Behind the Wall
by Violet Jacob
First published in 1910
Friday evenings set Arthur Wickham free from the Government office in which his weeks were spent. By nature he was made for an active life, but circumstances had headed him off his natural path and tethered him to London. His friends—and he had a good many—said that golf had spoilt him; that they never saw him nowadays; that it was a great pity to be utterly engrossed, body and soul, in one pursuit, and all sorts of things that friends say when other people’s doings do not exactly match their own. But two days’ golf compensated him both for their opinions and for the loss of their company on Saturdays and Sundays.
The golf-course at Shorne was a good one, lying on the high ground which sloped up behind the town. The golfers could look down over the roofs of the huddled streets—for Shorne was an ancient little place—to the curving beach, beside which modern hotels and lodgings were disfiguring the seawall. The town seemed to be drawing back in old-fashioned distinction from these second rate attractions to the security of the hill from which the square tower of Shorne Church looked out towards the Romney Marshes.
The golf-course tramped weekly by Wickham had flung its chain of smooth putting-greens out among the humble farmhouses and woods which lie so close to the Kentish shore, and the players could see from their elevation the chalk-scarred downs on one hand, and the sea glittering towards Dungeness on the other. Wickham liked the place better every time he came to it. He had the happy temperament which is attracted by casual sights, and the gift of loitering; so he often strolled among the walled lanes and corners and under the ilex-avenue flanking the massiveness of the church, when the business of golf was over. Shorne was full of Georgian houses, and Wickham, who had a smattering of architectural knowledge, liked Georgian houses.
One evening, when he had sent his clubs back to the inn in the High Street, he whistled to his Aberdeen terrier, Skittles, and man and dog went strolling up towards the church. They took their way between the high garden-walls which enclose the older houses, and, having no special goal, they turned at random into any byway that happened to appeal to Wickham’s fancy. The little dog ran before his master, in the perpetual search for imaginary adventure common to his kind.
The sun of the late June afternoon fell upon just and unjust, upon root and foliage, upon brickwork and stem, and a late season had saved the greens of nature from losing their translucent quality as they sprang towards the blue above them. On either side of Wickham the high walls had a foreign air which translated him, mentally, into the suburbs of some French town. The one on his left was surmounted by a trellis which dripped with a fringe of wistaria; and, above this, he could see the tall head of an acacia-tree which seemed to grow somewhere near the centre of the garden.
To many minds there is no more suggestive sight than that of a door in a dead wall, and the young man stopped before the wooden one which broke the mellow expanse of masonry at his side. It was small and weather-stained and sunk a brick’s depth in the surface; and it was old enough to have gained expression, as inanimate things, not in constant use, will gain it with the lapse of time. The secrecy of its look was enhanced by the absence of both handle and key.
Wickham paused before it; he knew that he would like to peer through the empty keyhole, and he also knew that he would not do so. He smiled at himself as he moved away.
Some paces farther on, the wistaria-plant fell over the coping, down to the level of his shoulder, and he paused again to sniff at the trusses of mauve blossom with which it was loaded. As his face came in contact with the leaves, he saw that they covered a square cavity like an unglazed window. Prejudices are strange things; though the particular assortment owned by him had forbidden him the keyhole, they were silent as he peeped between the stems. He pushed them aside with his fingers.
But, if he erred in his act, his punishment was swift. A few inches from his own, a pair of eyes on the inner side of the wall were set on him with an expression which made him start back. There was no movement in them; they looked fixedly out of a pale face as absolutely still as themselves. The presence of the unknown person made no rustle behind the wistaria, and if he or she—for Wickham had no impression of sex—were annoyed by his curiosity, there was neither sound nor sign to indicate the fact. He was not sure whether the eyes were blind, and the thought made him shudder, though there could be nothing to warrant his doing so, were his suspicion correct. He walked on hurriedly. Skittles was at the next corner, waiting to see which way his master would take.
He turned up towards the church, losing the disagreeable feeling produced in him by the little incident as he went along the terrace of ilex and up the steps into the churchyard. The blue sea lay beyond the town, and the crosses and monuments in their ordered rows were beginning to throw long shadows on the grass. The place was empty but for an old man who was clipping a ragged yew-bush within the chain-railing which encompassed an ordinary round-topped tombstone. Wickham’s glance fell on the inscription as he passed it: “Ellen Swaysland, born 1808, died 1865.” He had never seen that surname before.
He entered the great porch of the Norman church, bidding Skittles wait outside, and went to the door leading to the tower, for it had occurred to him that if he climbed it he would be able to see into the garden with the acacia-tree. Soon he was at the top of the stair, and, coming out upon the tower, he looked over the parapet. Skittles was mounting guard by his stick, and the clipping of shears came up to him from Ellen Swaysland’s grave. He was above the level of the ilex-trees; there was nothing to obstruct his view of the walled-in houses between himself and the High Street.
He found the one he wanted at once; a narrow-windowed brick house, with a steep roof and stone facings. To his surprise, it had the dead look of an uninhabited building, and the lawn was under high grass. The acacia stood where he had expected to find it, and round its trunk were the remains of a circular seat. A weed-grown path ran the whole length of the lower wall by which he had lately passed, and he could see the hole which looked out on the lane. The wistaria hung round it on the inside also. It seemed to have been trained down purposely in that spot.
While he watched from his isolated height a woman came out of the house, and went quickly, with an odd, shuffling gait, into the alley of bushes running down one side of the garden. It was not only her walk that was strange; and Wickham’s lips parted in an astonishment which he could not have explained. He did not know whether it was her dress or her movements which seemed to to him remarkable; but he leaned over the parapet to watch her emerge from the alley and go straight to the hole in the wall. He remained where he was, fascinated, as she stood, a black spot, in the same place, until the striking of the hour from the church reminded him of the futile nature of his occupation. The man below had put away his shears, and Skittles, who had at last discovered his whereabouts, was shivering and whining as he gazed at the silhouette of his master’s head and shoulders dark against the sky. Wickham came down the tower-stair.
Perhaps it was his knowledge of what the woman’s eyes were like that made him endow her figure with some sinister quality. He went home to his inn, not sorry to be welcomed back to the commonplace of the company of his dog and the harmless gossip of a waiter to whom he was an established acquaintance.
Next day was Sunday, and again Wickham left the golf-course in the evening to return to the Crown; the early train on the morrow would take him to London in good time for his office-hour. He parted with various men he knew at the golf-house, for most of these stayed at the new hotel on the esplanade, in preference to the old-fashioned inn which had become a familiar haunt to him. He made, as usual, for the church, and thence down to the High Street; and where the lane between the garden-walls crossed his way he turned into it, impelled to pass once more by the half-hidden aperture at which he had seen the strange eyes. But this time he did not wish to look through. He was not anxious to meet those eyes at such close quarters again.
He had almost reached the little wooden door farther on, when it opened and the woman in black stepped out into the road a few paces in front of him. There had been no sound of footsteps in the garden to give warning of her approach. She drew the door to behind her, turning for one moment to face the young man, and her look struck his soul again with the shock of a blow.
She was a middle-aged woman—almost old—the pallor of whose face was accentuated by the uncouth lines of a close bonnet; but all detail was lost on Wickham by reason of her eyes. He was only conscious of them and of the straight eyelids which cut the iris, lying on the upper half, as a band of cloud lies on the disc of the sinking sun. The still, dead malignity, emanating from beneath that level line, made him stop involuntarily and step back a pace from her. Her lips were drawn back, perhaps in a smile; but Wickham could not have told whether she smiled or not. He realised nothing, neither then nor afterwards, but that stream of expression concentrated on him from the unfocussed pupils. He felt that there was nothing in it personal to himself, and that he merely stood, by hazard, in its way, as he might have stood in the way of a bull’s-eye lantern; but his horror was not lessened because of that. She turned away, and his wits were brought back by the fury of his dog, who had evidently been unprepared to see the figure emerge from the door.
Skittles’s tail was between his legs and his growls and barking filled the lane. Wickham was so much afraid that he would pursue the retreating woman, that he laid hold of his collar and did not let go till she had disappeared round the first corner, which led down to the town. He had reached the Crown before the little terrier had ceased to whine and protest. Skittles stopped, looking behind him at intervals the whole way down the High Street.
Chance brought Wickham back to Shorne the next week sooner than he expected; for some repairs in his particular department of the office liberated the clerks on the following Thursday night. Friday morning found him once more in the train with his golf-clubs, and by luncheon-time he was sitting at his own table in the window of the Crown dining-room, looking into the huddle of old houses and new shops which formed the narrow High Street.
There was more movement going on than he ever remembered seeing in the little place; but those who caused it added nothing to the liveliness of the outlook. Some event had produced an outbreak of black-coated and tall-hatted men, as a spell of summer after cold weather will produce flies from hidden corners. All moved in one direction, and all had the air of rising consciously to an occasion. The explanation could only be a funeral.
“Who’s being buried?” inquired Wickham of his friend the waiter.
“Mr. Swaysland, sir; solicitor, sir,” replied the man, whipping his napkin under his arm, and going to the window as though he expected to see the deceased in the street.
“Swaysland—Swaysland,” he repeated, looking through the waiter’s head. Then he remembered Ellen Swaysland’s tombstone, and the man with the shears clipping the yew-bush on her grave as he entered the church last week.
“Acquainted with the family, sir?” hazarded his companion.
“No—no,” said Wickham. “I only noticed the name in the churchyard. I suppose they’re well-known people here?”
“Lor’, yes, sir; they’ve been here for more than a hundred years. Two houses here Mr. Swaysland had. One at the bottom of this street, and one between this and the church. But he lived in the small one down here, sir. He couldn’t abide to be in the other. He hadn’t gone inside the walls since Miss Ellen’s death—his half-sister, sir. Fine garden it has too.”
Wickham pricked up his ears.
“You can’t see the house from the road, the walls is that high. Old Mr. Swaysland——”
“Is it the one with the acacia-tree in the middle?”
“I’m sure I couldn’t say, sir,” replied the waiter, looking puzzled. Like most indoor servants, he did not know one tree from another.
“But there’s a door at the bottom of the garden—a little wooden door?” continued Wickham. “When you turn the corner of the wall, coming this way, you go straight up to the church?”
“That’s it, sir.” The interest on Wickham’s face appeared to please his companion. He came close to the table, and laid his hand on the empty chair opposite to the young man.
“I expect you’ve heard something about it,” said he. “Well, I was born in this town, and I’ve seen Miss Ellen myself when I was a little brat of a boy. I’m a good bit older than you, sir, if I may take the liberty to say so.”
“Miss Ellen?” said Wickham. “I know nothing about Miss Ellen. I’ve never even heard the name Swaysland before.”
The waiter dropped his voice confidentially.
“Twenty years, sir, she lived there. She was thirty-seven when they put her in that house, and she was fifty-seven when they took her out of it to lay her in the churchyard.”
“How do you mean ‘put her in’?” asked Wickham, quickly. “Was she mad?”
“Ah! that’s what nobody knows. But old Swaysland said so, and that was good enough for the doctors and lawyers. Her being mad meant a fine bit of money to her half-brother, you see—Mr. Swaysland, that is.”
“And so you mean that they shut her up there?”
“They did—between them,” said the waiter. “She never came out of them walls again. There used to be a little square hole, a little place where she could see into the road, and she used to sit there looking out, day after day. That’s when I saw her, sir, when I was a boy.”
Wickham had laid down his knife and fork; he leaned across the table, drinking in every word.
“He never went into that house again after Miss Ellen’s death, Mr. Swaysland didn’t,” continued the man. “I was too young to understand anything about it when it happened, but I heard enough about it when I grew older. My father’s sister was a kind of a nurse hereabouts, before them ladies in the white caps was invented (she’s gone, now, poor soul, too), and she was sent for to Miss Ellen. Many’s the time I’ve heard her telling mother about it. Mr. Swaysland come into the room the night the lady died, but he kept out of sight of the bed till the doctor thought she was going and beckoned to him. When he come close, Miss Ellen opened her eyes, and aunt used to say they were like the eyes of a serpent. ‘Richard,’ says she, looking at him (Mr. Swaysland’s name was Richard), ‘you can’t keep me here any longer, for I’m going. Some day,’ says she, ‘your turn’ll come, as mine’s coming now, and when it does, I’ll fetch you. You’ve kept me here for twenty years,’ she says, ‘but you won’t be able to keep me back—not then. I’ll come for you.’ And she died, with her face turned to Mr. Swaysland. Here they are now, sir,” he added, looking down the street; “they’re obliged to go the longest way. The ’osses can’t get up the asphalted lanes to the church.”
But Wickham did not look out. He saw in his mind a stranger sight than that which occupied his companion; for he was standing again, in recollection, by the door in the wall.
“Can you tell me exactly when Mr. Swaysland died?” he said, at last.
“It was very sudden,” replied the waiter, who was now absorbed in the passing procession; “it was last Sunday evening about this time—a little earlier, perhaps.”
When the last carriage had gone by, he turned again to the young man.
“People think of queer things sometimes,” he observed apologetically. “D’you know, sir, I’ve wondered two or three times since last Sunday whether the poor lady kept her word.”
Wickham looked at him for a moment in silence. “I think she did,” said he, with a curious smile; “and, what’s more, my dog thinks so too.”
Did you enjoy this story? If so, you can read more like it in the anthology And Midnight Never Come.
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