the short story project


Mary Webb | from:English

Mr. Tallent’s Ghost

The first time I ever met Mr. Tallent was in the late summer of 1906, in a small, lonely inn on the top of a mountain. For natives, rainy days in these places are not very different from other days, since work fills them all, wet or fine. But for the tourist, rainy days are boring. I had been bored for nearly a week, and was thinking of returning to London, when Mr. Tallent came. And because I could not “place” Mr. Tallent, nor elucidate him to my satisfaction, he intrigued me. For a barrister should be able to sum up men in a few minutes.

I did not see Mr. Tallent arrive, nor did I observe him entering the room. I looked up, and he was there, in the small firelit parlour with its Bible, wool mats and copper preserving pan. He was reading a manuscript, slightly moving his lips as he read. He was a gentle, moth-like man, very lean and about six foot three or more. He had neutral-coloured hair and eyes, a nondescript suit, limp-looking hands and slightly turned-up toes. The most noticeable thing about him was an expression of passive and enduring obstinacy.

I wished him good evening, and asked if he had a paper, as he seemed to have come from civilization.

“No,” he said softly, “no. Only a little manuscript of my own.”

Now, as a rule I am as wary of manuscripts as a hare is of greyhounds. Having once been a critic, I am always liable to receive parcels of these for advice. So I might have saved myself and a dozen or so of other people from what turned out to be a terrible, an appalling, incubus. But the day had been so dull, and having exhausted Old Moore and sampled the Imprecatory Psalms, I had nothing else to read. So I said, “Your own?”

“Even so,” replied Mr. Tallent modestly.

“May I have the privilege?” I queried, knowing he intended me to have it.

“How kind!” he exclaimed. “A stranger, knowing nothing of my hopes and aims, yet willing to undertake so onerous a task.”

“Not at all!” I replied, with a nervous chuckle.

“I think,” he murmured, drawing near and, as it were, taking possession of me, looming above me with his great height, “it might be best for me to read it to you. I am considered to have rather a fine reading voice.”

I said I should be delighted, reflecting that supper could not very well be later than nine. I knew I should not like the reading.

He stood before the cloth-draped mantelpiece.

“This,” he said, “shall be my rostrum.” Then he read.

I wish I could describe to you that slow, expressionless, unstoppable voice. It was a voice for which at the time I could find no comparison. Now I know that it was like the voice of the loud speaker in a dull subject. At first one listened, taking in even the sense of the words. I took in all the first six chapters, which were unbelievably dull. I got all the scenery, characters, undramatic events clearly marshalled. I imagined that something would, in time, happen. I thought the characters were going to develop, do fearful things or great and holy deeds. But they did nothing. Nothing happened. The book was flat, formless, yet not vital enough to be inchoate. It was just a meandering expression of a negative personality, with a plethora of muted, borrowed, stale ideas. He always said what one expected him to say. One knew what all his people would do. One waited for the culminating platitude as for an expected twinge of toothache. I thought he would pause after a time, for even the most arrogant usually do that, apologising and at the same time obviously waiting for one to say, “Do go on, please.’’

This was not necessary in his case. In fact, it was impossible. The slow, monotonous voice went on without a pause, with the terrible tirelessness of a gramophone. I longed for him to whisper or shout— anything to relieve the tedium. I tried to think of other things, but he read too distinctly for that. I could neither listen to him nor ignore him. I have never spent such an evening. As luck would have it the little maidservant did not achieve our meal till nearly ten o’clock. The hours dragged on.

At last I said: “Could we have a pause, just for a few minutes?”

“Why?” he enquired.

“For… for discussion,” I weakly murmured.

“Not,” he replied, “at the most exciting moment. Don’t you realise that now, at last, I have worked up my plot to the most dramatic, moment? All the characters are waiting, attent, for the culminating tragedy.”

He went on reading. I went on awaiting the culminating tragedy. But there was no tragedy. My head ached abominably. The voice flowed on, over my senses, the room, the world. I felt as if it would wash me away into eternity. I found myself thinking, quite solemnly:

“If she doesn’t bring supper soon, I shall kill him.”

I thought it in the instinctive way in which one thinks it of an earwig or a midge. I took refuge in the consideration how to do it? This was absorbing. It enabled me to detach myself completely from the sense of what he read. I considered all the ways open to me. Strangling. The bread knife on the sideboard. Hanging. I gloated over them, I was beginning to be almost happy, when suddenly the reading stopped.

“She is bringing supper,” he said. “Now we can have a little discussion. Afterwards I will finish the manuscript.”

He did. And after that, he told me all about his will. He said he was leaving all his money for the posthumous publication of his manuscripts. He also said that he would like me to draw up this for him, and to be trustee of the manuscripts.

I said I was too busy. He replied that I could draw up the will to-morrow.

“I’m going to-morrow,” I interpolated passionately.

“You cannot go until the carrier goes in the afternoon,” he triumphed. “Meanwhile, you can draw up the will. After that you need do no more. You can pay a critic to read the manuscripts. You can pay a publisher to publish them. And I in them shall be remembered.”

He added that if I still had doubts as to their literary worth, he would read me another.

I gave in. Would anyone else have done differently? I drew up the will, left an address where he could send his stuff, and left the inn.

“Thank God!” I breathed devoutly, as the turn of the lane hid him from view. He was standing on the doorstep, beginning to read what he called a pastoral to a big cattle-dealer who had called for a pint of bitter. I smiled to think how much more he would get than he had bargained for.

After that, I forgot Mr. Tallent. I heard nothing more of him for some years. Occasionally I glanced down the lists of books to see if anybody else had relieved me of my task by publishing Mr. Tallent. But nobody had.

It was about ten years later, when I was in hospital with a “Blighty” wound, that I met Mr. Tallent again. I was convalescent, sitting in the sun with some other chaps, when the door opened softly, and Mr. Tallent stole in. He read to us for two hours. He remembered me, and had a good deal to say about coincidence. When he had gone, I said to the nurse, ‘’If you let that fellow in again while I’m here. I’ll kill him.”

She laughed a good deal, but the other chaps all agreed with me, and as a matter of fact, he never did come again.

Not long after this I saw the notice of his death in the paper.

“Poor chap!” I thought, “he’s been reading too much. Somebody’s patience has given out. Well, he won’t ever be able to read to me again.”

Then I remembered the manuscripts, realising that, if he had been as good as his word, my troubles had only just begun.

And it was so.

First came the usual kind of letter from a solicitor in the town where he had lived. Next I had a call from the said solicitor’s clerk, who brought a large tin box.

“The relations,” he said, “of the deceased are extremely angry. Nothing has been left to them. They say that the manuscripts are worthless, and that the living have rights.”

I asked how they knew that the manuscripts were worthless.

“It appears, sir, that Mr. Tallent has, from time to time, read these aloud –”

I managed to conceal a grin.

“And they claim, sir, to share equally with the—er – manuscripts. They threaten to take proceedings, and have been getting legal opinions as to the advisability of demanding an investigation of the material you have.”

I looked at the box. There was an air of Joanna Southcott about it.

I asked if it were full.

“Quite, sir. Typed MSS. Very neatly done.”

He produced the key, a copy of the will, and a sealed letter.

I took the box home with me that evening. Fortified by dinner, a cigar and a glass of port, I considered it. There is an extraordinary air of fatality about a box. For bane or for blessing, it has a perpetual fascination for mankind. A wizard’s coffer, a casket of jewels, the alabaster box of precious nard, a chest of bridal linen, a stone sarcophagus – what a strange mystery is about them all! So when I opened Mr. Tallent’s box, I felt like somebody letting loose a genie. And indeed I was. I had already perused the will and the letter, and discovered that the fortune was moderately large. The letter merely repeated what Mr. Tallent had told me. I glanced at some of the manuscripts. Immediately the room seemed full of Mr. Tallent’s presence and his voice. I looked towards the now dusky corners of the room as if he might be looming there. As I ran through more of the papers, I realised that what Mr. Tallent had chosen to read to me had been the best of them. I looked up Johnson’s telephone number and asked him to come round. He is the kind of chap who never makes any money. He is a freelance journalist with a conscience. I knew he would be glad of the job.

He came round at once. He eyed the manuscripts with rapture. For at heart he is a critic, and has the eternal hope of unearthing a masterpiece.

“You had better take a dozen at a time, and keep a record,” I said. “Verdict at the end.”

“Will it depend on me whether they are published?”

“Which are published,” I said. “Some will have to be. The will says so.”

“But if I found them all worthless, the poor beggars would get more of the cash? Damnable to be without cash.”

“I shall have to look into that. I am not sure if it is legally possible. What, for instance, is the standard?”

“I shall create the standard,” said Johnson rather haughtily. “Of course, if I find a masterpiece –”

“If you find a masterpiece, my dear chap,’’ I said, “I’ll give you a hundred pounds.”

He asked if I had thought of a publisher. I said I had decided on Jukes, since no book, however bad, could make his reputation worse than it was, and the money might save his credit.

“Is that quite fair to poor Tallent?” he asked. Mr. Tallent had already got hold of him.

“If,” I said as a parting benediction, “you wish you had never gone into it (as, when yon have put your hand to the plough, you will), remember that at least they were never read aloud to you, and be thankful.”

Nothing occurred for a week. Then letters began to come from Mr. Tallent’s relations. They were a prolific family. They were all very poor, very angry and intensely uninterested in literature. They wrote from all kinds of view-points, in all kinds of styles. They were, however, all alike in two things—the complete absence of literary excellence and legal exactitude.

It took an increasing time daily to read and answer these. If I gave them any hope, I at once felt Mr. Tallent’s hovering presence, mute, anxious, hurt. If I gave no hope, I got a solicitor’s letter by return of post. Nobody but myself seemed to feel the pathos of Mr. Tallent’s ambitions and dreams. I was notified that proceedings were going to be taken by firms all over England. Money was being recklessly spent to rob Mr. Tallent of his immortality, but it appeared, later, that Mr. Tallent could take care of himself.

When Johnson came for more of the contents of the box, he said that there was no sign of a masterpiece yet, and that they were as bad as they well could be.

“A pathetic chap, Tallent,” he said.

“Don’t, for God’s sake, my dear chap, let him get at you,” I implored him. “Don’t give way. He’ll haunt you, as he’s haunting me, with that abominable pathos of his. I think of him and his box continually just as one does of a life and death plea. If I sit by my own fireside, I can hear him reading. When I am just going to sleep, I dream that he is looming over me like an immense, wan moth. If I forget him for a little while, a letter comes from one of his unutterable relations and recalls me. Be wary of Tallent.”

Needless to tell you that he did not take my advice. By the time he had finished the box, he was as much under Tallent’s thumb as I was. Bitterly disappointed that there was no masterpiece, he was still loyal to the writer, yet he was emotionally harrowed by the pitiful letters that the relations were now sending to all the papers.

“I dreamed,” he said to me one day (Johnson always says “dreamed”, because he is a critic and considers it the elegant form of expression), “I dreamed that poor Tallent appeared to me in the watches of the night and told me exactly how each of his things came to him. He said they came like ‘Kubla Khan’.”

I said it must have taken all night.

“It did,” he replied. “And it has made me dislike a masterpiece.”

I asked him if he intended to be present at the general meeting.


“Yes. Things have got to such a pitch that we have had to call one. There will be about a hundred people. I shall have to entertain them to a meal afterwards. I can’t very well charge it up to the account of the deceased.”

“Gosh! It’ll cost a pretty penny.”

“It will. But perhaps we shall settle something. I shall be thankful.”

“You’re not looking well, old chap,” he said, “Worn, you seem.”

“I am,” I said. “Tallent is ever with me. Will you come?”

“Rather. But I don’t know what to say.”

“The truth, the Whole truth—”

“But it’s so awful to think of that poor soul spending his whole life on those damned… and then that they should never see the light of day.”

“Worse that they should. Much worse.”

“My dear chap, what a confounded position!”

“If I had foreseen how confounded,” I said, “I’d have strangled the fellow on the top of that mountain. I have had to get to clerks to deal with the correspondence. I get no rest. All night I dream of Tallent. And now I hear that a consumptive relation of his has died of disappointment at not getting any of the money, and his wife has written me a wild letter threatening to accuse me of manslaughter. Of course that’s all stuff, but it shows what a hysterical state everybody’s in. I feel pretty well done for.”

“You’d feel worse if you’d read the boxful.”

I agreed.

We had a stormy meeting. It was obvious that the people did need the money. They were the sort of struggling, under-vitalised folk who always do need it. Children were waiting for a chance in life, old people were waiting to be saved from death a little longer, middle-aged people were waiting to set themselves up in business or buy snug little houses. And there was Tallent, out of it all, in a spiritual existence, not needing beef and bread any more, deliberately keeping it from them.

As I thought this, I distinctly saw Tallent pass the window of the room I had hired for the occasion. I stood up; I pointed; I cried out to them to follow him. The very man himself.

Johnson came to me.

“Steady, old man,” he said. “You’re overstrained.”

“But I did see him,” I said. “The very man. The cause of all the mischief. If I could only get my hands on him!”

A medical man who had married one of Tallent’s sisters said that these hallucinations were very common, and that I was evidently not a fit person to have charge of the money. This brought me a ray of hope, till that ass Johnson contradicted him, saying foolish things about my career. And a diversion was caused by a tremulous old lady calling out, ‘’The Church! The Church! Consult the Church! There’s something in the Bible about it, only I can’t call it to mind at the moment. Has anybody got a Bible?”

A clerical nephew produced a pocket New Testament, and it transpired that what she had meant was, “Take ten talents.”

“If I could take one, madam,” I said, “it would be enough.’’

“It speaks of that too,” she replied triumphantly. “Listen! ‘If any man have one talent…’ Oh, there’s everything in the Bible!’’

“Let us,” remarked one of the thirteen solicitors, ‘’get to business. Whether it’s in the Bible or not, whether Mr. Tallent went past the window or not, the legality or illegality, of what we propose is not affected. Facts are facts. The deceased is dead. You’ve got the money. We want it.”

“I devoutly wish you’d got it,” I said, “and that Tallent was haunting you instead of me.”

The meeting lasted four hours. The wildest ideas were put forward. One or two sporting cousins of the deceased suggested a decision by games-representatives of the would-be beneficiaries and representatives of the manuscript. They were unable to see that this could not affect the legal aspect. Johnson was asked for his opinion. He said that from a critic’s point of view the MSS. were balderdash. Everybody looked kindly upon him. But just as he was sunning himself in this atmosphere, and trying to forget Tallent, an immense lady, like Boadicea, advanced upon him, towering over him in a hostile manner.

“I haven’t read the books, and I’m not going to,” she said, “but I take exception to that word balderdash, sir, and I consider it libellous. Let me tell you, I brought Mr. Tallent into the world!” I looked at her with awesome wonder. She had brought that portent into the world! But how… whom had she persuaded?… I pulled myself up. And as I turned away from the contemplation of Boadicea, I saw Tallent pass the window again.

I rushed forward and tried to push up the sash. But the place was built for meetings, not for humanity, and it would not open. I seized the poker, intending to smash the glass. I suppose I must have looked rather mad, and as everybody else had been too intent on business to look out of the window, nobody believed that I had seen anything.

“You might just go round to the nearest chemist’s and get some bromide,” said the doctor to Johnson. “He’s over-wrought.”

Johnson, who was thankful to escape Boadicea, went with alacrity.

The meeting was, however, over at last. A resolution was passed that we should try to arrange things out of court. We were to take the opinions of six eminent lawyers-judges preferably. We were also to submit what Johnson thought the best story to a distinguished critic. According to what they said we were to divide the money up or leave things as they were.

I felt very much discouraged as I walked home. All these opinions would entail much work and expense. There seemed no end to it.

“Damn the man!” I muttered, as I turned the corner into the square in which I live. And there, just the width of the square away from me, was the man himself. I could almost have wept. What had I done that the gods should play with me thus?

I hurried forward, but he was walking fast, and in a moment he turned down a side-street. When I got to the corner, the street was empty. After this, hardly a day passed without my seeing Tallent. It made me horribly jumpy and nervous, and the fear of madness began to prey on my mind. Meanwhile, the business went on. It was finally decided that half the money should be divided among the relations. Now I thought there would be peace, and for a time there was—comparatively.

But it was only about a month from this date that I heard from one of the solicitors to say that a strange and disquieting thing had happened –  two of the beneficiaries were haunted by Mr. Tallent to such an extent that their reason was in danger. I wrote to ask what form the haunting took. He said they continually heard Mr. Tallent reading aloud from his works. Wherever they were in the house, they still heard him. I wondered if he would begin reading to me soon. So far it had only been visions. If he began to read…

In a few months I heard that both the relations who were haunted had been taken to an asylum. ־While they were in the asylum they heard nothing. But, some time after, on being certified as cured and released, they heard the reading again, and had to go back. Gradually the same thing happened to others, but only to one or two at a time.

During the long winter, two years after his death, it began to happen to me.

I immediately went to a specialist, who said there was acute nervous prostration, and recommended a “home־’. But I refused. I would fight Tallent to the last. Six of the beneficiaries were now in “homes”, and every penny of the money they had had was used up.

I considered things. “Bell, book and candle” seemed to be what was required. But how, when, where to find him? I consulted a spiritualist, a priest and a woman who has more intuitive perception than anyone I know. From their advice I made my plans. But it was Lesbia who saved me.

“Get a man who can run to go about with you,” she said. “The moment He appeal’s, let your companion rush round by a side-street and cut him off.”

“But how will that – ?”

“Never mind. I know what I think.”

She gave me a wise little smile.

I did what she advised, but it was not till my patience was nearly exhausted that I saw Tallent again. The reading went on, but only in the evenings when I was alone, and at night. I asked people in evening after evening. But when I got into bed, it began.

Johnson suggested that I should get married.

“What?” I said, ‘’offer a woman a ruined nervous system, a threatened home, and a possible end in an asylum?”

“There’s one woman who would jump at it. I love my love with an L.”

“Don’t be an ass,” I said. I felt in no mood for jokes. All I wanted was to get things cleared up.

About three years after Tallent’s death, my companion and I, going out rather earlier than usual, saw him hastening down a long road which had no side-streets leading out of it. As luck would have it, an empty taxi passed US. I shouted.  We got in. Just in front of Tallent’s ghost we stopped, leapt out, and flung ourselves upon him.

“My God!” I cried. “He’s solid’:

He was perfectly solid, and not a little alarmed.

We put him into the taxi and took him to my house.

“Now, Tallent!’’ I said, “you will answer for what you have done.”

He looked scared, but dreamy.

“Why aren’t you dead?” was my next question.

He seemed hurt.

“I never died,” he replied softly.

”It was in the papers.”

“I put it in. I was in America. It was quite easy.”

“And that continual haunting of me, and the wicked driving of your unfortunate relations into asylums?” I was working myself into a rage. “Do you know how many of them are there now?”

“Yes. I know. Very interesting.”


“It was in a great cause,” he said. “Possibly you didn’t grasp that I was a progressive psycho-analyst, and that I did not take those novels of mine seriously. In fact, they were just part of the experiment.”

“In heaven’s name, what experiment?”

“The plural would be better, really,” he said, “for there were many experiments.”

“But what for, you damned old blackguard?” I shouted.

“For my magnum opus he said modestly.

“And what is your abominable magnum opus, you wicked old man?”

“It will be famous all over the world,” he said complacently. “All this has given me exceptional opportunities. It was so easy to get into my relations’ houses and experiment with them. It was regrettable, though, that I could not follow them to the asylum.”

This evidently worried him far more than the trouble he had caused. So it was you reading, every time?”


“And it was you who went past the window of that horrible room when we discussed your will?”

“Yes. A most gratifying spectacle!”

“And now, you old scoundrel, before I decide what to do with you,” I said, “what is the magnum opus?”

“It is a treatise,” he said, with the pleased expression that made me so wild. “A treatise that will eclipse all former work in that field, and its title is – ‘An Exhaustive Enquiry, with numerous Experiments, into the Power of Human Endurance’.”


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