A Haunted Conscience
by Laurence MacDonald
Description: A Victorian businessman is deeply troubled by a business decision he made many years previously.
Description: A Victorian businessman is deeply troubled by a business decision he made many years previously.
Even now, as we near the dawn of the twentieth century, and despite the great advances in our knowledge of anatomy, the workings of that most remarkable organ the human brain remain largely unknown to science. Moreover, the mysteries of the mind are more perplexing still and few of us give much thought to the matter; perhaps wisely – for surely it is unproductive to wrestle with a conundrum for which there is so little prospect of finding a solution. My intention by committing this account to paper is merely to describe a strange occurrence that I witnessed many years ago and its cause. What follows does not dare attempt to explain what took place - it serves merely as the narrative of a striking, and disturbing, example of a very deep mystery.
I know a fellow - let me call him Renfrew - who gives every appearance of a man with much to be thankful for: he has impeccable background, wealth, success, and is, too, highly esteemed and respected within his profession and circles of society. I, however, know that he has lived with a terrible burden, one that has wearied and oppressed him for the five and twenty years we have been acquainted.
I first met Renfrew in the autumn of 1872: the directors of a certain ship building company situated on that famous Scottish river, the Clyde, had advertised for an artist to mark the launching of the first steel-hulled ship to be constructed in their yard. Along with a few rivals, I submitted examples of work for consideration and after some little while I received word intimating that I had been successful and was, therefore, awarded the contract to paint the occasion of the launch of SS Orion. A few days later I travelled from my home in Edinburgh to Glasgow to meet the Board of Directors to discuss the detail of their requirements. Present at that first meeting was the company's Chairman - Renfrew; a very able and astute young businessman of around my own age.
Our business was conducted smoothly, and when satisfactorily concluded, Renfrew took me to his club in the city and there I dined as his guest. He was tall and, at that time of life, of a robust stature, he carried himself with dignity and bearing and his grey eyes flashed with good humour. He was light-hearted and amiable in conversation and manner and I found his company agreeable. We became friends that day and both of us looked forward to meeting again at the forthcoming launch which was expected sometime in April 1873. However, when a letter did arrive before Christmas, it was to advise that - resulting from some difficulty with supplies of steel - the floating of the ship would be delayed until 30th May and, as it turned out, Renfrew and I would not meet on that auspicious occasion. When the day came I was, naturally, much occupied with my duties; busy with the photographs and sketches to be used later to guide my work in oils and Renfrew being equally taken up, indeed more so, I was not able to speak with him. Later, I was told, and with some surprise by my informant, that he had left immediately after the launch - absenting himself even before the visiting dignitaries had left.
Three weeks after the successful launch I was again required to attend the boardroom: this time to present my work. As the covering cloth was drawn away from my painting the assembled directors and managers showed much appreciation and even Renfrew, who had seemed anxious and withdrawn, at last managed a smile of approval. A warm and convivial atmosphere prevailed and I accepted their invitation to stay for whisky. Later, when about to take my leave, Renfrew approached me and said:
'James, must you go home directly from here? Come to the club if you can - I should like to discuss something that may be to your advantage.'
I agreed and after a short cab ride he ushered me into the club's elegant and imposing smoking room where we seated ourselves in a quiet corner. Provided with good whisky and a fine cigar I settled back in the armchair and looked my companion over. He appeared sickly: he exhibited an unhealthy pallor and the eyes were troubled. I saw too that he had lost some bulk and the flesh seemed to hang a little on his face. The man of vigour that I had met just a few months before had become a haunted figure and now seemed draped in gloom.
With some hesitancy I asked, 'Well Robert, how have you been? You must be delighted with the Orion. I gather that her success has brought an increase in work.'
He nodded and replied without enthusiasm:
'Yes, business is well and our order book has as much work as we can accept,' he looked down, swirled the whisky in his glass and, almost in a murmur, admitted, 'I wish though that I had never taken the Orion on .... I have been in misery since the day of her launch.'
'Why!' I exclaimed, 'She is a fine ship that does you credit and has secured a good future for your reputation and the company .... why should you regret such an outcome?'
He started to speak but checked himself and taking up his glass he looked to the window before replying carefully:
'Oh, well .... the Orion has taken up so much of my time and energy that I have neglected matters at home,' he lowered his eyes, 'my wife has taken the children to her mother for the time-being. I am quite alone,' he paused and looked at me with a bleak expression and added, 'alone with my thoughts and preoccupations and .... troubles.'
Patently, his answer omitted something of importance but I didn't pursue the matter, I instead expressed sympathy for the distress in his marriage and offered to assist in any way I might. He smiled, then, lightening a little, he said:
'James, I know a director at Bluebell Line, they will soon commission paintings for the first class accommodation of a large steamer that is being fitted out. May I put your name to him?'
I agreed, thanked him and asked the nature of what was required.
He answered, 'The ship will service the Glasgow to New York route, I understand that a series of paintings depicting landscapes from around the Clyde coast and islands is wanted. I don't believe you would have to compete, I feel sure that I need only show him the work you presented today. Leave it to me.'
I left him in the mid-evening to be home in good time for supper with my wife but before I bade him farewell he made me promise that we should remain in touch; naturally I assured him that we would. There was though, something desperate in his entreaty, it disturbed me and I wished that he had confided his troubles more fully so that I might help him.
After some small passage of time I received the commission to paint the eight large canvases which would adorn the first-class dining saloon of the Bluebell Line's new steamer SS Orcadie. The maiden voyage to New York was scheduled for October and it became, therefore, a matter of urgency to arrange a trip to the Clyde coast to conduct research and make preliminary sketches and watercolours. I had already sent missives of enquiry to a few coastal hotels when a letter from Renfrew arrived in early July:
My Dear James,
I am delighted to learn that you have accepted the commission for the 'Orcadie' and I have every confidence that Bluebell Lines have acted wisely in securing your services. I expect that you will wish to spend time on the coast for the purpose of finding the locales and landscapes that you might use to fulfil your contract. Forgive the forwardness of this proposition, and feel under no obligation to accept, but I wish to make an offer that may suit you. You see, I have a villa in Rothesay - have you heard of it? It is a quaint town and on the island of Bute which is situated in the Firth of Clyde. I intend to sojourn there for a week before the end of this month. Would you care to join me?
I do hope so and bring your wife and the children, I should be delighted to meet them all. The island is very beautiful and, I fancy, you would find a multitude of scenic views to answer your requirements admirably. Furthermore, and not least, it would suit me well to have good company there. I have been much caught up with business for the past few months but I mean to take a period of quiet - away from the city. There can be fewer places more agreeable for the purposes of rest and recuperation than this small isle in the summer season.
In the gardens there is a glass house that would, I trust, serve tolerably as a studio. You should be perfectly at liberty to work there undisturbed, if you so desired, and your family may care to sit with you, or take tea in the garden whilst you paint, or explore the sea-shore - always a joy for city children.
I intend to make arrangements to open the house for the third week of July. I do hope you will come.
I presented the proposal to my wife, Edith, and she agreed at once; the promise of a few restful days on the coast delighted her and we would leave the children in the care of my mother. Arrangements soon followed and Renfrew met our train in Glasgow on the morning of the third Saturday in July. I was heartened to see that he had recovered a little of the vitality that had been so notably absent at our previous encounter. After luncheon in town we took a train to the port of Greenock and there boarded the trim little paddle steamer Sultana. The sailing conditions were glorious: the sky cloudless, the air warm and the wind light. Presently, we cast-off from the pier and, as city dwellers, we revelled in the fresh experience. The almost musical sounds of the engine and beat of the paddles settled to a steady and pleasing rhythm. A few seagulls started up as we left and, gliding alongside, they kept escort and gave voice to their plaintive cries in the hope that a child aboard might toss a morsel of sandwich or sweetmeat into the air: clearly a favourite practice of children on boats who find much amusement in the ensuing squabble. There pervaded, as might be expected, the salty redolence of the sea, and though at first we thought it rather pungent, we soon became accustomed and found it pleasing - I fancied that the sea air had begun to purge my lungs of the dust and motes of grime accumulated from years of city living. The scenery was uncommonly striking; verdant coastline and hills stretched down-river on either side of the Sultana as she carried us purposefully toward the shimmering open waters ahead. As we drew closer to the distant islands they emerged, ever more clearly, through the blue summer haze that settled over the tranquil sea. Furthest from us were the great mountains of the island of Arran and they rose up in dark majesty to provide a magnificent backdrop to our destination; that great island's smaller and greener neighbour - the island of Bute.
The warmth of the unobstructed sun filled us with hope for a week of perfect seaside weather and, I do believe, we all felt the cares of the city evaporate on that short voyage. We chattered gaily and, now and then, one of us would point out to remark upon a passing feature of interest or bring attention to one of the manifold delights to be seen from the open deck of our little ship. I suppose my interest and observations would have been the keenest, for it was my business to take careful note of the singular beauty of the panorama. I gave much thought to the textures and colours that I might employ when the time came to try and do some justice to the surrounding splendour on canvas. No mere artistic endeavour could hope to capture the arresting magnificence of the firth that day but I was, never-the-less, hopeful that a week spent in such an exquisite environment would afford every opportunity to furnish the Bluebell Line with paintings fit to grace the finest saloon of any ship afloat. Certainly, if I failed, it could be no fault of the subject matter.
Edith's face was the very picture of delight: from beneath her straw bonnet a few strands of soft yellow hair strayed and floated on the gentle sea-breeze, the rose-pink cheeks seemed to glow in the sunlight and those large eyes, of the deepest azure, danced, and shone as brightly as the sparkling waters all around. How I wished I could have made her portrait there and then! She turned this way and that in animated fashion, observing every aspect of the changing scenery and interrupting her smile only to ask Renfrew about some group of houses huddled around a little pier or an imposing hill-side castle as it became fleetingly visible through a clearing in woods as we swept past below. In Renfrew I perceived a steady lightening of mood - a little more of the weight on his shoulders seemed to lift the further we journeyed from the city and he took interest in all around us and gave an entertaining and scholarly commentary on the rich history of the area. In a little over an hour after our departure from Greenock, the Sultana glided into the wide and sweeping curve of Rothesay bay and, after disembarking from the delightful little steamer and re-acquainting ourselves with our baggage (which had been sent on from Glasgow), we took a carriage from the harbour office directly to the house. Presently we drew up to the large villa which stood in a walled garden with a commanding position overlooking the shore. From the front there were splendid views across the bay and to the rear a gently rising and wooded hill of pleasing aspect. The house itself was very handsome: of recent construction in fine yellow sandstone it was well-proportioned and richly appointed. Renfrew gave us a large and comfortable bed chamber on the first floor with a good outlook. After Edith and I had settled in to our room we, the three of us, dined out. On our return to the house we declined our host's invitation to play cards in favour of retiring early - the combined effects of travel and the change of air having fatigued us - and so we wished him goodnight. He smiled and nodded but I believe a slight frown of uncertainty crossed his brow, rather as if he was troubled at what the night might bring.
We slept soundly and upon rising I opened the shutters to a scene of breathtaking beauty: it was a magnificently clear and bright day and the view filled us with joy and good expectation. We descended for breakfast and found Renfrew already at table. He rose and smiled as we entered and made all the expected enquiries as to our comfort but I saw at once that, despite the glorious day in prospect, he was deeply troubled. Had we been alone I would have demanded to know, there and then, what it was that vexed him, but it would not have done to have pressed him with Edith present. It was quite plain though that something had afflicted him during the hours of darkness.
After breakfasting the three of us attended church then strolled into the delightful town; Renfrew was quiet and sombre and, sometime during the afternoon, I became resolved to challenge him. I seized the moment when Edith exchanged a few words of pleasantries with a passing mother and child; I pulled his shoulder and said in a whispered exclamation:
'Renfrew man. What troubles you so! What can we do to help you?'
He turned to me, his countenance that of a man in despair, and in a low voice he uttered, 'Very well, if know you must, my troubles will be revealed - this evening. But let your wife retire first and assure me you shall not say one word to her about …. whatever occurs.' he fixed me a penetrating stare and urged. 'You must promise!'
That evening, before going down to dinner, I asked Edith that I might spend some time with Renfrew alone and later, after a few hands of Bezique in the drawing room, she tactfully feigned fatigue and expressed a desire to take an early night. He and I remained as we were and we discussed, for a while anyway, matters of little consequence. I had a deepening sense of foreboding though and at last, he gave warning that as darkness approached some trouble would start up in the room.
I startled, 'Trouble? What trouble can occur. There is no-one here but us.'
He motioned me to quieten and said, 'As night arrives certain things …. disturbances …. will become manifest. Things likely to alarm you.'
I leaned forward in my chair, 'You mean to say there is a ghost in this house!' I exclaimed.
For reply he gave me a grim and stony stare and a reluctant nod. I leaned back and reached for my glass - I had expected some tale of woe: I had conjectured that he had fallen victim to blackmail, or that his physician had delivered some perturbing news; but this was unfathomable. I was quite taken aback and we sat, in what amounted to silence, for a long period.
At length, the last strip of sunset's reddening light completed its slanted passage across the fireplace wall - a slow escape - and I shuddered in expectation. The evening was warm and humid, no fire had been lit and as the gloom increased I asked if we might light a lamp or candle. He declined, saying, 'I fear there would be nothing to be gained by it, for if I did, it would only extinguish. The trouble is gathering about us now and will presently show itself.'
Discomfited by his words, a tingling sensation ran across my neck and the room, very suddenly, became much cooler. I shifted uneasily and became aware of a distinct rankness in the air.
'What chill and malodorous draught is that! Is there a window in want of shutting?' I asked.
He shook his head and said, 'That is no puff of cooling night air my friend. Look about you; the windows and door are closed and all is still. Any zephyrs from the night garden would be fragrant too - the perfume of roses - no, what we have here now is nothing so mild and innocent.'
I said, 'Dear me, Robert, what is going on!' and he answered, 'Something that I must live with and it seems to follow me wherever I go, even here across water, for it came to me last night. Go to Edith. You know now that I am harried by a dark force. Leave me and I will see you at breakfast, we shall say no more about it.'
But I answered firmly, 'No, I shall sit with you.'
Then, before he could reply, a loud creaking attested to the heavy shutters swinging of their own volition: they slammed hard and sealed the large bay window from the last of the evening glow. The room, now perfectly dark, became like that of a confining place of black imprisonment. Of course, I had the strong impulse to run out but I kept to my chair; partly out of duty to my friend but also, I confess, because I feared I might stumble into some ghastly entity if I crossed the floor in that absolute blackness.
The next hellish phenomenon to plague us were scrapings - the noise brought to mind the mice that infested the skirting boards of my studio in the winter but these dreadful scratchings were much louder and harsher. Then started a horrible mewling and moaning, as if some animal or person cried out for relief from some unbearable pain.
The effect of these assaults on the senses can be readily comprehended and I have no shame in admitting that I had become paralysed with terror. The moaning grew louder and the metallic scratchings closed in around our feet: as if a group of rats patrolled, circled, then advanced slowly and furtively, waiting to swarm and attack the very moment they sensed weakness. I looked despairingly to the window but there was not one fragment of solace to be found there; neither light nor air made ingress to that room and the foetid odour worsened from a polluting and souring taint to a suffocating stench. I came to feel that we were deprived of oxygen. Worse still, a glow appeared upon the floor in the space between us. This unholy miasma coalesced into human form - that of a man attired in working clothes and lying face down and motionless. The strange and sickly yellow light that gave out from the spectre illuminated the watchful vermin and they moved toward it: I looked on in horror as two of the largest creatures dashed forward to gnaw at the face and ears. The figure moved an arm and tried weakly and hopelessly to beat the rats away but, all strength gone, it gave a pitiful and sickening moan. More of the creatures emerged from darkness to join the first, their bodies scrambling eagerly over the fleshy parts of the phantasm's face and neck.
Renfrew cried out, 'James! What am I to do! You see how mercilessly I am tortured …. I must endure this each and every night of my miserable existence!' Somehow, his words stimulated me from paralysis and a sudden fury erupted within. I shouted, 'For God's sake leave us now!' …. and it did! The loathsome vision before us vanished and the rancid air freshened. I rose immediately and stumbled to my friend and helped him from the room.
The rest of the week passed uneventfully. Of course, I concealed from Edith the true nature of what had taken place but she knew that I had been deeply shaken that night. I tried, once, to speak to Renfrew about the ungodly occurrence but he would tolerate no discussion of the matter. For him, it was enough that I had seen the nature of his travails. Without doubt his wife had every good reason to have removed herself and the children from the nightly torments and I felt unutterably forlorn for him. His mood and demeanour improved slightly for the remainder of our stay - I supposed he came to accept that even there, on that island, there could be no respite for him. We took a few pleasant walks and picnics together and I spent many hours sketching; Edith accompanied me on those excursions and she greatly appreciated the tranquillity and beauty of the places that we discovered.
The paintings resulting from that trip did well for me and, as a consequence, I became an established and successful artist. Renfrew and I did not see each other as the years went by but we did communicate irregularly by letter: I learned of his divorce and the continued success of his business. But eight months ago I received a telegram from him and it asked if I would attend the yard two days hence. I was surprised by the urgent summons but went to him as requested. Upon arrival, I was startled at his appearance: he was thin and haggard, his hair iron-grey and the complexion an unhealthy and sallow hue. I was a little late for the appointment - my train having been delayed - and he wasted no time with civilities. He insisted in a brusque tone:
'Don't remove your coat, we must leave at once. Come.' I followed him outside to where he had a carriage waiting for us and I asked, 'Where are we going that demands such haste?'
He answered, 'We are going to a breakers yard. The Orion is ruined; she suffered a fire at sea and is already partially broken-up. At my request they are awaiting us before proceeding into the bilge and today they shall break into the deepest recesses of the hull and there, I believe, discover something that will result in my arraignment and prosecution for gross negligence, if not worse. I care not! Whatever happens on this day will bring some form of atonement and relief - even if it is to be my ruin.' I looked at him and, though utterly perplexed, I reckoned it prudent to say little and ask nothing - favouring instead to await the unfolding of events.
The Orion presented a sorry sight. Most of the upper-works and decking had been destroyed or removed and what little remained was charred - I had attended her birth and here I witnessed her death. Renfrew, highly agitated, pulled at my elbow and drew me to the rusting hull where a gang of men laboured to remove steel plates from her side. He called out to a man visible through a gap, 'Can you break into the bilge yet?' A voice answered, 'Aye sir, we've started opening now.' Renfrew, his voice quavering, called back. 'Tell me what you find …. you have lamps?'
We waited and he clung to my arm in a state of high anxiety. After some cutting and wrenching of metal we heard the footsteps of two men resound in the hollow compartment. Then a muffled shout within called to a workmate. 'Look here Jack …. Bones be damned.' Renfrew sagged to his knees and began to tremble but I stepped closer to the hull and shouted, 'Bones? What bones man?' The voice laughed and called back, 'Aye bones sir. But just a poor wee kitty that appears tae huv taken tae sea withoot a ticket. Nothin' here except a dead cat and a few shrivelled up rats. Nout tae worry 'bout sir.'
I turned to Renfrew and he looked up at me and wept.
Later, at the club, he gave me the following startling revelation: on the morning of the launch, before the yard had opened, he had walked around the Orion. He had found everything to be to his satisfaction and with much relief as the ship's delivery to the owners had already been delayed and any further postponement would have caused penalties likely to be fatal to his business. As he turned to leave he thought he heard a moaning from within the hull - he called out but there had been no response. He had speculated that a man may have been trapped there for two or three days. Perhaps someone had lain insensible at the stern - injured or drunk even - when the last plate of the lower deck was riveted. But, it being unlikely that any worker - even a man hiding from foremen and out cold on whisky - could remain undiscovered for long, he tried to cast the idea from his mind. His fears though were compounded later, just before the launch, when he overheard a foreman, in answer to a manager's enquiry about a man missing for the worker's photograph, say that the fellow had not been seen for three days.
When he had finished I said to him, 'Surely it would have been of little trouble to trace any missing man …. did you not send to his family?' He replied, 'None could be found. Many of these men are itinerants, they come and go. There were no means to discover if the fellow was truly missing or if he had simply moved on - as they often do,' he paused, 'No means except opening the lower deck that is.'
I said to him, 'And so! You have tortured yourself, needlessly, day after day, or rather, night after night and year after year. You have, somehow, with your troubled conscience, conjured a ghost from thin air, less than thin air even…. a ghost so real that your wife and I have seen it! The ghost of a corpse that never existed. This is truly a most confounding tragedy and dreadful state of affairs.'
He answered quietly, 'If I were a good man James, I would have stopped that launch and had the bilge opened at once; my scourging torments have been well-deserved. But, I hope to God I can face the darkness now, and sleep more peacefully for whatever remains to me of life.'
I gives me pleasure to write that this morning, eight months since that day, my wife and I received a communication from Robert Renfrew. It is an invitation to his wedding in August - it is to be held on the island of Bute. Edith plans to visit her dressmaker this afternoon and I have made a note in my diary to purchase pastels at the next visit with my supplier: I mean to draw a colour portrait of my wife as she admires the passing scenery from the deck of the Sultana.
About the Author
Born in Edinburgh and now living in Fife, Laurence MacDonald only began writing short stories in 2016, but has already had two of his stories published in anthologies and another featured in a podcast in the USA. He intends to complete a collection of supernatural short fiction set in the 19th century.