Less well-remembered today than his lifelong friends, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, Maurice Baring (1874-1945) left an interesting body of writings still worthwhile for modern readers to explore. Like R. H. Benson, and later Chesterton, Baring was part of a wave of Anglicans who converted to Roman Catholicism in the first decades of the 20th century. After serving in the Royal Air Force during World War I, Baring began a career as a dramatist and novelist. A well-traveled aristocrat, his stories and essays often reflect these qualities as the following brief tales suggest. Taken from Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Stories (1909), “The Shadow of a Midnight” and “The Ikon” are not typical ghost stories, but each piece describes a mysterious chain of events quite out of the ordinary.
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The Shadow of a Midnight
It was nine o’clock in the evening. Sasha, the maid, had brought in the samovar and placed it at the head of the long table. Marie Nikolaevna, our hostess, poured out the tea. Her husband was playing Vindt with his daughter, the doctor, and his son-in-law in another corner of the room. And Jameson, who had just finished his Russian lesson—he was working for the Civil Service examination—was reading the last number of the Rouskoe Slovo.
“Have you found anything interesting, Frantz Frantzovitch?” said Marie Nikolaevna to Jameson, as she handed him a glass of tea.
“Yes, I have,” answered the Englishman, looking up. His eyes had a clear dreaminess about them, which generally belongs only to fanatics or visionaries, and I had no reason to believe that Jameson, who seemed to be common sense personified, was either one or the other. “At least,” he continued, “it interests me. And it’s odd—very odd.”
“What is it?” asked Marie Nikolaevna.
“Well, to tell you what it is would mean a long story which you wouldn’t believe,” said Jameson; “only it’s odd—very odd.”
“Tell us the story,” I said.
“As you won’t believe a word of it,” Jameson repeated, “it’s not much use my telling it.”
We insisted on hearing the story, so Jameson lit a cigarette, and began:—
“Two years ago,” he said, “I was at Heidelberg, at the University, and I made friends with a young fellow called Braun. His parents were German, but he had lived five or six years in America, and he was practically an American. I made his acquaintance by chance at a lecture, when I first arrived, and he helped me in a number of ways. He was an energetic and kind-hearted fellow, and we became great friends. He was a student, but he did not belong to any Korps or Bursenschaft, he was working hard then. Afterwards he became an engineer. When the summer Semester came to an end, we both stayed on at Heidelberg. One day Braun suggested that we should go for a walking tour and explore the country. I was only too pleased, and we started. It was glorious weather, and we enjoyed ourselves hugely. On the third night after we had started we arrived at a village called Salzheim. It was a picturesque little place, and there was a curious old church in it with some interesting tombs and relics of the Thirty Years War. But the inn where we put up for the night was even more picturesque than the church. It had been a convent for nuns, only the greater part of it had been burnt, and only a quaint gabled house, and a kind of tower covered with ivy, which I suppose had once been the belfry, remained. We had an excellent supper and went to bed early. We had been given two bedrooms, which were airy and clean, and altogether we were satisfied. My bedroom opened into Braun’s, which was beyond it, and had no other door of its own. It was a hot night in July, and Braun asked me to leave the door open. I did—we opened both the windows. Braun went to bed and fell asleep almost directly, for very soon I heard his snores.
“I had imagined that I was longing for sleep, but no sooner had I got into bed than all my sleepiness left me. This was odd, because we had walked a good many miles, and it had been a blazing hot day, and up till then I had slept like a log the moment I got into bed. I lit a candle and began reading a small volume of Heine I carried with me. I heard the clock strike ten, and then eleven, and still I felt that sleep was out of the question. I said to myself: ‘I will read till twelve and then I will stop.’ My watch was on a chair by my bedside, and when the clock struck eleven I noticed that it was five minutes slow, and set it right. I could see the church tower from my window, and every time the clock struck—and it struck the quarters—the noise boomed through the room.
“When the clock struck a quarter to twelve I yawned for the first time, and I felt thankful that sleep seemed at last to be coming to me. I left off reading, and taking my watch in my hand I waited for midnight to strike. This quarter of an hour seemed an eternity. At last the hands of my watch showed that it was one minute to twelve. I put out my candle and began counting sixty, waiting for the clock to strike. I had counted a hundred and sixty, and still the clock had not struck. I counted up to four hundred; then I thought I must have made a mistake. I lit my candle again, and looked at my watch: it was two minutes past twelve. And still the clock had not struck!
“A curious uncomfortable feeling came over me, and I sat up in bed with my watch in my hand and longed to call Braun, who was peacefully snoring, but I did not like to. I sat like this till a quarter past twelve; the clock struck the quarter as usual. I made up my mind that the clock must have struck twelve, and that I must have slept for a minute—at the same time I knew I had not slept—and I put out my candle. I must have fallen asleep almost directly.
“The next thing I remember was waking with a start. It seemed to me that some one had shut the door between my room and Braun’s. I felt for the matches. The match-box was empty. Up to that moment—I cannot tell why—something—an unaccountable dread—had prevented me looking at the door. I made an effort and looked. It was shut, and through the cracks and through the keyhole I saw the glimmer of a light. Braun had lit his candle. I called him, not very loudly: there was no answer. I called again more loudly: there was still no answer.
“Then I got out of bed and walked to the door. As I went, it was gently and slightly opened, just enough to show me a thin streak of light. At that moment I felt that some one was looking at me. Then it was instantly shut once more, as softly as it had been opened. There was not a sound to be heard. I walked on tiptoe towards the door, but it seemed to me that I had taken a hundred years to cross the room. And when at last I reached the door I felt I could not open it. I was simply paralysed with fear. And still I saw the glimmer through the key-hole and the cracks.
“Suddenly, as I was standing transfixed with fright in front of the door, I heard sounds coming from Braun’s room, a shuffle of footsteps, and voices talking low but distinctly in a language I could not understand. It was not Italian, Spanish, nor French. The voices grew all at once louder; I heard the noise of a struggle and a cry which ended in a stifled groan, very painful and horrible to hear. Then, whether I regained my self-control, or whether it was excess of fright which prompted me, I don’t know, but I flew to the door and tried to open it. Some one or something was pressing with all its might against it. Then I screamed at the top of my voice, and as I screamed I heard the cock crow.
“The door gave, and I almost fell into Braun’s room. It was quite dark. But Braun was waked by my screams and quietly lit a match. He asked me gently what on earth was the matter. The room was empty and everything was in its place. Outside the first greyness of dawn was in the sky.
“I said I had had a nightmare, and asked him if he had not had one as well; but Braun said he had never slept better in his life.
“The next day we went on with our walking tour, and when we got back to Heidelberg Braun sailed for America. I never saw him again, although we corresponded frequently, and only last week I had a letter from him, dated Nijni Novgorod, saying he would be at Moscow before the end of the month.
“And now I suppose you are all wondering what this can have to do with anything that’s in the newspaper. Well, listen,” and he read out the following paragraph from the Rouskoe Slovo:—
“Samara, II, ix. In the centre of the town, in the Hotel —, a band of armed swindlers attacked a German engineer named Braun and demanded money. On his refusal one of the robbers stabbed Braun with a knife. The robbers, taking the money which was on him, amounting to 500 roubles, got away. Braun called for assistance, but died of his wounds in the night. It appears that he had met the swindlers at a restaurant.”
“Since I have been in Russia,” Jameson added, “I have often thought that I knew what language it was that was talked behind the door that night in the inn at Salzheim, but now I know it was Russian.”
Audio from Librivox
Ferroll was an intellectual, and he prided himself on the fact. At Cambridge he had narrowly missed being a Senior Wrangler, and his principal study there had been Lunar Theory. But when he went down from Cambridge for good, being a man of some means, he travelled. For a year he was an honorary Attache at one of the big Embassies. He finally settled in London with a vague idea of some day writing a magnum opus about the stupidity of mankind; for he had come to the conclusion by the age of twenty-five that all men were stupid, irreclaimably, irredeemably stupid; that everything was wrong; that all literature was really bad, all art much overrated, and all music tedious in the long run.
The years slipped by and he never began his magnum opus; he joined a literary club instead and discussed the current topic of the day. Sometimes he wrote a short article; never in the daily Press, which he despised, nor in the reviews (for he never wrote anything as long as a magazine article), but in a literary weekly he would express in weary and polished phrases the unemphatic boredom or the mitigated approval with which the works of his fellow-men inspired him. He was the kind of man who had nothing in him you could positively dislike, but to whom you could not talk for five minutes without having a vague sensation of blight. Things seemed to shrivel up in his presence as though they had been touched by an insidious east wind, a subtle frost, a secret chill. He never praised anything, though he sometimes condescended to approve. The faint puffs of blame in which he more generally indulged were never sharp or heavy, but were like the smoke rings of a cigarette which a man indolently smoking blows from time to time up to the ceiling.
He lived in rooms in the Temple. They were comfortably, not luxuriously furnished; a great many French books—French was the only modern language worth reading he used to say—a few modern German etchings, a low Turkish divan, and some Egyptian antiquities, made up the furniture of his two sitting-rooms. Above all things he despised Greek art; it was, he said decadent. The Egyptians and the Germans were, in his opinion, the only people who knew anything about the plastic arts, whereas the only music he could endure was that of the modern French School. Over his chimney-piece there was a large German landscape in oils, called “Im Walde”; it represented a wood at twilight in the autumn, and if you looked at it carefully and for a long time you saw that the objects depicted were meant to be trees from which the leaves were falling; but if you looked at the picture carelessly and from a distance, it looked like a man-of-war on a rough sea, for which it was frequently taken, much to Ferrol’s annoyance.
One day an artist friend of his presented him with a small Chinese god made of crystal; he put this on his chimney-piece. It was on the evening of the day on which he received this gift that he dined, together with a friend named Sledge who had travelled much in Eastern countries, at his club. After dinner they went to Ferrol’s rooms to smoke and to talk. He wanted to show Sledge his antiquities, which consisted of three large Egyptian statuettes, a small green Egyptian god, and the Chinese idol which he had lately been given. Sledge, who was a middle-aged, bearded man, frank and unconventional, examined the antiquities with care, pronounced them to be genuine, and singled out for special praise the crystal god.
“Your things are very good,” he said, “very good. But don’t you really mind having all these things about you?”
“Why should I mind?” asked Ferrol.
“Well, you have travelled a good deal, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” said Ferrol, “I have travelled; I have been as far east as Nijni-Novgorod to see the Fair, and as far west as Lisbon.”
“I suppose,” said Sledge, “you were a long time in Greece and Italy?”
“No,” said Ferrol, “I have never been to Greece. Greek art distresses me. All classical art is a mistake and a superstition.”
“Talking of superstition,” said Sledge, “you have never been to the Far East, have you?”
“No,” Ferrol answered, “Egypt is Eastern enough for me, and cannot be bettered.”
“Well,” said Sledge, “I have been in the Far East. I have lived there many years. I am not a superstitious man; but there is one thing I would not do in any circumstances whatsoever, and that is to keep in my sitting-room the things you have got there.”
“But why?” asked Ferrol.
“Well,” said Sledge, “nearly all of them have come from the tombs of the dead, and some of them are gods. Such things may have attached to them heaven knows what spooks and spirits.”
Ferrol shut his eyes and smiled, a faint, seraphic smile. “My dear boy,” he said, “you forget. This is the Twentieth Century.”
“And you,” answered Sledge, “forget that the things you have here were made before the Twentieth Century. B.C.”
“You don’t seriously mean,” said Ferrol, “that you attach any importance to these—” he hesitated.
“Children’s stories?” suggested Sledge.
“I have lived long enough in the East,” said Sledge, “to know that the sooner you learn to believe children’s stories the better.”
“I am afraid, then,” said Ferrol, with civil tolerance, “that our points of view are too different for us to discuss the matter.” And they talked of other things until late into the night.
Just as Sledge was leaving Ferrol’s rooms and had said “Good-night,” he paused by the chimney-piece, and, pointing to the tiny Ikon which was lying on it, asked: “What is that?”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” said Ferrol, “only a small Ikon I bought for twopence at the Fair of Nijni-Novgorod.”
Sledge said “Good-night” again, but when he was on the stairs he called back: “In any case remember one thing, that East is East and West is West. Don’t mix your deities.”
Ferrol had not the slightest idea what he was alluding to, nor did he care. He dismissed the matter from his mind.
The next day he spent in the country, returning to London late in the evening. As he entered his rooms the first thing which met his eye was that his great picture, “Im Walde,” which he considered to be one of the few products of modern art that a man who respected himself could look at without positive pain in the eyes, had fallen from its place over the chimney-piece to the floor in front of the fender, and the glass was shattered into a thousand fragments. He was much vexed. He sought the cause of the accident. The nail was a strong one, and it was still in its place. The picture had been hung by a wire; the wire seemed strong also and was not broken. He concluded that the picture must have been badly balanced and that a sudden shock such a door banging had thrown it over. He had no servant in his rooms, and when he had gone out that morning he had locked the door, so no one could have entered his rooms during his absence.
Next morning he sent for a framemaker and told him to mend the frame as soon as possible, to make the wire strong, and to see that the picture was firmly fixed on the wall. In two or three days’ time the picture returned and was once more hung on the wall over the chimney-piece immediately above the little crystal Chinese god. Ferrol supervised the hanging of the picture in person. He saw that the nail was strong, and firmly fixed in the wall; he took care that the wire left nothing to be desired and was properly attached to the rings of the picture.
The picture was hung early one morning. That day he went to play golf. He returned at five o’clock, and again the first thing which met his eye was the picture. It had again fallen down, and this time it had brought with it in its fall the small Chinese god, which was broken in two. The glass had again been shattered to bits, and the picture itself was somewhat damaged. Everything else on the chimney-piece, that is to say, a few matchboxes and two candle-sticks, had also been thrown to the ground—everything with the exception of the little Ikon he had bought at Nijni-Novgorod, a small object about two inches square on which two Saints were pictured. This still rested in its place against the wall.
Ferrol investigated the disaster. The nail was in its place in the wall; the wire at the back of the picture was not broken or damaged in any way. The accident seemed to him quite inexplicable. He was greatly annoyed. The Chinese god was a valuable thing. He stood in front of the chimney-piece contemplating the damage with a sense of great irritation.
“To think that everything should have been broken except this beastly little Ikon!” he said to himself. “I wonder whether that was what Sledge meant when he said I should not mix my deities.”
Next morning he sent again for the framemaker, and abused him roundly. The framemaker said he could not understand how the accident had happened. The nail was an excellent nail, the picture, Mr. Ferrol must admit, had been hung with great care before his very eyes and under his own direct and personal supervision. What more could be done?
“It’s something to do with the balance,” said Ferrol. “I told you that before. The picture is half spoiled now.”
The framemaker said the damage would not show once the glass was repaired, and took the picture away again to mend it. A few days later it was brought back. Two men came to fix it this time; steps were brought and the hanging lasted about twenty minutes. Nails were put under the picture; it was hung by a double wire. All accidents in the future seemed guarded against.
The following morning Ferrol telephoned to Sledge and asked him to dine with him. Sledge was engaged to dine out that evening, but said that he would look in at the Temple late after dinner.
Ferrol dined alone at the Club; he reached his rooms about half-past nine; he made up a blazing fire and drew an armchair near it. He lit a cigarette, made some Turkish coffee, and took down a French novel. Every now and then he looked up at his picture. No damage was visible; it looked, he thought, as well as ever. In the place of the Chinese idol he had put his little green Egyptian god on the chimney-piece. The candlesticks and the Ikon were still in their places.
“After all,” thought Ferrol, “I did wrong to have any Chinese art in the place at all. Egyptian things are the only things worth having. It is a lesson to me not to dabble with things out of my period.”
After he had read for about a quarter of an hour he fell into a doze.
Sledge arrived at the rooms about half-past ten, and an ugly sight met his eyes. There had been an accident. The picture over the chimney-piece had fallen down right on Ferrol. His face was badly cut. They put Ferrol to bed, and his wounds were seen to and everything that was necessary was done. A nurse was sent for to look after him, and Sledge decided to stay in the house all night. After all the arrangements had been made, the doctor, before he went away, said to Sledge: “He will recover all right, he is not in the slightest danger; but I don’t know who is to break the news to him.”
“What is that?” asked Sledge.
“He will be quite blind,” said the doctor.
Then the doctor went away, and Sledge sat down in front of the fire. The broken glass had been swept up. The picture had been placed on the Oriental divan, and as Sledge looked at the chimney-piece he noticed that the little Ikon was still in its place. Something caught his eye just under the low fender in front of the fireplace. He bent forward and picked up the object.
It was Ferrol’s green Egyptian god, which had been broken into two pieces.