Tryst by Elswyth Thane

I was intrigued by some lovely reviews of this ghostly romance from the thirties, I was thrilled to find that the library had a copy on reserve stock, and as soon as I read the opening words I was smitten:

“Sabrina had never picked a lock in her life, but it was done every day in books. She tiptoed along the carpeted upper passage and whisked around the corner to the second flight of stairs leading to the top floor of the house. Gripped tightly in one hand she carried her burglar tools- nail scissors with curved points, a button-hook, and some wire hairpins stolen from Aunt Effie’s dressing-table.”

The story of what had lead Sabrina to take such drastic action, and of what happened next, was lovely. If Mary Stewart and D E Stevenson had ever sat down together to write a ghost story it might have been rather like this.

Sabrina Archer was the loveliest of heroines; she was bright, she was bookish, and her sheltered upbringing had made her older is some ways and younger it others than her seventeen years. I found her so easy to love, so easy to understand, and why heart would rise and fall with hers as events unfolded.

TrystShe had moved with her self-absorbed father and conventional aunt to Nuns Farthing, a house they have rented in the English countryside. There was one locked room at the top of the stairs. The housekeeper explained that it was because the family member who usually occupied that room was away, abroad, and that the family hadn’t wanted to disturb his things. It was perfectly reasonable, there was more than enough house room without it, but for reasons she didn’t entirely understand Sabrina was irresistibly drawn to that one room. hence the nail scissors, the button-hook and the hair-pins.

When she gained access to the room, when she saw the desk, the armchairs, the bookshelves, the wonderful array of books on those shelves, Sabrina knew that she had been right to do what she did. Everything about the room felt like home; that feeling grew as she spent time there, and so did her interest in its absent occupant.

Hilary Shenstone was wounded  on assignment in India for the Home Office and then , as he was being flown back for medical treatment, his plane was shot down. Hilary’s final thoughts were of England, and especially of Nuns Farthing. His spirit found its back there, found strangers in the house, found a kindred spirit in his room.

It wouldn’t be fair to say much more about the story than that.

There were some lovely moments, some amusing, some heart-warming, some sad, as Hilary made his way home and as Sabrina curled up in an armchair to read from his bookshelves. And though the arc of the story had a feeling of inevitability it never felt predictable, and I was always held in the moment. I was involved. I cared.

The characters are simply drawn, the logic probably wouldn’t stand up to close inspection, and I can’t deny that the story is sentimental. But it works beautifully, if you take it for what it is: a simple, ghostly, old-fashioned romance.

The ending seemed a little melodramatic, but suddenly it became so very bittersweet.

Oh how I wish that I could shelve ‘Tryst’ alongside stories like ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘Still She Wished for Company’ – and not have to give it back to the library.

I know though that, even without a copy of the book on hand,  Sabrina and her story will be staying with me.