before she answered. We were sitting in the dusk with the blinds up.

“For one thing, it had been standing empty for some time, and I suppose Mr. Bone, the agent, was glad to have my offer,” replied Miss Gay, who seemed to be as fond of talking as any one else is, once set on. “It had belonged to a good old family, my lady, but they got embarrassed and put it up for sale some six or seven years ago. A Mr. Calson bought it. He had come to Pumpwater about that time from foreign lands; and he and his wife settled down in the house. A puny, weakly little woman she was, who seemed to get weaklier instead of stronger, and in a year or two she died. After her death her husband grew ill; he went away for change of air, and died in London; and the house was left to a little nephew living over in Australia.”

“And has the house been vacant ever since?” asked John.

“No, sir. At first it was let furnished, then unfurnished. But it had been vacant some little time when I applied to Mr. Bone. I concluded he thought it better to let it at a low rent than for it to stand empty.”

“It must cost you incessant care and trouble, Miss Gay, to conduct a house like this—when you are full,” remarked Lady Whitney.

“It does,” she answered. “One’s work seems never done—and I cannot, at that, give satisfaction to all. Ah, my lady, what a difference there is in people!—you would never think it. Some are so kind and considerate to me, so anxious not to give trouble unduly, and so satisfied with all I do that it is a pleasure to serve them: while others make gratuitous work and trouble from morning till night, and treat me as if I were just a dog under their feet. Of course when we are full I have another servant in, two sometimes.”

“Even that must leave a great deal for yourself to do and see to.”

“The back is always fitted to the burden,” sighed Miss Gay. “My father was a farmer in this county, as his ancestors had been before him, farming his three hundred acres of land, and looked upon as a man of substance. My mother made the butter, saw to the poultry, and superintended her household generally: and we children helped her. Farmers’ daughters then did not spend their days in playing the piano and doing fancy work, or expect to be waited upon like ladies born.”

“They do now, though,” said Lady Whitney.

“So I was ready to turn my hand to anything when hard times came—not that I had thought I should have to do it,” continued Miss Gay. “But my father’s means dwindled down. Prosperity gave way to adversity. Crops failed; the stock died off; two of my brothers fell into trouble and it cost a mint of money to extricate them. Altogether, when father died, but little of his savings remained to us. Mother took a house in the town here, to let lodgings, and I came with her. She is dead, my lady, and I am left.”

The silent tears were running down poor Miss Gay’s cheeks.

“It is a life of struggle, I am sure,” spoke Lady Whitney, gently. “And not deserved, Miss Gay.”

“But there’s another life to come,” spoke John, in a half-whisper, turning to Miss Gay from the large bay-window. “None of us will be overworked there.”

Miss Gay stealthily wiped her cheeks. “I do not repine,” she said, humbly. “I have been enabled to rub on and keep my head above water, and to provide little comforts for mother in her need; and I gratefully thank God for it.”

The bells of the churches, ringing out at eight o’clock, called us up in the morning. Lady Whitney was downstairs, first. I next. Susannah, who waited upon us, had brought up the breakfast. John followed me in.

“I hope you have slept well, my boy,” said Lady Whitney, kissing him. “I have.”

“So have I,” I put in.

“Then you and the mother make up for me, Johnny,” he said; “for I have not slept at all.”

“Oh, John!” exclaimed his mother.

“Not a wink all night long,” added John. “I can’t think what was the matter with me.”

Susannah, then stooping to take the sugar-basin out of the side-board, rose, turned sharply round and fixed her eyes on John. So curious an expression was on her face that I could but notice it.

“Do you not think it was the noise, sir?” she said to him. “I knew that room would be too noisy for you.”

“Why, the room was as quiet as possible,” he answered. “A few carriages rolled by last night—and I liked to hear them; but that was all over before midnight; and I have heard none this morning.”

“Well, sir, I’m sure you would be more comfortable in a backroom,” contended Susannah.

“It was a strange bed,” said John. “I shall sleep all the sounder to-night.”

Breakfast was half over when John found he had left his watch upstairs, on the drawers. I went to fetch it.

The door was open, and I stepped to the drawers, which stood just inside. Miss Gay and Susannah were making the bed and talking, too busy to see or hear me. A lot of things lay on the white cloth, and at first I could not see the watch.

“He declares he has not slept at all; not at all,” Susannah was saying with emphasis. “If you had only seconded me yesterday, Harriet, they need not have had this room. But you never made a word of objection; you gave in at once.”

“Well, I saw no reason to make it,” said Miss Gay, mildly. “If I were to give in to your fancies, Susannah, I might as well shut up the room. Visitors must get used to it.”

The watch had been partly hidden under one of John’s neckties. I caught it up and decamped.

We went to church after breakfast. The first hymn sung was that one beginning, “Brief life.”

“Brief life is here our portion;

Brief sorrow, short-lived care.

The life that knows no ending,

The tearless life, is there.”

As the verses went on, John touched my elbow: “Miss Gay,” he whispered; his eyelashes moist with the melody of the music. I have often thought since that we might have seen by these very moods of John—his thoughts bent upon heaven more than upon earth—that his life was swiftly passing.

There’s not much to tell of that Sunday. We dined in the middle of the day; John fell asleep after dinner; and in the evening we attended church again. And I think every one was ready for bed when bedtime came. I know I was.

Therefore it was all the more surprising when, the next morning, John said he had again not slept.

“What, not at all!” exclaimed his mother.

“No, not at all. As I went to bed, so I got up—sleepless.”

“I never heard of such a thing!” cried Lady Whitney. “Perhaps, John, you were too tired to sleep?”

“Something of that sort,” he answered. “I felt both tired and sleepy when I got into bed; particularly so. But I had no sleep: not a wink. I could not lie still, either; I was frightfully restless all night; just as I was the night before. I suppose it can’t be the bed?”

“Is the bed not comfortable?” asked his mother.

“It seems as comfortable a bed as can be when I first lie down in it. And then I grow restless and uneasy.”

“It must be the restlessness of extreme fatigue,” said Lady Whitney. “I fear the journey was rather too much for you my dear.”

“Oh, I shall be all right as soon as I can sleep, mamma.”

We had a surprise that morning. John and I were standing before a tart-shop, our eyes glued to the window, when a voice behind us called out, “Don’t they look nice, boys!” Turning round, there stood Henry Carden of Worcester, arm-inarm with a little white-haired gentleman. Lady Whitney, in at the fishmonger’s next door, came out while he was shaking hands with us.

“Dear me!—is it you?” she cried to Mr. Carden.

“Ay,” said he in his pleasant manner, “here am I at Pumpwater! Come all this way to spend a couple of days with my old friend: Dr. Tambourine,” added the surgeon, introducing him to Lady Whitney. Any way, that was the name she understood him to say. John thought he said Tamarind, and I Carrafin. The street was noisy.

The doctor seemed to be chatty and courteous, a gentleman of the old school. He said his wife should do herself the honour of calling upon Lady Whitney if agreeable; Lady Whitney replied that it would be. He and Mr. Carden, who would be starting for Worcester by train that afternoon, walked with us up the Parade to the Pump Room. How a chance meeting like this in a strange place makes one feel at home in it!

The name turned out to be Parafin. Mrs. Parafin called early in the afternoon, on her way to some entertainment at the Pump Room: a chatty, pleasant woman, younger than her husband. He had retired from practice, and they lived in a white villa outside the town.

And what with looking at the shops, and parading up and down the public walks, and the entertainment at the Pump Room, to which we went with Mrs. Parafin, and all the rest of it, we felt uncommonly sleepy when night came, and were beginning to regard Pumpwater as a sort of Eden.

“Johnny, have you slept?”

I was brushing my hair at the glass, under the morning sun, when John Whitney, half-dressed, and pale and languid, opened my door and thus accosted me.

“Yes; like a top. Why? Is anything the matter, John?”

“See here,” said he, sinking into the easy-chair by the fireplace, “it is an odd thing, but I have again not slept. I can’t sleep.”

I put my back against the dressing-table and stood looking down at him, brush in hand. Not slept again! It was an odd thing.

“But what can be the reason, John?”

“I am beginning to think it must be the room.”

“How can it be the room?”

“I don’t know. There’s nothing the matter with the room that I can see; it seems well-ventilated; the chimney’s not stopped up. Yet this is the third night that I cannot get to sleep in it.”

“But why can you not get to sleep?” I persisted.

“I say I don’t know why. Each night I have been as sleepy as possible; last night I could hardly undress I was so sleepy; but no sooner am I in bed than sleep goes right away from me. Not only that: I grow terribly restless.”

Weighing the problem this way and that, an idea struck me.

“John, do you think it is nervousness?”

“How can it be? I never was nervous in my life.”

“I mean this: not sleeping the first night, you may have got nervous about it the second and third.”

He shook his head. “I have been nothing of the kind, Johnny. But look here: I hardly see what I am to do. I cannot go on like this without sleep; yet, if I tell the mother again, she’ll say the air of the place does not suit me and run away from it——”

“Suppose we change rooms to-night, John?” I interrupted. “I can’t think but you would sleep here. If you do not, why, it must be the air of Pumpwater, and the sooner you are out of it the better.”

“You wouldn’t mind changing rooms for one night?” he said, wistfully.

“Mind! Why, I shall be the gainer. Yours is the better room of the two.”

At that it was settled; nothing to be said to any one about the bargain. We did not want to be kidnapped out of Pumpwater—and Lady Whitney had promised us a night at the theatre.

Two or three more acquaintances were made, or found out, that day. Old Lady Scott heard of us, and came to call on Lady Whitney; they used to be intimate. She introduced some people at the Pump Room. Altogether, it seemed that we should not lack society.

Night came; and John and I went upstairs together. He undressed in his own room, and I in mine; and then we made the exchange. I saw him into my bed and wished him a good-night.

“Good-night, Johnny,” he answered. “I hope you will sleep.”

“Little doubt of that, John. I always sleep when I have nothing to trouble me. A very good-night to you.”

I had nothing to trouble me, and I was as sleepy as could be; and yet, I did not and could not sleep. I lay quiet as usual after getting into bed, yielding to the expected sleep, and I shut my eyes and never thought but it was coming.

Instead of that, came restlessness. A strange restlessness quite foreign to me, persistent and unaccountable. I tossed and turned from side to side, and I had not had a wink of sleep at day dawn, nor any symptom of it. Was I growing nervous? Had I let the feeling creep over me that I had suggested to John? No; not that I was aware of. What could it be?

Unrefreshed and weary, I got up at the usual hour, and stole silently into the other room. John was in a deep sleep, his calm face lying still upon the pillow. Though I made no noise, my presence awoke him.

“Oh, Johnny!” he exclaimed, “I have had such a night.”


“No; good. I went to sleep at once and never woke till now. It has done me a world of good. And you?”

“I? Oh well, I don’t think I slept quite as well as I did here; it was a strange bed,” I answered, carelessly.

The next night the same plan was carried out, he taking my bed; I his. And again John slept through it, while I did not sleep at all. I said nothing about it: John Whitney’s comfort was of more importance than mine.

The third night came. This night we had been to the theatre, and had laughed ourselves hoarse, and been altogether delighted. No sooner was I in bed, and feeling dead asleep, than the door slowly opened and in came Lady Whitney, a candle in one hand, a wineglass in the other.

“John, my dear,” she began, “your tonic was forgotten this evening. I think you had better take it now. Featherston said, you know—— Good gracious!” she broke off. “Why, it is Johnny!”

I could hardly speak for laughing, her face presented such a picture of astonishment. Sitting up in bed, I told her all; there was no help for it: that we had exchanged beds, John not having been able to sleep in this one.

“And do you sleep well in it?” she asked.

“No, not yet. But I feel very sleepy to-night, dear Lady Whitney.”

“Well, you are a good lad, Johnny, to do this for him; and to say nothing about it,” she concluded, as she went away with the candle and the tonic.

Dead sleepy though I was, I could not get to sleep. It would be simply useless to try to describe my sensations. Each succeeding night they had been more marked. A strange, discomforting restlessness pervaded me; a feeling of uneasiness, I could not tell why or wherefore. I saw nothing uncanny, I heard nothing; nevertheless, I felt just as though some uncanny presence was in the room, imparting a sense of semi-terror. Once or twice, when I nearly dozed off from sheer weariness, I started up in real terror, wide awake again, my hair and face damp with a nameless fear.

I told this at breakfast, in answer to Lady Whitney’s questions: John confessed that precisely the same sensations had attacked him the three nights he lay in the bed. Lady Whitney declared she never heard the like; and she kept looking at us alternately, as if doubting what could be the matter with us, or whether we had taken scarlet-fever.

On this morning, Friday, a letter came from Sir John, saying that Featherston was coming to Pumpwater. Anxious on the score of his son, he was sending Featherston to see him, and take back a report. “I think he would stay a couple of days if you made it convenient to entertain him, and it would be a little holiday for the poor hard-worked man,” wrote Sir John, who was just as kind-hearted as his wife.

“To be sure I will,” said Lady Whitney. “He shall have that room; I dare say he won’t say he cannot sleep in it: it will be more comfortable for him than getting a bed at an hotel. Susannah shall put a small bed into the back-room for Johnny. And when Featherston is gone, I will take the room myself. I am not like you two silly boys—afraid of lying awake.”

Mr. Featherston arrived late that evening, with his grey face of care and his thin frame. He said he could hardly recall the time when he had had as much as two days’ holiday, and thanked Lady Whitney for receiving him. That night John and I occupied the back-room, having conducted Featherston in state to the front, with two candles; and both of us slept excellently well.

At breakfast Featherston began talking about the air. He had always believed Pumpwater to have a rather soporific air, but supposed he must be mistaken. Any way, it had kept him awake; and it was not a little that did that for him.

“Did you not sleep well?” asked Lady Whitney.

“I did not sleep at all; did not get a wink of it all night long. Never mind,” he added with a good-natured laugh, “I shall sleep all the sounder to-night.”

But he did not. The next morning (Sunday) he looked grave and tired, and ate his breakfast almost in silence. When we had finished, he said he should like, with Lady Whitney’s permission, to speak to the landlady. Miss Gay came in at once: in a light fresh print gown and black silk apron.

“Ma’am,” began Featherston, politely, “something is wrong with that bedroom overhead. What is it?”

“Something wrong, sir?” repeated Miss Gay, her meek face flushing. “Wrong in what way, sir?”

“I don’t know,” answered Featherston; “I thought perhaps you could tell me: any way, it ought to be seen to. It is something that scares away sleep. I give you my word, ma’am, I never had two such restless nights in succession in all my life. Two such strange nights. It was not only that sleep would not come near me; that’s nothing uncommon you may say; but I lay in a state of uneasy, indescribable restlessness. I have examined the room again this morning, and I can see nothing to induce it, yet a cause there must undoubtedly be. The paper is not made of arsenic, I suppose?”

“The paper is pale pink, sir,” observed Miss Gay. “I fancy it is the green papers that have arsenic in them.”

“Ay; well. I think there must be poison behind the paper; in the paste, say,” went on Featherston. “Or perhaps another paper underneath has arsenic in it?”

Miss Gay shook her head, as she stood with her hand on the back of a chair. Lady Whitney had asked her to sit down, but she declined. “When I came into the house six months ago, that room was repapered, and I saw that the walls were thoroughly scraped. If you think there’s anything—anything in the room that prevents people sleeping, and—and could point out what it is, I’m sure, sir, I should be glad to remedy it,” said Miss Gay, with uncomfortable hesitation.

But this was just what Featherston, for all he was a doctor, could not point out. That something was amiss with the room, he felt convinced, but he had not discovered what it was, or how it could be remedied.

“After lying in torment half the night, I got up and lighted my candle,” said he. “I examined the room and opened the window to let the cool breeze blow in. I could find nothing likely to keep me awake, no stuffed-up chimney, no accumulation of dust, and I shut the window and got into bed again. I was pretty cool by that time and reckoned I should sleep. Not a bit of it, ma’am. I lay more restless than ever, with the same unaccountable feeling of discomfort and depression upon me. Just as I had felt the night before.”

“I am very sorry, sir,” sighed Miss Gay, taking her hand from the chair to depart. “If the room is close, or anything of that——”

“But it is not close, ma’am. I don’t know what it is. And I’m sure I hope you will be able to find it out, and get it remedied,” concluded Featherston as she withdrew.

We then told him of our experience, John’s and mine. It amazed him. “What an extraordinary thing!” he exclaimed. “One would think the room was haunted.”

“Do you believe in haunted rooms, sir?” asked John.

“Well, I suppose such things are,” he answered. “Folks say so. If haunted houses exist, why not haunted rooms?”

“It must lie in the Pumpwater air,” said Lady Whitney, who was too practical to give in to haunted regions, “and I am very sorry you should have had your two nights’ rest spoilt by it, Mr. Featherston. I will take the room myself: nothing keeps me awake.”

“Did you ever see a ghost, sir?” asked John.

“No, never. But I know those who have seen them; and I cannot disbelieve what they say. One such story in particular is often in my mind; it was a very strange one.”

“Won’t you tell it us, Mr. Featherston?”

The doctor only laughed in answer. But after we came out of church, when he was sitting with me and John on the Parade, he told it. And I only wish I had space to relate it here.

He left Pumpwater in the afternoon, and Lady Whitney had the room prepared for her use at once, John moving into hers. So that I had mine to myself again, and the little bed was taken out of it.

The next day was Monday. When Lady Whitney came down in the morning the first thing she told us was, that she had not slept. All the curious symptoms of restless disturbance, of inward agitation, which we had experienced, had visited her.

“I will not give in, my dears,” she said, bravely. “It may be, you know, that what I had heard against the room took all sleep out of me, though I was not conscious of it; so I shall keep to it. I must say it is a most comfortable bed.”

She “kept” to the room until the Wednesday; three nights in all; getting no sleep. Then she gave in. Occasionally during the third night, when she was dropping asleep from exhaustion, she was startled up from it in sudden terror: terror of she knew not what. Just as it had been with me and with John. On the Wednesday morning she told Susannah that they must give her the back-room opposite mine, and we would abandon that front-room altogether.

“It is just as though there were a ghost in the room,” she said to Susannah.

“Perhaps there is, my lady,” was Susannah’s cool reply.

On the Friday evening Dr. and Mrs. Parafin came in to tea. Our visit would end on the morrow. The old doctor held John before him in the lamplight, and decided that he looked better—that the stay had done him good.

“I am sure it has,” assented Lady Whitney. “Just at first I feared he was going backward: but that must have been owing to the sleepless nights.”

“Sleepless nights!” echoed the doctor, in a curious tone.

“For the first three nights of our stay here, he never slept; never slept at all. After that——”

“Which room did he occupy?” interrupted the doctor, breathlessly. “Not the one over this?”

“Yes, it was. Why? Do you know anything against it?” questioned Lady Whitney, for she saw Dr. and Mrs. Parafin exchange glances.

“Only this: that I have heard of other people who were unable to sleep in that room,” he answered.

“But what can be amiss with the room, Dr. Parafin?”

“Ah,” said he, “there you go beyond me. It is, I believe, a fact, a singular fact, that there is something or other in the room which prevents people from sleeping. Friends of ours who lived in the house before Miss Gay took it, ended by shutting the room up.”

“Is it haunted, sir?” I asked. “Mr. Featherston thought it might be.”

He looked at me and smiled, shaking his head. Mrs. Parafin nodded hers, as much as to say It is.

“No one has been able to get any sleep in that room since the Calsons lived here,” said Mrs. Parafin, dropping her voice.

“How very strange!” cried Lady Whitney. “One might think murder had been done in it.”

Mrs. Parafin coughed significantly. “The wife died in it,” she said. “Some people thought her husband had—had—had at least hastened her death——”

“Hush, Matty!” interposed the doctor, warningly. “It was all rumour, all talk. Nothing was proved—or attempted to be.”

“Perhaps there existed no proof,” returned Mrs. Parafin. “And if there had—who was there to take it up? She was in her grave, poor woman, and he was left flourishing, master of himself and every one about him. Any way, Thomas, be that as it may, you cannot deny that the room has been like a haunted room since.”

Dr. Parafin laughed lightly, objecting to be serious; men are more cautious than women. “I cannot deny that people find themselves unable to sleep in the room; I never heard that it was ‘haunted’ in any other way,” he added, to Lady Whitney. “But there—let us change the subject; we can neither alter the fact nor understand it.”

After they left us, Lady Whitney said she should like to ask Miss Gay what her experience of the room had been. But Miss Gay had stepped out to a neighbour’s, and Susannah stayed to talk in her place. She could tell us more about it, she said, than Miss Gay.

“I warned my cousin she would do well not to take this house,” began Susannah, accepting the chair to which Lady Whitney pointed. “But it is a beautiful house for letting, as you see, my lady, and that and the low rent tempted her. Besides, she did not believe the rumour about the room; she does not believe it fully yet, though it is beginning to worry her: she thinks the inability to sleep must lie in the people themselves.”

“It has been an uncanny room since old Calson’s wife died in it, has it not, Susannah?” said John, as if in jest. “I suppose he did not murder her?”

I think he did,” whispered Susannah.

The answer sounded so ghostly that it struck us all into silence.

Susannah resumed. “Nobody knew: but one or two suspected. The wife was a poor, timid, gentle creature, worshipping the very ground her husband trod on, yet always in awe of him. She lay in the room, sick, for many many months before she died. Old Sarah——”

“What was her illness?” interrupted Lady Whitney.

“My lady, that is more than I can tell you, more, I fancy, than any one could have told. Old Sarah would often say to me that she did not believe there was any great sickness, only he made it out there was, and persuaded his wife so. He could just wind her round his little finger. The person who attended on her was one Astrea, quite a heathenish name I used to think, and a heathenish woman too; she was copper-coloured, and came with them from abroad. Sarah was in the kitchen, and there was only a man besides. I lived housekeeper at that time with an old lady on the Parade, and I looked in here from time to time to ask after the mistress. Once I was invited by Mr. Calson upstairs to see her, she lay in the room over this; the one that nobody can now sleep in. She looked so pitiful!—her poor, pale, patient face down deep in the pillow. Was she better, I asked; and what was it that ailed her. She thought it was not much beside weakness, she answered, and that she felt a constant nausea; and she was waiting for the warm weather: her dear husband assured her she would be better when that came.”

“Was he kind to her, Susannah?”

“He seemed to be, Master Johnny; very kind and attentive indeed. He would sit by the hour together in her room, and give her her medicine, and feed her when she grew too weak to feed herself, and sit up at night with her. A doctor came to see her occasionally; it was said he could not find much the matter with her but debility, and that she seemed to be wasting away. Well, she died, my lady; died quietly in that room; and Calson ordered a grand funeral.”

“So did Jonas Chuzzlewit,” breathed John.

“Whispers got afloat when she was under ground—not before—that there had been something wrong about her death, that she had not come by it fairly, or by the illness either,” continued Susannah. “But they were not spoken openly; under the rose, as may be said; and they died away. Mr. Calson continued to live in the house as before; but he became soon ill. Real sickness, his was, my lady, whatever his wife’s might have been. His illness was chiefly on the nerves; he grew frightfully thin; and the setting-in of some grave inward complaint was suspected: so if he did act in any ill manner to his wife it seemed he would not reap long benefit from it. All the medical men in Pumpwater were called to him in succession; but they could not cure him. He kept growing thinner and thinner till he was like a walking shadow. At last he shut up his house and went to London for advice; and there he died, fourteen months after the death of his wife.”

“How long was the house kept shut up?” asked Lady Whitney, as Susannah paused.

“About two years, my lady. All his property was willed away to the little son of his brother, who lived over in Australia. Tardy instructions came from thence to Mr. Jermy the lawyer to let the house furnished, and Mr. Jermy put it into the hands of Bone the house-agent. A family took it, but they did not stay: then another family took it, and they did not stay. Each party went to Bone and told him that something was the matter with one of the rooms and nobody could sleep in it. After that, the furniture was sold off, and some people took the house by the year. They did not remain in it six months. Some other people took it then, and they stayed the year, but it was known that they shut up that room. Then the house stayed empty. My cousin, wanting a better house than the one she was in, cast many a longing eye towards it; finding it did not let, she went to Bone and asked him what the rent would be. Seventy pounds to her, he said; and she took it. Of course she had heard about the room, but she did not believe it; she thought, as Mr. Featherston said the other morning, that something must be wrong with the paper, and she had the walls scraped and cleaned and a fresh paper put on.”

“And since then—have your lodgers found anything amiss with the room?” questioned Lady Whitney.

“I am bound to say they have, my lady. It has been the same story with them all—not able to get to sleep in it. One gentleman, an old post-captain, after trying it a few nights, went right away from Pumpwater, swearing at the air. But the most singular experience we have had was that of two little girls. They were kept in that room for two nights, and each night they cried and screamed all night long, calling out that they were frightened. Their mother could not account for it; they were not at all timid children, she said, and such a thing had never happened with them before. Altogether, taking one thing with another, I fear, my lady, that something is wrong with the room. Miss Gay sees it now: but she is not superstitious, and she asks what it can be.”

Well, that was Susannah’s tale: and we carried it away with us on the morrow.

Sir John Whitney found his son looking all the better for his visit to Pumpwater. Temporarily he was so. Temporarily only; not materially: for John died before the year was out.

Have I heard anything of the room since, you would like to ask. Yes, a little. Some eighteen months later, I was halting at Pumpwater for a few hours with the Squire, and ran to the house to see Miss Gay. But the house was empty. A black board stood in front with big white letters on it TO BE LET. Miss Gay had moved into another house facing the Parade.

“It was of no use my trying to stay in it,” she said to me, shaking her head. “I moved into the room myself, Master Johnny, after you and my Lady Whitney left, and I am free to confess that I could not sleep. I had Susannah in, and she could not sleep; and, in short, we had to go out of it again. So I shut the room up, sir, until the year had expired, and then I gave up the house. It has not been let since, and people say it is falling into decay.”

“Was anything ever seen in the room, Miss Gay?”

“Nothing,” she answered, “or heard either; nothing whatever. The room is as nice a room as could be wished for in all respects, light, large, cheerful, and airy; and yet nobody can get to sleep in it. I shall never understand it, sir.”

I’m sure I never shall. It remains one of those curious experiences that cannot be solved in this world. But it is none the less true.

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