Walter de la Mare, 1922
Originally published in The London Mercury.
I had heard rumours of Seaton’s aunt long before I actually encountered her. Seaton, in the hush of confidence, or at any little show of toleration on our part, would remark, ‘My aunt’, or ‘My old aunt, you know’, as if his relative might be a kind of cement to an entente cordiale.
He had an unusual quantity of pocket-money; or, at any rate, it was bestowed on him in unusually large amounts; and he spent it freely, though none of us would have described him as an ‘awfully generous chap’. ‘Hullo, Seaton,’ we would say, ‘the old Begum?’ At the beginning of term, too, he used to bring back surprising and exotic dainties in a box with a trick padlock that accompanied him from his first appearance at Gummidge’s in a billycock hat to the rather abrupt conclusion of his schooldays.
From a boy’s point of view he looked distastefully foreign with his yellowish skin, slow chocolate-coloured eyes, and lean weak figure. Merely for his looks he was treated by most of us true-blue Englishmen with condescension, hostility, or contempt. We used to call him ‘Pongo’, but without any much better excuse for the nickname than his skin. He was, that is, in one sense of the term what he assuredly was not in the other sense, a sport.
Seaton and I, as I may say, were never in any sense intimate at school; our orbits only intersected in class. I kept deliberately aloof from him. I felt vaguely he was a sneak, and remained quite unmollified by advances on his side, which, in a boy’s barbarous fashion, unless it suited me to be magnanimous, I haughtily ignored.
We were both of us quick-footed, and at Prisoner’s Base used occasionally to hide together. And so I best remember Seaton—his narrow watchful face in the dusk of a summer evening; his peculiar crouch, and his inarticulate whisperings and mumblings. Otherwise he played all games slackly and limply; used to stand and feed at his locker with a crony or two until his ‘tuck’ gave out; or waste his money on some outlandish fancy or other. He bought, for instance, a silver bangle, which he wore above his left elbow, until some of the fellows showed their masterly contempt of the practice by dropping it nearly red-hot down his neck.
It needed, therefore, a rather peculiar taste, and a rather rare kind of schoolboy courage and indifference to criticism, to be much associated with him. And I had neither the taste nor, probably, the courage. None the less, he did make advances, and on one memorable occasion went to the length of bestowing on me a whole pot of some outlandish mulberry-coloured jelly that had been duplicated in his term’s supplies. In the exuberance of my gratitude I promised to spend the next half-term holiday with him at his aunt’s house.
I had clean forgotten my promise when, two or three days before the holiday, he came up and triumphantly reminded me of it.
‘Well, to tell you the honest truth, Seaton, old chap——’ I began graciously: but he cut me short.
‘My aunt expects you,’ he said; ‘she is very glad you are coming. She’s sure to be quite decent to you, Withers.’
I looked at him in sheer astonishment; the emphasis was so uncalled for. It seemed to suggest an aunt not hitherto hinted at, and a friendly feeling on Seaton’s side that was far more disconcerting than welcome.
We reached his aunt’s house partly by train, partly by a lift in an empty farm-cart, and partly by walking. It was a whole-day holiday, and we were to sleep the night; he lent me extraordinary night-gear, I remember. The village street was unusually wide, and was fed from a green by two converging roads, with an inn, and a high green sign at the corner. About a hundred yards down the street was a chemist’s shop—a Mr. Tanner’s. We descended the two steps into his dusky and odorous interior to buy, I remember, some rat poison. A little beyond the chemist’s was the forge. You then walked along a very narrow path, under a fairly high wall, nodding here and there with weeds and tufts of grass, and so came to the iron garden-gates, and saw the high flat house behind its huge sycamore. A coach-house stood on the left of the house, and on the right a gate led into a kind of rambling orchard. The lawn lay away over to the left again, and at the bottom (for the whole garden sloped gently to a sluggish and rushy pond-like stream) was a meadow.
We arrived at noon, and entered the gates out of the hot dust beneath the glitter of the dark-curtained windows. Seaton led me at once through the little garden-gate to show me his tadpole pond, swarming with what (being myself not in the least interested in low life) seemed to me the most horrible creatures—of all shapes, consistencies, and sizes, but with which Seaton was obviously on the most intimate of terms. I can see his absorbed face now as, squatting on his heels he fished the slimy things out in his sallow palms. Wearying at last of these pets, we loitered about awhile in an aimless fashion. Seaton seemed to be listening, or at any rate waiting, for something to happen or for someone to come. But nothing did happen and no one came.
That was just like Seaton. Anyhow, the first view I got of his aunt was when, at the summons of a distant gong, we turned from the garden, very hungry and thirsty, to go into luncheon. We were approaching the house, when Seaton suddenly came to a standstill. Indeed, I have always had the impression that he plucked at my sleeve. Something, at least, seemed to catch me back, as it were, as he cried, ‘Look out, there she is!’
She was standing at an upper window which opened wide on a hinge, and at first sight she looked an excessively tall and overwhelming figure. This, however, was mainly because the window reached all but to the floor of her bedroom. She was in reality rather an undersized woman, in spite of her long face and big head. She must have stood, I think, unusually still, with eyes fixed on us, though this impression may be due to Seaton’s sudden warning and to my consciousness of the cautious and subdued air that had fallen on him at sight of her. I know that without the least reason in the world I felt a kind of guiltiness, as if I had been ‘caught’. There was a silvery star pattern sprinkled on her black silk dress, and even from the ground I could see the immense coils of her hair and the rings on her left hand which was held fingering the small jet buttons of her bodice. She watched our united advance without stirring, until, imperceptibly, her eyes raised and lost themselves in the distance, so that it was out of an assumed reverie that she appeared suddenly to awaken to our presence beneath her when we drew close to the house.
‘So this is your friend, Mr. Smithers, I suppose?’ she said, bobbing to me.
‘Withers, aunt,’ said Seaton.
‘It’s much the same,’ she said, with eyes fixed on me. ‘Come in, Mr. Withers, and bring him along with you.’
She continued to gaze at me—at least, I think she did so. I know that the fixity of her scrutiny and her ironical ‘Mr.’ made me feel peculiarly uncomfortable. None the less she was extremely kind and attentive to me, though, no doubt, her kindness and attention showed up more vividly against her complete neglect of Seaton. Only one remark that I have any recollection of she made to him: ‘When I look on my nephew, Mr. Smithers, I realize that dust we are, and dust shall become. You are hot, dirty, and incorrigible, Arthur.’
She sat at the head of the table, Seaton at the foot, and I, before a wide waste of damask tablecloth, between them. It was an old and rather close dining-room, with windows thrown wide to the green garden and a wonderful cascade of fading roses. Miss Seaton’s great chair faced this window, so that its rose-reflected light shone full on her yellowish face, and on just such chocolate eyes as my schoolfellow’s, except that hers were more than half-covered by unusually long and heavy lids.
There she sat, steadily eating, with those sluggish eyes fixed for the most part on my face; above them stood the deep-lined fork between her eyebrows; and above that the wide expanse of a remarkable brow beneath its strange steep bank of hair. The lunch was copious, and consisted, I remember, of all such dishes as are generally considered too rich and too good for the schoolboy digestion—lobster mayonnaise, cold game sausages, an immense veal and ham pie farced with eggs, truffles, and numberless delicious flavours; besides kickshaws, creams and sweetmeats. We even had a wine, a half-glass of old darkish sherry each.
Miss Seaton enjoyed and indulged an enormous appetite. Her example and a natural schoolboy voracity soon overcame my nervousness of her, even to the extent of allowing me to enjoy to the best of my bent so rare a spread. Seaton was singularly modest; the greater part of his meal consisted of almonds and raisins, which he nibbled surreptitiously and as if he found difficulty in swallowing them.
I don’t mean that Miss Seaton ‘conversed’ with me. She merely scattered trenchant remarks and now and then twinkled a baited question over my head. But her face was like a dense and involved accompaniment to her talk. She presently dropped the ‘Mr.’, to my intense relief, and called me now Withers, or Wither, now Smithers, and even once towards the close of the meal distinctly Johnson, though how on earth my name suggested it, or whose face mine had reanimated in memory, I cannot conceive.
‘And is Arthur a good boy at school, Mr. Wither?’ was one of her many questions. ‘Does he please his masters? Is he first in his class? What does the reverend Dr. Gummidge think of him, eh?’
I knew she was jeering at him, but her face was adamant against the least flicker of sarcasm or facetiousness. I gazed fixedly at a blushing crescent of lobster.
‘I think you’re eighth, aren’t you, Seaton?’
Seaton moved his small pupils towards his aunt. But she continued to gaze with a kind of concentrated detachment at me.
‘Arthur will never make a brilliant scholar, I fear,’ she said, lifting a dexterously burdened fork to her wide mouth….
After luncheon she preceded me up to my bedroom. It was a jolly little bedroom, with a brass fender and rugs and a polished floor, on which it was possible, I afterwards found, to play ‘snow-shoes’. Over the washstand was a little black-framed water-colour drawing, depicting a large eye with an extremely fish-like intensity in the spark of light on the dark pupil; and in ‘illuminated’ lettering beneath was printed very minutely, ‘Thou God Seest ME’, followed by a long looped monogram, ‘S.S.’, in the corner. The other pictures were all of the sea: brigs on blue water; a schooner overtopping chalk cliffs; a rocky island of prodigious steepness, with two tiny sailors dragging a monstrous boat up a shelf of beach.
‘This is the room, Withers, my poor dear brother William died in when a boy. Admire the view!’
I looked out of the window across the tree-tops. It was a day hot with sunshine over the green fields, and the cattle were standing swishing their tails in the shallow water. But the view at the moment was no doubt made more vividly impressive by the apprehension that she would presently enquire after my luggage, and I had brought not even a toothbrush. I need have had no fear. Hers was not that highly civilized type of mind that is stuffed with sharp, material details. Nor could her ample presence be described as in the least motherly.
‘I would never consent to question a schoolfellow behind my nephew’s back,’ she said, standing in the middle of the room, ‘but tell me, Smithers, why is Arthur so unpopular? You, I understand, are his only close friend.’ She stood in a dazzle of sun, and out of it her eyes regarded me with such leaden penetration beneath their thick lids that I doubt if my face concealed the least thought from her. ‘But there, there,’ she added very suavely, stooping her head a little, ‘don’t trouble to answer me. I never extort an answer. Boys are queer fish. Brains might perhaps have suggested his washing his hands before luncheon; but—not my choice, Smithers. God forbid! And now, perhaps, you would like to go into the garden again. I cannot actually see from here, but I should not be surprised if Arthur is now skulking behind that hedge.’
He was. I saw his head come out and take a rapid glance at the windows.
‘Join him, Mr. Smithers; we shall meet again, I hope, at the tea-table. The afternoon I spend in retirement.’
Whether or not, Seaton and I had not been long engaged with the aid of two green switches in riding round and round a lumbering old grey horse we found in the meadow, before a rather bunched-up figure appeared, walking along the field-path on the other side of the water, with a magenta parasol studiously lowered in our direction throughout her slow progress, as if that were the magnetic needle and we the fixed Pole. Seaton at once lost all nerve and interest. At the next lurch of the old mare’s heels he toppled over into the grass, and I slid off the sleek broad back to join him where he stood, rubbing his shoulder and sourly watching the rather pompous figure till it was out of sight.
‘Was that your aunt, Seaton?’ I enquired; but not till then.
‘Why didn’t she take any notice of us, then?’
‘She never does.’
‘Oh, she knows all right, without; that’s the dam awful part of it.’ Seaton was one of the very few fellows at Gummidge’s who had the ostentation to use bad language. He had suffered for it too. But it wasn’t, I think, bravado. I believe he really felt certain things more intensely than most of the other fellows, and they were generally things that fortunate and average people do not feel at all—the peculiar quality, for instance, of the British schoolboy’s imagination.
‘I tell you, Withers,’ he went on moodily, slinking across the meadow with his hands covered up in his pockets, ‘she sees everything. And what she doesn’t see she knows without.’
‘But how?’ I said, not because I was much interested, but because the afternoon was so hot and tiresome and purposeless, and it seemed more of a bore to remain silent. Seaton turned gloomily and spoke in a very low voice.
‘Don’t appear to be talking of her, if you wouldn’t mind. It’s—because she’s in league with the Devil.’ He nodded his head and stooped to pick up a round flat pebble. ‘I tell you,’ he said, still stooping, ‘you fellows don’t realize what it is. I know I’m a bit close and all that. But so would you be if you had that old hag listening to every thought you think.’
I looked at him, then turned and surveyed one by one the windows of the house.
‘Where’s your pater?’ I said awkwardly.
‘Dead, ages and ages ago, and my mother too. She’s not my aunt even by rights.’
‘What is she, then?’
‘I mean she’s not my mother’s sister, because my grandmother married twice; and she’s one of the first lot. I don’t know what you call her, but anyhow she’s not my real aunt.’
‘She gives you plenty of pocket-money.’
Seaton looked steadfastly at me out of his flat eyes. ‘She can’t give me what’s mine. When I come of age half of the whole lot will be mine; and what’s more’—he turned his back on the house—’I’ll make her hand over every blessed shilling of it.’
I put my hands in my pockets and stared at Seaton; ‘Is it much?’
‘Who told you?’ He got suddenly very angry; a darkish red came into his cheeks, his eyes glistened, but he made no answer, and we loitered listlessly about the garden until it was time for tea….
Seaton’s aunt was wearing an extraordinary kind of lace jacket when we sidled sheepishly into the drawing-room together. She greeted me with a heavy and protracted smile, and bade me bring a chair close to the little table.
‘I hope Arthur has made you feel at home,’ she said as she handed me my cup in her crooked hand. ‘He don’t talk much to me; but then I’m an old woman. You must come again, Wither, and draw him out of his shell. You old snail!’ She wagged her head at Seaton, who sat munching cake and watching her intently.
‘And we must correspond, perhaps.’ She nearly shut her eyes at me. ‘You must write and tell me everything behind the creature’s back.’ I confess I found her rather disquieting company. The evening drew on. Lamps were brought in by a man with a nondescript face and very quiet footsteps. Seaton was told to bring out the chess-men. And we played a game, she and I, with her big chin thrust over the board at every move as she gloated over the pieces and occasionally croaked ‘Check!’—after which she would sit back inscrutably staring at me. But the game was never finished. She simply hemmed me in with a gathering cloud of pieces that held me impotent, and yet one and all refused to administer to my poor flustered old king a merciful coup de grâce.
‘There,’ she said, as the clock struck ten—’a drawn game, Withers. We are very evenly matched. A very creditable defence, Withers. You know your room. There’s supper on a tray in the dining-room. Don’t let the creature over-eat himself. The gong will sound three-quarters of an hour before a punctual breakfast.’ She held out her cheek to Seaton, and he kissed it with obvious perfunctoriness. With me she shook hands.
‘An excellent game,’ she said cordially, ‘but my memory is poor, and’—she swept the pieces helter-skelter into the box—’the result will never be known.’ She raised her great head far back. ‘Eh?’
It was a kind of challenge, and I could only murmur: ‘Oh I was absolutely in a hole, you know!’ when she burst out laughing and waved us both out of the room.
Seaton and I stood and ate our supper, with one candlestick to light us, in a corner of the dining-room. ‘Well, and how would you like it?’ he said very softly, after cautiously poking his head round the doorway.
‘Being spied on—every blessed thing you do and think?’
‘I shouldn’t like it at all,’ I said, ‘if she does.’
‘And yet you let her smash you up at chess!’
‘I didn’t let her!’ I said indignantly.
‘Well, you funked it, then.’
‘And I didn’t funk it either,’ I said; ‘she’s so jolly clever with her knights.’ Seaton stared at the candle. ‘Knights,’ he said slowly. ‘You wait, that’s all.’ And we went upstairs to bed.
I had not been long in bed, I think, when I was cautiously awakened by a touch on my shoulder. And there was Seaton’s face in the candlelight—and his eyes looking into mine.
‘What’s up?’ I said, lurching on to my elbow.
‘Ssh! Don’t scurry,’ he whispered. ‘She’ll hear. I’m sorry for waking you, but I didn’t think you’d be asleep so soon.’
‘Why, what’s the time, then?’ Seaton wore, what was then rather unusual, a night-suit, and he hauled his big silver watch out of the pocket in his jacket.
‘It’s a quarter to twelve. I never get to sleep before twelve—not here.’
‘What do you do, then?’
‘Oh, I read: and listen.’
Seaton stared into his candle-flame as if he were listening even then. ‘You can’t guess what it is. All you read in ghost stories, that’s all rot. You can’t see much, Withers, but you know all the same.’
‘Why, that they’re there.’
‘Who’s there?’ I asked fretfully, glancing at the door.
‘Why, in the house. It swarms with ’em. Just you stand still and listen outside my bedroom door in the middle of the night. I have, dozens of times; they’re all over the place.’
‘Look here, Seaton,’ I said, ‘you asked me to come here, and I didn’t mind chucking up a leave just to oblige you and because I’d promised; but don’t get talking a lot of rot, that’s all, or you’ll know the difference when we get back.’
‘Don’t fret,’ he said coldly, turning away. ‘I shan’t be at school long. And what’s more, you’re here now, and there isn’t anybody else to talk to. I’ll chance the other.’
‘Look here, Seaton,’ I said, ‘you may think you’re going to scare me with a lot of stuff about voices and all that. But I’ll just thank you to clear out; and you may please yourself about pottering about all night.’
He made no answer; he was standing by the dressing-table looking across his candle into the looking-glass; he turned and stared slowly round the walls.
‘Even this room’s nothing more than a coffin. I suppose she told you—”It’s all exactly the same as when my brother William died”—trust her for that! And good luck to him, say I. Look at that.’ He raised his candle close to the little water-colour I have mentioned. ‘There’s hundreds of eyes like that in this house; and even if God does see you, He takes precious good care you don’t see Him. And it’s just the same with them. I tell you what, Withers, I’m getting sick of all this. I shan’t stand it much longer.’
The house was silent within and without, and even in the yellowish radiance of the candle a faint silver showed through the open window on my blind. I slipped off the bedclothes, wide awake, and sat irresolute on the bedside.
‘I know you’re only guying me,’ I said angrily, ‘but why is the house full of—what you say? Why do you hear—what you do hear? Tell me that, you silly fool!’
Seaton sat down on a chair and rested his candlestick on his knee. He blinked at me calmly. ‘She brings them,’ he said, with lifted eyebrows.
‘Who? Your aunt?’
‘I told you,’ he answered pettishly. ‘She’s in league. You don’t know. She as good as killed my mother; I know that. But it’s not only her by a long chalk. She just sucks you dry. I know. And that’s what she’ll do for me; because I’m like her—like my mother, I mean. She simply hates to see me alive. I wouldn’t be like that old she-wolf for a million pounds. And so’—he broke off, with a comprehensive wave of his candlestick—’they’re always here. Ah, my boy, wait till she’s dead! She’ll hear something then, I can tell you. It’s all very well now, but wait till then! I wouldn’t be in her shoes when she has to clear out—for something. Don’t you go and believe I care for ghosts, or whatever you like to call them. We’re all in the same box. We’re all under her thumb.’
He was looking almost nonchalantly at the ceiling at the moment, when I saw his face change, saw his eyes suddenly drop like shot birds and fix themselves on the cranny of the door he had left just ajar. Even from where I sat I could see his cheek change colour; it went greenish. He crouched without stirring, like an animal. And I, scarcely daring to breathe, sat with creeping skin, sourly watching him. His hands relaxed, and he gave a kind of sigh.
‘Was that one?’ I whispered, with a timid show of jauntiness. He looked round, opened his mouth, and nodded. ‘What?’ I said. He jerked his thumb with meaningful eyes, and I knew that he meant that his aunt had been there listening at our door cranny.
‘Look here, Seaton,’ I said once more, wriggling to my feet. ‘You may think I’m a jolly noodle; just as you please. But your aunt has been civil to me and all that, and I don’t believe a word you say about her, that’s all, and never did. Every fellow’s a bit off his pluck at night, and you may think it a fine sport to try your rubbish on me. I heard your aunt come upstairs before I fell asleep. And I’ll bet you a level tanner she’s in bed now. What’s more, you can keep your blessed ghosts to yourself. It’s a guilty conscience, I should think.’
Seaton looked at me intently, without answering for a moment. ‘I’m not a liar, Withers; but I’m not going to quarrel either. You’re the only chap I care a button for; or, at any rate, you’re the only chap that’s ever come here; and it’s something to tell a fellow what you feel. I don’t care a fig for fifty thousand ghosts, although I swear on my solemn oath that I know they’re here. But she’—he turned deliberately—’you laid a tanner she’s in bed, Withers; well, I know different. She’s never in bed much of the night, and I’ll prove it, too, just to show you I’m not such a nolly as you think I am. Come on!’
‘Come on where?’
‘Why, to see.’
I hesitated. He opened a large cupboard and took out a small dark dressing-gown and a kind of shawl-jacket. He threw the jacket on the bed and put on the gown. His dusky face was colourless, and I could see by the way he fumbled at the sleeves he was shivering. But it was no good showing the white feather now. So I threw the tasselled shawl over my shoulders and, leaving our candle brightly burning on the chair, we went out together and stood in the corridor.
‘Now then, listen!’ Seaton whispered.
We stood leaning over the staircase. It was like leaning over a well, so still and chill the air was all around us. But presently, as I suppose happens in most old houses, began to echo and answer in my ears a medley of infinite small stirrings and whisperings. Now out of the distance an old timber would relax its fibres, or a scurry die away behind the perishing wainscot. But amid and behind such sounds as these I seemed to begin to be conscious, as it were, of the lightest of footfalls, sounds as faint as the vanishing remembrance of voices in a dream. Seaton was all in obscurity except his face; out of that his eyes gleamed darkly, watching me.
‘You’d hear, too, in time, my fine soldier,’ he muttered. ‘Come on!’
He descended the stairs, slipping his lean fingers lightly along the balusters. He turned to the right at the loop, and I followed him barefooted along a thickly carpeted corridor. At the end stood a door ajar. And from here we very stealthily and in complete blackness ascended five narrow stairs. Seaton, with immense caution, slowly pushed open a door, and we stood together, looking into a great pool of duskiness, out of which, lit by the feeble clearness of a night-light, rose a vast bed. A heap of clothes lay on the floor; beside them two slippers dozed, with noses each to each, a foot or two apart. Somewhere a little clock ticked huskily. There was a close smell; lavender and eau de Cologne, mingled with the fragrance of ancient sachets, soap, and drugs. Yet it was a scent even more peculiarly compounded than that.
And the bed! I stared warily in; it was mounded gigantically, and it was empty.
Seaton turned a vague pale face, all shadows: ‘What did I say?’ he muttered. ‘Who’s—who’s the fool now, I say? How are we going to get back without meeting her, I say? Answer me that! Oh, I wish to God you hadn’t come here, Withers.’
He stood audibly shivering in his skimpy gown, and could hardly speak for his teeth chattering. And very distinctly, in the hush that followed his whisper, I heard approaching a faint unhurried voluminous rustle. Seaton clutched my arm, dragged me to the right across the room to a large cupboard, and drew the door close to on us. And, presently, as with bursting lungs I peeped out into the long, low, curtained bedroom, waddled in that wonderful great head and body. I can see her now, all patched and lined with shadow, her tied-up hair (she must have had enormous quantities of it for so old a woman), her heavy lids above those flat, slow, vigilant eyes. She just passed across my ken in the vague dusk; but the bed was out of sight.
We waited on and on, listening to the clock’s muffled ticking. Not the ghost of a sound rose up from the great bed. Either she lay archly listening or slept a sleep serener than an infant’s. And when, it seemed, we had been hours in hiding and were cramped, chilled, and half suffocated, we crept out on all fours, with terror knocking at our ribs, and so down the five narrow stairs and back to the little candle-lit blue-and-gold bedroom.
Once there, Seaton gave in. He sat livid on a chair with closed eyes.
‘Here,’ I said, shaking his arm, ‘I’m going to bed; I’ve had enough of this foolery; I’m going to bed.’ His lips quivered, but he made no answer. I poured out some water into my basin and, with that cold pictured azure eye fixed on us, be-spattered Seaton’s sallow face and forehead and dabbled his hair. He presently sighed and opened fish-like eyes.
‘Come on!’ I said. ‘Don’t get shamming, there’s a good chap. Get on my back, if you like, and I’ll carry you into your bedroom.’
He waved me away and stood up. So, with my candle in one hand, I took him under the arm and walked him along according to his direction down the corridor. His was a much dingier room than mine, and littered with boxes, paper, cages, and clothes. I huddled him into bed and turned to go. And suddenly, I can hardly explain it now, a kind of cold and deadly terror swept over me. I almost ran out of the room, with eyes fixed rigidly in front of me, blew out my candle, and buried my head under the bedclothes.
When I awoke, roused not by a gong, but by a long-continued tapping at my door, sunlight was raying in on cornice and bedpost, and birds were singing in the garden. I got up, ashamed of the night’s folly, dressed quickly, and went downstairs. The breakfast room was sweet with flowers and fruit and honey. Seaton’s aunt was standing in the garden beside the open french window, feeding a great flutter of birds. I watched her for a moment, unseen. Her face was set in a deep reverie beneath the shadow of a big loose sun-hat. It was deeply lined, crooked, and, in a way I can’t describe, fixedly vacant and strange. I coughed politely, and she turned with a prodigious smiling grimace to ask how I had slept. And in that mysterious fashion by which we learn each other’s secret thoughts without a syllable said, I knew that she had followed every word and movement of the night before, and was triumphing over my affected innocence and ridiculing my friendly and too easy advances.
We returned to school, Seaton and I, lavishly laden, and by rail all the way. I made no reference to the obscure talk we had had, and resolutely refused to meet his eyes or to take up the hints he let fall. I was relieved—and yet I was sorry—to be going back, and strode on as fast as I could from the station, with Seaton almost trotting at my heels. But he insisted on buying more fruit and sweets—my share of which I accepted with a very bad grace. It was uncomfortably like a bribe; and, after all, I had no quarrel with his rum old aunt, and hadn’t really believed half the stuff he had told me.
I saw as little of him as I could after that. He never referred to our visit or resumed his confidences, though in class I would sometimes catch his eye fixed on mine, full of a mute understanding, which I easily affected not to understand. He left Gummidge’s, as I have said, rather abruptly, though I never heard of anything to his discredit. And I did not see him or have any news of him again till by chance we met one summer afternoon in the Strand.
He was dressed rather oddly in a coat too large for him and a bright silky tie. But we instantly recognized one another under the awning of a cheap jeweller’s shop. He immediately attached himself to me and dragged me off, not too cheerfully, to lunch with him at an Italian restaurant near by. He chattered about our old school, which he remembered only with dislike and disgust; told me cold-bloodedly of the disastrous fate of one or two of the older fellows who had been among his chief tormentors; insisted on an expensive wine and the whole gamut of the foreign menu; and finally informed me, with a good deal of niggling, that he had come up to town to buy an engagement-ring.
And of course: ‘How is your aunt?’ I enquired at last.
He seemed to have been awaiting the question. It fell like a stone into a deep pool, so many expressions flitted across his long, sad, sallow, un-English face.
‘She’s aged a good deal,’ he said softly, and broke off.
‘She’s been very decent,’ he continued presently after, and paused again. ‘In a way.’ He eyed me fleetingly. ‘I dare say you heard that—she—that is, that we—had lost a good deal of money.’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Oh, yes!’ said Seaton, and paused again.
And somehow, poor fellow, I knew in the clink and clatter of glass and voices that he had lied to me; that he did not possess, and never had possessed, a penny beyond what his aunt had squandered on his too ample allowance of pocket-money.
‘And the ghosts?’ I enquired quizzically.
He grew instantly solemn, and, though it may have been my fancy, slightly yellowed. But ‘You are making game of me, Withers,’ was all he said.
He asked for my address, and I rather reluctantly gave him my card.
‘Look here, Withers,’ he said, as we stood together in the sunlight on the kerb, saying good-bye, ‘here I am, and—and it’s all very well. I’m not perhaps as fanciful as I was. But you are practically the only friend I have on earth—except Alice…. And there—to make a clean breast of it, I’m not sure that my aunt cares much about my getting married. She doesn’t say so, of course. You know her well enough for that.’ He looked sidelong at the rattling gaudy traffic.
‘What I was going to say is this: Would you mind coming down? You needn’t stay the night unless you please, though, of course, you know you would be awfully welcome. But I should like you to meet my—to meet Alice; and then, perhaps, you might tell me your honest opinion of—of the other too.’
I vaguely demurred. He pressed me. And we parted with a half promise that I would come. He waved his ball-topped cane at me and ran off in his long jacket after a bus.
A letter arrived soon after, in his small weak handwriting, giving me full particulars regarding route and trains. And without the least curiosity, even perhaps with some little annoyance that chance should have thrown us together again, I accepted his invitation and arrived one hazy midday at his out-of-the-way station to find him sitting on a low seat under a clump of ‘double’ hollyhocks, awaiting me.
He looked preoccupied and singularly listless; but seemed, none the less, to be pleased to see me.
We walked up the village street, past the little dingy apothecary’s and the empty forge, and, as on my first visit, skirted the house together, and, instead of entering by the front door, made our way down the green path into the garden at the back. A pale haze of cloud muffled the sun; the garden lay in a grey shimmer—its old trees, its snap-dragoned faintly glittering walls. But now there was an air of slovenliness where before all had been neat and methodical. In a patch of shallowly dug soil stood a worn-down spade leaning against a tree. There was an old decayed wheelbarrow. The roses had run to leaf and briar; the fruit-trees were unpruned. The goddess of neglect had made it her secret resort.
‘You ain’t much of a gardener, Seaton,’ I said at last, with a sigh of relief.
‘I think, do you know, I like it best like this,’ said Seaton. ‘We haven’t any man now, of course. Can’t afford it.’ He stood staring at his little dark oblong of freshly turned earth. ‘And it always seems to me,’ he went on ruminatingly, ‘that, after all, we are all nothing better than interlopers on the earth, disfiguring and staining wherever we go. It may sound shocking blasphemy to say so; but then it’s different here, you see. We are further away.’
‘To tell you the truth, Seaton, I don’t quite see,’ I said; ‘but it isn’t a new philosophy, is it? Anyhow, it’s a precious beastly one.’
‘It’s only what I think,’ he replied, with all his odd old stubborn meekness. ‘And one thinks as one is.’
We wandered on together, talking little, and still with that expression of uneasy vigilance on Seaton’s face. He pulled out his watch as we stood gazing idly over the green meadows and the dark motionless bulrushes.
‘I think, perhaps, it’s nearly time for lunch,’ he said. ‘Would you like to come in?’
We turned and walked slowly towards the house, across whose windows I confess my own eyes, too, went restlessly meandering in search of its rather disconcerting inmate. There was a pathetic look of bedraggledness, of want of means and care, rust and overgrowth and faded paint. Seaton’s aunt, a little to my relief, did not share our meal. So he carved the cold meat, and dispatched a heaped-up plate by an elderly servant for his aunt’s private consumption. We talked little and in half-suppressed tones, and sipped some Madeira which Seaton after listening for a moment or two fetched out of the great mahogany sideboard.
I played him a dull and effortless game of chess, yawning between the moves he himself made almost at haphazard, and with attention elsewhere engaged. Towards five o’clock came the sound of a distant ring, and Seaton jumped up, overturning the board, and so ended a game that else might have fatuously continued to this day. He effusively excused himself, and after some little while returned with a slim, dark, pale-faced girl of about nineteen, in a white gown and hat, to whom I was presented with some little nervousness as his ‘dear old friend and schoolfellow’.
We talked on in the golden afternoon light, still, as it seemed to me, and even in spite of our efforts to be lively and gay, in a half-suppressed, lack-lustre fashion. We all seemed, if it were not my fancy, to be expectant, to be almost anxiously awaiting an arrival, the appearance of someone whose image filled our collective consciousness. Seaton talked least of all, and in a restless interjectory way, as he continually fidgeted from chair to chair. At last he proposed a stroll in the garden before the sun should have quite gone down.
Alice walked between us. Her hair and eyes were conspicuously dark against the whiteness of her gown. She carried herself not ungracefully, and yet with peculiarly little movement of her arms and body, and answered us both without turning her head. There was a curious provocative reserve in that impassive melancholy face. It seemed to be haunted by some tragic influence of which she herself was unaware.
And yet somehow I knew—I believe we all knew—that this walk, this discussion of their future plans was a futility. I had nothing to base such scepticism on, except only a vague sense of oppression, a foreboding consciousness of some inert invincible power in the background, to whom optimistic plans and love-making and youth are as chaff and thistledown. We came back, silent, in the last light. Seaton’s aunt was there—under an old brass lamp. Her hair was as barbarously massed and curled as ever. Her eyelids, I think, hung even a little heavier in age over their slow-moving inscrutable pupils. We filed in softly out of the evening, and I made my bow.
‘In this short interval, Mr. Withers,’ she remarked amiably, ‘you have put off youth, put on the man. Dear me, how sad it is to see the young days vanishing! Sit down. My nephew tells me you met by chance—or act of Providence, shall we call it?—and in my beloved Strand! You, I understand, are to be best man—yes, best man! Or am I divulging secrets?’ She surveyed Arthur and Alice with overwhelming graciousness. They sat apart on two low chairs and smiled in return.
‘And Arthur—how do you think Arthur is looking?’
‘I think he looks very much in need of a change,’ I said.
‘A change! Indeed?’ She all but shut her eyes at me and with an exaggerated sentimentality shook her head. ‘My dear Mr. Withers! Are we not all in need of a change in this fleeting, fleeting world?’ She mused over the remark like a connoisseur. ‘And you,’ she continued, turning abruptly to Alice, ‘I hope you pointed out to Mr. Withers all my pretty bits?’
‘We only walked round the garden,’ the girl replied; then, glancing at Seaton, added almost inaudibly, ‘it’s a very beautiful evening.’
‘Is it?’ said the old lady, starting up violently. ‘Then on this very beautiful evening we will go in to supper. Mr. Withers, your arm; Arthur, bring your bride.’
We were a queer quartet, I thought to myself, as I solemnly led the way into the faded, chilly dining-room, with this indefinable old creature leaning wooingly on my arm—the large flat bracelet on the yellow-laced wrist. She fumed a little, breathing heavily, but as if with an effort of the mind rather than of the body; for she had grown much stouter and yet little more proportionate. And to talk into that great white face, so close to mine, was a queer experience in the dim light of the corridor, and even in the twinkling crystal of the candles. She was naïve—appallingly naïve; she was crafty and challenging; she was even arch; and all these in the brief, rather puffy passage from one room to the other, with these two tongue-tied children bringing up the rear. The meal was tremendous. I have never seen such a monstrous salad. But the dishes were greasy and over-spiced, and were indifferently cooked. One thing only was quite unchanged—my hostess’s appetite was as Gargantuan as ever. The heavy silver candelabra that lighted us stood before her high-backed chair. Seaton sat a little removed, his plate almost in darkness.
And throughout this prodigious meal his aunt talked, mainly to me, mainly at him, but with an occasional satirical sally at Alice and muttered explosions of reprimand to the servant. She had aged, and yet, if it be not nonsense to say so, seemed no older. I suppose to the Pyramids a decade is but as the rustling down of a handful of dust. And she reminded me of some such unshakable prehistoricism. She certainly was an amazing talker—rapid, egregious, with a delivery that was perfectly overwhelming. As for Seaton—her flashes of silence were for him. On her enormous volubility would suddenly fall a hush: acid sarcasm would be left implied; and she would sit softly moving her great head, with eyes fixed full in a dreamy smile; but with her whole attention, one could see, slowly, joyously absorbing his mute discomfiture.
She confided in us her views on a theme vaguely occupying at the moment, I suppose, all our minds. ‘We have barbarous institutions, and so must put up, I suppose, with a never-ending procession of fools—of fools ad infinitum. Marriage, Mr. Withers, was instituted in the privacy of a garden; sub rosa, as it were. Civilization flaunts it in the glare of day. The dull marry the poor; the rich the effete; and so our New Jerusalem is peopled with naturals, plain and coloured, at either end. I detest folly; I detest still more (if I must be frank, dear Arthur) mere cleverness. Mankind has simply become a tailless host of uninstinctive animals. We should never have taken to Evolution, Mr. Withers. “Natural Selection!”—little gods and fishes!—the deaf for the dumb. We should have used our brains—intellectual pride, the ecclesiastics call it. And by brains I mean—what do I mean, Alice?—I mean, my dear child,’ and she laid two gross fingers on Alice’s narrow sleeve, ‘I mean courage. Consider it, Arthur. I read that the scientific world is once more beginning to be afraid of spiritual agencies. Spiritual agencies that tap, and actually float, bless their hearts! I think just one more of those mulberries—thank you.
‘They talk about “blind Love”,’ she ran on derisively as she helped herself, her eyes roving over the dish, ‘but why blind? I think, Mr. Withers, from weeping over its rickets. After all, it is we plain women that triumph, is it not so—beyond the mockery of time. Alice, now! Fleeting, fleeting is youth, my child. What’s that you were confiding to your plate, Arthur? Satirical boy. He laughs at his old aunt: nay, but thou didst laugh. He detests all sentiment. He whispers the most acid asides. Come, my love, we will leave these cynics; we will go and commiserate with each other on our sex. The choice of two evils, Mr. Smithers!’ I opened the door, and she swept out as if borne on a torrent of unintelligible indignation; and Arthur and I were left in the clear four-flamed light alone.
For a while we sat in silence. He shook his head at my cigarette-case, and I lit a cigarette. Presently he fidgeted in his chair and poked his head forward into the light. He paused to rise, and shut again the shut door.
‘How long will you be?’ he asked me.
‘Oh, it’s not that!’ he said, in some confusion. ‘Of course, I like to be with her. But it’s not that. The truth is, Withers, I don’t care about leaving her too long with my aunt.’
I hesitated. He looked at me questioningly.
‘Look here, Seaton,’ I said, ‘you know well enough that I don’t want to interfere in your affairs, or to offer advice where it is not wanted. But don’t you think perhaps you may not treat your aunt quite in the right way? As one gets old, you know, a little give and take. I have an old godmother, or something of the kind. She’s a bit queer, too…. A little allowance; it does no harm. But hang it all, I’m no preacher.’
He sat down with his hands in his pockets and still with his eyes fixed almost incredulously on mine. ‘How?’ he said.
‘Well, my dear fellow, if I’m any judge—mind, I don’t say that I am—but I can’t help thinking she thinks you don’t care for her; and perhaps takes your silence for—for bad temper. She has been very decent to you, hasn’t she?’
‘”Decent”? My God!’ said Seaton.
I smoked on in silence; but he continued to look at me with that peculiar concentration I remembered of old.
‘I don’t think, perhaps, Withers,’ he began presently, ‘I don’t think you quite understand. Perhaps you are not quite our kind. You always did, just like the other fellows, guy me at school. You laughed at me that night you came to stay here—about the voices and all that. But I don’t mind being laughed at—because I know.’
‘Know what?’ It was the same old system of dull question and evasive answer.
‘I mean I know that what we see and hear is only the smallest fraction of what is. I know she lives quite out of this. She talks to you; but it’s all make-believe. It’s all a “parlour game”. She’s not really with you; only pitting her outside wits against yours and enjoying the fooling. She’s living on inside on what you’re rotten without. That’s what it is—a cannibal feast. She’s a spider. It doesn’t much matter what you call it. It means the same kind of thing. I tell you, Withers, she hates me; and you can scarcely dream what that hatred means. I used to think I had an inkling of the reason. It’s oceans deeper than that. It just lies behind: herself against myself. Why, after all, how much do we really understand of anything? We don’t even know our own histories, and not a tenth, not a tenth of the reasons. What has life been to me?—nothing but a trap. And when one sets oneself free for a while, it only begins again. I thought you might understand; but you are on a different level: that’s all.’
‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I said contemptuously, in spite of myself.
‘I mean what I say,’ he said gutturally. ‘All this outside’s only make-believe—but there! what’s the good of talking? So far as this is concerned I’m as good as done. You wait.’
Seaton blew out three of the candles and, leaving the vacant room in semi-darkness, we groped our way along the corridor to the drawing-room. There a full moon stood shining in at the long garden windows. Alice sat stooping at the door, with her hands clasped in her lap, looking out, alone.
‘Where is she?’ Seaton asked in a low tone.
She looked up; and their eyes met in a glance of instantaneous understanding, and the door immediately afterwards opened behind us.
‘Such a moon!’ said a voice, that once heard, remained unforgettably on the ear. ‘A night for lovers, Mr. Withers, if ever there was one. Get a shawl, my dear Arthur, and take Alice for a little promenade. I dare say we old cronies will manage to keep awake. Hasten, hasten, Romeo! My poor, poor Alice, how laggard a lover!’
Seaton returned with a shawl. They drifted out into the moonlight. My companion gazed after them till they were out of hearing, turned to me gravely, and suddenly twisted herwhite face into such a convulsion of contemptuous amusement that I could only stare blankly in reply.
‘Dear innocent children!’ she said, with inimitable unctuousness. ‘Well, well, Mr. Withers, we poor seasoned old creatures must move with the times. Do you sing?’
I scouted the idea.
‘Then you must listen to my playing. Chess’—she clasped her forehead with both cramped hands—’chess is now completely beyond my poor wits.’
She sat down at the piano and ran her fingers in a flourish over the keys. ‘What shall it be? How shall we capture them, those passionate hearts? That first fine careless rapture? Poetry itself.’ She gazed softly into the garden a moment, and presently, with a shake of her body, began to play the opening bars of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. The piano was old and woolly. She played without music. The lamplight was rather dim. The moonbeams from the window lay across the keys. Her head was in shadow. And whether it was simply due to her personality or to some really occult skill in her playing I cannot say; I only know that she gravely and deliberately set herself to satirize the beautiful music. It brooded on the air, disillusioned, charged with mockery and bitterness. I stood at the window; far down the path I could see the white figure glimmering in that pool of colourless light. A few faint stars shone, and still that amazing woman behind me dragged out of the unwilling keys her wonderful grotesquerie of youth and love and beauty. It came to an end. I knew the player was watching me. ‘Please, please, go on!’ I murmured, without turning. ‘Please go on playing, Miss Seaton.’
No answer was returned to this honeyed sarcasm, but I realized in some vague fashion that I was being acutely scrutinized, when suddenly there followed a procession of quiet, plaintive chords which broke at last softly into the hymn, A Few More Years Shall Roll.
I confess it held me spell-bound. There is a wistful, strained plangent pathos in the tune; but beneath those masterly old hands it cried softly and bitterly the solitude and desperate estrangement of the world. Arthur and his lady-love vanished from my thoughts. No one could put into so hackneyed an old hymn tune such an appeal who had never known the meaning of the words. Their meaning, anyhow, isn’t commonplace.
I turned a fraction of an inch to glance at the musician. She was leaning forward a little over the keys, so that at the approach of my silent scrutiny she had but to turn her face into the thin flood of moonlight for every feature to become distinctly visible. And so, with the tune abruptly terminated, we steadfastly regarded one another; and she broke into a prolonged chuckle of laughter.
‘Not quite so seasoned as I supposed, Mr. Withers. I see you are a real lover of music. To me it is too painful. It evokes too much thought….’
I could scarcely see her little glittering eyes under their penthouse lids.
‘And now,’ she broke off crisply, ‘tell me, as a man of the world, what do you think of my new niece?’
I was not a man of the world, nor was I much flattered in my stiff and dullish way of looking at things by being called one; and I could answer her without the least hesitation.
‘I don’t think, Miss Seaton, I’m much of a judge of character. She’s very charming.’
‘I think I prefer dark women.’
‘And why? Consider, Mr. Withers; dark hair, dark eyes, dark cloud, dark night, dark vision, dark death, dark grave, dark DARK!’
Perhaps the climax would have rather thrilled Seaton, but I was too thick-skinned. ‘I don’t know much about all that,’ I answered rather pompously. ‘Broad daylight’s difficult enough for most of us.’
‘Ah,’ she said, with a sly inward burst of satirical laughter.
‘And I suppose,’ I went on, perhaps a little nettled, ‘it isn’t the actual darkness one admires, it’s the contrast of the skin, and the colour of the eyes, and—and their shining. Just as,’ I went blundering on, too late to turn back, ‘just as you only see the stars in the dark. It would be a long day without any evening. As for death and the grave, I don’t suppose we shall much notice that.’ Arthur and his sweetheart were slowly returning along the dewy path. ‘I believe in making the best of things.’
‘How very interesting!’ came the smooth answer. ‘I see you are a philosopher, Mr. Withers. H’m! “As for death and the grave, I don’t suppose we shall much notice that.” Very interesting…. And I’m sure,’ she added in a particularly suave voice, ‘I profoundly hope so.’ She rose slowly from her stool. ‘You will take pity on me again, I hope. You and I would get on famously—kindred spirits—elective affinities. And, of course, now that my nephew’s going to leave me, now that his affections are centred on another, I shall be a very lonely old woman…. Shall I not, Arthur?’
Seaton blinked stupidly. ‘I didn’t hear what you said, Aunt.’
‘I was telling our old friend, Arthur, that when you are gone I shall be a very lonely old woman.’
‘Oh, I don’t think so;’ he said in a strange voice.
‘He means, Mr. Withers, he means, my dear child,’ she said, sweeping her eyes over Alice, ‘he means that I shall have memory for company—heavenly memory—the ghosts of other days. Sentimental boy! And did you enjoy our music, Alice? Did I really stir that youthful heart?… O, O, O,’ continued the horrible old creature, ‘you billers and cooers, I have been listening to such flatteries, such confessions! Beware, beware, Arthur, there’s many a slip.’ She rolled her little eyes at me, she shrugged her shoulders at Alice, and gazed an instant stonily into her nephew’s face.
I held out my hand. ‘Good night, good night!’ she cried. ‘He that fights and runs away. Ah, good night, Mr. Withers; come again soon!’ She thrust out her cheek at Alice, and we all three filed slowly out of the room.
Black shadow darkened the porch and half the spreading sycamore. We walked without speaking up the dusty village street. Here and there a crimson window glowed. At the fork of the high-road I said good-bye. But I had taken hardly more than a dozen paces when a sudden impulse seized me.
‘Seaton!’ I called.
He turned in the cool stealth of the moonlight.
‘You have my address; if by any chance, you know, you should care to spend a week or two in town between this and the—the Day, we should be delighted to see you.’
‘Thank you, Withers, thank you,’ he said in a low voice.
‘I dare say’—I waved my stick gallantly at Alice—’I dare say you will be doing some shopping; we could all meet,’ I added, laughing.
‘Thank you, thank you, Withers—immensely,’ he repeated.
And so we parted.
But they were out of the jog-trot of my prosaic life. And being of a stolid and incurious nature, I left Seaton and his marriage, and even his aunt, to themselves in my memory, and scarcely gave a thought to them until one day I was walking up the Strand again, and passed the flashing gloaming of the second-rate jeweller’s shop where I had accidentally encountered my old schoolfellow in the summer. It was one of those stagnant autumnal days after a night of rain. I cannot say why, but a vivid recollection returned to my mind of our meeting and of how suppressed Seaton had seemed, and of how vainly he had endeavoured to appear assured and eager. He must be married by now, and had doubtless returned from his honeymoon. And I had clean forgotten my manners, had sent not a word of congratulation, nor—as I might very well have done, and as I knew he would have been pleased at my doing—even the ghost of a wedding present. It was just as of old.
On the other hand, I pleaded with myself, I had had no invitation. I paused at the corner of Trafalgar Square, and at the bidding of one of those caprices that seize occasionally on even an unimaginative mind, I found myself pelting after a green bus, and actually bound on a visit I had not in the least intended or foreseen.
The colours of autumn were over the village when I arrived. A beautiful late afternoon sunlight bathed thatch and meadow. But it was close and hot. A child, two dogs, a very old woman with a heavy basket I encountered. One or two incurious tradesmen looked idly up as I passed by. It was all so rural and remote, my whimsical impulse had so much flagged, that for a while I hesitated to venture under the shadow of the sycamore-tree to enquire after the happy pair. Indeed I first passed by the faint-blue gates and continued my walk under the high, green and tufted wall. Hollyhocks had attained their topmost bud and seeded in the little cottage gardens beyond; the Michaelmas daisies were in flower; a sweet warm aromatic smell of fading leaves was in the air. Beyond the cottages lay a field where cattle were grazing, and beyond that I came to a little churchyard. Then the road wound on, pathless and houseless, among gorse and bracken. I turned impatiently and walked quickly back to the house and rang the bell.
The rather colourless elderly woman who answered my enquiry informed me that Miss Seaton was at home, as if only taciturnity forbade her adding, ‘But she doesn’t want to see you.’
‘Might I, do you think, have Mr. Arthur’s address?’ I said.
She looked at me with quiet astonishment, as if waiting for an explanation. Not the faintest of smiles came into her thin face.
‘I will tell Miss Seaton,’ she said after a pause. ‘Please walk in.’
She showed me into the dingy undusted drawing-room, filled with evening sunshine and with the green-dyed light that penetrated the leaves overhanging the long french windows. I sat down and waited on and on, occasionally aware of a creaking footfall overhead. At last the door opened a little, and the great face I had once known peered round at me. For it was enormously changed; mainly, I think, because the aged eyes had rather suddenly failed, and so a kind of stillness and darkness lay over its calm and wrinkled pallor.
‘Who is it?’ she asked.
I explained myself and told her the occasion of my visit.
She came in, shut the door carefully after her, and, though the fumbling was scarcely perceptible, groped her way to a chair. She had on an old dressing-gown, like a cassock, of a patterned cinnamon colour.
‘What is it you want?’ she said, seating herself and lifting her blank face to mine.
‘Might I just have Arthur’s address?’ I said deferentially. ‘I am so sorry to have disturbed you.’
‘H’m. You have come to see my nephew?’
‘Not necessarily to see him, only to hear how he is, and, of course, Mrs. Seaton, too. I am afraid my silence must have appeared….’
‘He hasn’t noticed your silence,’ croaked the old voice out of the great mask; ‘besides, there isn’t any Mrs. Seaton.’
‘Ah, then,’ I answered, after a momentary pause, ‘I have not seemed so black as I painted myself! And how is Miss Outram?’
‘She’s gone into Yorkshire,’ answered Seaton’s aunt.
‘And Arthur too?’
She did not reply, but simply sat blinking at me with lifted chin, as if listening, but certainly not for what I might have to say. I began to feel rather at a loss.
‘You were no close friend of my nephew’s, Mr. Smithers?’ she said presently.
‘No,’ I answered, welcoming the cue, ‘and yet, do you know, Miss Seaton, he is one of the very few of my old school-fellows I have come across in the last few years, and I suppose as one gets older one begins to value old associations….’ My voice seemed to trail off into a vacuum. ‘I thought Miss Outram’, I hastily began again, ‘a particularly charming girl. I hope they are both quite well.’
Still the old face solemnly blinked at me in silence.
‘You must find it very lonely, Miss Seaton, with Arthur away?’
‘I was never lonely in my life,’ she said sourly. ‘I don’t look to flesh and blood for my company. When you’ve got to be my age, Mr. Smithers (which God forbid), you’ll find life a very different affair from what you seem to think it is now. You won’t seek company then, I’ll be bound. It’s thrust on you.’ Her face edged round into the clear green light, and her eyes groped, as it were, over my vacant, disconcerted face. ‘I dare say, now,’ she said, composing her mouth, ‘I dare say my nephew told you a good many tarradiddles in his time. Oh, yes, a good many, eh? He was always a liar. What, now, did he say of me? Tell me, now.’ She leant forward as far as she could, trembling, with an ingratiating smile.
‘I think he is rather superstitious,’ I said coldly, ‘but, honestly, I have a very poor memory, Miss Seaton.’
‘Why?’ she said. ‘I haven’t.’
‘The engagement hasn’t been broken off, I hope.’
‘Well, between you and me,’ she said, shrinking up and with an immensely confidential grimace, ‘it has.’
‘I’m sure I’m very sorry to hear it. And where is Arthur?’
‘Where is Arthur?’
We faced each other mutely among the dead old bygone furniture. Past all my analysis was that large, flat, grey, cryptic countenance. And then, suddenly, our eyes for the first time really met. In some indescribable way out of that thick-lidded obscurity a far small something stooped and looked out at me for a mere instant of time that seemed of almost intolerable protraction. Involuntarily I blinked and shook my head. She muttered something with great rapidity, but quite inarticulately; rose and hobbled to the door. I thought I heard, mingled in broken mutterings, something about tea.
‘Please, please, don’t trouble,’ I began, but could say no more, for the door was already shut between us. I stood and looked out on the long-neglected garden. I could just see the bright weedy greenness of Seaton’s tadpole pond. I wandered about the room. Dusk began to gather, the last birds in that dense shadowiness of trees had ceased to sing. And not a sound was to be heard in the house. I waited on and on, vainly speculating. I even attempted to ring the bell; but the wire was broken, and only jangled loosely at my efforts.
I hesitated, unwilling to call or to venture out, and yet more unwilling to linger on, waiting for a tea that promised to be an exceedingly comfortless supper. And as darkness drew down, a feeling of the utmost unease and disquietude came over me. All my talks with Seaton returned on me with a suddenly enriched meaning. I recalled again his face as we had stood hanging over the staircase, listening in the small hours to the inexplicable stirrings of the night. There were no candles in the room; every minute the autumnal darkness deepened. I cautiously opened the door and listened, and with some little dismay withdrew, for I was uncertain of my way out. I even tried the garden, but was confronted under a veritable thicket of foliage by a padlocked gate. It would be a little too ignominious to be caught scaling a friend’s garden fence!
Cautiously returning into the still and musty drawing-room, I took out my watch, and gave the incredible old woman ten minutes in which to reappear. And when that tedious ten minutes had ticked by I could scarcely distinguish its hands. I determined to wait no longer, drew open the door and, trusting to my sense of direction, groped my way through the corridor that I vaguely remembered led to the front of the house.
I mounted three or four stairs and, lifting a heavy curtain, found myself facing the starry fanlight of the porch. From here I glanced into the gloom of the dining-room. My fingers were on the latch of the outer door when I heard a faint stirring in the darkness above the hall. I looked up and became conscious of, rather than saw, the huddled old figure looking down on me.
There was an immense hushed pause. Then, ‘Arthur, Arthur,’ whispered an inexpressibly peevish rasping voice, ‘is that you? Is that you, Arthur?’
I can scarcely say why, but the question horribly startled me. No conceivable answer occurred to me. With head craned back, hand clenched on my umbrella, I continued to stare up into the gloom, in this fatuous confrontation.
‘Oh, oh,’ the voice croaked. ‘It is you, is it? That disgusting man!… Go away out. Go away out.’
At this dismissal, I wrenched open the door and, rudely slamming it behind me, ran out into the garden, under the gigantic old sycamore, and so out at the open gate.
I found myself half up the village street before I stopped running. The local butcher was sitting in his shop reading a piece of newspaper by the light of a small oil-lamp. I crossed the road and enquired the way to the station. And after he had with minute and needless care directed me, I asked casually if Mr. Arthur Seaton still lived with his aunt at the big house just beyond the village. He poked his head in at the little parlour door.
‘Here’s a gentleman enquiring after young Mr. Seaton, Millie,’ he said. ‘He’s dead, ain’t he?’
‘Why, yes, bless you,’ replied a cheerful voice from within. ‘Dead and buried these three months or more—young Mr. Seaton. And just before he was to be married, don’t you remember, Bob?’
I saw a fair young woman’s face peer over the muslin of the little door at me.
‘Thank you,’ I replied, ‘then I go straight on?’
‘That’s it, sir; past the pond, bear up the hill a bit to the left, and then there’s the station lights before your eyes.’
We looked intelligently into each other’s faces in the beam of the smoky lamp. But not one of the many questions in my mind could I put into words.
And again I paused irresolutely a few paces further on. It was not, I fancy, merely a foolish apprehension of what the raw-boned butcher might ‘think’ that prevented my going back to see if I could find Seaton’s grave in the benighted churchyard. There was precious little use in pottering about in the muddy dark merely to discover where he was buried. And yet I felt a little uneasy. My rather horrible thought was that, so far as I was concerned—one of his extremely few friends—he had never been much better than ‘buried’ in my mind.
The Best Stories of Walter de la Mare, Free to Read at Project Gutenberg…
Table of Contents…
The Almond Tree — 7
Miss Duveen — 37
An Ideal Craftsman — 53
Seaton’s Aunt — 74
Crewe — 109
Missing — 137
Miss Miller — 176
The Orgy — 191
The Nap — 225
Physic — 248
The Picnic — 268
All Hallows — 288
The Trumpet — 325
The House — 361
‘What Dreams May Come’ — 379
The Vats — 391
The Horror Fiction of Walter de la Mare
‘My assumption about Walter de la Mare’s horror fiction was that it would exist somewhere in the space where Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood overlap. This was presuming a lot, especially when you factor in that my own knowledge and experience of the fiction of both Machen and Blackwood is nowhere near what it should be. I further assumed that Walter de la Mare was primarily, even exclusively, a writer of horror fiction, because that was the only context in which I’d ever heard him mentioned. I believe that assumption was fair enough, even though it turned out to be wrong. The verdict is still out on my Machen/Blackwood comparison, but after reading one of De la Mare’s most famous horror stories yesterday, it has not gained any traction.
If De la Mare was primarily anything, he seems to have primarily been a poet and author of children’s stories, but in my cramped little world these works, for which he received a good deal of recognition during his lifetime, have been completely overshadowed by his horror fiction. According to the critic John Clute “in his long career, De la Mare seems to have published about 100 stories, of which about eighty-five have been collected. At least forty of these have supernatural content.” This seems to me to be a slightly too accounts-book way of looking at it, and rather than prove that horror fiction made up a significant portion of De la Mare’s writing life, it signifies something slightly, but not exactly, opposite. That’s if Clute cared to prove anything of the sort, when the likelihood is that he only wanted people to recognize it and not forget about these stories. In which case, good advice! Sorry about that stuff I said earlier!
The story I read for today is called “Seaton’s Aunt,” and it’s fascinating. If any comparisons are to be made, at least in the case of this story, the appropriate one is to Robert Aickman, except that Aickman came later. But if Aickman was influenced by De la Mare, and I’ve gathered that he was, all the evidence you could possibly need to support that case can be found in “Seaton’s Aunt.” It’s the story of two boys, Withers, our narrator, and Arthur Seaton, an unpopular lad who attends Withers’ school. Seaton is the kind of unpopular, slightly incompetent boy who is teased, if not unmercifully, than enough to make it clear when he’s not wanted, which is to say all the time. Withers is not immune to Seaton’s absence of charm, but is not such a scoundrel as to entirely rebuff Seaton when he comes looking for a friend. De la Mare writes:
It needed, therefore, a rather peculiar taste, and a rather rare kind of schoolboy courage and indifference to criticism, to be much associated with him. And I had neither the taste, nor, probably, the courage. None the less, he did make advances, and on one memorable occasion went to the length of bestowing on me a whole pot of some outlandish mulberry-coloured jelly that had been duplicated in his term’s supplies. In the exuberance of my gratitude I promised to spend the next half-term holiday with him at his aunt’s house.
Seaton’s aunt turns out to be a strange, mean, forboding old woman who is first glimpsed in the window of her home, staring down at the two boys as they are just arriving. During the ensuing conversations, she frequently gets Withers’ name wrong (to her it’s either “Smithers” or just “Wither”), is critical, even mocking, of her nephew (“Arthur will never make a brilliant scholar, I fear,” she says to Withers at dinner, with Seaton sitting right there with them), and just generally sort of awful in a haughty, removed, false-polite sort of way. But her strangeness, according to her nephew, goes much deeper.
“I tell you, Withers,” [Seaton] went on moodily, slinking across the meadow with his hands covered up in his pockets, “she sees everything. And what she doesn’t know she knows without.”
“But how?” I said…
“Don’t appear to be talking of her, if you wouldn’t mind. It’s — because she’s in league with the Devil.” He nodded his head and stooped to pick up a round flat pebble. “I tell you,” he said, still stooping, “you fellows don’t realize what it is. I know I’m a bit close and all that. But so would you be if you had that old hag listening to every thought you think.”
It comes down, according to Seaton, to money. He claims that when he reaches a certain age, a great inheritence, from his deceased parents, will be his due. Until then, his aunt controls it, and won’t unclench on it before she’s legally forced to (though Withers does point out that Seaton never seems short of pocket money). In any case, the money angle to all this is an interesting background, as is that “league with the Devil” crack, which is clearly meant to be more than just a bitter jab from an unhappy nephew, but to whatever degree Seaton means it, there’s never any evidence to support it’s being literally true. Not for us to see, though Seaton is convinced of it. One night, Seaton annoys Withers with his fears, which he is certain are justified, that ghosts are plaguing him. He claims his aunt brings them, and further:
“…She as good as killed my mother; I know that. But it’s not only her by a long chalk. She just sucks you dry. I know. And that’s what she’ll do for me; because I’m like her — like my mother, I mean. She simply hates to see me alive…”
De la Mare’s story, like many of the Aickman stories he inspired, covers several years in the lives of his characters, not just the brief school vacation it initially focuses on. That vacation is certainly the core of “Seaton’s Aunt,” but Withers skips us along through the years, to later meetings with both Seaton and his aunt. De la Mare nails the uncomfortable nature of the thin relationships between people that only exist because one is simply being polite to the other, and a later meeting between the two boys, now adults, somehow drives home the sadness of Arthur Seaton’s life even more than anything having to do with his childhood, even though the adult Seaton is bearing news of his pending marriage. In the early goings of the story, it’s possible to imagine that a boy like Seaton could grow out of his awkwardness towards something fulfilling, even though “Seaton’s Aunt” is ostensibly a horror story, and holding out hope for such things in such stories will usually only lead to heartbreak. But, you know, maybe things will turn out okay…
By this point, Withers has become more active, his pity more mature and slightly more helpful, even if only as far as his intentions go, and in terms of how much guilt he feels over his treatment of Seaton when they were children. It all builds to a very strange ending (the full extent of this strangeness did not even occur to me until I was going over the story again for this post, even though the sequence of events isn’t exactly obscure) that finds Withers actually seeking out Seaton, and even his aunt, looking for some kind of answer, or closure, or evidence that Seaton is, or will be, okay. But all we’re left with in the end is uneasiness, the hint of something at best cruel – more than a hint of that, really – and at worst outright sinister, and something else that is terribly sad. With “Seaton’s Aunt,” De la Mare excels at turning the horror story into a study of lifelong melancholy, and of a person who is born into a situation that offers no possibility of anything but. The strict definition of “tragedy” renders it unusable in this context, I suppose, but it’s the word that sticks in my mind when thinking of the final pages. Curiously, even though in terms of plot the two are completely different, in the days following my reading of “Seaton’s Aunt,” I kept mixing up its ending with that of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, about which I wrote a little yesterday. For all their differences, the two do share a certain likeness. Both begin in English schools and end with their main characters, children for much of the length of their respective stories, now grown and going back to a place far from their home but seeking something more from an earlier formative experience, some sunlight, maybe, and finding instead that things were possibly even darker than they’d feared.’