Ding, dong, bell…
WW Jacobs is best known for the truly terrifying tale of The Monkey’s Paw. When his name cropped up in Murder at the Manor, another of the British Library’s anthologies of classic crime, I assumed he must also have written detective stories. However the collection’s editor, Martin Edwards, explains that, though Jacobs is primarily a writer of macabre stories, this story has been included because it is a study of the consequences of crime.
Macabre indeed! A perfect story for this week’s…
The Well by WW Jacobs
Two men stood in the billiard-room of an old country house, talking. Play, which had been of a half-hearted nature, was over, and they sat at the open window, looking out over the park stretching away beneath them, conversing idly.
Jem Benson is soon to marry the woman he loves – Olive, a sweet young girl who idolises him. His friend Wilfred Carr is, as usual, short of money and as they chat in the billiard room he asks Jem to give him a loan, as he done often before. But Jem has had enough…
“Seriously, Jem, will you let me have the fifteen hundred?”
“No,” said the other, simply.
Carr went white. “It’s to save me from ruin,” he said, thickly.
“I’ve helped you till I’m tired,” said Benson, turning and regarding him, “and it is all to no good. If you’ve got into a mess, get out of it.”
But Carr won’t give up so easily. He knows something about Jem’s past, something that would make the idealistic Olive see him a new and unflattering light… and he can prove it…
His cousin reached forward suddenly, and catching him by the collar of his coat pinned him down on the table.
“Give me those letters,” he breathed, sticking his face close to Carr’s.
“They’re not here,” said Carr, struggling. “I’m not a fool. Let me go, or I’ll raise the price.”
And Carr walks out into the garden… and disappears. When his absence is noticed, Jem explains by saying they had a row over money and Jem sent him off…
“I don’t think we shall see him again.”
* * * * *
The well, which had long ago fallen into disuse, was almost hidden by the thick tangle of undergrowth which ran riot at that corner of the old park. It was partly covered by the shrunken half of a lid, above which a rusty windlass creaked in company with the music of the pines when the wind blew strongly. The full light of the sun never reached it, and the ground surrounding it was moist and green when other parts of the park were gaping with the heat.
The following evening, Jem and Olive are strolling in the grounds when Olive takes it into her head to wander towards the old well. Jem does his best to dissuade her, but she likes to sit there on the edge of the well surveying the wilderness around it…
“I like this place,” said she, breaking a long silence, “it is so dismal –so uncanny. Do you know I wouldn’t dare to sit here alone, Jem. I should imagine that all sorts of dreadful things were hidden behind the bushes and trees, waiting to spring out on me. Ugh!”
(Isn’t she just so sweet and innocent?) As they sit there, canoodling, not to put too fine a point on it, Olive wonders when they will next hear from Wilfred, asking Jem to help him out as usual. She is startled by the bitter way Jem responds…
“You don’t know much about him,” said the other, sharply. “He was not above blackmail; not above ruining the life of a friend to do himself a benefit. A loafer, a cur, and a liar!”
At this moment, Olive suddenly leaps up with a cry! Jem asks her what the matter is…
“I was startled,” she said, slowly, putting her hands on his shoulder. “I suppose the words I used just now are ringing in my ears, but I fancied that somebody behind us whispered ‘Jem, help me out.'”
Shivering, Jem pleads with her to come away from the well, but she’s an obstinate little thing. Not content with making Jem stay near the well, she then girlishly proceeds to drop her valuable and irreplaceable bracelet down it…
“The one that was my mother’s,” said Olive. “Oh, we can get it back surely. We must have the water drained off.”
“Your bracelet!” repeated Benson, stupidly.
“Jem,” said the girl in terrified tones, “dear Jem, what is the matter?”
For the man she loved was standing regarding her with horror. The moon which touched it was not responsible for all the whiteness of the distorted face, and she shrank back in fear to the edge of the well.
Desperate, Jem promises he will retrieve the bracelet himself the next day. And sure enough, the next day he has himself lowered into the well…
* * * * *
This is a brilliant little story that had the porpentine and me fairly shrieking with terror! Jacobs knows exactly how to build up atmosphere and tension, and while there’s never any doubt about what happened to Wilfred, he still manages to produce a truly shocking ending! Admittedly, had I been Jem I’d have solved the issue by lending Wilf the money and tossing Olive down the well, but that wouldn’t have made for nearly such a fun story. It’s quite short – only about 4,000 words. Go on, you’re brave enough! If your hair turns white, you can always dye it! Here’s a link…
Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀