Haunted Short Stories – 27 – ‘Father Macclesfield’s Tale’ by R. H. Benson (1907)

Courtesy of Project Gutenberg Australia

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.

STORY CONTINUES AFTER THE BREAK:

(more…)

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October 27, 2010. Tags: , , , , , . American Literature, English Literature, Entertainment, Faith, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Popular Culture, Supernatural, Suspense. Comments off.

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