Mrs. Amworth

E. F. Benson

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08 Jul, 2014 10:15 PM

The village of Maxley, where last summer and autumn, these strange events
took place, lies on a heathery and pine-clad upland of Sussex. In all England
you could not find a sweeter and saner situation. Should the wind blow from
the south, it comes laden with the spices of the sea; to the east high downs
protect it from the inclemencies of March; and from the west and north the
breezes which reach it travel over miles of aromatic forest and heather. The
village itself is insignificant enough in point of population, but rich in
amenities and beauty. Half-way down the single street, with its road and
spacious areas of grass on each side, stands the little Norman Church and the
antique graveyard long disused: for the zest there are a dozen small, sedate
Georgian houses, red-bricked and long-windowed, each with a square of
flower-garden in front, and an ampler strip behind; a score of shops, and a
couple of score of thatched cottages belonging to laborers on neighboring
estates, complete the entire cluster of its peaceful habitations. The general
peace, however, is sadly broken on Saturdays and Sundays, for we lie on one
of the main roads between London and Brighton and our quiet street becomes a
racecourse for flying motor-cars and bicycles. A notice just outside the
village begging them to go slowly only seems to encourage them to accelerate
their speed, for the road lies open and straight, and there is really no
reason why they should do otherwise. By way of protest, therefore, the ladies
of Maxley cover their noses and mouths with their handkerchiefs as they see a
motor-car approaching, though, as the street is asphalted, they need not
really take these precautions against dust. But late on Sunday night the
horde of scorchers has passed, and we settle down again to five days of
cheerful and leisurely seclusion. Railway strikes which agitate the country
so much leave us undisturbed because most of the inhabitants of Maxley never
leave it at all.

I am the fortunate possessor of one of these small Georgian houses, and
consider myself no less fortunate in having so interesting and stimulating a
neighbor as Francis Urcombe, who, the most confirmed of Maxleyites, has not
slept away from his house, which stands just opposite to mine in the village
street, for nearly two years, at which date, though still in middle life, he
resigned his Physiological Professorship at Cambridge University and devoted
himself to the study of those occult and curious phenomena which seem equally
to concern the physical and the psychical sides of human nature. Indeed his
retirement was not unconnected with his passion for the strange uncharted
places that lie on the confines and borders of science, the existence of
which is so stoutly denied by the more materialistic minds, for he advocated
that all medical students should be obliged to pass some sort of examination
in mesmerism, and that one of the tripos papers should be designed to test
their knowledge in such subjects as appearances at time of death, haunted
houses, vampirism, automatic writing, and possession.

"Of course they wouldn't listen to me," ran his account of the matter, "for
there is nothing that these seats of learning are so frightened of as
knowledge, and the road to knowledge lies in the study of things like these.
The functions of the human frame are, broadly speaking, known. They are a
country, anyhow, that has been charted and mapped out. But outside that lie
huge tracts of undiscovered country, which certainly exist, and the real
pioneers of knowledge are those who, at the cost of being derided as
credulous and superstitious, want to push on into those misty and probably
perilous places. I felt that I could be of more use by setting out without
compass or knapsack into the mists than by sitting in a cage like a canary
and chirping about what was known. Besides, teaching is very bad for a man
who knows himself only to be a learner; you only need to be a self-conceited
ass to teach."

Here, then, in Francis Urcombe, was a delightful neighbor to one who, like
myself, has an uneasy and burning curiosity about what he called the "misty
and perilous places"; and this last spring we had a further and most welcome
addition to our pleasant little community, in the person of Mrs. Amworth,
widow of an Indian civil servant. Her husband had been a judge in the
North-West Provinces, and after his death at Peshawar she came back to
England, and after a year in London found herself starving for the ampler air
and sunshine of the country to take the place of the fogs and griminess of
town. She had, too, a special reason for settling in Maxley, since her
ancestors up till a hundred years ago had long been native to the place, and
in the old churchyard, now disused, are many gravestones bearing her maiden
name of Chaston. Big and energetic, her vigorous and genial personality
speedily woke Maxley up to a higher degree of sociality than it had ever
known. Most of us were bachelors or spinsters or elderly folk not much
inclined to exert ourselves in the expense and effort of hospitality, and
hitherto the gaiety of a small tea-party, with bridge afterwards and galoshes
(when it was wet) to trip home in again for a solitary dinner, was about the
climax of our festivities. But Mrs. Amworth showed us a more gregarious way,
and set an example of luncheon parties and little dinners, which we began to
follow. On other nights when no such hospitality was on foot, a lone man like
myself found it pleasant to know that a call on the telephone to Mrs.
Amworth's house not a hundred yards off, and an inquiry as to whether I might
come over after dinner for a game of piquet before bedtime, would probably
evoke a response of welcome. There she would be, with a comrade-like
eagerness for companionship, and there was a glass of port and cup of coffee
and a cigarette and game of piquet. She played the piano, too, in a free and
exuberant manner, and had a charming voice and sang to her own accompaniment;
and as the days grew long and the light lingered late, we played our game in
her garden, which in the course of a few months she had turned from being a
nursery for slugs and snails into a glowing patch of luxuriant blossoming.
She was always cheery and jolly; she was interested in everything, and in
music, in gardening, in games of all sorts was a competent performer.
Everybody (with one exception) liked her, everybody felt her to bring with
her the tonic of a sunny day. That one exception was Francis Urcombe; he,
though he confessed he did not like her, acknowledged that he was vastly
interested in her. This always seemed strange to me, for pleasant and jovial
as she was, I could see nothing in her that could call forth conjecture or
intrigued surmise, so healthy and unmysterious a figure did she present. But
of the genuineness of Urcombe's interest there could be no doubt; one could
see him watching and scrutinizing her. In matter of age, she frankly
volunteered the information that she was forty-five; but her briskness, her
activity, her unravaged skin, her coal-black hair, made it difficult to
believe that she was not adopting an unusual device, and adding ten years on
to her age instead of subtracting them.

Often, also, as our quite unsentimental friendship ripened, Mrs. Amworth
would ring me up and propose her advent. If I was busy writing, I was to give
her, so we definitely bargained, a frank negative, and in answer I could hear
her jolly laugh and her wishes for a successful evening of work. Sometimes,
before her proposal arrived, Urcombe would already have stepped across from
his house opposite for a smoke and a chat, and he, hearing who my intending
visitor was, always urged me to beg her to come. She and I should play our
piquet, said he, and he would look on, if we did not object, and learn
something of the game. But I doubt whether he paid much attention to it, for
nothing could be clearer than that, under that penthouse of forehead and
thick eyebrows, his attention was fixed not on the cards, but on one of the
players. But he seemed to enjoy an hour spent thus, and often, until one
particular evening in July, he would watch her with the air of a man who has
some deep problem in front of him. She, enthusiastically keen about our game,
seemed not to notice his scrutiny. Then came that evening, when, as I see in
the light of subsequent events, began the first twitching of the veil that
hid the secret horror from my eyes. I did not know it then, though I noticed
that thereafter, if she rang up to propose coining round, she always asked
not only if I was at leisure, but whether Mr. Urcombe was with me. If so, she
said, she would not spoil the chat of two old bachelors, and laughingly
wished me good night.

Urcombe, on this occasion, had been with me for some half-hour before Mrs.
Amworth's appearance, and had been talking to me about the medieval beliefs
concerning vampirism, one of those borderland subjects which he declared had
not been sufficiently studied before it had been consigned by the medical
profession to the dust-heap of exploded superstitions. There he sat, grim and
eager, tracing, with that pellucid clearness which had made him in his
Cambridge days so admirable a lecturer, the history of those mysterious
visitations. In them all there were the same general features; one of those
ghoulish spirits took up its abode in a living man or woman, conferring
supernatural powers of bat-like flight and glutting itself with nocturnal
blood-feasts. When its host died it continued to dwell in the corpse, which
remained undecayed. By day it rested, by night it left the grave and went on
its awful errands. No European country in the Middle Ages seemed to have
escaped them; earlier yet, parallels were to be found, in Roman and Greek and
in Jewish history.

"It's a large order to set all that evidence aside as being moonshine," he
said. "Hundreds of totally independent witnesses in many ages have testified
to the occurrence of these phenomena, and there's no explanation known to me
which covers all the facts. And if you feel inclined to say `Why, then, if
these are facts, do we not come across them now?' there are two answers I can
make you. One is that there were diseases known in the Middle Ages, such as
the black death, which were certainly existent then and which have become
extinct since, but for that reason we do not assert that such diseases never
existed. Just as the black death visited England and decimated the population
of Norfolk, so here in this very district about three hundred years ago there
was certainly an outbreak of vampirism, and Maxley was the center of it. My
second answer is even more convincing, for I tell you that vampirism is by no
means extinct now. An outbreak of it certainly occurred in India a year or
two ago."

At that moment I heard my knocker plied in the cheerful and peremptory manner
in which Mrs. Amworth is accustomed to announce her arrival, and I went to
the door to open it.

"Come in at once," I said, "and save me from having my blood curdled. Mr.
Urcombe has been trying to alarm me."

Instantly her vital, voluminous presence seemed to fill the room.

"Ah, but how lovely!" she said. "I delight in having my blood curdled. Go on
with your ghost story, Mr. Urcombe. I adore ghost stories."

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