Authors: Susan Hill
The youngest of the Ainleys, Edmund, sat a little apart, separating himself, as was his wont, a little distance from every other person, not out of any unfriendliness or sullen temper but because of an innate fastidiousness and reserve, a desire to be somewhat private, which had always
singled him out from the rest of Esmé’s family, just as he was also unlike the others in looks, being pale-skinned, and long-nosed, with hair of an extraordinary blackness, and blue eyes. Edmund was then fifteen. I knew him the least well, understood him scarcely at all, felt uneasy in his presence, and yet perhaps in a strange way loved him more deeply than any.
The drawing room at Monk’s Piece
is long and low, with tall windows at either end, close-curtained now, but by day letting in a great deal of light from both north and south. Tonight, festoons and swags of fresh greenery, gathered that afternoon by Esmé and Isobel, hung over the stone fireplace, and intertwined with the leaves were berries and ribbons of scarlet and gold. At the far end of the room stood the tree, candlelit and
bedecked, and beneath it were piled the presents. There were flowers, too, vases of white chrysanthemums, and in the centre of the room, on a round table, a pyramid of gilded fruit and a bowl of oranges stuck all about with cloves, their spicy scent filling the air and mingling with that of the branches
and the wood-smoke to be the very aroma of Christmas.
I sat down in my own armchair, drew
it back a little from the full blaze of the fire, and began the protracted and soothing business of lighting a pipe. As I did so, I became aware that I had interrupted the others in the midst of a lively conversation, and that Oliver and Will at least were restless to continue.
‘Well,’ I said, through the first, cautious puffs at my tobacco, ‘and what’s all this?’
There was a further pause,
and Esmé shook her head, smiling over her embroidery.
Then Oliver got to his feet and began to go about the room rapidly switching off every lamp, save the lights upon the Christmas tree at the far end, so that, when he returned to his seat, we had only the immediate firelight by which to see one another, and Esmé was obliged to lay down her sewing – not without a murmur of protest.
‘May as well do the job properly,’ Oliver said with some satisfaction.
‘Oh, you boys …’
‘Now come on, Will, your turn, isn’t it?’
‘Ah-ha,’ said the youngest of the Ainley brothers, in an odd, deep voice. ‘I could an’ if I would!’
we have the lights out?’ Isobel spoke as if to much smaller boys.
‘Yes, Sis, we must, that’s if you want to get the authentic atmosphere.’
‘But I’m not sure that I do.’
Oliver gave a low moan. ‘Get on with it then, someone.’
Esmé leaned over towards me. ‘They are telling ghost stories.’
‘Yes,’ said Will, his voice unsteady with both excitement and laughter. ‘Just the thing for Christmas Eve. It’s an ancient tradition!’
‘The lonely country house, the guests huddled around the fireside in a darkened room, the wind howling at the
casement …’ Oliver moaned again.
And then came Aubrey’s stolid, good-humoured tones. ‘Better get on with it then.’ And so they did, Oliver, Edmund and Will vying with one another to tell the horridest, most spine-chilling tale, with much dramatic effect and mock-terrified shrieking. They outdid one another in the far extremes of inventiveness, piling agony upon agony. They told of dripping stone
walls in uninhabited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards, of footsteps creaking upon staircases and fingers tapping at casements, of howlings and
shriekings, groanings and scuttlings and the clanking of chains, of hooded monks and headless horsemen, swirling mists and sudden winds, insubstantial
spectres and sheeted creatures, vampires and bloodhounds, bats and rats and spiders, of men found at dawn and women turned white-haired and raving lunatic, and of vanished corpses and curses upon heirs. The stories grew more and more lurid, wilder and sillier, and soon the gasps and cries merged into fits of choking laughter, as each one, even gentle Isobel, contributed more ghastly detail.
At first, I was amused, indulgent, but as I sat on, listening, in the firelight, I began to feel set apart from them all, an outsider to their circle. I was trying to suppress my mounting unease, to hold back the rising flood of memory.
This was a sport, a high-spirited and harmless game among young people, for the festive season, and an ancient tradition, too, as Will had rightly said, there
was nothing to torment and trouble me, nothing of which I could possibly disapprove. I did not want to seem a killjoy, old and stodgy and unimaginative, I longed to enter into what was nothing more nor less than good fun. I fought a bitter battle within myself, my head turned away from the firelight so that none of them should chance to see my expression which I knew began to show signs of my discomfiture.
And then, to accompany a final, banshee howl from Edmund, the log that had been blazing on the hearth collapsed suddenly and, after sending up a light spatter of sparks and ash, died down so that there was near-darkness. And then silence in the room. I shuddered. I wanted to get up and go round putting on every light again, see the sparkle and glitter and colour of the Christmas decorations, have
the fire blazing again cheerfully, I wanted to banish the chill that had settled upon me and the sensation of fear in my breast. Yet I could not move, it had, for the moment, paralysed me, just as it had always done, it was a long-forgotten, once too-familiar sensation.
Then, Edmund said, ‘Now come, stepfather, your turn,’ and at once the others took up the cry, the silence was broken by their
urgings, with which even Esmé joined.
‘No, no.’ I tried to speak jocularly. ‘Nothing from me.’
‘Oh, Arthur …’
‘You must know at least
ghost story, stepfather, everyone knows
Ah, yes, yes, indeed. All the time I had been listening to their ghoulish, lurid inventions, and their howling and groans, the one thought that had been in my mind, and the only thing I could have said was,
‘No, no, you have none of you any idea. This is all nonsense, fantasy,
it is not like this. Nothing so blood-curdling and becreepered and crude – not so … so laughable. The truth is quite other, and altogether more terrible.’
‘Don’t be an old spoilsport.’
‘Do your stuff, stepfather, surely you’re not going to let us down?’
I stood up, unable to bear it any
‘I am sorry to disappoint you,’ I said. ‘But I have no story to tell!’ And went quickly from the room, and from the house.
Some fifteen minutes later, I came to my senses and found myself on the scrubland beyond the orchard, my heart pounding, my breathing short. I had walked about in a frenzy of agitation, and now, realizing that I must make an effort to calm myself, I sat down on a
piece of old, moss-covered stone, and began to take deliberate, steady breaths in on a count of ten and out again, until I felt the tension within myself begin to slacken and my pulse become a little steadier, my head clearer. After a short while longer, I was able to realize my surroundings once again, to note the clearness of the sky and the brightness of the stars, the air’s coldness and the crispiness
of the frost-stiffened grass beneath my feet.
Behind me, in the house, I knew that I must have
left the family in a state of consternation and bewilderment, for they knew me normally as an even-tempered man of predictable emotions. Why they had aroused my apparent disapproval with the telling of a few silly tales and prompted such curt behaviour, the whole family would be quite at a loss to understand,
and very soon I must return to them, make amends and endeavour to brush off the incident, renew some of the air of jollity. What I would not be able to do was explain. No. I would be cheerful and I would be steady again, if only for my dear wife’s sake, but no more.
They had chided me with being a spoilsport, tried to encourage me to tell them the one ghost story I must surely, like any other
man, have it in me to tell. And they were right. Yes, I had a story, a true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy. But it was not a story to be told for casual entertainment, around the fireside upon Christmas Eve.
I had always known in my heart that the experience would never leave me, that it was now woven into my very fibres, an inextricable part of my
past, but I had hoped never to have to recollect it, consciously, and in full, ever again. Like an old wound, it gave off a faint twinge now and again, but less and less often, less and less painfully, as the years went on and my
happiness, sanity and equilibrium were assured. Of late, it had been like the outermost ripple on a pool, merely the faint memory of a memory.
Now, tonight, it again
filled my mind to the exclusion of all else. I knew that I should have no rest from it, that I should lie awake in a chill of sweat, going over that time, those events, those places. So it had been night after night for years.
I got up and began to walk about again. Tomorrow was Christmas Day. Could I not be free of it at least for that blessed time, was there no way of keeping the memory, and
the effects it had upon me, at bay, as an analgesic or a balm will stave off the pain of a wound, at least temporarily? And then, standing among the trunks of the fruit trees, silver-grey in the moonlight, I recalled that the way to banish an old ghost that continues its hauntings is to exorcise it. Well then, mine should be exorcised. I should tell my tale, not aloud, by the fireside, not as a
diversion for idle listeners – it was too solemn, and too real, for that. But I should set it down on paper, with every care and in every detail. I would write my own ghost story. Then perhaps I should finally be free of it for whatever life remained for me to enjoy.
I decided at once that it should be, at least during my lifetime, a story for my eyes only. I was the one who had been haunted
and who had suffered – not
the only one, no, but surely, I thought, the only one left alive, I was the one who, to judge by my agitation of this evening, was still affected by it deeply, it was from me alone that the ghost must be driven.
I glanced up at the moon, and at the bright, bright Pole star. Christmas Eve. And then I prayed, a heartfelt, simple prayer for peace of mind, and for strength
and steadfastness to endure while I completed what would be the most agonizing task, and I prayed for a blessing upon my family, and for quiet rest to us all that night. For, although I was in control of my emotions now, I dreaded the hours of darkness that lay ahead.
For answer to my prayer, I received immediately the memory of some lines of poetry, lines I had once known but long forgotten.
Later, I spoke them aloud to Esmé, and she identified the source for me at once.
‘Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long.
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No Fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is
As I recited them aloud, a great peace came upon me, I was wholly myself again yet stiffened by my
resolution. After this holiday when the family had all departed, and Esmé and I were alone, I would begin to write my story.
When I returned to the house, Isobel and Aubrey had gone upstairs to share the delight of creeping about with bulging stockings for their young sons, Edmund was
reading, Oliver and Will were in the old playroom at the far end of the house, where there was a battered billiard table, and Esmé was tidying the drawing room, preparatory to going to bed. About that evening’s incident, nothing whatsoever was said, though she wore an anxious expression, and I had to invent a bad bout of acute indigestion to account for my abrupt behaviour. I saw to the fire, damping
down the flames, and knocked out my pipe on the side of the hearth, feeling quiet and serene again, and no longer agitated about what lonely terrors I might have to endure, whether asleep or awake, during the small hours of the coming night.
Tomorrow was Christmas Day, and I looked forward to it eagerly and with gladness, it would be a time of family joy and merrymaking, love and friendship,
fun and laughter.
When it was over, I would have work to do.
a Monday afternoon in November and already growing dark, not because of the lateness of the hour – it was barely three o’clock – but because of the fog, the thickest of London peasoupers, which had hemmed us in on all sides since dawn – if, indeed, there had been a dawn, for the fog had scarcely allowed any daylight to penetrate the foul gloom of the atmosphere.
was outdoors, hanging over the river, creeping in and out of alleyways and passages, swirling thickly between the bare trees of all the parks and gardens of the city, and indoors, too, seething through cracks and crannies like sour breath, gaining a sly entrance at every opening of a door. It was a yellow fog, a filthy, evil-smelling fog, a fog that choked and blinded, smeared and stained. Groping
their way blindly across
roads, men and women took their lives in their hands, stumbling along the pavements, they clutched at railings and at one another, for guidance.
Sounds were deadened, shapes blurred. It was a fog that had come three days before, and did not seem inclined to go away and it had, I suppose, the quality of all such fogs – it was menacing and sinister, disguising the familiar
world and confusing the people in it, as they were confused by having their eyes covered and being turned about, in a game of Blind Man’s Buff.
It was, in all, miserable weather and lowering to the spirits in the drearest month of the year.
It would be easy to look back and to believe that all that day I had had a sense of foreboding about my journey to come, that some sixth sense, some telepathic
intuition that may lie dormant and submerged in most men, had stirred and become alert within me. But I was, in those days of my youth, a sturdy, commonsensical fellow, and I felt no uneasiness or apprehension whatsoever. Any depression of my usual blithe spirits was solely on account of the fog, and of November, and that same dreariness was shared by every citizen of London.
So far as I can
faithfully recall, however, I felt nothing other than curiosity, a professional interest in what scant account of the business Mr Bentley had
put before me, coupled with a mild sense of adventure, for I had never before visited that remote part of England to which I was now travelling – and a certain relief at the prospect of getting away from the unhealthy atmosphere of fog and dankness. Moreover,
I was barely twenty-three years old, and retained a schoolboy’s passion for everything to do with railway stations and journeys on steam locomotives.
But what is perhaps remarkable is how well I can remember the minutest detail of that day; for all that nothing untoward had yet happened, and my nerves were steady. If I close my eyes, I am sitting in the cab, crawling through the fog on my way
to King’s Cross Station, I can smell the cold, damp leather of the upholstery and the indescribable stench of the fog seeping in around the window, I can feel the sensation in my ears, as though they had been stuffed with cotton.
Pools of sulphurous yellow light, as from random corners of some circle of the Inferno, flared from shops and the upper windows of houses, and from the basements they
rose like flares from the pit below, and there were red-hot pools of light from the chestnut-sellers on street corners; here, a great, boiling cauldron of tar for the road-menders spurted and smoked an evil red smoke, there, a lantern held high by the lamplighter bobbed and flickered.
In the streets, there was a din, of brakes grinding and horns blowing, and the shouts of a hundred drivers, slowed
down and blinded by the fog, and, as I peered from out of the cab window into the gloom, what figures I could make out, fumbling their way through the murk, were like ghost figures, their mouths and lower faces muffled in scarves and veils and handkerchiefs, but on gaining the temporary safety of some pool of light they became red-eyed and demonic.
It took almost fifty minutes to travel the mile
or so from Chambers to the station, and as there was nothing whatsoever I could do, and I had made allowance for such a slow start to the journey, I sat back, comforting myself that this would certainly be the worst part of it, and turned over in my mind the conversation I had had with Mr Bentley that morning.
I had been working steadily at some dull details of the conveyance of property leases,
forgetful, for the moment, of the fog that pressed against the window, like a furred beast at my back, when the clerk, Tomes, came in, to summon me to Mr Bentley’s room. Tomes was a small man, thin as a stick and with the complexion of a tallow candle, and a permanent cold, which caused him to sniff every twenty seconds, for which reason he was confined to a cubby-hole in an outer lobby, where
he kept ledgers and received
visitors, with an air of suffering and melancholy that put them in mind of Last Wills and Testaments – whatever the business they had actually come to the lawyer about.
And it was a Last Will and Testament that Mr Bentley had before him when I walked into his large, comfortable room with its wide bay window that, on better days, commanded a fine view of the Inn of
Court and gardens, and the comings and goings of half the lawyers of London. ‘Sit ye down, Arthur, sit ye down.’ Mr Bentley then took off his spectacles, polished them vigorously, and replaced them on his nose, before settling back in his chair, like a man content. Mr Bentley had a story to tell and Mr Bentley enjoyed being listened to.
‘I don’t think I ever told you about the extraordinary Mrs
I shook my head. It would, at any rate, be more interesting than the conveyance of leases.
‘Mrs Drablow,’ he repeated, and picked up the Will, to wave it at me, across his partner’s desk.
‘Mrs Alice Drablow, of Eel Marsh House. Dead, don’t you know.’
‘Yes. I inherited Alice Drablow, from my father. The family has had their business with this firm for … oh …’ he waved a hand,
back into the mists of
the previous century and the foundation of Bentley, Haigh, Sweetman and Bentley.
‘A good age,’ he flapped the paper again. ‘Eighty-seven.’
‘And it’s her will you have there, I take it?’
‘Mrs Drablow,’ he raised his voice a little, ignoring my question which had broken into the pattern of his story-telling. ‘Mrs Drablow was, as they say, a rum’un.’
As I had learned in my five years with the firm, a good many of Mr Bentley’s older clients were ‘rum ’uns’.
‘Have you ever heard of the Nine Lives Causeway?’
‘Nor ever of Eel Marsh, in —shire?’
‘Nor, I suppose, ever visited that county at all?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘Living there,’ said Mr Bentley thoughtfully, ‘anyone might become rum.’
‘I’ve only a hazy idea of where
‘Then, my boy, go home and pack your bags, and take the afternoon train from King’s Cross, changing at Crewe and again at Homerby. From Homerby, you take the branch line to the little market town of Crythin Gifford. After that, it’s a wait for the tide!’
‘You can only cross the Causeway at low tide. That takes you onto Eel Marsh and the house.’
tide comes in, you’re cut off until it’s low again. Remarkable place.’ He got up and went to the window.
‘Years since I went there, of course. My father took me. She didn’t greatly care for visitors.’
‘Was she a widow?’
‘Since quite early in her marriage.’
‘Children.’ Mr Bentley fell silent for a few moments, and rubbed at the pane with his finger, as though to clear away the
obscurity, but the fog loomed, yellow-grey, and thicker than ever, though, here and there across the Inn Yard, the lights from other chambers shone fuzzily. A church bell began to toll. Mr Bentley turned.
‘According to everything we’ve been told about Mrs Drablow,’ he said carefully, ‘no, there were no children.’
‘Did she have a great deal of money or land? Were her affairs at all complicated?’
‘Not on the whole, Arthur, not on the whole. She owned her house, of course, and a few properties in Crythin Gifford – shops, with tenants, that sort of thing, and there’s a poor sort of farm, half under water.
She spent money on a few dykes here and there, but not to much purpose. And there are the usual small trusts and investments.’
‘Then it all sounds perfectly straightforward.’
does it not?’
‘May I ask why I’m to go there?’
‘To represent this firm at our client’s funeral.’
‘Oh yes, of course.’
‘I wondered whether to go up myself, naturally. But, to tell you the truth, I’ve been troubled again by my foot this past week.’ Mr Bentley suffered from gout, to which he would never refer by name, though his suffering need not have given him any cause for shame, for he was
an abstemious man.
‘And, then, there’s the chance that Lord Boltrope will need to see me. I ought to be here, do you see?’
‘Ah yes, of course.’
‘And then again’ – a pause – ‘it’s high time I put a little more onto your shoulders. It’s no more than you’re capable of, is it?’
‘I certainly hope not. I’ll be very glad to go up to Mrs Drablow’s funeral, naturally.’
‘There’s a bit more to it than
‘There’s a bit of business to attend to, in connection with the estate, yes. I’ll let you have the details to read on your journey. But, principally, you’re going
to go through Mrs Drablow’s documents – her private papers … whatever they may be.
they may be …’ Mr Bentley grunted. ‘And to bring them back to this office.’
‘Mrs Drablow was – somewhat … disorganized,
shall I say? It may well take you a while.’
‘A day or two?’
‘At least a day or two, Arthur. Of course, things may have changed, I may be quite mistaken … things may be in apple-pie order and you’ll clear it all up in an afternoon. As I told you, it’s very many years since I went there.’
The business was beginning to sound like something from a Victorian novel, with a reclusive old woman having
hidden a lot of ancient documents somewhere in the depths of her cluttered house. I was scarcely taking Mr Bentley seriously.
‘Will there be anyone to help me?’
‘The bulk of the estate goes to a great-niece and-nephew – they are both in India, where they have lived for upwards of forty years. There used to be a housekeeper … but you’ll find out more when you get there.’
‘But presumably she
had friends … or even neighbours?’
‘Eel Marsh House is far from any neighbour.’
‘And, being a rum ’un, she never made friends, I suppose?’
Mr Bentley chuckled. ‘Come, Arthur, look on the bright side. Treat the whole thing as a jaunt.’
I got up.
‘At least it’ll take you out of all this for a day or two,’ and he waved his hand towards the window. I nodded. In fact, I was not by any means unattracted
to the idea of the expedition, though I saw that Mr Bentley had not been able to resist making a good story better, and dramatizing the mystery of Mrs Drablow in her queer-sounding house a good way beyond the facts. I supposed that the place would merely prove cold, uncomfortable and difficult to reach, the funeral melancholy, and the papers I had to search for would be tucked under an attic
bed in a dust-covered shoebox, and contain nothing more than old receipted bills and some drafts of cantankerous letters to all and sundry – all of which was usual for such a female client. As I reached the door of his room, Mr Bentley added, ‘You’ll reach Crythin Gifford by late this evening, and there’s a small hotel you can put up at for tonight. The funeral is tomorrow morning at eleven.’
‘And, afterwards, you want me to go to the house?’
‘I’ve made arrangements … there’s a local man dealing with it all … he’ll be in touch with you.’
‘Yes, but …’
Just then, Tomes materialized with a sniff at my shoulder.
‘Your ten-thirty client, Mr Bentley.’
‘Good, good, show him in.’
‘Just a moment, Mr Bentley …’
‘What is the matter, Arthur? Don’t dither in the doorway, man, I’ve work to
‘Isn’t there any more you ought to tell me, I …’
He waved me away impatiently, and at that point Tomes returned, closely followed by Mr Bentley’s ten-thirty client. I retreated.
I had to clear my desk, go back to my rooms and pack a bag, inform my landlady that I would be away for a couple of nights, and to scribble a note to my fiancée, Stella. I rather hoped that her disappointment at
my sudden absence from her would be tempered by pride that Mr Bentley was entrusting me with the firm’s business in such a manner – a good omen for my future prospects upon which our marriage, planned for the following year, depended.
After that, I was to catch the afternoon train to a remote corner of England, of which until a few minutes ago I had barely heard. On my way out of the building,
the lugubrious Tomes knocked on the glass of his cubby-hole, and handed me a thick brown envelope marked DRABLOW. Clutching it under my arm, I plunged out, into the choking London fog.