Animal Ghosts or Animal Hauntings and the Hereafter by Elliott O'Donnell
III HORSES AND THE UNKNOWN
"Time passed, and from being merely used to my new environments, I grew to take a pride in them, to love them. I made the acquaintance of several of my neighbours, those I deemed the most desirable, and on returning from wintering abroad, brought home a bride, a young Polish girl, who added lustre to the surroundings, and in no small degree helped to dissipate the gloom. Indeed, had it not been for the picture in the hall, and for the twilight shadows and twilight footsteps in the stone passage, I should soon have ceased to think of ghosts. Ghosts, forsooth! When all around me vibrated with the sounds of girlish laughter, and the summer sunshine, sparkling on the golden curls of my child-wife, saw itself reflected a millionfold in the alluring depths of her azure eyes. In halcyon days like these who thinks of ghosts and death?
"And yet! It is in just such times as these that hell is nearest. There came a night in August when the air was so hot and sultry that I could scarcely breathe, and unable to bear the atmosphere of the house and gardens any longer, I sought the coolness of the wood. Olga--my wife--did not accompany me, as she was suffering from a slight--thank God, it was only slight--sunstroke. It was close on midnight, and there was a dead stillness abroad that seemed as if it must be universal--as if it enveloped the whole of nature. I tried to realize London--to depict the Strand and Piccadilly, aglow with artificial light and reverberating with the roll of countless traffic and the tread of millions of feet.
"I failed. The incongruity of such imaginings here--here amidst omnipotent silence--rendered such thoughts impossible. A leaf rustled, and its rustling sounded to my ears like the gentle closing of some giant door. A twig fell, and I turned sharply round, convinced I should see a pile of broken debris. I love all trees, but I love them best by day--to me it seems that night utterly metamorphizes them--brings out in them a subtler, darker side one would little suspect. Here, in this oak, for instance, was an example. In the morning one sees in it nought but quiet dignity, venerable old age, benevolence, and, by reason of the ample protection its branches afford from the sun, charity and philanthropy. Its leaves are bright, dainty, pretty; its trunk suggests nothing but a cosy and soothing retreat for students and lovers. But now--see how different! These great spreading, gnarled branches are hands, claws--monstrous and menacing; those leaves no longer bright remind me of a hearse's plumes; their rustling--of the rustling and switching of a pall or winding-sheet. The trunk, black, sinuous, towering, is assuredly no piece of timber, but something pulpy, something intangible, something antagonistic, mystic, devilish. I turn from it and shudder. Then my mind reverts to the elm--the elm on which Sir Algernon hanged himself. I remember it is not more than twenty yards from where I stand. I stare down at the soil, at the clumps of crested dog's-tail and stray blades of succulent darnel; I force my attention on a toadstool, whose soft and lowly head gleams sickly white in the moonbeams. I glance from it to a sleeping close-capped dandelion, from it to a thistle, from it again to a late bush vetch, and then, willy-nilly, to the accursed elm. My God! What a change. It wasn't like that when I passed it at noon. It was just an ordinary tree then, but now, now--and what is that--that sinister bundle--suspended from one of its curling branches? A cold sweat bursts out on me, my knees tremble, my hair begins to rise on end. Swinging round, I am about to rush away--blindly rush away--hither, thither, anywhere--anywhere out of sight of that tree and of all the hideous possibilities it promises to materialize for me. I have not taken five strides, however, before I am pulled sharply up by the sounds of horse's hoofs--of hoofs on the hard gravel, away in the distance. They speedily grow nearer. A horse is galloping, galloping towards me along the broad carriage drive. Nearer, nearer and nearer it comes! Who is it? WHAT is it? A deadly nausea seizes me, I swerve, totter, reel, and am only prevented from falling by the timely interference of a pine. The concussion with its leviathan trunk clears my senses. All my faculties become wonderfully and painfully alert. I would give my very soul if it were not so--if I could but fall asleep or faint. The sound of the hoofs is very much nearer now, so near indeed that I may see the man--Heaven grant it may be only a man after all--any moment. Ah! my heart gives a great sickly jerk. Something has shot into view. There, not fifty yards from me, where the road curves, and the break in the foliage overhead admits a great flood of moonlight. I recognize the "thing" at once; it's not a man, it's nothing human, it's the picture I know so well and dread so much, the portrait of Horace Wimpole, that hangs in the main hall--and it's mounted on a coal-black horse with wildly flying mane and foaming mouth. On and on they come, thud, thud, thud! The man is not dressed as a rider, but is wearing the costume in the picture--i.e. that of a macaroni! A nut! More fit for a lady's seminary than a fine, old English mansion.