The Phantom Coach

Amelia B. Edwards

14 Jun, 2014 11:03 PM

The circumstances I am about to relate to you have truth to recommend them.
They happened to myself, and my recollection of them is as vivid as if they had
taken place only yesterday Twenty years, however, have gone by since that night.
During those twenty years I have told the story to but one other person. I tell
it now with a reluctance which I find it difficult to overcome. All I entreat,
meanwhile, is that you will abstain from forcing your own conclusions upon me. I
want nothing explained away I desire no arguments. My mind on this subject is
quite made up, and, having the testimony of my own senses to rely upon, I prefer
to abide by it.
Well! It was just twenty years ago, and within a day or two of the end of
the grouse season. I had been out all day with my gun, and had no sport to
speak of. The wind was due east; the month, December; the place, a bleak wide
moor in the far north of England. And I had lost my way It was not a pleasant
place in which to lose one's way, with the first feathery flakes of a coming
snowstorm just fluttering down upon the heather, and the leaden evening closing
in all around. I shaded my eyes with my hand, and stared anxiously into the
gathering darkness, where the purple moorland melted into a range of low hills,
some ten or twelve miles distant. Not the faintest smoke-wreath, not the tiniest
cultivated patch, or fence, or sheep-track, met my eyes in any direction. There
was nothing for it but to walk on, and take my chance of finding what shelter I
could, by the way So I shouldered my gun again, and pushed wearily forward; for
I had been on foot since an hour after daybreak, and had eaten nothing since
Meanwhile, the snow began to come down with ominous steadiness, and the wind
fell. After this, the cold became more intense, and the night came rapidly up.
As for me, my prospects darkened with the darkening sky, and my heart grew heavy
as I thought how my young wife was already watching for me through the window of
our little inn parlour, and thought of all the suffering in store for her
throughout this weary night. We had been married four months, and, having spent
our autumn in the Highlands, were now lodging in a remote little village
situated just on the verge of the great English moorlands. We were very much in
love, and, of course, very happy This morning, when we parted, she had implored
me to return before dusk, and I had promised her that I would. What would I not
have given to have kept my word!
Even now, weary as I was, I felt that with a supper, an hour's rest, and a
guide, I might still get back to her before midnight, if only guide and shelter
could be found.
And all this time, the snow fell and the night thickened. 1 stopped and
shouted every now and then, but my shouts seemed only to make the silence
deeper. Then a vague sense of uneasiness came upon me, and I began to remember
stories of travellers who had walked on and on in the falling snow until,
wearied out, they were fain to lie down and sleep their lives away Would it be
possible, I asked myself, to keep on thus through all the long dark night? Would
there not come a time when my limbs must fail, and my resolution give way? When
I, too, must sleep the sleep of death. Death! I shuddered. How hard to die just
now, when life lay all so bright before me! How hard for my darling, whose whole
loving heart but that thought was not to be borne! To banish it, I shouted
again, louder and longer, and then listened eagerly. Was my shout answered, or
did I only fancy that I heard a far-off cry? I halloed again, and again the echo
followed. Then a wavering speck of light came suddenly out of the dark,
shifting, disappearing, growing momentarily nearer and brighter. Running towards
it at full speed, I found myself, to my great joy, face to face with an old man
and a lantern.
'Thank God!' was the exclamation that burst involuntarily from my lips.
Blinking and frowning, he lifted his lantern and peered into my face.
'What for?' growled he, sulkily.
'Well-for you. I began to fear I should be lost in the snow.
'Eh, then, folks do get cast away hereabout fra' time to time, an' what's to
hinder you from bein' cast away likewise, if the Lord's so minded?'
'If the Lord is so minded that you and I shall be lost together, friend, we
must submit,' I replied; 'but I don't mean to be lost without you. How far am I
now from Dwolding?'
A gude twenty mile, more or less.' And the nearest village?'
'The nearest village is Wyke, an' that's twelve mile t'other side.'
'Where do you live, then?'
'Out yonder,' said he, with a vague jerk of the lantern.
'You're going home, I presume?'
'Maybe I am.'
'Then I'm going with you.'
The old man shook his head, and rubbed his nose reflectively with the handle
of the lantern.
'It ain't o' no use,' growled he. 'He 'ont let you in-not he.'
'We'll see about that,' I replied, briskly. 'Who is He?'
'The master.'
'Who is the master?'
'That's nowt to you,' was the unceremonious reply.
'Well, well; you lead the way, and I'll engage that the master shall give me
shelter and a supper tonight.'
'Eh, you can try him!' muttered my reluctant guide; and, still shaking his
head, he hobbled, gnome-like, away through the falling snow A large mass loomed
up presently out of the darkness, and a huge dog rushed out, barking furiously.
'Is this the house?' I asked.
'Ay, it's the house. Down, Bey!' And he fumbled in his pocket for the key.
I drew up close behind him, prepared to lose no chance of entrance, and saw
in the little circle of light shed by the lantern that the door was heavily
studded with iron nails, like the door of a prison. In another minute he had
turned the key and I had pushed past him into the house.
Once inside, I looked round with curiosity, and found myself in a great
raftered hall, which served, apparently, a variety of uses. One end was piled to
the roof with corn, like a barn. The other was stored with floursacks,
agricultural implements, casks, and all kinds of miscellaneous lumber; while
from the beams overhead hung rows of hams, flitches, and bunches of dried herbs
for winter use. In the centre of the floor stood some huge object gauntly
dressed in a dingy wrapping-cloth, and reaching half way to the rafters. Lifting
a corner of this cloth, I saw, to my surprise, a telescope of very considerable
size, mounted on a rude movable platform, with four small wheels. The tube was
made of painted wood, bound round with bands of metal rudely fashioned; the
speculum, so far as I could estimate its size in the dim light, measured at
least fifteen inches in diameter. While I was yet examining the instrument; and
asking myself whether it was not the work of some self-taught optician, a bell
rang sharply.
'That's for you,' said my guide, with a malicious grin. 'Yonder's his room.
He pointed to a low black door at the opposite side of the hall. I crossed
over, rapped somewhat loudly, and went in, without waiting for an invitation. A
huge, white-haired old man rose from a table covered with books and papers, and
confronted me sternly
'Who are you?' said he. 'How came you here? What do you want?'
'James Murray, barrister-at-law On foot across the moor. Meat, drink, and
He bent his bushy brows into a portentous frown.
'Mine is not a house of entertainment,' he said, haughtily. 'Jacob, how
dared you admit this stranger?'
'I didn't admit him,' grumbled the old man. 'He followed me over the muir,
and shouldered his way in before me. I'm no match for six foot two.'
'And pray, sir, by what right have you forced an entrance into my house?'
'The same by which I should have clung to your boat, if I were drowning. The
right of self-preservation.'
'There's an inch of snow on the ground already,' I replied, briefly; 'and it
would be deep enough to cover my body before daybreak.'
He strode to the window, pulled aside a heavy black curtain, and looked out.
'It is true,' he said. 'You can stay, if you choose, till morning. Jacob,
serve the supper.'
With this he waved me to a seat, resumed his own, and became at once
absorbed in the studies from which I had disturbed him.
I placed my gun in a corner, drew a chair to the hearth, and examined my
quarters at leisure. Smaller and less incongruous in its arrangements than the
hall, this room contained, nevertheless, much to awaken my curiosity. The floor
was carpetless. The whitewashed walls were in parts scrawled over with strange
diagrams, and in others covered with shelves crowded with philosophical
instruments, the uses of many of which were unknown to me. On one side of the
fireplace, stood a bookcase filled with dingy folios; on the other, a small
organ, fantastically decorated with painted carvings of medieval saints and
devils. Through the half-opened door of a cupboard at the further end of the
room, I saw a long array of geological specimens, surgical preparations,
crucibles, retorts, and jars of chemicals; while on the mantelshelf beside me,
amid a number of small objects, stood a model of the solar system, a small
galvanic battery, and a microscope. Every chair had its burden. Every corner was
heaped high with books. The very floor was littered over with maps, casts,
papers, tracings, and learned lumber of all conceivable kinds.
I stared about me with an amazement increased by every fresh object upon
which my eyes chanced to rest. So strange a room I had never seen yet seemed it
stranger still, to find such a room in a lone farmhouse amid those wild and
solitary moors! Over and over again, I looked from my host to his surroundings,
and from his surroundings back to my host, asking myself who and what he could
be? His head was singularly fine; but it was more the head of a poet than of a
philosopher. Broad in the temples, prominent over the eyes, and clothed with a
rough profusion of
perfectly white hair, it had all the ideality and much of the ruggedness
that characterises the head of Louis von Beethoven. There were the same deep
lines about the mouth, and the same stern furrows in the brow There was the same
concentration of expression. While I was yet observing him, the door opened, and
Jacob brought in the supper. His master then closed his book, rose, and with
more courtesy of manner than he had yet shown, invited me to the table.
A dish of ham and eggs, a loaf of brown bread, and a bottle of admirable
sherry, were placed before me.
'I have but the homeliest farmhouse fare to offer you, sir,' said my
entertainer. 'Your appetite, I trust, will make up for the deficiencies of our
I had already fallen upon the viands, and now protested, with the enthusiasm
of a starving sportsman, that I had never eaten anything so delicious.
He bowed stiffly, and sat down to his own supper, which consisted,
primitively, of a jug of milk and a basin of porridge. We ate in silence, and,
when we had done, Jacob removed the tray. I then drew my chair back to the
fireside. My host, somewhat to my surprise, did the same, and turning abruptly
towards me, said:
'Sir, I have lived here in strict retirement for three-and-twenty years.
During that time, I have not seen as many strange faces, and I have not read a
single newspaper. You are the first stranger who has crossed my threshold for
more than four years. Will you favour me with a few words of information
respecting that outer world from which I have parted company so long?'
'Pray interrogate me,' I replied. 'I am heartily at your service.'
He bent his head in acknowledgment, leaned forward, with his elbows resting
on his knees and his chin supported in the palms of his hands; stared fixedly
into the fire; and proceeded to question me.
His inquiries related chiefly to scientific matters, with the later progress
of which, as applied to the practical purposes of life, he was almost wholly
unacquainted. No student of science myself, I replied as well as my slight
information permitted; but the task was far from easy, and I was much relieved
when, passing from interrogation to discussion, he began pouring forth his own
conclusions upon the facts which I had been attempting to place before him. He
talked, and I listened spellbound. He talked till I believe he almost forgot my
presence, and only thought aloud. I had never heard anything like it then; I
have never heard anything like it since. Familiar with all systems of all
philosophies, subtle in analysis, bold in generalisation, he poured forth his
thoughts in an uninterrupted stream, and, still leaning forward in the same
moody attitude with his eyes fixed upon the fire, wandered from topic to topic,
from speculation to speculation, like an inspired dreamer. From practical
science to mental philosophy; from electricity in the wire to electricity in the
nerve; from Watts to Mesmer, from Mesmer to Reichenbach, from Reichenbach to
Swedenborg, Spinoza, Condillac, Descartes, Berkeley, Aristotle, Plato, and the
Magi and mystics of the East, were transitions which, however bewildering in
their variety and scope, seemed easy and harmonious upon his lips as sequences
in music. 13y-and-by-I forget now by what link of conjecture or illustration-he
passed on to that field which lies beyond the boundary line of even conjectural
philosophy, and reaches no man knows whither. He spoke of the soul and its
aspirations; of the spirit and its powers; of second sight; of prophecy; of
those phenomena which, under the names of ghosts, spectres, and supernatural
appearances, have been denied by the sceptics and attested by the credulous, of
all ages.
'The world,' he said, 'grows hourly more and more sceptical of all that lies
beyond its own narrow radius; and our men of science foster the fatal tendency.
They condemn as fable all that resists experiment. They reject as false all that
cannot be brought to the test of the laboratory or the dissecting-room. Against
what superstition have they waged so long and obstinate a war, as against the
belief in apparitions? And yet what superstition has maintained its hold upon
the minds of men so long and so firmly? Show me any fact in physics, in history,
in archeology, which is supported by testimony so wide and so various. Attested
by all races of men, in all ages, and in all climates, by the soberest sages of
antiquity, by the rudest savage of today, by the Christian, the Pagan, the
Pantheist, the Materialist, this phenomenon is treated as a nursery tale by the
philosophers of our century. Circumstantial evidence weighs with them as a
feather in the balance. The comparison of causes with effects, however valuable
in physical science, is put aside as worthless and unreliable. The evidence of
competent witnesses, however conclusive in a court of justice, counts for
nothing. He who pauses before he pronounces, is condemned as a trifler. He who
believes, is a dreamer or a fool.'
He spoke with bitterness, and, having said thus, relapsed for some minutes
into silence. Presently he raised his head from his hands, and added, with an
altered voice and manner,
'I, sir, paused, investigated, believed, and was not ashamed to state my
convictions to the world. I, too, was branded as a visionary, held up to
ridicule by my contemporaries, and hooted from that field of science in which I
had laboured with honour during all the best years of my life. These things
happened just three-and-twenty years ago. Since then, I
have lived as you see me living now, and the world has forgotten me, as I
have forgotten the world. You have my history.'
'It is a very sad one,' I murmured, scarcely knowing what to answer.
'It is a very, common one,' he replied. 'I have only suffered for the truth,
as many a better and wiser man has suffered before me.
He rose, as if desirous of ending the conversation, and went over to the
'It has ceased snowing,' he observed, as he dropped the curtain, and came
back to the fireside.
'Ceased!' I exclaimed, starting eagerly to my feet. 'Oh, if it were only
possible-but no! it is hopeless. Even if I could find my way across the moor, I
could not walk twenty miles tonight.'
'Walk twenty miles tonight!' repeated my host. 'What are you thinking of?'
'Of my wife,' I replied, impatiently. 'Of my young wife, who does not know
that I have lost my way, and who is at this moment breaking her heart with
suspense and terror.'
'Where is she?'
At Dwolding, twenty miles away.'
'At Dwolding,' he echoed, thoughtfully. 'Yes, the distance, it is true, is
twenty miles; but-are you so very anxious to save the next six or eight hours?'
'So very, very anxious, that I would give ten guineas at this moment for a
guide and a horse.'
'Your wish can be gratified at a less costly rate,' said he, smiling. 'The
night mail from the north, which changes horses at Dwolding, passes within five
miles of this spot, and will be due at a certain cross-road in about an hour and
a quarter. If Jacob were to go with you across the moor, and put you into the
old coach-road, you could find your way, I suppose, to where it joins the new
He smiled again, rang the bell, gave the old servant his directions, and,
taking a bottle of whisky and a wineglass from the cupboard in which he kept his
chemicals, said:
'The snow lies deep, and it will be difficult walking tonight on the moor. A
glass of usquebaugh before you start?'
I would have declined the spirit, but he pressed it on me, and I drank it.
It went down my throat like liquid flame, and almost took my breath away.
'It is strong,' he said; 'but it will help to keep out the cold. And now you
have no moments to spare. Good night!'
I thanked him for his hospitality, and would have shaken hands, but that he
had turned away before I could finish my sentence. In another minute I had
traversed the hall, Jacob had locked the outer door behind me, and we were out
on the wide white moor.
Although the wind had fallen, it was still bitterly cold. Not a star
glimmered in the black vault overhead Not a sound, save the rapid crunching of
the snow beneath our feet, disturbed the heavy stillness of the night. Jacob,
not too well pleased With his mission, shambled on before in sullen silence, his
lantern in h~5 hand, and his shadow at his feet. I followed, with my gun over my
shoulder, as little inclined for conversation as himself. My thoughts were full
of my late host. His voice yet rang in my ears. His eloquence yet held my
imagination captive. I remember to this day, with surprise, how my over-excited
brain retained whole sentences and parts of sentences, troops of brilliant
images, and fragments of splendid reasoning, in the very words in which he had
uttered them. Musing thus over what I had heard, and striving to recall a lost
link here and there, I strode on at the heels of my guide, absorbed and
unobservant. Presently-at the end, as it seemed to me, of only a few minutes-he
came to a sudden halt, and said:
'Yon's your road. Keep the stone fence to your right hand, and you can't
fail of the way.
'This, then, is the old coach-road?' Ay, 'tis the old coach-road.'
'And how far do I go, before I reach the cross-roads?' 'Nigh upon three
I pulled out my purse, and he became more communicative.
The roads a fair road enough,' said he, 'for foot passengers; but 'twas over
steep and narrow for the northern traffic. You'll mind where the parapets broken
away, close again the sign-post It's never been mended since the accident,'
'What accident?'
'Eh, the night mail pitched right over into the valley below-a gude fifty
feet an' more-just at the worst bit o' road in the whole county.'
Horrible! Were many lives lost?'
'All. Four were found dead, and t'other two died next morning.'
'How long is it since this happened?'
'Just nine year.'
'Near the sign-post, you say? I will bear it in mind. Good night.'
'Gude night, sir, and thankee.' Jacob pocketed his half-crown, made a faint
pretence of touching his hat, and trudged back by the way he had come.
I watched the light of his lantern till it quite disappeared, and then
turned to pursue my way alone. This was no longer matter of the slightest
difficulty, for, despite the dead darkness overhead, the line of stone fence
showed distinctly enough against the pale gleam of the snow How silent it seemed
now, with only my footsteps to listen to; how silent and how solitary! A strange
disagreeable sense of loneliness stole over me. I walked faster. I hummed a
fragment of a tune. I cast up enormous sums in my head, and accumulated them at
compound interest. I did my best, in short, to forget the startling speculations
to which I had but just been listening, and, to some extent, I succeeded.
Meanwhile the night air seemed to become colder and colder, and though I
walked fast I found it impossible to keep myself warm. My feet were like ice. I
lost sensation in my hands, and grasped my gun mechanically I even breathed with
difficulty, as though, instead of traversing a quiet north country highway, I
were scaling the uppermost heights of some gigantic Alp. This last symptom
became presently so distressing, that I was forced to stop for a few minutes,
and lean against the stone fence. As I did so, I chanced to look back up the
road, and there, to my infinite relief, I saw a distant point of light, like the
gleam of an approaching lantern. I at first concluded that Jacob had retraced
his steps and followed me; but even as the conjecture presented itself, a second
light flashed into sight-a light evidently parallel with the first, and
approaching at the same rate of motion. It needed no second thought to show me
that these must be the carriage-lamps of some private vehicle, though it seemed
strange that any private vehicle should take a road professedly disused and
There could be no doubt, however, of the fact, for the lamps grew larger and
brighter every moment, and I even fancied I could already see the dark outline
of the carriage between them. It was coming up very fast, and quite noiselessly,
the snow being nearly a foot deep under the wheels.
And now the body of the vehicle became distinctly visible behind the lamps.
It looked strangely lofty. A sudden suspicion flashed upon me. Was it possible
that I had passed the cross-roads in the dark without observing the sign-post,
and could this be the very coach which I had come to meet?
No need to ask myself that question a second time, for here it came round
the bend of the road, guard and driver, one outside passenger, and four steaming
greys, all wrapped in a soft haze of light, through which the lamps blazed out,
like a pair of fiery meteors.
I jumped forward, waved my hat, and shouted. The mail came down at full
speed, and passed me. For a moment I feared that I had not been seen or heard,
but it was only for a moment. The coachman pulled up; the guard, muffled to the
eyes in capes and comforters, and apparently sound asleep in the rumble, neither
answered my hail nor made the slightest effort to dismount; the outside
passenger did not even turn his head. I opened the door for myself, and looked
in. There were but three travellers inside, so I stepped in, shut the door,
slipped into the vacant corner and congratulated myself on my good fortune.
The atmosphere of the coach seemed, if possible, colder than that of the
outer air, and was pervaded by a singularly damp and disagreeable smell. I
looked round at my fellow-passengers. They were all three, men, and all silent.
They did not seem to be asleep, but each leaned back in his corner of the
vehicle, as if absorbed in his own reflections. I attempted to open a
'How intensely cold it is tonight,' I said, addressing my opposite
He lifted his head, looked at me, but made no reply.
'The winter,' I added, 'seems to have begun in earnest.'
Although the corner, in which he sat was so dim that I could distinguish
none of his features very clearly, I saw that his eyes were still turned full
upon me. And yet he answered never a word.
At any other time I should have felt, and perhaps expressed, some annoyance,
but at the moment I felt too ill to do either. The icy coldness of the night air
had struck a chill to my very marrow, and the strange smell inside the coach was
affecting me with an intolerable nausea. I shivered from head to foot, and,
turning to my left-hand neighbour, asked if he had any objection to an open
He neither spoke nor stirred.
I repeated the question somewhat more loudly, but with the same result. Then
I lost patience, and let the sash down. As I did so the leather strap broke in
my hand', and I observed that the glass was covered with a thick coat of mildew,
the accumulation, apparently, of years. My attention being thus drawn to the
condition of the coach, I examined it more narrowly, and saw by the uncertain
light of the outer lamps that it was in [he last stage of dilapidation. Every
part of it was not only out of repair, but in a condition of decay. The sashes
splintered at a touch. The leather fittings were crusted over with mould, and
literally rotting from the woodwork. The floor was almost breaking away beneath
my feet. The whole machine, in short, was foul with damp, and had evidently been
dragged from some outhouse in which it had been mouldering away for years, to do
another day or two of duty on the road.
I turned to the third passenger, whom I had not yet addressed, and hazarded
one more remark.
'This coach,' I said, 'is in a deplorable condition. The regular mail, I
suppose, is under repair?'
He moved his head slowly, and looked me in the face, without speaking a
word. I shall never forget that look while I live. I turned cold at heart under
it. I turn cold at heart even now when I recall it. His eyes glowed with a fiery
unnatural lustre. His face was livid as the face of a corpse. His bloodless lips
were drawn back as if in the agony of death, and showed the gleaming teeth
The words that I was about to utter died upon my lips, and a strange
horror-a dreadful horror-came upon me. My sight had by this time become used to
the gloom of the coach, and I could see with tolerable distinctness. I turned to
my opposite neighbour. He, too, was looking at me, with the same startling
pallor in his face, and the same stony glitter in his eyes. I passed my hand
across my brow I turned to the passenger on the seat beside my own, and saw-oh
Heaven! how shall I describe what I saw? I saw that he was no living man-that
none of them were living, men, like myself! A pale phosphorescent light-the
light of putrefaction-played upon their awful faces; upon their hair, dank with
the dews of the grave; upon their clothes, earth-stained and dropping to pieces;
upon their hands, which were as the hands of corpses long buried. Only their
eyes, their terrible eyes, were living; and those eyes were all turned
menacingly upon me!
A shriek of terror, a wild unintelligible cry for help and mercy, burst from
my lips as I flung myself against the door, and strove in vain to open it.
In that single instant, brief and vivid as a landscape beheld in the flash
of summer lightning, I saw the moon shining down through a rift of stormy
cloud-the ghastly sign-post rearing its warning finger by the wayside-the broken
parapet-the plunging horses-the black gulf below Then, the coach reeled like a
ship at sea. Then, came a mighty crash-a sense of crushing pain-and then,

It seemed as if years had gone by when I awoke one morning from a deep
sleep, and found my wife watching by my bedside. I will pass over the' scene
that ensued, and give you, in half a dozen words, the tale she told me with
tears of thanksgiving. I had fallen over a precipice, close against the junction
of the old coach-road and the new, and had only been saved from certain death by
lighting upon a deep snowdrift that had accumulated at the foot of the rock
beneath. In this snowdrift I was discovered at daybreak, by a couple of
shepherds, who carried me to the nearest shelter, and brought a surgeon to my
aid. The surgeon found me in a state of raving delirium, with a broken arm and a
compound fracture of the skull. The letters in my pocket-book showed my name and
address; my wife was summoned to nurse me; and, thanks to youth and a fine
constitution, I came out of danger at last. The place of my fall, I need
scarcely say, was precisely that at which a frightful accident had happened to
the north mail nine years before.
I never told my wife the fearful events which I have just related to you. I
told the surgeon who attended me; but he treated the whole adventure as a mere
dream born of the fever in my brain. We discussed the question over and over
again, until we found that we could discuss it with temper no longer, and then
we dropped it. Others may form what conclusions they please-I know that twenty
years ago I was the fourth inside passenger in that Phantom Coach.

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