Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1078
Withers, the story’s narrator and central consciousness, is first aware of Seaton as an unpopular schoolfellow at Gummidge’s. Seaton has money, but he is unattractive and unskillful at games, and he is often the butt of practical jokes. Nevertheless, he manages to persuade Withers to spend the half-term holiday with him at his aunt’s.
When they arrive, Seaton dawdles rather than entering the house directly, acting as if vaguely afraid of something. Finally they approach the house to find his aunt watching them ominously from an upper window as if brooding over them. When she meets them she mispronounces Withers’s name but overwhelms him with attention, in marked contrast to her disdainful treatment of Seaton, of whom she says, “Dust we are, and dust we shall become.” She presides over a lavish and sumptuous lunch, which she attacks with gusto, while Seaton merely nibbles. Taking Withers to a neatly appointed bedroom, she speaks slightingly of her nephew.
That afternoon, during which she pointedly ignores the boys, Seaton confesses uneasily that she sees and knows everything—that she is “in league with the devil.” He adds that she is not his real aunt, that the estate is actually his. At tea she mocks him again, referring to him as “that creature.” Later she deliberately prolongs a chess match with Withers, carefully avoiding mate while praising his play, and sweeping the board clear so that play cannot be resumed. She seems to be toying with him.
That night Seaton awakens Withers shortly after they retire. He hints that the house is full of ghosts, all at his aunt’s command. He suggests further that his aunt was responsible for his mother’s death and that she has the power to suck souls dry. He fears she intends that fate for him. Suddenly he freezes; he has sensed her eavesdropping at the door.
Believing that Seaton is simply trying to scare him, Withers bets that the aunt is still in bed. Seaton takes up the challenge, and the two set off. Noises in the house seem to reinforce Seaton’s fears of ghosts, and when they reach the bedroom, after passing a labyrinth of shadowy corridors, the bed is empty. Worse, they hear her coming. They hide in a cupboard; through a crack they watch her enter. After what seems hours they manage to sneak out, but Seaton seems drained by the experience. Withers helps him back to his dingy, littered, uncomfortable bedroom, then hides underneath the bedcovers. The following morning, Withers finds it easy to believe that Seaton’s aunt knows every word and movement that occurred.
On their return to school, Withers drops Seaton, who shortly thereafter leaves. Their next encounter takes place by chance several years later in London; Seaton announces that he has come to town to buy an engagement ring. He admits that he and his aunt have lost much money and that she has aged. He also implies that Withers continues to discount their boyhood experience and invites him to come down to meet his fiancé and confirm his earlier impressions. Withers reluctantly agrees.
Shortly afterward, Withers returns to find the place considerably run down. When pressed, Seaton states that he finds the deterioration fitting: humanity brings ruin in its wake. Withers rejects this philosophy. The two lunch, then play a desultory chess match, interrupted by the arrival of Alice Outram, Seaton’s fiancé. The couple spend the rest of the afternoon discussing their future, but without animation, as if they sense futility in the face of an unseen destructive force.
They join Seaton’s aunt for dinner; she seems older, but more massive and powerful than before. The meal itself is stupendous, though poor; her appetite remains voracious. She manages the table conversation brilliantly but directs implicit sarcasm at Seaton. Among other topics, she singles out marriage as a refuge for fools and evolution as a reservoir of degeneration, and she hints darkly at the “spiritual agencies” to which the truly superior have access. The two ladies withdraw.
Seaton confides that he fears leaving Alice alone with his aunt. When Withers attempts to downplay these fears by suggesting that the old lady’s spite proceeds from feeling neglected, Seaton insists there are unseen forces and that his aunt makes use of them to gain control over others, fattening herself on their souls. When they rejoin the ladies, his aunt asks the betrothed couple to promenade in the moonlit garden while she plays the piano for Withers. Her playing is diabolic: First she inverts and parodies the romantic sentiments of the Moonlight Sonata, then transforms the simple hymn “A Few More Years Shall Roll” into a commentary on the bitterness and squalor of life. When she finishes, she speaks briefly on the beauty of darkness: “dark hair, dark eyes, dark cloud, dark night, dark vision, dark death, dark grave, dark DARK!” She suggests that she will not be lonely after Seaton’s marriage because she will have her memories for company, and she hints at her awareness of everything said and done in the garden during her playing. Withers invites Seaton to join him in town before the wedding.
However, Withers loses touch with Seaton. That autumn, realizing that he must have missed the marriage, he rushes off to make amends. Once there, he finds himself reluctant to enter the house. The housekeeper tries to fend him off but finally admits him. Seaton’s aunt seems to have faded in the interim. She tells him that Alice has gone to Yorkshire, and she is evasive about Seaton. She accuses her nephew of having spread lies about her; when Withers asks directly where he is, she stares him down, mumbles incoherently, and leaves.
Withers remains alone until it is dark. Finally resolving to depart, he finds his way to the front hall, where he makes out Seaton’s aunt peering down from the landing. She calls for Arthur; then, recognizing Withers, says that he is disgusting and orders him out.
He runs from the house, not stopping until he reaches the village. There he asks the butcher if Mr. Seaton still lives with his aunt. The butcher’s wife replies that he has been dead and buried these three months, just before he was to be married. Withers is stunned; finding no course of action, he leaves with the reflection that Seaton “had never been much better than ’buried’ in my mind.”