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Authors: Susan Hill

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BOOK: The Woman In Black
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T
HE
J
OURNEY
N
ORTH

A
S
M
R
Bentley had said, however far the distance and gloomy the reason for my journey, it did represent an escape from the London particular and nothing was more calculated to raise my spirits in anticipation of a treat to come than the sight of that great cavern of a railway station, glowing like the interior of a blacksmith’s forge. Here, all was clangour and the cheerfulness
of preparations for departure, and I purchased papers and journals at the bookstall and walked down the platform beside the smoking, puffing train, with a light step. The engine, I remember, was the Sir Bedivere.

I found a corner seat in an empty compartment, put my coat, hat and baggage on the rack and settled down in great contentment. When we pulled out of London, the fog, although still lingering
about the
suburbs, began to be patchier and paler, and I all but cheered. By then, a couple of other passengers had joined me in my compartment, but, after nodding briefly, were as intent on applying themselves to newspapers and other documents as myself, and so we travelled a good many uneventful miles towards the heart of England. Beyond the windows, it was quickly dark and, when the carriage
blinds were pulled down, all was as cosy and enclosed as some lamplit study.

At Crewe I changed with ease and continued on my way, noting that the track began to veer towards the east, as well as heading north, and I ate a pleasant dinner. It was only when I came to change again, onto the branch line at the small station of Homerby, that I began to be less comfortable, for here the air was a
great deal colder and blowing in gusts from the east with an unpleasant rain upon its breath, and the train in which I was to travel for the last hour of my journey was one of those with ancient, comfortless carriages upholstered in the stiffest of leathercloth over unyielding horsehair, and with slatted wooden racks above. It smelled of cold, stale smuts and the windows were grimed, the floor unswept.

Until the very last second, it seemed that I was to be alone not merely in my compartment but in the entire train, but, just at the blowing of the guard’s whistle, a man came through the barrier, glanced
quickly along the cheerless row of empty carriages and, catching sight of me at last, and clearly preferring to have a companion, climbed in, swinging the door shut as the train began to move
away. The cloud of cold, damp air that he let in with him added to the chill of the compartment, and I remarked that it was a poor night, as the stranger began to unbutton his greatcoat. He looked me up and down inquisitively, though not in any unfriendly way, and then up at my things upon the rack, before nodding agreement.

‘It seems I have exchanged one kind of poor weather for another. I left
London in the grip of an appalling fog, and up here it seems to be cold enough for snow.’

‘It’s not snow,’ he said. ‘The wind’ll blow itself out and take the rain off with it by morning.’

‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

‘But, if you think you’ve escaped the fogs by coming up here, you’re mistaken. We get bad frets in this part of the world.’

‘Frets?’

‘Aye, frets. Sea-frets, sea-mists. They roll
up in a minute from the sea to land across the marshes. It’s the nature of the place. One minute it’s as clear as a June day, the next …’ he gestured to indicate the dramatic suddenness of his frets. ‘Terrible. But if you’re staying in Crythin you won’t see the worst of it.’

‘I stay there tonight, at the Gifford Arms. And tomorrow morning. I expect to go out to see something of the marshes later.’

And then, not particularly wishing to discuss the nature of my business with him, I picked up my newspaper again and unfolded it with a certain ostentation, and so, for some little while, we rumbled on in the nasty train, in silence – save for the huffing of the engine, and the clanking of iron wheels upon iron rails, and the occasional whistle, and the bursts of rain, like sprays of light artillery
fire, upon the windows.

I began to be weary, of journeying and of the cold and of sitting still while being jarred and jolted about, and to look forward to my supper, a fire and a warm bed. But in truth, and although I was hiding behind its pages, I had read my newspaper fully, and I began to speculate about my companion. He was a big man, with a beefy face and huge, raw-looking hands, well enough
spoken but with an odd accent that I took to be the local one. I put him down as a farmer, or else the proprietor of some small business. He was nearer to sixty than fifty, and his clothes were of good quality, but somewhat brashly cut, and he wore a heavy, prominent seal-ring on his left hand, and that, too, had a newness and a touch of vulgarity about it. I decided that he was a man who had
made, or come into, money
late and unexpectedly, and was happy for the world to know it.

Having, in my youthful and priggish way, summed up and all but dismissed him, I let my mind wander back to London and to Stella, and for the rest, was only conscious of the extreme chill and the ache in my joints, when my companion startled me, by saying, ‘Mrs Drablow.’ I lowered my paper, and became aware
that his voice echoed so loudly through the compartment because of the fact that the train had stopped, and the only sound to be heard was the moan of the wind, and a faint hiss of steam, far ahead of us.

‘Drablow,’ he pointed to my brown envelope, containing the Drablow papers, which I had left lying on the seat beside me.

I nodded stiffly.

‘You don’t tell me you’re a relative?’

‘I am her
solicitor.’ I was rather pleased with the way it sounded.

‘Ah! Bound for the funeral?’

‘I am.’

‘You’ll be about the only one that is.’ In spite of myself, I wanted to find out more about the business, and clearly my companion knew it.

‘I gather she had no friends – or immediate family – that she was something of a recluse? Well, that is sometimes the way with old ladies. They turn
inwards
– grow eccentric. I suppose it comes from living alone.’

‘I daresay that it does, Mr …?’

‘Kipps. Arthur Kipps.’

‘Samuel Daily.’

We nodded.

‘And, when you live alone in such as place as that, it comes a good deal easier.’

‘Come,’ I said smiling, ‘you’re not going to start telling me strange tales of lonely houses?’

He gave me a straight look. ‘No,’ he said, at last, ‘I am not.’

For some
reason then, I shuddered, all the more because of the openness of his gaze and the directness of his manner.

‘Well,’ I replied in the end, ‘all I can say is that it’s a sad thing when someone lives for eighty-seven years and can’t count upon a few friendly faces to gather together at their funeral!’

And I rubbed my hand on the window, trying to see out into the darkness. We appeared to have
stopped in the middle of open country, and to be taking the full force of the wind that came howling across it. ‘How far have we to go?’ I tried not to sound concerned, but was feeling an unpleasant sensation of being isolated far from any human dwelling, and trapped in this cold tomb of a railway carriage, with
its pitted mirror and stained, dark-wood panelling. Mr Daily took out his watch.

‘Twelve miles, we’re held up for the down train at Gapemouth tunnel. The hill it runs through is the last bit of high ground for miles. You’ve come to the flatlands, Mr Kipps.’

‘I’ve come to the land of curious place-names, certainly. This morning, I heard of the Nine Lives Causeway, and Eel Marsh, tonight of Gapemouth tunnel.’

‘It’s a far-flung part of the world. We don’t get many visitors.’

‘I suppose because there is nothing much to see.’

‘It all depends what you mean by “nothing”. There’s the drowned churches and the swallowed-up village,’ he chuckled. ‘Those are particularly fine examples of “nothing to see”. And we’ve a good wild ruin of an abbey with a handsome graveyard – you can get to it at low tide. It’s all according to what takes your fancy!’

‘You are almost making me
anxious to get back to that London particular!’

There was a shriek from the train whistle.

‘Here she comes.’ And the train coming away from Crythin Gifford to Homerby emerged from Gapemouth tunnel and trundled past us, a line of empty yellow-lit carriages that disappeared into the darkness, and then immediately we were under way again.

‘But you’ll find everything hospitable enough at Crythin,
for all it’s a plain little place. We tuck ourselves in with our backs to the wind, and carry on with our business. If you care to come with me, I can drop you off at the Gifford Arms – my car will be waiting for me, and it’s on my way.’

He seemed keen to reassure me and to make up for his teasing exaggeration of the bleakness and strangeness of the area, and I thanked him and accepted his offer,
whereupon we both settled back to our reading, for the last few miles of that tedious journey.

T
HE
F
UNERAL OF
M
RS
D
RABLOW

M
Y FIRST
impressions of the little market town – indeed, it seemed scarcely larger than an overgrown village – of Crythin Gifford were distinctly favourable. When we arrived that night, Mr Samuel Daily’s car, as shining, capacious and plush a vehicle as I had travelled in in my life, took us swiftly the bare mile from the tiny station into the market square, where we
drew up outside the Gifford Arms.

As I prepared to alight, he handed me his card.

‘Should you need anyone …’

I thanked him, though stressing that it was most unlikely, as I would have whatever practical help I might require to organize the late Mrs Drablow’s business from the local agent, and did not intend to be in the place more than a day or two. Mr Daily gave
me a straight, steady stare,
and said nothing and, so as not to appear discourteous, I tucked the card carefully into my waistcoat pocket. Only then did he give the word to his driver, and move away.

‘You’ll find everything hospitable enough at Crythin,’ he had said earlier, and so it proved. As I caught sight of the piled-up fire and the capacious armchair beside it, in the parlour of the inn, and found another fire waiting
to warm me in the prettily furnished bedroom at the top of the house, my spirits rose, and I began to feel rather more like a man on holiday than one come to attend a funeral, and go through the dreary business attendant upon the death of a client. The wind had either died down or else could not be heard in the shelter of the buildings, around the market square, and the discomfort, and queer
trend of the conversation of my journey, faded like a bad dream.

The landlord recommended a glass of mulled wine, which I drank sitting before the fire, listening to the murmur of voices on the other side of a heavy door leading to the public bar, and his wife made my mouth water in anticipation of the supper she proposed – home-made broth, sirloin of beef, apple and raisin tart with cream, and
some Stilton cheese. While I waited, I wrote a brief fond note to Stella, which I would post the next morning, and while I ate heartily,
I mused about the type of small house we might afford to live in after our marriage, if Mr Bentley were to continue to give me so much responsibility in the firm, so that I might feel justified in asking for an increase in salary.

All in all, and with the half-bottle
of claret that had accompanied my supper, I prepared to go up to bed in a warm glow of well-being and contentment.

‘You’ll be here for the auction, I take it then, sir,’ the landlord waited by the door, to bid me goodnight.

‘Auction?’

He looked surprised. ‘Ah – I thought you would have come up for that – there’s a big auction of several farms that lie just south of here, and it’s market day
tomorrow as well.’

‘Where is the auction?’

‘Why here, Mr Kipps, in the public bar at eleven o’clock. We generally have such auctions as there are at the Gifford Arms, but there hasn’t been one so big as this for a good many years. Then there’s the lunch afterwards. We expect to serve upwards of forty lunches on market day, but it’ll be a few more than that tomorrow.’

‘Then I’m sorry I shall
have to miss it – although I hope I shall be able to have a stroll round the market.’

‘No intention to pry, sir – only I made sure you’d come for the auction.’

‘That’s all right – quite natural that you should. But at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning, I’m afraid that I have a sombre engagement. I’m here to attend a funeral – Mrs Drablow, of Eel Marsh House. Perhaps you knew of her?’

His face
flickered with … what? Alarm, was it? Suspicion? I could not tell, but the name had stirred some strong emotion in him, all signs of which he endeavoured to suppress at once.

‘I knew of her,’ he said evenly.

‘I am representing her firm of solicitors. I never met her. I take it she kept rather out of the way, for the most part?’

‘She could hardly do otherwise, living there,’ and he turned away
abruptly in the direction of the public bar. ‘I’ll wish you goodnight, sir. We can serve breakfast at any time in the morning, to your convenience.’ And he left me alone. I half moved to call him back, for I was both curious and a little irritated by his manner, and I thought of trying to get out of him exactly what he had meant by it. But I was tired and dismissed the notion, putting his remarks
down to some local tales and silliness which had grown out of all proportion, as such things will do in small, out of the way communities, which have only themselves to look to for whatever melodrama and mystery they can extract out of life. For I must confess I had the
Londoner’s sense of superiority in those days, the half-formed belief that countrymen, and particularly those who inhabited the
remoter corners of our island, were more superstitious, more gullible, more slow-witted, unsophisticated and primitive, than we cosmopolitans. Doubtless, in such a place as this, with its eerie marshes, sudden fogs, moaning winds and lonely houses, any poor old woman might be looked at askance; once upon a time, after all, she would have been branded as a witch and local legends and tales were
still abroad and some extravagant folklore still half-believed in.

It was true that neither Mr Daily nor the landlord of the inn seemed anything but sturdy men of good commonsense, just as I had to admit that neither of them had done more than fall silent and look at me hard and a little oddly, when the subject of Mrs Drablow had arisen. Nonetheless, I had been left in no doubt that there was
some significance in what had been left
un
said.

On the whole, that night, with my stomach full of home-cooked food, a pleasing drowsiness induced by good wine, and the sight of the low fire and inviting, turned-back covers of the deep, soft bed, I was inclined to let myself enjoy the whole business, and to be amused by it, as adding a touch of spice and local colour to my expedition, and I fell
asleep most
peacefully. I can recall it still, that sensation of slipping down, down into the welcoming arms of sleep, surrounded by warmth and softness, happy and secure as a small child in the nursery, and I recall walking the next morning, too, opening my eyes to see shafts of wintry sunlight playing upon the sloping white ceiling, and the delightful feeling of ease and refreshment in mind
and limbs. Perhaps I recall those sensations the more vividly because of the contrast that presented with what was to come after. Had I known that my untroubled night of good sleep was to be the last such that I was to enjoy for so many terrifying, racked and weary nights to come, perhaps I should not have jumped out of bed with such alacrity, eager to be down and have breakfast, and then to go out
and begin the day.

Indeed, even now in later life, though I have been as happy and at peace in my home at Monk’s Piece, and with my dear wife Esmé, as any man may hope to be, and even though I thank God every night that it is all over, all long past and will not,
cannot
come again, yet I do not believe I have ever again slept so well as I did that night in the inn at Crythin Gifford. For I see
that then I was still all in a state of innocence, but that innocence, once lost, is lost forever.

The bright sunshine that filled my room when I drew back the flowered curtains was no fleeting,
early-morning visitor. By contrast with the fog of London, and the wind and rain of the previous evening’s journey up here, the weather was quite altered as Mr Daily had confidently predicted that it
would be.

Although it was early November and this a cold corner of England, when I stepped out of the Gifford Arms after enjoying a remarkably good breakfast, the air was fresh, crisp and clear and the sky as blue as a blackbird’s egg. The little town was built, for the most part, of stone and rather austere grey slate, and set low, the houses huddled together and looking in on themselves. I
wandered about, discovering the pattern of the place – a number of straight narrow streets or lanes led off at every angle from the compact market square, in which the hotel was situated and which was now filling up with pens and stalls, carts, wagons and trailers, in preparation for the market. From all sides came the cries of men to one another as they worked hammering temporary fencing, hauling
up canvas awnings over stalls, wheeling barrows over the cobbles. It was as cheerful and purposeful a sight as I could have found to enjoy anywhere, and I walked about with a great appetite for it all. But, when I turned my back on the square and went up one of the lanes, at once all the sounds were deadened, so that all I heard were my own footsteps in front of the quiet houses. There was not the
slightest rise or slope on the ground
anywhere. Crythin Gifford was utterly flat but, coming suddenly to the end of one of the narrow streets, I found myself at once in open country, and saw field after field stretching away into the pale horizon. I saw then what Mr Daily had meant about the town tucking itself in with its back to the wind, for, indeed, all that could be seen of it from here were
the backs of houses and shops, and of the main public buildings in the square.

There was a touch of warmth in the autumn sunshine, and what few trees I saw, all bent a little away from the prevailing wind, still had a few last russet and golden leaves clinging to the ends of their branches. But I imagined how drear and grey and bleak the place would be in the dank rain and mist, how beaten and
battered at for days on end by those gales that came sweeping across the flat, open country, how completely cut off by blizzards. That morning, I had looked again at Crythin Gifford on the map. To north, south and west there was rural emptiness for many miles – it was twelve to Homerby, the next place of any size, thirty to a large town, to the south, and about seven to any other village at all.
To the east, there were only marshes, the estuary, and then the sea. For anything other than a day or two, it would certainly not do for me, but as I strolled back towards the market, I felt very much at home, and content,
in the place, refreshed by the brightness of the day and fascinated by everything I saw.

When I reached the hotel again, I found that a note had been left for me in my absence
by Mr Jerome, the agent who had dealt with such property and land business as Mrs Drablow had conducted, and who was to be my companion at the funeral. In a polite, formal hand, he suggested that he return at ten-forty, to conduct me to the church, and so, for the rest of the time until then, I sat in the front window of the parlour at the Gifford Arms, reading the daily newspapers and watching
the preparations in the market place. Within the hotel, too, there was a good deal of activity which I took to be in connection with the auction sale. From the kitchen area, as doors occasionally swung open, wafted the rich smells of cooking, of roasting meat and baking bread, of pies and pastry and cakes, and from the dining room came the clatter of crockery. By ten-fifteen, the pavement outside
began to be crowded with solid, prosperous-looking farmers in tweed suits, calling out greetings, shaking hands, nodding vigorously in discussion.

I was sad to be obliged to leave it all, dressed in my dark, formal suit and overcoat, with black armband and tie, and black hat in my hand, when Mr Jerome arrived – there was no mistaking him because of the similar drabness of his outfit – and we
shook hands
and went out onto the street. For a moment standing there looking over the colourful, busy scene before us, I felt like a spectre at some cheerful feast, and that our appearance among the men in workaday or country clothes was that of a pair of gloomy ravens. And, indeed, that was the effect we seemed to have at once upon everyone who saw us. As we passed through the square we were
the focus of uneasy glances, men drew back from us slightly and fell silent and stiff, in the middle of their conversations, so that I began to be unhappy, feeling like some pariah, and glad to get away and into one of the quiet streets that led, Mr Jerome indicated, directly to the parish church.

He was a particularly small man, only five feet two or three inches tall at most, and with an extra
ordinary, domed head, fringed around at the very back with gingerish hair, like some sort of rough braiding around the base of a lampshade. He might have been anywhere between thirty-five and fifty-seven years of age, with a blandness and formality of manner and a somewhat shuttered expression that revealed nothing whatsoever of his own personality, his mood or his thoughts. He was courteous,
businesslike, and conversational but not intimate. He inquired about my journey, about the comfort of the Gifford Arms, about Mr Bentley, and about the London weather, he told me the name of the clergyman who would be
officiating at the funeral, the number of properties – some half-dozen – that Mrs Drablow had owned in the town and the immediate vicinity. And yet he told me nothing at all, nothing
personal, nothing revelatory, nothing very interesting.

‘I take it she is to be buried in the churchyard?’ I asked.

Mr Jerome glanced at me sideways, and I noted that he had very large, and slightly protuberant and pale eyes of a colour somewhere between blue and grey, that reminded me of gulls’ eggs.

‘That is so, yes.’

‘Is there a family grave?’

He was silent for a moment, glancing at me
closely again, as if trying to discover whether there were any meaning behind the apparent straightforwardness of the question. Then he said, ‘No. At least … not here, not in this churchyard.’

‘Somewhere else?’

‘It is … no longer in use,’ he said, after some deliberation. ‘The area is unsuitable.’

‘I’m afraid I don’t quite understand …’

But, at that moment, I saw that we had reached the church,
which was approached through a wrought-iron gate, between two overhanging yew trees, and situated at the end of a particularly long, very straight path. On either side, and away to the right, stood the
gravestones, but to the left, there were some buildings which I took to be the church hall and – the one nearer to the church – the school, with a bell set high up in the wall, and, from within
it, the sound of children’s voices.

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