Read The Little Stranger Online
Authors: Sarah Waters
Tags: #Mystery, #Historical, #Horror, #Adult
To my parents, Mary and Ron, and my sister, Deborah.
first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fête: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six. They must have made a very handsome family, but my memory of them is vague. I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain—like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.
There were no trips inside, of course. The doors and French windows stood open, but each had a rope or a ribbon tied across it; the lavatories set aside for our use were the grooms’ and the gardeners’, in the stable block. My mother, however, still had friends among the servants, and when the tea was finished and people were given the run of the grounds, she took me quietly into the house by a side door, and we spent a little time with the cook and the kitchen girls. The visit impressed me terribly. The kitchen was a basement one, reached by a cool vaulted corridor with something of the feel of a castle dungeon. An extraordinary number of people seemed to be coming and going along it with hampers and trays. The girls had such a mountain of crockery to wash, my mother rolled up her sleeves to help them; and to my very great delight, as a reward for her labour I was allowed to take my pick of the jellies and ‘shapes’ that had come back uneaten from the fête. I was put to sit at a deal-topped table, and given a spoon from the family’s own drawer—a heavy thing of dulled silver, its bowl almost bigger than my mouth.
But then came an even greater treat. High up on the wall of the vaulted passage was a junction-box of wires and bells, and when one of these bells was set ringing, calling the parlourmaid upstairs, she took me with her, so that I might peep past the green baize curtain that separated the front of the house from the back. I could stand and wait for her there, she said, if I was very good and quiet. I must only be sure to keep behind the curtain, for if the Colonel or the missus were to see me, there’d be a row.
I was an obedient child, as a rule. But the curtain opened onto the corner junction of two marble-floored passages, each one filled with marvellous things; and once she had disappeared softly in one direction, I took a few daring steps in the other. The thrill of it was astonishing. I don’t mean the simple thrill of trespass, I mean the thrill of the house itself, which came to me from every surface—from the polish on the floor, the patina on wooden chairs and cabinets, the bevel of a looking-glass, the scroll of a frame. I was drawn to one of the dustless white walls, which had a decorative plaster border, a representation of acorns and leaves. I had never seen anything like it, outside of a church, and after a second of looking it over I did what strikes me now as a dreadful thing: I worked my fingers around one of the acorns and tried to prise it from its setting; and when that failed to release it, I got out my penknife and dug away with that. I didn’t do it in a spirit of vandalism. I wasn’t a spiteful or destructive boy. It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it—or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.
I’m afraid the acorn gave at last, though less cleanly than I’d been expecting, with a tug of fibre and a fall of white powder and grit; I remember that as disappointing. Possibly I’d imagined it to be made of marble.
But nobody came, nobody caught me. It was, as they say, the work of a moment. I put the acorn in my pocket, and slipped back behind the curtain. The parlourmaid returned a minute later and took me back downstairs; my mother and I said goodbye to the kitchen staff, and rejoined my father in the garden. I felt the hard plaster lump in my pocket, now, with a sort of sick excitement. I’d begun to be anxious that Colonel Ayres, a frightening man, would discover the damage and stop the fête. But the afternoon ran on without incident until the bluish drawing-in of dusk. My parents and I joined other Lidcote people for the long walk home, the bats flitting and wheeling with us along the lanes as if whirled on invisible strings.
My mother found the acorn, of course, eventually. I had been drawing it in and out of my pocket, and it had left a chalky trail on the grey flannel of my shorts. When she understood what the queer little thing in her hand was, she almost wept. She didn’t smack me, or tell my father; she never had the heart for arguments. Instead she looked at me, with her tearful eyes, as if baffled and ashamed.
‘You ought to know better, a clever lad like you,’ I expect she said.
People were always saying things like that to me when I was young. My parents, my uncles, my schoolmasters—all the various adults who interested themselves in my career. The words used to drive me into secret rages, because on the one hand I wanted desperately to live up to my own reputation for cleverness, and on the other it seemed very unfair, that that cleverness, which I had never asked for, could be turned into something with which to cut me down.
he acorn was put on the fire. I found the blackened nub of it among the clinker, next day. That must have been the last grand year for Hundreds Hall, anyway. The following Empire Day fête was given by another family, in one of the neighbouring big houses; Hundreds had started its steady decline. Soon afterwards the Ayreses’ daughter died, and Mrs Ayres and the Colonel began to live less publicly. I dimly remember the births of their next two children, Caroline and Roderick—but by then I was at Leamington College, and busy with bitter little battles of my own. My mother died when I was fifteen. She had had miscarriage after miscarriage, it turned out, all through my childhood, and the last one killed her. My father lived just long enough to see me graduate from medical school and return to Lidcote a qualified man. Colonel Ayres died a few years later—an aneurism, I think.
With his death, Hundreds Hall withdrew even further from the world. The gates of the park were kept almost permanently closed. The solid brown stone boundary wall, though not especially high, was high enough to seem forbidding. And for all that the house was such a grand one, there was no spot, on any of the lanes in that part of Warwickshire, from which it could be glimpsed. I sometimes thought of it, tucked away in there, as I passed the wall on my rounds—picturing it always as it had seemed to me that day in 1919, with its handsome brick faces, and its cool marble passages, each one filled with marvellous things.
o when I did see the house again—almost thirty years on from that first visit, and shortly after the end of another war—the changes in it appalled me. It was the purest chance that took me out there, for the Ayreses were registered with my partner, David Graham; but he was busy with an emergency case that day, so when the family sent out for a doctor the request was passed on to me. My heart began to sink almost the moment I let myself into the park. I remembered a long approach to the house through neat rhododendron and laurel, but the park was now so overgrown and untended, my small car had to fight its way down the drive. When I broke free of the bushes at last and found myself on a sweep of lumpy gravel with the Hall directly ahead of me, I put on the brake, and gaped in dismay. The house was smaller than in memory, of course—not quite the mansion I’d been recalling—but I’d been expecting that. What horrified me were the signs of decay. Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away, so that the house’s uncertain Georgian outline was even more tentative than before. Ivy had spread, then patchily died, and hung like tangled rat’s-tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams.
I parked my car, climbed out, and almost feared to slam the door. The place, for so large and solid a structure, felt precarious. No one appeared to have heard me arrive, so after a little hesitation I went crunching over the gravel and gingerly climbed the cracked stone steps. It was a hot, still summer’s day—so windless that when I tugged on the tarnished old brass and ivory bell-pull I caught the ring of it, pure and clear, but distant, as if in the belly of the house. The ring was immediately followed by the faint, gruff barking of a dog.
The barks were very soon cut off, and for another long minute there was silence. Then, from somewhere to my right, I heard the scrape of an irregular footstep, and a moment later the son of the family, Roderick, appeared around the corner of the house. He squinted over at me with some suspicion, until noticing the bag in my hand. Drawing a collapsed-looking cigarette from his mouth he called, ‘You’re the doctor, are you? We were expecting Dr Graham.’
His tone was friendly enough, but had a touch of languor to it; as if he were bored by the sight of me already. I left the steps and went over to him, introducing myself as Graham’s partner, explaining about Graham’s emergency case. He answered blandly, ‘Well, it’s good of you to come out. On a Sunday, too; and such a filthy hot one. Come this way, would you? It’s quicker than going right through the house. I’m Roderick Ayres, by the way.’
We had in fact met before, on more than one occasion. But he’d clearly forgotten that, and as we moved off he gave me his hand for a perfunctory shake. His fingers felt queer against mine, rough as crocodile in some spots, oddly smooth in others: his hands had been burnt, I knew, in a wartime accident, along with a good part of his face. The scars aside, he was handsome: taller than me, but, at twenty-four, still boyish and slender. He was dressed boyishly too, in an open-necked shirt, summer trousers, and stained canvas shoes. He walked unhurriedly, and with a noticeable limp.
He said as we went, ‘You know why we called you, I suppose?’
I said, ‘I was told, for one of your maids.’
of our maids! I like that. There’s only the one: our girl, Betty. Some stomach problem, it seems to be.’ He looked dubious. ‘I don’t know. My mother, my sister, and I tend to manage without doctors as a rule. We muddle through with colds and headaches. But I gather that neglecting the servants is a capital offence these days; they’re to get better treatment than us, apparently. So we thought we ought to send for someone. Watch your step just here, look.’
He had taken me along a gravelled terrace that ran the length of the north side of the Hall; he indicated a spot where the terrace had subsided, making for treacherous dips and cracks. I picked my way around them, interested to have been given a chance to see this side of the house—but aghast, again, at how badly the place had been allowed to decline. The garden was a chaos of nettle and bindweed. There was a faint but definite whiff of blocked drains. The windows we passed were streaked and dusty; all were closed, and most were shuttered, except for a pair of glass doors that stood open at the top of a set of flying stone steps wound about with convolvulus. They gave me a view of a large untidy room, a desk with a mess of papers on it, an edge of brocade curtain … That was all I had time to see. We had reached a narrow service doorway, and Roderick was standing aside to let me pass.
‘Go on, would you?’ he said, gesturing with one of his scarred hands. ‘My sister’s downstairs. She’ll show you to Betty, and fill you in.’
Only later, recalling his injured leg, would I guess that he must not have wanted me to see him struggling with stairs. As it was, I thought his manner rather casual, and I went past him, saying nothing. At once, I heard him crunching quietly away in his rubber-soled shoes.
But I went quietly, myself. This narrow doorway, I had realised, was the one through which my mother had more or less smuggled me, all those years before. I remembered the bare stone stairway it led to, and, following the steps down, I found myself in the dim vaulted passage that had so impressed me then. But here was another disappointment. I had been picturing this passage as something like a crypt or a dungeon; in fact its walls were the glossy cream-and-green of police- and fire-stations, there was a strip of coconut-matting on the flagstone floor, and a mop sat sourly in a bucket. Nobody emerged to greet me, but to my right a half-open door offered a glimpse of the kitchen, so I went softly over and looked inside. Yet another damp squib: I found a large lifeless room with Victorian counters and mortuary surfaces, all brutally scoured and scrubbed. Only the old deal table—the very table, by the look of it, where I had eaten my jellies and ‘shapes’—recalled the excitement of that first visit. It was also the only thing in the room to bear any sign of activity, for there was a small pile of muddy vegetables put out on it, together with a bowl of water and a knife—the water discoloured, and the knife wet, as if someone had recently started the task and been called away.