Part 1 out of 2
Produced by Suzanne Shell, David Cortesi and PG Distributed Proofreaders
"I'm over forty, Frances, and rather set in my ways," I said
good-naturedly, ready to yield if she insisted that our going together
on the visit involved her happiness. "My work is rather heavy just now
too, as you know. The question is, could I work there--with a lot of
unassorted people in the house?"
"Mabel doesn't mention any other people, Bill," was my sister's
rejoinder. "I gather she's alone--as well as lonely."
By the way she looked sideways out of the window at nothing, it was
obvious she was disappointed, but to my surprise she did not urge the
point; and as I glanced at Mrs. Franklyn's invitation lying upon her
sloping lap, the neat, childish handwriting conjured up a mental picture
of the banker's widow, with her timid, insignificant personality, her
pale grey eyes and her expression as of a backward child. I thought,
too, of the roomy country mansion her late husband had altered to suit
his particular needs, and of my visit to it a few years ago when its
barren spaciousness suggested a wing of Kensington Museum fitted up
temporarily as a place to eat and sleep in. Comparing it mentally with
the poky Chelsea flat where I and my sister kept impecunious house, I
realized other points as well. Unworthy details flashed across me to
entice: the fine library, the organ, the quiet work-room I should have,
perfect service, the delicious cup of early tea, and hot baths at any
moment of the day--without a geyser!
"It's a longish visit, a month--isn't it?" I hedged, smiling at the
details that seduced me, and ashamed of my man's selfishness, yet
knowing that Frances expected it of me. "There are points about it, I
admit. If you're set on my going with you, I could manage it all right."
I spoke at length in this way because my sister made no answer. I saw
her tired eyes gazing into the dreariness of Oakley Street and felt a
pang strike through me. After a pause, in which again she said no word,
I added: "So, when you write the letter, you might hint, perhaps, that I
usually work all the morning, and--er--am not a very lively visitor!
Then she'll understand, you see." And I half-rose to return to my
diminutive study, where I was slaving, just then, at an absorbing
article on Comparative Aesthetic Values in the Blind and Deaf.
But Frances did not move. She kept her grey eyes upon Oakley Street
where the evening mist from the river drew mournful perspectives into
view. It was late October. We heard the omnibuses thundering across the
bridge. The monotony of that broad, characterless street seemed more
than usually depressing. Even in June sunshine it was dead, but with
autumn its melancholy soaked into every house between King's Road and
the Embankment. It washed thought into the past, instead of inviting it
hopefully towards the future. For me, its easy width was an avenue
through which nameless slums across the river sent creeping messages of
depression, and I always regarded it as Winter's main entrance into
London--fog, slush, gloom trooped down it every November, waving their
forbidding banners till March came to rout them.
Its one claim upon my love was that the south wind swept sometimes
unobstructed up it, soft with suggestions of the sea. These lugubrious
thoughts I naturally kept to myself, though I never ceased to regret the
little flat whose cheapness had seduced us. Now, as I watched my
sister's impassive face, I realized that perhaps she, too, felt as I
felt, yet, brave woman, without betraying it.
"And, look here, Fanny," I said, putting a hand upon her shoulder as I
crossed the room, "it would be the very thing for you. You're worn out
with catering and housekeeping. Mabel is your oldest friend, besides,
and you've hardly seen her since he died--"
"She's been abroad for a year, Bill, and only just came back," my sister
interposed. "She came back rather unexpectedly, though I never thought
she would go there to live--" She stopped abruptly. Clearly, she was
only speaking half her mind. "Probably," she went on, "Mabel wants to
pick up old links again."
"Naturally," I put in, "yourself chief among them." The veiled reference
to the house I let pass.
It involved discussing the dead man for one thing.
"I feel I ought to go anyhow," she resumed, "and of course it would be
jollier if you came too. You'd get in such a muddle here by yourself,
and eat wrong things, and forget to air the rooms, and--oh, everything!"
She looked up laughing. "Only," she added, "there's the British
"But there's a big library there," I answered, "and all the books of
reference I could possibly want. It was of you I was thinking. You could
take up your painting again; you always sell half of what you paint. It
would be a splendid rest too, and Sussex is a jolly country to walk in.
By all means, Fanny, I advise--"
Our eyes met, as I stammered in my attempts to avoid expressing the
thought that hid in both our minds. My sister had a weakness for
dabbling in the various "new" theories of the day, and Mabel, who before
her marriage had belonged to foolish societies for investigating the
future life to the neglect of the present one, had fostered this
undesirable tendency. Her amiable, impressionable temperament was open
to every psychic wind that blew. I deplored, detested the whole
business. But even more than this I abhorred the later influence that
Mr. Franklyn had steeped his wife in, capturing her body and soul in his
somber doctrines. I had dreaded lest my sister also might be caught.
"Now that she is alone again--"
I stopped short. Our eyes now made pretence impossible, for the truth
had slipped out inevitably, stupidly, although unexpressed in definite
language. We laughed, turning our faces a moment to look at other things
in the room. Frances picked up a book and examined its cover as though
she had made an important discovery, while I took my case out and lit a
cigarette I did not want to smoke. We left the matter there. I went out
of the room before further explanation could cause tension.
Disagreements grow into discord from such tiny things--wrong adjectives,
or a chance inflection of the voice. Frances had a right to her views of
life as much as I had. At least, I reflected comfortably, we had
separated upon an agreement this time, recognized mutually, though not
And this point of meeting was, oddly enough, our way of regarding some
one who was dead.
For we had both disliked the husband with a great dislike, and during
his three years' married life had only been to the house once--for a
weekend visit; arriving late on Saturday, we had left after an early
breakfast on Monday morning. Ascribing my sister's dislike to a natural
jealousy at losing her old friend, I said merely that he displeased me.
Yet we both knew that the real emotion lay much deeper. Frances, loyal,
honorable creature, had kept silence; and beyond saying that house and
grounds--he altered one and laid out the other--distressed her as an
expression of his personality somehow ('distressed' was the word she
used), no further explanation had passed her lips.
Our dislike of his personality was easily accounted for--up to a point,
since both of us shared the artist's point of view that a creed, cut to
measure and carefully dried, was an ugly thing, and that a dogma to
which believers must subscribe or perish everlastingly was a barbarism
resting upon cruelty. But while my own dislike was purely due to an
abstract worship of Beauty, my sister's had another twist in it, for
with her "new" tendencies, she believed that all religions were an
aspect of truth and that no one, even the lowest wretch, could escape
"heaven" in the long run.
Samuel Franklyn, the rich banker, was a man universally respected and
admired, and the marriage, though Mabel was fifteen years his junior,
won general applause; his bride was an heiress in her own right--
breweries--and the story of her conversion at a revivalist meeting where
Samuel Franklyn had spoken fervidly of heaven, and terrifyingly of sin,
hell and damnation, even contained a touch of genuine romance. She was a
brand snatched from the burning; his detailed eloquence had frightened
her into heaven; salvation came in the nick of time; his words had
plucked her from the edge of that lake of fire and brimstone where their
worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. She regarded him as a hero,
sighed her relief upon his saintly shoulder, and accepted the peace he
offered her with a grateful resignation.
For her husband was a "religious man" who successfully combined great
riches with the glamour of winning souls. He was a portly figure, though
tall, with masterful, big hands, his fingers rather thick and red; and
his dignity, that just escaped being pompous, held in it something that
was implacable. A convinced assurance, almost remorseless, gleamed in
his eyes when he preached especially, and his threats of hell fire must
have scared souls stronger than the timid, receptive Mabel whom he
married. He clad himself in long frock-coats hat buttoned unevenly, big
square boots, and trousers that invariably bagged at the knee and were a
little short; he wore low collars, spats occasionally, and a tall black
hat that was not of silk. His voice was alternately hard and unctuous;
and he regarded theaters, ballrooms, and racecourses as the vestibule of
that brimstone lake of whose geography he was as positive as of his
great banking offices in the City. A philanthropist up to the hilt,
however, no one ever doubted his complete sincerity; his convictions
were ingrained, his faith borne out by his life--as witness his name
upon so many admirable Societies, as treasurer, patron, or heading the
donation list. He bulked large in the world of doing good, a broad and
stately stone in the rampart against evil. And his heart was genuinely
kind and soft for others--who believed as he did.
Yet, in spite of this true sympathy with suffering and his desire to
help, he was narrow as a telegraph wire and unbending as a church
pillar; he was intensely selfish; intolerant as an officer of the
Inquisition, his bourgeois soul constructed a revolting scheme of heaven
that was reproduced in miniature in all he did and planned. Faith was
the sine qua non of salvation, and by "faith" he meant belief in his own
particular view of things--"which faith, except every one do keep whole
and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly." All the
world but his own small, exclusive sect must be damned eternally--a
pity, but alas, inevitable. He was right.
Yet he prayed without ceasing, and gave heavily to the poor--the only
thing he could not give being big ideas to his provincial and suburban
deity. Pettier than an insect, and more obstinate than a mule, he had
also the superior, sleek humility of a "chosen one." He was churchwarden
too. He read the lesson in a "place of worship," either chilly or
overheated, where neither organ, vestments, nor lighted candles were
permitted, but where the odor of hair-wash on the boys' heads in the
back rows pervaded the entire building.
This portrait of the banker, who accumulated riches both on earth and in
heaven, may possibly be overdrawn, however, because Frances and I were
"artistic temperaments" that viewed the type with a dislike and distrust
amounting to contempt. The majority considered Samuel Franklyn a worthy
man and a good citizen. The majority, doubtless, held the saner view. A
few years more, and he certainly would have been made a baronet. He
relieved much suffering in the world, as assuredly as he caused many
souls the agonies of torturing fear by his emphasis upon damnation.
Had there been one point of beauty in him, we might have been more
lenient; only we found it not, and, I admit, took little pains to
search. I shall never forget the look of dour forgiveness with which he
heard our excuses for missing Morning Prayers that Sunday morning of our
single visit to The Towers. My sister learned that a change was made
soon afterwards, prayers being "conducted" after breakfast instead of
The Towers stood solemnly upon a Sussex hill amid park-like modern
grounds, but the house cannot better be described--it would be so
wearisome for one thing--than by saying that it was a cross between an
overgrown, pretentious Norwood villa and one of those saturnine
Institutes for cripples the train passes as it slinks ashamed through
South London into Surrey. It was "wealthily" furnished and at first
sight imposing, but on closer acquaintance revealed a meager
personality, barren and austere. One looked for Rules and Regulations on
the walls, all signed By Order. The place was a prison that shut out
"the world." There was, of course, no billiard-room, no smoking-room, no
room for play of any kind, and the great hall at the back, once a
chapel, which might have been used for dancing, theatricals, or other
innocent amusements, was consecrated in his day to meetings of various
kinds, chiefly brigades, temperance or missionary societies. There was a
harmonium at one end--on the level floor--a raised dais or platform at
the other, and a gallery above for the servants, gardeners, and
coachmen. It was heated with hot-water pipes, and hung with Doré's
pictures, though these latter were soon removed and stored out of sight
in the attics as being too unspiritual. In polished, shiny wood, it was
a representation in miniature of that poky exclusive Heaven he took
about with him, externalizing it in all he did and planned, even in the
grounds about the house.
Changes in The Towers, Frances told me, had been made during Mabel's
year of widowhood abroad--an organ put into the big hall, the library
made livable and re-catalogued--when it was permissible to suppose she
had found her soul again and returned to her normal, healthy views of
life, which included enjoyment and play, literature, music and the arts,
without, however, a touch of that trivial thoughtlessness usually termed
worldliness. Mrs. Franklyn, as I remembered her, was a quiet little
woman, shallow, perhaps, and easily influenced, but sincere as a dog and
thorough in her faithful Friendship. Her tastes at heart were catholic,
and that heart was simple and unimaginative. That she took up with the
various movements of the day was sign merely that she was searching in
her limited way for a belief that should bring her peace. She was, in
fact, a very ordinary woman, her caliber a little less than that of
Frances. I knew they used to discuss all kinds of theories together, but
as these discussions never resulted in action, I had come to regard her
as harmless. Still, I was not sorry when she married, and I did not
welcome now a renewal of the former intimacy. The philanthropist she had
given no children, or she would have made a good and sensible mother. No
doubt she would marry again.
"Mabel mentions that she's been alone at The Towers since the end of
August," Frances told me at teatime; "and I'm sure she feels out of it
and lonely. It would be a kindness to go. Besides, I always liked her."
I agreed. I had recovered from my attack of selfishness. I expressed my
"You've written to accept," I said, half statement and half question.
Frances nodded. "I thanked for you," she added quietly, "explaining that
you were not free at the moment, but that later, if not inconvenient,
you might come down for a bit and join me."
I stared. Frances sometimes had this independent way of deciding things.
I was convicted, and punished into the bargain.
Of course there followed argument and explanation, as between brother
and sister who were affectionate, but the recording of our talk could be
of little interest. It was arranged thus, Frances and I both satisfied.
Two days later she departed for The Towers, leaving me alone in the flat
with everything planned for my comfort and good behavior--she was rather
a tyrant in her quiet way--and her last words as I saw her off from
Charing Cross rang in my head for a long time after she was gone:
"I'll write and let you know, Bill. Eat properly, mind, and let me know
if anything goes wrong."
She waved her small gloved hand, nodded her head till the feather
brushed the window, and was gone.
After the note announcing her safe arrival a week of silence passed, and
then a letter came; there were various suggestions for my welfare, and
the rest was the usual rambling information and description Frances
loved, generously italicized.
" ...and we are quite alone," she went on in her enormous handwriting
that seemed such a waste of space and labor, "though some others are
coming presently, I believe. You could work here to your heart's
content. Mabel quite understands, and says she would love to have you
when you feel free to come. She has changed a bit--back to her old
natural self: she never mentions him. The place has changed too in
certain ways: it has more cheerfulness, I think. She has put it in, this
cheerfulness, spaded it in, if you know what I mean; but it lies about
uneasily and is not natural--quite. The organ is a beauty. She must be
very rich now, but she's as gentle and sweet as ever. Do you know, Bill,
I think he must have frightened her into marrying him. I get the
impression she was afraid of him." This last sentence was inked out, I
but I read it through the scratching; the letters being too big to hide.
"He had an inflexible will beneath all that oily kindness which passed
for spiritual. He was a real personality, I mean. I'm sure he'd have
sent you and me cheerfully to the stake in another century--for our own
good. Isn't it odd she never speaks of him, even to me?" This, again,
was stroked through, though without the intention to obliterate--merely
because it was repetition, probably. "The only reminder of him in the
house now is a big copy of the presentation portrait that stands on the
stairs of the Multitechnic Institute at Peckham--you know--that
life-size one with his fat hand sprinkled with rings resting on a thick
Bible and the other slipped between the buttons of a tight frock-coat.
It hangs in the dining room and rather dominates our meals. I wish Mabel
would take it down. I think she'd like to, if she dared. There's not a
single photograph of him anywhere, even in her own room. Mrs. Marsh is
here--you remember her, his housekeeper, the wife of the man who got
penal servitude for killing a baby or something--you said she robbed him
and justified her stealing because the story of the unjust steward was
in the Bible! How we laughed over that! She's just the same too, gliding
about all over the house and turning up when least expected."
Other reminiscences filled the next two sides of the letter, and ran,
without a trace of punctuation, into instructions about a Salamander
stove for heating my work-room in the flat; these were followed by
things I was to tell the cook, and by requests for several articles she
had forgotten and would like sent after her, two of them blouses, with
descriptions so lengthy and contradictory that I sighed as I read them--
"unless you come down soon, in which case perhaps you wouldn't mind
bringing them; not the mauve one I wear in the evening sometimes, but
the pale blue one with lace round the collar and the crinkly front.
They're in the cupboard--or the drawer, I'm not sure which--of my
bedroom. Ask Annie if you're in doubt. Thanks most awfully. Send a
telegram, remember, and we'll meet you in the motor any time. I don't
quite know if I shall stay the whole month--alone. It all depends...."
And she closed the letter, the italicized words increasing recklessly
towards the end, with a repetition that Mabel would love to have me "for
myself," as also to have a "man in the house," and that I only had to
telegraph the day and the train.... This letter, coming by the second
post, interrupted me in a moment of absorbing work, and, having read it
through to make sure there was nothing requiring instant attention, I
threw it aside and went on with my notes and reading. Within five
minutes, however, it was back at me again. That restless thing called
"between the lines" fluttered about my mind. My interest in the Balkan
States--political article that had been "ordered"--faded. Somewhere,
somehow I felt disquieted, disturbed. At first I persisted in my work,
forcing myself to concentrate, but soon found that a layer of new
impressions floated between the article and my attention. It was like a
shadow, though a shadow that dissolved upon inspection. Once or twice I
glanced up, expecting to find some one in the room, that the door had
opened unobserved and Annie was waiting for instructions. I heard the
buses thundering across the bridge. I was aware of Oakley Street.
Montenegro and the blue Adriatic melted into the October haze along that
depressing Embankment that aped a riverbank, and sentences from the
letter flashed before my eyes and stung me. Picking it up and reading it
through more carefully, I rang the bell and told Annie to find the
blouses and pack them for the post, showing her finally the written
description, and resenting the superior smile with which she at once
interrupted. "I know them, sir," and disappeared.
But it was not the blouses: it was that exasperating thing "between the
lines" that put an end to my work with its elusive teasing nuisance. The
first sharp impression is alone of value in such a case, for once
analysis begins the imagination constructs all kinds of false
interpretation. The more I thought, the more I grew fuddled. The letter,
it seemed to me, wanted to say another thing; instead the eight sheets
conveyed it merely. It came to the edge of disclosure, then halted.
There was something on the writer's mind, and I felt uneasy. Studying
the sentences brought, however, no revelation, but increased confusion
only; for while the uneasiness remained, the first clear hint had
vanished. In the end I closed my books and went out to look up another
matter at the British Museum library. Perhaps I should discover it that
way--by turning the mind in a totally new direction. I lunched at the
Express Dairy in Oxford Street close by, and telephoned to Annie that I
would be home to tea at five.
And at tea, tired physically and mentally after breathing the exhausted
air of the Rotunda for five hours, my mind suddenly delivered up its
original impression, vivid and clear-cut; no proof accompanied the
revelation; it was mere presentiment, but convincing. Frances was
disturbed in her mind, her orderly, sensible, housekeeping mind; she was
uneasy, even perhaps afraid; something in the house distressed her, and
she had need of me. Unless I went down, her time of rest and change, her
quite necessary holiday, in fact, would be spoilt. She was too unselfish
to say this, but it ran everywhere between the lines. I saw it clearly
now. Mrs. Franklyn, moreover--and that meant Frances too--would like a
"man in the house." It was a disagreeable phrase, a suggestive way of
hinting something she dared not state definitely. The two women in that
great, lonely barrack of a house were afraid.
My sense of duty, affection, unselfishness, whatever the composite
emotion may be termed, was stirred; also my vanity. I acted quickly,
lest reflection should warp clear, decent judgment.
"Annie," I said, when she answered the bell, "you need not send those
blouses by the post. I'll take them down tomorrow when I go. I shall be
away a week or two, possibly longer." And, having looked up a train, I
hastened out to telegraph before I could change my fickle mind.
But no desire came that night to change my mind. I was doing the right,
the necessary thing. I was even in something of a hurry to get down to
The Towers as soon as possible. I chose an early afternoon train.
A telegram had told me to come to a town ten miles from the house, so I
was saved the crawling train to the local station, and traveled down by
an express. As soon as we left London the fog cleared off, and an autumn
sun, though without heat in it, painted the landscape with golden browns
and yellows. My spirits rose as I lay back in the luxurious motor and
sped between the woods and hedges. Oddly enough, my anxiety of overnight
had disappeared. It was due, no doubt, to that exaggeration of detail
which reflection in loneliness brings. Frances and I had not been
separated for over a year, and her letters from The Towers told so
little. It had seemed unnatural to be deprived of those intimate
particulars of mood and feeling I was accustomed to. We had such
confidence in one another, and our affection was so deep. Though she was
but five years younger than myself, I regarded her as a child. My
attitude was fatherly.
In return, she certainly mothered me with a solicitude that never
cloyed. I felt no desire to marry while she was still alive. She painted
in watercolors with a reasonable success, and kept house for me; I
wrote, reviewed books and lectured on aesthetics; we were a humdrum
couple of quasi-artists, well satisfied with life, and all I feared for
her was that she might become a suffragette or be taken captive by one
of these wild theories that caught her imagination sometimes, and that
Mabel, for one, had fostered. As for myself, no doubt she deemed me a
trifle solid or stolid--I forget which word she preferred--but on the
whole there was just sufficient difference of opinion to make
intercourse suggestive without monotony, and certainly without
Drawing in deep draughts of the stinging autumn air, I felt happy and
exhilarated. It was like going for a holiday, with comfort at the end of
the journey instead of bargaining for centimes.
But my heart sank noticeably the moment the house came into view. The
long drive, lined with hostile monkey trees and formal wellingtonias
that were solemn and sedate, was mere extension of the miniature
approach to a thousand semidetached suburban "residences"; and the
appearance of The Towers, as we turned the corner with a rush, suggested
a commonplace climax to a story that had begun interestingly, almost
thrillingly. A villa had escaped from the shadow of the Crystal Palace,
thumped its way down by night, grown suddenly monstrous in a shower of
rich rain, and settled itself insolently to stay. Ivy climbed about the
opulent red-brick walls, but climbed neatly and with disfiguring effect,
sham as on a prison or--the simile made me smile--an orphan asylum.
There was no hint of the comely roughness of untidy ivy on a ruin.
Clipped, trained, and precise it was, as on a brand-new protestant
church. I swear there was not a bird's nest nor a single earwig in it
anywhere. About the porch it was particularly thick, smothering a
seventeenth-century lamp with a contrast that was quite horrible.
Extensive glass-houses spread away on the farther side of the house; the
numerous towers to which the building owed its name seemed made to hold
school bells; and the windowsills, thick with potted flowers, made me
think of the desolate suburbs of Brighton or Bexhill. In a commanding
position upon the crest of a hill, it overlooked miles of undulating,
wooded country southwards to the Downs, but behind it, to the north,
thick banks of ilex, holly, and privet protected it from the cleaner and
more stimulating winds. Hence, though highly placed, it was shut in.
Three years had passed since I last set eyes upon, it, but the unsightly
memory I had retained was justified by the reality. The place was
It is my habit to express my opinions audibly sometimes, when
impressions are strong enough to warrant it; but now I only sighed "Oh,
dear," as I extricated my legs from many rugs and went into the house. A
tall parlor-maid, with the bearing of a grenadier, received me, and
standing behind her was Mrs. Marsh, the housekeeper, whom I remembered
because her untidy back hair had suggested to me that it had been burnt.
I went at once to my room, my hostess already dressing for dinner, but
Frances came in to see me just as I was struggling with my black tie
that had got tangled like a bootlace. She fastened it for me in a neat,
effective bow, and while I held my chin up for the operation, staring
blankly at the ceiling, the impression came--I wondered, was it her
touch that caused it?--that something in her trembled. Shrinking perhaps
is the truer word. Nothing in her face or manner betrayed it, nor in her
pleasant, easy talk while she tidied my things and scolded my slovenly
packing, as her habit was, questioning me about the servants at the
flat. The blouses, though right, were crumpled, and my scolding was
deserved. There was no impatience even. Yet somehow or other the
suggestion of a shrinking reserve and holding back reached my mind. She
had been lonely, of course, but it was more than that; she was glad that
I had come, yet for some reason unstated she could have wished that I
had stayed away. We discussed the news that had accumulated during our
brief separation, and in doing so the impression, at best exceedingly
slight, was forgotten. My chamber was large and beautifully furnished;
the hall and dining room of our flat would have gone into it with a good
remainder; yet it was not a place I could settle down in for work. It
conveyed the idea of impermanence, making me feel transient as in a
hotel bedroom. This, of course, was the fact. But some rooms convey a
settled, lasting hospitality even in a hotel; this one did not; and as I
was accustomed to work in the room I slept in, at least when visiting, a
slight frown must have crept between my eyes.
"Mabel has fitted a work-room for you just out of the library," said the
"No one will disturb you there, and you'll have fifteen thousand books
all catalogued within easy reach. There's a private staircase too. You
can breakfast in your room and slip down in your dressing gown if you
want to." She laughed. My spirits took a turn upwards as absurdly as
they had gone down.
"And how are you?" I asked, giving her a belated kiss. "It's jolly to be
together again. I did feel rather lost without you, I'll admit."
"That's natural," she laughed. "I'm so glad."
She looked well and had country color in her cheeks. She informed me
that she was eating and sleeping well, going out for little walks with
Mabel, painting bits of scenery again, and enjoying a complete change
and rest; and yet, for all her brave description, the word somehow did
not quite ring true. Those last words in particular did not ring true.
There lay in her manner, just out of sight, I felt, this suggestion of
the exact reverse--of unrest, shrinking, almost of anxiety. Certain
small strings in her seemed over-tight. "Keyed-up" was the slang
expression that crossed my mind. I looked rather searchingly into her
face as she was telling me this.
"Only--the evenings," she added, noticing my query, yet rather avoiding
my eyes, "the evenings are--well, rather heavy sometimes, and I find it
difficult to keep awake."
"The strong air after London makes you drowsy," I suggested, "and you
like to get early to bed."
Frances turned and looked at me for a moment steadily. "On the contrary,
Bill, I dislike going to bed--here. And Mabel goes so early." She said
it lightly enough, fingering the disorder upon my dressing table in such
a stupid way that I saw her mind was working in another direction
altogether. She looked up suddenly with a kind of nervousness from the
brush and scissors.
"Billy," she said abruptly, lowering her voice, "isn't it odd, but I
hate sleeping alone here? I can't make it out quite; I've never felt
such a thing before in my life. Do you--think it's all nonsense?"
And she laughed, with her lips but not with her eyes; there was a note
of defiance in her I failed to understand.
"Nothing a nature like yours feels strongly is nonsense, Frances," I
But I, too, answered with my lips only, for another part of my mind was
working elsewhere, and among uncomfortable things. A touch of
bewilderment passed over me. I was not certain how best to continue. If
I laughed she would tell me no more, yet if I took her too seriously the
strings would tighten further. Instinctively, then, this flashed rapidly
across me: that something of what she felt, I had also felt, though
interpreting it differently. Vague it was, as the coming of rain or
storm that announce themselves hours in advance with their hint of
faint, unsettling excitement in the air. I had been but a short hour in
the house--big, comfortable, luxurious house--but had experienced this
sense of being unsettled, unfixed, fluctuating--a kind of impermanence
that transient lodgers in hotels must feel, but that a guest in a
friend's home ought not to feel, be the visit short or long. To Frances,
an impressionable woman, the feeling had come in the terms of alarm. She
disliked sleeping alone, while yet she longed to sleep. The precise idea
in my mind evaded capture, merely brushing through me, three-quarters
out of sight; I realized only that we both felt the same thing, and that
neither of us could get at it clearly.
Degrees of unrest we felt, but the actual thing did not disclose itself.
It did not happen.
I felt strangely at sea for a moment. Frances would interpret hesitation
as endorsement, and encouragement might be the last thing that could
"Sleeping in a strange house," I answered at length, "is often difficult
at first, and one feels lonely. After fifteen months in our tiny flat
one feels lost and uncared-for in a big house. It's an uncomfortable
feeling--I know it well. And this is a barrack, isn't it? The masses of
furniture only make it worse. One feels in storage somewhere
underground--the furniture doesn't furnish. One must never yield to
Frances looked away towards the windows; she seemed disappointed a
"After our thickly-populated Chelsea," I went on quickly, "it seems
But she did not turn back, and clearly I was saying the wrong thing. A
wave of pity rushed suddenly over me. Was she really frightened,
perhaps? She was imaginative, I knew, but never moody; common sense was
strong in her, though she had her times of hypersensitiveness. I caught
the echo of some unreasoning, big alarm in her. She stood there, gazing
across my balcony towards the sea of wooded country that spread dim and
vague in the obscurity of the dusk. The deepening shadows entered the
room, I fancied, from the grounds below. Following her abstracted gaze a
moment, I experienced a curious sharp desire to leave, to escape. Out
yonder was wind and space and freedom. This enormous building was
oppressive, silent, still.
Great catacombs occurred to me, things beneath the ground, imprisonment
and capture. I believe I even shuddered a little.
I touched her shoulder. She turned round slowly, and we looked with a
certain deliberation into each other's eyes.
"Fanny," I asked, more gravely than I intended, "you are not frightened,
are you? Nothing has happened, has it?"
She replied with emphasis, "Of course not! How could it--I mean, why
should I?" She stammered, as though the wrong sentence flustered her a
second. "It's simply--that I have this ter--this dislike of sleeping
Naturally, my first thought was how easy it would be to cut our visit
short. But I did not say this. Had it been a true solution, Frances
would have said it for me long ago.
"Wouldn't Mabel double-up with you?" I said instead, "or give you an
adjoining room, so that you could leave the door between you open?
There's space enough, heaven knows."
And then, as the gong sounded in the hall below for dinner, she said, as
with an effort, this thing:
"Mabel did ask me--on the third night--after I had told her. But I
"You'd rather be alone than with her?" I asked, with a certain relief.
Her reply was so gravely given, a child would have known there was more
behind it: "Not that; but that she did not really want it."
I had a moment's intuition and acted on it impulsively. "She feels it
too, perhaps, but wishes to face it by herself--and get over it?"
My sister bowed her head, and the gesture made me realize of a sudden
how grave and solemn our talk had grown, as though some portentous thing
were under discussion. It had come of itself--indefinite as a gradual
change of temperature. Yet neither of us knew its nature, for apparently
neither of us could state it plainly. Nothing happened, even in our
"That was my impression," she said, "--that if she yields to it she
encourages it. And a habit forms so easily. Just think," she added with
a faint smile that was the first sign of lightness she had yet betrayed,
"what a nuisance it would be--everywhere--if everybody was afraid of
being alone--like that."
I snatched readily at the chance. We laughed a little, though it was a
quiet kind of laughter that seemed wrong. I took her arm and led her
towards the door.
"Disastrous, in fact," I agreed.
She raised her voice to its normal pitch again, as I had done. "No doubt
it will pass," she said, "now that you have come. Of course, it's
chiefly my imagination." Her tone was lighter, though nothing could
convince me that the matter itself was light--just then. "And in any
case," tightening her grip on my arm as we passed into the bright
enormous corridor and caught sight of Mrs. Franklyn waiting in the
cheerless hall below, "I'm very glad you're here, Bill, and Mabel, I
know, is too."
"If it doesn't pass," I just had time to whisper with a feeble attempt
at jollity, "I'll come at night and snore outside your door. After that
you'll be so glad to get rid of me that you won't mind being alone."
"That's a bargain," said Frances.
I shook my hostess by the hand, made a banal remark about the long
interval since last we met, and walked behind them into the great dining
room, dimly lit by candles, wondering in my heart how long my sister and
I should stay, and why in the world we had ever left our cozy little
flat to enter this desolation of riches and false luxury at all. The
unsightly picture of the late Samuel Franklyn, Esq., stared down upon me
from the farther end of the room above the mighty mantelpiece.
He looked, I thought, like some pompous Heavenly Butler who denied to
all the world, and to us in particular, the right of entry without
presentation cards signed by his hand as proof that we belonged to his
own exclusive set. The majority, to his deep grief, and in spite of all
his prayers on their behalf, must burn and "perish everlastingly."
With the instinct of the healthy bachelor I always try to make myself a
nest in the place I live in, be it for long or short. Whether visiting,
in lodging-house, or in hotel, the first essential is this nest--one's
own things built into the walls as a bird builds in its feathers. It may
look desolate and uncomfortable enough to others, because the central
detail is neither bed nor wardrobe, sofa nor armchair, but a good solid
writing-table that does not wriggle, and that has wide elbowroom.
And The Towers is vividly described for me by the single fact that I
could not "nest" there.
I took several days to discover this, but the first impression of
impermanence was truer than I knew. The feathers of the mind refused
here to lie one way. They ruffled, pointed, and grew wild.
Luxurious furniture does not mean comfort; I might as well have tried to
settle down in the sofa and armchair department of a big shop. My
bedroom was easily managed; it was the private workroom, prepared
especially for my reception, that made me feel alien and outcast.
Externally, it was all one could desire: an antechamber to the great
library, with not one, but two generous oak tables, to say nothing of
smaller ones against the walls with capacious drawers.
There were reading desks, mechanical devices for holding books, perfect
light, quiet as in a church, and no approach but across the huge
adjoining room. Yet it did not invite.
"I hope you'll be able to work here," said my little hostess the next
morning, as she took me in--her only visit to it while I stayed in the
house--and showed me the ten-volume Catalogue.
"It's absolutely quiet and no one will disturb you."
"If you can't, Bill, you're not much good," laughed Frances, who was on
her arm. "Even I could write in a study like this!"
I glanced with pleasure at the ample tables, the sheets of thick
blotting paper, the rulers, sealing wax, paper knives, and all the other
immaculate paraphernalia. "It's perfect," I answered with a secret
thrill, yet feeling a little foolish. This was for Gibbon or Carlyle,
rather than for my potboiling insignificancies. "If I can't write
masterpieces here, it's certainly not your fault," and I turned with
gratitude to Mrs. Franklyn. She was looking straight at me, and there
was a question in her small pale eyes I did not understand. Was she
noting the effect upon me, I wondered?
"You'll write here--perhaps a story about the house," she said,
"Thompson will bring you anything you want; you only have to ring." She
pointed to the electric bell on the central table, the wire running
neatly down the leg. "No one has ever worked here before, and the
library has been hardly used since it was put in. So there's no previous
atmosphere to affect your imagination--er--adversely."
We laughed. "Bill isn't that sort," said my sister; while I wished they
would go out and leave me to arrange my little nest and set to work.
I thought, of course, it was the huge listening library that made me
feel so inconsiderable--the fifteen thousand silent, staring books, the
solemn aisles, the deep, eloquent shelves. But when the women had gone
and I was alone, the beginning of the truth crept over me, and I felt
that first hint of disconsolateness which later became an imperative No.
The mind shut down, images ceased to rise and flow. I read, made copious
notes, but I wrote no single line at The Towers.
Nothing completed itself there. Nothing happened.
The morning sunshine poured into the library through ten long narrow
windows; birds were singing; the autumn air, rich with a faint aroma of
November melancholy that stung the imagination pleasantly, filled my
antechamber. I looked out upon the undulating wooded landscape, hemmed
in by the sweep of distant Downs, and I tasted a whiff of the sea. Rooks
cawed as they floated above the elms, and there were lazy cows in the
nearer meadows. A dozen times I tried to make my nest and settle down to
work, and a dozen times, like a turning fastidious dog upon a hearth
rug, I rearranged my chair and books and papers. The temptation of the
Catalogue and shelves, of course, was accountable for much, yet not, I
felt, for all. That was a manageable seduction. My work, moreover, was
not of the creative kind that requires absolute absorption; it was the
mere readable presentation of data I had accumulated. My notebooks were
charged with facts ready to tabulate--facts, too, that interested me
keenly. A mere effort of the will was necessary, and concentration of no
difficult kind. Yet, somehow, it seemed beyond me: something forever
pushed the facts into disorder ... and in the end I sat in the sunshine,
dipping into a dozen books selected from the shelves outside, vexed with
myself and only half-enjoying it. I felt restless. I wanted to be
And even while I read, attention wandered. Frances, Mabel, her late
husband, the house and grounds, each in turn and sometimes all together,
rose uninvited into the stream of thought, hindering any consecutive
flow of work. In disconnected fashion came these pictures that
interrupted concentration, yet presenting themselves as broken fragments
of a bigger thing my mind already groped for unconsciously. They
fluttered round this hidden thing of which they were aspects, fugitive
interpretations, no one of them bringing complete revelation. There was
no adjective, such as pleasant or unpleasant, that I could attach to
what I felt, beyond that the result was unsettling. Vague as the
atmosphere of a dream, it yet persisted, and I could not dissipate it.
Isolated words or phrases in the lines I read sent questions scouring
across my mind, sure sign that the deeper part of me was restless and
ill at ease.
Rather trivial questions too--half-foolish interrogations, as of a
puzzled or curious child: Why was my sister afraid to sleep alone, and
why did her friend feel a similar repugnance, yet seek to conquer it?
Why was the solid luxury of the house without comfort, its shelter
without the sense of permanence? Why had Mrs. Franklyn asked us to come,
artists, unbelieving vagabonds, types at the farthest possible remove
from the saved sheep of her husband's household? Had a reaction set in
against the hysteria of her conversion? I had seen no signs of religious
fervor in her; her atmosphere was that of an ordinary, high-minded
woman, yet a woman of the world. Lifeless, though, a little, perhaps,
now that I came to think about it: she had made no definite impression
upon me of any kind. And my thoughts ran vaguely after this fragile
Closing my book, I let them run. For, with this chance reflection came
the discovery that I could not see her clearly--could not feel her soul,
her personality. Her face, her small pale eyes, her dress and body and
walk, all these stood before me like a photograph; but her Self evaded
me. She seemed not there, lifeless, empty, a shadow--nothing. The
picture was disagreeable, and I put it by. Instantly she melted out, as
though light thought had conjured up a phantom that had no real
existence. And at that very moment, singularly enough, my eye caught
sight of her moving past the window, going silently along the gravel
path. I watched her, a sudden new sensation gripping me. "There goes a
prisoner," my thought instantly ran, "one who wishes to escape, but
What brought the outlandish notion, heaven only knows. The house was of
her own choice, she was twice an heiress, and the world lay open at her
feet. Yet she stayed--unhappy, frightened, caught. All this flashed over
me, and made a sharp impression even before I had time to dismiss it as
absurd. But a moment later explanation offered itself, though it seemed
as far-fetched as the original impression. My mind, being logical, was
obliged to provide something, apparently. For Mrs. Franklyn, while
dressed to go out, with thick walking-boots, a pointed stick, and a
motor-cap tied on with a veil as for the windy lanes, was obviously
content to go no farther than the little garden paths. The costume was a
sham and a pretence. It was this, and her lithe, quick movements that
suggested a caged creature--a creature tamed by fear and cruelty that
cloaked themselves in kindness--pacing up and down, unable to realize
why it got no farther, but always met the same bars in exactly the same
place. The mind in her was barred.
I watched her go along the paths and down the steps from one terrace to
another, until the laurels hid her altogether; and into this mere
imagining of a moment came a hint of something slightly disagreeable,
for which my mind, search as it would, found no explanation at all. I
remembered then certain other little things. They dropped into the
picture of their own accord. In a mind not deliberately hunting for
clues, pieces of a puzzle sometimes come together in this way, bringing
revelation, so that for a second there flashed across me, vanishing
instantly again before I could consider it, a large, distressing
thought. I can only describe vaguely as a Shadow.
Dark and ugly, oppressive certainly it might be described, with
something torn and dreadful about the edges that suggested pain and
strife and terror. The interior of a prison with two rows of occupied
condemned cells, seen years ago in New York, sprang to memory after it--
the connection between the two impossible to surmise even. But the
"certain other little things" mentioned above were these: that Mrs.
Franklyn, in last night's dinner talk, had always referred to "this
house," but never called it "home"; and had emphasized unnecessarily,
for a well-bred woman, our "great kindness" in coming down to stay so
long with her. Another time, in answer to my futile compliment about the
"stately rooms," she said quietly, "It is an enormous house for so small
a party; but I stay here very little, and only till I get it straight
again." The three of us were going up the great staircase to bed as this
was said, and, not knowing quite her meaning, I dropped the subject. It
edged delicate ground, I felt. Frances added no word of her own. It now
occurred to me abruptly that "stay" was the word made use of, when
"live" would have been more natural. How insignificant to recall! Yet
why did they suggest themselves just at this moment ...?
And, on going to Frances's room to make sure she was not nervous or
lonely, I realized abruptly, that Mrs. Franklyn, of course, had talked
with her in a confidential sense that I, as a mere visiting brother,
could not share. Frances had told me nothing. I might easily have wormed
it out of her, had I not felt that for us to discuss further our hostess
and her house merely because we were under the roof together, was not
quite nice or loyal.
"I'll call you, Bill, if I'm scared," she had laughed as we parted, my
room being just across the big corridor from her own. I had fallen
asleep, thinking what in the world was meant by "getting it straight
And now in my antechamber to the library, on the second morning, sitting
among piles of foolscap and sheets of spotless blotting-paper, all
useless to me, these slight hints came back and helped to frame the big,
vague Shadow I have mentioned. Up to the neck in this Shadow, almost
drowned, yet just treading water, stood the figure of my hostess in her
walking costume. Frances and I seemed swimming to her aid. The Shadow
was large enough to include both house and grounds, but farther than
that I could not see.... Dismissing it, I fell to reading my purloined
book again. Before I turned another page, however, another startling
detail leaped out at me: the figure of Mrs. Franklyn in the Shadow was
not living. It floated helplessly, like a doll or puppet that has no
life in it. It was both pathetic and dreadful.
Any one who sits in reverie thus, of course, may see similar ridiculous
pictures when the will no longer guides construction. The incongruities
of dreams are thus explained. I merely record the picture as it came.
That it remained by me for several days, just as vivid dreams do, is
neither here nor there. I did not allow myself to dwell upon it. The
curious thing, perhaps, is that from this moment I date my inclination,
though not yet my desire, to leave. I purposely say "to leave."
I cannot quite remember when the word changed to that aggressive,
frantic thing which is escape.
We were left delightfully to ourselves in this pretentious country
mansion with the soul of a villa. Frances took up her painting again,
and, the weather being propitious, spent hours out of doors, sketching
flowers, trees and nooks of woodland, garden, even the house itself
where bits of it peered suggestively across the orchards. Mrs. Franklyn
seemed always busy about something or other, and never interfered with
us except to propose motoring, tea in another part of the lawn, and so
forth. She flitted everywhere, preoccupied, yet apparently doing
nothing. The house engulfed her rather. No visitor called. For one
thing, she was not supposed to be back from abroad yet; and for another,
I think, the neighborhood--her husband's neighborhood--was puzzled by
her sudden cessation from good works. Brigades and temperance societies
did not ask to hold their meetings in the big hall, and the vicar
arranged the school-treats in another's field without explanation. The
full-length portrait in the dining room, and the presence of the
housekeeper with the "burnt" back hair, indeed, were the only reminders
of the man who once had lived here. Mrs. Marsh retained her place in
silence, well-paid sinecure as it doubtless was, yet with no hint of
that suppressed disapproval one might have expected from her. Indeed
there was nothing positive to disapprove, since nothing "worldly"
entered grounds or building. In her master's lifetime she had been
another "brand snatched from the burning," and it had then been her
custom to give vociferous "testimony" at the revival meetings where he
adorned the platform and led in streams of prayer. I saw her sometimes
on the stairs, hovering, wandering, half-watching and half-listening,
and the idea came to me once that this woman somehow formed a link with
the departed influence of her bigoted employer. She, alone among us,
belonged to the house, and looked at home there. When I saw her talking
--oh, with such correct and respectful mien--to Mrs. Franklyn, I had the
feeling that for all her unaggressive attitude, she yet exerted some
influence that sought to make her mistress stay in the building forever
--live there. She would prevent her escape, prevent "getting it straight
again," thwart somehow her will to freedom, if she could. The idea in me
was of the most fleeting kind. But another time, when I came down late
at night to get a book from the library antechamber, and found her
sitting in the hall--alone--the impression left upon me was the reverse
of fleeting. I can never forget the vivid, disagreeable effect it
produced upon me. What was she doing there at half-past eleven at night,
all alone in the darkness? She was sitting upright, stiff, in a big
chair below the clock. It gave me a turn. It was so incongruous and odd.
She rose quietly as I turned the corner of the stairs, and asked me
respectfully, her eyes cast down as usual, whether I had finished with
the library, so that she might lock up. There was no more to it than
that; but the picture stayed with me--unpleasantly.
These various impressions came to me at odd moments, of course, and not
in a single sequence as I now relate them. I was hard at work before
three days were past, not writing, as explained, but reading, making
notes, and gathering material from the library for future use. It was in
chance moments that these curious flashes came, catching me unawares
with a touch of surprise that sometimes made me start. For they proved
that my under-mind was still conscious of the Shadow, and that far away
out of sight lay the cause of it that left me with a vague unrest,
unsettled, seeking to "nest" in a place that did not want me. Only when
this deeper part knows harmony, perhaps, can good brainwork result, and
my inability to write was thus explained.
Certainly, I was always seeking for something here I could not find--an
explanation that continually evaded me. Nothing but these trivial hints
offered themselves. Lumped together, however, they had the effect of
defining the Shadow a little. I became more and more aware of its very
real existence. And, if I have made little mention of Frances and my
hostess in this connection, it is because they contributed at first
little or nothing towards the discovery of what this story tries to
tell. Our life was wholly external, normal, quiet, and uneventful;
conversation banal--Mrs. Franklyn's conversation in particular. They
said nothing that suggested revelation.
Both were in this Shadow, and both knew that they were in it, but
neither betrayed by word or act a hint of interpretation. They talked
privately, no doubt, but of that I can report no details.
And so it was that, after ten days of a very commonplace visit, I found
myself looking straight into the face of a Strangeness that defied
capture at close quarters. "There's something here that never happens,"
were the words that rose in my mind, "and that's why none of us can
speak of it."
And as I looked out of the window and watched the vulgar blackbirds,
with toes turned in, boring out their worms, I realized sharply that
even they, as indeed everything large and small in the house and
grounds, shared this strangeness, and were twisted out of normal
appearance because of it. Life, as expressed in the entire place, was
crumpled, dwarfed, emasculated. God's meanings here were crippled, His
love of joy was stunted. Nothing in the garden danced or sang.
There was hate in it. "The Shadow," my thought hurried on to completion,
"is a manifestation of hate; and hate is the Devil." And then I sat back
frightened in my chair, for I knew that I had partly found the truth.
Leaving my books I went out into the open. The sky was overcast, yet the
day by no means gloomy, for a soft, diffused light oozed through the
clouds and turned all things warm and almost summery. But I saw the
grounds now in their nakedness because I understood. Hate means strife,
and the two together weave the robe that terror wears. Having no
so-called religious beliefs myself, nor belonging to any set of dogmas
called a creed, I could stand outside these feelings and observe. Yet
they soaked into me sufficiently for me to grasp sympathetically what
others, with more cabined souls (I flattered myself), might feel. That
picture in the dining room stalked everywhere, hid behind every tree,
peered down upon me from the peaked ugliness of the bourgeois towers,
and left the impress of its powerful hand upon every bed of flowers.
"You must not do this, you must not do that," went past me through the
air. "You must not leave these narrow paths," said the rigid iron
railings of black. "You shall not walk here," was written on the lawns.
"Keep to the steps," "Don't pick the flowers; make no noise of laughter,
singing, dancing," was placarded all over the rose-garden, and
"Trespassers will be--not prosecuted but--destroyed" hung from the crest
of monkey tree and holly. Guarding the ends of each artificial terrace
stood gaunt, implacable policemen, warders, jailers. "Come with us,"
they chanted, "or be damned eternally."
I remember feeling quite pleased with myself that I had discovered this
obvious explanation of the prison feeling the place breathed out. That
the posthumous influence of heavy old Samuel Franklyn might be an
inadequate solution did not occur to me. By "getting the place straight
again," his widow, of course, meant forgetting the glamour of fear and
foreboding his depressing creed had temporarily forced upon her; and
Frances, delicately minded being, did not speak of it because it was the
influence of the man her friend had loved. I felt lighter; a load was
lifted from me. "To trace the unfamiliar to the familiar," came back a
sentence I had read somewhere, "is to understand." It was a real relief.
I could talk with Frances now, even with my hostess, no danger of
treading clumsily. For the key was in my hands. I might even help to
dissipate the Shadow, "to get it straight again." It seemed, perhaps,
our long invitation was explained!
I went into the house laughing--at myself a little. "Perhaps after all
the artist's outlook, with no hard and fast dogmas, is as narrow as the
others! How small humanity is! And why is there no possible and true
combination of all outlooks?"
The feeling of "unsettling" was very strong in me just then, in spite of
my big discovery which was to clear everything up. And at the moment I
ran into Frances on the stairs, with a portfolio of sketches under her
It came across me then abruptly that, although she had worked a great
deal since we came, she had shown me nothing. It struck me suddenly as
odd, unnatural. The way she tried to pass me now confirmed my newborn
suspicion that--well, that her results were hardly what they ought to
"Stand and deliver!" I laughed, stepping in front of her. "I've seen
nothing you've done since you've been here, and as a rule you show me
all your things. I believe they are atrocious and degrading!" Then my
She made a sly gesture to slip past me, and I almost decided to let her
go, for the expression that flashed across her face shocked me. She
looked uncomfortable and ashamed; the color came and went a moment in he
cheeks, making me think of a child detected in some secret naughtiness.
It was almost fear.
"It's because they're not finished then?" I said, dropping the tone of
banter, "or because they're too good for me to understand?" For my
criticism of painting, she told me, was crude and ignorant sometimes.
"But you'll let me see them later, won't you?"
Frances, however, did not take the way of escape I offered. She changed
her mind. She drew the portfolio from beneath her arm instead. "You can
see them if you really want to, Bill," she said quietly, and her tone
reminded me of a nurse who says to a boy just grown out of childhood,
"you are old enough now to look upon horror and ugliness--only I don't
"I do want to," I said, and made to go downstairs with her. But,
instead, she said in the same low voice as before, "Come up to my room,
we shall be undisturbed there." So I guessed that she had been on her
way to show the paintings to our hostess, but did not care for us all
three to see them together. My mind worked furiously.
"Mabel asked me to do them," she explained in a tone of submissive
horror, once the door was shut, "in fact, she begged it of me. You know
how persistent she is in her quiet way. I--er--had to."
She flushed and opened the portfolio on the little table by the window,
standing behind me as I turned the sketches over--sketches of the
grounds and trees and garden. In the first moment of inspection,
however, I did not take in clearly why my sister's sense of modesty had
been offended. For my attention flashed a second elsewhere. Another bit
of the puzzle had dropped into place, defining still further the nature
of what I called "the Shadow." Mrs. Franklyn, I now remembered, had
suggested to me in the library that I might perhaps write something
about the place, and I had taken it for one of her banal sentences and
paid no further attention. I realized now that it was said in earnest.
She wanted our interpretations, as expressed in our respective
"talents," painting and writing. Her invitation was explained. She left
us to ourselves on purpose.
"I should like to tear them up," Frances was whispering behind me with a
shudder, "only I promised--" She hesitated a moment.
"Promised not to?" I asked with a queer feeling of distress, my eyes
glued to the papers.
"Promised always to show them to her first," she finished so low I
barely caught it.
I have no intuitive, immediate grasp of the value of paintings; results
come to me slowly, and though every one believes his own judgment to be
good, I dare not claim that mine is worth more than that of any other
layman, Frances had too often convicted me of gross ignorance and error.
I can only say that I examined these sketches with a feeling of
amazement that contained revulsion, if not actually horror and disgust.
They were outrageous. I felt hot for my sister, and it was a relief to
know she had moved across the room on some pretence or other, and did
not examine them with me. Her talent, of course, is mediocre, yet she
has her moments of inspiration--moments, that is to say, when a view of
Beauty not normally her own flames divinely through her. And these
interpretations struck me forcibly as being thus "inspired"--not her
own. They were uncommonly well done; they were also atrocious. The
meaning in them, however, was never more than hinted. There the unholy
skill and power came in: they suggested so abominably, leaving most to
the imagination. To find such significance in a bourgeois villa garden,
and to interpret it with such delicate yet legible certainty, was a kind
of symbolism that was sinister, even diabolical. The delicacy was her
own, but the point of view was another's.
And the word that rose in my mind was not the gross description of
"impure," but the more fundamental qualification--"un-pure."
In silence I turned the sketches over one by one, as a boy hurries
through the pages of an evil book lest he be caught.
"What does Mabel do with them?" I asked presently in a low tone, as I
neared the end. "Does she keep them?"
"She makes notes about them in a book and then destroys them," was the
reply from the end of the room. I heard a sigh of relief. "I'm glad
you've seen them, Bill. I wanted you to--but was afraid to show them.
"I understand," was my reply, though it was not a question intended to
be answered. All I understood really was that Mabel's mind was as sweet
and pure as my sister's, and that she had some good reason for what she
did. She destroyed the sketches, but first made notes! It was an
interpretation of the place she sought. Brother-like, I felt resentment,
though, that Frances should waste her time and talent, when she might be
doing work that she could sell. Naturally, I felt other things as
"Mabel pays me five guineas for each one," I heard. "Absolutely
I stared at her stupidly a moment, bereft of speech or wit. "I must
either accept, or go away," she went on calmly, but a little white.
"I've tried everything. There was a scene the third day I was here--when
I showed her my first result. I wanted to write to you, but hesitated--"
"It's unintentional, then, on your part--forgive my asking it, Frances,
dear?" I blundered, hardly knowing what to think or say. "Between the
lines" of her letter came back to me. "I mean, you make the sketches in
your ordinary way and--the result comes out of itself, so to speak?"
She nodded, throwing her hands out like a Frenchman. "We needn't keep
the money for ourselves, Bill. We can give it away, but--I must either
accept or leave," and she repeated the shrugging gesture. She sat down
on the chair facing me, staring helplessly at the carpet.
"You say there was a scene?" I went on presently, "She insisted?"
"She begged me to continue," my sister replied very quietly. "She
thinks--that is, she has an idea or theory that there's something about
the place--something she can't get at quite." Frances stammered badly.
She knew I did not encourage her wild theories.
"Something she feels--yes," I helped her, more than curious.
"Oh, you know what I mean, Bill," she said desperately. "That the place
is saturated with some influence that she is herself too positive or too
stupid to interpret. She's trying to make herself negative and
receptive, as she calls it, but can't, of course, succeed. Haven't you
noticed how dull and impersonal and insipid she seems, as though she had
no personality? She thinks impressions will come to her that way. But
"So she's trying me--us--what she calls the sensitive and impressionable
artistic temperament. She says that until she is sure exactly what this
influence is, she can't fight it, turn it out, 'get the house straight',
as she phrases it."
Remembering my own singular impressions, I felt more lenient than I
might otherwise have done. I tried to keep impatience out of my voice.
"And this influence, what--whose is it?"
We used the pronoun that followed in the same breath, for I answered my
own question at the same moment as she did:
"His." Our heads nodded involuntarily towards the floor, the dining room
being directly underneath.
And my heart sank, my curiosity died away on the instant; I felt bored.
A commonplace haunted house was the last thing in the world to amuse or
interest me. The mere thought exasperated, with its suggestions of
imagination, overwrought nerves, hysteria, and the rest.
Mingled with my other feelings was certainly disappointment. To see a
figure or feel a "presence," and report from day to day strange
incidents to each other would be a form of weariness I could never
"But really, Frances," I said firmly, after a moment's pause, "it's too
far-fetched, this explanation. A curse, you know, belongs to the ghost
stories of early Victorian days." And only my positive conviction that
there was something after all worth discovering, and that it most
certainly was not this, prevented my suggesting that we terminate our
visit forthwith, or as soon as we decently could. "This is not a haunted
house, whatever it is," I concluded somewhat vehemently, bringing my
hand down upon her odious portfolio.
My sister's reply revived my curiosity sharply.
"I was waiting for you to say that. Mabel says exactly the same. He is
in it--but it's something more than that alone, something far bigger and
more complicated." Her sentence seemed to indicate the sketches, and
though I caught the inference I did not take it up, having no desire to
discuss them with her just them indeed, if ever.
I merely stared at her and listened. Questions, I felt sure, would be of
little use. It was better she should say her thought in her own way.
"He is one influence, the most recent," she went on slowly, and always
very calmly, "but there are others--deeper layers, as it were--
underneath. If his were the only one, something would happen. But
nothing ever does happen. The others hinder and prevent--as though each
were struggling to predominate."
I had felt it already myself. The idea was rather horrible. I shivered.
"That's what is so ugly about it--that nothing ever happens," she said.
"There is this endless anticipation--always on the dry edge of a result
that never materializes. It is torture. Mabel is at her wits' end, you
see. And when she begged me--what I felt about my sketches--I mean--"
She stammered badly as before.
I stopped her. I had judged too hastily. That queer symbolism in her
paintings, pagan and yet not innocent, was, I understood, the result of
mixture. I did not pretend to understand, but at least I could be
patient. I consequently held my peace. We did talk on a little longer,
but it was more general talk that avoided successfully our hostess, the
paintings, wild theories, and him--until at length the emotion Frances
had hitherto so successfully kept under burst vehemently forth again.
It had hidden between her calm sentences, as it had hidden between the
lines of her letter. It swept her now from head to foot, packed tight in
the thing she then said.
"Then, Bill, if it is not an ordinary haunted house," she asked, "what
The words were commonplace enough. The emotion was in the tone of her
voice that trembled; in the gesture she made, leaning forward and
clasping both hands upon her knees, and in the slight blanching of her
cheeks as her brave eyes asked the question and searched my own with
anxiety that bordered upon panic. In that moment she put herself under
my protection. I winced.
"And why," she added, lowering her voice to a still and furtive whisper,
"does nothing ever happen? If only,"--this with great emphasis--
"something would happen--break this awful tension--bring relief. It's
the waiting I cannot stand." And she shivered all over as she said it, a
touch of wildness in her eyes.
I would have given much to have made a true and satisfactory answer. My
mind searched frantically for a moment, but in vain. There lay no
sufficient answer in me. I felt what she felt, though with differences.
No conclusive explanation lay within reach. Nothing happened. Eager as I
was to shoot the entire business into the rubbish heap where ignorance
and superstition discharge their poisonous weeds, I could not honestly
accomplish this. To treat Frances as a child, and merely "explain away"
would be to strain her confidence in my protection, so affectionately
claimed. It would further be dishonest to myself--weak, besides--to deny
that I had also felt the strain and tension even as she did. While my
mind continued searching, I returned her stare in silence; and Frances
then, with more honesty and insight than my own, gave suddenly the
answer herself--an answer whose truth and adequacy, so far as they went,
I could not readily gainsay:
"I think, Bill, because it is too big to happen here--to happen
anywhere, indeed, all at once--and too awful!"
To have tossed the sentence aside as nonsense, argued it away, proved
that it was really meaningless, would have been easy--at any other time
or in any other place; and, had the past week brought me none of the
vivid impressions it had brought me, this is doubtless what I should
have done. My narrowness again was proved. We understand in others only
what we have in ourselves. But her explanation, in a measure, I knew was
true. It hinted at the strife and struggle that my notion of a Shadow
had seemed to cover thinly.
"Perhaps," I murmured lamely, waiting in vain for her to say more. "But
you said just now that you felt the thing was 'in layers', as it were.
Do you mean each one--each influence--fighting for the upper hand?"
I used her phraseology to conceal my own poverty. Terminology, after
all, was nothing, provided we could reach the idea itself.
Her eyes said yes. She had her clear conception, arrived at
independently, as was her way.
And, unlike her sex, she kept it clear, unsmothered by too many words.
"One set of influences gets at me, another gets at you. It's according
to our temperaments, I think." She glanced significantly at the vile
portfolio. "Sometimes they are mixed--and therefore false. There has
always been in me, more than in you, the pagan thing, perhaps, though
never, thank God, like that."
The frank confession of course invited my own, as it was meant to do.
Yet it was difficult to find the words.
"What I have felt in this place, Frances, I honestly can hardly tell
you, because--er--my impressions have not arranged themselves in any
definite form I can describe. The strife, the agony of vainly-sought
escape, and the unrest--a sort of prison atmosphere--this I have felt at
different times and with varying degrees of strength. But I find, as
yet, no final label to attach. I couldn't say pagan, Christian, or
anything like that, I mean, as you do. As with the blind and deaf, you
may have an intensification of certain senses denied to me, or even
another sense altogether in embryo--"
"Perhaps," she stopped me, anxious to keep to the point, "you feel it as
Mabel does. She feels the whole thing complete."
"That also is possible," I said very slowly. I was thinking behind my
words. Her odd remark that it was "big and awful" came back upon me as
true. A vast sensation of distress and discomfort swept me suddenly.
Pity was in it, and a fierce contempt, a savage, bitter anger as well.
Fury against some sham authority was part of it.
"Frances," I said, caught unawares, and dropping all pretence, "what in
the world can it be?" I looked hard at her. For some minutes neither of
"Have you felt no desire to interpret it?" she asked presently, "Mabel
did suggest my writing something about the house," was my reply, "but
I've felt nothing imperative. That sort of writing is not my line, you
know. My only feeling," I added, noticing that she waited for more, "is
the impulse to explain, discover, get it out of me somehow, and so get
rid of it. Not by writing, though--as yet." And again I repeated my
"What in the world do you think it is?" My voice had become
involuntarily hushed. There was awe in it. Her answer, given with slow
emphasis, brought back all my reserve: the phraseology provoked me
rather:--"Whatever it is, Bill, it is not of God."
I got up to go downstairs. I believe I shrugged my shoulders. "Would you
like to leave, Frances? Shall we go back to town?" I suggested this at
the door, and hearing no immediate reply, I turned back to look. Frances
was sitting with her head bowed over and buried in her hands. The
attitude horribly suggested tears. No woman, I realized, can keep back
the pressure of strong emotion as long as Frances had done, without
ending in a fluid collapse. I waited a moment uneasily, longing to
comfort, yet afraid to act--and in this way discovered the existence of
the appalling emotion in myself, hitherto but half guessed. At all costs
a scene must be prevented: it would involve such exaggeration and
overstatement. Brutally, such is the weakness of the ordinary man, I
turned the handle to go out, but my sister then raised her head. The
sunlight caught her face, framed untidily in its auburn hair, and I saw
her wonderful expression with a start. Pity, tenderness, and sympathy
shone in it like a flame. It was undeniable. There shone through all her
features the imperishable love and yearning to sacrifice self for others
which I have seen in only one type of human being. It was the great
"We must stay by Mabel and help her get it straight," she whispered,
making the decision for us both.
I murmured agreement. Abashed and half ashamed, I stole softly from the
room and went out into the grounds. And the first thing clearly realized
when alone was this: that the long scene between us was without definite
result. The exchange of confidence was really nothing but hints and
vague suggestion. We had decided to stay, but it was a negative decision
not to leave rather than a positive action. All our words and questions,
our guesses, inferences, explanations, our most subtle allusions and
insinuations, even the odious paintings themselves, were without
definite result. Nothing had happened.
And instinctively, once alone, I made for the places where she had
painted her extraordinary pictures; I tried to see what she had seen.
Perhaps, now that she had opened my mind to another view, I should be
sensitive to some similar interpretation--and possibly by way of
literary expression. If I were to write about the place, I asked myself,
how should I treat it? I deliberately invited an interpretation in the
way that came easiest to me--writing.
But in this case there came no such revelation. Looking closely at the
trees and flowers, the bits of lawn and terrace, the rose-garden and
corner of the house where the flaming creeper hung so thickly, I
discovered nothing of the odious, unpure thing her color and grouping
had unconsciously revealed. At first, that is, I discovered nothing. The
reality stood there, commonplace and ugly, side by side with her
distorted version of it that lay in my mind. It seemed incredible. I
tried to force it, but in vain. My imagination, ploughed less deeply
than hers, or to another pattern, grew different seed. Where I saw the
gross soul of an overgrown suburban garden, inspired by the spirit of a
vulgar, rich revivalist who loved to preach damnation, she saw this rush
of pagan liberty and joy, this strange license of primitive flesh which,
tainted by the other, produced the adulterated, vile result.
Certain things, however, gradually then became apparent, forcing
themselves upon me, willy-nilly. They came slowly, but overwhelmingly.
Not that facts had changed, or natural details altered in the grounds--
this was impossible--but that I noticed for the first time various
aspects I had not noticed before--trivial enough, yet for me, just then,
significant. Some I remembered from previous days; others I saw now as I
wandered to and fro, uneasy, uncomfortable,--almost, it seemed, watched
by some one who took note of my impressions. The details were so
foolish, the total result so formidable. I was half aware that others
tried hard to make me see. It was deliberate.
My sister's phrase, "one layer got at me, another gets at you," flashed,
undesired, upon me.
For I saw, as with the eyes of a child, what I can only call a goblin
garden--house, grounds, trees, and flowers belonged to a goblin world
that children enter through the pages of their fairy tales. And what
made me first aware of it was the whisper of the wind behind me, so that
I turned with a sudden start, feeling that something had moved closer.
An old ash tree, ugly and ungainly, had been artificially trained to
form an arbor at one end of the terrace that was a tennis lawn, and the
leaves of it now went rustling together, swishing as they rose and fell.
I looked at the ash tree, and felt as though I had passed that moment
between doors into this goblin garden that crouched behind the real one.
Below, at a deeper layer perhaps, lay hidden the one my sister had
To deal with my own, however, I call it goblin, because an odd aspect of
the quaint in it yet never quite achieved the picturesque. Grotesque,
probably, is the truer word, for everywhere I noticed, and for the first
time, this slight alteration of the natural due either to the
exaggeration of some detail, or to its suppression, generally, I think,
to the latter. Life everywhere appeared to me as blocked from the full
delivery of its sweet and lovely message. Some counter influence stopped
it--suppression; or sent it awry--exaggeration. The house itself, mere
expression, of course, of a narrow, limited mind, was sheer ugliness; it
required no further explanation. With the grounds and garden, so far as
shape and general plan were concerned, this was also true; but that
trees and flowers and other natural details should share the same
deficiency perplexed my logical soul, and even dismayed it. I stood and
stared, then moved about, and stood and stared again. Everywhere was
this mockery of a sinister, unfinished aspect. I sought in vain to
recover my normal point of view. My mind had found this goblin garden
and wandered to and fro in it, unable to escape.
The change was in myself, of course, and so trivial were the details
which illustrated it, that they sound absurd, thus mentioned one by one.
For me, they proved it, is all I can affirm. The goblin touch lay
plainly everywhere: in the forms of the trees, planted at neat intervals
along the lawns; in this twisted ash that rustled just behind me; in the
shadow of the gloomy wellingtonias, whose sweeping skirts obscured the
grass; but especially, I noticed, in the tops and crests of them. For
here, the delicate, graceful curves of last year's growth seemed to
shrink back into themselves. None of them pointed upwards. Their life
had failed and turned aside just when it should have become triumphant.
The character of a tree reveals itself chiefly at the extremities, and
it was precisely here that they all drooped and achieved this hint of
goblin distortion--in the growth, that is, of the last few years. What
ought to have been fairy, joyful, natural, was instead uncomely to the
verge of the grotesque. Spontaneous expression was arrested. My mind
perceived a goblin garden, and was caught in it. The place grimaced at
With the flowers it was similar, though far more difficult to detect in
detail for description. I saw the smaller vegetable growth as impish,
half-malicious. Even the terraces sloped ill, as though their ends had
sagged since they had been so lavishly constructed; their varying angles
gave a queerly bewildering aspect to their sequence that was unpleasant
to the eye. One might wander among their deceptive lengths and get lost
--lost among open terraces!--with the house quite close at hand. Unhomely
seemed the entire garden, unable to give repose, restlessness in it
everywhere, almost strife, and discord certainly.
Moreover, the garden grew into the house, the house into the garden, and
in both was this idea of resistance to the natural--the spirit that says
No to joy. All over it I was aware of the effort to achieve another end,
the struggle to burst forth and escape into free, spontaneous expression
that should be happy and natural, yet the effort forever frustrated by
the weight of this dark shadow that rendered it abortive. Life crawled
aside into a channel that was a cul-de-sac, then turned horribly upon
itself. Instead of blossom and fruit, there were weeds. This approach of
life I was conscious of--then dismal failure. There was no fulfillment.
And so, through this singular mood, I came a little nearer to understand
the unpure thing that had stammered out into expression through my
sister's talent. For the unpure is merely negative; it has no existence;
it is but the cramped expression of what is true, stammering its way
brokenly over false boundaries that seek to limit and confine. Great,
full expression of anything is pure, whereas here was only the
incomplete, unfinished, and therefore ugly. There was a strife and pain
and desire to escape. I found myself shrinking from house and grounds as
one shrinks from the touch of the mentally arrested, those in whom life
has turned awry. There was almost mutilation in it.
Past items, too, now flocked to confirm this feeling that I walked,
liberty captured and half-maimed, in a monstrous garden. I remembered
days of rain that refreshed the countryside, but left these grounds,
cracked with the summer heat, unsatisfied and thirsty; and how the big
winds, that cleaned the woods and fields elsewhere, crawled here with
difficulty through the dense foliage that protected The Towers from the
North and West and East. They were ineffective, sluggish currents. There
was no real wind. Nothing happened. I began to realize--far more clearly
than in my sister's fanciful explanation about "layers"--that here were
many contrary influences at work, mutually destructive of one another.
House and grounds were not haunted merely; they were the arena of past
thinking and feeling, perhaps of terrible, impure beliefs, each striving
to suppress the others, yet no one of them achieving supremacy because
no one of them was strong enough, no one of them was true. Each,
moreover, tried to win me over, though only one was able to reach my
mind at all. For some obscure reason--possibly because my temperament
had a natural bias towards the grotesque--it was the goblin layer. With
me, it was the line of least resistance....
In my own thoughts this "goblin garden" revealed, of course, merely my
personal interpretation. I felt now objectively what long ago my mind
had felt subjectively. My work, essential sign of spontaneous life with
me, had stopped dead; production had become impossible.
I stood now considerably closer to the cause of this sterility. The
Cause, rather, turned bolder, had stepped insolently nearer. Nothing
happened anywhere; house, garden, mind alike were barren, abortive, torn
by the strife of frustrate impulse, ugly, hateful, sinful. Yet behind it
all was still the desire of life--desire to escape--accomplish. Hope--an
intolerable hope--I became startlingly aware--crowned torture.
And, realizing this, though in some part of me where Reason lost her
hold, there rose upon me then another and a darker thing that caught me
by the throat and made me shrink with a sense of revulsion that touched
actual loathing. I knew instantly whence it came, this wave of
abhorrence and disgust, for even while I saw red and felt revolt rise in
me, it seemed that I grew partially aware of the layer next below the
goblin. I perceived the existence of this deeper stratum. One opened the
way for the other, as it were. There were so many, yet all
inter-related; to admit one was to clear the way for all. If I lingered
I should be caught--horribly. They struggled with such violence for
supremacy among themselves, however, that this latest uprising was
instantly smothered and crushed back, though not before a glimpse had
been revealed to me, and the redness in my thoughts transferred itself
to color my surroundings thickly and appallingly--with blood. This lurid
aspect drenched the garden, smeared the terraces, lent to the very soil
a tinge as of sacrificial rites, that choked the breath in me, while it
seemed to fix me to the earth my feet so longed to leave. It was so
revolting that at the same time I felt a dreadful curiosity as of
fascination--I wished to stay. Between these contrary impulses I think I
actually reeled a moment, transfixed by a fascination of the Awful.
Through the lighter goblin veil I felt myself sinking down, down, down
into this turgid layer that was so much more violent and so much more
ancient. The upper layer, indeed, seemed fairy by comparison with this
terror born of the lust for blood, thick with the anguish of human
Upper! Then I was already sinking; my feet were caught; I was actually
in it! What atavistic strain, hidden deep within me, had been touched
into vile response, giving this flash of intuitive comprehension, I
cannot say. The coatings laid on by civilization are probably thin
enough in all of us. I made a supreme effort. The sun and wind came
back. I could almost swear I opened my eyes. Something very atrocious
surged back into the depths, carrying with it a thought of tangled
woods, of big stones standing in a circle, motionless, white figures,
the one form bound with ropes, and the ghastly gleam of the knife. Like
smoke upon a battlefield, it rolled away....
I was standing on the gravel path below the second terrace when the
familiar goblin garden danced back again, doubly grotesque now, doubly
mocking, yet, by way of contrast, almost welcome. My glimpse into the
depths was momentary, it seems, and had passed utterly away.
The common world rushed back with a sense of glad relief, yet ominous
now forever, I felt, for the knowledge of what its past had built upon.
In street, in theater, in the festivities of friends, in music-room or
playing field, even indeed in church--how could the memory of what I had
seen and felt leave its hideous trace? The very structure of my Thought,
it seemed to me, was stained.
What has been thought by others can never be obliterated until....
With a start my reverie broke and fled, scattered by a violent sound
that I recognized for the first time in my life as wholly desirable. The
returning motor meant that my hostess was back.
Yet, so urgent had been my temporary obsession, that my first
presentation of her was--well, not as I knew her now. Floating along
with a face of anguished torture I saw Mabel, a mere effigy captured by
others' thinking, pass down into those depths of fire and blood that
only just had closed beneath my feet. She dipped away. She vanished, her
fading eyes turned to the last towards some savior who had failed her.
And that strange intolerable hope was in her face.
The mystery of the place was pretty thick about me just then. It was the
fall of dusk, and the ghost of slanting sunshine was as unreal as though
badly painted. The garden stood at attention all about me. I cannot
explain it, but I can tell it, I think, exactly as it happened, for it
remains vivid in me forever--that, for the first time, something almost
happened, myself apparently the combining link through which it pressed
I had already turned towards the house. In my mind were pictures--not
actual thoughts--of the motor, tea on the verandah, my sister, Mabel--
when there came behind me this tumultuous, awful rush--as I left the
garden. The ugliness, the pain, the striving to escape, the whole
negative and suppressed agony that was the Place, focused that second
into a concentrated effort to produce a result. It was a blinding
tempest of long-frustrate desire that heaved at me, surging appallingly
behind me like an anguished mob. I was in the act of crossing the
frontier into my normal self again, when it came, catching fearfully at
my skirts. I might use an entire dictionary of descriptive adjectives
yet come no nearer to it than this--the conception of a huge assemblage
determined to escape with me, or to snatch me back among themselves. My
legs trembled for an instant, and I caught my breath--then turned and
ran as fast as possible up the ugly terraces.
At the same instant, as though the clanging of an iron gate cut short
the unfinished phrase, I thought the beginning of an awful thing:
"The Damned ..."
Like this it rushed after me from that goblin garden that had sought to
For there was sound in it. I know full well it was subjective, not
actually heard at all; yet somehow sound was in it--a great volume,
roaring and booming thunderously, far away, and below me. The sentence
dipped back into the depths that gave it birth, unfinished. Its
completion was prevented. As usual, nothing happened. But it drove
behind me like a hurricane as I ran towards the house, and the sound of
it I can only liken to those terrible undertones you may hear standing
beside Niagara. They lie behind the mere crash of the falling flood,
within it somehow, not audible to all--felt rather than definitely
It seemed to echo back from the surface of those sagging terraces as I
flew across their sloping ends, for it was somehow underneath them. It
was in the rustle of the wind that stirred the skirts of the drooping
wellingtonias. The beds of formal flowers passed it on to the creepers,
red as blood, that crept over the unsightly building. Into the structure
of the vulgar and forbidding house it sank away; The Towers took it
home. The uncomely doors and windows seemed almost like mouths that had
uttered the words themselves, and on the upper floors at that very
moment I saw two maids in the act of closing them again.
And on the verandah, as I arrived breathless, and shaken in my soul,
Frances and Mabel, standing by the tea table, looked up to greet me. In
the faces of both were clearly legible the signs of shock. They watched
me coming, yet so full of their own distress that they hardly noticed
the state in which I came. In the face of my hostess, however, I read
another and a bigger thing than in the face of Frances. Mabel knew. She
had experienced what I had experienced. She had heard that awful
sentence I had heard but heard it not for the first time; heard it,
moreover, I verily believe, complete and to its dreadful end.
"Bill, did you hear that curious noise just now?" Frances asked it
sharply before I could say a word. Her manner was confused; she looked
straight at me; and there was a tremor in her voice she could not hide.
"There's wind about," I said, "wind in the trees and sweeping round the
walls. It's risen rather suddenly." My voice faltered rather.
"No. It wasn't wind," she insisted, with a significance meant for me
alone, but badly hidden. "It was more like distant thunder, we thought.
How you ran too!" she added. "What a pace you came across the terraces!"
I knew instantly from the way she said it that they both had already
heard the sound before and were anxious to know if I had heard it, and
how. My interpretation was what they sought.
"It was a curiously deep sound, I admit. It may have been big guns at
sea," I suggested, "forts or cruisers practicing. The coast isn't so
very far, and with the wind in the right direction--"
The expression on Mabel's face stopped me dead.
"Like huge doors closing," she said softly in her colorless voice,
"enormous metal doors shutting against a mass of people clamoring to get
out." The gravity, the note of hopelessness in her tones, was shocking.
Frances had gone into the house the instant Mabel began to speak. "I'm
cold," she had said; "I think I'll get a shawl." Mabel and I were alone.
I believe it was the first time we had been really alone since I
arrived. She looked up from the teacups, fixing her pallid eyes on mine.
She had made a question of the sentence.
"You hear it like that?" I asked innocently. I purposely used the
She changed her stare from one eye to the other; it was absolutely
expressionless. My sister's step sounded on the floor of the room behind
"If only--" Mabel began, then stopped, and my own feelings leaping out
instinctively completed the sentence I felt was in her mind:
"--something would happen."
She instantly corrected me. I had caught her thought, yet somehow
phrased it wrongly.
"We could escape!" She lowered her tone a little, saying it hurriedly.
The "we" amazed and horrified me; but something in her voice and manner
struck me utterly dumb. There was ice and terror in it. It was a dying
woman speaking--a lost and hopeless soul.
In that atrocious moment I hardly noticed what was said exactly, but I
remember that my sister returned with a grey shawl about her shoulders,
and that Mabel said, in her ordinary voice again, "It is chilly, yes;
let's have tea inside," and that two maids, one of them the grenadier,
speedily carried the loaded trays into the morning-room and put a match
to the logs in the great open fireplace. It was, after all, foolish to
risk the sharp evening air, for dusk was falling steadily, and even the
sunshine of the day just fading could not turn autumn into summer. I was
the last to come in. Just as I left the verandah a large black bird
swooped down in front of me past the pillars; it dropped from overhead,
swerved abruptly to one side as it caught sight of me, and flapped
heavily towards the shrubberies on the left of the terraces, where it
disappeared into the gloom. It flew very low, very close. And it
startled me, I think because in some way it seemed like my Shadow
materialized--as though the dark horror that was rising everywhere from
house and garden, then settling back so thickly yet so imperceptibly
upon us all, were incarnated in that whirring creature that passed
between the daylight and the coming night.
I stood a moment, wondering if it would appear again, before I followed
the others indoors, and as I was in the act of closing the windows after
me, I caught a glimpse of a figure on the lawn. It was some distance
away, on the other side of the shrubberies, in fact where the bird had
vanished. But in spite of the twilight that half magnified, half
obscured it, the identity was unmistakable. I knew the housekeeper's
stiff walk too well to be deceived. "Mrs. Marsh taking the air," I said
to myself. I felt the necessity of saying it, and I wondered why she was
doing so at this particular hour. If I had other thoughts they were so
vague, and so quickly and utterly suppressed, that I cannot recall them
sufficiently to relate them here.
And, once indoors, it was to be expected that there would come
explanation, discussion, conversation, at any rate, regarding the
singular noise and its cause, some uttered evidence of the mood that had
been strong enough to drive us all inside. Yet there was none. Each of
us purposely, and with various skill, ignored it. We talked little, and
when we did it was of anything in the world but that. Personally, I
experienced a touch of that same bewilderment which had come over me
during my first talk with Frances on the evening of my arrival, for I
recall now the acute tension, and the hope, yet dread, that one or other
of us must sooner or later introduce the subject. It did not happen,
however; no reference was made to it even remotely. It was the presence
of Mabel, I felt positive, that prohibited. As soon might we have
discussed Death in the bedroom of a dying woman.
The only scrap of conversation I remember, where all was ordinary and
commonplace, was when Mabel spoke casually to the grenadier asking why
Mrs. Marsh had omitted to do something or other--what it was I forget--
and that the maid replied respectfully that "Mrs. Marsh was very sorry,
but her 'and still pained her." I enquired, though so casually that I
scarcely know what prompted the words, whether she had injured herself
severely, and the reply, "She upset a lamp and burnt herself," was said
in a tone that made me feel my curiosity was indiscreet, "but she always
has an excuse for not doing things she ought to do." The little bit of
conversation remained with me, and I remember particularly the quick way
Frances interrupted and turned the talk upon the delinquencies of
servants in general, telling incidents of her own at our flat with a
volubility that perhaps seemed forced, and that certainly did not
encourage general talk as it may have been intended to do. We lapsed
into silence immediately she finished.
But for all our care and all our calculated silence, each knew that
something had, in these last moments, come very close; it had brushed us
in passing; it had retired; and I am inclined to think now that the
large dark thing I saw, riding the dusk, probably bird of prey, was in
some sense a symbol of it in my mind--that actually there had been no
bird at all, I mean, but that my mood of apprehension and dismay had
formed the vivid picture in my thoughts. It had swept past us, it had
retreated, but it was now, at this moment, in hiding very close. And it
was watching us.
Perhaps, too, it was mere coincidence that I encountered Mrs. Marsh, his
housekeeper, several times that evening in the short interval between
tea and dinner, and that on each occasion the sight of this gaunt,
half-saturnine woman fed my prejudice against her. Once, on my way to the
telephone, I ran into her just where the passage is somewhat jammed by a
square table carrying the Chinese gong, a grandfather's clock and a box
of croquet mallets. We both gave way, then both advanced, then again
gave way--simultaneously. It seemed, impossible to pass. We stepped with
decision to the same side, finally colliding in the middle, while saying
those futile little things, half apology, half excuse, that are
inevitable at such times. In the end she stood upright against the wall
for me to pass, taking her place against the very door I wished to open.
It was ludicrous.
"Excuse me--I was just going in--to telephone," I explained. And she
sidled off, murmuring apologies, but opening the door for me while she
did so. Our hands met a moment on the handle.
There was a second's awkwardness--it was too stupid. I remembered her
injury, and by way of something to say, I enquired after it. She thanked
me; it was entirely healed now, but it might have been much worse; and
there was something about the "mercy of the Lord" that I didn't quite
catch. While telephoning, however--London call, and my attention focused
on it--realized sharply that this was the first time I had spoken with
her; also, that I had--touched her.
It happened to be a Sunday, and the lines were clear. I got my
connection quickly, and the incident was forgotten while my thoughts
went up to London. On my way upstairs, then, the woman came back into my
mind, so that I recalled other things about her--how she seemed all over
the house, in unlikely places often; how I had caught her sitting in the
hall alone that night; how she was forever coming and going with her
lugubrious visage and that untidy hair at the back that had made me
laugh three years ago with the idea that it looked singed or burnt; and
how the impression on my first arrival at The Towers was that this woman
somehow kept alive, though its evidence was outwardly suppressed, the
influence of her late employer and of his somber teachings. Somewhere
with her was associated the idea of punishment, vindictiveness, revenge.
I remembered again suddenly my odd notion that she sought to keep her
present mistress here, a prisoner in this bleak and comfortless house,
and that really, in spite of her obsequious silence, she was intensely
opposed to the change of thought that had reclaimed Mabel to a happier
view of life.
All this in a passing second flashed in review before me, and I
discovered, or at any rate reconstructed, the real Mrs. Marsh. She was
decidedly in the Shadow. More, she stood in the forefront of it,
stealthily leading an assault, as it were, against The Towers and its
occupants, as though, consciously or unconsciously, she labored
incessantly to this hateful end.
I can only judge that some state of nervousness in me permitted the
series of insignificant thoughts to assume this dramatic shape, and that
what had gone before prepared the way and led her up at the head of so
formidable a procession. I relate it exactly as it came to me. My nerves
were doubtless somewhat on edge by now. Otherwise I should hardly have
been a prey to the exaggeration at all. I seemed open to so many
Nothing else, perhaps, can explain my ridiculous conversation with her,
when, for the third time that evening, I came suddenly upon the woman
half-way down the stairs, standing by an open window as if in the act of
listening. She was dressed in black, a black shawl over her square
shoulders and black gloves on her big, broad hands. Two black objects,
prayer books apparently, she clasped, and on her head she wore a bonnet
with shaking beads of jet. At first I did not know her, as I came
running down upon her from the landing; it was only when she stood aside
to let me pass that I saw her profile against the tapestry and
recognized Mrs. Marsh. And to catch her on the front stairs, dressed
like this, struck me as incongruous--impertinent. I paused in my
dangerous descent. Through the opened window came the sound of bells--
church bells--a sound more depressing to me than superstition, and as
nauseating. Though the action was ill judged, I obeyed the sudden
prompting--was it a secret desire to attack, perhaps?--and spoke to her.
"Been to church, I suppose, Mrs. Marsh?" I said. "Or just going,
Her face, as she looked up a second to reply, was like an iron doll that
moved its lips and turned its eyes, but made no other imitation of life
"Some of us still goes, sir," she said unctuously.
It was respectful enough, yet the implied judgment of the rest of the
world made me almost angry. A deferential insolence lay behind the
"For those who believe no doubt it is helpful," I smiled. "True religion
brings peace and happiness, I'm sure--joy, Mrs. Marsh, joy!" I found
keen satisfaction in the emphasis.
She looked at me like a knife. I cannot describe the implacable thing
that shone in her fixed, stern eyes, nor the shadow of felt darkness
that stole across her face. She glittered. I felt hate in her. I knew--
she knew too--who was in the thoughts of us both at that moment.
She replied softly, never forgetting her place for an instant:
"There is joy, sir--in 'eaven--over one sinner that repenteth, and in
church there goes up prayer to Gawd for those 'oo--well, for the others,
She cut short her sentence thus. The gloom about her as she said it was
like the gloom about a hearse, a tomb, a darkness of great hopeless
dungeons. My tongue ran on of itself with a kind of bitter satisfaction:
"We must believe there are no others, Mrs. Marsh. Salvation, you know,
would be such a failure if there were. No merciful, all-foreseeing God
could ever have devised such a fearful plan--"
Her voice, interrupting me, seemed to rise out of the bowels of the
"They rejected the salvation when it was offered to them, sir, on
"But you wouldn't have them tortured forever because of one mistake in
ignorance," I said, fixing her with my eye. "Come now, would you, Mrs.
Marsh? No God worth worshipping could permit such cruelty. Think a
moment what it means."
She stared at me, a curious expression in her stupid eyes. It seemed to
me as though the "woman" in her revolted, while yet she dared not suffer
her grim belief to trip. That is, she would willingly have had it
otherwise but for a terror that prevented.
"We may pray for them, sir, and we do--we may 'ope." She dropped her
eyes to the carpet.
"Good, good!" I put in cheerfully, sorry now that I had spoken at all.
"That's more hopeful, at any rate isn't it?"
She murmured something about Abraham's bosom, and the "time of salvation
not being forever," as I tried to pass her. Then a half gesture that she
made stopped me. There was something more she wished to say--to ask. She
looked up furtively. In her eyes I saw the "woman" peering out through
"Per'aps, sir." she faltered, as though lightning must strike her dead,
"per'aps, would you think, a drop of cold water, given in His name,
But I stopped her, for the foolish talk had lasted long enough. "Of
course," I exclaimed, "of course. For God is love, remember, and love
means charity, tolerance, sympathy, and sparing others pain," and I
hurried past her, determined to end the outrageous conversation for
which yet I knew myself entirely to blame. Behind me, she stood
stock-still for several minutes, half bewildered, half alarmed, as I
suspected. I caught the fragment of another sentence, one word of it,
rather--"punishment"--but the rest escaped me. Her arrogance and
condescending tolerance exasperated me, while I was at the same time
secretly pleased that I might have touched some string of remorse or
sympathy in her after all. Her belief was iron; she dared not let it go;
yet somewhere underneath there lurked the germ of a wholesome revulsion.
She would help "them"--if she dared. Her question proved it.
Half ashamed of myself, I turned and crossed the hail quickly lest I
should be tempted to say more, and in me was a disagreeable sensation as
though I had just left the Incurable Ward of some great hospital. A
reaction caught me as of nausea. Ugh! I wanted such people cleansed by
fire. They seemed to me as centers of contamination whose vicious
thoughts flowed out to stain God's glorious world. I saw myself,
Frances, Mabel too especially, on the rack, while that odious figure of
cruelty and darkness stood over us and ordered the awful handles turned
in order that we might be "saved"--forced, that is, to think and believe
exactly as she thought and believed.
I found relief for my somewhat childish indignation by letting myself
loose upon the organ then. The flood of Bach and Beethoven brought back
the sense of proportion. It proved, however, at the same time that there
had been this growth of distortion in me, and that it had been provided
apparently by my closer contact--for the first time--with that funereal
personality, the woman who, like her master, believed that all holding
views of God that differed from her own, must be damned eternally. It
gave me, moreover, some faint clue perhaps, though a clue I was unequal
of following up, to the nature of the strife and terror and frustrate
influence in the house. That housekeeper had to do with it. She kept it
Back to Full Books