Authors: Susan Hill
‘But surely … well … children sometimes do die.’
‘And is there anything more than chance to connect these deaths with the appearance of that woman?’
‘You may find it hard to believe. You may doubt it.’
‘Well, I …’
After a few moments, looking at his set and resolute face, I said quietly, ‘I do not doubt, Mr Daily.’
Then, for a very long time, neither of us said anything more.
I knew that I had suffered a considerable shock that morning, after several days and nights of agitation and nervous tension, consequent upon the hauntings of Eel Marsh House. But I did not altogether realize how deeply and badly
the whole experience had affected me, both in mind and body.
I went to bed that night, as I supposed for the last time under the Dailys’ roof. On the next morning I planned to catch the first available train back to London. When I told Mr Daily of my decision, he did not argue with me.
That night, I slept wretchedly, waking every hour or so out of turbulent nightmares, my entire body in a sweat
of anxiety, and when I did not sleep I lay awake and tense in every limb, listening, remembering and going over and over it all in my mind. I asked myself unanswerable questions about life and death and the borderlands between and I prayed, direct and simple, passionate prayers.
I had been brought up, like most children, to a belief in the Deity, brought up within the Christian church but although
I still believed that its teachings were probably the best form of guidance on living a good life, I had found the Deity rather remote and my prayers were not anything but formal and dutiful. Not so now. Now, I prayed fervently and with a newly awakened zeal. Now, I realized that there were forces for good and those for evil doing battle together and that a man might range himself on one side
or the other.
The morning was long in arriving and, when it did, it was again an overcast and wet one – dank, drear November. I got up, my head aching and eyes burning, my legs heavy, and somehow managed to get dressed and drag myself downstairs to the breakfast table. But I could not face food, though I had an extreme thirst and drank cup after cup of tea. Mr and Mrs Daily glanced at me anxiously
now and again, as I talked of my arrangements. I thought that I would not feel well again until I was sitting in the train, watching this countryside slide away out of sight, and I said as much, though at the same time endeavouring to express my great gratitude to them both, because they had indeed been saviours, of my life and of my sanity.
Then I got up from the table and began to make my way
to the dining room, but the door receded as
I went, I seemed to be fighting towards it through a mist which was closing in upon me, so that I could not get my breath and felt as if I was pushing against a heavy weight which I must remove before I could go any further.
Samuel Daily caught me as I fell and I was dimly aware that, for the second time, though in very different circumstances, he was
half-carrying, half-dragging me, this time up the stairs to my bedroom. There, he helped me to undress, there he left me, my head throbbing and my mind confused, and there I remained, having frequent visits from an anxious-looking doctor, for five days. After that, the worst of the fever and the delirium passed, leaving me exhausted and weak beyond belief, and I was able to sit up in an armchair,
at first in my room and later downstairs. The Dailys were kindness and solicitude itself. The worst of it all was not the physical illness, the aching, the tiredness, the fever, but the mental turmoil I passed through.
The woman in black seemed to haunt me, even here, to sit on the end of my bed, to push her face suddenly down close to mine as I lay asleep, so I awoke crying out in terror. And
my head rang with the sound of the child crying out on the marsh and of the rocking chair and the drowning whinny of the pony. I could not break free of any of them and, when
I was not having feverish delusions and nightmares, I was remembering every word of the letters and death certificates, as if I could see the pages held up before my mind’s eye.
But at last I began to be better, the fears
died down, the visions faded and I found myself again, I was exhausted, drained, but well. There was nothing else the woman could do to me, surely, I had endured and survived.
After twelve days I was feeling almost completely recovered. It was a day of winter sunshine but there had been one of the first frosts of the year. I was sitting at the open French windows of the drawing room, a rug over
my knees, looking at the bare bushes and trees, silvery-white and stiff with rime, stark against the sky. It was after lunch. I might sleep a little or not but, in any case, no one would disturb me. Spider lay contentedly at my feet, as she had done throughout the days and nights of my illness. I had grown more fond of the little dog than I would ever have imagined possible, feeling that we shared
a bond, because we had been through our time of trial together.
A robin was perched on one of the stone urns at the top of the balustrade, head up, eyes bead-bright, and I watched him happily, while he hopped a foot or two and then paused again, to listen and to sing.
I reflected that, before coming here, I would never have been able to concentrate on such an ordinary thing so completely but
would have been restless to be up and off, doing this or that busily. Now, I appreciated the bird’s presence, enjoyed simply watching his movements for as long as he chose to remain outside my window, with an intensity I had never before experienced.
I heard some sounds outside, the engine of a motor car, voices round at the front of the house, but paid them little attention, so wrapped up was
I in my observation of the bird. Besides, they would have nothing to do with me.
There were footsteps along the corridor and they stopped outside the door of the drawing room, and then after a hesitation it opened. Perhaps it was later than I thought, and someone had come to see how I was and whether I wanted a cup of tea.
I turned, startled, and then jumped from my chair in amazement,
disbelief, and delight. Stella, my own dear Stella, was coming towards me across the room.
morning, I left the house. We were taken, in Mr Samuel Daily’s motor, directly to the railway station. I had settled my account at the Gifford Arms by messenger, and I did not go into the town of Crythin Gifford again; it seemed altogether wise to take medical advice, for the doctor had been particularly anxious that I should not do anything, or go anywhere, to
upset my still delicately balanced equilibrium. And, in truth, I did not
to see the town, or to risk meeting Mr Jerome or Keckwick, or, most of all, to catch so much as a glimpse of the distant marsh. All that was behind me, it might have happened, I thought, to another person. The doctor had told me to put the whole thing from my mind, and I resolved to try and do so. With Stella beside
me, I did not see how I could fail.
The only regret I had at leaving the place was a genuine sadness at parting company with Mr and Mrs Samuel Daily, and, when we shook hands, I made him promise that he would visit us, when he next came to London – which he did, he said, once or, at most, twice a year. Moreover, a puppy was booked for us, as soon as Spider should produce any. I was going to miss
the little dog a great deal.
But there was one last question I had to ask, though I found it hard to bring the matter up.
‘I must know,’ I burst out at last, while Stella was safely out of earshot and deep in conversation with Mrs Daily, whom she had been able to draw out, with her own natural friendliness and warmth.
Samuel Daily looked at me sharply.
‘You told me that night –’ I took a deep
breath to try and calm myself. ‘A child – a child in Crythin Gifford has always died.’
I could not go on but my expression was enough, I knew, my desperate anxiety to be told the truth was evident.
‘Nothing,’ Daily said quickly. ‘Nothing has happened …’
I was sure he had been going to add ‘Yet’, but he stopped and so I added it for him. But he only shook his head silently.
God it may not – that the chain is broken – that her power is at an end – that she has gone – and I was the last ever to see her.’
He put a hand reassuringly on my arm. ‘Yes, yes.’
I wanted above all for it to be so, for the time that had elapsed since I had last seen the woman in black – the ghost of Jennet Humfrye – to be long enough now, for it to be proof positive that the curse had quite
gone. She had been a poor, crazed, troubled woman, dead of grief and distress, filled with hatred and desire for revenge. Her bitterness was understandable, the wickedness that led her to take away other women’s children because she had lost her own, understandable too but not forgivable.
There was nothing anyone could do to help her, except perhaps pray for her soul, I thought. Mrs Drablow,
the sister she blamed for the death of her child, was dead herself and in her grave, and, now that the house was empty at last, perhaps the hauntings and their terrible consequences for the innocent would cease forever.
The car was waiting in the drive. I shook hands with the Dailys and, taking Stella’s arm and keeping tightly hold of it, climbed in and leaned back against the seat. With a sigh
– indeed almost a sob – of relief, I was driven away from Crythin Gifford.
My story is almost done. There is only the last thing left to tell. And that I can scarcely bring myself to write about. I have sat here at my desk, day after day, night after night, a blank sheet of paper before me, unable to lift my pen, trembling and weeping too. I have gone out and walked in the old orchard and
further, across the country beyond Monk’s Piece, for mile after mile, but seen nothing of my surroundings, noticing neither animal nor bird, unable to tell even the state of the weather, so that several times I have come home soaked through to the skin, to Esmé’s considerable distress. And that has been another cause of anguish: she has watched me and wondered and been too sensitive to ask questions,
I have seen the worry and distress on her face and sensed her restlessness, as we have sat together in the late evenings. I have been quite unable to tell her anything at all, she has no idea what I have been going through or why: she will have no idea until she reads this manuscript and at that time I shall be dead and beyond her.
But, now at last, I have summoned up sufficient courage, I will
use the very last of my strength, that has been so depleted by the reliving of those past horrors, to write the end of the story.
Stella and I returned to London and within six weeks we had married. Our original plan had been to wait
at least until the following spring but my experiences had changed me greatly, so that I now had an urgent sense of time, a certainty that we should not delay, but
seize upon any joy, and good fortune, any opportunity, at once, and hold fast to it. Why should we wait? What was there beyond the mundane considerations of money, property and possessions to keep us from marrying? Nothing. And so we married, quietly and without fuss, and lived in my old rooms, with another room added, which the landlady had been more than willing to rent to us, until such time
as we could afford a small house of our own. We were as happy as a young man and his bride may possibly be, content in each other’s company, not rich but not poor either, busy and looking forward to the future. Mr Bentley gave me a little more responsibility and a consequent increase in salary as time went on. About Eel Marsh House and the Drablow estate and papers I had expressly begged him that
I be told nothing and so I was not; the names were never mentioned to me again.
A little over a year after our marriage, Stella gave birth to our child, a son, whom we called Joseph Arthur Samuel, and Mr Samuel Daily was his god-father, for he was our sole remaining tie with that place, that time. But, although we saw him occasionally in London, he never once spoke of the past; indeed,
so filled with joy and contentment in my life, that I never so much as thought of those things, and the nightmares quite ceased to trouble me.
I was in a particularly peaceful, happy frame of mind one Sunday afternoon in the summer of the year following our son’s birth. I could not have been less prepared for what was to come.
We had gone to a large park, ten miles or so outside London, which
formed the grounds of a noble house and, in the summer season, stood open to the general public at weekends. There was a festive, holiday air about the place, a lake, on which small boats were being rowed, a bandstand, with a band playing jolly tunes, stalls selling ices and fruit. Families strolled in the sunshine, children tumbled about upon the grass. Stella and I walked happily, with young Joseph
taking a few unsteady steps, holding onto our hands while we watched him, as proud as any parents could be.
Then, Stella noticed that one of the attractions upon offer was a donkey, and a pony and trap, on both of which rides could be taken, down an avenue of great horse-chestnut trees, and, thinking that the boy would find such a treat to his liking, we led him to the docile grey donkey and
I endeavoured to lift him up into the saddle. But he shrieked and pulled away at once, and clung to me, while at the same time pointing to the pony trap, and gesturing excitedly. So,
because there was only room for two passengers, Stella took Joseph, and I stood, watching them bowl merrily away down the ride, between the handsome old trees, which were in full, glorious leaf.
For a while, they
went out of sight, away round a bend, and I began to look idly about me, at the other enjoyers of the afternoon. And then, quite suddenly, I saw her. She was standing away from any of the people, close up to the trunk of one of the trees.
I looked directly at her and she at me. There was no mistake. My eyes were not deceiving me. It was she, the woman in black with the wasted face, the ghost
of Jennet Humfrye. For a second, I simply stared in incredulity and astonishment, then in cold fear. I was paralysed, rooted to the spot on which I stood, and all the world went dark around me and the shouts and happy cries of all the children faded. I was quite unable to take my eyes away from her. There was no expression on her face and yet I felt all over again the renewed power emanating from
her, the malevolence and hatred and passionate bitterness. It pierced me through.
At that same moment, to my intense relief, the pony cart came trotting back down the avenue, through the shaft of sunlight that lay across the grass, with my dear Stella sitting in it and holding up the baby, who was bouncing and calling and waving his
little arms with delight. They were almost back, they had almost
reached me, I would retrieve them and then we would go, for I didn’t want to stay here for a second longer. I made ready. They had almost come to a halt when they passed the tree beside which the woman in black was still standing and, as they did so, she moved quickly, her skirts rustling as if to step into the pony’s path. The animal swerved violently and then reared a little, its eyes filled
with sudden fright, and then it took off and went careering away through the glade between the trees, whinnying and quite out of control. There was a moment of dreadful confusion, with several people starting off after it, and women and children shrieking. I began to run crazily and then I heard it, the sickening crack and thud as the pony and its cart collided with one of the huge tree trunks.
And then silence – a terrible silence which can only have lasted for seconds, and seemed to last for years. As I raced towards where it had fallen, I glanced back over my shoulder. The woman had disappeared.
They lifted Stella gently from the cart. Her body was broken, her neck and legs fractured, though she was still conscious. The pony had only stunned itself but the cart was overturned and
its harness tangled, so that it could not move, but lay on the ground whinnying and snorting in fright.
Our baby son had been thrown clear, clear against another tree. He lay crumpled on the grass below it, dead.
This time, there was no merciful loss of consciousness, I was forced to live through it all, every minute and then every day thereafter, for ten long months, until Stella, too, died
from her terrible injuries.
I had seen the ghost of Jennet Humfrye and she had had her revenge.
They asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.