Classics Translated

The Phantom Coach

Amelia B. Edwards, originally published 1864; translated to Modern English, otherwise exactly the same. 

1

What I am about to tell you is the truth. It happened to me, and I remember it like yesterday despite the fact twenty years have passed since that night. In all this time, I have only told the story to one other person. Even now, it is difficult to overcome my reluctance to share it. I must ask that you avoid forcing your own conclusions onto me; I want no arguments or explanations. My mind is already made up on this subject; I prefer to believe what I saw with my own eyes.

Well! It was twenty years ago, and a day or two after the end of grouse hunting in December. I was on a cold moor in northern England with an east wind, and I became lost after being out with my gun all day. It was an unpleasant place to lose one’s way; the first flakes of a snowstorm were falling, and the sun was beginning to set. I shaded my eyes and stared anxiously into the darkness; a range of low hills were 10-12 miles away. There was nothing to see in any direction – not so much as a fence or sheep’s track. All I could do was continue walking and hope to find shelter along the way. I had been going since breakfast and eaten nothing since; shouldering my gun, I pushed forward.

Meanwhile, the wind was blowing, and it snowed with ominous persistence. The cold became more intense, and the night was rapidly approaching. My hopes darkened with the sky, and my heart grew heavy as I thought of my troubled wife sitting at the window – watching for my return. We had been married four months and spent autumn in the Highlands; for the winter, we traveled to a small, remote village near the great English moorlands. We were very much in love; when we parted that morning, she begged me to return before dusk, and I promised to do just that. I would have given anything to keep my word!

2

As tired as I was, I thought it might be possible to return before midnight with a little food and rest if I could find shelter or a guide. The snow fell and thickened; I stopped to shout occasionally, but my yells only made the silence feel deeper. A vague sense of uneasiness came over me, and I recalled stories about travelers who walked in the snow until they collapsed dead from exhaustion. I wondered if it would be possible for me to keep walking through the night; eventually, my legs would fail along with my resolution, and I would die.

I shuddered; it would be very hard to die when my whole life still lay ahead! It would be hard for my darling – she has such a loving heart – but I could not think of that. To distract myself, I shouted again – louder and longer – then listened eagerly. Was my call answered, or did I only imagine a far-off cry? I yelled again… and the echo followed once more.

Then, a wavering speck of light suddenly came out of the darkness – it was bobbing – getting closer and brighter. Running towards it at full speed, I found myself face to face with an old man and a lantern. “Thank God!” I exclaimed involuntarily.

Blinking and frowning, he lifted his lantern and peered into my face. “What for?” He growled, sulkily.

“Well… for you. I was beginning to worry I would be lost in the snow.”

“Oh, folks do get lost here from time to time; what’s stopping you from being lost as well if that’s what the Lord intended?”

3

“Friend, if the Lord intends for you and I to be lost together, then so be it, but I won’t be alone. How far am I from Dwolding?” I asked.

“A good twenty miles, more or less.”

“And the nearest village?”

“The nearest village is Wyke, and it’s twelve miles the other way.”

“Where do you live, then?”

“Over that way,” he said, vaguely pointing with the lantern.

“You’re going home, I assume?”

“Maybe I am.”

“Then I’m going with you.”

The old man shook his head and scratched his nose with the lantern’s handle. “It’s no use; he won’t let you in… not him.” He growled.

“We’ll see about that; who is He?” I replied, briskly.

“The master.”

“Who is the master?”

“That’s none of your business.” He replied abruptly.

“Well, then; you lead the way, and I assure you that the master will give me shelter and dinner tonight.”

“Oh, you can try him!” my reluctant guide muttered; still shaking his head, he hobbled away like a gnome through the falling snow. Suddenly, a large structure appeared in the darkness, and a huge dog rushed forward, barking furiously.

“Is this the house?” I asked.

“Yea, it’s the house. Down, Bey!” He fumbled in his pocket for the key.

4

I stood close behind him – determined not to lose my chance at entry – and in the lantern’s light, I saw that the door was studded with iron nails – like the doors of a prison. In another minute he turned the key, and I pushed past him into the house.

Once inside, I looked around curiously and found myself in a raftered hall – which apparently had a variety of uses. One end had corn piled to the roof, and the other had flour-sacks, farm tools, and lumber. Rows of meat and dried herbs hung from the rafters for winter use, and in the center of the floor was a huge object covered in a dingy blanket that extended halfway to the ceiling. Lifting a corner of the cloth, I was surprised to see a telescope mounted on a crude, mobile platform with four small wheels. The tube was made of painted wood and wrapped in bands of rough metal, and the reflective glass was at least fifteen inches in diameter. While I was still examining the instrument, a loud bell rang.

“That’s for you,” my guide said with a malicious grin. “His room is over there.”

He pointed to a low, black door at the opposite side of the hall. I crossed over, knocked somewhat loudly, and entered without waiting for an invitation. A huge, white-haired old man rose from a table covered with books and papers, confronting me sternly.

“Who are you? How did you get here? What do you want?” He demanded.

“James Murray, attorney-at-law. Across the moor on foot. Meat, drink, and sleep.”

His bushy eyebrows bent into an ominous frown.

5

“This is not a boarding house,” he said, disdainfully. “Jacob, how dare you let this stranger in?”

“I didn’t,” the old man grumbled. “He followed me over the moor, and forced his way in before me. I’m no match for someone six foot two.”

“Excuse me, sir, but what gave you the right to force your way into my house?”

“The same right I would have to cling to your boat if I were drowning – the right of self-preservation.”

“Self-preservation?”

“There’s already an inch of snow on the ground, and it would be deep enough to bury me before dawn.” I replied.

He pulled aside a heavy black curtain and looked out the window. “It is true. You can stay till morning if you choose. Jacob, serve supper.”

With this he waved me to a seat, and sat down to resume the studies I interrupted.

Placing my gun in a corner, I pulled a chair to the fireplace and leisurely examined this new room. Though it was smaller and decorated more normally than the hall, it contained many curious things. There was no carpet on the floor, and strange diagrams were drawn on the white walls; shelves were filled with dingy books and scientific instruments I couldn’t even identify. Beside the fire was a small piano – wonderfully painted with medieval saints and devils. Inside the half-opened cupboard at the far end of the room was a large display of special rocks, surgical tools, crucibles, beakers, and chemicals; next to me – on the mantle – was a model of the solar system, a small battery, and a microscope. Every chair was filled with more items, and books were stacked high in every corner; the very floor was littered with maps, carvings, and papers. My amazement increased with each new object I saw; I had never seen such a strange room – especially not in a farmhouse on a wild, secluded moor!

6

I looked at my host, asking myself who and what he could be. His mind was remarkably sharp, but it was more of a poet’s mind than a philosopher’s. His broad temple protruding over his eyes and abundance of rough, white hair made him look like Beethoven; he had the same furrowing brow and deep lines around his mouth that gave him an appearance of deep concentration. The door opened while I was still watching him, and Jacob brought in dinner. His master then closed his book and invited me to the table with the most courtesy he had shown yet.

A plate of ham and eggs, a loaf of brown bread, and a nice bottle of sherry were placed before me.

“I only have the dinner of a poor farmer to offer you, but I trust your appetite will make up for the lack in taste.

I had already begun eating and excitedly announced that I’d never had anything so delicious.

He bowed stiffly and sat down to his own dinner which mostly consisted of milk and porridge. We ate in silence, and when we were finished, Jacob removed the dishes. I moved my chair back to the fireplace, and – surprisingly – my host did the same; abruptly turning towards me, he said, “I have lived here in retirement for 23 years. During that time, I have not seen many strange faces, and I have not read a single newspaper. You are the first stranger to cross my threshold in over four years. Will you tell me information about the world I have been away from for so long?”

7


“Absolutely! Ask away; I’m happy to be of service.” I replied.

He nodded and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees; staring into the fire, he began to question me. He mostly wanted to know about new scientific advancement and how it affects daily life; he was completely ignorant of such matters. I answered as best as my limited knowledge allowed, but it was not easy; I was very relieved when the interrogation ended, and he began discussing his own conclusions. I listened intently as he talked until seeming to forget my presence; I have still never heard anything else like it. His subtle analysis and bold generalizations spilled forth uninterrupted as he drifted from topic to topic. From science to philosophy and from the greatest doctors to the greatest artists – he seamlessly transitioned from one subject to the next. I have forgotten how he linked each point together, but it went beyond what any man could know for fact. He spoke of souls, psychics, ghosts, and prophecies – of things that skeptics say cannot exist.

He said, “the world grows more skeptical by the hour, and our scientists have a fatal habit. Anything they can’t prove with an experiment or dissect in a laboratory is disregarded as a myth. What superstition causes them to be so stubborn about the possibility of ghosts? Show me any fact in physics, history, or archaeology that has such a wide variety of testimonials. There are witnesses of all ages from every culture around the world, yet the supernatural is treated like a nursery rhyme by the philosophers of our century. Circumstantial evidence carries no weight in the matter; regardless of how valuable cause and effect might be in physical science – it’s worthless here. A reliable witness – despite being conclusive in a court of law – counts for nothing, either. A moment’s pause before speaking is considered a sign of lying, and believers are called fools.”

8

He spoke with bitterness and sat silently for several minutes before raising his head. With an indifferent tone, he added, “I investigated and believed; I was not ashamed to state my convictions to the world. I was also labeled as a visionary, ridiculed by my peers, and laughed out of the industry where I spent the best years of my life. These things happened just 23 years ago. Since then, I have lived like this, and the world has forgotten me – as I have forgotten it; that is my history.”

“It is a very sad one,” I murmured, not knowing what to say.

“It is a very common one; I have only suffered for the truth – just as so many others before me.” He rose – as if wishing to end the conversation – and went over to the window. “It has stopped snowing.” He observed, dropping the curtain and returning to the fireplace.

“Stopped!” I exclaimed, eagerly jumping to my feet. “Oh, if it were only possible – but no; it’s hopeless! Even if I found my way across the moor, I couldn’t walk twenty miles tonight.”

“Walk twenty miles tonight?” My host repeated. “What are you thinking?”

“Of my wife,” I replied, impatiently. “She doesn’t know I got lost; right now – her heart is breaking with worry and terror.”

“Where is she?”

“In Dwolding, twenty miles away.”

“Dwolding,” he echoed, thoughtfully. “Yes, it is twenty miles, but… are you truly that desperate to save just 6-8 hours?”

9

“Yes! I would pay a fortune for a guide and a horse!”

“Your wish can be granted at a lower price,” he smiled. “The night-mail changes horses at Dwolding and passes within five miles of here; it is due to arrive at the crossroad in an hour. If Jacob were to take you across the moor to the old coach road – could you find your way to where it connects with the new one?”

“Easily – and gladly!”

He smiled, rang the bell, and gave the old servant his instructions. Taking a bottle of whisky and a wine-glass from the cupboard, he said, “The snow is deep; it will be difficult to walk on the moor. Would you like a drink before you go?”

I would have declined, but he insisted so I drank it. It went down like a liquid flame and almost took my breath away.

“It is strong, but it will help keep you warm. Now, there’s no time to spare; goodnight!” He said.

I thanked him for his hospitality and would have shaken hands, but he turned away before I could finish my sentence. Outside, Jacob locked the outer door behind me, and we were once again on the wide, white moor.

Although the wind had fallen, it was still bitterly cold. Not a single star shined in the black sky overhead, and there was no sound to disturb the heavy stillness of night except for the crunching of snow beneath our feet. Jacob – unhappy with his mission – stumbled ahead with his lantern in sullen silence. I followed with my gun over my shoulder – not wanting to chat any more than him – and day-dreaming as I mused over my experiences. Thoughts of the old man filled my mind – I could still hear his voice, and his words had captured my imagination; my over-excited brain retained almost every detail exactly as he relayed them.

10

At the end, Jacob came to a sudden stop. “That’s your road. Keep the stone fence to your right, and you can’t get lost.”

“Then, this is the old coach road?”

“Yes, it is.”

“How far is it until I reach the crossroads?”

“About three miles.”

I pulled out my wallet, and he became more helpful.

“The road’s good enough for walking, but it’s too steep and narrow for the carriages. Be careful near the sign-post where the bridge is broken; it’s never been repaired since the accident.” He said.

“What accident?”

“The night-mail fell into the valley below; the drop is a good fifty feet or more. It’s the worst stretch of road in the whole county.”

“That’s horrible! Were many lives lost?”

“Four were found dead, and the other two died the next morning.”

“How long ago did this happen?”

“Just nine years.”

“Near the sign-post, you say? I will keep it in mind; goodnight.”

“Goodnight, sir, and thank you.” Jacob pocketed his money, lazily tipped his hat in farewell, and walked away.

I watched the light of his lantern until it disappeared, and then turned to go my own way. This was now a simple matter; despite the darkness, the stone fence was easily seen against the pale, gleaming snow. Only my footsteps broke the silence, and a strange, unpleasant feeling of loneliness consumed me. I walked faster, humming a random tune or adding large numbers in my head; I did anything I could to forget the startling claims I heard that night, and – to an extent – I succeeded.

11

Meanwhile the night air grew colder and colder, and though I walked fast, it was impossible to stay warm. My feet were frozen, and my hands went numb as I clung to my gun. Breathing also became difficult; it felt as if I were scaling a mountain instead of walking along a quiet road. It became so distressing, I had to stop and lean against the stone fence for a few minutes. As I did, I happened to look back up the road, and – to my immense relief – I saw the faraway light of an approaching lantern. At first, I thought Jacob had returned to follow me, but then I saw a second light next to it – moving at the same speed. I quickly realized they must be the lamps of a private carriage, though it seemed strange that someone would take their own vehicle down such a disused and dangerous road.

However, there was no doubt the lamps grew larger and brighter every moment, and I could even see the dark outline of the carriage between them. It was coming very quickly and quietly, and the snow was nearly a foot deep under its wheels.

Then, the body of the coach became visible behind the lamps, and it looked unusually tall. I suddenly became paranoid that I had passed the crossroads in the dark without noticing the sign-post, and wondered if this was the coach I had come to meet.

I didn’t need to wonder long; it came around the curve with a guard, a driver, one outside passenger, and four gray horses – all wrapped in a soft haze of light which made the lamps blaze like a pair of fiery meteors.

Apparently this story has been added to numerous collections, but I think this is from the original.

12

I jumped forward, waving my hat and shouting. The carriage came at full speed and passed me. I feared they had not seen me, but only for a moment. The driver pulled over, and the guard – wrapped to the eyes in blankets – was apparently sound asleep because he failed to answer me or make room; the outside passenger did not even turn his head. I opened the door and looked inside; there were only three travelers so I got in, slid into the empty corner, and congratulated myself on my good fortune.

The air inside the coach seemed colder than outside and was filled with a foul, wet smell. I looked around at my fellow-passengers; all three were men and all were silent. They did not seem to be asleep – but absorbed in their own thoughts. I attempted to start a conversation. “It’s intensely cold tonight!” I said to the man across from me.

He lifted his head and looked at me, but made no reply.

“The winter seems to have begun in earnest.” I added. He was staring at me, but he never said a word; it was so dim in his corner, I could not see his features clearly.

Any other time, I would have felt – and probably shown – my annoyance, but at that moment I felt too sick to do either. The icy coldness of the night air chilled me to my bones, and the strange smell inside the coach was making me terribly nauseous. I shivered from head to toe and asked the neighbor on my left if he objected to an open window.

13

He didn’t move or speak.

I repeated the question louder but with the same result. Then I lost patience and pulled the strap to open it. As I did so, the leather strap broke in my hand, and I saw the glass was covered with a thick coat of mildew that appeared to have been accumulating for years. This drew my attention to the coach’s condition; with the faint lamplight, I could see that it was in the last stages of ruin. Every part of it was beyond repair; it was actually decaying. The straps splintered at the touch, the leather fittings were crusted over with mold, and the floor was almost crumbling beneath my feet. The whole thing smelled putrid – like it had been dragged from an outhouse after being left to rot for years.

I turned to the third passenger and tried one more question. “This coach is in horrible condition. Is the regular mail-coach being repaired?”

He turned his head slowly and looked me in the eyes without saying a word. I will never forget that look for as long as I live; it made my heart turn cold – and still does even now. His eyes held an unnatural, fiery glow, his face was as pale as a corpse, and his bloodless lips were drawn back to reveal clenched, gleaming teeth as if he were in the process of suffering a painful death.

My next words died on my lips, and I was consumed by a dreadful fear. My eyes had adjusted to the gloominess of the coach, and I could see much better. I turned to the man sitting across from me; he was looking at me with the same startling paleness and stony glow in his eyes. Wiping my hand across my brow, I turned to the passenger next to me and saw— oh Heaven! How will I describe it?

He was no living man; none of them were! A low, glowing light reflected upon their awful faces, and their hair was still damp with the dew from their graves. Their clothes were stained and falling to pieces, and their hands were those of corpses long buried. Only their malicious eyes were alive, and they were all staring directly at me!

14

I screamed a wild, unintelligible cry for help as I flung myself against the door and struggled in vain to open it. In that one brief and vivid instant – I saw the moon shining down through a gap in the stormy clouds, the ghastly sign-post, the broken bridge, the plunging horses, and the black gulf below. Then, the coach lurched like a ship at sea followed by a mighty crash – a sense of crushing pain – and finally, darkness.

It seemed as if years had passed when I awoke from a deep sleep and found my wife sitting at my bedside. I will skip that scene and tell you the story she told through thankful tears. I had fallen over a ledge near the intersection of the old coach road and the new one; I was only saved from certain death by landing in a deep snowdrift at the bottom. I was discovered there at daybreak when a couple of shepherds carried me to the nearest shelter and fetched a surgeon. The doctor found me raving deliriously with a broken arm and a compound fracture of the skull. The papers in my wallet revealed my name and address, and my wife was notified. Thanks to youth and a healthy lifestyle, I was able to pull through. It goes without saying that I fell precisely where that frightful accident occurred nine years before.

I never told my wife these terrifying events; I told the surgeon who helped me, but he treated the whole adventure as a delusion. We discussed it over and over until we lost our patience, and then we dropped it. Others may form whatever conclusions they wish; I know that twenty years ago – I was the fourth passenger in that Phantom Coach.

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