In life they fought. So why not afterward as well?
|Note: The following opens with the fragment of a story begun but then abandoned by M. R. James under the title "Merfield House." The first 150 words, with some few edits, come from James; everything after the mark "|||" is my own invention.
I shall have to go some way back in order to give the complete chain of events which leads up to the main incident of my story. A house and park in Northamptonshire were left to me by a person whom my father had obliged in some way; but, my father being deceased, the property passed to me. Of Mr. Arthur Drayton I know little, save that he was a book collector and a younger son who had succeeded to Kelfield Hall on the death of his brother's wife, who had followed her husband within a very short time. This couple, with their long tenure at the Hall, fifty years or more, had naturally made a much greater impression on their neighbors in the village than the elderly recluse who briefly succeeded them. He was "close", said the bailiff who remembered the Draytons, and she was forward, and between them ||| relations were very bad. "Words as oughtn't be said were frequent passed between them," he told me. "Lor', but the oaths made was such as the Hall should have sank into the mire long ago by way of atonement."
Any lover of the country houses of England should have felt such a loss keenly. Kelfield Hall is a handsome pile of red brick under a blue-gray roof. Its bluff facade suggests a cheerfully choleric disposition, but the windows wink at the broad greensward from under triangular pediments, and it takes little effort to imagine a polished coach-and-four, guided by a driver in shining boots and a tricorn hat, stopping smartly on the carriage drive before a Hall blazing with the lights of a great celebration. As it was, I was acutely conscious of the mock-comic figure I cut, in my modern suit, as I crept timidly through the house, feeling like a tourist who had got separated from his group. It helped not at all that the much reduced staff I inherited stoutly refused to spend the night under the roof and instead commuted in from the village; save for the housekeeper and her husband, who resided in the gatehouse.
Naturally you will inquire if the staff's behavior gave me any disquiet as to the congeniality of the house: whether, in a word, the Hall was blighted. I can only say that I did not inquire and they did not explain. Perhaps there was a reticence upon both sides, and a resignation to let what would be known be discovered rather than conveyed. I do know that I spent several peaceful weeks at the Hall, and suffered nothing worse than the oppressive awareness of the immensity of empty darkness that enveloped me during the nights.
In retrospect, I suppose the first sign that something was wrong at the Hall came with the kitchen fire that broke out one spring morning. I was in the breakfast room with my coffee when the cries from the servants pulled me to my feet. In the kitchen I found a veritable wall of flame consuming half the room, and a gusty, billowing heat as might be exhaled by an industrial furnace. Nothing it seemed could abate the flames, no matter the pails of water flung at them, nor the hose drawn in by the gardener through a window, and I was on the point of ordering the Hall evacuated against the possibility of the entire edifice being consumed when the flames of a sudden died out, as though snuffed by an invisible breath. I trembled when it came time to examine the damage, but was astonished to find that, save for some crockery smashed during the excitement, there was no damage to speak of: not even by smoke.
This was the crashing overture to a much smaller first act in the drama. To be short about it, the house was soon troubled by what I came to understand to be a kind of "poltergeist" activity. Small flames, as though struck by invisible matches, would appear in the midst of the air and fall onto the rugs or furniture. Inevitably these snuffed themselves out, for they contained no great heat, and only once was a chair cushion singed. Nevertheless, I worried greatly that an undiscovered fire might smolder undetected in some empty room of the Hall. Fortunately, this never happened.
Less dramatic, but ultimately more wearying, were the cold spots that began to appear in doorways or at the intersection of hallways. I took these first to be the effect of draughts, but as they persisted despite every effort to close off openings, and indeed only intensified, I became resigned to the appearance of another classic phenomena associated with houses that are unwell. If the fires unnerved the spirit, the colds degraded them, for they would invade and envelop a room, sinking it into an unwholesome atmosphere of noisome decay. Once, on being caught in the parlor by a plunging chill, I steeled myself against it as an experiment. The last I felt before darkness overwhelmed me was a crushing headache and a cramping sickness in my bowels. The servants discovered me unconscious some time later, in a room warm with spring sunshine. I had, in my swoon, fouled the floor with my breakfast.
But I was not aware that these two tendencies within the house—fire and ice—were at war with each other until one evening when, the servants having departed, I was alone in the library. Summer was encroaching and the doors onto the lawn were open to the sweet scent of grass clippings, when there stole over me the impression that the room had grown quite hot, and was growing steadily hotter. I looked up to find the air rippling with warmth: it was—how shall I put this?—breathing, exhaling as though the house were the lungs of a great, panting beast, and I was somehow not surprised to see the bookcase along one wall buckle and bend, as though pressed inward by a great hand, and many of the books fell to the floor. It was to a door in this wall that I stumbled as I attempted to escape, yet when I grasped the knob I cried out in pain, for it was searing cold to the touch. I took the knob again with a handkerchief in my hand, and when I opened it I was struck full in the face by a wall of Arctic chill. A thunder, as of an explosion, rolled through the house, upsetting the furniture, and both heat and chill flowed away suddenly as though drawn off into a vacuum.
Despite these unnerving discomforts, I continued to live and sleep at the Hall, for it was discomfort only, and I felt no sense of physical threat. That changed in the latter part of June, when the final crisis arrived. I had repaired to my bed a little after ten, and was just becoming pleasantly drowsy when I felt an upwelling of heat within the bed: and not only heat but a panting, almost tropical humidity. I threw off sheets that were sodden, but was struck almost at once by a chill that fell like a sheet of ice upon me. Pressed between these opposing climes, I confess that I was paralyzed.
Two things next happened. It will take some words to describe them, but I was aware of them almost simultaneously. The first was the impression of a frost forming upon the ceiling directly over my bed, and taking the form of a face. There were deep folds in the cheeks, and the mouth and eyes were both sunken in, but I could not but read in its features an expression of extreme malignancy. At the same time, I was aware—as one is aware in a dream—that its malice was only directed obliquely at myself. It was upon a second personage that it bent its fury.
That second presence was the other of which I was instantly, and even more intimately, aware. My bed was invaded by—or perhaps I should say there manifested within it—a foreign body of restless heat. I felt it writhe on the bedsheets beside me, and heard the bedsprings groan, and heard it snuffle and pant like a wallowing animal. When I put my hand out to touch it—ask me not how I found the courage to do this—I touched to my horror a thing firm but yielding, clammy with sweat, and hot and smooth and fleshy.
That was bad enough, but when it rolled over atop me and pressed wet lips and tongue to the side of my face I screamed aloud. That I struggled beneath it I know, but how I came to escape it and the house I do not remember. I have not been under its roof since.
"Close" and "forward" the Draytons' bailiff had said of them. By which he meant, I later learned, that she had lovers at the Hall, over whom he contented himself to glacially brood.