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The Database of Ornament

I KNOW an old house, situated in the Merse of Berwick-
shire, which from its deserted and neglected air has
received the name of Cobweb Hall. This house has a
story. Indeed, though efforts have repeatedly been
made to let or to sell it, these have long since been
abandoned as useless, for the building seems never to
have recovered from the injury inflicted on its reputation by a
series of events which took place a good many years ago. The
house is not haunted, but it is shunned, which perhaps is worse.
Until it was allowed to fall into disrepair, ‘Cobweb Hall’ must
have been a desirable residence enough. It is commodious,
and not without pretension to architectural dignity, in the form
of castellated work over the front. As is shown by its name, it
takes rank as a building above the manses and the better sort
of farm-houses, and among the ‘halls.’ The red-berried bar-
berry plant now pushes up strongly against the white ‘harl,’ or
rough-cast, of its walls ; and round about it there is a dark
neglected shrubbery, originally laid out with box-edged walks
and planted with laurels and with tufts of the old-fashioned but-
cher’s broom, but now intersected by beaten tracks where
tracks have no right to be, and defaced with little circular
hollows, the work of hens. Here, in early spring, the yellow

aconite flourishes, in the shade under the trees. There is a
bottle-green flaw in the out-house window-pane, and one notices
that the back door seems to be the only one which has been
used this many a day ; but there is little or nothing else to catch
the eye outside. However, if you raise yourself on the window-
ledge, and peep through a chink between the closed shutters
into the interior, you catch a glimpse of desolation indeed. The
bare boards are painted over with the droppings of birds which
have found their way into the house through broken windows,
and which, not having always been able to find their way out
again,—as a feathered corpse or two shows,—have sometimes
died of starvation. And assuredly the mansion has earned its
nickname of ‘ Cobweb Hall.’ It is now supposed to be looked
after by a care-taker, who seems to use it for her own purposes,
and who never visits it except by daylight. Adjoining the little
shrubbery there is a cornfield, and a mile or two away, oh much
lower ground, a sea-board village. It is said that this village
was once famed for the smuggling enterprise of its inhabitants,
and that its shaggy-locked outlandish headmen would some-
times meet together in the ale-house at night with deeds of vio-
lence in their pipes, and murder in their cups. But this is by
the way.

Long ago things were very different in the house. Carpets
then covered the floors, the hearths were warm, smoke rose
from the chimneys, and thrice a day a comforting smell of cook-
ing filled the kitchen. ‘Cobweb Hall’—then known by a very
different name—was the abode of Miss Clinkscales, the only
daughter of the writer and usurer of that name, who had
made a pile of money by his business in the neighbouring
county town. For a time, after her father’s death. Miss Clink-
scales had kept house for her brother—who had bought landed
property in the county with a part of the handsome fortune
which he had inherited. And when, somewhat late in life, this
brother married, she had preferred living on in the country to
moving into the county town. She was a lady of a very inde-
pendent character, who would have her own way in all things,

and who was considered a little eccentric. Well, Cobweb Hall
—I shall adhere to the nickname—was at that time in the mar-
Ket. It was in one respect a suitable enough residence for a
single lady of good means, consisting as it did of a first-rate
house, and having only a modicum of land attached to it Miss
Clinkscales bought it, and took up her abode in it, carrying her
various theories strenuously into practice in her daily life.
At this time she was in the prime of life, and did not suffer from
the solitariness of her dwelling ; for, though a slight tendency
to parsimoniousness (as was said) prevented her receiving visi-
tors to stay with her, she received numerous callers, and, being
of an active disposition, she was able to get about as she pleased.
But when, with the lapse of years, she had become old and
crippled by rheumatism, it was different. Then her visitors
would often advise her to move into the town. (She had some
very assiduous visitors, whose attentions she attributed to the
fact that she was old, rich, and heirless.) They said it would
be so much more cheerful for her there, that she would be within
easier reach of a doctor, and so on. But Miss Clinkscales had
systematically throughout life regarded advice as an imperti-
nence, and her native wilfulness, or strength of character, had
not shared in the decline of her physical powers. She answered
drily enough that she never wearied when she was alone.

‘But do you think it is safe ? Are you not afraid at nights in
this big house all by yourself?’

The idea latent in the interlocutor’s mind was the fact—well
known in the neighbourhood—that the old lady kept a large
sum of money in the house, a distrust of banks being one of her
crotchets. But she was not to be drawn. She merely replied,
without testifying to the smallest gratitude for the solicitude dis-
played on her account :

‘Oh, don’t distress yourself! Nobody would harm an old body
like me: and, besides, I have Weir to protect me.’

Machell Weir was Miss Clinkscales’ manservant. He had
been with her for a good many years, and she had the greatest
confidence in him. Some people thought this confidence mis-

placed, and ventured to hint as much to the old lady, supporting
their view of the case, when required to do so, with various
vague tales and rumours. But Miss Clinkscales was not used
to encourage interference in her private affairs. And so, with
truly Scottish candour, she would reply that, though old, she
was not blind ; and that she believed she could distinguish as
well as another between those who were genuinely devoted to
her interest, and such as were officiously active in her affairs for
reasons of their own. She added some sound observations upon
minding one’s own business, and tagged them with a scriptural
quotation touching tale-bearers. It will be seen that the old
maiden lady had entire confidence in her own judgment. As
became the daughter of a good business man, she had made
her will long ago—a will in which no mention of any of her
friends’ names occurred. But she saw no occasion to make
this fact public ; and, indeed, she considered that the ruling and
bullying of a group of expectant sycophants and legacy-hunters
was a legitimate pleasure, vouchsafed to her as a small compen-
sation amid the privations of an infirm old age.

The butler merits a word of description. In person he was thin
and pale. He had a soft voice and a conciliating manner. But
the striking thing about him was that, though he was barely
forty, his hair and his whiskers (which he wore long) were
snow-white, and had been so since he was twenty. Now, a man
whose appearance is marked by an incongruity of this kind
goes through life, by no fault of his own, under a disadvantage.
For it is apt to seem as though Nature herself were furthering
duplicity in him, or else, perhaps, marking him out as a person
different from others, and against whom it behoved others to be
on their guard. This, perhaps, was the reason why Machell
was no favourite with the world.

However, he satisfied his mistress, and that was the great
thing. She liked his obsequious manner—there is no account-
ing for tastes—and had conceived a high opinion of his char-
acter. And, indeed, as she lived latterly confined to two rooms,
perhaps it was not very difficult for the butler to keep up

appearances in regard to all that met her eye. He was singu-
larly attentive in his inquiries for her health ; he was quiet and
home-keeping. And, as she had been very kind to him, she
naturally believed that he cherished an affection for her. It is
needless to say that this sort of two-and-two-make-four cannot
always be depended on when human nature is involved in the

One night Miss Clinkscales retired to rest as usual. The next
morning a maidservant on approaching her mistress’s bed-
room, which she had expected to find as usual in darkness, was
surprised to see light under the door, and on entering dis-
covered that the shutter of one of the windows, and, indeed, the
window itself, stood open. By the light thus admitted the maid
beheld a scene which appalled her. A cupboard near the bed
had been forced open and ransacked, some of its contents being
scattered over the floor. The bed-clothes had also been
dragged from the bed, and were saturated with blood, and
upon them with the throat cut lay the body of Miss Clink-

On seeing this sight, the maid turned and fled shrieking from
the room. Instinctively she ran for protection to the pantry.
The butler was not within, nor, when the other servants,
summoned by her cries, had collected around her, did he make
his appearance. This was thought strange. The alarm was
raised, and in due course the authorities arrived upon the scene.
There was no possible room for doubt that Miss Clinkscales
had been brutally murdered, and as by this time it also seemed
certain that the butler had disappeared, suspicion at once
attached itself to him. A search was made, but led to no
practical result The fact was, however, elicited that a large
sum of money, in gold and bank-notes, had been abstracted
from the cupboard in the murdered lady’s room.

The police at once set to work, and took every possible measure
to trace the missing man. A description of him was circulated,
and a reward offered for such information as might lead to his
apprehension. Inquiries were also set on foot with a view to

trace the stolen bank-notes, or to bring to light suspicious
transactions in gold. Meantime all passengers embarking
from the neighbouring seaport were subjected to scrutiny.
All this, however, led to nothing. There was, as usual, no-
dearth of apparent clues and of plausible rumours. For in-
stance, it was stated that a man answering to the description
of the suspected criminal had been encountered on the high
road near Cobweb Hall, in the grey of the morning following
the murder. He was heavily laden, and had appeared anxious to
avoid observation. Again, a story got about to the effect that
an unknown man, who carried a bundle, had called for refresh-
ment at a lonely inn upon a neighbouring moor, and that on
hearing horse’s hoofs approaching along the road he had left
his drink untasted, shouldered his bundle, and made off. The
authorities spent a good deal of time in following up these clues
—time which in the end proved to have been wasted. They
also made two mistaken arrests. One man also came forward
of his own accord and voluntarily gave himself up as the mur-
derer of Miss Clinkscales. He was committed: but upon
inquiry his story was proved false, and he had to be liberated,
leaving the police no further advanced than they had been be-
fore. In a word, the utmost efforts of the authorities remained
unrewarded, and at last it almost seemed as though the butler
must have melted into thin air.

During the whole of this time it would be difficult to exaggerate
the excitement which prevailed in the surrounding district.
The unfortunate lady had been so long and so well known in
the neighbourhood that her death by murder created an
immense sensation, and her funeral was the largest ever wit-
nessed in those parts. The excitement was, of course, increased
by the mysterious disappearance of the butler. He had always-
been disliked ; and to him, of course, the popular voice unani-
mously and unhesitatingly attributed the authorship of the deed.
Nervous women, thereupon, became unable to remain in the
house alone for fear of him, and in short, for a time, the sole
subjects which filled men’s minds in the surrounding country

were the murder at Cobweb Hall and the efforts of the police
to apprehend the murderer. From far and wide people
flocked to visit the scene of the murder, the number of visitors
being especially large on Sundays ; and wherever two persons
met, the chances of the butler’s capture formed the topic of

At last, however, the excitement began to wear itself out
When a fortnight and more had passed, it seemed that the
prospects of the murderer’s being taken were few. The public
accordingly blamed the authorities for having allowed him to
slip through their fingers, and began to return to their ordinary
placid existence. About this time, however, an incident oc-
curred which partially revived the excitement.

The women-servants employed by the late Miss Clinkscales
still remained at the Hall, in charge of the house. Late one
night, one of these, a young girl, entered the kitchen where her
fellow-servants were seated, deadly pale, and in a fainting con-
dition, and gasped out that she had seen the butler’s ghost in
the shrubbery. There were two male visitors in the kitchen at
the time, keeping the women company. Without waiting to
hear more, these men rose, took a lantern, and sallied forth
together ; nor did they return until they had thoroughly beaten
every bush in the grounds. They discovered nothing. In the
meantime it had been elicited from the terrified girl that, in
returning through the shrubs from a stolen interview with a
sweetheart close at hand, she had suddenly beheld the white
face of the butler peering up at her, as it seemed from the
ground. This extraordinary statement was canvassed at great
length. But as it was well known that the girl’s nerves—never
of the strongest—had been much shaken by the recent terrible
occurrence, people generally agreed in the end that she had
been the victim of a delusion.

Time passed on. The murder had been committed in summer,
and the autumn now arrived. The harvest had begun, and in
due course it came to the turn of the field adjoining the
shrubbery at Cobweb Hall to be harvested. It had been sown

with beans. Accordingly the rigs were duly opened out, and
a mixed party of men and women ‘shearers’ assembled to
execute the work. The day was fine, but there were not
wanting indications that the weather was about to break;
and so the farmer, when he visited the field at mid-day, im-
pressed upon his workers the necessity of getting on with the
work as quickly as possible. Consequently when labour was
resumed after the dinner-hour, at the suggestion of the steward,
what is locally known as a ‘kemp,’ or strife, was inaugurated.
That is to say that the ground and the strength of reapers
were alike equally divided, a portion of ground was assigned
to each band of reapers, and a race was started which should
get its task completed first. Beneath the rays of a vertical
sun, shining in a cloudless sky, the reapers set to their work
with a will. The field was a large one, the season had been
fine, and the crop was heavy. They toiled all the afternoon.
Among the toilers at one side of the field was a girl employed
in binding. Happening to stand erect, to straighten her back,
in the interval of tying two sheaves, this girl observed the
beanstalks at some distance in front of her shaken, as though
a dog were running among them. There was no dog that she
knew of in the field ; still there was nothing very surprising in
what she saw, and she made no remark upon it at the time.
The strife continued. In time only a comparatively narrow
strip of the crop remained standing. The race promised to be
a close one, and either party began to strain every nerve to
win. Again the grid saw something which puzzled her. As
the man to whom she was attached as binder gathered an
armful of beanstalks towards him, preparatory to severing
them with his sickle, it seemed to her that his action laid
bare a part of something which appeared to be lurking in
concealment. As swift as light this something was withdrawn
into the covert of the standing beans. The binder could
almost have sworn that it was a man’s foot and leg. But this
was surely impossible! The dazedness resulting from the
heat, from stooping, and from prolonged monotonous exertion.

she concluded, must have deceived her. Besides, this was no
time for idle words; so she told herself that it must have
been some beast that she had seen, and again she said nothing

And now but one double ridge remained to reap. The rival
parties took opposite ends of the field, and then began to draw
eagerly towards each other, laying the beans low before them
as if for life itself. All around them the field was cleared, and
the sheaves tied with ‘whippies’ neatly set up, in stooks of
twelve, ‘toward the mid-day sun,’ as the reapers say. A glorious
afternoon’s work had been accomplished, and the farmer who
had been watching from a distance now came forward to see
the last stalks levelled with the ground, and to compliment his

‘Hillo !’ cried he, ‘what have we here ?’

And then, plunging his arm into the midst of a forest of beans
a few yards square, he dragged out of it, by the trouser-leg,
into view of the astonished labourers, the form of the miserable
butler, shrieking like a wild animal, feebly resisting, and trying
to hide his face in the ground. The workmen had been too
much absorbed in their work to notice him before. And the
reason why he had allowed himself to be captured became
apparent when it was discovered that one of his legs was

Whilst he was in prison awaiting execution, the murderer—
who for a man in his station of life was an excellent
scholar—wrote a confession. This document was printed as a
pamphlet, and sold for a penny. It had an immense circulation
at the time, but is now extremely rare ; and from a copy of it
in my possession a number of the details incorporated in this
narrative have been drawn. It is certainly a curious composi-
tion—written with some pretence of style, and abundantly
besprinkled with religious sentiments. A fatuous vanity,
which would scarcely have been looked for in the author,
peeps out at every turn. He seems to feel himself to be,
after all is said, a sort of hero with a difference, and he tells

his tale with unction, and with a certain impudence of candour.
Perhaps this excessive outspokenness may be explained as
being the natural reaction after concealment; or perhaps the
murderer was one of those weak characters who seem to
crave for notoriety, no matter of what kind—or, shall we say—
to bid for the sympathy which has been denied them in life,
no matter how insanely, to the last.

The confession opens with an account of the writer’s early
years, and, if his story is to be believed, it is to hardships
and persecutions endured in childhood and youth that the
corruption of a character naturally mild and amiable are to be
traced. Reading between the lines, however, I incline to
judge differently. To me it seems that Machell Weir must
have had rather the nature of the spoiled than of the ill-used
child, for it is quite obvious that he made most excessive
demands upon life: he was not by any means one to be
‘thankful for small mercies.’ Plenty of money, liberty, and
independence—to name only a few of them—were among the
things to which he thought himself by right entitled. In due
course, after mature consideration, he came to the conclusion
that there was only one way of obtaining these things, and
with some reluctance he decided that he must have recourse
to that one way. It is true that it involved the death of his
mistress, but that was a mere accident for which he could
not be held responsible. He expressly tells us that he had no
innate preference for injuring others. His simple aspirations
were comprised in the desire to do good to himself.

But, after arriving at a decision, he still hesitated to proceed
to action. Perhaps it may occur to the reader that natural
compunction, together with the recollection of benefits received
at the hands of his victim, may have restrained him. This
does not appear. The fact seems rather to have been that
Machell was an arrant coward, who (much as he might wish
to do so) was unable to brace his nerve to attack even a
defenceless old woman. Thus for a long time he continued
to hesitate. His plans, meantime, were matured down to the

smallest detail. Time slipped on, and the old lady’s health
steadily declined. The butler knew from her own lips that
she had mentioned him in her will. Might he not have let
things take their course, one asks? Apparently not. For
some reason or other—perhaps because he did not quite wish
after all that Death should rob him of his prey—considera-
tions such as are mentioned above seem to have weighed with
him as incentives rather than as deterrents. In the mean-
time he had discovered that courage, like inspiration, is among
the things which may be found in a bottle. The next para-
graph, which is curious, I quote word for word from the

‘At last, one night, it seemed to me—I know not why—that
the time to act had come. I waited till my fellow-servants had
retired to rest, and all was still. Then I took a step which to
others may seem unimportant, but which to me was full of
meaning. I shaved. In all my many previous mental re-
hearsals of the crime which I now meant to commit, this
had invariably been my first step ; and I regarded it as a
step which—once taken—left me no room for turning back.
Ever since I had arrived at man’s estate, my long white
whiskers had been my pride. As I looked myself in the glass,
I sometimes thought—I am sorry if there was anything wrong
in the thought—that they gave me an air which might have
become an Elder of the Church, or even a Minister. But,
though it cost me something to part with them, I could not
but see that such a pair of whiskers were not desirable
appurtenances in a man who, for reasons of his own, might
seek to avoid observation. I shaved them off; and, having
done so, I swallowed a dram and slipt the razor—upon which
I had put a fine edge—into my pocket. Then I began to
mount the stairs.’

The stairs creaked, and to the villain’s excited fancy every
creak was like a pistol-shot. He began to dread discovery,
and his supple brain spun lies to account for his presence on
the staircase in the event of a surprise.

I willingly spare the reader the horrible details of the scene
in the bedchamber. They were too much even for the mur-
derer, and when he turned to ransack the cupboard he was
scarcely in possession of his faculties. The action of his senses
was uncertain, and his trembling bloody fingers bungled and
blundered, refusing to obey him. At last, however, he espied
his booty. He seized it; but at that very moment he heard
a sound which made his blood run suddenly chill. It was a
footstep deliberately advancing along the passage toward the
bedroom door. Frantic with terror, he delayed no longer, but
sprang to the window, threw up the sash, and flung himself
out on to the gravel below. There, half stunned by his fall, he
lay and listened until it became clear to him that the alarm had
been a false one, the footstep an hallucination of his disturbed

He would have risen to his feet; but now he found that retri-
bution had fallen upon his wickedness indeed. He was
powerless to stand upright ! The bedroom was on the first
floor, and in his fall from it he had broken one of his legs.
The discovery overwhelmed him with despair—‘as if night
were to come on suddenly in the middle of the afternoon.’
Flight was now out of the question, and in concealment lay
his only chance of avoiding discovery. With great pain he
managed to drag himself to the neighbouring field, and there,
keeping himself alive by feeding upon the beans, he had lain
hidden ever since the murder.

He makes a desperate attempt to excite compassion by a
moving account of his sufferings during this time. The pain
in his leg was never quiet for an hour together; the fear of
discovery never left him. More than once, whilst he lay hid
amongst the beanstalks, parties of visitors to the scene of the
murder had passed within a few yards of him, and he had
distinctly heard them eagerly discussing the chances of his
capture. His constant terror was lest a dog should scent out
his whereabouts. Then he dwells upon the agonies of priva-
tion which he endured. He durst not approach the stream

whence he drank by daylight, and thus he would often have
given ‘more than a hundred pounds’—for he still clung to the
plunder for which he had paid so dearly—for a few drops of
water. On the night when the maid had seen his ghost, he
had crept out from his concealment in the hope of stealing
food from the hen-troughs or the pig-sties. He winds up
with an agonised appeal for mercy : ‘I have already suffered
the pain of more than twenty deaths : surely my crime is fully
expiated, and the law has nothing to gain in depriving me of
my miserable life.’

His arguments, however, were not held to be convincing,
    and to the general satisfaction he was duly hanged. But
        ‘Cobweb Hall’ has remained untenanted to this day.

                        GEORGE DOUGLAS.

MLA citation:

Douglas, Sir George. “Cobweb Hall.” The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, vol. 2, Autumn 1895, pp. 43-55. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, General Editor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.