by Edith Nesbit
Although every word of this story is as true as despair, I do not expect people to believe it. Nowadays a “rational explanation” is required before belief is possible. Let me then, at once, offer the “rational explanation” which finds most favour among those who have heard the tale of my life’s tragedy. It is held that we were “under a delusion,” Laura and I, on that 31st of October; and that this supposition places the whole matter on a satisfactory and believable basis. The reader can judge, when he, too, has heard my story, how far this is an “explanation,” and in what sense it is “rational.” There were three who took part in this: Laura and I and another man. The other man still lives, and can speak to the truth of the least credible part of my story.
I never in my life knew what it was to have as much money as I required to supply the most ordinary needs—good colours, books, and cab-fares—and when we were married we knew quite well that we should only be able to live at all by “strict punctuality and attention to business.” I used to paint in those days, and Laura used to write, and we felt sure we could keep the pot at least simmering. Living in town was out of the question, so we went to look for a cottage in the country, which should be at once sanitary and picturesque. So rarely do these two qualities meet in one cottage that our search was for some time quite fruitless. We tried advertisements, but most of the desirable rural residences which we did look at proved to be lacking in both essentials, and when a cottage chanced to have drains it always had stucco as well and was shaped like a tea-caddy. And if we found a vine or rose-covered porch, corruption invariably lurked within. Our minds got so befogged by the eloquence of house-agents and the rival disadvantages of the fever-traps and outrages to beauty which we had seen and scorned, that I very much doubt whether either of us, on our wedding morning, knew the difference between a house and a haystack. But when we got away from friends and house-agents, on our honeymoon, our wits grew clear again, and we knew a pretty cottage when at last we saw one. It was at Brenzett—a little village set on a hill over against the southern marshes. We had gone there, from the seaside village where we were staying, to see the church, and two fields from the church we found this cottage. It stood quite by itself, about two miles from the village. It was a long, low building, with rooms sticking out in unexpected places. There was a bit of stone-work—ivy-covered and moss-grown, just two old rooms, all that was left of a big house that had once stood there—and round this stone-work the house had grown up. Stripped of its roses and jasmine it would have been hideous. As it stood it was charming, and after a brief examination we took it. It was absurdly cheap. The rest of our honeymoon we spent in grubbing about in second-hand shops in the county town, picking up bits of old oak and Chippendale chairs for our furnishing. We wound up with a run up to town and a visit to Liberty’s, and soon the low oak-beamed lattice-windowed rooms began to be home. There was a jolly old-fashioned garden, with grass paths, and no end of hollyhocks and sunflowers, and big lilies. From the window you could see the marsh-pastures, and beyond them the blue, thin line of the sea. We were as happy as the summer was glorious, and settled down into work sooner than we ourselves expected. I was never tired of sketching the view and the wonderful cloud effects from the open lattice, and Laura would sit at the table and write verses about them, in which I mostly played the part of foreground.
We got a tall old peasant woman to do for us. Her face and figure were good, though her cooking was of the homeliest; but she understood all about gardening, and told us all the old names of the coppices and cornfields, and the stories of the smugglers and highwaymen, and, better still, of the “things that walked,” and of the “sights” which met one in lonely glens of a starlight night. She was a great comfort to us, because Laura hated housekeeping as much as I loved folklore, and we soon came to leave all the domestic business to Mrs. Dorman, and to use her legends in little magazine stories which brought in the jingling guinea.
We had three months of married happiness, and did not have a single quarrel. One October evening I had been down to smoke a pipe with the doctor—our only neighbour—a pleasant young Irishman. Laura had stayed at home to finish a comic sketch of a village episode for the Monthly Marplot. I left her laughing over her own jokes, and came in to find her a crumpled heap of pale muslin weeping on the window seat.
“Good heavens, my darling, what’s the matter?” I cried, taking her in my arms. She leaned her little dark head against my shoulder and went on crying. I had never seen her cry before—we had always been so happy, you see—and I felt sure some frightful misfortune had happened.
“What is the matter? Do speak.”
“It’s Mrs. Dorman,” she sobbed.
“What has she done?” I inquired, immensely relieved.
“She says she must go before the end of the month, and she says her niece is ill; she’s gone down to see her now, but I don’t believe that’s the reason, because her niece is always ill. I believe some one has been setting her against us. Her manner was so queer——”
“Never mind, Pussy,” I said; “whatever you do, don’t cry, or I shall have to cry too, to keep you in countenance, and then you’ll never respect your man again!”
She dried her eyes obediently on my handkerchief, and even smiled faintly.
“But you see,” she went on, “it is really serious, because these village people are so sheepy, and if one won’t do a thing you may be quite sure none of the others will. And I shall have to cook the dinners, and wash up the hateful greasy plates; and you’ll have to carry cans of water about, and clean the boots and knives—and we shall never have any time for work, or earn any money, or anything. We shall have to work all day, and only be able to rest when we are waiting for the kettle to boil!”
I represented to her that even if we had to perform these duties, the day would still present some margin for other toils and recreations. But she refused to see the matter in any but the greyest light. She was very unreasonable, my Laura, but I could not have loved her any more if she had been as reasonable as Whately.
“I’ll speak to Mrs. Dorman when she comes back, and see if I can’t come to terms with her,” I said. “Perhaps she wants a rise in her screw. It will be all right. Let’s walk up to the church.”
The church was a large and lonely one, and we loved to go there, especially upon bright nights. The path skirted a wood, cut through it once, and ran along the crest of the hill through two meadows, and round the churchyard wall, over which the old yews loomed in black masses of shadow. This path, which was partly paved, was called “the bier-balk,” for it had long been the way by which the corpses had been carried to burial. The churchyard was richly treed, and was shaded by great elms which stood just outside and stretched their majestic arms in benediction over the happy dead. A large, low porch let one into the building by a Norman doorway and a heavy oak door studded with iron. Inside, the arches rose into darkness, and between them the reticulated windows, which stood out white in the moonlight. In the chancel, the windows were of rich glass, which showed in faint light their noble colouring, and made the black oak of the choir pews hardly more solid than the shadows. But on each side of the altar lay a grey marble figure of a knight in full plate armour lying upon a low slab, with hands held up in everlasting prayer, and these figures, oddly enough, were always to be seen if there was any glimmer of light in the church. Their names were lost, but the peasants told of them that they had been fierce and wicked men, marauders by land and sea, who had been the scourge of their time, and had been guilty of deeds so foul that the house they had lived in—the big house, by the way, that had stood on the site of our cottage—had been stricken by lightning and the vengeance of Heaven. But for all that, the gold of their heirs had bought them a place in the church. Looking at the bad hard faces reproduced in the marble, this story was easily believed.
The church looked at its best and weirdest on that night, for the shadows of the yew trees fell through the windows upon the floor of the nave and touched the pillars with tattered shade. We sat down together without speaking, and watched the solemn beauty of the old church, with some of that awe which inspired its early builders. We walked to the chancel and looked at the sleeping warriors. Then we rested some time on the stone seat in the porch, looking out over the stretch of quiet moonlit meadows, feeling in every fibre of our being the peace of the night and of our happy love; and came away at last with a sense that even scrubbing and blackleading were but small troubles at their worst.
Mrs. Dorman had come back from the village, and I at once invited her to a tête-à-tête.
“Now, Mrs. Dorman,” I said, when I had got her into my painting room, “what’s all this about your not staying with us?”
“I should be glad to get away, sir, before the end of the month,” she answered, with her usual placid dignity.
“Have you any fault to find, Mrs. Dorman?”
“None at all, sir; you and your lady have always been most kind, I’m sure——”
“Well, what is it? Are your wages not high enough?”
“No, sir, I gets quite enough.”
“Then why not stay?”
“I’d rather not”—with some hesitation—”my niece is ill.”
“But your niece has been ill ever since we came.”
No answer. There was a long and awkward silence. I broke it.
“Can’t you stay for another month?” I asked.
“No, sir. I’m bound to go by Thursday.”
And this was Monday!
“Well, I must say, I think you might have let us know before. There’s no time now to get any one else, and your mistress is not fit to do heavy housework. Can’t you stay till next week?”
“I might be able to come back next week.”
I was now convinced that all she wanted was a brief holiday, which we should have been willing enough to let her have, as soon as we could get a substitute.
“But why must you go this week?” I persisted. “Come, out with it.”
Mrs. Dorman drew the little shawl, which she always wore, tightly across her bosom, as though she were cold. Then she said, with a sort of effort—
“They say, sir, as this was a big house in Catholic times, and there was a many deeds done here.”
The nature of the “deeds” might be vaguely inferred from the inflection of Mrs. Dorman’s voice—which was enough to make one’s blood run cold. I was glad that Laura was not in the room. She was always nervous, as highly-strung natures are, and I felt that these tales about our house, told by this old peasant woman, with her impressive manner and contagious credulity, might have made our home less dear to my wife.
“Tell me all about it, Mrs. Dorman,” I said; “you needn’t mind about telling me. I’m not like the young people who make fun of such things.”
Which was partly true.
“Well, sir”—she sank her voice—”you may have seen in the church, beside the altar, two shapes.”
“You mean the effigies of the knights in armour,” I said cheerfully.
“I mean them two bodies, drawed out man-size in marble,” she returned, and I had to admit that her description was a thousand times more graphic than mine, to say nothing of a certain weird force and uncanniness about the phrase “drawed out man-size in marble.”
“They do say, as on All Saints’ Eve them two bodies sits up on their slabs, and gets off of them, and then walks down the aisle, in their marble”—(another good phrase, Mrs. Dorman)—”and as the church clock strikes eleven they walks out of the church door, and over the graves, and along the bier-balk, and if it’s a wet night there’s the marks of their feet in the morning.”
“And where do they go?” I asked, rather fascinated.
“They comes back here to their home, sir, and if any one meets them——”
“Well, what then?” I asked.
But no—not another word could I get from her, save that her niece was ill and she must go. After what I had heard I scorned to discuss the niece, and tried to get from Mrs. Dorman more details of the legend. I could get nothing but warnings.
“Whatever you do, sir, lock the door early on All Saints’ Eve, and make the cross-sign over the doorstep and on the windows.”
“But has any one ever seen these things?” I persisted.
“That’s not for me to say. I know what I know, sir.”
“Well, who was here last year?”
“No one, sir; the lady as owned the house only stayed here in summer, and she always went to London a full month afore the night. And I’m sorry to inconvenience you and your lady, but my niece is ill and I must go on Thursday.”
I could have shaken her for her absurd reiteration of that obvious fiction, after she had told me her real reasons.
She was determined to go, nor could our united entreaties move her in the least.
I did not tell Laura the legend of the shapes that “walked in their marble,” partly because a legend concerning our house might perhaps trouble my wife, and partly, I think, from some more occult reason. This was not quite the same to me as any other story, and I did not want to talk about it till the day was over. I had very soon ceased to think of the legend, however. I was painting a portrait of Laura, against the lattice window, and I could not think of much else. I had got a splendid background of yellow and grey sunset, and was working away with enthusiasm at her face. On Thursday Mrs. Dorman went. She relented, at parting, so far as to say—
“Don’t you put yourself about too much, ma’am, and if there’s any little thing I can do next week, I’m sure I shan’t mind.”
From which I inferred that she wished to come back to us after Halloween. Up to the last she adhered to the fiction of the niece with touching fidelity.
Thursday passed off pretty well. Laura showed marked ability in the matter of steak and potatoes, and I confess that my knives, and the plates, which I insisted upon washing, were better done than I had dared to expect.
Friday came. It is about what happened on that Friday that this is written. I wonder if I should have believed it, if any one had told it to me. I will write the story of it as quickly and plainly as I can. Everything that happened on that day is burnt into my brain. I shall not forget anything, nor leave anything out.
I got up early, I remember, and lighted the kitchen fire, and had just achieved a smoky success, when my little wife came running down, as sunny and sweet as the clear October morning itself. We prepared breakfast together, and found it very good fun. The housework was soon done, and when brushes and brooms and pails were quiet again, the house was still indeed. It is wonderful what a difference one makes in a house. We really missed Mrs. Dorman, quite apart from considerations concerning pots and pans. We spent the day in dusting our books and putting them straight, and dined gaily on cold steak and coffee. Laura was, if possible, brighter and gayer and sweeter than usual, and I began to think that a little domestic toil was really good for her. We had never been so merry since we were married, and the walk we had that afternoon was, I think, the happiest time of all my life. When we had watched the deep scarlet clouds slowly pale into leaden grey against a pale-green sky, and saw the white mists curl up along the hedgerows in the distant marsh, we came back to the house, silently, hand in hand.
“You are sad, my darling,” I said, half-jestingly, as we sat down together in our little parlour. I expected a disclaimer, for my own silence had been the silence of complete happiness. To my surprise she said—
“Yes. I think I am sad, or rather I am uneasy. I don’t think I’m very well. I have shivered three or four times since we came in, and it is not cold, is it?”
“No,” I said, and hoped it was not a chill caught from the treacherous mists that roll up from the marshes in the dying light. No—she said, she did not think so. Then, after a silence, she spoke suddenly—
“Do you ever have presentiments of evil?”
“No,” I said, smiling, “and I shouldn’t believe in them if I had.”
“I do,” she went on; “the night my father died I knew it, though he was right away in the north of Scotland.” I did not answer in words.
She sat looking at the fire for some time in silence, gently stroking my hand. At last she sprang up, came behind me, and, drawing my head back, kissed me.
“There, it’s over now,” she said. “What a baby I am! Come, light the candles, and we’ll have some of these new Rubinstein duets.”
And we spent a happy hour or two at the piano.
At about half-past ten I began to long for the good-night pipe, but Laura looked so white that I felt it would be brutal of me to fill our sitting-room with the fumes of strong cavendish.
“I’ll take my pipe outside,” I said.
“Let me come, too.”
“No, sweetheart, not to-night; you’re much too tired. I shan’t be long. Get to bed, or I shall have an invalid to nurse to-morrow as well as the boots to clean.”
I kissed her and was turning to go, when she flung her arms round my neck, and held me as if she would never let me go again. I stroked her hair.
“Come, Pussy, you’re over-tired. The housework has been too much for you.”
She loosened her clasp a little and drew a deep breath.
“No. We’ve been very happy to-day, Jack, haven’t we? Don’t stay out too long.”
“I won’t, my dearie.”
I strolled out of the front door, leaving it unlatched. What a night it was! The jagged masses of heavy dark cloud were rolling at intervals from horizon to horizon, and thin white wreaths covered the stars. Through all the rush of the cloud river, the moon swam, breasting the waves and disappearing again in the darkness. When now and again her light reached the woodlands they seemed to be slowly and noiselessly waving in time to the swing of the clouds above them. There was a strange grey light over all the earth; the fields had that shadowy bloom over them which only comes from the marriage of dew and moonshine, or frost and starlight.
I walked up and down, drinking in the beauty of the quiet earth and the changing sky. The night was absolutely silent. Nothing seemed to be abroad. There was no skurrying of rabbits, or twitter of the half-asleep birds. And though the clouds went sailing across the sky, the wind that drove them never came low enough to rustle the dead leaves in the woodland paths. Across the meadows I could see the church tower standing out black and grey against the sky. I walked there thinking over our three months of happiness—and of my wife, her dear eyes, her loving ways. Oh, my little girl! my own little girl; what a vision came then of a long, glad life for you and me together!
I heard a bell-beat from the church. Eleven already! I turned to go in, but the night held me. I could not go back into our little warm rooms yet. I would go up to the church. I felt vaguely that it would be good to carry my love and thankfulness to the sanctuary whither so many loads of sorrow and gladness had been borne by the men and women of the dead years.
I looked in at the low window as I went by. Laura was half lying on her chair in front of the fire. I could not see her face, only her little head showed dark against the pale blue wall. She was quite still. Asleep, no doubt. My heart reached out to her, as I went on. There must be a God, I thought, and a God who was good. How otherwise could anything so sweet and dear as she have ever been imagined?
I walked slowly along the edge of the wood. A sound broke the stillness of the night, it was a rustling in the wood. I stopped and listened. The sound stopped too. I went on, and now distinctly heard another step than mine answer mine like an echo. It was a poacher or a wood-stealer, most likely, for these were not unknown in our Arcadian neighbourhood. But whoever it was, he was a fool not to step more lightly. I turned into the wood, and now the footstep seemed to come from the path I had just left. It must be an echo, I thought. The wood looked perfect in the moonlight. The large dying ferns and the brushwood showed where through thinning foliage the pale light came down. The tree trunks stood up like Gothic columns all around me. They reminded me of the church, and I turned into the bier-balk, and passed through the corpse-gate between the graves to the low porch. I paused for a moment on the stone seat where Laura and I had watched the fading landscape. Then I noticed that the door of the church was open, and I blamed myself for having left it unlatched the other night. We were the only people who ever cared to come to the church except on Sundays, and I was vexed to think that through our carelessness the damp autumn airs had had a chance of getting in and injuring the old fabric. I went in. It will seem strange, perhaps, that I should have gone half-way up the aisle before I remembered—with a sudden chill, followed by as sudden a rush of self-contempt—that this was the very day and hour when, according to tradition, the “shapes drawed out man-size in marble” began to walk.
Having thus remembered the legend, and remembered it with a shiver, of which I was ashamed, I could not do otherwise than walk up towards the altar, just to look at the figures—as I said to myself; really what I wanted was to assure myself, first, that I did not believe the legend, and, secondly, that it was not true. I was rather glad that I had come. I thought now I could tell Mrs. Dorman how vain her fancies were, and how peacefully the marble figures slept on through the ghastly hour. With my hands in my pockets I passed up the aisle. In the grey dim light the eastern end of the church looked larger than usual, and the arches above the two tombs looked larger too. The moon came out and showed me the reason. I stopped short, my heart gave a leap that nearly choked me, and then sank sickeningly.
The “bodies drawed out man-size” were gone, and their marble slabs lay wide and bare in the vague moonlight that slanted through the east window.
Were they really gone? or was I mad? Clenching my nerves, I stooped and passed my hand over the smooth slabs, and felt their flat unbroken surface. Had some one taken the things away? Was it some vile practical joke? I would make sure, anyway. In an instant I had made a torch of a newspaper, which happened to be in my pocket, and lighting it held it high above my head. Its yellow glare illumined the dark arches and those slabs. The figures were gone. And I was alone in the church; or was I alone?
And then a horror seized me, a horror indefinable and indescribable—an overwhelming certainty of supreme and accomplished calamity. I flung down the torch and tore along the aisle and out through the porch, biting my lips as I ran to keep myself from shrieking aloud. Oh, was I mad—or what was this that possessed me? I leaped the churchyard wall and took the straight cut across the fields, led by the light from our windows. Just as I got over the first stile, a dark figure seemed to spring out of the ground. Mad still with that certainty of misfortune, I made for the thing that stood in my path, shouting, “Get out of the way, can’t you!”
But my push met with a more vigorous resistance than I had expected. My arms were caught just above the elbow and held as in a vice, and the raw-boned Irish doctor actually shook me.
“Would ye?” he cried, in his own unmistakable accents—”would ye, then?”
“Let me go, you fool,” I gasped. “The marble figures have gone from the church; I tell you they’ve gone.”
He broke into a ringing laugh. “I’ll have to give ye a draught to-morrow, I see. Ye’ve bin smoking too much and listening to old wives’ tales.”
“I tell you, I’ve seen the bare slabs.”
“Well, come back with me. I’m going up to old Palmer’s—his daughter’s ill; we’ll look in at the church and let me see the bare slabs.”
“You go, if you like,” I said, a little less frantic for his laughter; “I’m going home to my wife.”
“Rubbish, man,” said he; “d’ye think I’ll permit of that? Are ye to go saying all yer life that ye’ve seen solid marble endowed with vitality, and me to go all me life saying ye were a coward? No, sir—ye shan’t do ut.”
The night air—a human voice—and I think also the physical contact with this six feet of solid common sense, brought me back a little to my ordinary self, and the word “coward” was a mental shower-bath.
“Come on, then,” I said sullenly; “perhaps you’re right.”
He still held my arm tightly. We got over the stile and back to the church. All was still as death. The place smelt very damp and earthy. We walked up the aisle. I am not ashamed to confess that I shut my eyes: I knew the figures would not be there. I heard Kelly strike a match.
“Here they are, ye see, right enough; ye’ve been dreaming or drinking, asking yer pardon for the imputation.”
I opened my eyes. By Kelly’s expiring vesta I saw two shapes lying “in their marble” on their slabs. I drew a deep breath, and caught his hand.
“I’m awfully indebted to you,” I said. “It must have been some trick of light, or I have been working rather hard, perhaps that’s it. Do you know, I was quite convinced they were gone.”
“I’m aware of that,” he answered rather grimly; “ye’ll have to be careful of that brain of yours, my friend, I assure ye.”
He was leaning over and looking at the right-hand figure, whose stony face was the most villainous and deadly in expression.
“By Jove,” he said, “something has been afoot here—this hand is broken.”
And so it was. I was certain that it had been perfect the last time Laura and I had been there.
“Perhaps some one has tried to remove them,” said the young doctor.
“That won’t account for my impression,” I objected.
“Too much painting and tobacco will account for that, well enough.”
“Come along,” I said, “or my wife will be getting anxious. You’ll come in and have a drop of whisky and drink confusion to ghosts and better sense to me.”
“I ought to go up to Palmer’s, but it’s so late now I’d best leave it till the morning,” he replied. “I was kept late at the Union, and I’ve had to see a lot of people since. All right, I’ll come back with ye.”
I think he fancied I needed him more than did Palmer’s girl, so, discussing how such an illusion could have been possible, and deducing from this experience large generalities concerning ghostly apparitions, we walked up to our cottage. We saw, as we walked up the garden-path, that bright light streamed out of the front door, and presently saw that the parlour door was open too. Had she gone out?
“Come in,” I said, and Dr. Kelly followed me into the parlour. It was all ablaze with candles, not only the wax ones, but at least a dozen guttering, glaring tallow dips, stuck in vases and ornaments in unlikely places. Light, I knew, was Laura’s remedy for nervousness. Poor child! Why had I left her? Brute that I was.
We glanced round the room, and at first we did not see her. The window was open, and the draught set all the candles flaring one way. Her chair was empty and her handkerchief and book lay on the floor. I turned to the window. There, in the recess of the window, I saw her. Oh, my child, my love, had she gone to that window to watch for me? And what had come into the room behind her? To what had she turned with that look of frantic fear and horror? Oh, my little one, had she thought that it was I whose step she heard, and turned to meet—what?
She had fallen back across a table in the window, and her body lay half on it and half on the window-seat, and her head hung down over the table, the brown hair loosened and fallen to the carpet. Her lips were drawn back, and her eyes wide, wide open. They saw nothing now. What had they seen last?
The doctor moved towards her, but I pushed him aside and sprang to her; caught her in my arms and cried—
“It’s all right, Laura! I’ve got you safe, wifie.”
She fell into my arms in a heap. I clasped her and kissed her, and called her by all her pet names, but I think I knew all the time that she was dead. Her hands were tightly clenched. In one of them she held something fast. When I was quite sure that she was dead, and that nothing mattered at all any more, I let him open her hand to see what she held.
It was a grey marble finger.