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Alice and Alicia

Christabel Coleridge

Times are changed. Now that I am an elderly woman I hear people discuss what used to be called "ghost stories," with grave faces. Books are written in explanation of them, and people hold serious arguments about the possibility of occurrences which in my young days would have been dismissed with a laugh, or put down with a scolding. They write to the papers about them, and publish their experiences. They talk about them at dinner-parties, and no one seems to think it either silly or profane to do so. If I had ever looked behind the veil I do not think I should publish what I saw. But, then, I never did. I do not believe that anything ever happened to me. I am not sure if anything ever really happened to any one. If these experts—these men of science—could explain what did happen, I wonder if I should be impelled to ask them, as people go to a doctor or to a confessor to get their bodies or their souls explained to them? But you cannot tell to another soul the thing that dazzles and astounds your own. She could never tell me. But I think I will write down the outside story for my own satisfaction. I should like to read it over and see what it looks like put into definite words. I have left off wanting to forget it. I should like to understand it if I could. Ah, well, that shows that one's point of view does change with that of other people.

But it is rather like the man who would "peep and botanize upon his mother's grave," as Wordsworth says. I suppose it was the discussion about haunted houses and "thought-transference" and "suggestions" at the dinner-party last night that has stirred up the notion. There can be no other reason why my thoughts should have gone back to Hilton just now. But I felt inclined to echo that brown old gentleman—I did not catch his name—who sat silent all through the discussion, and then, when he was asked if he had any experiences to contribute to the conversation, said that he thought the subject mischievous, in a tone that made our hostess change the conversation at once. I wonder what his name was?

The agency for the Hilton estate had been in my family for two or three generations. My father and grandfather were country solicitors of high reputation, who transacted the business of the county. They knew a great many family secrets, and could, if they would, have told many ins and outs of family history. My father and the last Mr. Hilton were close friends, and when Alice was left an orphan and the last direct representative of her family, we came to live at Hilton Grange in order to take care of her. My father was her sole guardian and trustee, and the arrangement was made with all due regard to her interests.

I was very fond of Hilton; it seemed to be almost as much mine as it was Alice's. I was also very fond of her, and we had a very happy, common-place sort of girlhood. We had a governess, and went to Wanbury, the nearest town, for dancing and singing lessons, visited the families round, and filled up our time as most young ladies did in the middle of the century. My brothers, who were all younger than we were, went, of course, to school.

I was a year older than Mice, and I was taller and stronger, and also, I may say, prettier—at least at first sight. I was fair and rosy, and full of spirits, and I always took the lead. I admired Alice myself very much. She was a little soft, round thing all in shades of brown, and I used to call her "Squirrel," and sometimes "Scug." She had brown hair and eyes and a pale, fine skin. She was shy and idle and dreamy, and did her lessons badly, though she was not at all stupid. She used to wear a brown hat with brown feathers and a red cloak, and I can see her now, that autumn, running about in the woods at Hilton. We were both to come out at the Wanbury Christmas ball. Miss Hilton and Miss Mary Curtis meant to enjoy that occasion, and we talked much about our dresses, and about the Hilton pearls which my father meant to allow Alice to wear for the first time at the ball.

How disjointed all this is, and how little to the point! Now, I will tell the story in a proper way, beginning with a description.

Hilton Grange had been partly rebuilt in the time of Alice's great-grandfather. The rooms in this part were large and comfortable, but of a very ordinary sort—those at the back were much older and smaller, with low ceilings and steps up and down, and odd little gables and balconies. In these Alice and I slept, and our school-room was a queer little place, with a corner window of which we were fond.

The lawns were smooth and sloping with beautiful trees on them, and there were walled kitchen-gardens and hot-houses. My father kept the place in nice order, and sold some of the fruit and vegetables. The farms were all let, and so was the park for grazing purposes.

The house was about half-a-mile from the village of Greenstoke, where we went to church and taught in the Sunday school.

There was only one remarkable thing about Hilton. Beyond the park, and across a wide field, there was a little wood, and in this wood there had once stood a church or chapel, every stone of which had been taken away, but the floor and, I suppose, the foundations remained, outlined by trees and by the undergrowth of the copse. You could see the stone pavement, the slabs with defaced inscriptions, could trace the broken steps which went up to the altar, and the space where the altar had stood. There were one or two raised tombs with mutilated figures on them. Here and there the turf had grown over the pavement, and in spring daffodils—Hilton copse was full of daffodils—pushed up heir heads in between.

The consecrated space was kept neat and smooth, and the gate to the little copse was always locked.

No one seemed to know anything about the church or its fate, and we thought that it had been the private chapel of the place when Hilton was an old manor, and had been done away with at the Reformation. Another view was that this had once been the parish church of Wanbury, but hat a new one had been built in the village, and his had been taken down and the stones used to build the present one. Then again there were deep pools in the wood, and some people thought they had been fish-ponds, and that there had been monks there in old days.

It all began with the ceiling tumbling down in the school-room and in our bedroom one day in September, so that Alice and I had to move into the new part of the house, and we took up our abode in some rooms that looked across the fields to Hilton copse, with its chapel that had been.

I think it must have been on the second evening after we had established ourselves there that, as we were putting on our white muslins and blue sashes in readiness for our half-past-six dinner, Alice said suddenly—

"Mary, do you know if we have got a ghost?"

Alice was a very quiet little person, and she said it exactly as she might have said, "Have you got a pocket-handkerchief?" I started.

"Ghost?" I said. "Here? Do you mean a ghost story? I never heard one. What made you think of such a thing?"

"Well," she said, "there are stories about a great many old houses, and it came into my head. last night that there might be one about ours."

"I don't think mamma would like us to think about such a thing," I said.

"Oh, why not?" said Alice; "of course we shouldn't believe it."

We went down to dinner, and presently Alice said quite coolly—

"Mr. Curtis, is Hilton Manor haunted? I mean," she added, "were there ever any stories told about it? Of course, I know they couldn't be true," and she laughed lightly and cheerfully.

There was a longer pause than 1 expected, and then papa said—

"I am unable to say if any foolish stories of that description were ever told in former times, but I should never allow any such to be repeated. Such a reputation in a house is a direct incentive to fraud."

We were a good deal afraid of my father, and Alice said, "Yes, so it might be," in a meek voice, and went on eating roast chicken.

"Mr. Curtis," she said again in a minute, "which of the Hiltons was that girl with the pearl necklace opposite to me?"

"Why, Alice," said my mother, "how many questions you are asking!"

"I thought I ought to know about our own pictures," said Alice, still in her simple, cheerful voice. I think it struck my father for the first time that she certainly had a right to ask questions, for he answered at once—

"I think that girl was your great-grandfather's sister, and I believe she married foolishly, and died when her first child was born."

"Ah!" said Alice, "she is the prettiest of them all."

She was. The picture was of a girl with a pearl necklace, and brown hair turned back over a cushion. She was very like Sir Joshua's well-known Nelly O'Brien. She was like Alice too.

The next morning as we were dressing, Alice said—

"If there is a ghost, I think it is the girl who married foolishly, and I think Hilton chapel has something to do with it."

"Why?" I said.

"I don't know, I thought of it in the night," she answered. "I thought how the chapel used to look. You could see it from this window."

That morning my father came into the schoolroom and said— "Alice, I think it is time that you did know something about your own property. If you will come into the study, I will show you the list of the pictures, and explain a few things to you."

Alice jumped up. "Oh, come, Mary," she said. "Never mind smudging that sky you are doing."

"It does not concern Mary," said my father, "but she can come if you like." We went, and papa showed Alice some papers about the letting of her farms and the control of the estate, and also lists of the pictures and ornaments in the house. There were some leather cases on the table which I had never seen, and papa opened them and showed Alice the old-fashioned jewels and the plate which they contained. There were some beautiful pearls, and among them a necklace which we supposed as the original of that in the girl's picture.

The girl's name was Alicia, my father said, and she ran away and married a musician. Alice clasped the pearls round her neck, and seemed unwilling to part with them, when my father proposed to put them away in an iron safe in one of the panels, which he now showed us for the first time.

That afternoon I went to the Rectory, and Alice for some reason stayed behind. I did the business about the school for which I went there, and then played croquet with Ellen and Ethel Graves. Their brother Jack was there, and a friend of his, a Mr. Ashford, a handsome,

pleasant young man who had come to read with the Rector. We had a capital game, and they asked us both to come for another on the next afternoon.

As I came back I met Alice just by the gate that led into the fields. She looked serious.

"Mary," she said, "I got the key from the farm, and went into the chapel."

"All by yourself?" I said. "Why did you do that?"

"I felt as if I wished to," she said. "I thought a great deal about Alicia Hilton who had the pearls. Don't you think she met her lover down there by the chapel? It would be so quiet."

"Really I don't know," I said. "I suppose she was a naughty girl, or she wouldn't have run away."

"I think I should run away," said Alice, "if Mr. Curtis stopped me from marrying the man I loved."

"Good gracious, Squirrel!" I exclaimed "What are you thinking of?" She laughed a little.

"I've got the key still," she said. "Come and have another look—" Well, I went. It was a perfectly still evening, not a breath stirring. The air was warm and misty, with the low sun shining through a haze.

We went into the little wood, and into the clear space that had been the chapel. It had a dreamy look.

Alice looked all round.

"Yes," she said, "there were walls standing here then, and she came here to meet him. She had a red cloak and a hood over her hair. He sat on that tombstone with a woman's figure. He came in at the west—"

"Alice! Alice!" I cried. " Are you making up a story about her? What do you mean?" Alice started.

"It came into my head," she said. "You shouldn't talk so loud, Mary. This is a church still." I felt worried, and I insisted on going back, and dragged Alice away.

I suppose that was how it began.

We went to the Rectory and played croquet, and the Rectory party came to us, and Frank Ashford certainly paid Alice attention. There were a good many little engagements, and we met often. There was nothing unusual about it; I need not tell it in detail. We had what girls now call "a good time." Alice said no more about the chapel, but I know she went there now and again, and she did not tell me. She said nothing about Alicia Hilton. I did not know then that she dreamed of her often.

After about a fortnight, my mother said to me —"Mary, there mustn't be too much intercourse with the Rectory. It wouldn't do at all to have anything between Alice and the pupil. I believe he is the son of a clergyman, and is perhaps going to take Orders; but of course he is not a match for Alice. Mind you are careful." I coloured up. It was the first time anything of the kind had come before us.

"You know, Mary," my mother said, "the time is coming when we must remember that Miss Hilton is an important person. It is a great responsibility. But don't say anything to her."

I was very silly. I went up into our room and cried, because the idea seemed to separate Alice from me.

Presently she came in and sat down in the window. It was beautiful clear twilight, with the young moon hanging over the chapel wood.

"Mary," she said, "I've been down to the chapel. I sat down on the tombstone, and— perhaps I went to sleep—for I fancied I saw Alicia quite close to me in her red hood. She looked right into my eyes, and made me think inside her instead of in myself, I know all about her."

"Alice," I cried, "you will catch cold! How could you be so silly about Alicia Hilton!"

"When I came back," said Alice, "Mr. Frank Ashford came into the chapel. He had found the door open, and we talked for a little while."

"Alice! How very improper!" I said angrily. "Mamma wouldn't like it."

"I couldn't help it," said Alice. She stood up and looked out of the window, then she spoke again.

"Mary," she said, "I was not asleep when Alicia came. She did come."

"Nonsense!" I said. "You did not really see her."

"She was there," said Alice. "But I don't now if she was outside me or inside me. She was me!"

I found fault with her grammar. I scolded her, I laughed at her; but I do not know why I never told my mother, either about Alicia or Mr. Frank Ashford.

All this time the rooms with the fallen ceiling were being done up; they needed a great deal of repair, and, in new papering them, a little cupboard was found in the thick wall, and in it an old portfolio. It so happened that the workmen who found it gave it to Alice, and she began to open and examine it at once. Of course she could, it was hers; but last year she would have run with it to papa at once.

It contained a plan of the old house, annotated. Where our new rooms now stood there had been a bedroom with a balcony looking down to the wood, and with a stair down to the garden, which was called "Alicia's room." At the side was written in a stiff old hand—"Here she was seen," and lower down—"It is but a Dream, but I could think I heard her play on the Spinet, Unhappy child!"

"She doesn't do that now, at any rate," I said sharply.

"I don't know," said Alice; "I heard music once here when I woke in the morning, hut you said it was that organ with a monkey we saw in Queen Street."

"Nonsense!" I said sharply.

There was also a plan of our new rooms, and we thought that the old ones had been pulled down that the lost Alicia might be forgotten.

I don't know why the weeks after this till the day of the ball were so odd to me. We did not see quite so much of the Rectory people; but of course we met Frank Ashford occasionally.

He was full of life and go. You could not forget him. Alice left off talking about Alicia; but sometimes she puzzled me. My mother said she was growing up, and coming out very much. Now and then there was a spirit and force about her, and a sparkle in her face quite new to her.

But then, as we knew afterwards, she was in love, and that does alter people. The night of the ball came. We had our white dresses, and I had a snowdrop wreath; but Alice would have some of her pearls twisted in her hair. She turned it back in front, as was then the fashion, and as she clasped the pearl necklace round her throat, she looked very like Alicia's picture.

She practised curtseys before the looking-glass, spread out her fan, and "bridled," with smiles, and with a bright colour in her cheeks. I cannot describe it, but she looked at me with eyes that were not her own.

When we came to the ball, some of the great ladies took marked notice of Alice. People were always kind to me, and I had plenty of partners, but for the first time I was made to feel that she was Miss Hilton of Hilton, and of more consequence than Mary Curtis.

Frank Ashford was at the ball, and at first he had to look on, and could see Alice dancing with the most eligible young men in her county; but after the first hour or two, somehow, he got possession of her, and danced with her over and over again. My mother was greatly annoyed, and made many attempts to part them; but she was a shy and unready person, and Alice practically defied her. She looked lovely, but so strange!

I watched her even when I was dancing myself. And when I was coming up from supper, I caught sight of her, in a little side-room off the stairs, where formerly people played at cards. She was alone with Frank Ashford, and I saw him take her in his arms and kiss her.

I suppose the "fuss" that ensued after this ball was just what might have been expected. My father and the Rector acted together. Alice was told that the thing was impossible, and Frank Ashford was sent away to another tutor. Alice cried a great deal. She said little, and my parents thought she gave in. They were much distressed, but they were her sole guardians and responsible to no one for her.

They said very little to me. There was a distance and reserve in their relations with me, perhaps helped by the fact that my companion was not their child, and that they made it a point of honour to treat us both alike.

I did not think that Alice had given in. She did not talk to me, and she did not seem very unhappy; but I knew that she sometimes went to Hilton chapel. One afternoon, when the daffodils were coming out, I was looking for some at the top of the field, and I saw her in her red cloak flit along the bottom of it and disappear through the little gate into the wood.

When I came in, she was in our room, sewing. I asked her what she had been doing in the Chapel wood.

"I haven't been there," she said; "I haven't been out." She blushed all over her face, and then she turned pale.

"Alice!" I exclaimed, "I saw you! There is no other red cloak in the place. You went into the gate. How can you deny it?"

"I did not, Mary, indeed I did not," she said. "It was not me!"

I was so angry with her that I turned my back, and would not speak to her. She got up, put on her red cloak and hat, and was out of the room and out of the house in a second, and I saw her run down the field towards the chapel, and I followed her. She was standing alone in the empty space in the soft, bright spring evening. She looked at me with her own eyes, and then she threw herself into my arms and cried.

And yet, of course—of course—it was Alice that I saw in the fields.

I had written so far, sitting in my little drawing-room, when I stopped, for my eyes were full of tears. I had not yet resolved to go on, when a visitor, whose name I did not catch, was announced, and as I started up I saw the handsome, brown-faced, elderly gentleman whom I had met at dinner on the night before.

"Miss Curtis," he said, "you don't remember me?"

"Frank Ashford!" I exclaimed, for suddenly I did remember him. I don't know how we got over the meeting, or what he said, except that he told me that he had been abroad, had made money, had married, and had several children.

"But when I saw you, Miss Curtis, I recalled that one brief winter at Greenstoke, when we were all so young and so foolish—that boy and girl dream—made sacred by its sad conclusion."

I had been very angry with him, or rather with his memory; but somehow as he sat there with his bronzed face and his grey moustaches, the long years between seemed to soften the old feelings. I answered indirectly.

"We went away—afterwards," I said. "You know her distant cousin, Eustace Hilton, sold the place. Since my parents died I have travelled, and then I settled here."

"I really do not know," said Mr. Ashford, mildly and sadly, "how the sad end came."

"When my parents knew that you still met her at the chapel, they settled to take us abroad."

"I only met her once at the chapel, after the ball," he said. "We parted, and I told her that I would wait and win her. I was not twenty-one."

"Only once!" I said; "she went there very often, and at last—"

"Yes, at last? What happened at last?"

"When we were going away she once made a scene. She spoke as Alice never used to speak, and told them that it was in vain to try to change her. Then she went, as she often did in the evening, to the wood. I ran after her. She was not there, and I went on and called her. I went to the edge of the pool—I thought as I went I saw her before me, through the trees. I saw her red cloak, as I thought, flitting along. Then—then I saw it—really—in the water But she had been reaching after the daffodils. They were scattered on the water. That was all we knew. She fell in, you know, trying to pick them."

He looked infinitely troubled and sad, with the distant sadness of a by-gone grief. And I too! Till yesterday I had not really thought often of Alice. Forty years is a very long time.

"It was sad and mad," he said presently, "and very sweet, but it was not very bad. We were over head and ears in love—and her death was an awful blow. We met certainly sometimes, before I left the Rectory. Sometimes she was shy—sometimes full of play and mischief. Sweet Alice! Poor Alice! The pool made a tragedy of the idyll."

"I am glad she told me the truth about you," I said. "What else did she tell you?" he said.

"I think she must have told me the truth," I repeated. "What did she tell you?"

"We had a talk once. She declared that she saw Alicia Hilton. She thought so much of her. She looked so like her. After she began to go to the chapel, there were times when she was so different—from Alice. I suppose it was being in love. She said—strange things. I do not know what she meant—"

I stopped, and he did not answer. I don't know if he at all understood—if she had told him. I think not. He told me nothing, and I had nothing more to tell him, for she never told me. Perhaps she inherited a rash spirit from Alicia. If such did enter into her—I mean, come out in her—it deserted her at last. It was just like my Alice to pick the flowers "for remembrance." She would never really have run away.

"Alice," said Frank Ashford as he went away, "was as pure as crystal and as good as gold." Yes, I think she always told the truth. I don't think it was Alice that I saw in the red cloak that evening in the field.