The Dust Cloud by E. F. Benson
The big French windows were open on to the lawn, and, dinner being
over, two or three of the party who were staying for the week at the
end of August with the Combe-Martins had strolled out on to the
terrace to look at the sea, over which the moon, large and low, was
just rising and tracing a path of pale gold from horizon to shore,
while others, less lunar of inclination, had gone in search of bridge
or billiards. Coffee had come round immediately after dessert, and
the end of dinner, according to the delectable custom of the house,
was as informal as the end of breakfast.
Every one, that is to say, remained or went away, smoked, drank
port or abstained, according to his personal tastes. Thus, on this
particular evening it so happened that Harry Combe-Martin and I were
very soon left alone in the dining-room, because we were talking
unmitigated motor "shop," and the rest of the party (small wonder)
were bored with it, and had left us. The shop was home-shop, so to
speak, for it was almost entirely concerned with the manifold
perfections of the new six-cylinder Napier which my host in a moment
of extravagance, which he did not in the least regret, had just
purchased; in which, too, he proposed to take me over to lunch at a
friend's house near Hunstanton on the following day. He observed with
legitimate pride that an early start would not be necessary, as the
distance was only eighty miles and there were no police traps.
"Queer things these big motors are," he said, relapsing into
generalities as we rose to go.
"Often I can scarcely believe that my new car is merely a machine.
It seems to me to possess an independent life of its own. It is
really much more like a thoroughbred with a wonderfully fine
"And the moods of a thoroughbred?" I asked.
"No; it's got an excellent temper, I'm glad to say. It doesn't
mind being checked, or even stopped, when it's going its best. Some
of these big cars can't stand that. They get sulky--I assure you it
is literally true--if they are checked too often."
He paused on his way to ring the bell. "Guy Elphinstone's car, for
instance," he said: "it was a bad-tempered brute, a violent, vicious
beast of a car."
"What make?" I asked.
"Twenty-five horse-power Amédée. They are a fretful
strain of car; too thin, not enough bone--and bone is very good for
the nerves. The brute liked running over a chicken or a rabbit,
though perhaps it was less the car's ill-temper than Guy's, poor
chap. Well, he paid for it--he paid to the uttermost farthing. Did
you know him?"
"No; but surely I have heard the name. Ah, yes, he ran over a
child, did he not?"
"Yes," said Harry, "and then smashed up against his own park
"Killed, wasn't he?"
"Oh, yes, killed instantly, and the car just a heap of splinters.
There's an old story about it, I'm told, in the village: rather in
"Ghosts?" I asked.
"Yes, the ghost of his motor-car. Seems almost too up-to-date,
"And what's the story?" I demanded.
"Why, just this. His place was outside the village of Bircham, ten
miles out from Norwich; and there's a long straight bit of road
there--that's where he ran over the child--and a couple of hundred
yards further on, a rather awkward turn into the park gates. Well, a
month or two ago, soon after the accident, one old gaffer in the
village swore he had seen a motor there coming full tilt along the
road, but without a sound, and it disappeared at the lodge gates of
the park, which were shut. Soon after another said he had heard a
motor whirl by him at the same place, followed by a hideous scream,
but he saw nothing."
"The scream is rather horrible," said I.
"Ah, I see what you mean! I only thought of his syren. Guy had a
syren on his exhaust, same as I have. His had a dreadful frightened
sort of wail, and always made me feel creepy."
"And is that all the story?" I asked: "that one old man thought he
saw a noiseless motor, and another thought he heard an invisible
Harry flicked the ash off his cigarette into the grate. "Oh dear
no!" he said. "Half a dozen of them have seen something or heard
something. It is quite a heavily authenticated yarn."
"Yes, and talked over and edited in the public-house," I said.
"Well, not a man of them will go there after dark. Also the
lodge-keeper gave notice a week or two after the accident. He said he
was always hearing a motor stop and hoot outside the lodge, and he
was kept running out at all hours of the night to see what it
"And what was it?"
"It wasn't anything. Simply nothing there. He thought it rather
uncanny, anyhow, and threw up a good post. Besides, his wife was
always hearing a child scream, and while her man toddled out to the
gate she would go and see whether the kids were all right. And the
"Ah, what of them?" I asked.
"They kept coming to their mother, asking who the little girl was
who walked up and down the road and would not speak to them or play
"It's a many-sided story," I said. "All the witnesses seem to have
heard and seen different things."
"Yes, that is just what to my mind makes the yarn so good," he
said. "Personally I don't take much stock in spooks at all. But given
that there are such things as spooks, and given that the death of the
child and the death of Guy have caused spooks to play about there, it
seems to me a very good point that different people should be aware
of different phenomena. One hears the car, another sees it, one hears
the child scream, another sees the child. How does that strike
This, I am bound to say, was a new view to me, and the more I
thought of it the more reasonable it appeared. For the vast majority
of mankind have all those occult senses by which is perceived the
spiritual world (which, I hold, is thick and populous around us),
sealed up, as it were; in other words, the majority of mankind never
hear or see a ghost at all. Is it not, then, very probable that of
the remainder--those, in fact, to whom occult experiences have
happened or can happen--few should have every sense unsealed, but
that some should have the unsealed ear, others the unsealed
eye--that some should be clairaudient, others clairvoyant?
"Yes, it strikes me as reasonable," I said. "Can't you take me
"Certainly! If you will stop till Friday I'll take you over on
Thursday. The others all go that day, so that we can get there after
I shook my head. "I can't stop till Friday, I'm afraid," I said.
"I must leave on Thursday. But how about to-morrow? Can't we take it
on the way to or from Hunstanton?"
"No; it's thirty miles out of our way. Besides, to be at Bircham
after dark means that we shouldn't get back here till midnight. And
as host to my guests--"
"Ah! things are only heard and seen after dark, are they?" I
asked. "That makes it so much less interesting. It is like a
séance where all lights are put out."
"Well, the accident happened at night," he said. "I don't know the
rules, but that may have some bearing on it, I should think."
I had one question more in the back of my mind, but I did not like
to ask it. At least, I wanted information on this subject without
appearing to ask for it.
"Neither do I know the rules of motors," I said; "and I don't
understand you when you say that Guy Elphinstone's machine was an
irritable, cross-grained brute, that liked running over chickens and
rabbits. But I think you subsequently said that the irritability may
have been the irritability of its owner. Did he mind being
"It made him blind-mad if it happened often," said Harry. "I shall
never forget a drive I had with him once: there were hay-carts and
perambulators every hundred yards. It was perfectly ghastly; it was
like being with a madman. And when we got inside his gate, his dog
came running out to meet him. He did not go an inch out of his
course: it was worse than that--he went for it, just grinding his
teeth with rage. I never drove with him again."
He stopped a moment, guessing what might be in my mind. "I say,
you mustn't think--you mustn't think--" he began.
"No, of course not," said I.
Harry Combe-Martin's house stood close to the weather-eaten, sandy
cliffs of the Suffolk shore, which are being incessantly gnawed away
by the hunger of the insatiable sea. Fathoms deep below it, and now
any hundred yards out, lies what was once the second port in England;
but now of the ancient town of Dunwich, and of its seven great
churches, nothing remains but one, and that ruinous and already half
destroyed by the falling cliff and the encroachments of the sea. Foot
by foot, it too is disappearing, and of the graveyard which
surrounded it more than half is gone, so that from the face of the
sandy cliff on which it stands there stick out like straws in glass,
as Dante says, the bones of those who were once committed there to
the kindly and stable earth.
Whether it was the remembrance of this rather grim spectacle as I
had seen it that afternoon, or whether Harry's story had caused some
trouble in my brain, or whether it was merely that the keen bracing
air of this place, to one who had just come from the sleepy languor
of the Norfolk Broads, kept me sleepless, I do not know; but, anyhow,
the moment I put out my light that night and got into bed, I felt
that all the footlights and gas-jets in the internal theatre of my
mind sprang into flame, and that I was very vividly and alertly
awake. It was in vain that I counted a hundred forwards and a hundred
backwards, that I pictured to myself a flock of visionary sheep
coming singly through a gap in an imaginary hedge, and tried to
number their monotonous and uniform countenances, that I played
noughts and crosses with myself, that I marked out scores of double
lawn-tennis courts,--for with each repetition of these supposedly
soporific exercises I only became more intensely wakeful. It was not
in remote hope of sleep that I continued to repeat these weary
performances long after their inefficacy was proved to the hilt, but
because I was strangely unwilling in this timeless hour of the night
to think about those protruding relics of humanity; also I quite
distinctly did not desire to think about that subject with regard to
which I had, a few hours ago, promised Harry that I would not make it
the subject of reflection. For these reasons I continued during the
black hours to practise these narcotic exercises of the mind, knowing
well that if I paused on the tedious treadmill my thoughts, like some
released spring, would fly back to rather gruesome subjects. I kept
my mind, in fact, talking loud to itself, so that it should not hear
what other voices were saying.
Then by degrees these absurd mental occupations became impossible;
my mind simply refused to occupy itself with them any longer; and
next moment I was thinking intently and eagerly, not about the bones
protruding from the gnawed section of sandcliff, but about the
subject I had said I would not dwell upon. And like a flash it came
upon me why Harry had bidden me not think about it. Surely in order
that I should not come to the same conclusion as he had come to.
Now the whole question of "haunt"--haunted spots, haunted houses,
and so forth--has always seemed to me to be utterly unsolved, and to
be neither proved nor disproved to a satisfactory degree. From the
earliest times, certainly from the earliest known Egyptian records,
there has been a belief that the scene of a crime is often revisited,
sometimes by the spirit of him who has committed it--seeking rest,
we must suppose, and finding none; sometimes, and more inexplicably,
by the spirit of his victim, crying perhaps, like the blood of Abel,
And though the stories of these village gossips in the alehouse
about noiseless visions and invisible noises were all as yet unsifted
and unreliable, yet I could not help wondering if they (such as they
were) pointed to something authentic and to be classed under this
head of appearances. But more striking than the yarns of the gaffers
seemed to me the questions of the lodge-keeper's children. How should
children have imagined the figure of a child that would not speak to
them or play with them? Perhaps it was a real child, a sulky child.
Yes--perhaps. But perhaps not. Then after this preliminary skirmish I
found myself settling down to the question that I had said I would
not think about; in other words, the possible origin of these
phenomena interested me more than the phenomena themselves. For what
exactly had Guy Elphinstone, that savage driver, done? Had or had not
the death of the child been entirely an accident, a thing (given he
drove a motor at all) outside his own control? Or had he, irritated
beyond endurance at the checks and delays of the day, not pulled up
when it was just possible he might have, but had run over the child
as he would have run over a rabbit or a hen, or even his own dog? And
what, in any case, poor wretched brute, must have been his thoughts
in that terrible instant that intervened between the child's death
and his own, when a moment later he smashed into the closed gates of
his own lodge? Was remorse his--bitter, despairing contrition? That
could hardly have been so; or else surely, knowing only for certain
that he had knocked a child down, he would have stopped; he would
have done his best, whatever that might be, to repair the irreparable
harm. But he had not stopped: he had gone on, it seemed, at full
speed, for on the collision the car had been smashed into matchwood
and steel shavings. Again, with double force, had this dreadful thing
been a complete accident, he would have stopped. So then--most
terrible question of all--had he, after making murder, rushed on to
what proved to be his own death, filled with some hellish glee at
what he had done? Indeed, as in the church-yard on the cliff, bones
of the buried stuck starkly out into the night.
The pale tired light of earliest morning had turned the
window-blinds into glimmering squares before I slept; and when I
woke, the servant who called me was already rattling them briskly up
on their rollers, and letting the calm serenity of the August day
stream into the room. Through the open windows poured in sunlight and
sea-wind, the scent of flowers and the song of birds; and each and
all were wonderfully reassuring, banishing the hooded forms that had
haunted the night, and I thought of the disquietude of the dark hours
as a traveller may think of the billows and tempests of the ocean
over which he has safely journeyed, unable, now that they belong to
the limbo of the past, to recall his qualms and tossings with any
vivid uneasiness. Not without a feeling of relief, too, did I dwell
on the knowledge that I was definitely not going to visit this
equivocal spot. Our drive to-day, as Harry had said, would not take
us within thirty miles of it, and to-morrow I but went to the station
and away. Though a thorough-paced seeker after truth might, no doubt,
have regretted that the laws of time and space did not permit him to
visit Bircham after the sinister dark had fallen, and test whether
for him there was visible or audible truth in the tales of the
village gossips, I was conscious of no such regret. Bircham and its
fables had given me a very bad night, and I was perfectly aware that
I did not in the least want to go near it, though yesterday I had
quite truthfully said I should like to do so. In this brightness,
too, of sun and sea-wind I felt none of the malaise at my waking
moments which a sleepless night usually gives me; I felt particularly
well, particularly pleased to be alive, and also, as I have said,
particularly content not to be going to Bircham. I was quite
satisfied to leave my curiosity unsatisfied.
The motor came round about eleven, and we started at once, Harry
and Mrs. Morrison, a cousin of his, sitting behind in the big back
seat, large enough to hold a comfortable three, and I on the left of
the driver, in a sort of trance--I am not ashamed to confess it--of
expectancy and delight. For this was in the early days of motors,
when there was still the sense of romance and adventure round them. I
did not want to drive, any more than Harry wanted to; for driving, so
I hold, is too absorbing; it takes the attention in too firm a grip:
the mania of the true motorist is not consciously enjoyed. For the
passion for motors is a taste--I had almost said a gift--as distinct
and as keenly individual as the passion for music or mathematics.
Those who use motors most (merely as a means of getting rapidly from
one place to another) are often entirely without it, while those whom
adverse circumstances (over which they have no control) compel to use
them least may have it to a supreme degree. To those who have it,
analysis of their passion is perhaps superfluous; to those who have
it not, explanation is almost unintelligible. Pace, however, and the
control of pace, and above all the sensuous consciousness of pace, is
at the root of it; and pleasure in pace is common to most people,
whether it be in the form of a galloping horse, or the pace of the
skate hissing over smooth ice, or the pace of a free-wheel bicycle
humming down-hill, or, more impersonally, the pace of the smashed
ball at lawn-tennis, the driven ball at golf, or the low boundary hit
at cricket. But the sensuous consciousness of pace, as I have said,
is needful: one might experience it seated in front of the engine of
an express train, though not in a wadded, shut-windowed carriage,
where the wind of movement is not felt. Then add to this rapture of
the rush through riven air the knowledge that huge relentless force
is controlled by a little lever, and directed by a little wheel on
which the hands of the driver seem to lie so negligently. A great
untamed devil has there his bridle, and he answers to it, as Harry
had said, like a horse with a fine mouth. He has hunger and thirst,
too, unslakeable, and greedily he laps of his soup of petrol which
turns to fire in his mouth; electricity, the force that rends clouds
asunder, and causes towers to totter, is the spoon with which he
feeds himself; and as he eats he races onward, and the road opens
like torn linen in front of him. Yet how obedient, how amenable is
he!--for with a touch on his snaffle his speed is redoubled, or melts
into thin air, so that before you know you have touched the rein he
has exchanged his swallow-flight for a mere saunter through the
lanes. But he ever loves to run; and knowing this, you will bid him
lift up his voice and tell those who are in his path that he is
coming, so that he will not need the touch that checks. Hoarse and
jovial is his voice, hooting to the wayfarer; and if his hooting be
not heard he has a great guttural falsetto scream that leaps from
octave to octave, and echoes from the hedges that are passing in
blurred lines of hanging green. And, as you go, the romantic
isolation of divers in deep seas is yours; masked and hooded
companions may be near you also, in their driving-dress for this
plunge through the swift tides of air; but you, like them, are alone
and isolated, conscious only of the ripped riband of road, the two
great lantern-eyes of the wonderful monster that look through drooped
eyelids by day, but gleam with fire by night, the two ear-laps of
splash-boards, and the long lean bonnet in front which is the skull
and brain-case of that swift untiring energy that feeds on fire, and
whirls its two tons of weight up hill and down dale, as if some new
law as ever-lasting as gravity, and like gravity making it go ever
swifter, was its sole control.
For the first hour the essence of these joys, any description of
which compared to the real thing is but as a stagnant pond compared
to the bright rushing of a mountain stream, was mine. A straight
switchback road lay in front of us, and the monster plunged silently
down hill, and said below his breath, "Ha-ha--ha-ha--ha-ha," as,
without diminution of speed, he breasted the opposing slope. In my
control were his great vocal cords (for in those days hooter and
syren were on the driver's left, and lay convenient to the hand of
him who occupied the box-seat), and it rejoiced me to let him hoot at
a pony-cart, three hundred yards ahead, with a hand on his falsetto
scream if his ordinary tones of conversation were unheard or
disregarded. Then came a road crossing ours at right angles, and the
dear monster seemed to say, "Yes, yes,--see how obedient and careful
I am. I stroll with my hands in my pockets." Then again a puppy from
a farmhouse staggered warlike into the road, and the monster said,
"Poor little chap! get home to your mother, or I'll talk to you in
earnest." The poor little chap did not take the hint, so the monster
slackened speed and just said "Whoof!" Then it chuckled to itself as
the puppy scuttled into the hedge, seriously alarmed; and next moment
our self-made wind screeched and whistled round us again.
Napoleon, I believe, said that the power of an army lay in its
feet: that is true also of the monster. There was a loud bang, and in
thirty seconds we were at a standstill. The monster's off fore-foot
troubled it, and the chauffeur said, "Yes, sir--burst."
So the burst boot was taken off and a new one put on, a boot that
had never been on foot before. The foot in question was held up on a
jack during this operation, and the new boot laced up with a pump.
This took exactly twenty-five minutes. Then the monster got his spoon
going again, and said, "Let me run: oh, let me run!"
And for fifteen miles on a straight and empty road it ran. I timed
the miles, but shall not produce their chronology for the benefit of
a forsworn constabulary.
But there were no more dithyrambics that morning. We should have
reached Hunstanton in time for lunch. Instead, we waited to repair
our fourth puncture at 1.45 p.m., twenty-five miles short of our
destination. This fourth puncture was caused by a spicule of flint
three-quarters of an inch long--sharp, it is true, but weighing
perhaps two pennyweights, while we weighed two tons. It seemed an
impertinence. So we lunched at a wayside inn, and during lunch the
pundits held a consultation, of which the upshot was this:
We had no more boots for our monster, for his off fore-foot had
burst once, and punctured once (thus necessitating two socks and one
boot). Similarly, but more so, his off hind-foot had burst twice
(thus necessitating two boots and two socks). Now, there was no
certain shoemaker's shop at Hunstanton, as far as we knew, but there
was a regular universal store at King's Lynn, which was about
And, so said the chauffeur, there was something wrong with the
monster's spoon (ignition), and he didn't rightly know what, and
therefore it seemed the prudent part not to go to Hunstanton (lunch,
a thing of the preterite, having been the object), but to the
well-supplied King's Lynn.
And we all breathed a pious hope that we might get there.
Whizz: hoot: purr! The last boot held, the spoon went busily to
the monster's mouth, and we just flowed into King's Lynn. The return
journey, so I vaguely gathered, would be made by other roads; but
personally, intoxicated with air and movement, I neither asked nor
desired to know what those roads would be. This one small but rather
salient fact is necessary to record here, that as we waited at King's
Lynn, and as we buzzed homewards afterwards, no thought of Bircham
entered my head at all. The subsequent hallucination, if
hallucination it was, was not, as far as I know, self-suggested. That
we had gone out of our way for the sake of the garage, I knew, and
that was all. Harry also told me that he did not know where our road
would take us.
The rest that follows is the baldest possible narrative of what
actually occurred. But it seems to me, a humble student of the
occult, to be curious.
While we waited we had tea in an hotel looking on to a big empty
square of houses, and after tea we waited a very long time for our
monster to pick us up. Then the telephone from the garage inquired
for "the gentleman on the motor," and since Harry had strolled out to
get a local evening paper with news of the last Test Match, I applied
ear and mouth to that elusive instrument. What I heard was not
encouraging: the ignition had gone very wrong indeed, and "perhaps"
in an hour we should be able to start. It was then about half-past
six, and we were just seventy-eight miles from Dunwich.
Harry came back soon after this, and I told him what the message
from the garage had been.
What he said was this: "Then we shan't get back till long after
dinner. We might just as well have camped out to see your ghost."
As I have already said, no notion of Bircham was in my mind, and I
mention this as evidence that, even if it had been, Harry's remark
would have implied that we were not going through Bircham.
The hour lengthened itself into an hour and a half. Then the
monster, quite well again, came hooting round the corner, and we got
"Whack her up, Jack," said Harry to the chauffeur. "The roads will
be empty. You had better light up at once."
The monster, with its eyes agleam, was whacked up, and never in my
life have I been carried so cautiously and yet so swiftly. Jack never
took a risk or the possibility of a risk, but when the road was clear
and open he let the monster run just as fast as it was able. Its eyes
made day of the road fifty yards ahead, and the romance of night was
fairyland round us. Hares started from the roadside, and raced in
front of us for a hundred yards, then just wheeled in time to avoid
the ear-flaps of the great triumphant brute that carried us. Moths
flitted across, struck sometimes by the lenses of its eyes, and the
miles peeled over our shoulders. When it occurred we were going
And this was It--quite unsensational, but to us quite inexplicable
unless my midnight imaginings happened to be true.
As I have said, I was in command of the hooter and of the syren.
We were flying along on a straight down-grade, as fast as ever we
could go, for the engines were working, though the decline was
considerable. Then quite suddenly I saw in front of us a thick cloud
of dust, and knew instinctively and on the instant, without thought
or reasoning, what that must mean.
Evidently something going very fast (or else so large a cloud
could not have been raised) was in front of us, and going in the same
direction as ourselves. Had it been something on the road coming to
meet us, we should of course have seen the vehicle first and run into
the dust-cloud afterwards. Had it, again, been something of low
speed--a horse and dog-cart, for instance--no such dust could have
been raised. But, as it was, I knew at once that there was a motor
travelling swiftly just ahead of us, also that it was not going as
fast as we were, or we should have run into its dust much more
gradually. But we went into it as into a suddenly lowered
Then I shouted to Jack. "Slow down, and put on the brake," I
shrieked. "There's something just ahead of us." As I spoke I wrought
a wild concerto on the hooter, and with my right hand groped for the
syren, but did not find it. Simultaneously I heard a wild, frightened
shriek, just as if I had sounded the syren myself. Jack had felt for
it too, and our hands fingered each other. Then we entered the
We slowed down with extraordinary rapidity, and still peering
ahead we went dead-slow through it. I had not put on my goggles after
leaving King's Lynn, and the dust stung and smarted in my eyes. It
was not, therefore, a belt of fog, but real road-dust. And at the
moment we crept through it I felt Harry's hands on my shoulder.
"There's something just ahead," he said. "Look! don't you see the
As a matter of fact, I did not; and, still going very slow, we
came out of that dust-cloud. The broad empty road stretched in front
of us; a hedge was on each side, and there was no turning either to
right or left. Only, on the right, was a lodge, and gates which were
closed. The lodge had no lights in any window.
Then we came to a standstill; the air was dead-calm, not a leaf in
the hedgerow trees was moving, not a grain of dust was lifted from
the road. But behind, the dust-cloud still hung in the air, and
stopped dead-short at the closed lodge-gates. We had moved very
slowly for the last hundred yards: it was difficult to suppose that
it was of our making. Then Jack spoke, with a curious crack in his
"It must have been a motor, sir," he said. "But where is it?"
I had no reply to this, and from behind another voice, Harry's
voice, spoke. For the moment I did not recognise it, for it was
strained and faltering.
"Did you open the syren?" he asked. "It didn't sound like our
syren. It sounded like, like--"
"I didn't open the syren," said I.
Then we went on again. Soon we came to scattered lights in houses
by the wayside.
"What's this place?" I asked Jack.
"Bircham, sir," said he.