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[-378-] 

CHAPTER CCXLVI.

THE PARTY AT RAVENSWORTH HALL.

    DURING Albert Egerton's absence, the conversation in the drawing-room had at first turned upon the subject of the old gardener's statements respecting the ghost.
    Lord Dunstable, Mr. Chichester, and Sir Rupert Harborough expressed their firm belief in the truth of the story — simply because they were anxious to serve their friend Egerton, and get the aunt and cousins back again to London as speedily as possible. For they feared that if an exposure were to take place, and if the deception relative to the ownership of the Hall were by any accident to transpire, the remonstrances, reproaches, and accompanying advice which Egerton's relations were certain to lavish upon him, might have the effect of reclaiming him entirely — a prospect by no means pleasant to the minds of those adventurers, who were resolved to pluck him to his very last feather.
    Colonel Cholmondeley, although completely agreeing with his friends in all matters of this nature, nevertheless proclaimed his total disbelief of the ghost story. This he did simply because it would have appeared too pointed had all Egerton's friends combined unanimously in recommending that the party should return to London immediately after the collation.
    "For my part," said Mr. Tedworth Jones, "I believe every word that the old man uttered. Love, poetry, and ghosts seem to me to go together. For what is love, unless the lover who loses her whom he loves, can soothe the agony of his mind by the conviction that she-the dear lost one — is ever near him in the shape of a disembodied spirit!"
    And, having delivered himself of this splendid proof of his poetic mind, Mr. Tedworth Jones glanced triumphantly around him.
    "How sweet you do talk, to be sure, my dear Tedworth!" murmured the enraptured Clarissa Jemima. "It was your conversation," she added in a loving whisper, "that first made an impression upon my heart."
    "And did my poetry have no influence, dearest!" asked Mr. Jones, in a tone of increasing mawkishness, and so far above a whisper that the words were overheard by Mr. Chichester.
    "Ah! now I have found you out, Mr. Jones!" cried this gentleman, who most probably had certain reasons of his own for playing the amiable towards the wealthy tripeman's heir: "you're a poet — eh! Well — I thought so from the very first. The fact you have the air of a poet-you wear your collar like a poet-you look altogether like a poet."
    Now, although Mr. Tedworth Jones looked at that precise moment, and at most other moments also, more like an ass than a poet, he nevertheless felt the compliment in its most flattering sense; and after a considerable degree of whispering on his part with Clarissa, and giggling and whispering also on hers, it transpired that Mr. Tedworth Jones had addressed to his beloved a great variety of poetical compositions.
    "And I can assure you that they are very pretty too," cried Mrs. Bustard, who was by no means an indifferent spectatress of this scene.
    "But you should print them, my dear sir — you should print them," exclaimed Mr. Chichester "Let the world welcome you at once as a great poet."
    "Well," said Mr. Tedworth Jones, his whole countenance becoming as red as his hair, so that it seemed as if he were about to go off in a state of spontaneous combustion; "I did venture to print a little piece a few weeks ago."
    "Indeed!" said Chichester, apparently much delighted at this announcement: "in some periodical, I presume!"
    [-379-] "No — it was to have been struck off on a few sheets of gilt-edged, paper — just to circulate privately amongst my friends, you know," replied Mr. Jones: "but really the compositors made such an awful mull of the first proof that I never had the courage to let them go on!"
    "That was a very great pity," observed Chichester.
    "I can show you the original copy and the first proof, if you like," continued Mr. Jones; "and you may then judge for yourself how far I was justified in being angry with the printers."
    Mr. Chichester of course expressed the utmost curiosity to see the poem and the proof; and the favour was conceded by Mr. Jones, after some slight opposition on the part of Clarissa, who thought that such a display was improper in respect to a lady "in her situation."
    The papers were, however, handed over to Mr. Chichester, who began by reading aloud the following manuscript copy of verses: — 
    
    TO CLARISSA JEMIMA.
    
    Oh! sweet Clarissa — ever dearest love!
    What palpitations does my fond heart prove
    When thy coy hand I press!
    Who can depict th' ineffable delight
    With which thy glances break upon the night
    Of my sad loneliness?
    
    True as the Boreal Lights unto the Pole,
    Those looks shed lustre on my sadden'd soul,
    And bid sweet visions rise
    To cheer me in my wandering path, and give
    A plea to nurse the thought that I may live
    To bask in thy bless'd eyes!
    
    Yes — dark as seemeth this wide world to me,
    Perverse as human hearts appear to be,
    Thou art all truth and joy!
    For thee the incense of my altar burns;
    To thee my grateful memory ever turns
    With bliss that ne'er can cloy!
    
    These verses were received with great applause by all present; but during the reading of them Clarissa had thought it quite becoming for a young lady "in her situation" to burst into tears, and throw herself in a sort of hysterical frenzy into her mamma's arms.
    This little bit of tragedy was, however, soon got over; and, the manuscript copy of the verses having been disposed of, Mr. Chichester proceeded to read aloud the first proof of the stanzas in print
    
    TO ALRISSA GEMINI.
    
    Oh! sweet Alrissa — ever cleanest bore!
    What fluctuations does my proud heart pour
    When thy toy's hand I guess!
    Who can defect th' inexorable delight
    With which thy flounces break upon the sight
    Of my bad loveliness?
    
    Trim as the Rascal Sights unto the Pole,
    Those locks shed lustre on my padded soul,
    And bid smart onions rise
    To churn me in my mantling path and give
    A flea to nerve the thought that I may live
    To bask in thy blear'd eyes!
    
    You bark as smelleth this vile work to me,
    Peruse as human beasts appear to be,
    Then act all trash and gag!
    For thee the nonsense of my utter brims;
    To thee my platefull simmering ever trims
    With flies that now can't bag!
    
    "I think you will grant that the printers made a slight mull of my writing?" said Mr. Jones, when Chichester had brought this specimen of typography to a conclusion.
    "Yes-a slight mull, as you observe," returned this gentleman, who, together with his own friends, was scarcely able to repress a boisterous outbreak of mirth. "But it is impossible to feel any annoyance at that strange assemblage of misconceptions on the part of the printer, since the original itself is so perfectly beautiful."
    "Oh! yes — so very charming!" whispered Clarissa Jemima to her lover.
    Mr. Jones looked a complete encyclopζdia of tender emotions; and the happy couple, forgetting that other persons were present, continued their discourse in whispers.
    "Well, I declare," said Miss Susannah Rachel, after a pause, "I don't think I shall ever again be able to sleep without a light in the room, after all that has been told us about the ghost."
    "And I shall always cover my head over with the clothes," lisped another female specimen of the Bustard race.
    "I've been told," remarked the fourth daughter, "that a horse-shoe nailed to the door of a room will prevent evil spirits from passing the threshold."
    "Or sleep with a Bible under your pillow," said the fifth Miss Bustard.
    "That's all very well, gals," observed the parent of this most interesting family; "but ghostesses won't be kept away by such means as them. Where there's evil spirits, there evil spirits will be."
    "Nothing can possibly be clearer, madam," exclaimed Lord Dunstable.
    "And if they must walk, they will walk," continued Mrs. Bustard.
    "Your arguments are really admirable, madam."
    "And so it's of no use bothering oneself about it-beyond getting away as soon as possible from the place where ghostesses are," added the lady.
    "Were you of the other sex, madam, I should say you had graduated at Oxford," remarked the nobleman; "for you reason with all the logic of Euclid."
    "Is Mr. Euclid such a very clever man, my lord?" asked Mrs. Bustard.
    Dunstable was suddenly seized with a violent fit of coughing: — at least so it appeared to the good-natured old lady; inasmuch as he was forced to keep his handkerchief to his mouth for a considerable time.
    Egerton now reappeared, and suggested a ramble about the grounds, while the collation was being spread. Mrs. Bustard was anxious to go over the mansion; but Egerton negatived that proposal by stating that as he had not yet compared the contents of the various rooms with the inventory, it would not be fair to institute any such examination unless attended by the persons in charge of the place; and they were too busy with the preparations for the luncheon to spare time for that purpose.
    The ramble was accordingly agreed to; and the party descended to the gardens.
    "Well, my dear Albert," said Mrs. Bastard, as they roved through the grounds, "I admire the edifisk and I admire the gardens very much; but I don't like the evil spirit. You'll never be happy [-380-] in this lonely place until you marry, and have a companion."
    "Marry!" exclaimed Egerton, into whose head the idea had only entered as one suggesting a means to repair his fortunes, when they should be completely shattered.
    "Yes — marry, to be sure!" continued his good-natured but garrulous relative. "Let me see — I think I could make up an excellent match for you. What should you say to Miss Posselwaithe, the great paviour's daughter!"
    "Oh! my dear madam," exclaimed Lord Dunstable, "your nephew may look somewhat higher than a paviour's daughter. I intend that he shall marry a lady of title as well as of fortune. Only think how well it will sound in the Morning Herald — 'Mr. and Lady Egerton, of Ravensworth & Park.'"
    "So it would — so it would!" cried the aunt, delighted with the prospect thus held out.
    And in this way they chatted until the bell on the roof of the Hall rang to summon them to the collation.
    The table was spread in "the haunted room;" and the company took their places with a determination to do ample justice to the excellent cheer.
    We have already given the reader to understand that there was a most liberal supply of eatables provided for this occasion: we should also state that the wine was equally plentiful and good; and the champagne soon circulated with great. freedom. Mrs. Bustard permitted Lord Dunstable to fill her glass as often as he chose; and that was very often indeed. As for her daughters, they one and all declared to the gentlemen who respectively sate next to them, that they really could not possibly think of taking more than a quarter of a glass; but it happened that, after a great deal of simpering, giggling, and blushing, they managed to toss off each a bumper; and somehow or another their eyes were averted when their glasses were being refilled; and on the third occasion of such replenishment, they took it as a matter of course.
    Things went on so comfortably, that Egerton's spirits rose to as high a state of exuberance as if he were really the owner of the splendid mansion in which be was entertaining his relations and friends: — Mrs. Bustard declared that she never had seen any thing so pleasant since the day when her poor deceased husband and herself dined with the Lord Mayor; — Mr. Tedworth Jones insisted upon singing a song which he had himself composed to his intended, and the two first lines of which delicately eulogised the fair "Clarissa," and plainly stated how grieved the poet would be to "miss her;" — and even the young lady herself was so happy and contented that she forgot to reproach her lover for thus publicly complimenting one "in her situation."
    Dunstable flattered the old lady: Cholmondeley, Harborough, and Chichester made themselves agreeable to the young ones; and every thing was progressing as "merry as a marriage bell," when the old gardener rushed franticly into the room, carrying his paper cap in one hand, his wig in the other, and bawling at the top of his cracked voice, "A corpse! a corpse!"
    Every one started from his seat around the table, and surveyed the gardener with looks of astonishment.
    For a moment Egerton and his four fashionable friends imagined that this was some scheme of the gardener to break up the party, and was therefore to some extent a stratagem in favour of Egerton himself: but a second glance at the horror-struck countenance of the old man convinced them that his present conduct was far different from a mere feint.
    "A corpse! a corpse!" he repeated, casting haggard looks around.
    "What in the name of heaven do you mean!" demanded Egerton, now advancing towards him.
    The gardener sank, trembling all over, upon a seat; and Egerton made him swallow a glass of wine.
    In a few minutes he grew more composed, put on his wig, — which, it seemed, had fallen off as he was rushing up the stairs, — and then related in his characteristic round-about manner the causes of his ejaculations and his alarms.
    But it will perhaps suit the convenience of the reader much better if we explain the whole affair in our own language, and as succinctly as possible.
    It appeared, then, that while the company in the drawing-room were discussing their wine, and the gardener, his wife, and the servants in attendance upon the vehicles, were dining off the remains of the banquet in the kitchen, a stout, hearty, decently dressed man, of about eight-and-forty years of age, was passing through a field near Ravensworth Hall. He was accompanied by a beautiful terrier, with which he amused himself by throwing a small stick to as great a distance as he could, and making the dog fetch it back to him. The little animal was very sagacious, and performed its duty well: until at last the man threw the stick into a certain part of the field where the dog persisted in remaining, instead of hastening back to its master. Vainly did the man whistle and call from a distance: the dog would not obey him, but kept scratching in a particular spot from which it would not stir. Thither did the man accordingly proceed; and, on reaching the spot, he found the dog working away with its little paws in a hollow which had doubtless been caused by the recent rains. At the same time a nauseous effluvium assailed the man's nostrils; and, on examining the spot more attentively, he discovered — to his indescribable horror — a human hand protruding from the soil!
    It was almost a skeleton-hand; but the black and rotting flesh still clung to it, and the fibres were not so far decomposed as to cease to hold the joints of the fingers together.
    Seizing the dog in his arms, the man tore the little animal away from the spot where so appalling a spectacle appeared; and, without farther hesitation, he hurried to the Hall. Having found his way to the servants' offices, he communicated his discovery to the old gardener and to the servants who had accompanied Egerton's party to the mansion. The first impulse of Abraham Squiggs was to hurry up stairs and alarm the guests with the strange news thus brought; but Lord Dunstable's lacquey suggested the impropriety of disturbing the company and proposed that the spot should be first examined by means of mattocks and spades.
    This plan was immediately assented to: and, the gardener having procured the implements required, the owner of the dog hastened to lead the way to the place where the human hand appeared above the ground. Mrs. Squiggs protested against being [-381-] left behind: she was accordingly allowed to form one of the party.
    On reaching the spot, the news which the stranger had imparted were found to be correct; and the exposed member was viewed with looks of horror and alarm.
    "Some foul deed has been committed," said the stranger; but I have always heard and read that God will sooner or later bring murder to light."
    "Ah! and that's true enow, I'll warrant!" exclaimed the old gardener. "The body which that hand belongs to, was no doubt buried deep; but the rains overflowed yonder pond, and the water made itself a way along here, you see — so that it has hollered the earth out several foot."
    "Well — it's of no use talking," said the stranger: "but make haste and dig down here, old gentleman — so that we may see whether the hand has an arm, and the arm a body."
    The gardener took the spade, and set to work; but he trembled so violently that he was unable to proceed for many minutes. The stranger accordingly snatched the spade from his hands, and addressed himself resolutely to the task.
    While he was thus employed, the others stood by in profound silence; but the dog ran in a timid manner round the spot, sometimes barking — then whining mournfully.
    His master worked speedily, but carefully; and as each shovel-full of earth was thrown up, and as the proofs that an entire human body lay beneath became every instant more apparent, the spectators exchanged glances of augmenting horror.
    But when at length the entire form of a human being was laid bare scarcely two feet below the bottom of the hollow, — when their eyes fell upon the blackened flesh of the decomposing head, the features of which were no longer traceable, — and when the rotting remnants of attire showed that the being who had there found a grave was of the female sex, a cry burst simultaneously from every lip.
    "Here's work for the Coroner, at all events," observed the stranger, after a long pause. "We must move the body to the big house there — "
    "Move the body to the Hall!" cried the old gardener and his wife, in the same breath, and both looking aghast at this announcement.
    "Yes — most certainly," answered the stranger.
    "Would you leave a Christian — as I hope that poor woman was — to be devoured by rats and other vermin? I might have done so once: but, thank God! I have become a better man since then. Howsomever, get us a plank or two, old gentleman; and we'll do our duty in a proper manner."
    The gardener retraced his way, in a sulky mood, and with much mumbling to himself, to the Hall, and presently returned with a couple of planks and two stout pieces of wood to serve as cross-beams to form the bier. The corpse was then carefully placed upon the planks, but not without great risk of its falling to pieces while being thus moved; and, the bier having been hoisted on the shoulders of the stranger, Dunstable's lacquey, the seedy coach-man, and Colonel Cholmondeley's groom, the procession moved towards the Hall, the gardener and his wife at the head.
    But when the party arrived, with its appalling burden, near the mansion, the old man and woman began to exchange hasty whispers together.
    What is the matter now!" asked the stranger.
    "Why, sir," replied the gardener, in a hesitating manner, "me and my wife has been a-thinking together that it would be as well to put the remains of that poor creetur as far from our own rooms as possible: 'cos what with a sperret here and a dead body there — "
    "Well, well — old man," interrupted the stranger, impatiently; "this load is heavy, and I for one shall be glad to put it down somewhere. So leave off chattering uselessly — and tell us in a word what you do mean."
    "To be sure," returned the gardener "this way — this way."
    And, as he spoke, he opened a small door at the southern end of the building, by means of a key which be selected from a bunch hanging beneath his apron.
    "We never can get up that staircase, old gentleman," said the stranger, plunging his glances through the door-way.
    "It's easier than you think — the stairs isn't so steep as they seem," returned the gardener; "and what's more," he added, doggedly, "you may either bring your burden this way, or leave it in the open air altogether."
    "To be sure," chimed in the old woman: "if you don't choose to put the body in the very farthermost room from our end of the building, you may take it back again; and them stairs leads to the room that farthermost off."
    The stranger, who was a willing, good-natured man, and who seemed to study only how he should best perform a Christian duty, offered no farther remonstrance; but, respecting the prejudices of the old people, succeeded, by the aid of his co-operators, in conveying the bier up the staircase. On reaching the landing, the gardener opened the door of a room the shutters of which were closed; but through the chinks there streamed sufficient light to show that the apartment was a bed-chamber.
    "Put it down there — on the carpet," said the gardener, who was anxious to terminate a proceeding by no means agreeable to him.
    The bier was conveyed into the room, and placed upon the floor.
    At that moment — while the gardener and his wife remained standing in the passage — the old man suddenly caught hold of the woman's arm with a convulsive grasp, and whispered in a hasty and hollow tone, "Hark! there's a footstep!"
    "Yes — I hear it too!" returned his wife, in a scarcely audible tone: and, through very fright, she repeated, "There — there — there!" as often as the footstep fell — or seemed to fall — upon her ears.
    "At the end of the passage — " murmured the gardener.
    "Do you see any thing?" asked his wife, clinging to him.
    "No — but it's certain to be the sperret," returned the man.
    And they leant on each other for support.
    At the next moment the four men came from the interior of the room where they had deposited the corpse; and the two old people began to breathe more freely.
    The gardener hurried his wife and companions down the narrow staircase, and pushed them all hastily from the threshold of the little door, which he carefully locked behind him.
    Then, having given the stranger a surly kind of [-382-] invitation to step in and refresh himself, he led the way to the offices at the opposite extremity of the building.
    But scarcely had the party gained the servants' hall, when the old gardener, whose mind was powerfully excited by all that had just occurred, hastened abruptly away; and, rushing up the great staircase, he burst into the drawing-room, exclaiming, '"A corpse! a corpse!"

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