Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).
B. M. Croker: Number Ninety
‘To let furnished, for a term of years, at a very low rental, a large old-fashioned family residence, comprising eleven bed-rooms, four reception-rooms, dressing-rooms, two stair-cases, complete servants’ offices, ample accommodation for a Gentleman’s establishment, including six-stall stable, coach-house, etc.’
The above advertisement referred to number ninety. For a period extending over some years this notice appeared spasmodically in various daily papers. Occasionally you saw it running for a week or a fortnight at a stretch, as if it were resolved to force itself into consideration by sheer persistency. Sometimes for months I looked for it in vain. Other ignorant folk might possibly fancy that the effort of the house agent had been crowned at last with success — that it was let, and no longer in the market.
I knew better. I knew that it would never, never find a tenant as long as oak and ash endured. I knew that it was passed on as a hopeless case, from house-agent to house-agent. I knew that it would never be occupied, save by rats — and, more than this, I knew the reason why!
I will not say in what square, street, or road number ninety may be found, nor will I divulge to any human being its precise and exact locality, but this I’m prepared to state, that it is positively in existence, is in London, and is still empty.
Twenty years ago, this very Christmas, my friend John Hollyoak (civil engineer) and I were guests at a bachelor’s party; partaking, in company with eight other celibates, of a very recherché little dinner, in the neighbourhood of Piccadilly. Conversation became very brisk, as the champagne circulated, and many topics were started, discussed, and dismissed.
They (I say they advisedly, as I myself am a man of few words) talked on an extraordinary variety of subjects.
I distinctly recollect a long argument on mushrooms — mushrooms, murders, racing, cholera; from cholera we came to sudden death, from sudden death to churchyards, and from churchyards, it was naturally but a step to ghosts.
On this last topic the arguments became fast and furious, for the company was divided into two camps. The larger, ‘the opposition,’ who scoffed, sneered, and snapped their fingers, and laughed with irritating contempt at the very name of ghosts, was headed by John Hollyoak; the smaller party, who were dogged, angry, and prepared to back their opinions to any extent, had for their leader our host, a bald-headed man of business, whom I certainly would have credited (as I mentally remarked) with more sense.
The believers in the supernatural obtained a hearing, so far as to relate one or two blood-curdling, first or second-hand experiences, which, when concluded, instead of being received with an awe-struck and respectful silence, were pooh-poohed, with shouts of laughter, and taunting suggestions that were by no means complimentary to the intelligence, or sobriety, of the victims of superstition. Argument and counter-argument waxed louder and hotter, and there was every prospect of a very stormy conclusion to the evening’s entertainment.
John Hollyoak, who was the most vehement, the most incredulous, the most jocular, and the most derisive of the anti-ghost faction, brought matters to a climax by declaring that nothing would give him greater pleasure than to pass a night in a haunted house — and the worse its character, the better he would be pleased!
His challenge was instantly taken up by our somewhat ruffled host, who warmly assured him that his wishes could be easily satisfied, and that he would be accommodated with a night’s lodging in a haunted house within twenty-four hours — in fact, in a house of such a desperate reputation, that even the adjoining mansions stood vacant.
He then proceeded to give a brief outline of the history of number ninety. It had once been the residence of a well-known country family, but what evil events had happened therein tradition did not relate.
On the death of the last owner — a diabolical looking aged person, much resembling the typical wizard — it had passed into the hands of a kinsman, resident abroad, who had no wish to return to England, and who desired his agents to let it, if they could — a most significant proviso!
Year by year went by, and still this ‘Highly desirable family mansion’ could find no tenant, although the rent was reduced, and reduced, and again reduced, to almost zero!
The most ghastly whispers were afloat — the most terrible experiences were actually proclaimed on the housetops!
No tenant would remain, even gratis; and for the last ten years, this, ‘handsome, desirable town family residence’ had been the abode of rats by day, and something else by night — so said the neighbours.
Of course it was the very thing for John, and he snatched up the gauntlet on the spot. He scoffed at its evil repute, and solemnly promised to rehabilitate its character within a week.
It was in vain that he was solemnly warned — that one of his fellow guests gravely assured him ‘that he would not pass a night in number ninety for ninety thousand pounds — it would be the price of his reason.’
‘You value your reason at a very high figure,’ replied John, with an indulgent smile. ‘I will venture mine for nothing.'
‘ “I’m not coming!” I replied, without a moment’s hesitation, and thereupon I slammed the door in his face, locked it, and resumed my seat, also my book; but reading was a farce; my ears were aching for the next sound.
‘It came soon — rapid steps running up the stairs, and again a single knock. I went over to the door, and once more discovered the tall footman, who repeated, with a studied courtesy:
‘ “Dinner is ready, and the company are waiting.”
‘ “I told you I was not coming. Be off, and be hanged to you!” I cried again, shutting the door violently.
‘This time I did not make even a pretence at reading, I merely sat and waited for the next move.
‘I had not long to sit. In ten minutes I heard a third loud summons. I rose, went to the door, and tore it open. There, as I expected, was the servant again, with his parrot speech:
‘ “Dinner is ready, the company are waiting, and the master says you must come!”
‘ “All right, then, I’ll come,” I replied, wearied by reason of his importunity, and feeling suddenly fired with a desire to see the end of the adventure.
‘He accordingly led the way downstairs, and I followed him, noting as I went the gilt buttons on his coat, and his splendidly turned calves, also that the hall and passages were now brilliantly illuminated, and that several liveried servants were passing to and fro, and that from — presumably — the dining room, there issued a buzz of tongues, loud volleys of laughter, many hilarious voices, and a clatter of knives an forks. I was not left much time for speculation, as in another second I found myself inside the door, and my escort announced me in a stentorian voice as “Mr. Hollyoak.”
‘I could hardly credit my senses, as I looked round and saw about two dozen people, dressed in a fashion of the last century, seated at the table, which was loaded with gold and silver plate, and lighted up by a blaze of wax candles in massive candelabra.
‘A swarthy elderly gentleman, who presided at the head of the board, rose deliberately as I entered. He was dressed in a crimson coat, braided with silver. He wore a peruke, had the most piercing black eyes I ever encountered, made me the finest bow I ever received in all my life, and with a polite wave of a taper hand, indicated my seat — a vacant chair between two powdered and patched beauties, with overflowing white shoulders and necks sparkling with diamonds.
‘At first I was fully convinced that the whole affair was a superbly-matured practical joke. Everything looked so real, so truly flesh and blood, so complete in every detail; but I gazed around in vain for one familiar face.
‘I saw young, old, and elderly; handsome and the reverse. On all faces there was a similar expression — reckless, hardened defiance, and something else that made me shudder, but that I could not classify or define.
‘Were they a secret community? Burglars or coiners? But no; in one rapid glance I noticed that they belonged exclusively to the upper stratum of society — bygone society. The jabber of talking had momentarily ceased, and the host, imperiously hammering the table with a knife-handle, said in a singularly harsh grating voice:
‘ “Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to give you a toast! ‘Our guest!’ ” looking straight at me with his glittering coal-black eyes.
‘Every glass was immediately raised. Twenty faces were turned towards mine, when, happily, a sudden impulse seized me. I sprang to my feet and said:
‘ “Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to thank you for your kind hospitality, but before I accept it, allow me to say grace!”
‘I did not wait for permission, but hurriedly repeated a Latin benediction. Ere the last syllable was uttered, in an instant there was a violent crash, an uproar, a sound of running, of screams, groans and curses, and then utter darkness.
‘I found myself standing alone by a big mahogany table which I could just dimly discern by the aid of a street-lamp that threw its meagre rays into the great empty dining-room from the other side of the area.
‘I must confess that I felt my nerves a little shaken by the instantaneous change from light to darkness — from a crowd of gay and noisy companions, to utter solitude and silence. I stood for a moment trying to recover my mental balance. I rubbed my eyes hard to assure myself that I was wide awake, and then I placed this very cigar-case in the middle of the table, as a sign and token that I had been downstairs — which cigar-case I found exactly where I left it this morning — and then went and groped my way into the hall and regained my room.
‘I met with no obstacle en route. I saw no one, but as I closed and double-locked my door I distinctly heard a low laugh outside the keyhole — a sort of suppressed, malicious titter, that made me furious.
‘I opened the door at once. There was nothing to be seen. I waited and listened — dead silence. I then undressed and went to bed, resolved that a whole army of footmen would fail to allure me once more to that festive board. I was determined not to lose my night’s rest — ghosts or no ghosts.
‘Just as I was dozing off I remember hearing the neighbouring clock chime two. It was the last sound I was aware of; the house was now as silent as a vault. My fire burnt away cheerfully. I was no longer in the least degree inclined for reading, and I fell fast asleep and slept soundly till I heard the cabs and milk-carts beginning their morning career.
‘I then rose, dressed at my leisure, and found you, my good, faithful friend, awaiting me, rather anxiously, on the hall-door steps.
‘I have not done with that house yet. I’m determined to find out who these people are, and where they come from. I shall sleep there again to-night, and so shall “Crib,” my bulldog; and you will see that I shall have news for you to-morrow morning — if I am still alive to tell the tale,’ he added with a laugh.
In vain I would have dissuaded him. I protested, argued, and implored. I declared that rashness was not courage; that he had seen enough; that I, who had seen nothing, and only listened to his experiences, was convinced that number ninety was a house to be avoided.
I might just as well have talked to my umbrella! So, once more, I reluctantly accompanied him to his previous night’s lodging. Once more I saw him swallowed up inside the gloomy, forbidding-looking, re-echoing hall.
I then went home in an unusually anxious, semi-excited, nervous state of mind; and I, who generally outrival the Seven Sleepers, lay wide awake, tumbling and tossing hour after hour, a prey to the most foolish ideas — ideas I would have laughed to scorn in daylight.
More than once I was certain that I heard John Hollyoak distractedly calling me; and I sat up in bed and listened intently. Of course it was fancy, for the instant I did so, there was no sound.
At the first gleam of winter dawn, I rose, dressed, and swallowed a cup of good strong coffee to clear my brain from the misty notions it had harboured during the night. And then I invested myself in my warmest topcoat and comforter, and set off for number ninety. Early as it was — it was but half-past seven — I found the army pensioner was before me, pacing the pavement with a countenance that would have made a first-rate frontispiece for ‘Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy’ — a countenance the reverse of cheerful.
I was not disposed to wait for eight o’clock. I was too uneasy, and too impatient for further particulars of the dinner-party. So I rang with all my might, and knocked with all my main.
No sound within — no answer! But John was always a heavy sleeper. I was resolved to arouse him all the same, and knocked and rang, and rang and knocked, incessantly for fully ten minutes.
I then stooped down and applied my eye to the keyhole; I looked steadily into the aperture, till I became accustomed to the darkness, and then it seemed to me that another eye — a very strange, fiery eye — was glaring into mine from the other side of the door!
I removed my eye and applied my mouth instead, and shouted with all the power of my lungs (I did not care a straw if passers-by took me for an escaped lunatic):
‘John! John! Hollyoak!’
How his name echoed and re-echoed up through that great empty house! ‘He must hear that,’ I said to myself as I pressed my ear closely against the lock, and listened with throbbing suspense.
The echo of ‘Hollyoak’ had hardly died away when I swear that I distinctly heard a low, sniggering, mocking laugh — that was my only answer — that; and a vast unresponsive silence.
I was now quite desperate. I shook the door frantically, with all my strength. I broke the bell; in short, my behaviour was such that it excited the curiosity of a policeman, who crossed the road to know ‘What was up?’
‘I want to get in!’ I panted, breathless with my exertions.
‘You’d better stay where you are!’ said Bobby; ‘the outside of this house is the best of it! There are terrible stories —’
‘But there is a gentleman inside it!’ I interrupted impatiently. ‘He slept there last night, and I can’t wake him. He has the key!’
‘Oh, you can’t wake him!’ returned the policeman gravely. ‘Then we must get a locksmith!’
But already the thoughtful pensioner had procured one; and already a considerable and curious crowd surrounded the steps.
After five minutes of (to me) maddening delay, the great heavy door was opened and swung slowly back, and I instantly rushed in, followed less precipitately by the policeman and the pensioner.
I had not far to seek John Hollyoak! He and his dog were lying at the foot of the stairs, both stone dead!
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Tales of Mystery and Imagination
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