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By Robert W. Chambers, LAFCADIO HEARN, Bernard Capes, HUGH LAMB
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Mrs. G. Linnaeus Banks
In her introduction to Through the Night (1882), Isabella Banks remarked on the strange anomaly "that the era of hard science and scoffing unbelief should have given so many mystic and ghost stories to our literature." And she was right, of course; the hard-nosed Victorian age gave birth to a host of spectral tales. Mrs. Linnaeus Banks was merely echoing the bewilderment of so many authors who found an avid market for their collections of ghost stories.
Mrs. Banks' Through the Night, subtitled Tales of Shades and Shadows, was based on her own experiences and contact with others who had, as she put it, been "visited by apparitions." Isabella Banks, however, came from a most unfanciful background. Born in Manchester in 1821, she was the granddaughter of James Varley, discoverer of the use of chloride of lime. At the age of twenty-five she married the poet and journalist George Linnaeus Banks, and it seems he must have encouraged her to write. Her first book appeared in 1865 and she went on to publish over twenty more. As well as Through the Night, Mrs. Banks wrote two other books of short stories—The Watchmaker's Daughter (1882) and Sybilla (1884)—which are almost perfectly representative of Victorian literature as it passed through its moral preaching stage.
A keen antiquarian, Isabella Banks amassed an extensive collection of shells and fossils, and garnered many odd tales for use in her stories. The bulk of her fiction seems to have appeared after her husband's death in 1881; she published at least two books the next year, and she continued writing until her death in 1897.
"The Pride of the Corbyns" comes from Through the Night, and is based on what has become a well known legend of the Caribbean (some works on the Devil's Triangle even drag the original legend in to their canon). Of this legend Mrs. Banks says the following: "A West Indian friend who described to me the mausoleum said to be the scene of midnight disturbance and consequent terror such as I have portrayed did so as a verity of which he had not the slightest doubt. The intrusion of alien dead is a motive, the potency of which can scarcely be understood at this time and in England. The two hurricanes which I attempt to describe are matters of Barbadian history; the family names are those of early settlers."
Mrs. Banks' potent motive, incidentally, is based on some racial prejudice which may seem odd in our more enlightened times. Please bear in mind that in Mrs. Banks' day, such things were taken far more seriously, and that the idiosyncrasy of our time was often the genuine concern of the 1880s.
The Pride of the Corbyns
I. THE LAST OF THE CORBYNS
Death stood knocking at Archibald Corbyn's door—not at the door of Corbyn Hall, but at the door of the Corbyn heart; and when that had ceased to beat, one of the oldest, wealthiest, proudest, and most aristocratic families in Barbados would be extinct.
It was a boast of Archibald that the highland district in the north-west, of which Mount Hillaby is the centre, owed its name of Scotland to the loyalty of the first Corbyn, who, settling beneath the shadow of those conical hills, first cleared away dense forests of the bearded fig for the better cultivation of cotton.
He was one of those nine British merchants who, in the reign of Charles I, landed and built Bridgetown as a commercial depot, each having a grant of a thousand acres. Tracing down the family history, Archibald would tell with a glow how another Corbyn had introduced the sugar-cane into the island, in spite of troublous times, and how he erected the first primitive windmill to crush out the sap, when he had only open-air boilers in which to crystallize that sap into golden sugar and golden coin.
Riding home from St. Andrew's church on one of these occasions, with his old friend and shipping agent, Matthias Walcot, he pointed to a mound, below which two streams, rushing right and left of Corbyn Hall from the mountains, there met at a sharp angle, and ran on to join Church River until that ended in a lakelet known as Long Pond, partially barred by sand and vegetable wash from the sea.
"There, Matthias," he said, "the first Corbyn roof-tree stood just where that group of courida-trees now casts a shadow over the grass. It was but a rude wooden shed with palm-leaf thatch but young colonists have to rough it, and if a man has pith in him, what matter?"
As they turned from the white mountain road into the long avenue of sandbox and cocoa-nut trees, and neared his handsome two-floored, square, stone mansion, with pillared piazzas and overhanging balconies on three sides, he told how he owed the substantial abode before them to the spirit of desolation which, riding on the wings of devastating hurricanes, had in two successive centuries swept homesteads and plantation into one indiscriminate wreck.
"That was in 1780, when Jamie Corbyn, my grandfather, was the owner. He was a man with pith in him, was Jamie; and when he saw his plank walls flying about like so many palm-leaves, he just made up his mind to build under a sheltering nook of the hills; and since stone came almost as handy as wood, he built a house that should stand during his lifetime and his son's after him."
"Well, Mr. Corbyn, it is an ill wind that blows no one good," Mr. Walcot put in. "It blew the Corbyns a house that will last."
Archibald's mood changed; he sighed heavily. "Ay, friend Matthias; it did blow the Corbyns a home to last—a home sacred from intrusion. Our dead were washed out of their graves, and my grandfather, horrified, planned and built yon solid half-sunken mausoleum at the extremity of the wood to receive the ancestors the hurricane had unearthed. And there he too lies, with his sons and daughters in niches by his side; and there I in time shall be laid, with no child nor relative to mourn or follow me. My dear brother Charles lies under the sea, and I am the last of the Corbyns," with another sigh. "He built a home for the living and a home for the dead, to serve for many generations to come; but I am the last of my uncontaminated race, and when the mausoleum doors close upon me they will close for ever."
Uncontaminated! Ah, there the full pride of the Corbyns spoke out. No drop of Indian or negro blood flowed in Corbyn veins. He was pure white as his first English ancestor; could draw his fingers through his hair without showing a tinge of blue in his oval nails, or the slightest "kink" in his flowing locks—a grand distinction this in Barbados, where so few even of the wealthy planters but had a taint of the creole in their composition, however infinitesimal. And no West Indian could more fully appreciate the value of the vaunt than Matthias Walcot.
But Death knocking at Archibald Corbyn's door was growing clamorous, and black blood or white would be all as one within the hour.
Dr. Hawley and Matthias Walcot stood by his bedside, and Dinah, his old negro nurse, readjusted his disordered pillow or wiped the heavy dew from his clammy forehead with gentle, sympathetic hands, and watched his wasted fingers pick the counterpane with sad forebodings.
With quick intelligence she caught the meaning of a glance from the doctor to Mr. Walcot, and escaping from the chamber by the open window, with her big black hands before her face, she leaned over the edge of the balcony to sob out of sight and hearing.
Yet her own ears were alert for any sound from the sick-room, and presently the faint voice of her dying master attracted her attention. True to negro instinct, curiosity arrested grief. She crept nearer to the open window.
He was saying, in feeble gasps, "Will in my desk—I've left you—sole executor, Matthias. I know I can trust you. Use my slaves well, and—no whipping, Matt!"
There was a pause. The doctor administered a stimulant; Archibald evidently revived.
"And, Matthias—I—charge you—leave no stone unturned—find a Corbyn to inherit—Charlie's dead body never found—may be after all—I—not—last of the Corbyns. Mausoleum close for ever—Corbyns extinct—pure race—"
The voice was lost in indistinct murmurs. There was silence.
"He's gone!" whispered Mr. Walcot; "hush!"
The doctor placed a finger on his lips, and with the other hand checked Dinah's impulsive return to the room.
"Matthias—England—advertise—I have—last Corb—"
Close the jalousies: exclude the light. The master of Corbyn Hall can neither see the sunshine nor hear the universal wail from every corner of that wide estate. Archibald Corbyn, too proud of birth to do aught unworthy his pure blood, has been a master without peer!
There was a small grating in the thick door of the mausoleum, which was reached by a descent of four or five steps. This entrance, which fronted a bye-road, was bricked up. The mausoleum itself was a solid stone structure, with little or no attempt at ornament; externally about fourteen yards square; with a domed roof rising not more than four feet above the level of the road; the ground on all four sides sloping downwards towards the building. It was consequently in a deep hollow, and was further sheltered from high winds by the hills which rose steeply above the road on the other side, and by the wood which had marched up to its three sides like a protecting army of giants.
It was mid-day. The ripe pendulous pods of the thorny sandbox tree burst one after another, and scattering their seed-rings to earth with sharp reports, as if a platoon of distant musketry proclaimed the fall of each. But another ripe seed was ready to be "sown in corruption," and a louder report proclaimed that.
It was the invariable gun fired through the unbricked grating, to dissipate noxious gases generated within, lest the opening of the vault for the dead should let out pestilence on the living.
A night had passed. The vault was purified; the door stood open. From all parts of Barbados planters and others had assembled to show their respect for the dead. Rising and falling with the undulations of the hills, a long procession of carriages and pedestrians marked the white road with a line of black for half a mile or more. Slaves and friends, bond and free, white, creole, quadroon, mulatto, and black, were there with sable suits and white head-gear; but of all those hundreds, not one relative to hold the pall or shed a tear over the silver-mounted black coffin as it was borne to its niche in the sepulchre with solemn funeral rites; and the door was closed on hospitable Archibald, the "last of the Corbyns."
"Brick it up close, Dan," said centenarian Cuffy to the labourer at work; "nebber be opened no more. Massa nebber rest in him grave if a drop of nigger blood be berried with him. An' I'm 'fraid, Dan, there be no real white massa to come after good ole massa."
"'Fraid not, Cuffy?" questioned Dan ruefully—for Cuffy was the oracle of the plantation—adding, "Ah, him proud gemp'lman, but him berry good to black man. Wonder who be massa now?"
A momentous question this to a slave!
Cuffy extended his withered arm to an opening between the distant foliage, where a glimpse of the shining Atlantic might be seen three miles away.
"Ib dat hungry sea swallow up young Massa Charles, I much 'fraid, Dan, Massa Walcot will be. He got a splash ob colour in him, but his heart no so warm as our poor massa's for all dat"; and old Cuffy turned away mournfully, shaking his head.
Corbyn Hall had got a new master. The will which made Matthias Walcot sole executor made him virtually proprietor.
All that stood between him and absolute ownership was the very improbable chance that Archibald's younger brother, Charles, had escaped when the Mermaid, in which he had sailed from Bristol seven years before, foundered off the Irish coast, and not a soul was known to be saved. There was also the remote possibility of his having left a legitimate heir on dry land; but as no echo of wedding-bells had ever wafted to the brother in Barbados, this was as improbable.
The brothers had parted in anger; and Archibald had never been his own man after the Mermaid went down. He was only forty-eight when he died; and his will was full of mournful regret. Matthias was enjoined to spare no cost, neglect no means to find a rightful heir; but if within ten years no claimant could be discovered, then—and not till then—Matthias Walcot and his heirs were to possess the Corbyn estate, with all its living brood, in perpetuity.
Matthias Walcot passed as an honourable man amongst men; had been esteemed and trusted by the dead; would have resented the charge of dishonesty. But the temptation was great, and he was not.
Prompt to take possession, he was not prompt in measures which might eventually oust himself and his. He made languid official inquiries at first; sent occasional advertisements to an English newspaper; and persuaded himself, and tried to persuade Dr. Hawley, that he had been very active.
II. THE WALCOTS AT HOME
I said Corbyn Hall had a new master; I should have said a mistress and three masters, a younger lady being thrown in. There was Mrs. Walcot, dominant, of large dimensions and lofty pretensions; there was Miss Walcot, slight, languid, listless, and intensely fashionable; and there were two sons, William and Stephen, the most bumptious of all bumptious Barbadians.
What a revolution their advent created in that hospitable, free-and-easy bachelor household! The will interdicted unnecessary change until heirship was determined. But Mrs. Walcot was disposed to read its provisions liberally. She did not sell or destroy plain or old-fashioned fittings: they were simply huddled into a lumber-room out of her way, and replaced with the very brightest and newest importations from Europe, before even the dogs and horses had well learned to recognize the new mastership.
Matthias himself forgot he was only executor. He turned his shipping agency and his stifling office on the wharf over to his tall sons, and settled down comfortably at Corbyn Hall as proprietor and planter. But Mrs. Walcot was fond of society, and was not content to dwell for ever ten miles from town and two or three from their nearest neighbours; so their old house at the Folly was retained, ostensibly for the convenience of William and Stephen, and the lady rejoiced in a town-house and a country-house, and became a very grand personage indeed. She oscillated between the two houses, paid and received visits, went shopping, and ransacked the heterogeneous stores of every dealer in Broadstreet, to the intense disgust of Scipio, her mulatto charioteer, whose lazy life was at an end.
Nor was Scipio the only grumbler on the estate. Flippant lady's-maids invaded the sanctity of Chloe's kitchen and Cassy's laundry. Will and Steve in house or stable were as ready to use their riding-whips on the shoulders of valet or groom as on the flanks of their steeds. There were sharp overseers in the boiling-sheds, on the rocky slopes amongst the waving yellow canes and the changeful fields of Indian corn, and among the bursting cotton-pods. The change sank into the negro heart, and from Chloe in her kitchen to Cufly in his distant hut, there were sunken spirits and low-voiced murmurings. If a "boy" carried his dish of cuckoo to window or door sill, or squatted on mat or ground outside to eat his dinner at ease, he was sure to become the centre of a group no longer shaking their fat sides with laughter, but shaking their woolly heads mysteriously, and comparing the present régime with the past.
Dinah—or aunt Dinah, as she was called—who had nursed the infant, sick, and dying Corbyns for two generations, and ruled supreme in Archibald's home, had been deposed, and the poor old thing fretted much. It was none of Mr. Walcot's doing. Had he been consulted, he might have remembered her presence in the planter's death-chamber, and from motives of policy left her to govern her coloured blood as of yore.
Yet even he knew not what she had heard, nor how it had worked in her brain. As it was, she brooded over her dying master's words, and felt their import greater than reality.
Old Cuffy—still the nominal head-gardener—she made the depositary of her knowledge, and the pair held frequent and solemn conference. From these twain, no doubt, the first faint murmurings against Walcot rule went out like a breath, as soft and unsuspected. And now aunt Dinah was troubled with ominous dreams, and Cuffy grew portentously prophetic.
Meanwhile Mrs. Walcot, blessedly obtuse, prepared to give a grand ball before the rainy season should set in, with one matchmaking eye for Laura and another for William, who had set both his on a lovely orphan heiress, then the ward of the Rev. John Fulton.
Vainly Matthias, with due regard to appearances, urged that it was "too soon." Madam was wilful, and issued her invitations to the cream of Barbadian society, with a select few of her former Bridgetown friends, whom she hoped to overpower with her grandeur.
Excerpted from Gaslit Horror by Robert W. Chambers, LAFCADIO HEARN, Bernard Capes, HUGH LAMB. Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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