"Not more than half-a-dozen miles from the Wessex coast" (said the doctor) "is a mansion which appeared newer in the last century than it appears at the present day after years of neglect and occupation by inferior tenants. It was owned by a man of five-and-twenty, than whom a more ambitious personage never surveyed his face in a glass. His name I will not mention out of respect to those of his blood and connections who may remain on earth, if any such there be. In the words of a writer of that time who knew him well, he was 'one whom anything would petrify but nothing would soften'.
"This worthy gentleman was of so elevated and refined a nature that he never gave a penny to women who uttered bad words in their trouble and rage, or who wore dirty aprons in view of his front door. On those misguided ones who did not pull the fore-lock to him in passing, and call him 'your Honour' and 'Squire', he turned shoulder of scorn, especially when he wore his finer ruffles and gold seals.
"Neither his personal nor real estate at this time was large; but the latter he made the most of by jealously guarding it, as of the former by his economics. Yet though his fields and woods were well-watched by his gamekeepers and other dependents, such was his dislike to intrusion that he never ceased to watch the watchers. He stopped footpaths and enclosed lands. He made no exception to these sentiments in the case of his own villagers, whose faces were never to be seen in his private grounds except on pressing errands.
"Outside his garden-wall, near the entrance to the park, there lived a poor woman with an only child. This child had been so unfortunate as to trespass upon the Squire's lawn on more than one occasion, in search of flowers; and on this incident, trivial as it was, hung much that was afterwards of concern to the house and lineage of the Squire. It seems that the Squire had sent a message to the little girl's mother concerning the nuisance; nevertheless, only a few days afterwards, he saw the child there again. This unwarrantable impertinence, as the owner and landlord deemed it to be, irritated him exceedingly; and, with his walking cane elevated, he began to pursue the child to teach her by chastisement what she would not learn by exhortation.
"Naturally enough, as soon as the girl saw the Squire in pursuit of her she gave a loud scream, and started off like a hare; but the only entrance to the grounds being on the side which the Squire's position commanded, she could not escape, and endeavoured to elude him by winding, and doubling in her terrified course. Finding her, by reason of her fleetness, not so easy to chastise as he had imagined, her assailant lost his temper—never a very difficult matter—and the more loudly she screamed the more angrily did he pursue. A more untoward interruption to the peace of a beautiful and secluded spot was never seen.
"The race continued, and the Squire, now panting with rage and exertion, drew closer to his victim. To the horrified eyes of the child, when she gazed over her shoulder, his face appeared like a crimson mask set with eyes of fire. The glance sealed her fate in the race. By a sudden start forward he caught hold of her by the skirt of her short frock flying behind. The clutch so terrified the child that, with a louder shriek than ever, she leapt from his grasp, leaving the skirt in his hand. But she did not go far; in a few more moments she fell on the ground in an epileptic fit.
"This strange, and, but for its painfulness, even ludicrous scene, was witnessed by one of the gardeners who had been working near, and the squire haughtily directed him to take the prostrate and quivering child home; after which he walked off, by no means pleased with himself at the unmanly and undignified part which a violent temper had led him to play.
"The mother of the girl was in great distress when she saw her only child brought home in such a condition: she was still more distressed, when in the course of a day or two, it became doubtful if fright had not deprived the girl entirely of her reason, as well as of her health. In the singular, nervous malady which supervened the child's hair came off, and her teeth fell from her gums; till no one could have recognised in the mere scare-crow that she appeared, the happy and laughing youngster of a few weeks before.
"The mother was a woman of very different mettle from her poor child. Impassioned and determined in character, she was not one to provoke with impunity. And her moods were as enduring as they were deep. Seeing what a wreck her darling had become she went on foot to the manor-house, and, contrary to the custom of the villagers, rang at the front door, where she asked to see that ruffian the master of the mansion who had ruined her only child. The Squire sent out a reply that he was very sorry for the girl, but that he could not see her mother, accompanying his message by a solatium of five shillings.
"In the bitterness of her hate, the woman threw the five-shilling-piece through the panes of the dining-room window, and went home to brood again over her idiotized child.
"One day a little later, when the girl was well enough to play in the lane, she came in with a bigger girl who took care of her.
"'Death's Head—I be Death's Head—hee, hee!' said the child.
"'What?' said her mother, turning pale.
"The girl in charge explained that the other children had nicknamed her daughter 'Death's Head' since she had lost her hair, from her resemblance to a skull.
"When the elder girl was gone the mother carefully regarded the child from a distance. In a moment she saw how cruelly apt the sobriquet was. The bald scalp, the hollow cheeks—by reason of the absence of teeth—and the saucer eyes, the cadaverous hue, had, indeed, a startling likeness to that bony relic of mortality.
"At this time the Squire was successfully soliciting in marriage a certain Lady Cicely, the daughter of an ancient and noble house in that county. During the ensuing summer their nuptials were celebrated, and the young wife brought home amid great rejoicing, and ringing of bells, and dancing on the green, followed by a bonfire after dark on the hill. The woman whose disfigured child was as the apple of her eye to her, saw all this, and the greater the good fortune that fell to the Squire, the more envenomed did she become.
"The newly-wedded lady was much liked by the villagers in general, to whom she was very charitable, intelligently entering into their lives and histories, and endeavouring to relieve their cares. On a particular evening of the ensuing Autumn when she had been a wife but a few months, after some parish-visiting, she was returning homeward to dinner on foot, her way to the mansion lying by the churchyard-wall. It was barely dusk, but a full harvest moon was shining from the east. At this moment of the Lady Cicely's return, it chanced that the widow with her afflicted girl was crossing the churchyard by the footpath from gate to gate. The churchyard was in obscurity, being shaded by the yews. Seeing the lady in the adjoining highway, the woman hastily left the footpath with the child, crossed the graves to the shadow of the wall outside which the lady was passing, and pulled off the child's hood so that the baldness was revealed. Whispering to the child, 'Grin at her my deary!' she held up the little girl as high as she could, which was just sufficient to disclose her face over the coping of the wall to a person on the other side.
"The moonlight fell upon the sepulchral face and head, intensifying the child's daytime aspect till it was only too much like that which had suggested the nickname. The unsuspecting and timid lady—a perfect necrophobist by reason of the care with which everything unpleasant had been kept out of her dainty life—saw the death—like shape, and, shrieking with sudden terror, fell to the ground. The lurking woman with her child disappeared in another direction, and passed through the churchyard gate homeward.
"The Lady Cicely's shriek brought some villagers to the spot. They found her quivering, but not senseless; and she was taken home. There she lay prostrate for some time under the doctor's hands.
"It was the following spring, and the time drew near when an infant was to be born to the Squire. Great was the anxiety of all concerned, by reason of the fright and fall from which the Lady Cicely had suffered in the latter part of the preceding year. However the event which they were all expecting took place, and, to the joy of her friends, no evil consequences seemed to have ensued from the terrifying incident before-mentioned. The child of Lady Cicely was a son and heir.
"Meanwhile the mother of the afflicted child watched these things in silence. Nothing—not even malevolent tricks upon those dear to him—seemed to interrupt the prosperity of the Squire. An Uncle of his, a money-lender in some northern city, died childless at this time, and left an immense fortune to his nephew the Lady Cicely's husband; who, fortified by this acquisition, now bethought himself of a pedigree as a necessity, so as to be no longer beholden to his wife for all the ancestral credit that his children would possess. By searching in the County history he happily discovered that one of the knights who came over with William the Conqueror bore a name which somewhat resembled his own, and from this he constructed an ingenious and creditable genealogical tree; the only rickety point in which occurred at a certain date in the previous century. It was the date whereat it became necessary to show that his great-grandfather (in reality a respectable village tanner) was the indubitable son of a scion of the knightly family before alluded to, despite the fact that this scion had lived in quite another part of the county. This little artistic junction, however, was satisfactorily manipulated, and the grafting was only to be perceived by the curious.
"His upward progress was uninterrupted. His only son grew to be an interesting lad, though, like his mother, exceedingly timid and impressionable. With his now great wealth, the Squire began to feel that his present modest country-seat was insufficient, and there being at this time an Abbey and its estates in the market, by reason of some dispute in the family hitherto its owners, the wealthy gentleman purchased it. The Abbey was of large proportions, and stood in a lovely and fertile valley surrounded by many attached estates. It had a situation fit for the home of a prince, still more for that of an Archbishop. This historic spot, with its monkish associations, its fish-ponds, woods, village, abbey-church, and Abbots' bones beneath their incised slabs, all passed into the possession of our illustrious self-seeker.
"Meeting his son when the purchase was completed, he smacked the youth on the shoulder.
"'We've estates, and rivers, and hills, and woods, and a beautiful Abbey unrivalled in the whole of Wessex—Ha, ha!' he cried.
"'I don’t care about abbeys,’ said the gentleson. 'They are gloomy; this one particularly.'
"'Nonsense!' said his father. 'And we've a village, and the Abbey church into the bargain.'
"'And dozens of mitred Abbots in their stone coffins underground, and tons of monks—all for the same money. Yes the very dust of those old rascals is mine! Ho-ho!'
"The son turned pale. 'Many were holy men,' he murmured, 'despite the errors in their creed.'
"'D— ye, grow up, and get married, and have a wife who'll disabuse you of that ghostly nonsense!' cried the Squire.
"Not more than a year after this, several new peers were created for political reasons with which we have no concern. Among them was the subject of this legend; much to the chagrin of some of his neighbours, who considered that such rapid advancement was too great for his deserts. On this point I express no opinion.
"He now resided at the Abbey, outwardly honoured by all in his vicinity, though perhaps less honoured in their hearts; and many were the visitors from far and near. In due course his son grew to manhood and married a beautiful woman, whose beauty nevertheless was no greater than her taste and accomplishments. She could read Latin and Greek, as well as one or two modern languages; above all she had great skill as a sculptress in marble and other materials.
"The poor widow in the other village seemed to have been blasted out of existence by the success of her long-time enemy. The two could not thrive side by side. She declined and died; her death having, happily, been preceded by that of her child.
"Though the Abbey, with its little cells, and quaint turnings, satisfied the curiosity of visitors, it did not satisfy the noble lord (as the Squire had now become). Except the Abbot's Hall, the rooms were miserably small for a baron of his wealth, who expected soon to be an Earl, and the parent of a line of Earls.
"Moreover the village was close to his very doors—on his very lawn, and he disliked the proximity of its inhabitants, his old craze for seclusion remaining with him still. On Sundays they sat at service in the very Abbey Church which was part of his own residence. Besides, as his son had said, the conventual buildings formed a gloomy dwelling, with its dark corridors, monkish associations, and charnel like smell.
"So he set to work, and did not spare his thousands. First, he carted the village bodily away to a distance of a mile or more, where he built new, and, it must be added, convenient cottages, and a little barn-like hutch. The spot on which the old village had stood was now included in his lawn. But the villagers still intruded there, for they came to ring the Abbey-Churchbells—a fine peal, which they professed (it is believed truly) to have an immemorial right to chime.
"As the natives persistently came and got drunk in the ringing-loft, the peer determined to put a stop to it. He sold the ring of bells to a founder in a distant city, and to him one day the whole beautiful set of them was conveyed on waggons away from the spot on which they had hung and resounded for so many centuries, and called so many devout souls to prayer. When the villagers saw their dear bells going off in procession, never to return, they stood at their doors and shed tears.
"It was just after this time that the first shadow fell upon the new lord's life. His wife died. Yet the renovation of the residence went on a pace. The Abbey was pulled down wing by wing, and a fair mansion built on its site. An additional lawn was planned to extend over the spot where the cloisters had been, and for that purpose the ground was to be lowered and levelled. The flat tombs covering the Abbots were removed one by one, as a necessity of the embellishment, and the bones dug up.
"Of these bones it seemed as if the excavators would never reach the end. It was necessary to dig ditches and pits for them in the plantations, and from their quantity there was not much respect shown to them in wheeling them away.
"One morning, when the family were rising from breakfast, a message was brought to my lord that more bones than ever had been found in clearing away the ground for the ball-room, and for the foundations of the new card-parlour. One of the skeletons was that of a mitred abbot—evidently a very holy person. What were they to do with it?
"'Put him into any hole,' says my lord.
"The foreman came a second time, 'There is something strange in those bones, my lord,' he said; 'we remove them by barrowfuls, and still they seem never to lessen. The more we carry away, the more there are left behind.'
"The son looked disturbed, rose from his seat and went out of the room. Since his mother's death he had been much depressed, and seemed to suffer from nervous debility.
"'Curse the bones!’ said the peer, angry at the extreme sensitiveness of his son, whose distress and departure he had observed. 'More, do ye say? Throw the wormy rubbish into any ditch you can find!'
"The servants looked uneasily at each-other, for the old Catholicism had not at that time ceased to be the religion of these islands so long as it has now, and much of its superstition and weird fancy still lingered in the minds of the simple folk of this remote nook.
"The son's wife, the bright and accomplished woman aforesaid, to enliven the subject told her father-in-law that she was designing a marble tomb for one of the London churches, and the design was to be a very artistic allegory of Death and the Resurrection; the figure of an Angel on one side, and that of Death on the other (according to the extravagant symbolism of that date, when such designs as this were much in vogue). Might she, the lady asked, have a skull to copy in marble for the head of Death?
"She might have them all, and welcome, her father-in-law said. He would only be too glad. "She went out to the spot where the new foundations were being dug, and from the heap of bones chose the one of those sad relics which seemed to offer the most perfect model for her chisel.
"'It is the last Abbot's, my lady,' said the clerk of the works.
"'It will do,’ said she; and directed it to be put into a box and sent to the house in London where she and her husband at present resided.
"When she met her husband that day he proposed that they should return to town almost immediately. 'This is a gloomy place,' said he. 'And if ever it comes into my hands I shan't live here much. I've been telling the old man of my debts, too, and he says he won't pay them. . . be hanged if he will, until he has a grandson at least.... So let's be off.'
"They returned to town. This young man the son and heir, though quiet and nervous, was not a very domestic character; he had many friends of both sexes with whom his refined and accomplished wife was unacquainted. Therefore she was thrown much upon her own resources; and her gifts in carving were a real solace to her. She proceeded with her design for the tomb of her acquaintance; and the Abbot's skull having duly arrived, she made use of it as her model as she had planned.
"Her husband being as usual away from home, she worked at her self-imposed task till bed-time—and then retired. When the house had been wrapped in sleep for some hours the front door was opened, and the absent one entered, a little the worse for liquor—for drinking in those days was one of a nobleman's accomplishments. He ascended the stairs, candle in hand, and feeling uncertain whether his wife had gone to bed or no, entered her studio to look for her. Holding the candle unsteadily above his head, he perceived a heap of modelling clay; behind it a sheeted figure with a death's-head above it—this being in fact the draped dummy arrangement that his wife had built up to be ultimately copied in marble for the allegory she had designed to support the mural tablet.
"The sight seemed to overpower the gazer with horror; the candle fell from his hand; and in the darkness he rushed downstairs and out of the house.
"'I've seen it before!’ he cried in mad and maudlin accents. 'Where? when?'
"At four o'clock the next morning news was brought to the house that my lord's heir had shot himself dead with a pistol at a tavern not far off.
"His reason for the act was absolutely inexplicable to the outer world. The heir to an enormous property and a high title, the husband of a wife as gifted as she was charming; of all the men in English society he seemed to be the last likely to undertake such a desperate deed.
"Only a few persons—his wife not being one of them, though his father was—knew of the sad circumstance in the life of the suicide's mother the late Lady Cicely, a few months before his birth—in which she was terrified nearly to death by the woman who held up poor little 'Death's-Head', over the churchyard wall.
"Then people said that in this there was retribution upon the ambitious lord for his wickedness, particularly that of cursing the bones of the holy men of God. I give the superstition for what it is worth. It is enough to add, in this connection, that the old lord died, some say like Herod, of the characteristics he had imputed to the inoffensive human remains. However that may be in a few years the title was extinct, and now not a relative or scion remains of the family that bore his name.
"A venerable dissenter, a fearless ascetic of the neighbourhood, who had been deprived of his opportunities through some objections taken by the peer, preached a sermon the Sunday after his funeral, and mentioning no names, significantly took as his text, Isaiah XIV. 10-23:—
"'Art thou also become weak as we? Art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations.... I will rise up against him, saith the Lord of hosts, and cut off from Babylon the name, and remnant, and son, and nephew, saith the Lord.'
"Whether as a Christian moralist he was justified in doing this I leave others to judge."
Here the doctor concluded his story, and the thoughtfulness which it has engendered upon his own features spread over those of his hearers, as they sat with their eyes fixed upon the fire.
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