“Did I see it myself? No, sir; I did not see it; and my father before me did not see it; nor his father before him, and he was Phil Regan, just the same as myself. But it is true, for all that; just as true as that you are looking at the very place where the whole thing happened. My great-grandfather (and he did not die till he was ninety-eight) used to tell, many and many’s the time, how he met the stranger, night after night, walking lonesome-hike about the sands where most of the wreckage came ashore.”
“And the old house, then, stood behind that belt of Scotch firs?”
“Yes; and a fine house it was, too. Hearing so much talk about it when a boy, my father said, made him often feel as if he knew every room in the building, though it had all fallen to ruin before he was born. None of the family ever lived in it after the squire went away. Nobody else could be got to stop in the place. There used to be awful noises, as if something was being pitched from the top of the great staircase down in to the hall; and then there would be a sound as if a hundred people were clinking glasses and talking all together at once. And then it seemed as if barrels were rolling in the cellars; and there would be screeches, and howls, and laughing, fit to make your blood run cold. They say there is gold hid away in the cellars; but not one has ever ventured to find it. The very children won’t come here to play; and when the men are plowing the field behind, nothing will make them stay in it, once the day begins to change. When the night is coming on, and the tide creeps in on the sand, more than one thinks he has seen mighty queer things on the shore.”
“But what is it really they think they see? When I asked my landlord to tell me the story from beginning to end, he said he could not remember it; and, at any rate, the whole rigmarole was nonsense, put together to please strangers.”
“And what is he but a stranger himself? And how should he know the doings of real quality like the Ennismores? For they were gentry, every one of them–good old stock; and as for wickedness, you might have searched Ireland through and not found their match. It is a sure thing, though, that if Riley can’t tell you the story, I can; for, as I said, my own people were in it, of a manner of speaking. So, if your honour will rest yourself off your feet, on that bit of a bank, I’ll set down my creel and give you the whole pedigree of how Squire Ennismore went away from Ardwinsagh.”
It was a lovely day, in the early part of June; and, as the Englishman cast himself on a low ridge of sand, he looked over Ardwinsagh Bay with a feeling of ineffable content. To his left lay the Purple Headland; to his right, a long range of breakers, that went straight out into the Atlantic till they were lost from sight; in front lay the Bay of Ardwinsagh, with its bluish-green water sparkling in the summer sunlight, and here and there breaking over some sunken rock, against which the waves spent themselves in foam.
“You see how the current’s set, Sir? That is what makes it dangerous for them as doesn’t know the coast, to bathe here at any time, or walk when the tide is flowing. Look how the sea is creeping in now, like a race-horse at the finish. It leaves that tongue of sand bars to the last, and then, before you could look round, it has you up to the middle. That is why I made bold to speak to you; for it is not alone on the account of Squire Ennismore the bay has a bad name. But it is about him and the old house you want to hear. The last mortal being that tried to live in it, my great-grandfather said, was a creature, by name Molly Leary; and she had neither kith nor kin, and begged for her bite and sup, sheltering herself at night in a turf cabin she had built at the back of a ditch. You may be sure she thought herself a made woman when the agent said, ‘Yes: she might try if she could stop in the house; there was peat and bog-wood,’ he told her, ‘and half-a–crown a week for the winter, and a golden guinea once Easter came,’ when the house was to be put in order for the family; and his wife gave Molly some warm clothes and a blanket or two; and she was well set up.
“You may be sure she didn’t choose the worst room to sleep in; and for a while all went quiet, till one night she was wakened by feeling the bedstead lifted by the four corners and shaken like a carpet. It was a heavy four-post bedstead, with a solid top: and her life seemed to go out of her with the fear. If it had been a ship in a storm off the Headland, it couldn’t have pitched worse and then, all of a sudden, it was dropped with such a bang as nearly drove the heart into her mouth.
“But that, she said, was nothing to the screaming and laughing, and hustling and rushing that filled the house. If a hundred people had been running hard along the passages and tumbling downstairs, they could not have made greater noise.
“Molly never was able to tell how she got clear of the place; but a man coming late home from Ballycloyne Fair found the creature crouched under the old thorn there, with very little on her—saving your honour’s presence. She had a bad fever, and talked about strange things, and never was the same woman after.”
“But what was the beginning of all this? When did the house first get the name of being haunted?”
“After the old Squire went away: that was what I purposed telling you. He did not come here to live regularly till he had got well on in years. He was near seventy at the time I am talking about; but he held himself as upright as ever, and rode as hard as the youngest; and could have drunk a whole roomful under the table, and walked up to bed as unconcerned as you please at the dead of the night.
“He was a terrible man. You couldn’t lay your tongue to a wickedness he had not been in the forefront of–drinking, duelling, gambling,–all manner of sins had been meat and drink to him since he was a boy almost. But at last he did something in London so bad, so beyond the beyonds, that he thought he had best come home and live among people who did not know so much about his goings on as the English. It was said that he wanted to try and stay in this world for ever; and that he had got some secret drops that kept him well and hearty. There was something wonderful queer about him, anyhow.
“He could hold foot with the youngest; and he was strong, and had a fine fresh colour in his face; and his eyes were like a hawk’s; and there was not a break in his voice–and him near upon threescore and ten!
“At last and at long last it came to be the March before he was seventy–the worst March ever known in all these parts–such blowing, sheeting, snowing, had not been experienced in the memory of man; when one blusterous night some foreign vessel went to bits on the Purple Headland. They say it was an awful sound to hear the deathery that went up high above the noise of the wind; and it was as bad a sight to see the shore there strewed with corpses of all sorts and sizes, from the little cabin-boy to the grizzled seaman.
“They never knew who they were or where they came from, but some of the men had crosses, and beads, and such like, so the priest said they belonged to him, and they were all buried deeply and decently in the chapel graveyard.
“There was not much wreckage of value drifted on shore. Most of what is lost about the Head stays there; but one thing did come into the bay–a puncheon of brandy.
“The Squire claimed it; it was his right to have all that came on his land, and he owned this sea-shore from the Head to the breakers—every foot–so, in course, he had the brandy; and there was sore illwill because he gave his men nothing, not even a glass of whiskey.
“Well, to make a long story short, that was the most wonderful liquor anybody ever tasted. The gentry came from far and near to take share, and it was cards and dice, and drinking and story-telling night after night–week in, week out. Even on Sundays, God forgive them! The officers would drive over from Ballyclone, and sit emptying tumbler after tumbler till Monday morning came, for it made beautiful punch.
“But all at once people quit coming–a word went round that the liquor was not all it ought to be. Nobody could say what ailed it, but it got about that in some way men found it did not suit them.
“For one thing, they were losing money very fast.
“They could not make head against the Squire’s luck, and a hint was dropped the puncheon ought to have been towed out to sea, and sunk in fifty fathoms of water.
“It was getting to the end of April, and fine, warm weather for the time of year, when first one and then another, and then another still, began to take notice of a stranger who walked the shore alone at night. He was a dark man, the same colour as the drowned crew lying in the chapel graveyard, and had rings in his ears, and wore a strange kind of hat, and cut wonderful antics as he walked, and had an ambling sort of gait, curious to look at. Many tried to talk to him, but he only shook his head; so, as nobody could make out where he came from or what he wanted, they made sure he was the spirit of some poor wretch who was tossing about the Head, longing for a snug corner in holy ground.
“The priest went and tried to get some sense out of him.
“‘Is it Christian burial you’re wanting?’ asked his reverence; but the creature only shook his head.
“‘Is it word sent to the wives and daughters you’ve left orphans and widows, you’d like?’ But no; it wasn’t that.
“‘Is it for sin committed you’re doomed to walk this way? Would masses comfort ye? There’s a heathen,’ said his reverence; ‘Did you ever hear tell of a Christian that shook his head when masses were mentioned?’
“‘Perhaps he doesn’t understand English, Father,’ says one of the officers who was there; ‘Try him with Latin.’
“No sooner said than done. The priest started off with such a string of ayes and paters that the stranger fairly took to his heels and ran.
“‘He is an evil spirit,’ explained the priest, when he stopped, tired out, ‘and I have exorcised him.’”
“But next night my gentleman was back again, as unconcerned as ever.”
‘And he’ll just have to stay,’ said his reverence, ‘For I’ve got lumbago in the small of my back, and pains in all my joints–never to speak of a hoarseness with standing there shouting; and I don’t believe he understood a sentence I said.’
“Well, this went on for a while, and people got that frightened of the man, or appearance of a man, they would not go near the sand; till in the end, Squire Ennismore, who had always scoffed at the talk, took it into his head he would go down one night, and see into the rights of the matter.”
He, maybe, was feeling lonesome, because, as I told your honour before, people had left off coming to the house, and there was nobody for him to drink with.
“Out he goes, then, bold as brass; and there were a few followed him. The man came forward at sight of the Squire and took off his hat with a foreign flourish. Not to be behind in civility, the Squire lifted his.”
‘I have come, sir,’ he said, speaking very loud, to try to make him understand, ‘to know if you are looking for anything, and whether I can assist you to find it.’
“The man looked at the Squire as if he had taken the greatest liking to him, and took oft his hat again.”
‘Is it the vessel that was wrecked you are distressed about?’
“There came no answer, only a mournful shake of the head.”
‘Well, I haven’t your ship, you know; it went all to bits months ago; and, as for the sailors, they are snug and sound enough in consecrated ground.’
“The man stood and looked at the Squire with a queer sort of smile on his face.”
“‘What do you want?’ asked Mr. Ennismore in a bit of a passion. ‘If anything belonging to you went down with the vessel, it’s about the Head you ought to be looking for it, not here—unless, indeed, its after the brandy you’re fretting!’”
“Now, the Squire had tried him in English and French, and was now speaking a language you’d have thought nobody could understand; but, faith, it seemed natural as kissing to the stranger.”
“‘Oh! That’s where you are from, is it?’ said the Squire. ‘Why couldn’t you have told me so at once? I can’t give you the brandy, because it mostly is drunk; but come along, and you shall have as stiff a glass of punch as ever crossed your lips.’ And without more to-do off they went, as sociable as you please, jabbering together in some outlandish tongue that made moderate folks’ jaws ache to hear it.”
“That was the first night they conversed together, but it wasn’t the last. The stranger must have been the height of good company, for the Squire never tired of him. Every evening, regularly, he came up to the house, always dressed the same, always smiling and polite, and then the Squire called for brandy and hot water, and they drank and played cards till cock-crow, talking and laughing into the small hours.”
“This went on for weeks and weeks, nobody knowing where the man came from, or where he went; only two things the old housekeeper did know–that the puncheon was nearly empty, and that the Squire’s flesh was wasting off him; and she felt so uneasy she went to the priest, but he could give her no manner of comfort.”
“She got so concerned at last that she felt bound to listen at the dining-room door; but they always talked in that foreign gibberish, and whether it was blessing or cursing they were at she couldn’t tell.”
“Well, the upshot of it came one night in July–on the eve of the Squire’s birthday–there wasn’t a drop of spirit left in the puncheon—no, not as much as would drown a fly. They had drunk the whole lot clean up–and the old woman stood trembling, expecting every minute to hear the bell ring for more brandy, for where was she to get more if they wanted any?”
“All at once the Squire and the stranger came out into the hall. It was a full moon, and light as day.”
“‘I’ll go home with you to-night by way of a change,’ says the Squire.”
“‘Will you so?’ asked the other.”
“‘That I will,’ answered the Squire. “‘It is your own choice, you know.’”
“‘Yes; it is my own choice; let us go.’”
“So they went. And the housekeeper ran up to the window on the great staircase and watched the way they took. Her niece lived there as housemaid, and she came and watched, too; and, after a while, the butler as well. They all turned their faces this way, and looked after their master walking beside the strange man along these very sands. Well, they saw them walk on, and on, and on, and on, till the water took them to their knees, and then to their waists, and then to their arm-pits, and then to their throats and their heads; but long before that the women and the butler were running out on the shore as fast as they could, shouting for help.”
“Well?” said the Englishman.
“Living or dead, Squire Ennismore never came back again. Next morning, when the tides ebbed again, one walking over the sand saw the print of a cloven foot–that he tracked to the water’s edge. Then everybody knew where the Squire had gone, and with whom.”
“And no more search was made?”
“Where would have been the use searching?”
“Not much, I suppose. It’s a strange story, anyhow.”
“But true, your honour–every word of it.”
“Oh! I have no doubt of that,” was the satisfactory reply.