Gertrude Atherton’s “The Bell in the Fog”


For week 31 of my Deal Me In short story challenge (yes, I’m playing a little catch-up), I selected the King of diamonds, which corresponded to this story. Atherton is one of several authors that I’ve learned of through Paula Cappa’s excellent blog and her weekly Tuesday’s Tale of Terror feature. I don’t think she’s covered this particular story, but Atherton has come up at least once that I remember Based on Paula’s preferred type of story, I was expecting my pick to be a supernatural delight. In that I was “disappointed” since there isn’t a major supernatural element in it. I also was left grumbling a little at its “unsatisfying” (to me, anyway) ending, but oh, the writing! Atherton is an author I’ll revisit time and again I’m sure.

(Below: Gertrude Atherton)


***minor spoilers follow***
The Bell in the Fog is the story of Ralph Orth, an accomplished and much respected author, who inherits the English estate (Chillingsworth) of his great-aunt. He quickly becomes enamored of the newfound pleasures of life at this estate, and is particularly charmed by two old family portraits, a young boy and a young girl. The girl’s portrait enchanted him in particular:

“She was angelically fair, and, young as she was – she could not have been more than six years old – her dark-blue eyes had a beauty of mind which must have been remarkable twenty years later. Her pouting mouth was like a little scarlet serpent.”

He speculates about what must have become of the children. Of the girl, he muses:

“‘Did she live to grow up, I wonder?’ he thought. ‘She should have made a remarkable, even a famous woman, with those eyes and that brow, but – could the spirit within that ethereal frame stand the enlightenments of maturity? Would not that mind – purged, perhaps, in a long probation from the dross of other existences – flee in disgust from the commonplace problems of a woman’s life? Such perfect beings should die while they are still perfect.'”

His investigations into who the children were yield imperfect results, with one questioned sighing that “I’m afraid the painter was their only biographer.” It was upon Orth’s return from one of his investigations that I fell in love with Atherton’s writing:

“The next night, as his train travelled over the great wastes of Lancashire, a thousand chimneys were spouting forth columns of fire. Where the sky was not red it was black. The place looked like hell. Another time Orth’s imagination would have gathered immediate inspiration from this wildest region of England. The fair and peaceful counties of the south had nothing to compare in infernal grandeur with these acres of flaming columns. The chimneys were invisible in the lower darkness of the night; the fires might have leaped straight from the angry caldron of the earth.”

Surely this description was born of Atherton’s own experience during a nighttime rail trip in the region. I can almost picture her in my mind’s eye, gazing out the train window, observing and noting a scene that would find its way into her writing.

But, getting back to the story, Orth is also a writer, and a talented one might bring the children into existence again – in a way at least. He makes them the subject of a new novel, and finds new creative energy. He becomes rather obsessed with the portraits of the children and his imaginings of what they would be like. He begins to think of them as his own and occasionally it was only “with an effort that he sometimes humorously reminded himself that another man had fathered them,and that their little skeletons were under the choir of the chapel.”

After living “two months in his fool’s paradise” he begins to acknowledge to himself that he’s becoming a bit too obsessed, but then on one of his habitual, long daily walks (“England seems to cry out to be walked upon.”) he encounters a young girl who appears to be “the original of the portrait” with which he has become obsessed!

It turns out the girl he meets is no spirit, but a coincidentally similar-looking American girl, whose mother is visiting a local family. Orth’s obsession is transferred to the living girl for whom he wishes to provide “infinite opportunities” (thankfully his interest in her is seemingly platonic and not too “creepy” – “The paternal was all he had to give, but that was hers forever.”) and even wants to adopt her. Will he possibly be able to convince her mother to allow this?

Read this story online at:

Have you heard of or read anything by Gertrude Atherton? Do you care to share any recommendations? What great “tales of obsession” have you encountered in your literary travels? Do share…

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