Classic Horror Stories (public domain)List of classic horror stories available to read on this site
Edward Frederic Benson
There, with a shock of arrest, I saw that Sybil Rorke, widow of the late Sir Ernest Rorke, had died at Torquay, suddenly, at the age of thirty-two. It seemed strange that there should be only this bare announcement concerning a woman who at one time had been so well-known and dazzling a figure; and turning to the obituary notices, I found that my inattentive skimming had overlooked a paragraph there of appreciation and regret. She had died during her sleep, and it was announced that an inquest would be held. My laziness then had been of some use, for Archie Rorke, distant cousin but successor to Sir Ernest's estates and title, was arriving that evening to spend a few country days with me, and I was glad to have known this before he came. How it would affect him, or whether, indeed, it would affect him at all, I had no idea.
What a mysterious affair it had been! No one, I supposed, knew the history of it except he, now that Lady Rorke was dead. If anyone knew, it should have been myself, and yet Archie, my oldest friend, whose best man I was to have been, had never opened his lips to a syllable of explanation. I knew, in fact, no whit more than the whole world knew, namely, that a year after Sir Ernest Rorke's death the engagement of his widow to the new baronet, Sir Archibald Rorke, was made public, and that within a fortnight of the date fixed for the wedding it was laconically announced that the marriage would not take place. When, on seeing that, I rang Archie up on the telephone, I was told that he had already left London, and he wrote to me a few days later from Lincote—the place in Hampshire, which he had inherited from his cousin—saying that he had nothing to tell me about the breaking off of his engagement beyond the fact that it was true. The whole—he had written a word and carefully erased it—episode was now an excised leaf from his life. He was proposing to stay down at Lincote alone for a month or so, and would then turn on to the new page.
Lady Rorke, so I heard, had also left London immediately and passed the summer in Italy. Then she took a furnished house in Torquay, where she lived for the remainder of the year which intervened between the breaking off of her engagement and her death. She cut herself completely off from all her friends—and no woman, surely, ever commanded a larger host of them—saw nobody, seldom went outside her house and garden, and observed the same unbroken silence as did Archie about what had happened. And now, with all her youth and charm and beauty, she had gone down dumb into the Great Silence.
With the prospect of seeing Archie that evening it was no wonder that the thought of Lady Rorke ran all day in my head like a tune heard long ago which now recalled itself to my mind in scattered staves of melody. Meetings and talks with her, phrase by phrase, reconstructed themselves, and as these memories grew definite and complete I found that, even as before, when I was actually experiencing them, there lurked underneath the gay rhythms and joyousness something macabre and mysterious. To-day that was accentuated, whereas before when I listened for it, trying to isolate it from the rest and so perhaps dispel it, it was always overscored by some triumphant crescendo: her presence diverted eye and ear alike. Yet such a simile halts; perhaps, still in simile, I shall more accurately define this underlying "something" by saying that her presence was like some gorgeous rose-bush, full of flowers, and sun, and sweetness; then, even as one admired and applauded and inhaled, one saw that among its buds and blossoms there emerged the spikes of some other plant, bitter and poisonous, but growing from the same soil as the rose, and intertwined with it. But immediately a fresh glory met your eye, a fresh fragrance enchanted you.
As I rummaged among my memories of her, certain scenes which significantly illustrated this curiously vivid impression stirred and made themselves manifest to me, and now they were not broken in upon by her presence. One such occurred on the first evening that I ever met her, which was in the summer before the death of her husband. The moment that she entered the room where we were waiting before dinner for her arrival, the stale, sultry air of a June evening grew fresh and effervescent; never have I come across so radiant and infectious a vitality. She was tall and big, with the splendour of the Juno-type, and though she was then close on thirty, the iridescence of girlhood was still hers. Without effort she Pied-pipered a rather stodgy party to dance to her flutings, she caused everyone to become silly and pleased and full of laughter. At her bidding we indulged in ridiculous games, dumb-crambo, and what not, and after that the carpet was rolled up and we capered to the strains of a gramophone. And then the incident occurred.
I was standing with her, for a breath of air, on the balcony outside the drawing-room windows which faced the park. She had just made a great curtsey to a slip of the moon that rose above the trees and had borrowed a shilling of me in order to turn it.
"No, I can't swear that I believe in moon-luck," she said, "but after all it does no harm, and, in case it's true, you can't afford to make an enemy of her. Ah, what's that?"
A thrush, attracted by the lights inside, had flown between us, dashed itself against the window, and now lay fluttering on the ground at our feet. Instantly she was all pity and tenderness. She picked up the bird, examined it, and found that its wing was broken.
"Ah, poor thing!" she said. "Look, its wing-bone is snapped; the end protrudes. And how terrified it is! What are we to do?"
It was clear that the kindest thing to do would be to put the bird out of its pain, but when I suggested that, she took a step back from me, and covered it with her other hand. Her eyes gleamed, her mouth smiled, and I saw the tip of her tongue swiftly pass over her lips as if licking them.
"No, that would be a terrible thing to do," she said. "I shall take it home with me ever so carefully, and watch over it. I am afraid it is badly hurt. But it may live."
Suddenly—perhaps it was that swift licking of her lips that suggested the thought to me—I felt instinctively that she was not so much pitiful as pleased. She stood there with eyes fixed on it, as it feebly struggled in her hands.
And then her face clouded; over its brightness there came a look of displeasure, of annoyance.
"I'm afraid it is dying," she said. "Its poor frightened eyes are closing."
The bird fluttered once more, then its legs stretched themselves stiffly out, and it lay still. She tossed it out of her hands on to the paved balcony, with a little shrug of her shoulders.
"What a fuss over a bird," she said. "It was silly of it to fly against the glass. But I have too soft a heart; I cannot bear that the poor creatures should die. Let us go in and have one more romp. Oh, here is your shilling; I hope it will have brought me good luck. And then I must get home. My husband—do you know him?—always sits up till I get back, and he will scold me for being so late!"
There, then, was my first meeting with her, and there, too, were the spikes of the poisonous plant pushing up among the magnificence of her roses. And yet, so I thought to myself then, and so I think to myself now, I perhaps was utterly wrong about it all, in thus attributing to her a secret glee of which she was wholly incapable. So, with a certain effort I wiped the impression I had received off my mind, determining to consider myself quite mistaken. But, involuntarily, my mind as if to justify itself in having delineated such a picture, proceeded to delineate another.
Very shortly after that first meeting I received from her a charming note, asking me to dine with her on a date not far distant. I telephoned a delighted acceptance, for, indeed, I wanted then, even as I did this morning, to convince myself that I was wholly in error concerning my interpretation of that incident concerning the thrush. Though I hold that no man has the right to accept the hospitality offered by one he does not like, in all points except one I admired and liked Lady Rorke immensely and wished to get rid of that one. So I gratefully accepted, and then hurried out on a dismal and overdue visit to the dentist's. In the waiting-room was a girl of about twelve, with a hand nursing a rueful face, and from time to time she stifled a sob of pain or apprehension. I was just wondering whether it would be a breach of waiting-room etiquette to attempt to administer comfort or supply diversion, when the door opened and in came Lady Rorke. She laughed delightfully when she saw me.
"Hurrah! You're another occupant of the condemned cell," she said, "and very soon we shall both be sent for to the scaffold. I can't describe to you what a coward I am about it. Why haven't we got beaks like birds?—"
Her glance fell on the forlorn little figure by the window, with the rueful face and the wet eyes.
"Why, here's another of us," she said. "And have they sent you to the dentist's all alone, my dear?"
"How horrid of them!" said Lady Rorke. "They've sent me alone, too, and I think it's most unfeeling. But you shan't be alone, anyhow, I'll come in with you, and sit by you, if you like that, and box the man's ears for him if he hurts you. Or shall you and I set on him, as soon as we've got him by himself, and take out all his teeth one after the other? Just to teach him to be a dentist."
A faint smile began the break through the clouds.
"Oh, will you come in with me?" she asked. "I shan't mind nearly so much, then. It's—it's got to come out, you know, and I mayn't have gas."
Just the same gleam of a smile as I had seen on Lady Rorke's face once before quivered there now, a light not of pity, surely.
"Ah, but it won't ache any more after that," she said, "and after all, it is so soon over. You'll just open your mouth as if you were going to put the largest of all strawberries into it, and you'll hold tight on to my hand, and the dentist takes up something which you needn't look at—"
There was a want of tact in the vividness of this picture, and the child began to sob again.
"Oh, don't, don't!" she cried.
Again the door opened, and she clung to Lady Rorke.
"Oh, I know it's for me!" she wailed.
Lady Rorke bent over her, scanning her terrified face.
"Come along, my dear," she said, "and it will be over in no time. You'll be back here again before this gentleman can count a hundred, and he'll have all his troubles in front of him still."
Again this morning I tried to expunge from that picture, so trivial and yet so vivid to me, the sinister something which seemed to connect it with the incident about the thrush, and, leaving it, my mind strayed on over other reminiscences of Lady Rorke. Before the season was over I had got to know her well, and the better I knew her the more I marvelled at that many-petalled vitality, which never ceased unfolding itself. She entertained largely, and had that crowning gift of a good hostess, namely, that she enjoyed her own parties quite enormously. She was a very fine horsewoman, and after being up till dawn at some dance, she would be in the Row by half-past eight on a peculiarly vicious mare to whom she seemed to pay only the most cursory attention. She had a good knowledge of music, she dressed amazingly, she was charming to her meagre little husband, playing piquet with him by the hour (which was the only thing, apart from herself, that he cared about), and if in this modern democratic London there could be said to be a queen, there is no doubt who that season would have worn the crown. Less publicly, she was a great student of the psychical and occult, and I remembered hearing that she was herself possessed of very remarkable mediumistic gifts. But to me that was a matter of hearsay, for I never was present at any séance of hers.
Yet through the triumphant music of her pageant, there sounded, to my ears at least, fragments of a very ugly tune. It was not only in these two instances of its emergence that I heard it, it was chiefly and most persistently audible in her treatment of Archie Rorke, her husband's cousin. Everyone knew, for none could help knowing, that he was desperately in love with her, and it is impossible to imagine that she alone was ignorant of it. It is, no doubt, the instinct of many women to fan a passion which they do not share, and which they have no intention of indulging, just as the male instinct is to gratify a passion that he does not really feel, but there are limits to mercilessness. She was not "cruel to be kind"; she was kind to be demoniacally cruel. She had him always by her; she gave him those little touches and comrade-like licences which meant nothing to her, but crazed him with thirst; she held the glass close to his lips and then tilted it up and showed it him empty. The more charitable explanation was that she, perhaps, knew that her husband could not live long, and that she intended to marry Archie, and such, so it subsequently appeared, her intentions were. But when I saw her feeding him with husks and putting an empty glass to his lips, nothing, to my mind, could account for her treatment of him except a rapture of cruelty at the sight of his aching. And somehow, awfully and aptly, that seemed to fit in with the affair of the thrush, and the meeting with the forlorn child in the dentist's waiting-room. Yet ever, through that gruesome twilight, there blazed forth her charm and her beauty and the beam of her joyous vitality, and I would cudgel myself for my nasty interpretations.
It was early in the spring of next year that I was spending a week-end with her and her husband at Lincote. She had suggested my coming down on Saturday morning before the party assembled later in the day, and at lunch I was alone with her husband and her. Sir Ernest was very silent; he looked ill and haggard, and, in fact, hardly spoke a word except when suddenly he turned to the butler and said, "Has anything been heard of the child yet?" He was told that there was no news, and subsided into silence again. I thought that some queer shadow as of suspense or anxiety crossed Lady Rorke's face at the question; but on the answer, it cleared off again, and, as if to sweep the subject wholly away, she asked me if I could tolerate a saunter with her through the woods till her guests arrived.
Out she came like some splendid Diana of the Forests, and like the goddess's was the swift, swinging pace of her saunter. Spring all round was riotous in blossom and bird-song; it was just that ecstatic moment of the year when the hounds of spring have run winter to death, and as we gained the high ridge of down above the woods she stopped and threw her arms wide.
"Oh, the sense of spring!" she cried. "The daffodils, and the west wind, and the shadows of the clouds. How I wish I could take the whole lot into my arms and hug them. Miracles are flowering every moment now in the country, while the only miracle in London is the mud. What sunshine, what air! Drink them in, for they are the one divine medicine. One wants that medicine sometimes, for there are sad things and terrible things all round us, pain and anguish, and decay. Yet I suppose that even those call out the splendour of fortitude or endurance. Even when one looks on a struggle which one knows is hopeless, it warms the heart to see it."
The gleam that shone from her paled, her arms dropped, and she moved on. Then, soft of voice and soft of eye, she spoke again.
"Such a sad thing happened here two days ago," she said. "A small girl—now what was her name? Yes—Ellen Davenport—brought a note from the village up to the house. I was out, so she left it, and started, it is supposed, to go back home. She has not been seen since. Descriptions of her were circulated in all the villages for miles round; but, as you heard at lunch, there has been no news of her, and the copses and coverts in the park have been searched, but with no result. And yet out of that comes splendour. I went to see her mother yesterday, bowed down with grief, but she won't give up hope. 'If it is God's will,' she said to me, 'we shall find my Ellen alive; and if we find her dead, it will be God's will, too.'"
"But I didn't ask you down here to moan over tragedies," she said. "I wanted you after all your weeks in town to come and have a spring-cleaning. Doesn't the wind take the dust out of you, like one of those sucking-machines which you put on to carpets? And the sun! Make a sponge of yourself and soak it up till you're dripping with it."
For a couple of miles, at the least, we kept along this high ridge of down, and the larks were springing from the grass, vocal with song uncongealed, as they aspired and sank again, dropping at last dumb and spent with rapture. Then we descended steeply, through the woods and glades of the park, past thickets of catkinned sallows, and of willows with soft moleskin buttons, and in the hollows the daffodils were dancing, and the herbs of the springtime were pushing up through the brittle withered stuff of the winter. Then, passing along the one street of the red-tiled village, in which my companion pointed me out the house where the poor vanished girl had lived, we turned homewards across the grass and joined the road again at the bottom of the great lake that lies below the terraced gardens of the house.
This lake was artificial, made a hundred years ago by the erection of a huge dam across the dip of the valley, so that the stream which flowed down it was thereby confined and must needs form this sheet of water before it found outlet again through the sluices. At the centre the dam is some twenty-five feet in height, and by the side of the road which crosses it clumps of rhododendrons lean out over the deep water. The margin on the side towards the lake is reinforced with concrete, now mossy and overgrown with herbage, and the face of it, burrows down to the level of the bottom of the dam through four fathoms of dusky water. The lake was high and the overflow poured sonorously through the sluices, and the sun in the west made broken rainbows in the foam of its outpouring.
As we paused there a moment, my companion seemed the incarnation of the sights and sounds that went to the spell of the spring; singing larks and dancing daffodils, west wind and rain-bowed foam and, no less, the dark, deep water, were all distilled into her radiant vitality.
"And now for the house again," she said, going briskly up the steep slope. "Is it inhospitable of me to wish that no one was coming except, of course, our delightful Archie? A houseful brings London into the country, and we shall talk scandal and stir up mud instead of watching miracles."
Another faint memory of her lingered somewhere in the dusk, and I groped for it, as one gropes in slime for the roots of a water-plant, and pulled it out. A notorious murderer had been guillotined that morning in France, and in some Sunday paper next day there was a brutal, brilliant, inexcusable little sketch of his being led out between guards for the final scene at dawn outside the prison at Versailles. And, as I wrote my name in Lady Rorke's visitors' book on Monday morning, I spilt a blot of ink on the page and hastily had recourse to the blotting-pad on her writing-table in order to minimize the disfigurement. Inside it was this unpardonable picture, cut out and put away, and I thought of the thrush and the dentist's waiting-room—
A month afterwards her husband died, after three weeks of intolerable torment. The doctor insisted on his having two trained nurses, but Lady Rorke never left him. She was present at the painful dressings of the wound from the operation that only prolonged the misery of his existence, and even slept on the sofa of the room where he lay.
Archie Rorke arrived that evening. He let me know at once that he had seen the announcement of Lady Rorke's death, and said no more about it till later, when he and I were left alone over the fire in the smoking-room. He looked round to see that the door was shut behind the last bedgoer of my little party, and then turned to me.
"I've got to tell you something," he said. "It'll take half an hour, so to-morrow will do if you want to be off."
"But I don't," said I.
He pulled himself together from his sprawling sunkenness in his chair.
"Very well," he said. "What I want to tell you is the story of the breaking-off of my engagement with Sybil. I have often wanted to do so before, but while she was alive, as you will presently see, I could tell nobody. I shall ask you, when you know everything, whether you think I could have done otherwise. And please do not interrupt me till I have finished, unless there is something you don't understand, for it won't be very easy to get through with it. But I think I can make it intelligible."
He was silent a moment, and I saw his face working and twitching.
"I must tell somebody," he said, "and I choose you, unless you mind it awfully. But I simply can't bear it alone any more."
"Go on, then, old boy," I said. "I'm glad you chose me, do you know. And I won't interrupt."
"A week or two only before our marriage was to have taken place," he said, "I went down to Lincote for a couple of days. I had had the house done up and re-decorated, and now the work was finished and I wanted to see that all was in order. Nothing could be worthy of Sybil, but—well, you can guess, more or less, what my feelings were.
"For a week before there had been very heavy rains, and the lake—you know it—below the garden was very high, higher than I had ever seen it: the water poured over the road across the dam which leads to the village. Under the weight and press of it a great crack had appeared in the concrete with which it is faced, and there was danger of the dam being carried away. If that happened the whole lake would have been suddenly released and no end of damage might have been done. It was therefore necessary to draw off the water as fast as possible to relieve the pressure and repair the crack. This was done by means of big siphons. For two days we had them working, but the crack seemed to extend right to the foundations of the dam, and before it could be repaired all the water in the lake would have to be drawn off. I was just leaving for town, when the foreman came up to the house to tell me that they had found something there. In the ooze and mud at the base of the dam, twenty-five feet below water-level, they had come upon the body of a young girl."
He gripped the arms of his chair tight. Little did he know that I was horribly aware of what he was going to tell me next.
"About a month before my cousin Ernest's death," he said "a mysterious affair happened in the village. A girl named Ellen Davenport had disappeared. She came up one afternoon to the house with a note, and was never seen again, dead or alive. Her disappearance was now explained. A chain of beads round the neck and various fragments of clothing established, beyond any doubt, the identity of what they had found at the bottom of the lake. I waited for the inquest, telegraphing to Sybil that business had detained me, and then returned to town, not intending to tell her what that business was, for our marriage was close at hand and it was not a topic one would choose. She was very superstitious, you know, and I thought that it would shock her. That she would feel it to be unlucky and ill-omened. So I said nothing to her.
"Sybil had extraordinary mediumistic powers. She did not often exercise them and she never would give a séance to any one she did not know extremely well, for she believed that people brought with them the spiritual influences with which they were surrounded, and that there was the possibility of very evil intelligences being set free. But she had sat several times with me, and I had witnessed some very remarkable manifestations. Her procedure was to put herself, by abstraction of her mind, into a state of trance, and spirits of the dead who were connected with the sitters could then communicate through her. On one occasion my mother, whom she had never seen, and who died many years ago, spoke through her and told me certain facts which Sybil could not have known, and which I did not know. But an old friend of my mother's, still alive, told me that they were correct. They were of an exceedingly private nature. Sybil also, so she told me, could produce materialisations, but up till now I had never seen any. A remarkable thing about her mediumship was that she would sometimes regain consciousness from her trance while still these communications were being made, and she knew what was going on. She could hear herself speak and be mentally aware of what she was saying. On the occasion, for instance, of which I have told you, when my mother spoke to me she was in this state. The same thing occurred at the sitting of which I shall now speak.
"That night, on my return to London, she and I dined alone. I felt a very strong desire, for which I could not account, that she should hold a sitting—just herself and me—and she consented. We sat in her room, with a shaded lamp, but there was sufficient illumination for me to see her quite distinctly, for her face was towards the light. There was a small table in front of us covered with a dark cloth. She sat close to it, in a high chair, composed herself, and almost immediately went into trance. Her head fell forward and by her slow breathing and her absolute immobility I knew she was unconscious. For a long time we sat there in silence, and I began to think that we should get no manifestations at all, and that the sitting, as sometimes was the case, would be a failure; but then I saw that something was happening."
His hands, with which he gripped the arms of his chair, were trembling. Twice he tried to speak, but it was not till the third attempt that he mastered himself.
"There was forming a mist above the table," he said. "It was slightly luminous and it spread upwards, pillar-shaped, in height between two and three feet. Then I saw that below the outlying skeins of it something was materialising. It moulded itself into human shape, rising waist-high from the table, and presently shoulders and arms and neck and head were visible, and features began to outline themselves. For some time it remained vague and fluid, swaying backwards and forwards a little; then very quickly it solidified, and there, close in front of me, was the half-figure of a young girl. The eyes were still closed, but now they opened. Round her neck was a chain of beads just such as I had seen laid by the body that had been found in the lake. And then I spoke to her, asking her who she was, though I already knew.
"Her answer was no more than a whisper, but quite distinct.
"'Ellen Davenport,' she said.
"A disordered terror seized me. Yet perhaps this little white figure, with its wide-gazing eyes, was some hallucination, something that had no objective existence at all. All day the thought of the poor kiddie whose remains I had seen taken out of the ooze at the bottom of the lake had been vivid in my mind, and I tried to think that what I saw was no more than some strange projection of my thought. And yet I felt it was not so; it was independent of myself. And why was it made manifest, and on what errand had it come? I had pressed Sybil to give me this séance, and God knows what I would have given not to have done so! For one thing I was thankful, namely, that she was in unconscious trance. Perhaps the phantom would fade again before she came out of it.
"And then I heard a stir of movement from the chair where she sat, and, turning, I saw that she had raised her head. Her eyes were open and on her face such a mask of terror as I have never known human being could wear. Recognition was there, too; I saw that Sybil knew who the phantom was.
"The figure that palely gleamed above the table turned its head towards her, and once more the white lips opened.
"'Yes, I am Ellen Davenport,' she said.
"The whisper grew louder.
"'You might have saved me,' she said, 'or you might have tried to save me; but you watched me struggling till I sank.'
"And then the apparition vanished. It did not die away; it was there clear and distinct one moment, at the next it was gone. Sybil and I were sitting alone in her room with the low-burning lamp, and the silence sang in my ears.
"I got up and turned on the switch that kindled the electric lights, and knew that something within me had grown cold and that something had snapped. She still sat where she was, not looking at me at all, but blankly in front of her. She said no word of denial in answer to the terrible accusation that had been uttered. And I think I was glad of that, for there are times when it is not only futility to deny, but blasphemy. For my part, I could neither look at her nor speak to her. I remember holding out my hands to the empty grate, as if there had been a fire burning there. And standing there I heard her rise, and drearily wondered what she would say and knew how useless it would be. And then I heard the whisper of her dress on the carpet and the noise of the door opening and shutting, and when I turned I found that I was alone in the room. Presently I let myself out of the house."
There was a long pause, but I did not break it, for I felt he had not quite finished.
"I had loved her with my whole heart," he said, "and she knew it. Perhaps that was why I never attempted to see her again and why she did not attempt to see me. That little white figure would always have been with us, for she could not deny the reality of it and the truth of that which it had spoken. That's my story, then. You needn't even tell me if you think I could have done differently, for I knew I couldn't. And she couldn't."
"I see there is to be an inquest," he said. "I hope they will find that she killed herself. It will mean, won't it, that her remorse was unbearable. And that's atonement."
He moved towards the door.
"Inscrutable decrees," he said.