As promised, here is the runner-up from the ghost story competition that M. R. James was asked to judge for The Spectator in December 1930. Bella, the main character of the story, is a housemaid in a household she is unfamilar with, without a friend to confide in, and therefore is very isolated, which inspires sympathy in the reader and adds to the atmosphere of the story. As James pointed out, it has the merits of 'a perfectly ordinary setting, a horrid catastrophe, and a curiosity legitimately excited, and not satisfied, in the mind of the reader.' To my mind, this is a better ghost story than the one that took first place. But read it and judge for yourself.
By E. S. Duffin
Runner up in the ghost story competition,
The Spectator ~ 3rd of January 1931.
It was Saturday morning. Bella, the new housemaid at Stamford Court, was going from room to room with trays of tea, pulling up blinds, leaving cans of hot water, nervously trying to make as little noise as possible, but the tea-things had an unfortunate way of sliding on the tray in her shaking hand, the blinds eluded her grasp and sprang with an alarming rattle up the windows, and the brass cans clanged against the basins as she deposited them on the washstands. Some of the occupants of the beds opened half-awake and slightly irritated eyes; others yawned and turned sleepily on their pillows.
She gave a sigh of relief as she closed the last door, then stood doubtfully regarding another at the end of the corridor. Was she in charge of that room too? This big house was so confusing, and Alice, the head housemaid, was so snubbing that she did not like to ask. Yes, she supposed she must be. How dreadful if she had forgotten it . . . . She hastily returned to the pantry and prepared another tray.
Ten minutes later she knocked at the door of the bedroom. There was no reply, but few of the week-end guests troubled to reply so she opened the door quietly. The room was dark and bitterly cold; as she crossed the threshold she felt as if she had stepped into an ice-cold fog; it smelt musty, too - like a cellar. A feeling of unreasoning terror seized her and froze her blood. Between the door and the window she paused, feeling as if her shaking limbs could carry her no farther. The tray in her hand shook so that the tea-things rattled. She stood at the foot of the old-fashioned four-poster bed and unwillingly, as if mesmerized, turned her head in its direction.
In the dim light of the dark winter morning she could not discern whether the occupant were a man or a woman. Above the bed-clothes a pair of eyes seemed to glow as a cat’s eyes glow in the dark, and to pierce through her very brain. It was only with a terrible effort that she deposited the tray on the bedside table; then hastily pulling up the blinds, reckless of - indeed, reassured by - the noise she was making, she hurried from the room, not daring to cast another glance at the bed lest she should see - what? - she asked herself wildly as she stood with panting breath and flying pulse in the corridor. But her unspoken question remained unanswered.
As she descended the backstairs a smell of coffee and frying bacon reached her nostrils; from below came the cheerful clatter of breakfast preparations. She heaved a sigh of relief as she heard the homely sounds.
After breakfast she emptied the basins, made beds and dusted rooms, leaving what she in her own mind designated “the room” till the last.
When she entered it her fears seemed absurd. The sun shone through the windows, the bed stood empty, but its late occupant seemed to have spent an uneasy night: the sheets were twisted into ropes, the pillows crushed so that she had to put clean covers on them. Strange, too, the water in the basin was dyed a rusty red and one of the towels was stained with blood. Even as she told herself that the guest must have cut himself shaving, a feeling of indescribable horror crept over Bella, but she put the room to rights and went about her other duties.
The next morning found her, in spite of good resolutions, shaking from top to toe as she stood outside the door and knocked with a trembling hand. As before, no voice answered; again, as she crossed the threshold, a chill seemed to penetrate to he very bones. She had decided that she would on no account look at the bed or its occupant; so, putting the tray hastily down, she crossed to the window and pulled up the blinds, but she felt that the eyes from the bed were watching her, and that something worse than a wild animal was crouching to spring. She stumbled from the room in a panic, shutting the door with a bang that reverberated down the corridor. Rushing to the backstairs, she leaned half-fainting against the bannisters.
At breakfast in the servants’ hall she looked round the staff with tragic eyes, seeking someone in whom she could confide; but they were all strangers to her and her courage failed. When she went upstairs again the room door lay open, the room lay empty, but as before in confusion, the basin filled with that sinisterly dyed water, the towel again blood-stained. Tremblingly she once more put it to rights.
Monday morning - thank God the house-party would break up to-day. This was the last time she need enter the ghastly room! She comforted herself with this thought as she knocked at “the door.”
Three hours later, Mrs. Grieves, the housekeeper, was inspecting the empty bedrooms with Alice, the head housemaid, to see that all was left in order.
“You needn’t inspect the haunted room,” Alice said, sarcastically; “nobody slept in it. Her Ladyship gave orders nobody was to be put in it again.”
Nevertheless, Mrs. Grieves conscientiously opened the door. The furniture was shrouded in linen covers, the hearthrug rolled back, the curtains of the four-poster looped up; but what was that? A figure on the bed. Mrs. Grieves and Alice approached, and a cry of horror and dismay burst simultaneously from their lips. Across the bed lay the figure of a girl. One hand clutched the bed curtain, the other arm was thrown up as if to ward off something, and the crooked elbow partially concealed the face. But as they looked down they recognized in the twisted features, the staring eyes, the half-open mouth, Bella, the new housemaid. She was dead.