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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XVII. MATERIALISM alias GHOST-HUNTING.

David Elginbrod by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XVII. MATERIALISM alias GHOST-HUNTING.

Wie der Mond sich leuchtend dränget

Durch den dunkeln Wolkenflor,

Also taucht aus dunkeln Zeiten

Mir ein lichtes Bild hervor.

HEINRICH HEINE

As the moon her face advances

Through the darkened cloudy veil;

So, from darkened times arising,

Dawns on me a vision pale.

IN consequence of what Euphra had caused him to believe without saying it, Hugh felt more friendly towards his new acquaintance; and happening -- on his side at least it did happen -- to meet him a few days after, walking in the neighbourhood, he joined him in a stroll. Mr. Arnold met them on horseback, and invited Von Funkelstein to dine with them that evening, to which he willingly consented. It was noticeable that no sooner was the count within the doors of Arnstead House, than he behaved with cordiality to every one of the company except Hugh. With him he made no approach to familiarity of any kind, treating him, on the contrary, with studious politeness.

In the course of the dinner, Mr. Arnold said:

|It is curious, Herr von Funkelstein, how often, if you meet with something new to you, you fall in with it again almost immediately. I found an article on Biology in the newspaper, the very day after our conversation on the subject. But absurd as the whole thing is, it is quite surpassed by a letter in to-day's Times about spirit-rapping and mediums, and what not!|

This observation of the host at once opened the whole question of those physico-psychological phenomena to which the name of spiritualism has been so absurdly applied. Mr. Arnold was profound in his contempt of the whole system, if not very profound in his arguments against it. Every one had something to remark in opposition to the notions which were so rapidly gaining ground in the country, except Funkelstein, who maintained a rigid silence.

This silence could not continue long without attracting the attention of the rest of the party; upon which Mr. Arnold said:

|You have not given us your opinion on the subject, Herr von Funkelstein.|

|I have not, Mr. Arnold; -- I should not like to encounter the opposition of so many fair adversaries, as well as of my host.|

|We are in England, sir; and every man is at liberty to say what he thinks. For my part, I think it all absurd, if not improper.|

|I would not willingly differ from you, Mr. Arnold. And I confess that a great deal that finds its way into the public prints, does seem very ridiculous indeed; but I am bound, for truth's sake, to say, that I have seen more than I can account for, in that kind of thing. There are strange stories connected with my own family, which, perhaps, incline me to believe in the supernatural; and, indeed, without making the smallest pretence to the dignity of what they call a medium, I have myself had some curious experiences. I fear I have some natural proclivity towards what you despise. But I beg that my statement of my own feelings on the subject, may not interfere in the least with the prosecution of the present conversation; for I am quite capable of drawing pleasure from listening to what I am unable to agree with.|

|But let us hear your arguments, strengthened by your facts, in opposition to ours; for it will be impossible to talk with a silent judge amongst us,| Hugh ventured to say.

|I set up for no judge, Mr. Sutherland, I assure you; and perhaps I shall do my opinions more justice by remaining silent, seeing I am conscious of utter inability to answer the a priori arguments which you in particular have brought against them. All I would venture to say is, that an a priori argument may owe its force to a mistaken hypothesis with regard to the matter in question; and that the true Baconian method, which is the glory of your English philosophy, would be to inquire first what the thing is, by recording observations and experiments made in its supposed direction.|

|At least Herr von Funkelstein has the best of the argument now, I am compelled to confess,| said Hugh.

Funkelstein bowed stiffly, and was silent.

|You rouse our curiosity,| said Mr. Arnold; |but I fear, after the free utterance which we have already given to our own judgments, in ignorance, of course, of your greater experience, you will not be inclined to make us wiser by communicating any of the said experience, however much we may desire to hear it.|

Had he been speaking to one of less evident social standing than Funkelstein, Mr. Arnold, if dying with curiosity, would not have expressed the least wish to be made acquainted with his experiences. He would have sat in apparent indifference, but in real anxiety that some one else would draw him out, and thus gratify his curiosity without endangering his dignity.

|I do not think,| replied Funkelstein, |that it is of any use to bring testimony to bear on such a matter. I have seen -- to use the words of some one else, I forget whom, on a similar subject -- I have seen with my own eyes what I certainly should never have believed on the testimony of another. Consequently, I have no right to expect that my testimony should be received. Besides, I do not wish it to be received, although I confess I shrink from presenting it with a certainty of its being rejected. I have no wish to make converts to my opinions.|

|Really, Herr von Funkelstein, at the risk of your considering me importunate, I would beg -- |

|Excuse me, Mr. Arnold. The recital of some of the matters to which you refer, would not only be painful to myself, but would be agitating to the ladies present.|

|In that case, I have only to beg your pardon for pressing the matter -- I hope no further than to the verge of incivility.|

|In no degree approaching it, I assure you, Mr. Arnold. In proof that I do not think so, I am ready, if you wish it -- although I rather dread the possible effects on the nerves of the ladies, especially as this is an old house -- to repeat, with the aid of those present, certain experiments which I have sometimes found perhaps only too successful.|

|Oh! I don't,| said Euphra, faintly.

An expression of the opposite desire followed, however, from the other ladies. Their curiosity seemed to strive with their fears, and to overcome them.

|I hope we shall have nothing to do with it in any other way than merely as spectators?| said Mrs. Elton.

|Nothing more than you please. It is doubtful if you can even be spectators. That remains to be seen.|

|Good gracious!| exclaimed Mrs. Elton.

Lady Emily looked at her with surprise -- almost reproof.

|I beg your pardon, my dear; but it sounds so dreadful. What can it be?|

|Let me entreat you, ladies, not to imagine that I am urging you to anything,| said Funkelstein.

|Not in the least,| replied Mrs. Elton. |I was very foolish.| And the old lady looked ashamed, and was silent.

|Then if you will allow me, I will make one small preparation. Have you a tool-chest anywhere, Mr. Arnold?|

|There must be tools enough about the place, I know. I will ring for Atkins.|

|I know where the tool chest is,| said Hugh; |and, if you will allow me a suggestion, would it not be better the servants should know nothing about this? There are some foolish stories afloat amongst them already.|

|A very proper suggestion, Mr. Sutherland,| said Mr. Arnold, graciously. |Will you find all that is wanted, then?|

|What tools do you want?| asked Hugh.

|Only a small drill. Could you get me an earthenware plate -- not china -- too?|

|I will manage that,| said Euphra.

Hugh soon returned with the drill, and Euphra with the plate. The Bohemian, with some difficulty, and the remark that the English ware was very hard, drilled a small hole in the rim of the plate -- a dinner-plate; then begging an H B drawing-pencil from Miss Cameron, cut off a small piece, and fitted it into the hole, making it just long enough to touch the table with its point when the plate lay in its ordinary position.

|Now I am ready,| said he. |But,| he added, raising his head, and looking all round the room, as if a sudden thought had struck him -- |I do not think this room will be quite satisfactory.|

They were now in the drawing-room.

|Choose the room in the house that will suit you,| said Mr. Arnold. |The dining-room?|

|Certainly not,| answered Funkelstein, as he took from his watch-chain a small compass and laid it on the table. |Not the dining-room, nor the breakfast-room -- I think. Let me see -- how is it situated?| He went to the hall, as if to refresh his memory, and then looked again at the compass. |No, not the breakfast-room.|

Hugh could not help thinking there was more or less of the charlatan about the man.

|The library?| suggested Lady Emily.

They adjourned to the library to see. The library would do. After some further difficulty, they succeeded in procuring a large sheet of paper and fastening it down to the table by drawing-pins. Only two candles were in the great room, and it was scarcely lighted at all by them; yet Funkelstein requested that one of these should be extinguished, and the other removed to a table near the door. He then said, solemnly:

|Let me request silence, absolute silence, and quiescence of thought even.|

After stillness had settled down with outspread wings of intensity, he resumed:

|Will any one, or, better, two of you, touch the plate as lightly as possible with your fingers?|

All hung back for a moment. Then Mr. Arnold came forward.

|I will,| said he, and laid his fingers on the plate.

|As lightly as possible, if you please. If the plate moves, follow it with your fingers, but be sure not to push it in any direction.|

|I understand,| said Mr. Arnold; and silence fell again.

The Bohemian, after a pause, spoke once more, but in a foreign tongue. The words sounded first like entreaty, then like command, and at last, almost like imprecation. The ladies shuddered.

|Any movement of the vehicle?| said he to Mr. Arnold.

If by the vehicle you mean the plate, certainly not,| said Mr. Arnold solemnly. But the ladies were very glad of the pretext for attempting a laugh, in order to get rid of the oppression which they had felt for some time.

|Hush!| said Funkelstein, solemnly. -- |Will no one else touch the plate, as well? It will seldom move with one. It does with me. But I fear I might be suspected of treachery, if I offered to join Mr. Arnold.|

|Do not hint at such a thing. You are beyond suspicion.|

What ground Mr. Arnold had for making such an assertion, was no better known to himself than to any one else present. Von Funkelstein, without another word, put the fingers of one hand lightly on the plate beside Mr. Arnold's. The plate instantly began to move upon the paper. The motion was a succession of small jerks at first; but soon it tilted up a little, and moved upon a changing point of support. Now it careered rapidly in wavy lines, sweeping back towards the other side, as often as it approached the extremity of the sheet, the men keeping their fingers in contact with it, but not appearing to influence its motion. Gradually the motion ceased. Von Funkelstein withdrew his hand, and requested that the other candle should be lighted. The paper was taken up and examined. Nothing could be discovered upon it, but a labyrinth of wavy and sweepy lines. Funkelstein pored over it for some minutes, and then confessed his inability to make a single letter out of it, still less words and sentences, as he had expected.

|But,| said he, |we are at least so far successful: it moves. Let us try again. Who will try next?|

|I will,| said Hugh, who had refrained at first, partly from dislike to the whole affair, partly because he shrank from putting himself forward.

A new sheet of paper was fixed. The candle was extinguished. Hugh put his fingers on the plate. In a second or two, it began to move.

|A medium!| murmured Funkelstein. He then spoke aloud some words unintelligible to the rest.

Whether from the peculiarity of his position and the consequent excitement of his imagination, or from some other cause, Hugh grew quite cold, and began to tremble. The plate, which had been careering violently for a few moments, now went more slowly, making regular short motions and returns, at right angles to its chief direction, as if letters were being formed by the pencil. Hugh shuddered, thinking he recognised the letters as they grew. The writing ceased. The candles were brought. Yes; there it was! -- not plain, but easily decipherable -- David Elginbrod. Hugh felt sick.

Euphra, looking on beside him, whispered:

|What an odd name! Who can it mean?|

He made no reply

Neither of the other ladies saw it; for Mrs. Elton had discovered, the moment the second candle was lighted, that Lady Emily was either asleep or in a faint. She was soon all but satisfied that she was asleep.

Hugh's opinion, gathered from what followed, was, that the Bohemian had not been so intent on the operations with the plate, as he had appeared to be; and that he had been employing part of his energy in mesmerising Lady Emily. Mrs. Elton, remembering that she had had quite a long walk that morning, was not much alarmed. Unwilling to make a disturbance, she rang the bell very quietly, and, going to the door, asked the servant who answered it, to send her maid with some eau-de-cologne. Meantime, the gentlemen had been too much absorbed to take any notice of her proceedings, and, after removing the one and extinguishing the other candle, had reverted to the plate. -- Hugh was still the operator.

Von Funkelstein spoke again in an unknown tongue. The plate began to move as before. After only a second or two of preparatory gyration, Hugh felt that it was writing Turriepuffit, and shook from head to foot.

Suddenly, in the middle of the word, the plate ceased its motion, and lay perfectly still. Hugh felt a kind of surprise come upon him, as if he waked from an unpleasant dream, and saw the sun shining. The morbid excitement of his nervous system had suddenly ceased, and a healthful sense of strength and every-day life took its place.

Simultaneously with the stopping of the plate, and this new feeling which I have tried to describe, Hugh involuntarily raised his eyes towards the door of the room. In the all-but-darkness between him and the door, he saw a pale beautiful face -- a face only. It was the face of Margaret Elginbrod; not, however, such as he had used to see it -- but glorified. That was the only word by which he could describe its new aspect. A mist of darkness fell upon his brain, and the room swam round with him. But he was saved from falling, or attracting attention to a weakness for which he could have made no excuse, by a sudden cry from Lady Emily.

|See! see!| she cried wildly, pointing towards one of the windows.

These looked across to another part of the house, one of the oldest, at some distance. -- One of its windows, apparently on the first floor, shone with a faint bluish light.

All the company had hurried to the window at Lady Emily's exclamation.

|Who can be in that part of the house?| said Mr. Arnold, angrily.

|It is Lady Euphrasia's window,| said Euphra, in a low voice, the tone of which suggested, somehow, that the speaker was very cold.

|What do you mean by speaking like that?| said Mr. Arnold, forgetting his dignity. |Surely you are above being superstitious. Is it possible the servants could be about any mischief? I will discharge any one at once, that dares go there without permission.|

The light disappeared, fading slowly out.

|Indeed, the servants are all too much alarmed, after what took place last year, to go near that wing -- much less that room,| said Euphra. |Besides, Mrs. Horton has all the keys in her own charge.|

|Go yourself and get me them, Euphra. I will see at once what this means. Don't say why you want them.|

|Certainly not, uncle.|

Hugh had recovered almost instantaneously. Though full of amazement, he had yet his perceptive faculties sufficiently unimpaired to recognise the real source of the light in the window. It seemed to him more like moonlight than anything else; and he thought the others would have seen it to be such, but for the effect of Lady Emily's sudden exclamation. Perhaps she was under the influence of the Bohemian at the moment. Certainly they were all in a tolerable condition for seeing whatever might be required of them. True, there was no moon to be seen; and if it was the moon, why did the light go out? But he found afterwards that he had been right. The house stood upon a rising ground; and, every recurring cycle, the moon would shine, through a certain vista of trees and branches, upon Lady Euphrasia's window; provided there had been no growth of twigs to stop up the channel of the light, which was so narrow that in a few moments the moon had crossed it. A gap in a hedge made by a bull that morning, had removed the last screen. -- Lady Euphrasia's window was so neglected and dusty, that it could reflect nothing more than a dim bluish shimmer.

|Will you all accompany me, ladies and gentlemen, that you may see with your own eyes that there is nothing dangerous in the house?| said Mr. Arnold.

Of course Funkelstein was quite ready, and Hugh as well, although he felt at this moment ill-fitted for ghost-hunting. The ladies hesitated; but at last, more afraid of being left behind alone, than of going with the gentlemen, they consented. Euphra brought the keys, and they commenced their march of investigation. Up the grand staircase they went, Mr. Arnold first with the keys, Hugh next with Mrs. Elton and Lady Emily, and the Bohemian, considerably to Hugh's dissatisfaction, bringing up the rear with Euphra. -- This misarrangement did more than anything else could have done, to deaden for the time the distraction of feeling produced in Hugh's mind by the events of the last few minutes. Yet even now he seemed to be wandering through the old house in a dream, instead of following Mr. Arnold, whose presence might well have been sufficient to destroy any illusion, except such as a Chinese screen might superinduce; for, possessed of far less imagination than a horse, he was incapable of any terrors, but such as had to do with robbers, or fire, or chartists -- which latter fear included both the former. He strode on securely, carrying a candle in one hand, and the keys in the other. Each of the other gentlemen likewise bore a light. They had to go through doors, some locked, some open, following a different route from that taken by Euphra on a former occasion.

But Mr. Arnold found the keys troublesome. He could not easily distinguish those he wanted, and was compelled to apply to Euphra. She left Funkelstein in consequence, and walked in front with her uncle. Her former companion got beside Lady Emily, and as they could not well walk four abreast, she fell behind with him. So Hugh got next to Euphra, behind her, and was comforted.

At length, by tortuous ways, across old rooms, and up and down abrupt little stairs, they reached the door of Lady Euphrasia's room. The key was found, and the door opened with some perturbation -- manifest on the part of the ladies, and concealed on the part of the men. The place was quite dark. They entered; and Hugh was greatly struck with its strange antiquity. Lady Euphrasia's ghost had driven the last occupant out of it nearly a hundred years ago; but most of the furniture was much older than that, having probably belonged to Lady Euphrasia herself. The room remained just as the said last occupant had left it. Even the bed-clothes remained, folded down, as if expecting their occupant for the last hundred years. The fine linen had grown yellow; and the rich counterpane lay like a churchyard after the resurrection, full of the open graves of the liberated moths. On the wall hung the portrait of a nun in convent-attire.

|Some have taken that for a second portrait of Lady Euphrasia,| said Mr. Arnold, |but it cannot be. -- Euphra, we will go back through the picture gallery. -- I suspect it of originating the tradition that Lady Euphrasia became a nun at last. I do not believe it myself. The picture is certainly old enough to stand for her, but it does not seem to me in the least like the other.|

It was a great room, with large recesses, and therefore irregular in form. Old chairs, with remnants of enamel and gilding, and seats of faded damask, stood all about. But the beauty of the chamber was its tapestry. The walls were entirely covered with it, and the rich colours had not yet receded into the dull grey of the past, though their gorgeousness had become sombre with age. The subject was the story of Samson.

|Come and see this strange piece of furniture,| said Euphra to Hugh, who had kept by her side since they entered this room.

She led him into one of the recesses, almost concealed by the bed-hangings. In it stood a cabinet of ebony, reaching nearly to the ceiling, curiously carved in high relief.

|I wish I could show you the inside of it,| she went on, |but I cannot now.|

This was said almost in a whisper. Hugh replied with only a look of thanks. He gazed at the carving, on whose black surface his candle made little light, and threw no shadows.

|You have looked at this before, Euphra,| said he. |Explain it to me.|

|I have often tried to find out what it is,| she answered; |but I never could quite satisfy myself about it.|

She proceeded, however, to tell him what she fancied it might mean, speaking still in the low tone which seemed suitable to the awe of the place. She got interested in showing him the relations of the different figures; and he made several suggestions as to the possible intention of the artist. More than one well-known subject was proposed and rejected.

Suddenly becoming aware of the sensation of silence, they looked up, and saw that theirs was the only light in the room. They were left alone in the haunted chamber. -- They looked at each other for one moment; then said, with half-stifled voices:

|Euphra!|

|Hugh!|

Euphra seemed half amused and half perplexed. Hugh looked half perplexed and wholly pleased.

|Come, come,| said Euphra, recovering herself, and leading the way to the door.

When they reached it, they found it closed and locked. Euphra raised her hand to beat on it. Hugh caught it.

|You will drive Lady Emily into fits. Did you not see how awfully pale she was?|

Euphra instantly lifted her hand again, as if she would just like to try that result. But Hugh, who was in no haste for any result, held her back.

She struggled for a moment or two, but not very strenuously, and, desisting all at once, let her arms drop by her sides.

|I fear it is too late. This is a double door, and Mr. Arnold will have locked all the doors between this and the picture-gallery. They are there now. What shall we do?|

She said this with an expression of comical despair, which would have made Hugh burst into laughter, had he not been too much pleased to laugh.

|Never mind,| he said, |we will go on with our study of the cabinet. They will soon find out that we are left behind, and come back to look for us.|

|Yes, but only fancy being found here!|

She laughed; but the laugh did not succeed. It could not hide a real embarrassment. She pondered, and seemed irresolute. Then with the words -- |They will say we stayed behind on purpose,| she moved her hand to the door, but again withdrew it, and stood irresolute.

|Let us put out the light.| said Hugh laughing, |and make no answer.|

|Can you starve well?|

|With you.|

She murmured something to herself; then said aloud and hastily, as if she had made up her mind by the compulsion of circumstances:

|But this won't do. They are still looking at the portrait, I daresay. Come.|

So saying, she went into another recess, and, lifting a curtain of tapestry, opened a door.

|Come quick,| she said.

Hugh followed her down a short stair into a narrow passage, nowhere lighted from the outside. The door went to behind them, as if some one had banged it in anger at their intrusion. The passage smelt very musty, and was as quiet as death.

|Not a word of this, Hugh, as you love me. It may be useful yet.|

|Not a word.|

They came through a sliding panel into an empty room. Euphra closed it behind them.

|Now shade your light.|

He did so. She took him by the hand. A few more turns brought them in sight of the lights of the rest of the party. As Euphra had conjectured, they were looking at the picture of Lady Euphrasia, Mr. Arnold prosing away to them, in proof that the nun could not be she. They entered the gallery without being heard; and parting a little way, one pretending to look at one picture, the other at another, crept gradually round till they joined the group. It was a piece of most successful generalship. Euphra was, doubtless, quite prepared with her story in case it should fail.

|Dear Lady Emily,| said she, |how tired you look! Do let us go, uncle.|

|By all means. Take my arm, Lady Emily. Euphra, will you take the keys again, and lock the doors?|

Mrs. Elton had already taken Hugh's arm, and was leading him away after Mr. Arnold and Lady Emily.

|I will not leave you behind with the spectres, Miss Cameron,| said Funkelstein.

|Thank you; they will not detain me long. They don't mind being locked up.|

It was some little time, however, before they presented themselves in the drawing-room, to which, and not to the library, the party had gone: they had had enough of horrors for that night.

Lest my readers should think they have had too many wonders at least, I will explain one of them. It was really Margaret Elginbrod whom Hugh had seen. Mrs. Elton was the lady in whose service she had left her home. It was nothing strange that they had not met, for Margaret knew he was in the same house, and had several times seen him, but had avoided meeting him. Neither was it a wonderful coincidence that they should be in such close proximity; for the college friend from whom Hugh had first heard of Mr. Arnold, was the son of the gentleman whom Mrs. Elton was visiting, when she first saw Margaret.

Margaret had obeyed her mistress's summons to the drawing-room, and had entered while Hugh was stooping over the plate. As the room was nearly dark, and she was dressed in black, her pale face alone caught the light and his eye as he looked up, and the giddiness which followed had prevented him from seeing more. She left the room the next moment, while they were all looking out of the window. Nor was it any exercise of his excited imagination that had presented her face as glorified. She was now a woman; and, there being no divine law against saying so, I say that she had grown a lady as well; as indeed any one might have foreseen who was capable of foreseeing it. Her whole nature had blossomed into a still, stately, lily-like beauty; and the face that Hugh saw was indeed the realised idea of the former face of Margaret.

But how did the plate move? and whence came the writing of old David's name? I must, for the present, leave the whole matter to the speculative power of each of my readers.

But Margaret was in mourning: was David indeed dead?

He was dead. -- Yet his name will stand as the name of my story for pages to come; because, if he had not been in it, the story would never have been worth writing; because the influence of that ploughman is the salt of the whole; because a man's life in the earth is not to be measured by the time he is visible upon it; and because, when the story is wound up, it will be in the presence of his spirit.

Do I then believe that David himself did write that name of his?

Heaven forbid that any friend of mine should be able to believe it!

Long before she saw him, Margaret had known, from what she heard among the servants, that Master Harry's tutor could be no other than her own tutor of the old time. By and by she learned a great deal about him from Harry's talk with Mrs. Elton and Lady Emily. But she did not give the least hint that she knew him, or betray the least desire to see him.

Mrs. Elton was amusingly bewildered by the occurrences of the evening. Her theories were something astounding; and followed one another with such alarming rapidity, that had they been in themselves such as to imply the smallest exercise of the thinking faculty, she might well have been considered in danger of an attack of brain-fever. As it was, none such supervened. Lady Emily said nothing, but seemed unhappy. As for Hugh, he simply could not tell what to make of the writing. But he did not for a moment doubt that the vision he had seen was only a vision -- a home-made ghost, sent out from his own creative brain. Still he felt that Margaret's face, come whence it might, was a living reproof to him; for he was losing his life in passion, sinking deeper in it day by day. His powers were deserting him. Poetry, usually supposed to be the attendant of love, had deserted him. Only by fits could he see anything beautiful; and then it was but in closest association of thought with the one image which was burning itself deeper and deeper into his mental sensorium. Come what might, he could not tear it away. It had become a part of himself -- of his inner life -- even while it seemed to be working the death of life. Deeper and deeper it would burn, till it reached the innermost chamber of life. Let it burn.

Yet he felt that he could not trust her. Vague hopes he had, that, by trusting, she might be made trustworthy; but he feared they were vain as well as vague. And yet he would not cast them away, for he could not cast her away.

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