Authors: Susan Hill
It was the woman who moved. She slipped behind the gravestone and, keeping close to the shadow of the wall, went through one of the broken gaps and out of sight.
The very second that she had gone, my nerve and the power of speech and movement, my very sense of life itself, came flooding back through me, my head cleared and, all
at once, I was angry, yes,
, with her for the emotion she had aroused in me, for causing me to experience such fear, and the anger led at once to determination, to follow her and stop her, and then to ask some questions and receive proper replies, to get to the bottom of it all.
I ran quickly and lightly over the short stretch of rough grass between the graves towards the gap in the wall,
and came out almost on the edge of the estuary. At my feet, the grass gave way within a yard or two to sand, then shallow water. All around me the marshes and the flat salt dunes stretched away
until they merged with the rising tide. I could see for miles. There was no sign at all of the woman in black, nor any place in which she could have concealed herself.
Who she was – or
– and how she
had vanished, such questions I did not ask myself. I tried not to think about the matter at all but, with the very last of the energy that I could already feel draining out of me rapidly, I turned and began to run, to flee from the graveyard and the ruins and to put the woman at as great a distance behind as I possibly could. I concentrated everything upon my running, hearing only the thud of my
own body on the grass, the escape of my own breath. And I did not look back.
By the time I reached the house again I was in a lather of sweat, from exertion and from the extremes of my emotions, and as I fumbled with the key my hand shook, so that I dropped it twice upon the step before managing at last to open the front door. Once inside, I slammed it shut behind me. The noise of it boomed through
the house but, when the last reverberation had faded away, the place seemed to settle back into itself again and there was a great, seething silence. For a long time, I did not move from the dark, wood-panelled hall. I wanted company, and I had none, lights and warmth and a strong drink inside me, I needed reassurance. But, more than anything
else, I needed an
. It is remarkable how
powerful a force simple curiosity can be. I had never realized that before now. In spite of my intense fear and sense of shock, I was consumed with the desire to find out exactly who it was that I had seen, and how, I could not rest until I had settled the business, for all that, while out there, I had not dared to stay and make any investigations.
I did not believe in ghosts. Or rather, until
this day, I had not done so, and whatever stories I had heard of them I had, like most rational, sensible young men, dismissed as nothing more than stories indeed. That certain people claimed to have a stronger than normal intuition of such things and that certain old places were said to be haunted, of course I was aware, but I would have been loath to admit that there could possibly be anything
in it, even if presented with any evidence. And I had never had any evidence. It was remarkable, I had always thought, that ghostly apparitions and similar strange occurrences always seemed to be experienced at several removes, by someone who had known someone who had heard of it from someone they knew!
But out on the marshes just now, in the peculiar, fading light and desolation of that burial
ground, I had seen a woman whose form was quite substantial and yet in some essential respect also, I had no doubt,
ghostly. She had a ghostly pallor and a dreadful expression, she wore clothes that were out of keeping with the styles of the present-day; she had kept her distance from me and she had not spoken. Something emanating from her still, silent presence, in each case by a grave, had communicated
itself to me so strongly that I had felt indescribable repulsion and fear. And she had appeared and then vanished in a way that surely no real, living, fleshly human being could possibly manage to do. And yet … she had not looked in any way – as I imagined the traditional ‘ghost’ was supposed to do – transparent or vaporous, she had been real, she had been there, I had seen her quite clearly,
I was certain that I could have gone up to her, addressed her, touched her.
I did not believe in ghosts.
What other explanation was there?
From somewhere in the dark recesses of the house, a clock began to strike, and it brought me out of my reverie. Shaking myself, I deliberately turned my mind from the matter of the woman in the graveyards, to the house in which I was now standing.
hall ahead led a wide oak staircase and, on one side, a passage to what I took to be the kitchen and scullery. There were various other doors, all of them closed. I switched on the light in the hall but the bulb was very weak, and I thought it best to go through
each of the rooms in turn and let in what daylight was left, before beginning any search for papers.
After what I had heard from Mr
Bentley and from other people once I had arrived, about the late Mrs Drablow, I had had all sorts of wild imaginings about the state of her house. I had expected it, perhaps, to be a shrine to the memory of a past time, or to her youth, or to the memory of her husband of so short a time, like the house of poor Miss Havisham. Or else to be simply cobwebbed and filthy, with old newspapers, rags and
rubbish piled in corners, all the débris of a recluse – together with some half-starved cat or dog.
But, as I began to wander in and out of morning room and drawing room, sitting room and dining room and study, I found nothing so dramatic or unpleasant, though it is true that there was that faintly damp, musty, sweet-sour smell everywhere about, that will arise in any house that has been shut
up for some time, and particularly in one which, surrounded as this was on all sides by marsh and estuary, was bound to be permanently damp.
The furniture was old-fashioned but good, solid, dark, and it had been reasonably well looked after, though many of the rooms had clearly not been much used or perhaps even entered for years. Only a small
parlour, at the far end of a narrow corridor off
the hall, seemed to have been much lived in – probably it had been here that Mrs Drablow had passed most of her days. In every room were glass-fronted cases full of books and, besides the books, there were heavy pictures, dull portraits and oil paintings of old houses. But my heart sank when, after sorting through the bunch of keys Mr Bentley had given me, I found those which unlocked various desks,
bureaux, and writing tables, for in all of them were bundles and boxes of papers – letters, receipts, legal documents, notebooks, tied with ribbon or string, and yellow with age. It looked as if Mrs Drablow had never thrown away a single piece of paper or letter in her life, and, clearly, the task of sorting through these, even in a preliminary way, was far greater than I had anticipated. Most
of it might turn out to be quite worthless and redundant, but all of it would have to be examined nevertheless, before anything that Mr Bentley would have to deal with, pertaining to the disposal of the estate, could be packed up and sent to London. It was obvious that there would be little point in my making a start now, it was too late and I was too unnerved by the business in the graveyard. Instead,
I simply went about the house looking in every room and finding nothing of much interest or elegance. Indeed, it was all curiously impersonal, the furniture, the
decoration, the ornaments, assembled by someone with little individuality or taste, a dull, rather gloomy and rather unwelcoming home. It was remarkable and extraordinary in only one respect – its situation. From every window – and they
were tall and wide in each room – there was a view of one aspect or other of the marshes and the estuary and the immensity of the sky, all colour had been drained and blotted out of them now, the sun had set, the light was poor, there was no movement at all, no undulation of the water, and I could scarcely make out any break between land and water and sky. All was grey. I managed to let up every
blind and to open one or two of the windows. The wind had dropped altogether, there was no sound save the faintest, softest suck of water as the tide crept in. How one old woman had endured day after day, night after night, of isolation in this house, let alone for so many years, I could not conceive. I should have gone mad – indeed, I intended to work every possible minute without a pause to get
through the papers and be done. And yet, there was a strange fascination in looking out over the wild wide marshes, for they had an uncanny beauty, even now, in the grey twilight. There was nothing whatsoever to see for mile after mile and yet I could not take my eyes away. But for today I had had enough. Enough of solitude and no sound save the water and the moaning wind and the
of the birds, enough of monotonous greyness, enough of this gloomy old house. And, as it would be at least another hour before Keckwick would return in the pony trap, I decided that I would stir myself and put the place behind me. A good brisk walk would shake me up and put me in good heart, and work up my appetite and if I stepped out well I would arrive back in Crythin Gifford in time to save
Keckwick from turning out. Even if I did not, I should meet him on the way. The causeway was still visible, the roads back were straight and I could not possibly lose myself.
So thinking, I closed up the windows and drew the blinds again and left Eel Marsh House to itself in the declining November light.
was quiet, so that all I heard was the sound of my own footsteps as I began to walk briskly across the gravel, and even this sound was softened the moment I struck out over the grass towards the causeway path. Across the sky, a few last gulls went flying home. Once or twice, I glanced over my shoulder, half expecting to catch sight of the black figure
of the woman following me. But I had almost persuaded myself now that there must have been some slope or dip in the ground upon the other side of that graveyard and beyond it, perhaps a lonely dwelling, tucked down out of sight, for the changes of light in such a place can play all manner of tricks and, after all, I had not actually gone out there to search for her hiding place, I had only glanced
around and seen nothing.
Well, then. For the time being I allowed myself to remain forgetful of the extreme reaction of Mr Jerome to my mentioning the woman that morning.
On the causeway path it was still quite dry underfoot but to my left I saw that the water had begun to seep nearer, quite silent, quite slow. I wondered how deeply the path went under water when the tide was at height. But,
on a still night such as this, there was plenty of time to cross in safety, though the distance was greater, now I was traversing it on foot, than it had seemed when we trotted over in Keckwick’s pony cart, and the end of the causeway path seemed to be receding into the greyness ahead. I had never been quite so alone, nor felt quite so small and insignificant in a vast landscape before, and I fell
into a not unpleasant brooding, philosophical frame of mind, struck by the absolute indifference of water and sky to my presence.
Some minutes later, I could not tell how many, I came out of my reverie, to realize that I could no longer see very far in front of me and when I turned around I was startled to find that Eel Marsh House, too, was invisible, not because the darkness of evening had
fallen, but because of a thick, damp sea-mist that had come rolling over the marshes and enveloped everything, myself, the house behind me, the end of the causeway path and the countryside ahead. It was a mist like a damp, clinging cobwebby thing, fine and
yet impenetrable. It smelled and tasted quite different from the yellow filthy fog of London; that was choking and thick and still, this was
salty, light and pale and moving in front of my eyes all the time. I felt confused, teased by it, as though it were made up of millions of live fingers that crept over me, hung on me and then shifted away again. My hair and face and the sleeves of my coat were already damp with a veil of moisture. Above all, it was the suddenness of it that had so unnerved and disorientated me.
For a short time,
I walked slowly on, determined to stick to my path until I came out onto the safety of the country road. But it began to dawn upon me that I should as likely as not become very quickly lost once I had left the straightness of the causeway, and might wander all night in exhaustion. The most obvious and sensible course was to turn and retrace my steps the few hundred yards I had come and to wait
at the house until either the mist cleared, or Keckwick arrived to fetch me, or both.
That walk back was a nightmare. I was obliged to go step by slow step, for fear of veering off onto the marsh, and then into the rising water. If I looked up or around me, I was at once baffled by the moving, shifting mist, and so on I stumbled, praying to reach the house, which was farther away than I had imagined.
Then, somewhere away in the swirling mist and
dark, I heard the sound that lifted my heart, the distant but unmistakable clip-clop of the pony’s hooves and the rumble and creak of the trap. So Keckwick was unperturbed by the mist, quite used to travelling through the lanes and across the causeway in darkness, and I stopped and waited to see a lantern – for surely he must carry one – and half wondered
whether to shout and make my presence known, in case he came suddenly upon me and ran me down into the ditch.
Then I realized that the mist played tricks with sound as well as sight, for not only did the noise of the trap stay further away from me for longer than I might have expected but also it seemed to come not from directly behind me, straight down the causeway path, but instead to be away
to my right, out on the marsh. I tried to work out the direction of the wind but there was none. I turned around but then the sound began to recede further away again. Baffled, I stood and waited, straining to listen through the mist. What I heard next chilled and horrified me, even though I could neither understand nor account for it. The noise of the pony trap grew fainter and then stopped abruptly
and away on the marsh was a curious draining, sucking, churning sound, which went on, together with the shrill neighing and whinnying of a horse in panic, and then I heard another cry, a shout, a terrified sobbing – it was hard to decipher – but
with horror I realized that it came from a child, a young child. I stood absolutely helpless in the mist that clouded me and everything from my sight,
almost weeping in an agony of fear and frustration, and I knew that I was hearing, beyond any doubt, appalling last noises of a pony and trap, carrying a child in it, as well as whatever adult – presumably Keckwick – was driving and was even now struggling desperately. It had somehow lost the causeway path and fallen into the marshes and was being dragged under by the quicksand and the pull of the
I began to yell until I thought my lungs would burst, and then to run forward, but then stopped, for I could see nothing and what use would that be? I could not get onto the marsh and even if I could there was no chance of my finding the pony trap or of helping its occupants, I would only, in all likelihood, risk being sucked into the marsh myself. The only thing was to get back
to Eel Marsh House, to light every light and somehow try and signal with them from the windows, hoping against all reason that this would be seen, like a light-ship, by someone, somewhere, in the countryside around.
Shuddering at the dreadful thoughts racing through my mind and the pictures I could not help but see of those poor creatures being slowly choked and drowned to death in mud and water,
I forgot my own fears and
nervous imaginings of a few minutes earlier and concentrated on getting back to the house as quickly and safely as I could. The water was now lapping very close to the edges of the path though I could only hear it, the mist was still so thick and darkness had completely fallen, and it was with a gasp of relief that I felt the turf and then the gravel beneath my feet and
fumbled my way blindly to the door of the house.
Behind me, out on the marshes, all was still and silent; save for that movement of the water, the pony and trap might never have existed.
When I got inside the house again, I managed to reach a chair in that dark hall and, sitting on it just as my legs buckled beneath me, I put my head down into my hands and gave way to an outburst of helpless
sobbing as the full realization of what had just happened overcame me.
For how long I sat there, in extremes of despair and fearfulness, I do not know. But after some time I was able to pull myself together sufficiently to get up and go about the house, switching on every light that I could make work and leaving them on, though they were none of them very bright, and, in my heart, I knew that
there was little chance of what was not much more than a glow from a handful of scattered lamps being seen across that misty land, even had there been any watcher or traveller on hand to glimpse
them. But I had done something – all that I could do indeed – and I felt just fractionally better because of it. After that, I began searching in cupboards and sideboards and kitchen dressers until at
last, at the very back of one such in the dining room, I found a bottle of brandy – thirty years old and still fully corked and sealed. I opened it, found a glass, and poured myself as large a measure as seemed sensible to be consumed by a man in a state of great shock, some hours away from his last meal.
The room had clearly not been used by Mrs Drablow for many years. The furniture had a faded
bloom from the salt in the air and the candlesticks and épergne were tarnished, the linen cloths stiffly folded and interleaved with yellowing tissue, the glass and china dusty.
I went back into the one room in the house that had some pretensions to comfort, for all it was chilly and musty-smelling, the little sitting room, and there I sipped my brandy and tried as calmly as I could to work out
what I should do.
But as the drink took effect I became more rather than less agitated and my brain was in an increasing turmoil. I began to be angry with Mr Bentley for sending me here, at my own foolish independence and blockheadedness in ignoring all the hints and veiled warnings I had received about the place, and to long – no, to pray – for some kind of speedy deliverance
and to be back
in the safety and comforting busyness and clamour of London, among friends – indeed among any people at all – and with Stella.
I could not sit still in that claustrophobic and yet oddly hollow-feeling old house, but rambled about from room to room, lifting up this and that object and setting it down again hopelessly and then going upstairs, to wander into shuttered bedrooms and up again, to attics
full of lumber, uncarpeted and without curtains or blinds at the tall narrow windows.
Every door was open, every room orderly, dusty, bitterly cold and damp and yet also somehow stifling. Only one door was locked, at the far end of a passage that led away from three bedrooms on the second floor. There was no keyhole, no bolt on the outside.
For some obscure reason, I became angry with that door,
I kicked at it and rattled the handle hard, before giving up abruptly and returning downstairs, listening to the echo of my own footsteps as I went.
Every few moments, I went to one or other of the windows, rubbed my hand across the pane to try and see out; but, although I rubbed at a thin film of grime, enough to leave a clear space, I could not rub away the curtain of sea-mist that was so close
up to the glass on the outside. As I stared into it I saw that it was still constantly shifting, like clouds, though without ever parting or dispersing.
At last I slumped down on the plush-covered sofa in the great high-ceilinged drawing room, turned my face away from the window, and gave myself up, along with the last of a second glass of the mellow, fragrant brandy, to melancholy brooding and
a sort of inward-looking self-pity. I was no longer cold, no longer afraid or restless, I felt cocooned against the horrible events that had taken place out on the marshes and I allowed myself to give way, to slip down into this mindless state, which was as inchoate as the fog outside, and there to rest, wallow and find, if not peace, at least a certain relief in the suspension of all extremes
A bell was ringing, ringing, through my ears, inside my head, its clangour sounded at once very close and oddly distant, it seemed to sway, and I to sway with it. I was trying to struggle out of some darkness which was not fixed but shifting about, as the ground seemed to be shifting beneath my feet, so that I was terrified of slipping and falling down, down, of being sucked into
a horrible echoing maelstrom. The bell went on ringing. I came awake in bewilderment, to see the moon, huge as a pumpkin beyond the tall windows, in a clear black sky.
My head was thick, my mouth furred and dry, my limbs stiff. I had slept, perhaps for minutes, perhaps for some hours, I had lost my sense of time. I struggled
upright and then I realized that the bell I heard was not part of the
confusion of my fitful nightmare but a real bell sounding through the house. Someone was at the front door.
As I half-walked, half-fell, because of numbness in my feet and legs where I had lain cramped upon the sofa, out of the room and into the hall, I began to remember what had happened and above all – and I felt an upsurge of horror as the memory returned to me – the business of the pony and
trap, from which I had heard the child screaming, out upon Eel Marsh. All the lights I had left on were still shining out and must have been seen, I thought, as I pulled open the front door, hoping against hope to see a party of searchers and helpers, strong men, people to whom I could give it all over, who would know what to do and who would, above all, take me away from this place.
But in the
light of the hall as it shone out and under the full moonlight too, there stood, on the gravel drive, only one man – Keckwick. And behind him, the pony and trap. All seemed quite real, quite normal, and completely unharmed. The air was clear and cold, the sky thick with stars. The marshes lay still and silent and gleaming silver under the moon. There was no vestige of mist or cloud, not so much
as a touch of dampness in the atmosphere. All was so changed, so utterly changed that I might have been
reborn into another world and all the rest had been some fevered dream.
‘You have to wait for a fret like that to clear itself. There’s no crossing over while a fret’s up,’ Keckwick said matter-of-factly. ‘Unlucky for you, that was.’
My tongue seemed to be held fast against the roof of my
mouth, my knees about to buckle beneath me.
‘And, after that, there’s the wait for the tide.’ He looked all round him. ‘Awkward place. You’ll be finding that out fast enough.’
It was then that I managed to look at my watch and saw that it was almost two o’clock in the morning. The tide had just begun to recede again, revealing the Nine Lives Causeway. I had slept for almost seven hours, almost
as long as I would on any normal night, but here I was with hours still to go before dawn, feeling as sick and wretched and weary as any man who has lain sleepless for hour after hour. ‘I wouldn’t have expected you to come back at this hour,’ I managed to stammer. ‘It’s very good of you …’
Keckwick pushed his cap back a little in order to scratch at his forehead and I noticed that his nose and
much of the lower part of his face were covered in bumps and lumps and warts and that the skin was porridgy in texture and a dark, livid red. ‘I wouldn’t have left you over the night,’ he said at last, ‘wouldn’t have done that to you.’