The Shadow by E Nesbit – A Creepy Story

This is not an artistically rounded off ghost story and nothing is explained in it; and there seems to be no reason why any of it should have happened. But that is no reason why it should not be told. You must have noticed that all the real ghost stories you ever come close to are like this in these respects: no explanation, no logical coherence. Here is the story.

There were three of us—and another. But she had fainted suddenly at the second extra of the Christmas Dance, and had been put to bed in the dressing-room next to the room which we three shared. It had been one of those jolly old-fashioned dances, where nearly everybody stays the night, and the big country house is stretched to its utmost containing power; guests harbouring on sofas, couches, cots, and even mattresses on the floor. Some of the young men, even, I believe, slept on the great dining table. We had talked of our partners, as girls will, and then the stillness of the Manor House, broken only by the whisper of the wind in the cedar branches, and the scraping of their lean fingers against our window panes, had pricked us to such a luxurious confidence in our surroundings of bright chintz and candle-flame and firelight, that we had dared to talk of ghosts—in which, said we all, we did not believe one bit. We had told the story of the phantom coach, and the horribly strange bed, and the lady in the sacque, and the house in Berkeley Square. Not one of us believed in ghosts, but my heart, at least, seemed to leap to my throat and choke me, when a tap came to our door—a tap faint, but not to be mistaken.

“Who’s there?” said the youngest of us, craning a lean neck towards the door. It opened slowly—and I give you my word the instant of suspense that followed is still reckoned among my life’s least confident moments. Almost at once the door opened fully, and Miss Eastwich, my aunt’s housekeeper, companion and general standby, looked in on us.

We all said “Come in,” but she stood there. She was, at all normal hours, the most silent woman I have ever known. She stood and looked at us, and shivered a little. So did we—for in those days corridors were not warmed by hot-water pipes, and the air from the door was keen.

“I saw your light,” she said at last, “and I thought it was late for you to be up—after all this gaiety. I thought perhaps—” her glance turned towards the door of the dressing-room.

“No,” I said, “she’s fast asleep.” I should have added a “goodnight,” but the youngest of us forestalled my speech. She did not know Miss Eastwich as we others did. Did not know how her persistent silence had built a wall round her, a wall that no one dared to break down with the commonplaces of talk or the littlenesses of mere human relationship. Miss Eastwich’s silence had taught us to treat her as a machine, and as other than a machine we never dreamed of treating her. But the youngest of us had seen Miss Eastwich for the first time that day. She was young and crude and ill-balanced, and the victim of blind calf-like impulse. She was also the heiress of a rich tallow-chandler, but that has nothing to do with this part of the story. She jumped up from the hearthrug, her unsuitably rich silk, lace-trimmed dressing gown falling back from her lean neck, and ran to the door, and put an arm round Miss Eastwich’s prim lisse-encircled neck. I gasped. I should as soon have dared embrace Cleopatra’s Needle.

“Come in,” said the youngest of use, “come in and get warm. There’s lots of cocoa left.” She drew Miss Eastwich in and shut the door.

The vivid light of pleasure in the housekeeper’s pale eyes went through my heart like a knife. It would have been so easy to put an arm round her neck if one had only thought she wanted it. But it was not I who had thought that, and, indeed, my arm might not have brought the light invoked by the lean arm of the youngest of us.

“Now,” the youngest went on eagerly, “you shall have the very biggest, nicest chair, and the cocoa pot’s here on the hob as hot as hot, and we’ve all been telling ghost stories, only we don’t believe in them a bit, and when you get warm you ought to tell one too.”

Miss Eastwich, that model of decorum and decently done duties, tell a ghost story! The child was mad!

“You’re sure I’m not in your way?” Miss Eastwich said, stretching her hands to the blaze. I wondered whether housekeepers have fires in their rooms even at Christmas time.

“Not a bit,” I said it and I hope I said it as warmly as I felt it. “I—Miss Eastwich—I’d have asked you to come in other times—only I didn’t think you’d care for girls’ chatter.”

The third girl, who was really of no account, and that’s why I have not said anything about her before, poured cocoa for our guest; I put my fleecy Madeira shawl round her shoulders. I could not think of anything else to do for her, and I suddenly found myself wishing desperately to do something. The smile she gave us was quite pretty. People can smile prettily at 40 or 50, or even later, though girls don’t realize this. It occurred to me, and this was another knife-thrust, that I had never seen Miss Eastwich smile—a real smile—before. The pale smiles of dutiful acquiescence were not of the same blood as this dimpling, happy transfiguring look.

“This is very pleasant,” she said, and it seemed to me that I had never before heard her real voice. It did not please me to think that at the cost of cocoa and fire and my arms round her neck I might have heard this new voice any time these six years.

“We’ve been telling ghost stories,” I said, “the worst of it is we don’t believe in ghosts. No one anyone knows has ever seen one.”

“It’s always what somebody told somebody who told somebody, you know,” said the youngest of us. “And you can’t believe that, can you?”

“What the soldier said is not evidence,” said Miss Eastwich. Will it be believed that the little Dickens quotation pierced me more keenly than the new smile or the new voice?

“And all ghost stories are so beautifully rounded off—a murder committed on the spot—or a hidden treasure or a warning—I think that makes them harder to believe. The most horrid ghost story I ever heard was one that was quite silly.”

“Tell it.”

“I can’t—it doesn’t sound anything to tell. Mrs Eastwich ought to tell one.”

“Oh, do!” said the youngest of us, and her salt-cellars loomed dark as she stretched her neck eagerly and laid an entreating arm on our guest’s knee.

“The only thing that I ever knew of was—was hearsay,” she said slowly, “at least half of it was.”

I knew she would tell her story, and I knew she had never before told it, and I knew she was only telling it now because she was proud, and this seemed the only way to pay for the fire and the cocoa and the laying of that thin arm round her neck.

“Don’t tell it,” I said suddenly, “I know you’d rather not.”

“I daresay it would bore you,” she said meekly, and the youngest of us, who after all, did not understand everything, glared resentfully at me.

“We should just love it,” she said, “do tell us. Never mind if it isn’t a real proper fixed-up story. I’m certain anything you think ghostly would be quite too beautifully horrid for anything.”

Miss Eastwich finished her cocoa and reached up to set the cup on the mantelpiece.

“It can’t do any harm,” she said to herself, “they don’t believe in ghosts, and it wasn’t exactly a ghost either. And they’re all over twenty—they’re not babies.” There was a breathing time of hush and expectancy. The fire crackled and the gas flared higher because the billiard lights had been put out. We heard the steps and voices of the men going along the corridors.

“It is really hardly worth telling,” Miss Eastwich said doubtfully, shading her faded face from the fire with her thin hand.

We all said, “Go on; oh, go on, do!”

“Well,” she said, “twenty years ago, and more than that, I had two friends, and I loved them more than anything in the world. And they married each other.”

She paused, and I knew just in what way she had loved each of them. The youngest of us said. “How awfully nice for you! Do go on.”

She patted the youngest’s shoulder, and I was glad that I had understood what the youngest of all hadn’t. She went on.

“Well, after they married I didn’t see much of them for a year or two, and then he wrote and asked me to come and stay, because his wife was ill, and I should cheer her up, and cheer him up as well, for it was a gloomy house, and he himself was growing gloomy too.”

I knew as she spoke that she had every line of that letter by heart.

“Well, I went. The address was in Lee, near London, and in those days there were streets and streets of new villa-houses growing up round old brick mansions standing in their own grounds, with red walls round, you know, and a sort of flavor of coaching days and post-chaises and Blackheath highwaymen about them. He had said the house was gloomy, and it was called ‘The Firs,’ and I imagined my cab going through a dark winding shrubbery and drawing up in front of one of those sedate old square houses. Instead, we drew up in front of a large, smart villa, with iron railings, gay, encaustic tiles leading from the iron gate to the stained-glass-panelled door, and for shrubbery, only a few stunted cypresses and acubas in the tiny front garden. But inside it was all warm and welcoming. He met me at the door.

She was gazing into the fire, and I knew she had forgotten us. But the youngest girl of all still thought that it was to us she was telling her story.

“He met me at the door,” she said again, “and thanked me for coming, and asked me to forgive the past.”

“What past?” asked that high priestess of the inapropos, the youngest of all.

“Oh, I suppose he meant because they hadn’t invited me before, or something,” said Miss Eastwich, worriedly. “But it’s a very dull story, I find, after all, and—”

“Do go on,” I said. Then I kicked the youngest of us and got up to re-arrange Miss Eastwich’s shawl, and said in blatant dumb show, over the shawled shoulders.

“Shut up, you little idiot!”

After another silence the housekeeper’s new voice went on:

“They were very glad to see me, and I was very glad to be there. You girls now have such troops of friends, but these two were all I had, all I had ever had. Mabel wasn’t exactly ill, only wreak and excitable. I thought he seemed more ill than she did. She went to bed early, and before she went, she asked me to keep him company through his last pipe, so we went into the dining room and sat in the two armchairs on each side of the fireplace. They were covered with green leather, I remember. There were bronze groups of horses and a black marble clock on the mantelpiece—all wedding presents. He poured out some whisky for himself, but he hardly touched it. He sat looking into the fire. At last I said:

“‘What’s wrong? Mabel looks as well as you could expect.’

“He said ‘Yes, but I don’t know from one day to another that she won’t begin to notice something wrong. That’s why I wanted you to come. You were always so sensible and strong-minded, and Mabel’s like a little bird, or a flower.’

“I said ‘Yes, of course,’ and waited for him to go on. I thought he must be in debt or in trouble of some sort. So I just waited. Presently he said:

“‘Margaret, this is a very peculiar house.’ He always called me Margaret; you see, we’d been such old friends. I told him I thought the house was very pretty, and fresh, and homelike, only a little too new, but that fault would mend with time. He said:

“‘It is new; that’s just it. We’re the first people who’ve ever lived in it. If it were an old house, Margaret, I should think it was haunted.’

“I asked if he had seen anything. ‘No,’ he said, ‘not yet.’

“‘Heard, then?’ said I.

“‘No, nor heard either,’ he said, ‘but there’s a sort of feeling, I can’t describe it. I’ve seen nothing and I’ve heard nothing, but I’ve been so near to seeing and hearing! Just not, that’s all. And something follows me about—only when I turn round there’s never anything but my shadow. And I always feel that I shall see the thing, or hear it, next minute; but I never do, not quite, it’s always just not visible.’

“I thought he’d been working rather hard, and I tried to cheer him up by making light of all this. ‘It was just nerves,’ I said. Then he said he had thought I could help him. and did I think anyone he had wronged could have laid a curse on him, and did I believe in curses? I said I didn’t, and the only person anyone could have said he had wronged forgave him freely, I knew, if there was anything to forgive. So I told him this too.”

It was I, not the youngest of us, who knew the name of that person wronged and forgiving.

“So then I said ‘He ought to take Mabel away from the house and have a complete change.’ But he said, ‘No, Mabel had got everything in order, and he could never manage to get her away just now without explaining everything, and above all,’ he said, ‘she mustn’t guess there’s anything wrong. I daresay I shall not feel quite such a lunatic now you’re here.’

“So we said ‘Good-night.'”

“Is that all the story?” said the third girl, striving to convey that even as it stood it was a good story.

“That is only the beginning,” said Miss Eastwich. “Whenever I was alone with him, he used to tell me the same thing over and over again, and at first when I began to notice things I tried to think that it was his talk that had upset my nerves. The odd thing was that it wasn’t only at night—but in broad daylight, and particularly on the stairs and passages. On the staircase the feeling used to be so awful that I have had to bite my lips till they bled, to keep myself from running up the stairs at full speed. Only I knew if I did I should go mad at the top. There was always, something behind me—exactly as he had said—something that one could just not see. And a sound that one could just not hear. There was a long corridor at the top of the house. I have sometimes almost seen something—you know how one sees things without looking—but if I turned round it seemed as if the thing dropped and melted into my shadow. There was a little window at the end of the corridor.

“Downstairs there was another corridor, something like it, with a cupboard at one end and the kitchen at the other. One night I went down into the kitchen to warm some milk for Mabel. The servants had gone to bed. As I stood by the fire waiting for the milk to boil I glanced through the open door and along the passage. I never could keep my eyes on what I was doing, in that house. The cupboard door was partly open; they used to keep empty bottles and things in it. And as I looked I knew that now it was not going to be ‘almost’ any more. Yet I said ‘Mabel?’ not because I thought it could be Mabel who was crouching down there, half in and half out of the cupboard. The thing was gray at first and then it was black. And when I whispered ‘Mabel,’ it seemed to sink down till it lay like a pool of ink on the floor, and then its edges drew in, and it seemed to flow, like ink, when you tilt up the paper you have spilt it on, and it flowed into the cupboard till it was all gathered into the shadow there. I saw it go quite plainly. The gas was full on in the kitchen. I screamed aloud, but even then I’m thankful to say I had enough sense to upset the boiling milk, so that when he came downstairs three steps at a time, I had the excuse for my scream of a scalded hand. The explanation was satisfactory to Mabel, but next night he said:

“‘Why didn’t you tell me? It was that cupboard. All the horror of the house comes out of that. Tell me, have you seen anything yet? Or is it only the nearly seeing and nearly hearing still?’

“I said. ‘You must tell me first what you’ve seen.’ He told me, and his eyes wandered as he spoke to the shadows by the curtains, and I turned up all three gaslights and lit the candles on the mantelpiece. Then we looked at each other and said we were both mad, and thanked God that Mabel was at least sane. For what he had seen was what I had seen.

“After that I hated to be alone with a shadow, because at any moment I might see something that would crouch and sink and lie like a black pool and then slowly draw itself into the shadow that was nearest. Often that shadow was my own. The thing came first at night, but afterwards there was no hour safe from it. I saw it at dawn, and at noon, in the dusk and in the firelight, and always it crouched and sank, and was a pool that flowed into some shadow and became part of it. And always I saw it with a straining of the eyes, a pricking and aching. It seemed as though I could only just see it, as if my sight, to see it, had to be strained to the uttermost. And still the sound was in the house, the sound that I could just not hear. At last one morning early I did hear it. It was close behind me, and it was only a sigh. It was worse than the thing that crept among the shadows.

“I don’t know how I bore it. I couldn’t have borne it if I hadn’t been so fond of them both. But I knew in my heart that if he had no one to whom he could speak openly he would go mad, or tell Mabel. His was not a very strong character. Very sweet and kind and gentle, but not strong. He was always easily led. So I stayed on and bore up, and we were very cheerful and made little jokes and tried to be amusing when Mabel was with us. But when we were alone we did not try to be amusing.

“And sometimes a day or two would go by without our seeing or hearing anything, and we should perhaps have fancied that we had fancied what we had seen and heard, only there was always the feeling of there being something about the house that one could just not hear and not see. Sometimes we used to try not to talk about it, but generally we talked of nothing else at all. And the weeks went by, and Mabel’s baby was born. The nurse and the doctor said that both mother and child were doing well. He and I sat late in the dining-room that night. We had neither of us seen or heard anything for three days—our anxiety about Mabel was lessened. We talked of the future: it seemed then so much brighter than the past. We arranged that the moment she was fit to be moved he should take her away to the sea, and I should superintend the moving of their furniture into the new house he had already chosen. He was gayer than I had seen him since his marriage–almost like his old self. When I said ‘good-night’ to him he said a lot of things about my having been a comfort to them both. I hadn’t done anything much of course, but still I am glad he said that.

“Then I went upstairs—almost for the first time without that feeling of something following me. I listened at Mabel’s room. Everything was quiet. I went on towards my own room, and in an instant I felt that there was something behind me. I turned. It was crouching there: it sank, and the black fluidness of it seemed to be sucked under the floor of Mabel’s room.

“I went back. I opened the door a listening inch. All was still. And then I heard a sigh—close behind me. I opened the door and went in. The nurse and the baby were asleep. Mabel was asleep, too; she looked so pretty, like a tired child—the baby was cuddled up into one of her arms with its tiny head against her side. I prayed then that Mabel might never know the terrors that he and I had known—that those little ears might never hear any but pretty sounds, those dear eyes never see any but pretty sights. I did not dare to pray for a long time after that. Because my prayer was answered. She never saw, never heard anything more in this world. And now I could do nothing more for him or for her.

“When they had put her in her coffin I lighted wax candles round her, and laid the horrible white flowers that people will send, near to her, and then I saw he had followed me. I took his hand to lead him away.

“At the door we both turned. It seemed to us that we heard a sigh. He would have sprung to her side in I don’t know what mad glad hope. But at that instant we both saw it. Between us and the coffin, first gray, then black, it crouched an instant, then sank and liquefied, and was gathered together and drawn till it ran into the nearest shadow. And the nearest shadow was the shadow of Mabel’s coffin. I left the next day. His mother came. She had never liked me.”

Miss Eastwich paused. I think she had quite forgotten us.

“Didn’t you see him again?” asked the youngest of all.

“Only once,” Miss Eastwich answered, “and something black crouched then between him and me. But it was only his second wife crying beside his coffin. It’s not a cheerful story, is it? And it doesn’t lead anywhere. I’ve never told anyone else. I think it was seeing his daughter that brought it all back.”

She looked toward the dressing-room door. “Mabel’s baby,” said the youngest of all.

“Yes, and exactly like Mabel, only with his eyes.”

The youngest of all had Miss Eastwich’s hands and was petting them.

Suddenly the woman wrenched her hands away and stood at her gaunt height, hands clenched, eyes straining. She was looking at something that we could not see, and I know now what the man in the Bible meant when he said “the hair of my flesh stood up—”

What she saw seemed not quite to reach the height of the dressing-room door handle. Her eyes following it down, down, widened and widened. Mine followed hers, and all the nerves of my eyes seemed strained to the uttermost—and I almost saw—or did I quite see? I can’t be certain. But we all heard the long-drawn, quivering sigh. And to each of us it seemed to be breathed just behind each.

It was I who caught up the candle—it dropped wax all over my trembling hands—it was I who was dragged by Miss Eastwich to the side of the girl who had fainted during the second extra. But it was the youngest of all whose lean arms were round the housekeeper when we turned away, and that have been round her many a time since in the new home where she keeps house for the youngest of us all.

The doctor, who came in the morning, said that Mabel’s daughter had died of heart disease, which she inherited from her mother. That was what made her faint during the second extra. But I have sometimes wondered whether she may not have inherited something from her father. I have never been able to forget the look on her dead face.