The Burned House
by Vincent O’Sullivan
One night at
the end of dinner, the last time I crossed the Atlantic, somebody in our
group remarked that we were just passing over the spot where the
Lusitania had gone down.
Whether this were the case or not, the thought of it was enough to make
us rather grave, and we dropped into some more or less serious
discussion about the emotions of men and women who see all hope gone,
and realise that they are going to sink with the vessel.
From that the talk wandered to the fate of the
drowned. Was not theirs, after all, a fortunate end? Somebody related
details from the narratives of those who had been all-but drowned in the
accident of the war. A Scotch lady inquired fancifully if the ghosts of
those who are lost at sea ever appear above the waters and come aboard
ships. Would there be danger of seeing one when the light was turned out
in her cabin? This put an end to all seriousness, and most of us
laughed. But a little, tight-faced man, bleak and iron-grey, who had
been listening attentively, did not laugh. The lady noticed his decorum,
and appealed to him for support.
“You are like me—you believe in ghosts!” she asked
He hesitated, thinking it over.
ghosts?” he repeated slowly. “N-no, I don’t know as I do. I’ve never had
any personal experience that way. I’ve never seen the ghost of anyone I
knew. Has anybody here?”
No one replied. Instead, most of us laughed again—a
little uneasily, perhaps.
“All the same, strange enough things happen in life,”
resumed the man, “even if you leave out ghosts, that you can’t clear up
by laughing. You laugh till you’ve had some experience big enough to
shock you, and then you don’t laugh any more. It’s like being thrown out
of a car—”
At this moment there was a blast on the whistle, and
everybody rushed up on deck. As it turned out, we had only entered into
a belt of fog. On the upper deck I fell in again with the little man,
smoking a cigar and walking up and down. We took a few turns together,
and he referred to the conversation at dinner. Our laughter evidently
rankled in his mind.
“So many strange things happen in life that you can’t
account for,” he protested. “You go on laughing at faith-healing, and at
dreams, and this and that, and then something comes along that you just
can’t explain. You have got to throw up your hands and allow that it
doesn’t answer to any tests our experience has provided us with. Now,
I’m as matter-of-fact a man as any of those folks down there; but once I
had an experience which I had to conclude was out of the ordinary.
Whether other people believe it or not, or whether they think they can
explain it, don’t matter. It happened to me, and I could no more doubt
it than I could doubt having had a tooth pulled after the dentist had
done it. If you will sit down here with me in this corner, out of the
wind, I’ll tell you how it was.
“Some years ago I had to
be for several months in the North of England. I was before the courts;
it does not signify now what for, and it is all forgotten by this time.
But it was a long and worrying case, and it aged me by twenty years.
Well, sir, all through the trial, in that grimy Manchester court-room, I
kept thinking and thinking of a fresh little place I knew in the Lake
district, and I helped to get through the hours by thinking that if
things went well with me I’d go there at once. And so it was that on the
very next morning after I was acquitted I boarded the north-bound train.
“It was the early autumn; the days were closing in, and it was night and
cold when I arrived. The village was very dark and deserted; they don’t
go out much after dark in those parts, anyhow, and the keen mountain
wind was enough to quell any lingering desire. The hotel was not one of
those modern places which are equipped and upholstered like the great
city hotels. It was one of the real old-fashioned taverns, about as
uncomfortable places as there are on earth, where the idea is to show
the traveller that travelling is a penitential state, and that, morally
and physically, the best place for him is home. The landlord brought me
a kind of supper, with his hat on and a pipe in his mouth. The room was
chilly, but when I asked for a fire, he said he guessed he couldn’t go
out to the woodshed till morning. There was nothing else to do, when I
had eaten my supper, but to go outside, both to get the smell of the
lamp out of my nose and to warm myself by a short walk.
“As I did not know the country well, I did not mean to
go far. But although it was an overcast night, with a high north-east
wind and an occasional flurry of rain, the moon was up, and, even
concealed by clouds as it was, it yet lit the night with a kind of
twilight grey—not vivid, like the open moonlight, but good enough to see
some distance. On account of this, I prolonged my stroll, and kept
walking on and on till I was a considerable way from the village, and in
a region as lonely as anywhere ha the country. Great trees and shrubs
bordered the road, and many feet below was a mountain stream. What with
the passion of the wind pouring through the high trees and the shout of
the water racing among the boulders, it seemed to me sometimes like the
noise of a crowd of people. Sometimes the branches of the trees became
so thick that I was walking as if in a black pit, unable to see my hand
close to my face. Then, coming out from the tunnel of branches, I would
step once more into a grey clearness which opened the road and
surrounding country a good way on all sides.
“I suppose it might be some three-quarters of an hour
I had been walking when I came to a fork of the road. One branch ran
downward, getting almost on a level with the bed of the torrent; the
other mounted in a steep hill, and this, after a little idle debating, I
decided to follow. After I had climbed for more than half a mile,
thinking that if I should happen to lose track of one of the landmarks I
should be very badly lost, the path—for it was now no more than
that—curved, and I came out on a broad plateau. There, to my
astonishment, I saw a house. It was a good-sized house, three storeys
high, with a verandah round two sides of it, and from the elevation on
which it stood it commanded a far stretch of country.
“There were a few great trees at a little distance
from the house, and behind it, a stone’s-throw away, was a clump of
bushes. Still, it looked lonely and stark, offering its four sides
unprotected to the winds. For all that, I was very glad to see it. ‘It
does not matter now,’ I thought, ‘whether I have lost my way or not. The
people in the house will set me right.’
“But when I came up to it
I found that it was, to all appearance, uninhabited. The shutters were
closed on all the windows; there was not a spark of light anywhere.
There was something about it, something sinister and barren, that gave
me the kind of shiver you have at the door of a room where you know that
a dead man lies inside, or if you get thinking hard about dropping over
the rail into that black waste of waters out there. This feeling, you
know, isn’t altogether unpleasant; you relish all the better your
present security. It was the same with me standing before that house. I
was not really frightened.
I was alone up there, miles from any kind of help, at the mercy of
whoever might be lurking behind the shutters of that sullen house; but I
felt that by all the chances I was perfectly alone and safe. My
sensation of the uncanny was due to the effect on the nerves produced by
wild scenery and the unexpected sight of a house in such a very lonely
situation. Thus I reasoned, and, instead of following the road farther,
I walked over the grass till I came to a stone wall, perhaps two hundred
and fifty yards in front of the house, and rested my arms on it, looking
forth at the scene.
“On the crests of the hills far away a strange light
lingered, like the first touch of dawn in the sky on a rainy morning or
the last glimpse of twilight before night comes. Between me and the
hills was a wide stretch of open country. On my right hand was an apple
orchard, and I observed that a stile had been made in the wall of piled
stones to enable the house people to go back and forth.
“Now, after I had been there leaning on the wall some
considerable time, I saw a man coming towards me through the orchard. He
was walking with a good, free stride, and as he drew nearer I could see
that he was a tall, sinewy fellow between twenty-five and thirty, with a
shaven face, wearing a slouch hat, a dark woollen shirt, and gaiters.
When he reached the stile and began climbing over it I bade him
goodnight in neighbourly fashion. He made no reply, but he looked me
straight in the face, and the look gave me a qualm. Not that it was an
evil face, mind you—it was a handsome, serious face—but it was ravaged
by some terrible passion: stealth was on it, ruthlessness, and a deadly
resolution, and at the same time such a look as a man driven by some
uncontrollable power might throw on surrounding things, asking for
comprehension and mercy. It was impossible for me to resent his
churlishness, his thoughts were so certainly elsewhere. I doubt if he
even saw me.
“He could not have gone by more than a quarter of a
minute when I turned to look after him. He had disappeared. The plateau
lay bare before me, and it seemed impossible that, even if he had
sprinted like an athlete, he could have got inside the house in so
little time. But I have always made it a rule to attribute what I cannot
understand to natural causes that I have failed to observe. I said to
myself that no doubt the man had gone back into the orchard by some
other opening in the wall lower down, or there might be some flaw in my
vision owing to the uncertain and distorting light.
“But even as I continued to look towards the house,
leaning my back now against the wall, I noticed that there were lights
springing tip in the windows behind the shutters. They were flickering
lights, now bright—now dim, and had a ruddy glow like firelight. Before
I had looked long I became convinced that it was indeed firelight—the
house was on fire. Black smoke began to pour from the roof, the red
sparks flew in the wind. Then at a window above the roof of the verandah
the shutters were thrown open, and I heard a woman shriek. I ran towards
the house as hard as I could, and when I drew near I could see her
“She was a young woman; her hair fell in disorder over
her white nightgown. She stretched out her bare arms, screaming. I saw a
man come behind and seize her. But they were caught in a trap. The
flames were licking round the windows, and the smoke was killing them.
Even now the part of the house where they stood was caving in.
“Appalled by this horrible tragedy which had thus
suddenly risen before me, I made my way still nearer the house, thinking
that if the two could struggle to the side of the house not bounded by
the verandah they might jump, and I might break the fall. I was shouting
this at them; I was right up close to the fire; and then I was struck
by—I noticed for the first time an astonishing thing—the flames had no
heat in them!
“I was standing near
enough to the fire to be singed by it, and yet I felt no heat. The
sparks were flying about my head; some fell on my hands, and they did
not burn. And now I perceived that, although the smoke was rolling in
columns, I was not choked by the smoke, and that there had been no smell
of smoke since the fire broke out. Neither was there any glare against
“As I stood there stupefied, wondering how these things could be, the
whole house was swept by a very tornado of flame, and crashed down in a
“Stricken to the heart by this abominable catastrophe,
I made my way uncertainly down the hill, shouting for help. As I came to
a little wooden bridge spanning the torrent, just beyond where the roads
forked, I saw what appeared to be a rope in loose coils lying there. I
saw that part of it was fastened to the railing of the bridge and hung
outside, and I looked over. There was a man’s body swinging by the neck
between the road and the stream. I leaned over still farther, and then I
recognised him as the man I had seen coming out of the orchard. His hat
had fallen off, and the toes of his boots just touched the water.
“It seemed hardly possible, and yet it was certain.
That was the man, and he was hanging there. I scrambled down at the side
of the bridge, and put out my hand to seize the body, so that I might
lift it up and relieve the weight on the rope. I succeeded in clutching
hold of his loose shirt, and for a second I thought that it had come
away in my hand. Then I found that my hand had closed on nothing, I had
clutched nothing but air. And yet the figure swung by the neck before my
“I was suffocated with such horror that I feared for a
moment I must lose consciousness. The next minute I was running and
stumbling along that dark road in mortal anxiety, my one idea being to
rouse the town, and bring men to the bridge. That, I say, was my
intention; but the fact is that when I came at last in sight of the
village I slowed down instinctively and began to reflect. After all, I
was unknown there; I had just gone through a disagreeable trial in
Manchester, and rural people were notoriously given to groundless
suspicion. I had had enough of the law, and of arrests without
sufficient evidence. The wisest thing would be to drop a hint or two
before the landlord, and judge by his demeanour whether to proceed.
“I found him sitting where I had
left him, smoking, in his shirtsleeves, with his hat on. ‘Well,’ he said
slowly, ‘I didn’t know where you had got to.’
“I told him I had been
taking a walk. I went on to mention casually the fork in the road, the
hill, and the plateau.
“‘And who lives in that house?’ I
asked with a good show of indifference, ‘on top of the hill?’ “He
‘House? There ain’t no house up there,’ he said
positively. ‘Old Joe Snedeker, who owns the land, says he’s going to
build a house up there for his son to live in when he gets married; but
he ain’t begun yet, and sonic folks reckon he never will.’
“‘I feel sure I
saw a house,’ I protested
feebly. But I was thinking—no heat in the fire, no substance in the
body. I had not the courage to dispute.
looked at me not unkindly. ‘You seem sort of done up,’ he remarked.
‘What you wan t is to go to bed.’
The man who was telling me the story paused, and for a
moment we sat silent, listening to the pant of the machinery, the
thrumming of the wind in the wire stays, and the lash of the sea. Some
voices were singing on the deck below. I considered him with the shade
of contemptuous superiority we feel, as a rule, towards those who tell
us their dreams or what some fortune-teller has predicted.
“Hallucinations,” I said
at last, with reassuring indulgence. “Trick of the vision, toxic
opthalmia. After the long strain of your trial your nerves were
shattered.” “That’s what I thought myself,” he replied shortly,
“especially after I had been out to the plateau the next morning, and
saw no sign that a house had ever stood there.”
“And no corpse at the bridge?” I said; and laughed
“And no corpse at the bridge.”
He tried to get a light for another cigar. This took him
some little time, and when at last he
managed it, he got out of his chair and
stood looking down at me.
“Now listen. I told you that the thing happened several
years ago. I’d got almost to forget it; if you can only persuade yourself
that a thing is a freak of imagination, it pretty soon gets dim inside
your head. Delusions have no staying power once it is realised that they
are delusions. Whenever it did come back to me, I used to think how near I
had once been to going out of my mind. That was all.
“Well, last year, being up north, I went up to that
village again. I went to the same hotel, and found the same landlord. He
remembered me at once as ‘the feller who stayed with him and thought he
saw a house,’ ‘I believe you had the jim-jams,’ he said.
“We laughed, and the landlord went on:
“‘There’s been a house there since, though.’
‘Yes; an’ it ha’ been as well if
there never had been. Old Snedeker built it for his son, a fine big house
with a verandah on two sides. The son, young Joe, got courting Mabel
Elting from Windermere. She’d gone down to work in a shop somewhere in
Liverpool. Well, sir, she used to get carrying on with another young
feller ‘bout here, Jim Travers, and Jim was wild about her; used to save
up his wages to go down to see her. But she chucked him in the end, and
married Joe; I suppose because Joe had the house, and the old man’s money
to expect. Well, poor Jim must ha’ gone quite mad. What do you think he
did? The very first night the new-wed pair spent in that house he burned
it down. Burned the two of them in their bed, and he was as nice and quiet
a feller as you want to see. He may ha’ been full of whisky at the time.’
‘No, he wasn’t,’ I said.
“‘The landlord looked surprised.
‘You’ve heard about it?’
‘No; go on.’
“‘Yes, sir, he burned them
in their bed. And then what do you think he did? He hung himself at the
little bridge half a mile below. Do you remember where the road divides?
Well, it was there. I saw his body hanging there myself the next morning.
The toes of his boots were just touching the water.’ ”