THE OLD HOUSE BY THE SEA

“Curs’d by Superstition eerie,
Grim it stands a ruin dreary,
Round it spread the marshes lonely,
Haunted by dim shadows only,
Shadows of an evil seeming,
Such as rise in ghastly dreaming,
Overhead the sky of crimson,
Reddens slowly from the dim sun,
Silently the sluggish waters
Undermine the tower which totters,
And the ocean’s sullen boom,
Prophesies the coming doom,
When the house shall sudden sink,
Shattered o’er destruction’s brink,
And the dark night’s gloomy pall
Evermore brood over all.”

Eustace, with his whimsical fancy for bestowing appropriate names on
all things, had christened his ancestral residence Castle Grim, and he
certainly could not have hit upon a happier title for such a dreary
place.

Standing on the verge of wide-spreading marshes, it faced towards the
sea, which was only a little distance away, and the salt winds from
the ocean roared day and night round the lonely house. For it was
lonely, no habitation being within miles, owing to the malaria which
arose from the marshes making the whole neighbourhood unhealthy to
live in. Gartney had another residence, much more comfortable,
situated in the midland shires, but, with his usual fantastic nature,
preferred when staying in the country to inhabit this semi-ruinous
mansion.

Whoever built it must have been fond of solitude, and much given to
self-communings of a dreary nature, for certainly no one with a
healthy mind could have found pleasure in contemplating the melancholy
stretches of the marshes and in hearkening to the sullen roar of the
surges breaking on the sandy shore. Few of the Gartney family had
stayed in it since its erection, and it was reserved for Eustace, in
whom the melancholy nature of some far-off ancestor was revived, to
make it a habitable residence.

Perhaps the weirdness of the place had a fascination for his poet
nature, or the dismal fenlands pleased his distorted imagination, but
at all events, Eustace was rarely in England without paying a visit to
Castle Grim, and staying there a few days, before his departure to
distant lands.

Other people not being so fond of this awesome place, Gartney could
get no ordinary servants to stay in it, and consequently it was left
to the care of an aged pair, man and wife, who did not mind where they
lived so long as they had a roof to cover them, food to eat, and a
chance of earning a decent income. They looked after the crazy old
place thoroughly, and when their master paid it a visit contrived to
make him pretty comfortable considering all things. But as a rule,
they lived a Robinson Crusoe-like life, seeing no one from week’s end
to week’s end, save when they went into Denfield for provisions.

Mr. and Mrs. Javelrack, the guardians of this unpleasant mansion, had
received a telegram from its owner, telling them that he was coming,
and consequently the male Javelrack had driven to the Denfield Station
for his master, while the female Javelrack set the rooms in order and
prepared a meal for Mr. Gartney.

Eustace had not brought his valet to Castle Grim, as that worthy would
immediately have given notice had he been asked to stay in such a
nerve-shaking place. So he drove away from the station slowly in the
dog-cart with his quaint old retainer beside him, and his portmanteau
behind.

It was a very decent dog-cart taking it all round, and the horse in
the shafts was not by any means a bad specimen of his kind, as Gartney
allowed the Javelracks a decent sum yearly to keep up the place, and
they made amends for their lonely life by surrounding themselves with
all the luxuries they were able. Report said they were misers, and
perhaps there was some truth in the rumour, but whenever Eustace came
down, he always found things in order, so he never troubled his head
to ascertain what proportion of the income he allowed they had spent
on the place, or what portion they stowed away in odd corners. Indeed,
if he had found that these two old servants were spending as little as
they could without being found out, and putting the rest by for a
rainy day, he would not have been particularly annoyed, for they were
only within their rights in having some pleasure in Castle Grim.

Eustace wrapped himself well up in his ulster, for the winds blew very
keenly across the marshes, and as the horse was restive, they soon
left the village behind and were moving rapidly across the straight
road which stretched a narrow white thread until it vanished on the
verge of the horizon. The gables of Errington Hall showed whitely
above the sombre woods around it, but after a rapid glance at the roof
which covered the woman he loved, Gartney shook the reins impatiently
to make the horse go faster, and stared resolutely at the red glare of
the sky lowering over the wild waste landscape.

“I’ll see her to-morrow,” he thought, as the hoofs of the horse beat
steadily on the hard white road, “and then I can see for myself how
things stand between her and Guy.”

Some long sombre clouds lowered heavily over the crimson of the
horizon as if Night, like some dark-winged bird, was waiting to settle
down on the chill earth, and a keen cold wind, blowing sharply from
the distant ocean, brought the salt odours of the sea to their
nostrils.

Javelrack, his huge form bowed by age and rheumatism caught from the
marsh mists, sat grimly silent beside his master with his large,
hairy, brown hands clasped on his lap, and his mahogany-coloured face
with its wiry black beard, so screwed up with facing the cutting wind,
that under his weather-stained brown hat he looked like a fantastic
Chinese idol. Eustace, wrapped up in his own thoughts, paid no
attention to his silent companion, but, bowing his head against the
blast, indulged in visions of Alizon Errington.

A dreary country, with the wide spreading marshes stretching on either
side for miles, and the long straight road running through the heart
of the swamp. Sluggish, slimy pools of oily stillness, fringes of
stately reeds swaying to and fro in the blast, smooth patches of green
grass, pleasing to the eye but treacherous to the unwary foot. Here
and there a broken-down fence, deeply implanted in weeds of luxuriant
growth, bordering deep ditches of black earth filled with stagnant
water, on which floated green slime, rows of depressed-looking
willows, and on occasions the gaunt stump of a tree sticking up as if
to mark the site of a submerged forest.

Then suddenly against the dull red of the sky a misshapen pile of
gables and chimneys on the verge of a slight rise, girdled by a gaunt
ring of leafless trees. Beyond, heaps of wind-blown sand covered with
sparse vegetation standing as a barrier between the marshes and the
ocean, which tossed in waves of blood under the evil red sky as it
moaned in a querulous voice on the starved-looking strip of sandy
beach. And this was Castle Grim.

Eustace stopped the tired horse at the door of the house (or rather
the horse stopped of its own accord), and giving the reins to
Javelrack, jumped down. At the door he was met by Mrs. Javelrack,
large and gaunt as her husband, with the same embrowned face and the
same distorted features, suggestive of Chinese deities. Indeed, as the
male Javelrack took the portmanteau into the house and stood by his
wife, they looked like two ogres inhabiting Castle Grim, who were
prepared to make a meal of Eustace as soon as he was safely within the
walls.

The male ogre, however, took his master’s portmanteau into his
bedroom, and then coming out again, took the dog-cart round to the
stables, while Mrs. Javelrack, her face twisted into a hideous grin
meant for a smile, brought hot water for the weary traveller.

“Don’t be long with the dinner, Mrs. Javelrack,” called Eustace as she
closed the door.

“No sir,” croaked Mrs. Javelrack in a hoarse voice, as if she had been
a frog out of the marsh, “it ‘ull be ready as soon as you, sir.”

Mr. Gartney washed himself in the warm water, which took away the
smarting feeling in his face caused by the keen salt wind, and having
changed his clothes sauntered into the one habitable room of the
place, which did for dining-room, drawing-room, and music-room, for
Eustace had sent down a very good piano, which stood in one corner.

“Humph! rather spoilt by the damp,” he said to himself; as he ran his
lithe fingers over the keys, “or perhaps the amiable Mrs. Javelrack
has been trying to cultivate music.”

The ogress brought in the dinner and waited on Eustace in a ponderous
manner, giving him all the news of the neighbourhood, which was
remarkably scant, and talked all through the meal in a subdued roar.
When Eustace had finished, she removed the dishes, brought in some
coffee, and, after making up the fire, retired to the kitchen and the
company of Mr. Javelrack. Gartney heard them chatting even through the
thick walls, for the dampness of the marshes had made them both
somewhat deaf, and consequently they shouted so loudly at one another,
that it was difficult at times to tell whether it was the ocean
roaring or the ogres conversing.

It was a very comfortable room, having been furnished by Eustace
according to his own ideas, and the walls, instead of being papered,
were hung with dull red cloth after the fashion of tapestry, which
waved at intervals as the searching winds crept in shrilly through
crack and cranny. A wide fireplace in which blazed a large coal fire
between the grotesque brass dogs, several comfortable arm-chairs, and
on one side, a small book-case containing a selection of Gartney’s
favourite authors. At the distant end of the room a grand piano, with
the music piled neatly beside it, a cumbersome, old-fashioned sofa,
and a deep, square window with diamond panes, and a quaint oaken seat
set in its depths.

Eustace drew an arm-chair close to the fire and near to the small
table upon which Mrs. Javelrack had placed his coffee, produced his
pipe, and was soon puffing away in a most comfortable manner. He
picked up a slim volume of poems entitled “Rose dreamings,” and turned
over the pages listlessly as he sipped his coffee, feeling a drowsy
sensation steal over him. A verse in the poem called “Temptation,”
however, roused him from this lethargic state, and throwing down the
book, he paced restlessly up and down the room repeating the four
lines quietly to himself:

“This love so hard the winning.
For ever will endure,
If all the world be sinning,
Why should we two be pure?”

“I’m afraid she won’t take the same view as that,” he muttered to
himself discontentedly, thinking of Lady Errington. “And yet, if she
doesn’t love her husband, she may have a kindly feeling for me. As to
the child, surely no woman–not even this Madonna–can devote herself
exclusively to it. Still, the child is the obstacle between herself
and her husband, so perhaps it will be the obstacle between herself
and me. Oh! I could love her! I could love her if she would only let
me! She will let me! I’m certain of it! Guy has no brains, and she is
starving for the want of intellectual food. The child is the excuse,
but that is the real reason of the coldness between them.”

One of the most extraordinary parts of Gartney’s delusion concerning
his chance of success with Lady Errington lay in the fact that his
present reasoning was diametrically opposed to the views he held when
first meeting Lady Errington. He then asserted that she would never
care for her husband, but when she became a mother would lavish all
her love on the child. This view of Alizon’s character was a correct
one, as Eustace in his innermost heart well knew, but he wilfully
deceived himself in thinking that now she had obtained her heart’s
desire she would give it up for the sake of a man whom she had hardly
seen. Eustace, however, had been so uniformly triumphant with the
female sex, that the idea of failing with Alizon never entered his
mind, and he thought that if he laid siege to Lady Errington, in a
dexterous fashion, she would give up everything–husband, child, name,
and home–in order to gratify his selfish desire.

When he came to England after his many months’ absence in Arabia,
Gartney had determined not to see Lady Errington, feeling that he
loved her, or rather her idolized memory, so much, that he would not
be able to suppress his passion, and thus behave dishonourably towards
his cousin Guy by running away with his wife. Aunt Jelly, however, by
telling him of the estrangement between the pair had banished this
honourable hesitation from his heart, as he felt himself forced by
Fate to see the woman he loved face to face. It was a very convenient
excuse with which to quiet his conscience for this wrong-doing, and
having settled in his own selfish mind that Fate was too strong for
him, he determined to estrange husband and wife still further, so that
he would have less trouble in overcoming Lady Errington’s scruples to
his dishonourable proposals.

This idea which he held had been singularly strengthened by the remark
of Aunt Jelly, when she said that Guy in his present state would be
the prey of the first clever woman that came along. Eustace therefore
determined to introduce Guy to some clever woman who would entangle
him in her net, and the woman he had fixed upon in his own mind for
this vile purpose was–Mrs. Veilsturm.

It was curious that he should have fixed on this special woman to do
this, seeing that he was ignorant of Mrs. Veilsturm’s grudge against
Lady Errington, and did not know how eagerly she would seize this
opportunity of revenging herself on the woman who had slighted her so
scathingly. He merely chose Mrs. Veilsturm because she was beautiful,
clever, and unscrupulous, so a hint to her would be quite sufficient
to induce her to fascinate Guy by all the means in her power.

Eustace Gartney was by no means a thoroughly bad man. Indeed, he had
very good qualities, although they were, to a great extent,
neutralized by his indomitable selfishness, and therefore he suffered
several qualms of conscience over the dishonourable scheme he had in
hand.

His intense egotism and love of gratifying self, however, came to his
aid, and he argued himself into a satisfactory frame of mind by Heaven
only knows what sophistry.

“She doesn’t care a bit about her husband,” he reflected, pacing the
room with measured strides, “she never did care about him, and it’s a
pity to see a clever woman like that tied to an unsympathetic log.
With me, her life will be much happier than with him, and after he
gets a divorce I will marry her, and we will live abroad, where there
will be no narrow-minded bigots to scoff at what they will call her
false step. I’ll do it, at whatever cost! My life will be a blank
without her, and she will be unhappy with Guy, so it will be far the
best for both of us to come together, even at the cost of a public
scandal. I’m sorry for Guy, but the one must suffer for the many, and
I daresay in after years he will thank me for taking from him a wife
from whom, even now, after less than two years of married life, he is
estranged.”

So Eustace, sophist as he was, argued in favour of his dishonourable
passion, and would have even succeeded in persuading himself that he
was a much-injured person by having to undergo such trouble, but for a
certain uneasy feeling that he ruthlessly crushed down.

Having settled his plans to his own satisfaction, Eustace had another
smoke, then going to the window, drew aside the curtains and looked
forth into the black night.

The wind was rising and whistled shrilly round the house, lashing
the dark waves into lines of seething white foam which glimmered
ghost-like through the gloom, while overhead the thin filmy clouds
raced across the sky over the face of the haggard-looking moon. He
could hear the thunder of the surge on the distant beach, the wind
muttering drearily among the trees, and casting his eyes overhead he
saw the pallid moonlight streaming in ghastly radiance through the
ragged clouds.

Dropping the curtain with a sigh, he sauntered across to the piano,
and began to improvise a weird fantasy in keeping with the feelings
aroused by the wild scene without. The roll of the sea, the wuthering
of the wind, and the rustle of the reeds were all transmuted into
strange harmonies under the touch of his skilful fingers, and stealing
out at intervals from amid the tempest of sound, stole a strange,
sobbing strain, fitful and wayward as the breeze, as if some malicious
demon were piping heart-stealing love-songs to the sky, and the night,
and the lonely marsh.

He remained some time at the piano, following his changeful fancies,
but when the clock struck nine he closed the instrument, and had one
final pipe before going to bed. As he sat in front of the fire,
looking into the heart of the burning coals, he went over again in his
own mind the details of the scheme by which he hoped to secure his
cousin’s wife to himself.

“Yes,” he said aloud in the silence of the room, “it is all right!
There is no flaw!”

There was a flaw, however, and one which, in his blind egotism and
complacent selfishness, he entirely overlooked, and that was the love
of the mother for her child.