As an avowed admirer of this writer of genius, I must puzzle only at his occasional choice of story titles. Despite finely yclept tales of Scandinavian curses, a Scandinavian devil-worshipper, a British tale of seaside treasure, and something even less wholesome on the British seaside, we find curious captions that generally draw upon old houses – of worship or extremely ill repute, such are our two extremes. Why do decrepit abodes make for interesting ghosts? Because all earthbound bodies need a box, and all beasts among men a cage. I could go on and on in this vein, of course: many are the metaphors of unrestful captivity. But we had best keep such dread thoughts to ourselves and turn to this unusual and magnificent work.
We begin in "the year 1730, the month December" in mid-afternoon at the house of Doctor Thomas Ashton, Doctor of Divinity. A "man of some fifty-five years, of a sanguine complexion, an angry eye, and a long upper lip," Dr. Ashton will die peacefully after an extended life of learning and privilege (we should all be so lucky). But before he passes to dust or dimension, he will harbor two young boys in his sprawling quarters. The first, Frank Sydall, is the son of his wife's deceased sister; the second, is the Viscount Saul, heir to the Earl of Kildonan who had studied with Dr. Ashton at university. Why Saul is sent to Ashton of all people – the official explanation is quickly mentioned, but seems unsatisfactory and arbitrary in retrospect – should not concern us overmuch. Where our attention should be directed, however, is to the heir himself:
So he came, one night in September. When he got out of the chaise that brought him, he went first and spoke to the postboy and gave him some money, and patted the neck of his horse. Whether he made some movement that scared it or not, there was very nearly a nasty accident, for the beast started violently, and the postilion being unready was thrown and lost his fee, as he found afterwards, and the chaise lost some paint on the gateposts, and the wheel went over the man's foot who was taking out the baggage. When Lord Saul came up the steps into the light of the lamp in the porch to be greeted by Dr. Ashton, he was seen to be a thin youth of, say, sixteen years old, with straight black hair, and the pale colouring that is common to such a figure. He took the accident and commotion calmly enough, and expressed a proper anxiety for the people who had been, or might have been, hurt: his voice was smooth and pleasant, and without any trace, curiously, of an Irish brogue.
Since Frank is four or five years Saul's junior, we are hardly surprised to learn how quickly he falls under the older boy's spell. What does come as a shock is the weird activity in which the boys, at Saul's behest, engage. After a black rooster with nary a white feather is found in its the barest remains, some hint of ritual surfaces in Ashton's broad mind. Then there is the incident with a glass – a looking-glass that looks at something we dare not mention – and, sad to say, Frank's sudden illness which no febrifuge could stave off. His death, unfortunately, is just the beginning of the matter. These otherwise inexplicable events will conclude – if that is really the right word – a few generations past the lifetime of the genteel and broad-minded Dr. Ashton, whose mind will be pushed to the limits of its expansive breadth.
We race ahead in time almost a hundred years to "1823 or 1824," when the family Oldys becomes the residents of Whitminster. And it is the niece of the proprietor, Dr. Henry Oldys, who develops in her mind and on some fine letterhead the very odd notion of sawflies after also coming across a looking glass. On this topic one missive to a female coeval will suffice:
What I saw, seated in my bedroom, in the broad daylight of summer, and looking into the crystal depth of that small round tablet, was this. First, a prospect, strange to me, of an enclosure of rough and hillocky grass, with a grey stone ruin in the midst, and a wall of rough stones about it. In this stood an old, and very ugly, woman in a red cloak and ragged skirt, talking to a boy dressed in the fashion of maybe a hundred years ago. She put something which glittered into his hand, and he something into hers, which I saw to be money, for a single coin fell from her trembling hand into the grass .... Next, I was looking upon two boys; one the figure of the former vision, the other younger. They were in a plot of garden, walled round, and this garden, in spite of the difference in arrangement, and the small size of the trees, I could clearly recognize as being that upon which I now look from my window. The boys were engaged in some curious play, it seemed. Something was smouldering on the ground. The elder placed his hands upon it, and then raised them in what I took to be an attitude of prayer: and I saw, and started at seeing, that on them were deep stains of blood. The sky above was overcast .... I then saw blood upon the grass, a little pile of bricks, and what I thought were black feathers scattered about. That scene closed, and the next was so dark that perhaps the full meaning of it escaped me. But what I seemed to see was a form, at first crouching low among trees or bushes that were being threshed by a violent wind, then running very swiftly, and constantly turning a pale face to look behind him, as if he feared a pursuer: and, indeed, pursuers were following hard after him. Their shapes were but dimly seen, their number – three or four, perhaps, only guessed. I suppose they were on the whole more like dogs than anything else, but dogs such as we have seen they assuredly were not.
Those ellipses omit some details that absolutely need not be revealed on these pages – or, perhaps, on any pages – but such discretions devolve to the reader. One wonders what a young boy would be doing with an "old" and "very ugly" woman garbed in red, especially one who seems to have a few too many familiars at her disposal. And what of Saul, who apparently succumbs shortly after Frank? While the younger boy has some brave words before he goes ungently into that good night, Saul seems to wither and fade like some bloodless beet. Which would not explain the final letter written to Lord Kildonan about his heir, having to do with the great ring of a church door, one that was never quite opened in time. And maybe Lord Kildonan will remember another Saul and another old and ugly woman and rip that letter into the tiniest shreds.