Authors: Susan Hill
For a moment, my companion still said nothing, only buttered a thick slice of bread and laid his chunks of cheese along it carefully. I saw by the clock on the opposite wall that it was half past one, and I wanted to change my clothes before the arrival of Mr Keckwick, so that I was about to
make my excuses and go, when my neighbour spoke. ‘I doubt,’ he said, in a measured tone, ‘whether even Samuel Daily would go so far.’
‘I don’t think I fully understand you. I haven’t seen the full extent of Mrs Drablow’s land yet … I gather there is a farm a few miles out of the town …’
‘Hoggetts!’ he said in a dismissive tone. ‘Fifty acres and half of it under flood for the best part of the
year. Hoggetts is nothing, and it’s under tenancy for his lifetime.’
‘There is also Eel Marsh House and all the land surrounding it – would that be practicable for farming?’
‘Well, might not Mr Daily simply want to add a little more to his empire, for the sake of being able to say that he had got it? You imply he is that type of man.’
‘Maybe he is.’ He wiped his mouth on his napkin.
‘But let me tell you that you won’t find anybody, not even Mr Sam Daily, having to do with any of it.’
‘And may I ask why?’
I spoke rather sharply, for I was growing impatient of the half-hints and dark mutterings made by grown men at the mention of Mrs Drablow and her property. I had been right, this was just the sort of place where superstition and tittle-tattle were rife, and even allowed
to hold sway over commonsense. Now, I expected the otherwise stalwart countryman on my left to whisper that maybe he would and, then again, maybe he would not, and how he might tell a tale, if he chose … But, instead of replying to my question at all, he turned right away from me and engaged his neighbour on the other side in a complicated discussion of crops and, infuriated by the now-familiar mystery
and nonsense, I rose abruptly and left the room. Ten minutes later, changed out of my funeral suit into less formal and more comfortable clothes, I was standing on the pavement awaiting the arrival of the car, driven by a man called Keckwick.
appeared. Instead, there drew up outside the Gifford Arms a rather worn and shabby pony and trap. It was not at all out of place in the market square – I had noticed a number of such vehicles that morning and, assuming that this one belonged to some farmer or stockman, I took no notice, but continued to look around me, for a motor. Then I heard my name called.
was a small, shaggy-looking creature, wearing blinkers, and the driver with a large cap pulled down low over his brow, and a long, hairy brown coat, looked not unlike it, and blended with the whole equipage. I was delighted at the sight, eager for the ride, and climbed up with alacrity. Keckwick had scarcely given me a glance, and now, merely assuming that I was seated, clucked at the pony and
picking his way out of the crowded market square and up the lane that led to the church. As we passed it, I tried to catch a glimpse of the grave of Mrs Drablow, but it was hidden from view behind some bushes. I remembered the ill-looking, solitary young woman, too, and Mr Jerome’s reaction to my mention of her. But, within a few moments, I was too caught up in the present and my surroundings
to speculate any further upon the funeral and its aftermath, for we had come out into open country, and Crythin Gifford lay quite behind us, small and self-contained as it was. Now, all around and above and way beyond there seemed to be sky, sky and only a thin strip of land. I saw this part of the world as those great landscape painters had seen Holland, or the country around Norwich. Today
there were no clouds at all, but I could well imagine how magnificently the huge, brooding area of sky would look with grey, scudding rain and storm clouds lowering over the estuary, how it would be here in the floods of February time when the marshes turned to iron-grey and the sky seeped down into them, and in the high winds of March, when the light rippled, shadow chasing shadow across the
Today, all was bright and clear, and there was a thin sun overall, though the light was pale now, the sky having lost the bright blue of the morning, to
become almost silver. As we drove briskly across the absolutely flat countryside, I saw scarcely a tree, but the hedgerows were dark and twiggy and low, and the earth that had been ploughed was at first a rich mole-brown, in
straight furrows. But, gradually, soil gave way to rough grass and I began to see dykes and ditches filled with water, and then we were approaching the marshes themselves. They lay silent, still and shining under the November sky, and they seemed to stretch in every direction, as far as I could see, and to merge without a break into the waters of the estuary, and the line of the horizon.
reeled at the sheer and startling beauty, the wide, bare openness of it. The sense of space, the vastness of the sky above and on either side made my heart race. I would have travelled a thousand miles to see this. I had never imagined such a place.
The only sounds I could hear above the trotting of the pony’s hooves, the rumble of the wheels and the creak of the cart, were sudden, harsh, weird
cries from birds near and far. We had travelled perhaps three miles, and passed no farm or cottage, no kind of dwelling house at all, all was emptiness. Then, the hedgerows petered out, and we seemed to be driving towards the very edge of the world. Ahead, the water gleamed like metal and I began to make out a track, rather like the line left by the wake of a boat, that
ran across it. As we drew
nearer, I saw that the water was lying only shallowly over the rippling sand on either side of us, and that the line was in fact a narrow track leading directly ahead, as if into the estuary itself. As we slipped onto it, I realized that this must be the Nine Lives Causeway – this and nothing more – and saw how, when the tide came in, it would quickly be quite submerged and untraceable.
the pony and then the trap met the sandy path, the smart noise we had been making ceased, and we went on almost in silence save for a hissing, silky sort of sound. Here and there were clumps of reeds, bleached bone-pale, and now and again the faintest of winds caused them to rattle dryly. The sun at our backs reflected in the water all around so that everything shone and glistened like the surface
of a mirror, and the sky had taken on a faint pinkish tinge at the edges, and this in turn became reflected in the marsh and the water. Then, as it was so bright that it hurt my eyes to go on staring at it, I looked up ahead and saw, as if rising out of the water itself, a tall, gaunt house of grey stone with a slate roof, that now gleamed steelily in the light. It stood like some lighthouse
or beacon or martello tower, facing the whole, wide expanse of marsh and estuary, the most astonishingly situated house I had ever seen or could ever conceivably have imagined, isolated, uncompromising but also, I
thought, handsome. As we neared it, I saw the land on which it stood was raised up a little, surrounding it on every side for perhaps three or four hundred yards, of plain, salt-bleached
grass, and then gravel. This little island extended in a southerly direction across an area of scrub and field towards what looked like the fragmentary ruins of some old church or chapel.
There was a rough scraping, as the cart came onto the stones, and then pulled up. We had arrived at Eel Marsh House.
For a moment or two, I simply sat looking about me in amazement, hearing nothing save the
faint keening of the winter wind that came across the marsh, and the sudden rawk-rawk of a hidden bird. I felt a strange sensation, an excitement mingled with alarm … I could not altogether tell what. Certainly, I felt loneliness, for in spite of the speechless Keckwick and the shaggy brown pony I felt quite alone, outside that gaunt, empty house. But I was not afraid – of what could I be afraid
in this rare and beautiful spot? The wind? The marsh birds crying? Reeds and still water?
I got down from the trap and walked around to the man.
‘How long will the causeway remain passable?’
So I should scarcely be able to do more than look
around, get my bearings in the house, and make a start on the search for the papers, before it would be time for him to return to fetch me
back again. I did not want to leave here so soon. I was fascinated by it, I wanted Keckwick to be gone, so that I could wander about freely and slowly, take it all in through every one of my senses, and by myself. ‘Listen,’ I said, making a sudden decision, ‘it will be quite ridiculous for you to be driving to and fro twice a day. The best thing will be for me to bring my bags and some food and drink
and stay a couple of nights here. That way I shall finish the business a good deal more efficiently and you will not be troubled. I’ll return with you later this afternoon and then tomorrow, perhaps you could bring me back as early as is possible, according to the tides?’
I waited. I wondered if he was going to deter me, or argue, to try and put me off the enterprise, with those old dark hints.
He thought for some time. But he must have recognized the firmness of my resolve at last, for he just nodded.
‘Or perhaps you’d prefer to wait here for me now? Though I shall be a couple of hours. You know what suits you best.’
For answer, he simply pulled on the pony’s rein, and began to turn the trap about. Minutes later, they were receding across the causeway, smaller and smaller
in the immensity and wideness of marsh and sky, and I had turned away and walked around to the front of Eel Marsh House, my left hand touching the shaft of the key that was in my pocket.
But I did not go inside. I did not want to, yet awhile. I wanted to drink in all the silence and the mysterious, shimmering beauty, to smell the strange, salt smell that was borne faintly on the wind, to listen
for the slightest murmur. I was aware of a heightening of every one of my senses, and conscious that this extraordinary place was imprinting itself on my mind and deep in my imagination, too.
I thought it most likely that, if I were to stay here for any length of time, I should become quite addicted to the solitude and the quietness, and that I should turn birdwatcher, too, for there must be
many rare birds, waders and divers, wild ducks and geese, especially in spring and autumn, and with the aid of books and good binoculars I should soon come to identify them by their flight and call. Indeed, as I wandered around the outside of the house, I began to speculate about living here, and to romanticize a little about how it would be for Stella and me, alone in this wild and remote spot –
though the question of what I might actually do to earn our keep, and how we might occupy ourselves from day to day, I conveniently set aside.
Then, thinking thus fancifully, I walked away from the house in the direction of the field, and across it, towards the ruin. Away to the west, on my right hand, the sun was already beginning to slip down in a great, wintry, golden-red ball which shot arrows
of fire and blood-red streaks across the water. To the east, sea and sky had darkened slightly to a uniform, leaden grey. The wind that came suddenly snaking off the estuary was cold.
As I neared the ruins, I could see clearly that they were indeed of some ancient chapel, perhaps monastic in origin, and all broken-down and crumbling, with some of the stones and rubble fallen, probably in recent
gales, and lying about in the grass. The ground sloped a little down to the estuary shore and, as I passed under one of the old arches, I startled a bird, which rose up and away over my head with loudly beating wings and a harsh croaking cry that echoed all around the old walls and was taken up by another, some distance away. It was an ugly, satanic-looking thing, like some species of sea-vulture
– if such a thing existed – and I could not suppress a shudder as its shadow passed over me, and I watched its ungainly flight away towards the sea with relief. Then I saw that the ground at my feet and the fallen stones between were a foul mess of droppings, and guessed that these birds must nest and roost in the walls above.
Otherwise, I rather liked this lonely spot, and thought how it would
be on a warm evening at midsummer, when the breezes blew balmily from off the sea, across the tall grasses, and wild flowers of white and yellow and pink climbed and bloomed among the broken stones, the shadows lengthened gently, and June birds poured out their finest songs, with the faint lap and wash of water in the distance.
So musing, I emerged into a small burial ground. It was enclosed
by the remains of a wall, and I stopped in astonishment at the sight. There were perhaps fifty old gravestones, most of them leaning over or completely fallen, covered in patches of greenish-yellow lichen and moss, scoured pale by the salt wind, and stained by years of driven rain. The mounds were grassy, and weed-covered, or else they had disappeared altogether, sunken and slipped down. No names
or dates were now decipherable, and the whole place had a decayed and abandoned air.
Ahead, where the walls ended in a heap of dust and rubble, lay the grey water of the estuary. As I stood, wondering, the last light went from the sun, and the wind rose in a gust, and rustled through the grass. Above my head, that unpleasant, snake-necked bird came gliding back towards the ruins, and I saw that
its beak was hooked around a fish that writhed and struggled helplessly. I watched the creature alight and, as
I did so, it disturbed some of the stones, which toppled and fell out of sight somewhere.
Suddenly conscious of the cold and the extreme bleakness and eeriness of the spot and of the gathering dusk of the November afternoon, and not wanting my spirits to become so depressed that I might
begin to be affected by all sorts of morbid fancies, I was about to leave, and walk briskly back to the house, where I intended to switch on a good many lights and even light a small fire if it were possible, before beginning my preliminary work on Mrs Drablow’s papers. But, as I turned away, I glanced once again round the burial ground and then I saw again the woman with the wasted face, who
had been at Mrs Drablow’s funeral. She was at the far end of the plot, close to one of the few upright headstones, and she wore the same clothing and bonnet, but it seemed to have slipped back so that I could make out her face a little more clearly.
In the greyness of the fading light, it had the sheen and pallor not of flesh so much as of bone itself. Earlier, when I had looked at her, although
admittedly it had been scarcely more than a swift glance each time, I had not noticed any particular expression on her ravaged face, but then I had, after all, been entirely taken with the look of extreme illness. Now, however, as I stared at her, stared until my eyes
ached in their sockets, stared in surprise and bewilderment at her presence, now I saw that her face did wear an expression. It
was one of what I can only describe – and the words seem hopelessly inadequate to express what I saw – as a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed –
, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her. And, towards whoever had taken it she directed the purest evil and hatred and loathing, with all the force that was
available to her. Her face, in its extreme pallor, her eyes, sunken but unnaturally bright, were burning with the concentration of passionate emotion which was within her and which streamed from her. Whether or not this hatred and malevolence was directed towards me I had no means of telling – I had no reason at all to suppose that it could possibly have been, but at that moment I was far from able
to base my reactions upon reason and logic. For the combination of the peculiar, isolated place and the sudden appearance of the woman and the dreadfulness of her expression began to fill me with fear. Indeed, I had never in my life been so possessed by it, never known my knees to tremble and my flesh to creep, and then to turn cold as stone, never known my heart to give a great lurch, as if it
would almost leap up into my dry mouth and then begin pounding in my chest like
a hammer on an anvil, never known myself gripped and held fast by such dread and horror and apprehension of evil. It was as though I had become paralysed. I could not bear to stay there, for fear, but nor had I any strength left in my body to turn and run away, and I was as certain as I had ever been of anything that,
at any second, I would drop dead on that wretched patch of ground.