Classic Horror Stories (public domain)List of classic horror stories available to read on this site
The Corner House
Edward Frederic Benson
To get to Firham at all from London, except by a motor drive of some hundred and twenty miles, is a slow progress, and after two changes the leisurely railway eventually lands you no nearer than five miles from your destination. After that a switch-back road terminating in a long decline brings you off the inland Norfolk hills, and into the broad expanse of lowland, once reclaimed from the sea, and now protected from marine invasion by big banks and dykes. From the top of the last hill you get your first sight of the village, its brick-built houses with their tiled roofs smouldering redly in the sunset, like some small, glowing island anchored in that huge expanse of green, and, a mile beyond it, the dim blue of the sea. There are but few trees to be seen on that wide landscape, and those stunted and slanted in their growth by the prevailing wind off the coast, and the great sweep of the country is composed of featureless fields intersected with drainage dykes, and dotted with sparse cattle. A sluggish stream, fringed with reed-beds and loose-strife, where moor-hens chuckle, passes just outside the village, and a few hundred yards below it is spanned by a bridge and a sluice-gate. From there it broadens out into an estuary, full of shining water at high tide, and of grey mud-banks at the ebb, and passes between rows of tussocked sand-dunes out to sea.
The road, descending from the higher inlands, strikes across these reclaimed marshes, and after a mile of solitary travel enters the village of Firham. To right and left stand a few outlying cottages, whitewashed and thatched, each with a strip of gay garden in front and perhaps a fisherman's net spread out to dry on the wall, but before they form anything that could be called a street the road takes a sudden sharp-angled turn, and at once you are in the square which, indeed, forms the entire village. On each side of the broad cobbled space is a line of houses, on one side a post office and police-station with a dozen small shops where may be bought the more rudimentary needs of existence, a baker's, a butcher's, a tobacconist's. Opposite is a row of little residences midway between villa and cottage, while at the far end stands the dumpy grey church with the vicarage, behind green and rather dilapidated palings, beside it. At the near end is the "Fisherman's Arms," the modest hostelry at which we always put up, flanked by two or three more small red-brick houses, of which the farthest, where the road leaves the square again, is the Corner House of which this story treats.
The Corner House was an object of mild curiosity to Jim and me, for while the rest of the houses in the square, shops and residences alike, had a tidy and well-cared-for appearance, with an air of prosperity on a small contented scale, the Corner House presented a marked and curious contrast. The faded paint on the door was blistered and patchy, the step of the threshold always unwhitened and partly overgrown with an encroachment of moss, as if there was little traffic across it. Over the windows inside were stretched dingy casement curtains, and the Virginia creeper which straggled untended up the discoloured front of the house drooped over the dull panes like the hair over a terrier's eyes. Sometimes in one or other of these windows, between the curtains and the glass, there sat a mournful grey cat, but all day long no further sign of life within gave evidence of occupation. Behind the house was a spacious square of garden enclosed by a low brick wall, and from the upper windows of "The Fisherman's Arms" it was possible to look into it. There was a gravel path running round it, entirely overgrown, and a flower-bed underneath the wall was a jungle of rank weeds among which, in summer, two or three neglected rose trees put out a few meagre flowers. A broken water-butt stood at the end of it, and in the middle a rusty iron seat, but never at morning or at noon or at evening did I see any human figure in it; it seemed entirely derelict and unvisited.
At dusk shabby curtains were drawn across the windows that looked into the square, and then between chinks you could see that one room was lit within. The house, it was evident, had once been a very dignified little residence; it was built of red brick and was early Georgian in date, square and comfortable with its enclosed plot behind; one wondered, as I have said, with mild curiosity what blight had fallen on it, what manner of folk moved silent and unseen behind the dingy casement curtains all day and sat in that front room when night had fallen.
It was not only to us but also to the Firhamites generally that the inhabitants of the Corner House were veiled in some sort of mystery. The landlord of our inn, for instance, in answer to casual questions, could tell us very little of their life nowadays, but what he knew of them indicated that something rather grim lurked behind the drawn curtains. It was a married couple who lived there, and he could remember the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Labson some ten years before.
"She was a big, handsome woman," he said, "and her age might have been thirty. He was a good deal younger; at that time he looked hardly out of his teens, a slim little slip of a fellow, half a head shorter than his wife. I daresay you've seen him on the golf-links, knocking a ball about by himself, for he goes out there every afternoon."
I had more than once noticed a man playing alone, and carrying a couple of clubs. If he was on a green, and saw us coming up, he always went hurriedly on or stood aside at a little distance, with back turned, and waited for us to pass. But neither of us had paid any particular attention to him.
"She doesn't go out with him?" I asked.
"She never leaves the house at all to my knowledge," said the landlord, "though to be sure it wasn't always like that. When first they came here they were always out together, playing golf or boating or fishing, and in the evening there would be the sound of singing or piano-playing from that front room of theirs. They didn't live here entirely, but came down from London, where they had a house, for two or three months in the summer and perhaps a month at Christmas and another month at Easter. There would be friends staying with them much of the time, and merriment and games always going on, and dancing, too, with a gramophone to play their tunes for them till midnight and later. And then, all of a sudden, five years ago now or perhaps a little more, something happened and everything was changed. Yes, that was a queer thing, and sudden, as I say, like a clap of thunder."
"Interesting," said Jim. "What was it that happened?"
"Well, as we saw it, it was like this," said he, "Mr. and Mrs. Labson were down here together in the summer, and one morning as I passed their door I heard her voice inside scolding and swearing at him or at some one. Him it must have been, as we knew later. All that day she went on at him; it was a wonder to think that a woman had so much breath in her body or so much rage in her mind. Next day all their servants, five or six they kept then, butler and lady's maid and valet and housemaid and cook, were all dismissed and off they went. The gardener got his month's wages, too, and was told he'd be wanted no more, and so there were Mr. and Mrs. Labson alone in the house. But half that day, too, she went on shouting and yelling, so it must have been him she was scolding and swearing at. Like a mad woman she was, and never a word from him. Then there would be silence a bit, and she'd break out again, and day after day it was like that, silence and then that screaming voice of hers. As the weeks went on, silence shut down on them; now and then she'd break out again, even as she does to this day, but a month and more will pass now, and you'll never hear a sound from within the house."
"And what had been the cause of it all?" I asked.
"That came out in the papers," said he, "when Mr. Labson was made a bankrupt. He had been speculating on the Stock Exchange, not with his own money alone, but with hers, and had lost nigh every penny. His house in London was sold, and all they had left was this house which belonged to her, and a bit of money he hadn't got at, which brings them in a pound or two a week. They keep no servants, and every morning Mr. Labson goes out early with his basket on his arm and brings provisions for their dinner with the shilling or two she gives him. They say he does the cooking as well, and the housework too, though there's not too much of that, if you can judge from what you see from outside, while she sits with her hands in her lap doing nothing from morning till night. Sitting there and hating him, you may say."
It was a weird, grim sort of story, and from that moment the house, to my mind, took on, as with a deeper dye of forbiddingness, something of its quality. Its desolate and untended aspect was fully earned, the uncleaned windows and discoloured door seemed a fit expression of the spirit that dwelt there: the house was the faithful expression of those who lived in it, of the man whose folly or knavery had brought them to a penury that was near ruin, and of the woman who was never seen, but sat behind the dirty curtained windows hating him, and making him her drudge. He was her slave; those hours when she screamed and raved at him must surely have broken his spirit utterly, or, whatever his fault had been, he must have rebelled against so servile and dismal an existence. Just that hour or two of remission she gave him in the afternoon that he might get air and exercise to keep his health, and continue his life of bondage, and then back again he went to the seclusion and the simmering hostility.
As sometimes happens when a subject has got started, the round of trivial, everyday experiences begins to bristle with allusions and hints that bear on it, so now when this matter of the Corner House had been set going, Jim and I began to be constantly aware of its ticking. It was just that: it was as if a clock had been wound up and started off, and now we were aware in a way we had not been before that it was steadily ticking on, and the hands silently moving towards some unconjecturable hour. Fancifully, and fantastically enough I wondered what the hour would be towards which the silent pointers were creeping. Would there be some sort of jarring whirr that gave warning that the hour was imminent, or should we miss that, and be suddenly startled by some reverberating shock? Such an idea was, of course, purely an invention of the imagination, but somehow it had got hold of me, and I used to pass the Corner House with an uneasy glance at its dingy windows, as if they were the dial that interpreted the progress of the sombre mechanism within.
The reader must understand that all this formed no continuous series of impressions. Jim and I were at Firham only on short visits, with intervals of weeks or even of months in between. But certainly after the subject had been started we had more frequent glimpses of Mr. Labson. Day after day we saw his flitting figure on the links, keeping its distance, and retreating before us, but once we approached close up to him before he was aware of our presence. It was an afternoon that threatened rain, and in order to be nearer shelter if the storm burst suddenly we had cut two holes and walked across an intervening tract of rough ground to a hole which took us in a homeward direction. He was just addressing his ball on this teeing-ground when, looking up, he saw that we were beside him; he gave a little squeal as of terror, picked up his ball, and scuttled away, at a shuffling run, with abject terror written on his lean white face. Not a word did he give us in answer to Jim's begging him to precede us, not once did he look round.
"But the man's quaking with fear," said I, as he disappeared. "He could hardly pick up his ball."
"Poor devil!" said Jim. "There's something formidable at the Corner House."
He had hardly spoken when the rain began in torrents, and we trotted with the best speed of middle-aged gentlemen towards the corrugated-iron shed of the club-house. But Mr. Labson did not join us there for shelter; for we saw him plodding homewards through the downpour rather than face his fellow-creatures.
That close glimpse of Mr. Labson had made the affair of the Corner House much more real. Behind the curtains where the light was lit in the evening there sat a man in whose soul terror was enthroned. Was it terror of his companion who sat there with him that reigned so supreme that even when he was away out on the links it still was master of him? Had it also so drained from him all dregs of manhood and of courage that he could not even run away, but must return to the grim house for fear of his fear, as a rabbit on whose track is a weasel has not the courage to gallop off and easily save itself from the sharp white teeth? Or were there ties of affection between him and the woman whom his folly had brought to penury, so that as a willing penance he cooked and drudged for her? And then I thought of the voice that had yelled at him all day; it was more likely that, as Jim had said, there was something formidable at the Corner House, before which he cowered and from which he had not the strength to fly.
There were other glimpses of him as, with his basket on his arm in the early morning, he brought home bread and milk and some cheap cut from the butcher's. Once I saw him enter his house on his return from his marketing. He must have locked the door before going out, for now he unlocked it again, slipped in, and I heard the key click in the wards again. Once, too, though only in featureless outline, I saw her who shared his solitude, for passing by the Corner House in the dusk, the lamp had been lit within, and I had a glimpse through the thin casement blinds of a carpetless room, a blackened ceiling and one big armchair drawn up to the fire. And at that moment the form of a woman silhouetted itself between me and the light. She was very tall, and immensely broad and stout, and her hands, large as a man's, grasped the curtain. Next moment, with a jingle of running rings, she had drawn it, and shut up herself and the man for the long winter evening and the night that followed.
The same evening, I remember, Jim had occasion to go to the post office and came back to our snug little sitting-room with something of horror in his eyes.
"You've seen her to-day," he said, "and I've heard her."
"Who? Oh! at the Corner House?" I asked.
"Yes. I was just passing it, when she began. I tell you it scared me. It was scarcely like a human voice at all, or at any rate not like a sane voice. A shrill, swearing gabble all on one note, and going on without a pause. Maniac."
The conjectured picture of the two grew more grim. It was an awful thought that behind those dingy curtains in the bare room there were the pair of them, the little terrified man, and that greater monster of a woman, yelling and bawling at him. Yet what could we do? It seemed impossible to interfere in any way. It was not the business of a couple of visitors from London to intrude on the domestic differences of total strangers. And yet the sequel showed that any interference would have been justified.
The day following was wet from morning till night. A gale of rain mingled with sleet roared in from the north-east, and neither of us stirred abroad, but kept close by the fire listening to the wind bugling in the chimney, and the gale flinging the sheets of water solidly against the window-pane. But after nightfall the wind abated and the sky cleared, and when I went up to bed, sleepy with the day indoors, I saw the shadows of the window bars black against a brightness outside, and pulling up the blind looked on to a blaze of moonlight. Below, a little to the left, was the neglected garden of the Corner House, and there, standing on the grass-grown path, was the figure of the woman I had seen in black silhouette against the lamplight in her room. Now the moonlight shone full on her face and my breath caught in my throat as I looked on that appalling countenance. It was fat and bloated beyond belief, the eyes were but slits above her cheeks, and the lines of her mouth were invisible in their shadows. But even the whiteness of the moonlight gave no pallor to her face, for it was flushed with some purplish hue that seemed nearly black. One glimpse only I had for perhaps she had heard the rattle of my blind, and she looked up and next minute had stepped back into the house again. But that moment was enough; I felt that I had looked on something hellish, something almost outside the wide range of humanity. It was not only the appalling physical ugliness of that monstrous face that was so shocking; it was the expression in the eyes and mouth, visible in that second when she raised her face to look upwards to my window. An inhuman hatred and cruelty were there that made the heart quake; the featureless outline was filled in with details more awful than I had ever conjectured.
We were out on the links again next afternoon on a day of liquid sunshine and brisk air, but some nameless oppression of the spirits held me sundered from the genial and bracing warmth. The idea of that frightened little man being imprisoned all day and night, but for his brief outing, with her who at any moment might break into that screaming torrent of speech, was like a nightmare that came between me and the sun. It would have been something to have seen him out to-day, and know that he was having a respite from that terrible presence; but we caught no sight of him, and when we returned and passed the Corner House the curtains were already drawn, and, as usual, there was silence within.
Jim touched me on the arm as we walked by the windows.
"But there's no light inside this evening," he said.
This was quite true; the curtains were torn, as I knew, in half a dozen places, but neither through these holes nor from the chinks at their edges was there any light showing. Somehow this gave an added horror, which set my nerves jangling.
"Well, we can't knock and tell them they've forgotten to light the lamp," I said.
We had halted for a moment, and even as I spoke I saw coming across the square towards us in the gathering dusk the figure of the man whom we had missed on the links that afternoon. Though I had not seen him approach, nor heard the noise of his footfall on the cobbles, he was now within a few yards of us.
"Here he is anyhow," I said.
"Where?" he asked.
We were standing perhaps two yards apart, and as he asked that the man stepped between us and advanced to the door of the Corner House. And then, instantaneously, I saw that Jim and I were alone. The door of the Corner House had not opened, but there was no one there.
Jim gave a startled exclamation.
"What was that?" he said. "Something brushed by me."
"Didn't you see anything?" I asked.
"No, but I felt something. I don't know what it was."
"I saw him," said I.
My jangled nerves seemed to have infected Jim.
"Nonsense!" he said. "How could you have seen him? Where has he gone if you saw him? And I don't know what we're standing here for."
Before I could answer I heard from within the Corner House the sound of heavy and shuffling steps; a key grated in the lock, and the door was flung open. Out of it, panting and heaving with some strange agitation, came the woman I had seen last night in her garden.
She had shut the door and locked it before she saw us. She was hatless and shod in great carpet slippers the heels of which tapped on the pavement as she moved, and on her face was the vacancy of some nameless terror. Her mouth, a cavern in that mountain of flesh, was wide, and now there came from it something between a gasp and a rattle. Then, seeing us, quick as a lizard, she whisked round again, fumbled for a moment with the key which she still held in her hand, and there once more was the shut door and the empty pavement. The whole scene passed like a blink of strong light seen in the dusk and vanishing again. She had come out, driven by some terror of her own; she had gone back in terror, it would seem, of us.
It was without a word passing between us that we went back to the inn. Just then there was nothing to be said; for myself, at least. I knew that there was, covering my brain, so to speak, some frozen surface of abject fear which must be thawed. I knew that I had seen, I knew that Jim had felt, something which had no tangible existence in the material world. He had felt what I had seen, and I had seen the form and bodily semblance of the man who lived at the Corner House. But what his wife had seen that drove her from the house, and why, seeing us, she had whisked back into it again I had no notion. Perhaps when a certain physical horror in my brain was uncongealed I should know.
Presently we were sitting in the small, cosy room, with our tea ready for us, and the fire burning bright on the hearth. We talked, odd as it may appear, of anything else but that. But the silences between the abandonment of our topic and the introduction of another grew longer, and at last Jim spoke.
"Something has happened," he said. "You saw what wasn't there, and I felt what wasn't there. What did we see or feel? And what did she see or feel?"
He had hardly spoken when there came a rap at the door, and our landlord entered. For the moment, during which the door was open, I heard from the bar of the inn a shrill, gabbling voice, which I had never heard before, but which I knew Jim had heard.
"There's Mrs. Labson come into the bar, gentlemen," he said, "and she wants to know if it was you who were standing outside her house ten minutes ago. She's got a notion—"
"It's hard to make out what she's after," he said. "Her husband has not been at home all day, and he's not home yet, and she thinks you may have seen him on the golf-links. And then she says she's thinking of letting her house for a month, and wonders if you would care to take it, but she runs on so—"
The door opened again, and there she stood, filling the doorway. She had on her head a great feathered hat, and over her shoulders a red satin evening cloak, now moth-eaten and ragged, while on her feet were still those carpet slippers.
"So odd it must seem to you for a lady to intrude like this," she said, "but you are the gentlemen, are you not, whom I saw admiring my house just now?"
Her eyes, now utterly vacant, now suddenly keen and searching, fell on the window. The curtains were not drawn and outside the last of the daylight was fading. She shuffled quickly across the floor and rattled the blind down, first peering out into the dusk.
"I'm sure I don't wonder at that," she gabbled on, "for my house is much admired by visitors here. I was thinking of letting it for a few weeks, though I am not sure that it would be convenient to do so just yet, and even if I did, I should have to put some of my treasures away in a little attic at the top of the house, and lock that up. Some heirlooms, you understand. But that's all by the way. I came in, a very odd intrusion I know, to ask if either of you had seen my husband, Mr. Labson—I am Mrs. Labson, as I should have told you—if you'd seen him on the golf-links this afternoon. He went out about two o'clock, and he's not been back. Most unusual, for there's his tea ready for him always at half-past four."
She paused and seemed to listen intently, then went across to the window again and drew the blind aside.
"I thought I heard a step in my garden just out there," she said, "and I wondered if it was Mr. Labson. Such a pleasant little garden, a bit over-grown maybe; I think I saw one of you gentlemen looking down into it last night, when I was taking a breath of air. Or even if you didn't care to take the whole of my house, perhaps you would like a couple of rooms there. I could make everything most comfortable for you, for Mr. Labson always said I was a wonderful cook and manager, and not a word of complaint have I ever had from him all these years. Still, if he's taken it into his head to go off suddenly like this, I should be pleased to have a lodger in the house, for I'm not accustomed to be alone. Being alone in a house was a thing I never could bear."
She turned to our landlord:
"I'll take a room here for to-night," she said, "if Mr. Labson doesn't come back. Perhaps you would send across for a bag into which I have put what I shall want. No; that would never do; I'll go and get it myself, if you would be so good as to come with me as far as the door. One never knows who is about at this time of night. And if Mr. Labson should come here to look for me, don't let him in whatever you do. Say I'm not here; say I've left home for a day or two and have given no address. You don't want Mr. Labson here, for he's not got a penny of his own, and couldn't pay for his board and lodging, and I won't support him in idleness any longer. He ruined me and I'll be even with him yet. I told him—"
The stream of insane babble suddenly ceased; her eyes, fixing themselves on a dusky corner of the room behind where I stood, grew wide with terror, and her mouth gaped. Simultaneously I heard a gasp of startled amazement from Jim, and turned quickly to see what he and Mrs. Labson were looking at.
There he stood, he whom I had seen half an hour ago appearing suddenly in the square, and as suddenly disappearing as he came to the Corner House. Next minute she had flung the door wide and bolted out. Jim and I followed and saw her rush down the passage outside, and through the open door of the bar into the square. Terror winged her feet, and that great misshapen bulk sped away and was lost in the darkness of the fallen night.
We went straight to the police office, and the country was scoured for the mad woman who, I felt sure, was also a murderess. The river was dragged, and about midnight two fishermen found the body below the sluice-gate at the head of the estuary. Search meantime had been made in the Corner House, and her husband's corpse was discovered, strangled with a silk handkerchief, behind the