by E.F. Benson
“The Step” was originally published in 1925 and later collected in MORE SPOOK STORIES (1930)
Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940) was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and member of a distinguished and eccentric family. After attending Marlborough and King’s College, Cambridge where he studied classics and archaeology, he worked at the British School of Archaeology in Athens. One of our greatest humorists, he achieved great success at an early age with his first novel, DODO (1893). He was a prolific author writing over a hundred books: serious novels, ghost stories, plays and biographies. But he is best remembered for his MAPP & LUCIA comedies written between 1920 and 1939 and other comic novels such as PAYING GUESTS and MRS. AMES. He became mayor of Rye, the Sussex town that provided the model for his fictional Tilling, from 1934 to 1937.
Benson was also known as a writer of (mainly grisly, though occasionally humorous) ghost stories, which frequently appear in collections. Not as scholarly as M.R. James, Benson captures life in a rapidly modernizing Edwardian age, but one still prey to spirits and monsters. H. P. Lovecraft spoke highly of Benson’s works in his SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE most notably of his story “The Man Who Went Too Far.” A critical essay on Benson’s ghost stories appears in S.T. Joshi’s book THE EVOLUTION OF THE WEIRD TALE (2004).
“”Nice night, let’s walk,” said John. “Nothing like a walk when there’s liquid on board. Clears the brain for you and I must have a final powwow tonight, if you’re off to-morrow. There are some bits of things still to go through.”
Bill acquiesced. The cafes were all dosed, there was nothing very promising.
“Night life here ain’t a patch on Cairo,” he observed. “Everyone seems to go to bed here just about when we begin to get going. Not but what I haven’t enjoyed my stay with you. Capital good fellows at your dub and brandy to match.”
He stopped and ruefully scanned the quiet and emptiness of the street .
“Not a soul anywhere,” he said. “Shutters up, all gone to bed. Nothing for it but a powwow, I guess.”
They walked on in silence for a while. Then behind them, firm and distinct to John’s ears, there sprang up the sound of the footsteps, for which now he knew that he waited and listened. He wheeled round.
“What’s up?” asked Bill.
“Curious thing,” said John. “Night after night now, though not every night, when I walk home, 1 hear a step following me. 1 heard it then.”
Bill gave a vinous giggle.
“No such luck for me,” he said. “I like to hear a step following me about one of a morning. Something agreeable may come of it. Wish I could hear it. “
They walked on, and again, clearer than before, John heard what was inaudible to the other. He told himself, as he often did now, that it was an echo. But it was odd that the echo only repeated the footfalls of one of them. As he recognized this, he felt for the first time, when he was fully awake, some sudden chill of fear. It was as if a cold hand closed for a moment on his heart, just pressing it softly, almost tenderly. But they were now close to his own gate, and presently it clanged behind them.”