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Scottish Ghost Stories (Elliott O'Donnell) online
CASE XII - THE GREY PIPER AND THE HEAVY COACH OF DONALDGOWERIE HOUSE, PERTH
It pulled up at the front door, and the champing and stamping of the horses vibrated loudly through the still night air. Sounds as of one or more people descending were next heard, and then there came a series of the most terrific knockings at the door. The Whittingen family stared at one another aghast; there was something in those knockings--something they could not explain--that struck terror in their souls and made their blood run cold. They waited in breathless anxiety for the door to be opened; but no servant went to open it. The knocks were repeated, if anything louder than before, the door swung back on its hinges, and the tread of heavy footsteps were heard slowly approaching the drawing-room. Mrs. Whittingen gave a low gasp of horror, Ruth screamed, Harvey buried his face in his hands, Mr. Whittingen rose to his feet, and made desperate efforts to get to the bell, but could not stir, whilst Martha rushed to the drawing-room door and locked it. They then with one accord began to pray. The steps halted outside the room, the door slowly opened, and the blurred outlines of a group of ghastly-looking figures, supporting a grotesquely shaped object in their midst, appeared on the threshold. For some seconds there was a grim silence. It was abruptly broken by a thud--Ruth had slipped from her chair to the floor in a dead faint; whereupon the shadowy forms solemnly veered round and made their way back again to the front door. The latter swung violently open, there was a rush of icy wind which swept like a hurricane across the hall and into the drawing-room, the front door then slammed to with a crash, and the coach drove away.
Every one's attention was now directed to Ruth. At first sal-volatile and cold water produced no effect, but after a time she slowly, very slowly regained consciousness. As soon as she had recovered sufficiently to speak, she expressed an earnest desire that no reference should ever be made in her presence to what had just happened. "It was for me!" she said in such an emphatic tone as filled her audience with the direst forebodings. "I know it was for me; they all looked in my direction. God help me! I shall die like Mary."
Though greatly perplexed as to what she meant, for no one excepting herself had been able to make out the phenomena with any degree of distinctness, they yielded to her entreaties, and asked her no questions. The servants had neither heard nor seen anything. A fortnight later, Ruth was taken ill with appendicitis; peritonitis speedily set in, and she died under the operation. The Whittingens now began to wish they had never come to Donaldgowerie; but, with the astuteness that had been characteristic of the family through countless generations of fair days and foul, they took the greatest precautions never to drop even as much as a hint to the servants or to any one in the town that the house was haunted.
A year passed without any further catastrophe, and they were beginning to hope their ghastly visitors had left them, when something else occurred. It was Easter-time, and Ernest, his wife, and baby were staying with them. The baby, a boy, was fat and bonny, the very picture of health and happiness.
Mrs. Whittingen and Martha vied with one another in their devotion to him; and either one or other of them was always dancing attendance on him. It so happened that one afternoon, whilst the servants were having their tea, Martha found herself alone in the upper part of the house with her precious nephew. Mr. Whittingen had gone to Edinburgh to consult his lawyer (the head of the firm with whom Harvey was articled) on business, whilst Mrs. Whittingen had taken her son and daughter-in-law for a drive. The weather was glorious, and Martha, though as little appreciative of the beauties of nature as most commercial-minded young women, could not but admire the colouring of the sky as she looked out of the nursery window. The sun had disappeared, but the effect of its rays was still apparent on the western horizon, where the heavens were washed with alternate streaks of gold and red and pink--the colour of each streak excessively brilliant in the centre, but paling towards the edges. Here and there were golden, pink-tipped clouds and crimson islets surrounded with seas of softest blue. And outside the limits of this sun-kissed pale, the blue of the sky gradually grew darker and darker, until its line was altogether lost in the black shadows of night that, creeping over the lone mountain-tops in the far east, slowly swept forward. Wafted by the gentle breeze came the dull moaning and whispering of the pine trees, the humming of the wind through the telephone wires, and the discordant cawing of the crows. And it seemed to Martha, as she sat there and peered out into the garden, that over the whole atmosphere of the place had come a subtle and hostile change--a change in the noises of the trees, the birds, the wind; a change in the flower-scented ether; a change, a most marked and emphatic change, in the shadows. What was it? What was this change? Whence did it originate? What did it portend? A slight noise, a most trivial noise, attracted Martha's attention to the room; she looked round and was quite startled to see how dark it had grown. In the old days, when she had scoffed at ghosts, she would as soon have been in the dark as in the light, the night had no terrors for her; but now--now since those awful occurrences last year, all was different, and as she peered apprehensively about her, her flesh crawled. What was there in that corner opposite, that corner hemmed in on the one side by the cupboard--how she hated cupboards, particularly when they had shiny surfaces on which were reflected all sorts of curious things--and the chest of drawers on the other. It was a shadow, only a shadow, but of what? She searched the room everywhere to find its material counterpart, and at last discovered it in the nurse's shawl which hung over the back of a chair. Then she laughed, and would have gone on laughing, for she tried to persuade herself that laughter banished ghosts, when suddenly something else caught her eyes. What was it? An object that glittered evilly like two eyes. She got up in a state of the most hideous fascination and walked towards it. Then she laughed again--it was a pair of scissors. The nurse's scissors--clean, bright, and sharp. Why did she pick them up and feel the blades so caressingly with her thumb? Why did she glance from them to the baby? Why? In the name of God, why? Frightful ideas laid hold of her mind. She tried to chase them away but they quickly returned. The scissors, why were they in her fingers? Why could not she put them down? For what were they intended? Cutting! cutting thread, and tape,--and throats! Throats! And she giggled hysterically at the bare notion. But what was this round her waist--this shadowy arm-like object! She looked fearfully round, and her soul died within her as she encountered the malevolent, gleeful eyes of the sinister piper, pressed closely against her face. Was it she he wanted this time--she, or--or whom--in the name of all that was pitiable?
Desperately, as if all the lives in the universe and the future of her soul were at stake, did she struggle to free herself from his grasp--but in vain; every fibre, every muscle of her body was completely at his will. On and on he pushed her, until foot by foot, inch by inch, she approached the cradle, and all the while his hellish voice was breathing the vilest of inspirations into her brain. At last she stood by the side of the baby, and bent over it. What a darling! What a dear! What a duck! A sweet, pretty, innocent, prattling duck! How like her mother--how like her handsome brother--how like herself--very, very like herself! How every one loved it--how every one worshipped it--how (and here the grey face beside her chuckled) every one would miss it! How pink its toes--how fat its calves--how chubby its little palms--how bonny its cheeks--and how white, how gloriously, heavenly, snowy white--its throat! And she stretched forth one of her stubby, inartistic fingers and played with its flesh. Then she glanced furtively at the scissors, and smiled.
It was soon done, soon over, and she and the grey-faced piper danced a minuet in the moonbeams; afterwards he piped a farewell dirge,--a wild, weird, funereal dirge, and, marching slowly backwards, his dark, gleaming eyes fixed gloatingly on hers, disappeared through the window. Then the reaction set in, and Martha raved and shrieked till every one in the house flew to the rescue.
Of course, no one--saving her father and mother--believed her. Ernest, his wife, and the servants attributed her bloody act to jealousy; the law--to madness; and she subsequently journeyed from Donaldgowerie to a criminal lunatic asylum, where the recollection of all she had done soon killed her. This was the climax. Mr. Whittingen sold Donaldgowerie, and a new house was shortly afterwards erected in its stead.