Ellen has been saving for a trip to Florence for a lifetime, partly to satisfy a never-realised desire to travel and see art, and partly to escape her bullying companion Caroline. Caroline strongarms Ellen into accompanying her on the trip, and proceeds to ruin the magic of the holiday with her overly sensible advice and complaints about certain sights being overhyped. Whether it’s through bloodlust, a kind of haunting or madness is never clear; but one night, Ellen is pushed to breaking point, and Caroline falls victim to a silk scarf round her neck. Broster sketches the violence of the scene with an elliptical impressionism:
“You can pull and pull at an artificial silk scarf. It stretches, but it does not break, even when you have your knee, your whole body, straining against the side of the bed for better purchase.”
Before the murder, we see Caroline through Ellen’s eyes, as a hateful bully sucking joy from the trip. But afterwards, when Ellen finally gets to enjoy her trip as she always wanted it, we see a new side to Ellen. She is spiteful, and relishes her chance to be cruel when she can. Broster delves into a certain kind of complicated friendship that exists between women, and was perhaps even more common in the past; one of single women pushed together more by circumstance than any love for each other, and where every slight and harsh word is begrudgingly stored for a future argument. While it’s nesting among a (broadly speaking) supernatural collection, it’s easy to ascribe Ellen’s act to something beyond herself; but Broster keeps it beautifully grounded, never allowing Ellen’s emotions to be anything but human.
First published in A Fire of Driftwood by D.K. Broster; William Heinemann, 1932. Collected in From the Abyss. Weird Fiction, 1907-1945, by D.K. Broster, Handheld Press, 2022