Roderick Ayers Quotes in The Little Stranger
The story ran on, Caroline and Roderick prompting more of it; they spoke to each other rather than to me, and, shut out of the game, I looked from mother to daughter to son and finally caught the likenesses between them, not just the similarities of feature—the long limbs, the high-set eyes—but the almost clannish little tricks of gesture and speech. And I felt a flicker of impatience with them—the faintest stirring of a dark dislike—and my pleasure in the lovely room was slightly spoiled. Perhaps it was the peasant blood in me, rising. But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards. Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on their walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted china . . .
Well, I suppose I shall have to trust you. It must be frightfully bad form to kill a doctor, after all; just a step or two down from shooting an albatross. Also quite hard, I imagine, since you must know all the tricks yourselves.
‘Extraordinary place this, isn’t it?’ he murmured, with a glance at the others. ‘I don’t mind admitting, I was glad to be invited, simply for the chance to have a bit of a look around. You’re the family doctor, I gather. They like to keep you on hand, do they, for the sake of the son? I hadn’t realised he was in such poor shape.’
I said, ‘He isn’t, as it happens. I’m here on a social call tonight, just like you.’
‘You are? Oh, I had the impression you were here for the son, I don’t know why . . .’
In fact, I’d say that probably the only person who wasn’t watching Gillian was Betty. After going around with the toast, she had put herself over by the door, and had been standing there with her gaze lowered, just as she had been trained. And yet—it was an extraordinary thing, but none of us could afterwards say that we had been looking at Gillian exactly when the incident occurred.
It was more than mere anger. It was as though the war itself had changed him, made an utter stranger of him. He seemed to hate himself, and everyone around him. Oh, when I think of all the boys like him, and all the frightful things we asked them to do in the name of making peace—!
‘You don’t mean that, Caroline. You couldn’t bear to lose Hundreds, surely?’
Now she spoke almost casually. ‘Oh, but I’ve been brought up to lose it. —To lose it, I mean, once Rod marries. The new Mrs. Ayres won’t want a spinster sister-in-law about the place; nor a mother-in-law, come to that. That’s the stupidest thing of all. So long as Roddie goes on holding the estate together, too tired and distracted to find a wife, and probably killing himself in the process—so long as he goes on like that, Mother and I get to stay here. Meanwhile Hundreds is such a drain on us, it’s hardly worth staying for . . .’
‘It was the most sickening thing I ever saw,’ said Rod, describing it to me in a shaking voice, and wiping away the sweat which had started out again on his lip and forehead at the memory. ‘It was all the more sickening, somehow, for the glass being such an ordinary sort of object. If—I don’t know, but if some beast had suddenly appeared in the room, some spook or apparition, I think I would have borne the shock of it better. But this—it was hateful, it was wrong. It made one feel as though everything around one, the ordinary stuff of one’s ordinary life, might all at any moment start up like this and—overwhelm one.’
Yes, you’re great chums, you and she, aren’t you? What has she told you? How frightfully disappointed I’ve made her? She’s never forgiven me, you know, for letting myself get shot down and lamed. We’ve been disappointing her all our lives, my sister and I. I think we disappointed her simply by being born.
Mrs. Ayres informed her that Roderick had gone away out of the county ‘to stay with friends’: that was the story she put about, and if anyone locally asked me about it I said only that, having seen him after the fire, I’d advised him to take himself off on a holiday for the good of his lungs. At the very same time I was taking the contradictory line of trying to play the fire down. I didn’t want the Ayreses to come under any sort of special scrutiny, and even to people like the Desmonds and the Rossiters, who knew the family well, I told a mixture of lies and half-truths, hoping to steer them away from the facts. I am not naturally a duplicitous man, and the strain of warding off gossip was at times a tiring one.
‘Unconscious parts, so strong or so troubled they can take on a life of their own.’ She showed me a page. ‘Look. Here’s a man in England, anxious, wanting to speak to his friend—appearing to the woman and her companion, at exactly that moment, in an hotel room in Cairo! Appearing as his own ghost! Here’s a woman, at night, hearing a fluttering bird—just like Mother! Then she sees her husband, who’s in America, standing there before her; later she finds out he’s dead! The book says, with some sorts of people, when they’re unhappy or troubled, or they want something badly—Sometimes they don’t even know it’s happening. Something . . . breaks away from them. And what I can’t stop thinking is—I keep thinking back to those telephone calls. Suppose it’s Roddie, all of it?’
‘The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop – to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps a Caliban, a Mr. Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration . . .’
‘Oh, no, I haven’t seen her yet. I feel her.’
‘You feel her.’
‘I feel her, watching. I feel her eyes. They must be her eyes, mustn’t they? Her gaze is so strong, her eyes are like fingers; they can touch. They can press and pinch.’
I’ve never attempted to remind Seeley of his other, odder theory: that Hundreds was consumed by some dark germ, some ravenous shadow-creature, some ‘little stranger’, spawned from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house itself. But on my solitary visits, I find myself growing watchful. Every so often I’ll sense a presence, or catch a movement at the corner of my eye, and my heart will give a jolt of fear and expectation: I’ll imagine that the secret is about to be revealed to me at last; that I will see what Caroline saw, and recognise it, as she did.