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

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

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Randalls Round by Eleanor Scott (1925)

Randalls Round by Eleanor Scott

(1925; Reprint 2010 Oleander Press)

The collection Randalls Round overflows with "fields and furrows" tropes associated today with the folk horror mode of writing in the horror field. Locations and landscapes are related with confident brevity.

Randalls Round

The short story "Randalls Round" has the dreamlike quality of biting and arbitrary distance. It begins in the Jamesian manner with Heyling dismissing his friend Mortlake's interest in the actual material basis of folk customs. (Heyling will learn better.)

Then Heyling is off to a weekend's rest a Cotswolds inn called The Flaming Hand.

(In passing, we are informed the date is October 31.)

....The origin of this dance," he read, "is almost certainly sacrificial. Near Randalls is one of those 'banks' or mounds, surrounded by a thicket, which the villagers refuse to approach. These mounds are not uncommon in the Cotswolds, though few seem to be regarded with quite as much awe as Randalls Bank, which the country people avoid scrupulously. The bank is oval in shape, and is almost certainly formed by a long barrow of the Paleolithic age. This theory is borne out by the fact that at one time the curious Randalls Round was danced about the mound, the 'victim' being led into the fringe of the thicket that surrounds it." (A footnote added, "Whether this is still the case I cannot be certain.") "Permission to open the tumulus has always been most firmly refused."

     "That's amusing," thought Heyling, as he laid down the book and felt for a match. "Jove, what a lark it would be to get into that barrow!" he went on, drawing at his pipe. "Wonder if I could get leave? The villagers seem to have changed their ways a bit – they do their show in the village now. They mayn't be so set on their blessed mound as they used to be. Where exactly is the place?"

     He drew out an ordnance map, and soon found it – a field about a mile and a half north–west of the village, with the word "Tumulus" in Gothic characters.

     "I'll have a look at that tomorrow," Heyling told himself, folding up the map. "I must find out who owns the field, and get leave to investigate a bit. The landlord would know who the owner is, I expect."

*   *   *

The Twelve Apostles

An outstanding antiquarian supernatural story: a rich magnate from the U.S. gets his wish when stating he wants to buy a haunted estate. Forbidden rooms and slime trails abound, as do "treasure" riddles. The story recalls both James and the finest of E. F. Benson's slime-trail chillers.

....'They found Harcott. His body was lying in the passage that leads from the priest's room: he seemed to have been running away from the room down the passage. He was quite dead.' 

     There was a moment's silence, and then the Vicar continued: 'Sir, I am an old man. I have read many curious books and seen many curious things. I ask you with all the earnestness of which I am capable not to pry into this matter. Buy the house if you will – you will be doing a kindness to my old friend Godfrey Langtre and taking a step that you will not, I think, regret: but, as you value your life and your sanity, avoid that accursed room.' 

     He paused, flushed with the embarrassment of a shy man who interferes in another's affairs. 

     'Sir, I'm grateful, real grateful, to you,' said the American, 'and I'll bear in mind what you've said. You've impressed me. But I'm interested, and I'll buy that house right now, lock, stock and barrel. And I hope, sir, that you'll do me the great kindness to come and see me sometimes, I won't trespass on your time any more now. Goodbye, sir, and thank you.' 

     So Mr Matthews became the owner of Barton Cross Manor. 

     If the house was not quite as attractive seen in the dusk of a drizzling October afternoon as it had appeared in the mellow sunshine of September, certainly Mr Gibson could not be blamed for the fact. Nor could Mr Langtre. Yet Mr Matthews felt that he wanted to blame someone for the discomfort of the chill rooms with their stiff and unwelcoming air and suspicious atmosphere. Presently he put it down to the attitude of a couple, mother and son, who had been caretakers at the Manor, and who no doubt objected to having to do a little work, besides opening windows and airing rooms, in exchange for the wages the Langtre family allowed them. In fact, thought the American, sniffing the close air of the passages, they didn't seem really keen on doing even that.

*   *   *


Maddox is ordered by his doctor to get a complete rest away from normal surroundings. Maddox ends up in coastal Brittany, lodging with a local Catholic curé.

Scott beautifully renders the landscape, carefully introducing the unanny with subtlety. ("Celui-là" certainly equals other stories with a Breton setting: "Miss Mary Pask" by Edith Wharton and the superb "The Messenger" by Robert W. Chambers.)

....The country also appealed very strongly to the visitor. It was at once desolate and friendly, rough and peaceful. He particularly liked the long reaches of the shore, where the tangle of heath and whin gave place to tufts of coarse, whitish grass and then to a belt of shingle and the long level stretches of smooth sand. He liked to walk there when evening had fallen, the moorland on his left rising black to the grey sky, the sea, smooth and calm, stretching out infinitely on his right, a shining ripple lifting here and there. Oddly enough, M. le Curé did not seem to approve of these evening rambles; but that, Maddox told himself, was common among peasants of all races; and he idly wondered whether this were due to a natural liking for the fireside after a day in the open, or whether there were in it some ancient fear of the spirits and demons that country people used to fear in the dim time entre le chien et le loup. Anyhow, he wasn't going to give up his evening strolls for a superstition of someone else's!

     It was near the end of October, but very calm weather for the time of year; and one evening the air was so mild and the faint shine of the stars so lovely that Maddox extended his walk beyond its usual limits. He had always had the beach to himself at that time of the evening and he felt a natural, if quite unjustifiable annoyance when he first noticed that there was someone else on the shore.

     The figure was perhaps fifty yards away. At first he thought it was a peasant woman, for it had some sort of hood drawn over the head, and the arms, which it was waving or wringing, were covered by long, hanging sleeves. Then as he drew nearer, he saw that it was far too tall for a woman, and jumped to the conclusion that it must be a monk or wandering friar of quite exceptional height.

     The light was very dim, for the new moon had set, and the stars showed a faint diffused light among thin drifts of cloud; but even so Maddox could not help noticing that the person before him was behaving very oddly. It – he could not determine the sex – moved at an incredible speed up and down a short stretch of beach waving its draped arms; then suddenly, to his horror, it broke out into a hideous cry, like the howl of a dog.

*   *   *

The Room

A droll tale of five friends who take turns spending the night in a haunted bedroom.

....In the afternoon Ladislaw, Massingham and Vernon sat together at one end of the long library. Reece and Grindley, at the far end, talked together; Amory alone was absent.

     "I say," said Massingham a little awkwardly, "don't you chaps think we've gone far enough? I mean, there's not much point in crocking ourselves over this confounded business, is there? Look at Reece, for instance; we don't want to push a simple-minded kid like that into this hell-hole. What do you think?"

     "Reece won't hurt," said Vernon heavily.

     "Oh, I don't know," said Massingham. "He's more sensitive than you'd think. Look what he's done for poor old Grindley. What do you say, Mac?"

     "No one ought to go near that room," cried Ladislaw fiercely. "You're right, Massingham – hell-hole's the word for it."

     Vernon opened his mouth and closed it without speaking.

     "I'm not going!" said Ladislaw. "It's my turn tonight, isn't it? Well, I've got pluck enough not to go."

     Vernon looked up at him with an odd questioning glance, and their eyes met.

     "You know?" asked Vernon.

     Ladislaw nodded. "Enough," he said. "I've seen things – at home. I know what might – anyway, I'm not going."

     He rose and went towards the door; then he turned back.

     "What about you, Massingham? Will you be wise in time and chuck it too?"

     Massingham flushed a little.

     "No, I don't think I'll chuck it," he said slowly. "Oh, I'm in a funk all right! But I can't exactly ask people here, and make them face – whatever's in that room – and not go myself, can I?"

     Vernon suddenly broke in.

     "Massingham – don't," he said, laying his hand on the other man's arm. "We, who've been – we'll understand. And Ladislaw will."

     Massingham looked at him intently.

     "I think I must go, Vernon," he said very quietly. "Besides, if Reece, why not me?"

     Vernon got rather red.

     "Look here," he said, "I've been, and I know what I'm talking about. Reece will be all right; but you – ! Don't ask why, Dick, but don't – don't go into that damned place."

*   *   *

The Cure

A oustanding  harvest horror story: the narrator welcomes his old friend Erik to his farm for a rest at the behest of Erik's sister.

....I'd grown up next door to the Storms, and we three – Erik and Freda and I – had played together. Erik invented the games out of his head – wonderful games, I daresay, for he was a wonderful boy; but Freda, who was quick and practical, and I, who was slow and literal, used to shriek with laughter sometimes over his wild fancies; and we could never see, as he could, all manner of beauties and terrors by 'just thinking." So it generally ended in Erik's going off, sore and furious, to the bare sea-marshes, while Freda and I played the normal, ordinary games in the pretty secluded garden. When our games gave out – (two is a small number, and we were uninventive) – we used to go out and find Erik, sitting in the sea- lavender with his hands clasped round his knees, crooning to himself; or standing, silent, listening to the lonely wind creeping round the dunes. Most unhealthy. He'd generally forgotten all about the quarrel then. He never did remember his human relationships very well.

     We didn't go to the same school. Erik went to some queer Scandinavian place – did I say that Mr. Storm was Scandinavian? Swedish or Norwegian or Danish, I forget which – and I went to a "lesser public school" near home. I was only a weekly boarder, and so I saw a lot of Freda still. She was a good pal – far more of a boy than a girl, though a good housewife even then. And I'm afraid we didn't miss Erik much. Then he went to Oxford; and I, who was far too stupid for a University, and had no desire whatever for one, took to farming in Sussex. Freda went on her brisk, interested way alone until she got married to a decent quiet chap called Martin. And then for some years I lost sight of the Storms – heard vaguely of Freda's babies – that Erik had gone abroad to Russia – that he was spending six months in Iceland – that he was doing research into Northern folklore. So like Erik, I thought.

     Then, one day when I was in town on business, Freda and I ran into each other in Baker Street.

     "Spud!" she said, rather breathlessly. "It's like a miracle. I believe I was praying to see you."

     She slurred her r's, as she always did when she was excited.

     "Were you?" I said stupidly. I hadn't seen her for over four years, but we always met like that – as though one of us had just been out of the room for a moment and had come back. "What's up?" I went on, for she looked quite disturbed.

     "I can't tell you here," she said, looking round. "Can't we go somewhere and talk?"

     "Madame Tussaud's-" I began. I was quite surprised when she began to laugh a little wildly.

     "Spud! How like you!" she cried. "We meet after four years – you come like a miracle – and you propose to go to a waxwork show!"

     "Not to see the waxworks," I explained patiently. I'd never seen Freda like that before. "To talk. It's quiet. It's generally empty at this time of year."

     "I didn't even know there was really such a place… Well, let's go - anywhere to talk in peace – I must talk to you, Spud."

     So we went. It was nearly empty – I knew it would be, in June – and we ordered tea in the place there. And Freda told me.

     "It's Erik," she said, taking off her gloves very carefully. "He's – so funny, Spud."

     I nodded. That was nothing unusual.

     "He's… Well, you know how he went off into the North to find out sagas and charms and things? He found out a lot… and… I can't quite follow it all. He was alone, you know, alone there in the dark and the ice… He seemed – fascinated… He went about, farther and farther north. He opened tombs and things… and he found odd things, and heard – dreadful things… Spud, I think he got sort of – possessed. He used to go out alone at night to those awful old dead places… and he'd learned spells and charms and rites… And – and, Spud – I'm – afraid."

     She broke off sharply. She was quite pale.

     "He got ill. Of course he did, going out at night into that ghastly cold. I went to him. He was – I've never seen him like that before. He was frightened – oh, I can't tell you - terrified! He was delirious - he shrieked – and then he'd whisper, and whisper… Just scraps, but enough…"

     Her voice was shaking so that she had to stop. After a little she went on more quietly.

     "Well, I brought him home, back to the sun and warmth. His nerves are all to pieces. He's more or less controlled, now, but -

     Well, honestly, Spud, I don't like having him in the house with the children. Peter's timid as it is, and he and Erik are always together. And then you came into my mind… I thought you might help… I don't know what to do."

     I'd never seen Freda so distressed.

     "Is he still ill – apart from nerves I mean?" I asked.

     "Oh no – his body's all right. He needs to vegetate you know. He's been so worked up – so excited over all this silly magic business. And you're such a calm old thing Spud-"

*   *   *

The Tree

"The Tree" is a magnificent tragedy in the marital horror vein.

....He was dreaming. Not dreaming happily, with the bliss of deep repose after a long spell of work, but restlessly, turning his head from side to side and muttering a little. Soon she could even hear what he said.

     "One – two – three", he whispered. "Listen to them – heavy – heavy – striking at it… How strong it is! Will it never fall? Oh, I can't bear it!" he suddenly cried out, starting up on the couch. "Stop, stop! Don't strike again! I can't bear-"

     Nan went over, soothing him as if he had been a child.

     "Darling, it's all right," she crooned. "It's not hurt. They haven't touched it yet. It's all right, Ralph."

     He turned on her bewildered eyes, dazed with dreams.

     "I thought – they were cutting down the tree," he muttered. "It's horrible – murderous. It – it hurt me – they were striking at me too…" He paused, puzzled. Already the vividness of the dream impression was fading. "They struck and struck at it… It wouldn't fall…" he said. Then, urgently, "It's still there Nan, isn't it?"

     "Yes, sweetheart," she answered quietly. Her heart ached for him though she couldn't understand his anguish; his rumpled hair and bewildered eyes made him look so like a small boy.

     He looked out of the window. The great branches spread and soared against the pale sky. The lines of the ropes placed by the workmen clung to it like the monstrous tentacles of some vile reptile seeking to sap its mighty strength.

     "Nan – they mustn't go on. It – I must stop it. Nan, do you understand? I – it's – I must stop it."

     "All right, old thing," said Nan tranquilly. "Go round now and tell them not to do it. Give them something for their trouble. I'll have supper ready when you get back."

     And so the tree was spared; and Nan, who had always loved it with a warmth she could hardly explain even to herself, could have sung with glee.

     All that spring she rejoiced, whenever she looked at it. It wasn't till she saw Ralph's big picture that she began to regret.

     She knew the idea of the picture. It was to be called "Dawn." It was a dim, half-light picture of a stretch of rough heathery ground, barred by a wet, rutty track gleaming in the silver light of a cold dawn. There was in the picture a physical feeling of wet, chill, pure air – you could feel it on your face. And it was spacious and vast, so that you got an impression of the unity of earth and sky, and the feeling of that pause that seems to come into the life of things just at the dawn… And when Nan looked at it, late in May, Ralph had painted into it the ash tree. It loomed up in the foreground, malignant as ash trees are malignant: and the meaning of the picture – its purity and cold truth – were lost in romantic suggestion.

     "Oh, Ralph!" cried Nan. "I don't like the tree."

     Ralph looked at her oddly and said nothing.

     "Why did you put it in?" she wailed. "It's wicked – witchcrafty – and your picture was so cold and pure and quiet-"

     He laughed, a hard, almost cruel little laugh.

     "Good for you, Nan," he said, almost with a sneer. "Didn't you know that ash trees were the special property of witches?"

     "I-I don't know… But why have you put it in, Ralph? It – it's spoiling it. Can't you paint it out – get rid of it? Do."

     He looked at her, and she felt quite suddenly and unreasoningly afraid.

     "I can't get rid of it now," he said slowly. "I missed my chance. I shall never get rid of it now."

*   *   *

At Simmel Acres Farm

Two college friends rusticate at a farm. They soon literally enter, each in their own way, panic mode. The story-handling is very well done.

...."Is there a story about it?" I asked. I am very keen on folk-lore and legends, and thought there might be something here.

     "N-no," she answered, rather reluctantly. And then, "But if I was you, sir, I'd keep out o' Simmel Acres Plot."

     "Well, let's look at it, anyway," I said; and with no more words we opened the door – the lock shrieked dismally, I remember – and went in.

     It was by no means as bad as Mrs. Stokes had painted it. The grass was long and rank, but the nettles had confined themselves to the shelter of the high stone walls. But the thing that drew my attention was the old gabled end of the barn. It was perhaps sixteen feet high, rounded off in a curiously rough and archaic form of arch. The roof, as I have said, projected in a kind of rugged penthouse, about two feet deep, and about half-way up the wall there was a niche with a stone bust of a man.

     It was a very odd piece of work, worn by time and exposure, but quite complete enough for me. The top part of the head was the most disfigured; I could see some kind of fillet or crown, and some clumsy, conventional indications of hair. The blank eye-sockets were rather large, oddly rounded at the corners, and had in consequence an expression of ruthlessness. The nose was too worn to be in any way remarkable; but the mouth had the most subtle expression – at once cynical, suffering, cruel, undaunted and callous. The chin was square, but weak; the neck powerful, in a conventional manner. It was altogether a remarkable thing – almost savage in its clumsiness and crudity, and yet conveying a singular impression of truth to an original.

     At first I thought it was a piece of decadent Roman sculpture; then I dismissed that as absurd. How could a Roman bust be in a barn in the Cotswolds? It might have been an eighteenth century copy, but I didn't think so; it was too crude, too strong, too – I must use the word again – too archaic. Besides, when the eighteenth century copied Roman busts they were put in little pseudo-classical temples, not in niches in barns.

     This was not all. Below the barn was a small semi-circular basin, floored with smooth pebbles, through which welled up water so clear as to be almost invisible – exactly like the Holy Wishing Wells one finds occasionally, decorated with pins and rags and other tributes to the presiding deity. But here there were no offerings.

*   *   *

"Will Ye No' Come Back Again?"

....If Annis Breck took up a thing, you might be pretty sure there was money in it. She'd make this hostel a very paying thing, see if she didn't. But when they heard that she had taken Queen's Garth, they wondered if she would. They then said that these "business women"…! and again left it at that.

     For, they pointed out, Queen's Garth had stood empty for years. It had been unfortunate in its owners. The last of the original family, old Miss Campbell, was the only survivor of a clan that had lived in the house ever since it was built in the seventeenth century. They had apparently specialised in strong-minded females, who had very occasionally condescended to marry, but had always ruled with a rod of iron, having a deep-rooted suspicion of men and a determination to keep them well under. How they had ever married at all was a marvel; no doubt it had been entirely for practical, and never for romantic, reasons. The family had now died out, it was true, but (said the foes, nastily) it seemed that the tradition of the firm female and the rod of iron was to endure. They pitied the girls, they said.

     Then came the friends. Annis was wonderful, they knew that, but had she really considered? Did she realise all it meant? The house had stood empty so long. The furniture, they knew, had been lovely – Sheraton and Chippendale and all sorts of gems – but it must be simply dropping to pieces now. The house was charming, of course, and dirt cheap, and the rooms beautifully large, but, my dear! Think of the work, with all those stairs and twisting passages, and no conveniences to speak of. Besides, there was some story – oh, no one believed it, of course, but you know what maids are. They'd turn every echo and waving curtain into a ghost. And water, always such a problem in these picturesque old places… Still, Annis probably knew best. Practical, dear Annis!

     Annis herself felt not the smallest doubt as to her venture. She never did, which, no doubt, was why so many of them succeeded. She took Queen's Garth as soon as she saw it, stairs and ghost and water and all. She did not underrate these disadvantages, but she simply accepted them because she knew as soon as she saw the old red house that she "belonged". Almost unconsciously she felt that; she closed her bargain on the spot.

*   *   *

The Old Lady

I'm not sure "The Old Lady" isn't my favorite story in Randalls Round. The emotional resonances are there in the friendship of two young college women who find themselves in the uncanny crosshairs of the titular character. It's a fine thriller too about turning the tables on one's personal oppressor.

...."Miss Yorke," she said, "I'm so glad to have you alone. I want to ask you something. You must forgive my springing things on you, but I don't want Adela to hear and I might not have another opportunity."

     I murmured vaguely.

     "Tell me," said the old lady – and her voice was urgent – "has Adela ever said anything to make you think that she might marry?"

     "Why no!" I cried, astonished. Adela marry! You might as well suspect a faded lettuce of falling in love.

     "Never? Not a hint?"

     "Never. But we aren't at all – intimate, you know," I said. "She's never spoken at all of – of her personal affairs, her family or anything like that."

     "No? No, perhaps she wouldn't. She's very shy," said the old lady, "and she had – a shock."

     Her voice was quite ordinary, sweet, compassionate a little; but for an instant her lips were parted in a tiny smile, furtive, malicious and cold, and her little scarlet tongue flickered over her lips. "Listen, Miss Yorke," she went on, very earnestly. "I'm anxious about Adela. She has no relations – no one but me. I can't explain now, there isn't time. But, you see, I'm very old. I want Adela to marry – to marry soon',' she added, and I could see her little wrinkled hands clutched on her stick.

     "And is there anyone…?" I hesitated.

     "Yes. There is. And I want it settled – at once."

     Her voice was tense with her urgency.

     "I want to lay my hands on her children," she added, in an extraordinary voice – "gloating" was the word that occurred to me. It ought to have been pathetic, her anxiety to feel, since she could not see, the children of the girl she had brought up; but it wasn't. It was sickening – nauseating. Why, I don't know – something in her voice or tone, or the greedy way in which her tiny aged hands tightened till the knuckles stood out like white pebbles.

     "She's never said a word to me," I said, stupidly and coldly.

     "No? Well, perhaps she will. If she does, Miss Yorke, urge her – urge her. Tell her she must, for her own sake."

     It was the same voice I had heard last night – silky, cold and menacing. The voice that had said "It's either that, or you…"

     I said nothing. There seemed to be nothing to say. And in the stubborn silence I felt – enmity. It seemed to last for minutes. Then, "Thank you," said the sweet, shallow voice. "Thank you very much, Miss Yorke. I am counting on you."

     She smiled again, and again her smile sickened me, it was so triumphant and so ruthless. Or so it seemed at the time. A few seconds later, when, with a muttered excuse about looking for Adela, I had escaped into the damp garden, I thought I was a fool – over-tired, probably, with term – ready to read mysteries into the most ordinary things. For after all, what was more natural than that the old lady should wish to see Adela's future safe before she died? – to touch, since she could not see, her children? What was there malignant in that? On the contrary, it was benevolent, rather pathetic. I felt very penitent over my own moodiness and (I feared) rudeness.

     In fact, the more I thought of it, the more I saw how right the old lady was. Clearly, Adela's future would be pretty hopeless when her guardian was gone. Shyness, with her, was almost a mania. She would simply retire into herself, shut herself up here in the Bedfordshire house with the odd maid – go off her head, as likely as not. Myself, I should have thought marriage was an impossible idea for her; I could not imagine any man… But apparently there was one. She might be an heiress, you never knew. Not a very good motive for anyone to want to marry her, perhaps; but even so a marriage that was at all reasonably happy would be better than solitude and craziness. Why on earth had I so loathed the idea when the old lady mentioned it? Why had I been so utterly repelled by her? I could not imagine. What a fool I had been!


31 January 2021

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