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Title: Father Macclesfield'S Tale
Author: R H Benson (1871-1914)
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0801031.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: September 2008
Date most recently updated: September 2008

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Title: Father Macclesfield'S Tale
Author: R H Benson (1871-1914)

From "A Mirror of Shalott, composed of tales told at a symposium", 1907



Monsignor Maxwell announced next day at dinner that he had already
arranged for the evening's entertainment. A priest, whose acquaintance he
had made on the Palatine, was leaving for England the next morning; and
it was our only chance therefore of hearing his story. That he had a
story had come to the Canon's knowledge in the course of a conversation
on the previous afternoon.

'He told me the outline of it,' he said, 'I think it very remarkable. But
I had a great deal of difficulty in persuading him to repeat it to the
company this evening. But he promised at last. I trust, gentlemen, you do
not think I have presumed in begging him to do so.'


Father Macclesfield arrived at supper.

He was a little unimposing dry man, with a hooked nose, and grev hair. He
was rather silent at supper; but there was no trace of shyness in his
manner as he took his seat upstairs, and without glancing round once,
began in an even and dispassionate voice:

'I once knew a Catholic girl that married an old Protestant three times
her own age. I entreated her not to do so; but it was useless. And when
the disillusionment came she used to write to me piteous letters, telling
me that her husband had in reality no religion at all. He was a convinced
infidel; and scouted even the idea of the soul's immortality.

'After two years of married life the old man died. He was about sixty
years old; but very hale and hearty till the end.

'Well, when he took to his bed, the wife sent for me; and I had
half-a-dozen interviews with him; but it was useless. He told me plainly
that lye wanted to believe--in fact he said that the thought of
annihilation was intolerable to him. If he had had a child he would not
have hated death so much; if his flesh and blood in any manner survived
him, he could have fancied that he had a sort of vicarious life left; but
as it was there was no kith or kin of his alive; and he could not bear
that.'

Father Macclesfield sniffed cynically, and folded his hands.

'I may say that his death-bed was extremely unpleasant. He was a coarse
old fellow, with plenty of strength in him; and he used to make remarks
about the churchyard--and--and in fact the worms, that used to send his
poor child of a wife half fainting out of the room. He had lived an
immoral life too, I gathered.

Just at the last it was--well--disgusting. He had no consideration
(God knows why she married him!). The agony was a very long one; he
caught at the curtains round the bed; calling out; and all his words
were about death, and the dark. It seemed to me that he caught hold of
the curtains as if to hold himself into this world. And at the very end
he raised himself clean up in bed, and stared horribly out of the window
that was open just opposite.

'I must tell you that straight away beneath the window lay a long walk,
between sheets of dead leaves with laurels on either side, and the
branches meeting overhead, so that it was very dark there even in summer;
and at the end of the walk away from the house was the churchyard gate.'

Father Macclesfield paused and blew his nose. Then he went on still
without looking at us.

'Well the old man died; and he was carried along this laurel path, and
buried.

'His wife was in such a state that I simply dared not go away. She was
frightened to death; and, indeed, the whole affair of her husband's dying
was horrible. But she would not leave the house. She had a fancy that it
would be cruel to him. She used to go down twice a day to pray at the
grave; but she never went along the laurel walk. She would go round by
the garden and in at a lower gate, and come back the same way, or by the
upper garden.

'This went on for three or four days. The man had died on a Saturday, and
was buried on Monday; it was in July; and he had died about eight o'clock.

'I made up my mind to go on the Saturday after the funeral. My curate had
managed along very well for a few days; but I did not like to leave him
for a second Sunday.

'Ben on the Friday at lunch--her sister had come down, by the way, and
was still in the house--on the Friday the widow said something about
never daring to sleep in the room where the old man had died. I told her
it was nonsense, and so on; but you must remember she was in a dreadful
state of nerves, and she persisted. So I said I would sleep in the room
myself. I had no patience with such ideas then.

'Of course she said all sorts of things, but I had my way; and my things
were moved in on Friday evening.

'I went to my new room about a quarter before eight to put on my cassock
for dinner. The room was very much as it had been--rather dark because of
the trees at the end of the walk outside. There was the four-poster there
with the damask curtains; the table and chairs, the cupboard where his
clothes were kept, and so on.

'When I had put my cassock on, I went to the window to look out.

To right and left were the gardens, with the sunlight just off them, but
still very bright and gay, with the geraniums, and exactly opposite was
the laurel walk, like a long green shady tunnel, dividing the upper and
lower lawns.

'I could see straight down it to the churchyard gate, which was about a
hundred yards away, I suppose. There were limes overhead, and laurels, as
I said, on each side.

'Well--I saw someone coming up the walk; but it seemed to me at first
that he was drunk. He staggered several times as I watched; I suppose he
would be fifty yards away--and once I saw him catch hold of one of the
trees and cling against it as if he were afraid of falling. Then he left
it, and came on again slowly, going from side to side, with his hands
out. He seemed desperately keen to get to the house.

'I could see his dress; and it astonished me that a man dressed so should
be drunk; for he was quite plainly a gentleman. He wore a white top hat,
and a grey cut-away coat, and grey trousers, and I could make out his
white spats.

'Then it struck me he might be ill; and I looked harder than ever,
wondering whether I ought to go down.

'When he was about twenty yards away he lifted his face; and, it
struck me as very odd, but it seemed to me he was extraordinarily like
the old man we had buried on Monday; but it was darkish where he was, and
the next moment he dropped his face, threw up his hands and fell flat on
his back.

'Well of course I was startled at that, and I leaned out of the window
and called out something. He was moving his hands I could see, as if he
were in convulsions; and I could hear the dry leaves rustling. 'Well,
then I turned and ran out and downstairs.'

Father Macclesfield stopped a moment.

'Gentlemen,' he said abruptly, 'when I got there, there was not a sign of
the old man. I could see that the leaves had been disturbed, but that was
all.'

There was an odd silence in the room as he paused; but before any of us
had time to speak he went on.

'Of course I did not say a word of what I had seen. We dined as usual; I
smoked for an hour or so by myself after prayers; and then I went up to
bed. I cannot say I was perfectly comfortable, for I was not; but neither
was I frightened.

'When I got to my room I lit all my candles, and then went to a big
cupboard I had noticed, and pulled out some of the drawers. In the bottom
of the third drawer I found a grey cut-away coat and grey trousers; I
found several pairs of white spats in the top drawer; and a white hat on
the shelf above. That is the first incident.'

Did you sleep there, Father?' said a voice softly.

'I did,' said the priest; 'there was no reason why I should not. I did
not fall asleep for two or three hours; but I was not disturbed in any
way; and came to breakfast as usual.

'Well, I thought about it all a bit; and finally I sent a wire to my
curate telling him I was detained. I did not like to leave the house just
then.'

Father Macclesfield settled himself again in his chair and went on, in
the same dry uninterested voice.

'On Sunday we drove over to the Catholic Church, six miles off, and I
said Mass. Nothing more happened till the Monday evening.

'That evening I went to the window again about a quarter before eight, as
I had done both on the Saturday and Sunday. Everything was perfectly
quiet, till I heard the churchyard gate unlatch; and I saw a man come
through.

'But I saw almost at once that it was not the same man I had seen before;
it looked to me like a keeper, for he had a gun across his arm; then I
saw him lyold the gate open an instant, and a dog came through and began
to trot up the path towards the house with his master following.

'When the dog was about fifty yards away he stopped dead, and pointed.

'I saw the keeper throw his gun forward and come up softly; and as he
came the dog began to slink backwards. I watched very closely, clean
forgetting why I was there; and the next instant something--it was too
shadowy under the trees to see exactly what it was--but something about
the size of a hare burst out of the laurels and made straight up the
path, dodging from side to side, but coming like the wind.

'The beast could not have been more than twenty yards from me, when the
keeper fired, and the creature went over and over in the dry leaves, and
lay struggling and screaming. It was horrible! But what astonished me was
that the dog did not come up. I heard the keeper snap out something, and
then I saw the dog making off down the avenue in the direction of the
churchyard as hard as he could go.

'The keeper was running now towards me; but the screaming of the hare, or
of whatever it was, had stopped; and I was astonished to see the man come
right up to where the beast was struggling and kicking, and then stop as
if he was puzzled.

'I leaned out of the window and called to him.

"Right in front of you, man," I said. "For God's sake kill the brute."

'He looked up at me, and then down again.

"Where is it, sir," he said. "I can't see it any-where."

'And there lay the beast clear before him all the while, not a yard away,
still kicking.

'Well, I went out of the room and downstairs and out to the avenue. 'The
man was standing there still, looking terribly puzzled, but the hare was
gone. There was not a sign of it. Only the leaves were disturbed, and the
wet earth showed beneath.

'The keeper said that it had been a great hare; he could have sworn to
it; and that he had orders to kill all hares and rabbits in the garden
enclosure. Then he looked rather odd.

'"Did you see it plainly, sir," he asked.

'I told him, not very plainly; but I thought it a hare too.

'"Yes, sir," he said, "it was a hare, sure enough; but do you know, sir, I
thought it to be a kind of silver grey with white feet. I never saw one
like that before!"

'The odd thing was that not a dog would come near, his own dog was gone;
but I fetched the yard dog--a retriever, out of his kennel in the kitchen
yard; and if ever I saw a frightened dog it was this one. When we dragged
him up at last, all whining and pulling back, he began to snap at us so
fiercely that we let go, and he went back like the wind to his kennel. It
was the same with the terrier.

'Well, the bell had gone, and I had to go in and explain Why I was late;
but I didn't say anything about the colour of the hare. That was the
second incident.'

Father Macclesfield stopped again, smiling reminiscently to himself. I
was very much impressed by his quiet air and composure. I think it helped
his story a good deal.

Again, before we had time to comment or question he went on.

'The third incident was so slight that I should not have mentioned it, or
thought anything of it, if it had not been for the others; but it seemed
to me there was a kind of diminishing gradation of energy, which
explained. Well, now you shall hear.

'On the other nights of that week I was at my window again; but nothing
happened till the Friday. I had arranged to go for certain next day; the
widow was much better and more reasonable, and even talked of going
abroad herself in the following week.

'On that Friday evening I dressed a little earlier, and went down to the
avenue this time, instead of staying at my window, at about twenty
minutes to eight.

'It was rather a heavy depressing evening, without a breath of wind; and
it was darker than it had been for some days.

'I walked slowly down the avenue to the gate and back again; and, I
suppose it was fancy, but I felt more uncomfortable than I had felt at
all up to then. I was rather relieved to see the widow come out of the
house and stand looking down the avenue. I came out myself then and went
towards her. She started rather when she saw me and then smiled.

"I thought it was someone else," she said. "Father, I have made up my
mind to go. I shall go to town tomorrow, and start on Monday. My sister
will come with me."

'I congratulated her; and then we turned and began to walk back to the
lime avenue. She stopped at the entrance, and seemed unwilling to come
any further.

"Come down to the end," I said, "and back again. There will be time
before dinner."

'She said nothing; but came with me; and we went straight down to the
gate and then turned to come back.

'I don't think either of us spoke a word; I was very uncomfortable indeed
by now; and yet I had to go on.

'We were half way back I suppose when I heard a sound like a gate
rattling; and I whisked round in an instant, expecting to see someone at
the gate. But there was no one.

'Then there came a rustling overhead in the leaves; it had been dead
still before. Then I don't know why, but I took my friend suddenly by the
arm and drew her to one side out of the path, so that we stood on the
right hand, not a foot from the laurels.

'She said nothing, and I said nothing; but I think we were both looking
this way and that, as if we expected to see something. 'Be breeze died,
and then sprang up again; but it was only a breath. I could hear the
living leaves rustling overhead, and the dead leaves underfoot; and it
was blowing gently from the churchyard.

'Then I saw a thing that one often sees; but I could not take my eyes off
it, nor could she. It was a little column of leaves, twisting and turning
and dropping and picking up again in the wind, coming slowly up the path.
It was a capricious sort of draught, for the little scurry of leaves went
this way and that, to and fro across the path. It came up to us, and I
could feel the breeze on my hands and face. One leaf struck me softly on
the cheek, and I can only say that I shuddered as if it had been a toad.
Then it passed on.

'You understand, gentlemen, it was pretty dark; but it seemed to me that
the breeze died and the column of leaves--it was no more than a little
twist of them--sank down at the end of the avenue.

'We stood there perfectly still for a moment or two; and when I turned,
she was staring straight at me, but neither of us said one word.

'We did not go up the avenue to the house. We pushed our way through the
laurels, and came hack by the upper garden.

'Nothing else happened; and the next morning we all went off by the
eleven o'clock train.

'That is all, gentlemen.'



THE END



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