Read CHAPTER VII - THE SPELL OF THE EMPTY HOUSE of Jimbo A Fantasy , free online book, by Algernon Blackwood, on

It was not long before Jimbo realised that the House, and everything connected with it, spelt for him one message, and one only ­a message of fear.  From the first day of his imprisonment the forces of his whole being shaped themselves without further ado into one intense, single, concentrated desire to escape.

Freedom, escape into the world beyond that terrible high wall, was his only object, and Miss Lake, the governess, as its symbol, was his only hope.  He asked a lot of questions and listened to a lot of answers, but all he really cared about was how he was going to escape, and when.  All her other explanations were tedious, and he only half-listened to them.  His faith in her was absolute, his patience unbounded; she had come to save him, and he knew that before long she would accomplish her end.  He felt a blind and perfect confidence.  But, meanwhile, his fear of the House, and his horror for the secret Being who meant to keep him prisoner till at length he became one of the troop of Frightened Children, increased by leaps and bounds.

Presently the trap-door creaked again, and the governess reappeared; in her hand was a small white jug and a soup plate.

“Thin gruel and skim milk,” she explained, pouring out a substance like paste into the soup plate, and handing him a big wooden spoon.

But Jimbo’s hunger had somehow vanished.

“It wasn’t real hunger,” she told him, “but only a sort of memory of being hungry.  They’re trying to feed your broken body now in the night-nursery, and so you feel a sort of ghostly hunger here even though you’re out of the body.”

“It’s easily satisfied, at any rate,” he said, looking at the paste in the soup plate.

“No one actually eats or drinks here ­”

“But I’m solid,” he said, “am I not?”

“People always think they’re solid everywhere,” she laughed.  “It’s only a question of degree; solidity here means a different thing to solidity there.”

“I can get thinner though, can’t I?” he asked, thinking of her remark about escape being easier the lighter he grew.

She assured him there would be no difficulty about that, and after replying evasively to a lot more questions, she gathered up the dishes and once more disappeared through the trap-door.

Jimbo watched her going down the ladder into the black gulf below, and wondered greatly where she went to and what she did down there; but on these points the governess had refused to satisfy his curiosity, and every time she appeared or disappeared the atmosphere of mystery came and went with her.

As he stared, wondering, a sound suddenly made itself heard behind him, and on turning quickly round he saw to his great surprise that the door into the passage was open.  This was more than he could resist, and in another minute, with mingled feelings of dread and delight, he was out in the passage.

When he was first brought to the house, two hours before, it had been too dark to see properly, but now the sun was high in the heavens, and the light still increasing.  He crept cautiously to the head of the stairs and peered over into the well of the house.  It was still too dark to make things out clearly; but, as he looked, he thought something moved among the shadows below, and for a moment his heart stood still with fear.  A large grey face seemed to be staring up at him out of the gloom.  He clutched the banisters and felt as if he hardly had strength enough in his legs to get back to the room he had just left; but almost immediately the terror passed, for he saw that the face resolved itself into the mingling of light and shadow, and the features, after all, were of his own creation.  He went on slowly and stealthily down the staircase.

It was certainly an empty house.  There were no carpets; the passages were cold and draughty; the paper curled from the damp walls, leaving ugly discoloured patches about; cobwebs hung in many places from the ceiling, the windows were more or less broken, and all were coated so thickly with dirt that the rain had traced little furrows from top to bottom.  Shadows hung about everywhere, and Jimbo thought every minute he saw moving figures; but the figures always resolved themselves into nothing when he looked closely.

He began to wonder how far it was safe to go, and why the governess had arranged for the door to be opened ­for he felt sure it was she who had done this, and that it was all right for him to come out.  Fright, she had said, was never about in the daylight.  But, at the same time, something warned him to be ready at a moment’s notice to turn and dash up the stairs again to the room where he was at least comparatively safe.

So he moved along very quietly and very cautiously.  He passed many rooms with the doors open ­all empty and silent; some of them had tables and chairs, but no sign of occupation; the grates were black and empty, the walls blank, the windows unshuttered.  Everywhere was only silence and shadows; there was no sign of the frightened children, or of where they lived; no trace of another staircase leading to the region where the governess went when she disappeared down the ladder through the trap-door ­only hushed, listening, cold silence, and shadows that seemed for ever shifting from place to place as he moved past them.  This illusion of people peering at him from corners, and behind doors just ajar, was very strong; yet whenever he turned his head to face them, lo, they were gone, and the shadows rushed in to fill their places.

The spell of the Empty House was weaving itself slowly and surely about his heart.

Yet he went on pluckily, full of a dreadful curiosity, continuing his search, and at length, after passing through another gloomy passage, he was in the act of crossing the threshold of an open door leading out into the courtyard, when he stopped short and clutched the door-posts with both hands.

Some one had laughed!

He turned, trying to look in every direction at once, but there was no sign of any living being.  Yet the sound was close beside him; he could still hear it ringing in his ears ­a mocking sort of laugh, in a harsh, guttural voice.  The blood froze in his veins, and he hardly knew which way to turn, when another voice sounded, and his terror disappeared as if by magic.

It was Miss Lake’s voice calling to him over the banisters at the top of the house, and its tone was so cheerful that all his courage came back in a twinkling.

“Go out into the yard,” she called, “and play in the sunshine.  But don’t stay too long.”

Jimbo answered “All right” in a rather feeble little voice, and went on down the passage and out into the yard.

The June sunshine lay hot and still over the paved court, and he looked up into the blue sky overhead.  As he looked at the high wall that closed it in on three sides, he realised more than ever that he was caught in a monstrous trap from which there could be no ordinary means of escape.  He could never climb over such a wall even with a ladder.  He walked out a little way and noticed the rank weeds growing in patches in the corners; decay and neglect left everywhere their dismal signs; the yard, in spite of the sunlight, seemed as gloomy and cheerless as the house itself.

In one corner stood several little white upright stones, each about three feet high; there seemed to be some writing on them, and he was in the act of going nearer to inspect, when a window opened and he heard some one calling to him in a loud, excited whisper: 

“Hst!  Come in, Jimbo, at once.  Quick!  Run for your life!”

He glanced up, quaking with fear, and saw the governess leaning out of the open window.  At another window, a little beyond her, he thought a number of white little faces pressed against the glass, but he had no time to look more closely, for something in Miss Lake’s voice made him turn and run into the house and up the stairs as though Fright himself were close at his heels.  He flew up the three flights, and found the governess coming out on the top landing to meet him.  She caught him in her arms and dashed back into the room, as if there was not a moment to be lost, slamming the door behind her.

“How in the world did you get out?” she gasped, breathless as himself almost, and pale with alarm.  “Another second and He’d have had you !”

“I found the door open ­”

“He opened it on purpose,” she whispered, looking quickly round the room.  “He meant you to go out.”

“But you called to me to play in the yard,” he said.  “I heard you.  So of course I thought it was safe.”

“No,” she declared, “I never called to you.  That wasn’t my voice.  That was one of his tricks.  I only this minute found the door open and you gone.  Oh, Jimbo, that was a narrow escape; you must never go out of this room till ­till I tell you.  And never believe any of these voices you hear ­you’ll hear lots of them, saying all sorts of things ­but unless you see me, don’t believe it’s my voice.”

Jimbo promised.  He was very frightened; but she would not tell him any more, saying it would only make it more difficult to escape if he knew too much in advance.  He told her about the laugh, and the gravestones, and the faces at the other window, but she would not tell him what he wanted to know, and at last he gave up asking.  A very deep impression had been made on his mind, however, and he began to realise, more than he had hitherto done, the horror of his prison and the power of his dreadful keeper.

But when he began to look about him again, he noticed that there was a new thing in the room.  The governess had left him, and was bending over it.  She was doing something very busily indeed.  He asked her what it was.

“I’m making your bed,” she said.

It was, indeed, a bed, and he felt as he looked at it that there was something very familiar and friendly about the yellow framework and the little brass knobs.

“I brought it up just now,” she explained.  “But it’s not for sleeping in.  It’s only for you to lie down on, and also partly to deceive Him.”

“Why not for sleeping?”

“There’s no sleeping at all here,” she went on calmly.

“Why not?”

“You can’t sleep out of your body,” she laughed.

“Why not?” he asked again.

“Your body goes to sleep, but you don’t,” she explained.

“Oh, I see.”  His head was whirling.  “And my body ­my real body ­”

“Is lying asleep ­unconscious they call it ­in the night-nursery at home.  It’s sound asleep.  That’s why you’re here.  It can’t wake up till you go back to it, and you can’t go back to it till you escape ­even if it’s ready for you before then.  The bed is only for you to rest on, for you can rest though you can’t sleep.”

Jimbo stared blankly at the governess for some minutes.  He was debating something in his mind, something very important, and just then it was his Older Self, and not the child, that was uppermost.  Apparently it was soon decided, for he walked sedately up to her and said very gravely, with her serious eyes fixed on his face, “Miss Lake, are you really Miss Lake?”

“Of course I am.”

“You’re not a trick of His, like the voices, I mean?”

“No, Jimbo, I am really Miss Lake, the discharged governess who frightened you.”  There was profound anxiety in every word.

Jimbo waited a minute, still looking steadily into her eyes.  Then he put out his hand cautiously and touched her.  He rose a little on tiptoe to be on a level with her face, taking a fold of her cloak in each hand.  The soul-knowledge was in his eyes just then, not the mere curiosity of the child.

“And are you ­dead?” he asked, sinking his voice to a whisper.

For a moment the woman’s eyes wavered.  She turned white and tried to move away; but the boy seized her hand and peered more closely into her face.

“I mean, if we escape and I get back into my body,” he whispered, “will you get back into yours too?”

The governess made no reply, and shifted uneasily on her feet.  But the boy would not let her go.

“Please answer,” he urged, still in a whisper.

“Jimbo, what funny questions you ask!” she said at last, in a husky voice, but trying to smile.

“But I want to know,” he said.  “I must know.  I believe you are giving up everything just to save me ­everything; and I don’t want to be saved unless you come too.  Tell me!”

The colour came back to her cheeks a little, and her eyes grew moist.  Again she tried to slip past him, but he prevented her.

“You must tell me,” he urged; “I would rather stay here with you than escape back into my body and leave you behind.”

Jimbo knew it was his Older Self speaking ­the freed spirit rather than the broken body ­but he felt the strain was very great; he could not keep it up much longer; any minute he might slip back into the child again, and lose interest, and be unequal to the task he now saw so clearly before him.

“Quick!” he cried in a louder voice.  “Tell me!  You are giving up everything to save me, aren’t you?  And if I escape you will be left alone ­quick, answer me!  Oh, be quick, I’m slipping back ­”

Already he felt his thoughts becoming confused again, as the spirit merged back into the child; in another minute the boy would usurp the older self.

“You see,” began the governess at length, speaking very gently and sadly, “I am bound to make amends whatever happens.  I must atone ­”

But already he found it hard to follow.

“Atone,” he asked, “what does ‘atone’ mean?” He moved back a step, and glanced about the room.  The moment of concentration had passed without bearing fruit; his thoughts began to wander again like a child’s.  “Anyhow, we shall escape together when the chance comes, shan’t we?” he said.

“Yes, darling, we shall,” she said in a broken voice.  “And if you do what I tell you, it will come very soon, I hope.”  She drew him towards her and kissed him, and though he didn’t respond very heartily, he felt he liked it, and was sure that she was good, and meant to do the best possible for him.

Jimbo asked nothing more for some time; he turned to the bed where he found a mattress and a blanket, but no sheets, and sat down on the edge and waited.  The governess was standing by the window looking out; her back was turned to him.  He heard an occasional deep sigh come from her, but he was too busy now with his own sensations to trouble much about her.  Looking past her he saw the sea of green leaves dancing lazily in the sunshine.  Something seemed to beckon him from beyond the high wall, and he longed to go out and play in the shade of the elms and hawthorns; for the horror of the Empty House was closing in upon him steadily but surely, and he longed for escape into a bright, unhaunted atmosphere, more than anything else in the whole world.

His thoughts ran on and on in this vein, till presently he noticed that the governess was moving about the room.  She crossed over and tried first one door and then the other; both were fastened.  Next she lifted the trap-door and peered down into the black hole below.  That, too, apparently was satisfactory.  Then she came over to the bedside on tiptoe.

“Jimbo, I’ve got something very important to ask you,” she began.

“All right,” he said, full of curiosity.

“You must answer me very exactly.  Everything depends on it.”

“I will.”

She took another long look round the room, and then, in a still lower whisper, bent over him, and asked: 

“Have you any pain?”

“Where?” he asked, remembering to be exact.


He thought a moment.

“None, thank you.”

“None at all ­anywhere?” she insisted.

“None at all ­anywhere,” he said with decision.

She seemed disappointed.

“Never mind; it’s a little soon yet, perhaps,” she said.  “We must have patience.  It will come in time.”

“But I don’t want any pain,” he said, rather ruefully.

“You can’t escape till it comes.”

“I don’t understand a bit what you mean.”  He began to feel alarmed at the notion of escape and pain going together.

“You’ll understand later, though,” she said soothingly, “and it won’t hurt very much.  The sooner the pain comes, the sooner we can try to escape.  Nowhere can there be escape without it.”

And with that she left him, disappearing without another word into the hole below the trap, and leaving him, disconsolate yet excited, alone in the room.