Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Cynthia Asquith: God Grant That She Lye Still

Cynthia Asquith



It was not until three weeks after I came to live at Mosstone that I first saw her. But most of my new patients had talked to me of Margaret Clewer, the youthful owner of the Manor House. Many shook kindly heads because she was so alone in the world. “Only twenty-two, and without a single near relation!” – but they also spoke of her beauty and charm, and it was with agreeable curiosity that I set out to pay my professional call at what the Mosstone villagers called “the great house”.

As I passed through the gateway that I had so often admired from outside, into a large, grey-walled court, the muffled atmosphere of the place seemed to envelop me like a cloak. The very air seemed thicker and more still. It was as though I had stepped out of the everyday world into something cloistered and self-sufficing.

Pigeons fluttered and crooned and plumes of blue smoke rose into the golden air. Absorbing its beauty like a long, lovely draught, I gazed at the exquisite gabled house, with its great mullioned windows and queer twisted chimneys, round which the swallows skimmed.

It struck me then, I remember, that more than any other building I had ever seen, this house appeared to have a face, an actual countenance that might vary like that of a beautiful woman. Yet could any building look more remote, more strikingly aloof?

Time had deposited so much on those mellowed walls; for so many centuries a deep reservoir of life, the house now looked withdrawn from any further participation, as though with gentle repudiation disassociating itself from the present and the future.

My watch told me I had returned from my walk twenty minutes before I was due. Ever since my boyhood I had loved poring over old epitaphs, so I turned into the churchyard, which was only a few yards from the front windows of the house.

Like most village churchyards it was very overcrowded, but the dark red-fruited yew trees shed an air of sombre peace over the clustered graves. Most of these graves were mere uncommemorated grass mounds, but there were also a number of grey lichen-clad tombstones lying and leaning at all angles, and on many of these the name of Clewer was engraved. Evidently innumerable generations of my future patient’s family had lived and died here. Most of these long-dead Clewers seemed to have been mourned by appreciative and verbose relations. Nothing that uncouth rhyme and shapeless sculpture could do to preserve the memory of the departed had been omitted. The scriptures had been ransacked for consoling texts, and prose and verse not only lavishly set down the virtues, talents and deeds of those described as “not lost but gone before”, but also assiduously struggled to describe the emotions of the bereaved. Only once in all those generations had a strange reticence descended on the Clewer family.



In the corner of the churchyard nearest to the house, directly beneath a darkly presiding yew tree, was a worn, flat stone. Here nothing implored the passing tribute of a sigh. There was only the bare inscription:

Here
And beneath in different lettering the words:

God grante that she lye stille.

This inscription struck me as laconic and queerly worded, so like, and yet so different from, the familiar – Requiescat in pace. Could those who buried the dead girl find nothing to praise? Was it too great a strain on their capacity for hope to associate her with peace? Or was the rather piteous supplication “God grante that she lye stille” more for themselves than for her they consigned to the grave?

Idly I wondered whether I should ever know Margaret Clewer well enough to question her about this undesignated ancestress.

It was now time to run from the dead to the living, so I moved towards the home of the Clewers. As I approached the iron-studded door, the air was heavily sweet with the scent of the magnolias. These, as well as wisteria and clematis, clustered thickly over the front of the building, but to my fancy the great house seemed to wear them with, as it were, a shrug of indifference, as though it knew nothing could really enhance its own beauty. The gentle austerity of that beauty humbled me again, and it was with a sense of intrusion that I pulled the bell and heard the responding clang and the bark of an aroused dog.

I don’t know what I had subconsciously expected, but the smiling beribboned parlour maid who opened the door seemed incongruous.

“Dr Stone?” she asked. “Miss Clewer is expecting you.”

Obedient to her “Come this way, please”, I followed her through a large hall in which young people were playing ping-pong and noisy games of cards; the blare of a gramophone triumphing over the confusion of sounds. A heavy door through which we passed cut us off into complete cool silence, and a short flight of shiny black oak stairs, splendidly solid to the tread, led us to the door of my patient’s room. The strong evening sun streamed in and it was through a dance of dazzling motes that I first saw her.

She lay on a low wide bed drawn close up to the window, and a Golden Retriever luxuriously sprawled over the flower-embroidered coverlet that was spread across her feet.

I cannot remember how much I took in at first sight: I know the window-shelf and the tables were then, as always, crowded with flowers and great branches cut from trees, and the bed strewn with books, writing materials and needlework.

The shock with which I saw her was not without an element of recognition. Vaguely I had always expected that one day I should see a woman far more lovely than all others. Her hair gleamed in the sunshine, and her translucent face smiled up at me. I thought I should never see anything more beautiful, but I did the next time I saw her, for the variety of her beauty was unending. Changing as the sea changes with the sky, her colouring had its special response to every tone of light, just as her expression varied with every shade of feeling. It was a fluid, unset loveliness, suggesting far more than it asserted.

After this first sight of her, I was often to wonder how I should describe her, supposing I had to reduce my impressions to the scope of words. What, for instance, should I set down if I were asked to fill in her passport? Would she be allowed across frontiers if I described her mouth as normal? Normal! When it was never the same for two consecutive seconds. As for her eyes. I should not even have known what colour to call them. ‘‘Eyes too mysterious to be blue, Too lovely to be grey,’’ would not help. Many more than two colours met in those pools of light.

As I entered the room I was to know so well, two canaries in a large golden cage were singing loudly, and l could scarcely hear Margaret Clewer’s welcoming words. In her lovely, lilting, but, to my professional ear, definitely nervous voice, before she began to speak of herself, she asked me many questions as to the comfort of my house and my impressions of my new practice. I had almost forgotten in what capacity I was there when she said:

“I’ve been very silly and strained my heart, I think, over-rowing myself. I’ve got a craze for very violent exercise. Anyhow, I feel distinctly queer, and my heart seems to beat everywhere where it shouldn’t be. And so,” she added in her way – how well I was to know that way – of speaking in inverted commas, “my friends insist on my taking medical advice, so perhaps you had better see if my heart is in the right place.”

It did not take me long to discover that her heart was severely strained. There was also a very considerable degree of anaemia, and I prescribed three weeks’ rest in bed.

My verdict was received with equanimity.

“If I can’t row or ride, I’d just as soon remain in the horizontal,” she answered gaily. “I shall be quite happy with books and food and friends, and with my beautiful Sheen. Isn’t he lovely?” she added, turning the Retriever’s golden head towards me.

After paying homage, I asked if there were anyone to whom she would like me to speak about her health.

“Oh, no! I haven’t any relations. I haven’t anyone to edit me. I’m quite alone.”

“But there seem so many people in the house.”

“Oh, yes, but they’re just visitors. When I said alone, I meant independent. I couldn’t bear to be literally alone.”

The last words were said with a vehemence that rather surprised me. Her room, with its multitude of books, a violin and several unfinished sketches, seemed to bear evidence of such varied resources, and I had already diagnosed her as a person who would be very good company to herself.

As I shook hands with her, saying I would return the day after tomorrow, I noticed that, for all their brightness, the responsive eyes held a slightly, not exactly hurt, but shall I say initiated expression. In spite of the nervous voice, my first impression had been that here, if anywhere, was one who had not felt the touch of earthly years. This superficial impression was already modified. Had life already bared its teeth at this lovely girl?

“I saw you groping about among the graves,” she said, as I reluctantly turned towards the door. “Are you interested in the rude forefathers, in worms and graves and epitaphs?”

“Well, at any rate, I love epitaphs,” I replied, “and this is a peculiarly picturesque churchyard. You, yourself, must surely have a weakness for it, as you occupy a room so immediately overlooking it.”

“Yes, I am close, aren’t I?” She laughed. “No rude forefather could turn in his grave without my hearing him. But this happens to be the room I like best in the house. There isn’t any harm in being so close, is there?”

“I can’t say I consider it physically unhealthy,” I answered professionally.

She smiled her swift, slanting smile. “Are you afraid of my being troubled by ghosts, Dr Stone? Well, if it’s a nervous patient you want, I’ll see what I can do to oblige you; but first, please put my heart back into the right place.”

I told her I would do my best and return the day after tomorrow to report progress.

“Au revoir, then,” she said. “And meanwhile, I shall look out for you in the churchyard, you ghoul! You ought to come and see it by night. You can’t think how lovely it is in the moonlight, with a great white owl swooping and brushing against the tombstones.”

As I turned my back on the beautiful house I found myself walking with a light step. For the first time since I came to this friendless new country a fellow creature had made me aware of myself as a human being. Till then I had been merely the new doctor.

I walked back through the village with a sense of enhanced life. There was now something to which I looked forward.

I visited my new patient three times during the next week. Finding her physical condition very little improved, I decided that some electric treatment would be beneficial, and as I had a portable apparatus, I was able to give the applications in her own room. A long course of this treatment involved many visits, which were the occasion for the most enchanting talks I have ever known. I look back on these summer weeks as the happiest of my life. Day after day I drifted on a stream of delight. She was a magical companion, to me a real Pentecost. Her quicksilver sympathy, the lightning gaiety of her response, her dancing voice, and a way she had of appreciatively echoing one’s last words: I suppose it was all these qualities that made me for the first time in my life feel so delightfully articulate. There can never have been a more receptive and therefore stimulating mind. It was as though she understood my thoughts almost before I had decided to put them into words.
There seemed no limitations to her understanding and sympathy. Her supple mind rejected nothing, and her iridescent gaiety was like running water in sunshine, continually flinging off a lovely spray of laughter. How, I wondered, had she found time to read so widely, so richly, to store her astonishing verbal memory? Of herself she spoke very little in any autobiographical way. After weeks of frequent conversation I knew nothing of the events of her life, of her dead parents or of her friends; but almost from the very beginning she showed a tendency to discuss herself psychologically, to expatiate on her character, or rather, on what – to my amusement – she called her lack of character.

I suppose it was about six weeks after my first visit that our conversation took a turn which for me sounded the first faint note of disquiet.

In her usual rather unconcerned voice she said:

“It must be fun to be someone very definite and positive. You can’t think how uncomfortable it is to have no personality.”

I laughed. “Are you suggesting that you have none? I know of no one of whose personality one is more quickly and lastingly aware.”

I’m not fishing,” she said, with the slightest tinge of impatience. “I don’t mean that I’m too insignificant and colourless to make any impression on other people. I know I’m quite nice to look at; I’m not stupid, and I’ve plenty of responsiveness. I don’t know how to explain, but what I mean is that there is no real permanent essential Me. Of course, I’ve got plenty of facets, and your presence conjures up a certain Me – not too bad a one. Thank you for the self with which you temporarily endow me. But I don’t feel any sense of being a separate entity. No – I can’t find any essential core of personality, nothing which is equally there when I’m alone, with you or with other people . . . There’s no real continuity. I’m so hopelessly fluid!”

“But, if I may say so,” I broke in, “it is that very fluidity of your mind that makes it such a treat to talk to you. We were discussing Keats’s letters the other day. Do you remember where he writes: ‘The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts – not a select party’? I think—”

“No, no. I don’t mean that sort of thing at all. You entirely misunderstand me!” she interrupted, and something in her face made me realize the subject was serious to her and that the characteristic lightness of her manner hid real concern.

“I’m not worrying about my qualifications as a companion,” she continued. “You see the difficulty is that I can’t talk about myself in a serious voice. I always sound so flippant. But my flippancy is a reflex. I should like to be able to talk to you about myself really melodramatically.”

“Please do,” I urged. “I’m feeling quite serious.”

“I don’t expect I’ll be able to, but let me try,” she said. “I don’t want to be a bore, but I assure you it really is nightmarish – this sense of having no identity. You remember the very first time I saw you, I told you that I couldn’t bear to be alone?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that is because other people seem to a certain extent to hold me together – to, as it were, frame me by, I suppose, their conceptions of me. But often when I’m quite by myself I feel like – like water released from a broken bowl – something just spilling away – to be reabsorbed back into nothingness. It’s almost like a temporary dissolution – a lapsing away. Yes, lapsing is the word – lapsing back into nothingness.”

“I don’t think there is anything so very unusual about your sensations,” I said, I fear rather pompously. “I think we all of us at times feel something very like what you describe. It’s a mild sort of neurosis, and it’s in the nature of every neurosis to give the sufferer a sense of singularity.”

“I daresay,” she said, and went on as though making up her mind to take a fence. “But then, you see, I have twice had a strangely disturbing experience which has made those sensations I try to describe become a real obsession.”

“Experiences?” I echoed. “What do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you,” she said. “Don’t expect a ghost story. I should hate to raise false hopes. It will be difficult to describe these experiences, and I don’t expect you’ll believe me, but they are true. Anyhow, don’t interrupt. Just let me Ancient-Mariner you. The first time was when I was very young – scarcely grown up. Late one evening I was resting on my bed. I was very tired and consequently especially depressed by that curiously disagreeable feeling I have tried to describe – the ‘no-identity’ feeling. Like any other trouble it is apt to be worse when I am over-tired.

“It was dark and my window, against which the jasmine tapped, was on the ground floor. I slept downstairs then. Suddenly I had that sense we all know of being impelled to look in a certain direction. I turned and saw a dim face pressed against the window – peering through at me. I wasn’t exactly frightened – just rather detachedly aware that my heart was thumping. Just then the moon slipped free from a fleece of clouds, so that I could see the face quite clearly. It was my own face!”

“What?” I broke in.

“Yes, Dr Stone. Of that there was no doubt. One knows one’s own face. My face was gazing at me – very intently, very wistfully – and, as I stared, whatever it was that was outside shook its head very sadly. I hoped I was dreaming. I shut my eyes, but I couldn’t keep them shut, and when I looked up again it was still there, and now it wrung its hands, oh! so mournfully.

“As I have said, it was my own face I saw through the window, but did I – could I – myself look so miserable? I wanted to see myself, my own self – so I got out of bed. I found my knees were trembling and I swayed as I went up to my looking-glass.

“I don’t know how to make you believe what I am going to tell you. Don’t laugh. It was the most awful shock. I found I could not see myself in the glass. I stared, and stared. I shook the glass. But my reflection was not there. The pictures on the wall, the corner of the cupboard, the birdcage, all the familiar objects were reflected as usual, but I myself was not there.

“It was still outside, and now it looked as though it were trying to get in – to get back, but could not. Terror came over me, and a feeling of faintness against which I desperately struggled. Dizzily I left my room, dragged myself upstairs and went up to the Chippendale mirror in the drawing room. The wide shining sheet of glass was hopelessly empty of what I sought. What had happened to me that I had no reflection? Surely the thing must be a delusion. Was I insane? I can’t describe the state of mind in which I returned to my own room. I scarcely dared open the door. To my infinite relief the face was no longer looking through the window. I strode to the looking-glass. My reflection was there. Except that I looked strangely wan, my face was as usual.” She paused. “That was the first time it happened. Shall I tell you about the second time, or do you wish to certify me at once?”

“Go on,” I said.

“It was about three years later. I was laid up in bed with a sprained ankle. I had been in a sort of apathy all day and towards evening was assailed by that painful sense of the lack of identity that I have tried to describe. There seemed no string threading the beads of mere moods. I felt without any real opinion, emotion, or impulse, as though I were an actor thrust on to a stage without having been given a single word of his part. Just a sense of complete vacuum. Neither my mind nor my hands were engaged. I was not even consciously looking in any particular direction. Suddenly I found myself rigid and staring. There was a sofa in my room, and on it a form was lying just as I lay on my bed. The form was mine, and again my own face gazed at me – oh! so mournfully. As before, that awful sense of faintness – of ebbing away – came over me, but I just managed to remain conscious. It still lay on the sofa. The face gazed at me with an unforgettable look of sadness. It looked as though it wanted to speak – in fact, the lips moved – but I heard nothing. A hand-mirror lay on a table within my reach, and I forced myself to lift it in front of my face. My dread was realized. I stared into blankness. My face was not reflected. For some time I lay there, now staring hypnotized at what lay on the sofa, now searching the empty mirror. I don’t know how long it was before my reflection began mistily and gradually to reappear, flickering in and out until at last it was still and as usual – except that I looked as tired as I felt. Of course I didn’t say anything about this to anyone. You are the first person I have mentioned it to. What is your verdict, Dr Stone?”
“I am going to say a very tiresome thing,” I replied, with a sense of the futility of my words as I pronounced them. “I think you dreamed both these experiences.”

“If you are going to talk like that,” she said wearily, “I shall never tell you anything about myself again. You know just as well as I do that I was awake.”

“Well,” I said, “you may not have been actually physically asleep, but I think this com—”

“If you are going to use the word complex, I shall change my doctor!” she interrupted laughingly.

“I think,” I continued, “that you had allowed this – shall we call it – obsession of yours about your lack of continuous personality to weigh so heavily on your subconscious mind that it created a sort of symbolic imagery, which imposed itself on your senses even to the point of definite illusion. It was, so to speak, a fixation of an idea. This sort of phenomenon is quite well known to psychologists. I could give you many examples.”

Margaret shook her head sadly. “It’s sweet of you to try and reassure me, but I’m afraid I am not convinced. And,” she added with darkening eyes, “this thing really troubles me far more than I have been able to convey. I think I told you I felt faint both times? Somehow I knew it was dreadfully important that I should not actually faint. With a desperate effort, I held on to consciousness. I simply didn’t dare let myself go and quite slip my moorings. It would be awful to be ousted, wouldn’t it?”

“Ousted?” I echoed blankly.

“Well, isn’t it rather a risk to leave untenanted bodies lying about? Houses need caretakers.” She laughed, but there was no laughter in her eyes.

Before I left her she had dismissed the subject and become her familiar radiant self, and yet never again was I to feel quite untroubled about her.

As for her “experiences”, I dismissed them as purely subjective. Anything they might intimate was still for me too far removed in the regions of sheer fantasy. It was something in her voice, when she used the word “ousted”, that had made me conscious of a chill. That and the expression in her eyes.

As usual I turned back to look at the house as I went out of the gate. The glow of the fading day warmed its grey austerity, and this evening, to my fancy, it wore an expression positively benign and sheltering.

I did not see much less of my patient after she ceased to be an invalid. Not only did I still give her electric treatment, but she would often ask me to dinner, and the happiest hours of my life were spent in her little sitting room, the most personal room I have ever known. It was like her very shell.

I look back on those magic evenings of that late summer and see them in a golden haze. The white room heavy with the scent of flowers; the Golden Retriever, his plumed tail sweeping from side to side; Margaret in her shimmering beauty; the two of us talking – talking; or Margaret reading aloud, or at her piano playing by heart, gliding from one loveliness into another, characteristically never saying what it is that she is going to play.

She frequently reverted to what she had told me on that day of sudden confidence, but usually very lightly, as though the matter no longer preyed on her mind.

Once she even laughingly referred lo herself as the “absentee landlady”. Indeed, from the lulled expression of her eyes, I judged her nerves to be much quieter, and it was a shock to me to realize how easily I had been deceived by the characteristic lightness of her manner. One evening she broke off in the middle of a poem she was reading aloud, and said, “I am feeling very detached from myself this evening – disquietingly detached.” She then began to harp on the old theme, dwelling on the affair of her reflection – the “home-made symbol”, as we had agreed to call it. Her voice was unconcerned, and in an attempt at reassurance I said something rather perfunctory.

At that she suddenly burst out with wholly unaccustomed vehemence: “From every word you say I know that you do not understand, and that I can never make you understand!”

My chagrin at having failed her must have shown in my face.

“So sorry,” she said in her sweetest manner. “How can you be expected to guess that I am serious when I can’t help speaking even of these things in my small-talk voice? I am such an involuntary bluffer! But, you see, it happened again last night. But now, for heaven’s sake,” she broke in on my words of concern, “for heaven’s sake, don’t let’s say another word about Margaret Clewer! Please read to me. I want to get on with my embroidery.”

I look back on that evening as the end of a halcyon spell.

The next morning stands out sharply etched on my memory. From then onwards it was through a web of mystification, gradually thickening into horror which baffled belief, that I struggled to preserve my reason.

I had just finished my breakfast when I was told Miss Clewer’s maid wished to speak to me on the telephone. I knew Rebecca Park well. She worshipped her mistress, whom she had attended since childhood, and I was sure that, with the instinct of the simple and devoted, she recognized me as a real friend. Her voice was sharp with anxiety.

“Please come quick, sir. I can’t wake my mistress this morning, and her sleep don’t seem natural.”

Ten minutes later I entered the familiar bedroom. Margaret lay in something between a swoon and a sleep. She breathed unevenly and I noticed that her hands were tightly clenched.

No man who loves a woman can see her asleep for the first time without emotion. Something clutched at my heart as I looked at Margaret’s unconscious face. I cannot remember whether I had ever actually pictured her asleep. If so I could never have surmised that which I saw. How could closed eyes and lack of colour effect so great though subtle a change in a familiar face? What was it in the expression of those lovely features that was so utterly alien – so disquietingly alien – to the Margaret I loved?

Struck by the coldness of her wrist when I felt her pulse, I told Rebecca to fetch a hot-water bottle, and as we turned back the bedclothes to apply it we both received a shock. Margaret’s feet were not only cold, but damp and stained with earth: little lumps of clay soil stuck between the toes. It had been a very wet night.

“She has been walking in her sleep,” I whispered to Rebecca. “On no account tell her when she wakes, and please wash all traces from her feet. Quick, before she wakes.”

As I bathed her blue-veined temples. Margaret gave a long, shuddering sigh, and very piteously breathed out, “No! No! No!” her voice rising as she pleaded.

As she recovered consciousness and the long lashes lifted, her own expression swam into her eyes like some lovely flower rising to the surface through muddied waters. Her first words were curious, and at the time I wondered whether Rebecca noticed.

“Is it Me?” she said, gazing upwards. Not, as I might have expected – for my presence must have puzzled her— “Is it you?” but “Is it Me?”

I explained my presence, telling her as unconcernedly as possible that I had been sent for because she had fainted.

Her brow contracted and fear looked out of her eyes. As soon as Rebecca had left the room she spoke in the quick level voice that I associated with her rare confidences.

“It happened again last night.”

“What happened?”

“I was pushed out of myself . . . no reflection, nothing. You know I told you before how desperately hard whatever was left of me had to struggle not to faint? Well, this time I fainted. The awful dizziness overcame me. I had to let go.” She gave a queer little laugh. “Yes, this time I really slipped my moorings and evidently my faint – as you call it – has lasted an unconscionable time. Not that I know when it was I went off. ‘Went off’ is the correct expression, isn’t it?”
Impressing on Rebecca the necessity for absolute quiet, I started on my professional rounds, but not for one moment in all that busy day did the thought of Margaret leave my mind. An undefined but deep anxiety settled in my heart.

I have already admitted that I loved her. To hope for a return of my love had never entered my head. It did not occur to me that I could lay any claim to so transcendent a being. As soon would I have made a declaration to the moon. Fool that I was! How often I have asked myself whether avowed love might have helped where friendship failed.

At about half-past twelve that night I suddenly awoke, thoughts of Margaret thrumming in my brain. Suppose she were to walk in her sleep again? Might she not injure herself or wake up and be terrified? How could I have risked such a thing happening again without even warning her? Of course I should have arranged for someone to sleep in her room.

I was in my clothes almost before I knew I had decided to go to the Manor House. If I found her walking, I could lead her home in her sleep.

A full moon flooded the house with a strange green beauty. Glancing up at Margaret’s window, I was surprised to see it shut on so warm a night. I decided to patrol the courtyard and watch the door in case she should emerge. I trod as softly as possible. Save for the distant bark of the inevitable dog, my vigil seemed unshared. The night was full of an indescribable menace. A low wind crept through the trees and the leaves whispered momentously. Claimed by the moon, the house looked wan and remote, palely repudiating any human allegiance it might seem to concede by daylight.

I was startled by the loud hoot of an owl, a sound I can never hear without a strange stirring as of some forgotten but intense memory. “You can’t think how lovely it looks at night with a great white owl sweeping about.” I remembered Margaret’s words, and obeyed an impulse to enter the churchyard. A white owl almost brushed my cheek as he passed on his blundering flight.

Beneath the transmuting moon the crowded tombstones looked more sharply outlined, far less merged into the green quiet of the long grass. In the day time the atmosphere breathed a sense of acquiescence, as though the oft-repeated text “Thy will be done” had been instilled into the very air, but now the peace of buried centuries seemed disturbed; the consecrated ground to quiver with insubmission. Even the yew trees seemed to bristle. Starkly black, they stood like mutinous sentinels.

As I turned my eyes to the eastern side of the churchyard, I heard myself gasp. In the uttermost corner something white glimmered on the ground. I knew at once what it was. Ten strides brought me to where Margaret, in her long nightgown, lay outstretched across a flat tombstone. Her arms, the hands tightly clenched, were flung out in front; her slim, protesting body writhed. It looked as though she were struggling to rise, but had no power; almost as though some force were drawing her down. I heard a low, piteous moaning, and kneeled to examine her pale, twisted face. The eyes were closed. Her tormented body rolled over to one side, leaving the inscription on the grey lichened stone exposed. As I knelt I involuntarily read the brief words:

Here lyes the bodye of Elspeth Clewer.

God grante that she lye stille.

I recalled my first visit to the churchyard. So it was upon the grave of Elspeth Clewer, the uncommended ancestress who had so aroused my curiosity, that Margaret lay.

“No! No! No!” was wrung from her lips, and she writhed as though in anguish.

I raised her gently. Strength was required. It was like lifting a body from a quicksand. Fearful of waking her, I slowly led her home and to her room.

Sheen, the Golden Retriever, greeted me sleepily, but with his usual exquisite courtesy, and when I had laid her on the bed, he gently licked his mistress’s white hand.

I watched by her side for some time until her sleep seemed tranquil and normal. Then, in misplaced confidence, I left her alone, except for the dog who lay stretched out his golden length across the bed.

Anxious to see her the next morning, I went round as early as possible, intending to explain my uninvited visit by a wish to alter a prescription. But Rebecca met me in the passage, her honest brow besieged with worry.

“You’re a glad sight for sore eyes, Doctor. I was just going to send for you. Miss Margaret’s just like she was yesterday – deep drowned in that sleep that don’t seem natural. I can’t abide to see her like that.”

“I think it only means she’s very over-tired,” I said, anxious to soothe.

“That’s as maybe,” she answered, unconvinced. “Though what she’s done to get so tired, I don’t know. And, Doctor, there’s something most dreadful’s gone and happened. I suppose that dratted cat must have got into my lady’s room in the night and forced its way – the cunning brute – into the birdcage, and there’s them two sweet little birds, as Miss Margaret sets such store by, lying dead in their blood with their poor little heads torn right off of their bodies. Really, I don’t know how to tell Miss Margaret when she wakes. She’ll take on so!”

“I’ll tell her,” I said, as I followed her into the bedroom, hastily adding, “but, for heaven’s sake, take away the cage. She mustn’t see that awful sight when she wakes.”

With little moans of concern the maid hurried away with her gruesome burden.

Margaret lay in deep unconsciousness. Her appearance was in every way the same as on the previous morning. I turned over her limp hand to feel her pulse. Then I heard my heart hammering in my ears. It was as though it had attended and taken in something my mind refused to accept. Soon I felt deadly sick. Self-protection, reason, fought against the evidence of my sight, but in vain. The lovely white hand that I had so often ached to kiss was thickly smeared with red, and sticking between the fingers and thumb was a cluster of bloodstained feathers.

For the first time I knew what it was to shudder with my whole being. Difficult though it was to control my thoughts, prompt action was necessary, and, fetching warm water, I hastily washed all traces from her hand.

Soon afterwards she turned and, struggling through layers of oblivion and subconsciousness, came to herself. Bewilderment showed in her eyes, then relief and welcome.

“What’s the matter?” she said, looking at my face. Struggling to hide the shrinking that I felt, I explained my presence and wrote out a prescription.

Margaret looked round the room for her inseparable companion. “Where’s Sheen?” she asked.

“He wasn’t in here when I come in this morning, Miss,” said Rebecca, “and I can’t find him nowhere. I’ve asked everyone, and no one’s seen him.”

“He must have jumped out of the window,” said Margaret. “How queer of him.”

At her request I looked out of the window. The flower bed below plainly showed a dog’s pawmarks.

“I must get up and go and hunt for him,” said Margaret. “I had a horrid dream about him.”

She looked deathly pale, quite unfit to leave her bed, but I knew it would be useless to attempt to detain her. I had come to the conclusion that I must tell her of her sleep-walking and insist that she should have a night nurse for a time. I wanted an opportunity to break this to her as unalarmingly as possible, so I reminded her of her promise to call on a farmer’s wife and try to persuade the obstinate woman to obey my injunctions and send her crippled child to a hospital. She agreed to come that afternoon.

As I left the house I remembered that I had not told her about the death of the birds: neither had she noticed the absence of their cage.

At three o’clock we started on our two-mile walk across the fields. It was a lovely afternoon, resplendent summer, though a delicious tang in the air hinted at autumn and brought an exquisite pink to Margaret’s cheeks. More than ever I was struck by her astonishing look of dewy youth. Like a just opened wild rose her face looked utterly unused, as though it had never harboured any expression save one of vague expectancy. My horrid misgivings began to seem fantastically unreal.
“Have you heard of the cat’s crime?” she asked. Her eyes looked like wet flowers and her voice quivered, though characteristically she tried to laugh as she added: “Of all Shakespeare’s adjectives, I think the queerest are his ‘harmless’ and ‘necessary’ applied to a cat. I adored those little birds.”

I murmured sympathy.

“I’m wretchedly worried about Sheen’s disappearance, too,” she said. “He’s never been away from me for even an hour before. He’ll go mad with misery without me. Do you think he can have been stolen?”

“I’m quite sure he hasn’t,” I said emphatically.

I steered the conversation until, as unconcernedly as possible, I told her I had discovered that she was given to the quite common but not to be encouraged habit of sleep-walking.

Consternation flared in her eyes and she flushed painfully. She tried to laugh it off.

“I wonder what my particular ‘damned spot’ may be. It always is some damned spot that won’t ‘out’ that makes people walk in their sleep, isn’t it? Or may it be merely due to unsubmissive food?”

“It’s far more often caused by indigestion than by conscience,” I said, with a laugh, and I took advantage of this wave of flippancy to float the hospital nurse into the conversation.

To my surprise and relief Margaret promptly acquiesced. In fact, it seemed to me that a look of unmistakable relief flickered across her face. I told her an excellent nurse was just about to leave one of my patients, and that I would engage her to come in that evening.

“You won’t need to see her at all during the day,” I said. “She’ll just sit up in your room at night.”

“Oh, I hope she doesn’t knit,” laughed Margaret. “I don’t expect sleep will ever slide into my soul with her sitting there. I shall be the watched pot that never boils! However, no sleep – no walking; so it will be all to the good.”

With that we dismissed the matter.

“Now let’s forget everything, except this winged hour. It is such a heavenly afternoon!” she exclaimed. “Thank heaven I can always live in the present. I hope you don’t think it’s dreadful to have a nature like a duck’s back?”

She stepped out and the shadow which had overhung her ever since that unexpected outburst in her sitting-room lifted from her. Once more she shone out as the radiant being I had first known. It was impossible not to be infused by her brilliant gaiety, and as her lovely peals of laughter rang out, for the time being my nightmare was almost dispersed. Her inimitable mimicry, delicious raillery and stream of brilliantly garbled quotations almost made me forget the unforgettable. But her radiance suddenly clouded over when I said:

“What an amazing memory you have got!”

“Memory?” she answered almost sharply. “Yes, I admit I have plenty of memory and understanding. But what protection are such merely receptive qualities?”

“Protection?” I echoed blankly.

“Well, here we are,” she said in evasion, her hand on the farmyard gate. “Now I propose that you stay here, while I go in by myself and twist the good woman round my little finger. I’m sure your presence would cramp my little finger’s style. I’ll wish it luck,” and pulling off her glove she smilingly held up her tapering, pink-nailed finger. “What’s the matter?” she asked uneasily.

I’m afraid an uncontrollable inward shudder must have shown on my face. The last time I had looked at that slender finger, it had been stained with blood, and I could still see the pitiful little feathers that had stuck to it.

“I’ve got a stitch,” I lied. “I’ll wait here for your good news. Good luck.”

A prey to uninvited thoughts, I leaned against the gate. About five minutes later I heard myself hailed and was delighted to see the gardener with Sheen on a chain. As I patted the beautiful dog’s head, he slowly waved his sweeping tail.

“Please, sir,” explained the gardener, “the keeper found him in a distant wood, and when he brings him home, Miss Park, knowing where you was goin’, she asks me to follow you, thinking Miss Clewer would be that pleased to see him safe.”

Delighted to be the bearer of good news, I hurried towards the farmhouse, and was met by Margaret.

“Triumph to my little finger!” she began, but directly I spoke of Sheen her successful mission was forgotten in delight, and she ran towards the gate. “Darling, darling Sheen! How could you leave me?” I heard her eager voice.

Then something so dreadful happened – something so painful, that even now I can scarcely endure to recall it.

As Margaret approached her dog, expecting an exuberant welcome, an unaccountable change came over him. His tail was lowered until it disappeared between his cringing legs, and his whole body shook with unmistakable terror.

“Sheen – what is the matter?”

Her voice was piteous and, looking at her face, I saw it contorted with unbearable suffering.

“It’s Me!” she pleaded. “Sheen, it’s Me!”

But the dog she had said “would be mad with misery without her” cowered lower and lower as though it would creep through the ground, and his golden coat grew dark with sweat.

“Oh, what did happen last night?” wailed Margaret, and put out her hands to the dog in anguished propitiation.

“Back, miss, back!” shouted the terrified gardener.

The dog’s eyes showed white, he howled, snapped wildly in Margaret’s direction, and tore at his collar in frantic efforts to escape.

“Take him away!” cried Margaret. “Take him away! I’ll go back by the road,” and she started off as fast as her swift stride could carry her.

I overtook her, but could think of nothing to say. A terrible constraint lay between us. I looked at her. Tears coursed down her white, strained face and her mortally affronted eyes stared straight in front.

“Unaccountable things, dogs,” at last I ventured.

“Unaccountable? Do you think so?” she said sharply. “I wonder.” And as she strode on, she clenched her hands till the knuckles stood out white.

A moment later she turned to me as though she were on the point of really speaking, of letting something gush out. She made a little movement with one hand, but then it was as though an iron shutter slid between us, and in a cold formal voice she told me of her successful interview with the farmer’s wife. That was all we spoke of. We might almost have been strangers.

The next morning I went to give her some electric treatment. She looked bitterly troubled, but said she liked the hospital nurse, a pleasant, serene-faced young woman. I missed the accustomed twitter of the birds, and the room looked strangely deserted without the beautiful golden dog. I dared not ask about him, and I never saw him again.

With a pang of pity I noticed that all the mirrors had been removed.

“Has that queer thing happened again?” I ventured. “Did you think there was something wrong with your reflection?”

“Don’t ask me about that any more,” she answered feverishly. “I’ve finished with all that fanciful nonsense and I never wish to hear it alluded to again. Never, never, never!”

With that a safety-curtain of unhappy reserve fell between us. She seemed to consign herself to the loneliness of utter withdrawal, and from that time onward the shadows settled more and more darkly on her beautiful face.

A few days after her arrival I asked the nurse to come and talk to me about her patient. She had nothing very definite to report, except that, though her charge slept for a fair number of hours, her sleep was very troubled and brought little refreshment. In fact, she always seemed most tired and overwrought in the mornings.

“Of course,” the nurse said, “I do think that having no fresh air in the room these stifling hot nights may have something to do with her condition.”
“Why,” I asked, “do you mean to say she doesn’t have the window open in this weather?”

The stubborn summer had blazed out into a last fierce spell of heat, and I was indeed amazed.

“No, sir, I can’t persuade her to, and sometimes I can scarcely bear the closeness myself.”

I promised to use my influence.

“Then there’s another thing,” the nurse went on. “Do you think it can be good for anyone in an excited state of nerves to be doing all that rehearsing? If you’ll excuse my saying so, sir, I think you should order her to give up those theatricals.”

“Theatricals?” I echoed blankly. “What theatricals?”

“I don’t know when they’re to be, but I know she’s very busy rehearsing for them. Whenever she sends me to fetch something during the night, and she’s always asking me to fetch some book or something special from the stillroom – not that she ever scorns to use the things when I bring them – well, as I come back, all the way down that long passage, I hear her fairly screaming out her part. Wonderful actress she must be! You wouldn’t really think it could be her own voice; no, you wouldn’t think such a sweet young lady could produce so horrid a voice. It simply raises my hair – that acting voice of hers does. And, as I was saying, I really can’t think it can be good for anyone whose nerves are disturbed to be studying so violent a part.”

“Thank you, Nurse. I’ll speak about it.”

That afternoon I called on Margaret. After some casual talk I said, “I hear you sleep with your window shut. And, you know, you are looking extremely pale. To insist on keeping the window open all the year round may be a foolish fetish, but in this sort of weather, it really is essential.”

“If the nurse makes a fuss about that, I won’t keep her,” Margaret burst out. “How can I leave the window open when it’s from there that I feel that awful pressing in – that pressing and pushing away? How can I? Though, heaven knows, it’s foolish enough to think it’s any use to shut things. If stone walls cannot a prison make, nor iron bars a cage, still less can they make a fortress.” Suddenly she seemed to remember herself. “But these are but ‘wild and whirring words’,” she said, smiling. “I’m so sorry. Please don’t pay any attention to them. My disease of quoting grows worse and worse. It’s because I have no opinions of my own.”

She looked disquietingly excited and my own head swam. “That awful pressing in!” What did she . . . what could she . . . mean? A sense of dreadful menace almost stifled me, and I felt utterly estranged; but something had to be said.

“When are your theatricals to be?” I asked. “I didn’t know you were acting.”

“Acting?” she repeated. “What do you mean?”

“The nurse tells me she often hears you rehearsing in the night.”

She blushed crimson. “Oh, that!” she said. “Oh, yes! You see, I have a silly habit of reciting poetry aloud to myself, and it made me feel self-conscious to know she had overheard me, so I said I was rehearsing for some theatricals.”

“I see,” I said; but my heart sank at hearing her lie.

Then we spoke of other things, but we were both hopelessly preoccupied, and there was no life in our talk. It was almost forced, and I noted that nearly everything that Margaret said was in inverted commas. Scarcely anything passed her lips that was not a quotation. I had already observed that the more tired, strained or preoccupied she seemed, the more this was the case. When her vitality was lowered it was, to use her own words, as though she had “no opinion, emotion or impulse” of her own, but was merely a thoroughfare for the thoughts of others – as though nothing remained to hold the fort except memory.

I think it was three days later that the nurse, of her own accord, came to report to me again, and told me she considered her patient increasingly nervous and depressed. To my enquiry as to how Miss Clewer was sleeping, she answered: “Very little now.” Adding ominously, “And if you ask me, sir, I don’t think she wants to go to sleep.”

“She’s given up the theatricals anyhow, hasn’t she?” I asked, in as casual a voice as I could command.

“Given them up, sir? No, I wish to goodness’ sake she would. I really can scarcely bear to hear it; the way she screams out her part has thoroughly got on my nerves. As often as I come back along that passage, she’s going through it. I know some of her part by heart myself. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to forget the queer words.”

“What are the words you overhear her saying?” I asked, as indifferently as I could.

“Saying? You wouldn’t call it saying if you’d heard her, sir, it’s more like yelling. As I was saying the other day, you’d never think such a gentle lady could produce such a terrifying voice. The words that she most often repeats are: ‘Let me in! Give way! What can I do without a body? What use are you making of your body? I want it! You clear out! I must be lodged! I must be lodged! I must be lodged!’ And the third time she repeats ‘I must be lodged’, her voice rises to a screech. But whatever’s the matter, sir? You’ve come over as white as a sheet!”

Murmuring that I felt faint and must get some brandy, I told her I would see her in the evening, and left the room.

My legs almost gave way as I went upstairs, and directly I reached my bedroom I turned the key in the lock, though what it was I thought might thus be debarred, God only knows.

With shaking hands, I opened the book I had been reading in bed the night before.

It was a bound copybook, filled with the faded brown of a spidery sixteenth-century writing. Margaret had long given me the freedom of her library, and on a high shelf I had found a manuscript book – a sort of irregular journal kept by an ancestress of hers, also a Margaret Clewer. I had read it far into the night. It was all interesting, and by the final heart-broken entry I had been most vividly and painfully impressed.

Were certain words really as, with horror, I remembered them, or was my memory deceiving my disturbed nerves?

Trembling, I turned the leaves until I came to the words:

So she is dead! Elspeth, our shame, lyes dead. That I should live to thank God that my own child be laid in the church-yarde! A sennight yesterday since they carryed her home after her falle from her horse. A sennight of torment unimagined to us all. The passing of her eville spirit has been a horror past beliefe. The drawing nigh of Death had no softening effect on her violent, eville greedy spirit. Her hold on lyfe was terrible. Breath by breath it was torne from her shattered bodye. So her fierce spirit clung to her beautiful broken bodye, God helpe us all! Could any Death be deep enough to make me to forget how with her last breaths she cryde out: “I won’t dye! I won’t dye! There is still so much to do! Some way I’ll get back! I must get back! My spirit is so unquenched! I must find another bodye. I must be lodged! I must be lodged! I must be lodged!”

The long-dead woman’s manuscript slipped from my hand and I struggled to think. Even last night the words of the dying changeling daughter had made me shiver. Now, after what the nurse had quoted, they seared my mind. Elspeth Clewer! I remembered the grey, uncommunicative grave beneath the yew tree. Its bleak reticence had impressed my imagination on my first visit to the churchyard, and now, to my mind’s eye, it was forever associated with Margaret’s prostrate, writhing body.

God grante that she lye stille! God grante that she lye stille! I snatched at a faint, fluttering hope. Perhaps Margaret was familiar with the journal I had found. If so, its grim contents would be very likely to haunt her. Might not what the nurse mistook for rehearsing have been her quoting it in disturbed sleep?

That evening I found her pale and wild-eyed. I told her of my discovery of the diary and asked if she had ever read it. She disclaimed all knowledge, and this time I knew she spoke the truth. I said it gave a strange account of an ancestress of hers, an Elspeth Clewer. Was it my fancy, or did she draw in her breath at the name?

“Oh! Does it?” she said. “Yes, I’ve heard of her. Though she died before she was twenty-three, she’s the only celebrated member of the Clewer family, for she crowded her short with every imaginable vice and crime. I believe she was an absolute mythical monster of violence and cruelty: but, as I have often told you, I really don’t take the faintest interest in my ancestors.”
Two days later, as I sat at breakfast, the front-door bell was so violently pulled that I went to the door myself. The faithful Rebecca stood there, her face mottled with agitation. “Oh, sir! She’s been and gone and bolted!”

“Miss Clewer?” I gasped.

“No, sir,” she gabbled breathlessly. “That yere nurse, been and gone and offed it – left my poor lamb with no word to no one. Yes, when I comes along this mornin’ I finds my lady deep asleep, and, if you please, on the floor there’s a tray with broken pieces of cup and saucer and Benger’s food slopped all over the carpet. Just dropped out of Nurse’s hand, it must have been. And she couldn’t be found nowhere; clean gone she was – run off and left all her things behind her. The garden boy, he tells me he seen her tearing round the garden like as though the devil were after her. I looks in at the station, and they said she’d been there a full hour before the first train went, and looked that queer without no hat nor nothing. And my lady – she looks to go to your heart this morning – she says she calls to mind asking Nurse to fetch her a cup of Benger’s – and then she thinks she must have fallen asleep, since she doesn’t remember no more.”

Incensed with the nurse, I rang up the London association from which she came and instructed them to telephone directly she arrived. Full of foreboding I hurried to the Manor House. I found Margaret walking up and down in the garden, her face drawn and set.

“I’m sorry I’ve frightened your nurse away,” she said bitterly.

“Frightened her? You!” I tried to laugh.

“So it seems. A well-trained nurse who drops her tray and flies from the house must surely be a little upset.”

“She must have taken leave of her senses,” I said dryly. “Fortunately I know of an admirable one who happens to be free now.”

“No, thank you. No more nurses for me! I can’t say I’ve found the last one very reassuring. No, I’ve just telegraphed to lots of my friends to come down. I’ve been too unsociable lately.” She spoke defiantly, and I knew it would be no use to argue.

That afternoon I was rung up by the matron of the Nursing Association. Nurse Newson had never turned up, but on enquiry it was found she had gone to her mother, whose telephone number I was given.

“Mrs Newson speaking,” answered a painstakingly genteel voice.

I explained who I was, stating that I wished to speak to her daughter, whose amazing behaviour demanded explanation.

The voice let itself go, and unmistakable relish in a crisis was plain through its agitation.

“Oh, sir! I’m afraid you can’t speak to my daughter. She’s bad in bed, and doctor says she’s suffering from shock and mustn’t be disturbed. Oh, sir! Whatever did happen to make her take on so, such a sensible, steady girl as she is? She’s in ever such a state! I never did see anyone so upset before, and I can’t get from her what it is she’s so scared on – at least nothing that you would call coherent. And, please sir, she says she’s terribly sorry to have let you down, but she couldn’t have stayed on – not for any consideration.”

Feeling no sympathy, I snapped out: “I never heard of such behaviour. A nurse abandoning a case in the middle of the night? She must be hopelessly hysterical. What possible excuse can she have? Her patient is the most charming young lady.”

“Yes, she says the young lady she was engaged for was ever so sweet, but Doctor – I don’t understand – she talks so wild – and when I question her, begs me not to ask, but wasn’t there another young lady?”

Exasperated, I banged the receiver down.

It was necessary to go to the Manor House to give the address to which the nurse’s luggage was to be sent. I would have gone in, but two cars were just unloading their freight of visitors. Loud voices echoed in the courtyard, and aggressively young people, brandishing tennis rackets, bounded up the steps towards their hostess, who stood in the doorway, her face resolutely gay.

With a forlorn sense of being cut off from her, and with apprehension heavy on my heart, I stole away. As I looked back at the house, gilded by the setting sun, I almost hated it for its unconcerned beauty.

Two days later I received a note in her strangely variable, but always recognizable, writing. It had no beginning:

I am going away . . . I must leave at once. When you get this I shall be in the train. I could not stay here another night. Please never ask me to explain. Something unthinkably dreadful happened last night. I could never dare risk having anyone to stay here again. Not possibly.

Neither can I live here by myself.

I don’t understand; but, believe me, it’s fearful, and I must go. Oh, God! There are more things in heaven and earth!

I’ll write.

Margaret Clewer



She went abroad, and I was glad to know her gone. If life became unutterably dreary, at least my nightmare fears were in abeyance. Naturally I wrote begging for an explanation of her note, but none came. I had many letters from her; but, except for the one line, “I am so glad I came away,” they told me nothing. They were merely brilliant descriptions of her travels – little more than inspired Baedekers, with scarcely a word to show we had ever been great friends and shared an unacknowledged dread. I wrote to Rebecca to enquire after her mistress’s health. Her reply said her young lady seemed well enough, but appeared restless and as though not really enjoying the full life she led.

As the leaves fluttered down, till winter lay like iron over the land, the magical days of that long summer began to assume the golden haze of something dreamed. Often I would go and gaze at her empty home. I began to wonder whether I was ever to see her again. There was even a rumour that the Manor House was to be let on a long lease.

One morning, when an unusually reluctant spring had at last turned the fields to glory, I was surprised to see on an envelope bearing a London postmark the writing that always made my heart leap. I read:

I find it quite impossible to keep away any longer. I feel myself irresistibly drawn home, but I shall not sleep in my old room. I shall come back Monday, but shall arrive late. Please come to luncheon Tuesday.

Margaret Clewer

Coming home Monday? This was Monday. I should see her in little more than twenty-four hours. The day crept by with unbelievable slowness. To hasten tomorrow I went to bed unusually early.

In the middle of the night I woke up suddenly and with the certainty that I had been aroused by some sound. Yes, there it was again, outside the house. Small pebbles were being thrown up against my window. Expecting an emergency call, I struggled out of sleepiness and looked out of my low window. The moon was full; a tall figure stood below; a white, upturned face gleamed in the silvery-green light. It was Margaret! Her loveliness glimmered in the strange, cold light, but she looked wild, and there was desperate urgency in her voice.

“Quick, quick!” she cried. “I must have your help. I’m so frightened. Quick! Let me in! Let me in! This time I’ll tell you everything!”

Snatching my overcoat, I hurried downstairs as quietly as I could for fear of waking my servant, and opened the door.

It was no dream. The white figure stood outside, arms outstretched towards me. A glorious hope leaped in my heart; but, as I advanced, something indescribable looked out of her eyes. With desperate haste her hands moved, and in a second her face was entirely concealed by the chiffon scarf in which they had swathed it.

“Too late! Too late!” she wailed in a changing voice. “Go back, go back, and for God’s sake, don’t dare to follow me!” The white figure sped away.

Aghast, I started in pursuit, but after a few strides, the swathed, faceless figure turned. At the torrent of words that were shrieked at me in an unknown voice, I stood transfixed, frozen with horror.
Wild, nauseated fear took possession of me. God forgive me, I renounced her. To save my soul I could not have followed another step. I stole back and, drenched in cold sweat, lay shaking on my bed. Sleep never approached me, but I felt too shattered and ill to get up at my usual hour. At ten the telephone rang. Wondering what ghastly intimation was to come, I lifted the receiver.

Margaret’s lovely voice slid into my astonished ears. “It’s me. Please come and see me. They tell me I’m not well.” Her own lovely voice that I had not hoped to hear again. Had some monstrous dream imposed itself upon me? Almost I began to think it.

When I reached the Manor House, I asked where Miss Clewer’s new room was.

“Just the same as before, sir,” replied the parlour maid. “Miss Clewer did give orders for one to be prepared on the other side of the house, but as soon as she came she said she’d go back to her own room.”

Rebecca lay in wait in the familiar passage.

“Thank God you’ve come, Doctor,” she whispered. “She seems to be wandering in her mind this morning.”

I stole into the room. Margaret, strangely beautiful, but wan and fragile, lay back on a great pillow. She stretched out both hands in welcome. At once I knew that her memory held no trace of last night. She greeted me as though we met for the first time since her departure all those long months ago.

“Rebecca thinks I’m ill,” she said. “But I must be a creature incapable of my own distress, because I assure you I feel quite well. And, oh! So, so glad to see my physician!”

Did I say that, after the incident of the dog, I was only once again to see Margaret in her incomparable radiance? Strange that it should have been now, when I was prepared to find her in delirium. But thus it was. Once more she seemed her original, untroubled, sparkling self.

She questioned me about all the Mosstone news and gave irresistibly funny descriptions of people she had met on her travels. All was as I first remembered her, dancing voice, lovely laughter, buoyant, bubbling talk, lightning response, showers of quotations. What had Rebecca meant by describing her as delirious?

But suddenly a change came into her eyes. She clutched at my hands and held them tight. Then she began to, what Rebecca described as, wander. Her voice was solemn.

“As the tree falls, so shall it lie! That is true, isn’t it, John?”

John? I had almost forgotten my unused Christian name.

“It is true in every sort of way,” she went on, “isn’t it, darling? And as that tree lies, so shall it be all through the days of eternity – that’s true too, isn’t it, John – absolutely true?”

“Yes – yes, of course,” I soothed her.

“Oh, John,” she went on. “I’ve just found such a lovely, lovely poem. I didn’t know it before. I can’t think how I could have missed it. It’s by Barnefield. Just listen to the mournful magic of these two lines:

“‘King Pandion he is dead,

All thy friends are lapped in lead’.

“‘Lapped in lead’! Doesn’t that make death sound delicious and luxurious? As though to be alive were something very makeshift.” She gave a little quick laugh. “‘Lapped in lead – lapped in lead’,” she repeated, very slowly. “Oh, how lovely and peaceful and untormented! You know that would be the best thing that could happen to me, don’t you? The best thing that could happen to your Me. Then your Me would be safe.”

An urgent summons came, and I had to go to a distant case. Telling Rebecca on no account to leave her for a moment, and that I would get a nurse to come as soon as possible, I hurried away.

It was for a birth that I had been summoned. The baby was as reluctant to enter the world as its mother seemed disposed to leave it, and midnight had already struck when I reached home.

Through all the strain of that endless day I had been haunted by Margaret, and I intended to snatch some supper and hurry back to the Manor House. But before I had sat down the telephone rang. It was Rebecca’s voice:

“Come quick, come at once! Miss Margaret seems so weak, as though she couldn’t scarcely breathe. I’m speaking from her room. Do—” The voice broke off; it was no longer at the mouthpiece, but I heard it cry out, in deathly terror: “Oh, God, who—” And then the telephone must have been dropped.

No further sound came through. I replaced the receiver, and after a moment’s pause rang up the Exchange, in my impatience violently rattling the instrument.

“Number, please? Number, please?” expostulated the Exchange. I gave the number several times, but there was nothing to be heard beyond the intermittent ringing of an unanswered call . . . I pictured the overturned telephone lying on the floor of Margaret’s room. What had happened?

Leaping into my car, I drove to the Manor House. The front door stood wide open, but no one was about. I did not meet anyone on my way to Margaret’s room. The whole house was deserted.

What I saw when I approached the bed no one could attempt to describe and keep their reason. It writhed and moaned and seemed to breathe with terrible difficulty. I averted my eyes from the face, and with the automatic professional instinct to preserve life, administered an injection.

The thing on the bed gave a convulsive shudder and I heard the fast, thick breathing of some desperate struggle. Determined not to see the usurper again, I kept my eyes shut. I dared not look! Then there was silence, followed by a gentle sigh.

Something in that gentle sigh impelled me to open my eyes. Ineffable relief flowed over me. Like pure silver rising through primeval slime, the being I loved had struggled through and triumphed over the awful spiritual hideousness of that invasion. It was Margaret’s face that smiled at me. Her voice came sweet but hopelessly weak.

“It’s all right, darling,” she breathed, and in her voice was a tenderness I had never imagined. “It’s all right. I’ve won. It’s me, your Me. Don’t let me give way again. Keep me safe—”

Sure of her haven she gazed at me. Her hand clung to mine, and her lips smiled, but the strain of that final struggle had been too much for the already weakened heart. The eyelids fluttered up once or twice, as her clasp of my hand loosened. Almost inaudibly, but with an ecstasy of glimpsed peace, she breathed out the words: “‘Lapped in lead – lapped in lead—’” And something else I could not quite hear. I felt a last little clinging clutch at my hand, and with one or two long sighs the spirit I loved slipped from its beautiful lodging.

Some hours later I left the deserted house, and returned to the emptied world. Gratitude mingled with my grief; my broken heart was at peace, for I knew her to be unassailable. The long dread was at an end.

It is a desolate path I tread, but sometimes, when it seems most steep and bare, there comes, like a gentle wave washing against my tired brain, the soft assuagement of her voice murmuring: “‘Lapped in lead – lapped in lead’.” And again I hear the promise in the infinite tenderness of her whispered “darling”.

What were the words I failed to hear?

I often linger round her empty home. No smoke rises from the twisted chimneys, but pigeons still flutter and croon, and the grey house I once thought so aloof seems to receive me into an atmosphere of benign peace.

1 comment:

Sanguine Woods said...

Thank you for this. I am impressed by the prose style and the story is quite good. It reads like great literature.

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

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