Part 1 out of 2
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
I am not a susceptible woman. I am objective rather than subjective,
and a fairly full experience of life has taught me that most of my
impressions are from within out rather than the other way about.
For instance, obsession at one time a few years ago of a shadowy
figure on my right, just beyond the field of vision, was later
exposed as the result of a defect in my glasses. In the same way
Maggie, my old servant, was during one entire summer haunted by
church-bells and considered it a personal summons to eternity until
it was shown to be in her inner ear.
Yet the Benton house undeniably made me uncomfortable. Perhaps
it was because it had remained unchanged for so long. The old
horsehair chairs, with their shiny mahogany frames, showed by the
slightly worn places in the carpet before them that they had not
deviated an inch from their position for many years. The carpets
- carpets that reached to the very baseboards and gave under one's
feet with the yielding of heavy padding beneath - were bright under
beds and wardrobes, while in the centers of the rooms they had
faded into the softness of old tapestry.
Maggie, I remember, on our arrival moved a chair from the wall
in the library, and immediately put it back again, with a glance
to see if I had observed her.
"It's nice and clean, Miss Agnes," she said. "A - I kind of feel
that a little dirt would make it more homelike."
"I'm sure I don't see why," I replied, rather sharply, "I've lived
in a tolerably clean house most of my life."
Maggie, however, was digging a heel into the padded carpet. She
had chosen a sunny place for the experiment, and a small cloud of
dust rose like smoke.
"Germs!" she said. "Just what I expected. We'd better bring the
vacuum cleaner out from the city, Miss Agnes. Them carpets haven't
been lifted for years."
But I paid little attention to her. To Maggie any particle of
matter not otherwise classified is a germ, and the prospect of
finding dust in that immaculate house was sufficiently thrilling to
tide over the strangeness of our first few hours in it.
Once a year I rent a house in the country. When my nephew and niece
were children, I did it to take them out of the city during school
vacations. Later, when they grew up, it was to be near the country
club. But now, with the children married and new families coming
along, we were more concerned with dairies than with clubs, and I
inquired more carefully about the neighborhood cows than about the
neighborhood golf-links. I had really selected the house at Benton
Station because there was a most alluring pasture, with a brook
running through it, and violets over the banks. It seemed to me
that no cow with a conscience could live in those surroundings and
give colicky milk.
Then, the house was cheap. Unbelievably cheap. I suspected
sewerage at once, but it seemed to be in the best possible order.
Indeed, new plumbing had been put in, and extra bathrooms installed.
As old Miss Emily Benton lived there alone, with only an old couple
to look after her, it looked odd to see three bathrooms, two of
them new, on the second floor. Big tubs and showers, although
little old Miss Emily could have bathed in the washbowl and have
had room to spare.
I faced the agent downstairs in the parlor, after I had gone over
the house. Miss Emily Benton had not appeared and I took it she
"Why all those bathrooms?" I demanded. "Does she use them in
He shrugged his shoulders.
"She wished to rent the house, Miss Blakiston. The old-fashioned
plumbing - "
"But she is giving the house away," I exclaimed. "Those bathrooms
have cost much more than she will get out of it. You and I know
that the price is absurd."
He smiled at that. "If you wish to pay more, you may, of course.
She is a fine woman, Miss Blakiston, but you can never measure a
Benton with any yard-stick but their own. The truth is that she
wants the house off her hands this summer. I don't know why. It's
a good house, and she has lived here all her life. But my
instructions, I'll tell you frankly, are to rent it, if I have to
give it away."
With which absurd sentence we went out the front door, and I saw
the pasture, which decided me.
In view of the fact that I had taken the house for my grandnieces
and nephews, it was annoying to find, by the end of June, that I
should have to live in it by myself. Willie's boy was having his
teeth straightened, and must make daily visits to the dentist, and
Jack went to California and took Gertrude and the boys with him.
The first curious thing happened then. I wrote to the agent, saying
that I would not use the house, but enclosing a check for its rental,
as I had signed the lease. To my surprise, I received in reply a
note from Miss Emily herself, very carefully written on thin
Although it was years since I had seen her, the exquisite neatness
of the letter, its careful paragraphing, its margins so accurate
as to give the impression that she had drawn a faint margin line
with a lead pencil and then erased it - all these were as indicative
of Emily Benton as - well, as the letter was not.
As well as I can explain it, the letter was impulsive, almost urgent.
Yet the little old lady I remembered was neither of these things.
"My dear Miss Blakiston," she wrote. "But I do hope you will use the
house. It was because I wanted to be certain that it would be
occupied this summer that I asked so low a rent for it.
"You may call it a whim if you like, but there are reasons why I
wish the house to have a summer tenant. It has, for one thing, never
been empty since it was built. It was my father's pride, and his
father's before him, that the doors were never locked, even at night.
Of course I can not ask a tenant to continue this old custom,
but I can ask you to reconsider your decision.
"Will you forgive me for saying that you are so exactly the person I
should like to see in the house that I feel I can not give you up?
So strongly do I feel this that I would, if I dared, enclose your
check and beg you to use the house rent free. Faithfully yours,
Gracefully worded and carefully written as the letter was, I seemed
to feel behind it some stress of feeling, an excitement perhaps,
totally out of proportion to its contents. Years before I had met
Miss Emily, even then a frail little old lady, her small figure
stiffly erect, her eyes cold, her whole bearing one of reserve. The
Bentons, for all their open doors, were known in that part of the
country as "proud." I can remember, too, how when I was a young
girl my mother had regarded the rare invitations to have tea and tiny
cakes in the Benton parlor as commands, no less, and had taken the
long carriage-ride from the city with complacency. And now Miss
Emily, last of the family, had begged me to take the house.
In the end, as has been shown, I agreed. The glamor of the past
had perhaps something to do with it. But I have come to a time of
life when, failing intimate interests of my own, my neighbors'
interests are mine by adoption. To be frank, I came because I was
curious. Why, aside from a money consideration, was the Benton
house to be occupied by an alien household? It was opposed to every
tradition of the family as I had heard of it.
I knew something of the family history: the Reverend Thaddeus Benton,
rector of Saint Bartholomew, who had forsaken the frame rectory near
the church to build himself the substantial home now being offered
me; Miss Emily, his daughter, who must now, I computed, be nearly
seventy; and a son whom I recalled faintly as hardly bearing out the
Benton traditions of solidity and rectitude.
The Reverend Mr. Benton, I recalled, had taken the stand that his
house was his own, and having moved his family into it, had
thereafter, save on great occasions, received the congregation
individually or en masse, in his study at the church. A patriarchal
old man, benevolent yet austere, who once, according to a story I
had heard in my girlhood, had horsewhipped one of his vestrymen for
trifling with the affections of a young married woman in the village!
There was a gap of thirty years in my knowledge of the family. I
had, indeed, forgotten its very existence, when by the chance of a
newspaper advertisement I found myself involved vitally in its
affairs, playing providence, indeed, and both fearing and hating my
role. Looking back, there are a number of things that appear rather
curious. Why, for instance, did Maggie, my old servant, develop
such a dislike for the place? It had nothing to do with the house.
She had not seen it when she first refused to go. But her
reluctance was evident from the beginning.
"I've just got a feeling about it, Miss Agnes," she said. "I can't
explain it, any more than I can explain a cold in the head. But
At first I was inclined to blame Maggie's "feeling" on her knowledge
that the house was cheap. She knew it, as she has, I am sure, read
all my letters for years. She has a distrust of a bargain. But later
I came to believe that there was something more to Maggie's distrust
- as though perhaps a wave of uneasiness, spreading from some
unknown source, had engulfed her.
Indeed, looking back over the two months I spent in the Benton house,
I am inclined to go even further. If thoughts carry, as I am sure
they do, then emotions carry. Fear, hope, courage, despair - if the
intention of writing a letter to an absent friend can spread itself
half-way across the earth, so that as you write the friend writes also,
and your letters cross, how much more should big emotions carry? I
have had sweep over me such waves of gladness, such gusts of despair,
as have shaken me. Yet with no cause for either. They are gone in a
moment. Just for an instant, I have caught and made my own another's
joy or grief.
The only inexplicable part of this narrative is that Maggie, neither
a psychic nor a sensitive type, caught the terror, as I came to call
it, before I did. Perhaps it may be explainable by the fact that
her mental processes are comparatively simple, her mind an empty
slate that shows every mark made on it.
In a way, this is a study in fear.
Maggie's resentment continued through my decision to use the house,
through the packing, through the very moving itself. It took the
form of a sort of watchful waiting, although at the time we neither
of us realized it, and of dislike of the house and its surroundings.
It extended itself to the very garden, where she gathered flowers
for the table with a ruthlessness that was almost vicious. And, as
July went on, and Miss Emily made her occasional visits, as tiny,
as delicate as herself, I had a curious conclusion forced on me.
Miss Emily returned her antagonism. I was slow to credit it. What
secret and even unacknowledged opposition could there be between my
downright Maggie and this little old aristocrat with her frail hands
and the soft rustle of silk about her?
In Miss Emily, it took the form of - how strange a word to use in
connection with her! - of furtive watchfulness. I felt that Maggie's
entrance, with nothing more momentous than the tea-tray, set her
upright in her chair, put an edge to her soft voice, and absorbed
her. She was still attentive to what I said. She agreed or
dissented. But back of it all, with her eyes on me, she was watching
With Maggie the antagonism took no such subtle form. It showed
itself in the second best instead of the best china, and a tendency
to weak tea, when Miss Emily took hers very strong. And such was
the effect of their mutual watchfulness and suspicion, such perhaps
was the influence of the staid old house on me, after a time even
that fact, of the strong tea, began to strike me as incongruous.
Miss Emily was so consistent, so consistently frail and dainty and
so - well, unspotted seems to be the word - and so gentle, yet as
time went on I began to feel that she hated Maggie with a real
hatred. And there was the strong tea!
Indeed, it was not quite normal, nor was I. For by that time - the
middle of July it was before I figured out as much as I have set
down in five minutes - by that time I was not certain about the
house. It was difficult to say just what I felt about the house.
Willie, who came down over a Sunday early in the summer, possibly
voiced it when he came down to his breakfast there.
"How did you sleep?" I asked.
"Not very well." He picked up his coffee-cup, and smiled over it
rather sheepishly. "To tell the truth, I got to thinking about
things - the furniture and all that," he said vaguely. "How many
people have sat in the chairs and seen themselves in the mirror and
died in the bed, and so on."
Maggie, who was bringing in the toast, gave a sort of low moan,
which she turned into a cough.
"There have been twenty-three deaths in it in the last forty years,
Mr. Willie," she volunteered. "That's according to the gardener.
And more than half died in that room of yours."
"Put down that toast before you drop it, Maggie," I said. "You're
shaking all over. And go out and shut the door."
"Very well," she said, with a meekness behind which she was both
indignant and frightened. "But there is one word I might mention
before I go, and that is - cats!"
"Cats!" said Willie, as she slammed the door.
"I think it is only one cat," I observed mildly. "It belongs to
Miss Emily, I fancy. It manages to be in a lot of places nearly
simultaneously, and Maggie swears it is a dozen."
Willie is not subtle. He is a practical young man with a growing
family, and a tendency the last year or two to flesh. But he ate
his breakfast thought fully.
"Don't you think it's rather isolated?" he asked finally. "Just you
three women here?" I had taken Delia, the cook, along.
"We have a telephone," I said, rather loftily. "Although - " I
checked myself. Maggie, I felt sure, was listening in the pantry,
and I intended to give her wild fancies no encouragement. To utter
a thing is, to Maggie, to give it life. By the mere use of the
spoken word it ceases to be supposition and becomes fact.
As a matter of fact, my uneasiness about the house resolved itself
into an uneasiness about the telephone. It seems less absurd now
than it did then. But I remember what Willie said about it that
morning on our way to the church.
"It rings at night, Willie," I said. "And when I go there is no one
"So do all telephones," he replied briskly. "It's their greatest
"Once or twice we have found the thing on the floor in the morning.
It couldn't blow over or knock itself down."
"Probably the cat," he said, with the patient air of a man arguing
with an unreasonable woman. "Of course," he added - we were passing
the churchyard then, dominated by what the village called the Benton
"mosolem" - "there's a chance that those dead-and-gone Bentons resent
anything as modern as a telephone. It might be interesting to see
what they would do to a victrola.
"I'm going to tell you something, Willie," I said. "I am afraid of
He was completely incredulous. I felt rather ridiculous, standing
there in the sunlight of that summer Sabbath and making my confession.
But I did it.
"I am afraid of it," I repeated. "I'm desperately sure you will
never understand. Because I don't. I can hardly force myself to
go to it. I hate the very back corner of the hall where it stands,
I - "
I saw his expression then, and I stopped, furious with myself. Why
had I said it? But more important still, why did I feel it? I had
not put it into words before, I had not expected to say it then.
But the moment I said it I knew it was true. I had developed an
"I have to go downstairs at night and answer it," I added, rather
feebly. "It's on my nerves, I think."
"I should think it is," he said, with a note of wonder in his voice.
"It doesn't sound like you. A telephone!" But just at the church
door he stopped me, a hand on my arm.
"Look here," he said, "don't you suppose it's because you're so
dependent on the telephone? You know that if anything goes wrong
with it, you're cut off, in a way. And there's another point - you
get all your news over it, good and bad." He had difficulty, I
think, in finding the words he wanted. "It's - it's vital," he
said. "So you attach too much importance to it, and it gets to be
"Very likely," I assented. "The whole thing is idiotic, anyhow."
But - was it idiotic?
I am endeavoring to set things down as they seemed to me at the time,
not in the light of subsequent events. For, if this narrative has
any interest at all, it is a psychological one. I have said that
it is a study in fear, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say
that it is a study of the mental reaction of crime, of its effects
on different minds, more or less remotely connected with it.
That my analysis of my impression; in the church that morning are
not colored by subsequent events is proved by the fact that under
cover of that date, July 16th, I made the following entry:
"Why do Maggie and Miss Benton distrust each other?"
I realized it even then, although I did not consider it serious, as
is evidenced by the fact that I follow it with a recipe for fruit
gelatin, copied from the newspaper.
It was a calm and sunny Sunday morning. The church windows were
wide open, and a butterfly came in and set the choir boys to
giggling. At the end of my pew a stained-glass window to Carlo
Benton - the name came like an echo from the forgotten past - sent
a shower of colored light over Willie, turned my blue silk to most
unspinsterly hues, and threw a sort of summer radiance over Miss
Emily herself, in the seat ahead.
She sat quite alone, impeccably neat, even to her profile. She was
so orderly, so well balanced, one stitch of her hand-sewed organdy
collar was so clearly identical with every other, her very seams,
if you can understand it, ran so exactly where they should, that she
set me to pulling myself straight. I am rather casual as to seams.
After a time I began to have a curious feeling about her. Her head
was toward the rector, standing in a sort of white nimbus of
sunlight, but I felt that Miss Emily's entire attention was on our
pew, immediately behind her. I find I can not put it into words,
unless it was that her back settled into more rigid lines. I
glanced along the pew. Willie's face wore a calm and slightly
somnolent expression. But Maggie, in her far end - she is very high
church and always attends - Maggie's eyes were glued almost fiercely
to Miss Emily's back. And just then Miss Emily herself stirred,
glanced up at the window, and turning slightly, returned Maggie's
glance with one almost as malevolent. I have hesitated over that
word. It seems strong now, but at the time it was the one that came
into my mind.
When it was over, it was hard to believe that it had happened. And
even now, with everything else clear, I do not pretend to explain
Maggie's attitude. She knew, in some strange way. But she did not
know that she knew - which sounds like nonsense and is as near as I
can come to getting it down in words.
Willie left that night, the 16th, and we settled down to quiet days,
and, for a time, to undisturbed nights. But on the following
Wednesday, by my journal, the telephone commenced to bother me again.
Generally speaking, it rang rather early, between eleven o'clock and
midnight. But on the following Saturday night I find I have recorded
the hour as 2 a. m.
In every instance the experience was identical. The telephone never
rang the second time. When I went downstairs to answer it - I did
not always go - there was the buzzing of the wire, and there was
nothing else. It was on the twenty-fourth that I had the telephone
inspected and reported in normal condition, and it is possibly
significant that for three days afterward my record shows not a
But I do not regard the strange calls over the telephone as so
important as my attitude to them. The plain truth is that my fear
of the calls extended itself in a few days to cover the instrument,
and more than that, to the part of the house it stood in. Maggie
never had this, nor did she recognize it in me. Her fear was a
perfectly simple although uncomfortable one, centering around the
bedrooms where, in each bed, she nightly saw dead and gone Bentons
laid out in all the decorum of the best linen.
On more than one evening she came to the library door, with an
expression of mentally looking over her shoulder, and some such
dialogue would follow:
"D'you mind if I turn the bed down now, Miss Agnes?"
"It's very early."
"S'almost eight." When she is nervous she cuts verbal corners.
"You know perfectly well that I dislike having the beds disturbed
until nine o'clock, Maggie."
"I'm going out."
"You said that last night, but you didn't go:
"Now, see here, Maggie, I want you to overcome this feeling of - "
I hesitated - "of fear. When you have really seen or heard
something, it will be time enough to be nervous."
"Humph!" said Maggie on one of these occasions, and edged into the
room. It was growing dusk. "It will be too late then, Miss Agnes.
And another thing. You're a brave woman. I don't know as I've
seen a braver. But I notice you keep away from the telephone after
The general outcome of these conversations was that, to avoid
argument, I permitted the preparation of my room for the night at
an earlier and yet earlier hour, until at last it was done the
moment I was dressed for dinner.
It is clear to me now that two entirely different sorts of fear
actuated us. For by that time I had to acknowledge that there was
fear in the house. Even Delia, the cook, had absorbed some of
Maggie's terror; possibly traceable to some early impressions of
death which connected them-elves with a four-post bedstead.
Of the two sorts of fear, Delia's and Maggie's symptoms were
subjective. Mine, I still feel, were objective.
It was not long before the beginning of August, and during a lull
in the telephone matter, that I began to suspect that the house
was being visited at night.
There was nothing I could point to with any certainty as having been
disturbed at first. It was a matter of a book misplaced on the
table, of my sewing-basket open when I always leave it closed, of a
burnt match on the floor, whereas it is one of my orderly habits
never to leave burnt matches around. And at last the burnt match
became a sort of clue, for I suspected that it had been used to
light one of the candles that sat in holders of every sort, on the
top of the library shelves.
I tried getting up at night and peering over the banisters, but
without result. And I was never sure as to articles that they had
been moved. I remained in that doubting and suspicious halfway
ground that is worse than certainty. And there was the matter of
motive. I could not get away from that. What possible purpose
could an intruder have, for instance, in opening my sewing-basket
or moving the dictionary two inches on the center table?
Yet the feeling persisted, and on the second of August I find this
entry in my journal:
Right-hand brass, eight inches; left-hand brass, seven inches;
carved-wood - Italian - five and three quarter inches each; old
glass on mantelpiece - seven inches. And below this, dated the
third: Last night, between midnight and daylight, the candle in
the glass holder on the right side of the mantel was burned down
one and one-half inches.
I should, no doubt, have set a watch on my nightly visitor after
making this discovery - and one that was apparently connected with it
- nothing less than Delia's report that there were candle-droppings
over the border of the library carpet. But I have admitted that this
is a study in fear, and a part of it is my own.
I was afraid. I was afraid of the night visitor, but, more than
that, I was afraid of the fear. It had become a real thing by that
time, something that lurked in the lower back hall waiting to catch
me by the throat, to stop my breath, to paralyze me so I could not
escape. I never went beyond that point.
Yet I am not a cowardly woman. I have lived alone too long for
that. I have closed too many houses at night and gone upstairs in
the dark to be afraid of darkness. And even now I can not, looking
back, admit that I was afraid of the darkness there, although I
resorted to the weak expedient of leaving a short length of candle
to burn itself out in the hall when I went up to bed.
I have seen one of Willie's boys waken up at night screaming with a
terror he could not describe. Well, it was much like that with me,
except that I was awake and horribly ashamed of myself.
On the fourth of August I find in my journal the single word "flour."
It recalls both my own cowardice at that time, and an experiment I
made. The telephone had not bothered us for several nights, and I
began to suspect a connection of this sort: when the telephone rang,
there was no night visitor, and vice versa. I was not certain.
Delia was setting bread that night in the kitchen, and Maggie was
reading a ghost story from the evening paper. There was a fine
sifting of flour over the table, and it gave me my idea. When I
went up to bed that night, I left a powdering of flour here and
there on the lower floor, at the door into the library, a patch
by the table, and - going back rather uneasily - one near the
I was up and downstairs before Maggie the next morning. The patches
showed trampling. In the doorway they were almost obliterated, as
by the trailing of a garment over them, but by the fireplace there
were two prints quite distinct. I knew when I saw them that I had
expected the marks of Miss Emily's tiny foot, although I had not
admitted it before. But these were not Miss Emily's. They were
large, flat, substantial, and one showed a curious marking around
the edge that - It was my own! The marking was the knitted side of
my bedroom slipper. I had, so far as I could tell, gone downstairs,
in the night, investigated the candles, possibly in darkness, and
gone back to bed again.
The effect of the discovery on me was - well undermining. In all
the uneasiness of the past few weeks I had at least had full
confidence in myself. And now that was gone. I began to wonder
how much of the things that had troubled me were real, and how many
I had made for myself.
To tell the truth, by that time the tension was almost unbearable.
My nerves were going, and there was no reason for it. I kept telling
myself that. In the mirror I looked white and anxious, and I had a
sense of approaching trouble. I caught Maggie watching me, too, and
on the seventh I find in my journal the words: "Insanity is often
only a formless terror."
On the Sunday morning following that I found three burnt matches in
the library fireplace, and one of the candles in the brass holders
was almost gone. I sat most of the day in that room, wondering what
would happen to me if I lost my mind. I knew that Maggie was
watching me, and I made one of those absurd hypotheses to myself that
we all do at times. If any of the family came, I would know that she
had sent for them, and that I was really deranged! It had been a
long day, with a steady summer rain that had not cooled the earth, but
only set it steaming. The air was like hot vapor, and my hair clung
to my moist forehead. At about four o'clock Maggie started chasing
a fly with a folded newspaper. She followed it about the lower floor
from room to room, making little harsh noises in her throat when she
missed it. The sound of the soft thud of the paper on walls and
furniture seemed suddenly more than I could bear.
"For heaven's sake!" I cried. "Stop that noise, Maggie." I felt as
though my eyes were starting from my head.
"It's a fly," she said doggedly, and aimed another blow at it. "If
I don't kill it, we'll have a million. There, it's on the mantel
now. I never - "
I felt that if she raised the paper club once more I should scream.
So I got up quickly and caught her wrist. She was so astonished
that she let the paper drop, and there we stood, staring at each
other. I can still see the way her mouth hung open.
"Don't!" I said. And my voice sounded thick even to my own ears.
"Maggie - I can't stand it!"
"My God, Miss Agnes!"
Her tone brought me up sharply. I released her arm.
"I - I'm just nervous, Maggie," I said, and sat down. I was
I was sane. I knew it then as I know it now. But I was not
rational. Perhaps to most of us come now and then times when they
realize that some act, or some thought, is not balanced, as though,
for a moment or an hour, the control was gone from the brain. Or
- and I think this was the feeling I had - that some other control
was in charge. Not the Agnes Blakiston I knew, but another Agnes
Blakiston, perhaps, was exerting a temporary dominance, a hectic,
craven, and hateful control.
That is the only outburst I recall. Possibly Maggie may have
others stored away. She has a tenacious memory. Certainly it was
my nearest approach to violence. But it had the effect of making
me set a watch on myself.
Possibly it was coincidence. Probably, however, Maggie had
communicated with Willie. But two days later young Martin Sprague,
Freda Sprague's son, stopped his car in the drive and came in. He
is a nerve specialist, and very good, although I can remember when
he came down in his night drawers to one of his mother's
"Thought I would just run in and see you, he said. "Mother told me
you were here. By George, Miss Agnes, you look younger than ever."
"Who told you to come, Martie?" I asked.
"Told me? I don't have to be told to visit an old friend."
Well, he asked himself to lunch, and looked over the house, and
decided to ask Miss Emily if she would sell an old Japanese cabinet
inlaid with mother of pearl that I would not have had as a gift.
And, in the end, I told him my trouble, of the fear that seemed to
center around the telephone, and the sleep-walking.
He listened carefully.
"Ever get any bad news over the telephone?" he asked.
One way and another, I said I had had plenty of it. He went over
me thoroughly, and was inclined to find my experience with the
flour rather amusing than otherwise. "It's rather good, that,"
he said. "Setting a trap to catch yourself. You'd better have
Maggie sleep in your room for a while. Well, it's all pretty
plain, Miss Agnes. We bury some things as deep as possible,
especially if we don't want to remember that they ever happened.
But the mind's a queer thing. It holds on pretty hard, and burying
is not destroying. Then we get tired or nervous - maybe just
holding the thing down and pretending it is not there makes us
nervous - and up it pops, like the ghost of a buried body, and
raises hell. You don't mind that, do you?" he added anxiously.
"It's exactly what those things do
"But," I demanded irritably, "who rings the telephone at night?
I daresay you don't contend that I go out at night and call the
house, and then come back and answer the call, do you?"
He looked at me with a maddening smile.
"Are you sure it really rings?" he asked.
And so bad was my nervous condition by that time, so undermined was
my self-confidence, that I was not certain! And this in face of
the fact that it invariably roused Maggie as well as myself.
On the eleventh of August Miss Emily came to tea. The date does
not matter, but by following the chronology of my journal I find I
can keep my narrative in proper sequence.
I had felt better that day. So far as I could determine, I had not
walked in my sleep again, and there was about Maggie an air of
cheerfulness and relief which showed that my condition was more
nearly normal than it had been for some time. The fear of the
telephone and of the back hall was leaving me, too. Perhaps Martin
Sprague's matter-of-fact explanation had helped me. But my own
theory had always been the one I recorded at the beginning of this
narrative - that I caught and - well, registered is a good word -
that I registered an overwhelming fear from some unknown source.
I spied Miss Emily as she got out of the hack that day, a cool
little figure clad in a thin black silk dress, with the sheerest
possible white collars and cuffs. Her small bonnet with its crepe
veil was faced with white, and her carefully crimped gray hair
showed a wavy border beneath it. Mr. Staley, the station hackman,
helped her out of the surrey, and handed her the knitting-bag
without which she was seldom seen. It was two weeks since she had
been there, and she came slowly up the walk, looking from side to
side at the perennial borders, then in full August bloom.
She smiled when she saw me in the doorway, and said, with the little
anxious pucker between her eyes that was so childish, "Don't you
think peonies are better cut down at this time of year?" She took a
folded handkerchief from her bag and dabbed at her face, where there
was no sign of dust to mar its old freshness. "It gives the lilies
a better chance, my dear."
I led her into the house, and she produced a gay bit of knitting, a
baby afghan, by the signs. She smiled at me over it.
"I am always one baby behind," she explained and fell to work
rapidly. She had lovely hands, and I suspected them of being her one
Maggie was serving tea with her usual grudging reluctance, and I
noticed then that when she was in the room Miss Emily said little
or nothing. I thought it probable that she did not approve of
conversing before servants, and would have let it go at that, had
I not, as I held out Miss Emily's cup, caught her looking at Maggie.
I had a swift impression of antagonism again, of alertness and
something more. When Maggie went out, Miss Emily turned to me.
"She is very capable, I fancy."
"Very. Entirely too capable."
"She looks sharp," said Miss Emily. It was a long time since I had
heard the word so used, but it was very apt. Maggie was indeed sharp.
But Miss Emily launched into a general dissertation on servants, and
Maggie's sharpness was forgotten.
It was, I think, when she was about to go that I asked her about
"Telephone?" she inquired. "Why, no. It has always done very well.
Of course, after a heavy snow in the winter, sometimes - "
She had a fashion of leaving her sentences unfinished. They trailed
off, without any abrupt break.
"It rings at night."
"I am called frequently and when I get to the phone, there is no
Some of my irritation doubtless got into my voice, for Miss Emily
suddenly drew away and stared at me.
"But - that is very strange. I - "
She had gone pale. I saw that now. And quite suddenly she dropped
her knitting-bag. When I restored it to her, she was very calm and
poised, but her color had not come back.
"It has always been very satisfactory," she said. "I don't know
that it ever - "
She considered, and began again. "Why not just ignore it? If some
one is playing a malicious trick on you, the only thing is to
Her hands were shaking, although her voice was quiet. I saw that
when she tried to tie the ribbons of the bag. And - I wondered at
this, in so gentle a soul - there was a hint of anger in her tones.
There was an edge to her voice.
That she could be angry was a surprise. And I found that she could
also be obstinate. For we came to an impasse over the telephone in
the next few minutes, and over something so absurd that I was
non-plussed. It was over her unqualified refusal to allow me to
install a branch wire to my bedroom.
"But," I expostulated, "when one thinks of the convenience, and - "
"I am sorry." Her voice had a note of finality. "I daresay I am
old-fashioned, but - I do not like changes. I shall have to ask you
not to interfere with the telephone."
I could hardly credit my senses. Her tone was one of reproof, plus
decision. It convicted me of an indiscretion. If I had asked to
take the roof off and replace it with silk umbrellas, it might have
been justified. But to a request to move the telephone!
"Of course, if you feel that way about it," I said, "I shall not
I dropped the subject, a trifle ruffled, I confess, and went
upstairs to fetch a box in which Miss Emily was to carry away some
flowers from the garden.
It was when I was coming down the staircase that I saw Maggie. She
had carried the hall candlesticks, newly polished, to their places
on the table, and was standing, a hand on each one, staring into
the old Washington mirror in front of her. From where she was she
must have had a full view of Miss Emily in the library. And Maggie
was bristling. It was the only word for it.
She was still there when Miss Emily had gone, blowing on the mirror
and polishing it. And I took her to task for her unfriendly
attitude to the little old lady.
"You practically threw her muffins at her," I said. "And I must
speak again about the cups - "
"What does she come snooping around for, anyhow?" she broke in.
"Aren't we paying for her house? Didn't she get down on her bended
knees and beg us to take it?"
"Is that any reason why we should be uncivil?"
"What I want to know is this," Maggie said truculently. "What right
has she to come back, and spy on us? For that's what she's doing,
Miss Agnes. Do you know what she was at when I looked in at her?
She was running a finger along the baseboard to see if it was clean!
And what's more, I caught her at it once before, in the back hall,
when she was pretending to telephone for the station hack."
It was that day, I think, that I put fresh candles in all the
holders downstairs. I had made a resolution like this, - to renew
the candles, and to lock myself in my room and throw the key over
the transom to Maggie. If, in the mornings that followed, the
candles had been used, it would prove that Martin Sprague was wrong,
that even foot-prints could lie, and that some one was investigating
the lower floor at night. For while my reason told me that I had
been the intruder, my intuition continued to insist that my
sleepwalking was a result, not a cause. In a word, I had gone
downstairs, because I knew that there had been and might be again,
a night visitor.
Yet, there was something of comedy in that night's precautions,
At ten-thirty I was undressed, and Maggie had, with rebellion in
every line of her, locked me in. I could hear her, afterwards
running along the hall to her own room and slamming the door.
Then, a moment later, the telephone rang.
It was too early, I reasoned, for the night calls. It might be
anything, a telegram at the station, Willie's boy run over by an
automobile, Gertrude's children ill. A dozen possibilities ran
through my mind.
And Maggie would not let me out!
"You're not going downstairs," she called, from a safe distance.
"Maggie!" I cried, sharply. And banged at the door. The
telephone was ringing steadily. "Come here at once."
"Miss Agnes," she beseeched, "you go to bed and don't listen.
There'll be nothing there, for all your trouble," she said, in a
quavering voice. "It's nothing human that rings that bell."
Finally, however, she freed me, and I went down the stairs. I had
carried down a lamp, and my nerves were vibrating to the rhythm of
the bell's shrill summons. But, strangely enough, the fear had
left me. I find, as always, that it is difficult to put into words.
I did not relish the excursion to the lower floor. I resented the
jarring sound of the bell. But the terror was gone.
I went back to the telephone. Something that was living and moving
was there. I saw its eyes, lower than mine, reflecting the lamp
like twin lights. I was frightened, but still it was not the fear.
The twin lights leaped forward - and proved to be the eyes of Miss
Emily's cat, which had been sleeping on the stand!
I answered the telephone. To my surprise it was Miss Emily herself,
a quiet and very dignified voice which apologized for disturbing me
at that hour, and went on:
"I feel that I was very abrupt this afternoon, Miss Blakiston. My
excuse is that I have always feared change. I have lived in a rut
too long, I'm afraid. But of course, if you feel you would like to
move the telephone, or put in an upstairs instrument, you may do
as you like."
She seemed, having got me there, unwilling to ring off. I got a
curious effect of reluctance over the telephone, and there was one
phrase that she repeated several times.
"I do not want to influence you. I want you to do just what you
The fear was entirely gone by the time she rang off. I felt,
instead, a sort of relaxation that was most comforting. The rear
hall, a cul-de-sac of nervousness in the daytime and of horror at
night, was suddenly transformed by the light of my lamp into a warm
and cheerful refuge from the darkness of the lower floor. The
purring of the cat, comfortably settled on the telephone-stand, was
as cheering as the singing of a kettle on a stove. On the rack
near me my garden hat and an old Paisley shawl made a grotesque
I sat back in the low wicker chair and surveyed the hallway. Why
not, I considered, do away now with the fear of it? If I could
conquer it like this at midnight, I need never succumb again to it
in the light.
The cat leaped to the stand beside me and stood there, waiting. He
was an intelligent animal, and I am like a good many spinsters. I
am not more fond of cats than other people, but I understand them
better. And it seemed to me that he and I were going through some
familiar program, of which a part had been neglected. The cat
neither sat nor lay, but stood there, waiting.
So at last I fetched the shawl from the rack and made him a bed on
the stand. It was what he had been waiting for. I saw that at
once. He walked onto it, turned around once, lay down, and closed
I took up my vigil. I had been the victim of a fear I was
determined to conquer. The house was quiet. Maggie had retired
shriveled to bed. The cat slept on the shawl.
And then - I felt the fear returning. It welled up through my
tranquillity like a flood, and swept me with it. I wanted to shriek.
I was afraid to shriek. I longed to escape. I dared not move.
There had been no sound, no motion. Things were as they had been.
It may have been one minute or five that I sat there. I do not
know. I only know that I sat with fixed eyes, not even blinking,
for fear of even for a second shutting out the sane and visible
world about me. A sense of deadness commenced in my hands and
worked up my arms. My chest seemed flattened.
Then the telephone bell rang.
The cat leaped to his feet. Somehow I reached forward and took
down the receiver.
"Who is it?" I cried, in a voice that was thin, I knew, and
The telephone is not a perfect medium. It loses much that we wish
to register but, also, it registers much that we may wish to lose.
Therefore when I say that I distinctly heard a gasp, fo1lowed by
heavy difficult breathing, over the telephone, I must beg for
credence. It is true. Some one at the other end of the line was
struggling for breath.
Then there was complete silence. I realized, after a moment, that
the circuit had been stealthily cut, and that my conviction was
verified by Central's demand, a moment later, of what number I
wanted. I was, at first, unable to answer her. When I did speak,
my voice was shaken.
"What number, please?" she repeated, in a bored tone. There is
nothing in all the world so bored as the voice of a small town
"You called," I said.
"Beg y'pardon. Must have been a mistake," she replied glibly,
and cut me off.
It may be said, and with truth, that so far I have recorded little
but subjective terror, possibly easily explained by my occupancy of
an isolated house, plus a few unimportant incidents, capable of
various interpretations. But the fear was, and is today as I look
back, a real thing. As real - and as difficult to describe - as a
chill, for instance. A severe mental chill it was, indeed.
I went upstairs finally to a restless night, and rose early, after
only an hour or so of sleep. One thing I was determined on - to find
out, if possible, the connection between the terror and the telephone.
I breakfasted early, and was dressing to go to the village when I had
a visitor, no other than Miss Emily herself. She looked fluttered
and perturbed at the unceremonious hour of her visit - she was the
soul of convention - and explained, between breaths as it were, that
she had come to apologize for the day before. She had hardly slept.
I must forgive her. She had been very nervous since her brother's
death, and small things upset her.
How much of what I say of Miss Emily depends on my later knowledge,
I wonder? Did I notice then that she was watching me furtively, or
is it only on looking back that I recall it? I do recall it - the
hall door open and a vista of smiling garden beyond, and silhouetted
against the sunshine, Miss Emily's frail figure and searching,
slightly uplifted face. There was something in her eyes that I had
not seen before - a sort of exaltation. She was not, that morning,
the Miss Emily who ran a finger along her baseboards to see if we
She had walked out, and it had exhausted her. She breathed in
"I think," she said at last, "that I must telephone for Mr. Staley,
I am never very strong in hot weather."
"Please let me call him, for you, Miss Emily." I am not a young
woman, and she was at least sixty-five. But, because she was so
small and frail, I felt almost a motherly anxiety for her that
"I think I should like to do it, if you don't mind. We are old
friends. He always comes promptly when I call him."
She went back alone, and I waited in the doorway. When she came
out, she was smiling, and there was more color in her face.
"He is coming at once. He is always very thoughtful for me."
Now, without any warning, something that had been seething since
her breathless arrival took shape in my mind, and became - suspicion.
What if it had been Miss Emily who had called me the second time to
the telephone, and having established the connection, had waited,
breathing hard for - what?
It was fantastic, incredible in the light of that brilliant summer
day. I looked at her, dainty and exquisite as ever, her ruchings
fresh and white, her very face indicative of decorum and order,
her wistful old mouth still rather like a child's, her eyes, always
slightly upturned because of her diminutive height, so that she had
habitually a look of adoration.
"One of earth's saints," the rector had said to me on Sunday morning.
"A good woman, Miss Blakiston, and a sacrifice to an unworthy family."
Suspicion is like the rain. It falls on the just and on the unjust.
And that morning I began to suspect Miss Emily. I had no idea of
On my mentioning an errand in the village she promptly offered to
take me with her in the Staley hack. She had completely altered in
manner. The strain was gone. In her soft low voice, as we made our
way to the road, she told me the stories of some of the garden
"The climbing rose over the arch, my dear," she said, "my mother
brought from England on her wedding journey. People have taken
cuttings from it again and again, but the cuttings never thrive. A
bad winter, and they are gone. But this one has lived. Of course
now and then it freezes down."
She chattered on, and my suspicions grew more and more shadowy.
They would have gone, I think, had not Maggie called me back with
a grocery list.
"A sack of flour," she said, "and some green vegetables, and - Miss
Agnes, that woman was down on her knees beside the telephone! - and
bluing for the laundry, and I guess that's all."
The telephone! It was always the telephone. We drove on down the
lane, eyed somnolently by spotted cows and incurious sheep, and all
the way Miss Emily talked. She was almost garrulous. She asked the
hackman about his family and stopped the vehicle to pick up a peddler,
overburdened with his pack. I watched her with amazement. Evidently
this was Mr. Staley's Miss Emily. But it was not mine.
But I saw mine, too, that morning. It was when I asked the hackman
to put me down at the little telephone building. I thought she put
her hand to her throat, although the next moment she was only
adjusting the ruching at her neck.
"You - you have decided to have the second telephone put in, then?"
I hesitated. She so obviously did not want it installed. And was
I to submit meekly to the fear again, without another effort to
"I think not, dear Miss Emily," I said at last, smiling at her drawn
face. "Why should I disturb your lovely old house and its
"But I want you to do just what you think best," she protested. She
had put her hands together. It was almost a supplication.
As to the strange night calls, there was little to be learned. The
night operator was in bed. The manager made a note of my complaint,
and promised an investigation, which, having had experience with
telephone investigations, I felt would lead nowhere. I left the
building, with my grocery list in my hand.
The hack was gone, of course. But - I may have imagined it - I
thought I saw Miss Emily peering at me from behind the bonnets and
hats in the milliner's window.
I did not investigate. The thing was enough on my nerves as it was.
Maggie served me my luncheon in a sort of strained silence. She
observed once, as she brought me my tea, that she was giving me
notice and intended leaving on the afternoon train. She had, she
stated, holding out the sugar-bowl to me at arm's length, stood a
great deal in the way of irregular hours from me, seeing as I
would read myself to sleep, and let the light burn all night,
although very fussy about the gas-bills. But she had reached the
end of her tether, and you could grate a lemon on her most
anywhere, she was that covered with goose-flesh.
"Goose-flesh about what?" I demanded. "And either throw the sugar
to me or come closer."
"I don't know about what," she said sullenly. "I'm just scared."
And for once Maggie and I were in complete harmony. I, too, was
We were, however, both of us much nearer a solution of our
troubles than we had any idea of. I say solution, although it but
substituted one mystery for another. It gave tangibility to the
intangible, indeed, but I can not see that our situation was any
better. I, for one, found myself in the position of having a
problem to solve, and no formula to solve it with.
The afternoon was quiet. Maggie and the cook were in the throes
of jelly-making, and I had picked up a narrative history of the
county, written most pedantically, although with here and there a
touch of heavy lightness, by Miss Emily's father, the Reverend
Samuel Thaddeus Benton.
On the fly-leaf she had inscribed, "Written by my dear father during
the last year of his life, and published after his death by the
parish to which he had given so much of his noble life."
The book left me cold, but the inscription warmed me. Whatever
feeling I might have had about Miss Emily died of that inscription.
A devoted and self-sacrificing daughter, a woman both loving and
beloved, that was the Miss Emily of the dedication to "Fifty years
n Bolivar County."
In the middle of the afternoon Maggie appeared, with a saucer and
a teaspoon. In the saucer she had poured a little of the jelly to
test it, and she was blowing on it when she entered. I put down
"Well!" I said. "Don't tell me you're not dressed yet. You've
just got about time for the afternoon train."
She gave me an imploring glance over the saucer.
"You might just take a look at this, Miss Agnes," she said. "It
jells around the edges, but in the middle - "
"I'll send your trunk tomorrow," I said, "and you'd better let
Delia make the jelly alone. You haven't much time, and she says
she makes good jelly."
She raised anguished eyes to mine.
"Miss Agnes," she said, "that woman's never made a glass of jelly
in her life before. She didn't even know about putting a silver
spoon in the tumblers to keep 'em from breaking."
I picked up "Bolivar County" and opened it, but I could see that
the hands holding the saucer were shaking.
"I'm not going, Miss Agnes," said Maggie. (I had, of course, known
she would not. The surprising thing to me is that she never learns
this fact, although she gives me notice quite regularly. She always
thinks that she is really going, until the last.) "Of course you
can let that woman make the jelly, if you want. It's your fruit
and sugar. But I'm not going to desert you in your hour of need."
"What do I need?" I demanded. "Jelly?"
But she was past sarcasm. She placed the saucer on a table and
rolled her stained hands in her apron.
"That woman," she said, "what was she doing under the telephone
She almost immediately burst into tears, and it was some time
before I caught what she feared. For she was more concrete than I.
And she knew now what she was afraid of. It was either a bomb or
"Mark my words, Miss Agnes," she said, "she's going to destroy the
place. What made her set out and rent it for almost nothing if she
isn't? And I know who rings the telephone at night. It's her."
What on earth for?" I demanded as ungrammatical and hardly less
uneasy than Maggie.
"She wakes us up, so we can get out in time. She's a preacher's
daughter. More than likely she draws the line at bloodshed. That's
one reason. Maybe there's another. What if by pressing a button
somewhere and ringing that bell, it sets off a bomb somewhere?"
"It never has," I observed dryly.
But however absurd Maggie's logic might be, she was firm in her
major premise. Miss Emily had been on her hands and knees by the
telephone-stand, and had, on seeing Maggie, observed that she had
dropped the money for the hackman out of her glove.
"Which I don't believe. Her gloves were on the stand. If you'll
come back, Miss Agnes, I'll show you how she was."
We made rather an absurd procession, Maggie leading with the saucer,
I following, and the cat, appearing from nowhere as usual, bringing
up the rear. Maggie placed the jelly on the stand, and dropped on
her hands and knees, crawling under the stand, a confused huddle of
gingham apron, jelly-stains, and suspicion.
"She had her head down like this," she said, in rather a smothered
voice. "I'm her, and you're me. And I says: 'If it's rolled off
somewhere I'll find it next time I sweep, and give it back to you.'
Well, what d'you think of that! Here it is!"
My attention had by this time been caught by the jelly, now
unmistakably solidifying in the center. I moved to the kitchen door
to tell Delia to take it off the fire. When I returned, Maggie was
digging under the telephone battery-box with a hair-pin and muttering
"Darnation!" she said, "it's gone under!"
"If you do get it," I reminded her, "it belongs to Miss Emily."
There is a curious strain of cupidity in Maggie. I have never been
able to understand it. With her own money she is as free as air.
But let her see a chance for illegitimate gain, of finding a penny
on the street, of not paying her fare on the cars, of passing a bad
quarter, and she is filled with an unholy joy. And so today. The
jelly was forgotten. Terror was gone. All that existed for Maggie
was a twenty-five~cent piece under a battery-box.
Suddenly she wailed: "It's gone, Miss Agnes. It's clear under!"
"Good heavens, Maggie! What difference does it make?"
"W'you mind if I got the ice-pick and unscrewed the box?"
My menage is always notoriously short of tools.
I forbade it at once, and ordered her back to the kitchen, and after
a final squint along the carpet, head fiat, she dragged herself out
and to her feet.
"I'll get the jelly off," she said, "and then maybe a hat pin'll
reach it. I can see the edge of it."
A loud crack from the kitchen announced that cook had forgotten the
silver spoon, and took Maggie off on a jump. I went back to the
library and "Bolivar County," and, I must confess, to a nap in my
I was roused by the feeling that some one was staring at me. My
eyes focused first on the icepick, then, as I slowly raised them,
on Maggie's face, set in hard and uncompromising lines.
"I'd thank you to come with me," she said stiffly.
"To the telephone.
I groaned inwardly. But, because submission to Maggie's tyranny
has become a firm habit with me, I rose. I saw then that she held
a dingy quarter in one hand.
Without a word she turned and stalked ahead of me into the hall.
It is curious, looking back and remembering that she had then no
knowledge of the significance of things, to remember how hard and
inexorable her back was. Viewed through the light of what followed,
I have never. been able to visualize Maggie moving down the hall.
It has always been a menacing figure, rather shadowy than real. And
the hail itself takes on grotesque proportions, becomes inordinately
long, an infinity of hall, fading away into time and distance.
Yet it was only a moment, of course, until I stood by the telephone.
Maggie had been at work. The wooden box which covered the
battery-jars had been removed, and lay on its side. The battery-jars
were uncovered, giving an effect of mystery unveiled, a sort of
shamelessness, of destroyed illusion.
Maggie pointed. "There's a paper under one of the jars," she said.
"I haven't touched it, but I know well enough what it is."
I have not questioned Maggie on this point, but I am convinced that
she expected to find a sort of final summons, of death's
visiting-card, for one or the other of us.
The paper was there, a small folded scrap, partially concealed under
"Them prints was there, too," Maggie said, non-committally.
The box had accumulated the flucculent floating particles of months,
possibly years - lint from the hail carpet giving it a reddish tinge.
And in this light and evanescent deposit, fluttered by a breath,
fingers had moved, searched, I am tempted to say groped, although
the word seems absurd for anything so small. The imprint of Maggie's
coin and of her attempts at salvage were at the edge and quite
distinct from the others.
I lifted the jar and picked up the paper. It was folded and refolded
until it was not much larger than a thumb-nail, a rather stiff paper
crossed with faint blue lines. I am not sure that I would have
opened it - it had been so plainly in hiding, and was so obviously
not my affair - had not Maggie suddenly gasped and implored me not
to look at it. I immediately determined to examine it.
Yet, after I had read it twice, it had hardly made an impression on
my mind. There are some things so incredible that the brain
automatically rejects them. I looked at the paper. I read it with
my eyes. But I did not grasp it.
It was not note paper. It was apparently torn from a tablet of
glazed and ruled paper - just such paper, for instance, as Maggie
soaks in brandy and places on top of her jelly before tying it up.
It had been raggedly torn. The scrap was the full width of the
sheet, but only three inches or so deep. It was undated, and this
is what it said:
"To Whom it may concern: On the 30th day of May, 1911, I killed a
woman (here) in this house. I hope you will not find this until
I am dead.
(Signed) EMILY BENTON."
Maggie had read the confession over my shoulder, and I felt her body
grow rigid. As for myself, my first sensation was one of acute
discomfort - that we should have exposed the confession to the light
of day. Neither of us, I am sure, had really grasped it. Maggie
put a trembling hand on my arm.
"The brass of her," she said, in a thin, terrified voice. "And
sitting in church like the rest of us. Oh, my God, Miss Agnes, put
I whirled on her, in a fury that was only an outlet for my own shock.
"Once for all, Maggie," I said, "I'll ask you to wait until you are
spoken to. And if I hear that you have so much as mentioned this
- piece of paper, out you go and never come back."
But she was beyond apprehension. She was literal, too. She saw,
not Miss Emily unbelievably associated with a crime, but the crime
itself. "Who d'you suppose it was, Miss Agnes?"
"I don't believe it at all. some one has placed it there to hurt
"It's her writing," said Maggie doggedly.
After a time I got rid of her, and sat down to think in the library.
Rather I sat down to reason with myself.
For every atom of my brain was clamoring that this thing was true,
that my little Miss Emily, exquisite and fine as she was, had done
the thing she claimed to have done. It was her. own writing, thin,
faintly shaded, as neat and as erect as herself. But even that I
would not accept, until I had compared it with such bits of hers as
I possessed, the note begging me to take the house, the inscription
on the fly-leaf of "Fifty Years in Bolivar County."
And here was something I could not quite understand. The writing
was all of the same order, but while the confession and the
inscription in the book were similar, letter for letter, in the
note to me there were differences, a change in the "t" in Benton,
a fuller and blacker stroke, a variation in the terminals of the
letters - it is hard to particularize.
I spent the remainder of the day in the library, going out for
dinner, of course, but returning to my refuge again immediately
after. Only in the library am I safe from Maggie. By virtue of
her responsibility for my wardrobe, she virtually shares my bedroom,
but her respect for books she never reads makes her regard a
library as at least semi-holy ground. She dusts books with more
caution than china, and her respect for a family Bible is greater
than her respect for me.
I spent the evening there, Miss Emily's cat on the divan, and the
mysterious confession lying before me under the lamp. At night
the variation between it and her note to me concerning the house
seemed more pronounced. The note looked more like a clumsy
imitation of Miss Emily's own hand. Or - perhaps this is nearer
- as if, after writing in a certain way for sixty years, she had
tried to change her style.
All my logic ended in one conclusion. She must have known the
confession was there. Therefore the chances were that she had
placed it there. But it was not so simple as that.
Both crime and confession indicated a degree of impulse that Miss
Emily did not possess. I have entirely failed with my picture of
Miss Emily if the word violence can be associated with her in any
way. Miss Emily was a temple, clean swept, cold, and empty. She
never acted on impulse. Every action, almost every word, seemed
the result of thought and deliberation.
Yet, if I could believe m.y eyes, five years before she had killed
a woman in this very house. Possibly in the very room in which I
was then sitting.
I find, on looking back, that the terror must have left me that day.
It had, for so many weeks, been so much a part of my daily life that
I would have missed it had it not been for this new and engrossing
interest. I remember that the long French windows of the library
reflected the room like mirrors against the darkness outside, and
that once I thought I saw a shadowy movement in one of them, as
though a figure moved behind me. But when I turned sharply there
was no one there, and Maggie proved to be, as usual after nine
o'clock, shut away upstairs.
I was not terrified. And indeed the fear never returned. In all
the course of my investigations, I was never again a victim of the
unreasoning fright of those earlier days.
My difficulty was that I was asked to believe the unbelievable. It
was impossible to reconstruct in that quiet house a scene of
violence. It was equally impossible, in view, for instance, of
that calm and filial inscription in the history of Bolivar County,
to connect Miss Emily with it. She had killed a woman, forsooth!
Miss Emily, of the baby afghans, of the weary peddler, of that quiet
seat in the church.
Yet I knew now that Miss Emily knew of the confession; knew, at
least, of something concealed in that corner of the rear hall which
housed the telephone. Had she by chance an enemy who would have
done this thing? But to suspect Miss Emily of an enemy was as
absurd as to suspect her of a crime.
I was completely at a loss when I put out the lights and prepared
to close the house. As I glanced back along the hall, I could not
help wondering if the telephone, having given up its secret, would
continue its nocturnal alarms. As I stood there, I heard the low
growl of thunder and the patter of rain against the windows. Partly
out of loneliness, partly out of bravado, I went back to the
telephone and tried to call Willie. But the line was out of order.
I slept badly. Shortly after I returned I heard a door slamming
repeatedly, which I knew meant an open window somewhere. I got up
and went into the hall. There was a cold air coming from somewhere
below. But as I stood there it ceased. The door above stopped
slamming, and silence reigned again.
Maggie roused me early. The morning sunlight was just creeping
into the room, and the air was still cool with the night and
fresh-washed by the storm.
"Miss Agnes," she demanded, standing over me, "did you let the cat
out last night?"
"I brought him in before I went to bed."
"Humph!" said Maggie. "And did I or did I not wash the doorstep
"You ought to know. You said you did."
"Miss Agnes," Maggie said, "that woman was in this house last night.
You can see her footprints as plain as day on the doorstep. And
what's more, she stole the cat and let out your mother's Paisley
Which statements, corrected, proved to be true. My old Paisley
shawl was gone from the hallrack, and unquestionably the cat had
been on the back doorstep that morning along with the milk bottles.
Moreover, one of my fresh candles had been lighted, but had burned
for only a moment or two.
That day I had a second visit from young Martin Sprague. The
telephone was in working order again, having unaccountably recovered,
and I was using it when he came. He watched me quizzically from a
position by the newelpost, as I rang off.
"I was calling Miss Emily Benton," I explained, "but she is ill."
"Still troubled with telephobia?"
"I have other things to worry me, Martin," I said gravely, and let
him into the library.
There I made a clean breast of everything I omitted nothing. The
fear, the strange ringing of the telephone bell; the gasping
breathing over it the night before; Miss Emily's visit to it. And,
at last, the discovery.
He took the paper when I offered it to him, and examined it carefully
by a window. Then he stood looking out and whistling reflectively.
At last he turned back to the room.
"It's an unusual story," he said. "But if you'll give me a little
time I'll explain it to you. In the first place, let go of the
material things for a moment, and let's deal with minds and emotions.
You're a sensitive person, Miss Agnes. You catch a lot of impressions
that pass most people by. And, first of all, you've been catching
fright from two sources."
"Two. Maggie is one. She hates the country. She is afraid of old
houses. And she sees in this house only the ghosts of people who
have died here."
"I pay no attention to Maggie's fears."
"You only think that. But to go further - you have been receiving
waves of apprehension from another source - from the little lady,
"Then you think - "
"Hold on," he said smiling. "I think she wrote that confession.
Yes. As a matter of fact, I'm quite sure she did. And she has
established a system of espionage on you by means of the telephone.
If you had discovered the confession, she knew that there would be
a change in your voice, in your manner. If you answered very
quickly, as though you had been near the instrument, perhaps in
the very act of discovering the paper - don't you get it? And
can't you see how her terror affected you even over the wire?
Don't you think that, if thought can travel untold distances, fear
can? Of course."
"But, Martin!" I exclaimed. "Little Miss Emily a murderess."
He threw up his hands.
"Certainly not," he said. "You're a shrewd woman, Miss Agnes. Do
you know that a certain type of woman frequently confesses to a
crime she never committed, or had any chance of committing? Look
at the police records - confessions of women as to crimes they could
only have heard of through the newspapers! I would like to wager
that if we had the newspapers of that date that came into this
house, we would find a particularly atrocious and mysterious murder
being featured - the murder of a woman."
"You do not know her," I maintained doggedly. And drew, as best I
could, a sketch of Miss Emily, while he listened attentively.
"A pure neurasthenic type," was his comment. "Older than usual, but
that is accountable by the sheltered life she has led. The little
Miss Emily is still at heart a girl. And a hysterical girl."
"She has had enough trouble to develop her."
"Trouble! Has she ever had a genuine emotion? Look at this house.
She nursed an old father in it, a bedridden mother, a paretic
brother, when she should have been having children. Don't you see
it, Miss Agnes? All her emotions have had to be mental. Failing
them outside, she provided them for herself. This - he tapped the
paper in his hand - "this is one."
I had heard of people confessing to crimes they had never committed,
and at the time Martin Sprague at least partly convinced me. He was
so sure of himself. And when, that afternoon, he telephoned me from
the city to say that he was mailing out some old newspapers, I knew
quite well what he had found.
"I've thought of something else, Miss Agnes," he said. "If you'll
look it up you will probably find that the little lady had had
either a shock sometime before that, or a long pull of nursing.
Something, anyhow, to set her nervous system to going in the wrong
Late that afternoon, as it happened, I was enabled to learn
something of this from a visiting neighbor, and once again I was
forced to acknowledge that he might be right.
The neighbors had not been over cordial. I had gathered, from the
first, the impression that the members of the Reverend Samuel
Thaddeus Benton's congregation did not fancy an interloper among
the sacred relics of the historian of Bolivar County. And I had
a corroboration of that impression from my visitor of that afternoon,
a Mrs. Graves.
"I've been slow in coming, Miss Blakiston," she said, seating herself
primly. "I don't suppose you can understand, but this has always been
the Benton place, and it seems strange to us to see new faces here."
I replied, with some asperity, that I had not been anxious to take
the house, but that Miss Emily had been so insistent that I had
finally done so.
It seemed to me that she flashed a quick glance at me.
"She is quite the most loved person in the valley," she said. "And
she loves the place. It is - I cannot imagine why she rented the
house. She is far from comfortable where she is."
After a time I gathered that she suspected financial stringency as
the cause, and I tried to set her mind at rest.
"It cannot be money," I said. "The rent is absurdly low. The agent
wished her to ask more, but she refused."
She sat silent for a time, pulling at the fingers of her white silk
gloves. And when she spoke again it was of the garden. But before
she left she returned to Miss Emily.
"She has had a hard life, in a way," she said. "It is only five
years since she buried her brother, and her father not long before
that. She has broken a great deal since then. Not that the
brother - "
"I understand he was a great care."
Mrs. Graves looked about the room, its shelves piled high with the
ecclesiastical library of the late clergyman.
"It was not only that," she said. "When he was - all right, he was
an atheist. Imagine, in this house! He had the most terrible
books, Miss Blakiston. And, of course, when a man believes there
is no hereafter, he is apt to lead a wicked life. There is nothing
to hold him back."
Her mind was on Miss Emily and her problems. She moved abstractedly
toward the door.
"In this very hall," she said, "I helped Miss Emily to pack all his
books into a box, and we sent for Mr. Staley - the hackman at the
station, you know - and he dumped the whole thing into the river.
We went away with him, and how she cheered up when it was done!"
Martin Sprague's newspapers arrived the next morning. They bore a
date of two days before the date of the confession, and contained,
rather triumphantly outlined in blue pencil, full details of the
murder of a young woman by some unknown assassin. It had been a
grisly crime, and the paper was filled with details of a most
Had I been asked, I would have said that Miss Emily's clear, slightly
upturned eyes had never glanced beyond the merest headlines of such
journalistic reports. But in a letter Martin Sprague set forth a
precisely opposite view.
"You will probably find," he wrote, "that the little lady is pretty
well fed up on such stuff. The calmer and more placid the daily
life, the more apt is the secret inner one, in such a circumscribed
existence, to be a thriller! You might look over the books in the
house. There is a historic case where a young girl swore she had
tossed her little brother to a den of lions (although there were no
lions near, and little brother was subsequently found asleep in the
attic) after reading Fox's Book of Martyrs. Probably the old
gentleman has this joke book in his library."
I put down his letter and glanced around the room. Was he right,
after all? Did women, rational, truthful, devout women, ever act
in this strange manner? And if it was true, was it not in its own
way as mysterious as everything else?
I was, for a time that day, strongly influenced by Martin Sprague's
conviction. It was, for one thing, easier to believe than that
Emily Benton had committed a crime. And, as if to lend color to
his assertion, the sunlight, falling onto the dreary bookshelves,
picked out and illuminated dull gilt letters on the brown back of
a volume. It was Fox's Book of Martyrs!
If I may analyze my sensations at that time, they divided themselves
into three parts. The first was fear. That seems to have given
away to curiosity, and that at a later period, to an intense anxiety.
Of the three, I have no excuse for the second, save the one I gave
myself at the time - that Miss Emily could not possibly have done the
thing she claimed to have done, and that I must prove her innocence
With regard to Martin Sprague's theory, I was divided. I wanted
him to be right. I wanted him to be wrong. No picture I could
visualize of little old Miss Emily conceivably fitted the type he
had drawn. On the other hand, nothing about her could possibly
confirm the confession as an actual one.
The scrap of paper became, for the time, my universe. Did I close
my eyes, I saw it side by side with the inscription in "Fifty years
of my Bolivar County.," and letter for letter, in the same hand.
Did the sun shine, I had it in the light, examining it, reading it.
To such a point did it obsess me that I refused to allow Maggie to
use a tablet of glazed paper she had found in the kitchen table
drawer to tie up the jelly-glasses. It seemed, somehow, horrible
At that time I had no thought of going back five years and trying
to trace the accuracy or falsehood of the confession. I should not
have known how to go about it. Had such a crime been committed,
how to discover it at this late day? Whom in all her sheltered
life, could Miss Emily have murdered? In her small world, who could
have fallen out and left no sign?
It was impossible, and I knew it. And yet -
Miss Emily was ill. The news came through the grocery boy, who
came out every day on a bicycle, and teased the cat and carried
away all the pears as fast as they ripened. Maggie brought me the
information at luncheon.
"She's sick," she said.
There was only one person in both our minds those days.
"Do you mean really ill, or only - "
"The boy says she's breaking up. If you ask me, she caught cold the
night she broke in here and took your Paisley shawl. And if you ask
my advice, Miss Agnes, you'll get it back again before the heirs
step in and claim it. They don't make them shawls nowadays, and
she's as like as not to will it to somebody if you don't go after
"Maggie," I said quietly, "how do you know she has that shawl?"
"How did I know that paper was in the telephone-box?" she countered.
And, indeed, by that time Maggie had convinced herself that she had
known all along there was something in the telephone battery-box.
"I've a sort of second sight, Miss Agnes," she added. And, with a
shrewdness I found later was partially correct: "She was snooping
around to see if you'd found that paper, and it came on to rain;
so she took the shawl. I should say, said Maggie, lowering her
voice, "that as like as not she's been in this house every night
since we came."
Late that afternoon I cut some of the roses from the arch for Miss
Emily, and wrapping them against the sun, carried them to the
village. At the last I hesitated. It was so much like prying. I
turned aside at the church intending to leave them there for the
altar. But I could find no one in the parish house, and no vessel
to hold them.
It was late afternoon. I opened a door and stepped into the old
church. I knelt for a moment, and then sat back and surveyed the
quiet building. It occurred to me that here one could obtain a
real conception of the Benton family, and of Miss Emily. The
church had been the realest thing in their lives. It had dominated
them, obsessed them. When the Reverend Samuel Thaddeus died, they
had built him, not a monument, but a parish house. When Carlo
Benton died (however did such an ungodly name come to belong to a
Benton?) Miss Emily according to the story, had done without fresh
mourning and built him a window.
I looked at the window. It was extremely ugly, and very devout.
And under it was the dead man's name and two dates, 1860 and 1911.
So Carlo Benton had died the year Miss Emily claimed to have done
a murder! Another proof, I reflected that Martin Sprague would
say. He had been on her hands for a long time, both well and ill.
Small wonder if little Miss Emily had fallen to imagining things,
or to confessing them.
I looked at the memorial window once more, and I could almost
visualize her gathering up the dead man's hateful books, and getting
them as quickly as possible out of the house. Quite possibly there
were unmentionable volumes among them - de Maupassant, perhaps
Boccaccio. I had a distinct picture, too, of Mrs. Graves, lips
primly set, assisting her with hands that fairly itched with the
righteousness of her actions.
I still held the roses, and as I left the church I decided to lay
them on some grave in the churchyard. I thought it quite likely
that roses from the same arch had been frequently used for that
purpose. Some very young grave, I said to myself, and found one
soon enough, a bit of a rectangle of fresh earth, and a jarful of
pansies on it. It lay in the shadow of the Benton mausoleum.
That was how I found that Carlo Benton had died on the 27th of May,
I cannot claim that the fact at the time had any significance for
me, or that I saw in it anything more than another verification of
Martin Sprague's solution. But it enabled me to reconstruct the
Benton household at the date that had grown so significant. The
30th would have probably been the day after the funeral. Perhaps
the nurse was still there. He had had a nurse for months, according
to Mrs. Graves. And there would have been the airing that follows
long illness and death, the opened windows, the packing up or
giving away of clothing, the pauses and silences, the sense of
strangeness and quiet, the lowered voices. And there would have
been, too, that remorseless packing for destruction of the dead
And some time, during that day or the night that followed, little
Miss Emily claimed to have committed her crime.
I went home thoughtfully. At the gate I turned and looked back.
The Benton Mausoleum was warm in the sunset, and the rose sprays lay,
like outstretched arms, across the tiny grave.
Maggie is amazingly efficient. I am efficient myself, I trust, but
I modify it with intelligence. It is not to me a vital matter, for
instance, if three dozen glasses of jelly sit on a kitchen table a
day or two after they are prepared for retirement to the fruit
cellar. I rather like to see them, marshaled in their neat rows,
capped with sealing wax and paper, and armed with labels. But
Maggie has neither sentiment nor imagination. Jelly to her is an
institution, not an inspiration. It is subject to certain rules and
rites, of which not the least is the formal interment in the fruit
Therefore, after much protesting that night, I agreed to visit the
fruit cellar, and select a spot for the temporary entombing of
thirty-six jelly tumblers, which would have been thirty-seven had
Delia known the efficacy of a silver spoon. I can recall vividly
the mental shift from the confession to that domestic excursion, my
own impatience, Maggie's grim determination, and the curious
denouement of that visit.
I had the very slightest acquaintance with the basement of the
Benton house. I knew it was dry and orderly, and with that my
interest: in it ceased. It was not cemented, but its hard clay
floor was almost as solid as macadam. In one end was built a high
potato-bin. In another corner two or three old pews from the church,
evidently long discarded and showing weather-stains, as though they
had once served as garden benches, were up-ended against the
whitewashed wall. The fruit-closet, built in of lumber, occupied
one entire end, and was virtually a room, with a door and no windows.
Maggie had, she said, found it locked and had had an itinerant
locksmith fit a key to it.
"It's all scrubbed and ready," she said. "I found that preserved
melon-rind you had for lunch in a corner. 'Twouldn't of kept much
longer, so I took it up and opened it. She's probably got all
sorts of stuff spoiling in the locked part. Some folks're like
Most of the shelves were open, but now, holding the lamp high, I
saw that a closet with a door occupied one end. The door was
padlocked. At the time I was interested, but I was, as I remember,
much more occupied with Maggie's sense of meum and tuum, which I
considered deficient, and of a small lecture on other people's
melon rinds, which I delivered as she sullenly put away the jelly.
But that night, after I had gone to bed, the memory of that
padlock became strangely insistent. There was nothing psychic
about the feeling I had. It was perfectly obvious and simple.
The house held, or had held, a secret. Yet it was, above stairs,
as open as the day. There was no corner into which I might not
peer, except - Why was that portion of the fruit-closet locked?
At two o'clock, finding myself unable to sleep, I got up and put
on my dressing-gown and slippers. I had refused to repeat the
experiment of being locked in. Then, with a candle and a box of
matches, I went downstairs. I had, as I have said, no longer any
terror of the lower floor. The cat lay as usual on the table in
the back hall. I saw his eyes watching me with their curious
unblinking stare, as intelligent as two brass buttons. He rose
as my light approached, and I made a bed for him of a cushion from
a chair, failing my Paisley shawl.
It was after that that I had the curious sense of being led. It
was as though I knew that something awaited my discovery, and that
my sole volition was whether I should make that discovery or not.
It was there, waiting.
I have no explanation for this. And it is quite possible that I
might have had it, to find at the end nothing more significant
than root-beer, for instance, or bulbs for the winter garden.
And indeed, at first sight, what awaited me in the locked closet
amounted to anti-climax. For when I had broken the rusty padlock
open with a hatchet, and had opened doors with nervous fingers,
nothing more startling appeared than a number of books. The
shelves were piled high with them, a motley crew of all colors,
but dark shades predominating.
I went back to bed, sheepishly enough, and wrapped my chilled
feet in an extra blanket. Maggie came to the door about the
time I was dozing off and said she had heard hammering downstairs
in the cellar some time ago, but she had refused to waken me
until the burglars had gone.
"If it was burglars," she added, "you're that up-and-ready, Miss
Agnes, that I knew if I waked you you'd be downstairs after them.
What's a bit of silver to a human life?"
I got her away at last, and she went, muttering something about
digging up the cellar floor and finding an uneasy spirit. Then I
I had taken cold that night, and the following morning I spent in
bed. At noon Maggie came upstairs, holding at arm's length a book.
She kept her face averted, and gave me a slanting and outraged
"This is a nice place we've come to," she said, acidly. "Murder
in the telephone and anti-Christ in the fruit cellar!"
"Why, Maggie," I expostulated.
"If these books stay, I go, and that's flat, Miss Agnes," was her
ipse dixit. She dropped the book on the bed and stalked out,
pausing at the door only to throw back, "If this is a clergyman's
house, I guess I'd be better out of the church."
I took up the book. It was well-worn, and in the front, in a heavy
masculine hand, the owner had written his name - written it large,
a bit defiantly, perhaps. It had taken both courage and conviction
to bring such a book into that devout household.
I am not quick, mentally, especially when it comes to logical
thought. I daresay I am intuitive rather than logical. It was not
by any process of reasoning at all, I fancy, that it suddenly seemed
strange that there should be books locked away in the cellar. Yet
it was strange. For that had been a bookish household. Books were
its stock in trade, one may say. Such as I had borrowed from the
library had been carefully tended. Torn leaves were neatly repaired.
The reference books were alphabetically arranged. And, looking back
on my visit to the cellar, I recalled now as inconsistent the
disorder of those basement shelves.
I did not reach the truth until, that afternoon, I made a second
visit to the cellar. Mrs. Graves had been mistaken. If not all
Carlo Benton's proscribed books were hidden there, at least a
large portion of his library was piled, in something like confusion,
on the shelves. Yet she maintained that they had searched the house,
and she herself had been present when the books were packed and
taken away to the river.
That afternoon I returned Mrs. Graves's visit. She was at home,
and in a sort of flurried neatness that convinced me she had seen
me from far up the road. That conviction was increased by the
amazing promptness with which a tea-tray followed my entrance. I
had given her tea the day she came to see me, and she was not to
be outdone. Indeed, I somehow gained the impression that tray and
teapot, and even little cakes, had been waiting, day by day, for
my anticipated visit.
It was not hard to set her talking of Carlo Benton and his
wickedness. She rose to the bait like a hungry fish. Yet I
gathered that, beyond his religious views or lack of them, she knew
nothing. But on the matter of the books she was firm.
"After the box was ready," she said, "we went to every room and
searched it. Miss Emily was set on clearing out every trace. At
the last minute I found one called 'The Fallacy of Christianity'
slipped down behind the dresser in his room, and we put that in."
It was "The Fallacy of Christianity" that Maggie had brought me
"It is a most interesting story," I observed. "What delicious tea,
Mrs. Graves! And then you fastened up the box and saw it thrown
into the river. It was quite a ceremony."
"My dear," Mrs. Graves said solemnly, "it was not a ceremony. It
was a rite - a significant rite."
How can I reconcile the thoughts I had that afternoon with my later
visit to Miss Emily? The little upper room in the village, dominated
and almost filled by an old-fashioned bed, and Miss Emily, frail and
delicate and beautifully neat, propped with pillows and holding a
fine handkerchief, as fresh as the flutings of her small cap, in her
hand. On a small stand beside the bed were her Bible, her spectacles,
and her quaint old-fashioned gold watch.
And Miss Emily herself? She was altered, shockingly altered. A
certain tenseness had gone, a tenseness that had seemed to uphold
her frail body and carry her about. Only her eyes seemed greatly
alive, and before I left they, too, had ceased their searching of
mine and looked weary and old.
And, at the end of my short visit, I had reluctantly reached this
conclusion: either Miss Emily had done the thing she confessed to
doing, incredible as it might appear, or she thought she had done
it; and the thing was killing her.
She knew I had found the confession. I knew that. It was written
large over her. What she had expected me to do God only knows. To
stand up and denounce her? To summon the law? I do not know.
She said an extraordinary thing, when at last I rose to go. I
believe now that it was to give me my chance to speak. Probably she
found the suspense intolerable. But I could not do it. I was too
surprised, too perplexed, too - well, afraid of hurting her. I had
the feeling, I know, that I must protect her. And that feeling
never left me until the end.
"I think you must know, my dear," she said, from her pillows, "that
I have your Paisley shawl."
I was breathless. "I thought that, perhaps" - I stumbled.
"It was raining that night," she said in her soft, delicate voice.
"I have had it dried and pressed. It is not hurt. I thought you
would not mind," she concluded.
"It does not matter at all - not in the least," I said unhappily.
I am quite sure now that she meant me to speak then. I can recall
the way she fixed her eyes on me, serene and expectant. She was
waiting. But to save my life I could not. And she did not. Had
she gone as far as she had the strength to go? Or was this again
one of those curious pacts of hers - if I spoke or was silent, it
was to be?
I do not know.
I do know that we were both silent and that at last, with a quick
breath, she reached out and thumped on the floor with a cane that
stood beside the bed until a girl came running up from below stairs.
"Get the shawl, Fanny, dear," said Miss Emily, "and wrap it up for
I wanted desperately, while the girl left the room to obey, to say
something helpful, something reassuring. But I could not. My voice
failed me. And Miss Emily did not give me another opportunity. She
thanked me rather formally for the flowers I had brought from her
garden, and let me go at last with the parcel under my arm, without
further reference to it. The situation was incredible.