The Watcher by the Threshold by John Buchan
A chill evening in the early October of the year 189--found me
driving in a dogcart through the belts of antique woodland which form
the lowland limits of the hilly parish of More. The Highland express,
which brought me from the north, took me no farther than Perth. Thence
it had been a slow journey in a disjointed local train, till I emerged
on the platform at Morefoot, with a bleak prospect of pot stalks, coal
heaps, certain sour corn lands, and far to the west a line of moor
where the sun was setting. A neat groom and a respectable trap took the
edge off my discomfort, and soon I had forgotten my sacrifice and found
eyes for the darkening landscape. We were driving through a land of
thick woods, cut at rare intervals by old long-frequented highways. The
More, which at Morefoot is an open sewer, became a sullen woodland
stream, where the brown leaves of the season drifted. At times we would
pass an ancient lodge, and through a gap in the trees would come a
glimpse of chipped crowstep gable. The names of such houses, as told me
by my companion, were all famous. This one had been the home of a
drunken Jacobite laird, and a king of north country Medmenham. Unholy
revels had waked the old halls, and the devil had been toasted at many
a hell-fire dinner. The next was the property of a great Scots law
family, and there the old Lord of Session, who built the place, in his
frouzy wig and carpet slippers, had laid down the canons of Taste for
his day and society. The whole country had the air of faded and bygone
gentility. The mossy roadside walls had stood for two hundred years;
the few wayside houses were toll bars or defunct hostelries. The names,
too, were great: Scots baronial with a smack of France,--Chatelray and
Riverslaw, Black Holm and Fountainblue. The place had a cunning charm,
mystery dwelt in every, cranny, and yet it did not please me. The earth
smelt heavy and raw; the roads were red underfoot; all was old,
sorrowful, and uncanny. Compared with the fresh Highland glen I had
left, where wind and sun and flying showers were never absent, all was
chilly and dull and dead. Even when the sun sent a shiver of crimson
over the crests of certain firs, I felt no delight in the prospect. I
admitted shamefacedly to myself that I was in a very bad temper.
I had been staying at Glenaicill with the Clanroydens, and for a
week had found the proper pleasure in life. You know the house with its
old rooms and gardens, and the miles of heather which defend it from
the world. The shooting had been extraordinary for a wild place late in
the season; for there are few partridges, and the woodcock are
notoriously late. I had done respectably in my stalking, more than
respectably on the river, and creditably on the moors. Moreover, there
were pleasant people in the house--and there were the Clanroydens. I
had had a hard year's work, sustained to the last moment of term, and a
fortnight in Norway had been disastrous. It was therefore with real
comfort that I had settled myself down for another ten days in
Glenaicill, when all my plans were shattered by Sibyl's letter. Sibyl
is my cousin and my very good friend, and in old days when I was
briefless I had fallen in love with her many times. But she very
sensibly chose otherwise, and married a man Ladlaw--Robert John Ladlaw,
who had been at school with me. He was a cheery, good-humoured fellow,
a great sportsman, a justice of the peace, and deputy lieutenant for
his county, and something of an antiquary in a mild way. He had a box
in Leicestershire to which he went in the hunting season, but from
February till October he lived in his moorland home. The place was
called the House of More, and I had shot at it once or twice in recent
years. I remembered its loneliness and its comfort, the charming
diffident Sibyl, and Ladlaw's genial welcome. And my recollections set
me puzzling again over the letter which that morning had broken into my
comfort. 'You promised us a visit this autumn,' Sibyl had written, 'and
I wish you would come as soon as you can.' So far common politeness.
But she had gone on to reveal the fact that Ladlaw was ill; she did not
know how, exactly, but something, she thought, about his heart. Then
she had signed herself my affectionate cousin, and then had come a
short, violent postscript, in which, as it were, the fences of
convention had been laid low. 'For Heaven's sake, come and see us,' she
scrawled below. 'Bob is terribly ill, and I am crazy. Come at once.' To
cap it she finished with an afterthought: 'Don't bother about bringing
doctors. It is not their business.'
She had assumed that I would come, and dutifully I set out. I could
not regret my decision, but I took leave to upbraid my luck. The
thought of Glenaicill, with the woodcock beginning to arrive and the
Clanroydens imploring me to stay, saddened my journey in the morning,
and the murky, coaly, midland country of the afternoon completed my
depression. The drive through the woodlands of More failed to raise my
spirits. I was anxious about Sibyl and Ladlaw, and this accursed
country had always given me a certain eeriness on my first approaching
it. You may call it silly, but I have no nerves and am little
susceptible to vague sentiment. It was sheer physical dislike of the
rich deep soil, the woody and antique smells, the melancholy roads and
trees, and the flavor of old mystery. I am aggressively healthy and
wholly Philistine. I love clear outlines and strong colors, and More
with its half tints and hazy distances depressed me miserably. Even
when the road crept uphill and the trees ended, I found nothing to
hearten me in the moorland which succeeded. It was genuine moorland,
close on eight hundred feet above the sea, and through it ran this old
grass-grown coach road. Low hills rose to the left, and to the right,
after some miles of peat, flared the chimneys of pits and oil works.
Straight in front the moor ran out into the horizon, and there in the
centre was the last dying spark of the sun. The place was as still as
the grave save for the crunch of our wheels on the grassy road, but the
flaring lights to the north seemed to endow it with life. I have rarely
had so keenly the feeling of movement in the inanimate world. It was an
unquiet place, and I shivered nervously. Little gleams of loch came
from the hollows, the burns were brown with peat, and every now and
then there rose in the moor jags of sickening red stone. I remembered
that Ladlaw had talked about the place as the old Manann, the holy land
of the ancient races. I had paid little attention at the time, but now
it struck me that the old peoples had been wise in their choice. There
was something uncanny in this soil and air. Framed in dank mysterious
woods and a country of coal and ironstone, at no great distance from
the capital city, it was a sullen relic of a lost barbarism. Over the
low hills lay a green pastoral country with bright streams and valleys,
but here, in this peaty desert, there were few sheep and little
cultivation. The House of More was the only dwelling, and, save for the
ragged village, the wilderness was given over to the wild things of the
hills. The shooting was good, but the best shooting on earth would not
persuade me to make my abode in such a place. Ladlaw was ill; well, I
did not wonder. You can have uplands without air, moors that are not
health-giving, and a country life which is more arduous than a
townsman's. I shivered again, for I seemed to have passed in a few
hours from the open noon to a kind of dank twilight.
We passed the village and entered the lodge gates. Here there were
trees again--little innocent new-planted firs, which flourished ill.
Some large plane trees grew near the house, and there were thickets
upon thickets of the ugly elderberry. Even in the half darkness I could
see that the lawns were trim and the flower beds respectable for the
season; doubtless Sibyl looked after the gardeners. The oblong
whitewashed house, more like a barrack than ever, opened suddenly on my
sight, and I experienced my first sense of comfort since I left
Glenaicill. Here I should find warmth and company; and sure enough, the
hall door was wide open, and in the great flood of light which poured
from it Sibyl stood to welcome me.
She ran down the steps as I dismounted, and, with a word to the
groom, caught my arm and drew me into the shadow. 'Oh, Henry, it was so
good of you to come. You mustn't let Bob think that you know he is ill.
We don't talk about it. I'll tell you afterwards. I want you to cheer
him up. Now we must go in, for he is in the hall expecting you.'
While I stood blinking in the light, Ladlaw came forward with
outstretched hand and his usual cheery greeting. I looked at him and
saw nothing unusual in his appearance; a little drawn at the lips,
perhaps, and heavy below the eyes, but still fresh-colored and healthy.
It was Sibyl who showed change. She was very pale, her pretty eyes were
deplorably mournful, and in place of her delightful shyness there were
the self-confidence and composure of pain. I was honestly shocked, and
as I dressed my heart was full of hard thoughts about Ladlaw. What
could his illness mean? He seemed well and cheerful, while Sibyl was
pale; and yet it was Sibyl who had written the postscript. As I warmed
myself by the fire, I resolved that this particular family difficulty
was my proper business.
The Ladlaws were waiting for me in the drawing-room. I noticed
something new and strange in Sibyl's demeanor. She looked to her
husband with a motherly, protective air, while Ladlaw, who had been the
extreme of masculine independence, seemed to cling to his wife with a
curious appealing fidelity. In conversation he did little more than
echo her words. Till dinner was announced he spoke of the weather, the
shooting, and Mabel Clanroyden. Then he did a queer thing; for when I
was about to offer my arm to Sibyl he forestalled me, and clutching her
right arm with his left hand led the way to the dining room, leaving me
to follow in some bewilderment.
I have rarely taken part in a more dismal meal. The House of More
has a pretty Georgian paneling through most of the rooms, but in the
dining room the walls are level and painted a dull stone color. Abraham
offered up Isaac in a ghastly picture in front of me. Some photographs
of the Quorn hung over the mantelpiece, and five or six drab ancestors
filled up the remaining space. But one thing was new and startling. A
great marble bust, a genuine antique, frowned on me from a pedestal.
The head was in the late Roman style, clearly of some emperor, and in
its commonplace environment the great brows, the massive neck, and the
mysterious solemn lips had a surprising effect. I nodded toward the
thing, and asked what it represented.
Ladlaw grunted something which I took for 'Justinian,' but he never
raised his eyes from his plate. By accident I caught Sibyl's glance.
She looked toward the bust, and laid a finger on her lips.
The meal grew more doleful as it advanced. Sibyl scarcely touched a
dish, but her husband ate ravenously of everything. He was a strong,
thickset man, with a square kindly face burned brown by the sun. Now he
seemed to have suddenly coarsened. He gobbled with undignified haste,
and his eye was extraordinarily vacant. A question made him start, and
he would turn on me a face so strange and inert that I repented the
I asked him about the autumn's sport. He collected his wits with
difficulty. He thought it had been good, on the whole, but he had shot
badly. He had not been quite so fit as usual. No, he had had nobody
staying with him. Sibyl had wanted to be alone. He was afraid the moor
might have been undershot, but he would make a big day with keepers and
farmers before the winter.
'Bob has done pretty well,' Sibyl said. 'He hasn't been out often,
for the weather has been very bad here. You can have no idea, Henry,
how horrible this moorland place of ours can be when it tries. It is
one great sponge sometimes, with ugly red burns and mud to the
'I don't think it's healthy,' said I.
Ladlaw lifted his face. 'Nor do I. I think it's intolerable, but I
am so busy I can't get away.'
Once again I caught Sibyl's warning eye as I was about to question
him on his business.
Clearly the man's brain had received a shock, and he was beginning
to suffer from hallucinations. This could be the only explanation, for
he had always led a temperate life. The distrait, wandering manner was
the only sign of his malady, for otherwise he seemed normal and
mediocre as ever. My heart grieved for Sibyl, alone with him in this
Then he broke the silence. He lifted his head and looked nervously
around till his eye fell on the Roman bust.
'Do you know that this countryside is the old Manann?' he said.
It was an odd turn to the conversation, but I was glad of a sign of
intelligence. I answered that I had heard so.
'It's a queer name,' he said oracularly, 'but the thing it stood for
was queerer, Manann, Manaw,' he repeated, rolling the words on his
tongue. As he spoke, he glanced sharply, and, as it seemed to me,
fearfully, at his left side.
The movement of his body made his napkin slip from his left knee and
fall on the floor. It leaned against his leg, and he started from its
touch as if he had been bitten by a snake. I have never seen a more
sheer and transparent terror on a man's face. He got to his feet, his
strong frame shaking like a rush. Sibyl ran round to his side, picked
up the napkin and flung it on a sideboard. Then she stroked his hair as
one would stroke a frightened horse. She called him by his old boy's
name of Robin, and at her touch and voice he became quiet. But the
particular course then in progress was removed, untasted.
In a few minutes he seemed to have forgotten his behavior, for he
took up the former conversation. For a time he spoke well and briskly.
'You lawyers,' he said, 'understand only the dry framework of the past.
You cannot conceive the rapture, which only the antiquary can feel, of
constructing in every detail an old culture. Take this Manann. If I
could explore the secret of these moors, I would write the world's
greatest book. I would write of that prehistoric life when man was knit
close to nature. I would describe the people who were brothers of the
red earth and the red rock and the red streams of the hills. Oh, it
would be horrible, but superb, tremendous! It would be more than a
piece of history; it would be a new gospel, a new theory of life. It
would kill materialism once and for all. Why, man, all the poets who
have deified and personified nature would not do an eighth part of my
work. I would show you the unknown, the hideous, shrieking mystery at
the back of this simple nature. Men would see the profundity of the old
crude faiths which they affect to despise. I would make a picture of
our shaggy, sombre-eyed forefather, who heard strange things in the
hill silences. I would show him brutal and terror-stricken, but wise,
wise, God alone knows how wise! The Romans knew it, and they learned
what they could from him, though he did not tell them much. But we have
some of his blood in us, and we may go deeper. Manann! A queer land
nowadays! I sometimes love it and sometimes hate it, but I always fear
it. It is like that statue, inscrutable.'
I would have told him that he was talking mystical nonsense, but I
had looked toward the bust, and my rudeness was checked on my lips. The
moor might be a common piece of ugly waste land, but the statue was
inscrutable,--of that there was no doubt. I hate your cruel
heavy-mouthed Roman busts; to me they have none of the beauty of life,
and little of the interest of art. But my eyes were fastened on this as
they had never before looked on marble. The oppression of the heavy
woodlands, the mystery of the silent moor, seemed to be caught and held
in this face. It was the intangible mystery of culture on the verge of
savagery--a cruel, lustful wisdom, and yet a kind of bitter austerity
which laughed at the game of life and stood aloof. There was no
weakness in the heavy-veined brow and slumbrous eyelids. It was the
face of one who had conquered the world, and found it dust and ashes;
one who had eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and
scorned human wisdom. And at the same time, it was the face of one who
knew uncanny things, a man who was the intimate of the half-world and
the dim background of life. Why on earth I should connect the Roman
grandee[*] with the moorland parish of More I cannot say, but the fact
remains that there was that in the face which I knew had haunted me
through the woodlands and bogs of the place--a sleepless, dismal,
[* I have identified the bust, which, when seen under other
circumstances, had little power to affect me. It was a copy of the head
of Justinian in the Tesci Museum at Venice, and several duplicates
exist, dating apparently from the seventh century, and showing traces
of Byzantine decadence in the scroll work on the hair. It is engraved
in M. Delacroix's Byzantium, and, I think, in Windscheid's
'I bought that at Colenzo's,' Ladlaw said, 'because it took my
fancy. It matches well with this place?'
I thought it matched very ill with his drab walls and Quorn
photographs, but I held my peace.
'Do you know who it is?' he asked. 'It is the head of the greatest
man the world has ever seen. You are a lawyer and know your
The Pandects are scarcely part of the daily work of a common-law
barrister. I had not looked into them since I left college.
'I know that he married an actress,' I said, 'and was a sort of
all-round genius. He made law, and fought battles, and had rows with
the Church. A curious man! And wasn't there some story about his
selling his soul to the devil, and getting law in exchange? Rather a
I chattered away, sillily enough, to dispel the gloom of that dinner
table. The result of my words was unhappy. Ladlaw gasped and caught at
his left side, as if in pain. Sibyl, with tragic eyes, had been making
signs to me to hold my peace. Now she ran round to her husband's side
and comforted him like a child. As she passed me, she managed to
whisper in my ear to talk to her only, and let her husband alone.
For the rest of dinner I obeyed my orders to the letter. Ladlaw ate
his food in gloomy silence, while I spoke to Sibyl of our relatives and
friends, of London, Glenaicill, and any random subject. The poor girl
was dismally forgetful, and her eye would wander to her husband with
wifely anxiety. I remember being suddenly overcome by the comic aspect
of it all. Here were we three fools alone in the dank upland: one of us
sick and nervous, talking out-of-the-way nonsense about Manann and
Justinian, gobbling his food and getting scared at his napkin; another
gravely anxious; and myself at my wits' end for a solution. It was a
Mad Tea-Party with a vengeance: Sibyl the melancholy little Dormouse,
and Ladlaw the incomprehensible Hatter. I laughed aloud, but checked
myself when I caught my cousin's eye. It was really no case for finding
humor. Ladlaw was very ill, and Sibyl's face was getting deplorably
I welcomed the end of that meal with unmannerly joy, for I wanted to
speak seriously with my host. Sibyl told the butler to have the lamps
lighted in the library. Then she leaned over toward me and spoke low
and rapidly: 'I want you to talk with Bob. I'm sure you can do him
good. You'll have to be very patient with him, and very gentle. Oh,
please try to find out what is wrong with him. He won't tell me, and I
can only guess.'
The butler returned with word that the library was ready to receive
us, and Sibyl rose to go. Ladlaw half rose, protesting, making the most
curious feeble clutches to his side. His wife quieted him. 'Henry will
look after you, dear,' she said. 'You are going into the library to
smoke.' Then she slipped from the room, and we were left alone.
He caught my arm fiercely with his left hand, and his grip nearly
made me cry out. As we walked down the hall, I could feel his arm
twitching from the elbow to the shoulder. Clearly he was in pain, and I
set it down to some form of cardiac affection, which might possibly
issue in paralysis.
I settled him in the biggest armchair, and took one of his cigars.
The library is the pleasantest room in the house, and at night, when a
peat fire burned on the old hearth and the great red curtains were
drawn, it used to be the place for comfort and good talk. Now I noticed
changes. Ladlaw's bookshelves had been filled with the Proceedings of
antiquarian societies and many light-hearted works on sport. But now
the Badminton library had been cleared out of a shelf where it stood
most convenient to the hand, and its place taken by an old Leyden
reprint of Justinian. There were books on Byzantine subjects of which I
never dreamed he had heard the names; there were volumes of history and
speculation, all of a slightly bizarre kind; and to crown everything,
there were several bulky medical works with gaudily colored plates. The
old atmosphere of sport and travel had gone from the room with the
medley of rods, whips, and gun cases which used to cumber the tables.
Now the place was moderately tidy and somewhat learned, and I did not
Ladlaw refused to smoke, and sat for a little while in silence. Then
of his own accord he broke the tension.
'It was devilish good of you to come, Harry. This is a lonely place
for a man who is a bit seedy.'
'I thought you might be alone,' I said, 'so I looked you up on my
way down from Glenaicill. I'm sorry to find you feeling ill.'
'Do you notice it?' he asked sharply.
'It's tolerably patent,' I said. 'Have you seen a doctor?'
He said something uncomplimentary about doctors, and kept looking at
me with his curious dull eyes.
I remarked the strange posture in which he sat, his head screwed
round to his right shoulder, and his whole body a protest against
something at his left hand.
'It looks like a heart,' I said. 'You seem to have pains in your
Again a spasm of fear. I went over to him and stood at the back of
'Now for goodness' sake, my dear fellow, tell me what is wrong.
You're scaring Sibyl to death. It's lonely work for the poor girl, and
I wish you would let me help you.'
He was lying back in his chair now, with his eyes half shut, and
shivering like a frightened colt. The extraordinary change in one who
had been the strongest of the strong kept me from realizing his
gravity. I put a hand on his shoulder, but he flung it off.
Tor God's sake, sit down!' he said hoarsely. 'I'm going to tell you,
but I'll never make you understand.'
I sat down promptly opposite him.
'It's the devil,' he said very solemnly.
I am afraid that I was rude enough to laugh. He took no notice, but
sat, with the same tense, miserable air, staring over my head.
'Right,' said I. 'Then it is the devil. It's a new complaint, so
it's as well I did not bring a doctor. How does it affect you?'
He made the old impotent clutch at the air with his left hand. I had
the sense to become grave at once. Clearly this was some serious mental
affection, some hallucination born of physical pain.
Then he began to talk in a low voice, very rapidly, with his head
bent forward like a hunted animal's. I am not going to set down what he
told me in his own words, for they were incoherent often, and there was
much repetition. But I am going to write the gist of the odd story
which took my sleep away on that autumn night, with such explanations
and additions I think needful. The fire died down, the wind arose, the
hour grew late, and still he went on in his mumbling recitative. I
forgot to smoke, forgot my comfort--everything but the odd figure of my
friend and his inconceivable romance. And the night before I had been
in cheerful Glenaicill!
He had returned to the House of More, he said, in the latter part of
May, and shortly after he fell ill. It was a trifling
sickness,--influenza or something,--but he had never quite recovered.
The rainy weather of June depressed him, and the extreme heat of July
made him listless and weary. A kind of insistent sleepiness hung over
him, and he suffered much from nightmare. Toward the end of July his
former health returned, but he was haunted with a curious oppression.
He seemed to himself to have lost the art of being alone. There was a
perpetual sound in his left ear, a kind of moving and rustling at his
left side, which never left him by night or day. In addition, he had
become the prey of nerves and an insensate dread of the unknown.
Ladlaw, as I have explained, was a commonplace man, with fair
talents, a mediocre culture, honest instincts, and the beliefs and
incredulities of his class. On abstract grounds, I should have declared
him an unlikely man to be the victim of an hallucination. He had a kind
of dull bourgeois rationalism, which used to find reasons for all
things in heaven and earth. At first he controlled his dread with
proverbs. He told himself it was the sequel of his illness or the
light-headedness of summer heat on the moors. But it soon outgrew his
comfort. It became a living second presence, an alter ego which dogged
his footsteps. He grew acutely afraid of it. He dared not be alone for
a moment, and clung to Sibyl's company despairingly. She went off for a
week's visit in the beginning of August, and he endured for seven days
the tortures of the lost. The malady advanced upon him with swift
steps. The presence became more real daily. In the early dawning, in
the twilight, and in the first hour of the morning it seemed at times
to take a visible bodily form. A kind of amorphous featureless shadow
would run from his side into the darkness, and he would sit palsied
with terror. Sometimes, in lonely places, his footsteps sounded double,
and something would brush elbows with him. Human society alone
exorcised it. With Sibyl at his side he was happy; but as soon as she
left him, the thing came slinking back from the unknown to watch by
him. Company might have saved him, but joined to his affliction was a
crazy dread of his fellows. He would not leave his moorland home, but
must bear his burden alone among the wild streams and mosses of that
The 12th came, and he shot wretchedly, for his nerve had gone to
pieces. He stood exhaustion badly, and became a dweller about the
doors. But with this bodily inertness came an extraordinary
intellectual revival. He read widely in a blundering way, and he
speculated unceasingly. It was characteristic of the man that as soon
as he left the paths of the prosaic he should seek his supernatural in
a very concrete form. He assumed that he was haunted by the devil--the
visible personal devil in whom our fathers believed. He waited hourly
for the shape at his side to speak, but no words came. The Accuser of
the Brethren in all but tangible form was his ever present companion.
He felt, he declared, the spirit of old evil entering subtly into his
blood. He sold his soul many times over, and yet there was no
possibility of resistance. It was a Visitation more undeserved than
Job's, and a thousandfold more awful.
For a week or more he was tortured with a kind of religious mania.
When a man of a healthy secular mind finds himself adrift on the
terrible ocean of religious troubles he is peculiarly helpless, for he
has not the most rudimentary knowledge of the winds and tides. It was
useless to call up his old carelessness; he had suddenly dropped into a
new world where old proverbs did not apply. And all the while, mind
you, there was the shrinking terror of it--an intellect all alive to
the torture and the most unceasing physical fear. For a little he was
on the far edge of idiocy.
Then by accident it took a new form. While sitting with Sibyl one
day in the library, he began listlessly to turn over the leaves of an
old book. He read a few pages, and found the hint to a story like his
own. It was some French Life of Justinian, one of the unscholarly
productions of last century, made up of stories from Procopius and tags
of Roman law. Here was his own case written down in black and white;
and the man had been a king of kings. This was a new comfort, and for a
little--strange though it may seem--he took a sort of pride in his
affliction. He worshiped the great Emperor, and read every scrap he
could find on him, not excepting the Pandects and the Digest. He sent
for the bust in the dining room, paying a fabulous price. Then he
settled himself to study his imperial prototype, and the study became
an idolatry. As I have said, Ladlaw was a man of ordinary talents, and
certainly of meagre imaginative power. And yet from the lies of the
Secret History and the crudities of German legalists he had constructed
a marvelous portrait of a man. Sitting there in the half-lighted room,
he drew the picture: the quiet cold man with his inheritance of Dacian
mysticism, holding the great world in fee, giving it law and religion,
fighting its wars, building its churches, and yet all the while intent
upon his own private work of making his peace with his soul--the
churchman and warrior whom all the world worshiped, and yet one going
through life with his lip quivering. He Watched by the Threshold ever
at the left side. Sometimes at night, in the great Brazen Palace,
warders heard the Emperor walking in the dark corridors, alone, and yet
not alone; for once, when a servant entered with a lamp, he saw his
master with a face as of another world, and something beside him which
had no face or shape, but which he knew to be that hoary Evil which is
older than the stars.
Crazy nonsense! I had to rub my eyes to assure myself that I was not
sleeping. No! There was my friend with his suffering face, and it was
the library of More.
And then he spoke of Theodora,--actress, harlot, devote, empress.
For him the lady was but another part of the uttermost horror, a form
of the shapeless thing at his side. I felt myself falling under the
fascination. I have no nerves and little imagination, but in a flash I
seemed to realize something of that awful featureless face, crouching
ever at a man's hand, till darkness and loneliness come, and it rises
to its mastery. I shivered as I looked at the man in the chair before
me. These dull eyes of his were looking upon things I could not see,
and I saw their terror. I realized that it was grim earnest for him.
Nonsense or no, some devilish fancy had usurped the place of his
sanity, and he was being slowly broken upon the wheel. And then, when
his left hand twitched, I almost cried out. I had thought it comic
before; now it seemed the last proof of tragedy.
He stopped, and I got up with loose knees and went to the window.
Better the black night than the intangible horror within. I flung up
the sash and looked out across the moor. There was no light; nothing
but an inky darkness and the uncanny rustle of elder bushes. The sound
chilled me, and I closed the window.
'The land is the old Manann,' Ladlaw was saying. 'We are beyond the
pale here. Do you hear the wind?'
I forced myself back into sanity and looked at my watch. It was
nearly one o'clock.
'What ghastly idiots we are!' I said. 'I am off to bed.'
Ladlaw looked at me helplessly. 'For God's sake, don't leave me
alone!' he moaned. 'Get Sibyl.'
We went together back to the hall, while he kept the same feverish
grasp on my arm. Some one was sleeping in a chair by the hall fire, and
to my distress I recognized my hostess. The poor child must have been
sadly wearied. She came forward with her anxious face.
'I'm afraid Bob has kept you very late, Henry,' she said. 'I hope
you will sleep well. Breakfast at nine, you know.' And then I left
Over my bed there was a little picture, a reproduction of some
Italian work, of Christ and the Demoniac. Some impulse made me hold my
candle up to it. The madman's face was torn with passion and suffering,
and his eye had the pained furtive expression which I had come to know.
And by his left side there was a dim shape crouching.
I got into bed hastily, but not to sleep. I felt that my reason must
be going. I had been pitchforked from our clear and cheerful modern
life into the mists of old superstition. Old tragic stories of my
Calvinist upbringing returned to haunt me. The man dwelt in by a devil
was no new fancy, but I believed that science had docketed and analyzed
and explained the devil out of the world. I remembered my dabblings in
the occult before I settled down to law--the story of Donisarius, the
monk of Padua, the unholy legend of the Face of Proserpine, the tales
of succubi and incubi, the Leannain Sith and the Hidden Presence. But
here was something stranger still. I had stumbled upon that very
possession which fifteen hundred years ago had made the monks of New
Rome tremble and cross themselves. Some devilish occult force,
lingering through the ages, had come to life after a long sleep. God
knows what earthly connection there was between the splendid Emperor of
the World and my prosaic friend, or between the glittering shores of
the Bosporus and this moorland parish! But the land was the old Manann!
The spirit may have lingered in the earth and air, a deadly legacy from
Pict and Roman. I had felt the uncanniness of the place; I had augured
ill of it from the first. And then in sheer disgust I rose and splashed
my face with cold water.
I lay down again, laughing miserably at my credulity. That I, the
sober and rational, should believe in this crazy fable was too palpably
absurd. I would steel my mind resolutely against such harebrained
theories. It was a mere bodily ailment--liver out of order, weak heart,
bad circulation, or something of that sort. At the worst it might be
some affection of the brain, to be treated by a specialist. I vowed to
myself that next morning the best doctor in Edinburgh should be brought
The worst of it was that my duty compelled me to stand my ground. I
foresaw the few remaining weeks of my holiday blighted. I should be
tied to this moorland prison, a sort of keeper and nurse in one,
tormented by silly fancies. It was a charming prospect, and the thought
of Glenaicill and the woodcock made me bitter against Ladlaw. But there
was no way out of it. I might do Ladlaw good, and I could not have
Sibyl worn to death by his vagaries.
My ill nature comforted me, and I forgot the horror of the thing in
its vexation. After that I think I fell asleep and dozed uneasily till
morning. When I woke I was in a better frame of mind. The early sun had
worked wonders with the moorland. The low hills stood out fresh-colored
and clear against a pale October sky; the elders sparkled with frost;
the raw film of morn was rising from the little loch in tiny clouds. It
was a cold, rousing day, and I dressed in good spirits and went down to
I found Ladlaw looking ruddy and well; very different from the
broken man I remembered of the night before. We were alone, for Sibyl
was breakfasting in bed. I remarked on his ravenous appetite, and he
smiled cheerily. He made two jokes during the meal; he laughed often,
and I began to forget the events of the previous day. It seemed to me
that I might still flee from More with a clear conscience. He had
forgotten about his illness. When I touched distantly upon the matter
he showed a blank face.
It might be that the affection had passed; on the other hand, it
might return to him at the darkening. I had no means to decide. His
manner was still a trifle distrait and peculiar, and I did not like the
dullness in his eye. At any rate, I should spend the day in his
company, and the evening would decide the question.
I proposed shooting, which he promptly vetoed. He was no good at
walking, he said, and the birds were wild. This seriously limited the
possible occupations. Fishing there was none, and hill-climbing was out
of the question. He proposed a game at billiards, and I pointed to the
glory of the morning. It would have been sacrilege to waste such
sunshine in knocking balls about. Finally we agreed to drive somewhere
and have lunch, and he ordered the dogcart.
In spite of all forebodings I enjoyed the day. We drove in the
opposite direction from the woodland parts, right away across the moor
to the coal country beyond. We lunched at the little mining town of
Borrowmuir, in a small and noisy public house. The roads made bad
going, the country was far from pretty, and yet the drive did not bore
me. Ladlaw talked incessantly--talked as I had never heard man talk
before. There was something indescribable in all he said, a different
point of view, a lost groove of thought, a kind of innocence and
archaic shrewdness in one. I can only give you a hint of it, by saying
that it was like the mind of an early ancestor placed suddenly among
modern surroundings. It was wise with a remote wisdom, and silly (now
and then) with a quite antique and distant silliness.
I will give instances of both. He provided me with a theory of
certain early fortifications, which must be true, which commends itself
to the mind with overwhelming conviction, and yet which is so out of
the way of common speculation that no man could have guessed it. I do
not propose to set down the details, for I am working at it on my own
account. Again, he told me the story of an old marriage custom, which
till recently survived in this district--told it with full
circumstantial detail and constant allusions to other customs which he
could not possibly have known of. Now for the other side. He explained
why well water is in winter warmer than a running stream, and this was
his explanation: at the antipodes our winter is summer, consequently,
the water of a well which comes through from the other side of the
earth must be warm in winter and cold in summer, since in our summer it
is winter there. You perceive what this is. It is no mere silliness,
but a genuine effort of an early mind, which had just grasped the fact
of the antipodes, to use it in explanation.
Gradually I was forced to the belief that it was not Ladlaw who was
talking to me, but something speaking through him, something at once
wiser and simpler. My old fear of the devil began to depart. This
spirit, the exhalation, whatever it was, was ingenuous in its way, at
least in its daylight aspect. For a moment I had an idea that it was a
real reflex of Byzantine thought, and that by cross-examining I might
make marvelous discoveries. The ardor of the scholar began to rise in
me, and I asked a question about that much-debated point, the legal
status of the apocrisiarii. To my vexation he gave no response. Clearly
the intelligence of this familiar had its limits.
It was about three in the afternoon, and we had gone half of our
homeward journey, when signs of the old terror began to appear. I was
driving, and Ladlaw sat on my left. I noticed him growing nervous and
silent, shivering at the flick of the whip, and turning halfway round
toward me. Then he asked me to change places, and I had the unpleasant
work of driving from the wrong side. After that I do not think he spoke
once till we arrived at More, but sat huddled together, with the
driving rug almost up to his chin--an eccentric figure of a man.
I foresaw another such night as the last, and I confess my heart
sank. I had no stomach for more mysteries, and somehow with the
approach of twilight the confidence of the day departed. The thing
appeared in darker colors, and I found it in my mind to turn coward.
Sibyl alone deterred me. I could not bear to think of her alone with
this demented being. I remembered her shy timidity, her innocence. It
was monstrous that the poor thing should be called on thus to fight
alone with phantoms.
When we came to the House it was almost sunset. Ladlaw got out very
carefully on the right side, and for a second stood by the horse. The
sun was making our shadows long, and as I stood beyond him it seemed
for a moment that his shadow was double. It may have been mere fancy,
for I had not time to look twice. He was standing, as I have said, with
his left side next the horse. Suddenly the harmless elderly cob fell
into a very panic of fright, reared upright, and all but succeeded in
killing its master. I was in time to pluck Ladlaw from under its feet,
but the beast had become perfectly unmanageable, and we left a groom
struggling to quiet it.
In the hall the butler gave me a telegram. It was from my clerk,
summoning me back at once to an important consultation.
Here was a prompt removal of my scruples. There could be no question
of my remaining, for the case was one of the first importance, which I
had feared might break off my holiday. The consultation fell in
vacation time to meet the convenience of certain people who were going
abroad, and there was the most instant demand for my presence. I must
go, and at once; and, as I hunted in the time-table, I found that in
three hours' time a night train for the south would pass Borrowmuir
which might be stopped by special wire.
But I had no pleasure in my freedom. I was in despair about Sibyl,
and I hated myself for my cowardly relief. The dreary dining room, the
sinister bust, and Ladlaw crouching and quivering--the recollection,
now that escape was before me, came back on my mind with the terror of
a nightmare. My first thought was to persuade the Ladlaws to come away
with me. I found them both in the drawing-room--Sibyl very fragile and
pale, and her husband sitting as usual like a frightened child in the
shadow of her skirts. A sight of him was enough to dispel my hope. The
man was fatally ill, mentally, bodily; and who was I to attempt to
minister to a mind diseased?
But Sibyl--she might be saved from the martyrdom. The servants would
take care of him, and, if need be, a doctor might be got from Edinburgh
to live in the house. So while he sat with vacant eyes staring into the
twilight, I tried to persuade Sibyl to think of herself. I am frankly a
sun worshiper. I have no taste for arduous duty, and the quixotic is my
abhorrence. I labored to bring my cousin to this frame of mind. I told
her that her first duty was to herself, and that this vigil of hers was
beyond human endurance. But she had no ears for my arguments.
'While Bob is ill I must stay with him,' she said always in answer,
and then she thanked me for my visit, till I felt a brute and a coward.
I strove to quiet my conscience, but it told me always that I was
fleeing from my duty; and then, when I was on the brink of a nobler
resolution, a sudden overmastering terror would take hold of me, and I
would listen hysterically for the sound of the dogcart on the
At last it came, and in a sort of fever I tried to say the
conventional farewells. I shook hands with Ladlaw, and when I dropped
his hand it fell numbly on his knee. Then I took my leave, muttering
hoarse nonsense about having had a 'charming visit,' and 'hoping soon
to see them both in town.' As I backed to the door, I knocked over a
lamp on a small table. It crashed on the floor and went out, and at the
sound Ladlaw gave a curious childish cry. I turned like a coward, and
ran across the hall to the front door, and scrambled into the
The groom would have driven me sedately through the park, but I must
have speed or go mad. I took the reins from him and put the horse into
a canter. We swung through the gates and out into the moor road, for I
could have no peace till the ghoulish elder world was exchanged for the
homely ugliness of civilization. Once only I looked back, and there
against the sky line, with a solitary lit window, the House of More
stood lonely in the red desert.