Summer Vacation Special:
What do we seek at ten o’clock at night in Rivington Hall?
⁓The Voice before the Void
“Ten O’Clock at Night at Rivington Hall”
It was with great pleasure that I heard, about a year ago, from my old friend Henry Danvers that he had succeeded to the Rivington Hall estate and an income of some thousands a year, on the death of a distant relation. Harry and I were school and college friends; and though of late years our paths in life had widely diverged, the old affection never slumbered. We met rarely, but we kept up a more constant correspondence than is usual even among brothers.
Our last meeting was on the occasion of his marriage to a charming girl, to whom he had long been attached; soon after which event he left the _____ Hussars, and went to live in Wales, near his wife’s family, till the death of his far-away cousin, old Luke Danvers, of Rivington Hall, put him in possession of a fine estate and ample income. Old Danvers died abroad, in some German town, where he had led a life of absolute seclusion for several years—nearly forty, I think. Harry came to London on business connected with the succession, and spent most of his time at my chambers in the Temple. His parting words to me were a cordial invitation to visit him at the old Hall as soon as he had made it habitable. It had been shut up since the late owner, a man of eccentric habits, retired somewhat suddenly abroad, and would probably require to be put in thorough repair before it could be equal to the modern ideas of luxury or even comfort.
After his first letter, full of enthusiastic descriptions of the quaint beauty of the old Hall and plans for its immediate restoration, months passed without my hearing anything of or from Harry Danvers. I went on my plodding way as a struggling barrister, gaining inch by inch of the steep uphill path which leads to ease and competency in the profession I had chosen. But busy as I was, I found time to wonder at Harry’s silence; and at length I wrote, having, unexpectedly, a week or two of leisure, to propose passing my holiday with him. I addressed my letter to Rivington Hall, and the post brought me an answer in due course. The tone of Harry’s letter struck me very painfully. It was as affectionate as ever, but there was a deep melancholy pervading it, which was scarcely to be accounted for, even by the news which it contained, that Mrs. Danvers was even now scarcely recovered from a long and serious illness. It ended thus: “I shall be only too happy to see you, old fellow, if you can put up with indifferent accommodation and dull company; and I hope you will come as soon as you can, for the moment Helen is able to travel we are going abroad.” The letter was dated “Woodfield, Rivington.” I packed up at once, telegraphed to say I would be with him on the morrow, and I started by the morning express.
The autumn day was drawing to a close as I jumped out of the train at the station, and found Harry waiting for me. I was quite shocked by the change in my friend’s appearance and manner. Instead of greeting me with his usual cheery laugh, he came up as if he were meeting at a funeral, wrung my hand with scarcely a word, and only replied with the shortest sentences to my inquiries about his wife’s health.
We drove about three miles out of the town, past a lodge with fine old iron gates, and a long park-wall, within which at some distance I could just discern the gables and chimneys of a large handsome house.
“That’s it!” he said, pointing with his whip. “We live at Woodfield.”
“So I saw by your letter. But why did you not carry out your plans for the restoration of the Hall?” I asked.
“Don’t speak of it!” he said sharply. “And while I think of it, Burley, I must beg of you not to make any allusion to the Hall before Helen. It upsets her completely.”
“Why, what is the matter with it? It looks a very fine old place, and surely you lived there for some time?”
“Yes, we did,” he answered gravely; “and that is why we both wish to forget that such a place exists. It is killing Helen to remain here, and yet the doctor says she must not be moved before the spring.”
“Has she been very ill?” I asked, passing over the first part of his speech, though I mentally resolved to get at the truth somehow.
“Very; as nearly dead as possible with nervous fever. I doubt if you would know her again, Burley. But here we are.”
While we were talking he had driven on, down a steep lane to the left, and through a little village nestling in a hollow among woods and cornfields, and quite out of sight of the Hall and its neighbourhood. We stopped at the porch of a long low house by the road-side; a groom took the reins from my friend, and the servant who came to the door ushered us through a low side-passage into a cheerful room, bright with fire and lamp-light, and amply though simply furnished. A lady rose from a sofa by the fire to welcome us.
I could scarcely refrain from exclaiming aloud, so great and melancholy was the change in Helen Danvers. The fair young smiling bride, whom I had seen in the first bloom of happy youth, had become a pale, grave, nervous woman, startled by the slightest sound, with heavy eyes that filled with tears without any apparent reason, and bearing every mark of having received a serious shock, both bodily and mental. She welcomed me with friendly kindness; and as we chatted round the fire I could trace more resemblance to the Helen Danvers whom I had last seen on her wedding-morning. We separated early for the night, and Harry carried his wife up-stairs, and returned to me with a hurried apology for leaving me to my solitary cigar, as he said Helen was too nervous to be left alone.
The next morning was bright and frosty; and after breakfast, at which meal Mrs. Danvers did not appear, Harry proposed to me to accompany him to the house of a friend, who had invited us both to shoot. Our way lay past the lodge-gates of Rivington Hall, and by daylight I could see that the house was a very large and handsome one, in the Tudor style, with terraces, stone-mullioned oriel windows, and quaintly-twisted chimneys. The shutters were closed; the avenue, between two rows of magnificent old beeches, was grass-grown, and the lodge was uninhabited; in short, the whole place bore unmistakable signs of being left to go to ruin unheeded.
I could not resist observing to Harry that it seemed a pity to abandon so fine a place. His reply was rather startling.
“Would to heaven that not one accursed stone remained upon another!” he said vehemently. “The entail prevents my tearing it down, or it would have ceased to exist before now.”
“Why, what ails the place? Is it haunted?” I asked laughingly, knowing that Harry was as free from childish superstition as I was myself.
“I’ll tell you what Bob,” was his earnest answer, “if you had seen what we had seen inside those hateful halls, you would never be the same man again. I know I am not; and as for Helen, poor girl, it has nearly, if not quite, killed her.”
My curiosity was now thoroughly aroused; and with, perhaps, less of tact and good taste than I ought to have shown, I plied him with questions, to all of which he gave vague and unwilling answers. Somehow the subject was renewed at King’s Lea, the place to which we were bound. Mr. Easton, Harry’s friend, said he was possessed with the most ardent desire to see the apparition which Danvers acknowledged to have seen twice in a certain room of the old Hall; and I, little troubled by fears of the supernatural, expressed a decided opinion that I should like to see the ghost who could drive me from a place like Rivington Hall, if I was its fortunate possessor.
Between us, I think, we pushed matters too far; and at last Harry said, in a tone of deep annoyance, “I’ll tell you what it is, my good fellows, you shall judge for yourselves whether I am the fool you both take me for. We will all pass an evening in the oriel-room at the old Hall, and I shall be curious to see how you like it.”
Mr. Easton and I eagerly took up the challenge. It was arranged that, the next day but one being the last of the month, on which alone—so Harry told us—the spectral appearances were visible, we should meet at King’s Lea, and proceed together to the Hall, Danvers agreeing to tell his wife that we were engaged to dine and sleep at Easton’s.
“We must be at the Hall before ten o’clock,” he said. “That is the only time at which anything is seen.”
On our way home we called at the cottage of an old man who was formerly a gardener at Rivington Hall, for the keys of the house.
“Now don’t ‘ee be going there, Muster Danvers, don’t ‘ee,” he implored. “No luck nor good never came of it, and never won’t. It’s tempting Providence, like, to put yourself in the devil’s clutches.”
My curiosity was strongly excited. It was as much as I could do to refrain from speaking of the old Hall before Mrs. Danvers; and during our walk the following day after the partridges, I entreated Harry to tell me what he had seen. This he firmly declined to do, but added,
“I will tell you this much. We went to the Hall, as you may remember, on our return from Italy in the spring. Old Jennings—the man you have just seen—and his wife lived there in some rooms over the stable, and kept the house aired and in tolerable order. When we arrived we found everything ready, and supper laid for us in a comfortable dining-room. It was late, and we went to the rooms prepared for us in the new wing of the house, and slept soundly. The next day Helen wished to explore the place, and we sent for Mrs. Jennings and the keys. There were a number of rooms almost bare of furniture, and the best the house contained had been collected to furnish those prepared for us. At the further end of the drawing-room was a door, concealed by a heavy velvet curtain. Helen laid her hand on the handle, but Mrs. Jennings hurried up to her. ‘That’s a locked door, ma’am; that don’t lead nowhere, it don’t. Don’t ‘ee try to open that, my dear lady!’ ‘Why not?’ asked my wife, with some surprise. The old woman changed her tone at once. ‘It isn’t a door, ma’am, only a sham like, and I was afraid you might hurt your fingers.’ ‘But if it is not a door, why is there a curtain hung before it?’ persisted Helen. ‘Just for ornament, maybe, or to keep off the draught,’ said Mrs. Jennings confusedly. ‘The draught from a sham door!’ laughed Helen. But the old woman hurried away without saying more. Some days passed, and we began to feel quite at home, and to plan many alterations and improvements to be carried out in the course of the summer. It was now the end of May, but the evenings were still chilly. We were sitting by a bright wood fire in the drawing-room on the evening of the 31st, when the church clock began to strike ten. The church, as you have seen, is nearly half a mile distance; but it has a remarkably loud and sonorous bell, so we heard it as distinctly as if it had been in the house. At that moment an icy gust of wind swept through the room, and a sound, as if of a heavy body falling, came from the farther end, near the mysterious door. Helen jumped up and caught hold of my arm. ‘What was that?’ she said, in a frightened whisper. I told her I thought it was something falling in the room overhead, though I heard plainly that the sound did not come from above. She was reassured by my matter-of-fact answer, but still stood, holding my arm, till in a few minutes the same icy-cold wind passed over us again, with a strange sickly smell. I own that a shudder ran through me, though I did not know why; and my wife was so terrified that she would not remain another moment in the room. The next day I was obliged to go on business to Staunton, and only returned in time for dinner. I noticed that Helen was pale and silent; and as soon as the servants had left the room she said gravely, ‘Harry, that is not a false door in the drawing-room. There must be a small room there with a window like this.’ The dining-room had a large bay-window at one end, raised by two or three broad steps from the rest of the room. ‘So you have been making investigations, Mrs. Bluebeard?’ I said, laughing. ‘No; I have not been into the room. To say the truth, I think I should have been a little frightened alone; and, besides, I did not like to tell Mrs. Jennings that I had found out that she had told me a story about it. But I was walking on the terrace, and it suddenly occurred to me that the large window that corresponds to this one must be in some room we have not yet seen. It was closed with shutters; and then I thought of the false door in the drawing-room. I measured the walls by paces, and I find there must be a square room there, lighted by the large window.’ ‘Shall we go and explore it?’ I asked. ‘Not to-night,’ said Helen with a shiver. ‘Let us stay here to-night.’ And so we did. The next morning the sun shone brightly, and my wife seemed to have forgotten her fears. We made an excuse to get the keys from Mrs. Jennings; and after some difficulty, for the lock was very rusty, we succeeded in penetrating into the locked-up room. It was, as Helen had imagined, nearly square, and raised, by two or three steps, above the level of the drawing-room. It contained a heavy oak table with carved legs, which stood in the center, a few chairs, and a cabinet or two of similar workmanship, all deeply coated with dust and cobwebs, and was panelled with oak to about two-thirds of the height of the walls. One picture, that of a dark young woman in some foreign dress, hung over the high chimneypiece; gilt dogs for burning wood stood on the wide hearth; and, altogether, in spite of the forlorn state of neglect in which we found it, the room had a cheerful home-like air which at once took Helen’s fancy. To make a long story short, in spite of Mrs. Jennings’ tearful remonstrances and the unwillingness of all the servants to have anything to do with the square-room, as we called it, we occupied it as a sitting-room during the whole of June, without any annoyance. Once or twice, as the clock struck ten, I was sensible of a kind of chill for which I could not account; and, glancing at Helen, I noticed that she turned pale at the same time. But we neither of us mentioned the subject, and before the end of the month I had almost forgotten that there were any suspicious circumstances connected with our favorite sitting-room. Of the occurrences of the night of the 30th of June I will not speak. You wish to see and judge for yourself if I have decided rightly that Rivington Hall is not fit for human habitation; and I have no doubt that you will be in a position to form an opinion after to-morrow night. My poor Helen has, as you may see, never recovered the shock she received that night; and the doctors feared so much for her reason if she remained longer in that hateful house that we moved here before she was out of danger, and as soon as possible we shall quit the neighbourhood forever.”
“But,” said I, as soon as Harry had brought his communication to a close, “have you thoroughly sifted the matter, and satisfied yourself that no trick has been played on you?”
“Of course I have. On the night of the 31st of July I went alone, without giving a hint of my intentions to any human being, to the Hall, which had remained empty and locked up from the day we left it. I carefully examined the drawing-room, through which only access to the square-room could be had, sounded the panels, the chimney, the floor, every spot, in fact, where any one could possibly be concealed. Then I locked the door and waited.”
“Precisely the same thing was repeated. You will, I have little doubt, witness it to-morrow night; and I will accompany you. I think you will be satisfied that I have not lightly given way to groundless fear.”
Harry spoke so gravely, and was altogether so unlike his former cheery light-hearted self, that I felt some prickings of conscience in permitting him to undergo again, for the gratification of my sceptical curiosity, an ordeal that, to him, was evidently one of no little suffering. But my intense desire to witness the phenomena, of whatever nature they might be, which had so deeply impressed my friend, got the better of all my scruples, and I looked forward with impatience to the following night.
In the morning Harry told Mrs. Danvers that he had accepted an invitation for us to shoot with a friend of Mr. Easton’s, who lived several miles off, and that we should sleep at King’s Lea. She turned whiter than ever, if possible, and exclaimed,
“O Harry! have you forgotten what night it is?”
“Come, come, little woman,” he said, “I must not have you give way to uneasiness. We will ask Mary Talbot to come and stay with you. I am sure you would not wish to deprive Burley of a good day’s sport.”
“Certainly not,” she answered, in her sweet sad voice.
I felt like a great brute; but as she was not supposed to know that I was aware of the strange events that had so deeply shaken her, I could only say a few commonplace words, hoping that I should not be allowed to cause her any inconvenience, and the matter passed over.
Our shooting that day was little more than a pretext, and after a early dinner we left King’s Lea in Mr. Easton’s dog-cart. He insisted on taking some wine in a hamper, and we were besides provided with a lamp, a packet of a candles, and materials for making a fire. Harry brought with him the keys of the Hall, and on our arrival Easton sent away the dog-cart, with instructions to the servant to be at the stable-entrance, which was close to the road, at half past ten o’clock—an order which the man received with evident unwillingness.
Passing through a large entrance-hall, and along a broad passage lighted at the end by a window through which the moon gave a faint light, we entered the drawing-room, and through it the scene of action. The room was as Harry had described it—a square chamber, well furnished with handsome carved oak, and raised by two broad steps above the level of the room through which only it could be entered. A Turkey carpet lay in the centre of the floor, showing the oak boards at the sides, and on this stood a large heavily-carved oaken table. An armchair of similar workmanship stood on each side of the large open hearth, and other chairs were scattered about. We carefully examined every portion of the room, Easton measuring the depth of the walls, and I sounding the panelling on all sides, as well as the floor. Harry looked on with a faint smile on his face till I raised the carpet in the course of my investigations, and discovered a large dark stain on the boards, on the side of the table farthest from the fireplace. A similar mark ran across the floor to the top of the steps, and then spread out into another wide stain like that beside the table.
“That looks very like a stain of blood,” I said, pointing it out to Danvers.
“Does it?” was all he answered, but the smile died out of his face and did not return.
When our examination was concluded we lit the fire, and piled the hearth with a number of logs of wood to make a cheerful blaze. We also trimmed the lamp, and stuck lighted candles into a variety of candlesticks which stood about on the tables. Then Easton proceeded to unpack the wine; but as he was setting it on the large table, Danvers cried out,
“Don’t do that, Easton—don’t put the wine down there!”
“As you please,” answered Easton; and he drew forward a small spider-legged table from a corner, and placed it near the fire. We gathered around it, and Harry drank two or three glasses of sherry in succession; but conversation flagged, and we began to feel that our experiment was not altogether an agreeable one. Harry’s ill-concealed horror at the idea of the wine being placed on the large table gave me, at least, an uncomfortable sensation, while it excited my curiosity; and when Danvers and Easton rested themselves in the two large armchairs by the fireside, I drew one to the table which was now connected in my mind with the sight we had come to see, and leaned my elbow on it. I noticed that Harry looked sharply at me as I took up my position, but he made no remark.
Some time passed in conversation more or less sustained; then we began to look at our watches as the hour drew nearer and nearer. We replenished the fire, and sat on, waiting almost in silence. If any one wants to make the most of an hour, I may suggest that he should sit doing nothing, and waiting for some unknown event which may be expected to occur at its close. I began to fancy that ten o’clock never would strike; but it did, and quite soon enough. As the first stroke of the appointed hour sounded from the church-clock, I seated myself firmly at the table, with my left arm resting on it. A glance at my companions showed me each seated in his chair, with a hand on each of its arms.
At the same instant every vestige of light from fire, lamp, and candles suddenly vanished. A cold wind swept through the room, with an indescribably nauseous smell, as of a newly opened charnel-house.
“I tried to rise, but a heavy hand was laid on my shoulder and kept me motionless. There was a sound as of two persons struggling; then a moan and a dead dull sound, such as might be made by a human body falling, and I felt the table on which I leant violently shaken. I thought one of my companions had fainted; but to save my life I could not have moved. The hand still pressed heavily on my shoulder, and with an effort I turned my head and covered my face with my arm. I felt at that moment that if I saw anything horrible I should go mad.
Things remained in this state for a time which appeared interminable—we afterwards found it must have been about ten minutes. Then the icy wind swept over us again with its sickening odour, and through my closed eyelids I felt that the room grew suddenly light.
An exclamation of horror from Easton roused me. I heard my two companions rush to the door, and followed them without opening my eyes. I forgot the steps and fell down them. In a moment I was on my feet again, and looked back into the room. A strange bluish light pervaded it. On the table lay a human head, with ghastly staring eyes, and long hair, matted with blood, which was dripping slowly to the floor. As I gazed, horror-stricken, I saw a small white hand, like that of a woman, suddenly appear on the table, and give a push to the ghastly head.
It fell, and rolled slowly towards me. With a shout of horror, I flew down the passage, through the hall, and out into the dark autumn night. I found Danvers on the terrace supporting Easton, who had fainted when he had reached the open air.
Rallying all my strength, I helped to carry him to the dog-cart which was waiting for us in the road. We were long before we could restore him to his senses, and after he recovered consciousness he made us both promise on our honour never to mention the subject to him again.
As for myself, I cannot describe the effect that horrible night produced on me. When morning brought me some calmness and power of reflection, I attempted to apologize to my friend for having in a manner forced him to be again a spectator of the weird horrors in the oriel-room.
He took it very quietly, and only said, “I have now gone through that scene three times, and my poor delicate Helen saw it as you did. I firmly believe that it is reënacted on the last night of every month. I suppose you will now agree with me that Rivington Hall is not a desirable habitation.”
I stayed a few days longer with my poor friend, though I must confess that the place, and all about it, had become odious to me. On giving a hint to Mr. Talbot, the rector, that I should like to know what induced Danvers to leave the Hall (Harry had bound me by a promise not to speak of what I had seen), he told me that it was generally believed to be the scene of ghostly disturbances, and that old Luke Danvers had left it suddenly in consequence of something which he had seen. The former proprietor, Luke Danvers’ uncle, had brought a foreign bride to Rivington Hall some fifty years ago. She was very beautiful, but the marriage was not a happy one. Some time after their arrival a stranger appeared at the Hall, some friend or relation of the lady. His presence was evidently unwelcome to the husband, and high words were often heard among them; but in a few weeks all three suddenly disappeared one night. Mr. Danvers was known to be alive for several years after, but he never returned to Rivington Hall; and when his nephew succeeded to the property he also left suddenly, after remaining about three months, and went abroad to the German town, whence he never returned.
Harry and his wife are now in Italy, and I hear that she is recovering her health; but they will never return to Rivington Hall, which is left to go to ruin as quickly as it may.