The Uncollected Short Stories of Duncan Campbell Scott

By Duncan Campbell Scott, edited by Tracy Ware



John Greenlaw’
s Story


    It was a clear day in late September. In response to a summons from a small place called Jasper, I had landed from the train, and was wheeling rapidly in a dog-cart toward a country house called Simon Towers, which was somewhere in the neighbourhood. The road was good, but the country was flat, and the fields, shorn of their crops, lay in barrenness, save here and there one which was dotted with the rich orange globes of the pumpkins grown amongst the corn which was stacked in tent-like masses.
    
My driver was a small man of a sad countenance and very reticent. I could not get him to talk, and even to my ordinary question as to the whereabouts of Simon Towers, he did not utter a monosyllable, but raised his whip and pointed to the north with a movement which included the greater sweep of the horizon. There are men who have tongues but who will not use them, and my companion certainly belonged to the class. But he knew how to drive, and he did not need to speak to his lively beast with the whip which he reserved like his tongue.
    
We had driven for an hour, and the sun was setting when we turned into a lane, and the driver drew the horse to a walk, as if in expectation of meeting someone. In a few moments I descried a young man seated by the roadside who rose as we neared him. He approached the cart and hailed me: “Are you Mr. Greenlaw? Mr. John Greenlaw?”
    
I acknowledged my name.
    “I am Basil Mannix.”
    I recognized the name of the person who had requested my presence at Simon Towers.
    “We are now two miles from the house, and as I wished to see you before you arrived here, I have met you. If it would not too greatly fatigue you we will walk the distance; I should be glad of your company.”
    
I readily acquiesced, as I had been longing for an opportunity of resting and refreshing myself by a brisk walk, and I jumped to the ground. [Page 81] “David,” he said, “you may drive on slowly and wait for us at the Spring Cross.”
    As the distance was increasing between us and the vehicle, my companion was silent, and I had a chance to glance observantly at him. He was tall and slight, and his figure and the pose of his head belonged to a sprightly young man, but there was an air of abstraction surrounding him. He seemed careless and unhappy. His features were bright and exceedingly attractive, but there were new lines of dejection in his face, and I could discern the traces of worry and sleepless nights, which had not yet hardened into the ruts which are worn by years of care and melancholy. A lock of brown hair fell across his forehead. His manner was listless, but when he spoke, his words came eagerly, impulsively, and I had to be alert and attentive to follow him.
    
“I wanted your advice. I know how clever you are, and I could not be alone any longer. No, any day I thought something might happen, and I have been full of suspicions. It was getting unbearable, and I have not slept for—well, for a long time; not really rested. We are going to Simon Towers, my uncle’s place. I say ‘my uncle,’ but he was really no relation to me. My father and he were friends, and when my father died he took me. He had no children. He is dead now—last spring.”
    
Here he turned with a quick movement of the head and looked at me full in the face, and as quickly he looked away upon the ground as before.
    
“He was a father to me; he taught me everything I know. There was only one thing which ever came between us, and that I will tell you of by-and-bye. My uncle was married when I came to him; why he ever married the woman he did I could never explain, unless it was for her beauty, and you will soon judge whether she is a beautiful woman. But she is ignorant. I mean ignorant: she cannot read or write, and she was too indolent to learn, although my uncle, I remember, used to try to teach her; but at last he gave it up in despair.”
    
Here he came to a dead stop and we walked some distance in silence. I did not urge him to resume, and at last he said abruptly, as if he were continuing out loud a course of reflection: “That was the trouble—the trouble. About three miles from our place at Selby Farm a family called Westbrook live. I met Harriet Westbrook long before my uncle knew it, and I soon loved her; when he discovered that I knew her he was angry; when he forbade me to see her I told him I loved her, and he was very passionate and lost his temper and struck me. He was mighty sorry for that afterwards, and ashamed, for he loved me aside from everything else. But I would not give [Page 82] way to him on this point. I saw Harriet as often as I could, and we often planned to meet.” Here he paused again for a while.
    
“Once my uncle met us. It was last fall—just a year ago. He ordered me roughly to the house, and I went, as I feared to see him break into a temper again, and I knew he feared it also. After that he kept such a close watch over me that I could hardly stir without him. It was in the spring that he died. The winter had been very severe and he had caught a cold which prostrated him. One evening after dinner he failed suddenly—his heart— and he was gone. I heard him say, ‘Basil, remember.’ I knew the last thing he had thought of was his hatred of my love for Harriet.”
    
Here he stopped short in his walk. “There are the Towers,” he said. On the ridge above us was the bulk of a low wide-spreading house, dark against the sunset.
    
There was no sign of towers: I remarked upon that. “No,” he said, “there are no towers.”
    
So far he had not told me anything of great interest, and if it had not been for his distraught manner and tragic air, I should have wondered at the insufficiency of his story. But these made me trust that something was behind which would soon be apparent. I was not wrong.
    
“You are my guest, remember; you have come down for the shooting; we have plover here and snipe, and you are to stay as long as is necessary.”
    
In a moment we had met David and we drove up to the Towers.
    At dinner, I saw Mrs. Mannix for the first time. She was indeed a beautiful woman, the most beautiful I have ever seen. She was like a picture richly colored, and her manner was so composed that you could fancy you were gazing at an original Velasquez. She spoke very little and slowly. After dinner my host offered me a cigar, and to smoke we went into the clear evening and walked upon the broad veranda, which ran the whole length of the house.
    “What do you think of her?” he asked laconically.
    “You were right about her beauty.”
    “Yes; and I fancy you will find me right about many another thing. I want you to watch her and disarm my suspicion if you can.” He said this with an inflection which let me see how deep into misery he had sunk.
    Well, as this was my duty, I watched Mrs. Mannix for a week, and she remained as beautiful as ever. There was in this time absolutely no change in her. She seemed empty of any spiritual life, incapable of any emotion. At the end of this week Basil said to me: “This afternoon I am going to meet Miss Westbrook.” After he had gone, I noticed a change in Mrs. Mannix; she became restless, walking about the house and looking anxiously [Page 83] from the veranda, although, as it was a misty day, she could not see far. Then she came to me where I sat, and spoke rapidly, asking me often where Basil had gone. I tried to lead her to converse about something else, but I could not succeed. Her talk was inconsequent, and she said much about Adrian, her husband, which I could not comprehend. Her disquietude increased, until at last she put on her cloak and hat, and would have gone out, but Basil appeared. Then she seemed to relapse into her usual apathetic state.
    I had not opportunity of speaking to Basil before dinner, and at that meal something untoward happened. There had been a lull in our conversation, when some impulse led me to glance at Mrs. Mannix. She was leaning back in her chair transfixed; there was no sign of life about her. Basil started up and was approaching her, when her lips moved. She said very distinctly: “Basil, remember!” Her maid was called, and as she did not at once recover, she was taken to her room. Basil was too much distressd to resume dinner, and we went into the library together.
    “Well!” he sighed wearily, “you have seen at last. This afternoon I saw Harriet, as I told you I would, and what occurred when I was away?” I told him that Mrs. Mannix was restless and perturbed, and often asked where he had gone.
    “And to-night,” he said, “you observed what happened: she had one of her trances; and do you recollect what she said?”
    “Yes,” I replied, “she said ‘Basil, remember.’”
    “True, the very words my uncle breathed into my ear as I laid him back dead. What do you think of that?”
    I reflected a moment. I had to deal with a youth whose whole mind was overwrought, and I wished if possible to calm him.
    “I would not lay too much stress upon an incident which must be a coincidence merely.”
    “And if it had happened three times, and only after I had seen Harriet, what would you say?”
    “Then this is not the first time that this has occurred?” He ignored my question, but began to pace slowly to and fro with his hands buried in his hair. At length he broke out:
    “She is possessed; ever since my uncle’s death, this power has been growing and growing. Before he died he had a strange influence over her; now he seems to animate her in some occult way, and the feeling is coming over me that the outcome will be disaster for me and in some way trouble for my dear girl.” [Page 84]
    “Now, my dear sir, you are allowing an idle fancy to obtain possession of you. I insist that you listen to me and be advised.” He looked at me curiously, making me feel that I had used no argument with him.
    “You have already seen something which you cannot explain, and all that I ask is that you wait and watch and protect me against myself and against her.”
    Another uneventful week passed. I observed Mrs. Mannix closely, and she seemed to have regained her picturesque tranquility. So far as I could discern, she did absolutely nothing. She seemed to be fond of riding, but she was more fond of indolently gazing from the window at the landscape, whose vivid lines were now blending into the ashen greys of late October. I had given the curious theory of my young friend—for so I had begun to regard him—every consideration, yet I could not find sufficient force in it to lead me to adopt it. I am loath to this day to place a supernatural interpretation upon the facts which I vouch for, but the facts I must state, and the riddle will be read. To tell the truth, I was beginning to tire of inaction, when in a single day something occurred to give me further food for reflection.
    One evening, Basil and I were conversing before the genial fire in the library, when I asked him if he knew what reason his uncle had for opposing so ardently his love for Miss Westbrook. By his expression I saw I had touched a wound; but he spoke out like a true lad that he was.
    “I do not know, but the people here have a story; my man David blurted it out to me one day—you have noticed the scar over his eyebrow?—that this girl, the girl I love, was disgraced in some way—that my uncle’s wife was her mother, and that my uncle knew all the bitterness of it, and hated my own Harriet, who is as pure as light. He longed for children, and his wife had only brought him this disgrace. This made him love me all the more, I suppose, and he must have despised and hated her.”
    I gazed at him in admiration, as his eye filled with light and his color mounted and burned. Suddenly he rose and went to a cabinet. “I will show you her portrait,” he said. He unlocked the cabinet and took from a compartment a miniature, set in a jewelled frame. As he did so, he gave a slight exclamation which he did not explain until I had returned him the portrait, which was that of a very lovely young girl with an animated face. I looked for resemblances to her mother, as the gossips had it, and I saw them surely. I held the portrait, studying it for some moments, and when I returned it to Basil, he was absorbed in examining a drawer in the cabinet.
    “This,” he said[,] “is very strange. I never knew of the existence of this drawer; the portrait as I drew it out must have touched some secret spring, [Page 85] and there is a letter with my initials upon it, sealed with my uncle’s seal. What am I to do?”
    He seemed strangely agitated. “Open it,” I said. He did so mechanically. When he had read it, he handed it to me, and then he sank into his chair, drawing his shoulders together and shuddering slightly. The color was ebbing from his face. I read the following words:

Dear Basil: —You may not read this for years, but you may perhaps read it before long. Whatever your wishes may be, I warn you that any attempt to possess that girl will be headed off with disaster. Do not mistake; I will find means you can neither understand nor combat.

    “This is terrible, terrible,” he cried; “he is following me up—his hatred.” He snatched the note impulsively and threw it into the fire. As it fell away into a charred mass it opened slowly, and we saw every word of the writing outlined in burning gold on the dark substance of the cindered paper. Basil struck through it with the poker and ground it into nothingness. “To-morrow,” he said, with a sort of elevation, “I will see Harriet, and we will leave this place, if need be for ever, but nothing will part us; nothing in heaven or earth, or the waters under the earth.”
    I spent the greater part of the night with him, as his imagination was so overwrought that I could not think it right to leave him alone, and it was nearly morning before he fell into a sleep, oppressed with visions which muttered at his lips.

    In the afternoon he set out for the rendezvous with something of a tragic determination in his manner, leaving me to watch, and, if necessary, to control Mrs. Mannix.
    Thinking she was in her room, I did not at first lay any stress upon her absence, but when I saw her maid going about as if she were free of the care of her mistress, I asked where she was, and received the answer that she had left the house an hour before, riding in the direction of Selby Farm. This made me uneasy, and I walked as rapidly as I could in the same direction. I did not know where Basil had expected to meet his lovely sweetheart, and as I walked carelessly to the edge of an elevation overlooking a stream which spread and trickled through marshy fields, I was arrested in one instant by a sight which made my heart turn within me.
    Upon the other side of this stream, kneeling in a shallow, marshy pool bordered with dead reeds, was Mrs. Mannix, pressing something into the water and holding it there with arms straight and rigid. Rushing toward her through the shallow water was Basil; his face like the face of one stricken with horror. He threw himself upon her, hurling her to one side. I reached [Page 86] him before I could think, and out of the disturbed water rose the face I had seen in the portrait, as pale as a star from clouds, with the sweet spirit all gone out and deadened. Basil, moaning out his tortured love, clasped her in his arms, and together we bore her to the bank. Here we endeavored to restore consciousness. We were successful. When we sought a means of taking her home, I observed the horse which Mrs. Mannix had left standing by the stream’s side. She seemed to have forgotten him entirely, for she was climbing the bank with averted face, trailing a short crimson cloak, which she had before worn, upon the ground.
    Basil mounted the horse, and I lifted Miss Westbrook into his arms. Then I took the bridle, and led the way to Selby Farm. Basil would not for an instant leave, and I returned alone to Simon Towers. There I found Mrs. Mannix, as tranquil as if nothing had happened; as calm as if she had not narrowly escaped being the murderess of, shall I say, her own daughter?
    She seemed to be completely unconscious of the occurrence, and I was overcome with horror at the sight of a human being moved and directed by a malign power over which she had not the slightest control, for I found that, unconsciously, I had adopted Basil’s interpretation of her strange conduct.
    His continued absence began to cause her uneasiness, and all her symptoms of unrest were again manifested. At length, after dinner, she went into the library and sat down at the writing table. I sat in an arm chair before the fire and watched her. Suddenly, to my extreme surprise, she lifted a pen and began to use it. Now, I knew from Basil that she could not write, and I watched her with astonishment. It may have been after five minutes that her hand dropped at her side, and I could tell by the slope of her shoulders that she was overcome by one of her trances. I rang the bell for the maid, and secured the paper upon which she had traced some words.

    As soon as I could I went to my room and read what she had written:

“Dear Basil: —You may not read this for years, but you may perhaps read it before long. Whatever your wishes may be, I warn you that any attempt to possess that girl will be headed off with disaster. Do not mistake; I will find means you can neither understand nor combat.”

    As I read these words—the words of the letter which Basil had, only a few nights before, burned before my eyes, written by a woman who could not sign her own name, a terror that I could not master commenced to creep upon my limbs. At last I was able to say, “This is all nonsense; there is here some palpable trick.” But, turning the sheet, upon the other side I saw the [Page 87] words of a note which I had commenced in the morning and left unfinished.
    At two o’clock in the morning I was awakened by a knock at my door. It was David. I read a note which he had brought from Basil. It warned me to keep a strict watch upon Mrs. Mannix. Miss Westbrook could not, in the opinion of the physician, survive the terrible shock to her nervous system. If she passed away before dawn, he had arranged to show a light in the highest window of Selby Farm, which could be seen from Simon Towers: if after sunrise, the flag was to be raised halfway upon the staff. Upon the sight of either of these signals I was to take charge of Mrs. Mannix.
    I watched and waited. I began to notice the inflowing of the steely lustre which precedes sunrise. Suddenly in the distant window of Selby Farm a light sprang out and burned steady as a star when the cloud is withdrawn.
    My chamber was distant from the apartments of Mrs. Mannix, which opened off a large square room, or hall, lit by two large windows having the same outlook as mine, toward Selby Farm. I went at once to this hall with the design to await the appearance of the murderess, for so I was now bound to consider her. When I entered it, I was conscious of someone sitting near one of the windows. The figure was clothed in white and was immovable. As I moved slowly forward I saw that it was Mrs. Mannix. She was leaning forward with her face thrown back, and gazing in the direction of Selby Farm. One arm was raised, and the hand hung limp, like a lily withered upon its stalk. Suddenly she began to sway; a long sound, like something sighing in a weary dream, came from her lips. Then swiftly, just as I reached her, she fell forward into my arms and shuddered out her last breath.

        

    When I left Simon Towers I went with a feeling of regret that was mingled with a large sadness. Here had happened the most curious experience of my life, and here I left a friend who had been through the fire and had come forth unscathed.
    I often think of him as he parted with me where we had first met. “Love,” he said, “is eternal, but it is rooted here in time; so I cling to life to cherish a memory, with a faith in what is beyond me which I cannot see or understand.” [Page 88]