Throughout his oeuvre, Jacobs frequently produced stories about people who are drawn towards ethically dubious decisions, irrevocably side against their better judgment, and are left stranded in a harsh and hostile dimension of karmic punishment. A genuinely grave tale, “The Three Sisters” follows the tradition of “Jerry Bundler” and “The Toll-House” by juxtaposing feigned hauntings with horrific outcomes.
The story follows a favorite theme of Jacobs: aspirational avarice and its hideous consequences. As in “The Brown Man’s Servant” and “The Monkey’s Paw,” we are met by a creature who would willingly sacrifice security and comfort for the glinting allure of wealth, but – as we surely suspect – that glint is not much different from the false fires that wreckers would light on jagged cliffs to lure merchant ships to destruction. Drawn in by the flame, the moth-like protagonist sets a diabolical trap, and while its success is debatable, it is certainly not without a very dear cost – both to her life and her humanity itself.
The tale opens on a wet, autumn evening in the 1860s with a mournful tableau: two middle-aged sisters, Eunice and Tabitha, sitting at the death-bed of their eldest sister, Ursula Mallow. Rapidly fading, Ursula musters a surge of “startling energy” to insist that after her death her room be kept exactly as it is, locked up, and never opened.
Tabitha, the middle sister who most closely resembles Ursula, is annoyed with this, grumbling that she doesn’t see “how it can matter to her” after death, but Ursula snaps that “It does matter … How do you know, how do I know that I may not sometimes visit it? I have lived in this house so long I am certain that I shall see it again. I will come back. Come back to watch over you both and see that no harm befalls you." Ursula turns to comfort her sobbing, youngest sister. She acknowledges that their lives have been lonely, without friends, husbands, or children, but consoles them with the morbid assurance that “I go first, but you must soon follow.”
With these words, the lamp is mysterious blown out, and in the darkness they hear the sound of Ursula’s death rattle being smothered in death. Two days later, her remains are interred with their parents in the family vault located on the other side of the barren marshes that surround their home. Eunice, who benefitted most from Ursula’s will, is still distraught, but Tabitha – greedy, callous, and unsentimental – can only think of the wealth that she has been denied. She asks Eunice what her intentions are for the legacy, and is annoyed to learn that – since they are more than comfortable – Eunice plans to allow it to gain interest in the bank, which will all go towards a children’s hospital.
Eunice is surprised at Tabitha’s negative reaction and asks what she would do. Tabitha’s eyes glow and she murmurs “save it… save it…” Eunice rejects this idea, insisting on using it for the hospital’s benefit, and Tabitha gloomily rejoins that this is clearly at odds with Ursula’s wishes, suggesting that their departed sister will not “rest quietly in the grave while you squander the money she stored so carefully.” The implication terrifies Eunice, which appears to satisfy Tabitha.
The days and weeks go by, and Ursula’s room remains secured, while Tabitha stalks the house “like an unquiet spirit,” deep in thought. With winter, the house descends into a profound and lonely gloom: “an air of mystery and dread seemed to hang over it and brood in its empty rooms and dark corridors. The deep silence of night was broken by strange noises for which neither the wind nor the rats could be held accountable.” Their housekeeper, Old Martha, becomes increasingly nervous and paranoid, certain that she has heard unaccountable sounds and once swearing that she saw a “dark figure squatting upon the landing,” although an investigation turned nothing up.
Even materialistic Tabitha is tempted to admit that something odd is happening in the house, but she distracts herself by growing obsessed with household expenses, and hoarding her income by eating miserly meals, avoiding the use of candles, and fondling her coins, which she refuses to keep at the bank. Eunice and Martha are disturbed by this – being kept awake by the clinking of her gold and through fear of her failing sanity – and Eunice begs her to take her “large sums” to the bank to avoid the risk that they be stolen by burglars, but Tabitha scoffs at this “Large sums! What nonsense is this? You know well that I have barely sufficient [funds] to keep me.”
Tabitha asks why she is worried about burglars, and Eunice admits that she has been troubled by the mysterious sounds at night. Tabitha acknowledges this, claiming to have traced the noises to Ursula’s room, where she has heard “something there … scuffling on the floor round and round the room.” This terrifies Eunice, but Tabitha chides her (unhelpfully) for being afraid of “poor Ursula … Your own sister who nursed you when you were a babe, and who perhaps even now comes and watches over your slumbers.” Eunice is predictably horrified by this idea, exclaiming that she would die at such a sight, and becomes faint and panicked at the mere idea. In fact, it proves the last straw: Eunice finds a nearby cottage to rent, and Martha – who had urged the change – happily agrees to go with her.
On their last night in the family estate, “all the wild spirits of the marshes, the wind and the sea, seemed to have joined forces for one supreme effort” and the building is buffeted by violent, vociferous winds that make the house rattle and groan, even stirring the curtains with the drafts. Eunice sits up in her bed, with a night light glowing on her bedstand. She regrets not having asked Martha to share her bed, and is terrified when the winds suddenly die off, and her bedroom door is thrown open with a crash.
She is stunned to see Ursula standing in the doorway “smiling terribly at her,” with her jaw tied shut with the undertaker’s bandage. The grinning figure slips silently to her bedside and rests a cold hand on her face, upon which Eunice shrieks in terror and dies from shock.
Martha rushes to the scene, but before she can get there, Tabitha – who has been relying on her resemblance to her older sister – removes the bandage from her jaw and feigns sorrow at the loss of her second sister. Martha is heartbroken, and wonders what “devilish” thing must have scared her to death, before pulling the sheet over Eunice’s face, which is distorted in terror.
Tabitha slips off while Martha stays with the body and prays for Eunice’s soul, but the silence is almost immediately rent by a scream: Tabitha begs Martha to come at once, and tells her that there is “some strange woman in the house,” for while she was going up the stairs she saw the figure of a older woman walking ahead of her.
They both recall Ursula’s promise to return for the souls of her sisters at the moment of their deaths, and Tabitha is suddenly overcome with an uncharacteristic terror: “’can it be Ursula come for the soul of Eunice, as she said she would?’ ‘Or for yours?’ said Martha, the words coming from her in some odd fashion, despite herself.” This is too much for Tabitha, who orders that every lamp, candle, and fire be lit, in violation of her own stingy policy. Martha tries to soothe her, but she is overwhelmed with guilt, and blurts out that she has murdered Eunice for her money, and just as quickly staggers back from the doorway in terror: “It’s Ursula … Keep her off! Keep her off!”
Martha sees nothing but agrees that she feels “the presence of a third person in the room.” Tabitha begins flailing, as if to fend off an attacker, but collapses in a heap, dead. Overwhelmed with fear and awe, Martha flees:
“eager to escape from this house of death and mystery. The bolts of the great door were stiff with age, and strange voices seemed to ring in her ears as she strove wildly to unfasten them. Her brain whirled. She thought that the dead in their distant rooms called to her, and that a devil stood on the step outside laughing and holding the door against her. Then with a supreme effort she flung it open, and heedless of her night-clothes passed into the bitter night.”
“The Three Sisters” is both a conventional and an unconventional ghost story. The oldest spectral tales have been concerned with murder victims returning from the dead to either reveal their slaughter to a third party or to wreak vengeance on their killer. Famous stories such as Wilkin’s “The Shadows on the Wall,” Dickens’ “The Trial for Murder,” M. R. James’ “Martin’s Close” and “Stalls of Barchester Cathedral,” Braddon’s “The Cold Embrace,” Le Fanu’s “The Familiar,” and Cape’s “The Eddy on the Floor” follow a murderer (or otherwise responsible party) who imagines that their actions have been successfully cloaked, but who are then brutally hounded by the vengeful phantom.
These tales mostly employ obvious supernatural agents, but Jacobs combines this classic approach with a more nuanced, subtle supernaturalism, one which gives it a masterful, psychological power. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and “The Real Right Thing,” Oliver Onions’ The Beckoning Fair One and “Hic Jacet,” Edith Wharton’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” and “The Eyes,” Le Fanu’s “Squire Toby’s Will,” and Poe’s “Ligeia,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” all brilliantly employ this technique to create tension, uncertainty, and psychological complexity. Tabitha’s ghostly encounter is hinted at as being genuine but might just as likely be the result of a guilty conscience.
There is something keenly Freudian in Jacobs’ horror stories, and “The Three Sisters” is no exception. Whether the haunting is genuine or hallucinatory, it represents a deep rift in her once robust amoral confidence. The elder sister (and maternal, moral center – an archetypal Super-Ego) having left, the two remaining women – one a weak and sensitive Ego, the other a selfish and manipulative Id – are left to destroy each other, but at the moment of the Id’s victory, the repressed Super-Ego resurges to bring the entire household crashing down in metaphorical psychosis.