A Pair of Muddy Shoes by Lennox Robinson is a weird short story about an Irish woman who spends the Christmas holidays at her aunt’s house and has some very disturbing dreams. The story was written in 1919 and appeared in The 8th Fontana Book Of Great Horror Stories, 65 Great Spine Chillers and The Young Oxford Book of Ghost Stories.
A Pair of Muddy Shoes
I am going to try to write it down quite simply, just as it happened. I shall try not to exaggerate anything.
I am twenty-two years old, my parents are dead, I have no brothers or sisters; the only near relation I have is Aunt Margaret, my father’s sister. She is unmarried and lives alone in a little house in the country in the west of county Cork. She is kind to me and I often spend my holidays with her, for I am poor and have few friends.
I am a school-teacher that is to say, I teach drawing and singing. I am a visiting teacher at two or three schools in Dublin. I make a fair income, enough for a single woman to live comfortably on, but father left debts behind him, and until these are paid off I have to live very simply. I suppose I ought to eat more and eat better food. People sometimes think I am nervous and highly strung; I look rather fragile and delicate, but really I am not. I have slender hands, with pale, tapering fingers the sort of hands people call “artistic.”
I hoped very much that my aunt would invite me to spend Christmas with her. I happened to have very little money; I had paid off a big debt of poor father’s, and that left me very short, and I felt rather weak and ill. I didn’t quite know how I’d get through the holidays unless I went down to my aunt’s. However, ten days before Christmas, the invitation came. You may be sure I accepted it gratefully, and when my last school broke up on the 20th I packed my trunk, gathered up the old sentimental songs Aunt Margaret likes best, and set off for Rosspatrick.
It rains a great deal in West Cork in the winter; it was raining when Aunt Margaret met me at the station.
“It’s been a terrible month, Peggy,” she said, as she turned the pony’s head into the long road that runs for four muddy miles from the station to Rosspatrick. “I think it’s rained every day for the last six weeks. And the storms! We lost a chimney two days ago; it came through the roof, and let the rain into the ceiling of the spare bedroom. I’ve had to make you up a bed in the lumber-room till Jeremiah Driscoll can be got to mend the roof.”
I assured her that any place would do me; all I wanted was her society and a quiet time.
“I can guarantee you those,” she said. “Indeed, you look tired out; you look as if you were just after a bad illness or just before one. That teaching is killing you.”
The lumber room was really very comfortable. It was a large room with two big windows; it was on the ground floor, and Aunt Margaret had never used it as a bedroom because people are often afraid of sleeping on the ground floor.
We stayed up very late talking over the fire. Aunt Margaret came with me to my bedroom; she stayed there for a long time, fussing about the room, hoping I’d be comfortable, pulling about the furniture, looking at the bedclothes.
At last I began to laugh at her. “Why shouldn’t I be comfortable? Think of my horrid little bedroom in Brunswick Street! What’s wrong with this room?”
“Nothing oh, nothing,” she said rather hurriedly, and kissed me and left me.
I slept very well. I never opened my eyes till the maid called me, and then after she had left me I dozed off again. I had a ridiculous dream. I dreamed I was interviewing a rich old lady; she offered me a thousand a year and comfortable rooms to live in. My only duty was to keep her clothes from moths; she had quantities of beautiful ,costly clothes, and she seemed to have a terror of them being eaten by moths. I accepted her offer at once. I remember saying to her gaily, “The work
will be no trouble to me, I like killing moths.”
It was strange I should say that, because I really don’t like killing moths. I hate killing anything. But my dream was easily explained, for when I woke a second later (as it seemed), I was holding a dead moth between my finger and thumb. It disgusted me just a little bit that dead moth pressed between my fingers, but I dropped it quickly, jumped up, and dressed myself.
Aunt Margaret was in the dining-room, and full of profuse and anxious inquiries about the night I had spent. I soon relieved her anxieties, and we laughed together over my dream and the new position I was going to fill. It was very wet all day and I didn’t stir out of the house. I sang a great many songs, I began a pencil-drawing of my aunt a thing I had been meaning to make for years but I didn’t feel well, I felt headachy and nervous just from being in the house all day, I suppose. I felt the greatest disclination to go to bed. I felt afraid, I don’t know of what.
Of course I didn’t say a word of this to Aunt Margaret.
That night the moment I fell asleep I began to dream. I thought I was looking down at myself from a great height. I saw myself in my nightdress crouching in a corner of the bedroom. I remember wondering why I was crouching there, and I came nearer and looked at myself again, and then I saw that it was not myself that crouched there it was a large white cat, it was watching a mouse-hole. I was relieved and I turned away. As I did so I heard the cat spring. I started round. It had a mouse between its paws, and it looked up at me, growling as a cat does. Its face was like a woman’s face was like my face. Probably that doesn’t sound at all horrible to you, but it happens that I have a deadly fear of mice. The idea of holding one between my hands, of putting my mouth to one, of oh, I can’t bear even to Write it.
I think I woke screaming. I know when I came to myself I had jumped out of bed and was standing on the floor. I lit the candle and searched the room. In one corner were some boxes and trunks; there might have been a mouse-hole behind them, but I hadn’t the courage to pull them out and look. I kept my candle lighted and stayed awake all night.
The next day was fine and frosty. I went for a long walk in the morning and for another in the afternoon. When bedtime came I was very tired and sleepy. I went to sleep at once and slept dreamlessly all night.
It was the next day that I noticed my hands getting queer. “Queer” perhaps isn’t the right word, for, of course, cold does roughen and coarsen the skin, and the weather was frosty enough to account for that. But it wasn’t only that the skin was rough, the whole hand looked larger, stronger, not like my own hand. How ridiculous this sounds, but the whole story is ridiculous.
I remember once, when I was a child at school, putting on another girl’s boots by mistake one day. I had to go about till evening in them, and I was perfectly miserable. I could not stop myself from looking at my feet, and they seemed to me to be the feet of another person. That sickened me, I don’t know why. I felt a little like that now when I looked at my hands. Aunt Margaret noticed how rough and swollen they were, and she gave me cold cream, which I rubbed on them before I went to bed.
I lay awake for a long time. I was thinking of my hands. I didn’t seem to be able not to think of them. They seemed to grow bigger and bigger in the darkness ; they seemed monstrous hands, the hands of some horrible ape, they seemed to fill the wh9le room. Of course if I had struck a match and lit the candle I’d have calmed myself in a minute, but, frankly, I hadn’t the courage. When I touched one hand with the other it seemed rough and hairy, like a man’s.
At last I fell asleep. I dreamed that I got out of bed and opened the window. For several minutes I stood looking out. It was bright moonlight and bitterly cold. I felt a great desire to go for a walk. I dreamed that I dressed myself quickly, put on my slippers, and stepped out of the window. The frosty grass crunched under my feet. I walked, it seemed for miles, along a road I never remember being on before. It led up-hill; I met no one as I walked.
Presently I reached the crest of the hill, and beside the road, in the middle of a bare field, stood a large house. It was a gaunt, three-storied building, there was an air of decay about it. Maybe it had once been a gentleman’s place, and was now occupied by a herd. There are many places like that in Ireland. In a window of the highest story there was a light. I decided I would go to the house and ask the way home. A gate closed the grass-grown avenue from the road; it was fastened and I could not open it, so I climbed it. It was a high gate but I climbed it easily, and I remember thinking in my dream, “If this wasn’t a dream I could never climb it so easily.”
I knocked at the door, and after I had knocked again the window of the room in which the light shone was opened, and a voice said, “Who’s there? What do you want?”
It came from a middle-aged woman with a pale face and dirty strands of grey hair hanging about her shoulders.
I said, “Come down and speak to me; I want to know the way back to Rosspatrick.”
I had to speak two or three times to her, but at last she came down and opened the door mistrustfully. She only opened it a few inches and barred my way. I asked her the road home, and she gave me directions in a nervous, startled way.
Then I dreamed that I said, “Let me in to warm myself.”
“It’s late; you should be going home.”
But I laughed, and suddenly pushed at the door with my foot and slipped past her.
I remember she said, “My God,” in a helpless, terrified way. It was strange that she should be frightened, and I, a young girl all alone in a strange house with a strange woman, miles from any one I knew, should not be frightened at all. As I sat warming myself by the fire while she boiled the kettle (for I had asked for tea), and watching her timid, terrified movements, the queerness of the position struck me, and I said, laughing, “You seem afraid of me.”
“Not at all, miss,” she replied, in a voice which almost trembled.
“You needn’t be, there’s not the least occasion for it,” I said, and I laid my hand on her arm.
She looked down at it as it lay there, and said again, “Oh, my God,” and staggered back against the range.
And so for half a minute we remained. Her eyes were fixed on my hand which lay on my lap; it seemed she could never take them off it.
“What is it?” I said.
“You’ve the face of a girl,” she whispered, “and God help me, the hands of a man.”
I looked down at my hands. They were large, strong and sinewy, covered with coarse red hairs. Strange to say they no longer disgusted me; I was proud of them proud of their strength, the power that lay in them.
“Why should they make you afraid,” I asked. “They are fine hands. Strong hands.”
But she only went on staring at them in a hopeless, frozen way.
“Have you ever seen such strong hands before?” I smiled at her.
“They’re… they’re Ned’s hands,” she said at last, speaking in a whisper.
She put her own hand to her throat as if she were choking, and the fastening of her blouse gave way. It fell open. She had a long throat; it was moving as if she were finding it difficult to swallow. I wondered whether my hands would go round it.
Suddenly I knew they would, and I knew why my hands were large and sinewy, I knew why power had been given to them. I got up and caught her by the throat. She struggled so feebly; slipped down, striking her head against the range ; slipped down on to the red-tiled floor and lay quite still, but her throat still moved under my hand and I never loosened my grasp.
And presently, kneeling over her, I lifted her head and bumped it gently against the flags of the floor. I did this again and again; lifting it higher, and striking it harder and harder, until it was crushed in like an egg, and she lay still. She was choked and dead.
And I left her lying there and ran from the house, and as I stepped on to the road I felt rain in my face. The thaw had come.
When I woke it was morning. Little by little my dream came back and filled me with horror. I looked at my hands. They were so tender and pale and feeble. I lifted them to my mouth and kissed them.
But when Mary called me half an hour later she broke into a long, excited story of a woman who had been murdered the night before, how the postman had found the door open and the dead body.
“And sure, miss, it was here she used to live long ago; she was near murdered once, by her husband, in this very room; he tried to choke her, she was half killed that’s why the mistress made it a lumber-room. They put him in the asylum afterwards; a month ago he died there I heard.”
My mother was Scotch, and claimed she had the gift of prevision. It was evident she had bequeathed it to me. I was enormously excited. I sat up in bed and told Mary my dream.
She was not very interested, people seldom are in other people’s dreams. Besides, she wanted, I suppose, to tell her news to Aunt Margaret. She hurried away. I lay in bed and thought it all over. I almost laughed, it was so strange and fantastic.
But when I got out of bed I stumbled over something. It was a little muddy shoe. At first I hardly recognised it, then I saw it was one of a pair of evening shoes I had; the other shoe lay near it. They were a pretty little pair of dark blue satin shoes, they were a present to me from a girl I loved very much, she had given them to me only a week ago.
Last night they had been so fresh and new and smart. Now they were scratched, the satin cut, and they were covered with mud. Someone had walked miles in them.
And I remembered in my dream how I had searched for my shoes and put them on.
Sitting on the bed, feeling suddenly sick and dizzy, holding the muddy shoes in my hand, I had in a blinding instant a vision of a red-haired man who lay in this room night after night for years, hating a sleeping white-faced woman who lay beside him, longing for strength and courage to choke her. I saw him come back, years afterwards freed by death to this room ; saw him seize on a feeble girl too weak to resist him ; saw him try her, strengthen her hands, and at last through her accomplish his unfinished deed…
The vision passed all in a flash as it had come. I pulled myself together.
“That is nonsense, impossible,” I told myself. “The murderer will be found before evening.”
But in my hand I still held the muddy shoes. I seem to be holding them ever since.