The Ghost at Wildwood Chase – Rosa Mulholland (1888)

“At such a time of the year, and in such delightful relations with nature, if one has not actually a close sympathetic companionship with some other living creature, one is apt to create something of the kind out of one’s own imagination…”

It happened only five summers ago. I had had a hard winter and spring of unfitness for work, which, following close on my first successes in Art, had been rather impatiently borne, seeming as they did to destroy my hope while it was budding. Furthermore, I was assured by a doctor that I was threatened with consumption, and I acknowledged that he was probably right, as the disease was in my family.

In the beginning of a hot June I sat in my studio in London, weary in body and mind, when a letter came to my hand like a freshening breeze. It was from Lord Wylder, who had bought a picture of mine a few months before, and who now asked me to come down to Wildwood Chase to paint his portrait.

Image of The Artist’s Studio (1885) –
Melchior Lechter
 (artist) Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington – Public Domain

Though not particularly fond of portrait painting, I liked the invitation. I knew the country round Wildwood Chase was beautiful, famous for its roses and nightingales. In a few weeks the latter would be left off singing; I should be in time to hear their richest notes. There was also a good gallery of pictures at Wildwood. In a short time my arrangements were made, and I was in the train, spinning through fields and woods in their freshest verdure, and among hedges white and fragrant with hawthorn in full bloom.

I found the great house full of people. Lord Wylder was a genial old man, who had a large family of children and grandchildren whom he loved to gather round him, and the portrait I was to paint was intended for one of his daughters, who had lately been married. His kind flattery of my works gave me a sort of distinction in the eyes of the company, and nothing could be pleasanter than the position in which I found myself.

I had a charming studio overhanging a green retreat, through leafy rifts in which a teeming rose-garden was discernible, against a distance blotted with mingled greens and purples. Here I worked, solitary as long as I pleased, and always returning to my seclusion happier for the courtesy with which the struggling artist was treated by enthusiastic admirers of his art.

The state of my health at the moment disinclining me for the society of strangers, I lived chiefly a dream-like life of my own among the delicious summer haunts which surrounded me at Wildwood Chase.

At such a time of the year, and in such delightful relations with nature, if one has not actually a close sympathetic companionship with some other living creature, one is apt to create something of the kind out of one’s own imagination, and with this reflection I accounted to myself for my extraordinary attraction towards a certain picture in the gallery, the head and shoulders of a girl set against a background of the woven boughs of trees.

The face had a mysterious charm impossible to describe, and was slightly leaned forward, looking straight at the gazer with an expression which seemed to me as though the creature were longing to whisper a secret.

Portrait of a Young Woman 1750-1760. Timkin Collection. 1960.6.28 – Anonymous Artist after Jean-Marc Nattier. Image Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington (Public Domain)

The wide over-shadowed grey eyes had a spiritual intensity such as I had never seen in any woman’s face, while the sweet parted lips promised that, strong as imagination and mind might be in the character, the heart would always have the casting-vote if ever intellect and feeling should come in conflict.

The hair was light, like new-mown hay, and lay in soft drifts across the delicate forehead. The peculiarity of the picture was that, wherever you moved in the gallery within sight of it, the eyes followed you with wonderful changes of expression. Sometimes they were sad and wistful, sometimes smiling, as if in mischievous amusement, and again they had a high strange outlook that tantalized you with a desire to follow it.

I ascertained that this was the portrait of a young girl of Lord Wylder’s family, who had lived and died about a hundred years ago. Somehow I felt pleased that she had died early. There were portraits of beautiful women round, who had been the grand-mothers and great-grandmothers of the Wylders, caught here in their lovely girlhood, and perpetuated in youth for the eyes of posterity; but they did not interest me, and I smiled at my own satisfaction in the knowledge that my leaf-embowered goddess had never been promoted while on earth to wifehood, motherhood, and great-grandmotherhood. She had come up like a flower, appeared like the leaves on the boughs from among which her face looked forth, and even as flower and leaf she had vanished after a short sweet summer of life, with the dews still fresh on the roses of her tender lips and cheeks.

She was a fitting companion and friend, I thought, for one like me, living a saddened ideal life, threatened with disease, overshadowed by death, uncertain of more than a very short duration of mortal existence. Smiling at this conceit, I visited her every evening at twilight, vowing vows to her, and making believe to be her lover. She had been dust already for nearly a century, and I should be dust perhaps before another year. Therefore I said we should be lovers.

Though always in love with love, I had never loved any woman in my life before, so that the June romance, sprung among roses and nightingales, and woven round the dream-maiden in the gallery nook whose eyes were dust, and whose voice (what a low sweet voice it must have been!) would never more be heard on earth, was perfectly satisfactory, inexpressibly consoling and delightful to me.

A man can hardly confess all the weak things he does when, being in low health, and tired of pretending to be strong, the child of nature, never quite lost in any of us, rises irresistibly and asserts itself. In such a mood he will cry grief like a girl over a lock of his dead mother’s hair, or babble to himself words of tenderness heard long ago, and only grown precious to memory in the hour of desolation. In such mood i raved softly in the dusk and solitude to my little love, with the hair like new-mown hay and the eyes that seemed to listen to me and answer me.

One evening, when I was in a particularly fantastic humour, I began to wonder if the spirit that had lived in the creature knew anything of his way-ward devotion of mine, and whether, in case she did, she would be pleased or displeased at it. Upon this, the idea that my dreams-love was after all no dream, but a living being in another world, which might be only separated from us by the veils upon our eyes, struck me with a force which was a very new and strange experience.

It was as if she had indeed been spiritually present, and had made her presence felt by me. I thought, how strange that, were she to make herself visibly known to me, it might be only anticipating matters, seeing that in a short time I should be thoroughly qualified to join her where she abode, and I formed a distinct wish that Mayflower (so she was named), with the eyes of spiritual meaning and the brow like that of a child-angel, would come and confer with me here in the shadows, and tell me that secret, perhaps the secret of immortality, which it had seemed to me when I first saw her that she was longing to unfold.

I had turned away and walked the length of the gallery, charmed with and half smiling at my fancy, and I was within a few yards of the door, when it opened noiselessly and quickly; there was a grey flutter of drapery, shone through by the early-risen moon, which looked towards me from beyond the window in the passage on which the end of the gallery gave. I saw a young light-tinted head set against the glistening moon, which formed a golden disc behind it. I saw the spiritual gleam of eyes clear like water; I saw shoulders of a peculiar outline, and a light gossamer swathing in them; and then the door shut, leaving me nothing but the living glance that had been flung towards me from the very face which I had adored and apostrophised on the canvas, now hidden by twilight at the more distant extremity of the gallery.

I remained standing where I was for several minutes. Fantastic as my humour had been, it had not been insane, but now I asked myself whether I had suddenly passed the boundary of sanity. That I had seen a vision of the girl Mayflower, who had bloomed a hundred years ago, there could be no doubt, but whether the vision was conjured up by my own disordered mind was a question which troubled me impertinently. I had not been led to expect that my mind was bound to decay sooner than my body, yet I had seen the spirit of Mayflower whom I had adjured to come to me. I believed that I had positively adjured her. And she had come.

Insomnia was part of the ailment from which I suffered, but at Wildwood I had found it scarcely irksome to lie awake and hear all the rich full sounds of the life of the summer night – the occasional rapture of the nightingale, the urgent cry of the landrail in the grass, the distant lowing of cattle, the rustling of the woods. On this night the marvel of Mayflower’s spiritual apparition absorbed me; she seemed to float through the air of the midsummer night and dawn, drawing me towards her.

During the next week I was feverish, impatient, altogether the worse instead of the better for my absence from London. In my calmer moments I thought of breaking my engagements, pretending inability to work on the portrait, packing up, and returning to London. The reason was that I made up my mind that the vision I had seen was a real vision, and that I was hungering to see it again. Therefore I would escape while I had a remnant of sanity.

I did not go, however, for the insanity kept me rooted to the spot. A week passed, and the weird impression I had received was becoming a little weakened. Occasionally I admitted to myself that my imagination had played me a trick. One night, in a more than ordinarily rational frame of mind, and tired of lying awake, I rose, and letting myself out by a garden door, went for a long ramble through the park and out on the open downs, where the first faint breaking of dawn overtook me.

It was just during that spell of visible darkness which is the forerunner of the return of light, and while I stood on the verge of a small ragged-edged lake, skirted by trees and bushes – stood smoking calmly, and expectant of nothing but the sunrise, that I had my second vision of the spirit of Mayflower. I dropped my cigar, and stood breathless, as the first flutter of the slim robe came out of the tall rushes, and I beheld her floating towards me, clad in long light garments, her small head set backwards, her sweet eyes wide open, and full of that expression which in the picture most fascinated me – the high, strange, far-looking gaze which had so followed me at times that I felt utterly unable to escape from it.

Her hands gathered in the folds of her dress on her breast, as in the picture, and she went by with a gliding movement, like a mist-wreath. I looked her in the face, advanced towards her, involuntarily stepped aside as she took no notice of me, and finally let her pass, daunted by her unconsciousness or indifference. No sooner had she passed than I sprang to follow her. I would speak to her at any cost. I made a spring watch to reach a mound in front of her, where I might again wait and watch her approach, but missed my footing and fell. When I had got upon my feet again she was gone.

The next day I laid down my brushes, and told my sitter and host that I felt I was going to be ill, and had better be at home. I went back to London and had my illness – typhoid fever, the doctor said; and I was extremely shaken when convalescent. To my great surprise the doctor informed me that this illness had been of much service to me, and that, though weak and needing care, I was no longer in danger of consumption. If cautious I might live to be a vigorous man.

Extremely cheered by the news, I began to look back upon my experiences of Wildwood Chase as part of the hallucinations of the fever that had long been creeping over me, and with a smile and a sigh for Mayflower and her mysterious dream-sympathy, I dismissed the little romance from my reinvigorated mind. By Christmas-time I was completely recovered, and was gratified by receiving a note from Lord Wylder regretting my illness, and hoping that I would run down to Wildwood during the holidays for change of air. He wrote from Florence, saying the Chase was deserted this winter, but the housekeeper had received orders to make me comfortable.

My first impulse was to decline the invitation, but on second thoughts I decided to seize the opportunity of laying in a store of strength for coming work, and of looking on the picture of Mayflower once more, this time with the eyes of bodily and mental sanity.

After the day of my arrival had been arranged, something occurred to detain me in London, and I wrote to the housekeeper naming a later date. Within two days of the later period I found myself free, and telegraphed that I was coming twenty-four hours sooner than had been my latest intention. Owing to the snow, which had fallen in the country before it appeared in London, it happened that my telegram was not received, but of that I knew nothing as I made my way along the roads just cleared for travellers, and arrived at my destination, unexpected.

The avenue had not been cleared, and leaving the trap which had brought me from the station at the lower gates, I walked by the shortest way to the house, went in by the open back way, ascended to the great hall without meeting any one, deposited my wrappings and rugs, and proceeded to make myself at home, awaiting the appearance of the housekeeper. Seeing firelight under the not quite closed door of the library, I turned in there, and glancing round the brown paneled room, book-lined and irradiated with firelight, I saw a figure rise from the hearthrug, and stand in a wavering attitude, like a wild bird poising for flight.

The form of the head and shoulders was weirdly familiar, the shine of the eyes fell on me, like a blinding revelation of things inconceivable. This was Mayflower, seen actually in the flesh, not by the ghost-seeing eyes of disease, but by the eyes of healthy manhood. So real was she, that after a long pause of surprise, incredulity, ending in complete assurance, I uttered some words of apology for disturbing a lady, and then remained gazing at her to see what she would do.

A few murmured words in Mayflower’s true voice – the voice I endowed her with, but had never heard before – came towards me. What they were I did not catch, but the sound acted on me like a spell, and I stood silently gazing at her as she went past me, and disappeared out of the library. When she was gone I wakened up and rang the bell, and in a few minutes the housekeeper appeared, bearing lights, and full of apologies. She had not expected; she must have misunderstood. I made my explanations, and then asked her as unconcernedly as I could who the lady was whom I feared my unlooked-for arrival had disturbed.

Source

“Oh, that is Miss Mayflower,” she said. “She loves this library, and lives in it mostly when she gets the house to herself. If you had come to-morrow, sir, as we expected, you would not have caught sight of Miss Mayflower.”

“Do you mean the lady whose portrait is in the gallery?”

“Well, it is her portrait; everybody says so. It proves her to be a true Wylder, orphan though she may be. These likenesses do turn up after a hundred years or more. There’s Lady Gwendolen is the very image of her grandmother in the powdered hair in the left-hand corner as you go out at the drawing-room end.”

“I thought I had seen all Lord Wylder’s grand-daughters”, I said, with an unaccountable sinking of the heart.

“Oh, she’s none of them, poor child: only the daughter of a far-off branch of the family, and was left in care of Lord Wylder as a charity, and has been educated to be a governess. When her health is a little stronger the ladies will get her a good appointment; meantime she’s here in my charge, and enjoys herself well when the family are all away from home. She’s too shy to appear when there’s company about the place.”

I reflected, and drew rapid conclusions.

“She was here during my visit last summer!” I said.

“She was here and not very well, and I was greatly concerned about her. Her delicacy took an awkward turn; she walked in her sleep, and only that I watched her something would have happened to her. Once I found her she had been out of the house at night, and might have walked into the lake, or killed herself by falling down a bank. It was a serious anxiety to me, and I did not like to tell the family. She’s cured of it now, I am glad to say, and will very soon be able to go out into the world for herself. Not that I shall be pleased to lose her, for I am really fond of Miss Mayflower.”

The rest is too sacred to be told; but Mayflower is the name of my wife. As I look at her this moment she is less mysterious, less dream-like than my first love in the gallery; her cheeks have a warmer tint, her eyes a happier light than the eyes like grey water, which still look stirlessly out from the new boughs of a hundred springs ago, among the shadows of the old walls of Wildwood Chase. But the like-ness of feature is wonderful; and there, now, as the little head, thatched with new-mown hay, is lifted under my scruitiny, the very eager whispering look of the picture comes out on the face, and while the smile on her lips fades in wistful wonder, I remember, with a sort of awe mixed delight, how I twice looked on this living and blooming creature of the flesh, and was fantastic enough to mistake her for a disembodied spirit.


A Note on the Text: This text of “The Ghost of Wildwood Chase” is from the Internet Archive‘s digitized version of Mulholland’s The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly and Other Stories, London: Hutchinson and Co., 25, Paternoster Square. 1880. This edition also contains three of her most well-known works, “The Ghost at the Rath”, “The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly” and “The Hungry Death”.

Featured Image: Source here

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