Edith Wharton - All Hallows',
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Edith Wharton

All Hallows': Edith Wharton tells the story of her cousin Sara Clayburn who, following the death of her husband Jim, comes into possession of the house known as Whitegates. People expect her to move away to New York or Boston, but she doesn’t want to live in a ‘bird-cage flat’ in Lexington Avenue, preferring her Colonial roots in the great house overlooking the Connecticut River, five miles from Norrington.

It’s a large house but she isn’t alone; she has her servants for company. Coming home one November day she meets a woman she doesn’t recognise, obviously going to the house. The woman tells her that she’s going to see ‘one of the girls’. A little further on her walk, Sara slips on a frozen puddle and turns her ankle and lies helpless until she’s found by the servants and brought back to the house.

Dr Selgrove advises her that her ankle is probably broken, but possibly she might not need a plaster if she keeps her leg perfectly still. Frustrated by the enforced inactivity she makes a poor patient but is made comfortable by her maid Agnes.

She is woken by pain in the small hours and when her servants don’t answer the ringing of her bell finally rises from bed and makes her way painfully out into the house.

“…outside in the corridor the cold whiteness of the snowy morning seemed almost reassuring. Mysterious things – dreadful things – were associated with darkness; and here was the wholesome prosaic daylight come again to banish them. Mrs Clayburn looked about her and listened. A deep nocturnal silence in that day-lit house, in which five people were presumably coming and going about their work.”

But no-one answers her call, and the electric seems to be cut off. The phone doesn’t work. Painfully on her broken ankle she descends into the house, looking, looking.

The spell of isolation is almost palpable in this story. Silence manifests like another character in the story.

“The broad oak stairs were beautifully polished, and so slippery that she had to cling to the rail and let herself down tread by tread. And as she descended, the silence descended with her – heavier, denser, more absolute. She seemed to feel its steps just behind her, softly keeping time with hers. It had a quality she had never been aware of in any other silence, as though it were not merely an absence of sound, a thin barrier between the ear and the surging murmur of life just beyond, but an impenetrable substance made made out of the world-wide cessation of all life and all movement.”

And later we are told:

“She was sure that the nearness of another human being, however dumb and secret, would have made a faint crack in the texture of that silence, flawed it as a sheet of glass is flawed by a pebble thrown against it…”

The final explanation of the silent and deserted house, like a Marie Celeste in the snow, strikes me as unimportant. There are stories where the author conjures a spell where the reader is transfixed and content to enjoy the world presented to him, and this story seems one of these.

First published about 1909, I found this story in 65 Great Tales of the Supernatural edited by Mary Danby 1979.

Rog Pile

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