I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fête: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs. Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn.
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.
The road we had taken, too, was one I remembered going up and down as a boy at just about this time of year—carrying out the midday ‘snap’ of bread and cheese to my mother’s brothers as they helped with the Hundreds harvest. No doubt those men would have been very tickled to think that, thirty years on, a qualified doctor, I would be driving up that same road in my own car with the squire’s daughter at my side. But I felt overcome suddenly with an absurd sense of gaucheness, and falseness—as if, had my plain labourer uncles actually appeared before me now, they would have seen me for the fraud I was, and laughed at me.
‘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 . . .’
Her voice faded, and we stayed without speaking until the silence in that insulated room began to grow oppressive. I looked again at those three queer scorch-marks: they were like the burns, I realised suddenly, on Rod’s own face and hands. It was as if the house were developing scars of its own, in response to his unhappiness and frustration—or to Caroline’s, or her mother’s—perhaps, to the griefs and disappointments of the whole family. The thought was horrible. I could see what Caroline meant about the marked walls and furniture being ‘creepy’.
‘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.
To think that all this time people had been watching us, speculating—rubbing their hands—! It made me feel fooled, somehow; it made me feel exposed. A part of my upset, I’m sorry to say, was simple embarrassment, a basic masculine reluctance to have my name romantically linked with that of a notoriously plain girl. Part of it was shame, at discovering I felt this. A contradictory part, too, was pride: for why the hell shouldn’t I—I asked myself—bring Caroline Ayres along to a party, if I chose to? Why the hell shouldn’t I dance with the squire’s daughter, if the squire’s daughter wanted to dance with me?
‘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?’
I shook my head. ‘This is a weirder thing even than hysteria. It’s as if—well, as if something’s slowly sucking the life out of the whole family.’
‘Something is,’ he said, with another bark of laughter. ‘It’s called a Labour Government. The Ayreses’ problem—don’t you think?—is that they can’t, or won’t, adapt. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve a lot of sympathy for them. But what’s left for an old family like that in England nowadays? Class-wise, they’ve had their chips. Nerve-wise, perhaps they’ve run their course.’
‘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 . . .’
But I barely heard it. He’d started me thinking, and the beat of my thoughts, like the ticking arm of a metronome, would not be stilled. It was all nonsense; I knew it was nonsense. Every ordinary thing around me worked against it. The fire was crackling in the grate. The children still thundered on the staircase. The whisky was fragrant in the glass . . . But the night was dark at the window, too, and a few miles away through the wintry darkness stood Hundreds Hall, where things were different. Could what he had suggested have any truth to it? Could there be something loose in that house, some sort of ravenous frustrated energy, with Caroline at its heart?
‘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.’
‘Do you, really?’ she asked me. ‘Or is it the house you want?’
The question stunned me, and I couldn’t answer. She went on quietly, ‘A week ago you told me you were in love with me. Can you truly say you would feel the same, if Hundreds weren’t my home? You’ve had the idea, haven’t you, that you and I could live here as husband and wife. The squire and his lady . . . But this house doesn’t want me. I don’t want it. I hate this house!’
She was like a stranger to me. I said, ‘How can you say these terrible things? After all I’ve done, for you, for your family?’
‘You think I should repay you, by marrying you? Is that what you think marriage is—a kind of payment?’
And in the slumber I seemed to leave the car, and to press on to Hundreds: I saw myself doing it, with all the hectic, unnatural clarity with which I’d been recalling the dash to the hospital a little while before. I saw myself cross the silvered landscape and pass like smoke through the Hundreds gate. I saw myself start along the Hundreds drive.
But there I grew panicked and confused—for the drive was changed, was queer and wrong, was impossibly lengthy and tangled with, at the end of it, nothing but darkness.
She had called out: ‘You.’ […] She called it as if she had seen someone she knew, sir, but as though she was afraid of them. Mortal afraid. And after that I heard her running. She came running back towards the stairs. I got out of bed, and went over to the door, and quickly opened it. And that’s when I saw her falling.
Then across that image there came another: the Hundreds landing, lit bright by the moon. And once again I seemed to see Caroline, making her sure-footed way along it. I saw her doubtfully mounting the stairs, as if drawn upwards by a familiar voice; I saw her advance into the darkness, not quite certain of what was before her. Then I saw her face—saw it as vividly as the faces all around me. I saw recognition, and understanding, and horror, in her expression. Just for a moment—as if it were there, in the silvered surface of her moonlit eye—I even seemed to catch the outline of some shadowy, dreadful thing—
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.
If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me. For I’ll turn, and am disappointed – realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own.