To Let by B. M. Croker
Some years ago, when I was a slim young spin, I came out to India
to live with my brother Tom: he and I were members of a large and
somewhat impecunious family, and I do not think my mother was sorry
to have one of her four grown-up daughters thus taken off her hands.
Tom's wife, Aggie, had been at school with my eldest sister; we had
known and liked her all our lives.
She was quite one of ourselves, and as she and the children were
at home when Tom's letter was received, and his offer accepted, she
helped me to choose my slender outfit with judgement, zeal, and
taste; endowed me with several pretty additions to my wardrobe;
superintended the fitting of my gowns and the trying on of my hats,
with most sympathetic interest, and finally escorted me out to
Lucknow, under her own wing, and installed me in the only spare room
in her comfortable bungalow in Dilkongha.
My sister-in-law is a pretty little brunette, rather pale, with
dark hair, brilliant black eyes, a resolute mouth and a bright,
intelligent expression. She is orderly, trim and feverishly
energetic, and seems to live every moment of her life. Her children,
her wardrobe, her house, her servants, and last, not least, her
husband, are all models in their way; and yet she has plenty of time
for tennis and dancing, and talking and walking. She is, undoubtedly,
a remarkably talented little creature, and especially prides herself
on her nerve and her power of will, or will power. I suppose they are
the same thing? and I am sure they are all the same to Tom, who
worships the sole of her small slipper. Strictly between ourselves
she is the ruling member of the family, and turns her lord and master
round her little finger. Tom is big and fair, of course, the opposite
to his wife, quiet, rather easy-going and inclined to be indolent,
but Aggie rouses him up, and pushes him to the front, and keeps him
there. She knows all about his department, his prospects of
promotion, his prospects of furlough, of getting acting appointments,
and so on, even better than he does himself. The chief of Tom's
department--have I said that Tom is in the Irritation Office?--has
placed it solemnly on record that he considers little Mrs Shandon a
surprisingly clever woman. The two children, Bob and Tor, are merry,
oppressively active monkeys, aged three and five years respectively.
As for myself I am tall and fair, and I wish I could add pretty; but
this is a true story. My eyes are blue, my teeth are white, my hair
is red--alas, a blazing red; and I was, at this period, nineteen
years of age; and now I think I have given a sufficient outline of
the whole family.
We arrived at Lucknow in November, when the cold weather is
delightful, and everything was delightful to me. The bustle and life
of a great Indian station, the novelty of my surroundings, the early
morning rides, picnics down the river, and dances at the 'Chutter
Munzil' made me look upon Lucknow as a paradise on earth; and in this
light I still regarded it, until a great change came over the
temperature, and the month of April introduced me to red-hot winds,
sleepless nights, and the intolerable 'brain fever' bird. Aggie had
made up her mind definitely on one subject: we were not to go away to
the hills until the rains. Tom could only get two months' leave (July
and August), and she did not intend to leave him to grill on the
plains alone. As for herself and the children--not to speak of me--we
had all come out from home so recently we did not require a change.
The trip to Europe had made a vast hole in the family stocking, and
she wished to economize; and who can economize with two
establishments in full swing? Tell me this, ye Anglo-Indian matrons.
With a large, cool bungalow, plenty of punkhas, khuskhus
tatties,.ice, and a thermantidote, surely we could manage to brave
May and June--at any rate the attempt was made. Gradually the hills
drained Lucknow week by week; family after family packed up, warned
us of our folly in remaining on the plains, offered to look for
houses for us, and left by the night mail. By the middle of May, the
place was figuratively empty. Nothing can be more dreary than a large
station in the hot weather, unless it is an equally forsaken hill
station in the depths of winter, when the mountains are covered with
snow: the mall no longer resounds with gay voices and the tramp of
Jampanies, but is visited y bears and panthers, and the houses are
closed, and, as it were, put to bed in straw! As for Lucknow in the
summer, it was a melancholy spot; the public gardens were deserted,
the chairs at the Chutter Munzil stood empty, the very bands had gone
to the hills!, the shops were shut, the baked white roads, no longer
thronged with carriages and bamboo carts, gave ample room to the
humble ekka, or a Dhobie's meagre donkey shuffling along in the
Of course we were not the only people remaining in the place,
grumbling at the heat and dust and life in general; but there can be
no sociability with the thermometer above 100 in the shade.
Through the long, long Indian day we sat and gasped, in darkened
rooms, and consumed quantities of 'Nimbo pegs', i.e. limes and soda
water, and listened to the fierce hot winds roaring along the road
and driving the roasted leaves before it; and in the evening, when
the sun had set, we went for a melancholy drive through the Wingfield
Park, or round by Martiniere College, and met our friends at the
library and compared sensations and thermometers. The season was
exceptionally bad, but people say that every year, and presently
Bobby and Tor began to fade: their little white faces and listless
eyes appealed to Aggie as Tom's anxious expostulations had never
done. 'Yes, they must go to the hills with me.' But this idea I
repudiated at once; I refused to undertake the responsibility--I, who
could scarcely speak a word to the servants--who had no experience!
Then Bobbie had a bad go of fever--intermittent fever: the beginning
of the end to his alarmed mother; the end being represented by a
large gravestone! She now became as firmly determined to go as she
had previously been resolved to stay; but it was so late in the
season to take a house. Alas, alas, for the beautiful tempting
advertisements in the Pioneer, which we had seen and scorned! Aggie
wrote to a friend in a certain hill station, called for this occasion
only 'Kantia', and Tom wired to a house agent, who triumphantly
replied by letter that there was not one unlet bungalow on his books.
This missive threw us into the depths of despair; there seemed no
alternative but a hill hotel, and the usual quarters that await the
last comers, and the proverbial welcome for children and dogs (we had
only four); but the next day brought us good news from Aggie's friend
Dear Mrs Shandon--she said---I received your letter, and went at
once to Cursitjee, the agent. Every hole and corner up here seems
hill, and he had not a single house to let. Today I had a note from
him, saving that Briarwood is vacant; the people who took it are not
coming up, they have gone to Naini Tal. You are in luck. I have just
been out to see the house, and have secured it for you. It is a mile
and a half from the club, but I know that you and your sister are
capital walkers. I envy you. Such a charming place--two
sitting-rooms, four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a hall, servants'
go-downs, stabling, and a splendid view from a very pretty garden,
and only Rs. 800 for the season!
Why, I am paving Rs. 1,000 for a very inferior house, with
scarcely a stick of furniture and no view. I feel so proud of myself,
and I am longing to show you my treasure trove. Telegraph when you
start, and I shall have a milk man in waiting and fires in all the
Yours sincerely, Edith Chalmers.
We now looked upon Mrs Chalmers as our best and dearest friend,
and began to get under way at once. A long Journey in India is a
serious business when the party comprises two ladies, two children,
two ayahs and five other servants, three fox terriers, a mongoose and
a Persian cat--all these animals going to the hills for the benefit
of their health--not to speak of a ton of luggage, including crockery
and lamps, a cottage piano, a goat and a pony. Aggie and I, the
children, one ayah, two terriers, the cat and mongoose, our bedding
and pillows, the tiffin basket and ice basket, were all stowed into
one compartment, and I must confess that the journey was truly
miserable. The heat was stifling, despite the water tatties. One of
the terriers had a violent dispute with the cat, and the cat had a
difference with the mongoose, and Bob and Tor had a pitched battle
more than once. I actually wished myself back in Lucknow. I was most
truly thankful to wake one morning to find myself under the shadow of
the Himalayas--not a mighty, snow-clad range of everlasting hills,
but merely the spurs--the moderate slopes, covered with scrub and
loose shale and jungle, and deceitful little trickling watercourses.
We sent the servants on ahead, whilst we rested at the Dak bungalow
near the railway station, and then followed them at our leisure. We
accomplished the ascent in dandies--open kind of boxes, half box half
chair, carried on the shoulders of four men. This was an entirely
novel sensation to me, and at first an agreeable one, so long as the
slopes were moderate and the paths wide; but the higher we went, the
narrower became the path, the steeper the naked precipice; and as my
coolies would walk at the extreme edge, with the utmost indifference
to my frantic appeals to 'Bector! Bector!'--and would change poles at
the most agonizing corners--my feelings were very mixed, especially
when droves of loose pack ponies came thundering down hill, with no
respect for the rights of the road. Late at night we passed through
Kantia, and arrived at Briarwood far too weary to be critical. Fires
were blazing, supper was prepared, and we dispatched it in haste, and
most thankfully went to bed and slept soundly, as anyone would do who
had spent thirty-six hours in a crowded compartment and ten in a
cramped wooden case.
The next morning, rested and invigorated, we set out on a tour of
inspection; and it is almost worth while to undergo a certain amount
of baking on the sweltering heat of the plains, in order to enjoy
those deep first draughts of cool hill air, instead of a stifling,
dust-laden atmosphere, and to appreciate the green valleys and blue
hills by force of contrast to the far-stretching, eye-smarting, white
glaring roads that intersect the burnt-up plains--roads and plains
that even the pariah abandons, salamander though he be!
To our delight and surprise, Mrs Chalmers had by no means
overdrawn the advantages of our new abode. The bungalow is as solidly
built of stone, two storied, and ample in size. It stood on a kind of
shelf, cut out of the hillside, and was surrounded by a pretty flower
garden, full of roses, fuchsias, carnations. The high road passed the
gate, from which the avenue descended direct to the entrance door,
which was at the end of the house, and from whence ran a long
passage. Off this passage three rooms opened to the right, all
looking south, and all looking into a deep, delightful, flagged
verandah. The stairs were very steep. At the head of them, the
passage and rooms were repeated. There were small nooks, and
dressing-rooms, and convenient out-houses, and plenty of good water;
but the glory of Briarwood was undoubtedly its verandah: it was fully
twelve feet wide, roofed with zinc, and overhung a precipice of a
thousand feet--not a startlingly sheer khud, but a tolerably straight
descent of grey-blue shale rocks and low jungle. From it there was a
glorious view, across a valley, far away, to the snowy range. It
opened at one end into the avenue, and was not inclosed; but at the
side next the precipice there was a stout wooden railing, with
netting at the bottom, for the safety of too enterprising dogs or
children. A charming spot, despite its rather bold situation; and as
Aggie and I sat in it, surveying the scenery and inhaling the pure
hill air, and watching Bob and Tor tearing up and down playing
horses, we said to one another that 'the verandah alone was worth
half the rent'.
'It's absurdly cheap,' exclaimed my sister-in-law complacently. 'I
wish you saw the hovel I had, at Simla, for the same rent. I wonder
if it is feverish, or badly drained, or what?'
'Perhaps it has a ghost,' I suggested facetiously; and at such an
absurd idea we both went into peals of laughter.
At this moment Mrs Chalmers appeared, brisk, rosy, and
breathlessly benevolent, having walked over from Kantia.
'So you have found it,' she said as we shook hands. 'I said
nothing about this delicious verandah! I thought I would keep it as a
surprise. I did not say a word too much for Briarwood, did I?'
'Not half enough,' we returned rapturously; and presently we went
in a body, armed with a list from the agent, and proceeded to go over
the house and take stock of its contents.
'It's not a bit like a hill furnished house,' boasted Mrs
Chalmers, with a glow of pride, as she looked round the drawing-room;
'carpets, curtains, solid, very solid chairs, and Berlin wool worked
screens, a card-table, and any quantity of pictures.'
'Yes, don't they look like family portraits?' I suggested, as we
gazed at them. There was one of an officer in faded water colours,
another of his wife, two of a previous generation in oils and amply
gilded frames, two sketches of an English country house, and some
framed photographs, groups of grinning cricketers or wedding guests.
All the rooms were well, almost handsomely, furnished in an
old-fashioned style. There was no scarcity of wardrobes,
looking-glasses, or even armchairs, in the bedrooms, and the pantry
was fitted out--a most singular circumstance--with a large supply of
handsome glass and china, lamps, old moderators, coffee and tea pots,
plated side dishes and candlesticks, cooking utensils and spoons and
forks, wine coasters, and a cake-basket.
These articles were all let with the house, much to our amazement,
provided we were responsible for the same, The china was Spode, the
plate old family heirlooms, with a crest--a winged horse--on
everything, down to the very mustard spoons.
'The people who own this house must be lunatics,' remarked Aggie
as she peered round the pantry; 'fancy hiring out one's best family
plate and good old china! And I saw some ancient music books in the
drawing-room, and there is a side saddle in the bottle khana.'
'My dear, the people who owned this house are dead,' explained Mrs
Chalmers. 'I heard all about them last evening from Mrs Starkey.'
'Oh, is she up there?' exclaimed Aggie somewhat fretfully.
'Yes, her husband is cantonment magistrate. This house belonged to
an old retired colonel and his wife. They and his niece lived here.
These were all their belongings. They died within a short time of one
another, and the old man left a queer will, to say that the house was
to remain precisely as they left it for twenty years, and at the end
of that time it was to be sold and all the property dispersed. Mrs
Starkey says she is sure that he never intended it to be let, but the
heir-at--law insists on that, and is furious at the terms of the
'Well, it is a very good thing for us,' remarked Aggie; 'we are as
comfortable here as if we were in our own house: there is a stove in
the kitchen; there are nice boxes for firewood in every room, clocks,
real hair mattresses--in short, it is as you said, a treasure
We set to work to modernize the drawing-room with phoolkaries,
Madras muslin curtains, photograph screens and frames, and such like
portable articles. We placed the piano across a corner, arranged
flowers in some handsome Dresden china vases, and entirely altered
and improved the character of the room. When Aggie had dispatched a
most glowing description of our new quarters to Tom, and we had had
tiffin, we set off to walk into Kantia to put our names down at the
library and to enquire for letters at the post office. Aggie met a
good many acquaintances--who does not who has lived five years in
India in the same district? Among them Mrs Starkey, an elderly lady
with a prominent nose and goggle eyes, who greeted her loudly across
the reading-room table in this agreeable fashion:
'And so you have come up after all, Mrs Shandon. Someone told me
that you meant to remain below, but I knew you never could be so
wicked as to keep your poor little children in that heat.'
Then coming round and dropping into a chair beside her she said,
'And I suppose this young lady is your sister-in-law?'
Mrs Starkey eyed me critically, evidently appraising my chances in
the great marriage market.
She herself had settled her own two daughters most satisfactorily,
and had now nothing to do but interest herself in these people's
'Yes,' acquiesced Aggie, 'Miss Shandon---'Mrs Starkey.'
'And so you have taken Briarwood?'
'Yes, we have been most lucky to get it.'
'I hope you will think so at the end of three months,' observed
Mrs Starkey with a significant pursing of her lips. 'Mrs Chalmers is
a stranger up here, or she would not have been in such a hurry to
jump at it.'
'Why, what is the matter with it?' enquired Aggie. 'It is well
built, well furnished, well situated, and very cheap.'
'That's just it--suspiciously cheap. Why, my dear Mrs Shandon, if
there was not something against it, it would let for two hundred
rupees a month.'
'And what is against it?'
'It's haunted! There you have the reason in two words.'
'Is that all? I was afraid it was the drains. I don't believe in
ghosts and haunted houses. What are we supposed to see?'
'Nothing,' retorted Mrs Starkey, who seemed a good deal nettled at
our smiling incredulity.
'Nothing!' with an exasperating laugh.
'No, but you will make up for it in hearing. Not now--you are all
right for the next six weeks--but after the monsoon breaks I give you
a week at Briarwood. No one would stand it longer, and indeed you
might as well bespeak your rooms at Cooper's Hotel now. There is
always a rush up here in July by the two month's leave people, and
you will be poked into some wretched go-down.'
Aggie laughed rather a careless ironical little laugh and said,
'Thank you, Mrs Starkey; but I think we will stay on where we are; at
any rate for the present.'
Of course it will be as you please. What do you think of the
verandah?' she enquired with a curious smile.
'I think, as I was saying to Susan, that it is worth half the rent
of the house.'
'And in my opinion the house is worth double rent without it,' and
with this enigmatic remark she rose and sailed away.
'Horrid old frump,' exclaimed Aggie as we walked home in the
starlight. 'She is jealous and angry that she did not get Briarwood
herself--I know her so well. She is always hinting and repeating
stories about the nicest people--always decrying your prettiest dress
or your best servant.'.We soon forgot all about Mrs Starkey and her
dismal prophecy, being too gay and too busy to give her, or it, a
thought. We had so many engagements--tennis parties and tournaments,
picnics, concerts, dances and little dinners. We ourselves gave
occasional afternoon teas in the verandah, using the best Spode cups
and saucers and the old silver cake-basket, and were warmly
complimented on our good fortune in securing such a charming house
and garden. One day the children discovered to their great joy that
the old chowkidar belonging to the bungalow possessed an African grey
parrot--a rare bird indeed in India; he had a battered Europe cage,
doubtless a remnant of better days, and swung on his ring, looking up
at us enquiringly out of his impudent little black eyes.
The parrot had been the property of the former inmates of
Briarwood, and as it was a long-lived creature, had survived its
master and mistress, and was boarded out with the chowkidar, at one
rupee per month.
The chowkidar willingly carried the cage into the verandah, where
the bird seemed perfectly at home.
We got a little table for its cage, and the children were
delighted with him, as he swung to and fro, with a bit of cake in his
Presently be startled us all by suddenly calling 'Lucy', in a
voice that was as distinct as if it had come from a human throat,
'That must have been the niece,' said Aggie. 'I expect she was the
original of that picture over the chimney-piece in your room; she
looks like a Lucy.'
It was a large framed half-length photograph of a very pretty
girl, in a white dress, with gigantic open sleeves. The ancient
parrot talked incessantly now that he had been restored to society;
he whistled for the dogs, and brought them flying to his summons, to
his great satisfaction and their equally great indignation. He called
'Qui hye' so naturally, in a lady's shrill soprano, or a gruff male
bellow, that I have no doubt our servants would have liked to have
wrung his neck. He coughed and expectorated like an old gentleman,
and whined like a puppy, and mewed like a cat, and I am sorry to add,
sometimes swore like a trooper; but his most constant cry was, 'Lucy,
where are you, pretty Lucy--Lucy--Lu--cy?'
Aggie and I went to various picnics, but to that given by the
Chalmers (in honour of Mr Chalmers's brother Charlie, a captain in a
Gurkha regiment, just come up to Kantia on leave)
Aggie was unavoidably absent. Tor had a little touch of fever, and
she did not like to leave him; but I went under my hostess's care,
and expected to enjoy myself immensely. Alas! on that self-same
afternoon the long expected monsoon broke, and we were nearly
drowned! We rode to the selected spot, five miles from Kantia,
laughing and chattering, indifferent to the big blue-black clouds
that came slowly, but surely, sailing up from below; it was a way
they had had for days and nothing had come of it. We spread the
tablecloth, boiled the kettle, unpacked the hampers, in spite of
sharp gusts of wind and warning rumbling thunder, Just as we had
commenced to reap the reward of our exertions, there fell a few huge
drops, followed by a vivid flash, and then a tremendous crash of
thunder, like a whole park of artillery, that seemed to shake the
mountains, and after this the deluge. In less than a minute we were
soaked through; we hastily gathered up the tablecloth by its four
ends, gave it to the coolies and fled. It was all I could do to stand
against the wind; only for Captain Chalmers I believe J would have
been blown away; as it was I lost my hat, it was whirled into space.
Mrs Chalmers lost her boa, and Mrs Starkey, not merely her bonnet,
but some portion of her hair. We were truly in a wretched plight, the
water streaming down our faces and squelehing in our boots; the
little trickling mountain rivulets Were now like racing seas of
turbid water; the lightning was almost blinding; the trees rocked
dangerously and lashed one another with their quivering branches. I
had never been out in such a storm before, and I hope I never may
again. We reached Kantia more dead than alive, and Mrs Chalmers sent
an express to Aggie, and kept me till the next day. After raining as
it only can rain in the Himalayas, the weather cleared, the sun
shone, and I rode home in borrowed plumes, full of my adventures and
in the highest spirits. I found Aggie sitting over the fire in the
drawing-room, looking ghastly white: that was nothing uncommon; but
terribly depressed, which was most unusual. 'I am afraid you have
neuralgia?' I said as I kissed her; she nodded and made no reply.
'How is Tor?' I enquired as I drew a chair up to the fire,
'Any news--any letter?'
'Not a word--not a line.'
'Has anything happened to Pip'--Pip was a fox terrier, renowned
for having the shortest tail and being the most impertinent dog in
Lucknow--'or the mongoose?'
'No, you silly girl! Why do you ask such questions?'
'I was afraid something was amiss; you seem rather down on your
luck.' Aggie shrugged her shoulders and then said:
'What put such an absurd idea into your head? Tell me all about
the picnic,' and she began to talk rapidly and to ask me various
questions; but I observed that once she had set me going--no
difficult task--her attention flagged, her eyes wandered from my face
to the fire. She was not listening to half I said, and my most
thrilling descriptions were utterly lost on this indifferent,
abstracted little creature! I noticed from this time that she had
become strangely nervous for her.
She invited herself to the share of half my bed; she was restless,
distrait, and even irritable; and when I was asked out to spend the
day, dispensed with my company with an alacrity that was by no means
flattering. Formerly, of an evening she used to herd the children
home at sundown, and tear me away from the delights of the
reading-room at seven o'clock; now she hung about the library until
almost the last moment, until it was time to put out the lamps, and
kept the children with her, making transparent pretexts for their
company. Often we did not arrive at home till half-past eight
o'clock. I made no objections to these late hours, neither did
Charlie Chalmers, who often walked back with us and remained to
dinner. I was amazed to notice that Aggie seemed delighted to have
his company, for she had always expressed a rooted aversion to what
she called 'tame young men', and here was this new acquaintance
dining with us at least thrice a week! About a month after the picnic
we had a spell of dreadful weather--thunderstorms accompanied by
torrents. One pouring afternoon, Aggie and I were sitting over the
drawing-room fire, whilst the rain came fizzing down among the logs
and ran in rivers off the roof and out of the spouts. There had been
no going out that day, and we were feeling rather flat and dull, as
we sat in a kind of ghostly twilight, with all outdoor objects
swallowed up in mist, listening to the violent battering of the rain
on the zinc verandah, and the storm which was growling round the
hills. 'Oh, for a visitor!' I exclaimed; 'but no one but a fish or a
lunatic would be out on such an evening.'
'No one, indeed,' echoed Aggie in a melancholy tone. 'We may as
well draw the curtains and have in the lamp and tea to cheer us
She had scarcely finished speaking when I heard the brisk trot of
a horse along the road. It stopped at the gate and came rapidly down
our avenue. I heard the wet gravel crunching under his hoofs
and--yes--a man's cheery whistle. My heart jumped, and I half rose
from my chair. It must be Charlie Chalmers braving the elements to
see me!--such, I must confess, was my incredible vanity! He did not
stop at the front door as usual, but rode straight into the verandah,
which afforded ample room and shelter for half-a-dozen mounted
'Aggie,' I said eagerly, 'do you hear? It must be--'
I paused--my tongue silenced by the awful pallor of her face and
the expression of her eyes as she sat with her little hands clutching
the arms of her chair, and her whole figure bent forward in an
attitude of listening--an attitude of terror.
'What is it, Aggie?' I said, 'Are you ill?'
As I spoke the horse's hoofs made a loud clattering noise on the
stone-paved verandah outside and a man's voice--a young man's eager
Instantly a chair near the writing-table was pushed back and
someone went quickly to the window--a French one--and bungled for a
moment with the fastening--I always had a difficulty with that window
myself. Aggie and I were within the bright circle of the firelight,
but the rest of the room was dint and outside the streaming grey sky
was spasmodically illuminated by occasional vivid flashes that lit up
the surrounding hills as if it were daylight. The trampling of
impatient hoofs and the rattling of a door handle were the only
sounds that were audible for a few breathless seconds; but during
those seconds Pip, bristling like a porcupine and trembling violently
in even joint, had sprung off my lap and crawled abjectly under
Aggie's chair, seemingly in a transport of fear. The door was opened
audibly, and a cold, icy blast swept in, that seemed to freeze my
very heart and made me shiver from head to foot. At this moment there
came with a sinister blue glare the most vivid flash of lightning I
ever saw. It lit up the whole room, which was empty save for
ourselves, and was instantly followed by a clap of thunder that
caused my knees to knock together and that terrified me and filled me
with horror. It evidently terrified the horse too; there was a
violent plunge, a clattering of hoofs on the stones, a sudden loud
crash of smashing timber, a woman's long, loud, piercing shriek,
which stopped the very beating of my heart, and then a frenzied
struggle in the cruel, crumbling, treacherous shale, the rattle of
loose stones and the hollow roar of something sliding down the
I rushed to the door and tore it open, with that awful despairing
cry still ringing in my ears. The verandah was empty; there was not a
soul to be seen or a sound to be heard, save the rain on the
'Aggie,' I screamed, 'come here! Someone has gone over the
verandah and down the khud!
You heard him.'
'Yes,' she said, following me out; 'but come in--come in.'
'I believe it was Charlie Chalmers'--shaking her as I spoke. 'He
has been killed--killed---killed! And you stand and do nothing. Send
people! Let us go ourselves! Bearer! Ayah!
Khidmatgar!' I cried, raising my voice.
'Hush! It was not Charlie Chalmers,' she said, vainly endeavouring
to draw me into the drawing-room. 'Come in--come in.'
'No, no!'--pushing her away and wringing my hands. 'How cruel you
are! How inhuman!
There is a path. Let us go at once--at once!'
'You need not trouble yourself, Susan.' she interrupted; 'and you
need not cry and tremble---they will bring him up. What you heard was
supernatural; it was not real.'
'No--no--no! It was all real. Oh! that scream is in my ears
'I will convince you,' said Aggie, taking my hand as she spoke.
'Feel all along the verandah. Are the railings broken?'
I did as she bade me. No, though was wet and clammy, the railing
'Where is the broken place?' she asked.
'Now,' she continued, 'since you will not come in, look over, and
you will see something more presently.'
Shivering with fear and cold, drifting rain, I gazed down as she
bade mc, and there far below I saw lights moving rapidly to and fro,
evidently in search of something. After a little delay they
congregated in one place. There was a low, booming murmur--they had
found him--and presently they commenced to ascend the hill, with the
'hum-hum' of coolies carrying a burden.
Nearer and nearer the lights and sounds came up to the vcry brink
of the khud, past the end of the verandah. Many steps and many
torches--faint blue torches held by invisible hands--invisible but
heavy-footed bearers carried their burden slowly upstairs and along
the passage, and deposited it with a dump in Aggie's bedroom! As we
stood clasped in one another's arms and shaking all over, the steps
descended, the ghostly lights passed up the avenue and disappeared in
the gathering darkness. The repetition of the tragedy was over for
'Have you heard it before?' I asked with chattering teeth, as I
bolted the drawing-room window.
'Yes, the evening of the picnic and twice since. That is the
reason I have always tried to stay out till late and to keep you out.
I was hoping and praying you might never hear it. It always happens
just before dark. I am afraid you have thought me very queer of late.
I have told no end of stories to keep you and the children from
'I think you have been very kind,' I interrupted. 'Oh, Aggie,
shall you ever get that crash and that awful cry out of your
'Never!' hastily lighting the candles as she spoke.
'Is there anything more?' I asked tremulously.
'Yes; sometimes at night the most terrible weeping and sobbing in
my bedroom,' and she shuddered at the mere recollection.
'Do the servants know?' I asked anxiously.
'The ayah Mumà has heard it, and the
khánsámáh says his mother is sick and he must
go, and the bearer wants to attend his brother's wedding. They will
'I suppose most people know too?' I suggested dejectedly.
'Yes, don't you remember Mrs Starkey's warnings and her saying
that without the verandah the house was worth double rent? We
understand that dark speech of hers now, and we have not come to
Cooper's Hotel yet.'
'No, not yet. I wish we had. I wonder what Tom will say? He will
be here in another fortnight.
Oh, I wish he was here now.'
In spite of our heart-shaking experience, we managed to eat and
drink and sleep, yea, to play tennis--somewhat solemnly, it is
true--and go to the club, where we remained to the very last moment;
needless to mention that I now entered into Aggie's manoeuvre con
amore. Mrs Starkey evidently divined the reason of our loitering in
Kantia, and said in her most truculent manner, as she squared up to
'You keep your children out very late, Mrs Shandon.'
'Yes, but we like to have them with us,' rejoined Aggie in a meek
'Then why don't you go home earlier?'
'Because it is so stupid and lonely,' was the mendacious
'Lonely is not the word I should use. I wonder if you are as wise
as your neighbours now? Come now, Mrs Shandon.'
'About what?' said Aggie with ill-feigned innocence.
'About Briarwood. Haven't you heard it yet? The ghastly precipice
and horse affair?'
'Yes, I suppose we may as well confess that we have.'
'Humph! you are a brave couple to stay on. The Tombs tried it last
year for three weeks. The Paxtons took it the year before, and then
sub-let it, not that they believed in ghosts--oh, dear no,' and she
'And what is the story?' I enquired eagerly.
'Well the story is this. An old retired officer and his wife and
their pretty niece lived at Briarwood a good many years ago. The girl
was engaged to be married to a fine young fellow in the Guides. The
day before the wedding what you know of happened, and has happened
every monsoon ever since. The poor girl went out of her mind and
destroyed herself, and the old colonel and his wife did not long
survive her. The house is uninhabitable in the monsoon, and there
seems nothing for it but to auction off the furniture and pull it
down; it will always be the same as long as it stands. Take my advice
and come into Cooper's Hotel. I believe you can have that small set
of rooms at the back. The sitting-room smokes, but beggars can't be
'That will only be our very last resource,' said Aggie hotly.
'It's not very grand, I grant you, but any port in a storm.'
Tom arrived, was doubly welcome, and was charmed with Briarwood.
Chaffed us unmercifully and derided our fears until he himself had a
similar experience, and he heard the phantom horse plunging in the
verandah and that wild, unearthly and utterly appalling shriek. No,
he could not laugh that away, and seeing that we had now a mortal
abhorrence of the place, that the children had be kept abroad in the
damp till long after dark, that Aggie was a mere hollow-eyed spectre,
and that we had scarcely a servant left, that--in short, one day we
packed up precipitately and fled in a body to Cooper's Hotel. But we
did not basely endeavour to sub-let, nor advertise Briarwood as 'a
delightfully situated pucka built house, containing all the
requirements of a gentleman's family'. No, no. Tom bore the loss of
the rent and--a more difficult feat--Aggie bore Mrs Starkey's
insufferable, 'I told you so.'
Aggie was at Kantia again last season. She walked out early one
morning to see our former abode. The chowkidar and parrot are still
in possession, and are likely to remain the sole tenants on the
premises. The parrot suns and dusts his ancient feathers in the empty
verandah, which re-echoes with his cry of 'Lucy, where are you,
pretty Lucy?' The chowkidar inhabits a secluded go-down at the back,
where he passes most of the day in sleeping, or smoking the soothing
'huka'. The place has a forlorn, uncared-for appearance now. The
flowers are nearly all gone; the paint has peeled off the doors and
windows; the avenue is grass-grown. Briarwood appears to have
resigned itself to emptiness, neglect and decay, although outside the
gate there still hangs a battered board on which, if you look very
closely you can decipher the words 'To Let'.