Boxing Night by E F Benson

Hugh Granger was spending Christmas with us, and, as usually happens when he is present, the talk turned on the topics that concern the invisible world, which, though it is sundered from our material plane, sometimes cuts across it, and makes its presence perceived by strange and inexplicable manifestations. He held that his evidence of its existence, communications from the unseen to our mortal sense, were established beyond any doubt.

‘Ghosts, clairvoyant visions, true presentiments, and dreams are all glimpses of the unseen,’ he said. ‘Such messages and messengers come from we know not where, and we know not how they come, but certainly they do come. Often the very act of communication appears difficult: those beyond the ken of our normal perceptions find it hard to get into touch with us, and often the messages get distorted or bungled in transit.’

‘So as to be quite trivial or meaningless,’ said someone.

‘That is so,’ said he. ‘But, again, sometimes the message seems to be rendered more convincing by the very errors it contains. Error is so likely in such a tremendous transmission. I heard a story at first-hand the other day which illustrates that very aptly.’

There was an encouraging murmur of invitation, and Hugh drew from a drawer in the writing-table a sheaf of manuscript.

‘I heard it in considerable detail,’ he said, ‘and I have only turned it into narrative form. It just happened like this.’

He sat down by the lamp, and read to us.

Woollard’s Farm lay remote and solitary in the green lap of the Romney Marsh. Not a house stood within a mile of it as a bird would travel, and the curve of the farm road following the big drainage dyke made that distance half again as long for wheeled traffic. For a foot passenger, a couple of railed plank bridges crossed the dyke, and by cutting off the curve made a directer route, but now, in mid-winter, the flood water was high and the foot-bridges awash; deep pools lay in the intervening pastures, and any who would go into Rye must make the longer circuit before he struck the high road.

The farm took its name from the family which for two hundred years, so the tombstones in the Brooklands churchyard testified, had once owned its ample acres. Today these acres were sorely dwindled, and dwindled, too, was the yeoman stock which had once more prosperously tilled it. The last proprietor of the diminishing line had begotten no son, and though one at least of his two daughters to whom he had left it had a masculine grip in her efficient management, they were both unmarried and middle-aged, and no doubt, at their death Woollard’s Farm, though it might retain its patronymic style, would pass into the hands of strangers. They knew of no other paternal relation except their Uncle Alfred, who was a town-bred man and would surely, if he survived them, sell this marsh-land property. There was more than an off-chance of this, for, twenty years younger than their father, he was but little their senior, and a gnarled, robust fellow. Often, indeed, had he urged his nieces to make the sale themselves, for houses such as theirs, with its spacious parlours, its solid oak floors and staircases, its pleasant brick-walled garden, were fetching high prices in the market. There had been several enquiries lately at his house-agent’s office in Rye for just such a property, and he promised them a fine bid for it, and himself, no doubt, a fine percentage on the transaction. He was considerably in need of some such piece of business, for times were bad and money scarce with him.

But his hectoring persuasions had hitherto failed to convince his nieces; as long as they could get a livelihood out of the place, their affection for their home was impregnable to such suggestions. As for the loneliness of it, they were self-sufficient women, neither making friends nor needing them, undesirous of chatting neighbours, and content to get through the day’s work and be ready for the next. Lately affairs had gone very well with them: market-days at Rye and New Romney had enabled Ellen Woollard to amass a fat sheaf of notes from the sale of pigs and poultry, and a wallet, with a hundred and fifty pounds in it was, on this evening of Christmas day, safely stowed in the secret cupboard in the panelling of the parlour at the farm. Next week there were substantial purchases to be made at the Ashford market, and for that reason she had not paid her notes into the County Bank at Rye. Ready money, to be paid down then and there, made the best bargaining at a market, and to deposit and draw out again from the bank meant a half-day twice occupied with the excursion.

The two sisters lived with the utmost simplicity: they kept no servant, except a girl whom they had allowed to go for two days of Christmas holiday to her family in Rye; she, with Rebecca Woollard, the younger of the sisters, did the cooking and the house-work, while Ellen was busy all day with outdoor affairs. In general, they ate and sat in the big lattice-panel kitchen, but tonight, in honour of the festival, Rebecca had made ready the parlour, and here, after their supper, when doors were locked and windows curtained, they spent the evening among the Christmas tokens of holly and evergreens with which she had decked the room. On other evenings she would be busy with sewing and household mendings, while Ellen, tired with her outdoor activities, dozed by the fire, but tonight a cheerful, talkative idleness occupied them, the sober glow of past memories, and, in spite of the shadows of middle age, optimistic gleams for the future.

‘Yes, that was a rare good sale last week at New Romney,’ said Ellen. ‘There’ll be enough and to spare for the new linen you say you want.’

Rebecca held up her thin hands to the blaze; pretty hands they were, but weak and irresolute.

‘Well, I like that!’ she said. ‘Fancy talking of the new linen I say I want! Why, there’s more patches in the tablecloth than weaving, and as for the sheets, I only ask you, Ellen, to look at them before you get into bed. Not that it’s any good to ask you to do that, for I’m sure you’re half asleep always before you turn your bedclothes down.’

‘And you’ve been sleeping better lately, Rebecca, haven’t you?’ said her sister.

‘I’ve certainly lain awake less. But such dreams as I have now all night long! They fairly scare me sometimes, and I think I’d sooner lie tossing and turning and hearing the weary clock striking than go through such adventures.’

Ellen laughed.

‘Dreams are all a pack of rubbish,’ she said, ‘fit to smile about and forget as you dress in the morning. I can dream, too, if it comes to that, for it was only last night as I thought Uncle Alfred came here with a couple of bailiffs and told us we must quit, for we couldn’t pay our taxes; we were sold up and he’d bought the place. Why, if there’s any sense in dreams, they go by the opposite. If I paid any heed to them, I should say that meant that the farm would prosper next year as it never did before. The thought of all that good money in the cupboard there was what made me dream so contrarily.’

Rebecca pursed her lips with a gloomy shake of her head.

‘I see a deal of truth in your dream, sister,’ she said. ‘Certain and sure it is that if Uncle Alfred had a chance he’d turn us out of the farm, be the means foul or fair.’

‘Maybe, but that wasn’t my dream, Rebecca. I dreamed he did turn us out, and there’s little likelihood of that with all going so well. But he’s a disagreeable man, that’s sure. Such an answer as he sent me when I asked him to take his Christmas dinner with us today, and bide over the holiday.’

‘I wonder at your asking him year after year like that,’ said Rebecca. ‘He don’t want to come, and the Lord knows we don’t want him. Would you be the happier if Uncle Alfred was sitting with us now, finding fault with this, and scolding at that, and wanting us to be quit of the farm, and go to live in some mucky town where there’s not a breath of fresh air from year’s end to year’s end, and never a fresh egg to eat, and the washing coming back all chawed up and yellow, and nothing but the gabble of neighbours all day? No, give me Uncle Alfred’s room sooner than his company, and thank you kindly.’

The mention of Uncle Alfred always made Rebecca rage; Ellen was ready to have done with the obnoxious subject.

‘Well, we won’t bother with him, nor he with us,’ she said. ‘But he’s father’s brother, Rebecca, and it is but decent to bid him spend Christmas with us. To be sure there are pleasanter things to talk about. Your house linen, now; twenty pounds you shall have to lay out on it, and any bits of things you want, and that will leave me with enough to get such pigs and hens as the farm hasn’t been stocked with for the last five years. And who knows that before the year turns out there won’t come along some bright young fellow to court you—’

This was a long-standing joke, that, like sound wine, seemed to improve with years. It set Rebecca laughing, for, indeed, she was no more of a marrying sort than her sister, and presently afterwards they made the fire safe with regard to flying sparks, and went up to the raftered bedchamber, where they slept together.

Ellen, as usual, was the first to be down next morning, and, with the girl away, she lit the kitchen fire and put the kettle to boil, while she prepared the feed for the chickens. It was very dark still, for though the sun was risen, the sky was thick with leaden clouds, moving heavily in a bitter north-east wind, and promising snow. Her face was worried and troubled; she looked sharply from time to time into the dark corners of the room and out of the latticed panes, for despite the scornful incredulity she had expressed last night on the subject of dreams, a vision so hideously and acutely real had torn her from her sleep that even now she was up and dressed and actively engaged she could not shake herself free from the horrid clutch of it.

She had dreamed that she and her sister were sitting in the parlour after nightfall on Boxing Day when a tapping came at the front door, and going to open it she had found on the threshold a soldier dressed in khaki, who begged a night’s lodging, for outside a hurricane of snow was raging, and he had lost his way. In he came, pushing by her before she had bidden him to enter, and he walked straight down the passage and into the parlour. She followed him, and already he was breaking in with the butt of his rifle the panelled door of the cupboard which contained her money. It crashed inwards beneath his blows, and he put the fat wallet of notes into his pocket. ‘Now we’ll have no witnesses,’ he cried, and next moment, with a swing of his rifle, which he held by the barrel, he had felled Rebecca with a terrific blow on the head, and there she lay bloody and battered on the floor. Then true nightmare began, for Ellen, trying to flee, found she could stir neither hand nor foot. She gave a thin, strangled cry as once more the murderous weapon was swung for the blow which she knew would crash down on her head, and with the shock of that mortal agony she awoke.

Busy herself as she might, Ellen could not shake off the convincing reality of the nightmare. It was not of dream-texture at all; it was on another plane, vivid and actual as the fire she had just lit or the bitter wind that whistled and rattled the panes. The thing had never happened, but it was of the solid stuff of reality. It was in vain that she reasoned with herself, and snapped an unconvinced finger: just here by the door she stood and saw the tall figure framed against the driving snow, and if none of this had happened, fulfilment would come to it… Then a foot on the stairs recalled her, and here was Rebecca coming down to prepare their breakfast on the morning of Boxing Day. It would never do to speak of this to her sister; it would scare her silly.

Rebecca went about her work in silence, laying the table and cutting the rashers. She had no spoken word for Ellen’s greeting, but only a mumbling movement of her lips, and her hands were a-tremble. She bent over her work, so that Ellen got no clear sight of her face, and it was not till they were seated at the table, with a candle burning there, that she got a comprehensive look at it. And what she saw made her lay down her knife and fork.

‘Goodsakes, what’s the matter, Rebecca?’ she asked.
Rebecca raised her eyes; there sat in them some nameless and abject terror.

‘Nothing,’ she said; ‘it would only make you laugh at me if I told you.’

Ellen gave her a cheerful face. ‘Well, I should like a laugh on this dark morning,’ she said. ‘One of your dreams, maybe?’

‘Yes, that’s right enough,’ said Rebecca, ‘but such a dream as I’ve never had before.’

In spite of the growing heat of the fire, it must have been still very cold in the kitchen, for suddenly, from head to foot, an icy shiver ran through Ellen.

‘Tell me then,’ she said. ‘Get rid of it.’

Rebecca caught that shudder, and violently trembling, pushed her plate from her.

‘I’ll tell you,’ she said, ‘for, sure, I can’t bear it alone. It wasn’t a dream; it wasn’t of that stuff that makes dreams… I thought it was the evening of Boxing Day, the day that’s dawned now—’

She told her dream. It was identical down to the minutest detail with Ellen’s, except that it was she herself who had gone to the door, and that she had seen her sister battered down by a blow, and waited in the catalepsy of nightmare for the stroke that would follow.

Even to Ellen’s practical and unfanciful mind, the coincidence—if coincidence it was—was overwhelming; the sanest and least fantastical could not but see in this double vision a warning that it would be foolhardy to disregard, and within an hour the two of them had locked up the house, and were in the pony-cart on the way to Rye. As it was Boxing Day, the bank would be shut, and their plan was to entrust their money to their uncle for safe keeping till tomorrow. They had agreed not to tell him the true cause of their expedition; it was reasonable enough that two women in a place so remote should not care to be keeping so large a sum in the house. Tomorrow one of them would call again and deposit it at the bank. They found him already at the whisky bottle, and acid and disagreeable as ever.

‘Well, what brings you two here?’ he said. ‘Compliments of the season, or some such rubbish?’

They explained their errand.

‘A pack of nonsense!’ said he. ‘I’ll not have aught to do with your money. Supposing my house was broken into before tomorrow morning, and your notes taken, you’d have the law on me for their recovery. And I tell you that that’s a deal more likely to happen in a town than that a thief should go trapezing half-a-dozen miles out into the marsh on the chance of finding a packet of bank-notes at a lonely farmhouse!’

He got up, beat the ashes out of his pipe, and filled it again, frowning and muttering to himself.
‘Burglars, indeed, at Woollard’s Farm,’ he said. ‘I never heard of such a crazy notion! If I had a bit of money in the house here—worse luck I haven’t—it would be a deal more reasonable of me to ask you to take care of it. Who ever heard of a burglary at a house like yours? The man would be daft who tramped halfway across the marsh, and in a snowstorm, too—for there’ll be snow before night, unless I’m much mistaken—on such a chance. Who’s to know that you’ve got the worth of a penny piece in the house?—for I warrant you’ve told nobody.’

‘Uncle Alfred, you might be kind and keep it for us,’ said Ellen. ‘It’s only till tomorrow.’

‘I might, might I?’ he sneered. ‘Well, I tell you I mightn’t, and more than that, I won’t. You’ve got safe places enough. Where do you keep it?’

‘In the panel-cupboard in the parlour,’ said Ellen.

‘Aye, and a good place, too,’ said he. ‘I remember that cupboard; your father always kept his brass there. And do you figure a burglar smashing in all your panelling in hopes of finding a cupboard there, and when he’s hit on that, thinking to discover a wallet with bank-notes in it? A couple of dreamy, timorous women—that’s what you are. I wouldn’t keep your money in my house, not if you paid me ten per cent. of it for my trouble. Where should I be if it got stolen? Be off with you both, and don’t bother me with your Christmas invitations!’

It was no manner of good to spend time and persuasions on the crusty fellow, and there was no one else whom they knew sufficiently well to approach on so unusual an errand. By midday the two were back again at the farm, glad to be indoors on this morning of shrewd snowy blasts, and the money, since assuredly there was no better hiding place than this concealed cupboard in the panelling, was back once more in the caché. Sullen and snarling as Uncle Alfred had been, there was certainly good sense in his view that this remote homestead was about the unlikeliest possible place for a burglar to choose for his operations, and Ellen, with more success than in the cold dawn, could reason herself out of her alarm. A dream was no more than a dream when all was said and done, and it was not for a sensible woman to heed such things. It was singular to be sure that the same vision had torn Rebecca from her sleep, but tomorrow by this time she would be laughing at the fears which had sent her twittering into Rye this morning.

Before the close of the short winter day the snow had begun to fall in earnest, and by the time the chickens and pigs were fed and made secure, and the thick curtains drawn, they could hear the thick insistent flurry of it as the wind drove it against the panes. But now that doors were locked and windows bolted, the squeal of the tempest shrill above the soft tapping of the snow-flakes only intensified the comfort of the swept hearth and the log fire that glowed in the open grate. Once again, as last night, they sat in the parlour, with the dark panelled walls gleaming sombrely in the firelight and the flames leaping as the wind bugled in the chimney. Eight o’clock, and nine, and ten sounded on the chimes of the grandfather clock, and as the last hour struck Ellen got up. The tranquil passage of the evening had quite restored the grip of her common sense, and she could even joke about her vanished apprehensions.
‘Well, I reckon it’s no use our sitting up for that soldier of yours, Rebecca,’ she said. ‘He’s missed his connection, you might say, and I shall be off to bed, for tomorrow’s a work-day again—’

Her sentence hung suspended and unfinished.

There came a rap at the front door at the end of the passage, and the bell tingled. Rebecca rose to her feet with hands up to her ears, as if to shut out the sound.

‘Who can it be at this time of night?’ whispered Ellen.

Rebecca came close to her, white and palsied with fear.

‘It’s he,’ she said. ‘I know it’s he. We must keep still, for there’s no light showing, and perhaps he may go away. Dear God, let him go!’

A rattling at the latch had succeeded the knocking, and then all was quiet. Presently it began again, and again the bell repeated its summons.

Then Ellen lit a hand-lamp; anything was better than this unbearable suspense; besides if their visitor was some strayed wayfarer—

‘I’m going to the door,’ she said. ‘It may be someone who has lost his way in the snow and the darkness, and on such a night he might well perish of cold before he found shelter. What should you and I feel, Rebecca, if tomorrow a woman, or a girl maybe, was found stiff and stark nigh the house, or drowned in the big dyke? That would be worse stuff than any dream.’

Trembling with fright but with unshakeable courage, and disregarding her sister’s appeals, she went straight to the front door, drew back the heavy bolts, and opened it. On the threshold, framed against the fast-falling snow, stood a man in khaki. In the flickering light from her lamp she could not distinctly see his face, but over his shoulder was a rifle, of which he grasped the butt.

‘I’m lost in the marsh, ma’am,’ he said, ‘trying for a short cut to Rye, but I knew there was a farm
hereabouts, and thank God I’ve found it. I ask you for a lodging till dawn, for on a night like this there’s death out there.’

‘I can give you no lodging,’ she said shortly. ‘Follow the farm-road and you’ll strike the highway.’

‘But there’s no seeing your hand before your face,’ he said, ‘and I’m half perished with cold already. Any outhouse will do for me, just shelter and a wisp of straw to wrap me in.’

The strangle of her nightmare was on her. Rebecca had crept along the passage, and in her ashen face Ellen saw her own heart mirrored.
‘You can get no lodging here,’ she said. ‘Them as walk at night must get tramping.’

For answer he held out his rifle to her.

‘Here, take that, ma’am,’ he said. ‘You’re scared of me, I can see, but if I meant you harm would I give you my gun? I’ll take off my boots, too, and my belt with its bayonet; a footsore man without boots or weapons can’t harm you, and you may lock me into any cupboard or shed you please.’

His hands and face were bleached with the cold, and dream or no dream, she could not shut a man out in the cold of this impenetrable night.

‘Come in,’ she said. ‘Take off your boots, and get you into the kitchen. Come what may, it’s sheer death tonight in the marsh.’

At her bidding he walked into the kitchen while she had a whispered word with Rebecca.

‘We can’t do different, Rebecca,’ she said, ‘though strange it is about your dream and mine, and if it’s God’s will we be clubbed to death, it’s His will. But what’s not His will is that we should let a man die on our doorstep because we were afraid. Why should he give me his gun, besides, if he meant ill to us? So now I’ll give him his bite of supper, for he’s clemmed with cold and hunger, and then lock him into the kitchen. Meantime you take the money from the cupboard and hide it between your mattresses or mine. Why that’s the finish of our dreaming already if you do that, for by the dream it should be from the cupboard in the parlour that he took it.’

Indeed, she needed heartening herself, so strangely had their dream found fulfilment, but taking hold on her courage, she walked into the kitchen, while Rebecca went upstairs. But she could not bear to remain solitary there, and she came back and helped her sister to get a bite of supper for the man.

The food and warmth revived him, and presently, leaving him stretched on two chairs in front of the drowsy fire, they turned the key of the kitchen door on him and went to their room.

Neither of them undressed, but with locked doors and light burning they lay on their beds to pass the vigil till day. The wind had fallen by midnight, the driven snow no longer pattered on the panes, and the stillness sang in their ears. Ellen’s bed was nearest to the window, and presently after she sat up to listen more intently, without alarming her sister, to a noise that ever so faintly overscored the silence. There it was again; someone was rattling the sash of the window immediately below, the window of the passage along the front of the house which led to the kitchen. Rebecca heard also, and like a ghost she slid across to her sister’s bed.

‘There’s someone outside,’ she whispered. ‘That’s his fellow, Ellen; there are two of them now, one within and the other outside. He’ll go round to the kitchen presently, and the man we left there will let him in. Sister, why did you suffer him to come in? We’re done for now; ah, we’re done for, and naught can save us!’

Ellen’s heart sank. The interpretation seemed only too terribly probable. She drew her sister towards her and kissed her.

‘You must try to forgive me, Rebecca,’ she said, ‘if I’ve brought your death upon you. But God knows I couldn’t do different if I hoped for salvation. It’s the money they’ve come for, and the dream is true. Ah, where is it? Give it to me, and I’ll go down to the fellow in the kitchen and offer it to him, and swear to let him go scot free if he’ll only take it and spare our lives. We’ll lay no information to identify him; we’ll let it be known we’ve just been robbed, and there’s the end of it. And yet, why did he give me his rifle and off with his boots? That was a strange thing for him to do.’

Rebecca sat huddled on the bed. ‘Strange or no,’ she said, ‘it’s all over with us. There’s no help nor succour for us.’

She was half distraught with terror; there was no reasoning with, and Ellen, leaving the rifle she had brought upstairs with her sister, took the wallet containing the notes in her hand and went forth on her midnight and unconjecturable errand. At the bottom of the stairs she must pass the window where they had heard the stir of movement, and now outside there was the grating and grinding of some tool against the glass, and she guessed that whoever was outside was cutting the pane.

She unlocked the kitchen door and entered. The man she had fed and sheltered was awake and standing on his feet. There she was quite defenceless, with her money in her hand, and yet he did not close with her nor push her to get into touch with his accomplice. Instead he came close to her and whispered:

‘There’s someone moving outside and round about the house,’ he said. ‘A while ago he was at the kitchen window here. I couldn’t come to you and warn you, for you had locked me in.’

She held out the wallet.

‘I know the manner of man you are,’ she said. ‘You came to rob and murder us, and that’s your confederate outside. A strange warning came to us, but out of compassion I didn’t heed it. Here, then, is the money; spare our lives, and take it and begone, for that was your plan, and I swear we’ll not set the police on you.’

He looked at her narrowly.

‘What are you telling of?’ he said. ‘I’m neither robber nor murderer. But waste no more time, ma’am; there’s someone at the window now, and he’s after no good. He’d have knocked at the door if he’d been a lost wayfarer like me. Now I’m here to help you, for you took me in, and we’ll catch him. Where’s my rifle?’

For one moment, at the thought of restoring that to him nightmare clutched her again, and she envisaged Rebecca clubbed to death, with herself to follow. But then some ray of hope gleamed in her, some confidence born out of his speech and his mien.

‘I’ll fetch it for you,’ she said. She went swiftly upstairs and returned with it, and together they stood by the curtained window, while Rebecca nursed a candle on the stairs to give a glimmer of light. He had picked up his belt with his bayonet, and now, as they waited, he fitted it into its catch and drew on his boots. There he was, now armed again, and she defenceless, and in silence they waited.

Presently the scratching at the pane outside ceased, and a current of cold air poured in, making
the curtain belly in the draught. It was clear that the burglar had detached a pane of glass and withdrawn it. Then the curtains were thrust aside from without, and a hand entered, feeling for the catch of the window. At that her companion laid down his rifle, and took a step forward, and seized it by the wrist. But it slipped from him, and snatching up his rifle, he ran to the door, and unbolted and opened it.

‘We’ll catch him yet though,’ he called to her. ‘Lock the door after me, and let none in unless you hear my voice,’ and he vanished into the snowflecked blackness of the night.

Rebecca came down to her, and together they went into the kitchen to wait for what might come out of the night to them. It was no longer possible to doubt the good faith of their visitor, for there on the table lay the wallet with the money untouched. Presently they heard a knock at the door, and his voice calling to them to open. The snow shrouded him in white, and for the second time the soldier of their dream stood on the threshold.

‘There was no finding him,’ he said, ‘for it’s dark as the pit, and the snow is like a solid thing. Once I heard him close, and I called on him to stop else I would run my bayonet through him. Not a word did I get, and I thrust at the noise of his running and there was a squeal as the point pierced something, but he shook free again and I heard no more of him. I took him in the arm I reckon. Let’s see what the steel can tell us.’

The bayonet confirmed this impression; in the scooped sides of it were runnels of melted snow red with the deeper dye of the blood which for not more than an inch covered the point of it. A flesh wound probably had been inflicted, which had not prevented him from making his escape. With that, there was no more to be done that night, and soon the two sisters were back in their room again, and their guest, with the kitchen door locked no longer, lay down to sleep again. Tomorrow, if no more snow fell, they might perhaps trace and identify the fugitive.

All three were early astir next morning. The snow had ceased and a frosty sun gleamed on the whiteness of the fields. While they were at breakfast the servant-girl, returning from her holiday, came running into the kitchen, breathless and wide-eyed with excitement and alarm.

‘There’s something in the great dyke, mistress,’ she said. ‘It’s like the body of a man caught among the reeds below the foot-bridge.’

They ran out, and it was easy to follow certain half-obliterated tracks in the frozen snow that led from under the window in the passage to the edge of the dyke. From there, in the deep water by the half-submerged foot-bridge the body had drifted but a few yards into the shallows by the reed-bed, where, with head-downwards, it had been caught and anchored. A couple of long poles soon towed it to the shore, and turning it over, his nieces looked on the face of Alfred Woollard. His coat-sleeve was torn just below the right shoulder, and the ragged edges were stained with blood.