Secret of the Boxwood Cabinet
C. J. Ryan and L. L. Wright

Theosophical Forum, January-April, 1942.

I

I can hardly believe that an experience as vivid as the one I am about to relate was anything less than a memory of a past incarnation. It was certainly not a dream, though it came to me as a vision, and most appropriately, you will admit, in the darkest hour of the night. That it is a strange instance of family karman also seems evident, but as to this I will leave it to the reader to decide.

The central character of my tale was known to the family (of which in my vision I suddenly realized myself a member) only under the dread title of IT, and to me at least remained forever invisible.

The scene of my story is laid somewhere in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, and so far as I can guess the time was about two hundred years ago. In the vision which so strangely took possession of all my faculties I knew this family to be an old one of sturdy yeoman descent. We owned the largest and richest stretch of farmland in the entire county. It was called Valley Grange and here we raised cattle for the market. This land had once been part of the domain of the wealthy squire of the district. But a century or two previous to the time of my story it had been deeded to our family for some service rendered, as to the nature of which we possessed no record.

Traditions of self-respect, sober prosperity and kindliness had given our family for generations a high standing in the surrounding countryside, with its neighboring market town. We were the last people you would have expected to be attacked by a secret malign enemy.

Yet it was the drama which swirled around the dark activities of this mysterious IT which is the core of my story.

The opening scene of my vision found three of us gathered in the big cheerful houseplace, both kitchen and livingroom, where the daily life of our family centered. Here in desperate consultation were my mother, Mistress Abigail Tennant, myself, Frank, the elder of her two sons, and Gillian Havens, my sweetheart since childhood.

The scene is as vivid to me as reality. Outside the deep-set mullioned windows a long summer evening dusted the orchards with mellow gold. Welling into the ancient shadowy room it evoked brief magic from common things. It glowed in the copper and brass of utensils, enriching the vermilion of old brickwork in floor and chimneyplace, softening the deep lines under her starched cap of my mother's tragic face.

It lingered in clearest highlight upon Gillian who sat near the window. Gilly was what we used to call in those days a bonny country lass. I called her Gilly always because she was most like those Billy-flowers which sweeten every homely garden with their simple and gay delight for all the senses. She had eyes as blue as periwinkles and the briskest little figure. Her hair was bright brown and she had the sensitive color that comes and goes with every change of feeling. As I looked at her then from the shadow of doom I realized anew that she was the light and warmth of my life.

"You mean," Gilly was saying, her candid eyes widening in horror at the implication of her own words, "You can't mean that there is a curse on the Tennant family?"

"What else can it mean?" grimly responded my mother. "If it had happened only that one time when it resulted in the death of my husband! But I remember something like it when we were married. And again after each of the boys was born. They tried to keep it from me but I heard and saw enough to understand that something uncanny was at the back of it all. And then, just lately ... You tell her, Frank," and she broke off with a shudder!

"Well, it's like this, Gilly," I unwillingly took up the story. "Now and then, at long intervals, something unaccountable happens with the animals. A strange panic overtakes them. The peculiarity is that we ourselves never see anything. There's just an eerie fright and stampeding which shows that the cattle at least can see or hear something of mortal dread. Once or twice they have somehow broken through the fence and we've had no end of trouble finding them and persuading them back in again. In the course of time it's come to seem dangerous even to name this invisible Something. And we've taken to calling the Thing simply IT."

"But surely," Gillian protested with the robust commonsense of her nature, "even if there were something evil as you say at work among the animals, that doesn't have to mean that there's a curse on the whole family."

"Does it not?" demanded my mother. "It was in the midst of one of these strange outbreaks that Frank's father was stricken with death."

"Tell me about it," begged Gillian. So then my mother told us what was news to me also. For Will and I had been away at the time our father died. His death occurred unexpectedly three years before. When Will and I had questioned her she put us off with a vague account of his illness. Though it was unsatisfactory we put it down to her state of mind due to the shock of his sudden passing and forebore to press the matter. As time went on I had my suspicions but this was the first time I had had the facts described.

"It happened one night just at bedtime," she began. "Old Martin came rushing into the house after the master, who seemed to know without asking what the trouble was. The two of them made off without a word. I was in my night shift but I caught up a blanket and followed them as far as the outside door over there."

She paused to swallow convulsively and pass a shaking hand over her eyes, before she continued: "You can't of course see the byres from the doorway. But I could hear a tumult of pounding hoofs and shouting and the wild snarling of the dogs. I can't give you a notion of what a horrid moil it sounded through the still country night.

"Then, all at once the din gave Over. And that sudden fall of silence was almost more frightening than the uproar. After that I saw my William come lagging back." My mother wrung her hands at the memory, as she plunged ahead with the story. "I ran out to him, but when I touched him he pulled away from me with a sort of groan. All I could do was follow him back to the house. He sank into that very chair where Gilly is sitting. All mazed he was and shaking, with eyes sunk in his head."

She broke off and sat staring at the picture her words had evoked.

"He didn't speak to you-say anything?" Gilly urged her with gentleness.

She wrenched her thoughts back to us. "No," and her voice was like a bleak wind. "He never spoke again - not till he was dying. That first night I got him to bed somehow. The boys were away then and only got back the morning after he died. For three days he lay in a sort of trance, and the life in him just flickered away like a bit of candle end when it's going out."

"You say he spoke just before he died?" prompted Gillian.

"Yes. It was at the dark hour after midnight just before his passing. He seemed to come back suddenly. He looked up at me then as I bent close over him and his whisper was faint but terribly urgent. "Keep it from Will," he said. "Never let Will know."

While my mother talked I had been thinking. "Do you know what I believe?" I now said. "I think Father saw that thing we call IT and recognised it for what it is. And that is why he had to die. And with the spiritual clairvoyance which they say sometimes comes to the dying he knew that Will had it in him to see IT too and so might become the next victim. But Father was too far gone to warn us in more than that feeble way."

"You've hit on the truth, Frank," vehemently agreed my mother. "It's what I've known but never dared to utter. Will is in deadly danger now that this dire menace has become active again."

"It's too terrible," grieved Gillian. "Surely something can be done - someway, found ..."

"Yes, Gillian," my mother offered grim agreement, "something can be done. And that is for us to get away from here - far away - to the other side of the world. The Tennants will have to sell out here within the month and take ship across the ocean. That is the only plan that can save Will."

Gillian and I gasped in unison as we stared into one another's eyes.

"And so, child," she went on inexorably, "you see how it is that you and Frank must not marry. Not only could we never allow you to share this awful curse, which perhaps even flight may not lift from us, but you could not leave your ancient bedridden aunt. She could not be moved and live through it."

But now despair stiffened my resistance to what surely was a remedy out of bedlam. My mother was fair possessed in her fear for Will. Nor could I blame her. But that was no reason why we should all yield to senseless panic like the dumb beasts. So, though I was unhappy in opposing my mother, I had to refuse decidedly to give my consent to this plan and was relieved to see by Gillian's face that she agreed with me.

"You see, Mother," I insisted, "no one yet has stood up to this spectral menace. We have just waited for IT to strike at us out of the dark. So far we've never even thought of withstanding it ..."

"Are you mad?" wailed my mother. Then, with a sudden change of front she declared, "Tomorrow I set about the matter of an auction. You meanwhile will go to Plymouth and arrange for passage for the three of us ..."

"No, Mother," I broke in, "that I will not do. I will not abandon our ancient and valuable homestead and my beloved treasure, Gillian, or mortgage the future of all of us out of craven fear of an enemy, even if a thousand times armoured in secret invisible power. Our lives have been upright and blameless. We will dare to take our stand upon that. You'll find that if we refuse to be stampeded like the helpless beasts, if instead we face this Evil and show ourselves determined and fearless IT will be forced at last to give over."

And all her wild weeping and entreaties could not move me from this decision. It had been kept from Will, so far, I reminded her. We would redouble our care and vigilance.

I have often wondered since if the sinister Unknown which I thus rashly defied was listening as we discussed IT, lowering over us and maturing its malignant answer to my challenge. For hardly more than a day later IT struck again, and this time gave a warning which could not be ignored.

II

That very night upon which I made my decision not to tamely abandon our family heritage Parson Maynard arrived. The kindly wise old man seemed like a response of the powers of light to my stand against the Evil that loomed over us.

Parson Maynard was the brother of the long widowed Mistress Barbara Havens who had adopted Gillian as an orphan and brought her up like the kindest of mothers. For Gillian was not related to either the Maynards or the Havens. She was the last offshoot of an old family - the Priors - which had gradually died out in our countryside and so as a mere babe she had been left without family connexions of any kind. And Barbara Havens, in the kindness of her heart and because she had no children of her own, gladly mothered the orphan who had grown up into our lovely and beloved Gillian.

Once every year Parson Maynard paid his sister a visit. This time he came unexpectedly and both Gilly and I felt sure that his arrival was an answer to prayer. For not only was he a classical scholar and antiquarian of profound learning, but what made him seem particularly helpful at this moment was the fact that he had spent many years in study of the occult sciences and was reputed to be wise in mystic lore.

In those days such knowledge was generally regarded as forbidden and the possessor of it fanatically shunned. But Parson Maynard's saintly life, his good deeds and consistent piety, lifted him above all suspicion. If anyone could help us in our terrible situation he was the man.

It was late that same evening when he rode up to the front door of the Haven cottage on his stout pony, followed by a mounted manservant in charge of the portmanteaus. Promptly the next morning Gillian brought him to call on my mother, with whom he was a great favorite. To me in private Gilly made the suggestion that we should tell him everything about our trouble, feeling sure that he would know of some effective measures to outwit our sinister enemy.

The idea made instant appeal to me but I had hard work to persuade my mother to consent. She seemed possessed by a fatalistic conviction that unless we sold out and departed at once from that "accursed locality," as she called it, we were doomed. And to no other course would she listen. But when I persisted, reminding her that we must in the meantime leave no stone unturned to protect Will, she yielded at last, and we called Parson Maynard into consultation.

Fortunately, Will had gone off that morning on a fishing expedition so there was no danger of being overheard by him. But to be sure of complete privacy, we went to a little farmhouse which overhung the rocky vale from which our homestead took its name of Valley Grange. Parson Maynard listened in silence to our story. But as the gruesome narrative unfolded, his face slowly blanched with horror. I was watching him closely and I saw almost at once that he had a definite idea of his own as to the kind of danger confronting us.

"And now," I ventured, as I made an end to my careful and detailed statement, "we are hoping that you may be able to think of some way to protect Will. You might even see how we can act to put an end to this monstrous persecution that threatens to drive us into exile. I know it is asking almost too much ..."

"No, my boy," he interrupted in his warm and reassuring way. "No, if I can help you I am bound by every call of humanity and old friendship to do what I can. But I must have time to think ..."

"But that's just it - there's no time for thinking," broke in my mother in the frantic way which had been growing on her since yesterday. "We must act, not think, if we are to save Will."

"I know. I understand, Mistress Tenant," the Parson tried to soothe her hysterical protest. "But you see this is evidently a condition of long standing. I feel sure that it has its roots in the past. For as you say yourselves there is nothing in your personal lives to account for such conditions as you have just described. The cause must be far back in the family history. Something must have happened. An event so terrible and abnormal that it gave rise in some mysterious way to this secret and fatal influence which now hangs over your lives. To exorcise it, one must know something of what first brought it into activity against either your family or else Valley Grange which IT seems to have claimed for ITS own."

My mother made no reply to this, but her dour expression showed how deeply mutinous she was towards the delay involved in this suggestion. Throughout the discussion of plans which followed she persisted in a stubborn silence.

Parson Maynard was thoughtful for a moment before he asked: "Have you no old family documents stored away? If you have we may be able to find a record of such an event."

"I don't know of any, do you, Mother?" She shook her head in gloomy negation.

"The furniture is all old," I explained. "But it is just common stuff: Nothing that might be valuable, or hold any important secrets ..."

"Why Frank - you're forgetting," broke in Gilly. "What about that boxwood cabinet? You remember. The one with the queer symbol on the inner panel."

"Oh, that worm-eaten old wreck," I disparaged her suggestion. "It's been up in the attic ever since I can remember," I told the parson. "When we were children we used to think it must have a secret drawer and we nearly pulled it to pieces looking for one. But we could never find the slightest sign of such a thing. I'm afraid. ..."

But at Gilly's words the Parson's face had suddenly lit up and he now demanded of me: "Where is this cabinet? Let me see it at once."

After that we lost no time in mounting to the attic, my mother's glum silence protesting every moment against the futility of this proceeding. After a hurried search through the cluttered dimness of the huge place we finally located the cabinet. It was lying on its side where it had evidently been thoughtlessly abandoned by us when as children we had found it barren of entertainment.

Promptly we set it upright, and Gilly, who had caught up a damp cloth as we passed through the scullery, cleaned away its accumulation of dust and cobwebs. It proved as I had said to be an example of very old and crude cabinet work, as if turned out by the simple handicraft of some village carpenter. It was scratched and battered and badly worm-eaten. Anything less promising as a repository of secret mysterious documents could hardly be imagined.

I saw, nevertheless, that Parson Maynard's eyes glistened as he started to explore its clumsily fitted drawers and pigeon-holes. "You people all run along," he said, "and leave me to investigate this at my leisure."

"What do you make of that queer sign painted at the back on the inner panel?" I asked him with a return of my early curiosity.

"Never mind now. Just leave it to me," was all the answer he made, and plainly indicated a desire to be rid of us.

I was busy all afternoon overseeing the work at the cider presses. When I returned to the houseplace at teatime I found Parson Maynard in excited talk with my mother, whose eyes were bewildered as she listened with her hands twisted in her apron. As I drew near he waved at me a bundle of parchment sheets which even from a distance I could see were yellowed with age.

"There was a secret place after all," he called out to me. "A mere slit. Back of the cabalistic sign painted on the inside panel," he explained triumphantly as I passed with them into the houseplace. "I found this sheaf of old documents rotting away there in the darkness. However I believe they are still in a condition to be read with the aid of my chemicals and my enlarging glasses. Luckily, I always carry such impedimenta with me. So I'll go back to Barbara's now and see what I can make of them. No," he objected as I started to speak, "don't ask me anything. The minute I see any light on the situation you will hear from me. Just try to have patience." And with that promise he hurriedly departed.

Will returned soon after sunset. I at once noticed his manner, so different from the mood of careless gaiety in which he had set off that morning. He was taller than I, who am a square, stocky, sandy-haired Yorkshireman. He had bright hazel eyes and sunny hair which crisped at the temples. His smile was warm and ready, the expression of a spontaneity and charm not too often found in our somewhat dour countryside. But tonight his mood seemed deeply overcast and he sat down to our early supper in a sort of bemused silence.

"What luck did you have?" I asked, to 'rouse him, for I saw our mother's eyes fixed on him in penetrating anxiety. "The trout should bite well in this weather."

He gave a slight start, appearing to come back to his surroundings with some difficulty. "Oh, yes, the trout," he responded vaguely. "I got aplenty. Mother has promised to cook them for breakfast. My, but I'm tired. That was a long walk ... Frank, what was the matter with the roan mare? Old Martin says she died of fright. I can't understand it."

I stared at him, dumbfounded. "It's the first time I've heard of it. ..."

"I forgot to tell you," my mother broke in breathlessly. "Let be." Behind Will's shoulder she shook her head at me fiercely. "There's naught to be moithered about. She was always a wild unchancy creature."

An uneasy silence settled over the three of us. As I look back now it seems unaccountable that none of us, not even Parson Maynard with all his garnered wisdom, realized how acute was our mother's insight into the desperate need for haste which underlay our situation. For that very night gave us unmistakable evidence of the clarity of her foresight.

At midnight in her chamber over the houseplace something suddenly woke her. She was up and at the window in a flash. There was a brilliant moon, and looking down she saw a dark form huddled on the doorstep just beneath her window. It was Will lying unconscious there.

Swiftly she came for me and between us we half roused him and got him into a big chair before the banked fire. While she prepared hot restoratives I examined him but could find no injury to account for his condition. I explored his head for signs of a blow or a fall but there was no indication of any such mishap. By this time she had forced a hot drink between his clenched teeth and he began to show signs of returning consciousness.

Her look forbade my questioning him. But after a few painful moments of mental groping he mumbled thickly: "Those eyes! My God - those terrible burning eyes!" He shuddered and relapsed into stupor.

"To bed with him," croaked my mother through lips stiff with terror. We got him settled in his bed at last and I went down to get ready the big warming-pan in the houseplace. When I returned she was bending over Will's still inert form and looked up to say to me with a fathomless bitterness, "Now perhaps you will see that I knew only too well what I was talking about. Send Old Martin for the doctor. And you be over at Squire Mallinson's before breakfast. Beg him to loan us the carriage. Before another sunset I must have Will away from this devil-haunted farmstead."

III

THE Parson spared a sympathetic glance for Gillian's distress. Nevertheless he went on relentlessly, painting his picture of that crowded rural courtroom - the audience of bluff farmers and open-mouthed yokels, the sinister figure of the burly, witch-baiting justice, the black-hearted accuser. And over against them all, the fiery mien and erect figure of their undaunted victim. For the record makes it clear that she showed at no time any sign of flinching. And at that moment the old woman must have felt herself the agent of Divine justice.

"'Before the Almighty Father,' she broke out suddenly in a ringing voice, 'I am no witch. And you shall all now hear how God in His infinite mercy hath granted me a vision of hidden things to come.' Her piercing dark eyes stared fixedly into the future ... 'I see! ... I see! ... Be not misled. God is not mocked.'

" She turned then to arraign her accuser.

"'Jonathan Tennant, thou scornful man, who workest injustice against the innocent, this day hast thou made a covenant with Death. Thou hast of thine own will unloosed thine own dark fate ... I see a mysterious scourge that falleth upon thee, even unto the seventh generation. For remember, the Lord is terrible in His righteous anger, and what ye have sown that shall ye surely reap.'

"Jonathan could restrain his rage no longer. 'Wouldst dare curse me, foul witch?' he snarled at her.

"Goody Prior returned him look for intrepid look. 'It is not I that curse thee,' she fiercely returned. 'I declare only what the wickedness of thine own heart and thine own evil greed have drawn from the outer darkness upon thy black soul. Grisly are the shadows already creeping upon thee. ... 'Her voice suddenly changed. It sank, became hollow and ghostly.

"'I see thee, Jonathan Tennant, as an earthbound soul, returning again and yet again in each generation down the long remorseless years. For thus hath the Divine vengeance decreed: Only by coming back thyself to meet the dark Force thou hast summoned by this thy conspiracy against the innocent - only so shalt thou learn thy lesson. Yea, even because thou shalt in the end long have forgotten this day's transgression, for that very reason shalt thou come to realize the misery of what seems to be undeserved suffering.'

"Silence again, as for the moment she gazed with piercing intensity at Jonathan, who at last began to cower beneath those implacable eyes. Seeing which her look softened. Her voice changed once more, became surprisingly gentle and brooding, as she went on: `Even so, Jonathan Tennant, there is hope. Aye, verily there is hope in final restitution even for such as thou. Hearken, then, and listen well ...

"In the end, and when suffering shall have changed thy character so that thou mayest see and understand, all will be made clear to thee. At that time it shall happen that the eldest son of thy house be joined in holy wedlock with the last flower of my own line. So shall the wrong be righted. Then the scourge will lift and thou mayest pass to thy rest. The malignant Evil thou hast this day called from out the secret chambers of darkness shall fade into the night whence it came. A new dawn shall arise. And thy soul, having paid to the uttermost farthing, shall be at peace.'

"She stood for a moment in a kind of tranced silence, and then she uttered her last fateful words: 'Thus do some ignorant souls, greedy only for the things of this world, pass here below the purgatory for their evil deeds.'

Amazingly then, as if the divine afflatus had gone out of her, she seemed to collapse, drooping in a haggard and sunken apathy. Even under the last barbarities of her ordeal, a description of which I will spare you, she never spoke again."

The Parson fell silent. And once more I heard the wind, rising to a demoniac howl as the equinoctial storm increased in violence. And now at last Gilly raised her face from my shoulder. She was very pale as she gazed with haunted eyes into the ruddy heart of the fire.

I felt that somehow the black spell must be broken, so I spoke in a reasoning tone to the Parson. "Isn't it strange," I said, "linking up Will's dying words with the old woman's prophecy ... what do you think about it all, Parson Maynard?"

But he would not answer me. "Gillian," he said, speaking with his habitual brisk decision, "I hear Mistress Abigail stirring above. Go you up to her. And be careful to bring with you no faintest touch of the horrors we have been discussing here. All those dark doings are over. They belong to an already buried past. Do you understand, my child?"

His tone compelled her to raise her eyes to his. So for a long moment they gazed at one another. Then her face cleared magically. Into her bright blue eyes returned the sunshine and sanity of her nature. The flush of rosy color I so loved rose in a tide like the sunrise and swept the wan horrors of the night out of her mind and heart. She turned with sweet impulsiveness to me.

"Let's go up to her together, Frank, shall we? Then she will see that we will always be there to take care of her."

After a night of blasting storm I awoke from the heavy slumber of emotional exhaustion to a sunrise of splendor. I lay there in my chamber, which overlooked the hills rolling away to eastward, and watched the breaking up of the magnificent panorama in the sky. Fantastic cloud masses, banked in sullen purple and orange against the sun's rising, melted away. And the conquering sun surged upward to sail out upon a sky of cloudless serenity.

I recalled the promise of old Goody Prior - "a new dawn shall arise." I knew then with perfect surety that in Will's sorrowful and tragic death the scourge had somehow been lifted. I did not try to account for this. I only knew that it was true.

The name of Goody Prior sent my thoughts back into what I could recall of local and family history. And suddenly there popped into my mind some strange remarks made by my great grandfather - remarks which had always remained as an indistinct question mark in my mind. They had long been pushed back into forgetfulness but just in that moment they unexpectedly returned.

Great Grandad was a very ancient man when I was still a little shaver. Sitting in the chimney-corner in the houseplace he used to mumble vaguely to himself out of the ramblings of a clouded mind. He was devotedly attached to me and I used often to sit on a stool looking after him when there were no others about. One bitterly cold afternoon just after Christmas I was contentedly listening to what old Grandad was trying to tell me about an even colder winter he recalled when he was an active man.

"Aye," he jerked out suddenly with unwonted energy, "that were the year Phineus Prior, the son of Martha, came home amongst us. He brought with him his London wife and their infant son. That were the very year too that he tried to steal the forty-acre tract away from us. But he didn't get it, not he." His thoughts wandered for a moment, and then he picked up the thread again. "I mind too that were the signal for new outbreaks of the devil that do curse our family. It were soon afterward that my first born son died of a queer kind of a stroke, the same queerness that came over my father before he passed out so sudden and strange. I ain't never understood all they things rightly, - no, never, never. ... " His voice died out then in vague mumblings with many nods of his feeble old head.

It was probably the fact that I had never heard the old man speak at such length or so coherently before, as well as the startling reference to "a devil that do curse our family" that fixed the words deep in my mind. But childlike I soon forgot them nor had I ever mentioned them to anyone. So that even in the moil of disaster which had just passed over us they remained still submerged.

Now, in the quiet of dawn and sober meditation upon all that had happened and its strange explanation, the old man's face rose sharply before me. I could hear like a thin echo his ancient toneless voice as it called up the dark enigma of the past.

The final scene in my strange vision was of a happier time. It gave me a last brief glimpse into the rich old orchard of Valley Grange. That was a wonderful spring for apple blossoms. Such drifts of them they hid the sky and showered down in rosy snow at every idle movement of the breeze.

There were three of us sitting there in the orchard at contented ease watching the fourth of our party. This was a newcomer whose ambitious stagger upon fat irresponsible legs was holding my mother in delighted suspense. Gilly and I exchanged a glance of tender amusement interrupted by a gurgle of surprise as our first born sat down unexpectedly and broke into a chuckling laugh against himself.

"Never mind. You'll soon get those stout Tennant legs under control, me lad," I encouraged him as I set him upon his feet again.

My mother snatched him up and hugged him. "Praise be, this Willy-boy has but little of the Tennant in him that I can see. He's the living image of our Gillian." She spoke with deep satisfaction, gazing at our chubby blue-eyed son with such a depth of love as only grandmothers know.

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