It was absurd, of course it was absurd to dress for dinner when they were only two in such a grand house, but they had been married such a little time and living here even shorter, and it was such a novelty. Almost like a game between them, between two children, to be formal. Almost a game for George to offer Lydia his arm as they walked before supper, for George to pour Lydia’s wine and for them to smile at each other under lowered lids and across the partridges and the syllabub. Cook was a good cook, a village cook who had been here in the time of their predecessors (the village people had not liked them; they were, Lydia believed, of Spanish extraction). But the cook was well-used to grand dinners, and Lydia and George had garnered a taste for gourmet dinners on their honeymoon in Paris.
Paris had been lovely, but they had always been coming back here, Lydia thought.
Lydia had seen the house from a train as a teen-age girl coming home from school, and she had always loved it.
George had been brought up in the city, and Lydia had been at school in little sea-side towns for her health. They said she was weak, but that was nonsense, really. By the time she was finished with school she had played hockey and lacrosse and her lungs were strong enough for both and to sing. It was her singing that had attracted George in the first place; he was the friend of Arnold Marryat, Emily Marryat’s, and Lydia had gone to stay with the Marryats in London for two weeks in Easter, and George had been there, too. Of course, Lydia loved George from the minute she saw him, for he was tall, and handsome, and undeniably male, and Lydia was at a rather exclusive girls’ school on the coast and knew none. Emily Marryat had begged Lydia to sing after supper, and she had; she had a good voice, and she didn’t mind showing it off. And she sung, quite by chance, a song that George’s mother used to sing, and George looked at the little friend of his friend’s sister, and fell in love. Lydia had finished her final year of schooling, and after that, they were married, and Lydia wore white and carried orange-blossom, and she was the most beautiful thing George had ever seen.
And one day, when they were lazily entwined in a few stolen moments alone together, before they were married, in the garden of Lady Rackham’s Mayfair house, Lydia had told George about the house, The House from the train. Tall and white, not too big, not too small, with acres of green around it and neighbours not too far and not too close, not too far from London, but not too close, not suburbs but real actual countryside.
And George had found it for her, like something from a story. Because George wanted her to be happy, and George had found her the house, and it was perfect. The house was absolutely perfect, and more than that, it felt right in a way neither of them could put their finger on. It was home, and though they could not afford to engage more staff than the cook, and two garden boys to keep up the outside, and two chars to come every day, they would do it all, and it would be fine. It would, George had said, shyly, be a fine place to raise the children, some day, and Lydia had felt her heart almost skip for joy that they would be married, and have children, her and George.
Lydia finished brushing her hair, and coiled it across her head, little loose tendrils falling just across her shoulders, the bare places left by her dress that George liked. She remembered..but no. She giggled a little, turned to look at herself over her shoulder. The light was autumn sunshine through the window, onto the bedspread and catching in her hair. She looked lovely, and she thought how lovely it was to look lovely, and to be married to George in THE house, and to have everything waiting. They would walk a little in the grounds before dinner- she had new kid gloves, and an autumn coat in the latest cut of light tweed.
She held two lipsticks out at arm’s length, deliberating. She decided on the peach.
There came, quite suddenly, a scream.
Lydia dropped the lipstick.
It was a scream like a child, a scream like something in pain.
It was scream that was too terrible to ignore, and yet, too frightening to go and see who had made it, and who it was in pain.
Lydia dropped the lipstick in the sound and it fell into silence, and it rolled, slowly, across the floor and stopped against the bed, and only then did Lydia gather her skirts and run, run as fast as she could towards her husband’s bedroom, and she did not want to think about what she thought she would find.
George was gone.
His suit sprawled like a body across the floor, almost but not quite intact, the sleeve a little torn, the lining fraying, as if someone had bitten into it.
His boots were there, and his cravat, and his gloves, and his overcoat.
And his pipe…oh god, his pipe, spilling hot ash onto the tiger skin George so loved, the fine little hairs smouldering and igniting…. She must stamp it out. She must not let the rug catch. She took two steps towards the pipe on the rug. They were quick steps, hard steps, faster than Lydia usually walked, and as she stepped something MOVED behind the dressing table. She was certain of it. Something moved.
With some courage she had never met before she brought her foot down hard on the sparks, crushing them to make sure it was out, and then she stepped back to the door, watching the dressing table. George was gone, and something moved behind the dressing table. Lydia wanted to catch someone’s hand, tell them to fix it, to find George, but there was nobody in the house. There was Cook, but she was two floors down, and the bell-pull (God, the bell-pull!) hung over the dressing table, and Lydia would not and could not touch it. Something had moved there, and Lydia tried to place the sound. A soft sound. A sound like two damped piano strings sliding over and over each other, like felt, perhaps. A soft sound, but a sound, and a horrid sound, a sound like a soundless thing walking. A soundless thing hiding, and turning, and watching her. There was a thing behind the dressing table, and George was gone.
Lydia stood ramrod straight, and she didn’t want to touch a thing. Her arms stiff by her sides, and her heels together, and she thought of the deportment classes she had taken at school, how proud they would be.
She stood stock still, and the thing behind the dressing table moved, again; she heard the noise again. Longer this time. As if, perhaps, it thought that she had gone, the thing behind the dressing table.
This time it sounded still like felts, piano felts, but like hair, too; like the sound of a brush through hair and the strange almost high-pitched rustling that hair makes when one runs fingers through it. It sounded like felt, and like hair, and the noise was longer, sustained; it was moving about, in the dark.
The noise had stopped, and there was nothing, and nobody, and George was gone; there was nobody except Lydia and the thing behind the dressing table.
Lydia said, into the silence, in a voice that was strong and clear and firm, “What have you done with my husband?”
And something came at her.
Something from behind the dressing table.
Something like a mass of hair, and felt, and a blur of black, something moving fast and dark and at her, and for her.
And Lydia fled, and she slammed the door shut behind her. She could feel it pressing against the door, trying to get out, trying to get her.
“Mrs Bunch!” she called, “Mrs Bunch!”
But nobody came. She called at the top of her voice, and nobody came, and she leaned all her weight against the door, and the thing from behind the dressing table battered, and battered, and battered, beat and beat and beat like the tide, over and over.
It seemed, after an eternity, to tire a little, its beats less strong and Lydia’s arms were black and blue with bruises, and she felt she might move her arm and lock the door. She twisted the key in the lock. It was a good strong lock, and she thought it would hold. And Lydia turned, and went downstairs. There was nobody downstairs.
Mrs Bunch was gone, and dinner was prepared in the kitchen, the souffle high as if it had been taken from the oven seconds before.
But she was not there.
Lydia was alone, and Mrs. Bunch and George were gone.
She stood, and stared at the souffle.
She must keep calm, and she must keep cool.
It was really most astonishing how calm she could be.
She heard footsteps behind her, and she wheeled on her heel.
“Whatever’s the matter, Mrs Harmon?”
She could not explain it. She could not.
“I thought- Mrs. Bunch- there is a- a- a- George is missing. Mr Harmon has disappeared- there is-“
Oh, how to do this? How to say it, how to keep things sane and real and true?
“There is a thing in Mr. Harmon’s room that has probably killed him, and it tried to kill me.”
“I don’t- I don’t- I don’t exactly know- Mr Harmon is missing-“
Mrs. Bunch and Lydia looked at each other, and Lydia saw in her eyes a clean sweep of terror and herself drawn small in the centre, the black of the pupil.
“Something- something- killed Mr Harmon?” said Mrs. Bunch.
“Something killed Mr Harmon, or took him away,” said Lydia, “Mr Harmon is gone.”
She said it for the seventh time, and then the tears came, like she had not cried since she was a little child saying goodbye to her father at the station for the first time, and Mrs. Bunch held her as she cried.
She cried for twenty minutes by the kitchen clock, and then she dried her eyes, and sat at the kitchen table.
“We must telephone for the police,” said Lydia.
The police came, and Lydia showed them the locked door, and she told them why it was locked.
“Tell me about this thing,” said the policemen. There were four of them.
Lydia took a deep breath.
“It was dark,” she said. “Like an ink stain, like a pencil smudge. It was a blur, because it was moving quickly, and it came for my throat. It had teeth, I think.”
Her voice was clear, and sensible, but the policeman was not writing any of it down.
“It was like a semi-circle, a semi-sphere, and it sounded like felt rubbing against each other, and it had legs, or protrusions, because I heard it walk, and they brushed against each other. And it killed or took my husband.”
The policeman had not written any of it down.
“Give her a brandy,” he said, kindly, to Mrs Bunch. “She’s had a shock, no doubt.”
Privately, in his head, he believed that with no body, George Harmon was unlikely to be dead. Gambling debt, most likely, for Mrs. Harmon was a fine woman. But without unlocking the door they could do nothing.
Mrs Bunch took Lydia downstairs, and Lydia would not touch the brandy, and they waited, in the kitchen.
From upstairs, there came a long scream, like a child’s scream, and Lydia ran, again, without hesitation.
She found three of the four policemen on the floor; the fourth nowhere to be seen. They were like rugby players, and they twisted on the floor as if they were covering with themselves something that moved and wanted to be free of them.
“You- miss- get help,” called one, and the other simply, “help!”. The third said nothing.
Lydia rang for more policemen, and they came.
The third policeman was dead by the time the back-up policemen got there, but they got the thing into a cage in the end.
Lydia looked at it through the bars, and it chattered its tiny teeth at her.
It was- and this explained so much, so much of why George had been wearing gloves and coat and cravat, but nothing on his head- a bowler hat, a perfect bowler hat of a creature, with six moustached legs, and little eyes like a shark.
The policemen took it away.
Lydia was asked- ordered- to say nothing to anyone.
Lydia cried in the kitchen, and Mrs. Bunch took her home with her, to sleep in a house that wasn’t THE house. The house of dreams.
Lydia stayed there for two weeks while the police investigated, and every night she dreamed of George.
They pronounced the house safe after two weeks, but Lydia never went back, and they never found a trace of George, and Lydia heard nothing of the creature.
She knew she had not dreamed it.
They declared George legally dead, and Lydia knew that he was, without doubt. She felt it in her heart, and her very being.
Lydia went back to the city, where Emily Marryat took her under her wing again. She wore black, and every night she dreamed of George, and the way he had smiled and taken her arm.
One day she woke up and she could not remember his face exactly, and nothing, not even the moment when that thing from behind the dressing table had flown at her, had been more dreadful.
She spent long evenings with Arnold Marryat, talking about George. She was the most composed woman Arnold had ever met, and he told her stories about George’s school days, and he could see, so very clearly, why George had loved this girl, this woman, and he had never suspected that Emily’s little friend Lydia could be anything like so fascinating and so tragic. One evening he told her a story about something George had done at school- some silly tale about a housemaster’s hat- and she burst, suddenly, into tears, helpless, uncontrollable tears, and Arnold found himself taking her into his arms, stroking her back, soothing her, and then, to his surprise, kissing her mouth and holding her tight against him until the shoulder of his shirt was quite drenched.
They did not speak of the kiss again, but the conversation became, over the days, and weeks, and months, less about George, and more about other things they both knew, and loved. About fresh air, and sport, and the novels of Dickens; about Chinese lacquered boxes and the latest scandal. And Lydia found herself laughing, and Arnold Marryat’s hand was on her knee, and Emily Marryat was pretending not to look. Arnold took her to dinner, and to the theatre, to comic pieces and the musical evenings, and Lydia found herself laughing, and remembering how he had kissed her that one evening and hoping that perhaps he would do it again.
She was still dreaming about George. Every night, the same, and she woke up trying to remember his face, and failing, like sand slipping through her fingers.
She could not remember his face, and worse, she could not reconcile her desire to remember his face with her desire for Arnold to kiss her again; it seemed almost betrayal. It was betrayal.
One afternoon she took a nap, and she dreamed about George. His face was perfect, and he was younger, a year or so younger than he had been when they met, and he smiled at her in that George way he had, the way he had smiled at her under his eyelids and over the souffle. He smiled, and it broke her heart, and lifted it all at once.
She woke, and the autumn sun was falling through the window onto the coverlet. Arnold took her to dinner, and he asked her to marry him, and she said yes, and she said it gladly, on two conditions: that he would never wear a bowler hat, or sport a moustache.
It was just a whim, she said, and he agreed, and he did it gladly.
They were married quietly, two and a half years after George had disappeared.
Three and a half years after George had disappeared Lydia had a little boy, and they called him Harmon Marryat, after George Harmon, whom they had loved, and whom they remembered.
They lived in a house in Kensington, and it was perfect for them, not too big, not too small. It became known that there, the Marryats would not receive gentlemen with moustaches or bowler hats, and among their friends, it was accepted. Lydia Marryat had had a shock, after all.
In the house in Kensington they had many friends, and after Harmon two little girls, and a little boy, and Lydia was happy.
She rarely thought about the house she had loved for so long; it had been a house of childhood, and of games, and then the monsters had come, and spoiled it, the way they do, in dreams.
Sometimes she woke with nightmares, and Arnold pulled her against him, and she was soothed by his lips on her forehead and hands on her back.
This was Lydia grown-up, then; this was a grown-up love, and it was good.
Every autumn they went together to put flowers in front of the tablet that marked his passing, because Arnold had loved him, too, and on the way home he held her hand in his, and she looked up at him and smiled, because it was not so difficult to reconcile loving him, with having loved George, once upon a time, in a little dream, in the sweetest of all little dreams.
So far as I know, neither Lydia, nor her husband (who I am sure heard the truth in the fullness of time) ever attempted to search anything of the creature which had killed George Harmon.
I, however, upon the completion of this tale, read it aloud to a cousin of mine. This cousin is a biologist in a government facility in some strange laboratory in the North. He took, from a great album of unpleasant and bizarre photographs, an image, and gave it to me. I can tell you only this: it seemed to depict the skeleton of a thing with teeth, shaped like a bowler hat, with legs made all of hair, floating in a yellow pickle jar.