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Home, Sweet Home
Edward Frederic Benson
The affairs that led to my disembarkation on this broiling August day at a jointless junction had been conducted in my sister Margery's most characteristic style. Her husband, Walter Mostyn, the eminent nerve specialist, had been threatened during July with a breakdown owing to overstrain in his work, and, in obedience to the ironical ordinance of "Physician, heal thyself," had prescribed for himself a complete rest. His idea of resting his mind was not, as is the usual practice of those on holiday, to overtire his body, but to get away to some place where there was no temptation to do anything of the kind. There must be no golf-links, or he would want to play golf, and he would prefer his retreat to be by the sea, because the very fact of being in a boat at all made him feel seasick, and he hated bathing. A rest-cure in a nursing-home would be horrible to him, and he thought that if Margery could find some deadly seaside resort, where there was nothing that could tempt him into activity of mind or body, that would do just as well. He wanted to be a beast of the field, and recover his nervous force by sheer vegetation.
Margery, with these instructions to guide her, had thereupon set off, and scoured the coasts of Kent and Sussex, discovering on the second day of her wild career this amazing and unique Eyethorpe. There was a house there to let, which she at once saw was just what she was looking for, and with that most unfeminine instinct of hers of knowing that she had got what she wanted, and not making any further search, she went straight to the house-agent at Hastings and took "The Firs" for a month as from to-morrow. She drove back to London that evening, informed Walter what she had done, sent down her servants next morning, and took down her husband the same evening. A fortnight later she wrote to me that the cure was progressing splendidly, and that he, emerging from his languor, was getting rather cross and argumentative, which she took to be the sign of returning vitality. He was excessively bored with her, and wanted some man in the house, and had grudgingly said that I would "do." So would I come soon for a couple of weeks? In fact, I must, and she would expect me on Thursday. It was Thursday now, and, in consequence, I was driving up the straight, white road from Eyethorpe Junction.
We topped the rise, and there, as I had expected, was a new horizon. The sea sprang up to eye-level, the ground declined steeply over a stretch of open downland dotted with furze bushes to a line of low cliffs that fringed the shore. Along the edge of these was a huddle of red-roofed cottages, among which rose a conspicuous church-tower, and presently we jolted over the level-crossing of the line from Eyethorpe Junction, which the public had scorned. On the left was a small abandoned station with weed-grown platform, and a board, much defaced by the weather, bearing the inscription "Eyethorpe and Coltham." The name Coltham stirred some remote vibration in my mind; I felt that I had heard the name before, but could not recall the reason for its faint familiarity. The road forked, the left-hand branch of it leading up the village street; the other, which we took, had a signpost with the information that Coltham was one mile distant. We traversed, I should have guessed, two or three furlongs, and there, close at hand, separated from the highway by a field, through which led a grass-grown drive, stood a big mellow-walled farmhouse. A clump of rather fine Scotch firs at one end of it was sufficient indication of its identity.
I was taken into and through a broad passage (you might call it a hall) which intersected the house, and from which a dignified staircase led to the upper storey. At its further end a glass-paned door opened into the garden. But there was no one here, and the servant supposed that they had gone strolling, perhaps down to the beach. The afternoon was still very hot, and, deciding to wait for them rather than vaguely pursue, I admired the luck that had attended Margery's search for a tranquil sanatorium. Not a house was visible; the clean emptiness of the downland was laid like a broad green riband east and west, and in front, through a V-shaped gap, gleamed the sea. A one-storied wing, evidently a later addition, sprouted from the west end of the house; this cast just now a very welcome shade over the square space, laid with old paving-stones, where long, low chairs and the tea-table stood. The added wing, it is scarcely necessary to mention, was of far more antique design than the house, and, looking in through its open door which gave on to this flagged space, I found a very big, pleasant room, with rafters in the ceiling, and small diamond-shaped panes in the mullioned windows. The oak floor was bare but for a few rugs, and at the far end, near an open fireplace, stood a grand piano. The lid was open, and I read there, to my great surprise, the world-famous name of Barenstein. That, too, was just like Margery, to take a remote farmhouse and find a Barenstein grand waiting for her very gifted fingers, and this fine spacious room. How cool it was in here, too—more than cool, it was positively cold; and at that moment, hearing familiar voices outside, I stepped out again on to the paved space from which I had entered.
Certainly Walter did not look as if a fortnight ago he had been on the edge of nervous breakdown. His face was bronzed and ruddy, he strode along with a firm step, and was talking in that loud, confident voice that had so often brought comfort to sufferers.
"But I tell you, darling," he was saying, "that it isn't that our senses occasionally deceive us, they habitually deceive us. Ah! there he is. Welcome, my dear Ted. You have come to a place beyond the limits of the civilised world, and it has done me a world of good already. Distractions, things that interest us are what starves the nerves. Boredom, there's the panacea for nerves. I've never been so bored in my life, and I'm a new man."
"I wonder how often you've told your patients exactly the opposite," she said. "(Ted, there's a magnificent Barenstein here; did you ever know such luck?) But isn't it so, Walter? You always say that there's hope even for people who take an interest in postage-stamps. Never mind. You hate being consistent, and I won't press it. What about the senses habitually deceiving us?"
"Obvious. Your eyes, for instance. If you see a house half a mile off, your eyes tell you it is about a quarter of an inch in height. If another train passes you as yours is standing in a station, they will tell you that you are moving in the opposite direction. Smell and taste are the same; if you shut your eyes you have no idea whether your cigarette is alight. Your sense of warmth and cold too; if you put your hand on a piece of very cold metal, it gives you the sensation of burning. I'm just as bad as you, perhaps worse, for my senses tell me that that room in there is bitterly cold to-day, but the thermometer says it is 65 degrees. I was suffering from some subjective disturbance, that was all, and my imbecile senses told me it was cold. There was the thermometer saying it was warm. The senses, as I tell you, are habitually deceptive. Liars!"
There was all his usual vehemence in this, and, so I thought, a little more. He was clearly upset at this divergence of view between his senses and the thermometer.
"But I'm on the side of your senses," I said. "I went in there just now, and I swear it was more than chilly."
He threw a quick glance over to Margery before he answered.
"More liars then!" he said. "Another instance of the deceptiveness of the senses."
He said this with the air of bringing the discussion to an end; our talk became desultory and trivial, and before long Margery closed it by saying that, whatever anybody else did, she intended to have a dip in the sea before dinner. Presently she appeared again, with sandals and a dressing-gown over her bathing-suit, for there was but this strip of empty downland between the garden and the steep short descent on the beach. She insisted on my accompanying her as far as that V-shaped gap, and her very casual manner made me sure that she had some communication to make. It came as soon as we were out of earshot.
"Walter's ever so much better, as you can see for yourself," she said, "and till to-day he has been lying fallow with the most excellent results. But now that awful activity of his mind has begun to work again, and twenty times since lunch he has alluded to that strange feeling of chill in the big room in the wing. He keeps on saying that it's subjective, but you and I know him, and that means he thinks there's something queer about it. And you felt it, too, apparently."
"I thought I did, but then I had just come into it from the broiling air outside. But hadn't he felt it before?"
"No, for the simple reason that he hadn't been into the room before," said she. "When we came here, and, indeed, till this morning, it was locked and shuttered. The gardener, who has been caretaker here, told me that the owner had stored things in it, and that it was to be left closed. Till this morning Walter did not seem to mind whether it was shut or open, but to-day he told the gardener that it was all nonsense to keep the biggest room in the house shut up, and demanded the key. Denton, that's his name, talked about disobeying his owner, but Walter insisted, and he produced the key. There was nothing stored there, and I drove over to the house-agent's at Hastings this morning to ask if there was any such order. None at all. What does it mean?"
"Nothing," said I, "except that Denton was a lazy brute, and didn't want the bother of airing and dusting the room before you came, and of putting it to rights again after you'd gone. Perhaps also the owner didn't want to prohibit your playing the great Barenstein, but hoped you wouldn't. Also this accounts for the fact that Walter and I found the room very chilly after it had been shut up for so long. When was the house last occupied, by the way?"
"I don't know. It had been unlet for some time, so the agent told me, and I didn't care in the least about its history provided I got it for Walter now."
Her jolly brown eyes made a complete circuit round my head, instead of looking at me straight when she answered.
"Don't be so foolish, Margery," I said, "but look straight at me. You told me just now that Walter thought there was something queer about the room. What do you think?"
Her eyes rested on mine.
"I think there's something queer about the house," she said. "I find myself looking up suddenly from a book or a paper to see who is in the room. And I think Walter does the same. But he—he thinks he hears something, and then finds he hasn't, just as I think I see something, and find I haven't. I cock an eye, he cocks an ear. But don't say a word to him. He hates the idea of anything you can't account for by the ordinary functions of the senses, which, he says, habitually deceive you. But since that room was opened, he's been arguing with himself."
"Oh, put the stopper in," said I. "Do you remember the gurgle of the hot-water pipes in the nursery thirty years ago, and how you knew it was the groan of a murdered woman? You frightened me out of my wits then, but I'm too old to be frightened now. You haven't seen anything, and he hasn't heard anything; eye hath not seen nor ear heard. Don't imagine things; half the trouble in the world comes from imagining. Have a nice bathe, and wash it all off."
For a moment, as she looked at me, I saw somewhere behind her eyes a sense of uneasiness, but it vanished.
"I shan't wash off my gladness that you've joined us," she said, and ran off down the steep little path to the beach.
I strolled back through the garden thinking how unlike Margery it was to be within the grip of vague apprehension like this, or to imagine that there was anything "queer" about the house, for in spite of the famous episode of the gurgling pipes, she was singularly free from imagined alarms. Even more unusual, if she was right about him, was it that Walter should be affected in the same sort of way. Margery certainly showed her good sense in demanding that her odd apprehensions should be kept apart from his, and not be given the meeting-ground of discussion. But she had noticed, or imagined, his, and I was soon to learn that he was not blind to hers.
Walter had gone up to his room when I got back, and I went into the lately opened sitting-room, where I found that my books and papers had been disposed on a big table, which was thus clearly consecrated to my use. I was engaged on a memoir which it interested me to write, though I had grave doubts about its interesting anybody else to read. The piano stood a little beyond my table, with the keyboard towards me; between it and me, on my left, was the open window looking on to the garden. The room still seemed chilly, but I speedily forgot that and, indeed, everything else but my delightful task.
How long I had been at work I had no idea, when suddenly—even as I turned a page to carry on the note I had begun—I became vividly aware of my surroundings again and knew with absolute conviction that I was not alone. I glanced up and saw that there was a man outside the window looking at the piano. For a second or two he gazed fixedly at it, and then, turning his head, perceived me at my table. He had not, I imagined, observed that there was anyone here, for he touched his hat, and would have gone away, but I called to him.
"Do you want anything?" I asked. "Denton, is it?"
"Yes, sir. I—I was only just looking to see if the room was all right," and immediately he withdrew. But, oddly enough, I felt that it was not Denton's presence at the window that gave me the sense that there was someone here; it had nothing to do with Denton. And why, I asked myself, as the man walked briskly off, why on earth should Denton look in to see if the room was all right? It was the piano that riveted him; did he want to be sure that all was well with the piano?
I tried to attach myself to my work again, but the connection would no longer hold. There was still that sense of some presence in the room, which came between me and my page. Time and again I held my mind down to its task, but it slipped away, and presently at its bidding my eyes left the paper and scrutinised the room. Certainly there was nothing behind me, nor at my side, but I found myself—was it Denton's example which had infected me?—looking at the piano, as if what I sought was invisibly there. Its japanned case, darkly, like black glass, reflected my table, the white keys gleamed in their ebony setting. And then I saw that some of them were moving—a group, three or four at a time, and now a succession of single notes sank and recovered as if under the pressure of fingers.
I cannot hope to describe the curiosity and the dismay with which this filled my mind. I gazed fascinated at this inexplicable movement, but at the same time my mind cried out in horror at the invisible cause of it. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, this fantastic spectacle ceased, but the presence was still there. Then from outside there came the sound of steps. Walter entered.
"Margery here?" he asked. "No? Was it you playing, then?"
"Deceptive senses," I said. "I haven't touched the piano."
He looked at me a moment, puzzled.
"But I would swear I heard the piano," he said.
Instantly I made up my mind not to tell Walter what I had seen, and already, so fantastic was it, I was beginning to doubt if I had seen anything. Yet deep in my mind remained that intense curiosity, and deeper yet some unreasoning terror.
The evening passed quite normally; Walter bewailed the hideous necessity of going in to Hastings next day to have his hair cut, and the even darker fate of having the Vicar of Eyethorpe to dinner.
It was still early when we went up to bed and, conscious of an overwhelming somnolence, I instantly fell asleep. I woke, staring wide awake, with the answer to the question which had slightly worried me yesterday, as to why the name of the neighbouring Coltham was remotely familiar to me, clear in my mind. There had occurred there, about a year before, a very brutal murder, which still remained among the unsolved mysteries of criminal history. An elderly spinster lady, living with her spinster sister at some house there, had been found strangled on the floor of her sitting-room. It was supposed that robbery was the motive for the crime, but the murderer seemed to have heard some stir in the house, and left a cashbox containing thirty or forty pounds in the drawer he had just opened. I could remember no further details, but I thought I would stroll over to Coltham next morning and, with that appetite for the horrible which lurks in us all, find out which the house was.
The two went off to Hastings next morning and, in pursuance of my plan, I strolled up the road to Coltham. It was a melancholy little bunch of cottages perched on the edge of the downs, and I had just decided that a rather stricken-looking house, with a board up to say it was to let, was a suitable site for the murder, when I saw Denton coming down the little street.
"Which was the house where that murder took place last year, Denton?" I asked him.
He stared at me a moment, and I saw his throat-apple jerk up and down. Then he pointed to the house I had picked out.
"That was the one, sir," he said.
"And what was the name of the old lady?" I asked.
"Miss Ellershaw," said he, and rather abruptly, much in the manner in which he had retreated from the window last night, he turned and left me. Rather pleased with myself for my perspicacity I strolled homewards again.
Margery and Walter, he shorn and self-respecting again, came back about one o'clock, and Margery announced her determination of writing overdue letters till the really intolerable heat of the day had declined.
"Hopeless arrears," she said, "bills and bills, and the rent of the house for the next fortnight, which ought to have been paid two days ago. But I'll send it straight to our landlord—or is it landlady?—instead of the agent; that will save a day."
The clear burning of the sun had given place to an extreme sultriness; the sky was overcast with clouds which all afternoon thickened to a still density portending thunder. Margery retired to the piano-room to perform her overdues, Walter fell asleep and, leaving him on the paved space, I joined Margery for coolness. She jumped up as I entered.
"I was dying to be interrupted," she said, "because I long to see what's in that cupboard by the piano. I've muddled up your papers, Ted, I'm afraid. Unmuddle them again while I have an interval."
She had, indeed, muddled my papers up. Half-finished letters, and addressed envelopes, and bills were mixed up with my notes. As I disentangled them, I came across a cheque she had drawn. It was made out to Miss Ellershaw. There was also a half-sheet on which Mrs. Mostyn "much regretted not having sent cheque for a fortnight's rent sooner. So Miss Ellershaw was owner of "The Firs," and two Miss Ellershaws, one of whom had been murdered, lived together. Had they lived in that house at Coltham, where Denton had told me the murder was committed, or had they…?
Margery interrupted these rather disquieting thoughts.
"What a disappointment!" she said. "Empty cupboard, all but one leaf of a book of English songs, and that's 'Home, Sweet Home!' You may laugh at it, but it's a wonderful melody. I must just play it, and then I shall get on with my jobs."
The window close to which I sat commanded a view of the garden. Out of it, I could see Denton plucking sweet peas. As the notes of the old-fashioned tune streamed out through the open window, I saw him drop his basket and stop his ears. Simultaneously, I knew that there was some presence, here in the room, not Margery's nor mine.
She played two lines and stopped. She turned round and faced me.
"What is there here?" she said. "And what—?"
Walter, whom I had left asleep, looked in at the door.
"Ah, it's you playing," he said. "That's all right."
By strange interweavings of emotion, that common consciousness between us all of the presence of something that came not from among the humming wheels of life but from the grey mists that encompassed it, grew thicker in texture. There was some presence in the room—not mine, nor Margery's, nor Walter's—here now, though invisible, and somehow gathering strength from our recognition of its existence. In our different ways we all contributed to it in that moment of absolute and appalling silence.
Some sort of babble broke it. I babbled of the disorder of my papers, Margery babbled apology and promised to put them straight, if she might be allowed to deal with them. Some sort of crisis passed. I can explain it no better than that.
As evening drew on the clouds gathered even more thickly. The sea was leaden, the air dead, and when, about half-past ten that night, Mr. Bird, who had proved himself a charming guest, said good night, and I went with him to the door, we looked out on to a pit of impenetrable darkness. I saw the opportunity I wanted, and assuring him that I should really like a stroll to get such air as there was, insisted on fetching a lantern and lighting him back as far as the village. I then went straight to the point.
"There was a fearful tragedy in Coltham last year," I said. "Denton pointed me out the house where the murder was committed."
Mr. Bird stopped dead.
"Denton pointed you out the house?" he asked.
"Yes, but perhaps he was wrong," said I. "In fact, Mr. Bird, I should be very much obliged to you if you would tell me whether I am not right in thinking that the scene of the tragedy was 'The Firs.' My sister and brother-in-law know nothing about it, and I hope they won't. But I learned accidentally to-day that she pays the rent to Miss Ellershaw, which I think is the name. And I hazard the guess that the precise scene was the room outside which we sat to-night."
He did not reply for a moment.
"I can't deny what you suggest," he said, "and my mere refusal to reply would do no good. You are quite right. Denton's telling you, by the way, that the scene was in the village, itself, is quite intelligible, for Miss Ellershaw, who does not intend to live in the house again, wants to let it, and if it was known that the murder took place there, it would be prejudicial, Denton knows that. And in turn I want to ask you something. Why do you guess that particular room?"
I hesitated as to whether I should tell him about the crop of strange impressions which were growing up round it, but decided not to.
"There are queer things," I said. "My sister was told, for instance, that there were orders that the room should not be used. Denton told her that."
"I can understand that, too," he said. "The room has terrible memories for those who were in the house at the time. Any more queer things?"
"None that I can think of at present," I said. "But I will wish you good night here, as the rest of your way is clear."
I retraced my steps, and found that Walter and Margery had both gone upstairs. There was a lamp still burning on the paved space where we had sat after dinner, and I went out there, disinclined to go to bed, with my nerves all strung up by the stimulus of the approaching storm. All feeling of fear about what was creeping out into the light concerning this room, and what might, I felt, suddenly burst forth with some blaze of revelation, was gone, and I was conscious only of intense curiosity, as I summed up in my mind what I believed, owing to these strange hints and signals out of the mists, had actually taken place. I figured Miss Ellershaw as having been sitting at the piano when the strangling cord was slipped round her neck; I figured her as having been playing "Home, Sweet Home"; I figured Denton as having heard her. Then there would have been silence, but for some few gasps, some quivering convulsions, like the shaking of leaves in a tree, and then the discovery, perhaps by Denton, of the crime which was still unexplained. Certainly that afternoon, the fragment of the tune which Margery had played, gave him a sudden shock of horror.
The night was absolutely still; neither from inside the house nor from outside came the slightest stir of life, and the silence rang in my ears. And then from the room close at hand I heard, faint but distinct, the tinkle of the piano. A couple of bars of the familiar tune were played, and some voice, thin and quavering, began to sing the air. Curiosity, violent and irresistible, drowned all other feeling in my mind, and taking up the lamp, I opened the door of the room and entered. It burned brightly, and by its light, which gleamed on the keys of the piano, I could see that the room was empty. But the tune went on, softly played and faintly sung, and looking more closely at the piano, I saw that once more the keys were moving. At that the sense of fear which till then had lain coiled and quiet in my mind, began to stir. But I felt absolutely powerless to go; fear, now in swift invasion of my mind, held me where I was.
Something began to form in the air by the piano, a mist, a greyness. Then in a second it solidified, and there sat with her back to me the figure of a little white-haired woman. Then the singing stopped, her arms shot up with quivering, clutching fingers; she struggled, she turned, and I saw her face, swollen and purple, with gasping mouth and protruding eyes. Her head lolled and nodded; her body swayed backwards and forwards, and she slid off the music-stool to the ground. At that moment a blaze of light poured through the unsheltered windows, and I saw pressed against the pane, and seemingly quite unaware of my presence, Denton's white and staring countenance. His eyes were fixed on the piano. Simultaneously with the light came an appalling crack of thunder. The storm had burst.
For that moment Denton and I faced each other; the next he had gone, and I heard his feet running down the garden path. I had seen enough, too, and with my mind submerged in terror I stumbled from the room. As I paused for a moment outside, another flash flooded the gross darkness, and I saw him scudding across the down to the white edge of the cliffs. Then down came the rain, solid and hissing, my lamp was extinguished, and by the flare of the lightning, standing still between the flashes, I groped my way up to bed.
All night the prodigious storm streamed and rattled, but about dawn, as I lay still sleepless, and quaking with the prodigy of horror I had looked upon, it passed away, and I dozed and then slept deeply, and woke to find the morning tranquil and fresh and sunny. All the intolerable depression of the day before, not physical alone, seemed to me to have vanished, the house was wholesome as the breeze from the sea, and so, too, when, not without making a strong call on my courage, I entered it, I found the room where last night I had witnessed that ghastly pageantry. In no way could I account for that inward conviction, even less could I question it; all I knew was that some tragic stain had passed from it.
I was down before either of the others, and strolling through the garden as I waited for them, I saw advancing along the paved walk the figure of the Vicar.
"A very dreadful thing has happened," he said. "Denton's body was found half an hour ago by some fishermen at the foot of the cliff down there. His head was smashed in; he must have fallen sheer on to the rocks."
Now the reader may put any interpretation he pleases on the events which I have here briefly recorded, and on certain facts which may or may not seem to him to be connected with them, namely, that Miss Ellershaw, the elder of the two sisters who lived together at "The Firs," was found strangled on the floor by the piano in the room which juts out into the garden; that her sister not many minutes before her body was found had heard her singing "Home, Sweet Home" to her own accompaniment, and that the author of the murder had never been found. It is a fact also that late on the night of which I have been speaking, I saw Denton looking in through the window of that room, and shortly afterwards running across the strip of downland towards the cliff, at the bottom of which next morning his body was found.
But beyond that point we deal not with material facts, but with impressions. Three separate people fancied that there was something strange about the room; one of them found herself expecting to see some unaccountable appearance; one of them thought there was a peculiar chill in the room, and also that he heard the piano being played when nobody had touched it; the third, as I have related, believed that he both saw and heard things in that room which he cannot explain. Whether Denton shared that experience we cannot tell, nor can we tell for certain whether it was a pure accident that he fell over the cliff, or whether he had seen and heard something which drove him to make an end of himself.
It remains only to add that Walter and Margery agreed that some strange sense, which they had both felt as of an unexplained presence in that room, had passed away from it during the night on which Denton met his death. Walter was inclined to attribute our original impressions to some purely subjective disturbance of the nerves caused by the approach of that great storm. Not then,