Authors: Susan Hill
There was nothing in the room at all, the bed was as I had left it, there had been no disturbances; then I realized that the sounds had been coming not from within the room but outside it, beyond the window. I pulled it up as
far as the sash would allow and looked out. There lay the marshes, silver-grey and empty, there was the water of the estuary, flat as a mirror with the full moon lying upturned upon it. Nothing. No one. Except, like a wash from far, far away, so that I half wondered if I were remembering and reliving the memory, a cry, a child’s cry. But no. The slightest of breezes stirred the surface of the water,
wrinkling it, and passing dryly through the reed beds and away. Nothing more.
I felt something warm against my ankle and, looking down, saw that it was Spider, very close to me and gently licking my skin. When I stroked her, I realized that she was calm again, her body relaxed, her
ears down. I listened. There was no sound in the house at all. After a while, I went back along the passage to the
closed door. Spider came quite happily and stood obediently there, perhaps waiting for the door to be opened. I put my head close to the wood. Nothing. Absolute silence. I put my hand on the door-handle, hesitated as I felt my heart again begin to race, but drew in several deep breaths and tried the door. It would not open, though the rattling of it echoed in the room beyond, as if there were no
carpet on the floor. I tried it once more and pushed against it slightly with my shoulder. It did not give.
In the end I went back to bed. I read two further chapters of the Scott novel, though without fully taking in their meaning, and then switched out my lamp. Spider had settled again on the rug. It was a little after two o’clock.
It was a long time before I slept.
The first thing I noticed
on the following morning was a change in the weather. As soon as I awoke, a little before seven, I felt that the air had a dampness in it and that it was rather colder and, when I looked out of the window, I could hardly see the division between land and water, water and sky, all was a uniform grey, with thick cloud lying low over the marsh and a drizzle. It was not a day calculated to
spirits and I felt unrefreshed and nervous after the previous night. But Spider trotted down the stairs eagerly and cheerfully enough and I soon built up the fires again and stoked the boiler, had a bath and breakfast and began to feel more like my everyday self. I even went back upstairs and along the corridor to the door of the locked room, but there was no strange sound from within, no sound
At nine o’clock I went out, taking the bicycle and pedalling hard, to work up a good head of speed across the causeway and through the country lanes back to Crythin, with Spider bounding behind me and taking off every so often, to burrow briefly in a ditch or start after some creature that flitted away across the fields.
I had the landlord’s wife refill my hamper with plenty of food
and bought more from the grocer’s. With both of them and with Mr Jerome, whom I met in a side street, I spoke briefly and jestingly and I said nothing whatsoever about the business at Eel Marsh House. Daylight, even such a dreary damp affair as it was, had once again renewed my nerve and resolve and banished the vapours of the night. Moreover, there was a fond letter from Stella, full of gratifying
exclamations of regret at my absence and pride in my new responsibility, and it was with this warming my inside pocket that I cycled back towards the marshes and the house, whistling as I went.
Although it was not yet lunch-time I was obliged to put on most of the lamps in the house, for the day lowered, and the light was too poor to work by, even directly in front of the window. Looking out,
I saw that the cloud and drizzle had thickened, so that I could scarcely see beyond the grass that ran down to the edges of the water and, as the afternoon began to draw in, they had merged together to form a fog. Then my nerve began to falter a little and I decided I might pack up and return to the comfort of the town. I went to the front door and stepped out. At once the dampness clung to my face
and to my clothes like a fine web. There was a stronger wind now, whipping off the estuary and going through to my bones, with its raw coldness. Spider ran off a yard or two and then stopped and looked back at me, uncertain, not anxious to walk far in such dreary weather. I could not see the ruin or the walls of the old burial ground, away across the field, the low-lying cloud and mist had blotted
them out. Neither could I see the causeway path, not only because of that but because the tide had now covered it over completely. It would be late at night before it was clear again. I could not after all retreat to Crythin Gifford.
I whistled the dog who came at once and gladly, and returned to Mrs Drablow’s papers. So far I had found only one interesting-looking, slim packet of
letters, and I decided that I would give myself the possible diversion of reading them that evening after supper. Until then I cleared several more piles of rubbish and was cheered by the sight of the several now-empty boxes and drawers, depressed by those that still remained full and unsifted.
The first packet of letters, bundled together and tied with narrow purple ribbon, were all written
in the same hand, between a February of about sixty years before and the summer of the following year. They were sent first from the manor house of a village I remembered from the map as being some twenty miles away from Crythin Gifford, and later from a lodge in the Scottish countryside beyond Edinburgh. All were addressed to ‘My dear’ or ‘Dearest Alice’ and signed for the most part ‘J’ but occasionally
‘Jennet’. They were short letters, written in a direct, rather naive manner, and the story they told was a touching one and not particularly unfamiliar. The writer, a young woman and apparently a relative of Mrs Drablow, was unmarried and with child. At first, she was still living at home, with her parents; later, she was sent away. Scarcely any mention was made of the child’s father, except
for a couple of references to P. ‘P will not come back here.’ And: ‘I think P was sent abroad.’ In Scotland, a son was born to her and she
wrote of him at once with a desperate, clinging affection. For a few months the letters ceased, but when they began again it was at first in passionate outrage and protest, later, in quiet, resigned bitterness. Pressure was being exerted upon her to give up
the child for adoption; she refused, saying over and over again that they would ‘never be parted’.
‘He is mine. Why should I not have what is mine? He shall not go to strangers. I shall kill us both before I let him go.’
Then the tone changed.
‘What else can I do? I am quite helpless. If you and M are to have him I shall mind it less.’ And again, ‘I suppose it must be.’
But at the end of the
last letter of all was written in a very small, cramped hand: ‘Love him, take care of him as your own. But he is mine, mine, he can
be yours. Oh, forgive me. I think my heart will break. J.’
In the same packet, there was a simple document drawn up by a lawyer, declaring that Nathaniel Pierston, infant son of Jennet Humfrye was become by adoption the child of Morgan Thomas Drablow of Eel
Marsh House, Crythin Gifford, and of his wife Alice. Attached to this were three other papers. The first was a reference from a Lady M – in Hyde Park Gate – for a nursemaid called Rose Judd.
I had read and set this aside, and was about to open the next, a single folded sheet, when I looked up suddenly, startled into the present by a noise.
Spider was at the door, growling the same, low growl
of the previous night. I looked round at her and saw that her hackles were up. For a moment I sat, too terrified to move. Then I recalled my decision to seek out the ghosts of Eel Marsh House and confront them, for I was sure – or I had been sure, in the hours of daylight – that the harder I ran away from those things, the closer they would come after me and dog my heels, and the greater would be
their power to disturb me. And so, I laid down the papers, got to my feet and went quietly to open the door of the small parlour in which I had been sitting.
At once, Spider shot out of the room as though after a hare and made for the staircase, still growling. I heard her scurry along the passage above and then stop. She had gone to the locked door and even from below I could hear it again,
the odd, faint, rhythmic noise – bump bump, pause, bump bump, pause, bump bump …
Determined to break in if I possibly could, and to identify the noise and whatever was making it, I went into the kitchen and scullery, in search of a strong hammer or chisel or other forcing tool. But, not finding anything there and remembering that there
was a wood axe in the outhouse where the fuel was stored,
I opened the back door and, taking my torch with me, stepped outside.
There was still a mist and a drizzling dampness in the air, though nothing like the dense, swirling fog of the night when I had crossed the causeway path. But it was pitch dark: there was neither moonlight nor any stars visible and I stumbled about on my way to the shed in spite of the beam from my torch.
It was when I had
located the axe and was making my way back to the house that I heard the noise and, when I heard it, so close that I thought it was only a few yards from the house, turned back, instead of going on, walked quickly around to the front door, expecting to greet a visitor.
As I came onto the gravel, I shone my torch out into the darkness in the direction of the causeway path. It was from there that
the clip-clop of the pony’s hooves and the rumbling and creaking of the trap were coming. But I could see nothing. And then, with an awful cry of realization, I knew. There was no visitor – or at least no real, human visitor – no Keckwick. The noise was beginning to come from a different direction now, as the pony and trap left the causeway and struck off across the open marsh.
I stood, hideously
afraid, straining into the murky, misty distance with my ears, to try and detect any
difference between this sound and that of a real vehicle. But there was none. If I could have run out of there, seen my way, I must surely have been able to reach it, climb up onto it, challenge its driver. As it was, I could do nothing, but stand, stand as still and stiff as a post, rigid with fear and yet inwardly
in a turmoil of nervous apprehension and imaginings and responses.
Then I realized that the dog had come down and was beside me on the gravel, her body absolutely still, ears pricked, facing the marsh and the source. The pony trap was going further away now, the noise of its wheels was becoming muffled and then there was the sound of splashing water and churning mud, the noise of the pony plunging
about in terror. It was happening, the whole thing was caught up in the quicksands and sinking, sinking, there was a terrible moment when the waters began to close around it and to gurgle, and then, above it all, and above the whinnying and struggling of the pony, the child’s cry, that rose and rose to a scream of terror and was then slowly choked and drowned; and, finally, silence.
save the lap and eddy of the water far away. My whole body was trembling, my mouth dry, the palms of my hands sore where I had dug my nails into them as I had stood, helplessly, hearing that dreadful sequence of sounds repeated again, as
it would be repeated in my head a thousand times forever after.
That the pony and trap and the crying child were not real I had no shadow of a doubt, that their
final drive across the marshes and their disappearance into the treacherous quicksands had not just taken place a hundred yards away from me in the darkness, of this I was now certain. But I was equally certain that once, who knew how long ago, but one actual day, this dreadful thing had indeed taken place, here on Eel Marsh. A pony and trap with whoever was its driver, together with a child passenger,
had been swallowed up and drowned within a few moments. At the very thought of it, let alone at this awful ghostly repetition of the whole event, I was more distressed than I could bear. I stood shivering, cold from the mist and the night wind and from the sweat that was rapidly cooling on my body.
And then, hair bristling, with eyes a-start, the dog Spider took a couple of steps backwards, half
lifted her front paws off the ground and began to howl, a loud, prolonged, agonized and heart-stopping howl.
In the end, I had to lift her up and carry her inside the house – she would not move in answer to any call. Her body was stiff in my arms and she was clearly in a state of distress, and, when I set her down on the floor of the hall, she clung close to my heels.
In a curious way, it was
her fearfulness that persuaded me that I must retain control of myself, rather as a mother will feel obliged to put a brave face on things in order to calm her frightened child. Spider was only a dog but nevertheless I felt obliged to soothe and reassure her, and, in doing so, was able to calm myself and gather some inner strength. But, after a few moments of allowing herself to be stroked and petted
under my hand, the dog broke away and, alert again and growling, made for the stairs. I followed her quickly, switching on every light I could find as I went. As I expected, she had made for the passage, with the locked door at the end of it, and already I could hear the noise, that maddeningly familiar bump that tantalized me because I still could not identify it.
I was breathing fast as I ran
to the corner and my heart seemed to be leaping about madly within me. But, if I had been afraid at what had happened in this house so far, when I reached the end of the short corridor and saw what I did see now, my fear reached a new height, until for a minute I thought I would die of it,
dying, for I could not conceive of a man’s being able to endure such shocks and starts and remain alive,
let alone in his right senses.
The door of the room from which the noise came, the door which had been securely locked, so that I had not been able to break it down, the door to which
there could not be a key – that door was now standing open. Wide open.
Beyond it lay a room, in complete darkness, save for the first yard or two immediately at the entrance, where the dim light from the bulb on
the landing outside fell onto some shining, brown floor-covering. Within, I could hear both the noise – louder now because the door was open – and the sound of the dog, pattering anxiously about and sniffing and snuffling as she went.