The Terror by Night by E. F. Benson
The transference of emotion is a phenomenon so common, so
constantly witnessed, that mankind in general have long ceased to be
conscious of its existence, as a thing worth our wonder or
consideration, regarding it as being as natural and commonplace as
the transference of things that act by the ascertained laws of
matter. Nobody, for instance, is surprised, if when the room is too
hot, the opening of a window causes the cold fresh air of outside to
be transferred into the room, and in the same way no one is surprised
when into the same room, perhaps, which we will imagine as being
peopled with dull and gloomy persons, there enters some one of fresh
and sunny mind, who instantly brings into the stuffy mental
atmosphere a change analogous to that of the opened windows. Exactly
how this infection is conveyed we do not know; considering the
wireless wonders (that act by material laws) which are already
beginning to lose their wonder now that we have our newspaper brought
as a matter of course every morning in mid-Atlantic, it would not
perhaps be rash to conjecture that in some subtle and occult way the
transference of emotion is in reality material too. Certainly (to
take another instance) the sight of definitely material things, like
writing on a page, conveys emotion apparently direct to our minds, as
when our pleasure or pity is stirred by a book, and it is therefore
possible that mind may act on mind by means as material as that.
Occasionally, however, we come across phenomena which, though they
may easily be as material as any of these things, are rarer, and
therefore more astounding. Some people call them ghosts, some
conjuring tricks, and some nonsense. It seems simpler to group them
under the head of transferred emotions, and they may appeal to any of
the senses. Some ghosts are seen, some heard, some felt, and though I
know of no instance of a ghost being tasted, yet it will seem in the
following pages that these occult phenomena may appeal at any rate to
the senses that perceive heat, cold, or smell. For, to take the
analogy of wireless telegraphy, we are all of us probably "receivers"
to some extent, and catch now and then a message or part of a message
that the eternal waves of emotion are ceaselessly shouting aloud to
those who have ears to hear, and materialising themselves for those
who have eyes to see. Not being, as a rule, perfectly tuned, we grasp
but pieces and fragments of such messages, a few coherent words it
may be, or a few words which seem to have no sense. The following
story, however, to my mind, is interesting, because it shows how
different pieces of what no doubt was one message were received and
recorded by several different people simultaneously. Ten years have
elapsed since the events recorded took place, but they were written
down at the time.
Jack Lorimer and I were very old friends before he married, and
his marriage to a first cousin of mine did not make, as so often
happens, a slackening in our intimacy. Within a few months after, it
was found out that his wife had consumption, and, without any loss of
time, she was sent off to Davos, with her sister to look after her.
The disease had evidently been detected at a very early stage, and
there was excellent ground for hoping that with proper care and
strict regime she would be cured by the life-giving frosts of that
The two had gone out in the November of which I am speaking, and
Jack and I joined them for a month at Christmas, and found that week
after week she was steadily and quickly gaining ground. We had to be
back in town by the end of January, but it was settled that Ida
should remain out with her sister for a week or two more. They both,
I remember, came down to the station to see us off, and I am not
likely to forget the last words that passed:
"Oh, don't look so woebegone, Jack," his wife had said; "you'll
see me again before long."
Then the fussy little mountain engine squeaked, as a puppy squeaks
when its toe is trodden on, and we puffed our way up the pass.
London was in its usual desperate February plight when we got
back, full of fogs and still-born frosts that seemed to produce a
cold far more bitter than the piercing temperature of those sunny
altitudes from which we had come. We both, I think, felt rather
lonely, and even before we had got to our journey's end we had
settled that for the present it was ridiculous that we should keep
open two houses when one would suffice, and would also be far more
cheerful for us both.
So, as we both lived in almost identical houses in the same street
in Chelsea, we decided to "toss," live in the house which the coin
indicated (heads mine, tails his), share expenses, attempt to let the
other house, and, if successful, share the proceeds. A French
five-franc piece of the Second Empire told us it was "heads."
We had been back some ten days, receiving every day the most
excellent accounts from Davos, when, first on him, then on me, there
descended, like some tropical storm, a feeling of indefinable fear.
Very possibly this sense of apprehension (for there is nothing in the
world so virulently infectious) reached me through him: on the other
hand both these attacks of vague foreboding may have come from the
same source. But it is true that it did not attack me till he spoke
of it, so the possibility perhaps inclines to my having caught it
from him. He spoke of it first, I remember, one evening when we had
met for a good-night talk, after having come back from separate
houses where we had dined.
"I have felt most awfully down all day," he said; "and just after
receiving this splendid account from Daisy, I can't think what is the
He poured himself out some whisky and soda as he spoke.
"Oh, touch of liver," I said. "I shouldn't drink that if I were
you. Give it me instead."
"I was never better in my life," he said.
I was opening letters, as we talked, and came across one from the
house agent, which, with trembling eagerness, I read.
"Hurrah," I cried, "offer of five gu as--why can't he write it in
proper English--five guineas a week till Easter for number 31. We
shall roll in guineas!"
"Oh, but I can't stop here till Easter," he said.
"I don't see why not. Nor by the way does Daisy. I heard from her
this morning, and she told me to persuade you to stop. That's to say,
if you like. It really is more cheerful for you here. I forgot, you
were telling me something."
The glorious news about the weekly guineas did not cheer him up in
"Thanks awfully. Of course I'll stop."
He moved up and down the room once or twice.
"No, it's not me that is wrong," he said, "it's It, whatever It
is. The terror by night."
"Which you are commanded not to be afraid of," I remarked.
"I know; it's easy commanding. I'm frightened: something's
"Five guineas a week are coming," I said. "I shan't sit up and be
infected by your fears. All that matters, Davos, is going as well as
it can. What was the last report? Incredibly better. Take that to bed
The infection--if infection it was--did not take hold of me then,
for I remember going to sleep feeling quite cheerful, but I awoke in
some dark still house and It, the terror by night, had come while I
slept. Fear and misgiving, blind, unreasonable, and paralysing, had
taken and gripped me. What was it? Just as by an aneroid we can
foretell the approach of storm, so by this sinking of the spirit,
unlike anything I had ever felt before, I felt sure that disaster of
some sort was presaged.
Jack saw it at once when we met at breakfast next morning, in the
brown haggard light of a foggy day, not dark enough for candles, but
dismal beyond all telling.
"So it has come to you too," he said.
And I had not even the fighting-power left to tell him that I was
merely slightly unwell.
Besides, never in my life had I felt better.
All next day, all the day after that fear lay like a black cloak
over my mind; I did not know what I dreaded, but it was something
very acute, something that was very near. It was coming nearer every
moment, spreading like a pall of clouds over the sky; but on the
third day, after miserably cowering under it, I suppose some sort of
courage came back to me: either this was pure imagination, some trick
of disordered nerves or what not, in which case we were both
"disquieting ourselves in vain," or from the immeasurable waves of
emotion that beat upon the minds of men, something within both of us
had caught a current, a pressure. In either case it was infinitely
better to try, however ineffectively, to stand up against it. For
these two days I had neither worked nor played; I had only shrunk and
shuddered; I planned for myself a busy day, with diversion for us
both in the evening.
"We will dine early," I said, "and go to the 'Man from
Blankley's.' I have already asked Philip to come, and he is coming,
and I have telephoned for tickets. Dinner at seven."
Philip, I may remark, is an old friend of ours, neighbour in this
street, and by profession a much-respected doctor.
Jack laid down his paper.
"Yes, I expect you're right," he said. "It's no use doing nothing,
it doesn't help things. Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, beautifully," I said rather snappishly, for I was all on
edge with the added burden of an almost sleepless night.
"I wish I had," said he.
This would not do at all.
"We have got to play up!" I said. "Here are we two strong and
stalwart persons, with as much cause for satisfaction with life as
any you can mention, letting ourselves behave like worms. Our fear
may be over things imaginary or over things that are real, but it is
the fact of being afraid that is so despicable. There is nothing in
the world to fear except fear. You know that as well as I do. Now
let's read our papers with interest. Which do you back, Mr. Druce, or
the Duke of Portland, or the Times Book Club?"
That day, therefore, passed very busily for me; and there were
enough events moving in front of that black background, which I was
conscious was there all the time, to enable me to keep my eyes away
from it, and I was detained rather late at the office, and had to
drive back to Chelsea, in order to be in time to dress for dinner
instead of walking back as I had intended.
Then the message, which for these three days had been twittering
in our minds, the receivers, just making them quiver and rattle, came
I found Jack already dressed, since it was within a minute or two
of seven when I got in, and sitting in the drawing-room. The day had
been warm and muggy, but when I looked in on the way up to my room,
it seemed to me to have grown suddenly and bitterly cold, not with
the dampness of English frost, but with the clear and stinging
exhilaration of such days as we had recently spent in Switzerland.
Fire was laid in the grate but not lit, and I went down on my knees
on the hearth-rug to light it.
"Why, it's freezing in here," I said. "What donkeys servants are!
It never occurs to them that you want fires in cold weather, and no
fires in hot weather."
"Oh, for heaven's sake don't light the fire," said he, "it's the
warmest muggiest evening I ever remember."
I stared at him in astonishment. My hands were shaking with the
cold. He saw this.
"Why, you are shivering!" he said. "Have you caught a chill? But
as to the room being cold let us look at the thermometer."
There was one on the writing-table.
"Sixty-five," he said.
There was no disputing that, nor did I want to, for at that moment
it suddenly struck us, dimly and distantly, that It was "coming
through." I felt it like some curious internal vibration.
"Hot or cold, I must go and dress," I said.
Still shivering, but feeling as if I was breathing some rarefied
exhilarating air, I went up to my room. My clothes were already laid
out, but, by an oversight, no hot water had been brought up, and I
rang for my man. He came up almost at once, but he looked scared, or,
to my already-startled senses, he appeared so.
"What's the matter?" I said.
"Nothing, sir," he said, and he could hardly articulate the words.
"I thought you rang."
"Yes. Hot water. But what's the matter?"
He shifted from one foot to the other.
"I thought I saw a lady on the stairs," he said, "coming up close
behind me. And the front-door bell hadn't rung that I heard."
"Where did you think you saw her?" I asked.
"On the stairs. Then on the landing outside the drawing-room door,
sir," he said. "She stood there as if she didn't know whether to go
in or not."
"One--one of the servants," I said. But again I felt that It was
"No, sir. It was none of the servants," he said.
"Who was it then?"
"Couldn't see distinctly, sir, it was dim-like. But I thought it
was Mrs. Lorimer."
"Oh, go and get me some hot water," I said.
But he lingered; he was quite clearly frightened.
At this moment the front door bell rang. It was just seven, and
already Philip had come with brutal punctuality while I was not yet
"That's Dr. Enderly," I said. "Perhaps if he is on the stairs you
may be able to pass the place where you saw the lady."
Then quite suddenly there rang through the house a scream, so
terrible, so appalling in its agony and supreme terror, that I simply
stood still and shuddered, unable to move. Then by an effort so
violent that I felt as if something must break, I recalled the power
of motion, and ran downstairs, my man at my heels, to meet Philip who
was running up from the ground floor. He had heard it too.
"What's the matter?" he said. "What was that?"
Together we went into the drawing-room. Jack was lying in front of
the fireplace, with the chair in which he had been sitting a few
minutes before overturned. Philip went straight to him and bent over
him, tearing open his white shirt.
"Open all the windows," he said, "the place reeks."
We flung open the windows, and there poured in so it seemed to me,
a stream of hot air into the bitter cold. Eventually Philip got
"He is dead," he said. "Keep the windows open. The place is still
thick with chloroform."
Gradually to my sense the room got warmer, to Philip's the
drug-laden atmosphere dispersed.
But neither my servant nor I had smelt anything at all.
A couple of hours later there came a telegram from Davos for me.
It was to tell me to break the news of Daisy's death to Jack, and was
sent by her sister. She supposed he would come out immediately. But
he had been gone two hours now.
I left for Davos next day, and learned what had happened. Daisy
had been suffering for three days from a little abscess which had to
be opened, and, though the operation was of the slightest, she had
been so nervous about it that the doctor gave her chloroform. She
made a good recovery from the anesthetic, but an hour later had a
sudden attack of syncope, and had died that night at a few minutes
before eight, by Central European time, corresponding to seven in
English time. She had insisted that Jack should be told nothing about
this little operation till it was over, since the matter was quite
unconnected with her general health, and she did not wish to cause
him needless anxiety.
And there the story ends. To my servant there came the sight of a
woman outside the drawing-room door, where Jack was, hesitating about
her entrance, at the moment when Daisy's soul hovered between the two
worlds; to me there came--I do not think it is fanciful to suppose
this--the keen exhilarating cold of Davos; to Philip there came the fumes of
chloroform. And to Jack, I must suppose, came his wife. So he joined her.