Look Up There!
H. Russell Wakefield, 1929
Originally published in the collection Old Man’s Beard by H. R. Wakefield.
WHY DID HE ALWAYS STARE UP? And why did he so worry Mr Packard by doing it? The latter had come to Brioni to read and to rest, and to take the bare minimum of notice of his fellow-men. Doctor’s orders! And here he was preoccupied, almost obsessed, by the garish idiosyncrasy of this tiny, hen-eyed fellow. He was not a taking specimen of humanity, for his forehead was high and receding, his nose beaked fantastically and the skin stretched so tightly across it that it seemed as if it might be ripped apart at any moment. Then, he had a long, thin-lipped mouth always slightly open, and a pointed beard which, like his hair, was fussy and unkempt. He was for ever in the company of a stalwart yokel — a south-country enlisted Guardsman to the life; a slow-moving, massive, red-faced plebeian who seemed a master of the desirable art of aphasia, for no word ever seemed to pass his lips. But, good heavens! how he ploughed and furrowed the menu!
Mr Packard was a very important Civil servant, and, contrary to the opinion of the vulgar, Civil servants sometimes overwork. The notion that they arrive at their offices just in time for lunch, and return again to them just in time to sign a few letters and catch a train home, is a fantasy derived from newspapers, and therefore from newspaper proprietors — idle fellows as a rule, for all they have to do is propagate ideas and employ other people to carry them out. Anyone can have ideas; it is the carrying them out which means work. Mr Packard had ideas, usually very judicious and admirable ideas, and he also had to carry them out, which meant work — eventually overwork, a threatened nervous breakdown, peremptory advice from a specialist, and three months’ leave. He had been recommended Brioni in June because it was between seasons for that green and placid isle, and there was plenty of sun; gentle breezes blown over a purple sea, very purple, very warm, very salt; a golf course, with seven short holes, and a reasonable tariff. Perched primly in the Adriatic, it offered every possible advantage, every chance of speedy convalescence to an overworked bachelor fifty-two years of age, with nothing whatsoever organically wrong with him. So Mr Packard had found it till his eye had been caught by this curious couple: one who never spoke, but stolidly filled his belly, the other who was no more communicative, and for ever stared upwards at an angle of thirty-five degrees, for such Mr Packard, after an exasperating calculation, estimated it to be. On the first occasion he had noticed him, Mr Packard had instinctively stared up also, wondering what object of interest was to be found on the bare, brimstone-tinted wall of the dining-room at an angle of thirty-five degrees about. But there was nothing. Yet this midget had continued to gaze up, even while eating his fish and emptying his glass. And his companion, that burly proletarian, appeared entirely unconcerned. Again Mr Packard’s eyes tilted in sympathy, only to encounter a bare brimstone wall. It then occurred to him that this angular obsession must be of long standing, for its victim most expertly neutralised what must have been a heavy handicap to accurate feeding by an impressive dexterity in the manipulation of knives and forks and spoons, though his appetite seemed as slender as his physical frame.
So stern and uncompromising had been the specialist’s fiat, that Mr Packard had been genuinely alarmed about his nerves; so much so that he almost entertained the possibility that this upward-peering absurdity was a figment of his disordered imagination — a very unlovely thought — but he had dismissed it with a very comforting reassurance when he saw that others among the sparse company then visiting Brioni were also puzzled by this singular prepossession of the hen-eyed fellow.
What an incongruous couple they were! And why didn’t the lusty rustic turn his eyes up too — or do something about it? Well, let him take a leaf out of his book, and pay no regard to what was none of his business, and certainly no part of his cure.
If the fellow wanted to stare up, let him. So, by making a considerable effort, Mr Packard looked away. All the same, he was charged with a tantalising and hard-to-exorcise curiosity about this couple, their circumstances, the connection between them — all this — but, above all, why the devil the tiny one stared up. Knowing such wonderings could only delay the healing of the lesion in his nervous system, he made quite elaborate plans for avoiding the pair. He changed the times of his meals, and if he saw them in a room he went to another, and if he observed them coming towards him he turned on his heel. By these means he freed his mind of them to some extent, but a sneaking, insidious inquisitiveness endured. However, the sun and air and peace of Brioni rapidly restored him, and once again he slept an unbroken eight hours; he found himself with such an appetite as he had not known for twenty years, and the idea that there was someone standing just behind him all the time — a very irritating symptom, this — most absolutely and blessedly ceased. So, reassuringly soon, his inner eye began to turn longingly to a snug though austere office in Whitehall, with neatly raised pyramids of ‘jackets’ and official documents of undeniable secrecy and import. And to that leisurely stroll up to the club at one o’clock so punctually, and that carefully chosen little lunch, and perhaps a game of chess with Lenton, some gossip, and a leisurely stroll back to the Home Office, where there would be decisions to make, questions in the House to consider, a feeling of slight but pleasing importance, and all that regulated system and ordered regime which suited him temperamentally so perfectly.
A holiday in August seemed a justifiable weakness to him, but to idle about in dreamy, flushing, dark-green islands in June was abnormal — a process which should not be prolonged for an unnecessary second. He would stick it out for a week or two longer, and count the days till the hour of his release should strike — release from indolence, strolling about, and from an inclination to uneasy, vague surmisings concerning an ill-assorted couple, one of whom for ever raised his eyes in a sort of viewless intensity, and the other who never spoke but was for ever at his side.
On the evening before his departure, about six o’clock, Mr Packard strolled along the path through the holm oaks towards the bathing place and sat down on a seat overlooking the shadowed and darkening straits of the Istrian shore. Shadowed and darkening because a slowly marshalling army of clouds was rising above the Dolomites and frowning down over Trieste. The sun, resisting and not yet overpowered, hurled red and gold shafts up through the advancing host. The spectacle had a certain sombre sublimity, and its leisurely shifting pattern pleasantly absorbed Mr Packard’s attention, so much so that when a rather high-pitched and deliberate voice remarked, ‘Some persons have found in such spectacles evidence of the existence of a God,’ he started abruptly and half rose from his seat. He must have been half-asleep, for he found sitting on the same seat beside him that enigmatic pair, the little one next to him and the yokel — on his other side — smoking a pipe and staring out to sea. Mr Packard was irritated and taken by surprise, but his natural good manners and subconscious curiosity prevented him from uttering the tart and ‘snubby’ retort which half rose to his lips. Instead, he said dryly, ‘The particular deity concerned is most certainly Jupiter Pluvius. I imagine that Trieste will get the full benefit of that storm soon and it will be our turn in an hour or so.’
‘From your tone,’ suggested the little man, ‘I judge you are of a sceptical turn of mind.’
(‘And what the devil has it got to do with you if I am?’ thought Mr Packard.) ‘If you mean,’ he said, ‘that I do not see why all that is beautiful should be put to the credit of what you call “God”, that is so. For in whom do you lodge the responsibility for the somewhat less palatable spectacles provided by bull-fights and battle-fields? Unless you are a dualist.’
‘Very possibly I am,’ said the little man, staring up at the fading sun, now drowning in a majestically pacing cloud ocean.
‘Well,’ said Mr Packard, ‘it will be the devil’s turn soon enough. Storms in this region are no joke.’
‘I think I have reason to believe in the devil,’ continued the little man, taking off his rusty panama and placing it on the ground beside him. As he said this the yokel looked at him sharply, then knocked out his pipe on his boot and began filling it again from an aluminium box.
‘Oh, indeed,’ replied Mr Packard, his curiosity rising. ‘I have myself deduced him logically, but I take it you have had a closer view of him.’
‘Yes,’ answered the little man, his eyes on the rim of the advancing storm, ‘I think I can say that. Would you like to hear about it?’
‘Certainly,’ said Mr Packard.
‘I’m glad of that, because it is a relief to me to tell it now and again. Does Gauntry Hall convey anything to you?’
‘Gauntry Hall,’ repeated Mr Packard uncertainly. ‘The name seems vaguely familiar.’
‘It was a famous show place burnt down in 1904. I was there that night.’
‘Oh, I remember now,’ said Mr Packard. ‘Middle Tudor, near Leicester, famous chiefly for its Long Gallery; and wasn’t there some legend about it?’
‘Yes,’ replied the little man, ‘and the fact that you can recall so much is a great tribute to your memory.’
‘Oh, I was rather keen on that period once upon a time when I was less busy.’
‘I went up to Oxford the same term as Jack Gauntry, and to the same college — Oriel,’ continued the little man, his eyes narrowed and shifting and busy with the sky. ‘In those days I was keenly interested in the occult: I believe it to have been somewhat of a pose — a dangerous pose. I knew there was some queer story about Gauntry Hall, and made up my mind I would get Jack to tell me about it; not a very creditable ambition, but I was young and foolish, and I have been punished enough. We became great friends, and one evening I had my chance. He came up to my rooms rather late one night, late in November 1896, after dining out. He was a little drunk, and still thirsty. I filled him up, and finally brought the subject round to Gauntry Hall.
‘ “Funny you should mention it,” he said, “my people did the annual trek to London today.”
‘ “How do you mean — ‘annual trek’?” I asked.
‘He did not answer for a moment, and I could see he was torn between two impulses — one to cleanse his bosom of this family obsession, the other to keep his mouth dutifully shut. So I gave him another whisky-and-soda. He drank it in a gulp and then became muzzy and garrulous. I could see he would find relief in being unrestrainedly indiscreet. I’m not boring you?’
‘Not in the least,’ Mr Packard reassured him.
‘Well, suddenly Jack blurted out, “No one’s allowed to be in the house New Year’s Eve.”
‘ “Why not?”
‘ “Oh, because the Bogey Man gets busy then. As a matter of fact, no one is supposed to have spent New Year’s Eve at Gauntry for three hundred years. So as not to make it too conspicuous, we always clear out during the last week in November. Perhaps it’s all bosh — I sometimes wonder. Anyway, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I’m slightly tight, and shall tell you some more.”
‘I was feeling rather ashamed of myself, and it was on the tip of my tongue to shut him up. But I didn’t.
‘ “No one’s allowed there on New Year’s Eve, but early next morning old Carrow, the butler — the Carrows have been in our service for years and years — comes to the house and opens all the windows one after the other and shuts them again — the hell of a job. All but one, the one in the middle of the first floor of the south wing. And out of this one he has to hang a white silk banner which is in the Long Gallery and wave it three times very slowly, and then — shall I tell you what he has to do then?”
‘ “No,” I said, for I knew I was hearing what I should not and that I should be bitterly repentant if I let him go on. “Shut up, and I’ll forget what you’ve told me.”
‘This seemed to sober him up. “Yes, I hope you will,” he replied, and got up and left the room. We never referred to the subject again.
‘I spent half the summer vac. at Gauntry Hall for the four years I was “up”. It was an exquisite house, gloriously placed, and the grounds were perfection. But you remember it, so I need not describe it. Sir John and Lady Gauntry were sweet survivals from an easier age — a type which began to disappear with the introduction of modern plumbing from America. They were rather slow and faded, their manners were a heritage, their benign suzerainty over the local serfs and villains a sharp reminder that there was something in consonance with society in the Feudal System. Well, they are dust by now. I grew to love the old place. Its atmosphere seemed so placid, untroubled, unshakable in those long, lovely summer days that I could hardly believe it was ever visited by a curious winter spell; that it ever could cease to drowse and become most malignantly awake. The subject was never alluded to within its walls, but I remember I used to find my eyes wandering up to that window in the middle of the south wing. Yes, I used to find myself looking up — that was all. At least, I think that was all, though one evening when I was taking a stroll after dinner I happened to glance up at this window, and for a second it seemed as if something white fluttered from it and disappeared. But it may have been a projection from my own mind.
‘And then came the Boer War, and Jack went out with his Yeomanry and was killed on the Modder. The shock drove the old couple into complete seclusion, and they died within a few days of each other early in 1903. Meanwhile, I had completely lost touch with Gauntry Hall. And then one day I met Teller, the agent, in the street and he lunched with me. He told me the estate had been leased to people called Relf, nouveaux riches. Young Relf was the son of a millionaire multiple-shop owner in the North, and he had married some little vulgarian. Teller utterly despised these town-bred parvenus and considered their occupation of Gauntry defiling and almost intolerable.
‘ “But they may not be there much longer,” he said, “for the damn fools are going to spend New Year’s Eve in the house.”
‘ “What!” I cried.
‘ “Oh, yes,” he replied, “they are greatly looking forward to it.
I felt it my duty to warn them, but I might have saved myself the trouble, for when I had said my piece, that little barmaid, Mrs Relf, who looks like a painted Pekinese, clapped her hands on her knees and declared she simply adored ghosts — didn’t believe in them a bit, would have a house-party for the occasion, and wish a very Happy New Year to whoever or whatever came. I reminded her she was preparing to break a rule which had lasted for three hundred years. ‘Quite time it was broken,’ said she. So I shrugged my shoulders and gave it up. I wish them luck!”
‘ “All the same,” I said, “it’s one of the most interesting pieces of news I’ve heard for a long time.”
‘ “Well, if you think that, why don’t you make one of the party?” asked Teller, laughing.
‘ “How could I? I don’t know them.”
‘ “Oh, that doesn’t matter. They’re very partial to peers.”
‘I was about to say “No” most emphatically when I was seized by a most violent temptation. Here were these fools prepared to put this most ancient and vague and famous mystery to the test. It was a unique opportunity. Dangerous? Yes, probably, but the old house had always seemed friendly to me. Here was I, a professed student of the occult, presented with a glorious opportunity for investigation. If I failed to take it I should never forgive myself nor have any respect for myself. I imagine you can sympathise with my feelings to some extent.’
‘Oh, yes,’ replied Mr Packard, ‘no doubt I should have done as I infer you did.’
‘Yes, I accepted.’
As the little man said this Mr Packard noticed the yokel glance across at him, and as their eyes met it seemed as though the fellow wished to convey a message of some sort. A warning, was it?
‘Yes,’ continued the little man. ‘I accepted. Teller fixed up the invitation for me, and I reached Leicester Station about 5:30 on New Year’s Eve twenty-three years ago. The moment I got into the trap and we began to drive eastward through rows of dingy villas, I began to feel a nervous irritation which steadily increased as we drove towards Gauntry. It was a foul night, blowing very hard, and sleeting, and every yard we travelled made me wish the more I hadn’t come. I could feel the influence of Gauntry reaching out and attempting to repel me. I’d have gone straight back to the station but for one thing. Supposing I funked it and nothing happened. That story might get round, which wouldn’t have been pleasant. All the same, when we reached the house, it took all my resolution to cross its threshold. The old place had always seemed so friendly and welcoming before; now it was sullen, and utterly hostile. I felt as if I were a traitor, as if I had been caught by my best friend in the act of forging his name. I was so seized by dread and nervously unstrung that I hardly noticed the rest of the party. I remember there were ten of us, five women and five men, and that they all appeared to be young, noisy and vulgar — so noisy that I was convinced they had had a good many of the primitive cocktails which they were drinking as I arrived, and presently I knew they were almost as full of dread and as unstrung as myself. The house seemed throbbing with a sinister rhythm. It seemed as if it had summoned the great wind which leaped at it in gigantic gusts. By coming there that day I had incurred its malignant enmity, and with cold austerity it was bidding me begone. I had my old room in the east wing, but when I went up to dress, it was as though an almost materialised force was disputing my entry. I had to breast my way through it as through a hostile tide. I found they had decided to dine in the Great Hall instead of the dining-room — why, I don’t know. Round it ran a balcony from which a door led through to the famous Long Gallery. When we sat down I knew them all to be suffering from an acute spiritual malaise, and that what they had drunk, far from lulling their sensitiveness to the power which menaced them, had but weakened their resistance to it. How soon will the storm break?’ ‘In ten minutes or so,’ replied Mr Packard. ‘I am surprised it has not broken before now. It is reserving all its venom for us.’
‘Then I may have just time to finish. I do not remember whether I spoke a word throughout that meal, but I do know that I was under such a strain that I had to grip my chair to stop myself running from the room. The women were on the verge of hysteria, the men drank feverishly and, as time went on, a dreadful vague, inane babble came from all of them. The woman on my right — she had a high, thin voice — suddenly gulped down a full glass of champagne, some of which swilled over her chin and neck, and shouted, “Well, when does it begin?” and then went off into peals of hysterical laughter. We did not move from the table, and from half-past ten onwards, Relf kept getting up to ring the bell, but no servant appeared. “Where are those bloody slaves?” he cried each time, and staggered back to the table and filled his glass again. From half-past eleven I was no longer master of myself. The room was thick with smoke which wreathed itself into fantastic patterns. The pressure grew unendurable, and suddenly my resistance broke, and I ran from the Great Hall up to my room and lay cowering on my bed. I could still hear the crazy, chaotic babble from those I had left, and then a great bell crashed out. One-two-three — and each mighty stroke followed so hard on its predecessor that the vile jangle almost seemed an undivided sound. It was as if a murderer was hammering in my brain. Suddenly it ceased, and I heard no sound from below, and then came one high, piercing scream from a woman: “Look up there!”, and then every light in the house went out.
‘Well, when that happened I groped round the room for my electric torch. At last I found it, and I think if I had not found it just then I should have suffered even more than I have suffered. I staggered downstairs and into the Great Hall, and flashed the lamp on the table. They were all sitting rigidly, their eyes looking up and focused on the door into the Long Gallery. I peered into their faces one by one. Their eyes were wide, yet drawn in, as though asquint; their heads were strained back on their shoulders; their mouths were open, and foam was on their lips. And then I flashed my torch up towards the door into the Long Gallery, and there — and there——’
The cloud army had advanced so far that it was looming down on them. Two striding horns of vapour preceded it. As the little man cried ‘and there — and there——’ a blinding flash leapt from one to the other, so that these enflamed and curled tentacles drove down at them, or so it seemed most terrifyingly to Mr Packard, and the rending crash of thunder which followed hard upon it hurled its echoes round the world. And then, with inchoate fury, the storm drove forward to the attack. And then the little man leapt to his feet and flung his arms above his head and screamed out as though in agony, ‘Look up there! Look up there!’ Mr Packard moved towards him, but in a second the yokel had him by the shoulders. ‘Leave him to me,’ he shouted against the thunder, ‘I know what to do.’ And he began to propel the little man before him. Mr Packard, oblivious of the rain, stared after them. With a horrid regularity the little man flung up his arms and screamed, ‘Look up there!’ and presently they turned a corner and disappeared, and the screams grew fainter. For a moment Mr Packard stared upwards too, and then, as another flash speared down to the sea, he came to himself, and turning up the collar of his coat, started to run through the blinding rain back to the hotel.
About the Author
Herbert Russell Wakefield (1888–1964) was an English short-story writer, novelist, publisher, and civil servant chiefly remembered today for his ghost stories. He was the third of four children of the clergyman Henry Russell Wakefield, who would become bishop of Birmingham in 1911. Born in Kent, he was educated at Marlborough College before attending University College, Oxford, where he took second-class honours in modern history and played first-class cricket, golf, hockey and football. From 1912 to 1914 he was secretary to Viscount Northcliffe; he then served with the Royal Scots Fusiliers in France and the Balkans during World War I, attaining the rank of captain. During the war Wakefield called on the British government to use Chinese workers to assist the UK war effort.
Wakefield served as his father’s secretary in 1920, when he accompanied the bishop on a lengthy tour of America. There he met and married Barbara Standish Waldo, an American woman whose parents were reputed to be wealthy. The Wakefields settled in London, where Wakefield went to work as a chief editor for the book publisher William Collins, Sons and Co., and she worked as a nurse. They were divorced in 1936, and in 1946 Wakefield was married again, to Jessica Sidney Davey. His experiences in the publishing world provided him with background material for several unusual and eerie tales, including “Messrs Turkes and Talbot.”
Wakefield’s ghost stories were published in several collections during the course of his lengthy writing career: They Return at Evening (1928), Old Man’s Beard: Fifteen Disturbing Tales (1929), Imagine a Man in a Box (1931), Ghost Stories (1932), A Ghostly Company (1935), The Clock Strikes Twelve: Tales of the Supernatural (1940), and Strayers from Sheol (1961). In 1946, August Derleth’s Arkham House issued an expanded version of The Clock Strikes Twelve for the U.S. market; they were also the publishers of Strayers from Sheol. In 1978, John Murray published The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield, edited by Richard Dalby, which spanned Wakefield’s career and featured some previously uncollected tales. A series of collections comprising his complete output of published ghost stories was produced in the 1990s by Ash-Tree Press in limited editions that quickly went out of print. Ash-Tree also published a volume of previously unpublished stories, Reunion at Dawn and Other Uncollected Ghost Stories, in 2000.
Wakefield’s supernatural fiction was strongly influenced by the work of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood. “The Red Lodge”, “The Thirteenth Hole at Duncaster”, “Blind Man’s Buff”, “‘Look Up There!'” and “‘He Cometh and He Passeth By!'” are among his most widely anthologised tales. While he is best known for his ghost stories, he produced work outside the field. He was greatly interested in the criminal mind and wrote two non-fiction criminology studies, The Green Bicycle Case (1930) (about a 1919 death in Leicestershire) and Landru: The French Bluebeard (1936). He also wrote three detective novels: Hearken to the Evidence (1933), Belt of Suspicion (1936) and Hostess of Death (1938). In 1968, BBC Television produced a dramatization of Wakefield’s supernatural story “The Triumph of Death”, starring Claire Bloom and now thought to have been wiped, for the series Late Night Horror.