Classic Horror Stories (public domain)List of classic horror stories available to read on this site
Christopher Comes Back
Edward Frederic Benson
It was so this afternoon, on this day of peerless spring weather, as they passed through woods tapestried with primrose and anemone, and more than once she had to use the speaking-tube to tell the chauffeur to go a shade faster, for Christopher would like two clear hours for dictation between tea-time and seven o'clock, when he always rested for half an hour. If he fell asleep it was Nellie's duty to give him five minutes' law and then wake him.
"And this evening, Petsy," he said, "it may be—though I promise nothing—that I shall have a little surprise for you. Ah! I think we will have the window quite up; the spring weather is often treacherous. Be quick, Nellikins, there is a considerable draught.... A surprise, I was saying. How excited you will be when I tell you. Now you shan't get a word more out of me; don't tease me into telling you, my little rascal girl!"
They had left the woods seething with spring below them, and were mounting the flank of the hill where the village of Pole-Street stood on a shelf of the high downs. A couple of dozen shops lined the entrance to it, and after that came a circle of brick-built houses round the Green, antique and mellow, a survival of more spacious days, when land and leisure were not so dearly bought as now. It was at the farthest of these that their motor drew up; beyond it stood the church, the graveyard of which came up to the low garden wall, and below the ground fell rapidly away towards the woods through which they had passed. Tea was ready, and before five o'clock, Christopher, with his rug spread over his knees and his notes in front of him, had begun to dictate. They worked at the big table in his study, lined with books, and by the fireside was the rocking-chair in which he sat when Nellie read over to him some finished section. A pause occasionally broke the even flow of his voice when he sipped his hot water.
Nellie took down his words automatically; her hand had formed a habit of accurate transcription, and she could unleash her thoughts to wander where they willed. To-day they were alive with the sense of spring; they went dancing with the daffodils, coming back only now and then to supervise her manual employment. Her blood was alert with April, and here she sat day after day, so many of them, over her sapless employment, without lot or portion in the rights of her own spring-season, and in the briskness of her youth. Never did any of their neighbours, with one exception, cross the threshold of the joyless house, for after the morning's work Christopher could not contemplate the strain of a guest at lunch, who might linger unduly and curtail the hours of his motor drive. Tea was followed by work again, and after that he did not feel up to more than a quiet frugal dinner with a little reading aloud till bedtime. Nor could he accept hospitalities from others, if it was thus impossible to return them; besides, hostesses, ignorant of the sad plight of his digestion, might provide a dinner which would be just so many plates of poison to him, and Nellie, of course, could not go out and leave him alone. All this had long been fermenting within her, a perilous brew, and the sense of spring to-day had caused it to bubble afresh.
It may easily be conjectured who was the one person from outside who entered this hermitage. Dr. Bernard Eves paid a visit here regularly once a week to see that no disquieting symptoms were sprouting, to approve the continuance of the current dietary, or suggest some modification, and, in addition to this, he was usually summoned once or twice between his fixed visits to dispel chance alarms. He was a young man, lately come here, and Christopher had the highest opinion of his abilities. He was cheerful, he had a laughing eye, which became suitably grave when he tapped and pressed, and brightened up again as he congratulated his patient on his general soundness. When the examination was over he interviewed Nellie, and gave her the prescribed commissariat for the next week. Hardly a word, at present, of personal import had passed between them, but both knew that there was fire kindling.
She recalled herself to her work; opposite her sat her husband with his velvet skull-cap on his head, fingering the scanty greyish-brown beard that dripped from his chin. Though he was not yet fifty he appeared an old man; his mouth had a senile droop, his eyes an unfocused watery vagueness, his hands were creased with wrinkled skin. Fresh from her April thoughts, Nellie suddenly shuddered with a qualm of horror and repulsion at the sight of him.
His custom was to spread slips of paper with his notes written on them over the table in front of his oak arm-chair. His dictation was founded on these, and as each was finished with he tore it up. Now there was but one left, and he was beginning to tear it.
"For me," he said, "it will be sufficient reward to have rescued from oblivion one who, whatever his failings, we must consider to be one of the sweetest minor singers in the choir of English melody."
Nellie took down his words, and paused for the next. Then she understood.
"Oh, Christopher!" she said, "I see what your surprise is. The book's finished."
He rose with a chuckle of delight and a fondling hand.
"Clever Nellie!" he said. "But is it not wonderful? Little did I think, when three years ago I set myself this great task, that I should have strength to finish it. To-morrow, Nellikins, we will have a holiday, and then we must buckle to again. You shall do the talking then, lazy girl, reading it all over to me from the beginning, just for verbal corrections, and then off it goes to be typed. Shall Christopher give Nellie 'ickle kiss for her cleverness in guessing? Such a bright little Petsy!"
The reading of the finished manuscript duly began after a day's holiday. Christopher found it less fatiguing to listen than to dictate, and an after-dinner session was added to the usual hours for work. Never was such progress made, until one evening when progress ceased altogether. Christopher was seized with an attack of severe pain which hot water failed to soothe. Dr. Eves was sent for. He recommended an examination by X-Ray. That left little doubt that his patient was suffering from malignant disease, and no doubt at all that an operation was impossible.
One morning some six months later Bernard Eves had paid his daily visit to the sick-room, and was now giving his report to Nellie.
"He has very little pain," he was saying, "because he's really only half-conscious. It's like an uneasy dream, probably, to him, not more than that. What's so astonishing is his vitality. A few months ago I should have said it was quite impossible that he should live through the summer."
Nellie's face was like a mask. For weeks now that hardness had been habitual to it.
"Tell me what you expect," she said.
"I don't know what to expect," he said. "All I can do is to keep him free from pain. Any recovery is absolutely out of the question, but his resistance amazes me."
Suddenly the mask dropped from her face; she got up quivering and shaking.
"Bernard, I can't bear it much longer," she said. "It's a daily horror, and something is giving way inside me under it. His eyes are like the eyes of a dead man, who is yet terribly alive. It's a miracle, you say, that he's alive at all; what if another miracle happens and he gets well? I simply couldn't go through more years of it."
"Nellie, darling, he can't get well," said Bernard. "You may take my word for that. Of course, for everybody's sake—his, yours, mine—one hopes it will be over soon."
She shook her head; she found no comfort there.
"And sometimes I think he knows how I shudder at him," she said, "and why I long for it to be over. He looks from me to you, and then back again. When people go on living on the brink of death like that, who knows but that the veil of material things wears thin, and they see the things of the spirit? I believe he knows."
He looked up at her sharply.
"Come, Nellie, you're talking nonsense," he said. "It's an awful strain on you, I know, but you can keep a hold on yourself, and you must. I wish you could go away till it's all over, but that's impossible. Remember that he's hardly conscious, and when he gives those long looks at you and then at me he is like someone half asleep, who sees figures by his bed. They are no more than dreams are to us. Besides, how could he know? Utterly impossible."
The nurse who attended Christopher went out for a couple of hours in the afternoon, leaving Nellie to sit in his room or in the dressing-room adjoining. Usually he lay in a drugged torpor, but she had instructions to give him a dose from an opiate mixture if he got restless or showed any signs of being in pain. This afternoon when she was with him he began muttering and turning in bed, and she went to the table where the bottle stood. There were three doses left in it, and she poured the whole into his glass and gave it to him. In a few minutes he was quiet again, and after some half-hour she told a servant to ring up Dr. Eves and bid him come at once. In ten minutes more he was with her, and she pointed to the empty bottle.
"Bernard, I gave him three doses of the opiate," she said.
He stared at her, incredulous.
"It's quite true," she said.
He rushed back to his surgery a hundred yards away, where he dispensed drugs, and brought back with him certain apparatus and a bottle unconnected with them. But his efforts to revive the patient were unavailing, and when the nurse came in from her walk Christopher Mostyn was dead, and in the bottle of opiate mixture were three doses.
"A sudden collapse," he said to her, "such as I have been expecting for many days."
The funeral was over, and Nellie came back to the house feeling that the last rim of the shadow of the eclipsed years had passed off, even as the blinded windows once more let in the day. She had no touch of remorse or regret for what she had done. Christopher had been doomed to death, and she had but freed him from further days of drugged discomfort. Since that afternoon she had not seen Bernard, for he had received news almost in the same hour of his mother's serious illness, and had gone off at once. Nor had she heard from him since, but nothing was more natural than that he should not write to her just yet. He knew everything, he had been prompt and wise in filling up the bottle to the level at which it had stood when the nurse went out, and she felt that by that action he had accepted what she had done. Before he left he had written the certificate of death, giving malignant disease followed by heart failure as the cause, and when he came back the past would be dead and done with. They would have to wait some months, she supposed, possibly a year, before they married.
The day was closing in, chilly, with flaws of rain that tapped against the windows. Otherwise the house was quite quiet; no muffled sounds came from the bedroom immediately above; nor would she presently hear the step of the nurse on the stairs coming down to give her news of the patient. Often about this hour he had grown restless and asked to see her, and then he would lie staring at her, but as Bernard had said, perhaps not knowing her. It was an infinite relief to sit here, secure from these ghastly errands, and listen to the rain on the darkening windows, and the soft flapping of the flame on the hearth.
Then there came to her ears the sound of an electric bell, and her heart leaped, for Bernard might have returned. She heard the step of a servant in the passage outside, but instead of turning the corner to the front door it went on towards Christopher's study. After a pause it returned, and the door opened.
"What was that bell?" she asked. "Not the front door?"
"No, ma'am. It was the bell from the study," said the maid. "I supposed you were there."
"You must have made a mistake," said Nellie. "See if it is not the front door."
The maid did not come back, so there could have been no one at the door, and Nellie rose and went to the study. It was nearly dark now, and as she turned on the switch for the light she thought she heard a creak from the oak rocking-chair where for so many mornings of work Christopher had sat over his notes. She looked, and saw that the chair was oscillating slightly as if someone had just got up from it.
For a moment she stared at it motionless and tense, for that familiar movement conveyed to her the sense of Christopher's presence in a manner terribly vivid; had he stood there visibly, reaching up for a book from the shelves, she could not have received a sharper impression of him. She glanced round the room, almost expecting to see him or hear his voice. But there was nothing; just the gleam of light on the big polished table, and lying there on his blotting-pad a duplicate of the printed proofs of his book, which had arrived only a week or two ago, when he was past all thought of them.
The movement of the rocking-chair died away, but the shock to her nerves remained, and, determined to control and master them, she moved about the room, and finally went to the window and looked out. The rain had ceased, and a splash of sullen red in the west showed that the sun had already set. Just outside lay the bounding-wall of the churchyard with its rows of headstones, and close at hand the mound of earth that marked the most recent of the graves. In this queer dim light the dark soil looked like a hole cut in the grass, as if the grave had never been filled in. She drew the blind, ran the curtains along their pole, and left the room, locking the door.
Her nervous perturbation passed off, and she settled down for a tranquil, undisturbed evening. To-morrow, she thought, rain or fine, she would go for a long tramp on the downs, and by to-morrow night, perhaps, Bernard would be back, or she would at least have heard from him. If he was back he would be sure to let her know, and he must dine with her. She would tell him about that chair so strangely rocking, and he would laugh at her for imagining anything of the sort. Some germ of fear still lurked in her mind, for she wanted to be assured that it was but her eyes that had played her a trick, or her tread on a loose board that had caused that rocking movement. She dozed a little, she read a little, basking in the sense that no call could come for her; she told her parlour-maid that she need not sit up. By eleven o'clock she was ready for bed, and she went along the passage, quenching the lights, past Christopher's study to the stairs.
Opposite the door she paused; that germ of fear had fructified, and she must destroy its brood. So, with a summons to her courage, she unlocked the door and entered. But now there was no need to press the switch, for his green-shaded reading-lamp by the rocking-chair was burning, and on the table beside it lay the printed proofs of his book. And the rocking-chair was again oscillating to and fro, as if its invisible occupant had risen on her entry. Even as she stood there, feeling her hands grow cold and moist, that spectral light faded, and she was looking into the blackness of an unlit room. But something stirred there; she heard the faint thud of a footfall on the carpet, pacing there and pausing in the darkness.
She woke next morning to the radiance of a crisp October day, and, what was even better, to an indifference to that which last night had made her shake as with an ague. What did it matter, after all, if the spirit of Christopher or some astral semblance of it had survived the crumbling and perishing of his body, and haunted the scene of his earthly labours? It could not hurt her, it could not cramp and mummify, as he had done, the life which tingled within her, and which was now free of him. There was business to be got through in the morning, but she lunched early, and set off not for one of those "good walks" of a quarter of an hour, but for a long swinging circuit of the windy downs. Hour after hour she drank of the clear wine of the sun and open spaces, and it was not till dusk was gathering that she came back past the village green. But as she let herself into the house she felt that something was waiting for her return, and her vigour and briskness began to slip from her. There were letters on the hall table, but the one she looked for was still missing.
It seemed as if the presence which had manifested itself in Christopher's study last night was spreading like some chilly mist through the house. She went upstairs to change her walking attire, and on her way down again, as she passed the door of the room where he had died, she found that it was open. She could not imagine who had gone in there ... or was it that someone had come out? She looked in; it was dark, but she heard coming from the place where the sheeted bed stood a sound as of moaning and muttering, very faint. She turned on the light, but the room was empty. Only on the table by the bed there stood a bottle, and she saw that it was the same which held three doses of the opiate mixture. She could have sworn that it had been removed with all the other appliances of the sick-room, and she advanced a step or two with the intention of taking it away. But some invincible horror seized her, and she left it standing there.
Downstairs her parlour-maid was bringing in her tea, and she noticed that the woman looked scared and white.
"What's the matter, Mary?" she said. "Anything ... anything wrong?"
The woman looked at her with twitching lips.
"No, ma'am," she said.
Nellie was a good mistress; she was on friendly, confidential terms with her servants.
"Come, Mary," she said kindly, "something's upset you. Won't you tell me?"
"I was shutting up in here half an hour ago, ma'am," she said, "and I heard someone moving about in the master's room overhead. I thought perhaps it was you—that you had come in by the garden gate, and I went upstairs to see."
Nellie gave a little sigh of relief.
"Ah! And left the door of the room open," she said.
"No, ma'am, it was open, and I shut it," said Mary.
The woman went back to the servants' quarters, and again the house was quiet. But presently Nellie rose and went along the passage to Christopher's study. It was just because she feared going there that she had to do so; her fear was the force that pulled her. She unlocked the door, and once more there was no need to turn up the light, for the reading-lamp by the rocking-chair was burning, and in the chair, with his proofs in his hand, sat Christopher. He turned and looked at her, setting the chair in oscillation ... and then she found herself staring into blackness.
She closed the door and stood leaning against the wall outside, bracing herself against this wave of terror, cold as the Arctic seas, which streamed over her, and though she had left him inside the room, yet he was here close beside her in the brightly lit passage. As she fought against this awful sense of his encompassing presence, she heard a bell ring somewhere in the house. Was he summoning her to come back and read his proofs to him? She fled from the place back to her sitting-room, and then there came steps in the passage, there was a hand on the door, and in panic she crouched in her chair. "No, no; don't come in. I can't bear it!" she whimpered.
And then the door opened, and Bernard stood there. She flew to him, hands outstretched.
"Oh, Bernard, you've come, you've come!" she cried. "How I've been longing for you! I've been terrified, but that's all past now that you're here. But I can't stop here—"
She looked at him, and her voice died away into silence.
"What is it?" she said at length. But she knew what it was.
He tried to speak, but could not. He put out his hands to her, and drew them back. She watched him, curiously detached and emotionless.
"I'll tell you then," she said. "You've come to say that you can't see me again, because I killed him."
She moved a step away towards the tea-table, and then suddenly her terror, stilled for the moment by Bernard's presence, and her love for him surged back on her together.
"Bernard, you can't leave me," she said. "You know what I did was merciful. Besides, we love each other. And there's more than that. Christopher has come back; he's in the house. He was in his study last night, though I did not see him, and his lamp was lit, and his chair rocking."
Her voice rose.
"This afternoon he was in the bedroom where he died," she said, "and just now I saw him visibly. He's getting more hold over me, his grip is tightening, and it's only you who can loosen it. He knows, and he's trying to keep us apart, so that he'll get possession of me again, and I shall be his. But I'm not his; I'm yours, and you must save me from him. He can't come between us if we are one. He mustn't...."
Her voice, which had risen to a scream, died away again, and the last words were but whispered. Her eyes were on Bernard no longer, but on some point in the air between them, and were focused intently on it. And he, watching her, saw what she was looking at.
A mist of filmy grey began to form there, twining and wreathing within itself, and growing swiftly more substantial, and taking the form and outline of a man. Features defined themselves on the face, blind-looking, watery eyes, and scanty beard, a bald head covered with a black skull-cap. From being transparent the spectre assumed a seeming solidity, the mouth twitched and mumbled as if trying to speak, the hands were held out as if to sever them. Then its solidity melted again; the weaving vapours out of which it had formed itself grew thin and vanished, and the two who were left were looking at each other, white and blanched with the helpless horror that stared from their answering eyes.
A couple of hours later the parlour-maid came in to tell Nellie that her dinner