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E. F. Benson: Thursday Evenings (Online Text)

Edward Frederic Benson
(1867 -- 1940)
E. F. Benson 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."

“Thursday Evenings" was first published in Pearson's Annual
(July 1920).

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Thursday Evenings


Edward Frederic Benson

More Stories by E. F. Benson
With the death of Mrs. Georgiana Wallace, in 1920, a very notable link with certain artistic activities in the mid-Victorian era was severed. She had long passed her eightieth year, but her mental faculties were quite unclouded—the link, in fact, was unrusted and untarnished—and only a couple of days before she died she gave the last of her famous Thursday evenings. I was taken there by a friend, and that was the solitary occasion on which I saw Mrs. Wallace alive. She was tremendously vivacious that night in praise of past time and (with many little shakes of her pretty porcelain head and holdings-up of her hands loaded with mourning rings) in condemnation of the grotesque gods which the present age has enshrined in the Temple of Art. Her fairness of mind was shown in the fact that she considered that much in the Golden Age of Victorian Art was "sad rubbish." That horrid old cynic, Mr. Thackeray, for instance, was one of her hottest aversions; Dickens, with his odious vulgar descriptions of low life, was another; the pre-Raphaelite movement was just "a piece of impertinence"; and when Mr. Swinburne was incautiously mentioned, she flushed a little and changed the subject.

Mrs. Wallace, then, did not regard any of these distinguished people as precious metal, and I found myself beginning to wonder where the lode lay. So far from these persons being pure gold, she did not consider them as being possessed of the smallest touch of gilding. But then her face lit up as she talked to us of that memorable evening when she heard the first performance of that famous song "The Lost Chord."

"That's what I mean by music," she said, "and where are you to find such music now? I went to a concert the other day at the Queen's Hall, but after sitting through an hour of it I had to come away. Such a caterwauling I never heard! There was an Overture by that dreadful Mr. Wagner, and there was a Symphony by Brahms—shocking stuff, and there was a piece by Debussy, which finished me: Un après-midi d'un Faune, they called it. I'm sure I wondered what he had had for lunch to give him such a nightmare afterwards. I stopped my ears, my dear, until it was over; and then I came home, and sang 'The Lost Chord' through twice, to put all those dreadful noises out of my head. Ah, I shall never forget the evening when it was sung for the first time at St. James's Hall. There wasn't a dry eye in the place. The words, too, by Miss Adelaide Anne Procter! A bit of lovely poetry!"

Then, with very little encouragement, after a sniff at her lavender salts, the old lady suffered herself to be led to "the instrument," as she called the piano, and sang the masterpiece again in a faint far-away voice which sounded as if it came from the next house but one.

She spoke of the tremendous excitement at the Private View of the Academy when the "Derby Day" appeared on its walls; and passing on to literature, she recounted how, soon after she was married, Mr. Wallace had read aloud to her Mr. Robert Montgomery's magnificent poem called "Satan," which he considered the finest thing which had appeared since Milton's Paradise Lost. He held the most advanced views on literary subjects, and she described how when Adam Bede burst like a bombshell into the placid circles of the novel-reading public, scaring and shocking so many, Mr. Wallace had always maintained that, though too daring in parts, and not fit to be read aloud, it was a fine book, and she shared his view. No doubt it was an extraordinary thing for a woman to touch such a theme, but if Miss Evans had accepted her invitation to any of the Thursday evenings, both she and Mr. Wallace would have given her a warm welcome in the name of Art.

She spoke, too, of the early years of these famous Thursdays, of which this was to prove the last. All the noblest in the realms of Art and Culture assembled in this very studio where we now sat, "and I assure you," said Mrs. Wallace, audaciously, "there were a great many gentlemen always present!" There was a dinner-party first in the dining-room next door, to which some twenty of the brightest and best were bidden, and the brilliance of the conversation was perfectly paralysing. After the crinolines had retired, the gentlemen would not sit long over their wine, for they were eager in those days to join the ladies. (This was said with great archness, and I wondered how many hearts Mrs. Wallace had seriously damaged in her time.) Moreover, the odious indulgence in tobacco was then quite unknown, even as it had remained in Mrs. Wallace's house to this day, and the gentlemen were quick on the ladies' heels. Soon the party began to arrive: artists, musicians, writers, actors (she gave us a catalogue of names which I cannot remember) poured in, and the wit and the recitations, the music and the singing, were the talk of the town next day. Mr. Wallace was Scotch, and the tartan-paper which streaked the walls to-night was then newly put up. We sat in the same stiff mahogany chairs; the same worsted-work curtains shut out the noises of London; the same antimacassars were spread on the backs of sofas; even the same "instrument," which had just now tinkled under Mrs. Wallace's fingers, stood in its old place; the same colza-oil lamps were reflected in the heavy mirrors and in the polished tables. Nothing in that shrine sanctified by the conversaziones of the Golden Age, had ever been altered.

Even as she spoke I seemed to get a glimpse of the toughness of the psychical bond which, while Mrs. Wallace lived, bound the Golden Age to ours. Week by week for all those mid-Victorian years the spirit of "The Lost Chord," and the "Derby Day," and Mr. Montgomery's poems had been pouring into the room, impregnating and haunting it, and it expressed itself not only in the mahogany and the colza-oil lamps, in the worsted curtains and the flowered carpet, but even more potently in the whole psychic environment. Drop by drop, from crinoline and conversation, sweet as lavender and remote as the stars, that essence, unrecapturable except through the mediumship, so to speak, of our venerable hostess, had soaked the spiritual atmosphere. She alone held it there; when she was no longer able to do that, the ancient volatile fragrance must surely fade, and be perceptible no longer to our modern bustling senses. So when, two days later, I saw in the paper the announcement of Mrs. Wallace's death, I felt that the Golden Age of Victoria, as loved and understood by her, had passed away for ever from the earth. It seemed to have fallen with a remote hissing sound (as when you drop a match into the river), down, down into the dark well of years, and to have been promptly quenched. Never in my life have I been so hopelessly and outrageously wrong.

There was a sale of the contents of the house, and, in spite of the extravagant prices then paid for furniture, those faded flowered carpets, those heavy mahogany chairs, those colza-oil lamps, failed to arouse the cupidity of purchasers, and it was melancholy to reflect how, but a few weeks ago, these objects had been the splendour and embellishment of a venerated sanctuary. Now that shrine was empty, and they were tumbled out undesired and unhallowed to freeze on the pavements outside second-hand furniture shops till their final dispersion into callous homes. There were engravings, too, "The Monarch of the Glen," "Derby Day," "Queen Victoria Opening the Great Exhibition," which scarcely fetched the price of the gilding on their frames. Lot after lot was rapidly and contemptuously disposed of, and at the end of the day I found myself the possessor of a glass case of wax flowers and two pink vases, the hideousness of which was absolutely irresistible. With them in my hand I took one more look round the scene of the Thursday evenings, and for the moment I was alone there, as the auctioneer was finishing the disposal of the "boudoir" fittings. Just as I turned to leave I distinctly heard a voice at my elbow. It spoke very clearly, in a voice that I recognized at once.

"They may get rid of my things," it said, "but they don't get rid of me."

I was so startled that I dropped one of the pink vases, and, clutching my other possessions more tightly, I stole away on tiptoe.

Soon after came the sale of the house itself: the purchaser was Mr. Humphrey Lodge, the musical composer, whom the enlightened admire so greatly. His wife, as all the world knows, is the Cubist portrait-painter who sees the faces of her sitters as a series of planes separated from each other by coloured lines. In a few weeks the house was redecorated according to the most modern ideas, and resembled the setting of a Russian ballet gone mad, or, perhaps, a house so camouflaged that it ceased to be like a house at all. Electric light, of course, was introduced, and the lamp-shades were in the shape of large paper cauliflowers, bunches of carrots, and bundles of asparagus, painted by Mrs. Lodge. The walls of the studio were purple, with large green clouds sailing across them, out of which sprang flashes of magenta lightning, and dotted about among the clouds were some houses and steeples and a few faces. The room was extremely large, and there was plenty of space for Mrs. Lodge's easels in one half, and a big table for her husband in the other. Just now he was composing his twenty-third symphony for a small band: his siren-whistles, pieces of emery-paper rubbed together, watchmen's rattles, and penny whistles found places in the newer orchestra. Neither of them ever stopped smoking cigarettes, and neither was the least mad, but only modern.

One morning, as they worked together, she at a portrait of her husband, he at the slow movement of his Symphony, he scribbled the date across the page, and got up.

"That's finished," he said.

"Ah, you shall play it me in a moment, dear," said she. "Just sit still one minute more. I want to catch—yes, that's right."

She painted for a little while in silence, while he, reconsidering his last bars, put in a fortissimo semi-breve for the B flat rattle.

"And I've finished, too," she said, drawing a line of crimson across the plane of his nose. Then, putting back her head, she sniffed curiously at the thick air.

"It's odd," she said. "All the morning, while working, I thought I smelt that spiky thing that grows in gardens and among clothes."

"Lavender?" he asked.

"Yes, that's it. It must be my imagination if you can't smell it. Come and play me your slow movement."

He went across to the piano. This alone remained of Mrs. Wallace's furniture, for Humphrey Lodge had attended the sale, and, running his fingers over the antique keys, had discovered in them exactly that tinkly remote tone which he wanted for certain surprising orchestral effects, and had bought it on the spot. He spread the score on the music-rest, and picked up from the table half a dozen weird instruments.

"I can only give you the sketchiest idea of it," he said. "Yes, you take the two rattles and whirl them when I nod to you."

The crazy performance began. Humphrey was extremely agile with arpeggios for one hand, a few raps at the xylophone with the other, with hurried rubbings of the emery-paper and chromatic blasts on the siren which he held in his mouth. But, though Julia supplemented these activities with the rattles in E flat and B flat, he could but render a sketch, an adumbration of the score. With the musician's gift of internal audition, he could, as he followed his text, imagine the parts which want of fingers compelled him to omit, and the complete effect was as fully realized by him as if the omitted noises were all in full blast. Suddenly he stopped.

"There it is again," he said. "I've been hearing that at intervals all the morning."

"Hearing what?" asked Julia, checking the rattle.

"It's some kind of reedy sound which doesn't occur in my score at all," said he. "It's like an old lady singing in the next house, and it keeps interrupting me. Sometimes I catch a bar or two of a tune, some sort of hymn tune in G. This kind of thing:"

And with an exasperated finger he played a couple of lines of "The Lost Chord."

Julia listened; a dim recognition awoke in her fine eyes. "But that's a real tune," she said; "I've heard it before. Play it again, Humphrey; I shall remember what it is."

He repeated the ecclesiastical melody.

"I don't call it a tune," he said. "And, anyhow, there's nothing in my score that remotely resembles it. Why do I keep on hearing it?"

"I know what it is now," said Julia. "My mother used to sing it. It's called 'The Lost Chord,' 'Seated one day at the organ'—that's how the words began—and there's something about the crimson twilight and the sound of a great Amen."

She put out her hand, and touched the keys, attempting, rather unsuccessfully, to pick out the sound of the great Amen with one finger.

"I'm beginning to remember it," she said hopefully.

Humphrey jumped up with a start.

"But there it is again, correcting you," he cried. "Can't you hear it?"

For one second Julia Lodge certainly thought she heard a faint, flute-like voice crooning from somewhere behind her easel. Whether it was an illusion or not, the impression was only momentary; but once again, more vividly, she thought she smelt the odour of lavender.

"Yes, I thought I heard something," she said. "What is it?"

A little shudder of goose-flesh passed over her.

"It's all imagination," she said. "Let's get on with your lovely slow movement. Where are my rattles?"

From that morning a series of trivial but inexplicable incidents began to invade the domestic routine of the house; things trumpery in themselves, but inconvenient, like pebbles in shoes, and also arresting because no possible explanation could be found for them. Some of them suggested that a practical joker was exercising his despicable wit on the Lodges, for one morning there appeared on the hall table a package, addressed in a tall, slanting hand to Julia, which, when opened, proved to contain a wretched reproduction of "The Monarch of the Glen"; and on the same day, and in the same place, was found a similar package addressed to Humphrey, which contained a well-thumbed copy of one of Mr. Wetherby's songs. These packets had not passed through the post; but, even granting collusion with their servants, they could think of no one who would have thought it worth while to cut such childish capers. More inexplicable was the insertion in Humphrey's score of his new Overture of a passage for the tenor horn which proved to be the opening bars of an obsolete song called "Dresden China," by Mr. Molloy, whom he ascertained to have been an admired melodist of the nineteenth century. Of course, he indignantly erased it, and even while his knife was scratching at it, he thought he heard some noise, a mixture between a sob and a sniff, from the corner of the dusky studio. Again, one morning Julia found her cubist picture of her husband, which was still not yet dry, fallen face downwards on the floor, and much obliterated, because the wet paint had stuck to the carpet. This time there was no sob or sniff by way of comment, but a little noise, scarcely audible, which sounded to her much more like a cackle of laughter, followed up by an overwhelming whiff of lavender. Again, it was very odd that a copy of Adam Bede, a book of which neither of them had ever heard, well-worn, with passages heavily underlined, and pencilled in the margin with notes of approbation, should appear during lunch-time, on the lid of the piano. Curious noises were heard in the house—the tapping of shoes, the rustle of skirts, and once, when Julia and her husband were dining out, the servants in the kitchen, which lay below the studio, were amazed at the tinkle of the piano above their heads, and the parlour-maid came up with a tray of siphons and whisky, supposing that they had returned. She noticed a line of light under the studio door, clearly indicating that it was lit within. But on opening it she found herself staring into a darkness redolent with the smell of colza-oil. After a hysterical night she gave notice next morning, and Julia was obliged to sacrifice several days from her painting in order to find a new maid.

It was at this point that I had begun to form a certain intimacy with my new neighbours, and, meeting them one night at the theatre, they took me home for a half-hour of cigarettes and conversation. At present I knew nothing about these curious occurrences, but as we entered the studio I could not help observing that Humphrey cast a suspicious eye round the room, and Julia looked anxiously in the direction of her easel. They both seemed very distraits, and, as we sat down, a silence fell. Then suddenly Humphrey said:

"Let's tell him," and proceeded to enthral me with such details as I have already recorded. Instantly my own little experience in this room, which startled me into dropping one of my pink vases, flashed into my mind.

"I'm sure there's a ghost here," said Julia as he finished. "And I believe it's a woman, because it's much nicer to Humphrey than to me. There's lots you've left out, Humphrey. It's always leaving little nosegays of violets done up in mutton-cutlet frills on your dressing-room table. It—"

She gave a little gasp and pointed to the corner where her easel stood.

"Look!" she said, in a strange whisper.

I turned quickly, following her finger, and caught a glimpse of a green crinoline, of a low-cut bodice, of a lively but malicious little face with a chaplet of artificial rosebuds round its hair. The features were unmistakable, though fifty years of Thursday evenings had been peeled off them. There was no longer the slightest doubt in my mind that Mrs. Wallace, now a Poltergeist of infinite ingenuity, was at the bottom of all these strange happenings.

"That's Mrs. Wallace," I said firmly, and even as I spoke Julia's easel came rattling to the ground for the second time.

Julia rose.

"Well, it's very rude of her," she said. "She has no business here. Humphrey bought the house; it's his. Why do you suppose she comes and haunts it? Has she done some atrocious crime in this room?"

Humphrey gave a scornful laugh.

"Julia, how can you be so ridiculous?" he said. "It's true that decades of atrocious crimes went on in this room, though. They talked Art here, the Art of 1860. They sang 'The Lost Chord' here. The room wallows in crime. But ghosts! There aren't any!"

There came a sudden crack from his music table; he went rather hurriedly across to it, and took up one of his orchestral instruments.

"And now she's broken my siren," he observed, greatly annoyed.

Julia, like a good wife, did not call attention to the singular inconsistency of this, but picked up her easel, and grew red with passion.

"She's spoiled it again," she said. "But we won't give in; we'll fight the odious old woman for all we're worth. She's a spiritual blackmailer; she wants to frighten us into some sort of surrender. It's monstrous that the next world should interfere with ours in this scandalous fashion."

Humphrey threw the fragments of the siren into the fireplace.

"Oh, bosh!" he exclaimed. "Bosh!" he repeated, as if to encourage himself.

I left them determined to keep the materialistic flag flying. But the next week witnessed a swift development in the power of the haunting presence. It—we may say "she"—began to materialize in the most convincing manner, and it was clear that this earth-bound spirit was just as "arch" as she had been fifty years ago. She constantly appeared to Humphrey in simpering Victorian attitudes; she gave him little shy smiles, and seemed to be trying to propitiate him. Her attitude to Julia, on the other hand, had become far more aggressive: not content with casting her easel to the ground whenever she had made a peculiarly inspired cube on it, she visited her with the most atrocious nightmares, she broke her looking-glass, she cloyed her palate with lavender. When Julia came into her black bathroom with the purple ceiling and the pink floor, she would hear the whisk of skirts behind the cistern; if she went into her bedroom to dress for dinner she would find the simulacrum of a green crinoline and a wreath of roses laid out on her bed. It was perfectly clear that Mrs. Wallace wanted to annoy the woman and wheedle the man into something that suited her ghostly will. And a week afterwards, sitting alone one evening, I received a telephone message that Mrs. Lodge would like me "to step round," if I was disengaged, on a matter of some importance.

They were both sadly changed. Humphrey wore a wild and hunted eye, Julia was full of jerky apprehensive movements. I was given a short and dismal account of these new experiences.

"Can you suggest anything that she would particularly like?" asked Julia humbly. "You say you met her once. What did she particularly value in her life in this house?"

"I should say her Thursday evenings," I answered.

"Bunkum!" said Humphrey, without conviction. "Besides, how are we to give her her Thursday evenings? We can't arrange evenings for the dead."

Julia had gone to her bureau by the window, and she took up an engagement-book, which she examined by the light of one of the cauliflower lamp-shades.

"To-morrow is Thursday," she said. "We're dining out."

There was silence. Here, at the top of the square, which is a cul-de-sac, there was no sound of traffic, and the silence began to sing in my ears. It began to sing a tune. Humphrey must have heard it, too, for he gave a loud squeal and clutched his hair.

"There it is again," he said. "I shall go crazy if this continues! I sat up till three last night, reading Adam Bede. I didn't want to, but I had to. I shall sit up again to-night, I know. Thank God, there are only fifty pages left."

"But she'll make you begin another book," said Julia. "It may be The Wide, Wide World next time."

"What do you want to do, then?" he asked.

"Darling, just to leave the studio empty to-morrow night," she said. "To lock the door and leave it. Then, if that succeeds, we might do the same thing the next Thursday. It's worth trying."

It was only a few evenings ago that I dined with the Lodges. It was, in fact, on Thursday. We sat rather long round the table, and Julia, looking at the clock, got up hurriedly.

"We won't sit in the studio to-night," she said. "It is pleasant upstairs."

We went upstairs, and I demanded news. Humphrey interspersed Julia's narrative with unconvinced expressions such as "Pish!" or "Rot!" She told me in brief how every Thursday afternoon she put bunches of lavender in the studio, and left some suitable pictures and books about. She also took out of the room her easel, and the score on which Humphrey was engaged, for fear of annoying "them". Since they had made these arrangements they hadn't been "bothered." The clock struck ten, and, remembering that Mrs. Wallace's famous conversaziones always began at half-past nine, my curiosity rose.

"I have left my cigarettes in my coat pocket downstairs," I said. "I will go and fetch them."

Humphrey is not a fool; he did not say "There are plenty here." As for Julia, her eyes sparkled.

"Dare you?" she asked.

For some reason I kicked off my shoes when I got outside the drawing-room, and paddled noiselessly down to the floor below.

A short passage leads from the hall to the studio and dining-room; this was dark, but from below the studio door, at the end of it, there came a thin line of light. As I crept closer I heard the dim sound of many voices coming from it. Closer and closer I crept and my ear focused itself to the murmur.

"A fine book, in spite of its coarseness," I heard. "But one doesn't want to talk about it. Ah, Georgiana, here's Mr. Molloy asking if he may lead you to the instrument."

I heard the sound of the piano, less tinkly than when I heard it last, and then, unmistakably, the sound of a human voice. It was all thin and remote, as if borne from some great distance on the wind.

"And now," I said to myself, "I shall open the door and go in."

And then I did nothing of the kind. Poltroon and coward, I retraced my steps, looking fearfully behind me, in order to be sure that the studio door had not opened, and that from it some wraith of days long past was not spying on the impertinent future. I scurried upstairs, and with my shoes in my hand entered the drawing-room.

"Well?" said Humphrey and Julia, in one breath.

"There was a light under the studio door," I said. "There were voices, words, music."

"And you didn't go in?" asked Humphrey.

"Certainly not. If it comes to that, why don't you go in yourself? They are there."

More Stories by E. F. Benson

He pondered a moment. "Bosh!" he said, with an effort.

Edward Frederic Benson (1867 -- 1940)