Authors: Susan Hill
For a long time, I looked and looked and recognized what was happening
to me. My emotions had now become so volatile and so extreme, my nervous responses so near the surface, so rapid and keen, that
I was living in another dimension, my heart seemed to beat faster, my step to be quicker, everything I saw was brighter, its outlines more sharply, precisely defined. And all this since yesterday. I had wondered whether I looked different in some essential way so that,
when I eventually returned home, my friends and family would notice the change. I felt older and like a man who was being put to trial, half fearful, half wondering, excited, completely in thrall.
But now, managing to suspend this acute emotional state and in order to help myself retain my normal equilibrium, I would take some exercise, and so I turned the bicycle and remounted and pedalled steadily
down the country road, putting my back firmly to the marshes.
some four hours and thirty-odd miles later in a positive glow of well-being. I had ridden out determinedly across the countryside, seeing the very last traces of golden autumn merging into the beginnings of winter, feeling the rush of pure cold air on my face, banishing every nervous fear and morbid fancy by energetic physical activity. I had found my village inn and eaten my
bread and cheese and even, afterwards, made myself free of a farmer’s barn to sleep for an hour.
Coming back into Crythin Gifford I felt like a new man, proud, satisfied, and most of all eager and ready to face and to tackle the worst that Mrs Drablow’s house and those sinister surrounding marshes might have in store for me. In short, I was defiant, defiant and cheerful, and so I spun around
a corner into the
square and almost smack into a large motor car which was negotiating the narrow turn in the oncoming direction. As I swerved, braked and scrambled somehow off my machine, I saw that the car belonged to my railway travelling companion, the man who had been buying up farms at yesterday’s auction, Mr Samuel Daily. Now, he was bidding his driver slow down and leaning out of the window
to ask me how I did.
‘I’ve just had a good spin out into the countryside and I shall do justice to my dinner tonight,’ I said cheerfully.
Mr Daily raised his eyebrows. ‘And your business?’
‘Mrs Drablow’s estate? Oh, I shall soon have all that in order, though I confess there will be rather more to do than I had anticipated.’
‘You have been out to the house?’
For a few
seconds we looked at each other, neither one apparently willing to press the subject a little further. Then, preparing to remount my bicycle once I was out of his way, I said breezily, ‘To tell the truth, I’m enjoying myself. I am finding the whole thing rather a challenge.’
Mr Daily continued to regard me steadily until I was forced to shift about and glance away, feeling like nothing so much
as a schoolboy caught out in blustering his way through a fabricated tale.
‘Mr Kipps,’ he said, ‘you are whistling in the dark. Let me give you that dinner you say you’ve such an appetite for. Seven o’clock. Your landlord will direct you to my house.’ Then he motioned to the driver, sat back and did not give me another glance.
Once back at the hotel, I began to make serious arrangements for
the next day or so for, although there had been a grain of truth in Mr Daily’s accusation, I was nonetheless in a firmly determined frame of mind and more than ready to go ahead with the business at Eel Marsh House. Accordingly, I asked for a hamper of provisions to be got ready and, in addition, went out myself into the town and bought some additional supplies – packets of tea and coffee and sugar,
a couple of loaves of bread, a tin of biscuits, fresh pipe tobacco, matches and so forth. I also purchased a large torch lantern and a pair of wellington boots. Far at the back of my mind, I retained a vivid recollection of my walk on the marshes in the fog and rising tide. If that were ever to happen again – though I prayed fervently it would not – I determined to be as well prepared, at least
for any physical eventuality, as I could be.
When I told the landlord of my plan – that I intended to spend tonight at his inn and then the next two over at Eel Marsh House – he said nothing at all but I knew full well that he was recalling at the same
moment as I was myself how I had arrived, banging violently on his door in the early hours of that morning, the shock from my experiences etched
upon my face. When I asked if I could again borrow the bicycle he merely nodded. I told him that I wanted to retain my room and that, depending on how speedily I got through the work on Mrs Drablow’s papers, I should be taking my final leave towards the end of the week.
I have often wondered since what the man actually thought of me and the enterprise I was blithely undertaking, for it was clear
that he knew as much as anyone not only of the stories and rumours attaching to Eel Marsh House but of the truth too. I suspect that he would have preferred me to be gone altogether but was making it his business neither to voice an opinion nor to give warning or advice. And my manner that day must have indicated clearly that I would brook no opposition, heed no warning, even from within myself.
I was by now almost pigheadedly bent upon following my course.
That much Mr Samuel Daily ascertained within a few moments of my arriving at his house that evening and he watched me and let me babble, saying nothing himself for the best part of our meal.
I had found my way there without difficulty and been duly impressed upon my arrival. He lived in an
imposing, rather austere country park, which
reminded me of something that a character in the novels of Jane Austen might have inhabited, with a long, tree-lined carriage drive up to a porticoed front, stone lions and urns mounted upon pillars on either side of a short flight of steps, a balustraded walk, overlooking rather dull, formal lawns with close-clipped hedges. The whole effect was grand and rather chilling and somehow quite out
of keeping with Mr Daily himself. He had clearly bought the place because he had made enough money to do so and because it was the biggest house for miles around but, having bought it, he did not seem very much at ease within it and I wondered how many rooms stood empty and unused for much of the time, for apart from a few household staff only he and his wife lived here, though they had one son,
he told me, married and with a child of his own.
Mrs Daily was a quiet, shy-seeming, powdery-looking little woman, even more ill at ease in her surroundings than he. She said little, smiled nervously, crocheted something elaborate with very fine cotton.
Nonetheless, they both made me warmly welcome, the meal was an excellent one, of roast pheasant and a huge treacle tart, and I began to feel
comfortably at home.
Before and during supper and over coffee, which Mrs Daily poured out for us in the drawing room, I
listened to the story of Samuel Daily’s life and rising fortunes. He was not so much boastful, as exuberantly gleeful, at his own enterprise and good luck. He listed the acres and properties he owned, the number of men in his employ or who were his tenants, told me of his plans
for the future which were, so far as I could ascertain, simply to become the biggest landlord in the county. He talked about his son and his young grandson too, for both of whom he was building up this empire. He might be envied and resented, I thought, particularly by those who competed with him for the purchase of land and property. But he could surely not be disliked, he was so simple, so direct,
so unashamed of his ambitions. He seemed astute and yet unsubtle, a keen bargainer, but thoroughly honest. As the evening went on I found myself taking to him more and more warmly and confiding in him too, telling him of my own albeit small-seeming ambitions, if Mr Bentley would give me a chance, and about Stella and our prospects for the future.
It was not until the timid Mrs Daily had retired
and we were in the study, a decanter of good port and another of whisky on the small table between us, that my reason for being in the area was so much as referred to.
Mr Daily poured me a generous glass of port wine and as he handed it over said, ‘You’re a fool if you go on with it.’
I took a sip or two calmly and without replying, though something in the bluntness and abruptness of his speaking
had given rise to a spurt of fear deep within me, which I suppressed at once.
‘If you mean you think I should give up the job I’ve been sent here to do and turn tail and run …’
‘Listen to me, Arthur.’ He had begun to use my Christian name in an avuncular way, while not offering me the use of his. ‘I’m not going to fill you up with a lot of women’s tales … you’d find those out fast enough if
you ask about the place. Maybe you already have.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘only hints – and Mr Jerome turning a little pale.’
‘But you went out there to the place.’
‘I went there and I had an experience I shouldn’t care to go through again, though I confess I can’t explain it.’
And then I told him the full story, of the woman with the wasted face at the funeral and in the old burial ground, and of my
walk across the marsh in the fog and the terrible sounds I had heard there. He sat impassively, a glass at his hand, and listened without interrupting me until I had reached the end.
‘It seems to me, Mr Daily,’ I said, ‘that I have seen whatever ghost haunts Eel Marsh and that burial ground. A woman in black with a wasted face. Because
I have no doubt at all that she was whatever people call
a ghost, that she was not a real, living, breathing human being. Well, she did me no harm. She neither spoke nor came near me. I did not like her look and I liked the … the power that seemed to emanate from her towards me even less, but I have convinced myself that it is a power that cannot do more than make me feel afraid. If I go there and see her again, I am prepared.’
‘And the pony and trap?’
I could not answer because, yes, that had been worse, far worse, more terrifying because it had been only heard not seen and because the cry of that child would never, I was sure, leave me for the rest of my life.
I shook my head. ‘I won’t run away.’
I felt strong, sitting there at Samuel Daily’s fireside, resolute, brave and stout-hearted, and I also – and he saw it – felt proud of being so.
Thus, I thought, would a man go into battle, thus armed would he fight with giants.
‘You shouldn’t go there.’
‘I’m afraid I’m going.’
‘You shouldn’t go there alone.’
‘I could find no one to go with me.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘and you would not.’
‘Good God, man, Mrs Drablow lived alone there
for – what was it? – sixty odd years – to a ripe old age. She must have come to terms with all the ghosts
about the place.’
‘Aye.’ He stood up. ‘Maybe that’s just what she did do. Come – Bunce will take you home.’
‘No – I’d prefer to walk. I’m getting a taste for fresh air.’ As it happened, I had come on the bicycle but, confronted with the grandeur of the Daily home, had hidden it in a ditch beyond the outer gates, feeling that it did not look quite right to bicycle up that carriage drive.
I thanked him for the evening’s hospitality and was getting into my coat, he seemed to be mulling something over, and at the last moment he said suddenly, ‘You are still set on it?’
‘Then take a dog.’
I laughed. ‘I haven’t got a dog.’
‘I have.’ And he strode in front of me, out of the house, down the steps and into the darkness at the side of the house where presumably the outbuildings
were situated. I waited, amused, and rather touched by his concern for me, speculating idly about what use a dog would be against any spectral presence, but not reluctant to take up Mr Daily’s offer. I liked dogs well enough and it would be a fellow creature, warm-blooded and breathing in that cold, empty old house.
After a few moments there came the pat and scrabble of feet, followed by Mr Daily’s
‘Take her,’ he said, ‘bring her back when you are done.’
‘Will she come with me?’
‘She’ll do what I tell her.’
I looked down. At my feet stood a sturdy little terrier with a rough brindle coat and bright eyes. She wagged her tail briefly, acknowledging me, but otherwise was still, close to Daily’s heels.
‘What’s her name?’
The dog’s tail flicked again.
I said, ‘I’ll be glad of her company, I confess. Thank you.’ I turned and began to walk off down the broad drive. After a few yards I turned and called. ‘Spider. Here. Come, girl. Spider.’ The dog did not stir and I felt foolish. Then Samuel Daily chuckled, snapped his fingers and spoke a word. At once, Spider bounded after me and stuck obediently to my heels.
I retrieved the bicycle, when I
was sure that I could no longer be seen from the house, and the dog ran cheerfully after me down the quiet, moonlit lane, towards the town. My spirits rose. In a strange way, I was looking forward to the morrow.
clear weather still held, there was sunshine and blue sky again, when I drew my curtains. I had slept lightly and restlessly, troubled by snatches of peculiar, disconnected dreams. Perhaps I had eaten and drunk too well and richly with Mr Daily. But my mood was unchanged, I was determined and optimistic, as I dressed and breakfasted, and then began to make preparations
for my stay at Eel Marsh House. The little dog Spider had, somewhat to my surprise, slept motionlessly at the foot of my bed. I had taken to her, though I knew little of the way of dogs. She was spirited, lively and alert and yet completely biddable, the expression in her bright eyes, fringed a little by shaggy hair that formed itself somewhat comically into the shape of beetling eyebrows,
to me highly intelligent. I thought I was going to be very glad of her.
Just after nine o’clock the landlord summoned me to the telephone. It was Mr Bentley, crisp and curt – for he greatly disliked using the instrument. He had received my letter and agreed that I should stay until I had at least made some sort of sense of the Drablow papers and managed to sort out what looked as if it needed
to be dealt with, from all the out-of-date rubbish. I was to parcel up and dispatch anything I thought important, leave the remainder in the house for the attention of the legatees at some future date and then return to London.
‘It’s an odd sort of place,’ I said.
‘She was an odd sort of woman.’ And Mr Bentley clapped the receiver down hard, blistering my ear.
By nine-thirty I had the bicycle
basket and panniers packed and ready, and I set off, Spider bounding behind me. I could not leave it any later or the tide would have risen across the causeway and it occurred to me, as I bowled over the wide open marshes, that I was burning my boats, at least in a small way – if I had left anything important behind, I could not return to fetch it for some hours.
The sun was high in the sky,
the water glittering, everywhere was light, light and space and brightness, the very air seemed somehow purified and more
exhilarating. Sea birds soared and swooped, silver-grey and white, and ahead, at the end of the long straight path, Eel Marsh House beckoned to me.
For half an hour or so after my arrival, I worked busily at establishing myself there, domestically. I found crockery and cutlery
in the somewhat gloomy kitchen at the back of the house, washed, dried and laid it out for my later use and made over a corner of the larder to my provisions. Then, after searching through drawers and cupboards upstairs, I found clean linen and blankets and set them to air before a fire I had built in the drawing room. I made other fires too, in the little parlour and in the dining room, and
even succeeded, after some trial and error, in getting the great black range alight, so that by evening I hoped to have hot water for a bath.
Then I let up the blinds and opened some windows and established myself at a large desk in one of the bays of the morning room that had, I thought, the finest view of the sky, the marshes, the estuary. Beside me, I set two chests of papers. Then, with a
pot of tea at my right hand and the dog Spider at my feet, I commenced work. It was pretty tedious going but I persevered patiently enough, untying and cursorily examining bundle after bundle of worthless old papers, before tossing them into an empty box I had set beside
me for the purpose. There were ancient household accounts and tradesmen’s bills and receipts of thirty and forty years or more
before; there were bankers’ statements and doctors’ prescriptions and estimates from carpenters, glaziers and decorators; there were many letters from persons unknown – and Christmas and anniversary cards, though nothing dating from recent years. There were accounts from department stores in London and scraps of shopping lists and measurements.
Only the letters themselves I reserved for later
perusal. Everything else was waste. From time to time, to alleviate the boredom, I looked out of the wide windows at the marshes, unshadowed still and quietly beautiful in the winter sunlight. I made myself a lunch of ham and bread and beer and then a little after two o’clock, I called to Spider and went outside. I felt very calm and cheerful, a little cramped after my morning spent at the desk,
a little bored, but in no way nervous. Indeed, all the horrors and apparitions of my first visit to the house and the marshes had quite evaporated, along with the mists that had for that short time engulfed me. The air was crisp and fresh and I walked all around the perimeter of the land upon which Eel Marsh House stood, occasionally tossing a stick for the dog to chase happily after and retrieve,
breathing in the clean air deeply, entirely relaxed. I even ventured
as far as the ruin of the burial ground and Spider dashed in and out, searching for real or imaginary rabbits, digging occasionally in a frantic burst with her front paws and then bounding excitedly away. We saw no one. No shadow fell across the grass.
For a while, I wandered among the old gravestones, trying to decipher some
of the names but without any success, until I reached the corner where, that last time, the woman in black had been standing. There, on the headstone against which – I was fairly certain I remembered aright – she had been leaning, I thought I could make out the name of Drablow: the letters were encrusted with a salt deposit blown, I suppose, off the estuary over years of bad winter weather.
In L … g Mem …
… net Drablow
… 190 …
… nd of He …
… iel … low
I remembered that Mr Jerome had hinted at some Drablow family graves, no longer used, in a place other than the churchyard and supposed that this was the resting place of ancestors from years back. But it was quite certain that there was nothing and no one
except old bones here now and I felt quite unafraid and tranquil as
I stood there, contemplating the scene and the place which had previously struck me as eerie, sinister, evil, but which now, I saw, was merely somewhat melancholy because it was so tumbledown and unfrequented. It was the sort of spot where, a hundred years or more earlier, romantically minded poets would have lingered and been inspired to compose some cloyingly sad verse.
I returned to the house
with the dog, for already the air was turning much colder, the sky losing its light as the sun declined.
Indoors, I made myself some more tea and built up the fires and, before settling down again to those dull, dull papers, browsed at random among the bookshelves in the drawing room and chose myself some reading matter for later that evening, a novel by Sir Walter Scott and a volume of John
Clare’s poetry. These I took upstairs and placed on the locker of the small bedroom I had chosen to appropriate, mainly because it was at the front of the house but not so large and cold as the others and therefore, I thought, it would probably be cosier. From the window I could see the section of marsh away from the estuary and, if I craned my neck, the line of Nine Lives Causeway.
As I worked
on into the evening and it grew dark, so I lit every lamp I could find, drew curtains and
fetched in more coal and wood for the fires from a bunker in an outhouse I had located outside the scullery door.
The pile of waste paper grew in the box, by contrast with the few packets I thought ought to be examined more closely, and I fetched other boxes and drawersful from about the house. At this rate
I should be through by the end of another day and a half at the most. I had a glass of sherry and a rather limited but not unpleasant supper which I shared with Spider and then, being tired of work, took a final turn outside before locking up.
All was quiet, there was not the slightest breeze. I could scarcely hear even the creeping of the water. Every bird had long since hidden for the night.
The marshes were black and silent, stretching away from me for miles.
I have recounted the events – or rather, the non-events – of that day at Eel Marsh House in as much detail as I remember, in order to remind myself that I was in a calm and quite unexcitable state of mind. And that the odd events which had so frightened and unnerved me were all but forgotten. If I thought of them at all, it
was mentally, as it were, to shrug my shoulders. Nothing else had happened, no harm had befallen me. The tenor of the day and the evening had been even, uninteresting, ordinary. Spider was an
excellent companion and I was glad of the sound of her gentle breathing, her occasional scratching or clattering about, in that big, empty old house. But my main sensation was one of tedium and a certain
lethargy, combined with a desire to finish the job and be back in London with my dear Stella. I remembered that I meant to tell her that we should get a small dog, as like Spider as possible, once we had a house of our own. Indeed, I decided to ask Mr Samuel Daily that if there were ever a chance of Spider having a litter of puppies he should reserve one for me.
I had worked assiduously and with
concentration and taken some fresh air and exercise. For half an hour or so after retiring to bed I read
The Heart of Midlothian
, the dog settled on a rug at the foot of my bed. I think I must have fallen asleep only a few moments after putting the lamp out and slept quite deeply too, for when I awoke – or was awakened – very suddenly, I felt somewhat stunned, uncertain, for a second or two, where
I was and why. I saw that it was quite dark but once my eyes were fully focused I saw the moonlight coming in through the window, for I had left the rather heavy, thick-looking curtains undrawn and the window slightly ajar. The moon fell upon the embroidered counterpane and on the dark wood of wardrobe and chest and mirror with a cold but rather beautiful light, and I thought that I would
out of bed and look at the marshes and the estuary from the window.
At first, all seemed very quiet, very still, and I wondered why I had awoken. Then, with a missed heart-beat, I realized that Spider was up and standing at the door. Every hair of her body was on end, her ears were pricked, her tail erect, the whole of her tense, as if ready to spring. And she was emitting a soft, low growl from
deep in her throat. I sat up paralysed, frozen, in the bed, conscious only of the dog and of the prickling of my own skin and of what suddenly seemed a different kind of silence, ominous and dreadful. And then, from somewhere within the depths of the house – but somewhere not very far from the room in which I was – I heard a noise. It was a faint noise, and, strain my ears as I might, I could
not make out exactly what it was. It was a sound like a regular yet intermittent bump or rumble. Nothing else happened. There were no footsteps, no creaking floorboards, the air was absolutely still, the wind did not moan through the casement. Only the muffled noise went on and the dog continued to stand, bristling at the door, now putting her nose to the gap at the bottom and snuffling along, now
taking a pace backwards, head cocked and, like me, listening, listening. And, every so often, she growled again.
In the end, I suppose because nothing else happened
and because I did have the dog to take with me, I managed to get out of bed, though I was shaken and my heart beat uncomfortably fast within me. But it took some time for me to find sufficient reserves of courage to enable me to open
the bedroom door and stand out in the dark corridor. The moment I did so, Spider shot ahead and I heard her padding about, sniffing intently at every closed door, still growling and grumbling down in her throat.
After a while, I heard the odd sound again. It seemed to be coming from along the passage to my left, at the far end. But it was still quite impossible to identify. Very cautiously, listening,
hardly breathing, I ventured a few steps in that direction. Spider went ahead of me. The passage led only to three other bedrooms on either side and, one by one, regaining my nerve as I went, I opened them and looked inside each one. Nothing, only heavy old furniture and empty unmade beds and, in the rooms at the back of the house, moonlight. Down below me on the ground floor of the house,
silence, a seething, blanketing, almost tangible silence, and a musty darkness, thick as felt.
And then I reached the door at the very end of the passage. Spider was there before me and her body, as she sniffed beneath it, went rigid, her growling grew louder. I put my hand on her collar, stroked the rough, short hair, as much for my own reassurance as for
hers. I could feel the tension in her
limbs and body and it answered to my own.
This was the door without a keyhole, which I had been unable to open on my first visit to Eel Marsh House. I had no idea what was beyond it. Except the sound. It was coming from within that room, not very loud but just to hand, on the other side of that single wooden partition. It was a sound of something bumping gently on the floor, in a rhythmic sort
of way, a familiar sort of sound and yet one I still could not exactly place, a sound that seemed to belong to my past, to waken old, half-forgotten memories and associations deep within me, a sound that, in any other place, would not have made me afraid but would, I thought, have been curiously comforting, friendly.
But, at my feet, the dog Spider began to whine, a thin, pitiful, frightened
moan, and to back away from the door a little and press against my legs. My throat felt constricted and dry and I had begun to shiver. There was something in that room and I could not get to it, nor would I dare to, if I were able. I told myself it was a rat or a trapped bird, fallen down the chimney into the hearth and unable to get out again. But the sound was not that of some small, panic-stricken
creature. Bump bump. Pause. Bump bump. Pause. Bump bump. Bump bump. Bump bump.
I think that I might have stood there, in
bewilderment and terror, all night, or else taken to my heels, with the dog, and run out of the house altogether, had I not heard another, faint sound. It came from behind me, not directly behind but from the front of the house. I turned away from the locked door and went back,
shakily, groping along the wall to my bedroom, guided by the slant of moonlight that reached out into the darkness of the corridor. The dog was half a pace ahead of me.