The Dark Clue


From the diary of Marian Halcombe, 5th October, 185—

It is now past two in the morning, and still Walter has not returned.

He told me he was going to Mayall's photographic studio in Regent Street. He cannot still be there now. Where is he?

Perhaps my anxiety has deprived me of the power to think and write about him.

This will not do.


One question, naturally, preoccupied me as we got into our cab, and left Sandycombe Lodge.

What had Walter seen in the basement?

Yet I felt I could not ask him directly, for fear that in doing so I might drive him further from me. The truth was, I suddenly realized, I could no longer predict how he would behave. If I revealed that I had seen how deeply he had been affected, he might, indeed, confide in me; but I could as soon imagine his airily denying it (You are too fanciful, Marian; I never thought I should find you guilty of that); or else becoming embarrassed and confused.

For a few minutes I said nothing at all, hoping that he might be moved to fill the silence himself, and so spare me the necessity of declaring my curiosity; but he only sat quietly staring out of the window. At length, unable to bear it any longer, I said:

'A pretty little house, I thought. Or at least the parts of it I saw.'

An irresistible invitation, you would suppose, to describe the parts I hadn't seen; but he merely nodded absently. I must either hold my tongue, or be more direct.

'What was the basement like?' I asked.

You would think he had been struck deaf.

'What is it, Walter?' I said. 'Why won't you tell me?'

But again he said nothing; and after a minute or two opened his notebook, and began studying the drawings he had made.

It was intolerable — I must discover what he had seen — and yet I was at loss to know how to prise it from him. It was clear, however, that the more desperately I pursued him now, the more stubborn he would become; so I resolved to ponder the matter in silence.

What might one find in a basement, to excite such a response?

Something that Turner had left there — an undiscovered picture, or pictures. But in that case, surely, Miss Fletcher would have shown them to us, or at least mentioned their existence?

Evidence of a crime — a bloodstain (heaven help us!). Hard to believe — but it was undeniably odd, was it not, that Miss Fletcher seemed to be the only person in the house? Suppose she'd fallen out with the housekeeper, and taken an axe to her in the scullery? Or perhaps she'd had a lover, and he had spurned her?

No, no — inconceivable — if there had been anything of the kind there, she would not have allowed Walter to find it, and he could not have remained silent about it.

Why was my mind running on such terrible things? Was it just that the place made me think so powerfully of a dungeon?

A dungeon. A dungeon. A lightless room. A barred door. Dripping walls, covered in moss. A set of rusting manacles —

The cry of a hawker in the street brought me out of my reverie, and I looked out of the window and saw that we were entering Putney. The road was crowded with carriages and carts; the pavements thronged with dull, decent people thinking of nothing save whether it would rain, or where the cabbages might be best and cheapest. If they could see my thoughts, they would indubitably suppose I was mad. I was somewhat chastened by this reflection (for if I have had nothing else to boast of, have I not always prided myself on my good sense?); but then it struck me that I could turn my new-found weakness to my advantage, by making light of it.

So was there a prisoner in chains there, Walter? Did you find Old Dad, still locked up after fifty years, and raving piteously about varnish?

I turned cautiously towards him, rehearsing the words in my head. He was still engrossed in his notebook, adding a line here, or a scribbled word there, whenever the motion of the cab allowed. Something in his posture, the obstinate set of his neck and shoulder, told me, beyond doubt, that he would not be amused, and I should fail again.

I was suddenly overcome with tiredness — sleep seemed to ambush me, whether I would or not, pressing me to my seat, and turning my eyelids to lead. No dreams of horrors — no dreams of anything, so far as I can recall; and I was woken again after only a few minutes — for we had gone but a mile or so, and were still a little way from home — by a sharp slapping sound. The cause, I soon discovered, was Walter's notebook, which had slipped from his lap on to the floor. I was surprised, for an instant, that he did not bend forward to retrieve it; then I saw that he, too, had fallen asleep, and I picked it up myself. We are brought up to believe that letters and diaries are sacrosanct, and that it is the blackest dishonour to violate their secrets — but what of a notebook? Surely (I told myself) that is something else entirely — a mere collection of facts, as neutral as a column of figures, which cannot be held to belong to any person in particular. It was only as I lifted the first page that I suddenly imagined what I should feel if the situation were reversed, and I found Walter making free with my notebook without my permission.

I stopped myself, but not before I had glimpsed one of his sketches. It was not the gloomy interior I had expected, but an outside view of the garden front. There were the two little single-storey wings, with their stucco walls and trim slate roofs; there in the centre Turner's studio, where Miss Fletcher and I must have been talking even while Walter had drawn this (indeed, I could just make out two ghostly little crescents in the window, which might have been our heads).

But below it was another window, which I had not seen before: a lunette, protected by an iron grille, half-hidden by a tangle of bushes. Beyond it must lie the basement.

It reminded me of something — something unexpected, though for a moment I could not say what it was. The curved top; the glass (at least in Walter's drawing) so shadowed that it looked like an empty socket — why did they seem familiar?

And then, with the force of a physical shock, it struck me: the half-buried arches in The Bay of Baiae."

Cover of The Dark Clue

Faber and Faber (20 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 0571202764

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