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Illuminating Supernatural Fiction, Horror, and the Gothic

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The Shadow by E. Nesbit (with footnote annotations)

This is not an artistically rounded-off ghost story[1], and nothing is explained in it[2], and there seems to be no reason why any of it should have happened. But that is no reason why it should not be told. You must have noticed that all the real ghost stories you have ever come close to, are like this in these respects --no explanation, no logical coherence[3]. Here is the story.

 

There were three of us and another[4], but she had fainted suddenly at the second extra[5] of the Christmas dance[6], and had been put to bed in the dressing room next to the room which we three shared. It had been one of those jolly, old-fashioned dances where nearly everybody stays the night, and the big country house is stretched to its utmost containing --guests harbouring on sofas, couches, settles[7] and even mattresses on floors. Some of the young men actually, I believe, slept on the great dining table.

 

We had talked of our partners, as girls will, and then the stillness of the manor house, broken only by the whisper of the wind in the cedar branches, and the scraping of their harsh fingers against our windowpanes, had pricked us to such luxurious confidence in our surroundings of bright chintz and candle-flame and firelight, that we had dared to talk of ghosts – in which, we all said, we did not believe one bit. We had told the story of the phantom coach[8], and the horribly strange bed[9], and the lady in the sacque[10], and the house in Berkeley Square[11].

 

We none of us believed in ghosts, but my heart, at least, seemed to leap to my throat and choke me there when a tap came to our door --a tap faint, not to be mistaken.

‘Who’s there?’ said the youngest of us, craning a lean neck towards the door. It opened slowly, and I give you my word the instant of suspense that followed is still reckoned among my life’s least confident moments[12]. Almost at once the door opened fully, and Miss Eastwich, my aunt’s housekeeper, companion and general stand-by, looked in on us.

 

We all said, ‘Come in,’ but she stood there. She was, at all normal hours, the most silent woman I have ever known. She stood and looked at us, and shivered a little. So did we --for in those days corridors were not warmed by hot-water pipes[13] and the air from the door was keen.

 

‘I saw your light,’ she said at last, ‘and I thought it was late for you to be up --after all this gaiety. I thought perhaps—’ her glance turned towards the door of the dressing room[14].

 

‘No,’ I said, ‘she’s fast asleep.’ I should have added a goodnight, but the youngest of us forestalled my speech[15]. She did not know Miss Eastwich as we others did; did not know how her persistent silence had built a wall round her --a wall that no one dared to break down with the commonplaces of talk, or the littlenesses of mere human relationship. Miss Eastwich’s silence had taught us to treat her as a machine; and as other than a machine we never dreamed of treating her. But the youngest of us had seen Miss Eastwich for the first time that day. She was young, crude, ill-balanced, subject to blind, calf-like impulses[16]. She was also the heiress of a rich tallow-chandler, but that has nothing to do with this part of the story. She jumped up from the hearth rug, her unsuitably rich silk lace-trimmed dressing gown falling back from her thin collarbones, and ran to the door and put an arm round Miss Eastwich’s prim, lisse-encircled neck. I gasped. I should as soon have dared to embrace Cleopatra’s Needle[17]. ‘Come in,’ said the youngest of us --’come in and get warm. There’s lots of cocoa left.’ She drew Miss Eastwich in and shut the door.

 

The vivid light of pleasure in the housekeeper’s pale eyes went through my heart like a knife[18]. It would have been so easy to put an arm round her neck, if one had only thought she wanted an arm there. But it was not I who had thought that --and indeed, my arm might not have brought the light evoked by the thin arm of the youngest of us.

 

‘Now,’ the youngest went on eagerly, ‘you shall have the very biggest, nicest chair, and the cocoa pot’s here on the hob as hot as hot --and we’ve all been telling ghost stories, only we don’t believe in them a bit; and when you get warm you ought to tell one too.’

 

Miss Eastwich --that model of decorum and decently done duties[19] --tell a ghost story!

 

‘You’re sure I’m not in your way,’ Miss Eastwich said, stretching her hands to the blaze. I wondered whether housekeepers have fires in their rooms even at Christmas time.

 

‘Not a bit,’ I said it, and I hope I said it as warmly as I felt it. ‘I --Miss Eastwich --I’d have asked you to come in other times --only I didn’t think you’d care for girls’ chatter.’

The third girl, who was really of no account, and that’s why I have not said anything about her before, poured cocoa for our guest. I put my fleecy Madeira shawl[20] round her shoulders. I could not think of anything else to do for her and I found myself wishing desperately to do something. The smiles she gave us were quite pretty. People can smile prettily at forty or fifty, or even later, though girls don’t realise this[21]. It occurred to me, and this was another knife thrust, that I had never seen Miss Eastwich smile --a real smile --before. The pale smiles of dutiful acquiescence were not of the same blood as this dimpling, happy, transfiguring look.

 

‘This is very pleasant,’ she said, and it seemed to me that I had never before heard her real voice. It did not please me to think that at the cost of cocoa, a fire, and my arm round her neck, I might have heard this new voice any time these six years.

 

‘We’ve been telling ghost stories,’ I said. ‘The worst of it is, we don’t believe in ghosts. No one we know has ever seen one.’

 

‘It’s always what somebody told somebody, who told somebody you know,’ said the youngest of us, ‘and you can’t believe that, can you?’

 

‘What the soldier said is not evidence[22],’ said Miss Eastwich. Will it be believed that the little Dickens quotation pierced one more keenly than the new smile or the new voice?

 

‘And all the ghost stories are so beautifully rounded off -- a murder committed on the spot --or a hidden treasure, or a warning -- I think that makes them harder to believe[23]. The most horrid ghost story I ever heard was one that was quite silly.’

 

‘Tell it.’

 

‘I can’t --it doesn’t sound anything to tell. Miss Eastwich ought to tell one.’

 

‘Oh, do,’ said the youngest of us, and her salt cellars[24] loomed dark, as she stretched her neck eagerly and laid an entreating arm on our guest’s knee.

 

‘The only thing that I ever knew of was --was hearsay,’ she said slowly, ‘till just the end.’

 

I knew she would tell her story, and I knew she had never before told it, and I knew she was only telling it now because she was proud[25], and this seemed the only way to pay for the fire and the cocoa and the laying of that arm round her neck.

 

‘Don’t tell it,’ I said suddenly. ‘I know you’d rather not.’

 

‘I dare say it would bore you,’ she said meekly, and the youngest of us, who, after all, did not understand everything, glared resentfully at me.

 

‘We should just love it,’ she said. ‘Do tell us. Never mind if it isn’t a real, proper, fixed-up story. I’m certain anything you think ghostly would be quite too beautifully horrid for anything[26].’

 

Miss Eastwich finished her cocoa and reached up to set the cup on the mantelpiece.

 

‘I can’t do any harm,’ she said half to herself, ‘they don’t believe in ghosts, and it wasn’t exactly a ghost either. And they’re all over twenty --they’re not babies.’

There was a breathing time of hush and expectancy. The fire crackled and the gas suddenly glared higher because the billiard lights had been put out[27]. We heard the steps and voices of the men going along the corridors[28].

 

‘It is really hardly worth telling,’ Miss Eastwich said doubtfully, shading her faded face from the fire with her thin hand.

 

We all said, ‘Go on --oh, go on --do!’

 

‘Well,’ she said, ‘twenty years ago[29] --and more than that --I had two friends, and I loved them more than anything in the world. And they married each other—’

 

She paused, and I knew just in what way she had loved each of them[30]. The youngest of us said, ‘How awfully nice for you. Do go on.’

 

She patted the youngest’s shoulder, and I was glad that I had understood, and that the youngest of all hadn’t. She went on.

 

‘Well, after they were married, I did not see much of them for a year or two; and then he wrote and asked me to come and stay, because his wife was ill[31], and I should cheer her up, and cheer him up as well; for it was a gloomy house, and he himself was growing gloomy too.’

 

I knew, as she spoke, that she had every line of that letter by heart[32].

 

‘Well, I went. The address was in Lee[33], near London; in those days there were streets and streets of new villa houses growing up round old brick mansions standing in their own grounds, with red walls round, you know, and a sort of flavour of coaching days[34], and post-chaises[35], and Blackheath highwaymen about them[36]. He had said the house was gloomy, and it was called The Firs, and I imagined my cab going through a dark, winding shrubbery, and drawing up in front of one of these sedate, old, square houses. Instead, we drew up in front of a large, smart villa, with iron railings, gay encaustic[37] tiles leading from the iron gate to the stained-glass-panelled door, and for shrubbery only a few stunted cypresses and aucubas in the tiny front garden[38]. But inside it was all warm and welcoming. He met me at the door.’

 

She was gazing into the fire and I knew she had forgotten us. But the youngest girl of all still thought it was to us she was telling her story[39].

 

‘He met me at the door,’ she said again, ‘and thanked me for coming, and asked me to forgive the past[40].’

 

‘What past?’ said that high priestess of the inapropos[41], the youngest of all.

 

‘Oh --I suppose he meant because they hadn’t invited me before, or something,’ said Miss Eastwich worriedly, ‘but it’s a very dull story, I find, after all, and – ‘

 

‘Do go on,’ I said --then I kicked the youngest of us, and got up to rearrange Miss Eastwich’s shawl, and said in blatant dumb show[42], over the shawled shoulder, ‘Shut up, you little idiot!’

 

After another silence, the housekeeper’s new voice went on.

 

‘They were very glad to see me and I was very glad to be there. You girls, now, have such troops of friends, but these two were all I had --all I had ever had[43]. Mabel wasn’t exactly ill, only weak and excitable[44]. I thought he seemed more ill than she did[45]. She went to bed early and before she went, she asked me to keep him company through his last pipe[46], so we went into the dining room and sat in the two armchairs on each side of the fireplace. They were covered with green leather, I remember. There were bronze groups of horses and a black marble clock on the mantelpiece[47] --all wedding presents. He poured out some whisky for himself, but he hardly touched it. He sat looking into the fire.

 

At last I said, “What’s wrong? Mabel looks as well as you could expect.”

 

‘He said, “Yes --but I don’t know from one day to another that she won’t begin to notice something wrong[48]. That’s why I wanted you to come. You were always so sensible and strong-minded, and Mabel’s like a little bird on a flower.”

 

‘I said yes, of course, and waited for him to go on. I thought he must be in debt, or in trouble of some sort. So I just waited. Presently he said, “Margaret, this is a very peculiar house – ” He always called me Margaret. You see, we’d been such old friends[49]. I told him I thought the house was very pretty, and fresh, and home-like --only a little too new --but that fault would mend with time. He said, “It is new: that’s just it. We’re the first people who’ve ever lived in it. If it were an old house, Margaret, I should think it was haunted[50].”

 

‘I asked if he had seen anything. “No,” he said, “not yet.”

 

‘“Heard then?” said I.

 

‘“No --not heard either,” he said, “but there’s a sort of feeling: I can’t describe it --I’ve seen nothing and I’ve heard nothing, but I’ve been so near to seeing and hearing, just near, that’s all. And something follows me about --only when I turn round, there’s never anything, only my shadow[51]. And I always feel that I shall see the thing next minute --but I never do --not quite --it’s always just not visible.”

 

‘I thought he’d been working rather hard --and tried to cheer him up by making light of all this. It was just nerves, I said. Then he said he had thought I could help him, and did I think anyone he had wronged could have laid a curse on him, and did I believe in curses. I said I didn’t --and the only person anyone could have said he had wronged forgave him freely, I knew, if there was anything to forgive. So I told him this too.’

 

It was I, not the youngest of us, who knew the name of that person, wronged and forgiving[52].

 

‘So then I said he ought to take Mabel away from the house and have a complete change. But he said no; Mabel had got everything in order, and he could never manage to get her away just now without explaining everything --”and, above all,” he said, “she mustn’t guess there’s anything wrong[53]. I dare say I shan’t feel quite such a lunatic now you’re here.”

 

‘So we said goodnight.’

 

‘Is that all the story!’ said the third girl, striving to convey that even as it stood it was a good story.

 

‘That’s only the beginning,’ said Miss Eastwich. ‘Whenever I was alone with him he used to tell me the same thing over and over again, and at first when I began to notice things, I tried to think that it was his talk that had upset my nerves. The odd thing was that it wasn’t only at night --but in broad daylight --and particularly on the stairs and passages. On the staircase the feeling used to be so awful that I have had to bite my lips till they bled to keep myself from running upstairs at full speed. Only I knew if I did I should go mad at the top[54]. There was always something behind me --exactly as he had said --something that one could just not see. And a sound that one could just not hear. There was a long corridor at the top of the house. I have sometimes almost seen something --you know how one sees things without looking --but if I turned round, it seemed as if the thing drooped and melted into my shadow. There was a little window at the end of the corridor.

 

‘Downstairs there was another corridor, something like it, with a cupboard at one end and the kitchen at the other. One night I went down into the kitchen to heat some milk for Mabel[55]. The servants had gone to bed. As I stood by the fire, waiting for the milk to boil, I glanced through the open door and along the passage. I never could keep my eyes on what I was doing in that house. The cupboard door was partly open; they used to keep empty boxes and things in it. And, as I looked, I knew that now it was not going to be “almost” any more. Yet I said, “Mabel?” not because I thought it could be Mabel who was crouching down there, half in and half out of the cupboard[56]. The thing was grey at first, and then it was black. And when I whispered, “Mabel[57]”, it seemed to sink down till it lay like a pool of ink on the floor, and then its edges drew in, and it seemed to flow, like ink when you tilt up the paper you have spilt it on, and it flowed into the cupboard till it was all gathered into the shadow there. I saw it go quite plainly. The gas was full on in the kitchen. I screamed aloud, but even then, I’m thankful to say, I had enough sense to upset the boiling milk, so that when he came downstairs three steps at a time[58], I had the excuse for my scream of a scalded hand. The explanation satisfied Mabel, but next night he said, “Why didn’t you tell me? It was that cupboard[59]. All the horror of the house comes out of that. Tell me --have you seen anything yet? Or is it only the nearly seeing and nearly hearing still?”

 

‘I said, “You must tell me first what you’ve seen.” He told me, and his eyes wandered, as he spoke, to the shadows by the curtains, and I turned up all three gas lights, and lit the candles on the mantelpiece. Then we looked at each other and said we were both mad, and thanked God that Mabel at least was sane. For what he had seen was what I had seen.

 

‘After that I hated to be alone with a shadow, because at any moment I might see something that would crouch, and sink, and lie like a black pool, and then slowly draw itself into the shadow that was nearest. Often that shadow was my own[60]. The thing came first at night, but afterwards there was no hour safe from it. I saw it at dawn and at noon, in the dusk and in the firelight, and always it crouched and sank, and was a pool that flowed into some shadow and became part of it. And always I saw it with a straining of the eyes --a pricking and aching. It seemed as though I could only just see it, as if my sight, to see it, had to be strained to the uttermost. And still the sound was in the house --the sound that I could just not hear. At last, one morning early, I did hear it. It was close behind me, and it was only a sigh[61]. It was worse than the thing that crept into the shadows.

 

‘I don’t know how I bore it. I couldn’t have borne it, if I hadn’t been so fond of them both. But I knew in my heart that, if he had no one to whom he could speak openly, he would go mad, or tell Mabel[62]. His was not a very strong character; very sweet, and kind, and gentle, but not strong[63]. He was always easily led. So I stayed on and bore up, and we were very cheerful, and made little jokes, and tried to be amusing when Mabel was with us. But when we were alone, we did not try to be amusing. And sometimes a day or two would go by without our seeing or hearing anything, and we should perhaps have fancied that we had fancied what we had seen and heard --only there was always the feeling of there being something about the house, that one could just not hear and not see. Sometimes we used to try not to talk about it, but generally we talked of nothing else at all. And the weeks went by, and Mabel’s baby was born. The nurse and the doctor said that both mother and child were doing well. He and I sat late in the dining room that night. We had neither of us seen or heard anything for three days; our anxiety about Mabel was lessened. We talked of the future --it seemed then so much brighter than the past. We arranged that, the moment she was fit to be moved, he should take her away to the sea, and I should superintend the moving of their furniture into the new house he had already chosen. He was gayer than I had seen him since his marriage --almost like his old self. When I said goodnight to him, he said a lot of things about my having been a comfort to them both. I hadn’t done anything much, of course, but still I am glad he said them.

 

‘Then I went upstairs, almost for the first time without that feeling of something following me. I listened at Mabel’s door. Everything was quiet. I went on towards my own room, and in an instant I felt that there was something behind me. I turned. It was crouching there; it sank, and the black fluidness of it seemed to be sucked under the door of Mabel’s room.

 

‘I went back. I opened the door a listening inch. All was still. And then I heard a sigh close behind me. I opened the door and went in. The nurse and the baby were asleep. Mabel was asleep too --she looked so pretty --like a tired child[64] --the baby was cuddled up into one of her arms with its tiny head against her side. I prayed then that Mabel might never know the terrors that he and I had known. That those little ears might never hear any but pretty sounds, those clear eyes never see any but pretty sights. I did not dare to pray for a long time after that. Because my prayer was answered[65]. She never saw, never heard anything more in this world. And now I could do nothing more for him or for her.

 

‘When they had put her in her coffin, I lighted wax candles round her, and laid the horrible white flowers that people will send near her, and then I saw he had followed me. I took his hand to lead him away[66].

 

‘At the door we both turned. It seemed to us that we heard a sigh[67]. He would have sprung to her side in I don’t know what mad, glad hope. But at that instant we both saw it. Between us and the coffin, first grey, then black, it crouched an instant, then sank and liquefied --and was gathered together and drawn till it ran into the nearest shadow. And the nearest shadow was the shadow of Mabel’s coffin[68]. I left the next day. His mother came. She had never liked me[69].’

 

Miss Eastwich paused. I think she had quite forgotten us[70].

 

‘Didn’t you see him again?’ asked the youngest of us all.

 

‘Only once,’ Miss Eastwich answered, ‘and something black crouched then between him and me. But it was only his second wife, crying beside his coffin[71]. It’s not a cheerful story, is it? And it doesn’t lead anywhere. I’ve never told anyone else[72]. I think it was seeing his daughter that brought it all back[73].’

 

She looked towards the dressing-room door.

 

‘Mabel’s baby?’

 

‘Yes --and exactly like Mabel, only with his eyes[74].’

 

The youngest of all had Miss Eastwich’s hands and was petting them[75].

 

Suddenly the woman wrenched her hands away and stood at her gaunt height, her hands clenched, eyes straining. She was looking at something that we could not see[76], and I know what the man in the Bible meant when he said, ‘The hair of my flesh stood up.’[77]

 

What she saw seemed not quite to reach the height of the dressing-room door handle. Her eyes followed it down, down --widening and widening. Mine followed them --all the nerves of them seemed strained to the uttermost --and I almost saw --or did I quite see? I can’t be certain. But we all heard the long-drawn, quivering sigh. And to each of us it seemed to be breathed just behind us.

 

It was I who caught up the candle --it dripped all over my trembling hand --and was dragged by Miss Eastwich to the girl who had fainted during the second extra. But it was the youngest of all whose lean arms were round the housekeeper when we turned away, and that have been round her many a time since, in the new home where she keeps house for the youngest of us[78].

 

The doctor who came in the morning said that Mabel’s daughter had died of heart disease --which she had inherited from her mother[79]. It was that that had made her faint during the second extra. But I have sometimes wondered whether she may not have inherited something from her father[80]. I had never been able to forget the look on her dead face[81].

 

____________________________________________

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

 

[1] Nesbit will later cite this as the tell-tale of a fake spook story. In short, this is something between a subtle hint at authenticity and a sly humble-brag

 

[2] Like life. As with all of her best tales (Violet Car, House of Silence, Man-Size, etc.), this story is made primarily as a philosophical vehicle, not – as with her science fiction and farces – to entertain. This story is truly grim, and the fact that “nothing is explained by it” is less an act of self-deprecation and more one of existentialism

 

[3] Incidentally, this actually is true of so-called “veridical” ghost stories: the ones which are said to be true have no resolution and very little narrative. For example: “My husband and I bought our house in July, and it didn’t have air conditioning. One day I was home alone with the toddler, and she came in to tell me there was a man in the bathroom. I laughed but went to check. The bathroom was freezing, and just before I left I saw – in the reflection of the mirror – a man looking at me sadly, wearing a suit from what seemed like the ‘30s. I looked for him all over, horrified, but never saw anyone. We never learned the backstory to this man, and have never seen him since.” I made that up, but it’s fairly boilerplate for veridical ghost tales

 

[4] Pay attention to this “other” who doesn’t quite fit in; right off the bat she is described as though she belongs to some different realm or order

 

[5] Short for “extra quick,” a phase in a dance when the regular pace increased

 

[6] A perfect time for a ghost story – they are a traditional part of the British Christmas, and were typically recited after supper in front of the fire while everyone was drinking port or eggnog or punch

 

[7] A long wooden bench with arms

 

[8] Amelia B. Edwards, “The Phantom Coach.” A lost traveler is directed to wait for the approaching mail carriage, but is inadvertently collected by the ghost coach containing the corpses of the men killed in it in a wreck years earlier

 

[9] Wilkie Collins, “The Terribly Strange Bed.” Not a ghost story, but one of horror: a successful gambler is drugged and barely avoids being smothered in a bed that uses a descending canopy. A riff on Edgar Allan Poe

 

[10] Sir Walter Scott, “The Tapestried Chamber.” An officer recuperating in a friend’s manor is wakened in the night by the swish of silk. He looks up to see a woman in an old fashioned gown with an evil face. Later he recognizes her portrait, that of a wicked ancestor. A riff on the veridical Brown Lady of Raynam Hall, a similarly attired ghost with empty sockets, seen by George IV and others

 

[11] Rhoda Broughton, “Nothing But the Truth.” A horror in a newly bought house drives a maid mad and frightens a brave soldier to death. It is never seen by the others or explained. While Broughton gives the house a different address, the legend has been attached to 50 Berkeley Square. Opinions differ as to which came first

 

[12] Nesbit capably summons an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty. The girls claim to disbelieve ghosts, but we all know that this is not true. The story promises to offer no lesson, but this is also false. If anything, Nesbit hopes to create a universe where nothing is certain and human life is frail, our motives are complex, and our hearts mysterious

 

[13] Creating a sense of dated-ness – we don’t know what period this is set in (presumably mid-Victorian), but there is an air of antiquity and decay, as if the narrator is the only surviving witness to this episode. Incidentally, water pipes became introduced into home architecture in Britain in the 1870s and 1880s as a replacement to coal fire

 

[14] Note Eastwich’s concern for the fainted “other” – it is important

 

[15] The “Youngest” seems to represent the type of woman Nesbit hated in the core of her being – blonde, perky, flirty, coquettish. This kind of woman is savaged in “The Power of Darkness,” “The Pavilion,” and “Mass for the Dead.” In my opinion, this represents the type of woman that Nesbit’s adulterous husband had a penchant for – his typical mistress. Often they were flirtatious ingénues who were unconcerned with the impact of their actions, their social standing, or their reputation. Such a girl is represented in the loud-mouthed, dense “Youngest” – the antithesis to the dark-haired, thoughtful, sad-eyed, reputation-conscious, self-giving Nesbit

 

[16] Like the wedding guest caught by the Ancient Mariner, this young, saucy fool will get a lesson from her encounter with the haunted sage, and will be marked for the rest of her life by it

 

[17] An ancient obelisk erected in London as a gift from the Egyptian Khedive in commemoration of Lord Nelson. Unrelated to Cleopatra, the monument predates her by a millennia

 

[18] If the Youngest is the antithesis of Nesbit, then poor Miss Eastwich is perhaps how Nesbit saw herself – a quiet, unassuming woman neglected due to her lackluster personality – and the narrator’s constant lionizing of the martyr-like Eastwich can be seen, to a degree, as a scolding to all the young ladies who passed over Nesbit in her middle age

 

[19] Clearly a Victorian exemplar – a model of a distant era

 

[20] That is, a shawl made of Madiera lace. I’m not sure how this is supposed to be warming, but at least it’s a nice gesture

 

[21] Nesbit’s wounded pride is impossible to mistake here. As her husband cavorted with pretty girls and impregnated her best friend (twice), Nesbit understandably became jaded towards unconscientious girls. At the time of this writing Nesbit was a tellingly 47 years old

 

[22] The quote is done very loosely. It is from Pickwick Papers:

      "I mean to speak up, Sir," replied Sam, "I am in the service o' that 'ere gen'l'man, and a very good service it is."
      "Little to do, and plenty to get, I suppose?" said Sergeant Buzfuz, with jocularity.
      "Oh, quite enough to get, Sir, as the soldier said ven they ordered him three hundred and fifty lashes," replied Sam.
      "You must not tell us what the soldier, or any other man, said, Sir," interposed the Judge, " it's not evidence."

The quote is used to evoke this sentiment: a person’s personal experience can often be deemed invalid if they lack social connection

 

[23] This argument is made in “Number 17” as well

 

[24] That is, her wide eyes

 

[25] The meaning here is a little different than ours would be. She means that Miss Eastwich has too much self-control and dignity to make a scene by refusing: she understands that the girls are being very generous by including a servant in their conversation and doesn’t have the willfulness to refuse their request

 

[26] Miss Eastwich – stolid, sensible, and prudent – must have a wonderful story if it was good enough to catch her attention and imagination

 

[27] The lights in the billiard room have been turned out, sending more gas to the light in their room – not a phenomenon experienced today with electricity

 

[28] As the men trundle off to bed, it truly seems a lonelier, more vulnerable house

 

[29] Note the time and the age of the current girls

 

[30] If Eastwich is the Nesbit standby, this love triangle is particularly sad because she envisions herself as the other woman. In real life, her husband Hubert had an affair with her best friend Alice Hoatson. She was impregnated twice, and when Nesbit demanded her eviction (they had a ménage a trois), Bland threatened to leave Nesbit if she insisted on it. Dutifully, she adopted her husband’s love child, and when Alice became pregnant again, she adopted that one as well

 

[31] A very vague euphemism. She is having a rough pregnancy

 

[32] Nesbit regrettably dips into the well of sentimentality. This reminds one of the ghastly romantic saccharine in “From the Dead”

 

[33] Just west of downtown, north of Waterloo Bridge, and not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral

 

[34] That is, the days before the train but after the advent of the coaching system – namely, the Georgian 18th century

 

[35] A closed carriage with room for four, usually pulled by two to six horses

 

[36] Robbers who stalked the countryside on London’s outskirts (Blackheath being a town south of London) and were the subject of simultaneous romanticism and horror

 

[37] Painted with wax-based pigments

 

[38] Far from a rambling, English ruin, this is a highly fashionable villa with a very Italian, Tuscan vibe meant to conjure the wintering homes of wealthy Britons in Northern Italy

 

[39] Like the Ancient Marnier, she is not speaking to anyone in particular, but ritualistically purging herself of a sin. She is confessing, not telling, and has no thought for her audience – her audience is her own conscience

 

[40] There is a strong suggestion that he is sorry for more than disappointing her romantic hopes – it is implied that they may have been sexual partners at one time. Further evidence points to an even more glaring crime: Miss Eastwich may have contracted syphilis from her “friend” and may now be barren. More later

 

[41] Awkward, rude, or indiscreet inquiries

 

[42] Which is to say, she mouthed the words

 

[43] A sentiment that the chronically lonely Nesbit seems to have shared

 

[44] Again, weak from the pregnancy which is implied before Nesbit confirms it

 

[45] With guilt, perhaps, especially if his wife’s condition has been caused by his sexually transmitted infection, putting both her and their child at risk of death

 

[46] Men would frequently relish one long final pipe or cigar before bed

 

[47] Symbols of sexual vigor and lust. The cock is, of course, a rooster, but roosters are known for having dozens and dozens of mistresses which they impregnate. Roosters are useless other than as sires for chicks and eggs, and only a few are needed for procreation. Horses are famous symbols of sexual passion and vitality, as evidenced in Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” where a horse thrusts its phallic head violently through a set of unmistakably vaginal bed curtains, leering with mad eyes over a woman who is being held down in a nightmare by an incubus on her breast

 

[48] This is a tremendously suspicious comment which could be written off as mere husbandly coddling, but strikes my ear as suggestive and sinister. There are two things which immediately crowd to my mind: poison, which I find less likely, and a sexually transmitted disease like syphilis, which could fill in several of the other mysteries of this story. Is the husband a philanderer who has contracted a vicious VD, passed it on to his wife, and gravely complicated her pregnancy? Perhaps, and if so, his candor in the presence of Miss Eastwich complicates things further by suggesting that they may share the disease from a sexual encounter prior to his marriage. Victorian innuendo throughout the story hints that Miss Eastwich has had sexual relations with her “friend” (though probably in the years before his marriage), and that she may be barren – a frequent result of syphilitic infection in women

 

[49] A shockingly familiar way for a married man to address a single woman. Eastwich does well to pause here and defend their intimate address – although it does little to lessen our suspicions of an illicit past

 

[50] This is interesting – the story of how a haunted house becomes haunted. Usually they have been haunted for years and are decades or centuries old. But here we have a fresh, new house that is steadily being overrun by a contagion. One might imagine that this makes a convenient metaphor for the husband’s infidelities and their effect on his wife: a virginal body which is inhabited by an infected tenent, whose poisons spread through the unstained flesh and corrupt it gradually with each passing day – a tabula rasa on which is projected the sins of the man who possesses it

 

[51] The shadow – the darkness that is revealed of a man’s physical character when light is cast on it. Likewise, the shadow is used to represent the darkness that is revealed of a man’s moral character when truth is cast on it. The Shadow is a symbol of guilt, truth, and sin

 

[52] Nesbit: stupid, young girls know nothing about heartache – it takes a real woman (one middle aged, probably) to understand the consequences of love

 

[53] Again, we have a strong suggestion that her pregnancy has been compromised. There is no talk of doctors, so we might wonder “how does he know something is wrong? …unless another doctor some previous time has told him something about himself that eliminates the need for a professional opinion.” Mabel doesn’t seem to have doctors coming to check on her, otherwise she would already know that something was wrong. I again revert to the theory that the syphilitic husband has already guessed that his wife is suffering from the disease – needing no doctor’s opinion – and has enlisted Miss Eastwich as a confidant because they share one another’s syphilis and she can be trusted to keep mum

 

[54] This passage intrigues and alludes me. What is it about the stairs in particular that invites haunting? Stairs can be seen as a metaphor for literal escalation – for ascending from a lower status (friend) to a higher one (lover). The fear that she would go insane if she let down her emotional control is a common feature in Victorian literature. Madness is, of course, also a symptom of syphilis

 

[55] Commonly used to battle insomnia or settle a restless mood

 

[56] This sizable cupboard may be more akin to a pantry, or a small closet to store kitchen goods and food

 

[57] There is an unstoppable urge on Miss Eastwich’s part to associate the Shadow with Mabel. This is highly telling, especially since she left Mabel in bed, we assume, and the shade could not possibly be her

 

[58] We may not need to read into this detail, but it strikes me as indicative of his strong feelings for Miss Eastwich that he bounds heroically towards her scream – three steps at a time

 

[59] I might venture to point out that a cupboard or pantry is a splendid place to hide the mercury medicine needed to combat syphilis, and if this is the case, then the cupboard is the physical dwelling place of his deception

 

[60] She feels that she shares the guilt – that the Shadow is both his and hers: their joint deception (and potentially infection) of Mabel

 

[61] A sound made during human experiences of deep satisfaction, sorrow, or misery: all of which Miss Eastwich has felt through her relationship with Mabel’s husband, and which is fittingly projected onto the Shadow

 

[62] So fascinating. There is definitely something that they aren’t talking about, some secret. I still feel inclined to diagnose an STD, but the possibilities are many. It would truly be interesting to know what anyone else senses behind this subterfuge and nervousness

 

[63] To the Victorian, this unquestionably – UNQUESTIONABLY – was a code: kind, attentive, and sensitive, but not strong, not manly. This means that he is prone to give into his impulses, that he is led by his heart and his lusts, and that he is vulnerable to misguided immorality. His kindness rules out the character of a Don Juan or some corrupt, wicked tempter, but suggests a man who, like Othello, “loved not wisely but too well.” This is not a Don Juan, but a Romeo – foolish, romantic, easily consumed by his romantic feelings – prone to love affairs

 

[64] Note the continued element of childlike innocence that Mabel is sanctified with – that her husband and best friend lack

 

[65] Freud would stand up, point a finger at this line, and shout “Aha!” He would be happy because this is an almost textbook case of wish fulfilment, and any poor person who experienced a similar situation would be burdened with a lifetime of misery. She loves the husband and prays an ambiguous prayer over his sleeping wife that – “Monkey’s Paw”-style – gets answered in a way that satisfies her selfish desire: to have the husband alone to herself. Surely she must imagine that it was her repressed (if we can even call it that) love for the husband that killed Mabel

 

[66] Here is the continued theme of inappropriate intimacy and the man who is in need of female leadership – a man who is servile to his feelings and fancies. They depart Mabel’s coffin like a bride and groom departing an altar – hand in hand, one leading the other into a new future. But it is, of course, a mockery of a wedding, and the result is misery manifest

 

[67] They were unquestionably on their way to begin a new life together, but their union is kept apart by the manifestation of the Shadow: whatever it represents – guilt, shame, anger, jealousy, physical infection – it will not allow these two to become one

 

[68] The Shadow cleaves to the meaning of Mabel’s death – whatever it means to the two characters. This might be an indictment against them, a retreat to their memory of her, or something else. I personally suspect that the Shadow is a great finger pointing to the coffin with an air of incrimination and accusation. It now leaves its former abode in the cupboard (where mercury medicine may have been hidden) to the coffin where the fruits of their indiscretions and deceptions has been harvested: Mabel’s fooled, coddled corpse

 

[69] The husband may unsurprisingly be nursing a Freudian attachment to his mother. At any rate, this opinionated woman has a strong dislike for Miss Eastwich – a sure sign of unwholesomeness in a Victorian novel. During this era more than any before it the idea of “mother” and of a son’s dutiful devotion to his mother (rather than his father, his family, or his country) was being espoused. His mother’s disapproval casts its own shadow on Eastwich, reinforcing the idea that she may be aware of a shocking scandal between her son and his little friend

 

[70] Again, this story-telling process appears to be a cathartic, almost therapeutic act of confession for the emotionally-burdened Miss Eastwich -- it has virtually nothing to do with the listeners and is largely a form of psychological introspection

 

[71] The Shadow is now linked with the image of a widow hunched in mourning. Has the Shadow been a premonition of his death, possibly from symptoms of a venereal disease – the same which took his wife and – potentially – his daughter in the future? In any case, it is clear: the Shadow is a harbinger of death

 

[72] This confession seems to absolve Eastwich of her sins, and although it is at a cost, it also leads up to her complete release from this tragic narrative through the death of the daughter

 

[73] The girl who fainted in the beginning ties this story all together and this revelation immediately ramps up the tension and intensity of this heretofore plaintive plot: now there is some skin in the game, something at stake to be lost or better understood

 

[74] The eyes being the windows to the soul, we can assume that his daughter has inherited his spirit, kind but weak-willed, and perhaps his guilt

 

[75] The telling of the tale has had a transformative effect on the young brat. Like the wedding guest who hears the tale of the Ancient Mariner, she leaves the encounter with this personification of remorse and sad wisdom “a sadder and a wiser” girl – matured and developed by the cathartic experience of hearing the melancholy tale of warning

 

[76] Nesbit uses remarkable control and avoids telling us outright that she has seen the long absent Shadow – harbinger of death – allowing the reader to make the grim connection

 

[77] Job 4:15 “A spirit glided past my face, and the hair of my flesh stood up”

 

[78] The experience has been so emotionally traumatizing that the youngest girl has taken it upon herself to house and nourish the childless, loveless Miss Eastwich. If we are correct in reading Eastwich as barren from syphilis, and in viewing the couple’s daughter as her vicarious child, then the youngest girl rewards her years of silent remorse by becoming her adoptive daughter – a reward that might be little comfort to poor Miss Eastwich

 

[79] Heart diseases in literature are traditionally seen as symbolic of a crushed spirit or a guilty conscience – one’s heart is literally and figuratively afflicted. Such might be the case if a woman were to know that her husband had been sexually or emotionally involved with a close friend

 

[80] This is such a loaded comment! What does she mean? In the literal sense she may have congenital syphilis transferred from her father to her mother, which may have weakened her body, some of the symptoms of which include enlarged organs which would be prone to failure. On a more spiritual tack, the one trait that we are assured of on his part is a kind but weak nature – a Romeo-esque predilection for feeling over prudence and emotion over sense. Perhaps his daughter is also of this kind – a passionate but naïve girl driven to emotional weakness and acts of indiscretion. She may have had a tumultuous affair with one of the men in the dining room, or she may be afflicted with a venereal disease of her own from a past relationship. In any case, the narrator seems to suggest that the girl carries her father’s weaknesses in her spirit, and suggests that they are to blame for her death. We are left to connect the dots

 

[81] What emotion could it possibly have expressed? This is tremendously cryptic and tremendously alluring. There can be no question now that Nesbit is writing in code, and that this code – if unraveled – will reveal that emotion: fear? Rage? Meekness? What emotion could she possibly have been projecting that would have drawn a line to the man in Miss Eastwich’s short tale?

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