The Woman's Ghost Story
Scary Books: The Best Ghost Stories
: ALGERNON BLACKWOOD
"Yes," she said, from her seat in the dark corner, "I'll tell you an
experience if you care to listen. And, what's more, I'll tell it
briefly, without trimmings--I mean without unessentials. That's a thing
story-tellers never do, you know," she laughed. "They drag in all the
unessentials and leave their listeners to disentangle; but I'll give you
just the essentials, and you can make of it what you please. But on one
ndition: that at the end you ask no questions, because I can't explain
it and have no wish to."
We agreed. We were all serious. After listening to a dozen prolix
stories from people who merely wished to "talk" but had nothing to tell,
we wanted "essentials."
"In those days," she began, feeling from the quality of our silence that
we were with her, "in those days I was interested in psychic things, and
had arranged to sit up alone in a haunted house in the middle of London.
It was a cheap and dingy lodging-house in a mean street, unfurnished.
I had already made a preliminary examination in daylight that afternoon,
and the keys from the caretaker, who lived next door, were in my pocket.
The story was a good one--satisfied me, at any rate, that it was worth
investigating; and I won't weary you with details as to the woman's
murder and all the tiresome elaboration as to _why_ the place was
_alive_. Enough that it was.
"I was a good deal bored, therefore, to see a man, whom I took to be the
talkative old caretaker, waiting for me on the steps when I went in at
11 P.M., for I had sufficiently explained that I wished to be there
alone for the night.
"'I wished to show you _the_ room,' he mumbled, and of course I couldn't
exactly refuse, having tipped him for the temporary loan of a chair and
"'Come in, then, and let's be quick,' I said.
"We went in, he shuffling after me through the unlighted hall up to the
first floor where the murder had taken place, and I prepared myself to
hear his inevitable account before turning him out with the half-crown
his persistence had earned. After lighting the gas I sat down in the
arm-chair he had provided--a faded, brown plush arm-chair--and turned
for the first time to face him and get through with the performance as
quickly as possible. And it was in that instant I got my first shock.
The man was _not_ the caretaker. It was not the old fool, Carey, I had
interviewed earlier in the day and made my plans with. My heart gave a
"'Now who are _you_, pray?' I said. 'You're not Carey, the man I
arranged with this afternoon. Who are you?'
"I felt uncomfortable, as you may imagine. I was a 'psychical
researcher,' and a young woman of new tendencies, and proud of my
liberty, but I did not care to find myself in an empty house with a
stranger. Something of my confidence left me. Confidence with women, you
know, is all humbug after a certain point. Or perhaps you don't know,
for most of you are men. But anyhow my pluck ebbed in a quick rush, and
I felt afraid.
"'Who are you?' I repeated quickly and nervously. The fellow was well
dressed, youngish and good-looking, but with a face of great sadness.
I myself was barely thirty. I am giving you essentials, or I would not
mention it. Out of quite ordinary things comes this story. I think
that's why it has value.
"'No,' he said; 'I'm the man who was frightened to death.'
"His voice and his words ran through me like a knife, and I felt ready
to drop. In my pocket was the book I had bought to make notes in. I felt
the pencil sticking in the socket. I felt, too, the extra warm things
I had put on to sit up in, as no bed or sofa was available--a hundred
things dashed through my mind, foolishly and without sequence or
meaning, as the way is when one is really frightened. Unessentials
leaped up and puzzled me, and I thought of what the papers might say if
it came out, and what my 'smart' brother-in-law would think, and whether
it would be told that I had cigarettes in my pocket, and was a
"'The man who was frightened to death!' I repeated aghast.
"'That's me,' he said stupidly.
"I stared at him just as you would have done--any one of you men now
listening to me--and felt my life ebbing and flowing like a sort of hot
fluid. You needn't laugh! That's how I felt. Small things, you know,
touch the mind with great earnestness when terror is there--_real
terror_. But I might have been at a middle-class tea-party, for all the
ideas I had: they were so ordinary!
"'But I thought you were the caretaker I tipped this afternoon to let me
sleep here!' I gasped. 'Did--did Carey send you to meet me?'
"'No,' he replied in a voice that touched my boots somehow. 'I am the
man who was frightened to death. And what is more, I am frightened
"'So am I!' I managed to utter, speaking instinctively. 'I'm simply
"'Yes,' he replied in that same odd voice that seemed to sound within
me. 'But you are still in the flesh, and I--_am not_!'
"I felt the need for vigorous self-assertion. I stood up in that empty,
unfurnished room, digging the nails into my palms and clenching my
teeth. I was determined to assert my individuality and my courage as a
new woman and a free soul.
"'You mean to say you are not in the flesh!' I gasped. 'What in the
world are you talking about?'
"The silence of the night swallowed up my voice. For the first time I
realized that darkness was over the city; that dust lay upon the stairs;
that the floor above was untenanted and the floor below empty. I was
alone in an unoccupied and haunted house, unprotected, and a woman.
I chilled. I heard the wind round the house, and knew the stars were
hidden. My thoughts rushed to policemen and omnibuses, and everything
that was useful and comforting. I suddenly realized what a fool I was to
come to such a house alone. I was icily afraid. I thought the end of my
life had come. I was an utter fool to go in for psychical research when
I had not the necessary nerve.
"'Good God!' I gasped. 'If you're not Carey, the man I arranged with,
who are you?'
"I was really stiff with terror. The man moved slowly towards me across
the empty room. I held out my arm to stop him, getting up out of my
chair at the same moment, and he came to halt just opposite to me, a
smile on his worn, sad face.
"'I told you who I am,' he repeated quietly with a sigh, looking at me
with the saddest eyes I have ever seen, 'and I am frightened _still_.'
"By this time I was convinced that I was entertaining either a rogue or
a madman, and I cursed my stupidity in bringing the man in without
having seen his face. My mind was quickly made up, and I knew what to
do. Ghosts and psychic phenomena flew to the winds. If I angered the
creature my life might pay the price. I must humor him till I got to the
door, and then race for the street. I stood bolt upright and faced him.
We were about of a height, and I was a strong, athletic woman who played
hockey in winter and climbed Alps in summer. My hand itched for a stick,
but I had none.
"'Now, of course, I remember,' I said with a sort of stiff smile that
was very hard to force. 'Now I remember your case and the wonderful way
you behaved . . . .'
"The man stared at me stupidly, turning his head to watch me as I backed
more and more quickly to the door. But when his face broke into a smile
I could control myself no longer. I reached the door in a run, and shot
out on to the landing. Like a fool, I turned the wrong way, and stumbled
over the stairs leading to the next story. But it was too late to
change. The man was after me, I was sure, though no sound of footsteps
came; and I dashed up the next flight, tearing my skirt and banging my
ribs in the darkness, and rushed headlong into the first room I came
to. Luckily the door stood ajar, and, still more fortunate, there was a
key in the lock. In a second I had slammed the door, flung my whole
weight against it, and turned the key.
"I was safe, but my heart was beating like a drum. A second later it
seemed to stop altogether, for I saw that there was some one else in the
room besides myself. A man's figure stood between me and the windows,
where the street lamps gave just enough light to outline his shape
against the glass. I'm a plucky woman, you know, for even then I didn't
give up hope, but I may tell you that I have never felt so vilely
frightened in all my born days. I had locked myself in with him!
"The man leaned against the window, watching me where I lay in a
collapsed heap upon the floor. So there were two men in the house with
me, I reflected. Perhaps other rooms were occupied too! What could it
all mean? But, as I stared something changed in the room, or in me--hard
to say which--and I realized my mistake, so that my fear, which had so
far been physical, at once altered its character and became _psychical_.
I became afraid in my soul instead of in my heart, and I knew
immediately who this man was.
"'How in the world did you get up here?' I stammered to him across the
empty room, amazement momentarily stemming my fear.
"'Now, let me tell you,' he began, in that odd faraway voice of his that
went down my spine like a knife. 'I'm in different space, for one thing,
and you'd find me in any room you went into; for according to your way
of measuring, I'm _all over the house_. Space is a bodily condition, but
I am out of the body, and am not affected by space. It's my condition
that keeps me here. I want something to change my condition for me, for
then I could get away. What I want is sympathy. Or, really, more than
sympathy; I want affection--I want _love_!'
"While he was speaking I gathered myself slowly upon my feet. I wanted
to scream and cry and laugh all at once, but I only succeeded in
sighing, for my emotion was exhausted and a numbness was coming over me.
I felt for the matches in my pocket and made a movement towards the gas
"'I should be much happier if you didn't light the gas,' he said at
once, 'for the vibrations of your light hurt me a good deal. You need
not be afraid that I shall injure you. I can't touch your body to begin
with, for there's a great gulf fixed, you know; and really this
half-light suits me best. Now, let me continue what I was trying to say
before. You know, so many people have come to this house to see me, and
most of them have seen me, and one and all have been terrified. If only,
oh, if only some one would be _not_ terrified, but kind and loving to
me! Then, you see, I might be able to change my condition and get away.'
"His voice was so sad that I felt tears start somewhere at the back of
my eyes; but fear kept all else in check, and I stood shaking and cold
as I listened to him.
"'Who are you then? Of course Carey didn't send you, I know now,' I
managed to utter. My thoughts scattered dreadfully and I could think of
nothing to say. I was afraid of a stroke.
"'I know nothing about Carey, or who he is,' continued the man quietly,
'and the name my body had I have forgotten, thank God; but I am the man
who was frightened to death in this house ten years ago, and I have been
frightened ever since, and am frightened still; for the succession of
cruel and curious people who come to this house to see the ghost, and
thus keep alive its atmosphere of terror, only helps to render my
condition worse. If only some one would be kind to me--_laugh_, speak
gently and rationally with me, cry if they like, pity, comfort, soothe
me--anything but come here in curiosity and tremble as you are now doing
in that corner. Now, madam, won't you take pity on me?' His voice rose
to a dreadful cry. 'Won't you step out into the middle of the room and
try to love me a little?'
"A horrible laughter came gurgling up in my throat as I heard him, but
the sense of pity was stronger than the laughter, and I found myself
actually leaving the support of the wall and approaching the center of
"'By God!' he cried, at once straightening up against the window, 'you
have done a kind act. That's the first attempt at sympathy that has
been shown me since I died, and I feel better already. In life, you
know, I was a misanthrope. Everything went wrong with me, and I came to
hate my fellow men so much that I couldn't bear to see them even. Of
course, like begets like, and this hate was returned. Finally I suffered
from horrible delusions, and my room became haunted with demons that
laughed and grimaced, and one night I ran into a whole cluster of them
near the bed--and the fright stopped my heart and killed me. It's hate
and remorse, as much as terror, that clogs me so thickly and keeps me
here. If only some one could feel pity, and sympathy, and perhaps a
little love for me, I could get away and be happy. When you came this
afternoon to see over the house I watched you, and a little hope came to
me for the first time. I saw you had courage, originality,
resource--_love_. If only I could touch your heart, without frightening
you, I knew I could perhaps tap that love you have stored up in your
being there, and thus borrow the wings for my escape!'
"Now I must confess my heart began to ache a little, as fear left me and
the man's words sank their sad meaning into me. Still, the whole affair
was so incredible, and so touched with unholy quality, and the story of
a woman's murder I had come to investigate had so obviously nothing to
do with this thing, that I felt myself in a kind of wild dream that
seemed likely to stop at any moment and leave me somewhere in bed after
"Moreover, his words possessed me to such an extent that I found it
impossible to reflect upon anything else at all, or to consider
adequately any ways or means of action or escape.
"I moved a little nearer to him in the gloom, horribly frightened, of
course, but with the beginnings of a strange determination in my heart.
"'You women,' he continued, his voice plainly thrilling at my approach,
'you wonderful women, to whom life often brings no opportunity of
spending your great love, oh, if you only could know how many of _us_
simply yearn for it! It would save our souls, if but you knew. Few might
find the chance that you now have, but if you only spent your love
freely, without definite object, just letting it flow openly for all who
need, you would reach hundreds and thousands of souls like me, and
_release us_! Oh, madam, I ask you again to feel with me, to be kind and
gentle--and if you can to love me a little!'
"My heart did leap within me and this time the tears did come, for I
could not restrain them. I laughed too, for the way he called me 'madam'
sounded so odd, here in this empty room at midnight in a London street,
but my laughter stopped dead and merged in a flood of weeping when I saw
how my change of feeling affected him. He had left his place by the
window and was kneeling on the floor at my feet, his hands stretched out
towards me, and the first signs of a kind of glory about his head.
"'Put your arms round me and kiss me, for the love of God!' he cried.
'Kiss me, oh, kiss me, and I shall be freed! You have done so much
already--now do this!'
"I stuck there, hesitating, shaking, my determination on the verge of
action, yet not quite able to compass it. But the terror had almost
"'Forget that I'm a man and you're a woman,' he continued in the most
beseeching voice I ever heard. 'Forget that I'm a ghost, and come out
boldly and press me to you with a great kiss, and let your love flow
into me. Forget yourself just for one minute and do a brave thing! Oh,
love me, _love me_, LOVE ME! and I shall be free!'
"The words, or the deep force they somehow released in the center of my
being, stirred me profoundly, and an emotion infinitely greater than
fear surged up over me and carried me with it across the edge of action.
Without hesitation I took two steps forward towards him where he knelt,
and held out my arms. Pity and love were in my heart at that moment,
genuine pity, I swear, and genuine love. I forgot myself and my little
tremblings in a great desire to help another soul.
"'I love you! poor, aching, unhappy thing! I love you,' I cried through
hot tears; 'and I am not the least bit afraid in the world.'
"The man uttered a curious sound, like laughter, yet not laughter, and
turned his face up to me. The light from the street below fell on it,
but there was another light, too, shining all round it that seemed to
come from the eyes and skin. He rose to his feet and met me, and in that
second I folded him to my breast and kissed him full on the lips again
All our pipes had gone out, and not even a skirt rustled in that dark
studio as the story-teller paused a moment to steady her voice, and put
a hand softly up to her eyes before going on again.
"Now, what can I say, and how can I describe to you, all you skeptical
men sitting there with pipes in your mouths, the amazing sensation I
experienced of holding an intangible, impalpable thing so closely to my
heart that it touched my body with equal pressure all the way down, and
then melted away somewhere into my very being? For it was like seizing a
rush of cool wind and feeling a touch of burning fire the moment it had
struck its swift blow and passed on. A series of shocks ran all over and
all through me; a momentary ecstasy of flaming sweetness and wonder
thrilled down into me; my heart gave another great leap--and then I was
"The room was empty. I turned on the gas and struck a match to prove it.
All fear had left me, and something was singing round me in the air and
in my heart like the joy of a spring morning in youth. Not all the
devils or shadows or hauntings in the world could then have caused me a
"I unlocked the door and went all over the dark house, even into kitchen
and cellar and up among the ghostly attics. But the house was empty.
Something had left it. I lingered a short hour, analyzing, thinking,
wondering--you can guess what and how, perhaps, but I won't detail, for
I promised only essentials, remember--and then went out to sleep the
remainder of the night in my own flat, locking the door behind me upon a
house no longer haunted.
"But my uncle, Sir Henry, the owner of the house, required an account of
my adventure, and of course I was in duty bound to give him some kind of
a true story. Before I could begin, however, he held up his hand to stop
"'First,' he said, 'I wish to tell you a little deception I ventured to
practice on you. So many people have been to that house and seen the
ghost that I came to think the story acted on their imaginations, and
I wished to make a better test. So I invented for their benefit another
story, with the idea that if you did see anything I could be sure it was
not due merely to an excited imagination.'
"'Then what you told me about a woman having been murdered, and all
that, was not the true story of the haunting?'
"'It was not. The true story is that a cousin of mine went mad in that
house, and killed himself in a fit of morbid terror following upon years
of miserable hypochondriasis. It is his figure that investigators see.'
"'That explains, then,' I gasped----
"I thought of that poor struggling soul, longing all these years for
escape, and determined to keep my story for the present to myself.
"'Explains, I mean, why I did not see the ghost of the murdered woman,'
"'Precisely,' said Sir Henry, 'and why, if you had seen anything, it
would have had value, inasmuch as it could not have been caused by the
imagination working upon a story you already knew.'"