Silhouettes by Jerome K. Jerome
I fear I must be of a somewhat gruesome turn of mind. My
sympathies are always with the melancholy side of life and
nature. I love the chill October days, when the brown
leaves lie thick and sodden underneath your feet, and a low sound
as of stifled sobbing is heard in the damp woods—the
evenings in late autumn time, when the white mist creeps across
the fields, making it seem as though old Earth, feeling the night
air cold to its poor bones, were drawing ghostly bedclothes round
its withered limbs. I like the twilight of the long grey
street, sad with the wailing cry of the distant muffin man.
One thinks of him, as, strangely mitred, he glides by through the
gloom, jangling his harsh bell, as the High Priest of the pale
spirit of Indigestion, summoning the devout to come forth and
worship. I find a sweetness in the aching dreariness of
Sabbath afternoons in genteel suburbs—in the evil-laden
desolateness of waste places by the river, when the yellow fog is
stealing inland across the ooze and mud, and the black tide
gurgles softly round worm-eaten piles.
I love the bleak moor, when the thin long line of the winding
road lies white on the darkening heath, while overhead some
belated bird, vexed with itself for being out so late, scurries
across the dusky sky, screaming angrily. I love the lonely,
sullen lake, hidden away in mountain solitudes. I suppose
it was my childhood’s surroundings that instilled in me
this affection for sombre hues. One of my earliest
recollections is of a dreary marshland by the sea. By day,
the water stood there in wide, shallow pools. But when one
looked in the evening they were pools of blood that lay
It was a wild, dismal stretch of coast. One day, I found
myself there all alone—I forget how it came
about—and, oh, how small I felt amid the sky and the sea
and the sandhills! I ran, and ran, and ran, but I never
seemed to move; and then I cried, and screamed, louder and
louder, and the circling seagulls screamed back mockingly at
me. It was an “unken” spot, as they say up
In the far back days of the building of the world, a long,
high ridge of stones had been reared up by the sea, dividing the
swampy grassland from the sand. Some of these
stones—“pebbles,” so they called them round
about—were as big as a man, and many as big as a fair-sized
house; and when the sea was angry—and very prone he was to
anger by that lonely shore, and very quick to wrath; often have I
known him sink to sleep with a peaceful smile on his rippling
waves, to wake in fierce fury before the night was spent—he
would snatch up giant handfuls of these pebbles and fling and
toss them here and there, till the noise of their rolling and
crashing could be heard by the watchers in the village afar
“Old Nick’s playing at marbles to-night,”
they would say to one another, pausing to listen. And then
the women would close tight their doors, and try not to hear the
Far out to sea, by where the muddy mouth of the river yawned
wide, there rose ever a thin white line of surf, and underneath
those crested waves there dwelt a very fearsome thing, called the
Bar. I grew to hate and be afraid of this mysterious Bar,
for I heard it spoken of always with bated breath, and I knew
that it was very cruel to fisher folk, and hurt them so sometimes
that they would cry whole days and nights together with the pain,
or would sit with white scared faces, rocking themselves to and
Once when I was playing among the sandhills, there came by a
tall, grey woman, bending beneath a load of driftwood. She
paused when nearly opposite to me, and, facing seaward, fixed her
eyes upon the breaking surf above the Bar. “Ah, how I
hate the sight of your white teeth!” she muttered; then
turned and passed on.
Another morning, walking through the village, I heard a low
wailing come from one of the cottages, while a little farther on
a group of women were gathered in the roadway, talking.
“Ay,” said one of them, “I thought the Bar was
looking hungry last night.”
So, putting one and the other together, I concluded that the
“Bar” must be an ogre, such as a body reads of in
books, who lived in a coral castle deep below the river’s
mouth, and fed upon the fishermen as he caught them going down to
the sea or coming home.
From my bedroom window, on moonlight nights, I could watch the
silvery foam, marking the spot beneath where he lay hid; and I
would stand on tip-toe, peering out, until at length I would come
to fancy I could see his hideous form floating below the
waters. Then, as the little white-sailed boats stole by
him, tremblingly, I used to tremble too, lest he should suddenly
open his grim jaws and gulp them down; and when they had all
safely reached the dark, soft sea beyond, I would steal back to
the bedside, and pray to God to make the Bar good, so that he
would give up eating the poor fishermen.
Another incident connected with that coast lives in my
mind. It was the morning after a great storm—great
even for that stormy coast—and the passion-worn waters were
still heaving with the memory of a fury that was dead. Old
Nick had scattered his marbles far and wide, and there were rents
and fissures in the pebbly wall such as the oldest fisherman had
never known before. Some of the hugest stones lay tossed a
hundred yards away, and the waters had dug pits here and there
along the ridge so deep that a tall man might stand in some of
them, and yet his head not reach the level of the sand.
Round one of these holes a small crowd was pressing eagerly,
while one man, standing in the hollow, was lifting the few
remaining stones off something that lay there at the
bottom. I pushed my way between the straggling legs of a
big fisher lad, and peered over with the rest. A ray of
sunlight streamed down into the pit, and the thing at the bottom
gleamed white. Sprawling there among the black pebbles it
looked like a huge spider. One by one the last stones were
lifted away, and the thing was left bare, and then the crowd
looked at one another and shivered.
“Wonder how he got there,” said a woman at length;
“somebody must ha’ helped him.”
“Some foreign chap, no doubt,” said the man who
had lifted off the stones; “washed ashore and buried here
by the sea.”
“What, six foot below the water-mark, wi’ all they
stones atop of him?” said another.
“That’s no foreign chap,” cried a grizzled
old woman, pressing forward. “What’s that
that’s aside him?”
Some one jumped down and took it from the stone where it lay
glistening, and handed it up to her, and she clutched it in her
skinny hand. It was a gold earring, such as fishermen
sometimes wear. But this was a somewhat large one, and of
rather unusual shape.
“That’s young Abram Parsons, I tell ’ee, as
lies down there,” cried the old creature, wildly.
“I ought to know. I gave him the pair o’ these
forty year ago.”
It may be only an idea of mine, born of after brooding upon
the scene. I am inclined to think it must be so, for I was
only a child at the time, and would hardly have noticed such a
thing. But it seems to my remembrance that as the old crone
ceased, another woman in the crowd raised her eyes slowly, and
fixed them on a withered, ancient man, who leant upon a stick,
and that for a moment, unnoticed by the rest, these two stood
looking strangely at each other.
From these sea-scented scenes, my memory travels to a weary
land where dead ashes lie, and there is blackness—blackness
everywhere. Black rivers flow between black banks; black,
stunted trees grow in black fields; black withered flowers by
black wayside. Black roads lead from blackness past
blackness to blackness; and along them trudge black,
savage-looking men and women; and by them black, old-looking
children play grim, unchildish games.
When the sun shines on this black land, it glitters black and
hard; and when the rain falls a black mist rises towards heaven,
like the hopeless prayer of a hopeless soul.
By night it is less dreary, for then the sky gleams with a
lurid light, and out of the darkness the red flames leap, and
high up in the air they gambol and writhe—the demon spawn
of that evil land, they seem.
Visitors who came to our house would tell strange tales of
this black land, and some of the stories I am inclined to think
were true. One man said he saw a young bull-dog fly at a
boy and pin him by the throat. The lad jumped about with
much sprightliness, and tried to knock the dog away.
Whereupon the boy’s father rushed out of the house, hard
by, and caught his son and heir roughly by the shoulder.
“Keep still, thee young ---, can’t ’ee!”
shouted the man angrily; “let ’un taste
Another time, I heard a lady tell how she had visited a
cottage during a strike, to find the baby, together with the
other children, almost dying for want of food. “Dear,
dear me!” she cried, taking the wee wizened mite from the
mother’s arms, “but I sent you down a quart of milk,
yesterday. Hasn’t the child had it?”
“Theer weer a little coom, thank ’ee kindly,
ma’am,” the father took upon himself to answer;
“but thee see it weer only just enow for the
We lived in a big lonely house on the edge of a wide
common. One night, I remember, just as I was reluctantly
preparing to climb into bed, there came a wild ringing at the
gate, followed by a hoarse, shrieking cry, and then a frenzied
shaking of the iron bars.
Then hurrying footsteps sounded through the house, and the
swift opening and closing of doors; and I slipped back hastily
into my knickerbockers and ran out. The women folk were
gathered on the stairs, while my father stood in the hall,
calling to them to be quiet. And still the wild ringing of
the bell continued, and, above it, the hoarse, shrieking cry.
My father opened the door and went out, and we could hear him
striding down the gravel path, and we clung to one another and
After what seemed an endless time, we heard the heavy gate
unbarred, and quickly clanged to, and footsteps returning on the
gravel. Then the door opened again, and my father entered,
and behind him a crouching figure that felt its way with its
hands as it crept along, as a blind man might. The figure
stood up when it reached the middle of the hall, and mopped its
eyes with a dirty rag that it carried in its hand; after which it
held the rag over the umbrella-stand and wrung it out, as
washerwomen wring out clothes, and the dark drippings fell into
the tray with a dull, heavy splut.
My father whispered something to my mother, and she went out
towards the back; and, in a little while, we heard the stamping
of hoofs—the angry plunge of a spur-startled
horse—the rhythmic throb of the long, straight gallop,
dying away into the distance.
My mother returned and spoke some reassuring words to the
servants. My father, having made fast the door and
extinguished all but one or two of the lights, had gone into a
small room on the right of the hall; the crouching figure, still
mopping that moisture from its eyes, following him. We
could hear them talking there in low tones, my father
questioning, the other voice thick and interspersed with short
We on the stairs huddled closer together, and, in the
darkness, I felt my mother’s arm steal round me and
encompass me, so that I was not afraid. Then we waited,
while the silence round our frightened whispers thickened and
grew heavy till the weight of it seemed to hurt us.
At length, out of its depths, there crept to our ears a faint
murmur. It gathered strength like the sound of the oncoming
of a wave upon a stony shore, until it broke in a Babel of
vehement voices just outside. After a few moments, the
hubbub ceased, and there came a furious ringing—then angry
shouts demanding admittance.
Some of the women began to cry. My father came out into
the hall, closing the room door behind him, and ordered them to
be quiet, so sternly that they were stunned into silence.
The furious ringing was repeated; and, this time, threats mingled
among the hoarse shouts. My mother’s arm tightened
around me, and I could hear the beating of her heart.
The voices outside the gate sank into a low confused
mumbling. Soon they died away altogether, and the silence
My father turned up the hall lamp, and stood listening.
Suddenly, from the back of the house, rose the noise of a
great crashing, followed by oaths and savage laughter.
My father rushed forward, but was borne back; and, in an
instant, the hall was full of grim, ferocious faces. My
father, trembling a little (or else it was the shadow cast by the
flickering lamp), and with lips tight pressed, stood confronting
them; while we women and children, too scared to even cry, shrank
back up the stairs.
What followed during the next few moments is, in my memory,
only a confused tumult, above which my father’s high, clear
tones rise every now and again, entreating, arguing,
commanding. I see nothing distinctly until one of the
grimmest of the faces thrusts itself before the others, and a
voice which, like Aaron’s rod, swallows up all its fellows,
says in deep, determined bass, “Coom, we’ve had enow
chatter, master. Thee mun give ’un up, or thee mun
get out o’ th’ way an’ we’ll search
th’ house for oursel’.”
Then a light flashed into my father’s eyes that kindled
something inside me, so that the fear went out of me, and I
struggled to free myself from my mother’s arm, for the
desire stirred me to fling myself down upon the grimy faces
below, and beat and stamp upon them with my fists.
Springing across the hall, he snatched from the wall where it
hung an ancient club, part of a trophy of old armour, and
planting his back against the door through which they would have
to pass, he shouted, “Then be damned to you all, he’s
in this room! Come and fetch him out.”
(I recollect that speech well. I puzzled over it, even
at that time, excited though I was. I had always been told
that only low, wicked people ever used the word
“damn,” and I tried to reconcile things, and
The men drew back and muttered among themselves. It was
an ugly-looking weapon, studded with iron spikes. My father
held it secured to his hand by a chain, and there was an ugly
look about him also, now, that gave his face a strange likeness
to the dark faces round him.
But my mother grew very white and cold, and underneath her
breath she kept crying, “Oh, will they never
come—will they never come?” and a cricket somewhere
about the house began to chirp.
Then all at once, without a word, my mother flew down the
stairs, and passed like a flash of light through the crowd of
dusky figures. How she did it I could never understand, for
the two heavy bolts had both been drawn, but the next moment the
door stood wide open; and a hum of voices, cheery with the
anticipation of a period of perfect bliss, was borne in upon the
cool night air.
My mother was always very quick of hearing.
* * * * *
Again, I see a wild crowd of grim faces, and my
father’s, very pale, amongst them. But this time the
faces are very many, and they come and go like faces in a
dream. The ground beneath my feet is wet and sloppy, and a
black rain is falling. There are women’s faces in the
crowd, wild and haggard, and long skinny arms stretch out
threateningly towards my father, and shrill, frenzied voices call
out curses on him. Boys’ faces also pass me in the
grey light, and on some of them there is an impish grin.
I seem to be in everybody’s way; and to get out of it, I
crawl into a dark, draughty corner and crouch there among
cinders. Around me, great engines fiercely strain and pant
like living things fighting beyond their strength. Their
gaunt arms whirl madly above me, and the ground rocks with their
throbbing. Dark figures flit to and fro, pausing from time
to time to wipe the black sweat from their faces.
The pale light fades, and the flame-lit night lies red upon
the land. The flitting figures take strange shapes. I
hear the hissing of wheels, the furious clanking of iron chains,
the hoarse shouting of many voices, the hurrying tread of many
feet; and, through all, the wailing and weeping and cursing that
never seem to cease. I drop into a restless sleep, and
dream that I have broken a chapel window, stone-throwing, and
have died and gone to hell.
At length, a cold hand is laid upon my shoulder, and I
awake. The wild faces have vanished and all is silent now,
and I wonder if the whole thing has been a dream. My father
lifts me into the dog-cart, and we drive home through the chill
My mother opens the door softly as we alight. She does
not speak, only looks her question. “It’s all
over, Maggie,” answers my father very quietly, as he takes
off his coat and lays it across a chair; “we’ve got
to begin the world afresh.”
My mother’s arms steal up about his neck; and I, feeling
heavy with a trouble I do not understand, creep off to bed.