THE MIDNIGHT BELL (1798)

FRANCIS LATHOM (1772–1832)


Francis Lathom wrote numerous satirical farces and comedies (e.g. All in a Bustle, 1795; The Dash of the Day, 1800), some Oriental/Arabic Gothic tales and dramas (e.g. The Castle of Ollada, 1794; Orlando and Seraphina; or, The Funeral Pile, 1799), and about two dozen novels, mostly historical romances turning upon ‘mysteries’. The editors of Flowers of Literature; for 1803 observed that ‘Mr. LATHOM has tried both the marvellous and the natural romance. In his marvellous romance, whose essence is much ado about nothing, he has adopted that kind of work which the German school first suggested, and the genius of Mrs. RADCLIFFE rendered popular. . . . In Mrs. RADCLIFFE’s mysteries we find motives for most of the contrivances; but, in Mr. LATHOM’s productions, there is mystery without any other motive than the love of mystery.’ A spirit of satire and comedy pervades most of Lathom’s work, though the use of comic characters, as in the following extract, may be intended to heighten the effect of terror in his readers. Jane Austen’s father borrowed The Midnight Bell from the library in October 1798, and read it while her mother sat by the fire. The work is one of the ‘horrid’ novels listed in Northanger Abbey.

(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)


Chapter XXII

How many things are there that the fancy makes terrible by night, which the day turns into ridicule!

SENECA’S MORALS

Fortunately for Alphonsus, who wished not to be known, the little inn had changed its inhabitants since he had last visited it; thus no suspicion of their being any other than common travellers was entertained by the landlord when they entered his dwelling.
          Shortly after their arrival Alphonsus took occasion to lead to the subject on which his thoughts were unremittingly bent.
          ‘That’s a fine castle that stands about a league from hence,’ said he, addressing his host.
          ‘Yes, sir,’ was the answer.
          ‘Who inhabits it?’
          ‘Nobody.’
          ‘To whom does it belong?’
          ‘To the Cohenburg family.’
          ‘And why do they not reside in it?’
          ‘Ah, sir! they are all dead but one poor gentleman, the brother of him that used to live there, and he can no where find rest for his guilty mind: folks say he is gone into a monastery to repent of his sins, and make his peace with heaven.’
          ‘Of what crime is he accused?’
          ‘Why, sir, I have not lived here long, but as I have heard people say, count Frederic, the youngest brother, he that I now speak of, and who used to live in a handsome mansion about a league from hence to the left, and which is now inhabited by one count Radvelt, was so jealous of his brother’s castle and riches, that he had him murdered by assassins in the Wolf’s Wood, in his return home to his castle, from Vienna; and then killed his brother’s wife and son with his own hand. The matter was pretty well hushed up at first; it was given out that the countess had died of grief for the loss of her husband, and that her son had killed himself in a fit of madness: nobody much believed it, but as nobody had any proofs to the contrary, nothing durst be said; but the villain soon betrayed himself, for he staid at the castle but two or three days, and then went no one knows whither.’
          ‘And did he leave nobody in the castle?’
          ‘No, sir, nobody; people do tell strange stories that it is haunted, and that he was frightened away by the ghost of the murdered count; and some say, that a bell is tolled by it every night at midnight.’
          ‘I have a strange curiosity to visit this castle.’
          ‘You had better not, sir.’
          ‘Why so, friend?’
          ‘Why, sir, people think that the reason of the ghost’s ringing the bell is, that it is shut up by priestcraft within the walls of the castle, and prevented from coming out; and that it tolls the bell to call somebody in, that it may reveal the murder of its body to them, and frighten them into promising to revenge its death. Nobody goes near the castle on that account.’
          Alphonsus pretended to smile at the tale related by his host, but it had an effect on his feelings which he could ill conceal: all his efforts to coerce the wish of immediately gratifying his curiosity he found to be in vain, and he declared to the count and Lauretta, that he felt an impulse he could not resist, to certify himself that night as to the tolling of the bell: in vain did they remonstrate, and endeavour to prevail with him not to leave the inn until the morning; but there was a resolute and anxious wildness in his countenance to follow the impulse he had described, which seemed to bid defiance to every objection.
          The tears however of Lauretta, whose alarm was raised, she could hardly express on what account, to a pitch of agony, at the idea of Alphonsus that night approaching the castle, brought him to consent to defer his visit to the following day, on condition that if he could gain no light on the mystery which occupied his mind by traversing the castle, and examining his father’s cabinet, she would not object to their there taking up their abode, which he declared would be an alleviation of his horrors and perplexities.
          After a sleepless night, Alphonsus rose to an uneasy morn; every the most minute circumstance attendant on the mystery wherein his happiness was involved, had been turned over in his thoughts during the night; and as heretofore, instead of deriving any clue of elucidation from reflection, the mystery had only thickened upon increased conjecture.
          Again he felt scruples arising in his mind against opposing the injunction laid on him by his mother: again his doubts were lulled by the secrecy he had vowed to maintain, relative to any discovery he might make in the castle, which, notwithstanding the strong impulse he felt to visit it, reason seemed to contradict he should do; and then again he felt a momentary fear, for which he shuddered to account, that a snare might be spread for taking his life if he returned to the castle.
          Judging it however the most consistent with the faith he owed himself to go alone to the castle, he avowed his intention to his Lauretta, and resigning her after a fond embrace to the care of her father till his return, he departed, followed by the eyes of Lauretta till the intervening branches of the trees shut him from her sight.
          Alphonsus rode swiftly forward, lost in a maze of fluctuating thought; at length taking a turn of the well-known road, Cohenburg castle burst full upon his sight; he beheld it with mingled sensations of melancholy pleasure, and awful apprehension. Crossing the moat, he proceeded to the stable from whence he had taken his steed on the morning on which he had last departed from the castle: fond remembrance was hasty to contrast the present gloom of desertion with former scenes of happier aspect; – recollection became too painful to be constrained, and burst its way from his eyes in burning drops of sorrow.
          Having left his steed in the stable, he proceeded to the castle-gate; it was locked, and bade defiance to his repeated efforts to open it: he next attempted the postern-gate, it in like manner resisted his endeavours. He ran round the castle, gazing upon it in every part, and trying to recollect some window by which he might effect his entrance; he would not trust to recollection for believing them all too high, and too strongly barricaded to favour his attempts, but examined every one separately in the circuit of the castle.
          Tortured by having his attempts thus baffled, he threw himself upon the ground in despair; in a few minutes, however, recollecting that inactivity could add little to forward his wishes, he rose from his situation, resolving to return to the inn, and ask advice of count Byroff how to proceed in his present dilemma. Once again he exerted his utmost endeavours to open the two gates, but they proved equally vain with his former efforts; he mounted his steed and returned to the inn.
          Alphonsus immediately related his adventure, and opened a consultation with the count, on what steps were the best to be taken by him.
          ‘Much deliberation,’ the count said, ‘seemed to be required on the subject of so delicate a nature: the gates of the castle being locked might be construed into an indication either of its being inhabited, or not being inhabited. If it was inhabited, the prevalent idea of its being deserted plainly proved it was the shelter of some person who wished to live in obscurity, and would, from this motive, perhaps, revenge the entrance of any one who dared to trespass on his retirement.’
          ‘How can he wish to live unknown?’ cried Alphonsus, ‘who every night publicly announces his dwelling by tolling the castle bell?’
          ‘Have you any proof of this?’ said the count.
          ‘The young miner, and now again our landlord, both assert that it is so.’
          ‘But they never heard it; nor likely any one who trembles while he relates it, has any authority for it but the dream of some old woman, who having talked all day of the occurrences at the castle, had seen them in her sleep in aggravated colours.’
          ‘I will certify myself in this point,’ returned Alphonsus, ‘before I proceed to any measures for entering the castle; I will watch the tolling of the bell this night.’
          After promising Lauretta that he would use no means for entering the castle that night, she consented that he should watch on the outside, in order to learn the truth of the story which had been related of the midnight bell, provided her father accompanied him; but as Alphonsus declared that he could not leave her at the inn with satisfaction to himself, unless the count remained with her, it was at length agreed that Jacques Perlet should be the companion of Alphonsus on his nightly expedition.
          As Alphonsus was well aware that his going out in the night could not fail being known by the host, and excite his curiosity, he determined to inform him, that he meant to go and listen for the tolling of the singular bell he had mentioned to be sounded every night at the castle; the host, unsuspicious that Alphonsus meant more than his words conveyed, endeavoured to dissuade him from his purpose by all the arguments of blind superstition, and vulgar fear; and finding him resolute in his purpose, besought him to wear a little cross on his expedition, which, he said, ‘had belonged to his deceased wife, and which having been kissed by the pope, would secure him from the influence of the devil, and his fiends’.
          To avoid the imputation of obstinacy and irreligion, Alphonsus accepted the offer of the sacred cross, and placed it within his waistcoat.
          At a little after ten Alphonsus and Jacques set out for the castle on foot.
          Where flesh and blood were to be contended with by day-light, Jacques was no coward, but a breath of wind, or a shadow in a dark night, were great settlers of his valour. Count Byroff knowing his disposition, had not made him acquainted with any of the particulars which constituted Alphonsus’s curiosity in regard to the bell which was sounded at the old castle; and as he fortunately had not heard of any dreadful appearance which had been seen in the vicinity of this building, he endeavoured all the way to keep up his courage by repeating to himself, ‘that the sound of a bell in the night could be no more than the sound of a bell in the day’.
          Alphonsus, wrapt in reflection, was not much disposed to converse, and they had proceeded nearly a third of the way without speaking, when Jacques suddenly exclaimed, ‘Do you hear it, monsieur?’
          ‘What?’ asked Alphonsus.
          ‘The bell, monsieur?’
          ‘We are yet too distant from the castle to catch the sound,’ returned Alphonsus.
          ‘So I thought, monsieur: – that was the reason I asked.’
          Had Jacques spoken the truth, he would have confessed that he found it very melancholy to proceed so far in silence, and that he despaired of drawing Alphonsus into conversation by any other subject, than the one on which his thoughts were then bent; his stratagem, however, answered but little to his wishes, for Alphonsus again sunk into silent reflection.
          ‘The moon will be up presently, monsieur, it begins to grow a little light already.’
          Alphonsus raised his eyes for a moment to the atmosphere, and again dropped them to their former situation.
          ‘I wonder how many stars there are, monsieur: – did you ever count them?’
          ‘No.’
          ‘Nor I, monsieur; *#150; I wonder whether any body ever did?’
          No answer was returned.
          ‘I dare say there are more than a thousand in all; I am sure I can see five hundred to-night, and there are often as many more on a clear night; a’n’t there, monsieur?’
          ‘Of what?’
          ‘Stars, monsieur.’
          Jacques now anxiously waited for a rejoinder, but his hopes were deceived. Alphonsus had spoken to the few words he had accidentally heard, without entering into the subject to which they belonged.
          Now the silence had been once broken, its recommencement appeared more unpleasant to Jacques, than whilst it had remained totally uninterrupted; his tongue ached to relieve his eyes and ears, which were unremittingly looking out for shapeless monsters, and listening for uncouth sounds; singing and whistling by night he had heard ridiculed as betraying fear; and he could for some time think on no other expedient to divert the way; at last a lucky thought entered his head: ‘I think I’ll try and count the stars myself, monsieur,’ he said, and immediately began Counting, une, deux, trois, &c. passing them, as he pronounced the number, on his fingers: he chuckled at this happy expedient; it exercised both his eyes and tongue, and amused his hearing; thus passed on another third of the way; Jacques never the nearer in his knowledge of the numeration of the heavenly bodies, but quite as near in reality as he wished to be. At last wearied by his employment, and not at all satisfied with hearing only his own voice, he desisted from his calculation, and lowered his eyes to the spot where he supposed to find Alphonsus walking by his side; but he was not there; for a few moments he stood motionless, then looking round on all sides, as far as the slender light of the faintly shining stars would permit him to carry his sight, and not beholding his companion, he ran straight forward in the path along which he supposed Alphonsus to have proceeded, as fast as he could move his legs, and attended by all the noise his overstrained voice could make.
          Alphonsus, inattentive to every object but what was passing in his own mind, had insensibly passed his companion, whose pace had been retarded by his pretended studies, and had gained some ground upon him ere Jacques perceived his advance; now, however, roused from his reflections by Jacques’ exclamations, he stopped for him, and they were quickly again united, to the no small satisfaction of one party; when an explanation of their parting took place on both sides, and Jacques determining not to let the conversation he had now raised, flag, asked Alphonsus ‘how many ghosts he had ever seen?’
          ‘Not one,’ replied Alphonsus.
          ‘Then you have seen one less than me, monsieur; and that’s what always makes me afraid of being alone in the dark.’
          ‘Now I, on the contrary, should have supposed the dark to have been very agreeable to one of your credulous disposition.’
          ‘Why so, monsieur?’
          ‘Because I should conceive that in it you could see neither objects to please nor alarm you.’
          ‘Oh dear, monsieur, how you talk! why ghosts always light themselves.’
          Alphonsus had not spirits either to rally Jacques on his false ideas, or to endeavour to correct them by the arguments of reason, and he remained silent.
          Jacques had now a clue for conversation, and he chattered on about spirits, ghosts, and witches, to his own joint amusement and terror, till a few minutes brought them within sight of Cohenburg castle, and all his faculties were then absorbed in the use of his eyes.
          They advanced within a few yards of the building to a small elevation of the turf, where Alphonsus proposed they should sit down, and wait the expected sound of the bell. The moon was breaking from under a retiring cloud, and, shedding her partial influence on the building, while its shadow fell upon the place which Alphonsus had chosen for his watching post, gave a pleasing yet melancholy aspect to the scene. It produced sensations in the mind of Jacques which he felt at a loss to explain, and after repeated hesitations how to express himself, he exclaimed, ‘Well, if ever I am to see another ghost, I am sure this is just the place I should expect to meet it in!’
          ‘Folly!’ cried Alphonsus: ‘how should you expect to see what never existed?’
          ‘Mon Dieu, monsieur, how you talk! why all the priests in the world should not make me believe, I did not see one that time I was going to mention to you.’
          ‘Well, well, then you did,’ said Alphonsus, softened by the scene into reflections too dear to be easily shaken off, and wishing to prevent their farther interruption by coalescing in opinion with his companion.
          ‘I thought you would believe me at last, monsieur,’ said Jacques, who flattered himself he had made a convert of Alphonsus: ‘I’ll tell you the whole story, – may I, monsieur?’
          ‘Oh yes,’ replied Alphonsus, thoroughly determined not to attend to it, and hoping, by this indulgence of his friend’s garrulity, to free himself from the trouble of replying to his questions.
          Having cast his eyes around, as a kind of security preparative to his dismal story, and moved a few inches nearer to Alphonsus, Jacques thus began: ‘When I was about fifteen years old, monsieur, my father lived in a little village about a lieue from Desmartin, on the road to Paris; ours was a lonely little cottage, for it stood quite at the end of the village, and above a hundred paces distant from the next house; my grandmother was alive then, poor old soul, and she was as much afraid of a ghost as me; so one winter’s evening, just before we went to bed, there comes a rap, or indeed it was more like a scratch at the door. “Come in,” says my father; nobody answered, nor the door did not open; so my father bid me open it, and I did, but nobody was there to be seen; so as I thought it might be somebody that had a mind to frighten us, and had hid themselves behind the wood-stack at the corner of the house, I ran to look, for it was moon-light; and there I saw a man in black, kneeling down, without a head; and when I called out for help, he got up and ran away as fast as ever he could, and when he had got a little way off, his back looked as white as snow.
          ‘Well, monsieur, frightened enough I was, as you may suppose, and so was my father, for he saw it too: and a little while after my grandmother died. “Now the murder’s out,” says my father: “that was a warning of la bonne’s death: we shall see no more ghosts now.” “I hope not, I am sure,” said I; but he was wrong: for about a month after, one night when the wind was high, there was such a noise in the kitchen after we were gone to bed, that it waked us all, and in a minute or two the door between my father’s chamber and mine burst open, as if le diable lui meme had kicked it; then again we heard the noise in the kitchen, and in a few minutes came such a crack, as if the very roof had split over our heads; I covered myself with the bed cloaths; father said he would go down and see what it was, when, just as he was getting out of bed, there was such a rustling on the stairs; and then it seemed to come into the chamber under the door, and all on a sudden a long, deep, hoarse, frightful . . . . .’ At this instant the bell in the south turret of the castle tolled several strokes, which sounded on the air hollow and dismal; Alphonsus started from his seat, and Jacques remained sitting on the turf in a state of fear scarcely a degree removed from petrifaction.


[SOURCE: Francis Lathom, The Midnight Bell, A German Story, 3 vols (London: H.D. Symonds, 1798), vol. 3, pp. 114–40]


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