DUSK (a ghost story)
“Well it seems a very silly thing to do if you ask me”.
“How so Marjorie? You said you wanted to go for a walk when the heat of the day had subsided”.
“Maybe, but I’d rather not go there just because Cousin Laura says the woods are haunted. What a very silly reason to go anywhere!”
“Now stop being peevish, Marjorie. It’s a beautiful evening, and I for one relish a stroll in the cool after all that torrid heat. One doesn’t have to believe in ghosts to appreciate a beautiful Summer twilight. And in any case, I never mentioned ghosts or the woods being haunted. Now don’t look at me like that, girls, I didn’t. I merely said they had a strange atmosphere, and that Sutton felt spooked when she took a short-cut home through here recently”.
“If you ask me, that maid of yours has an overly-rich imagination, Laura. No doubt she fritters her wages away on trashy little pamphlets. This Week’s Sensational Story, that sort of thing”.
“Oh what if she does? Servants are entitled to a private life, Father always says so, and in any case she’s so awfully good at doing hair”.
The three women turned off the main lane out of the village, and onto the path which cut through the woods. A gentle breeze gave them some slight relief from the lingering heat of the intense Summer day.
Now amongst the trees, Marjorie took down her parasol and used it as a walking-stick instead. She was a fast walker, and tended to set a brisk pace when the three of them went out together.
“So what did your fanciful maid see here?” she asked, bluntly.
“Oh she hasn’t seen anything”, said Laura “She just said she felt afraid, not inclined to linger. But she did say that others had reported seeing odd things here. Houses that weren’t really there, that sort of thing, and strange people”.
“Strange people?” said Elsie, the youngest of the trio.
“Hm, gypsies no doubt”, said Marjorie “You will probably wake up one morning Laura, and find she’s run away with them. Been swept off her feet by some dark-eyed savage”.
“Nonsense, I think Sutton’s far too sensible for that”, said Laura “She tends to scorn girls who are romantically-inclined”.
“That’s until it happens to her”, said Marjorie “They’re all the same you mark my words”.
“How far are we going through these woods?” said Elsie “I still feel so awfully drained after today”.
“Oh buck up, Elsie”, said Marjorie “You’ve hardly done anything all day, except swoon in a hammock in the garden”.
“I know, but the heat has been so dreadfully enervating”, said Elsie “One doesn’t feel inclined to do any more than that”.
“For goodness sake, Elsie”, said Marjorie, impatiently “It’s a good job we women don’t get sent to war, or truth be told our great nation would be in constant deadly peril”.
“Marjorie, my dear girl”, Laura laughed “If women ruled the world, there would be no wars. Men never grow out of playing with their toy soldiers, that is the truth”.
“What was that strange noise?” Elsie suddenly halted them by holding out her parasol.
“Our footsteps no doubt”, said Marjorie “Scrunching on the dead leaves”.
“No, it was a buzzing sound”, said Elsie.
“A bee?” said Marjorie.
“My dear Marjorie”, said Elsie “I assure you I can tell a bee when I hear one”.
Marjorie pulled a cynical face, as though she doubted that immensely.
“Dear me”, Laura gave a shudder “I can understand Sutton’s trepdidation. I would’t want to walk through these woods all on my own”.
“Both of you need to get a tight rein on your imaginations”, said Marjorie.
“Well at least we have imaginations to begin with!” Laura retorted.
“Hoity-toity”, said Marjorie.
“Oh ladies, don’t start quarrelling”, said Elsie “I feel a dreadful headache coming on. I would appreciate it if we turned back now. I see nothing to be gained by going any further through this dreadful place”.
Marjorie visibly bridled at Elsie’s dramatic way of describing the woods, but – for the sake of group harmony – held her peace.
“I can’t hear any birds”, said Laura “This is very unusual”.
“I can see a little clearing, just over there”, said Marjorie “Let’s head there. It might be less oppressive than all these trees constantly crowding us. For goodness sake Elsie, don’t swoon on us. I don’t relish the idea of trying to carry you home”.
“I was not about to swoon”, said Elsie, indignantly “Really Marjorie, you can be far too ascerbic sometimes”.
They emerged into a small clearing, which was surrounded by densely-packed trees and bushes. On a garden bench opposite them sprawled a tubby man, who was wearing a vaguely odd-looking suit. His tie was loosened about his throat, as if the heat had suddenly got too much for him.
“Dear me, that poor man doesn’t look at all well”, said Laura “Look how red his face is”.
“A prime candidate for a thrombosis if you ask me”, said Marjorie “That happened to my Uncle Gerald very suddenly one evening after a fund-raising dinner”.
“Thank you Marjorie, but I don’t see that as terribly helpful”, said Laura.
“Am I not allowed to say anything now?” said Marjorie, waspishly.
“He looks as if he’s just been dropped there”, said Elsie “Like a discarded rag-doll”.
“More likely he staggered there when the heat got too much for him”, said Marjorie.
“Sir!” Laura called out “Do you need assistance?”
The man looked over to them, as though he was coming out of a deep faint. He regarded them with confusion, uttering an audible “eh?”
“Sir”, Laura repeated “Are you not well?”
The man scrambled awkwardly to his feet. By his side lay a scrunched-up newspaper. He attacked it almost ina frenzy, rifling through its pages. He kept glancing from the pages over to them, as if in disbelief.
“What on earth’s the matter with the silly man?” said Marjorie.
“Perhaps he thinks we’re the Brides of Dracula”, Elsie giggled.
“I rue the day you ever read that ridiculous book”, said Marjorie “My father’s banned it from the house. He says it’s immoral”.
“Sir!” called Laura, in alarm.
The man scurried away from them, retreating through the bushes, still carrying the newspaper scrunched up in his hand.
“He’s left something behind”, said Laura.
She went over to the object, left forgotten on the bench.
“What a strange little object”, said Elsie.
Laura prodded it nervously with the tip of her parasol. Suddenly it seemed to light up and start flashing a red light.
“What on earth is it?” said Marjorie.
“I don’t know”, said Laura “But ladies, I think we should agree to leave it well alone. Who knows what terrible occurrences we may trigger if we operate it”.
“It could be like something out of one of Mr Wells’s stories”, said Elsie.
Marjorie gave another exasperated look, but for once said nothing.
“Well perhaps he’s a time-traveller”, said Elsie “A man from the future”.
“Not exactly an intrepid one”, Marjorie snapped “He didn’t come over and introduce himself to us”.
“I think he somehow just found himself here”, said Laura “Dear me, I do hope he’ll be alright. I swear I shan’t sleep tonight for worrying about him”.
“Come along”, said Marjorie “It’ll be dark soon. No sense in hanging around here. He’s a grown man, he’ll be able to take care of himself”.
“But what about his little machine?” said Laura “Perhaps it’s some terribly vital item. Without it he may be stranded in our time”.
“Then the best thing we can do is to leave it here so that he can come back for it”, said Marjorie “Ladies, I suggest we do not mention this whole occurrence to anyone”.
“Agreed”, said Elsie “No one would understand, and we’re bound to have done something wrong”.
“It stays between us”, said Laura “Or until we’re so old we won’t care what anyone thinks anymore”.
They turned to leave. Elsie took one last look at the strange little object, still lying blinking on the bench.
“I will always wonder what vitally important and tremendously exciting thing it did”, she said.
“And I will always hope he became reunited with it”, said Laura “Poor man. He looked so terribly frightened. I don’t like to think we scared him”.
“Don’t be silly, Laura”, said Marjorie “How could we have done? Just three women like us out for a harmless stroll?”