The strange tale which I am about to recount took place many years ago, in the summer of 19—, upon my return from university in Hertfordshire for the summer. My parents, as you will recall, had died in my youth, and I was staying with my aunt, who, being of busy disposition and not entirely sound mind, had decided to abandon a handsome rental in St. Albans and move north to the country, for no particular reason other than that she felt it might be a pleasant change. She had purchased a snug house in Ivydale and was eager to get there as soon as possible.
She had been hasty in her decision, however, and had completely overlooked making arrangements with the landlord concerning the St. Albans lease, not to mention paying her debts at the shops and saying goodbye to the bridge club and farewell to the postman and the milkman and the woman who did her cleaning on Wednesdays. She asked whether I wouldn’t travel up a few days early to make sure the house was weather-tight and all was in order, and she would follow directly after. I said yes, of course, Aunty, I’d be happy to.
In truth I was utterly miserable at the prospect.
Ivydale, as it happens, was the town where my Aunt grew up, and it was also the town where my parents had lived, and thus, of course, where I had lived with them when they were alive. I had fond memories of sunny lanes and ripe, buzzing fields, and now that I was older and reasonable, and viewed everything exactly as it was, I feared I would find the town dull and commonplace, and all my recollections would be tainted. But I was in no position to argue with my aunt, being little better than a charity case, and having found university rather a lonely place full of clever, frightening people, I decided to make the most of this latest inconvenience. I packed my satchel and took the train up first thing the next morning.
I had sent a telegram ahead to what friends I could still remember from my years in Ivydale. I did not expect to see any of them, but upon stepping off the train, four familiar faces were there to greet me. There was Jenny, who had shared a desk with me in the first year of school. There was Bill, who had been a braggart in the play-yard, and was still a braggart now. He told me straightaway he had ‘thought about leaving this dowdy old town’, but did I know, the money here was so much better than in the bigger places? I found this claim to be dubious. Then there was Oliver, who thought himself superior to all of us because he had been stationed in London at the very tail-end of the war, and there was his own acquaintance, a dour boy named Hackford, who I did not know and who was very quiet and long in the face.
We went on a short trip ’round Ivydale to our old haunts – the brook along the town’s border, a red-brick bridge and the weeping willows, Mrs. Whyst’s Cake Shop – and we were rather a loud, uncommonly merry group compared to what I was used to. I was in good spirits and happy to find the town mostly unchanged since I had last been there. It was still tiny, and leafy, bleeding effortlessly from grass to dusty lane and back again. The people had grown a bit grayer and more wrinkled since my last visit here, and there was now a train station, but otherwise progress seemed to have passed Ivydale by completely, without so much as a general store or movie theater deposited in its wake.
After several hours, I told my friends of the reason for my coming here, and of my Aunt’s new abode. When I told them its address, they agreed to accompany me there and to inspect whether it was up to snuff for a lady from the City, though I noticed that Hackford looked up sharply when I mentioned the location of the place.
We went along the lane out of the center of town, laughing and talking. Jenny pointed out the house to me as we approached. It stood at the top of a low hill and was lovely from the outside, bright-white and neat, with climbing roses and a high, stone wall around the garden. The roof was steeply pitched and the shutters had been painted not long past.
I unlocked the door with the key my Aunt had supplied me, and we all crowded into the hall. The house was very small inside, dim and tight. A small parlor opening off one side of the entry and a cramped study on the other. I observed the air was musty and close, but I also observed that there was no dust on any of the furnishings. I wondered if someone had come up from the village to clean before our arrival. We resolved right away to open all the windows and give the place a good airing. We proceeded to go through the house, throwing the casements wide, and as we went Bill asked if I planned to stay here alone until my Aunt arrived. I said, of course I would, but with no great conviction and soon it happened as I had secretly hoped, and Oliver, Bill, and Hackford agreed to stay in the cottage the first night to keep me company. We each chose sleeping spaces for ourselves on the second floor and explored all the little rooms. The house was not small, really, but it had been partitioned so many times that it seemed almost like a collection of closets, opening one into another. Another oddity we noticed, and which Jenny commented on at once, was the fact that the previous owner, whose things were still everywhere, appeared to have had a fondness for little Victorian dolls and clowns. There were a total of fourteen of them lined up on a shelf in the parlor.
It came about evening, and we went down to the inn for a bite, and to the corner shop for basic supplies. Jenny left our group then, with a backward wave and a merry farewell, and we set off back to the house. When we returned, we found it just as we had left it, only I realized we ought to have closed the windows before going out, as a wind had kicked up in our absence and was flapping the curtains madly, and racing so strongly I was worried it might send some of the many baubles and dolls flying out into the night.
We hurried through the house, closing the panes against the wind. I noticed at once, when we had finished and were congregated again in the parlor, that the whole exercise had done very little good: the house still felt tight and tiny, and the air smelled musty, as if the very walls and furniture had closed their pores and cracks against any sort of invasion of fresh air or newness. I decided it must be the decor; Aunty had warned me the house would be just as it was when the previous owners lived in it and she said she was most assuredly going to throw everything away when she arrived and decorate the house to the modern style, but for the moment, I wouldn’t mind, would I?
And I had said, no, Aunty, of course not, I’m sure it will be lovely.
We stayed a while in the parlor, lit a lamp and spoke of old times under the watchful, beady little black eyes of the dolls and clowns, and when the clock on the mantel began chiming 10, we all rose and bid each other a good night. I thanked Bill and Oliver and Hackford for being good sports about the house, and was apologetic to its faults, and tried to make it clear that I was very grateful they were there.
Bill, no doubt deciding I was becoming soppy, went to wind the clock on the mantel.
“Don’t bother,” Oliver said. “You don’t want that loud old thing going off at all hours of the night. Let it wind down on its own.”
And then we all went upstairs, peculiarly hushed, as though we had suddenly said everything we could say. There were two bedrooms on the second floor, down a short, narrow corridor from the stairs, and I thought, of course, that we might split the space evenly. Oliver had different plans, however, and took one room to himself, insisting he was of the highest rank among us and thus entitled to it. This left Bill, Hackford and myself the room across the corridor from him. I explored the second story a bit longer after the others had lain down on their makeshift beds, and came upon a small bathroom, very old-fashioned, with nary a spigot or running water to speak of. I found there on the edge of the basin a small square of terry cloth, filthy and damp of the sort a gardener might use after a long day of toiling in the soil, and I wondered at it being left there when the rest of the house was so fastidiously clean.
I returned to the bedroom and there we sat up a while longer in the light of a monstrous old kerosene lamp and spoke.
“You know,” said Hackford, after a while of idle talk. “I don’t fancy this house. And I don’t think your aunt will either once she gets to know the place a bit.”
“What d’you mean?” I ask him.
“Shut up,” said Bill, but Hackford continued.
“The man who lived here before . . . he was an odd one. His wife had died, and then he became a bit warped, always smiling when he came down to the shop in town, always friendly. But he had this cold, glittering sort of gaze above his smile that would make your heart stop in your chest. None of us really liked him.”
“He was just an eccentric,” Bill said. “There was no ‘cold and glittering gaze’, or whatever you said. We didn’t know him well enough to dislike him.”
“Well, that’s all the reason one needs to dislike someone,” I said, hoping to sound clever. “Not knowing them, I mean. What happened to him? He moved, I suppose.”
“Yes,” said Bill, staring up at the ceiling. “Or died. He had grown incredibly large in an unhealthy sort of way. Liked those cakes of Mrs. Whyst’s. Skin like flaps of old cheese, last I saw him, wandering about town in an odd hat and an odd suit. Probably went off to a nursing home like old Mr. Beecham from the shops. You know Mr. Beecham?”
The conversation turned to other things and then died down altogether. After some time, I drifted off to sleep.
Slowly, I came to my senses again to the distinct sound of a clock, ticking, somewhere in the house.
I lay still for some minutes, trying to sort out where it was coming from. And after a while I became certain the ticking was from downstairs in the parlor
I sat up in bed. The room was very dark. I was in no mood to go downstairs, but I was sure Bill had said it was about to wind down. Why, then, was it still ticking? It seemed very loud, and suddenly there was sharp clang and I suppose it must have reached midnight for it began ringing incessantly. Bill shifted somewhere on the floor, but did not wake. I decided I could not return to sleep with this racket going off and so I climbed from the narrow bed, resolving to go downstairs and wind the clock down by hand.
I slipped out into the hall and down the stairs, shuddering somewhat; the walls seemed very close, and the doors did too, and it all combined to give me the impression that if anything dreadful were in this house it would have no option but to be uncomfortably close to me. I came to the parlor and stepped in. Sure enough, there on the mantel, the parlor clock was tick-tocking merrily away, almost too quickly, like a maniacal little seesaw. I went to it, found its key on the backside, and wound it down sharply. It is not wise to wind a clock down by hand, as it is likely to damage the gears, but I was tired and Aunty would not be needing the clock anyway. I twisted the key all the way to its end, hearing the gears grind and snap in protest, and then I set the clock back down and turned and stepped into the entry way.
I had hardly gone five steps when I heard a sound behind me, a swift, metallic clicking and the rasp of a key, and then a brushing sound, like fabric being drawn swiftly over the floor. I spun, just in time to see the clock falling from the mantel and shattering to the floor.
The silence that followed was quite sudden and complete, my heart hammering in my ears.
I stared at the clock on the floor, illuminated by moonlight through the tiny windows. I looked at the fourteen dolls and clowns on their high shelf. They seemed like a small jury, inspecting me. And where there more dolls now on the shelf, more than fourteen? I thought perhaps I should go into the parlor and see what had caused the fall, but for some reason I dared not step over the threshold. Feeling suddenly very cold, I forced myself to do it and hurried about, careful to avoid the glass on the floor. The windows were all firmly closed. I found no evidence of a slant on the mantel that might have caused the clock to slip. My mind went to Hackford suddenly, and I recalled his dower ways and sinister descriptions, and wondered if he was playing a practical joke on us. But Hackford was soundly asleep upstairs – I had stepped over his body on the way out of the room – and what a foolish thing it would be if one were not even awake to enjoy the aftermath of one’s wicked jokes.
I started slowly back up the stairs, pondering the clock. When I reached the second floor, I noticed at once a light coming from the bathroom at the end of the corridor. It was very faint and it wavered as if someone were walking in front of it. The door stood slightly open.
I spun away and went straightaway back to bed, taking care to note the measured breathing of Hackford and Bill. I burrowed under the covers and waited, and there was not a sound, nor a disturbance, until I fell asleep.
I woke the next morning refreshed and well-rested, as if nothing had occurred, and recounted my tale to the others.
“Don’t worry,” Bill said. “We’ll bin it all up.” And we set about doing just that, gathering the clock and all the hideous dolls, and putting them outside together with a great deal of other turn-of-the-century rubbish.
After some hours my friends departed and I sat in the kitchen for my dinner. Aunty would be arriving tomorrow. The house was in good order, though I was beginning to agree with Hackford that she would not like it. This last night I was to be on my own. I must say I dreaded it greatly. I recalled I had forgotten to ask any of them if they had used the bathroom late that night and I very much wish I had. The smashed clock was gone and so were the dolls, but I could not forget the words Hackford had said, about the man with skin like old cheese, always smiling, cold and glitt’ring, cold and glitt’ring. I imagined him pawing over all the little knickknacks, rocking in the chair, dusting the furniture, and I felt a trespasser entirely.
I went to bed early, determined to sleep soundly and wake soon, but it was not to be. Sometime in the night, a small creaking from the corridor pulled me from sleep. I sat bolt upright. It was the unmistakeable sound of footsteps, and not quiet, stealthy footsteps, but someone walking quite freely down the corridor, soles clacking on the wooden floor. I rose quickly, unsure what to do, and then I took up the great old lamp and crept out into the corridor. It was empty. I was terrified I would see some ruffian, the flash of a knife or a pistol, but no one was there.
I was sure I had not imagined it. The corridor was so small and narrow, and I distinctly remember the sound of someone striding down it, perhaps even wheezing breaths and great arms touching the walls.
I turned to look down the stairs. Turned to look to at the opposite end. . .
And what should I see but the light of the bathroom on again, flickering, and a sound: the unmistakable sound of someone shaving his face; the scratch of a razor and sweeping rasp of a brush in barber’s cream; and humming. High, shrill, deeply unpleasant humming, in time to the sound of the blade and the foam.
Broke my clock
I’ll snap his back
I froze, gripped by such cold terror I could scarcely breathe. The voice was real, neither imagined nor dreamed. I could hear the wheezing breaths again, and how the man seemed to swing around in the small space, a great beast in that tiny closet of a room. And as I watched I saw the toes of a pair of great black shoes, just peeking past the edge of the door, as the man stood before the mirror.
I turned slowly, meaning to go down the stairs and flee, but as I was turning the floor contrived to squeak loudly and the sound of the razor and the foam-brush stopped. So did the wheezing and so did the song. I stood frozen, the air around me electric, as if waiting in expectation for some untold horror to occur, and when I looked back over my shoulder I saw only the toes of the shoes, motionless before the sink, and a huge pale hand gripping a razor.
I fled for the stairs, clattered down them, and coming to the front hall, rattled at the door. It was locked by my own hand, earlier that night, and the key was upstairs beneath my pillow. I fled into the parlor. The high shelf was empty, but for one doll, a little clown holding a satchel, with a wide red grimace on its bone-pale face. It was lying strangely, and I realized its back was broken, snapped into a triangle.
Upstairs, a slow tread emerged into the hallway, advancing toward the stairs, and whatever it was began to sing again, a stone-cold malice in its voice:
Locked the lock
He won’t get out
High in the rafters, deep in the earth
My lies in the roof and my truths in the dirt
They’d have me strung up
By my tail, by my hair
Too late for that now, friends
Too late for that now
And here, whatever it was up there in the hall reached the head of the stairs and I saw in the darkness a face, or perhaps a mask, and it seemed like that of a clown, freakishly exaggerated and grinning, black eye-holes in a pale face, and lips painted red as a wound.
I turned and smashed the window to the lawn, and leaped out and fled across the grass and through the gate. I did not stop running until I was at the inn, and there I banged on the door until the proprietor screamed at me and let me in. But even in the crisp sheets of my new bed, with the owner below and the guests above, I was still terrified that whatever was in that house might follow me down the hill and snap my back like a pencil.
It happened, later, that the police were brought in to investigate what I had told them was possibly a squatter or wandering criminal. They told me they found no evidence of such a person staying there, but they did find several large knives and a cleaver and a little room with a bolt on the outside, and in the end, the lovely little yard was dug up and there were discovered fourteen bodies buried at various depths, belonging to the many folks thought vanished or runaway from the village over the years. And in the attic, under a heavy blanket, was found the great corpse of the owner, who had died inside a chest which he had specially constructed to bolt from within, so that he might stay in his house even after death. Judging by the level of decomposition, the police suspected him to have been dead at least six months.
Later that year I returned to Hertfordshire and university, quite shaken by the entire ordeal and in fact very much excited to never go back to Ivydale again. As for my aunt, she was persuaded she did not want to live in the house on the hill after all the unpleasantness with the lawn coming up corpses, and she moved instead to a modern cottage in town, with running water and very many large, bright windows to let in the sun.