Seaton's Aunt by
Walter De La
(From The London Mercury)
I had heard rumours of Seaton's Aunt long before I actually
encountered her. Seaton, in the hush of confidence, or at any little
show of toleration on our part, would remark, “My aunt,” or “My old
aunt, you know,” as if his relative might be a kind of cement to an
He had an unusual quantity of pocket-money; or, at any rate, it was
bestowed on him in unusually large amounts; and he spent it freely,
though none of us would have described him as an “awfully generous
chap.” “Hullo, Seaton,” he would say, “the old Begum?” At the beginning
of term, too, he used to bring back surprising and exotic dainties in a
box with a trick padlock that accompanied him from his first appearance
at Gummidge's in a billycock hat to the rather abrupt conclusion of his
From a boy's point of view he looked distastefully foreign, with his
yellow skin, and slow chocolate-coloured eyes, and lean weak figure.
Merely for his looks he was treated by most of us true-blue Englishmen
with condescension, hostility, or contempt. We used to call him
“Pongo,” but without any better excuse for the nickname than his skin.
He was, that is, in one sense of the term what he assuredly was not in
the other sense, a sport.
Seaton and I were never in any sense intimate at school, our orbits
only intersected in class. I kept instinctively aloof from him. I felt
vaguely he was a sneak, and remained quite unmollified by advances on
his side, which, in a boy's barbarous fashion, unless it suited me to
be magnanimous, I haughtily ignored.
We were both of us quick-footed, and at Prisoner's Base used
occasionally to hide together. And so I best remember Seaton—his
narrow watchful face in the dusk of summer evening; his peculiar
crouch, and his inarticulate whisperings and mumblings. Otherwise he
played all games slackly and limply; used to stand and feed at his
locker with a crony or two until his “tuck” gave out; or waste his
money on some outlandish fancy or other. He bought, for instance, a
silver bangle, which he wore above his left elbow, until some of the
fellows showed their masterly contempt of the practice by dropping it
nearly red-hot down his neck.
It needed, therefore, a rather peculiar taste, a rather rare kind of
schoolboy courage and indifference to criticism, to be much associated
with him. And I had neither the taste nor the courage. None the less,
he did make advances, and on one memorable occasion went to the length
of bestowing on me a whole pot of some outlandish mulberry-coloured
jelly that had been duplicated in his term's supplies. In the
exuberance of my gratitude I promised to spend the next half-term
holiday with him at his aunt's house.
I had clean forgotten my promise when, two or three days before the
holiday, he came up and triumphantly reminded me of it.
“Well, to tell you the honest truth, Seaton, old chap——” I began
graciously; but he cut me short.
“My aunt expects you,” he said; “she is very glad you are coming.
She's sure to be quite decent to you, Withers.”
I looked at him in some astonishment; the emphasis was unexpected.
It seemed to suggest an aunt not hitherto hinted at, and a friendly
feeling on Seaton's side that was more disconcerting than welcome.
* * * * *
We reached his home partly by train, partly by a lift in an empty
farm-cart, and partly by walking. It was a whole-day holiday, and we
were to sleep the night; he lent me extraordinary night-gear, I
remember. The village street was unusually wide, and was fed from a
green by two converging roads, with an inn, and a high green sign at
the corner. About a hundred yards down the street was a chemist's
shop—Mr. Tanner's. We descended the two steps into his dusky and
odorous interior to buy, I remember, some rat poison. A little beyond
the chemist's was the forge. You then walked along a very narrow path,
under a fairly high wall, nodding here and there with weeds and tufts
of grass, and so came to the iron garden-gates, and saw the high flat
house behind its huge sycamore. A coach-house stood on the left of the
house, and on the right a gate led into a kind of rambling orchard. The
lawn lay away over to the left again, and at the bottom (for the whole
garden sloped gently to a sluggish and rushy pond-like stream) was a
We arrived at noon, and entered the gates out of the hot dust
beneath the glitter of the dark-curtained windows. Seaton led me at
once through the little garden-gate to show me his tadpole pond,
swarming with what, being myself not the least bit of a naturalist, I
considered the most horrible creatures—of all shapes, consistencies,
and sizes, but with whom Seaton seemed to be on the most intimate of
terms. I can see his absorbed face now as he sat on his heels and
fished the slimy things out in his sallow palms. Wearying at last of
his pets, we loitered about awhile in an aimless fashion. Seaton seemed
to be listening, or at any rate waiting, for something to happen or for
some one to come. But nothing did happen and no one came.
That was just like Seaton. Anyhow, the first view I got of his aunt
was when, at the summons of a distant gong, we turned from the garden,
very hungry and thirsty, to go into luncheon. We were approaching the
house when Seaton suddenly came to a standstill. Indeed, I have always
had the impression that he plucked at my sleeve. Something, at least,
seemed to catch me back, as it were, as he cried, “Look out, there she
She was standing in an upper window which opened wide on a hinge,
and at first sight she looked an excessively tall and overwhelming
figure. This, however, was mainly because the window reached all but to
the floor of her bedroom. She was in reality rather an under-sized
woman, in spite of her long face and big head. She must have stood, I
think, unusually still, with eyes fixed on us, though this impression
may be due to Seaton's sudden warning and to my consciousness of the
cautious and subdued air that had fallen on him at sight of her. I know
that without the least reason in the world I felt a kind of guiltiness,
as if I had been “caught.” There was a silvery star pattern sprinkled
on her black silk dress, and even from the ground I could see the
immense coils of her hair and the rings on her left hand which was held
fingering the small jet buttons of her bodice. She watched our united
advance without stirring, until, imperceptibly, her eyes raised and
lost themselves in the distance, so that it was out of an assumed
reverie that she appeared suddenly to awaken to our presence beneath
her when we drew close to the house.
“So this is your friend, Mr. Smithers, I suppose?” she said, bobbing
“Withers, aunt,” said Seaton.
“It's much the same,” she said, with eyes fixed on me. “Come in, Mr.
Withers, and bring him along with you.”
She continued to gaze at me—at least, I think she did so. I know
that the fixity of her scrutiny and her ironical “Mr.” made me feel
peculiarly uncomfortable. But she was extremely kind and attentive to
me, though perhaps her kindness and attention showed up more vividly
against her complete neglect of Seaton. Only one remark that I have any
recollection of she made to him: “When I look on my nephew, Mr.
Smithers, I realise that dust we are, and dust shall become. You are
hot, dirty, and incorrigible, Arthur.”
She sat at the head of the table, Seaton at the foot, and I, before
a wide waste of damask tablecloth, between them. It was an old and
rather close dining-room, with windows thrown wide to the green garden
and a wonderful cascade of fading roses. Miss Seaton's great chair
faced this window, so that its rose-reflected light shone full on her
yellowish face, and on just such chocolate eyes as my schoolfellow's,
except that hers were more than half-covered by unusually long and
There she sat, eating, with those sluggish eyes fixed for the most
part on my face; above them stood the deep-lined fork between her
eyebrows; and above that the wide expanse of a remarkable brow beneath
its strange steep bank of hair. The lunch was copious, and consisted, I
remember, of all such dishes as are generally considered mischievous
and too good for the schoolboy digestion—lobster mayonnaise, cold game
sausages, an immense veal and ham pie farced with eggs and numberless
delicious flavours; besides sauces, kickshaws, creams, and sweetmeats.
We even had wine, a half-glass of old darkish sherry each.
Miss Seaton enjoyed and indulged an enormous appetite. Her example
and a natural schoolboy voracity soon overcame my nervousness of her,
even to the extent of allowing me to enjoy to the best of my bent so
rare a “spread.” Seaton was singularly modest; the greater part of his
meal consisted of almonds and raisins, which he nibbled surreptitiously
and as if he found difficulty in swallowing them.
I don't mean that Miss Seaton “conversed” with me. She merely
scattered trenchant remarks and now and then twinkled a baited question
over my head. But her face was like a dense and involved accompaniment
to her talk. She presently dropped the “Mr.,” to my intense relief, and
called me now Withers, or Wither, now Smithers, and even once towards
the close of the meal distinctly Johnson, though how on earth my name
suggested it, or whose face mine had reanimated in memory, I cannot
“And is Arthur a good boy at school, Mr. Wither?” was one of her
many questions. “Does he please his masters? Is he first in his class?
What does the reverend Dr. Gummidge think of him, eh?”
I knew she was jeering at him, but her face was adamant against the
least flicker of sarcasm or facetiousness. I gazed fixedly at a
blushing crescent of lobster.
“I think you're eighth, aren't you, Seaton?”
Seaton moved his small pupils towards his aunt. But she continued to
gaze with a kind of concentrated detachment at me.
“Arthur will never make a brilliant scholar, I fear,” she said,
lifting a dexterously-burdened fork to her wide mouth....
After luncheon she preceded me up to my bedroom. It was a jolly
little bedroom, with a brass fender and rugs and a polished floor, on
which it was possible, I afterwards found, to play “snow-shoes.” Over
the washstand was a little black-framed water-colour drawing, depicting
a large eye with an extremely fishlike intensity in the spark of light
on the dark pupil; and in “illuminated” lettering beneath was printed
very minutely, “Thou God Seest ME,” followed by a long looped monogram,
“S.S.,” in the corner. The other pictures were all of the sea: brigs on
blue water; a schooner overtopping chalk cliffs; a rocky island of
prodigious steepness, with two tiny sailors dragging a monstrous boat
up a shelf of beach.
“This is the room, Withers, my brother William died in when a boy.
Admire the view!”
I looked out of the window across the tree-tops. It was a day hot
with sunshine over the green fields, and the cattle were standing
swishing their tails in the shallow water. But the view at the moment
was only exaggeratedly vivid because I was horribly dreading that she
would presently enquire after my luggage, and I had not brought even a
toothbrush. I need have had no fear. Hers was not that highly-civilised
type of mind that is stuffed with sharp material details. Nor could her
ample presence be described as in the least motherly.
“I would never consent to question a schoolfellow behind my nephew's
back,” she said, standing in the middle of the room, “but tell me,
Smithers, why is Arthur so unpopular? You, I understand, are his only
close friend.” She stood in a dazzle of sun, and out of it her eyes
regarded me with such leaden penetration beneath their thick lids that
I doubt if my face concealed the least thought from her. “But there,
there,” she added very suavely, stooping her head a little, “don't
trouble to answer me. I never extort an answer. Boys are queer fish.
Brains might perhaps have suggested his washing his hands before
luncheon; but—not my choice, Smithers. God forbid! And now, perhaps,
you would like to go into the garden again. I cannot actually see from
here, but I should not be surprised if Arthur is now skulking behind
He was. I saw his head come out and take a rapid glance at the
“Join him, Mr. Smithers; we shall meet again, I hope, at the
tea-table. The afternoon I spend in retirement.”
Whether or not, Seaton and I had not been long engaged with the aid
of two green switches in riding round and round a lumbering old gray
horse we found in the meadow, before a rather bunched-up figure
appeared, walking along the field-path on the other side of the water,
with a magenta parasol studiously lowered in our direction throughout
her slow progress, as if that were the magnetic needle and we the fixed
pole. Seaton at once lost all nerve in his riding. At the next lurch of
the old mare's heels he toppled over into the grass, and I slid off the
sleek broad back to join him where he stood, rubbing his shoulder and
sourly watching the rather pompous figure till it was out of sight.
“Was that your aunt, Seaton?” I enquired; but not till then.
“Why didn't she take any notice of us, then?”
“She never does.”
“Oh, she knows all right, without; that's the dam awful part of it.”
Seaton was about the only fellow at Gummidge's who ever had the
ostentation to use bad language. He had suffered for it, too. But it
wasn't, I think, bravado. I believe he really felt certain things more
intensely than most of the other fellows, and they were generally
things that fortunate and average people do not feel at all—the
peculiar quality, for instance, of the British schoolboy's imagination.
“I tell you, Withers,” he went on moodily, slinking across the
meadow with his hands covered up in his pockets, “she sees everything.
And what she doesn't see she knows without.”
“But how?” I said, not because I was much interested, but because
the afternoon was so hot and tiresome and purposeless, and it seemed
more of a bore to remain silent. Seaton turned gloomily and spoke in a
very low voice.
“Don't appear to be talking of her, if you wouldn't mind.
It's—because she's in league with the devil.” He nodded his head and
stooped to pick up a round flat pebble. “I tell you,” he said, still
stooping, “you fellows don't realise what it is. I know I'm a bit close
and all that. But so would you be if you had that old hag listening to
every thought you think.”
I looked at him, then turned and surveyed one by one the windows of
“Where's your pater?” I said awkwardly.
“Dead, ages and ages ago, and my mother too. She's not my aunt by
“What is she, then?”
“I mean she's not my mother's sister, because my grandmother married
twice; and she's one of the first lot. I don't know what you call her,
but anyhow she's not my real aunt.”
“She gives you plenty of pocket-money.”
Seaton looked steadfastly at me out of his flat eyes. “She can't
give me what's mine. When I come of age half of the whole lot will be
mine; and what's more”—he turned his back on the house—“I'll make her
hand over every blessed shilling of it.”
I put my hands in my pockets and stared at Seaton. “Is it much?”
“Who told you?” He got suddenly very angry; a darkish red came into
his cheeks, his eyes glistened, but he made no answer, and we loitered
listlessly about the garden until it was time for tea....
Seaton's aunt was wearing an extraordinary kind of lace jacket when
we sidled sheepishly into the drawing-room together. She greeted me
with a heavy and protracted smile, and bade me bring a chair close to
the little table.
“I hope Arthur has made you feel at home,” she said as she handed me
my cup in her crooked hand. “He don't talk much to me; but then I'm an
old woman. You must come again, Wither, and draw him out of his shell.
You old snail!” She wagged her head at Seaton, who sat munching cake
and watching her intently.
“And we must correspond, perhaps.” She nearly shut her eyes at me.
“You must write and tell me everything behind the creature's back.” I
confess I found her rather disquieting company. The evening drew on.
Lamps were brought by a man with a nondescript face and very quiet
footsteps. Seaton was told to bring out the chess-men. And we played a
game, she and I, with her big chin thrust over the board at every move
as she gloated over the pieces and occasionally croaked “Check!” after
which she would sit back inscrutably staring at me. But the game was
never finished. She simply hemmed me defencelessly in with a cloud of
men that held me impotent, and yet one and all refused to administer to
my poor flustered old king a merciful coup de grace.
“There,” she said, as the clock struck ten—“a drawn game, Withers.
We are very evenly matched. A very creditable defence, Withers. You
know your room. There's supper on a tray in the dining-room. Don't let
the creature over-eat himself. The gong will sound three-quarters of an
hour before a punctual breakfast.” She held out her cheek to Seaton,
and he kissed it with obvious perfunctoriness. With me she shook hands.
“An excellent game,” she said cordially, “but my memory is poor,
and”—she swept the pieces helter-skelter into the box—“the result
will never be known.” She raised her great head far back. “Eh?”
It was a kind of challenge, and I could only murmur: “Oh, I was
absolutely in a hole, you know!” when she burst out laughing and waved
us both out of the room.
Seaton and I stood and ate our supper, with one candlestick to light
us, in a corner of the dining-room. “Well, and how would you like it?”
he said very softly, after cautiously poking his head round the
“Being spied on—every blessed thing you do and think?”
“I shouldn't like it at all,” I said, “if she does.”
“And yet you let her smash you up at chess!”
“I didn't let her!” I said indignantly.
“Well, you funked it, then.”
“And I didn't funk it either,” I said; “she's so jolly clever with
her knights.” Seaton stared fixedly at the candle. “You wait, that's
all,” he said slowly. And we went upstairs to bed.
I had not been long in bed, I think, when I was cautiously awakened
by a touch on my shoulder. And there was Seaton's face in the
candlelight and his eyes looking into mine.
“What's up?” I said, rising quickly to my elbow.
“Don't scurry,” he whispered, “or she'll hear. I'm sorry for waking
you, but I didn't think you'd be asleep so soon.”
“Why, what's the time, then?” Seaton wore, what was then rather
unusual, a night-suit, and he hauled his big silver watch out of the
pocket in his jacket.
“It's a quarter to twelve. I never get to sleep before twelve—not
“What do you do, then?”
“Oh, I read and listen.”
Seaton stared into his candle-flame as if he were listening even
then. “You can't guess what it is. All you read in ghost stories,
that's all rot. You can't see much, Withers, but you know all the
“Why, that they're there.”
“Who's there?” I asked fretfully, glancing at the door.
“Why, in the house. It swarms with 'em. Just you stand still and
listen outside my bedroom door in the middle of the night. I have,
dozens of times; they're all over the place.”
“Look here, Seaton,” I said, “you asked me to come here, and I
didn't mind chucking up a leave just to oblige you and because I'd
promised; but don't get talking a lot of rot, that's all, or you'll
know the difference when we get back.”
“Don't fret,” he said coldly, turning away. “I shan't be at school
long. And what's more, you're here now, and there isn't anybody else to
talk to. I'll chance the other.”
“Look here, Seaton,” I said, “you may think you're going to scare me
with a lot of stuff about voices and all that. But I'll just thank you
to clear out; and you may please yourself about pottering about all
He made no answer; he was standing by the dressing-table looking
across his candle into the looking-glass; he turned and stared slowly
round the walls.
“Even this room's nothing more than a coffin. I suppose she told
you—'It's all exactly the same as when my brother William died'—trust
her for that! And good luck to him, say I. Look at that.” He raised his
candle close to the little water-colour I have mentioned. “There's
hundreds of eyes like that in the house; and even if God does see you,
he takes precious good care you don't see Him. And it's just the same
with them. I tell you what, Withers, I'm getting sick of all this. I
shan't stand it much longer.”
The house was silent within and without, and even in the yellowish
radiance of the candle a faint silver showed through the open window on
my blind. I slipped off the bedclothes, wide awake, and sat irresolute
on the bedside.
“I know you're only guying me,” I said angrily, “but why is the
house full of—what you say? Why do you hear—what you do hear?
Tell me that, you silly foal!”
Seaton sat down on a chair and rested his candlestick on his knee.
He blinked at me calmly. “She brings them,” he said, with lifted
“Who? Your aunt?”
“I told you,” he answered pettishly. “She's in league. You don't
know. She as good as killed my mother; I know that. But it's not only
her by a long chalk. She just sucks you dry. I know. And that's what
she'll do for me; because I'm like her—like my mother, I mean. She
simply hates to see me alive. I wouldn't be like that old she-wolf for
a million pounds. And so”—he broke off, with a comprehensive wave of
his candlestick—“they're always here. Ah, my boy, wait till she's
dead! She'll hear something then, I can tell you. It's all very well
now, but wait till then! I wouldn't be in her shoes when she has to
clear out—for something. Don't you go and believe I care for ghosts,
or whatever you like to call them. We're all in the same box. We're all
under her thumb.”
He was looking almost nonchalantly at the ceiling at the moment,
when I saw his face change, saw his eyes suddenly drop like shot birds
and fix themselves on the cranny of the door he had just left ajar.
Even from where I sat I could see his colour change; he went greenish.
He crouched without stirring, simply fixed. And I, scarcely daring to
breathe, sat with creeping skin, simply watching him. His hands
relaxed, and he gave a kind of sigh.
“Was that one?” I whispered, with a timid show of jauntiness. He
looked round, opened his mouth, and nodded. “What?” I said. He jerked
his thumb with meaningful eyes, and I knew that he meant that his aunt
had been there listening at our door cranny.
“Look here, Seaton,” I said once more, wriggling to my feet. “You
may think I'm a jolly noodle; just as you please. But your aunt has
been civil to me and all that, and I don't believe a word you say about
her, that's all, and never did. Every fellow's a bit off his pluck at
night, and you may think it a fine sport to try your rubbish on me. I
heard your aunt come upstairs before I fell asleep. And I'll bet you a
level tanner she's in bed now. What's more, you can keep your blessed
ghosts to yourself. It's a guilty conscience, I should think.”
Seaton looked at me curiously, without answering for a moment. “I'm
not a liar, Withers; but I'm not going to quarrel either. You're the
only chap I care a button for; or, at any rate, you're the only chap
that's ever come here; and it's something to tell a fellow what you
feel. I don't care a fig for fifty thousand ghosts, although I swear on
my solemn oath that I know they're here. But she”—he turned
deliberately—“you laid a tanner she's in bed, Withers; well, I know
different. She's never in bed much of the night, and I'll prove it,
too, just to show you I'm not such a nolly as you think I am. Come on!”
“Come on where?”
“Why, to see.”
I hesitated. He opened a large cupboard and took out a small dark
dressing-gown and a kind of shawl-jacket. He threw the jacket on the
bed and put on the gown. His dusky face was colourless, and I could see
by the way he fumbled at the sleeves he was shivering. But it was no
good showing the white feather now. So I threw the tasselled shawl over
my shoulders and, leaving our candle brightly burning on the chair, we
went out together and stood in the corridor. “Now then, listen!” Seaton
We stood leaning over the staircase. It was like leaning over a
well, so still and chill the air was all around us. But presently, as I
suppose happens in most old houses, began to echo and answer in my ears
a medley of infinite small stirrings and whisperings. Now out of the
distance an old timber would relax its fibers, or a scurry die away
behind the perishing wainscot. But amid and behind such sounds as these
I seemed to begin to be conscious, as it were, of the lightest of
footfalls, sounds as faint as the vanishing remembrance of voices in a
dream. Seaton was all in obscurity except his face; out of that his
eyes gleamed darkly, watching me.
“You'd hear, too, in time, my fine soldier,” he muttered. “Come on!”
He descended the stairs, slipping his lean fingers lightly along the
balusters. He turned to the right at the loop, and I followed him
barefooted along a thickly-carpeted corridor. At the end stood a door
ajar. And from here we very stealthily and in complete blackness
ascended five narrow stairs. Seaton, with immense caution, slowly
pushed open a door and we stood together looking into a great pool of
duskiness, out of which, lit by the feeble clearness of a night-light,
rose a vast bed. A heap of clothes lay on the floor; beside them two
slippers dozed, with noses each to each, two yards apart. Somewhere a
little clock ticked huskily. There was a rather close smell of lavender
and eau de Cologne, mingled with the fragrance of ancient sachets,
soap, and drugs. Yet it was a scent even more peculiarly commingled
And the bed! I stared warily in; it was mounded gigantically, and it
Seaton turned a vague pale face, all shadows: “What did I say?” he
muttered. “Who's—who's the fool now, I say? How are we going to get
back without meeting her, I say? Answer me that! Oh, I wish to goodness
you hadn't come here, Withers.”
He stood visibly shivering in his skimpy gown, and could hardly
speak for his teeth chattering. And very distinctly, in the hush that
followed his whisper, I heard approaching a faint unhurried voluminous
rustle. Seaton clutched my arm, dragged me to the right across the room
to a large cupboard, and drew the door close to on us. And, presently,
as with bursting lungs I peeped out into the long, low, curtained
bedroom, waddled in that wonderful great head and body. I can see her
now, all patched and lined with shadow, her tied-up hair (she must have
had enormous quantities of it for so old a woman), her heavy lids above
those flat, slow, vigilant eyes. She just passed across my ken in the
vague dusk; but the bed was out of sight.
We waited on and on, listening to the clock's muffled ticking. Not
the ghost of a sound rose up from the great bed. Either she lay archly
listening or slept a sleep serener than an infant's. And when, it
seemed, we had been hours in hiding and were cramped, chilled, and half
suffocated, we crept out on all fours, with terror knocking at our
ribs, and so down the five narrow stairs and back to the little
candle-lit blue-and-gold bedroom.
Once there, Seaton gave in. He sat livid on a chair with closed
“Here,” I said, shaking his arm, “I'm going to bed; I've had enough
of this foolery; I'm going to bed.” His lids quivered, but he made no
answer. I poured out some water into my basin and, with that cold
pictured azure eye fixed on us, bespattered Seaton's sallow face and
forehead and dabbled his hair. He presently sighed and opened fish-like
“Come on!” I said. “Don't get shamming, there's a good chap. Get on
my back, if you like, and I'll carry you into your bedroom.”
He waved me away and stood up. So, with my candle in one hand, I
took him under the arm and walked him along according to his direction
down the corridor. His was a much dingier room than mine, and littered
with boxes, paper, cages, and clothes. I huddled him into bed and
turned to go. And suddenly, I can hardly explain it now, a kind of cold
and deadly terror swept over me. I almost ran out of the room, with
eyes fixed rigidly in front of me, blew out my candle, and buried my
head under the bedclothes.
When I awoke, roused by a long-continued tapping at my door,
sunlight was raying in on cornice and bedpost, and birds were singing
in the garden. I got up, ashamed of the night's folly, dressed quickly,
and went downstairs. The breakfast-room was sweet with flowers and
fruit and honey. Seaton's aunt was standing in the garden beside the
open French window, feeding a great flutter of birds. I watched her for
a moment, unseen. Her face was set in a deep reverie beneath the shadow
of a big loose sunhat. It was deeply lined, crooked, and, in a way I
can't describe, fixedly vacant and strange. I coughed, and she turned
at once with a prodigious smile to inquire how I had slept. And in that
mysterious way by which we learn each other's secret thoughts without a
sentence spoken I knew that she had followed every word and movement of
the night before, and was triumphing over my affected innocence and
ridiculing my friendly and too easy advances.
We returned to school, Seaton and I, lavishly laden, and by rail all
the way. I made no reference to the obscure talk we had had, and
resolutely refused to meet his eyes or to take up the hints he let
fall. I was relieved—and yet I was sorry—to be going back, and strode
on as fast as I could from the station, with Seaton almost trotting at
my heels. But he insisted on buying more fruit and sweets—my share of
which I accepted with a very bad grace. It was uncomfortably like a
bribe; and, after all, I had no quarrel with his rum old aunt, and
hadn't really believed half the stuff he had told me.
I saw as little of him as I could after that. He never referred to
our visit or resumed his confidences, though in class I would sometimes
catch his eye fixed on mine, full of a mute understanding, which I
easily affected not to understand. He left Gummidge's, as I have said,
rather abruptly, though I never heard of anything to his discredit. And
I did not see him or have any news of him again till by chance we met
one summer's afternoon in the Strand.
He was dressed rather oddly in a coat too large for him and a bright
silky tie. But we instantly recognised one another under the awning of
a cheap jeweler's shop. He immediately attached himself to me and
dragged me off, not too cheerfully, to lunch with him at an Italian
restaurant near by. He chattered about our old school, which he
remembered only with dislike and disgust; told me cold-bloodedly of the
disastrous fate of one or two of the old fellows who had been among his
chief tormentors; insisted on an expensive wine and the whole gamut of
the “rich” menu; and finally informed me, with a good deal of niggling,
that he had come up to town to buy an engagement-ring.
And of course: “How is your aunt?” I enquired at last.
He seemed to have been awaiting the question. It fell like a stone
into a deep pool, so many expressions flitted across his long
“She's aged a good deal,” he said softly, and broke off.
“She's been very decent,” he continued presently after, and paused
again. “In a way.” He eyed me fleetingly. “I dare say you heard that
she—that is, that we—had lost a good deal of money.”
“No,” I said.
“Oh, yes!” said Seaton, and paused again.
And somehow, poor fellow, I knew in the clink and clatter of glass
and voices that he had lied to me; that he did not possess, and never
had possessed, a penny beyond what his aunt had squandered on his too
ample allowance of pocket-money.
“And the ghosts?” I enquired quizzically. He grew instantly solemn,
and, though it may have been my fancy, slightly yellowed. But “You are
making game of me, Withers,” was all he said.
He asked for my address, and I rather reluctantly gave him my card.
“Look here, Withers,” he said, as we stood in the sunlight on the
thronging kerb, saying good-bye, “here I am, and it's all very well;
I'm not perhaps as fanciful as I was. But you are practically the only
friend I have on earth—except Alice.... And there—to make a clean
breast of it, I'm not sure that my aunt cares much about my getting
married. She doesn't say so, of course. You know her well enough for
that.” He looked sidelong at the rattling gaudy traffic.
“What I was going to say is this. Would you mind coming down? You
needn't stay the night unless you please, though, of course, you know
you would be awfully welcome. But I should like you to meet my—to meet
Alice; and then, perhaps, you might tell me your honest opinion of—of
the other too.”
I vaguely demurred. He pressed me. And we parted with a half promise
that I would come. He waved his ball-topped cane at me and ran off in
his long jacket after a 'bus.
A letter arrived soon after, in his small weak handwriting, giving
me full particulars regarding route and trains. And without the least
curiosity, even, perhaps with some little annoyance that chance should
have thrown us together again, I accepted his invitation and arrived
one hazy midday at his out-of-the-way station to find him sitting on a
low seat under a clump of double hollyhocks, awaiting me.
His face looked absent and singularly listless; but he seemed, none
the less, pleased to see me.
We walked up the village street, past the little dingy apothecary's
and the empty forge, and, as on my first visit, skirted the house
together, and, instead of entering by the front door, made our way down
the green path into the garden at the back. A pale haze of cloud
muffled the sun; the garden lay in a grey shimmer—its old trees, its
snap-dragoned faintly glittering walls. But there seemed now an air of
neglect where before all had been neat and methodical. There was a
patch of shallowly-dug soil and a worn-down spade leaning against a
tree. There was an old broken wheelbarrow. The goddess of neglect was
“You ain't much of a gardener, Seaton,” I said, with a sigh of ease.
“I think, do you know, I like it best like this,” said Seaton. “We
haven't any gardener now, of course. Can't afford it.” He stood staring
at his little dark square of freshly-turned earth. “And it always seems
to me,” he went on ruminatingly, “that, after all, we are nothing
better than interlopers on the earth, disfiguring and staining wherever
we go. I know it's shocking blasphemy to say so, but then it's
different here, you see. We are farther away.”
“To tell you the truth, Seaton, I don't quite see,” I said; “but it
isn't a new philosophy, is it? Anyhow, it's a precious beastly one.”
“It's only what I think,” he replied, with all his odd old stubborn
We wandered on together, talking little, and still with that
expression of uneasy vigilance on Seaton's face. He pulled out his
watch as we stood gazing idly over the green meadow and the dark
“I think, perhaps, it's nearly time for lunch,” he said. “Would you
like to come in?”
We turned and walked slowly towards the house, across whose windows
I confess my own eyes, too, went restlessly wandering in search of its
rather disconcerting inmate. There was a pathetic look of draggledness,
of want of means and care, rust and overgrowth and faded paint.
Seaton's aunt, a little to my relief, did not share our meal. Seaton
carved the cold meat, and dispatched a heaped-up plate by the elderly
servant for his aunt's private consumption. We talked little and in
half-suppressed tones, and sipped a bottle of Madeira which Seaton had
rather heedfully fetched out of the great mahogany sideboard.
I played him a dull and effortless game of chess, yawning between
the moves he generally made almost at haphazard, and with attention
elsewhere engaged. About five o'clock came the sound of a distant ring,
and Seaton jumped up, overturning the board, and so ending a game that
else might have fatuously continued to this day. He effusively excused
himself, and after some little while returned with a slim, dark, rather
sallow girl of about nineteen, in a white gown and hat, to whom I was
presented with some little nervousness as “his dear old friend and
We talked on in the pale afternoon light, still, as it seemed to me,
and even in spite of real effort to be clear and gay, in a
half-suppressed, lack-lustre fashion. We all seemed, if it were not my
fancy, to be expectant, to be rather anxiously awaiting an arrival, the
appearance of someone who all but filled our collective consciousness.
Seaton talked least of all, and in a restless interjectory way, as he
continually fidgeted from chair to chair. At last he proposed a stroll
in the garden before the sun should have quite gone down.
Alice walked between us. Her hair and eyes were conspicuously dark
against the whiteness of her gown. She carried herself not
ungracefully, and yet without the least movement of her arms or body,
and answered us both without turning her head. There was a curious
provocative reserve in that impassive and rather long face, a
half-unconscious strength of character.
And yet somehow I knew—I believe we all knew—that this walk, this
discussion of their future plans was a futility. I had nothing to base
such a cynicism on, except only a vague sense of oppression, the
foreboding remembrance of the inert invincible power in the background,
to whom optimistic plans and love-making and youth are as chaff and
thistledown. We came back, silent, in the last light. Seaton's aunt was
there—under an old brass lamp. Her hair was as barbarously massed and
curled as ever. Her eye-lids, I think, hung even a little heavier in
age over their slow-moving inscrutable pupils. We filed in softly out
of the evening, and I made my bow.
“In this short interval, Mr. Withers,” she remarked amiably, “you
have put off youth, put on the man. Dear me, how sad it is to see the
young days vanishing! Sit down. My nephew tells me you met by
chance—or act of Providence, shall we call it?—and in my beloved
Strand! You, I understand, are to be best man—yes, best man, or am I
divulging secrets?” She surveyed Arthur and Alice with overwhelming
graciousness. They sat apart on two low chairs and smiled in return.
“And Arthur—how do you think Arthur is looking?”
“I think he looks very much in need of a change,” I said
“A change! Indeed?” She all but shut her eyes at me and with an
exaggerated sentimentality shook her head. “My dear Mr. Withers! Are we
not all in need of a change in this fleeting, fleeting world?”
She mused over the remark like a connoisseur. “And you,” she continued,
turning abruptly to Alice, “I hope you pointed out to Mr. Withers all
my pretty bits?”
“We walked round the garden,” said Alice, looking out of the window.
“It's a very beautiful evening.”
“Is it?” said the old lady, starting up violently. “Then on this
very beautiful evening we will go in to supper. Mr. Withers, your arm;
Arthur, bring your bride.”
I can scarcely describe with what curious ruminations I led the way
into the faded, heavy-aired dining-room, with this indefinable old
creature leaning weightily on my arm—the large flat bracelet on the
yellow-laced wrist. She fumed a little, breathed rather heavily, as if
with an effort of mind rather than of body; for she had grown much
stouter and yet little more proportionate. And to talk into that great
white face, so close to mine, was a queer experience in the dim light
of the corridor, and even in the twinkling crystal of the candles. She
was naive—appallingly naive; she was sudden and superficial; she was
even arch; and all these in the brief, rather puffy passage from one
room to the other, with these two tongue-tied children bringing up the
rear. The meal was tremendous. I have never seen such a monstrous
salad. But the dishes were greasy and over-spiced, and were
indifferently cooked. One thing only was quite unchanged—my hostess's
appetite was as Gargantuan as ever. The old solid candelabra that
lighted us stood before her high-backed chair. Seaton sat a little
removed, with his plate almost in darkness.
And throughout this prodigious meal his aunt talked, mainly to me,
mainly at Seaton, with an occasional satirical courtesy to Alice and
muttered explosions of directions to the servant. She had aged, and
yet, if it be not nonsense to say so, seemed no older. I suppose to the
Pyramids a decade is but as the rustling down of a handful of dust. And
she reminded me of some such unshakable prehistoricism. She certainly
was an amazing talker—racy, extravagant, with a delivery that was
perfectly overwhelming. As for Seaton—her flashes of silence were for
him. On her enormous volubility would suddenly fall a hush: acid
sarcasm would be left implied; and she would sit softly moving her
great head, with eyes fixed full in a dreamy smile; but with her whole
attention, one could see, slowly, joyously absorbing his mute
She confided in us her views on a theme vaguely occupying at the
moment, I suppose, all our minds. “We have barbarous institutions, and
so must put up, I suppose, with a never-ending procession of fools—of
fools ad infinitum. Marriage, Mr. Withers, was instituted in the
privacy of a garden; sub rosa, as it were. Civilization flaunts
it in the glare of day. The dull marry the poor; the rich the effete;
and so our New Jerusalem is peopled with naturals, plain and coloured,
at either end. I detest folly; I detest still more (if I must be frank,
dear Arthur) mere cleverness. Mankind has simply become a tailless host
of uninstinctive animals. We should never have taken to Evolution, Mr.
Withers. 'Natural Selection!'—little gods and fishes!—the deaf for
the dumb. We should have used our brains—intellectual pride, the
ecclesiastics call it. And by brains I mean—what do I mean, Alice?—I
mean, my dear child,” and she laid two gross fingers on Alice's narrow
sleeve. “I mean courage. Consider it, Arthur. I read that the
scientific world is once more beginning to be afraid of spiritual
agencies. Spiritual agencies that tap, and actually float, bless their
hearts! I think just one more of those mulberries—thank you.
“They talk about 'blind Love,'“ she ran inconsequently on as she
helped herself, with eyes fixed on the dish, “but why blind? I think,
do you know, from weeping over its rickets. After all, it is we plain
women that triumph, Mr. Withers, beyond the mockery of time. Alice,
now! Fleeting, fleeting is youth, my child! What's that you were
confiding to your plate, Arthur? Satirical boy! He laughs at his old
aunt: nay, but thou didst laugh. He detests all sentiment. He whispers
the most acid asides. Come, my love, we will leave these cynics; we
will go and commiserate with each other on our sex. The choice of two
evils, Mr. Smithers!” I opened the door, and she swept out as if borne
on a torrent of unintelligible indignation; and Arthur and I were left
in the clear four-flamed light alone.
For a while we sat in silence. He shook his head at my
cigarette-case, and I lit a cigarette. Presently he fidgeted in his
chair and poked his head forward into the light. He paused to rise and
shut again the shut door.
“How long will you be?” he said, standing by the table.
“Oh, it's not that!” he said, in some confusion. “Of course, I like
to be with her. But it's not that only. The truth is, Withers, I don't
care about leaving her too long with my aunt.”
I hesitated. He looked at me questioningly.
“Look here, Seaton,” I said, “you know well enough that I don't want
to interfere in your affairs, or to offer advice where it is not
wanted. But don't you think perhaps you may not treat your aunt quite
in the right way? As one gets old, you know, a little give and take. I
have an old godmother, or something. She talks, too.... A little
allowance: it does no harm. But, hang it all, I'm no talker.”
He sat down with his hands in his pockets and still with his eyes
fixed almost incredulously on mine. “How?” he said.
“Well, my dear fellow, if I'm any judge—mind, I don't say that I
am—but I can't help thinking she thinks you don't care for her; and
perhaps takes your silence for—for bad temper. She has been very
decent to you, hasn't she?”
“'Decent'? My God!” said Seaton.
I smoked on in silence; but he still continued to look at me with
that peculiar concentration I remembered of old.
“I don't think, perhaps, Withers,” he began presently, “I don't
think you quite understand. Perhaps you are not quite our kind. You
always did, just like the other fellows, guy me at school. You laughed
at me that night you came to stay here—about the voices and all that.
But I don't mind being laughed at—because I know.”
“Know what?” It was the same old system of dull question and evasive
“I mean I know that what we see and hear is only the smallest
fraction of what is. I know she lives quite out of this. She talks
to you; but it's all make-believe. It's all a 'parlour game.' She's not
really with you; only pitting her outside wits against yours and
enjoying the fooling. She's living on inside, on what you're rotten
without. That's what it is—a cannibal feast. She's a spider. It does't
much matter what you call it. It means the same kind of thing. I tell
you, Withers, she hates me; and you can scarcely dream what that hatred
means. I used to think I had an inkling of the reason. It's oceans
deeper than that. It just lies behind: herself against myself. Why,
after all, how much do we really understand of anything? We don't even
know our own histories, and not a tenth, not a tenth of the reasons.
What has life been to me?—nothing but a trap. And when one is set
free, it only begins again. I thought you might understand; but you are
on a different level: that's all.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” I said, half contemptuously,
in spite of myself.
“I mean what I say,” he said gutturally. “All this outside's only
make-believe—but there! what's the good of talking? So far as this is
concerned I'm as good as done. You wait.”
Seaton blew out three of the candles and, leaving the vacant room in
semi-darkness, we groped our way along the corridor to the
drawing-room. There a full moon stood shining in at the long garden
windows. Alice sat stooping at the door, with her hands clasped,
looking out, alone.
“Where is she?” Seaton asked in a low tone.
Alice looked up; their eyes met in a kind of instantaneous
understanding, and the door immediately afterwards opened behind us.
“Such a moon!” said a voice that, once heard, remained
unforgettably on the ear. “A night for lovers, Mr. Withers, if ever
there was one. Get a shawl, my dear Arthur, and take Alice for a little
promenade. I dare say we old cronies will manage to keep awake. Hasten,
hasten, Romeo! My poor, poor Alice, how laggard a lover!”
Seaton returned with a shawl. They drifted out into the moonlight.
My companion gazed after them till they were out of hearing, turned to
me gravely, and suddenly twisted her white face into such a convulsion
of contemptuous amusement that I could only stare blankly in reply.
“Dear innocent children!” she said, with inimitable unctuousness.
“Well, well, Mr. Withers, we poor seasoned old creatures must move with
the times. Do you sing?”
I scouted the idea.
“Then you must listen to my playing. Chess”—she clasped her
forehead with both cramped hands—“chess is now completely beyond my
She sat down at the piano and ran her fingers in a flourish over the
keys. “What shall it be? How shall we capture them, those passionate
hearts? That first fine careless rapture? Poetry itself.” She gazed
softly into the garden a moment, and presently, with a shake of her
body, began to play the opening bars of Beethoven's “Moonlight” Sonata.
The piano was old and woolly. She played without music. The lamplight
was rather dim. The moonbeams from the window lay across the keys. Her
head was in shadow. And whether it was simply due to her personality or
to some really occult skill in her playing I cannot say: I only know
that she gravely and deliberately set herself to satirise the beautiful
music. It brooded on the air, disillusioned, charged with mockery and
bitterness. I stood at the window; far down the path I could see the
white figure glimmering in that pool of colourless light. A few faint
stars shone; and still that amazing woman behind me dragged out of the
unwilling keys her wonderful grotesquerie of youth and love and beauty.
It came to an end. I knew the player was watching me. “Please, please,
go on!” I murmured, without turning. “Please go on playing, Miss
No answer was returned to my rather fluttering sarcasm, but I knew
in some indefinite way that I was being acutely scrutinised, when
suddenly there followed a procession of quiet, plaintive chords which
broke at last softly into the hymn, A Few More Years Shall Roll.
I confess it held me spellbound. There is a wistful strained,
plangent pathos in the tune; but beneath those masterly old hands it
cried softly and bitterly the solitude and desperate estrangement of
the world. Arthur and his lady-love vanished from my thoughts. No one
could put into a rather hackneyed old hymn-tune such an appeal who had
never known the meaning of the words. Their meaning, anyhow, isn't
commonplace. I turned very cautiously and glanced at the musician. She
was leaning forward a little over the keys, so that at the approach of
my cautious glance she had but to turn her face into the thin flood of
moonlight for every feature to become distinctly visible. And so, with
the tune abruptly terminated, we steadfastly regarded one another, and
she broke into a chuckle of laughter.
“Not quite so seasoned as I supposed, Mr. Withers. I see you are a
real lover of music. To me it is too painful. It evokes too much
I could scarcely see her little glittering eyes under their
“And now,” she broke off crisply, “tell me, as a man of the world,
what do you think of my new niece?”
I was not a man of the world, nor was I much flattered in my stiff
and dullish way of looking at things by being called one; and I could
answer her without the least hesitation.
“I don't think, Miss Seaton, I'm much of a judge of character. She's
“I think I prefer dark women.”
“And why? Consider, Mr. Withers; dark hair, dark eyes, dark cloud,
dark night, dark vision, dark death, dark grave, dark DARK!”
Perhaps the climax would have rather thrilled Seaton, but I was too
thick-skinned. “I don't know much about all that,” I answered rather
pompously. “Broad daylight's difficult enough for most of us.”
“Ah,” she said, with a sly inward burst of satirical laughter.
“And I suppose,” I went on, perhaps a little nettled, “it isn't the
actual darkness one admires, its the contrast of the skin, and the
colour of the eyes, and—and their shining. Just as,” I went blundering
on, too late to turn back, “just as you only see the stars in the dark.
It would be a long day without any evening. As for death and the grave,
I don't suppose we shall much notice that.” Arthur and his sweetheart
were slowly returning along the dewy path. “I believe in making the
best of things.”
“How very interesting!” came the smooth answer. “I see you are a
philosopher, Mr. Withers. H'm! 'As for death and the grave, I don't
suppose we shall much notice that.' Very interesting.... And I'm sure,”
she added in a particularly suave voice, “I profoundly hope so.” She
rose slowly from her stool. “You will take pity on me again, I hope.
You and I would get on famously—kindred spirits—elective affinities.
And, of course, now that my nephew's going to leave me, now that his
affections are centred on another, I shall be a very lonely old
woman.... Shall I not, Arthur?”
Seaton blinked stupidly. “I didn't hear what you said, Aunt.”
“I was telling our old friend, Arthur, that when you are gone I
shall be a very lonely old woman.”
“Oh, I don't think so;” he said in a strange voice.
“He means, Mr. Withers, he means, my dear child,” she said, sweeping
her eyes over Alice, “he means that I shall have memory for
company—heavenly memory—the ghosts of other days. Sentimental boy!
And did you enjoy our music, Alice? Did I really stir that youthful
heart?... O, O, O,” continued the horrible old creature, “you billers
and cooers, I have been listening to such flatteries, such confessions!
Beware, beware, Arthur, there's many a slip.” She rolled her little
eyes at me, she shrugged her shoulders at Alice, and gazed an instant
stonily into her nephew's face.
I held out my hand. “Good night, good night!” she cried. “'He that
fights and runs away.' Ah, good night, Mr. Withers; come again soon!”
She thrust out her cheek at Alice, and we all three filed slowly out of
Black shadow darkened the porch and half the spreading sycamore. We
walked without speaking up the dusty village street. Here and there a
crimson window glowed. At the fork of the high-road I said good-bye.
But I had taken hardly more than a dozen paces when a sudden impulse
“Seaton!” I called.
He turned in the moonlight.
“You have my address; if by any chance, you know, you should care to
spend a week or two in town between this and the—the Day, we should be
delighted to see you.”
“Thank you, Withers, thank you,” he said in a low voice.
“I dare say”—I waved my stick gallantly to Alice—“I dare say you
will be doing some shopping; we could all meet,” I added, laughing.
“Thank you, thank you, Withers—immensely;” he repeated.
And so we parted.
But they were out of the jog-trot of my prosaic life. And being of a
stolid and incurious nature, I left Seaton and his marriage, and even
his aunt, to themselves in my memory, and scarcely gave a thought to
them until one day I was walking up the Strand again, and passed the
flashing gloaming of the covered-in jeweller's shop where I had
accidentally encountered my old schoolfellow in the summer. It was one
of those still close autumnal days after a rainy night. I cannot say
why, but a vivid recollection returned to my mind of our meeting and of
how suppressed Seaton had seemed, and of how vainly he had endeavoured
to appear assured and eager. He must be married by now, and had
doubtless returned from his honeymoon. And I had clean forgotten my
manners, had sent not a word of congratulation, nor—as I might very
well have done, and as I knew he would have been immensely pleased at
my doing—the ghost of a wedding-present.
On the other hand, I pleaded with myself, I had had no invitation. I
paused at the corner of Trafalgar Square, and at the bidding of one of
those caprices that seize occasionally on even an unimaginative mind, I
suddenly ran after a green 'bus that was passing, and found myself
bound on a visit I had not in the least foreseen.
All the colours of autumn were over the village when I arrived. A
beautiful late afternoon sunlight bathed thatch and meadow. But it was
close and hot. A child, two dogs, a very old woman with a heavy basket
I encountered. One or two incurious tradesmen looked idly up as I
passed by. It was all so rural and so still, my whimsical impulse had
so much flagged, that for a while I hesitated to venture under the
shadow of the sycamore-tree to enquire after the happy pair. I
deliberately passed by the faint-blue gates and continued my walk under
the high green and tufted wall. Hollyhocks had attained their topmost
bud and seeded in the little cottage gardens beyond; the Michaelmas
daisies were in flower; a sweet warm aromatic smell of fading leaves
was in the air. Beyond the cottages lay a field where cattle were
grazing, and beyond that I came to a little churchyard. Then the road
wound on, pathless and houseless, among gorse and bracken. I turned
impatiently and walked quickly back to the house and rang the bell.
The rather colourless elderly woman who answered my enquiry informed
me that Miss Seaton was at home, as if only taciturnity forbade her
adding, “But she doesn't want to see you.”
“Might I, do you think, have Mr. Arthur's address?” I said.
She looked at me with quiet astonishment, as if waiting for an
explanation. Not the faintest of smiles came into her thin face.
“I will tell Miss Seaton,” she said after a pause. “Please walk in.”
She showed me into the dingy undusted drawing-room, filled with
evening sunshine and the green-dyed light that penetrated the leaves
overhanging the long French windows. I sat down and waited on and on,
occasionally aware of a creaking footfall overhead. At last the door
opened a little, and the great face I had once known peered round at
me. For it was enormously changed; mainly, I think, because the old
eyes had rather suddenly failed, and so a kind of stillness and
darkness lay over its calm and wrinkled pallor.
“Who is it?” she asked.
I explained myself and told her the occasion of my visit.
She came in and shut the door carefully after her and, though the
fumbling was scarcely perceptible, groped her way to a chair. She had
on an old dressing-gown, like a cassock, of a patterned cinnamon
“What is it you want?” she said, seating herself and lifting her
blank face to mine.
“Might I just have Arthur's address?” I said deferentially. “I am so
sorry to have disturbed you.”
“H'm. You have come to see my nephew?”
“Not necessarily to see him, only to hear how he is, and, of course,
Mrs. Seaton too. I am afraid my silence must have appeared....”
“He hasn't noticed your silence,” croaked the old voice out of the
great mask; “besides, there isn't any Mrs. Seaton.”
“Ah, then,” I answered, after a momentary pause, “I have not seemed
so black as I painted myself! And how is Miss Outram?”
“She's gone into Yorkshire,” answered Seaton's aunt.
“And Arthur too?”
She did not reply, but simply sat blinking at me with lifted chin,
as if listening, but certainly not for what I might have to say. I
began to feel rather at a loss.
“You were no close friend of my nephew's, Mr. Smithers?” she said
“No,” I answered, welcoming the cue, “and yet, do you know, Miss
Seaton, he is one of the very few of my old schoolfellows I have come
across in the last few years, and I suppose as one gets older one
begins to value old associations....” My voice seemed to trail off into
a vacuum. “I thought Miss Outram,” I hastily began again, “a
particularly charming girl. I hope they are both quite well.”
Still the old face solemnly blinked at me in silence.
“You must find it very lonely, Miss Seaton, with Arthur away?”
“I was never lonely in my life,” she said sourly. “I don't look to
flesh and blood for my company. When you've got to be my age, Mr.
Smithers (which God forbid), you'll find life a very different affair
from what you seem to think it is now. You won't seek company then,
I'll be bound. It's thrust on you.” Her face edged round into the clear
green light, and her eyes, as it were, groped over my vacant,
disconcerted face. “I dare say, now,” she said, composing her mouth, “I
dare say my nephew told you a good many tarradiddles in his time. Oh,
yes, a good many, eh? He was always a liar. What, now, did he say of
me? Tell me, now.” She leant forward as far as she could, trembling,
with an ingratiating smile.
“I think he is rather superstitious,” I said coldly, “but, honestly,
I have a very poor memory, Miss Seaton.”
“Why?” she said. “I haven't.”
“The engagement hasn't been broken off, I hope.”
“Well, between you and me,” she said, shrinking up and with an
immensely confidential grimace, “it has.”
“I'm sure I'm very sorry to hear it. And where is Arthur?”
“Where is Arthur?”
We faced each other mutely among the dead old bygone furniture. Past
all my scrutiny was that large, flat, grey, cryptic countenance. And
then, suddenly, our eyes for the first time, really met. In some
indescribable way out of that thick-lidded obscurity a far small
something stooped and looked out at me for a mere instant of time that
seemed of almost intolerable protraction. Involuntarily I blinked and
shook my head. She muttered something with great rapidity, but quite
inarticulately; rose and hobbled to the door. I thought I heard,
mingled in broken mutterings, something about tea.
“Please, please, don't trouble,” I began, but could say no more, for
the door was already shut between us. I stood and looked out on the
long-neglected garden. I could just see the bright greenness of
Seaton's old tadpole pond. I wandered about the room. Dusk began to
gather, the last birds in that dense shadowiness of trees had ceased to
sing. And not a sound was to be heard in the house. I waited on and on,
vainly speculating. I even attempted to ring the bell; but the wire was
broken, and only jangled loosely at my efforts.
I hesitated, unwilling to call or to venture out, and yet more
unwilling to linger on, waiting for a tea that promised to be an
exceedingly comfortless supper. And as darkness drew down, a feeling of
the utmost unease and disquietude came over me. All my talks with
Seaton returned on me with a suddenly enriched meaning. I recalled
again his face as we had stood hanging over the staircase, listening in
the small hours to the inexplicable stirrings of the night. There were
no candles in the room; every minute the autumnal darkness deepened. I
cautiously opened the door and listened, and with some little dismay
withdrew, for I was uncertain of my way out. I even tried the garden,
but was confronted under a veritable thicket of foliage by a padlocked
gate. It would be a little too ignominious to be caught scaling a
friend's garden fence!
Cautiously returning into the still and musty drawing-room, I took
out my watch and gave the incredible old woman ten minutes in which to
reappear. And when that tedious ten minutes had ticked by I could
scarcely distinguish its hands. I determined to wait no longer, drew
open the door, and, trusting to my sense of direction, groped my way
through the corridor that I vaguely remembered led to the front of the
I mounted three or four stairs and, lifting a heavy curtain, found
myself facing the starry fanlight of the porch. Hence I glanced into
the gloom of the dining-room. My fingers were on the latch of the outer
door when I heard a faint stirring in the darkness above the hall. I
looked up and became conscious of, rather than saw, the huddled old
figure looking down on me.
There was an immense hushed pause. Then, “Arthur, Arthur,” whispered
an inexpressively peevish, rasping voice, “is that you? Is that you,
I can scarcely say why, but the question horribly startled me. No
conceivable answer occurred to me. With head craned back, hand clenched
on my umbrella, I continued to stare up into the gloom, in this fatuous
“Oh, oh;” the voice croaked. “It is you, is it? That
disgusting man!... Go away out. Go away out.”
Hesitating no longer, I caught open the door and, slamming it behind
me, ran out into the garden, under the gigantic old sycamore, and so
out at the open gate.
I found myself half up the village street before I stopped running.
The local butcher was sitting in his shop reading a piece of newspaper
by the light of a small oil-lamp. I crossed the road and enquired the
way to the station. And after he had with minute and needless care
directed me, I asked casually if Mr. Arthur Seaton still lived with his
aunt at the big house just beyond the village. He poked his head in at
the little parlour door.
“Here's a gentleman enquiring after young Mr. Seaton, Millie,” he
said. “He's dead, ain't he?”
“Why, yes, bless you,” replied a cheerful voice from within. “Dead
and buried these three months or more—young Mr. Seaton. And just
before he was to be married, don't you remember, Bob?”
I saw a fair young woman's face peer over the muslin of the little
door at me.
“Thank you,” I replied, “then I go straight on?”
“That's it, sir; past the pond, bear up the hill a bit to the left,
and then there's the station lights before your eyes.”
We looked intelligently into each other's faces in the beam of the
smoky lamp. But not one of the many questions in my mind could I put
And again I paused irresolutely a few paces further on. It was not,
I fancy, merely a foolish apprehension of what the raw-boned butcher
might “think” that prevented my going back to see if I could find
Seaton's grave in the benighted churchyard. There was precious little
use in pottering about in the muddy dark merely to find where he was
buried. And yet I felt a little uneasy. My rather horrible thought was
that, so far as I was concerned—one of his esteemed few friends—he
had never been much better than “buried” in my mind.