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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
This, you know, is the beginning of the story about sprites and goblins which Mamilius, the best child in Shakespeare, was telling to his mother the queen, and the court ladies, when the king came in with his guards and hurried her off to prison. There is no more of the story; Mamilius died soon after without having a chance of finishing it. Now what was it going to have been? Shakespeare knew, no doubt, and I will be bold to say that I do. It was not going to be a new story: it was to be one which you have most likely heard, and even told. Everybody may set it in what frame he likes best. This is mine:
There was a man dwelt by a churchyard. His house had a lower story of stone and an upper one of timber. The front windows looked out on the street and the back ones on the churchyard. It had once belonged to the parish priest, but (this was in Queen Elizabeth’s days) the priest was a married man and wanted more room; besides, his wife disliked seeing the churchyard at night out of her bedroom window. She said she saw — but never mind what she said; anyhow, she gave her husband no peace till he agreed to move into a larger house in the village street, and the old one was taken by John Poole, who was a widower, and lived there alone. He was an elderly man who kept very much to himself, and people said he was something of a miser.
It was very likely true: he was morbid in other ways, certainly. In those days it was common to bury people at night and by torchlight: and it was noticed that whenever a funeral was toward, John Poole was always at his window, either on the ground floor or upstairs, according as he could get the better view from one or the other.
There came a night when an old woman was to be buried. She was fairly well to do, but she was not liked in the place. The usual thing was said of her, that she was no Christian, and that on such nights as Midsummer Eve and All Hallows, she was not to he found in her house. She was red-eyed and dreadful to look at, and no beggar ever knocked at her door. Yet when she died she left a purse of money to the Church.
There was no storm on the night of her burial; it was fair and calm. But there was some difficulty about getting bearers, and men to carry the torches, in spite of the fact that she had left larger fees than common for such as did that work. She was buried in woollen, without a coffin. No one was there but those who were actually needed — and John Poole, watching from his window. Just before the grave was filled in, the parson stooped down and cast something upon the body — something that clinked — and in a low voice he said words that sounded like ‘Thy money perish with thee.’ Then he walked quickly away, and so did the other men, leaving only one torch-bearer to light the sexton and his boy while they shovelled the earth in. They made no very neat job of it, and next day, which was a Sunday, the churchgoers were rather sharp with the sexton, saying it was the untidiest grave in the yard. And indeed, when he came to look at it himself, he thought it was worse than he had left it.
Meanwhile John Poole went about with a curious air, half exulting, as it were, and half nervous. More than once he spent an evening at the inn, which was clean contrary to his usual habit, and to those who fell into talk with him there he hinted that he had come into a little bit of money and was looking out for a somewhat better house. ‘Well, I don’t wonder,’ said the smith one night, ‘I shouldn’t care for that place of yours. I should be fancying things all night.’ The landlord asked him what sort of things.
‘Well, maybe somebody climbing up to the chamber window, or the like of that,’ said the smith. ‘I don’t know — old mother Wilkins that was buried a week ago today, eh?’
‘Come, I think you might consider of a person’s feelings,’ said the landlord. ‘It ain’t so pleasant for Master Poole, is it now?’
‘Master Poole don’t mind,’ said the smith. ‘He’s been there long enough to know. I only says it wouldn’t be my choice. What with the passing bell, and the torches when there’s a burial, and all them graves laying so quiet when there’s no one about: only they say there’s lights — don’t you never see no lights, Master Poole?’
‘No, I don’t never see no lights,’ said Master Poole sulkily, and called for another drink, and went home late.
That night, as he lay in his bed upstairs, a moaning wind began to play about the house, and he could not go to sleep. He got up and crossed the room to a little cupboard in the wall: he took out of it something that clinked, and put it in the breast of his bedgown. Then he went to the window and looked out into the churchyard.
Have you ever seen an old brass in a church with a figure of a person in a shroud? It is bunched together at the top of the head in a curious way. Something like that was sticking up out of the earth in a spot of the churchyard which John Poole knew very well. He darted into his bed and lay there very still indeed.
Presently something made a very faint rattling at the casement. With a dreadful reluctance John Poole turned his eyes that way. Alas!
Between him and the moonlight was the black outline of the curious bunched head . . . Then there was a figure in the room. Dry earth rattled on the floor. A low cracked voice said ‘Where is it?’ and steps went hither and thither, faltering steps as of one walking with difficulty. It could be seen now and again, peering into corners, stooping to look under chairs; finally it could be heard fumbling at the doors of the cupboard in the wall, throwing them open. There was a scratching of long nails on the empty shelves. The figure whipped round, stood for an instant at the side of the bed, raised its arms, and with a hoarse scream of ‘YOU’VE GOT IT!’
At this point H. R. H. Prince Mamilius (who would, I think, have made the story a good deal shorter than this) flung himself with a loud yell upon the youngest of the court ladies present, who responded with an equally piercing cry. He was instantly seized upon by H. M. Queen Hermione, who, repressing an inclination to laugh, shook and slapped him very severely. Much flushed, and rather inclined to cry, he was about to be sent to bed: but, on the intercession of his victim, who had now recovered from the shock, he was eventually permitted to remain until his usual hour for retiring; by which time he too had so far recovered as to assert, in bidding good-night to the company, that he knew another story quite three times as dreadful as that one, and would tell it on the first opportunity that offered.
‘And if you was to walk through the bedrooms now, you’d see the ragged, mouldy bedclothes a-heaving and a-heaving like seas.’ ‘And a-heaving and a-heaving with what?’ he says. Why, with the rats under ’em.’
But was it with the rats? I ask, because in another case it was not. I cannot put a date to the story, but I was young when I heard it, and the teller was old. It is an ill-proportioned tale, but that is my fault, not his.
It happened in Suffolk, near the coast. In a place where the road makes a sudden dip and then a sudden rise; as you go northward, at the top of that rise, stands a house on the left of the road. It is a tall red-brick house, narrow for its height; perhaps it was built about 1770. The top of the front has a low triangular pediment with a round window in the centre. Behind it are stables and offices, and such garden as it has is behind them. Scraggy Scotch firs are near it: an expanse of gorse-covered land stretches away from it. It commands a view of the distant sea from the upper windows of the front. A sign on a post stands before the door; or did so stand, for though it was an inn of repute once, I believe it is so no longer.
To this inn came my acquaintance, Mr Thomson, when he was a young man, on a fine spring day, coming from the University of Cambridge, and desirous of solitude in tolerable quarters and time for reading. These he found, for the landlord and his wife had been in service and could make a visitor comfortable, and there was no one else staying in the inn. He had a large room on the first floor commanding the road and the view, and if it faced east, why, that could not be helped; the house was well built and warm.
He spent very tranquil and uneventful days: work all the morning, an afternoon perambulation of the country round, a little conversation with country company or the people of the inn in the evening over the then fashionable drink of brandy and water, a little more reading and writing, and bed; and he would have been content that this should continue for the full month he had at disposal, so well was his work progressing, and so fine was the April of that year — which I have reason to believe was that which Orlando Whistlecraft chronicles in his weather record as the ‘Charming Year’.
One of his walks took him along the northern road, which stands high and traverses a wide common, called a heath. On the bright afternoon when he first chose this direction his eye caught a white object some hundreds of yards to the left of the road, and he felt it necessary to make sure what this might be. It was not long before he was standing by it, and found himself looking at a square block of white stone fashioned somewhat like the base of a pillar, with a square hole in the upper surface. Just such another you may see at this day on Thetford Heath. After taking stock of it he contemplated for a few minutes the view, which offered a church tower or two, some red roofs of cottages and windows winking in the sun, and the expanse of sea — also with an occasional wink and gleam upon it — and so pursued his way.
In the desultory evening talk in the bar, he asked why the white stone was there on the common.
‘A old-fashioned thing, that is,’ said the landlord (Mr Betts), ‘we was none of us alive when that was put there.’ ‘That’s right,’ said another. ‘It stands pretty high,’ said Mr Thomson, ‘I dare say a sea-mark was on it some time back.’ ‘Ah! yes,’ Mr Betts agreed, ‘I ’ave ’eard they could see it from the boats; but whatever there was, it’s fell to bits this long time.’ ‘Good job too,’ said a third, ‘‘twarn’t a lucky mark, by what the old men used to say; not lucky for the fishin’, I mean to say.’ ‘Why ever not?’ said Thomson. ‘Well, I never see it myself,’ was the answer, ‘but they ’ad some funny ideas, what I mean, peculiar, them old chaps, and I shouldn’t wonder but what they made away with it theirselves.’
It was impossible to get anything clearer than this: the company, never very voluble, fell silent, and when next someone spoke it was of village affairs and crops. Mr Betts was the speaker.
Not every day did Thomson consult his health by taking a country walk. One very fine afternoon found him busily writing at three o’clock. Then he stretched himself and rose, and walked out of his room into the passage. Facing him was another room, then the stair-head, then two more rooms, one looking out to the back, the other to the south. At the south end of the passage was a window, to which he went, considering with himself that it was rather a shame to waste such a fine afternoon. However, work was paramount just at the moment; he thought he would just take five minutes off and go back to it, and those five minutes he would employ — the Bettses could not possibly object — to looking at the other rooms in the passage, which he had never seen. Nobody at all, it seemed, was indoors; probably, as it was market day, they were all gone to the town, except perhaps a maid in the bar. Very still the house was, and the sun shone really hot; early flies buzzed in the window-panes. So he explored. The room facing his own was undistinguished except for an old print of Bury St Edmunds; the two next him on his side of the passage were gay and clean, with one window apiece, whereas his had two. Remained the south-west room, opposite to the last which he had entered. This was locked; but Thomson was in a mood of quite indefensible curiosity, and feeling confident that there could be no damaging secrets in a place so easily got at, he proceeded to fetch the key of his own room, and when that did not answer, to collect the keys of the other three. One of them fitted, and he opened the door. The room had two windows looking south and west, so it was as bright and the sun as hot upon it as could be. Here there was no carpet, but bare boards; no pictures, no washing-stand, only a bed, in the farther corner: an iron bed, with mattress and bolster, covered with a bluish check counterpane. As featureless a room as you can well imagine, and yet there was something that made Thomson close the door very quickly and yet quietly behind him and lean against the window-sill in the passage, actually quivering all over. It was this, that under the counterpane someone lay, and not only lay, but stirred. That it was some one and not some thing was certain, because the shape of a head was unmistakable on the bolster; and yet it was all covered, and no one lies with covered head but a dead person; and this was not dead, not truly dead, for it heaved and shivered. If he had seen these things in dusk or by the light of a flickering candle, Thomson could have comforted himself and talked of fancy. On this bright day that was impossible. What was to be done? First, lock the door at all costs. Very gingerly he approached it and bending down listened, holding his breath; perhaps there might be a sound of heavy breathing, and a prosaic explanation. There was absolute silence. But as, with a rather tremulous hand, he put the key into its hole and turned it, it rattled, and on the instant a stumbling padding tread was heard coming towards the door. Thomson fled like a rabbit to his room and locked himself in: futile enough, he knew it was; would doors and locks be any obstacle to what he suspected? but it was all he could think of at the moment, and in fact nothing happened; only there was a time of acute suspense — followed by a misery of doubt as to what to do. The impulse, of course, was to slip away as soon as possible from a house which contained such an inmate. But only the day before he had said he should be staying for at least a week more, and how if he changed plans could he avoid the suspicion of having pried into places where he certainly had no business? Moreover, either the Bettses knew all about the inmate, and yet did not leave the house, or knew nothing, which equally meant that there was nothing to be afraid of, or knew just enough to make them shut up the room, but not enough to weigh on their spirits: in any of these cases it seemed that not much was to be feared, and certainly so far as he had had no sort of ugly experience. On the whole the line of least resistance was to stay.
Well, he stayed out his week. Nothing took him past that door, and, often as he would pause in a quiet hour of day or night in the passage and listen, and listen, no sound whatever issued from that direction. You might have thought that Thomson would have made some attempt at ferreting out stories connected with the inn — hardly perhaps from Betts, but from the parson of the parish, or old people in the village; but no, the reticence which commonly falls on people who have had strange experiences, and believe in them, was upon him. Nevertheless, as the end of his stay drew near, his yearning after some kind of explanation grew more and more acute. On his solitary walks he persisted in planning out some way, the least obtrusive, of getting another daylight glimpse into that room, and eventually arrived at this scheme. He would leave by an afternoon train — about four o’clock. When his fly was waiting, and his luggage on it, he would make one last expedition upstairs to look round his own room and see if anything was left unpacked, and then, with that key, which he had contrived to oil (as if that made any difference!), the door should once more be opened, for a moment, and shut.
So it worked out. The bill was paid, the consequent small talk gone through while the fly was loaded: ‘pleasant part of the country — been very comfortable, thanks to you and Mrs Betts — hope to come back some time’, on one side: on the other, ‘very glad you’ve found satisfaction, sir, done our best — always glad to ’ave your good word — very much favoured we’ve been with the weather, to be sure.’ Then, ‘I’ll just take a look upstairs in case I’ve left a book or something out — no, don’t trouble, I’ll be back in a minute.’ And as noiselessly as possible he stole to the door and opened it. The shattering of the illusion! He almost laughed aloud. Propped, or you might say sitting, on the edge of the bed was — nothing in the round world but a scarecrow! A scarecrow out of the garden, of course, dumped into the deserted room . . . Yes; but here amusement ceased. Have scarecrows bare bony feet? Do their heads loll on to their shoulders? Have they iron collars and links of chain about their necks? Can they get up and move, if never so stiffly, across a floor, with wagging head and arms close at their sides? and shiver?
The slam of the door, the dash to the stair-head, the leap downstairs, were followed by a faint. Awakening, Thomson saw Betts standing over him with the brandy bottle and a very reproachful face. ‘You shouldn’t a done so, sir, really you shouldn’t. It ain’t a kind way to act by persons as done the best they could for you.’ Thomson heard words of this kind, but what he said in reply he did not know. Mr Betts, and perhaps even more Mrs Betts, found it hard to accept his apologies and his assurances that he would say no word that could damage the good name of the house. However, they were accepted. Since the train could not now be caught, it was arranged that Thomson should be driven to the town to sleep there. Before he went the Bettses told him what little they knew. ‘They says he was landlord ’ere a long time back, and was in with the ’ighwaymen that ’ad their beat about the ’eath. That’s how he come by his end: ’ung in chains, they say, up where you see that stone what the gallus stood in. Yes, the fishermen made away with that, I believe, because they see it out at sea and it kep’ the fish off, according to their idea. Yes, we ’ad the account from the people that ’ad the ’ouse before we come. “You keep that room shut up,” they says, “but don’t move the bed out, and you’ll find there won’t be no trouble.” And no more there ’as been; not once he haven’t come out into the ’ouse, though what he may do now there ain’t no sayin’. Anyway, you’re the first I know on that’s seen him since we’ve been ’ere: I never set eyes on him myself, nor don’t want. And ever since we’ve made the servants’ rooms in the stablin’, we ain’t ’ad no difficulty that way. Only I do ’ope, sir, as you’ll keep a close tongue, considerin’ ’ow an ’ouse do get talked about’: with more to this effect.
The promise of silence was kept for many years. The occasion of my hearing the story at last was this: that when Mr Thomson came to stay with my father it fell to me to show him to his room, and instead of letting me open the door for him, he stepped forward and threw it open himself, and then for some moments stood in the doorway holding up his candle and looking narrowly into the interior. Then he seemed to recollect himself and said: ‘I beg your pardon. Very absurd, but I can’t help doing that, for a particular reason.’ What that reason was I heard some days afterwards, and you have heard now.
The hour was late and the night was fair. I had halted not far from Sheeps’ Bridge and was thinking about the stillness, only broken by the sound of the weir, when a loud tremulous hoot just above me made me jump. It is always annoying to be startled; but I have a kindness for owls. This one was evidently very near: I looked. about for it. There it was, sitting plumply on a branch about twelve feet up. I pointed my stick at it and said, “Was that you?” “Drop it,” said the owl. “I know it ain’t only a stick, but I don’t like it. Yes, of course it was me: who do you suppose it would be if it warn’t?”
We will take as read the sentences about my surprise. I lowered the stick. “Well,” said the owl, “what about it? If you will come out here of a Midsummer evening like what this is, what do you expect?” “I beg your pardon,” I said, “I should have remembered. May I say that I think myself very lucky to have met you to — night? I hope you have time for a little talk?” “Well,” said the owl ungraciously, “I don’t know as it matters so particular to — night. I’ve had me supper as it happens, and if you ain’t too long over it — ah-h-h!” Suddenly it broke into a loud scream, flapped its wings furiously, bent forward and clutched its perch tightly, continuing to scream. Plainly something was pulling hard at it from behind. The strain relaxed abruptly, the owl nearly fell over, and then whipped round, ruffling up all over, and made a vicious dab at something unseen by me. “Oh, I am sorry,” said a small clear voice in a solicitous tone. “I made sure it was loose. I do hope I didn’t hurt you.” “Didn’t ’urt me?” said the owl bitterly. “Of course you ’urt me, and well you know it, you young infidel. That feather was no more loose than — oh, if I could git at you! Now I shouldn’t wonder but what you’ve throwed me all out of balance. Why can’t you let a person set quiet for two minutes at a time without you must come creepin’ up and — well, you’ve done it this time, anyway. I shall go straight to ’eadquarters and” — (finding it was now addressing the empty air) — “why, where have you got to now? Oh, it is too bad, that it is!” .
“Dear me!” I said, “I’m afraid this isn’t the first time you’ve been annoyed in this way. May I ask exactly what happened?”
“Yes, you may ask,” said the owl, still looking narrowly about as it spoke, “but it ’ud take me till the latter end of next week to tell you. Fancy coming and pulling out anyone’s tail feather! ’Urt me something crool, it did. And what for, I should like to know? Answer me that! Where’s the reason of it?”
All that occurred to me was to murmur, “The clamorous owl that nightly hoots and wonders at our quaint spirits.” I hardly thought the point would be taken, but the owl said sharply: “What’s that? Yes, you needn’t to repeat it. I ’eard. And I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it, and you mark my words.” It bent towards me and whispered, with many nods of its round head: “Pride! stand-offish-ness I that’s what it is! Come not near our fairy queen” (this in a tone of bitter contempt). “Oh, dear no! we ain’t good enough for the likes of them. Us that’s been noted time out of mind for the best singers in the Fields: now, ain’t that so?”
“Well,” I said, doubtfully enough, “I like to hear you very much: but, you know, some people think a lot of the thrushes and nightingales and so on; you must have heard of that, haven’t you? (And then, perhaps — of course I don’t know — perhaps your style of singing isn’t exactly what they think suitable to accompany their dancing, eh?”
“I should kindly ’ope not,” said the owl, drawing itself up. “Our family’s never give in to dancing, nor never won’t neither. Why, what ever are you thinkin’ of!” it went on with rising temper. “A pretty thing it would be for me to set there hiccuppin’ at them” — it stopped and looked cautiously all round it and up and down and then continued in a louder voice — “them little ladies and gentlemen. If it ain’t sootable for them, I’m very sure it ain’t sootable for me. And” (temper rising again) “if they expect me never to say a word just because they’re dancin’ and carryin’ on with their foolishness, they’re very much mistook, and so I tell ’em.”
From what had passed before I was afraid this was an imprudent line to take, and I was right. Hardly had the owl given its last emphatic nod when four small slim forms dropped from a bough above, and in a twinkling some sort of grass rope was thrown round the body of the unhappy bird, and it was borne off through the air, loudly protesting, in the direction of Fellows’ Pond. Splashes and gurgles and shrieks of unfeeling laughter were heard as I hurried up. Something darted away over my head, and as I stood peering over the bank of the pond, which was all in commotion, a very angry and dishevelled owl scrambled heavily up the bank, and stopping near my feet shook itself and flapped and hissed for several minutes without saying anything I should care to repeat.
Glaring at me, it eventually said — and the grim suppressed rage in its voice was such that I hastily drew back a step or two — “’Ear that? Said they was very sorry, but they’d mistook me for a duck. Oh, if it ain’t enough to make anyone go reg’lar distracted in their mind and tear everythink to flinders for miles round.” So carried away was it by passion, that it began the process at once by rooting up a large beakful of grass, which alas! got into its throat; and the choking that resulted made me really afraid that it would break a vessel. But the paroxysm was mastered, and the owl sat up, winking and breathless but intact.
Some expression of sympathy seemed to be required; yet I was chary of offering it, for in its present state of mind I felt that the bird might interpret the best-meant phrase as a fresh insult. So we stood looking at each other without speech for a very awkward minute, and then came a diversion. First the thin voice of the pavilion clock, then the deeper sound from the Castle quadrangle, then Lupton’s Tower, drowning the Curfew Tower by its nearness.
“What’s that?” said the owl, suddenly and hoarsely. “Midnight, I should think,” said I, and had recourse to my watch. “Midnight?” cried the owl, evidently much startled, “and me too wet to fly a yard! Here, you pick me up and put me in the tree; don’t, I’ll climb up your leg, and you won’t ask me to do that twice. Quick now! “ I obeyed. “Which tree do you want?” “Why, my tree, to be sure! Over there!” It nodded towards the Wall. “All right. Bad-calx tree do you mean?” I said, beginning to run in that direction. “’Ow should I know what silly names you call it? The one what ’as like a door in it. Go faster! They’ll be coming in another minute.” “Who? What’s the matter?” I asked as I ran, clutching the wet creature, and much afraid of stumbling and coming over with it in the long grass. “You’ll see fast enough,” said this selfish bird. “You just let me git on the tree, I shall be all right.”
And I suppose it was, for it scrabbled very quickly up the trunk with its wings spread and disappeared in a hollow without a word of thanks. I looked round, not very comfortably. The Curfew Tower was still playing St. David’s tune and the little chime that follows, for the third and last time, but the other bells had finished what they had to say, and now there was silence, and again the “restless changing weir” was the only thing that broke — no, that emphasized it.
Why had the owl been so anxious to get into hiding? That of course was what now exercised me. Whatever and whoever was coming, I was sure that this was no time for me to cross the open field: I should do best to dissemble my presence by staying on the darker side of the tree. And that is what I did.
* * *
All this took place some years ago, before summertime came in. I do sometimes go into the Playing Fields at night still, but I come in before true midnight. And I find I do not like a crowd after dark — for example at the Fourth of June fireworks. You see — no, you do not, but I see — such curious faces: and the people to whom they belong flit about so oddly, often at your elbow when you least expect it, and looking close into your face, as it they were searching for someone — who may be thankful, I think, if they do not find him. “Where do they come from?” Why, some, I think, out of the Water, and some out of the ground. They look like that. But I am sure it is best to take no notice of them, and not to touch them.
Yes, I certainly prefer the daylight population of the Playing Fields to that which comes there after dark.
IN the year 19 — there were two members of the Troop of Scouts attached to a famous school, named respectively Arthur Wilcox and Stanley Judkins. They were the same age, boarded in the same house, were in the same division, and naturally were members of the same patrol. They were so much alike in appearance as to cause anxiety and trouble, and even irritation, to the masters who came in contact with them. But oh how different were they in their inward man, or boy!
It was to Arthur Wilcox that the Head Master said, looking up with a smile as the boy entered chambers, “Why, Wilcox, there will be a deficit in the prize fund if you stay here much longer! Here, take this handsomely bound copy of the Life and Works of Bishop Ken, and with it my hearty congratulations to yourself and your excellent parents.” It was Wilcox again, whom the Provost noticed as he passed through the playing fields, and, pausing for a moment, observed to the Vice-Provost, “That lad has a remarkable brow!” “Indeed, yes,” said the Vice-Provost. “It denotes either genius or water on the brain.”
As a Scout, Wilcox secured every badge and distinction for which he competed. The Cookery Badge, the Map-making Badge, the Life-saving Badge, the Badge for picking up bits of newspaper, the Badge for not slamming the door when leaving pupil-room, and many others. Of the Life-saving Badge I may have a word to say when we come to treat of Stanley Judkins.
You cannot be surprised to hear that Mr. Hope Jones added a special verse to each of his songs, in commendation of Arthur Wilcox, or that the Lower Master burst into tears when handing him the Good Conduct Medal in its handsome claret-coloured case: the medal which had been unanimously voted to him by the whole of Third Form. Unanimously, did I say? I am wrong. There was one dissentient, Judkins mi., who said that he had excellent reasons for acting as he did. He shared, it seems, a room with his major. You cannot, again, wonder that in after years Arthur Wilcox was the first, and so far the only boy, to become Captain of both the School and of the Oppidans, or that the strain of carrying out the duties of both positions, coupled with the ordinary work of the school, was so severe that a complete rest for six months, followed by a voyage round the world, was pronounced an absolute necessity by the family doctor.
It would be a pleasant task to trace the steps by which he attained the giddy eminence he now occupies; but for the moment enough of Arthur Wilcox. Time presses, and we must turn to a very different matter: the career of Stanley Judkins — Judkins ma.
Stanley Judkins, like Arthur Wilcox, attracted the attention of the authorities; but in quite another fashion. It was to him that the Lower Master said, with no cheerful smile, “What, again, Judkins? A very little persistence in this course of conduct, my boy, and you will have cause to regret that you ever entered this academy. There, take that, and that, and think yourself very lucky you don’t get that and that!” It was Judkins, again, whom the Provost had cause to notice as he passed through the playing fields, when a cricket ball struck him with considerable force on the ankle, and a voice from a short way off cried, “Thank you, cut-over!” “I think,” said the Provost, pausing for a moment to rub his ankle, “that that boy had better fetch his cricket ball for himself!” “Indeed, yes,” said the Vice-Provost, “and if he comes within reach, I will do my best to fetch him something else.”
As a Scout, Stanley Judkins secured no badge save those which he was able to abstract from members of other patrols. In the cookery competition he was detected trying to introduce squibs into the Dutch oven of the next-door competitors. In the tailoring competition he succeeded in sewing two boys together very firmly, with disastrous effect when they tried to get up. For the Tidiness Badge he was disqualified, because, in the Midsummer schooltime, which chanced to be hot, he could not be dissuaded from sitting with his fingers in the ink: as he said, for coolness’ sake. For one piece of paper which he picked up, he must have dropped at least six banana skins or orange peels. Aged women seeing him approaching would beg him with tears in their eyes not to carry their pails of water across the road. They knew too well what the result would inevitably be. But it was in the life-saving competition that Stanley Judkins’s conduct was most blameable and had the most far-reaching effects. The practice, as you know, was to throw a selected lower boy, of suitable dimensions, fully dressed, with his hands and feet tied together, into the deepest part of Cuckoo Weir, and to time the Scout whose turn it was to rescue him. On every occasion when he was entered for this competition Stanley Judkins was seized, at the critical moment, with a severe fit of cramp, which caused him to roll on the ground and utter alarming cries. This naturally distracted the attention of those present from the boy in the water, and had it not been for the presence of Arthur Wilcox the death-roll would have been a heavy one. As it was, the Lower Master found it necessary to take a firm line and say that the competition must be discontinued. It was in vain that Mr. Beasley Robinson represented to him that in five competitions only four lower boys had actually succumbed. The Lower Master said that he would be the last to interfere in any way with the work of the Scouts; but that three of these boys had been valued members of his choir, and both he and Dr. Ley felt that the inconvenience caused by the losses outweighed the advantages of the competitions. Besides, the correspondence with the parents of these boys had become annoying, and even distressing: they were no longer satisfied with the printed form which he was in the habit of sending out, and more than one of them had actually visited Eton and taken up much of his valuable time with complaints. So the life-saving competition is now a thing of the past.
In short, Stanley Judkins was no credit to the Scouts, and, there was talk on more than one occasion of informing him that his services were no longer required. This course was strongly advocated by Mr. Lambart: but in the end milder counsels prevailed, and it was decided to give him another chance.
So it is that we find him at the beginning of the Midsummer Holidays of 19 — at the Scouts’ camp in the beautiful district of W (or X) in the county of D (or Y).
It was a lovely morning, and Stanley Judkins and one or two of his friends — for he still had friends — lay basking on the top of the down. Stanley was lying on his stomach with his chin propped on his hands, staring into the distance.
“I wonder what that place is,” he said.
“Which place?” said one of the others.
“That sort of clump in the middle of the field down there.”
“Oh, ah! How should I know what it is?”
“What do you want to know for?” said another.
“I don’t know: I like the look of it. What’s it called? Nobody got a map?” said Stanley. “Call yourselves Scouts!”
“Here’s a map all right,” said Wilfred Pipsqueak, ever resourceful, “and there’s the place marked on it. But it’s inside the red ring. We can’t go there.”
“Who cares about a red ring?” said Stanley. “But it’s got no name on your silly map.”
“Well, you can ask this old chap what it’s called if you’re so keen to find out.” “This old chap” was an old shepherd who had come up and was standing behind them.
“Good morning, young gents,” he said, “you’ve got a fine day for your doin’s, ain’t you?”
“Yes, thank you,” said Algernon de Montmorency, with native politeness. “Can you tell us what that clump over there’s called? And what’s that thing inside it?”
“Course I can tell you,” said the shepherd. “That’s Wailin’ Well, that is. But you ain’t got no call to worry about that.”
“Is it a well in there?” said Algernon. “Who uses it?”
The shepherd laughed. “Bless you,” he said, “there ain’t from a man to a sheep in these parts uses Wailin’ Well, nor haven’t done all the years I’ve lived here.”
“Well, there’ll be a record broken to-day, then,” said Stanley Judkins, “because I shall go and get some water out of it for tea!”
“Sakes alive, young gentleman!” said the shepherd in a startled voice, “don’t you get to talkin’ that way! Why, ain’t your masters give you notice not to go by there? They’d ought to have done.”
“Yes, they have,” said Wilfred Pipsqueak
“Shut up, you ass!” said Stanley Judkins. “What’s the matter with it? Isn’t the water good? Anyhow, if it was boiled, it would be all right.”
“I don’t know as there’s anything much wrong with the water,” said the shepherd. “All I know is, my old dog wouldn’t go through that field, let alone me or anyone else that’s got a morsel of brains in their heads.”
“More fool them,” said Stanley Judkins, at once rudely and ungrammatically. “Who ever took any harm going there?” he added.
“Three women and a man,” said the shepherd gravely. “Now just you listen to me. I know these ’ere parts and you don’t, and I can tell you this much: for these ten years last past there ain’t been a sheep fed in that field, nor a crop raised off of it — and it’s good land, too. You can pretty well see from here what a state it’s got into with brambles and suckers and trash of all kinds. You’ve got a glass, young gentleman,” he said to Wilfred Pipsqueak, “you can tell with that anyway.”
“Yes,” said Wilfred, “but I see there’s tracks in it. Someone must go through it sometimes.”
“Tracks!” said the shepherd. “I believe you I Four tracks: three women and a man.”
“What d’you mean, three women and a man?” said Stanley, turning over for the first time and looking at the shepherd (he had been talking with his back to him till this moment: he was an ill-mannered boy).
“Mean? Why, what I says: three women and a man.”
“Who are they?” asked Algernon. “Why do they go there?”
“There’s some p’r’aps could tell you who they was,“ said the shepherd, “but it was afore my time they come by their end. And why they goes there still is more than the children of men can tell: except I’ve heard they was all bad ‘uns when they was alive.”
“By George, what a rum thing!” Algernon and Wilfred muttered: but Stanley was scornful and bitter.
“Why, you don’t mean they’re deaders? What rot! You must be a lot of fools to believe that. Who’s ever seen them, I’d like to know?”
“I’ve seen ’em, young gentleman!” said the shepherd, “seen ’em from near by on that bit of down: and my old dog, if he could speak, he’d tell you he’ve seen ’em, same time. About four o’clock of the day it was, much such a day as this. I see ’em, each one of ’em, come peerin’ out of the bushes and stand up, and work their way slow by them tracks towards the trees in the middle where the well is.”
“And what were they like? Do tell us!” said Algernon and Wilfred eagerly.
“Rags and bones, young gentlemen: all four of ’em: flutterin’ rags and whity bones. It seemed to me as if I could hear ’em clackin’ as they got along. Very slow they went, and lookin’ from side to side.”
“What were their faces like? Could you see?”
“They hadn’t much to call faces,” said the shepherd, “but I could seem to see as they had teeth.”
“Lor’!” said Wilfred, “and what did they do when they got to the trees?”
“I can’t tell you that, sir,” said the shepherd. “I wasn’t for stayin’ in that place, and if I had been, I was bound to look to my old dog: he’d gone! Such a thing he never done before as leave me; but gone he had, and when I came up with him in the end, he was in that state he didn’t know me, and was fit to fly at my throat. But I kep’ talkin’ to him, and after a bit he remembered my voice and came creepin’ up like a child askin’ pardon. I never want to see him like that again, nor yet no other dog.”
The dog, who had come up and was making friends all round, looked up at his master, and expressed agreement with what he was saying very fully.
The boys pondered for some moments on what they had heard: after which Wilfred said: “And why’s it called Wailing Well?”
“If you was round here at dusk of a winter’s evening, you wouldn’t want to ask why,” was all the shepherd said.
“Well, I don’t believe a word of it,” said Stanley Judkins, “and I’ll go there next chance I get: blowed if I don’t!”
“Then you won’t be ruled by me?” said the shepherd. “Nor yet by your masters as warned you off? Come now, young gentleman, you don’t want for sense, I should say. What should I want tellin’ you a pack of lies? It ain’t sixpence to me anyone goin’ in that field: but I wouldn’t like to see a young chap snuffed out like in his prime.”
“I expect it’s a lot more than sixpence to you,” said Stanley. “I expect you’ve got a whisky still or something in there, and want to keep other people away. Rot I call it. Come on back, you boys.”
So they turned away. The two others said, “Good evening” and “Thank you” to the shepherd, but Stanley said nothing. The shepherd shrugged his shoulders and stood where he was, looking after them rather sadly.
On the way back to the camp there was great argument about it all, and Stanley was told as plainly as he could be told all the sorts of fools he would be if he went to the Wailing Well.
That evening, among other notices, Mr. Beasley Robinson asked if all maps had got the red ring marked on them. “Be particular,” he said, “not to trespass inside it.”
Several voices — among them the sulky one of Stanley Judkins — said, “Why not, sir?”
“Because not,” said Mr. Beasley Robinson, “and if that isn’t enough for you, I can’t help it.” He turned and spoke to Mr. Lambart in a low voice, and then said, “I’ll tell you this much: we’ve been asked to warn Scouts off that field. It’s very good of the people to let us camp here at all, and the least we can do is to oblige them — I’m sure you’ll agree to that.”
Everybody said, “Yes, sir!” except Stanley Judkins, who was heard to mutter, “Oblige them be blowed!”
Early in the afternoon of the next day, the following dialogue was heard. “Wilcox, is all your tent there?”
“No, sir, Judkins isn’t!”
“That boy is the most infernal nuisance ever invented! Where do you suppose he is?”
“I haven’t an idea, sir.”
“Does anybody else know?”
“Sir, I shouldn’t wonder if he’d gone to the Wailing Well.”
“Who’s that? Pipsqueak? What’s the Wailing Well?”
“Sir, it’s that place in the field by — well, sir, it’s in a clump of trees in a rough field.”
“D’you mean inside the red ring? Good heavens! What makes you think he’s gone there?”
“Why, he was terribly keen to know about it yesterday, and we were talking to a shepherd man, and he told us a lot about it and advised us not to go there: but Judkins didn’t believe him, and said he meant to go.”
“Young ass!” said Mr. Hope Jones, “did he take anything with him?”
“Yes, I think he took some rope and a can. We did tell him he’d be a fool to go.”
“Little brute! What the deuce does he mean by pinching stores like that! Well, come along, you three, we must see after him. Why can’t people keep the simplest orders? What was it the man told you? No, don’t wait, let’s have it as we go along.”
And off they started — Algernon and Wilfred talking rapidly and the other two listening with growing concern. At last they reached that spur of down overlooking the field of which the shepherd had spoken the day before. It commanded the place completely; the well inside the dump of bent and gnarled Scotch firs was plainly visible, and so were the four tracks winding about among the thorns and rough growth.
It was a wonderful day of shimmering heat. The sea looked like a floor of metal. There was no breath of wind. They were all exhausted when they got to the top, and flung themselves down on the hot grass.
“Nothing to be seen of him yet,” said Mr. Hope Jones, “but we must stop here a bit. You’re done up — not to speak of me. Keep a sharp look-out,” he went on after a moment, “I thought I saw the bushes stir.”
“Yes,” said Wilcox, “so did I. Look . . . no, that can’t be him. It’s somebody though, putting their head up, isn’t it?”
“I thought it was, but I’m not sure.”
Silence for a moment. Then:
“That’s him, sure enough,” said Wilcox, “getting over the hedge on the far side. Don’t you see? With a shiny thing. That’s the can you said he had.”
“Yes, it’s him, and he’s making straight for the trees,” said Wilfred.
At this moment Algernon, who had been staring with all his might, broke into a scream.
“What’s that on the track? On all fours — O, it’s the woman. O, don’t let me look at her! Don’t let it happen!” And he rolled over, clutching at the grass and trying to bury his head in it.
“Stop that!” said Mr. Hope Jones loudly — but it was no use. “Look here,” he said, “I must go down there. You stop here, Wilfred, and look after that boy. Wilcox, you run as hard as you can to the camp and get some help.”
They ran off, both of them. Wilfred was left alone with Algernon, and did his best to calm him, but indeed he was not much happier himself. From time to time he glanced down the hill and into the held. He saw Mr. Hope Jones drawing nearer at a swift pace, and then, to his great surprise, he saw him stop, look up and round about him, and turn quickly off at an angle! What could be the reason? He looked at the field, and there he saw a terrible figure — something in ragged black — with whitish patches breaking out of it: the head, perched on a long thin neck, half hidden by a shapeless sort of blackened sun-bonnet. The creature was waving thin arms in the direction of the rescuer who was approaching, as if to ward him off: and between the two figures the air seemed to shake and shimmer as he had never seen it: and as he looked, he began himself to feel something of a waviness and confusion in his brain, which made him guess what might be the effect on someone within closer range of the influence. He looked away hastily, to see Stanley Judkins making his way pretty quickly towards the clump, and in proper Scout fashion; evidently picking his steps with care to avoid treading on snapping sticks or being caught by arms of brambles. Evidently, though he saw nothing, he suspected some sort of ambush, and was trying to go noiselessly. Wilfred saw all that, and he saw more, too. With a sudden and dreadful sinking at the heart, he caught sight of someone among the trees, waiting: and again of someone — another of the hideous black figures — working slowly along the track from another side of the held, looking from side to side, as the shepherd had described it. Worst of all, he saw a fourth — unmistakably a man this time — rising out of the bushes a few yards behind the wretched Stanley, and painfully, as it seemed, crawling into the track. On all sides the miserable victim was cut off.
Wilfred was at his wits’ end. He rushed at Algernon and shook him. “Get up,” he said. “Yell! Yell as loud as you can. Oh, if we’d got a whistle!”
Algernon pulled himself together. “There’s one,” he said, “Wilcox’s: he must have dropped it.”
So one whistled, the other screamed. In the still air the sound carried. Stanley heard: he stopped: he turned round: and then indeed a cry was heard more piercing and dreadful than any that the boys on the hill could raise. It was too late. The crouched figure behind Stanley sprang at him and caught him about the waist. The dreadful one that was standing waving her arms waved them again, but in exultation. The one that was lurking among the trees shuffled forward, and she too stretched out her arms as if to clutch at something coming her way; and the other, farthest off, quickened her pace and came on, nodding gleefully. The boys took it all in in an instant of terrible silence, and hardly could they breathe as they watched the horrid struggle between the man and his victim. Stanley struck with his can, the only weapon he had. The rim of a broken black hat fell off the creature’s head and showed a white skull with stains that might be wisps of hair. By this time one of the women had reached the pair, and was pulling at the rope that was coiled about Stanley’s neck. Between them they overpowered him in a moment: the awful screaming ceased, and then the three passed within the circle of the clump of firs.
Yet for a moment it seemed as if rescue might come. Mr. Hope Jones, striding quickly along, suddenly stopped, turned, seemed to rub his eyes, and then started running towards the field. More: the boys glanced behind them, and saw not only a troop of figures from the camp coming over the top of the next down, but the shepherd running up the slope of their own hill. They beckoned, they shouted, they ran a few yards towards him and then back again. He mended his pace.
Once more the boys looked towards the field. There was nothing. Or, was there something among the trees? Why was there a mist about the trees? Mr. Hope Jones had scrambled over the hedge, and was plunging through the bushes.
The shepherd stood beside them, panting. They ran to him and clung to his arms. “They’ve got him! In the trees!” was as much as they could say, over and over again.
“What? Do you tell me he’ve gone in there after all I said to him yesterday? Poor young thing! Poor young thing!” He would have said more, but other voices broke in. The rescuers from the camp had arrived. A few hasty words, and all were dashing down the hill.
They had just entered the field when they met Mr. Hope Jones. Over his shoulder hung the corpse of Stanley Judkins. He had cut it from the branch to which he found it hanging, waving to and fro. There was not a drop of blood in the body.
On the following day Mr. Hope Jones sallied forth with an axe and with the expressed intention of cutting down every tree in the clump, and of burning every bush in the field. He returned with a nasty cut in his leg and a broken axe-helve. Not a spark of fire could he light, and on no single tree could he make the least impression.
I have heard that the present population of the Wailing Well field consists of three women, a man, and a boy.
The shock experienced by Algernon de Montmorency and Wilfred Pipsqueak was severe. Both of them left the camp at once; and the occurrence undoubtedly cast a gloom — if but a passing one — on those who remained. One of the first to recover his spirits was Judkins mi.
Such, gentlemen, is the story of the career of Stanley Judkins, and of a portion of the career of Arthur Wilcox. It has, I believe, never been told before. If it has a moral, that moral is, I trust, obvious: if it has none, I do not well know how to help it.
(Full Directions will be found at the End)
The Reverend Dr Hall was in his study making up the entries for the year in the parish register: it being his custom to note baptisms, weddings and burials in a paper book as they occurred, and in the last days of December to write them out fairly in the vellum book that was kept in the parish chest.
To him entered his housekeeper, in evident agitation. ‘Oh, sir,’ said she, ‘whatever do you think? The poor Squire’s gone!’
‘The Squire? Squire Bowles? What are you talking about, woman? Why, only yesterday — .’
‘Yes, I know, sir, but it’s the truth. Wickem, the clerk, just left word on his way down to toll the bell — you’ll hear it yourself in a minute. There now, just listen.’
Sure enough the sound broke on the still night — not loud, for the Rectory did not immediately adjoin the churchyard. Dr Hall rose hastily.
‘Terrible, terrible,’ he said. ‘I must see them at the Hall at once. He seemed so greatly better yesterday.’ He paused. ‘Did you hear any word of the sickness having come this way at all? There was nothing said in Norwich. It seems so sudden.’
‘No, indeed, sir, no such thing. Just caught away with a choking in his throat, Wickem says. It do make one feel — well, I’m sure I had to set down as much as a minute or more, I come over that queer when I heard the words — and by what I could understand they’ll be asking for the burial very quick. There’s some can’t bear the thought of the cold corpse laying in the house, and — .’
‘Yes: well, I must find out from Madam Bowles herself or Mr Joseph. Get me my cloak, will you? Ah, and could you let Wickem know that I desire to see him when the tolling is over?’ He hurried off.
‘In an hour’s time he was back and found Wickem waiting for him. ‘There is work for you, Wickem,’ he said, as he threw off his cloak, ‘and not overmuch time to do it in.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Wickem, ‘the vault to be opened to be sure — .’
‘No, no, that’s not the message I have. The poor Squire, they tell me, charged them before now not to lay him in the chancel. It was to be an earth grave in the yard, on the north side.’ He stopped at an inarticulate exclamation from the clerk. ‘Well?’ he said.
‘I ask pardon, sir,’ said Wickem in a shocked voice, ‘but did I understand you right? No vault, you say, and on the north side? Tt-tt-! Why the poor gentleman must a been wandering.’
‘Yes, it does seem strange to me, too,’ said Dr Hall, ‘but no, Mr Joseph tells me it was his father’s — I should say stepfather’s — clear wish, expressed more than once, and when he was in good health. Clean earth and open air. You know, of course, the poor Squire had his fancies, though he never spoke of this one to me. And there’s another thing, Wickem. No coffin.’
‘Oh dear, dear, sir,’ said Wickem, yet more shocked. ‘Oh, but that’ll make sad talk, that will, and what a disappointment for Wright, too! I know he’d looked out some beautiful wood for the Squire, and had it by him years past.’
‘Well, well, perhaps the family will make it up to Wright in some way,’ said the Rector, rather impatiently, ‘but what you have to do is to get the grave dug and all things in a readiness — torches from Wright you must not forget — by ten o’clock tomorrow night. I don’t doubt but there will be somewhat coming to you for your pains and hurry.’
‘Very well, sir, if those be the orders, I must do my best to carry them out. And should I call in on my way down and send the women up to the Hall to lay out the body, sir?’
‘No: that, I think — I am sure — was not spoken of. Mr Joseph will send, no doubt, if they are needed. No, you have enough without that. Good-night, Wickem. I was making up the registers when this doleful news came. Little had I thought to add such an entry to them as I must now.’
All things had been done in decent order. The torchlighted cortege had passed from the Hall through the park, up the lime avenue to the top of the knoll on which the church stood. All the village had been there, and such neighbours as could be warned in the few hours available. There was no great surprise at the hurry.
Formalities of law there were none then, and no one blamed the stricken widow for hastening to lay her dead to rest. Nor did anyone look to see her following in the funeral train. Her son Joseph — only issue of her first marriage with a Calvert of Yorkshire — was the chief mourner.
There were, indeed, no kinsfolk on Squire Bowles’s side who could have been bidden. The will, executed at the time of the Squire’s second marriage, left everything to the widow.
And what was ‘everything’? Land, house, furniture, pictures, plate were all obvious. But there should have been accumulations in coin, and beyond a few hundreds in the hands of agents — honest men and no embezzlers — cash there was none. Yet Francis Bowles had for years received good rents and paid little out. Nor was he a reputed miser; he kept a good table, and money was always forthcoming for the moderate spendings of his wife and stepson. Joseph Calvert had been maintained ungrudgingly at school and college.
What, then, had he done with it all? No ransacking of the house brought any secret hoard to light; no servant, old or young, had any tale to tell of meeting the Squire in unexpected places at strange hours. No, Madam Bowles and her son were fairly non-plussed. As they sat one evening in the parlour discussing the problem for the twentieth time:
‘You have been at his books and papers, Joseph, again today, haven’t you?’
‘Yes, mother, and no forwarder.’
‘What was it he would be writing at, and why was he always sending letters to Mr Fowler at Gloucester?’
‘Why, you know he had a maggot about the Middle State of the Soul. ’Twas over that he and that other were always busy. The last thing he wrote would be a letter that he never finished. I’ll fetch it . . . Yes, the same song over again.
‘“Honoured friend, — I make some slow advance in our studies, but I know not well how far to trust our authors. Here is one lately come my way who will have it that for a time after death the soul is under control of certain spirits, as Raphael, and another whom I doubtfully read as Nares; but still so near to this state of life that on prayer to them he may be free to come and disclose matters to the living. Come, indeed, he must, if he be rightly called, the manner of which is set forth in an experiment. But having come, and once opened his mouth, it may chance that his summoner shall see and hear more than of the hid treasure which it is likely he bargained for; since the experiment puts this in the forefront of things to be enquired. But the eftest way is to send you the whole, which herewith I do; copied from a book of recipes which I had of good Bishop Moore.”’
Here Joseph stopped, and made no comment, gazing on the paper. For more than a minute nothing was said, then Madam Bowles, drawing her needle through her work and looking at it, coughed and said, ‘There was no more written?’
‘No, nothing, mother.’
‘No? Well, it is strange stuff. Did ever you meet this Mr Fowler?’
‘Yes, it might be once or twice, in Oxford, a civil gentleman enough.’
‘Now I think of it,’ said she, ‘it would be but right to acquaint him with — with what has happened: they were close friends. Yes, Joseph, you should do that: you will know what should be said. And the letter is his, after all.
‘You are in the right, mother, and I’ll not delay it.’ And forthwith he sat down to write.
From Norfolk to Gloucester was no quick transit. But a letter went, and a larger packet came in answer; and there were more evening talks in the panelled parlour at the Hall. At the close of one, these words were said: ‘Tonight, then, if you are certain of yourself, go round by the field path. Ay, and here is a cloth will serve.’
‘What cloth is that, mother? A napkin?’
‘Yes, of a kind: what matter?’ So he went out by the way of the garden, and she stood in the door, musing, with her hand on her mouth. Then the hand dropped and she said half aloud: ‘If only I had not been so hurried! But it was the face cloth, sure enough.’
It was a very dark night, and the spring wind blew loud over the black fields: loud enough to drown all sounds of shouting or calling. If calling there was, there was no voice, nor any that answered, nor any that regarded — yet.
Next morning, Joseph’s mother was early in his chamber. ‘Give me the cloth,’ she said, ‘the maids must not find it. And tell me, tell me, quick!’
Joseph, seated on the side of the bed with his head in his hands, looked up at her with bloodshot eyes. ‘We have opened his mouth,’ he said. ‘Why in God’s name did you leave his face bare?’
‘How could I help it? You know how I was hurried that day? But do you mean you saw it?’
Joseph only groaned and sunk his head in his hands again. Then, in a low voice, ‘He said you should see it, too.’
With a dreadful gasp she clutched at the bedpost and clung to it. ‘Oh, but he’s angry,’ Joseph went on. ‘He was only biding his time, I’m sure. The words were scarce out of my mouth when I heard like the snarl of a dog in under there.’ He got up and paced the room. ‘And what can we do? He’s free! And I daren’t meet him! I daren’t take the drink and go where he is! I daren’t lie here another night. Oh, why did you do it? We could have waited.’
‘Hush,’ said his mother: her lips were dry. ‘’Twas you, you know it, as much as I. Besides, what use in talking? Listen to me: ’tis but six o’clock. There’s money to cross the water: such as they can’t follow. Yarmouth’s not so far, and most night boats sail for Holland, I’ve heard. See you to the horses. I can be ready.’
Joseph stared at her. ‘What will they say here?’
‘What? Why, cannot you tell the parson we have wind of property lying in Amsterdam which we must claim or lose? Go, go; or if you are not man enough for that, lie here again tonight.’ He shivered and went.
That evening after dark a boatman lumbered into an inn on Yarmouth Quay, where a man and a woman sat, with saddle-bags on the floor by them.
‘Ready, are you, mistress and gentleman?’ he said. ‘She sails before the hour, and my other passenger he’s waitin’ on the quay. Be there all your baggage?’ and he picked up the bags.
‘Yes, we travel light,’ said Joseph. ‘And you have more company bound for Holland?’
‘Just the one,’ said the boatman, ‘and he seem to travel lighter yet.’
‘Do you know him?’ said Madam Bowles: she laid her hand on Joseph’s arm, and they both paused in the doorway.
‘Why no, but for all he’s hooded I’d know him again fast enough, he have such a cur’ous way of speakin’, and I doubt you’ll find he know you, by what he said. “Goo you and fetch ’em out,” he say, “and I’ll wait on ’em here,” he say, and sure enough he’s a-comin’ this way now.’
Poisoning of a husband was petty treason then, and women guilty of it were strangled at the stake and burnt. The Assize records of Norwich tell of a woman so dealt with and of her son hanged thereafter, convict on their own confession, made before the Rector of their parish, the name of which I withhold, for there is still hid treasure to be found there.
Bishop Moore’s book of recipes is now in the University Library at Cambridge, marked Dd 11, 45, and on the leaf numbered 144 this is written:
An experiment most ofte proved true, to find out tresure hidden in the ground, theft, manslaughter, or anie other thynge. Go to the grave of a ded man, and three tymes call hym by his nam at the hed of the grave, and say. Thou, N., N., N., I coniure the, I require the, and I charge the, by thi Christendome that thou takest leave of the Lord Raffael and Nares and then askest leave this night to come and tell me trewlie of the tresure that lyith hid in such a place. Then take of the earth of the grave at the dead bodyes hed and knitt it in a lynnen clothe and put itt under thi right eare and sleape theruppon: and wheresoever thou lyest or slepest, that night he will corn and tell thee trewlie in waking or sleping.
The Malice of Inanimate Objects is a subject upon which an old friend of mine was fond of dilating, and not without justification. In the lives of all of us, short or long, there have been days, dreadful days, on which we have had to acknowledge with gloomy resignation that our world has turned against us. I do not mean the human world of our relations and friends: to enlarge on that is the province of nearly every modern novelist. In their books it is called ‘Life’ and an odd enough hash it is as they portray it. No, it is the world of things that do not speak or work or hold congresses and conferences. It includes such beings as the collar stud, the inkstand, the fire, the razor, and, as age increases, the extra step on the staircase which leads you either to expect or not to expect it. By these and such as these (for I have named but the merest fraction of them) the word is passed round, and the day of misery arranged. Is the tale still remembered of how the Cock and Hen went to pay a visit to Squire Korbes? How on the journey they met with and picked up a number of associates, encouraging each with the announcement:
To Squire Korbes we are going
For a visit is owing.
Thus they secured the company of the Needle, the Egg, the Duck, the Cat, possibly — for memory is a little treacherous here — and finally the Millstone: and when it was discovered that Squire Korbes was for the moment out, they took up positions in his mansion and awaited his return. He did return, wearied no doubt by a day’s work among his extensive properties. His nerves were first jarred by the raucous cry of the Cock. He threw himself into his armchair and was lacerated by the Needle. He went to the sink for a refreshing wash and was splashed all over by the Duck. Attempting to dry himself with the towel he broke the Egg upon his face.
He suffered other indignities from the Hen and her accomplices, which I cannot now recollect, and finally, maddened with pain and fear, rushed out by the back door and had his brains dashed out by the Millstone that had perched itself in the appropriate place. ‘Truly,’ in the concluding words of the story, ‘this Squire Korbes must have been either a very wicked or a very unfortunate man.’ It is the latter alternative which I incline to accept. There is nothing in the preliminaries to show that any slur rested on his name, or that his visitors had any injury to avenge. And will not this narrative serve as a striking example of that Malice of which I have taken upon me to treat? It is, I know, the fact that Squire Korbes’s visitors were not all of them, strictly speaking, inanimate. But are we sure that the perpetrators of this Malice are really inanimate either? There are tales which seem to justify a doubt.
Two men of mature years were seated in a pleasant garden after breakfast. One was reading the day’s paper, the other sat with folded arms, plunged in thought, and on his face were a piece of sticking plaster and lines of care. His companion lowered his paper. ‘What,’ said he, ‘is the matter with you? The morning is bright, the birds are singing, I can hear no aeroplanes or motor bikes.’
‘No,’ replied Mr Burton, ‘it is nice enough, I agree, but I have a bad day before me. I cut myself shaving and spilt my tooth powder.’
‘Ah,’ said Mr Manners, ‘some people have all the luck,’ and with this expression of sympathy he reverted to his paper. ‘Hullo,’ he exclaimed, after a moment, ‘here’s George Wilkins dead! You won’t have any more bother with him, anyhow.’
‘George Wilkins?’ said Mr Burton, more than a little excitedly, ‘Why, I didn’t even know he was ill.’
‘No more he was, poor chap. Seems to have thrown up the sponge and put an end to himself. Yes,’ he went on, ‘it’s some days back: this is the inquest. Seemed very much worried and depressed, they say. What about, I wonder?
Could it have been that will you and he were having a row about?’
‘Row?’ said Mr Burton angrily, ‘there was no row: he hadn’t a leg to stand on: he couldn’t bring a scrap of evidence. No, it may have been half-a-dozen things: but Lord! I never imagined he’d take anything so hard as that.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Mr Manners, ‘he was a man, I thought, who did take things hard: they rankled. Well, I’m sorry, though I never saw much of him. He must have gone through a lot to make him cut his throat. Not the way I should choose, by a long sight. Ugh! Lucky he hadn’t a family, anyhow. Look here, what about a walk round before lunch? I’ve an errand in the village.’
Mr Burton assented rather heavily. He was perhaps reluctant to give the inanimate objects of the district a chance of getting at him. If so, he was right. He just escaped a nasty purl over the scraper at the top of the steps: a thorny branch swept off his hat and scratched his fingers, and as they climbed a grassy slope he fairly leapt into the air with a cry and came down flat on his face. ‘What in the world?’ said his friend coming up. ‘A great string, of all things! What business — Oh, I see — belongs to that kite’ (which lay on the grass a little farther up). ‘Now if I can find out what little beast has left that kicking about, I’ll let him have it — or rather I won’t, for he shan’t see his kite again. It’s rather a good one, too.’ As they approached, a puff of wind raised the kite and it seemed to sit up on its end and look at them with two large round eyes painted red, and, below them, three large printed red letters, I.C.U. Mr Manners was amused and scanned the device with care. ‘Ingenious,’ he said, ‘it’s a bit off a poster, of course: I see! Full Particulars, the word was.’ Mr Burton on the other hand was not amused, but thrust his stick through the kite. Mr Manners was inclined to regret this. ‘I dare say it serves him right,’ he said, ‘but he’d taken a lot of trouble to make it.’
‘Who had?’ said Mr Burton sharply. ‘Oh, I see, you mean the boy.’
‘Yes, to be sure, who else? But come on down now: I want to leave a message before lunch. As they turned a corner into the main street, a rather muffled and choky voice was heard to say ‘Look out! I’m coming. They both stopped as if they had been shot.
‘Who was that?’ said Manners. ‘Blest if I didn’t think I knew’ — then, with almost a yell of laughter he pointed with his stick. A cage with a grey parrot in it was hanging in an open window across the way. ‘I was startled, by George: it gave you a bit of a turn, too, didn’t it?’ Burton was inaudible. ‘Well, I shan’t be a minute: you can go and make friends with the bird.’ But when he rejoined Burton, that unfortunate was not, it seemed, in trim for talking with either birds or men; he was some way ahead and going rather quickly. Manners paused for an instant at the parrot window and then hurried on laughing more than ever. ‘Have a good talk with Polly?’ said he, as he came up.
‘No, of course not,’ said Burton, testily. ‘I didn’t bother about the beastly thing.’
‘Well, you wouldn’t have got much out of her if you’d tried,’ said Manners. ‘I remembered after a bit; they’ve had her in the window for years: she’s stuffed.’ Burton seemed about to make a remark, but suppressed it.
Decidedly this was not Burton’s day out. He choked at lunch, he broke a pipe, he tripped in the carpet, he dropped his book in the pond in the garden. Later on he had or professed to have a telephone call summoning him back to town next day and cutting short what should have been a week’s visit. And so glum was he all the evening that Manners’ disappointment in losing an ordinarily cheerful companion was not very sharp.
At breakfast Mr Burton said little about his night: but he did intimate that he thought of looking in on his doctor. ‘My hand’s so shaky,’ he said, ‘I really daren’t shave this morning.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said Mr Manners, ‘my man could have managed that for you: but they’ll put you right in no time.’
Farewells were said. By some means and for some reason Mr Burton contrived to reserve a compartment to himself. (The train was not of the corridor type.) But these precautions avail little against the angry dead.
I will not put dots or stars, for I dislike them, but I will say that apparently someone tried to shave Mr Burton in the train, and did not succeed overly well. He was however satisfied with what he had done, if we may judge from the fact that on a once white napkin spread on Mr Burton’s chest was an inscription in red letters: GEO. W. FECI.
Do not these facts — if facts they are — bear out my suggestion that there is something not inanimate behind the Malice of Inanimate Objects? Do they not further suggest that when this malice begins to show itself we should be very particular to examine and if possible rectify any obliquities in our recent conduct? And do they not, finally, almost force upon us the conclusion that, like Squire Korbes, Mr Burton must have been either a very wicked or a singularly unfortunate man?
You are asked to think of the spacious garden of a country rectory, adjacent to a park of many acres, and separated therefrom by a belt of trees of some age which we knew as the Plantation. It is but about thirty or forty yards broad. A close gate of split oak leads to it from the path encircling the garden, and when you enter it from that side you put your hand through a square hole cut in it and lift the hook to pass along to the iron gate which admits to the park from the Plantation. It has further to be added that from some windows of the rectory, which stands on a somewhat lower level than the Plantation, parts of the path leading thereto, and the oak gate itself can be seen. Some of the trees, Scotch firs and others, which form a backing and a surrounding, are of considerable size, but there is nothing that diffuses a mysterious gloom or imparts a sinister flavour — nothing of melancholy or funereal associations. The place is well clad, and there are secret nooks and retreats among the bushes, but there is neither offensive bleakness nor oppressive darkness. It is, indeed, a matter for some surprise when one thinks it over, that any cause for misgivings of a nervous sort have attached itself to so normal and cheerful a spot, the more so, since neither our childish mind when we lived there nor the more inquisitive years that came later ever nosed out any legend or reminiscence of old or recent unhappy things.
Yet to me they came, even to me, leading an exceptionally happy wholesome existence, and guarded — not strictly but as carefully as was any way necessary — from uncanny fancies and fear. Not that such guarding avails to close up all gates. I should be puzzled to fix the date at which any sort of misgiving about the Plantation gate first visited me. Possibly it was in the years just before I went to school, possibly on one later summer afternoon of which I have a faint memory, when I was coming back after solitary roaming in the park, or, as I bethink me, from tea at the Hall: anyhow, alone, and fell in with one of the villagers also homeward bound just as I was about to turn off the road on to the track leading to the Plantation. We broke off our talk with ‘good nights’, and when I looked back at him after a minute or so I was just a little surprised to see him standing still and looking after me. But no remark passed, and on I went. By the time I was within the iron gate and outside the park, dusk had undoubtedly come on; but there was no lack yet of light, and I could not account to myself for the questionings which certainly did rise as to the presence of anyone else among the trees, questionings to which I could not very certainly say ‘No’, nor, I was glad to feel, ‘Yes’, because if there were anyone they could not well have any business there. To be sure, it is difficult, in anything like a grove, to be quite certain that nobody is making a screen out of a tree trunk and keeping it between you and him as he moves round it and you walk on. All I can say is that if such an one was there he was no neighbour or acquaintance of mine, and there was some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded. But I think I may have moved at a rather quicker pace than before, and have been particular about shutting the gate. I think, too, that after that evening something of what Hamlet calls a ‘gain-giving’ may have been present in my mind when I thought of the Plantation, I do seem to remember looking out of a window which gave in that direction, and questioning whether there was or was not any appearance of a moving form among the trees. If I did, and perhaps I did, hint a suspicion to the nurse the only answer to it will have been ‘the hidea of such a thing!’ and an injunction to make haste and get into my bed.
Whether it was on that night or a later one that I seem to see myself again in the small hours gazing out of the window across moonlit grass and hoping I was mistaken in fancying any movement in that half-hidden corner of the garden, I cannot now be sure. But it was certainly within a short while that I began to be visited by dreams which I would much rather not have had — which, in fact, I came to dread acutely; and the point round which they centred was the Plantation gate.
As years go on it but seldom happens that a dream is disturbing. Awkward it may be, as when, while I am drying myself after a bath, I open the bedroom door and step out on to a populous railway platform and have to invent rapid and flimsy excuses for the deplorable deshabille. But such a vision is not alarming, though it may make one despair of ever holding up one’s head again. But in the times of which I am thinking, it did happen, not often, but oftener than I liked, that the moment a dream set in I knew that it was going to turn out ill, and that there was nothing I could do to keep it on cheerful lines.
Ellis the gardener might be wholesomely employed with rake and spade as I watched at the window; other familiar figures might pass and repass on harmless errands; but I was not deceived. I could see that the time was coming when the gardener and the rest would be gathering up their properties and setting off on paths that led homeward or into some safe outer world, and the garden would be left — to itself, shall we say, or to denizens who did not desire quite ordinary company and were only waiting for the word ‘all clear’ to slip into their posts of vantage.
Now, too, was the moment near when the surroundings began to take on a threatening look; that the sunlight lost power and a quality of light replaced it which, though I did not know it at the time my memory years after told me was the lifeless pallor of an eclipse. The effect of all this was to intensify the foreboding that had begun to possess me, and to make me look anxiously about, dreading that in some quarter my fear would take a visible shape. I had not much doubt which way to look. Surely behind those bushes, among those trees, there was motion, yes, and surely — and more quickly than seemed possible — there was motion, not now among the trees, but on the very path towards the house. I was still at the window, and before I could adjust myself to the new fear there came the impression of a tread on the stairs and a hand on the door. That was as far as the dream got, at first; and for me it was far enough. I had no notion what would have been the next development, more than that it was bound to be horrifying.
That is enough in all conscience about the beginning of my dreams. A beginning it was only, for something like it came again and again; how often I can’t tell, but often enough to give me an acute distaste for being left alone in that region of the garden. I came to fancy that I could see in the behaviour of the village people whose work took them that way an anxiety to be past a certain point, and moreover a welcoming of company as they approached that corner of the park. But on this it will not do to lay overmuch stress, for, as I have said, I could never glean any kind of story bound up with the place.
However, the strong probability that there had been one once I cannot deny.
I must not by the way give the impression that the whole of the Plantation was haunted ground. There were trees there most admirably devised for climbing and reading in; there was a wall, along the top of which you could walk for many hundred yards and reach a frequented road, passing farmyard and familiar houses; and once in the park, which had its own delights of wood and water, you were well out of range of anything suspicious — or, if that is too much to say, of anything that suggested the Plantation gate.
But I am reminded, as I look on these pages, that so far we have had only preamble, and that there is very little in the way of actual incident to come, and that the criticism attributed to the devil when he sheared the sow is like to be justified. What, after all, was the outcome of the dreams to which without saying a word about them I was liable during a good space of time? Well, it presents itself to me thus. One afternoon — the day being neither overcast nor threatening — I was at my window in the upper floor of the house. All the family were out. From some obscure shelf in a disused room I had worried out a book, not very recondite: it was, in fact, a bound volume of a magazine in which were contained parts of a novel. I know now what novel it was, but I did not then, and a sentence struck and arrested me. Someone was walking at dusk up a solitary lane by an old mansion in Ireland, and being a man of imagination he was suddenly forcibly impressed by what he calls ‘the aerial image of the old house, with its peculiar malign, scared, and skulking aspect’ peering out of the shade of its neglected old trees. The words were quite enough to set my own fancy on a bleak track. Inevitably I looked and looked with apprehension, to the Plantation gate. As was but right it was shut, and nobody was upon the path that led to it or from it. But as I said a while ago, there was in it a square hole giving access to the fastening; and through that hole, I could see — and it struck like a blow on the diaphragm — something white or partly white. Now this I could not bear, and with an access of something like courage — only it was more like desperation, like determining that I must know the worst — I did steal down and, quite uselessly, of course, taking cover behind bushes as I went, I made progress until I was within range of the gate and the hole. Things were, alas! worse than I had feared; through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.
There is something horrifying in the sight of a face looking at one out of a frame as this did; more particularly if its gaze is unmistakably fixed upon you. Nor does it make the matter any better if the expression gives no clue to what is to come next. I said just now that I took this face to be malevolent, and so I did, but not in regard of any positive dislike or fierceness which it expressed. It was, indeed, quite without emotion: I was only conscious that I could see the whites of the eyes all round the pupil, and that, we know, has a glamour of madness about it. The immovable face was enough for me. I fled, but at what I thought must be a safe distance inside my own precincts I could not but halt and look back. There was no white thing framed in the hole of the gate, but there was a draped form shambling away among the trees.
Do not press me with questions as to how I bore myself when it became necessary to face my family again. That I was upset by something I had seen must have been pretty clear, but I am very sure that I fought off all attempts to describe it. Why I make a lame effort to do it now I cannot very well explain: it undoubtedly has had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination. I feel that even now I should be circumspect in passing that Plantation gate; and every now and again the query haunts me: Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them; and perhaps that is just as well for the peace of mind of simple people.
I WROTE these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the season of Christmas. One of these friends [James McBryde] offered to illustrate them, and it was agreed that, if he would do that, I would consider the question of publishing them. Four pictures he completed, which will be found in this volume, and then, very quickly and unexpectedly, he was taken away. This is the reason why the greater part of the stories are not provided with illustrations. Those who knew the artist will understand how much I wished to give a permanent form even to a fragment of his work; others will appreciate the fact that here a remembrance is made of one in whom many friendships centred. The stories themselves do not make any very exalted claim. If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying Ere in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.
Some years ago I promised to publish a second volume of ghost stories when a sufficient number of them should have been accumulated. That time has arrived, and here is the volume. It is, perhaps, unnecessary to warn the critic that in evolving the stories I have not been possessed by that austere sense of the responsibility of authorship which is demanded of the writer of fiction in this generation; or that I have not sought to embody in them any well-considered scheme of ‘psychical’ theory. To be sure, I have my ideas as to how a ghost story ought to be laid out if it is to be effective. I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day. A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story. Again, I feel that the technical terms of ‘occultism’, if they are not very carefully handled, tend to put the mere ghost story (which is all that I am attempting) upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative. I am well aware that mine is a nineteenth-(and not a twentieth-) century conception of this class of tale; but were not the prototypes of all the best ghost stories written in the sixties and seventies?
However, I cannot claim to have been guided by any very strict rules. My stories have been produced (with one exception) at successive Christmas seasons. If they serve to amuse some readers at the Christmas-time that is coming — or at any time whatever — they will justify my action in publishing them.
[Le Fanu] stands absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories. That is my deliberate verdict, after reading all the supernatural tales I have been able to get hold of. Nobody sets the scene better than he, nobody touches in the effective detail more deftly. I do not think it is merely the fact of my being past middle age that leads me to regard the leisureliness of his style as a merit; for I am by no means inappreciative of the more modern efforts in this branch of fiction. No, it has to be recognized, I am sure, that the ghost story is in itself a slightly old-fashioned form; it needs some deliberateness in the telling: we listen to it the more readily if the narrator poses as elderly, or throws back his experience to ‘some thirty years ago’.
Often have I been asked to formulate my views about ghost stories and tales of the marvellous, the mysterious, the supernatural. Never have I been able to find out whether I had any views that could be formulated. The truth is, I suspect, that the genre is too small and special to bear the imposition of far reaching principles. Widen the question, and ask what governs the construction of short stories in general, and a great deal might be said, and has been said. There are, of course, instances of whole novels in which the supernatural governs the plot; but among them are few successes. The ghost story is, at its best, only a particular sort of short story, and is subject to the same broad rules as the whole mass of them. Those rules, I imagine, no writer ever consciously follows. In fact, it is absurd to talk of them as rules; they are qualities which have been observed to accompany success.
Some such qualities I have noted, and while I cannot undertake to write about broad principles, something more concrete is capable of being recorded. Well, then: two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo. I assume, of course, that the writer will have got his central idea before he undertakes the story at all. Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage. It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophoole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable. Then, for the setting. The detective story cannot be too much up-to-date: the motor, the telephone, the aeroplane, the newest slang, are all in place there. For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. ‘Thirty years ago’, ‘Not long before the war’, are very proper openings. If a really remote date be chosen, there is more than one way of bringing the reader in contact with it. The finding of documents about it can be made plausible; or you may begin with your apparition and go back over the years to tell the cause of it; or (as in ‘Schalken the Painter’) you may set the scene directly in the desired epoch, which I think is hardest to do with success. On the whole (though not a few instances might be quoted against me) I think that a setting so modern that the ordinary reader can judge of its naturalness for himself is preferable to anything antique. For some degree of actuality is the charm of the best ghost stories; not a very insistent actuality, but one strong enough to allow the reader to identify himself with the patient; while it is almost inevitable that the reader of an antique story should fall into the position of the mere spectator.
I have neither much experience nor much perseverance in the writing of stories — I am thinking exclusively of ghost stories, for I never cared to try any other kind — and it has amused me sometimes to think of the stories which have crossed my mind from time to time and never materialized properly. Never properly: for some of them I have actually written down, and they repose in a drawer somewhere. To borrow Sir Walter Scott’s most frequent quotation, ‘Look on (them) again I dare not.’ They were not good enough. Yet some of them had ideas in them which refused to blossom in the surroundings I had devised for them, but perhaps came up in other forms in stories that did get as far as print. Let me recall them for the benefit (so to style it) of somebody else.
There was the story of a man travelling in a train in France. Facing him sat a typical Frenchwoman of mature years, with the usual moustache and a very confirmed countenance. He had nothing to read but an antiquated novel he had bought for its binding — Madame de Lichtenstein it was called. Tired of looking out of the window and studying his vis-a-vis, he began drowsily turning the pages, and paused at a conversation between two of the characters. They were discussing an acquaintance, a woman who lived in a largish house at Marcilly-le-Hayer. The house was described, and — here we were coming to a point — the mysterious disappearance of the woman’s husband. Her name was mentioned, and my reader couldn’t help thinking he knew it in some other connexion. Just then the train stopped at a country station, the traveller, with a start, woke up from a doze — the book open in his hand — the woman opposite him got out, and on the label of her bag he read the name that had seemed to be in his novel. Well, he went on to Troyes, and from there he made excursions, and one of these took him — at lunch-time — to — yes, to Marcilly-le-Hayer. The hotel in the Grande Place faced a three-gabled house of some pretensions. Out of it came a well-dressed woman whom he had seen before. Conversation with the waiter. Yes, the lady was a widow, or so it was believed. At any rate nobody knew what had become of her husband. Here I think we broke down. Of course, there was no such conversation in the novel as the traveller thought he had read.
Then there was quite a long one about two undergraduates spending Christmas in a country house that belonged to one of them. An uncle, next heir to the estate, lived near. Plausible and learned Roman priest, living with the uncle, makes himself agreeable to the young men. Dark walks home at night after dining with the uncle. Curious disturbances as they pass through the shrubberies. Strange, shapeless tracks in the snow round the house, observed in the morning. Efforts to lure away the companion and isolate the proprietor and get him to come out after dark. Ultimate defeat and death of the priest, upon whom the Familiar, baulked of another victim, turns.
Also the story of two students of King’s College, Cambridge, in the sixteenth century (who were, in fact, expelled thence for magical practices), and their nocturnal expedition to a witch at Fenstanton, and of how, at the turning to Lolworth, on the Huntingdon road, they met a company leading an unwilling figure whom they seemed to know. And of how, on arriving at Fenstanton, they learned of the witch’s death, and of what they saw seated upon her newly-dug grave.
These were some of the tales which got as far as the stage of being written down, at least in part. There were others that flitted across the mind from time to time, but never really took shape. The man, for instance (naturally a man with something on his mind), who, sitting in his study one evening, was startled by a slight sound, turned hastily, and saw a certain dead face looking out from between the window curtains: a dead face, but with living eyes. He made a dash at the curtains and tore them apart. A pasteboard mask fell to the floor. But there was no one there, and the eyes of the mask were but eyeholes. What was to be done about that?
There is the touch on the shoulder that comes when you are walking quickly homewards in the dark hours, full of anticipation of the warm room and bright fire, and when you pull up, startled, what face or no-face do you see?
Similarly, when Mr Badman had decided to settle the hash of Mr Goodman and had picked out, just the right thicket by the roadside from which to fire at him, how came it exactly that when Mr Goodman and his unexpected friend actually did pass, they found Mr Badman weltering in the road? He was able to tell them something of what he had found waiting for him — even beckoning to him — in the thicket: enough to prevent them from looking into it themselves. There are possibilities here, but the labour of constructing the proper setting has been beyond me.
There may be possibilities, too, in the Christmas cracker, if the right people pull it, and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it. They will probably leave the party early, pleading indisposition; but very likely a previous engagement of long standing would be the more truthful excuse.
In parenthesis, many common objects may be made the vehicles of retribution, and where retribution is not called for, of malice. Be careful how you handle the packet you pick up in the carriage-drive, particularly if it contains nail-parings and hair. Do not, in any case, bring it into the house. It may not be alone . . . (Dots are believed by many writers of our day to be a good substitute for effective writing. They are certainly an easy one. Let us have a few more. . . . .)
Late on Monday night a toad came into my study: and, though nothing has so far seemed to link itself with this appearance, I feel that it may not be quite prudent to brood over topics which may open the interior eye to the presence of more formidable visitants. Enough said.
Very nearly all the ghost stories of old times claim to be true narratives of remarkable occurrences. At the outset I must make it clear that with these — be they ancient, medieval or post medieval — I have nothing to do, any more than I have with those chronicled in our own days. I am concerned with a branch of fiction; not a large branch, if you look at the rest of the tree, but one which has been astonishingly fertile in the last thirty years. The avowedly fictitious ghost story is my subject, and that being understood I can proceed.
In the year 1854 George Borrow narrated to an audience of Welshmen, ‘in the tavern of Gutter Vawr, in the county of Glamorgan’, what he asserted to be ‘decidedly the best ghost story in the world’. You may read this story either in English, in Knapp’s notes to Wild Wales, or in Spanish, in a recent edition with excellent pictures (Las Aventuras de Pánfilo). The source is Lope de Vega’s El Peregrino en so patria published in 1604. You will find it a remarkably interesting specimen of a tale of terror written in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but I shall be surprised if you agree with Borrow’s estimate of it. It is nothing but an account of a series of nightmares experienced by a wanderer who lodges for a night in a ‘hospital’, which had been deserted because of hauntings. The ghosts come in crowds and play tricks with the victim’s bed. They quarrel over cards, they squirt water at the man, they throw torches about the room. Finally they steal his clothes and disappear; but next morning the clothes are where he put them when he went to bed. In fact they are rather goblins than ghosts.
Still, here you have a story written with the sole object of inspiring a pleasing terror in the reader; and as I think, that is the true aim of the ghost story.
As far as I know, nearly two hundred years pass before you find the literary ghost story attempted again. Ghosts of course figure on the stage, but we must leave them out of consideration. Ghosts are the subject of quasi-scientific research in this country at the hands of Glanville, Beaumont and others; but these collectors are out to prove theories of the future life and the spiritual world. Improving treatises, with illustrative instances, are written on the Continent, as by Lavater. All these, if they do afford what our ancestors called amusement (Dr Johnson decreed that Coriolanius was ‘amusing’), do so by a side-wind. The Castle of Otranto is perhaps the progenitor of the ghost story as a literary genre, and I fear that it is merely amusing in the modern sense. Then we come to Mrs Radcliffe, whose ghosts are far better of their kind, but with exasperating timidity are all explained away; and to Monk Lewis, who in the book which gives him his nickname is odious and horrible without being impressive. But Monk Lewis was responsible for better things than he could produce himself. It was under his auspices that Scott’s verse first saw the light: among the Tales of Terror and Wonder are not only some of his translations, but ‘Glenfinlas’ and the ‘Eve of St John’, which must always rank as fine ghost stories. The form into which he cast them was that of the ballads which he loved and collected, and we must not forget that the ballad is in the direct line of ancestry of the ghost story. Think of ‘Clerk Saunders’, ‘Young Benjie,’ the ‘Wife of Usher’s Well’. I am tempted to enlarge on the Tales of Terror, for the most part supremely absurd, where Lewis holds the pen, and jigs along with such stanzas as:
All present then uttered a terrified shout;
All turned with disgust from the scene.
The worms they crept in, and the worms they crept out,
And sported his eyes and his temples about,
While the spectre addressed Imogene.
But proportion must be observed.
If I were writing generally of horrific books which include supernatural appearances, I should be obliged to include Maturin’s Melmoth, and doubtless imitations of it which I know nothing of. But Melmoth is a long — a cruelly long — book, and we must keep our eye on the short prose ghost story in the first place. If Scott is not the creator of this, it is to him that we owe two classical specimens — ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’ and the ‘Tapestried Chamber’. The former we know is an episode in a novel; anyone who searches the novels of succeeding years will certainly find (as we, alas, find in Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby!) stories of this type foisted in; and possibly some of them may be good enough to deserve reprinting. But the real happy hunting ground, the proper habitat of our game is the magazine, the annual, the periodical publication destined to amuse the family circle. They came up thick and fast, the magazines, in the thirties and forties, and many died young. I do not, having myself sampled the task, envy the devoted one who sets out to examine the files, but it is not rash to promise him a measure of success. He will find ghost stories; but of what sort? Charles Dickens will tell us. In a paper from Household Words, which will be found among Christmas Stories under the name of ‘A Christmas Tree’ (I reckon it among the best of Dickens’s occasional writings), that great man takes occasion to run through the plots of the typical ghost stories of his time. As he remarks, they are ‘reducible to a very few general types and classes; for ghosts have little originality, and “walk” in a beaten track.’ He gives us at some length the experience of the nobleman and the ghost of the beautiful young housekeeper who drowned herself in the park two hundred years before; and, more cursorily, the indelible bloodstain, the door that will not shut, the clock that strikes thirteen, the phantom coach, the compact to appear after death, the girl who meets her double, the cousin who is seen at the moment of his death far away in India, the maiden lady who ‘really did see the Orphan Boy’. With such things as these we are still familiar. But we have rather forgotten — and I for my part have seldom met — those with which he ends his survey: ‘Legion is the name of the German castles where we sit up alone to meet the spectre — where we are shown into a room made comparatively cheerful for our reception’ (more detail, excellent of its kind, follows), ‘and where, about the small hours of the night, we come into the knowledge of divers supernatural mysteries. Legion is the name of the haunted German students, in whose society we draw yet nearer to the fire, while the schoolboy in the corner opens his eyes wide and round, and flies off the footstool he has chosen for his seat, when the door accidentally blows open.’
As I have said, this German stratum of ghost stories is one of which I know little; but I am confident that the searcher of magazines will penetrate to it. Examples of the other types will accrue, especially when he reaches the era of Christmas Numbers, inaugurated by Dickens himself. His Christmas Numbers are not to be confused with his Christmas Books, though the latter led on to the former. Ghosts are not absent from these, but I do not call the Christmas Carol a ghost story proper; while I do assign that name to the stories of the Signalman and the Juryman (in ‘Mugby Junction’ and ‘Dr Marigold’).
These were written in 1865 and 1866, and nobody can deny that they conform to the modern idea of the ghost story. The setting and the personages are those of the writer’s own day; they have nothing antique about them. Now this mode is not absolutely essential to success, but it is characteristic of the majority of successful stories: the belted knight who meets the spectre in the vaulted chamber and has to say ‘By my halidom’, or words to that effect, has little actuality about him. Anything, we feel, might have happened in the fifteenth century. No; the seer of ghosts must talk something like me, and be dressed, if not in my fashion, yet not too much like a man in a pageant, if he is to enlist my sympathy. Wardour Street has no business, here.
If Dickens’s ghost stories are good and of the right complexion, they are not the best that were written in his day. The palm must I think be assigned to J. S. Le Fanu, whose stories of The Watcher’ (or ‘The Familiar’), ‘Mr Justice Harbottle’, ‘Carmilla’, are unsurpassed, while ‘Schalken the Painter’. ‘Squire Toby’s Will’, the haunted house in ‘The House by the Churchyard’, ‘Dickon the Devil’, ‘Madam Crowl’s Ghost’, run them very close. Is it the blend of French and Irish in Le Fanu’s descent and surroundings that gives him the knack of infusing ominousness into his atmosphere? He is anyhow an artist in words; who else could have hit on the epithets in this sentence: ‘The aerial image of the old house for a moment stood before her, with its peculiar malign, scared and skulking aspect.’ Other famous stories of Le Fanu there are which are not quite ghost stories — ‘Green Tea’ and ‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’; and yet another, ‘The Haunted Baronet’, not famous, not even known but to a few, contains some admirable touches, but somehow lacks proportion. Upon mature consideration, I do not think that there are better ghost stories anywhere than the best of Le Fanu’s; and among these I should give the first place to ‘The Familiar’ (alias ‘The Watcher’).
Other famous novelists of those days tried their hand — Bulwer Lytton for one. Nobody is permitted to write about ghost stories without mentioning ‘The Haunters and the Haunted’. To my mind it is spoilt by the conclusion; the Cagliostro element (forgive an inaccuracy) is alien. It comes in with far better effect (though in a burlesque guise) in Thackeray’s one attempt in this direction — ‘The Notch in the Axe’, in the Roundabout Papers. This to be sure begins by being a skit partly on Dumas, partly on Lytton; but as Thackeray warmed to his work he got interested in the story and, as he says, was quite sorry to part with Pinto in the end. We have to reckon too with Wilkie Collins. The Haunted Hotel, a short novel, is by no means ineffective; grisly enough, almost, for the modern American taste.
Rhoda Broughton, Mrs Riddell, Mrs Henry Wood, Mrs Oliphant — all these have some sufficiently absorbing stories to their credit. I own to reading not infrequently ‘Featherston’s Story’ in the fifth series of Johnny Ludlow, to delighting in its domestic flavour and finding its ghost very convincing. (Johnny Ludlow, some young persons may not know, is by Mrs Henry Wood.) The religious ghost story, as it may be called, was never done better than by Mrs Oliphant in ‘The Open Door’ and ‘A Beleaguered City’; though there is a competitor, and a strong one, in Le Fanu’s ‘Mysterious Lodger’.
Here I am conscious of a gap; my readers will have been conscious of many previous gaps. My memory does in fact slip on from Mrs Oliphant to Marion Crawford and his horrid story of ‘The Upper Berth’, which (with The Screaming Skull’ some distance behind) is the best in his collection of Uncanny Tales, and stands high among ghost stories in general.
That was I believe written in the late eighties. In the early nineties comes the deluge, the deluge of the illustrated monthly magazines, and it is no longer possible to keep pace with the output either of single stories or of volumes of collected ones. Never was the flow more copious than it is today, and it is only by chance that one comes across any given example. So nothing beyond scattering and general remarks can be offered. Some whole novels there have been which depend for all or part of their interest on ghostly matter. There is Dracula, which suffers by excess. (I fancy, by the way, that it must be based on a story in the fourth volume of Chambers’s Repository, issued in the fifties.) There is Alice-for-Short [by W. de Morgan, 1907], in which I never cease to admire the skill with which the ghost is woven into the web of the tale. But that is a very rare feat.
Among the collections of short stories, E. F. Benson’s three volumes rank high, though to my mind he sins occasionally by stepping over the line of legitimate horridness. He is however blameless in this aspect as compared with some Americans, who compile volumes called Not At Night and the like. These are merely nauseating, and it is very easy to be nauseating. I, mot qui vous parle, could undertake to make a reader physically sick, if I chose to think and write in terms of the Grand Guignol. The authors of the stories I have in mind tread, as they believe, in the steps of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce (himself sometimes unpardonable), but they do not possess the force of either.
Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.
At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M. G. Lewis.
Clearly it is out of the question for me to begin upon a series of ‘short notices’ of recent collections; but an illustrative instance or two will be to the point. A. M. Burrage, in Sonic Ghost Stories, keeps on the right side of the line, and if about half of his ghosts are amiable, the rest have their terrors, and no mean ones. H. R. Wakefield, in They Return at Evening (a good title) gives us a mixed bag, from which I should remove one or two that leave a nasty taste. Among the residue are some admirable pieces, very inventive. Going back a few years I light on Mrs Everett’s The Death Mask, of a rather quieter tone on the whole, but with some excellently conceived stories. Hugh Benson’s Light Invisible and Mirror of Shalott are too ecclesiastical. K. and Hesketh Prichard’s ‘Flaxman Low’ is most ingenious and successful, but rather over-technically ‘occult’. It seems impertinent to apply the same criticism to Algernon Blackwood, but ‘John Silence’ is surely open to it. Mr Elliott O’Donnell’s multitudinous volumes I do not know whether to class as narratives of fact or exercises in fiction. I hope they may be of the latter sort, for life in a world managed by his gods and infested by his demons seems a risky business.
So I might go on through a long list of authors; but the remarks one can make in an article of this compass can hardly be illuminating. The reading of many ghost stories has shown me that the greatest successes have been scored by the authors who can make us envisage a definite time and place, and give us plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail, but who, when the climax is reached, allow us to be just a little in the dark as to the working of their machinery. We do not want to see the bones of their theory about the supernatural.
All this while I have confined myself almost entirely to the English ghost story. The fact is that either there are not many good stories by foreign writers, or (more probably) my ignorance has veiled them from me. But I should feel myself ungrateful if I did not pay a tribute to the supernatural tales of Erckmann–Chatrian. The blend of French with German in them, comparable to the French–Irish blend in Le. Fanu, has produced some quite first-class romance of this kind. Among longer stories, ‘La Maison Forestière’ (and, if you will, ‘Hugues le Loup’); among shorter ones ‘Le Blanc et le Noir’, ‘Le Rêvedu Cousin Elof’ and L’Oeil Invisible’ have for years delighted and alarmed me. It is high time that they were made more accessible than they are.
There need not be any peroration to a series of rather disjointed reflections. I will only ask the reader to believe that, though I have not hitherto mentioned it, I have read The Turn of the Screw.
What first interested me in ghosts? This I can tell you quite definitely. In my childhood I chanced to see a toy Punch and Judy set, with figures cut out in cardboard. One of these was The Ghost. It was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage.
Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams.
Other questions — why I like ghost stories, or what are the best, or why they are the best, or a recipe for writing such things — I have never found it easy to be so positive about. Clearly, however, the public likes them. The recrudescence of ghost stories in recent years is notable: it corresponds, of course, with the vogue of the detective tale.
The ghost story can be supremely excellent in its kind, or it may be deplorable. Like other things, it may err by excess or defect. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a book with very good ideas in it, but — to be vulgar — the butter is spread far too thick. Excess is the fault here: to give an example of erring by defect is difficult, because the stories that err in that way leave no impression on the memory.
I am speaking of the literary ghost story here. The story that claims to be ‘veridical’ (in the language of the Society of Psychical Research) is a very different affair. It will probably be quite brief, and will conform to some one of several familiar types. This is but reasonable, for, if there be ghosts — as I am quite prepared to believe — the true ghost story need do no more than illustrate their normal habits (if normal is the right word), and may be as mild as milk.
The literary ghost, on the other hand, has to justify his existence by some startling demonstration, or, short of that must be furnished with a background that will throw him into full relief and make him the central feature.
Since the things which the ghost can effectively do are very limited in number, ranging about death and madness and the discovery of secrets, the setting seems to me all-important, since in it there is the greatest opportunity for variety.
It is upon this and upon the first glimmer of the appearance of the supernatural that pains must be lavished. But we need not, we should not, use all the colours in the box. In the infancy of the art we needed the haunted castle on a beetling rock to put us in the right frame: the tendency is not yet extinct, for I have but just read a story with a mysterious mansion on a desolate height in Cornwall and a gentleman practising the worst sort of magic. How often, too, have ruinous old houses been described or shown to me as fit scenes for stories!
‘Can’t you imagine some old monk or friar wandering about this long gallery?’ No, I can’t.
I know Harrison Ainsworth could: The Lancashire Witches teems with Cistercians and what he calls votaresses in mouldering vestments, who glide about passages to very little purpose. But these fail to impress. Not that I have not a soft corner in my heart for The Lancashire Witches, which — ridiculous as much of it is — has distinct merits as a story.
It cannot be said too often that the more remote in time the ghost is the harder it is to make him effective, always supposing him to be the ghost of a dead person. Elementals and such-like do not come under this rule.
Roughly speaking, the ghost should be a contemporary of the seer. Such was the elder Hamlet and such Jacob Marley. The latter I cite with confidence and in despite of critics, for, whatever may be urged against some parts of A Christmas Carol, it is, I hold, undeniable that the introduction, the advent, of Jacob Marley is tremendously effective.
And be it observed that the setting in both these classic examples is contemporary and even ordinary. The ramparts of the Kronborg and the chambers of Ebenezer Scrooge were, to those who frequented them, features of every-day life.
But there are exceptions to every rule. An ancient haunting can be made terrible and can be invested with actuality, but it will tax your best endeavours to forge the links between past and present in a satisfying way. And in any case there must be ordinary level-headed modern persons — Horatios — on the scene, such as the detective needs his Watson or his Hastings to play the part of the lay observer.
Setting or environment, then, is to me a principal point, and the more readily appreciable the setting is to the ordinary reader the better. The other essential is that our ghost should make himself felt by gradual stirrings diffusing an atmosphere of uneasiness before the final flash or stab of horror.
Must there be horror? you ask. I think so. There are but two really good ghost stories I know in the language wherein the elements of beauty and pity dominate terror. They are Lanoe Falconer’s ‘Cecilia de Noel’ and Mrs Oliphant’s ‘The Open Door’. In both there are moments of horror; but in both we end by saying with Hamlet: ‘Alas, poor ghost!’ Perhaps my limit of two stories is overstrict; but that these two are by very much the best of their kind I do not doubt.
On the whole, then, I say you must have horror and also malevolence. Not less necessary, however, is reticence. There is a series of books I have read, I think American in origin, called Not at Night (and with other like titles), which sin glaringly against this law. They have no other aim than that of Mr Wardle’s Fat Boy.
Of course, all writers of ghost stories do desire to make their readers’ flesh creep; but these are shameless in their attempts. They are unbelievably crude and sudden, and they wallow in corruption. And if there is a theme that ought to be kept out of the ghost story, it is that of the charnel house. That and sex, wherein I do not say that these Not at Night books deal, but certainly other recent writers do, and in so doing spoil the whole business.
To return from the faults of ghost stories to their excellence. Who, do I think, has best realized their possibilities? I have no hesitation in saying that it is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. In the volume called In a Glass Darkly are four stories of paramount excellence, ‘Green Tea’, ‘The Familiar’, ‘Mr Justice Harbottle’, and ‘Carmilla’. All of these conform to my requirements: the settings are quite different, but all seen by the writer; the approaches of the supernatural nicely graduated; the climax adequate. Le Fanu was a scholar and poet, and these tales show him as such. It is true that he died as long ago as 1873, but there is wonderfully little that is obsolete in his manner.
Of living writers I have some hesitation in speaking, but on any list that I was forced to compile the names of E. F. Benson. Blackwood, Burrage, De la Mare and Wakefield would find a place.
But, although the subject has its fascinations. I see no use in being pontifical about it. These stories are meant to please and amuse us. If they do so, well; but, if not, let us relegate them to the top shelf and say no more about it.
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