Authors: Susan Hill
I was obliged to suspend my inquisitiveness about the Drablow family and their burial ground, and to assume, like Mr Jerome, a professionally mournful expression as we walked with measured steps towards the church porch. There, for some five minutes that seemed very much longer, we waited, quite alone, until the funeral car drew up at the gate, and from the
interior of the church the parson materialized beside us; and, together, the three of us watched the drab procession of undertaker’s men, bearing the coffin of Mrs Drablow, make its slow way towards us.
It was indeed a melancholy little service, with so few of us in the cold church, and I shivered as I thought once again how inexpressibly sad it was that the ending of a whole human life, from
birth and childhood, through adult maturity to extreme old age, should here be marked by no blood relative or heart’s friend, but only by two men connected by nothing more than business, one of whom had never so much as set eyes upon the woman during her life, besides those present in an even more bleakly professional capacity.
However, towards the end of it, and on hearing some slight rustle
behind me, I half-turned, discreetly, and caught a glimpse of another mourner, a woman, who must have slipped into the church after we of the funeral party had taken our places and who stood several rows behind and quite alone, very erect and still, and not holding a prayer book. She was dressed in deepest black, in the style of full mourning that had rather gone out of fashion except, I imagined,
in court circles on the most formal of occasions. Indeed, it had clearly been dug out of some old trunk or wardrobe, for its blackness was a little rusty looking. A bonnet-type hat covered her head and shaded her face, but, although I did not stare, even the swift glance I took of the woman showed me enough to recognise that she was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for not only was
she extremely pale, even more than a contrast with the blackness of her garments could account for, but the skin and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious, blue-white sheen, and her eyes seemed sunken back into her head. Her hands that rested on the pew before her were in a similar state, as though she had
been a victim of starvation. Though not any medical expert, I had heard of certain conditions which caused such terrible wasting, such
ravages of the flesh, and knew that they were generally regarded as incurable, and it seemed poignant that a woman, who was perhaps only a short time away from her own death, should drag herself to the funeral of another. Nor did she look old. The effect of the
illness made her age hard to guess, but she was quite possibly no more than thirty. Before I turned back, I vowed to speak to her and see if I could be of any assistance after the funeral was over, but just as we were making ready to move away, following the parson and the coffin out of the church, I heard the slight rustle of clothing once more and realized that the unknown woman had already slipped
quickly away, and gone out to the waiting, open grave, though to stand some yards back, beside another headstone, that was overgrown with moss and upon which she leaned slightly. Her appearance, even in the limpid sunshine and comparative warmth and brightness outdoors, was so pathetically wasted, so pale and gaunt with disease, that it would not have been a kindness to gaze upon her; for there
was still some faint trace on her features, some lingering hint, of a not inconsiderable former beauty, which must make her feel her present condition all the more keenly, as would the victim of a smallpox, or of some dreadful disfigurement of burning.
Well, I thought, there is one who cares, after all,
and who knows how keenly, and surely, such warmth and kindness, such courage and unselfish
purpose, can never go unrewarded and unremarked, if there is any truth at all in the words that we have just heard spoken to us in the church?
And then I looked away from the woman and back, to where the coffin was being lowered into the ground, and I bent my head and prayed with a sudden upsurge of concern, for the soul of that lonely old woman, and for a blessing upon our drab circle.
I looked up again, I saw a blackbird on the hollybush a few feet away and heard him open his mouth to pour out a sparkling fountain of song in the November sunlight, and then it was all over, we were moving away from the graveside, I a step behind Mr Jerome, as I intended to wait for the sick-looking woman and offer my arm to escort her. But she was nowhere to be seen.
While I had been saying
my prayers and the clergyman had been speaking the final words of the committal, and perhaps not wanting to disturb us, or draw any attention to herself, she must have gone away, just as unobtrusively as she had arrived.
At the church gate, we stood for a few moments, talking politely, shaking hands, and I had a chance to look around me, and to notice that, on such a clear, bright day, it was
possible to see far beyond the church
and the graveyard, to where the open marshes and the water of the estuary gleamed silver, and shone even brighter, at the line of the horizon, where the sky above was almost white and faintly shimmering.
Then, glancing back on the other side of the church, something else caught my eye. Lined up along the iron railings that surrounded the small asphalt yard
of the school were twenty or so children, one to a gap. They presented a row of pale, solemn faces with great, round eyes, that had watched who knew how much of the mournful proceedings, and their little hands held the railings tight, and they were all of them quite silent, quite motionless. It was an oddly grave and touching sight, they looked so unlike children generally do, animated and carefree.
I caught the eye of one and smiled at him gently. He did not smile back.
I saw that Mr Jerome waited for me politely in the lane, and I went quickly out after him.
‘Tell me, that other woman …’ I said as I reached his side, ‘I hope she can find her own way home … she looked so dreadfully unwell. Who was she?’
‘The young woman with the wasted face,’ I urged, ‘at the back of the
church and then in the graveyard a few yards away from us.’
Mr Jerome stopped dead. He was staring at me.
‘A young woman?’
‘Yes, yes, with the skin stretched over her bones, I could scarcely bear to look at her … she was tall, she wore a bonnet type of hat … I suppose to try and conceal as much as she could of her face, poor thing.’
For a few seconds, in that quiet, empty lane, in the sunshine,
there was such a silence as must have fallen again now inside the church, a silence so deep that I heard the pulsation of the blood in the channels of my own ears. Mr Jerome looked frozen, pale, his throat moving as if he were unable to utter.
‘Is there anything the matter?’ I asked him quickly. ‘You look unwell.’
At last he managed to shake his head – I almost would say, that he shook himself,
as though making an extreme effort to pull himself together after suffering a momentous shock, though the colour did not return to his face and the corners of his lips seemed tinged with blue.
At last he said in a low voice, ‘I did not see a young woman.’
‘But, surely …’ And I looked over my shoulder, back to the churchyard, and there she was again, I caught a glimpse of her black dress and
the outline of her bonnet. So she had not left after all, only concealed herself behind one of the bushes or headstones, or else in the shadows of the church, waiting until we should
have left, so that she could do what she was doing now, stand at the very edge of the grave in which the body of Mrs Drablow had just been laid to rest, looking down. I wondered again what connection she would have
had with her, what odd story might lie behind her surreptitious visit, and what extremes of sad feeling she was now suffering, alone there. ‘Look,’ I said, and pointed, ‘there she is again … ought we not to …’ I stopped as Mr Jerome grabbed my wrist and held it in an agonizingly tight grip, and, looking at his face, was certain that he was about to faint, or collapse with some kind of seizure. I
began looking wildly about me, in the deserted lane, wondering whatever I might do, where I could go, or call out, for help. The undertakers had left. Behind me were only a school of little children, and a mortally sick young woman under great emotional and physical strain, beside me was a man in a state of near-collapse. The only person I could conceivably reach was the clergyman, somewhere in the
recesses of his church, and, if I were to go for him, I would have to leave Mr Jerome alone.
‘Mr Jerome, can you take my arm … I would be obliged if you would loosen your grip a little … if you can just walk a few steps, back to the church … path … I saw a bench there, a little way inside the gate, you can rest and recover while I go for help … a car …’
‘No!’ He almost shrieked.
‘But, my dear
‘No. I apologize …’ He began to take deep breaths and a little colour returned by degrees to his face. ‘I am so sorry. It was nothing … a passing faintness … It will be best if you would just walk back with me towards my offices in Penn Street, off the square.’
He seemed agitated now, anxious to get away from the church and its environs.
‘If you are sure …’
‘Quite sure. Come …’ and he
began to walk quickly ahead of me, so quickly that I was taken by surprise and had to run a few steps to catch up with him. It took only a few minutes at that pace to arrive back in the square, where the market was in full cry and we were at once plunged into the hubbub of vehicles, the shouting of voices, of auctioneers and stallholders and buyers, and all the bleating and braying, the honking
and crowing and cackling and whinnying of dozens of farm animals. At the sight and sound of it all, I noticed that Mr Jerome was looking better and, when we reached the porch of the Gifford Arms, he seemed almost lively, in a burst of relief.
‘I gather you are to take me over to Eel Marsh House later,’ I said, after pressing him to lunch with me, and being refused.
His face closed up again.
He said, ‘No. I shall not
go there. You can cross any time after one o’clock. Keckwick will come for you. He has always been the go-between to that place. I take it you have a key?’
‘I shall make a start on looking out Mrs Drablow’s papers and getting them in some sort of order, but I suppose I shall be obliged to go across again tomorrow, and even another day after that. Perhaps Mr
Keckwick can take me early in the morning, and leave me there for the whole day? I shall have to find my way about the place.’
‘You will be obliged to fit in with the tides. Keckwick will tell you.’
‘On the other hand,’ I said, ‘if it all looks as if it may take somewhat longer than I anticipate, perhaps I might simply stay there in the house? Would anyone have any objection? It seems ridiculous
to expect this man to come to and fro for me.’
‘I think,’ said Mr Jerome carefully, ‘that you would find it more comfortable to continue staying here.’
‘Well, they have certainly made me welcome and the food is first rate. Perhaps you may be right.’
‘I think so.’
‘So long as it causes no one any inconvenience.’
‘You will find Mr Keckwick perfectly obliging.’
‘Though not very communicative.’
I smiled. ‘Oh, I’m getting very used to that.’ And, after shaking hands with Mr Jerome, I went to have lunch, with four dozen or so farmers.
It was a convivial and noisy occasion, with everyone sitting at three trestle tables, which were covered in long white cloths, and shouting to one another in all directions about market matters, while half a dozen girls passed in and out bearing platters
of beef and pork, tureens of soup, basins of vegetables and jugs of gravy, and mugs of ale, a dozen at a time, on wide trays. Although I did not think I knew a soul in the room, and felt somewhat out of place, especially in my funeral garb, among the tweed and corduroy, I nevertheless enjoyed myself greatly, partly, no doubt, because of the contrast between this cheerful situation and the rather
unnerving events of earlier in the morning. Much of the talk might have been in a foreign language, for all I understood of the references to weights and prices, yields and breeds, but, as I ate the excellent lunch, I was happy to listen all the same, and when my neighbour to the left passed an enormous Cheshire cheese to me, indicating that I should help myself, I asked him about the auction sale
which had taken place in the Inn earlier. He grimaced.
‘The auction went according to expectations, sir. Do I take it you had an interest in the land yourself?’
‘No, no. It was merely that the landlord mentioned
it to me yesterday evening. I gather it was quite an important sale.’
‘It disposed of a very large acreage. Half the land on the Homerby side of Crythin and for several miles east as
well. There had been four farms.’
‘And this land about here is valuable?’
‘Some is, sir. This was. In an area where much is useless because it is all marsh and salt-flat and cannot be drained to any purpose good farming land is valuable, every inch of it. There are several disappointed men here this morning.’
‘Do I take it that you are one of them?’
‘Me? No. I am content with what I have and
if I were not it would make no odds, for I haven’t the money to take on more. Besides, I would have more sense than to pit myself against such as him.’
‘You mean the successful buyer?’
I followed his glance across to the other table. ‘Ah! Mr Daily.’ For there at the far end, I recognized my travelling companion of the previous night, holding up a tankard and surveying the room with
a satisfied expression.
‘You know him?’
‘No. I met him, just briefly. Is he a large landowner here?’
‘And disliked because of it?’
My neighbour shrugged his broad shoulders, but did not reply.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘if he’s buying up half the county, I suppose I may be doing business with him myself before the year is out. I am a solicitor looking after the affairs of the late Mrs Alice
Drablow of Eel Marsh House. It is quite possible that her estate will come up for sale in due course.’