(This story was first published in the author’s 1931 collection Someone in the Room.)
“Crutchley had been five days at the hotel when something strange happened. It was his custom to undress in the dark, because his windows were overlooked by a dozen others and, by first of all turning off the light, he was saved from drawing the great shutters. That night he was smoking while he undressed, and when he was in his pyjamas he went to one of the open windows to throw out the stub of his cigarette. Having done so he lingered, looking out.
The usual unnatural stillness brooded over the garden square, intensified now by the spell of the night. Somewhere in the sky the moon was shining, and a few stray silver beams dappled the top of the north wall. The plane tree stood like a living thing entranced. Not one of its lower branches stirred, and its leaves might have been carved out of jade. Just enough light filtered from the sky to make the features of the garden faintly visible. Crutchley looked where his cigarette had fallen and now lay like a glow-worm, and raised his eyes to one of the long green decrepit seats. With a faint, unreasonable thrill and a cold tingling of the nostrils he realized that somebody was sitting there.
As his eyes grew more used to the darkness the huddled form took the shape of a woman. She sat with her head turned away, one arm thrown along the sloping back of the seat, and her face resting against it. He said that her attitude was one of extreme dejection, of abject and complete despair.
Crutchley, you must understand, couldn’t see her at all clearly, although she was not a dozen yards distant. Her dress was dark, but he could make out none of its details save that something like a flimsy scarf or thick veil trailed over the shoulder nearest him. He stood watching her, pricked by a vague sense of pity and conscious that, if she looked up, he would hardly be visible to her beyond the window, and that, in any event, the still glowing stub of cigarette would explain his presence.
But she did not look up, she did not move at all while Crutchley stood watching. So still she was that it was hard for him to realize that she breathed. She seemed to have fallen completely under the spell of the garden in which nothing ever stirred, and the scene before Crutchley’s eyes might have been a nocturnal picture painted in oils.
Of course he made a guess or two about her. At the sight of anything unusual one’s subconscious mind immediately begins to speculate and to suggest theories. Here, thought Crutchley, was a woman with some great sorrow, who, before retiring to her room had come to sit in this quiet garden, and there, under the stars, had given way to her despair.
I don’t know how long Crutchley stood there, but probably it wasn’t for many seconds. Thought is swift and time is slow when one stands still watching a motionless scene. He owned that his curiosity was deeply intrigued, and it was intrigued in a somewhat unusual way. He found himself desiring less to know the reason of her despair than to see her face. He had a definite and urgent temptation to go out and look at her, to use force if necessary in turning her face so that he might look into her eyes. If you knew Crutchley at all well you must know that he was something more than ordinarily conventional. He concerned himself not only with what a gentleman ought to do but with what a gentleman ought to think. Thus when he came to realize that he was not only spying upon a strange woman’s grief, but actually feeling tempted to force himself upon her and stare into eyes which he guessed were blinded by tears, it was sufficient to tear him away from the window and send him padding across the floor to the high bed at the far end of the room.
But he made no effort to sleep. He lay listening, waiting for a sound from the other side of those windows. In that silence he knew he must hear the least sound outside. But for ten minutes he listened in vain, picturing to himself the woman still rigid in the same posture of despair. Presently he could bear it no longer. He jumped out of bed and went once more to the window. He told himself that it was human pity which drove him there. He walked heavily on his bare feet and he coughed. He made as much noise as he was reasonably able to make, hoping that she would hear and bestir herself. But when he reached the open window and looked out the seat was empty.
Crutchley stared at the empty seat, not quite crediting the evidence of his eyes. You see, according to his account, she couldn’t have touched that loose gravel with her foot without making a distinct sound and to re-enter the hotel she must have opened a door with creaking hinges and a noisy latch. Yet he had heard nothing, and the garden was empty. Next morning he even tried the experiment of walking on tiptoe across the garden to see if it could be done in utter silence, and he was satisfied that it could not. Even an old grey cat, which he found blinking on a window ledge, made the gravel clink under its pads when he called it to him to be stroked.
Well, he slept indifferently that night, and in the morning, when the chambermaid came in, he asked her who was the sad-looking lady whom he had seen sitting at night in the garden.”
-End of Excerpt-
The story is available for $.99 at Amazon in a small, nicely designed and illustrated digital format, part of A Ghost Story for Christmas series of five stories designed and illustrated by “Seth” (inset: cover by “Seth” 2015):
The story is also included in Volume 1: Waxwork & Other Stories by A. M. Burrage (Burrage Press 2013)—the first of 10 volumes (see inset of three covers and link below) that collect Burrage’s short fiction work in both print, and affordable digital editions ($5.99 at Amazon; publisher: Burrage Press, 2013):
The other 9 volumes in the series can be purchased via the authors Amazon page here (all 10 volumes have identical covers, but cast in a different pastel shade (see inset images below):
About the Author
Alfred McLelland Burrage was born in 1889. His father and uncle were both writers, primarily of boy’s fiction, and by age 16 AM Burrage had joined them and quickly became a master of the market publishing his stories regularly across a number of publications. By the start of the Great War Burrage was well established but in 1916 he was conscripted to fight on the Western Front, his experiences becoming the classic book War is War by Ex-Private X. For the remainder of his life Burrage was rarely printed in book form but continued to write and be published on a prodigious scale in magazines and newspapers. His supernatural stories are, by common consent, some of the best ever written. Succinct yet full of character each reveals a twist and a flavour that is unsettling…..sometimes menacing….always disturbing. In this volume we bring you – The Waxwork, The Case of Mr Ryalstone, One Who Saw, The Running Tide, The Oak Saplings, The Blue Bonnet, Through The Eyes Of A Child, Mr. Garshaw’s Companion, The Cottage In The Wood, The Strange Case of Dolly Frewan & The Sweeper.