Authors: Susan Hill
I felt a moment of light-headedness, for we seemed to have slipped into the way of normal, practical conversation – indeed, I was glad to see him, never had I
welcomed the sight of a fellow human being more in my life and to see his solid little pony that stood quietly, patiently, by.
But then the second recollection returned to me and I blurted out, ‘But what happened to you, how do you manage to be here –
how did you get out
?’ Then my heart lurched as I realized that of course it had not been Keckwick and his pony who had gone into the quicksand,
not at all, but someone else, someone with a child, and now they were gone, dead, the marsh had taken them and the waters had closed over them and no ripple or disturbance of the faintest kind showed on that still, gleaming surface. But who,
, on a dark November evening in the rolling mist and the rising tide, who had been driving out, and with a child too, in that treacherous place and why,
where had they been driving to and where coming from – this was the only house for many miles, unless I had been right about the woman in black and her hidden dwelling.
Keckwick was looking straight into my face and I realized that I must appear dishevelled and wild, not at all the business-like, confident and smart young lawyer he had left at the house that afternoon. Then he indicated the pony
trap: ‘Best get in,’ he said.
‘Yes – but surely …’
He had turned away abruptly and was climbing into the driving seat. There, looking straight ahead of him, huddled into his greatcoat with the collar turned to cover his neck and chin, he waited. That he was fully aware of my state, knew something had happened to me and was quite unsurprised, was clear, and his manner also told me unmistakably
that he did not wish to hear what it was, to ask or answer questions, to discuss the business at all. He would fetch and carry and that reliably and at any hour and he would do no more.
Silently, quickly, I went back into the house and switched off the lights and then I got into the cart and let Keckwick and his pony take me away, across the quiet, eerily beautiful marshes, under the riding moon.
I fell into a sort of trance, half sleeping, half waking, rocked by the motion of the cart. My head had begun to ache miserably and my stomach to contract with spasms of nausea now and again. I did not look about me, though sometimes I glanced up into the great bowl of the night sky and at the constellations scattered there and the sight was comforting and calming to me, things in the heavens
seemed still to be aright and unchanged. But nothing else was, within me or all around. I knew now that I had entered some hitherto unimagined – indeed, unbelieved-in – realm of consciousness, that coming to this place had already
changed me and that there was no going back. For, today, I had seen things I had never dreamed of seeing and heard things too. That the woman by the graves had been
ghostly I now – not believed, no –
, for certainty lay deep within me, I realized that it had become fixed and immovable, perhaps during that restless, anguished sleep. But I began to suspect that the pony and trap that I had heard out on the marsh, the pony and trap with the child who had cried out so terribly and which had been sucked into the quicksands, while marsh and estuary, land and
sea, had been shrouded in that sudden fog, and I lost in the midst of it – they, too, had not been real, not there, present, not substantial, but ghostly also. What I had heard, I had heard, as clearly as I now heard the roll of the cart and the drumming of the pony’s hooves, and what I had seen – the woman with the pale wasted face, by the grave of Mrs Drablow and again in the old burial ground
– I had seen. I would have sworn to that on oath, on any testament. Yet they had been, in some sense I did not understand, unreal, ghostly, things that were dead.
Having accepted so much, I at once felt calmer and so we left the marsh and the estuary behind us and clopped along the lane in the middle of that quiet night. I supposed that the landlord of the Gifford Arms could be knocked up and
persuaded to let me
in, and then I intended to go up to that comfortable bed and sleep again, to try and shut out all these things from my head and my heart and not think of them more. Tomorrow, in daylight, I would recover myself and then plan what I was going to do. At this moment I knew that more than anything else I did not want to have to go back to Eel Marsh House and must try to find some
way of extricating myself from any more dealings with the affairs of Mrs Drablow. Whether I would make some excuse to Mr Bentley or endeavour to tell him the truth and hope not to be ridiculed I did not try and decide.
It was only as I was getting myself ready for bed – the landlord having proved most sympathetic and accommodating – that I began to think again about the extraordinary generosity
of Keckwick, in coming out for me the moment the mist and tides enabled him to do so. He would surely have been expected to shrug his shoulders, retire and plan to collect me first thing in the morning. But he must have waited up and perhaps even kept his pony harnessed, in his concern that I should not have to spend a night alone in that house. I was profoundly grateful to him and I made a note
that he should receive a generous reward for his pains.
It was after three o’clock when I climbed into bed, and it would not be light for another five hours. The
landlord had said I was to sleep on as long as I chose, no one would disturb me and a breakfast would be provided at any time. He, too, in his different way, had seemed as anxious for my welfare as Keckwick, though about them both there
was the same extreme reserve, a barrier put up against all inquiry which I had the sense not to try and break down. Who could tell what they themselves had seen or heard, how much more they knew about the past and all manner of events, not to mention rumours and hearsay and superstition about those events, I could not guess. The little I had experienced was more than enough and I was reluctant
to begin delving into any explanations.
So I thought that night, as I laid my head on the soft pillow and fell eventually into a restless, shadowy sleep, across which figures came and went, troubling me, so that once or twice I half-woke myself, as I cried out or spoke a few incoherent words, I sweated, I turned and turned about, trying to free myself from the nightmares, to escape from my own
semi-conscious sense of dread and foreboding, and all the time, piercing through the surface of my dreams, came the terrified whinnying of the pony and the crying and calling of that child over and over, while I stood, helpless in the mist, my feet held fast, my body pulled back, and while behind me, though I could not see, only sense her dark presence, hovered the woman.
I awoke, it was again to see the pleasant bedroom filled with bright winter sunshine. But it was with a great sense of weariness and bitterness, too, that I contrasted my present state with that of the previous morning, when I had slept so well and woken so refreshed and sprung out of bed eager to begin the day. And was it only yesterday? I felt as if I had journeyed so
far, in spirit if not in time experienced so much and been so churned about within my formerly placid and settled self that it might have been years since then. Now, I felt heavy and sick in my head, stale and tired and jangled too, my nerves and my imagination were all on edge.
But, after a while, I forced myself to rise, as I could hardly feel worse than I did lying in the bed that now felt
as lumpish and uncomfortable as a heap of potato
sacks. Once I had drawn back the curtains on a sharp blue sky and taken a good hot bath, followed by a rinse of my head and neck under the cold tap, I began to feel less frowsty and depressed, more composed and able to think in an orderly way about the day ahead. Over breakfast, for which I had a better appetite than I had expected, I put to myself
the various alternatives. Last night I had been adamant and would have brooked no possible opposition – I was having nothing more to do with Eel Marsh and the Drablow business but would telegraph to Mr Bentley, leave matters in the hands of Mr Jerome and take the first available train to London.
In short, I was going to run away. Yes, that was how I saw it in the bright light of day. I attached
no particular blame to my decision. I had been as badly frightened as a man could be. I did not think that I would be the first to run from physical risks and dangers, although I had no reason to suppose myself markedly braver than the next person. But these other matters were altogether more terrifying, because they were intangible and inexplicable, incapable of proof and yet so deeply affecting.
I began to realize that what had frightened me most – and, as I investigated my own thoughts and feelings that morning, what continued to frighten me – was not what I had seen – there had been nothing intrinsically repellent or
horrifying about the woman with the wasted face. It was true that the ghastly sounds I had heard through the fog had greatly upset me but far worse was what emanated from
and surrounded these things and arose to unsteady me, an atmosphere, a force – I do not exactly know what to call it – of evil and uncleanness, of terror and suffering, of malevolence and bitter anger. I felt quite at a loss to cope with any of these things.
‘You’ll find Crythin a quieter place today,’ the landlord said, as he came to clear away my plate and replenish my pot of coffee. ‘Market
day brings everyone from miles about. There’ll be little enough happening this morning.’
He stood for a moment, looking at me closely and I again felt it necessary to apologize for having had him get up and come down to let me in, the previous night. He shook his head. ‘Oh, I had rather that than have you spend an … an uncomfortable night anywhere else.’
‘As it happened, my night was a bit disturbed
in any case. I seemed to have an overdose of bad dreams and be generally restless.’
He said nothing.
‘I think what I need this morning is some exercise in the fresh air. Perhaps I’ll walk into the countryside a mile or so, look at the farms belonging to some
of the men who were all here doing their market business yesterday.’
What I meant was that I planned to turn my back upon the marshes
and walk steadfastly in the opposite direction.
‘Well, you’ll find it nice and easy walking, we’re flat as a bed-sheet for many miles about. Of course, you could go a good deal further, if you want to be on horseback.’
‘Alas, I have never ridden in my life and I confess I don’t feel in the mood to start today.’
‘Or else,’ he said suddenly with a smile, ‘I can lend you a good stout bicycle.’
A bicycle! He saw my expression change. As a boy I had bicycled regularly and far, and indeed Stella and I still sometimes took the train out towards one of the locks and cycled for miles along the Thames towpath with a picnic in our baskets.
‘You’ll find it around the back, in the yard there. Just help yourself, sir, if the fancy takes you.’ And he left the dining room.
The idea of bicycling
for an hour or so, to blow away the clinging cobwebs and staleness of the night, to refresh and restore me, was extremely cheering, and I knew that my mood was uprising. Moreover, I was not going to run away.
Instead, I decided to go and talk to Mr Jerome. I
had formed some notion of asking for help in sorting out Mrs Drablow’s papers – perhaps he had an office boy he could spare, for I was now
sure that, in daylight and with company, I was strong enough again to face Eel Marsh House. I would return to the town well before dark and work as methodically and efficiently as possible. Nor would I take any walk in the direction of the burial ground.
It was remarkable how physical well-being had improved my spirits and, as I stepped outside into the market square, I felt once again my normal,
equable, cheerful self, while every so often a spurt of glee arose inside me at the anticipation of my bicycle ride.
I found the office of Horatio Jerome, Land and Estate Agent – two poky, low-ceilinged rooms, over a corn merchant’s store, in the narrow lane leading off the square – and expected also to find an assistant or clerk, to whom to give my name. But there was no one. The place was silent,
the outer waiting room dingy and empty. So after hovering about for a few moments I went to the only other closed door and knocked. There was a further pause and then the scraping of a chair and some quick footsteps. Mr Jerome opened the door.
It was clear at once that he was by no means pleased to see me. His face took on the closed-up, deadened look of the previous day and he hesitated before
eventually inviting me into his office and cast odd half-glances at me, before looking quickly away again, to a point over my shoulder. I paused, waiting, I suppose, for him to inquire how I had fared at Eel Marsh House. But he said nothing at all and so I began to put my proposal to him.
‘You see I had no idea – I don’t know whether you had – of the volume of papers belonging to Mrs Drablow.
Tons of the stuff and most of it I’ve no doubt so much waste, but it will have to be gone through item by item, nevertheless. It seems clear that, unless I am to take up residence in Crythin Gifford for the foreseeable future, I shall have to have some help.’
Mr Jerome’s expression was one of panic. He shifted his chair back, further away from me, as he sat behind his rickety desk, so that I
thought that, if he could have gone through the wall into the street, he would like to have done so.
can’t offer you help, Mr Kipps. Oh, no.’
‘I wasn’t thinking that you would do anything personally,’ I said in a soothing tone. ‘But perhaps you have a young assistant.’
‘There is no one. I am quite on my own. I cannot give you any help at all.’
‘Well then, help me to find someone
– surely the town will yield me a young man with a modicum of
intelligence, and keen to earn a few pounds, whom I may take on for the job?’
I noticed that his hands, which rested on the sides of his chair, were working, rubbing, fidgeting, gripping and ungripping in agitation.
‘I’m sorry – this is a small place – young people leave – there are no openings.’
‘But I am offering an opening – albeit
‘You will find no one suitable.’ He was almost shouting at me.
Then I said, very calmly and quietly, ‘Mr Jerome, what you mean is not that there is no one available, that no young person – or older person for that matter – could be found in the town or the neighbourhood able and free to do the work if a thorough search were to be made. There would not I am sure be many applicants
but certainly we should be able to find one or two possible candidates for the job. But you are backing away from speaking out the truth of the matter, which is that I should not find a soul willing to spend any time out at Eel Marsh House, for fear of the stories about that place proving true – for fear of encountering what I have already encountered.’
There was absolute silence. Mr Jerome’s
hands continued to scrabble about like the paws of some struggling creature. His pale domed forehead was beaded with perspiration. Eventually he got up, almost
knocking over his chair as he did so, and went over to the narrow window to look out through the dirty pane onto the houses opposite and down into the quiet lane below. Then, with his back to me, he said at last, ‘Keckwick came back for
‘Yes. I was more grateful than I can say.’
‘There’s nothing Keckwick doesn’t know about Eel Marsh House.’
‘Do I take it he fetched and carried sometimes for Mrs Drablow?’
He nodded. ‘She saw no one else. Not –’ his voice trailed away.
‘Not another living soul,’ I put in evenly.
When he spoke again he sounded husky and tired. ‘There are stories,’ he said, ‘tales. There’s all that nonsense.’
‘I can believe it. Such a place would breed marsh monsters and creatures of the deep and Jack o’ Lanterns by the cart-load.’
‘You can discount most of it.’
‘Of course. But not all.’
‘You saw that woman in the churchyard.’
‘I saw her again. I went for a walk all around the ground Eel Marsh House stands on, after Keckwick had left me yesterday afternoon. She was in that old burial ground. What
are the ruins – some church or chapel?’
‘There was once a monastery on that island – long before the house was ever built. Some small community that cut itself off from the rest of the world. There are records of it in the county histories. It was abandoned, left to decay – oh, centuries ago.’
‘And the burial ground?’
‘There was … some later use. A few graves.’
He turned suddenly
to face me. There was a sickly greyish pallor over his skin now and I realized how seriously he was affected by our conversation and that he would probably prefer not to continue. I had to make my arrangements but I decided, at that moment, to abandon the attempt to work with Mr Jerome and to telephone instead, directly to Mr Bentley in London. For that purpose, I would return to the hotel.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m not going to be put out by a ghost or several ghosts, Mr Jerome. It was unpleasant and I confess that I shall be glad when I have found a companion to share my work out at the house. But it will have to be done. And I doubt if the woman in black can have any animosity towards
. I wonder who she was?
’ I laughed though it came out sounding quite false into the room. ‘I
hardly know how to refer to her!’
I was trying to make light of something that we
both knew was gravely serious, trying to dismiss as insignificant, and perhaps even non-existent, something that affected us both as deeply as any other experience we had undergone in our lives, for it took us to the very edge of the horizon where life and death meet together. ‘I must face it out, Mr Jerome. Such
things one must face.’ And even as I spoke I felt a new determination arise within me.
‘So I said.’ Mr Jerome was looking at me pityingly. ‘So I said … once.’
But his fear was only serving to strengthen my resolve. He had been weakened and broken, by what? A woman? A few noises? Or was there more that I should discover for myself? I knew that, if I asked him, he would refuse to answer and, in
any case, I was uncertain whether I wanted to be filled up with all these frightening and weird tales of the nervous Mr Jerome’s past experiences at Eel Marsh House. I decided that, if I were to get to the truth of the business, I should have to rely upon the evidence of my own senses and nothing more. Perhaps, after all, I should do better
to have an assistant.
I took my leave of Mr Jerome,
remarking as I went that in all probability I should see nothing more of the woman or of any other peculiar visitors to the late Mrs Drablow’s house.
‘I pray that you do not,’ Mr Jerome said, and he
held onto my hand with a sudden fierce grip as he shook it. ‘I pray that you do not.’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I called, deliberately making myself sound carefree and cheerful, and I ran lightly down
the staircase, leaving Mr Jerome to his agitation.
I returned to the Gifford Arms and, instead of telephoning, wrote a letter to Mr Bentley. In it I described the house and its hoard of papers and explained that I should have to stay longer than anticipated and that I expected to hear if Mr Bentley required me to return at once to London, and make some other arrangements. I also made a light
remark about the bad reputation Eel Marsh House enjoyed locally and said that for this reason – but also for others rather more mundane – it might be difficult for me to get any help, though I was anxious to try. The whole business, nevertheless, should be completed within the week and I would arrange for the dispatch of as many papers as seemed to be important to London.
Then, putting the letter
on the table in the lobby, to be collected at noon, I went out and found the landlord’s bicycle, a good, old-fashioned sit-up-and-beg with a large basket on the front almost like that sported by the butcher-boys in London. I mounted it and pedalled out of the square and away, up one of the side streets towards the open country. It was the
perfect day for bicycling, cold enough to make the wind
burn against my cheeks as I went, bright and clear enough for me to be able to see a long way in all directions across that flat, open landscape.
I intended to cycle to the next village, where I hoped to find another country inn and enjoy some bread and cheese and beer for lunch but, as I reached the last of the houses, I could not resist the urge that was so extraordinarily strong within me
to stop and look, not westwards, where I might see farms and fields and the distant roofs of a village, but east. And there they lay, those glittering, beckoning, silver marshes with the sky pale at the horizon where it reached down to the water of the estuary. A thin breeze blew off them with salt on its breath. Even from as far away as this I could hear the mysterious silence, and once again the
haunting, strange beauty of it all aroused a response deep within me. I could not run away from that place, I would have to go back to it, not now, but soon, I had fallen under some sort of spell of the kind that certain places exude and it drew me, my imaginings, my longings, my curiosity, my whole spirit, towards itself.