E F Benson is best known for his Mapp and Lucia novels, 1920s' social satire which was beautifully enacted in the TV series by Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne. However, he also holds the distinction of being one of that small band (possibly of one, as I can't yet think of anyone else) of authors who have placed a gardener at the heart of a ghost story. So, in honour of the day, why not print out the following, light the fire, draw the curtains and settle down for a mild thrill?
Two friends of mine, Hugh Grainger and his wife, had taken for a month of Christmas holiday the house in which we were to witness such strange manifestations, and when I received an invitation from them to spend a fortnight there I returned them an enthusiastic affirmative. Well already did I know that pleasant heathery countryside, and most intimate was my acquaintance with the subtle hazards of its most charming golf-links. Golf, I was given to understand, was to occupy the solid day for Hugh and me, so that Margaret should never be obliged to set her hand to the implements with which the game, so detestable to her, was conducted…
I arrived there while yet the daylight lingered, and as my hosts were out, I took a ramble round the place. The house and garden stood on a plateau facing south; below it were a couple of acres of pasture that sloped down to a vagrant stream crossed by a footbridge, by the side of which stood a thatched cottage with a vegetable patch surrounding it. A path ran close past this across the pasture from a wicket-gate in the garden, conducted you the footbridge, and, so my remembered sense of geography told me, must constitute a short cut to the links that lay not half a mile beyond. The cottage itself was clearly on the land on the little estate, and I at once supposed it to be the gardener’s house. What went against so obvious and simple a theory was that it appeared to be untenanted. No wreath of smoke, though the evening was chilly, curled from the chimneys, and, coming closer, I fancied it had that air of “waiting” about it which we so often conjure into unused habitations. There it stood, with no sign of life whatever about it, though ready, as its apparently perfect state of repair seemed to warrant, for fresh tenants to put the breath of life into it again.
Its little garden, too, though the palings were neat and newly painted, told the same tale; the beds were untended and unweeded, and in the flower-border by the front door was a row of chrysanthemums which had withered on their stems. But all this was but the impression of a moment, and I did not pause as I passed it, but crossed the footbridge and went on up the heathery slope that lay beyond. My geography was not at fault, for presently I saw the club-house just in front of me. Hugh no doubt would be just about coming in from his afternoon round, and so we would walk back together. On reaching the club-house, however, the steward told me that not five minutes before Mrs Grainger had called in her car for her husband, and I therefore retraced my steps by the path along which I had already come. But I made a detour, as a golfer will, to walk up the fairway of the seventeenth and eighteenth holes just for the pleasure of recognition, and looked respectfully at the yawning sandpit which so inexorably guards the eighteenth green, wondering in what circumstances I should visit it next, whether with a step complacent and superior, knowing that my ball reposed safely on the green beyond, or with the heavy footfall of one who knows that laborious delving lies before him.
The light of the winter evening had faded fast, and when I crossed the footbridge on my return the dusk had gathered. To my right, just beside the path, lay the cottage, the white-washed walls of which gleamed whitely in the gloaming; and as I turned my glance back from it to the rather narrow plank which bridged the stream I thought I caught out of the tail of my eye some light from one of its windows, which thus disproved my theory that it was untenanted. But when I looked directly at it again I saw that I was mistaken: some reflections in the glass of the red lines of sunset in the west must have deceived me, for in the inclement twilight it looked more desolate than ever. Yet I lingered by the wicket gate in its low palings, for though all exterior evidence bore witness to its emptiness, some inexplicable feeling assured me, quite irrationally, that this was not so, and that there was somebody there. Certainly there was nobody visible, but so, this absurd idea informed me, he might be at the back of the cottage concealed from me by the intervening structure, and still oddly, still unreasonably, it became a matter of importance in my mind to ascertain whether this was so or not, so clearly had my perceptions told me that the place was empty, and so firmly had some conviction assured me that it was tenanted. To cover my inquisitiveness, in case there was someone there, I could inquire whether this path was a short cut to the house at which I was staying, and, rather rebelling at what I was doing, I went through the small garden, and tapped at the door. There was no answer, and, after waiting for a response to a second summons, and having tried the door and found it locked, I made the circuit of the house. Of course there was no one there, and I told myself that I was just like a man who looks under his bed for a burglar and would be beyond measure astonished if he found one.
My hosts were at the house when I arrived, and we spent a cheerful two hours before dinner in such desultory and eager conversation as is proper between friends who have not met for some time. Between Hugh Grainger and his wife it is always impossible to light on a subject which does not vividly interest on or other of them, and golf, politics, the needs of Russia, cooking, ghosts, the possible victory over Mount Everest, and the income tax were among the topics which we passionately discussed. With all these plates spinning, it was easy to whip up any one of them, and the subject of spooks generally was lighted upon again and again.
“Margaret is on the high road to madness,” remarked Hugh on one of these occasions, “for she has begun using planchette. If you use planchette for six months, I am told, most careful doctors will conscientiously certify you as insane. She’s got five months more before she goes to Bedlam.”
“Does it work?” I asked.
“Yes, it says most interesting things,” said Margaret. “It says things that never entered my head. We’ll try it tonight.”
“Oh, not tonight,” said Hugh. “Let’s have an evening off.”
Margaret disregarded this. “It’s no use asking planchette questions,” she went on, “because there is in your mind some sort of answer to them. If I ask whether it will be fine tomorrow, for instance, it is probably I—though indeed I don’t mean to push—who makes the pencil say ‘yes’.”
“And then it usually rains,” remarked Hugh.
“Not always: don’t interrupt. The interesting thing is to let the pencil write what it chooses. Very often it only makes loops and curves—though they may mean something—and every now and then a word comes, of the significance of which I have no idea whatever, so I clearly couldn’t have suggested it. Yesterday evening, for instance, it wrote ‘gardener’ over and over again. Now what did that mean? The gardener here is a Methodist with a chin-beard. Could it have meant him? Oh, it’s time to dress. Please don’t be late, my cook is so sensitive about soup.”
We rose, and some connection of ideas about “gardener” linked itself up in my mind.
“By the way, what’s that cottage in the field by the footbridge?” I asked. “Is that the gardener’s cottage?”
“It used to be,” said Hugh. “But the chin-beard doesn’t live there: in fact nobody lives there. It’s empty. If I was owner here, I should put the chin-beard into it, and take the rent off his wages. Some people have no idea of economy. Why did you ask?”
I saw Margaret was looking at me rather attentively.
“Curiosity,” I said. “Idle curiosity.”
“I don’t believe it was,” said she.
“But it was,” I said. “it was idle curiosity to know whether the house was inhabited. As I passed it, going down tot eh club-house, I felt sure it was empty, but coming back I felt so sure that there was someone there that I rapped at the door, and indeed walked round it.”
Hugh had preceded us upstairs, as she lingered a little. “And there was no one there?” she asked. “It’s odd: I had just the same feeling as you about it.”
“That explains planchette writing ‘gardener’ over and over again,” said I. “You had the gardener’s cottage on your mind.”
“How ingenious!” said Margaret. “Hurry up and dress.”
A gleam of strong moonlight between my drawn curtains when I went up to bed that night led me to look out. My room faced the garden and the fields which I had traversed that afternoon, and all was vividly illuminated by the full moon. The thatched cottage with its white walls close by the stream was very distinct, and once more, I suppose, the reflection of the light on the glass of one of its windows made it appear that the room was lit within. It struck me as odd that twice that day this thing happened. Even as I looked the light was extinguished.
The morning did not at all bear out the fine promise of the clear night, for when I woke the wind was squealing, and sheets of rain from the south-west were dashed against my panes. Golf was wholly out of the question, and, though the violence of the storm abated a little in the afternoon, the rain dripped with a steady sullenness. But I wearied of indoors, and, since the two others entirely refused to set foot outside, I went forth mackintoshed to get a breath of air. By way of an object in my tramp, I took the road to the links in preference to the muddy short-cut through the fields, with the intention of engaging a couple of caddies for Hugh and myself next morning, and lingered awhile over illustrated papers in the smoking-room. I must have read for longer than I knew, for a sudden beam of sunset light suddenly illuminated my page, and looking up, I saw that the rain had ceased, and that evening was fast coming on. so instead of taking the long detour by the road again, I set forth homewards by the path across the fields. That gleam of sunset was the last of the day, and once again, just as twenty-four hours ago, I crossed the footbridge in the gloaming. Till that moment, as far as I was aware, I had not thought at all about the cottage there, but now in a flash the light I had seen there last night, suddenly extinguished, recalled itself to my mind, and at the same moment I felt that invincible conviction that the cottage was tenanted. Simultaneously in these swift processes of thought I looked towards it, and saw standing by the door the figure of a man. In the dusk I could distinguish nothing of his face, if indeed it was turned to me, and only got the impression of a tallish fellow, thickly built. He opened the door, from which there came a dim light as of a lamp, entered, and shut if after him.
So then my conviction was right. Yet I had been distinctly told that the cottage was empty: who, then, was he that entered as if returning home? Once more, this time with a certain qualm of fear, I rapped on the door, intending to put some trivial question; and rapped again this time more drastically, so that there could be no question that my summons was unheard. But still I got no reply, and finally I tried the handle of the door. It was locked. Then, with difficulty mastering an increasing terror, I made the circuit of the cottage, peering into each unshuttered window. All was dark within, though but two minutes ago I had seen the gleam of light escape from the opened door.
Just because some chain of conjecture was beginning to form itself in my mind, I made no allusion to this odd adventure, and after dinner Margaret, amid protests from Hugh, got out the planchette which had persisted in writing “gardener”. My surmise was, of course, utterly fantastic, but I wanted to convey no suggestion of any sort to Margaret… For a long time the pencil skated over her paper making loops and curves and peaks like a temperature chart, and she had begun to yawn and weary over her experiment before any coherent word emerged. And then, in the oddest way, her head nodded forward and she seemed to have fallen asleep.
Hugh looked up from his book and spoke in a whisper to me. “She fell asleep the other night over it,” he said. Margaret's eyes were closed, and she breathed the long, quiet breaths of slumber, and then her hand began to move with a curious firmness. Right across the big sheet of paper went a level line of writing, and at the end her hand stopped with a jerk, and she woke.
She looked at the paper. “Hallo,” she said, “Ah, one of you has been playing a trick on me!”
We assured her that this was not so, and she read what she had written. “Gardener, gardener,” it ran. “I am the gardener. I want to come in. I can’t find her here.”
“O Lord, that gardener again!” said Hugh.
Looking up from the paper, I saw Margaret’s eyes fixed on mine, and even before she spoke I knew what her thought was. “Did you come home by the empty cottage?” she asked.
“Still empty?” she said in a low voice. “Or—or anything else?”
I did not want to tell her just what I had seen—or what, at any rate, I thought I had seen. If there was going to be anything odd, anything worth observation, it was far better that our respective impressions should not fortify each other. “I tapped again, and there was no answer,” I said.
Presently there was a move to bed: Margaret initiated it, and after she had gone upstairs Hugh an I went to the front door to interrogate the weather. Once more the moon shone in a clear sky, and we strolled out along the flagged path that fronted the house. Suddenly Hugh turned quickly and pointed to the angle of the house. “Who on earth is that?” he said. “Look! There! He has gone round the corner.”
I had but the glimpse of a tallish man of heavy build. “Didn’t you see him?” asked Hugh. “I’ll just go round the house, and find him; I don’t want anyone prowling round us at night. Wait here, will you, and if he comes round the other corner ask him what his business is.” Hugh had left me, in our stroll, close by the front door which was open, and there I waited until he should have made his circuit. He had hardly disappeared when I heard, quite distinctly, a rather quick but heavy footfall coming along the paved walk towards me from the opposite direction but there was absolutely no one t be seen who made this sound of rapid walking. Closer and closer to me came the steps of the invisible one, and then with a shudder of horror I felt somebody unseen push by me as I stood on the threshold. That shudder was not merely of the spirit, for the touch of him was that of ice on my hand. I tried to seize the impalpable intruder, but he slipped from me, and the next moment I heard his steps on the parquet of the floor inside. Some door within opened and shut, and I heard no more of him. Next moment Hugh came running round the corner of the house from which the sound of steps had approached.
“But where is he?” he asked. “H was not twenty yards in front of me—a big, tall fellow.”
“I saw nobody,” I said. “I heard his step along the walk, but there was nothing to be seen.”
“And then?” asked Hugh.
“Whatever it was seemed to brush by me, and go into the house,” said I.
There had certainly been no sound of steps on the bare oak stairs, and we searched room after room through the ground floor of the house. The dining-room door and that of the smoking-room were locked, that into the drawing-room was open, and the only other door which could have furnished the impression of an opening and a shutting was that into the kitchen and servants’ quarters. Here again out quest was fruitless; we searched, but all was empty and quiet. Finally we came to the kitchen, which too was empty. But by the fire there was set a rocking-chair, and this was oscillating to and fro as if someone, lately sitting there, had just quitted it. There it stood gently rocking, and this seemed to convey the sense of a presence, invisible now, more than even the sight of him who surely had been sitting there could have done. I remember wanting to steady it and stop it, and yet my hand refused to go forth to it.
What we had seen, and in especial what we had not seen, would have been sufficient to furnish most people with a broken night, and assuredly I was not among the strong-minded exceptions. Long I lay wide-eyed and open-eared, and when at last I dozed I was plucked from the border-land of sleep by the sound, muffled but unmistakable, of someone moving about the house. It occurred to me that the steps might be those of Hugh conducting a lonely exploration, but even while I wondered a tap came at the door of communication between our rooms, and, in answer to my response, it appeared that he had come to see whether it was I thus uneasily wandering. Even as we spoke the step passed my door, and the stairs leading to the floor above creaked to its ascent. Next moment it sounded directly above our heads in some attics in the roof.
“Those are not the servants’ bedrooms,” said Hugh. “No one sleeps there. Let us look once more: it must be somebody.”
With lit candles we made our stealthy way upstairs, and just when we were at the top of the flight, Hugh, a step ahead of me, uttered a sharp exclamation. “But something is passing by me!” he said, and he clutched at the empty air. Even as he spoke, I experienced the same sensation, and the moment afterwards the stairs below us creaked again, as the unseen passed down.
All night long that sound of steps moved about the passages, as if someone was searching the house, and as I lay and listened that message which had come through the pencil of the planchette to Margaret’s fingers occurred to me. “I want to come in. I cannot find her here.”… Indeed someone had come in, and was sedulous in his search. He was the gardener, it would seem. But what gardener was this invisible seeker, and for whom did he seek?
Even as when some bodily pain ceases it is difficult to recall with any vividness what the pain was like, so next morning, as I dressed, I found myself vainly trying to recapture the horror of the spirit which had accompanied these nocturnal adventures. I remembered that something within me had sickened as I watched the movements of the rocking-chair the night before and as I heard the steps along the paved way outside, and by that invisible pressure against me knew that someone had entered the house. But now in the sane and tranquil morning, and all day under the serene winter sun, I could not realise what it had been. The presence, like the bodily pain, had to be there for the realisation of it, and all day it was absent. Hugh felt the same; he was even disposed to be humorous on the subject.
“Well, he’s had a good look,” he said, “whoever he is, and whomever he was looking for. By the way, not a word to Margaret, please. She heard nothing of these perambulations, nor of the entry of—of whatever it was. Not gardener, anyhow: who ever heard of a gardener spending his time walking about the house? If there were steps all over the potato-patch, I might have been with you.”
Margaret had arranged to drive over to have tea with some friends of hers that afternoon, and in consequence Hugh and I refreshed ourselves at the club-house after our game, and it was already dusk when for the third day in succession I passed homewards by the whitewashed cottage. But tonight I had no sense of it being subtly occupied; it stood mournfully desolate, as is the way of untenanted houses, and no light nor semblance of such gleamed from its windows. Hugh, to whom I had told the odd impressions I had received there, gave them a reception as flippant as that he had accorded to the memories of the night, and he was still being humorous about them when we came to the door of the house.
“A psychic disturbance, old boy,” he said. “Like a cold in the head. Hallo, the door’s locked.” He rang and rapped, and from inside came the noise of a turned key and withdrawn bolts. “What’s the door locked for?” he asked his servant who opened it.
The man shifted from one foot to the other. “The bell rang half an hour ago, sir,” he said, “and when I came to answer it there was a man standing outside, and—“
“Well?” asked Hugh.
“I didn’t like the looks of him, sir,” he said, “and I asked him his business. He didn’t say anything, and then he must have gone pretty smartly away, for I never saw him go.”
“Where did he seem to go?” asked Hugh, glancing at me.
“I can’t rightly say, sir. He didn’t seem to go at all. Something seemed to brush by me.” “That’ll do,” said Hugh rather sharply.
Margaret had not come in from her visit, but when soon after the crunch of the motor wheels was heard Hugh reiterated his wish that nothing should be said to her about the impression which now, apparently, a third person shared with us. She came in with a flush of excitement on her face. “Never laugh at my planchette again,” she said. “I’ve heard the most extraordinary story from Maud Ashfield—horrible, but so frightfully interesting.”
“Out with it,” said Hugh.
“Well, there was a gardener here,” she said. “He used to live at that little cottage by the footbridge, and when the family were up in London he and his wife used to be caretakers and live here.” Hugh’s glance and mine met: then he turned away. I knew, as certainly as if I was in his mind, that his thoughts were identical with my own.
“He married a wife much younger than himself,” continued Margaret, “and gradually he became frightfully jealous of her. And one day in a fit of passion he strangled her with his own hands. A little while after someone came to the cottage, and found him sobbing over her, trying to restore her. They went for the police, but before they came he had cut his own throat. Isn’t it all horrible? But surely it’s rather curious that the planchette said ‘Gardener. I am the gardener. I want to come in. I can’t find her here.” You see I knew nothing about it. I shall do planchette again tonight. Oh dear me, the post goes in half an hour, and I have a whole budget to send. But respect my planchette for the future, Hughie.”
We talked the situation out when she had gone, but Hugh, unwillingly convinced and yet unwilling to admit that something more than coincidence lay behind that “planchette nonsense”, still insisted that Margaret should be told nothing of what we had heard and seen in the house last night, and of the strange visitor who again this evening, so we must conclude, had made his entry.
“She’ll be frightened,” he said, “and she’ll begin imagining things. As for the planchette, as likely as not it will do nothing but scribble and make loops. What’s this? Yes: come in!” There had come from somewhere in the room one sharp, peremptory rap. I did not think it came from the door, but Hugh, when no response replied to his words of admittance, jumped up and opened it. He took a few steps into the hall outside and returned. “Didn’t you hear it?” he asked.
“Certainly. No one there?”
“Not a soul.” Hugh came back to the fireplace and rather irritably threw a cigarette which had just lit into the fender. “That was rather a nasty jar,” he observed; “and if you ask me whether I feel comfortable, I can tell you I never felt less comfortable in my life. I’m frightened, if you want to know, and I believe you are too.” I hadn’t the smallest intention of denying this, and he went on. “We’ve got to keep a hand on ourselves,” he said. “There’s nothing so infectious as fear, and Margaret mustn’t catch it from us. But there’s something more than our fear, you know. Something has got into the house and we’re up against it. I never believed in such things before. Let’s face it for a minute. What is it anyhow?”
“If you want to know what I think it is,” said I, “I believe it to be the spirit of the man who strangled his wife and then cut his throat. But I don’t see how it can hurt us. We’re afraid of our own fear really.”
“But we’re up against it,” said Hugh. “And what will be it? Good Lord, if I only knew what it would do I shouldn’t mind. It’s the not knowing… Well, it’s time to dress.”
Margaret was in her highest spirits at dinner. Knowing nothing of the manifestations of that presence which had taken place in the last twenty-four hours, she thought it absorbingly interesting that her planchette should have “guessed” (so ran her phrase) about the gardener, and from that topic she flitted to an equally interesting form of patience for three which her friend had shown her, promising to initiate us into it after dinner. This she did, and, not knowing that we both above all things wanted to keep planchette at a distance, she was delighted with the success of her game. But suddenly she observed that the evening was burning rapidly away, and swept the cards together at the conclusion of a hand.
“Now just half an hour of planchette,” she said.
“Oh, mayn’t we play one more hand?” asked Hugh. “It’s the best game I’ve seen for years. Planchette will be dismally slow after this.”
“Darling, if the gardener will only communicate again, it won’t be slow,” said she.
“But it is such drivel,” said Hugh.
“How rude you are! Read your book, then.” Margaret had already got out her machine, and a sheet of paper, when Hugh rose.
“Please don’t do it tonight, Margaret,” he said.
“But why? You needn’t attend.”
“Well, I ask you not to, anyhow,” said he.
Margaret looked at him closely. “Hughie, you’ve got something on your mind,” she said. “Out with it. I believe you’re nervous. You think there is something queer about. What is it?”
I could see Hugh hesitating as to whether to tell her or not, and I gathered that he chose the chance of her planchette inanely scribbling. “Go on then,” he said.
Margaret hesitated: she clearly did not want to vex Hugh, but his insistence must have seemed to her most unreasonable. “Well, just ten minutes,” she said, “and I promise not to think of gardeners.”
She had hardly laid her hand on the board when her head fell forward, and the machine began moving. I was sitting close to her, and as it rolled steadily along the paper the writing became visible. “I have come in,” it ran, “but still I can’t find her. Are you hiding her? I will search the room where you are.” What else was written but still concealed underneath the planchette I did not know, for at that moment a current of icy air swept round the room and at the door, this time unmistakably, came a loud peremptory knock.
Hugh sprang to his feet. “Margaret, wake up,” he said, “something is coming!” The door opened, and there moved in the figure of a man. He stood just within the door, his head bent forward, and he turned it from side to side, peering, it would seem, with eyes staring and infinitely sad, into every corner of the room.
“Margaret, Margaret,” cried Hugh again.
But Margaret’s eyes were open too; they were fixed on this dreadful visitor. “Be quiet, Hughie,” she said below her breath, rising as she spoke. The ghost was now looking directly at her. Once the lips above the thick, rust-coloured beard moved, but no sound came forth, the mouth only moved and slavered. He raised his head, and, horror upon horror, I saw that one side of his neck was laid open in a red, glistening gash…
For how long that pause continued, when we all three stood stiff and frozen in some deadly inhibition to move or speak, I have no idea: I suppose that at the utmost it was a dozen seconds. Then the spectre turned, and went out as it had come. We heard his steps pass along the parqueted floor; there was the sound of bolts withdrawn from the front door, and with a crash that shook the house it slammed to.
“It’s all over,” said Margaret. “God have mercy on him!”
Now the reader may put precisely what construction he pleases on this visitation from the dead. He need not, indeed, consider it to have been a visitation from the dead at all, but say that there had been impressed on the scene, where this murder and suicide happened, some sort of emotional record, which in certain circumstances could translate itself into images visible and invisible. Waves of ether, or what not, may conceivably retain the impress of such scenes; they may be held, so to speak, in solution, ready to be precipitated. Or he may hold that the spirit of the dead man indeed made itself manifest, revisiting in some sort of spiritual penance and remorse the place where his crime was committed. Naturally, no materialist will entertain such an explanation for an instant, but then there is no one so obstinately unreasonable as the materialist. Beyond doubt a dreadful deed was done there, and Margaret’s last utterance is not inapplicable.