George Waterson, our hero, stands up on a cold, frozen beach, wet and shaky all through himself, and looks around. Something tells him that his luck has finally turned against him, as he realizes that after his boat, the Lucy, has broken up in the waves behind him, that all he can do now is to go on up to the old Hales’ house, on what is known locally as “Haunted Ground.” As he trudges up the long hill ahead of him, he can clearly hear his heart beating like thunder, and very slowly. He feels tired and worn out.
As he looks up to the house above him, he sees lighted windows, and thinks to himself that the woman for whom he has an unrequited love, Sue, will be laid out in one of the rooms. Her death is recent: a burglar came into the old house, the first burglar in the little town in twenty years, and shot her. Her mother Mrs. Hale is also said to be sick from the shock of the incident, according to the callous village gossip.
George as he’s climbing begins to remember the many times he, Sue, and his friend John did things together growing up: they had snowball fights with hydrangeas, he gave Sue rides on his pony while the envious John trailed along behind. But the thing he remembers most is the grief he felt when Sue told him that she was engaged to John. Still, there was more to it. He remembers his shock and shame when he felt triumph at John’s being lost in his boat off Brenton’s reef, as George pretended to comfort Sue whole-heartedly. Sue had said then: ‘”Anyway, living in Haunted Ground, I’ll see him again when I’m old, the way Granny used to do.”‘
He keeps climbing, but has a nagging feeling that he left something of importance on the beach behind him with the wrecked bits of his boat. His clothes feel dry already in the cold wind. He continues to feel grief not only because Sue is dead, but because he believe that in time he might have won her away from her memories of John, to be his own wife.
Finally, he reaches the house and knocks. No one answers. Possibly in fright, his heart seems to beat even more loudly. Again he knocks, fighting off the feeling that there is something vital left on the beach behind; surely there was nothing left from the wreck that he would have had with him? Still, no one answers. He reaches out and opens the door, entering where the sitting-room door is open and lets welcome warmth into the hall. He sees Sue’s coffin in the center of the sitting-room. Mrs. Hale is waking it sitting in a rocker in the room. He thinks it is really unusual not to see her knitting or sewing.
He apologizes to the old lady, whose mind seems to be overcome with grief as well. She answers, ‘”That’s all right, George; if I’d known what you were I’d have let you in. Sit down.”‘ She seems vague and exhausted. He goes toward the coffin to view Sue, but weirdly, Mrs. Hale warns him not to “disturb” her. The old lady continues,”‘I figured she was tired, and she’s laid out so pretty I’m just letting her rest awhile. She’s to be buried Thursday.'” George is now seriously worried that the old lady has become unhinged, and as he gazes searchingly at “the girl’s uncovered face, the rich gold-brown hair, long lashes making shadows on the cheeks, delicate, warm mouth,” his heart beats even more loudly, and he thinks naggingly again of something down on the beach, though he can’t understand why his mind insists on being in two places at once when he is grieving Sue so profoundly.
Mrs. Hale asks him how he got there, and he says that when he heard about Sue, he didn’t want to live anymore, and so he went out in his boat in the midst of the storm. He was sorry that he had washed ashore on their beach, because it reminded him of his loss, but he says he’s glad he came up now. She responds, “‘It’s hard for you, George. She’ll be seeing John after church on Thursday.'” This strikes him as an odd way to talk about Sue’s potential afterlife. She keeps talking to him, but her voice fades out, as if she’s barely able to enunciate. He figures they are both suffering from shock, and he hears the knocking of his heart even more, as if his ears have been damaged by being cast adrift in the surf.
He tells the old lady gently that they both seem to be suffering from shock, though she says she feels better now that things are over. He tries to tell her about how her voice fades out from time to time as she’s talking, and she seems not quite to believe him. Then he says that he can hear his heart beating overloudly in his ears, and he’s been so battered by the storm that it feels as if someone or something is pulling at his shoulder. The old woman responds with a sort of hysterical cry and tells him to “‘Get back to the beach, get back to the beach, you still have time!'”
This makes his hair stand on end, as she tries to tell him something in her nearly inaudible voice. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to make him understand, she jumps up and throws the bedroom door open. “‘Look,'” she says. There her body lies, “serene and pale,” on the counterpane. Mrs. Hale shouts, “‘They’ve found you on the beach, that’s what you hear, what’s shaking your shoulder. Your heart’s still beating. You’ve got time to go back, to live, to find someone else than Sue. Sue’s meeting John on Thursday. Go back to the beach.” He realizes then the thing of importance that he’s left on the shore, and he feels “panic and black horror.” Then, as he turns to go towards the door, he runs up against Sue’s coffin. He asks if Sue is “in there,” and Mrs. Hale affirms it, but warns him not to wake her, and tells him to hurry. George thinks carefully. The last paragraph of the story reads:
“‘You know, Mrs. Hale, John was my best friend.’ He sat down. ‘Those heartbeats are very slow; they’ll be over in a minute.'”
This story is a bit dated, perhaps, but maybe the twists and turns of the tale as I have retold it aren’t too old and tattered to give you just a bit of a chill down your spine. To all of my faithful readers and to any new friends I might have found along the way, have a Happy and Scary Halloween, and I’ll be posting again next week sometime!