Welcome to Episode 2 of Hysteria. Today we are reading In the Dark by Edith Nesbit, published in 1910.
Edith Nesbit was born in 1858. She was no stranger to death, losing both her father and sister before the age of 14. She was married twice and died of lung cancer in 1924. Nesbit was credited with inventing the modern childrens story, writing real-world adventure stories for children when the norm was fantasy tales like Alice in Wonderland. She wrote poems, plays, novels, and short stories. In her lifetime she contributed to more than 60 books, was an active political activist.
In the Dark is one of Nesbit’s most popular short horror stories. While Edith Nesbit was not particularly well known for feminist or radical overtones in her work, this story is a perfect example of a tale written by a woman aching to break from Victorian and Edwardian norms. Having been romantically betrayed by her first husband, Nesbit perhaps used this story as a cathartic experience.
Today this story is read by Rebecca Mathis.
Let the Hysteria begin.
In the Dark
By Edith Nesbit
It may have been a form of madness. Or it may be that he really was what is called haunted. Or it may-though I don’t pretend to understand how-have been the development, through intense suffering, of a sixth sense in a very nervous, highly strung nature. Something certainly led him where They were. And to him They were all one.
He told me the first part of the story, and the last part of it I saw with my own eyes.
Haldane and I were friends even in our school-days. What first brought us together was our common hatred of Visger, who came from our part of the country. His people knew our people at home, so he was put on to us when he came. He was the most intolerable person, boy and man, that I have ever known. He would not tell a lie. And that was all right. But he didn’t stop at that. If he were asked whether any other chap had done anything-been out of bounds, or up to any sort of lark-he would always say, ‘I don’t know, sir, but I believe so. He never did know-we took care of that. But what he believed was always right. I remember Haldane twisting his arm to say how he knew about that cherry-tree business, and he only said, ‘I don’t know-I just feel sure. And I was right, you see.’ What can you do with a boy like that?
We grew up to be men. At least Haldane and I did. Visger grew up to be a prig. He was a vegetarian and a teetotaller, and an all-wooler and Christian Scientist, and all the things that prigs are-but he wasn’t a common prig. He knew all sorts of things that he oughtn’t to have known, that he couldn’t have known in any ordinary decent way. It wasn’t that he found things out. He just knew them. Once, when I was very unhappy, he came into my rooms-we were all in our last year at Oxford-and talked about things I hardly knew myself. That was really why I went to India that winter. It was bad enough to be unhappy, without having that beast knowing all about it.
I was away over a year. Coming back, I thought a lot about how jolly it would be to see old Haldane again. If I thought about Visger at all, I wished he was dead. But I didn’t think about him much.
I did want to see Haldane. He was always such a jolly chap-gay, and kindly, and simple, honourable, uptight, and full of practical sympathies. I longed to see him, to see the smile in his jolly blue eyes, looking out from the net of wrinkles that laughing had made round them, to hear his jolly laugh, and feel the good grip of his big hand. I went straight from the docks to his chambers in Gray’s Inn, and I found him cold, pale, anaemic, with dull eyes and a limp hand, and pale lips that smiled without mirth, and uttered a welcome without gladness.
He was surrounded by a litter of disordered furniture and personal effects half packed. Some big boxes stood corded, and there were cases of books, filled and waiting for the enclosing boards to be nailed on.
‘Yes, I’m moving,’ he said. ‘I can’t stand these rooms. There’s something rum about them–something devilish rum. I clear our tomorrow.’
The autumn dusk was filling the corners with shadows. ‘You got the furs,’ I said, just for something to say, for I saw the big case that held them lying corded among the others.
‘Furs?’ he said. ‘Oh yes. Thanks awfully. Yes. I forgot about the furs.’ He laughed, out of politeness, I suppose, for there was no joke about the furs. They were many and fine-the best I could get for money, and I had seen them packed and sent off when my heart was very sore. He stood looking at me, and saying nothing.
‘Come out and have a bit of dinner,’ I said as cheerfully as I could.
‘Too busy,’ he answered, after the slightest possible pause, and a glance round the room–‘look here-I’m awfully glad to see you-If you’d just slip over and order in dinner-I’d go myself-only-Well, you see how it is.’
I went. And when I came back, he had cleared a space near the fire, and moved his big gate-table into it. We dined there by candle light. I tried to be amusing. He, I am sure, tried to be amused. We did not succeed, either of us. And his haggard eyes watched me all the time, save in those fleeting moments when, without turning his head, he glanced back over his shoulder into the shadows that crowded round the little lighted place where we sat.
When we had dined and the man had come and taken away the dishes, I looked at Haldane very steadily, so that he stopped in a pointless anecdote, and looked interrogatively at me. ‘Well?’ I said.
‘You’re not listening,’ he said petulantly. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘That’s what you’d better tell me,’ I said.
He was silent, gave one of those furtive glances at the shadows, and stooped to stir the fire to–I knew it-a blaze that must light every corner of the room.
‘You’re all to pieces,’ I said cheerfully. ‘What have you been up to? Wine? Cards? Speculation? A woman? If you won’t tell me, you’ll have to tell your doctor. Why, my dear chap, you’re a wreck.’
‘You’re a comfortable friend to have about the place,’ he said, and smiled a mechanical smile not at all pleasant to see.
‘I’m the friend you want, I think,’ said I. ‘Do you suppose I’m blind? Something’s gone wrong and you’ve taken to something. Morphia, perhaps? And you’ve brooded over the thing till you’ve lost all sense of proportion. Out with it, old chap. I bet you a dollar it’s not so bad as you think it.’
‘If I could tell you-or tell anyone,’ he said slowly, ‘it wouldn’t be so bad as it is. If I could tell anyone, I’d tell you. And even as it is, I’ve told you more than I’ve told anyone else.’
I could get nothing more out of him. But he pressed me to stay-would have given me his bed and made himself a shake-down, he said. But I had engaged my room at the Victoria, and I was expecting letters. So I left him, quite late-and he stood on the stairs, holding a candle over the bannisters to light me down.
When I went back next morning, he was gone. Men were moving his furniture into a big van with somebody’s Pantechnicon painted on it in big letters.
He had left no address with the porter, and had driven off in a hansom with two portmanteaux-to Waterloo, the porter thought.
Well, a man has a right to the monopoly of his own troubles, if he chooses to have it. And I had troubles of my own that kept me busy.
It was more than a year later that I saw Haldane again. I had got rooms in the Albany by this time, and he turned up there one morning, very early indeed-before breakfast in fact. And if he looked ghastly before, he now looked almost ghostly. His face looked as though it had worn thin, like an oyster shell that has for years been cast up twice a day by the sea on a shore all pebbly. His hands were thin as bird’s claws, and they trembled like caught butterflies.
I welcomed him with enthusiastic cordiality and pressed breakfast on him. This time, I decided, I would ask no questions. For I saw that none were needed. He would tell me. He intended to tell me. He had come here to tell me, and for nothing else.
I lit the spirit lamp-I made coffee and small talk for him, and I ate and drank, and waited for him to begin. And it was like this that he began:
‘I am going,’ he said, ‘to kill myself-oh, don’t be alarmed,’-I suppose I had said or looked something-‘I shan’t do it here, or now. I shall do it when I have to-when I can’t bear it any longer. And I want someone to know why. I don’t want to feel that I’m the only living creature who does know. And I can trust you, can’t I?’
I murmured something reassuring.
‘I should like you, if you don’t mind, to give me your word, that you won’t tell a soul what I’m going to tell you, as long as I’m alive. Afterwards. . . you can tell whom you please.’ I gave him my word.
He sat silent looking at the fire. Then he shrugged his shoulders.
‘It’s extraordinary how difficult it is to say it,’ he said, and smiled. ‘The fact is-you know that beast, George Visger.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I haven’t seen him since I came back. Some one told me he’d gone to some island or other to preach vegetarianism to the cannibals. Anyhow, he’s out of the way, bad luck to him.’
‘Yes,’ said Haldane, ‘he’s out of the way. But he’s not preaching anything. In point of fact, he’s dead.’
‘Dead?’ was all I could think of to say.
‘Yes,’ said he; ‘it’s not generally known, but he is.’
‘What did he die of?’ I asked, not that I cared. The bare fact was good enough for me.
‘You know what an interfering chap he always was. Always knew everything. Heart to heart talks-and have everything open and above board. Well, he interfered between me and some one else-told her a pack of lies.’
‘Well, the things were true, but he made lies of them the way he told them-you know.’ I did. I nodded. ‘And she threw me over. And she died. And we weren’t even friends. And I couldn’t see her-before-I couldn’t even. . . Oh, my God. . . But I went to the funeral. He was there. They’d asked him. And then I came back to my rooms. And I was sitting there, thinking. And he came up.’He would do. It’s just what he would do. The beast! I hope you kicked him out.’
‘No, I didn’t. I listened to what he’d got to say. He came to say, No doubt it was all for the best. And he hadn’t known the things he told her. He’d only guessed. He’d guessed right, damn him. What right had he to guess right? And he said it was all for the best, because, besides that, there was madness in my family. He’d found that out too-‘
‘And is there?’
‘If there is, I didn’t know it. And that was why it was all for the best. So then I said, “There wasn’t any madness in my family before, but there is now,” and I got hold of his throat. I am not sure whether I meant to kill him; I ought to have meant to kill him. Anyhow, I did kill him. What did you say?’
I had said nothing. It is not easy to think at once of the tactful and suitable thing to say, when your oldest friend tells you that he is a murderer.
‘When I could get my hands out of his throat-it was as difficult as it is to drop the handles of a galvanic battery-he fell in a lump on the hearth-rug. And I saw what I’d done. How is it that murderers ever get found out?’
‘They’re careless, I suppose,’ I found myself saying, ‘they lose their nerve.’
‘I didn’t,’ he said. ‘I never was calmer, I sat down in the big chair and looked at him, and thought it all out. He was just off to that island–I knew that. He’d said goodbye to everyone. He’d told me that. There was no blood to get rid of-or only a touch at the corner of his slack mouth. He wasn’t going to travel in his own name because of interviewers. Mr Somebody Something’s luggage would be unclaimed and his cabin empty. No one would guess that Mr Somebody Something was Sir George Visger, FRS. It was all as plain as plain. There was nothing to get rid of, but the man. No weapon, no blood-and I got rid of him all right.’
He smiled cunningly.
‘No, no,’ he said; ‘that’s where I draw the line. It’s not that I doubt your word, but if you talked in your sleep, or had a fever or anything. No, no. As long as you don’t know where the body is, don’t you see, I’m all right. Even if you could prove that I’ve said all this-which you can’t–it’s only the wanderings of my poor unhinged brain. See?’
I saw. And I was sorry for him. And I did not believe that he had killed Visger. He was not the sort of man who kills people. So I said:
‘Yes, old chap, I see. Now look here. Let’s go away together, you and I-travel a bit and see the world, and forget all about that beastly chap.’
His eyes lighted up at that.
‘Why,’ he said, ‘you understand. You don’t hate me and shrink from me. I wish I’d told you before-you know-when you came and I was packing all my sticks. But it’s too late now.
‘Too late? Not a bit of it,’ I said. ‘Come, we’ll pack our traps and be off tonight-out into the unknown, don’t you know.
‘That’s where I’m going,’ he said. ‘You wait. When you’ve heard what’s been happening to me, you won’t be so keen to go travelling about with me.’
‘But you’ve told me what’s been happening co you,’ I said, and the more I thought about what he had told me, the less I believed it.
‘No,’ he said, slowly, ‘no-I’ve told you what happened to him. What happened to me is quite different. Did I tell you what his last words were? Just when I was coming at him. Before I’d got his throat, you know. He said, “Look out. You’ll never to able to get rid of the body-Besides, anger’s sinful.” You know that way he had, like a tract on its hind legs. So afterwards I got thinking of that. But I didn’t think of it for a year. Because I did get rid of his body all right. And then I was sitting in that comfortable chair, and I thought, “Hullo, it must be about a year now, since that-” and I pulled out my pocket-book and went to the window to look at a little almanac I carry about-it was getting dusk-and sure enough it was a year, to the day. And then I remembered what he’d said. And I said to myself, “Not much trouble about getting rid of your body, you brute.” And then I looked at the hearth-rug and-Ah!’ he screamed suddenly and very loud-‘I can’t tell you-no, I can’t.’
My man opened the door-he wore a smooth face over his wriggling curiosity. ‘Did you call, sir?’
‘Yes,’ I lied. ‘I want you to take a note to the bank, and wait for an answer.’
When he was got rid of, Haldane said: ‘Where was I?-‘
‘You were just telling me what happened after you looked at the almanac. What was it?’
‘Nothing much,’ he said, laughing softly, ‘oh, nothing much-only that I glanced at the hearthrug-and there he was-the man I’d killed a year before. Don’t try to explain, or I shall lose my temper. The door was shut. The windows were shut. He hadn’t been there a minute before. And he was there then. That’s all.’
Hallucination was one of the words I stumbled among.
‘Exactly what I thought,’ he said triumphantly, ‘but-I touched it. It was quite real. Heavy, you know, and harder than live people are somehow, to the touch-more like a stone thing covered with kid the hands were, and the arms like a marble statue in a blue serge suit. Don’t you hate men who wear blue serge suits?’ ‘There are halllucinations of touch too,’ I found myself saying..
‘Exactly what I thought,’ said Haldane more triumphant than ever, ‘but there are limits, you know-limits. So then I thought someone had got him out-the real him-and stuck him there to frighten me-while my back was turned, and I went to the place where I’d hidden him, and he was there-ah!-jusr as I’d left him. Only. . . it was a year ago. There are two of him there now.’
‘My dear chap,’ I said ‘this is simply comic.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘It is amusing. I find it so myself. Especially in the night when I wake up and think of it. I hope I shan’t die in the dark, Winston: That’s one of the reasons why I think I shall have to kill myself. I could be sure then of not dying in the dark.’
‘Is that all?’ I asked, feeling sure that it must be.
‘No,’ said Haldane at once. ‘That’s not all. He’s come back to rue again. In a railway carriage it was. I’d been asleep. When I woke up, there he was lying on the seat opposite me. Looked just the same. I pitched him out on the line in Red Hill Tunnel. And if I see him again, I’m going out myself. I can’t stand it. It’s too much. I’d sooner go. Whatever the next world’s like, there aren’t things in it like that. We leave them here, in graves and boxes and . . You think I’m mad. But I’m not. You can’t help me-no one can help me. He knew, you see. He said I shouldn’t be able to get rid of the body. And I can’t get rid of it. I can’t. I can’t. He knew. He always did know things that he couldn ‘t know. But I’ll cut his game short. After all, I’ve got the ace of trumps, and I’ll play it on his next trick. I give you my word of honour, Winston, that I’m not mad.’
‘My dear old man,’ I said, ‘I don’t think you’re mad. But I do think your nerves are very much upset. Mine are a bit, too. Do you know why I went to India? It was because of you and her. I couldn’t stay and see it, though I wished for your happiness and all that; you know I did. And when I came back, she . . . and you . . . Let’s see it out together,’ I said. ‘You won’t keep fancying things if you’ve got me to talk to. And I always said you weren’t half a bad old duffer.’
‘She liked you,’ he said.
‘Oh, yes,’ I said, ‘she liked me.
That was how we came to go abroad together. I was full of hope for him. He’d always been such a splendid chap-so sane and strong. I couldn’t believe that he was gone mad, gone for ever, I mean, so that he’d never come right again. Perhaps may own trouble made it easy for me to see things not quite straight. Anyway, I took him away to recover his mind’s health, exactly as I should have taken him away to get strong after a fever. And the madness seemed to pass away, and in a month or two we were perfectly jolly, and I thought I had cured him. And I was very glad because of that old friendship of ours, and because she had loved him and liked me.
We never spoke of Visger. I thought he had forgotten all about him. I thought I understood how his mind, over-strained by sorrow and anger, had fixed on the man he hated, and woven a nightmare web of horror round that detestable personality. And I had got the whip hand of my own trouble. And we were as jolly as sandboys together all those months.
And we came to Bruges at last in our travels, and Bruges was very full, because of the Exhibition. We could only get one room and one bed. So we tossed for the bed, and the one who lost the toss was to make the best of the night in the armchair. And the bedclothes we were to share equitably.
We spent the evening at a café chantant and finished at a beer hall, and it was late and sleepy when we got back to the Grande Vigne. I took our key from its nail in the concierge’s room, and we went up. We talked awhile, I remember, of the town, and the belfry, and the Venetian aspect of the canals by moonlight, and then Haldane got into bed, and I made a chrysalis of myself with my share of the blankets and fitted the tight roll into the armchair. I was not at all comfortable, but I was compensatingly tired, and I was nearly asleep when Haldane roused me up to tell me about his will.
‘I’ve left everything to you, old man,’ he said. ‘I know I can trust you to see to everything.’ ‘Quite so,’ said I, ‘and if you don’t mind, we’ll talk about it in the morning.’
He tried to go on about it, and about what a friend I’d been, and all that, but I shut him up and told him to go to sleep. But no. He wasn’t comfortable, he said. And he’d got a thirst like a lime kiln. And he’d noticed that there was no water-bottle in the room. ‘And the water in the jug’s like pale soup,’ he said.
‘Oh, all right,’ said I. ‘Light your candle and go and get some water, then, in Heaven’s name, and let me get to sleep.’
But he said, ‘No-you light it. I don’t want to get out of bed in the dark. I might-I might step on something, mightn’t I-or walk into something that wasn’t there when I got into bed.’
‘Rot,’ I said, ‘walk into your grandmother.’ But I lit the candle all the same. He sat up in bed and looked at me-very pale-with his hair all tumbled from the pillow, and his eyes blinking and shining/ ‘That’s better,’ he said. And then, ‘I say-look here. Oh-yes-I see. It’s all right. Queer how they mark the sheets here. Blest if I didn’t think it was blood, just for the minute.’ The sheet was marked, not at the corner, as sheets are marked at home, but right in the middle where it turns down, with big, red, cross-stitching.
‘Yes, I see,’ I said, ‘it is a queer place to mark it.’
‘It’s queer letters to have on it,’ he said. ‘G.V.’
‘Grande Vigne,’ I said. ‘What letters do you expect them to mark things with? Hurry up.
‘You come too,’ he said. ‘Yes, it does stand for Grande Vigne, of course. I wish you’d come down too, Winston.’
‘I’ll go down,’ I said and turned with the candle in my hand.
He was out of bed and close to me in a flash.
‘No,’ said he, ‘I don’t want to stay alone in the dark.’
He said it just as a frightened child might have done.
‘All right then, come along,’ I said. And we went. I tried to make some joke, I remember, about the length of his hair, and the cut of his pajamas-but I was sick with disappointment. For it was almost quite plain to me, even then, that all my time and trouble had been thrown away, and that he wasn’t cured after all. We went down as quietly as we could, and got a carafe of water from the long bare dining table in the sale à manger. He got hold of my arm at first, and then he got the candle away from me, and went very slowly, shading the light with his hand, and looking very carefully all about, as though he expected to see something that he wanted very desperately nor to see. And of course, I knew what that something was. I didn’t like the way he was going on. I can’t at all express how deeply I didn’t like it. And he looked over his shoulder every now and then, just as he did that first evening after I came back from India.
The thing got on my nerves so that I could hardly find the way back to our room. And when we got there, I give you my word, I more than half expected to see what he had expected to see–that, or something like that, on the hearth-rug. But of course there was nothing.
I blew out the light and tightened my blankets round me-I’d been trailing them after me in our expedition. And I was settled in my chair when Haldane spoke.
‘You’ve got all the blankets,’ he said.
‘No, I haven’t,’ said I, ‘only what I’ve always had.’ ‘I can’t find mine then,’ he said and I could hear his teeth chattering. ‘And I’m cold. I’m. . .
For God’s sake, light the candle. Light it. Light it. Something horrible. . .’
And I couldn’t find the matches.
‘Light the candle, light the candle,’ he said, and his voice broke, as a boy’s does sometimes in chapel. ‘If you don’t he’ll come to me. It is so easy to come at any one in the dark. Oh Winston, light the candle, for the love of God! I can’t die in the dark.’
‘I am lighting it,’ I said savagely, and I was feeling for the matches on the marble-topped chest of drawers, on the mantelpiece-everywhere but on the round centre table where I’d put them. ‘You’re not going to die. Don’t be a fool,’ I said. ‘It’s all right. I’ll get a light in a second.’
He said, ‘It’s cold. It’s cold. It’s cold,’ like that, three times. And then he screamed aloud, like a woman-like a child-like a hare when the dogs have got it. I had heard him scream like that once before.
‘What is it?’ I cried, hardly less loud. ‘For God’s sake, hold your noise. What is it?’ There was an empty silence. Then, very slowly:
‘It’s Visger,’ he said. And he spoke thickly, as through some stifling veil.
‘Nonsense. Where?’ I asked, and my hand closed on the matches as he spoke.
‘Here,’ he screamed sharply, as though he had torn the veil away, ‘here, beside me. In the bed.’ I got the candle alight. I got across to him.
He was crushed in a heap at the edge of the bed. Stretched on the bed beyond him was a dead man, white and very cold.
Haldane had died in the dark.
It was all so simple.
We had come to the wrong room. The man the room belonged to was there, on the bed he had engaged and paid for before he died of heart disease, earlier in the day. A French commis-voyageur representing soap and perfumery; his name, Felix Leblanc.
Later, in England, I made cautious enquiries. The body of a man had been found in the Red Hill tunnel-a haberdasher man named Simmons, who had drunk spirits of salts, owing to the depression of trade. The bottle was clutched in his dead hand.
For reasons that I had, I took care to have a police inspector with me when I opened the boxes that came to me by Haldane’s will. One of them was the big box, metal lined, in which I had sent him the skins from India-for a wedding present, God help us all!
It was closely soldered.
Inside were the skins of beasts? No. The bodies of two men. One was identified, after some trouble, as that of a hawker of pens in city offices-subject to fits. He had died in one, it seemed. The other body was Visger’s, right enough.
Explain it as you like. I offered you, if you remember, a choice of explanations before I began the story. I have not yet found the explanation that can satisfy me.