Terrifying ghost story about a dare between gentleman for one to spend the night in a Charleston haunted house. Written by Mrs. B.M. Croker (1849-1920)
For a period extending over some years, a notice appeared periodically in various daily papers. It read:
“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 staircases, complete servants’ offices, ample accommodation for a Gentleman’s establishment, including six-stall stable, coach-house, etc.”
This advertisement referred to number ninety.
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 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. 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 human being its precise and exact locality, but this I’m prepared to state, that it is positively in existence, is in Charleston, and is still empty.
Twenty years ago, this very Christmas, I was down from New York visiting my friend John Hollyoak, a civil engineer from Charleston. We were guests at a little dinner party in the neighborhood of the South Battery. Conversation became very brisk as the champagne circulated, and many topics were started, discussed, and dismissed.
We 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.
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 county 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 Charleston, and who desired his agents to let it, if they could – a most significant condition!
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 neighbors.
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.
I was charged by our host to serve as a witness – to verify that John Hollyoak did indeed spend the night at number ninety. The next night at ten o’ clock, I found myself standing with John on the steps of the notorious abode; but I was not going to remain; the carriage that brought us was to take me back to my respectable chambers.
This ill-fated house was large, solemn-looking, and gloomy. A heavy portico frowned down on neighboring barefaced hall-doors. The elderly caretaker was prudently awaiting us outside with a key, which said key he turned in the lock, and admitted us into a great echoing hall, black as night, saying as he did so: “My missus has made the bed, and stoked up a good fire in the first front, Sir. Your things is all laid out, and I hope you’ll have a comfortable night, Sir.”
“No, Sir! Thank you, Sir! Excuse me, I’ll not come in! Goodnight!” and with the words still on his lips, he clattered down the steps with most indecent haste, and vanished.
“And of course you will not come in either?” said John. “It is not in the bond, and I prefer to face them alone!” and he laughed contemptuously, a laugh that had a curious echo, it struck me at the time. A laugh strangely repeated, with an unpleasant mocking emphasis. ‘Call for me, alive or dead, at eight o’clock to-morrow morning!’ he added, pushing me forcibly out into the porch, and closing the door with a heavy, reverberating clang, that sounded half-way down the street.
I did call for him the next morning as desired, with the caretaker, who stared at John’s commonplace, self-possessed appearance, with an expression of respectful astonishment.
“So it was all humbug, of course,” I said, as he took my arm, and we set off for our club.
“You shall have the whole story whenever we have had something to eat,” he replied somewhat impatiently. “It will keep till after breakfast- I’m famishing!”
I remarked that he looked unusually grave as we chatted over our broiled fish and omelet, and that occasionally his attention seemed wandering, to say the least. The moment he had brought out his cigar case and lit up he turned to me and said:
“I see you are just quivering to know my experience, and I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. In four words- I have seen them!”
I merely looked at him with widely parted mouth and staring interrogative eyes.
I believe I had best endeavor to give the narrative without comment, and in John Hollyoak’s own way. This is, as well as I can recollect, his experience word for word:
“I proceeded upstairs, after I had shut you out, lighting my way by a match, and found the front room easily, as the door was ajar, and it was lit up by a roaring and most cheerful-looking fire, and two wax candles. It was a comfortable apartment, furnished with old-fashioned chairs and tables, and the traditional four-poster bed. There were numerous doors, which proved to be cupboards; and when I had executed a rigorous search in each of these closets and locked them, and investigated the bed above and beneath, sounded the walls, and bolted the door, I sat down before the fire, lit a cigar, opened a book, and felt that I was going to be master of the situation, and most thoroughly and comfortably ‘at home.’ My novel proved absorbing. I read on greedily, chapter after chapter, and so interested was I, and amused-for it was a lively book-that I positively lost sight of my whereabouts, and fancied myself reading in my own chamber! There was not a sound. The coals dropping from the grate occasionally broke the silence, till a neighboring church-clock slowly boomed twelve! ‘The hour!’ I said to myself, with a laugh, as I gave the fire a rousing poke, and commenced a new chapter; but ere I had read three pages I had occasion to pause and listen. What was that distinct sound now coming nearer and nearer? ‘Rats, of course,’ said Common-sense-‘it was just the house for vermin.’ Then a longish silence. Again a stir, sounds approaching, as if apparently caused by many feet passing down the corridor – high-heeled shoes, the sweeping switch of silken trains! Of course it was all imagination, I assured myself-or rats! Rats were capable of making such curious improbable noises!
“Then another silence. No sound but cinders and the ticking of my watch, which I had laid upon the table.
“I resumed my book, rather ashamed, and a little indignant with myself for having neglected it, and calmly dismissed my late interruption as ‘rats-nothing but rats.’
“I had been reading and smoking for some time in a placid and highly incredulous frame of mind, when I was somewhat rudely startled by a loud single knock at my room door. I took no notice of it, but merely laid down my novel and sat tight. Another knock more imperious this time- After a moment’s mental deliberation I arose, armed myself with the poker, prepared to brain any number of rats, and threw the door open with a violent swing that strained its very hinges, and beheld, to my amazement, a tall powdered footman in a laced scarlet uniform, who, making a formal inclination of his head, astonished me still further by saying:
” ‘Dinner is ready!’ ”
” ‘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 butler, 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!’ 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 gold buttons on his coat, also that the hall and passages were now brilliantly illuminated by glowing candles, and hung with living green, the crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe and ivy reflecting back the light. There were several uniformed servants passing to and fro, and from the dining room, there issued a buzz of tongues, loud volleys of laughter, many hilarious voices, and a clatter of knives and 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 loud 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 18th century, seated at the table, set for a sumptuous Christmas dinner, 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 white wig, 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 his hand, indicated my seat-a vacant chair between two powdered and embroided 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 counterfeiters? 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 meager rays into the great empty dining-room from two deep and narrow windows.
“I must confess that I felt my nerves a little shaken by this 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 butlers would fail to allure me once more to that Christmas feast. I was determined not to lose my night’s rest-ghosts or no ghosts.
“Just as I was dozing off I remember hearing the neighboring 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 steep there again tonight, along with my bulldog; and you will see that I shall have news for you tomorrow 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. I 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 set off for number ninety. Early as it was-it was but half-past seven-I found the caretaker was before me, pacing the pavement, his face drawn with a melancholy expression.
I was not disposed to wait for eight o’clock. I was too uneasy, and too impatient for further particulars of the Christmas dinner-party. So I rang with all my might, and knocked with all my strength.
No sound within -no answer! But John was always a heavy steeper. 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:
“John! John Hollyoak!”
How his name echoed and re-echoed up through that dark and 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 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 behavior was such that it excited the curiosity of a police officer, 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 the police officer; “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 police officer gravely. “Then we must get a locksmith!”
But already the thoughtful caretaker had procured one; and already considerable and curious crowd surrounded the steps.
After five minutes of maddening delay, the great heavy door was opened and swung slowly back, and I instantly rushed in, followed less frantically by the police officer and the caretaker.
I had not far to seek John Hollyoak! He and his dog were lying at the foot of the stairs, both stone dead!
– THE END –
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