Beware of what might be looking in.
|To William Wiggins Esq.,
Enclosed is the MS of which I told you. While it sheds no light that I can see upon the final incident at the Hall, it may give some insight into your friend's state of mind during his last month. At only one later time did he allude to the figure. His exact words to me were, "It has found its way inside." His mood was quite gloomy.
Regarding the hill, I am told nothing remains on its crown but three stones set in a triangle—the foundation stones of the gallows, I suppose.
It was in my dreams that I first saw it: a tall, slender silhouette, as of a gowned figure standing with arms clapped to its sides, standing in a road where it crested a hill. It was always dark in the dream—a moonless night—yet somehow I could see that darker figure brooding against the black sky. Neither face nor form were visible, yet I knew it bent its thought upon me even as I regarded it speculatively back.
That was all. Yet for all the lack of incident, never would I fail to remember the dream come morning.
It was last spring that I occupied Sibley Hall, which had been left vacant by the death of a distant cousin of mine. It had passed thence to a kind of great-aunt whose daughter wrote me to say that, as I would in all likelihood inherit the Hall myself in time, for a rent which she named (and which I found agreeable) I could take up immediate residence.
The Hall occupied a fair park carved from primeval wood, with a carriage drive that looped a small lake. The Hall itself glowed brightly in the April sun the day I drove out to examine it. If you have seen it, you know that it is a Queen Anne whose box-like regularity is relieved by a central pediment and four chimneys. Seventeen tall, bright windows smile out in symmetrical order from its facade. I liked it immediately on seeing it, and arranged with Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins, the married couple who supervised what little staff it required, to stay on. Then, as the Hall was already furnished, I returned to Portsmouth to collect my personal belongings.
It was a good spring of gentle rain that year, and the summer sun warmed the grass without searing it. I learned the pleasure of long walks on country lanes, lifting my hat to farmers in their wagons, and inquiring of them which were the best inns. There too was a hill a mile or so off from the Hall—a place where the earth rose in a gentle hump—and on more that one summer evening I climbed to a place where there remained the timbers of a long-fallen fence, and against these I would lean and dream and smoke a pipe as I watched the golden sun fall into the fields and pastures on the other side of the valley.
It was on one such evening that I passed an old man, bent and leading a cow along by a rope. We fell to a brief talk, and when I mentioned the Hall he observed, "Aye, the Sibleys hath long had their run o' the place."
After a moment of puzzled silence, I told him that I was the new resident of the Hall. The Sibleys, I gave as my understanding, had been extinct for some two centuries.
"Aye," he said, and he fixed me with a hard stare, "since the days of Mary Sibley, who as they tell fixed the Hall in her eye, and hath it fixed there still, as it may be." When I asked what he meant, he asked if I made it a custom to climb the hill whose flanks we stood upon. I allowed that I did.
"I know not, but I wouldn' like to peep behind as I walked home from its crown," he said. When I asked why not, he said, "For fear of what I might see following behind." With that he wished me a good evening and limped on.
I remember asking Jenkins that evening if there remained in the country some tradition of those Sibleys for whom the Hall is named, and if the library contained still their papers. To the former he allowed that there might yet be; to the latter, he was more certain, for it was a library of some antiquity. But, he cautioned me, it had never been properly cataloged, and was quite disordered.
Far from being dismayed, I was delighted at this report, for it commended a project to me, and the next morning I tackled the library with a sense of anticipation—not only of what I might learn therein, but for the reward of work itself.
I will not take up space relating the hours spent in going through—and through again—crumbling volumes and ribbon-wrapped MSS as I invented and adapted a cataloging system of my own. Suffice it to say that many days and weeks passed, during which I learned disquieting things about the Sibleys. There were accusations of witchcraft at the Hall on at least three occasions. The first, lodged against a nurse, ended in acquittal, when it was proved that the accuser was a plain conjuror who only pretended to cough up needles and pieces of straw. But the second, against the master of the Hall, James Sibley, ended in conviction in abstentia when the defendant abruptly vanished. To America, it was concluded, though another tradition had it he was dragged down to Hell by the Fiends he had invoked and threatened to forswear to escape hanging.
But it was the third Sibley who gave me greatest pause: Lady Mary Sibley, the last of the line, who was taken from the Hall by her own tenants and hanged for a witch. Though the location was not decisively stated, it was easy to deduce that the gallows were erected upon the same hill where it was my wont to stand gazing down at the Hall.
It was about this time that I began to have the dreams.
I was also surprised by two puzzling incidents.
The first occurred in early autumn. I had not curtailed my semi-regular ascents of the hill. If anything, my interest was whetted by what I had learned, and I searched vainly for any sign of the gallows upon which Mary Sibley had been hanged. But on one evening as I returned, I chanced to glance behind and saw what I took to be a fence post standing in isolation in a field. I thought nothing of it, until some distance later I again looked behind me, and again glimpsed a solitary fence post where I could not remember seeing one before. This time I tramped back to inspect it, and found what I supposed it was: a tall post, of a man's height, coated in fresh black paint. I guessed it had been lately erected by a farmer. And yet on subsequent walks, when I remembered to search for it, I could not find it.
The second occurred some weeks later. I had returned from Portsmouth and was glancing through some old mail that had collected there when I looked up and saw what I thought was a black-cloaked figure standing at the front door. In a distracted state I shoved my parcels into a pocket, but when I looked up again I saw that the figure was in fact only a shadow cast upon the wall. I was, however, at a loss to comprehend how the illusion of a figure draped in black had worked.
I might not have brooded on these incidents—and brood on them I confess I did—save for two other coincidences that shortly occurred. The first was a conversation I chanced to overhear between Jenkins and his wife, to the effect that the figure of a woman in black had been seen, by themselves and by other members of the staff, standing on the grounds. I might have dismissed it from my mind—the Hall drew its share of sightseers, not all of whom announced themselves at the door—but for Jenkins's remark that, "I pray she is not one as will take to peeping in through the windows." Something in his tone of voice—a cold fear—suggested to me that he was not speaking of any ordinary tourist.
The second, which I might have entirely overlooked save for what I had overheard from Jenkins, was in a scrap of doggerel I found in the library, embedded in an eighteenth-century sermon preserved in a sheaf of papers—presumably salvaged by one of the Humphreys who had by then acquired the Hall. In a passage denouncing the evils of spying and eavesdropping, the writer had quoted "the wisdom of the countryside" as preserved in a bit of rhyme:
In Sibley Hall
Where shadows fall
Through windows bare
The witch doth glare.
There was nothing to explain why this sermon and this rhyme had been preserved, though in view of what came later, I cannot but speculate that I was not the first—that I was only one of several—who had shared the same experience.
You may notice that I have procrastinated in describing any actual incident. The fact is that it is winter now as I write. The days are dark and they end early, and I am abjectly aware that this is a house with many windows. In the summer they admit great washes of sunlight, but now I prefer to close the drapes, even in the daytime.
I will describe only the second incident in detail—the first I passed off as fancy, and the subsequent were much as the second. It was early evening and I stood in the library at the table, sorting the day's books, when I glimpsed a shadow at one of the windows. I took it at first for the gardener, but when it stood staring in at me (or so it seemed) I raised my head to give it a very direct look.
The sun was behind it so that I only saw its silhouette. It was tall and thin. Dreadfully thin, as thin (it seemed to me) as the reflections cast by certain mirrors in a funhouse. Not only was it black against the setting sun, but I was certain it was itself clad in black, in a severe gown that fell in neither drape nor curve to the ground. Its arms were clapped close to its sides.
This attitude of the thing gave me a start and a shiver when I thought that the figure in my recurring dream might have a similar appearance were it to draw close. And now, to have the thing standing on the other side of a piece of glass, I could only think how dreadful it would be to have it close on me—that I would put anything between me and it, or hurl myself from any aperture in order to escape its close company.
Nevertheless, my curiosity was excited sufficiently that I crept across the floor to peer more directly at it. Don't ask me how, but I was quite certain it was glaring balefully back as I drew near to it.
Yet I fled the room before I had approached it by more than a few strides, for that was enough for me to make out two loathsome details of it.
The first was that its face was entirely obscured by a matted sheet of black hair that hung straight down, from forehead to waist, covering its features completely, save for one. That single detail was a long tooth—like unto a wolf's—that poked from between the strands.
The last time I saw it—by which time I understood at last that it was seeking a way inside—was when I saw it peeping in at me through my bedroom curtains.
My bedroom—need I remark?—is on the second floor.
Winner of "SCREAMS!!!" for 3-11/12-21
Prompt: A crone standing at the end of the road