In the early ’80s, my local PBS station showed a few episodes of Shades of Darkness, an anthology series of ghostly and other paranormal tales from Granada Television in the UK, primarily based on short stories by women writers such as Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Bowen. I’d forgotten most of them over the years, until I saw that some (but not all) of these episodes were available in a DVD set.
This story was the one I remembered best and most wanted to see again; I think I saw it even before I’d read the Wharton story it’s based upon.
It’s around 1910. Mrs. Stair, who won’t be seen again after this first scene, is showing the Boynes, Mary (Kate Harper) and Ned (Michael Shannon), an American couple from Waukesha, Wisconsin, around an empty, old English country house that’s for sale.
All the things that would make the house undesirable for other prospective buyers make it the Boynes’ ideal home: It’s 7 miles from the nearest rail station, no electric light, and primitive plumbing. The couple have come into a lot of money through Ned’s sudden windfall with Blue Star Mining stock, which has enabled him to retire 20 years earlier than planned. He intends spend his days writing a book on economics, and he and Mary are looking for just such a place as Lyng to live out their long-standing dream of retreating to the remote peace and quiet of a “genuine Elizabethan manor.”
When they hear that there’s a ghost, they’re delighted. Ned doesn’t want to “drive 10 miles to see someone else’s ghost”; he wants a haunted house of his very own. But both he and Mary are puzzled when Mrs. Stair tells them that, according to local legend, you don’t know you’ve seen the Lyng ghost until a long time afterward.
Mary wonders about this. Don’t ghosts usually take a form–a mad woman or weeping child?–so that people will know to recognize them when they see them. A retrospective ghost doesn’t sound like much of a bargain. In spite of this, the Boynes decide that they want Lyng and will move right away that autumn so they can be settled in by Christmas.
They soon have their belongings and furniture brought in, and everything is made as cozy and comfortable as a place with no central heat, lights, or reliable plumbing can be. Mary keeps hoping to see that elusive ghost.
While exploring the nooks and crannies of her new home, she does find something almost as good: A secret door behind a tapestry that leads to a spiral stairway up to the bare attic and a trap door with pull-down stairs to gain access to the leads on the roof behind a stone parapet. Excited by her discovery, she runs back downstairs to summon her husband.
As they’re enjoying the great view of their new estate from atop the house, Ned sees a man in a grey suit walking up the drive toward the front door. He tells Mary to stay here, and quickly goes down to meet the visitor.
When Mary comes down, she asks who that was. Ned says that he thought it was their gardener coming to report about the condition of the pipes in the greenhouse, but when he got down to the door no one was there. Mary thinks that’s odd, but doesn’t dwell on it in spite of that fact that Ned seems a bit apprehensive.
That afternoon, they walk up the hill to the obelisk to view the property. The 1980s was the time when British television began to make more use of real locations rather than overlit studio sets, and the house and grounds used here were filmed during the autumn. While both are beautiful in their way, the mists among the trees and the natural lighting outside and in the rooms create just a hint of old-fashioned spookiness.
That was in October. As the autumn weeks pass, Ned works on his book and Mary paints. She notices that something seems to be on his mind, like in the old days when he had business worries, but he assures her there isn’t anything he’s troubled about.
Mary continues to keep an eager eye out for that ghost. One misty evening, she looks out of a window and mistakes her husband wandering the garden in a cloak for the ghost… then she remembers the “afterward” part of the legend. Also, she’s rather shortsighted and wasn’t wearing her glasses.
That same evening, Ned gets a letter from Milwaukee with information that comes as a great relief to him. Mary gets a letter too that encloses a clipping from the Waukesha local newspaper; Ned is being sued by a man called Elwell over something to do with the Blue Star Mining stock that’s made their fortune.
When she hands him the clipping and asks him about it, Ned laughs it off. He explains that Elwell was an employee of his whom he gave advice to about investing in the mine. It’s all “ancient history” now. He’s just received news in his own letter that the case was dropped. Elwell had no grounds to stand on. Everything’s all right, he assures her. Couldn’t be righter.
The next morning, Mary is out for a walk in the garden. She visits the greenhouse and talks to the gardener about the corroded pipes that need replacing. They’re expecting a man to see about it that day.
As she leaves the greenhouse, a man in a suit is standing at the garden entrance. “I came to see Mr. Boyne,” he tells her.
The light is behind him and she doesn’t have her glasses on, so she assumes at first that he’s the man who’s come about the greenhouse pipes, then realizes her mistake. He’s come to see Ned on some unspecified business. Since the mornings are when her husband works on his book and this visitor doesn’t have an appointment, Mary is about to send him away until she hears that he’s come a long way to see Ned. She directs him to the study and thinks no more of it until lunchtime, even though this visitor strangely seems to disappear as soon as she turns away for a moment to observe that the man about the pipes has also arrived.
When she returns to the house after her walk around the grounds, Ned is not in his study. Assuming that he’s gone to their bedroom to wash up and change before lunch, Mary sends the maid upstairs to fetch him.
The maid returns and reports that Mr. Boyne is not upstairs. Well, he must have gone out. Mary decides not to delay her own lunch for him, but asks the cook to keep the soup hot. Surely Mr. Boyne won’t be gone long…
The tension builds slowly as the afternoon draws on and there’s still no sign of Ned’s return. Mary grows impatient, then worried. She snaps when the maid informs her that the cook saw Mr. Boyne leaving with a young gentleman around 1 o’clock. A “foreign-like” man. They went out through the lodge gates.
At twilight, Mary goes out herself to search the grounds and call out her husband’s name. You can hear in her voice that she’s growing frightened.
When she comes back to the house, she goes into the study and examines the things on her husband’s desk for clues to his whereabouts. She finds the letter he was writing, to a man named Purvis:
“I have just received your letter announcing Elwell’s death and, while I suppose there is no further risk of trouble, it might be safer-“
The letter breaks off in mid-sentence.
Mary reads it aloud to a police inspector the next day. There is now a wide-spread search for the missing man, or for a man who answers the description of the visitor, although the inspector tells her it’s a “bit early yet to call in Scotland Yard.”
I don’t know if they ever do in call in Scotland Yard, but Mary continues to watch and wait anxiously for news. Kate Harper’s performance is the heart of this adaptation, from the carefree Mary delighted with her new home to the increasingly bewildered and weary woman who has no idea what’s happened to her husband.
Two weeks pass. She hardly eats or sleeps, and compulsively goes through her husband’s papers to try and find something that might help her understand where Ned has gone. She wanders the grounds of Lyng hopelessly, as if she believe he might still be somewhere nearby.
She writes to Parvis, the man her husband was writing to when he disappeared, but Parvis writes back to say that he has no more information about the Elwell lawsuit than was in the newspaper.
That would seem to be the end of that line of inquiry, until Parvis himself arrives at the house. He’s primarily come to ask her to contribute money to help out Bob Elwell’s family. He wasn’t telling the truth in his letter, but then he had assumed that Mary knew more about Ned’s business than she actually does. “I don’t say whether or not it was straight,” he tells her. “It was business.”
Of course, it’s a matter of the Blue Star Mine stock, which Mary doesn’t know anything about.
Parvis explains: Ned sold his stock before an unfavorable report on the mine was published, and the stock’s value crashed. He knew the report was coming, but he didn’t warn Elwell, who lost all his money while Ned made a fortune.
After he was financially ruined and his lawsuit against Ned collapsed, Ellwell made two attempts to commit suicide–once back in October, which was touch-and-go for a few days before he recovered, and then a successful attempt. He left behind a mother, a wife, and three young children living in poverty. There have been hard feelings about the results of the lawsuit in the Milwaukee and Waukesha area, including harsh newspaper articles written against Ned. People who knew Bob Elwell are getting up a collection to help his family, and Parvis thinks that Mary might want to contribute, considering her missing husband’s responsibility for their present situation.
We don’t find out whether or not Mary will give the Elwells any money, since Parvis has brought along one of the news clippings to show her. It features a photograph of Ned, and another of Bob Elwell.
Now, for Mary, it’s afterward.
One of the running themes of Edith Wharton’s work is the lack of interest that wealthy American women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries took in their menfolk’s business affairs and the sources of the money that supported them in their comfortable lifestyles. The prime example is The Custom of the Country, in which Undine Spragg simply does not care what her father or her husbands have to do–or what they do to themselves–to make the money to get her what she wants out of life and to fulfill her ever-widening social ambitions.
Mary Boyne isn’t as voracious as Undine. In Wharton’s original story, she has some self-awareness:
“Theoretically, she deprecated the American wife’s detachment from her husband’s professional interests, but in practice she had always found it difficult to fix her attention on Boyne’s report of the transactions in which his varied interests involved him… Now, for the first time, it startled her a little to find how little she knew of the material foundation on which her happiness was built.”
This occurs when she receives the news clipping about the lawsuit, but the tone of Ned’s response–and his attitude throughout the story whenever she does ask questions–is of the patronizing “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, my dear” type. This adaptation keeps this tone consistent. He knows better than she what’s going on, and does all he can to keep her in her happy bubble of ignorance. Ned certainly recognizes Elwell when he sees that grey-suited figure walking toward the house during Elwell’s near-fatal, first suicide attempt–although he doesn’t realize that he’s seeing a ghost coming for him, not a living man, at that time. Not until afterward.