"Only one passenger by the evening stage," said the landlady of the "Travelers' Repose," as she turned away from the window where she had been watching the cumbrous, old-fashioned vehicle that connected with the railroad, ten miles away.
Only on passenger a tall, fresh looking girl, with glossy musses of raven dark hair and eyes of liquid hazel. Marian Couchley was pretty, in the rare, blooming English style which is so seldom met with, more's the pity, upon this western continent of ours, and she was very self-possessed withal, as she entered the little inn parlor.
"Can you furnish me with a conveyance to 'Moreton Grange?" she asked of the landlady, who hustled forward to meet her.
"Then you must be the young lady as is coming as companion to Mrs. Moreton?" asked the hostess, with a spice of the curiosity inherited from Morther Eve.
"I am," said Marian, as independently as if she were owning herself the lady of the White House.
"It's a long drive, Miss," said Mrs. Ducey, "and you'd may be better take a bit of supper while Tom's harnessing up the horses. This night air ain't good on an empty stomach, and there're some of the nicest brook trout you ever seen, my man's just brought in."
So Marian sat down to wait; and Mrs. Ducey eyed her in a sidewise fashion as she brought in blue-edge cups and saucers, and homespun napkins, and fresh butter, and a huge bar of honeycomb, dripping sweetness.
"She's a lovely lookin' gal," thought Mrs. Ducey, and Mrs. Ducey was right. Marian looked like a queen as she sat there in her sober black robes, with a warm line of white about her throat, and the coronal of her jettylocks wreathed about her marble air brow.
Marian Couchley was thinking too. She was wondering how this new experiment of hers, to earn her own living, would end. She was sick at heart of the bread of dependence; yet, just now, she felt bewildered and strange, like a child lost in the woods. The only clue she had to follow was a brief advertisement in the newspapers, and that had led her hither.
She turned suddenly to Mrs. Ducey, as that thrifty dame entered with a plate of red smoked beef shaved very thin.
"Is Morgan Grange very far away?"
"Four miles, Miss."
"It must be very lonely."
Mrs. Ducey shook her head.
"I wouldn't like to live there that's all I've got to say!"
A thrill of apprehension ran through Marian's nerves.
"Well, Miss there ain't no accountin' for them things but people do tell strange stories about the Grange bein' haunted!"
"Haunted!" Marian's clear, bell-like laugh rang through the room with an indescribable accent of relief. "What nonsense! As if any one in the possession of their senses could credit such an idea."
"Tea is ready, Miss," said the landlady primly. "Will you please to set up and take a cup?"
The Grange, as Marian Couchley first saw it, by the light of a faint spring moon, was a glaring red brick house, its northern gables entirely draped with ivy, and its chimneys secluded from sight of the road by dense growing evergreens, cedar, hemlock and Norway spruces. Mrs. Moreton was on the steps to meet the newcomer a fair, pallid old lady, with silvery curls and a dress of pearl gray silk.
"I am glad to see you, my dear," she said, pressing the cold little hand. "You must have had a dreary ride.
And Marian Couchley knew that she should love her employer.
It was all so new and strange to her, the wide halls, with narrow strips of Persian carpeting laid along their centre in the echoing corridors, where weird faces stared down at her from the canvass of old family portraits, the light streaming down through stained-glass casements and oriels, seeming to bar the floors with scarlet and gold and deep, tremulous violet; while all the dwellers in the roomy mansion, except the servants, were Mrs. Moreton, her son Aldebert, and herself.
Aldebert Morton the name was like a knight of romance, and so was its owner. Marian's heart throbbed with a singular sensation, as she ventured once or twice to glance slyly as him as he sat opposite to her at the table.
"I hope you like your room, Miss," said the old housekeeper, as she glanced around the apartment to which she had conducted Miss Couchley.
"It is a beautiful room," said Marian, "but it is large enough for half a dozen."
"The whole house is large, Miss."
"Tell me," said Marian, drawing closer to the old woman, "what is it about this house being haunted?"
Mrs. Brett smiled.
"People will talk," she said. "and it's small use tryin' to stop 'em. And the truth is, strange things have happened in this house, although its haunted by nothing worse than sad memories. When I was in my prime it was a different place. Master Aldebert is the last and youngest of three as noble boys as ever made an old place glad."
"And what has become of the others?"
"The eldest is dead," Mrs. Brett answered in a whisper. "He lies in a bloody grave, stricken down by the hand of his own brother in a sudden fit of passion. Poor Mr. Hugh! he fled the country to escape from justice, and died in England. It nearly killed my mistress, and Hush! there's her bell now, and I must go."
And with a hurried adieu, the old housekeeper hastened away.
So this was the history of the Moreton Grange! Marian Couchley shuddered as she sat alone by the fire, fancying the cry of a murdered man in every sigh of the wind, and seeing the flutter of ghostly garments in the shadow that lurked in the far end of the huge room.
Yet as the days went by, the old Grange assumed a home-like look to her. Mrs. Moreton was all gentle sweetness, and Aldebert's chivalric kindness endured him inexpressibly to the solitary girl. She began to feel that she had found a refuge. But it was not destined to last for long.
She was sitting at her window one moonlight night in July, long after the family had retired to rest, when something white and spectral glided across the luminous space on the lawn the figure of a tall man, not unlike Moreton!
She started up with a slight scream, and buried here face in the draperies of the window.
"The ghost!" she gasped inaudibly; "the ghost!"
Nor did she rest until she had taken refuge in Mrs. Moreton's room.
The old lady listened to her tale with trembling silence.
"My dear," said she, "you are mistaken. The dwellers of another world are never allowed to come back to haunt this. You were asleep you dreamed unconsciously."
"Dear Mrs. Moreton," persisted Marian, "I was as wide awake as I am now. I tell you I saw it with my own eyes. It was tall and white, and oh, how gastly."
She shuddered as she spoke. Mrs Moreton soothed, explained and coaxed, but in vain. Marian would not even go back to her own room alone, so complete had been the shock.
"I will go with you, my dear," said the old lady, at length.
She arose, threw on a light flannel dressing gown, and opened the door of her apartment. As they stepped out into the wide hall, Marian uttered a piercing cry. There, full before them, stood the ghost.
Mrs. Moreton drew Marian back into her room, shut and locked the door, and sank trembling on the sofa, clasping both her hands before her eyes.
"Did I not tell you?" faltered Marian. "How can you explain away this?"
Mrs. Moreton had no word of answer; she could only rock herself backward and forward, moaning like one in mortal pale.
"You must not go from this room tonight, child," she said. "Lie down upon my bed, and try to rest."
Toward morning Marian waked from a brief, fevered slumber, and found herself alone; and when she next met Mrs. Moreton, it was at the breakfast table.
Aldebert entered the room later. He was pale and strangely agitated, and his mother looked wistfully up in his face as he entered. He nodded slightly.
"At last," he said.
"Thank God!" Mrs. Moreton murmured.
And Marian noticed that neither mother nor son ate a morsel of the breakfast, so temptingly laid out.
Marian went to Mrs. Moreton, as soon as Adlebert had withdrawn, and falteringly imparted to her her resolve to leave Moreton Grange. Their kindness had made it very pleasant to her; she had been treated more as an equal than a salaried dependent; but the shock her nervous system had last night received rendered it impossible for her to remain longer.
Mrs. Moreton listened in silence.
"Aldebert," she said to her son, who at that moment entered, "Miss Couchley is going to leave us."
"To leave us! And why?"
Involuntarily Marian's heart leaped up, as she saw the sudden flush upon his death-pale forehead.
"She saw the ghost, last night!" said Mrs. Moreton, speaking the words with an effort.
"She will never see it again," said Aldebert Moreton sadly. "Marian" he had never called her Marian before, and the word sounded strangely sweet in her ears "you will come with me?"
He led her to a darkened apartment in the disused portion of the old Grange, where upon a canopied couch, a dead corpse lay, robed in the garments of a grave!
"There is the ghost you saw, Marian," he said; "it will never haunt these glades again."
"Who is it?" she faltered, clinging to his arm, with awe-stricken face.
"My brother Hugh, who has long dwelt concealed within these walls that witnessed his crime and his daily atonement of remorse, and who is at length set free by the great pardoner Death. Immured in necessary retirement throughout the day, he used to seek air and exercise at night; and the common people, who had fancied him dead in England long ago, and who delight in aught savoring of superstition, believed, from an occasional glimpse of him, that the Grange was haunted. We let the story gain credence; better anything than divulgence of the truth. The long deception is over at last, and the poor prisoner, thank Heaven, is set free. Last night he roamed out, half delirious, in the temporary absence of his nurse, returning only to die."
He led Marian from the room; she breathed more freely in the fresh air of the portico without.
"Marian," pursued Aldebert, in a low earnest voice, "you will not leave the Grange now? With you its sunshine would all depart?"
"I will stay," she answered.
"But not as my mothers companion, Marian; that must all be over now. You must stay here as my wife!"
And from the wedding day of the last heir of Moreton Grange, a newer, brighter life dawned upon the old place. As the years crept on, and the sound of little children's voices made music around the gray walls, the shadows fled away, and no one, save Aldebrt and his wife, ever knew where the murderer was laid to rest, after his long penance of solitude and remorse!
Moreton Grange was haunted no longer.August 3, 1895. Door County Advocate 34(16): 3. Published at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Some archaic spellings were updated.