Authors: Susan Hill
I do not know how long I stood there in fear and trembling and in dreadful bewilderment. I lost all sense of time and ordinary reality. Through my head went a tumbling
confusion of half-thoughts and emotions, visions of spectres and of real fleshy intruders, ideas of murder and violence, and all manner of odd, distorted fears. And, all the time, the door stood wide open and the rocking continued. Rocking. Yes. I came to, because I had realized at last what the noise within the room was – or, at least, what it reminded me of closely. It was the sound of the
wooden runners of my nurse’s rocking chair, when she had sat beside me every night while I went to sleep, as a small child, rocking, rocking. Sometimes, when I was ill and feverish or had wakened from the throes of some nightmare, she or my mother had come to me and lifted me out of my bed and sat with
me in that same chair, holding me and rocking until I was soothed and sleepy again. The sound
that I had been hearing was the sound that I remembered from far back, from a time before I could clearly remember anything else. It was the sound that meant comfort and safety, peace and reassurance, the regular, rhythmical sound at the end of the day, that lulled me asleep and into my dreams, the sound that meant that one of the two people in the world to whom I was closest and whom I most loved
was nearby. And so, as I stood there in the dark passageway, listening, the sound began to exert the same effect upon me now until I felt hypnotized by it into a state of drowsiness and rest, my fears and the tensions in my body they had aroused began to slip away, I was breathing slowly and more deeply and felt a warmth creeping into my limbs. I felt that nothing could come near to harm or afright
me, but I had a protector and guardian close at hand. And, indeed, perhaps I had, perhaps all I had ever learned and believed in the nursery about unseen heavenly spirits surrounding, upholding and preserving us was indeed true; or perhaps it was only that my memories aroused by the rocking sound were so positive and so powerfully strong that they overcame and quite drove out all that was sinister
and alarming, evil and disturbed.
Whichever might be the case, I knew that I now
had courage enough to go into that room and face whatever might be there and so, before the conviction faltered, and my fears could return, I walked in, as determinedly and boldy and firmly as I could. As I did so I put my hand up to the light switch on the wall but when I pressed it no illumination came and, shining
my torch onto the ceiling, I saw that the socket was bare of any light bulb. But the beam from my own lamp was quite strong and bright, it gave me ample light for my purpose and now, as I went into the room, Spider gave a low whine from one corner, but did not come over to me. Very slowly and cautiously I looked around the room.
It was almost the room I had just been remembering, the room to
which the sound I had identified belonged. It was a child’s nursery. There was the bed in one corner, the same sort of low narrow wooden bed that I myself had once slept in, and beside it and facing the open fireplace at an angle stood the rocking chair and that too was the same or very similar, a low-seated, tall, ladder-backed chair made of dark wood – elm, perhaps, and with wide, worn, curved runners.
As I watched, stared until I could stare no harder, it rocked gently and with gradually decreasing speed, in the way any such chair will continue to rock for a time after someone has just got out of it.
But no one had been there. The room had been
empty. Anyone who had just left it must have come out into the corridor and confronted me, I would have had to move aside to let them pass.
the torch rapidly all around the wall. There was the chimney breast and fireplace, there was the window closed and bolted and with two wooden bars across it, such as all nurseries have to guard the children from falling out; there was no other door.
Gradually the chair rocked less and less, until the movements were so slight I could scarcely see or hear them. Then they stopped and there was absolute
The nursery was fully furnished and equipped and in such good order that the occupant of it might only have gone away for a night or two or even simply taken a walk, there was none of the damp, bare, unlived-in feeling of all the other rooms of Eel Marsh House. Carefully and cautiously, almost holding my breath, I explored it. I looked at the bed, made up and all complete with sheets
and pillows, blankets and counterpane. Beside it was a small table and on the table a tiny wooden horse and a night-light with the candle half burnt away, still in place and with water in the holder. In the chest of drawers and wardrobe there were clothes, underclothes, day clothes, formal clothes, play clothes, clothes for a small boy of six or seven years old, beautiful, well-made clothes, in the
style of those which my own parents wore as children
in those formal photographs we still have about the house, the styles of sixty years or more ago.
And then there were the child’s toys, so many toys and all of them most neatly and meticulously ordered and cared for. There were rows of lead soldiers, arranged in regiments, and a farm, set out with painted barns and fences, haycocks and little
wooden stooks of corn and on a big board. There was a model ship complete with masts and sails of linen, yellowed a little by age, and a whip with a leather thong, lying beside a polished spinning top. There were games of ludo and halma, draughts and chess, there were jigsaw puzzles of country scenes and circuses and the ‘Boyhood of Raleigh’, and in a small wooden chest there was a monkey made
of leather and a cat and four kittens knitted from wool, a furry bear and a bald doll with a china head and a sailor suit. The child had had pens and brushes, too, and bottles of coloured inks and a book of nursery rhymes and another of Greek stories and a Bible and a prayer book, a set of dice and two packs of playing cards, a miniature trumpet and a painted musical box from Switzerland and a Black
Sambo made of tin with jointed arms and legs.
I picked things up, stroked them, even smelled them. They must have been here for half a century, yet they might have been played with this afternoon and tidied away tonight. I was not afraid now. I was puzzled. I felt strange, unlike myself, I moved as if in a dream.
But for the moment at least there was nothing here to frighten or harm me, there
was only emptiness, an open door, a neatly made bed and a curious air of sadness, of something lost, missing, so that I myself felt a desolation, a grief in my own heart. How can I explain? I cannot. But I remember it, as I felt it.
The dog was sitting quietly now on the rag rug beside the child’s bed and in the end, because I had examined everything and could not explain any of it and did not
want to be in that sad atmosphere any longer, I went out, after taking a last slow look around, closing the door behind me.
It was not late but I had no more energy left to go on reading Mrs Drablow’s papers, I felt drained, exhausted, all the emotions that had poured into me and out again leaving me like something thrown up on a calm beach at the end of a storm.
I made myself a drink of hot
water and brandy and did my round of the house, banking up the fires and locking the doors before going to bed, to read Sir Walter Scott.
Just before doing so, I went down the passage-way that led to the nursery. The door was still closed as I had left it. I listened, but there was no sound at all from within. I did not disturb the silence or the emptiness again but went quietly back to my own
room at the front of the house.
night the wind rose. As I had lain reading I had become aware of the stronger gusts that blew every so often against the casements. But when I awoke abruptly in the early hours it had increased greatly in force. The house felt like a ship at sea, battered by the gale that came roaring across the open marsh. Windows were rattling everywhere and there was
the sound of moaning down all the chimneys of the house and whistling through every nook and cranny.
At first I was alarmed. Then, as I lay still, gathering my wits, I reflected on how long Eel Marsh House had stood here, steady as a lighthouse, quite alone and exposed, bearing the brunt of winter after winter of gales and driving rain and sleet and spray.
It was unlikely to blow away tonight.
And then, those memories of childhood began to be stirred again and I dwelt nostalgically upon all those nights when I had lain in the warm and snug safety of my bed in the nursery at the top of our family house in Sussex, hearing the wind rage round like a lion, howling at the doors and beating upon the windows but powerless to reach me. I lay back and slipped into that pleasant, trance-like state
somewhere between sleeping and waking, recalling the past and all its emotions and impressions vividly, until I felt I was a small boy again.
Then from somewhere, out of that howling darkness, a cry came to my ears, catapulting me back into the present and banishing all tranquillity.
I listened hard. Nothing. The tumult of the wind, like a banshee, and the banging and rattling of the window
in its old, ill-fitting frame. Then yes, again, a cry, that familiar cry of desperation and anguish, a cry for help from a child somewhere out on the marsh.
There was no child. I knew that. How could there be? Yet how could I lie here and ignore even the crying of some long-dead ghost?
‘Rest in peace,’ I thought, but this poor one did not, could not.
After a few moments I got up. I would go
down into the kitchen and make myself a drink, stir up the
fire a little and sit beside it trying, trying to shut out that calling voice for which I could do nothing, and no one had been able to do anything for … how many years?
As I went out onto the landing, Spider the dog following me at once, two things happened together. I had the impression of someone who had just that very second before
gone past me on their way from the top of the stairs to one of the other rooms, and, as a tremendous blast of wind hit the house so that it all but seemed to rock at the impact, the lights went out. I had not bothered to pick up my torch from the bedside table and now I stood in the pitch blackness, unsure for a moment of my bearings.
And the person who had gone by, and who was now in this house
with me? I had seen no one, felt nothing. There had been no movement, no brush of a sleeve against mine, no disturbance of the air, I had not even heard a footstep. I had simply the absolutely certain sense of someone just having passed close to me and gone away down the corridor. Down the short narrow corridor that led to the nursery whose door had been so firmly locked and then, inexplicably,
For a moment I actually began to conjecture that there was indeed someone – another human being – living here in this house, a person who hid themselves
away in that mysterious nursery and came out at night to fetch food and drink and to take the air. Perhaps it was the woman in black? Had Mrs Drablow harboured some reclusive old sister or retainer, had she left behind her a mad friend
that no one had known about? My brain span all manner of wild, incoherent fantasies as I tried desperately to provide a rational explanation for the presence I had been so aware of. But then they ceased. There was no living occupant of Eel Marsh House other than myself and Samuel Daily’s dog. Whatever was about, whoever I had seen, and heard rocking, and who had passed me by just now, whoever had
opened the locked door was not ‘real’. No. But what
‘real’? At that moment I began to doubt my own reality.
The first thing I must have was a light and I groped my way back across to my bed, reached over it and got my hand to the torch at last, took a step back, stumbled over the dog who was at my heels and dropped the torch. It went spinning away across the floor and fell somewhere by the
window with a crash and the faint sound of breaking glass. I cursed but managed, by crawling about on my hands and knees, to find it again and to press the switch. No light came on. The torch had broken.
For a moment I was as near to weeping tears of despair and fear, frustration and tension, as I had ever
been since my childhood. But instead of crying I drummed my fists upon the floorboards,
in a burst of violent rage, until they throbbed.
It was Spider who brought me to my senses by scratching a little at my arm and then by licking the hand I stretched out to her. We sat on the floor together and I hugged her warm body to me, glad of her, thoroughly ashamed of myself, calmer and relieved, while the wind boomed and roared without, and again and again I heard that child’s terrible
cry borne on the gusts towards me.
I would not sleep again, of that I was sure, but nor did I dare to go down the stairs in that utter darkness, surrounded by the noise of the storm, unnerved by the awareness I had had of the presence of that other one. My torch was broken. I must have a candle, some light, however faint and frail, to keep me company. There was a candle near at hand. I had seen
it earlier, on the table beside the small bed in the nursery.
For a very long time, I could not summon up sufficient courage to grope my way along that short passage to the room which I realized was somehow both the focus and the source of all the strange happenings in the house. I was lost to everything but my own fears, incapable of decisive, coherent thought, let alone movement. But gradually
I discovered for myself the
truth of the axiom that a man cannot remain indefinitely in a state of active terror. Either the emotion will increase until, at the prompting of more and more dreadful events and apprehensions, he is so overcome by it that he runs away or goes mad; or he will become by slow degrees less agitated and more in possession of himself.
The wind continued to howl across
the marshes and batter at the house but that was, after all, a natural sound and one that I could recognize and tolerate, for it could not hurt me in any way. And the darkness did not brighten and would not for some hours but there is no more in the simple state of darkness itself to make a man afraid than in the sound of a storm wind. Nothing else happened at all. All sense of another one’s presence
had faded away, the faint cries of the child ceased at last and from the nursery at the end of the passage came not the faintest sound of the rocking chair or of any other movement. I had prayed, as I had crouched on the floorboards with the dog clutched to me, prayed that whatever had disturbed me and was within the house should be banished or at least that I should gain possession of myself
enough to confront and overcome it.
Now, as I got to my feet unsteadily, aching and stiff in every limb, so great had been the tension of my body, I did at last feel able to make some move,
though I was profoundly relieved that, so far as I could tell, there was, for the moment at least, nothing worse to face up to than my blind journey down the corridor to the nursery, in search of the candle.
That journey I made, very slowly and in mounting trepidation but successfully, for I found my way to the bedside and took up the candle in its holder and, grasping it tightly, began to fumble with my hand along the walls and the furniture, back towards the door.
I have said that there were no other strange and dreadful happenings that night, nothing else to make me afraid except the sound of
the wind and the completeness of the dark, and in a sense that is true, for the nursery was quite empty and the rocking chair still and silent, all, so far as I could tell, was as it had been before. I did not know then to what I could possibly attribute the feelings that swept over me from the moment I entered the room. I felt not fear, not horror, but an overwhelming grief and sadness, a sense of
loss and bereavement, a distress mingled with utter despair. My parents were both alive, I had one brother, a good many friends and my fiancée, Stella. I was still a young man. Apart from the inevitable loss of elderly aunts and uncles and grandparents I had never experienced the death of anyone close to me, never truly mourned and suffered the extremes of grief.
Never yet. But the feelings that
must accompany the death of someone as close to my heart and bound up with my own being as it was possible to be, I knew then, in the nursery of Eel Marsh House. They all but broke me, yet I was confused and puzzled, not knowing any reason at all why I should be in the grip of such desperate anguish and misery. It was as though I had, for the time that I was in the room, become another person,
or at least experienced the emotions that belong to another.
It was as alarming and strange an occurrence as any of those more outward, visible and audible that had taken place over these past few days.
When I left the room and closed the door behind me and stood in the corridor again, the feelings dropped away from me like a garment that had been put over my shoulders for a short time and then
removed again. I was back within my own person, my own emotions, I was myself again.
I returned unsteadily to my bedroom, found the matches that I kept in my coat pocket along with my pipe and tobacco and lit the candle at last. As I gripped the hoop of the tin holder in my fingers my hand trembled so that the yellow flame flickered and swerved about, reflecting here and there crazily upon walls
and door, floor and ceiling, mirror and counterpane. But it was a comfort and a relief
nonetheless and in the end it burned brightly and well, as I became less agitated.
I saw the face of my watch. It was barely three o’clock and I hoped that the candle would burn until dawn, which on a stormy day at this fag end of the year would come late.
I sat up in bed, wrapped in my coat, and read Sir
Walter Scott as best I could by the meagre flame. Whether it went out before the first thin grey light sneaked into the room I do not know, for in the end and without meaning to do so I fell asleep. When I awoke it was into a watery, washed-out dawn, I was uncomfortable and stale, the candle had burned to the last drop of wax and guttered out, leaving only a black stain at its base, and my book was
fallen onto the floor.
Once again it was a noise that had awakened me. Spider was scratching and whining at the door and I realized that it was some hours before the poor creature had been let out. I got up and dressed briskly, went downstairs and opened the front door. The sky was swollen and streaked with rain clouds, everything looked drab and without colour and the estuary was running high.
But the wind had died down, the air was lighter and very cold.
At first the dog trotted across the gravel towards the scrubby grass, anxious to relieve herself, while I
stood yawning, trying to get some life and warmth into my body by beating my arms and stamping my feet. I decided that I would put on a coat and boots and go for a brisk walk across the field, to clear my head, and was turning
to go back into the house when, from far out on the marshes, I heard, unmistakably clean and clear, the sound of someone whistling, as one whistles to summon a dog.
Spider stopped dead in her tracks for a split second and then, before I could restrain her, before I had fully gathered my wits, she set off, as though after a hare, running low and fast away from the house, away from the safety of
the grass and out across the wet marshes. For a few moments I stood amazed and bewildered and could not move, only stare, as Spider’s small form receded into that great open expanse. I could see no one out there, but the whistle had been real, not a trick of the wind. Yet I would have sworn it had not come from any human lips. Then, even as I looked, I saw the dog falter and slow down and finally
stop and I realized in horror that she was floundering in mud, fighting to maintain her balance from the pull beneath her feet. I ran as I have never run before, heedless of my own safety, desperate to go to the aid of the brave, bright little creature who had given me such consolation and cheer in that desolate spot.
At first the path was firm, though muddy, beneath my feet and I could make
good speed. The wind coming across the estuary was bitingly cold on my face and I felt my eyes begin to smart and water, so that I had to wipe them in order to see my way clearly. Spider was yelping loudly now, afraid but still visible, and I called to her, trying to reassure her. Then I, too, began to feel the stickiness and the unsteadiness of the ground as it became boggier. Once I plunged my leg
down and it stuck fast in a watery hole until I managed to exert all my strength and get free. All around me the water was swollen and murky, the tide of the estuary was now high, running across the marshes themselves, and I was obliged to wade rather than walk. But at last, out of breath and straining with every movement, I got almost within reach of the dog. She could scarcely hold up now, her
legs and half her body had disappeared beneath the whirling, sucking bog and her pointed head was held up in the air as she struggled and yelped all the while. I tried two or three times to stride across to her but each time I had to pull free abruptly for fear of going under myself. I wished that I had got a stick to throw across to her, as some sort of grappling hook with which to grab hold of
her collar. I felt a second of pure despair, alone in the middle of the wide marsh, under the fast-moving, stormy sky, with only water all around me
and that dreadful house the only solid thing for miles around.
But aware that, if I gave in to panic, I should most certainly be lost, I thought furiously and then, very cautiously, lay down full length on the marsh mud, keeping my lower body pressed
as hard as I could onto a small island of solid ground and, reaching and stretching my trunk and my arms forward, inch by inch, gasping for breath until, just as the last of her body sank, I lunged out and grabbed the dog about the neck and hauled and strained and tugged with all the force I could, a strength I would never have dreamed I could have summoned up, born of terror and desperation;
and after an agonizing time, when we both fought for our lives against the treacherous quicksand that tried to pull us both down into itself and I felt my grip on the slippery wet fur and wet flesh of the dog almost give, at last I knew that I would hold and win. I strained as hard as ever I could to drag my body backwards onto firmer ground. As I did so, the dog’s body suddenly gave and the tug
of war was over as I fell back, holding her tight, the two of us soaked with water and mud, my chest burning and my lungs almost bursting, my arms feeling as if they had been dragged from their sockets, as indeed they almost had.