Corstophine is a short story by E. F. Benson. It was first published in Hutchinson’s Magazine (September 1924). Four years later, Benson included Corstophine in his short story collection, Spook Stories. Technically, it was a poor match for the anthology because it is not a ghost story.
Corstophine is story about clairvoyance. It begins with a man receiving a visit from an old friend. As they sit talking, the visitor shares a tale about a recent vision that may have saved his life.
About E. F. Benson
Edward Frederic Benson (1867 — 1940) is probably best known for his six Mapp and Lucia books, but he was a very versatile writer who produced a large body of work, including several biographies.
Benson also wrote a number of ghost stories and the author H. P. Lovecraft was impressed enough by Benson’s work to mention him in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”
by E. F. Benson
(Unabridged Online Text)
Fred Bennett had proposed himself for a visit of a couple of nights, and had said in his letter that he had a curious story to tell me. The date he suggested was perfectly convenient, and he arrived just before dinner. We were alone, but when I hinted that I was more than ready to hear his curious story he said that would come later.
“I want to clear the ground first,” he said, “for it is always better to agree or disagree on a principle before you advance your illustration.”
“Spook?” I asked, knowing that the occult side of life is far more real to him than the happenings of normal existence.
“I really don’t know whether you’ll think it is spooky or not,” he said. “You may think it is only a coincidence. But, you see, I don’t believe in coincidences. There isn’t such a thing as blind chance, to my mind: what we call chance is only the working out of a law which we are ignorant of.”
“Explain,” said I.
“Well, take the rising of the sun. If we were ignorant of the movement of the earth, we should think it a coincidence that the sun will rise to-morrow very nearly at the same time as it rose to-day. But we don’t call it a coincidence because we know, more or less, the law that makes it do so. That’s clear, isn’t it?”
“That will do for the present,” I said. “I won’t argue yet.”
“Right. Now since we know about the movement of the earth, we can safely prophesy that the sun will rise to-morrow. Our knowledge of what is past makes us able to see into the future, and, in fact, we shouldn’t call it prophecy at all if we were told the sun would rise to-morrow. In just the same way, if a man had known the exact movement of a certain iceberg, and the exact course of the ‘Titanic,’ he would have been able to prophesy that the ‘Titanic’ would founder on that iceberg at a certain moment. Our knowledge of the future, in a word, depends entirely on our knowledge of the past, and if we knew absolutely all about the past, we should know absolutely all about the future.”
“Not quite,” said I. “A fresh factor might come in.”
“But that factor would be dependent on the past, too,” he said.
“Is the story going to be as difficult as the preliminaries?” I asked.
“Much more difficult,” he said. “At least the explanation is much more difficult, if you don’t accept these very simple facts. To my mind the idea that the past and present and future are all really one is the only possible way of accounting for it.”
He pushed back his plate, and leaned his elbows on the table, looking fixedly at me. He has the most extraordinary eyes I have ever seen: they seem sometimes to look quite through what they are regarding, and then to come back as from some remote focus to your face again.
“Of course time, the whole sum of time, cannot be more than an infinitesimal point in eternity,” he said, “even if it is as much as that. When we get out of time, when we die, in fact, we shall regard time as just a point, visible all round, so to speak. Some people, even now, get glimpses of it in its entirety. We call them clairvoyants: they have visions of the future which are actually and literally fulfilled. Or, perhaps, they have, when they see such things, some revelation of the past which enables them, like the man prophesying about the sinking of the ‘Titanic,’ to foretell the future. If he had found people to believe him a disaster like that might have been averted. Take it which way you like.”
Now Fred, as I already knew, had more than once in his life experienced this mysterious enlightenment, and I guessed now the nature of the curious story of which he had spoken.
“You’ve seen something,” I said, rising. “I long to hear all about it.”
The night was very hot, and instead of adjourning to another room, we went out into the garden, where there was some coolness of breeze and dew. The sun was set, but light still lingered in the sky, screeching companies of swifts wheeled overhead, and the warmth drew out in subtle distillation the fragrance from the rose-beds. My servant had already put out a little encampment of basket-chairs and a table with cards, if we felt so disposed, on the lawn, and here we settled ourselves.
“And above all things,” I said, “tell me your story fully and at length. Otherwise I shall only be asking questions as to details, and that will interrupt you.”
With his permission I give the story very much as he told it me. As he spoke the night darkened round us, the swifts ceased their shrill foraging, and bats took their place with shriller and barely audible squeakings. Occasionally there was the flare of a lit match, and the creak of a basket-chair, but there was no other interruption.
“One evening about three weeks ago,” he said, “I was dining with Arthur Temple. His wife and his sister-in-law were there, but about half-past ten they went out to a ball. He hates dancing as much as I do, and proposed that we should have a game of chess. I adore chess, and play it quite atrociously, but when I am playing chess I can think of nothing whatever else. That night, however, things went strangely well, and with trembling excitement I saw that after some twenty moves the unwonted prospect of winning my game was opening out in front of me. I mention this to show that I was very wide-awake and concentrated on what I was doing.
“As I meditated the move which was soon to prove fatal to my adversary, a vision such as I have had once or twice before leaped into being before my eyes. My hand was raised to take hold of my queen, when the chess-board at which I was looking and my actual surroundings entirely vanished, and I was standing on the platform of a railway station. There was a train drawn up by it, out of which I was aware I had just stepped, and I knew I had an hour to wait for the one that was to take me on to my unknown destination. Just opposite me was the board on which was painted the name of the station; this I shall not tell you at present, because you might guess what my story is going to be. But though it seemed perfectly natural that I should be there, I had never at that time, to the best of my knowledge, heard of the name of the station before. There was my luggage on the platform, and I gave it in charge of a porter who was exactly like Arthur Temple, told him that I was going for a walk, and would be back before my train was due.
“It was a very dark afternoon—somehow I knew it was afternoon—and the air oppressively close and sultry, as if a storm was coming up. I walked through the booking office of the station and out into a big yard. To the right were some allotment gardens, beyond which the ground rose rapidly up to a distant line of moors, to the left were rows upon rows of sheds, with tall chimneys vomiting smoke, and in front a long street with huddled houses stretching right and left. They were built of grey discoloured stone, with slate roofs, mean and dismal dwellings, and neither in the station-yard nor in the long perspective of the street in front of me was there a sign of any human being. Probably, I thought, the men and women of the place were engaged in those manufacturing buildings, but there were no children playing on the pavements. The place seemed absolutely deserted, and somehow disquieting and appalling.
“I stood there a moment, hesitating as to whether I should start on a walk among such charmless surroundings or stop in the station and while away the hour with my book. Then I became aware that there was waiting for me something which very closely concerned me, and that whatever it was it lay beyond that long untenanted street. I had to go, though I had no idea where I was going or what I should find. I crossed the yard and started to walk up the street.
“As soon as I got on the move that sense of being obliged to go completely vanished; it had given me the required push, I suppose, and I realised that I was just waiting for my train and filling in the time. The street stretched endlessly in front of me, up a steepish hill, and on each side were these low, two-storied houses. Their doors and windows, in spite of the stifling heat, were all shut, and never a face showed from within, nor was there a single footstep but my own to break the silence. No sparrow fluttered in the eaves or foraged in the gutters; no cat slunk along the house-walls or blinked on the doorsteps; there was nothing visible nor audible of the evidence of life.
“On and on I walked, and presently the street began to show signs of coming to an end. The houses on one side ceased, and I looked over long stretches of grimy fields, tenantless of any grazing beasts. At that, like a blink of distant lightning, there flashed on my mind the notion that I did not see any living things because I no longer had anything to do with the living. All about me probably were children and men and women, and cats and sparrows, but I did not belong to them. I was there in some other capacity, and whatever it was that was of significance for me in this desolate place it was not concerned with life. I can’t express it more definitely than that, because the notion itself was indefinite, and it flashed upon me but for a moment and was gone again. Then the houses on the other side of the street came to an end also, and I was walking along a black country road, with stunted hedges on each side. Meantime the dusk was coming rapidly on, a thick and murky dusk, hot and windless. The road made a sharp right-angled turn, and while it was open to the fields on one side the other was bounded by a high stone wall that rose above my head. I was beginning to wonder what this enclosure was when I came to a big iron gate in it, and I saw through the bars that it was a graveyard. Row upon row the tombstones glimmered faintly in the dusk, and at the far end of it only just visible in the gathering darkness were the roofs and small spire of a cemetery chapel. The gate was open, and feeling that there was something here which concerned me, I entered and began walking up an unweeded gravel path in the direction of the chapel. As I did this, I looked at my watch and saw that half of my hour of waiting was nearly spent, and that I must soon be retracing my steps. But I knew I had business here which must be performed.
“The tombstones came to an end, and there was a broad space of open grass between me and the chapel. Then I saw that there was one grave standing alone there, and with that odd curiosity that prompts us to read the names on tombstones I left the path and went to it.
“Though it appeared rather new, glimmering whitely in the dusk, I saw that already moss and lichen had covered the face of it, and I wondered whether it was the grave of some stranger who had died a lonely death here, and had no one, friend or relation, who looked after it. The name, whatever it was, was quite overgrown, and with some impulse of pity for him who lay below, and had so soon been forgotten, I began scraping it with the ferule of my stick. The moss peeled off quite easily, coming away in long shreds and fibres, and presently I saw that the name was visible. But as I worked the darkness had so gathered that I could not read it, and I lit a match and held it to the surface of the stone. And the name I read there was my own.
“I heard myself give some exclamation of surprise and horror, and immediately afterwards I heard Arthur Temple’s laugh, and then again I was in his room, staring at the chess-board, and looking with dismay at the move he had made. I had not anticipated that, and my wonderful plan was ruined.
“‘For half a minute,’ he said, ‘I thought you had got me.’ A few moves were sufficient to bring the game to a most undesired conclusion, and after a short chat I went home. The vision apparently had lasted just the space of his own move, for mine was already being made when it began.”
He paused, and I supposed the story was over.
“What an odd affair,” I said, “it’s just one of those meaningless but interesting intrusions into everyday life, coming from God knows where, which doesn’t lead to anything. What was the name of the station, by the way? Did you take the trouble to find out whether your vision resembled the actual place? Was that the coincidence?”
I was, I confess, rather disappointed, though indeed, he had been telling his story very well. But like so many of these strange glimpses which clairvoyants and mediums seem genuinely to get into the world of powers and unseen agencies, which we know lies so closely round us, and sometimes manifests itself to the senses of those who are still on the material plane, it seemed so pointless. Even if it turned out that eventually he was buried in the cemetery of this twilit, untenanted town, what good would it have done him to have known of that before it happened? What is the use of communications between this world and some other world inaccessible to the ordinary perceptions of mankind if these communications contain nothing that is of value or interest?
He looked at me with that distant penetrating glance, which seemed to be focused on some inconceivable remoteness, and laughed.
“No, that wasn’t the coincidence,” he said, “at least that coincidence, if you call it so, is not the point of the story. As for the name of the station, that will come very soon now.”
“Oh, there is more then, is there?” I asked.
“Certainly, you told me to tell it you at length. That’s only the prologue, or the first act. Shall I go on?”
“Yes, of course. Sorry.”
“Well there I was again in Arthur’s room, the whole vision had lasted perhaps a minute, and he was quite unaware that I had done anything but stare at the chess-board, and when he made that move which upset my plans, give a cry of surprise and dismay. And then as I told you, we talked for a little, and he mentioned that he and his wife were possibly going up to Yorkshire for Whitsuntide, to a place called Helyat, which she had lately inherited on the death of an uncle. It was up on the moors, he said, with a little shooting in the autumn, and just now some rather good trout fishing. If they went, they would be there for a fortnight or so; perhaps I would come up for a week, if I was doing nothing particular. I said I should be delighted to, but this was contingent, of course, on their going, and the matter was left vague. I saw neither of them again, nor did I hear any more till, ten days afterwards, I got a telegram from him—he always sends a telegram in preference to a letter, because he says it receives more attention—asking me to come up as soon as ever I liked. If I would let him know the day and the time of my train, they would meet me: their station was Helyat. Helyat, I may say, was not the name of the station in the vision I have told you.
“There was an ABC time-table in the house, I looked out Helyat, found a train that started and arrived at convenient hours, and I telegraphed to Arthur that I would travel by it next day. So that was settled.
“The weather in London that week had been extremely oppressive, and I welcomed the idea of getting up on to the Yorkshire moors. Moreover, since the day when I had experienced that odd vision I had gone about with a strong sense of some impending disaster. I told myself in the way one does, that the heat and sultriness of town were responsible for my depressed spirits, but I knew very well that it was the vision that lay at the root of them. I never shook off the consciousness of it, it lay like some leaden weight upon me, it got between the normal sunlight of life and myself like some menacing thunder-cloud. And now, the moment that I had sent off that telegram, the exhilaration at the thought of getting into a high and bracing air completely passed, and the dread of some imminent peril took such possession of me that I very nearly sent a second telegram on the heels of the first to say that I could not manage to come after all. But why I connected these forebodings with my journey or my stay at Helyat I had no idea, and search my mind as I might there was no conceivable reason for doing so. I told myself that this was one of those causeless fears which sometimes obsess people of the steadiest nerves, and that to yield to it was to take a definite step in the direction of mental unbalance. It would never do to let oneself become the prey of such unreasonable terrors.
“I made up my mind therefore to go through with it, not only for the sake of not losing a pleasant week in the country, but even more for the sake of proving to myself the unreasonableness of my fears. I arrived accordingly at the terminus next morning, with a quarter of an hour to spare, found a corner seat, engaged a place in the restaurant-car for lunch, and settled down. Just before the train started the ticket-inspector came round, and as he clipped my ticket, looked at the name of my destination.
“‘Change at Corstophine, sir,’ he said, and now you know the name of the station at which I alighted in that vision.
“I felt panic invading my very bones, but I asked one question.
“‘Do I wait there long?’ I said.
“He consulted a time-table which he pulled out of his pocket.
“‘Just an hour, sir,’ he said. ‘A branch line takes you on to Helyat.'”
I broke my determination not to interrupt him.
“Corstophine?” I said, “I’ve seen that name lately in the paper.”
“So have I. We’re just coming to that,” said he. “And then the panic grew beyond my control. I could not resist it any longer, and I got out of the train. With some difficulty I managed to obtain my luggage from the van, and I sent a telegram to Arthur Temple saying I was detained. A minute later the train started, and there I was on the platform, already terribly ashamed of myself, but knowing in some interior cell of my brain that I was right in doing what I had done. In some manner, as yet inscrutable to me, I had obeyed the warning which I had received ten days ago.
“I dined that evening at my club, and after dinner read in an evening paper about a terrible railway accident that had occurred during the afternoon at Corstophine. The fast train from London, by which I should have travelled, stopped there at 2.53 p.m.; the train taking the branch line which goes up into the moors and stops at Helyat was due to start at 3.54; it starts, so said the account, from the down platform, crosses on to the up line along which it runs for some hundred yards, and then branches off to the right. About the same time an up-express is due to pass through Corstophine without stopping. Usually the local train to Helyat waits on the down-line for it to pass; this afternoon, however, the express was late, and the Helyat train was signalled to start. Whether owing to a mistake of the signalman, who had not put up the signal against the express, or whether the driver of the express had not seen it, was not yet clear, but what had happened was that while the Helyat train was on the section of the up-line, the express, running at full speed to make up time, dashed into it. The engine and front carriage of the express was wrecked, and the other train reduced simply to matchwood: the express had gone through it like a bullet.”
Again he paused; this time I did not interrupt.
“So, there was my vision,” he said, “and there was the interpretation of the warning it sent me. But there remains a little more to tell you, which, to my mind, is as curious from the point of view of the scientific investigator of such phenomena as anything yet. It is this:
“I instantly made up my mind to start for Helyat next day. Vision and fulfilment alike, as far as I was concerned, had done their work, and I had an immense curiosity to ascertain whether all the imagery and scenery of the vision had an actual existence here on earth, or whether it was an impulse, so to speak, from the immaterial world, clothing itself in forms of time and space. I must confess that I hoped it was the former, that I should find at Corstophine what I imagined I had seen there, for that would show me how closely the two worlds are interlinked or dovetailed together, so that the one can use for our mortal sense the scenery of the other. So I telegraphed again to Arthur Temple, saying that I should arrive at the same hour next day.
“Again, therefore, I went to the London terminus, and again the ticket inspector told me I must change at Corstophine. The papers that morning were full of this terrible accident, but he assured me that the line was already clear, and that I should get through. An hour before we were due there we passed into the black country of collieries and manufacture, the sun was hidden in the murk of the smoke-belching chimneys, and when we stopped at the station where I was to change, the earth was shrouded under that gross and unnatural twilight in which I had seen it before. And exactly as before, I gave my luggage in charge of the porter, and set out to explore a place I had never seen but knew with a vividness which no normal exercise of memory can give. There, on the right of the station yard, were the allotment gardens, behind which rose the line of moors, among which, no doubt, Helyat lay, and there, to the left, were the roofs of sheds, with tall chimneys vomiting smoke, and there in front of me was the mean steep street stretching into an endless perspective. But to-day, instead of finding a dead and uninhabited town, it was full of busy crowds hurrying about. Children were playing in the gutters; cats sat and made their toilets on doorsteps; the sparrows pecked at the refuse heaps that strewed the road. That seemed natural; when my spirit, or my astral body or whatever you care to call it, visited Corstophine before I belonged, potentially, to the dead, and the living were outside my ken. Now, potentially, I belonged to the living, and they swarmed about me.
“I went quickly up the street, for from my previous experience I knew that there was not more than time to go to the place which I must visit, and return to catch my train. It was swelteringly hot, and curiously dark: the darkness increased every moment as I hurried along. Then the houses on the left came to an end, and I looked over grimy fields, and then the houses on the right ceased also, and the road made a sharp turn. Presently I was walking below the stone wall, too high to look over, and there was the iron gate ajar, and the rows of tombstones within, and against the blackened sky the roofs and spire of the cemetery chapel. Once more I passed up the grass-grown gravel, and there was an empty space in front of the chapel, with just one gravestone standing apart from the rest.
“I crossed the grass to it and saw that it was overgrown with moss and lichen. I scraped with my stick the surface of the stone on which was cut the name of the man who lay below it—or woman, maybe—and then, lighting a match, for it was impossible to read the letters in the darkness, I saw that it was my own name and none other that was chiselled there. There was no date, there was no text; there was just my name and nothing else.”
He paused again. Sometime during the course of his story, my servant must have brought out a tray of syphons and whisky, and put on the table a lamp that now burned there unwaveringly in the still air. But I had not been aware of his coming or going; I had known no more of it than Fred had known of his opponent’s move at chess while the vision filled the field of his conscious perceptions. He helped himself to something, I did the same, and he spoke again.
“It is arguable,” he said, “that at some time in my life I had been to Corstophine, and had done exactly what I did in my vision. I can’t prove that I haven’t, because I can’t account for every day that I have spent since I was born. I can only say that I have absolutely no recollection of having done so, or of ever having heard of such a place as Corstophine. But if I had, it is on the cards that my vision was only a recollection, and that its preventing my going to Corstophine on a particular day when, if I had gone there, I should certainly have been killed in a railway accident was only a coincidence. If that had happened, and if my body had been identified, my remains would certainly have been buried in that cemetery, because my executor would have found in my will the wish that, unless there were strong reasons for the contrary, I should be buried in the graveyard nearest to the place in which I had died. Naturally I don’t care what happens to my body when I have done with it, and I don’t want it to be a sentimental nuisance to other people.”
He sat up, stretched himself, and laughed.
“That would have been a very elaborate coincidence,” he said, “and the coincidence would have had a longer arm than ever, if they had observed that close to my grave there was buried another Fred Bennett. I must say that the simpler explanation appeals to me more.”
“And what is the simpler explanation?” I asked.
“The one that you really believe in, though your reason revolts against it because it has not the faintest idea of the law that lies behind it. It’s a law all the same, though it doesn’t manifest itself so often as that which governs the rising of the sun. Let’s say, then, that it’s a law loosely analogous to that which regulates the appearance of comets, though of course it is far more frequent in its manifestations. Perhaps it requires for its manifestation a certain psychical perception given to some people and not to others, just in the same way as it requires a certain physical perception to hear the squeal of those bats which are flitting overhead. I can’t hear them personally, but I think you told me before that you can. I perfectly accept your word for it, though the noise doesn’t reach my senses.”
“And the law?” I asked.
“The law is that in the real world, in the true existence beyond the ‘muddy vesture of decay,’ the past and the present and the future are one. They are a point in eternity which can be perceived and handled all round. Difficult to express, but that’s the kind of thing. Occasionally, and in the case of some people the muddy vesture can be stripped off, though only intermittently and for a moment, and then they perceive and know. It’s very simple really, and, as a matter of fact, you believe it all the time.”
“I know I do,” said I, “but just because it is so rare, and because it is so abnormal, I want to try to account for everything of the sort which I hear by an extension of the physical senses. Thought reading, telepathy, suggestion: all these are natural phenomena. We know a little about them, and we’ve got to exclude them first before we accept anything so strange as a vision of the future.”
“Exclude them, then,” he said. “I’m quite with you. But you mustn’t think that I put clairvoyance or knowledge of the future on a different plane to any of those. It’s only an extension of a natural law, a branch line, so to speak, that led to Helyat, off the main line. It’s part of the system.”
There was something to think about there, and we were both silent. I could hear the squeak of the bats, and Fred couldn’t, but I should have thought it very materialistic of him to deny that I heard them just because his ears were deaf to them. I thought over the story, point by point; and, as he had said, I knew I really agreed with him on the principle that from somewhere out of what we think of as the great void, merely because we do not rightly know what is there, there did come, and had come, and would come these wireless messages to the receivers that were in tune with them. There was the dead town of his vision, uninhabited, because potentially he was of the dead, and then it became a live town, because, having taken the warning, he was of the living. And then a bright and brilliant and go-to-bed notion struck me.
“Ha! I’ve picked a hole,” I said. “When you saw the vision, Corstophine was without inhabitants, because you were dead. Wasn’t it so?”
He laughed again.
“I know exactly what you are going to ask,” he said. “You’re going to ask about the porter at the station to whom I gave my luggage. I can’t explain that. Perhaps his appearance was like the last conscious view of the anæsthetist, who stands by you when you are having gas, and is the final link with the material world. He was like Arthur Temple, you will remember.”
E. F. Benson (1867 — 1940)