"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Uncanny Oppenheim: E. Phillips Oppenheim's story The Two Spinsters

This is a charming book of interconnected adventures. They are not clued and puzzly classical who-done-its. They are stories of a bacherlor Scotland Yard man and his dog on a six month vacation in 1920s Devonshire.
Most are stand-alone adventures with real melodramatic charm. But "The Two Spinsters" has done real moments of uncanny menace, and I found it very moving.


by E. Phillips Oppenheim.  1927



NICHOLAS GOADE was without doubt a very first-class detective, but as a wayfarer across Devonshire byroads, with only a map and a compass to help him, he was simply a "washout." Even his fat little white dog, Flip, sheltered under a couple of rugs, after two hours of cold, wet, and purposeless journeying, looked at him reproachfully. With an exclamation of something like despair, Goade brought his sobbing automobile to a standstill at the top of one of the wickedest hills a Ford had ever been asked to face, even on first speed, and sat looking around him. In every direction the outlook was the same. There were rolling stretches of common, divided by wooded valleys of incredible depth. There was no sign of agricultural land, no sign of the working of any human being upon the endless acres, and not a single vehicle had he passed upon the way. There were no signposts, no villages, no shelter of any sort. The one thing that abounded was rain—rain and mist. Grey wreaths of it hung over the commons, making them seem like falling fragments of cloud, blotting out the horizon; hung over every hopeful break in the distance—an encircling, enveloping obscurity. Then, vying with the mists in wetness, came the level rain—rain which had seemed beautiful early in the afternoon, slanting from the heavens on to the mountainside, but rain which had long ago lost all pretence to being anything but damnably offensive, chilling, miserably wet. Flip, whose nose only now appeared uncovered, sniffed disgustedly, and Goade, as he lit a pipe, cursed slowly but fluently under his breath. What a country! Miles of byways without a single signpost, endless stretches without a glimpse of a farmhouse or village. And the map! Goade solemnly cursed the man who had ordained it, the printer who had bound it, and the shop where he had bought it. When he had finished, Flip ventured upon a gentle bark of approval.
"Somewhere or other," Goade muttered to himself, "should lie the village of Nidd. The last signpost in this blasted region indicated six miles to Nidd. Since then we have travelled at least twelve, there has been no turning to the left or to the right, and the village of Nidd is as though it had never been."
His eyes pierced the gathering darkness ahead. Through a slight uplifting in the clouds it seemed to him that he could see for miles, and nowhere was there any sign of village or of human habitation. He thought of the road along which they had come, and the idea of retracing it made him shiver. It was at that moment, when bending forward to watch the steam from his boiling radiator, that he saw away on the left a feebly flickering light. Instantly he was out of the car. He scrambled on to the stone wall and looked eagerly in the direction from which he had seen it. There was, without doubt, a light; around that light must be a house. His eyes could even trace the rough track that led to it. He climbed back to his place, thrust in his clutch, drove for about forty yards, and then paused at a gate. The track on the other side was terrible, but then so was the road. He opened it and drove through, bending over his task now with every sense absorbed. Apparently traffic here, if traffic existed at all, consisted only of an occasional farm wagon of the kind he was beginning to know all about—springless, with holes in the boarded floor, and with great, slowly turning wheels. Nevertheless, he made progress, skirted the edge of a tremendous combe, passed, to his joy, a semi-cultivated field, through another gate, up, it seemed suddenly, into the clouds, and down a fantastic corkscrew way until at last the light faced him directly ahead. He passed a deserted garden, pulled up before a broken-down iron gate, which he had to descend and open, and which he punctiliously closed after him, traversed a few yards of grass-grown, soggy avenue, and finally reached the door of what might once have been a very tolerable farmhouse, but which appeared now, notwithstanding the flickering light burning upstairs, to be one of the most melancholy edifices the mind of man could conceive. With scant anticipations in the way of a welcome, but with immense relief at the thought of a roof, Goade descended and knocked upon the oak door. Inside he could hear almost at once the sound of a match being struck; the light of a candle shone through the blindless windows of a room on his left. There were footsteps in the hall, and the door was opened. Goade found himself confronted by a woman, who held the candle so high above her head that he was able to see little of her features. There was a certain stateliness, however, about her figure, which he realised even in those first few seconds.
"What do you want?" she asked.
Goade, as he removed his hat, fancied that the answer was sufficiently obvious. Rain streamed from every angle of his bemackintoshed body. His face was pinched with the cold.
"I am a traveller who has lost his way," he explained. "For hours I have been trying to find a village and inn. Yours is the first human habitation I have seen. Can you give me a night's shelter?"
"Is there any one with you?" the woman enquired.
"I am alone," he replied—"except for my little dog," he added, as he heard Flip's hopeful yap.
The woman considered.
"You had better drive your car into the shed on the left-hand side of the house," she said. "Afterwards you can come in. We will do what we can for you. It is not much."
"I am very grateful, madam," Goade declared in all sincerity.
He found the shed, which was occupied only by two farm carts in an incredible state of decay. Afterwards he released Flip and returned to the front door, which had been left open. Guided by the sound of crackling logs, he found his way into a huge stone kitchen. In a high-backed chair in front of the fire, seated with her hands upon her knees, but gazing eagerly towards the door as though watching for his coming, was another woman, also tall, a little past middle age perhaps, but still of striking presence and fine features. The woman who had admitted him was bending over the fire. He looked from one to the other in amazement. They were fearfully and wonderfully alike.
"It is very kind of you, ladies, to give us shelter," he began. "Flip! Behave yourself, Flip!" A huge sheep dog had occupied the space in front of the fire. Flip without a moment's hesitation had run towards him, yapping fiercely. The dog, with an air of mild surprise, rose to his feet and looked enquiringly downwards. Flip insinuated herself into the vacant place, stretched herself out with an air of content, and closed her eyes.
"I must apologise for my little dog," Goade continued. "She is very cold." The sheep dog retreated a few yards and sat on his haunches, considering the matter. Meanwhile the woman who had opened the door produced a cup and saucer from a cupboard, a loaf of bread, and a small side of bacon, from which she cut some slices. "Draw your chair to the fire," she invited. "We have very little to offer you, but I will prepare something to eat."
"You are good Samaritans indeed," Goade declared fervently.
He seated himself opposite the woman who as yet had scarcely spoken or removed her eyes from his. The likeness between the two was an amazing thing, as was also their silence. They wore similar clothes—heavy, voluminous clothes they seemed to him—and each had a brooch at her bosom. Their hair, black and slightly besprinkled with grey, was arranged in precisely the same fashion. Their clothes belonged to another world, as did also their speech and manners, yet there was a curious distinction about them both.
"As a matter of curiosity," Goade asked, "how far am I from the village of Nidd?"
"Not far," the woman who was sitting motionless opposite to him answered. "To any one knowing the way, near enough. Strangers are foolish to trust themselves to these roads. Many people are lost who try."
"Yours is a lonely homestead," he ventured.
"We were born here," the woman answered. "Neither my sister nor I have felt the desire for travel."
The bacon began to sizzle. Flip opened one eye, licked her mouth, and sat up. In a few minutes the meal was prepared. A high-backed, oak chair was placed at the end of the table. There was tea, a dish of bacon and eggs, a great loaf of bread, and a small pot of butter. Goade took his place.
"You have had your supper?" he asked.
"Long ago," the woman who had prepared his meal replied. "Please to serve yourself." She sank into the other oak chair exactly opposite her sister.
Goade, with Flip by his side, commenced his meal. Neither had tasted food for many hours, and for a time both were happily oblivious to anything save the immediate surroundings. Presently, however, as he poured out his second cup of tea, Goade glanced towards his hostesses. They had moved their chairs slightly away from the fire and were both watching him—watching him without curiosity, yet with a certain puzzling intentness. It occurred to him then for the first time that, although both had in turn addressed him, neither had addressed the other.
"I can't tell you how good this tastes," Goade said presently. "I am afraid I must seem awfully greedy."
"You have been for some time without food, perhaps," one of them said.
"Since half-past twelve."
"Are you travelling for pleasure?"
"I thought so before to-day," he answered, with a smile to which there was no response.
The woman who had admitted him moved her chair an inch or two nearer to his. He noticed with some curiosity that immediately she had done so her sister did the same thing.
"What is your name?"
"Nicholas Goade," he replied. "May I know whom I have to thank for this hospitality?"
"My name is Mathilda Craske," the first one announced.
"And mine is Annabelle Craske," the other echoed.
"You live here alone?" he ventured.
"We live here entirely alone," Mathilda acquiesced. "It is our pleasure."
Goade was more than ever puzzled. Their speech was subject to the usual Devonshire intonation and soft slurring of the vowels, but otherwise it was almost curiously correct. The idea of their living alone in such a desolate part, however, seemed incredible.
"You farm here, perhaps?" he persisted. "You have labourers' cottages, or some one close at hand?"
Mathilda shook her head.
"The nearest hovel," she confided, "is three miles distant. We have ceased to occupy ourselves with the land. We have five cows—they give us no trouble—and some fowls."
"It is a lonely life," he murmured.
"We do not find it so," Annabelle said stiffly.
He turned his chair towards them. Flip, with a little gurgle of satisfaction, sprang on to his knees.
"Where do you do your marketing?" he asked.
"A carrier from Exford," Mathilda told him, "calls every Saturday. Our wants are simple."
The large room, singularly empty of furniture, as he noticed, looking round, was full of shadowy places, unillumined by the single oil lamp. The two women themselves were only dimly visible. Yet every now and then, in the flickering firelight, he caught a clearer glimpse of them. They appeared to him to be between forty and fifty years of age, so uncannily alike that they might well be twins. He found himself speculating as to their history. They must once have been very beautiful.
"I wonder whether it will be possible," he asked, after a somewhat prolonged pause, "to encroach further upon your hospitality and beg for a sofa or a bed for the night? Any place will do," he added hastily.
Mathilda rose at once to her feet. She took another candle from the mantelpiece and lit it.
"I will show you," she said, "where you may sleep."
For a moment Goade was startled. He had happened to glance towards Annabelle, and was amazed at a sudden curious expression—an expression almost of malice in her face. He stooped to bring her into the little halo of lamplight more completely and stared at her incredulously. The expression, if ever it had been there, had vanished. She was simply looking at him patiently, with something in her face which he failed utterly to understand.
"If you will follow me," Mathilda invited.
Goade rose to his feet. Flip turned round with a final challenging bark to the huge sheep dog, who had accepted a position remote from the fire, and, failing to elicit any satisfactory response, trotted after her master. They passed into a well-shaped but almost empty hall, up a broad flight of oak stairs, on to the first landing. Outside the room from which Goade had seen the candlelight she paused for a moment and listened.
"You have another guest?" he enquired.
"Annabelle has a guest," she replied. "You are mine. Follow me, please."
She led the way to a bedchamber in which was a huge four-poster and little else. She set the candle upon a table and turned down a sort of crazy quilt which covered the bedclothes. She felt the sheets and nodded approvingly. Goade found himself unconsciously following her example. To his surprise they were warm. She pointed to a great brass bed-warmer with a long handle at the farther end of the room, from which a little smoke was still curling upwards.
"You were expecting some one to-night?" he asked curiously.
"We are always prepared," she answered.
She left the room, apparently forgetting to wish him good night. He called out pleasantly after her, but she made no response. He heard her level footsteps as she descended the stairs. Then again there was silence—silence down below, silence in the part of the house where he was. Flip, who was sniffing round the room, at times showed signs of excitement, at times growled. Goade, opening the window, ventured upon a cigarette.
"Don't know that I blame you, old girl," he said. "It's a queer place."
Outside there was nothing to be seen, and little to be heard, save the roaring of a water torrent close at hand and the patter of rain. He suddenly remembered his bag, and, leaving the door of his room open, descended the stairs. In the great stone kitchen the two women were seated exactly as they had been before his coming and during his meal. They both looked at him, but neither spoke.
"If you don't mind," he explained, "I want to fetch my bag from the car."
Mathilda, the woman who had admitted him, nodded acquiescence. He passed out into the darkness, stumbled his way to the shed, and unstrapped his bag. Just as he was turning away, he thrust his hand into the tool chest and drew out an electric torch, which he slipped into his pocket. When he re-entered the house, the two women were still seated in their chairs and still silent.
"A terrible night," he remarked. "I can't tell you how thankful I am to you for this shelter."
They both looked at him, but neither made any reply. This time, when he reached his room, he closed the door firmly, and noticed with a frown of disappointment that except for the latch there was no means of fastening it. Then he laughed to himself softly. He, the famous captor of Ned Bullivant, the victor in a score of scraps with desperate men, suddenly nervous in this lonely farmhouse inhabited by a couple of strange women.
"Time I took a holiday," he muttered to himself. "We don't understand nerves, do we, Flip?" he added, lifting the bedcover.
Flip opened one eye and growled. Goade was puzzled.
"Something about she doesn't like," he ruminated. "I wonder who's in the room with the lighted candles?"
He opened his own door once more softly and listened. The silence was almost unbroken. From downstairs in the great kitchen he could hear the ticking of a clock, and he could see the thin streak of yellow light underneath the door. He crossed the landing and listened for a moment outside the room with the candles. The silence within was absolute and complete —not even the sound of the ordinary breathing of a sleeping person. He retraced his steps, closed his own door, and began to undress. At the bottom of his bag was a small automatic. His fingers played with it for a moment. Then he threw it back. The electric torch, however, he placed by the side of his bed. Before he turned in, he leaned once more out of the window. The roar of the falling water seemed more insistent than ever. Otherwise there was no sound. The rain had ceased, but the sky was black and starless. With a little shiver, he turned away and climbed into bed.
He had no idea of the time, but the blackness outside was just as intense, when he was suddenly awakened by Flip's low growling. She had shaken herself free from the coverlet at the foot of the bed, and he could see her eyes, wicked little spots of light, gleaming through the darkness. He lay quite still for a moment, listening. From the first he knew that there was some one in the room. His own quick intuition had told him that, although he was still unable to detect a sound. Slowly his hand travelled out to the side of the bed. He took up the electric torch and turned it on. Then, with a little cry, he shrank back. Standing within a few feet of him was Mathilda, still fully dressed, and in her hand, stretched out towards him, was the cruellest-looking knife he had ever seen. He slipped out of bed, and, honestly and self-confessedly afraid, kept the light fixed upon her.
"What do you want?" he demanded, amazed at the unsteadiness of his own voice. "What the mischief are you doing with that knife?"
"I want you, William," she answered, a note of disappointment in her tone. "Why do you keep so far away?"
He lit the candle. The finger which, on the trigger of his automatic, had kept Bullivant with his hands up for a life-long two minutes, was trembling. With the light in the room now established, however, he felt more himself.
"Throw that knife on the bed," he ordered, "and tell me what you were going to do with it?"
She obeyed at once and leaned a little towards him.
"I was going to kill you, William," she confessed.
"And why?" he demanded.
She shook her head sorrowfully.
"Because it is the only way," she replied.
"My name isn't William, for one thing," he objected, "and what do you mean by saying it is the only way?"
She smiled, sadly and disbelievingly.
"You should not deny your name," she said. "You are William Foulsham. I knew you at once, though you had been away so long. When he came," she added, pointing towards the other room, "Annabelle believed that he was William. I let her keep him. I knew if I waited, you would come."
"Waiving the question of my identity," he struggled on, "why do you want to kill me? What do you mean by saying it is the only way?"
"It is the only way to keep men," she answered. "Annabelle and I found that out when William left us. We sat here and we waited for him to come back. We said nothing, but we both knew."
"You mean that you were going to kill me to keep me here?" he persisted.
She looked towards the knife lovingly.
"That isn't killing," she said. "Death wouldn't come till later on, and you could never go away. You would be there always."
He began to understand, and a horrible idea stole into his brain.
"What about the man she thought was William?" he asked.
"You shall see him if you like," she answered eagerly. "You shall see how peaceful and happy he is. Perhaps you will be sorry then that you woke up. Come with me."
He possessed himself of the knife and followed her out of the room and across the landing. Underneath the door he could see the little chink of light—the light which had been his beacon from the road. She opened the door softly and held the candle over her head. Stretched upon another huge four- poster bed was the figure of a man with a ragged, untidy beard. His face was as pale as the sheet, and Goade knew from the first glance that he was dead. By his side, seated stiffly in a high-backed chair, was Annabelle. She raised her finger and frowned as they entered. She looked across at Goade.
"Step quietly," she whispered. "William is asleep."

JUST as the first gleam of dawn was forcing a finger of light through the sullen bank of clouds, a distraught and dishevelled-looking man, followed by a small, fat, white dog, stumbled into the village of Nidd, gasped with relief at the sight of the brass plate upon a door, and pulled the bell for all he was worth. Presently a window was opened and a man's shaggy head thrust out.
"Steady there!" he expostulated. "What's wrong?"
Goade looked up.
"I've spent a part of the night in a farmhouse a few miles from here," he explained. "There's a dead man there and two mad women, and my car's broken down."
"A dead man?" the doctor repeated.
"I've seen him. My car's broken down in the road, or I should have been here before."
"I'll be with you in five minutes," the doctor promised.
He was as good as his word. Presently they were seated in his car on their way back to the farm. He listened to Goade's story and nodded sympathetically.
"If the way I've been piecing it together turns out to be right," he remarked, "you've had a narrow escape."
It was light now and showed signs of clearing, and in a short time they drew up in front of the farmhouse. There was no answer to their knock. The doctor turned the handle of the door and opened it. They entered the kitchen. The fire was out, but, each in her high-backed chair, Mathilda and Annabelle were seated, facing each other, speechless, yet with wide-open eyes. They both turned their heads as the two men entered. Annabelle nodded slowly with satisfaction.
"It is the doctor," she said. "Doctor, I am glad that you have come. You know, of course, that William is back. He came for me. He is lying upstairs, but I cannot wake him. I sit with him and I hold his hand and I speak to him, but he says nothing. He sleeps so soundly. Will you wake him for me, please. I will show you where he lies."
She led the way from the room, and the doctor followed her. Mathilda listened to their footsteps. Then she turned to Goade with that strange smile once more upon her lips.
"Annabelle and I do not speak," she explained. "We have not spoken for so many years that I forget how long it is. I should like some one to tell her, though, that the man who lies upstairs is not William. I should like some one to tell her that you are William, and that you have come back for me. Sit down, William. Presently, when the doctor has gone, I will build the fire and make you some tea."
Goade sat down, and again he felt his hands trembling. The woman looked at him kindly.
"You have been gone a long time," she continued. "I should have known you anywhere, though. It is strange that Annabelle does not recognise you. Sometimes I think we have lived together so long here that she may have lost her memory. I am glad you fetched the doctor, William. Annabelle will know now her mistake."
There was the sound of footsteps descending the stairs. The doctor entered. He took Goade by the arm and led him on one side.
"You were quite right," he said gravely. "The man upstairs is a poor travelling tinker who has been missing for over a week. I should think that he has been dead at least four days. One of us must stay here whilst the other goes to the police station."
Goade caught feverishly at his hat. "I will go to the police station," he declared.

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