Between the Lights by E. F. Benson
The day had been one unceasing fall of snow from sunrise until the
gradual withdrawal of the vague white light outside indicated that
the sun had set again. But as usual at this hospitable and delightful
house of Everard Chandler where I often spent Christmas, and was
spending it now, there had been no lack of entertainment, and the
hours had passed with a rapidity that had surprised us. A short
billiard tournament had filled up the time between breakfast and
lunch, with Badminton and the morning papers for those who were
temporarily not engaged, while afterwards, the interval till tea-time
had been occupied by the majority of the party in a huge game of
hide-and-seek all over the house, barring the billiard-room, which
was sanctuary for any who desired peace. But few had done that; the
enchantment of Christmas, I must suppose, had, like some spell, made
children of us again, and it was with palsied terror and trembling
misgivings that we had tip-toed up and down the dim passages, from
any corner of which some wild screaming form might dart out on us.
Then, wearied with exercise and emotion, we had assembled again for
tea in the hall, a room of shadows and panels on which the light from
the wide open fireplace, where there burned a divine mixture of peat
and logs, flickered and grew bright again on the walls. Then, as was
proper, ghost-stories, for the narration of which the electric light
was put out, so that the listeners might conjecture anything they
pleased to be lurking in the corners, succeeded, and we vied with
each other in blood, bones, skeletons, armour and shrieks. I had,
just given my contribution, and was reflecting with some complacency
that probably the worst was now known, when Everard, who had not yet
administered to the horror of his guests, spoke. He was sitting
opposite me in the full blaze of the fire, looking, after the illness
he had gone through during the autumn, still rather pale and
delicate. All the same he had been among the boldest and best in the
exploration of dark places that afternoon, and the look on his face
now rather startled me.
"No, I don't mind that sort of thing," he said. "The paraphernalia
of ghosts has become somehow rather hackneyed, and when I hear of
screams and skeletons I feel I am on familiar ground, and can at
least hide my head under the bed-clothes."
"Ah, but the bed-clothes were twitched away by my skeleton," said
I, in self-defence.
"I know, but I don't even mind that. Why, there are seven, eight
skeletons in this room now, covered with blood and skin and other
horrors. No, the nightmares of one's childhood were the really
frightening things, because they were vague. There was the true
atmosphere of horror about them because one didn't know what one
feared. Now if one could recapture that--"
Mrs. Chandler got quickly out of her seat.
"Oh, Everard," she said, "surely you don't wish to recapture it
again. I should have thought once was enough."
This was enchanting. A chorus of invitation asked him to proceed:
the real true ghost-story first-hand, which was what seemed to be
indicated, was too precious a thing to lose.
Everard laughed. "No, dear, I don't want to recapture it again at
all," he said to his wife.
Then to us: "But really the--well, the nightmare perhaps, to which
I was referring, is of the vaguest and most unsatisfactory kind. It
has no apparatus about it at all. You will probably all say that it
was nothing, and wonder why I was frightened. But I was; it
frightened me out of my wits. And I only just saw something, without
being able to swear what it was, and heard something which might have
been a falling stone."
"Anyhow, tell us about the falling stone," said I.
There was a stir of movement about the circle round the fire, and
the movement was not of purely physical order. It was as if--this is
only what I personally felt--it was as if the childish gaiety of the
hours we had passed that day was suddenly withdrawn; we had jested on
certain subjects, we had played hide-and-seek with all the power of
earnestness that was in us. But now--so it seemed to me--there was
going to be real hide-and-seek, real terrors were going to lurk in
dark corners, or if not real terrors, terrors so convincing as to
assume the garb of reality, were going to pounce on us. And Mrs.
Chandler's exclamation as she sat down again, "Oh, Everard, won't it
excite you?" tended in any case to excite us. The room still remained
in dubious darkness except for the sudden lights disclosed on the
walls by the leaping flames on the hearth, and there was wide field
for conjecture as to what might lurk in the dim corners. Everard,
moreover, who had been sitting in bright light before, was banished
by the extinction of some flaming log into the shadows. A voice alone
spoke to us, as he sat back in his low chair, a voice rather slow but
"Last year," he said, "on the twenty-fourth of December, we were
down here, as usual, Amy and I, for Christmas. Several of you who are
here now were here then. Three or four of you at least."
I was one of these, but like the others kept silence, for the
identification, so it seemed to me, was not asked for. And he went on
again without a pause.
"Those of you who were here then," he said, "and are here now,
will remember how very warm it was this day year. You will remember,
too, that we played croquet that day on the lawn. It was perhaps a
little cold for croquet, and we played it rather in order to be able
to say--with sound evidence to back the statement--that we had done
Then he turned and addressed the whole little circle.
"We played ties of half-games," he said, "just as we have played
billiards to-day, and it was certainly as warm on the lawn then as it
was in the billiard-room this morning directly after breakfast, while
to-day I should not wonder if there was three feet of snow outside.
More, probably; listen."
A sudden draught fluted in the chimney, and the fire flared up as
the current of air caught it.
The wind also drove the snow against the windows, and as he said,
"Listen," we heard a soft scurry of the falling flakes against the
panes, like the soft tread of many little people who stepped lightly,
but with the persistence of multitudes who were flocking to some
rendezvous. Hundreds of little feet seemed to be gathering outside;
only the glass kept them out. And of the eight skeletons present four
or five, anyhow, turned and looked at the windows. These were
small-paned, with leaden bars. On the leaden bars little heaps of
snow had accumulated, but there was nothing else to be seen.
"Yes, last Christmas Eve was very warm and sunny," went on
Everard. "We had had no frost that autumn, and a temerarious dahlia
was still in flower. I have always thought that it must have been
He paused a moment.
"And I wonder if I were not mad too," he added.
No one interrupted him; there was something arresting, I must
suppose, in what he was saying; it chimed in anyhow with the
hide-and-seek, with the suggestions of the lonely snow.
Mrs. Chandler had sat down again, but I heard her stir in her
chair. But never was there a gay party so reduced as we had been in
the last five minutes. Instead of laughing at ourselves for playing
silly games, we were all taking a serious game seriously.
"Anyhow, I was sitting out," he said to me, "while you and my wife
played your half-game of croquet. Then it struck me that it was not
so warm as I had supposed, because quite suddenly I shivered. And
shivering I looked up. But I did not see you and her playing croquet
at all. I saw something which had no relation to you and her--at
least I hope not."
Now the angler lands his fish, the stalker kills his stag, and the
speaker holds his audience.
And as the fish is gaffed, and as the stag is shot, so were we
held. There was no getting away till he had finished with us.
"You all know the croquet lawn," he said, "and how it is bounded
all round by a flower border with a brick wall behind it, through
which, you will remember, there is only one gate.
"Well, I looked up and saw that the lawn--I could for one moment
see it was still a lawn--was shrinking, and the walls closing in upon
it. As they closed in too, they grew higher, and simultaneously the
light began to fade and be sucked from the sky, till it grew quite
dark overhead and only a glimmer of light came in through the
"There was, as I told you, a dahlia in flower that day, and as
this dreadful darkness and bewilderment came over me, I remember that
my eyes sought it in a kind of despair, holding on, as it were, to
any familiar object. But it was no longer a dahlia, and for the red
of its petals I saw only the red of some feeble firelight. And at
that moment the hallucination was complete. I was no longer sitting
on the lawn watching croquet, but I was in a low-roofed room,
something like a cattle-shed, but round. Close above my head, though
I was sitting down, ran rafters from wall to wall. It was nearly
dark, but a little light came in from the door opposite to me, which
seemed to lead into a passage that communicated with the exterior of
the place. Little, however, of the wholesome air came into this
dreadful den; the atmosphere was oppressive and foul beyond all
telling, it was as if for years it had been the place of some human
menagerie, and for those years had been uncleaned and unsweetened by
the winds of heaven. Yet that oppressiveness was nothing to the awful
horror of the place from the view of the spirit. Some dreadful
atmosphere of crime and abomination dwelt heavy in it, its denizens,
whoever they were, were scarce human, so it seemed to me, and though
men and women, were akin more to the beasts of the field. And in
addition there was present to me some sense of the weight of years; I
had been taken and thrust down into some epoch of dim antiquity."
He paused a moment, and the fire on the hearth leaped up for a
second and then died down again. But in that gleam I saw that all
faces were turned to Everard, and that all wore some look of dreadful
expectancy. Certainly I felt it myself, and waited in a sort of
shrinking horror for what was coming.
"As I told you," he continued, "where there had been that
unseasonable dahlia, there now burned a dim firelight, and my eyes
were drawn there. Shapes were gathered round it; what they were I
could not at first see. Then perhaps my eyes got more accustomed to
the dusk, or the fire burned better, for I perceived that they were
of human form, but very small, for when one rose with a horrible
chattering, to his feet, his head was still some inches off the low
roof. He was dressed in a sort of shirt that came to his knees, but
his arms were bare and covered with hair.
"Then the gesticulation and chattering increased, and I knew that
they were talking about me, for they kept pointing in my direction.
At that my horror suddenly deepened, for I became aware that I was
powerless and could not move hand or foot; a helpless, nightmare
impotence had possession of me. I could not lift a finger or turn my
head. And in the paralysis of that fear I tried to scream, but not a
sound could I utter.
"All this I suppose took place with the instantaneousness of a
dream, for at once, and without transition, the whole thing had
vanished, and I was back on the lawn again, while the stroke for
which my wife was aiming was still unplayed. But my face was dripping
with perspiration, and I was trembling all over.
"Now you may all say that I had fallen asleep, and had a sudden
nightmare. That may be so; but I was conscious of no sense of
sleepiness before, and I was conscious of none afterwards. It was as
if someone had held a book before me, whisked the pages open for a
second and closed them again."
Somebody, I don't know who, got up from his chair with a sudden
movement that made me start, and turned on the electric light. I do
not mind confessing that I was rather glad of this.
"Really I feel like Hamlet in the play-scene," he said, "and as if
there was a guilty uncle present. Shall I go on?"
I don't think anyone replied, and he went on.
"Well, let us say for the moment that it was not a dream exactly,
but a hallucination.
"Whichever it was, in any case it haunted me; for months, I think,
it was never quite out of my mind, but lingered somewhere in the dusk
of consciousness, sometimes sleeping quietly, so to speak, but
sometimes stirring in its sleep. It was no good my telling myself
that I was disquieting myself in vain, for it was as if something had
actually entered into my very soul, as if some seed of horror had
been planted there. And as the weeks went on the seed began to
sprout, so that I could no longer even tell myself that that vision
had been a moment's disorderment only. I can't say that it actually
affected my health. I did not, as far as I know, sleep or eat
insufficiently, but morning after morning I used to wake, not
gradually and through pleasant dozings into full consciousness, but
with absolute suddenness, and find myself plunged in an abyss of
"Often too, eating or drinking, I used to pause and wonder if it
was worth while.
"Eventually, I told two people about my trouble, hoping that
perhaps the mere communication would help matters, hoping also, but
very distantly, that though I could not believe at present that
digestion or the obscurities of the nervous system were at fault, a
doctor by some simple dose might convince me of it. In other words I
told my wife, who laughed at me, and my doctor, who laughed also, and
assured me that my health was quite unnecessarily robust.
"At the same time he suggested that change of air and scene does
wonders for the delusions that exist merely in the imagination. He
also told me, in answer to a direct question, that he would stake his
reputation on the certainty that I was not going mad.
"Well, we went up to London as usual for the season, and though
nothing whatever occurred to remind me in any way of that single
moment on Christmas Eve, the reminding was seen to all right, the
moment itself took care of that, for instead of fading as is the way
of sleeping or waking dreams, it grew every day more vivid, and ate,
so to speak, like some corrosive acid into my mind, etching itself
there. And to London succeeded Scotland.
"I took last year for the first time a small forest up in
Sutherland, called Glen Callan, very remote and wild, but affording
excellent stalking. It was not far from the sea, and the gillies used
always to warn me to carry a compass on the hill, because sea-mists
were liable to come up with frightful rapidity, and there was always
a danger of being caught by one, and of having perhaps to wait hours
till it cleared again. This at first I always used to do, but, as
everyone knows, any precaution that one takes which continues to be
unjustified gets gradually relaxed, and at the end of a few weeks,
since the weather had been uniformly clear, it was natural that, as
often as not, my compass remained at home.
"One day the stalk took me on to a part of my ground that I had
seldom been on before, a very high table-land on the limit of my
forest, which went down very steeply on one side to a loch that lay
below it, and on the other, by gentler gradations, to the river that
came from the loch, six miles below which stood the lodge. The wind
had necessitated our climbing up--or so my stalker had insisted--not
by the easier way, but up the crags from the loch. I had argued the
point with him for it seemed to me that it was impossible that the
deer could get our scent if we went by the more natural path, but he
still held to his opinion; and therefore, since after all this was
his part of the job, I yielded. A dreadful climb we had of it, over
big boulders with deep holes in between, masked by clumps of heather,
so that a wary eye and a prodding stick were necessary for each step
if one wished to avoid broken bones. Adders also literally swarmed in
the heather; we must have seen a dozen at least on our way up, and
adders are a beast for which I have no manner of use. But a couple of
hours saw us to the top, only to find that the stalker had been
utterly at fault, and that the deer must quite infallibly have got
wind of us, if they had remained in the place where we last saw them.
That, when we could spy the ground again, we saw had happened; in any
case they had gone. The man insisted the wind had changed, a palpably
stupid excuse, and I wondered at that moment what other reason he
had--for reason I felt sure there must be--for not wishing to take
what would clearly now have been a better route. But this piece of
bad management did not spoil our luck, for within an hour we had
spied more deer, and about two o'clock I got a shot, killing a heavy
stag. Then sitting on the heather I ate lunch, and enjoyed a
well-earned bask and smoke in the sun. The pony meantime had been
saddled with the stag, and was plodding homewards.
"The morning had been extraordinarily warm, with a little wind
blowing off the sea, which lay a few miles off sparkling beneath a
blue haze, and all morning in spite of our abominable climb I had had
an extreme sense of peace, so much so that several times I had probed
my mind, so to speak, to find if the horror still lingered there. But
I could scarcely get any response from it.
"Never since Christmas had I been so free of fear, and it was with
a great sense of repose, both physical and spiritual, that I lay
looking up into the blue sky, watching my smoke-whorls curl slowly
away into nothingness. But I was not allowed to take my ease long,
for Sandy came and begged that I would move. The weather had changed,
he said, the wind had shifted again, and he wanted me to be off this
high ground and on the path again as soon as possible, because it
looked to him as if a sea-mist would presently come up."
"'And yon's a bad place to get down in the mist,' he added,
nodding towards the crags we had come up.
"I looked at the man in amazement, for to our right lay a gentle
slope down on to the river, and there was now no possible reason for
again tackling those hideous rocks up which we had climbed this
morning. More than ever I was sure he had some secret reason for not
wishing to go the obvious way. But about one thing he was certainly
right, the mist was coming up from the sea, and I felt in my pocket
for the compass, and found I had forgotten to bring it.
"Then there followed a curious scene which lost us time that we
could really ill afford to waste, I insisting on going down by the
way that common sense directed, he imploring me to take his word for
it that the crags were the better way. Eventually, I marched off to
the easier descent, and told him not to argue any more but follow.
What annoyed me about him was that he would only give the most
senseless reasons for preferring the crags. There were mossy places,
he said, on the way I wished to go, a thing patently false, since the
summer had been one spell of unbroken weather; or it was longer, also
obviously untrue; or there were so many vipers about.
"But seeing that none of these arguments produced any effect, at
last he desisted, and came after me in silence.
"We were not yet half down when the mist was upon us, shooting up
from the valley like the broken water of a wave, and in three minutes
we were enveloped in a cloud of fog so thick that we could barely see
a dozen yards in front of us. It was therefore another cause for
self-congratulation that we were not now, as we should otherwise have
been, precariously clambering on the face of those crags up which we
had come with such difficulty in the morning, and as I rather prided
myself on my powers of generalship in the matter of direction, I
continued leading, feeling sure that before long we should strike the
track by the river. More than all, the absolute freedom from fear
elated me; since Christmas I had not known the instinctive joy of
that; I felt like a schoolboy home for the holidays. But the mist
grew thicker and thicker, and whether it was that real rain-clouds
had formed above it, or that it was of an extraordinary density
itself, I got wetter in the next hour than I have ever been before or
since. The wet seemed to penetrate the skin, and chill the very
bones. And still there was no sign of the track for which I was
"Behind me, muttering to himself, followed the stalker, but his
arguments and protestations were dumb, and it seemed as if he kept
close to me, as if afraid.
"Now there are many unpleasant companions in this world; I would
not, for instance, care to be on the hill with a drunkard or a
maniac, but worse than either, I think, is a frightened man, because
his trouble is infectious, and, insensibly. I began to be afraid of
being frightened too.
"From that it is but a short step to fear. Other perplexities too
beset us. At one time we seemed to be walking on flat ground, at
another I felt sure we were climbing again, whereas all the time we
ought to have been descending, unless we had missed the way very
badly indeed. Also, for the month was October, it was beginning to
get dark, and it was with a sense of relief that I remembered that
the full moon would rise soon after sunset. But it had grown very
much colder, and soon, instead of rain, we found we were walking
through a steady fall of snow.
"Things were pretty bad, but then for the moment they seemed to
mend, for, far away to the left, I suddenly heard the brawling of the
river. It should, it is true, have been straight in front of me and
we were perhaps a mile out of our way, but this was better than the
blind wandering of the last hour, and turning to the left, I walked
towards it. But before I had gone a hundred yards, I heard a sudden
choked cry behind me, and just saw Sandy's form flying as if in
terror of pursuit, into the mists. I called to him, but got no reply,
and heard only the spurned stones of his running.
"What had frightened him I had no idea, but certainly with his
disappearance, the infection of his fear disappeared also, and I went
on, I may almost say, with gaiety. On the moment, however, I saw a
sudden well-defined blackness in front of me, and before I knew what
I was doing I was half stumbling, half walking up a very steep grass
"During the last few minutes the wind had got up, and the driving
snow was peculiarly uncomfortable, but there had been a certain
consolation in thinking that the wind would soon disperse these
mists, and I had nothing more than a moonlight walk home. But as I
paused on this slope, I became aware of two things, one, that the
blackness in front of me was very close, the other that, whatever it
was, it sheltered me from the snow. So I climbed on a dozen yards
into its friendly shelter, for it seemed to me to be friendly.
"A wall some twelve feet high crowned the slope, and exactly where
I struck it there was a hole in it, or door rather, through which a
little light appeared. Wondering at this I pushed on, bending down,
for the passage was very low, and in a dozen yards came out on the
"Just as I did this the sky suddenly grew lighter, the wind, I
suppose, having dispersed the mists, and the moon, though not yet
visible through the flying skirts of cloud, made sufficient
"I was in a circular enclosure, and above me there projected from
the walls some four feet from the ground, broken stones which must
have been intended to support a floor. Then simultaneously two things
"The whole of my nine months' terror came back to me, for I saw
that the vision in the garden was fulfilled, and at the same moment I
saw stealing towards me a little figure as of a man, but only about
three foot six in height. That my eyes told me; my ears told me that
he stumbled on a stone; my nostrils told me that the air I breathed
was of an overpowering foulness, and my soul told me that it was sick
unto death. I think I tried to scream, but could not; I know I tried
to move and could not. And it crept closer.
"Then I suppose the terror which held me spellbound so spurred me
that I must move, for next moment I heard a cry break from my lips,
and was stumbling through the passage. I made one leap of it down the
grass slope, and ran as I hope never to have to run again. What
direction I took I did not pause to consider, so long as I put
distance between me and that place. Luck, however, favoured me, and
before long I struck the track by the river, and an hour afterwards
reached the lodge.
"Next day I developed a chill, and as you know pneumonia laid me
on my back for six weeks.
"Well, that is my story, and there are many explanations. You may
say that I fell asleep on the lawn, and was reminded of that by
finding myself, under discouraging circumstances, in an old Picts'
castle, where a sheep or a goat that, like myself, had taken shelter
from the storm, was moving about. Yes, there are hundreds of ways in
which you may explain it. But the coincidence was an odd one, and
those who believe in second sight might find an instance of their
hobby in it."
"And that is all?" I asked.
"Yes, it was nearly too much for me. I think the dressing-bell has