Reflections on a Malady

Reflections on a Malady

It was in the July of an exceptionally warm year, when I received a letter from an old friend of my school days, Mr Godfrey Edwards. Edwards and I had been, as boys, the very best of friends. Since then, however, I had seen him with lessening frequency. In consequence, when I received his letter it was full three years since I had seen him last. The intervening time had seen him marry and settle out of town. Circumstances had prevented my attending the wedding, so I had not as yet had the opportunity of meeting his bride.

So, when I received his letter, inviting me to stay with them for a few days, I very readily assented. Having nothing very pressing on hand, I wrote that I could be with him as soon as he wished. A date was, therefore, fixed upon and a very few days saw me in a first class carriage, bound for a pleasant weekend with some excellent company, in the fresh country air. Nothing could have been pleasanter to my mind at that time.

The afternoon of my arrival was hot and humid, and the air was heavy. As I stepped down from the train and made my way through the various gatherings of passengers, I chanced to see my friend waiting for me upon the platform.

‘Hunter!’ cried he amiably, stepping forward to greet me. ‘My dear fellow, I cannot tell you how delighted I am to see you again.’

‘And I you, Edwards; it has been too long.’ As we shook hands, I took the opportunity of observing my friend; I was surprised to see that despite his outward cheerfulness something was evidently amiss. As long as I had known him, he had always been meticulous as to his personal appearance; he was always neat and clean shaven; now, however, his clothing was fastened awry, his chin was unshaven and he had a general unkempt appearance. His face too was pale and drawn, and his eyes dark and sunken. This was not the face of the lithe and active man I had known. I was about to question him upon the point when he took up my bags and began to lead me away from the station.

He had a dogcart waiting, and we settled ourselves for the short drive to the house. So, in the uncomfortable afternoon heat, we began our journey over pleasant country roads. I was struck at once by the vibrancy of colour before me, which is so sadly absent in town. The fields and hedgerows were alive with all the bustle of nature. It seemed as though every flower in the place had sprung up to greet my arrival. I could not imagine a more charming site.

Edwards did not speak for some minutes. He seemed completely unmoved by the surroundings and the occasional remark which I let fall upon the subject. Not wishing to press him, I waited patiently and contented myself with admiring the beauty of our surroundings. I fancied, more than once, that he was on the verge of making some communication, but he checked himself each time.

‘You think me much changed.’ said he suddenly. I was somewhat taken aback by this sudden interjection.

‘You do not seem to be quite yourself,’ said I cautiously.

‘Ever the diplomat, Hunter,’ he laughed. ‘A less tactful man would suppose that married life does not agree with me,’ said he with a half smile; ‘but I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.’ I said nothing; I waited instead until he should continue.

‘You have not yet had the pleasure of meeting my wife,’ said he, ‘but I feel certain that when you do you will agree that a kinder or more generous spirited woman would be hard to come by.’

‘I am sure I shall,’ said I good humouredly. ‘You have always had the best of taste, Edwards, and what is more, the very best of luck,’ I laughed.

‘Ah!’ cried he, ‘you may say so; until recently I would have readily agreed with you.’

‘And now?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I consider myself very fortunate. Nevertheless, we have had our troubles, but I believe we are back in the sunshine now.’

‘I am sorry to hear you have been troubled.’

‘It has been a trying time, to be sure. Elizabeth was taken ill with a fever during the winter. More than once her life was despaired of. Even now she is not quite so hearty as before, but she is in all other respects quite recovered.’

‘My dear fellow, why did you not tell me? If that is the case, are you sure my visit will not be an imposition? I can very easily return to the station and catch the next train back to town, if it is too soon,’ said I. My friend seemed genuinely surprised by my suggestion, for he hastened to reassure me that my presence was the very thing that he particularly desired at that moment.

‘No, no you mustn’t go. I won’t hear of it. We would not have dreamt of inviting you if it were inconvenient in any way! That would make us fine hosts would it not?’ asked he smiling. ‘Besides, Elizabeth is looking forward to meeting you, and I am certain we will both be better for your company. We have been alone too long and we are ready for a little society.’

‘Then I shall be the very spirit of polite society,’ said I with a smile.

By then we were nearing the brow of a small hill, on a path which swept down towards the house. In the brief moment in which we were perched atop that hill, looking down on the house below, a feeling without name passed through me. I did not understand it then, though I have thought on it often since. Had I known then what awaited me, I may well have jumped from the cart and returned to town; as it was, even in my ignorance, it was with a sense of foreboding that I made that descent.

As we pulled up in front of the house I saw the figure of a woman, whom I took to be Mrs Edwards, framed in the doorway. Smiling, she came forward to greet us. She was a beautiful woman, tall with golden hair and deep brown eyes. The dark circles beneath her eyes were the only hint as to her recent illness. Yet despite her obvious charms, something about her appearance made me uneasy.

‘Hunter, I’d like you to meet my wife, Elizabeth.’

‘I am delighted to meet you at last, Mrs Edwards,’ said I, shaking her proffered hand. To my astonishment her hand was cold to the touch, despite the heat of the day. I felt a shiver of ice crawl over me.

‘And I you, Mr Hunter. Godfrey has told me so much about you. I’m so pleased you were able to accept our invitation,’ said she, in a voice which was soft and possessed of a curious, far away quality. ‘I hope you are not too fatigued from your journey. It is rather a warm day for travelling I’m afraid.’

‘Indeed, but the beauty of this part of the world has more than compensated me for any slight discomfort I assure you.’

‘Do come through,’ said she, gesturing towards the door. ‘I hope once you are settled in your room you will join us for tea?’

‘I thank you, yes; a little refreshment would be most welcome.’

I was duly despatched to my room and left to prepare for tea. Once my preparations were finished, I took the opportunity to acquaint myself with the view from my quarters. My room looked out over the front of the house, and once again I was struck by the beauty of the landscape. I looked on in admiration. Edwards truly was a lucky man.

***

After tea, Mrs Edwards excused herself and retired to her room to rest for a while, so that I was left alone with Edwards. We decided that, as the afternoon heat had subsided a little, we would take a short stroll.

We wandered through a little gate, which leads via a gently sloping avenue of trees, to a small wood. We whiled away a pleasant hour, stopping briefly at the far end of the wood to admire the view; from there I could see out across the surrounding countryside, the graceful curve of the hills and the myriad shades of green, glowing with a pink and golden haze in the late afternoon sun. A few fluffy, white clouds drifted lazily by. It was a scene which brought a sense of serenity to my mind, a sense which I carried with me still as we approached the house once more. However, my peace was unexpectedly shattered as we came towards the door, which flew open as we approached. A young maid came hurtling through it, at top speed, screaming; so intent was she on fleeing the house that she very nearly collided with us.

She stared at us, seemingly unsure now of whether she had not more to fear outside the house than in. She was undoubtedly in a state of terror and was shaking violently.

‘Why, my girl,’ said I, ‘whatever is the matter?’

‘Begging your pardon, sir, but I was so frightened,’ she stammered. ‘Oh, sir,’ said she turning to my friend, ‘I saw her again, just now.’

‘Her?’ I looked to Edwards for explanation. He looked suddenly grave.

‘The ghost, sir,’ she jumped in.

‘Ghost! My word, Edwards, you don’t mean to say you have a ghost on the property, and you never told me?’ I asked in some surprise. He scowled.

‘It is a foolish notion that the servants have got into their heads, nothing more.’

‘Tell me, my girl, what does this ghost of yours look like?’ I asked.

‘Well, sir,’ said she, trying hard to keep the tremor from her voice, ‘I’ve only seen her from behind, and glad I am of it! The thought of her eyes on me…,’ she shuddered again, ‘it fair turns me cold. But she’s a woman all right, I’m sure enough of that; she’s all in white, but she sometimes seems to have a sort of glow about her, an odd kind of light, if you take my meaning, sir.

‘I see, and you say you saw her just now?’

‘Yes, sir, just outside the library. I caught sight of her, and for a minute I couldn’t move, no more than if my boots had been nailed to the floor, sir. But then she started to turn toward me, and I took such a fright for fear of her looking at me that I lost my wits and made for the door.’

‘Well, I propose to go in now and see if our mysterious visitor is still there.’ With that I entered the house; neither Edwards nor the maid moved to follow me. I made a brief examination of the ground floor rooms, looking for signs of the ghostly woman. I could see nothing untoward, but I did feel a curiously cold sensation as I approached the library door, as though the air had been somehow disturbed just in that area. It could perhaps have been a draft, but there was no apparent source and I felt it only on that particular spot. I pushed the door open slowly and peeped inside; there was nothing there. With nothing tangible to report, I returned to Edwards and the maid.

‘Well,’ said I, ‘there is no sign of your visitor now at any rate.’ I fancy Edwards looked as relieved as the maid.

‘You see, my girl,’ said he, ‘nothing but fancy. I suggest you go back inside and be about your work, and we’ll say no more about this.’

‘Very good, sir. Thank you, sir.’ With that she bobbed and scuttled off to resume her duties.

‘Have there been many of these kinds of incidents?’ I asked.

‘A few, but only in recent months. The house has never had any reputation before, so far as I am aware.’

‘There are no romances attached to it?’

‘None that I have heard, and such stories are hard to suppress amongst country folk; they serve as entertainment in these out of the way places. Yet the servants are convinced that there is something wrong in the house.’

‘You set no store by it yourself?’ I asked. His gaze strayed from me to the ground, as he ran his finger under his collar.

‘How can I? I am a rational man, and rational men have no business believing in such follies.’

‘I see.’

No more was said on the subject at that time, and the conversation turned to more pleasant topics. I had begun to see, however, some of the reasons behind the changes I had observed in my friend.

***

The night found me wakeful. I was tired, yet sleep eluded me. I had lighted my candle and made a vain attempt to read, until I felt more inclined for sleep, but time and again my eyes strayed from the page as my mind wandered back to the day’s events. I lay on my back, my eyes tracing the patterns in the wallpaper.

Eventually I slipped from the bed and went to the window. I pulled aside the curtains and pushed open the window, allowing the blue tinged moonlight to puncture the darkness and the cool night breezes to lap at my face. I gazed out upon the night and felt acutely aware, as so many before me must surely have done, of the smallness of my own existence. I wondered what the meaning of it all was. I pondered on life and death and that strange unfathomable region that lies between the two.

It had started to rain, but I remained at the window. I closed my eyes and let the tide of fresh night air wash over me, the chill water brushing against my cheek. I knew she was there before ever I saw her. I could feel her watching me.

I turned around, cautiously, uncertain of what awaited me. I saw her; I saw, with my own eyes, that which was not possible. This was no living woman, no mortal body, yet I knew her. Aye, I knew her, for the woman before me was Edwards’s wife! Such a feeling, as was upon me in that moment, cannot be imagined. You have heard, no doubt, those tales in which the souls of the dead are said to walk abroad, but did you ever hear tell of the soul of a living person walking, split asunder from its mortal body? I can well imagine the answer.

I stood for several moments, staring in dumb incomprehension. She said nothing, nor did she move, but there was an irrepressible air of sadness about her, which communicated itself to me. Her eyes seemed to plead with me, but what could I do? What did she want? I was at a loss, paralysed by shock and confusion.

Finally, I found my feet and began to move towards her; at that she turned slowly and drifted from the room, through the closed door! This did away with any doubts I may have held as to her incorporeal nature. I raced to the door and threw it open. There was no sign of anyone along the length of the passage.

Puzzled, and with an aching head, I returned to my room. I had no recollection of returning to bed, but, nevertheless, I awoke there in the early morning light. So, I had risen and opened the curtains and the windows; that at least I knew to be true, the sunlight flooding through the open window told me as much.

I arose and closed the window. Despite the summer’s heat, I felt a chill within me. Had I been subject to some hideous hallucination? Perhaps the cold and my nocturnal vision were symptoms of approaching illness. Could a fevered mind account for what I’d seen? In truth, I would have been glad if it were so, as strange as that may seem, for I feared that my experiences of the night boded ill, and I longed for a rational explanation.

Once I was dressed and my morning routine completed, I felt a little more cheerful. The chill had gone from me, and the uncomfortable heat of the previous day had given way to a day that was pleasantly warm and clear. The slight coldness I had felt was probably the result of sleeping with the window open, which was contrary to my usual practice. What then of the vision of Mrs Edwards? Could it really have been a dream? I felt by no means certain; it had felt real enough, and horrible enough. So, it was with some trepidation that I went down to breakfast that morning.

I do not know what I expected, but I need not have feared. Both Edwards and his wife were in fine spirits, and we enjoyed a pleasant breakfast together. I could not refrain, however, once or twice, from casting a curious glance at Mrs Edwards. Perhaps I hoped, or even feared, to see some acknowledgement of her late night excursion, but there was none. Dream or no, I felt a vague but persistent sense of foreboding.

***

Edwards and I spent a leisurely morning, strolling over the countryside. We reminisced about our school days and later spent much time in examining the most recently acquired additions to his library; in short, we spent as carefree and as pleasant a day as two gentlemen at leisure may reasonably hope to do; In consequence of such a day, by the time we joined Mrs Edwards for tea on the lawn, my spirits were fully restored and I was as happy as any man has a right to be. Sipping lemonade in the shade of the trees, and breathing in the heady scent of the roses, all my earlier gloom was abandoned.

***

In the evening we were joined by some of Edwards’s neighbours, Doctor and Mrs Phelps and their niece, who resided with them, Miss Jennings.

When we were all assembled in the drawing room after dinner, I fell in to easy conversation with Mrs Phelps and her niece. The former was a good natured, jolly, little woman and was clearly much attached to her niece. Miss Jennings, for her part, was a striking and fragile looking young lady; her delicate porcelain complexion looking all the paler for the darkness of her hair. Her eyes were the unusually intense blue of a dusk sky, and more than once I found my own being drawn to them. I liked the young lady’s company; her conversation proved her to be an intelligent and spirited girl.

At some stage in proceedings, the general conversation turned towards the subject of dreams; given my experience of the previous night, you can be sure I became at once alert. It was a state which did not escape the young lady’s attention, for I fancied that she looked at me curiously for a moment.

Once or twice her eyes seemed to stray towards Mrs Edwards, though her gaze did not appear to settle directly on her, but rather on some point beyond her shoulder. I turned instinctively to follow her gaze, and for a moment I thought I saw some movement from that region; but it was a moment’s impression only. I turned back and was suddenly aware that the girl’s eyes were now fixed on me. She looked puzzled. As I turned to her, however, she looked away quickly, colouring slightly. There was no sign that the others had noticed any of what had passed. Mrs Edwards was addressing the Doctor.

‘Do you know Doctor, I had the strangest dream just last night, which I am quite at a loss to divine the meaning of. It was night time, and I was wandering about the house, holding a candle. I felt strangely cold. I was conscious of how silent and still the house was, and I felt terribly alone. I came into this room and walked up to the fireplace, and holding out the candle before me, I peered into the looking glass; as I looked I saw that I had two reflections, one was my true reflection, the second was very pale and seemed to be standing at some distance behind me, watching me. Now, what do you suppose it could mean?’

While the Doctor was musing on the subject, I found my mind returning, once again, to my own dream, if such it was. I began to think that there must be some connection, something which I could not as yet see clearly.

This discussion, naturally enough, led on to the notion of prophetic dreams and thus to the topic of fortune telling. It transpired in the course of the conversation that Miss Jennings was known to indulge in the occasional reading of tea leaves. The idea of this soon took hold with our hostess, who was most delighted with the idea of having her own leaves read. The doctor shook his head and frowned.

‘Oh now, Henry, it really is just harmless fun; what possible objection could you have to that?’ demanded his wife.

‘Very well; if you must,’ said he resignedly and adding under his breath, ‘there is no use arguing with a woman.’

‘Oh no!’ cried Miss Jennings; ‘I shouldn’t, really.’ She looked distinctly uncomfortable. It seemed to me that I discerned a fleeting look of panic in the girl’s eyes. None of my companions seemed to have noticed this momentary lapse, however. Edwards and the Doctor were making light of the follies of women, and the other ladies were uttering encouragements.

‘Nonsense! You know you have such a delightful talent for it. Now, don’t you let Henry put you off. Men can be such bores when it comes to these matters,’ declared Mrs Phelps cheerfully.

‘Oh yes, please do Louisa,’ coaxed Mrs Edwards. ‘Until a few weeks ago I wasn’t sure I had a future at all! It would be most delightful to me to see a glimpse of what I can now look forward to.’ She looked fondly at her husband.

‘Absolutely my dear, I must insist,’ chorused Mrs Phelps. At length the girl was persuaded and the party gathered around. It seemed I was the only one who had noted the girl’s genuine reluctance. Mrs Phelps had her reading first and was duly delighted with a future of prosperity and travel. My gentlemen companions declined to indulge in a reading; I, however, allowed myself to be persuaded. In truth, I welcomed any chance to closer study Miss Jennings; the girl intrigued me immensely. She looked into my cup, and smiled.

‘I see a bouquet, Mr Hunter; it is a lucky symbol, meaning a happy marriage.’

‘My own?’ I asked encouragingly, ‘for you see I am but a humble bachelor.’

‘That need not be a permanent state of affairs you know, old chap,’ laughed Edwards raucously. He looked at me knowingly. When my reading was finished it was the turn of Mrs Edwards.

The room darkened slightly, as a cloud drifted across the sun. I turned my attention back to Mrs Edwards, who had just completed her part of the ritual and had turned her teacup over to Miss Jennings to read. Looking at her then, I felt again that queer feeling of revulsion pass through me. I could not understand why, but a vague nagging sensation had insinuated itself into the back of my mind. Yet, try as I might, I could not define it. I felt a growing unease in the presence of my hostess.

Miss Jennings turned her eyes to the teacup. A curious expression passed over the girl’s face. She trembled; her eyes flickering slightly. There was a sudden crash as the teacup fell from her hand. She leapt to her feet.

‘I am so very sorry Lizzie,’ she cried. ‘How dreadfully clumsy of me.’ I looked at her with concern. She seemed suddenly drawn and anxious. ‘I am so sorry’ she repeated.

She staggered slightly. Her already pallid features were now ashen, creating a stark and shocking contrast to the coal blackness of her hair. Mrs Edwards sprang up and laid a steadying hand on her friend’s arm. The girl recoiled from the touch with such violence that she nearly fell. Her hands clutched wildly at her dress as she backed away. She shrieked:

‘Do not touch me; I cannot bear it! What are you? Oh, mercy! what are you? It is unnatural, abomination!’ The girl was quite hysterical. Even to the most hardened mind it was a terrifying sight to behold. In an instant she crumpled and fell, insensible, and it was only through a quick and instinctive reaction that I prevented her landing heavily upon the floor.

‘Well caught sir,’ bellowed the doctor, rushing to the girl’s aid.

‘Doctor, what on earth is the matter with her?’ demanded Edwards, springing to my side.

‘Hysterical most likely, brought on by this nonsense,’ said the doctor, indicating the teacups. ‘Fetch me some water.’ Edwards did as he was bid and returned in a very few moments with the water, which the doctor proceeded to splash onto Miss Jennings’ face. Suddenly the girl’s wild eyes opened, and she gasped but remained speechless, breathing heavily. Her eyes were wide and unblinking, cold and glazed. I wondered then if those eyes were even seeing; there seemed to be an absence of presence behind them. They were fixed on the looking glass over the mantle. For a moment my own eyes fell on it. I saw Mrs Edwards’s reflections. Yes, not one but two reflections, just as she herself had described them. I recognised in that second image my visitor of the night before. I knew then that this was what the lady had seen in her own dream.

My horror must have been evident in my features, for Mrs Edwards wheeled around to view the source of my alarm; she saw it; she clasped her hand to her mouth but not before a choking cry escaped her. She stumbled back a few paces.

‘What does it mean?’ she in desperation. Her hand fell to her side, her fingers furling and unfurling. She began to reel. Edwards was at her side in an instant.

‘What the deuce is going on here?’ demanded the doctor. He left his niece to the care of his wife and went to the assistance of Mrs Edwards. He looked grave.

‘She is burning with fever. Quick now, we must get her to bed immediately.’ Suddenly a dreadful rasping sound was emitted from Mrs Edwards, as she crumpled in her husband’s arms. The Doctor examined her carefully and stood slowly to meet our enquiring eyes.

‘I am dreadfully sorry my boy,’ said he to Edwards. ‘She is dead.’ A violent sob broke out from Miss Jennings.

Mrs Edwards was duly removed to an upstairs room, the clocks stopped, and the mirrors covered. Edwards remained alone with his late wife, while the rest of the sombre party reassembled in the drawing room. We discussed the matter of where I should spend the night; in the circumstances I thought it best that I should not remain in the house. The doctor was in the process of commending a local inn to me, when a sudden hoarse cry came from upstairs; it was Edwards. The doctor and I started at once. We found my friend, pressed against the furthest wall of the room, staring at the bed, which contained the body of his wife. We turned our attention to the body and saw to our upmost amazement that the lady was breathing, some slight colour returning to her cheeks.

In a moment, before my companions could stop me, I had torn the covering from the mirror. I looked deep and saw again the secondary image. This time, it was so close that I shrank back at the thought that it could reach out and touch me. It seemed to have taken on an agonised and desperate appearance.

The Doctor, in conducting a fresh examination of the lady, concluded that she had suffered an attack of catalepsy. I was far from satisfied with this explanation; I could see, in that looking glass, what he could not.

‘She is trapped,’ announced a voice from behind us. I turned and saw Miss Jennings standing in the doorway, with the doctor’s wife close at her heels.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked in astonishment.

‘It is her time. Her spirit wants to pass over.’

‘Louisa!’ snapped the Doctor.

‘Then why doesn’t it?’ I asked, ignoring the interruption.

‘Something is holding her here.’ In unison we turned to Edwards; he returned our gaze uncomprehendingly.

‘Don’t be absurd,’ he cried. ‘It is nonsense. Why do you keep looking at that confounded mirror?’ he demanded angrily. Miss Jennings grabbed his arm and turned him, with more strength than I should have given her credit for.

‘Look and see,’ she cried, taking hold of his arm in a firm grasp. ‘Listen,’ she hissed. I heard the melancholy cry of the wind and saw, as she touched him, a sudden and violent start of recognition in his eyes.

The next moment he was at his wife’s side and whispering something, which was inaudible to us. He kissed her tenderly upon the head. A deep sigh came from the lady on the bed, and the colour drained from her like the ebb of the tide. In that instant we were engulfed in a mighty gale, which rose up from nowhere with the power of a titan. The wind shook the shutters, and slammed the door with such force that it shook the room. Then, all was silent. Time passed, but this time there was no doubt that the lady was dead.

What passed between husband and wife in that moment we shall never know, for within a week Edwards too was lost. He was found one morning in his library, a look of complete and utter peace on his face.

There was but one good thing to spring from the events of that fateful night. You will not be surprised to learn, perhaps, that Miss Louisa Jennings is now Mrs Hunter. Strong as our bond is, we have vowed that we shall never presume to stand between death and his quarry.