In the years between the wars, the London Mercury magazine was a veritable gold-mine of gems of uncanny literature, and many now-classic stories made their first appearance here - by names such as John Metcalfe, Margaret Irwin, H.R. Wakefield, Charles Williams, Walter de la Mare, L.P. Hartley, A.E. Coppard, and M.R. James himself, with "A View from a Hill" (May 1925), "A Warning to the Curious" (August 1925), and his last story, "A Vignette" (November 1936). One of the most Jamesian, but least known, stories that appeared in the London Mercury is the one that follows. It was first published in the June 1928 issue (No. 104).
Mr Jones was an elementary schoolmaster and a bachelor of shy, retiring disposition. An early disappointment in love was responsible for a lonely existence which custom had made natural to him. At the time of his extraordinary adventure he had become so accustomed to the pleasures of solitude that he preferred to take even his Saturday afternoon walks - his sole recreation - without a companion. This accounts for the fact that he was alone on the occasion of his visit to Godstanely, where he intended to see the recently discovered twelfth-century frescoes in the old church, which stands about a mile from the modern village.
Although Godstanely is only about fifteen miles from the metropolis and is not more than two-and-a-half miles from Hopton, the nearest station on the London and South Eastern Railway, it is for all practical purposes very remote. The stream of traffic between London and the south coast passes along the main road at the foot of the Downs, unheeding the steep and narrow lane which toils tortuously upwards to Godstanely through some lovely country, hitherto undesecrated by motor-bus and charabanc. The cyclist must follow this lane and make a long detour to reach the site of ancient Godstanely and its church, but the pedestrian can get to it by a steep path straight over Terrible Down. It may be added that the train service to Hopton is entirely worthy of the railway company to which the station belongs; the reader will, therefore, feel little surprise when he is told that the tripper rarely find his way to Godstanely.
Mr Jones, however, enjoyed rambling to out-of-the-way places, and with the help of his ordnance map he soon discovered the path over the Down. After traversing a muddy field of clay and stubble he began to climb the billows of smooth green that hide the chalk, till, three-quarters of the way up, the path intersected the long line of yews which marks the reputed site of the Pilgrims' Way. Here he paused and took off his hat; the day was warm for December. He looked back to the trees which hid Hopton from his view and saw, beyond, a wreath of smoke marking the passage of a train through the quiet country, and, farther still, dark pine-clad slopes, silhouetted against the fainter background of a distant ridge. A deep sense of peace stole into his heart. The noisy class-room in which he taught, the uncomfortable flat to which he returned when the day's work was done, seemed very far away. Nobody was in sight. He felt himself in touch with Nature and with the Past. Here was the Pilgrims' Way; the Old Road along which, centuries before the pilgrims - centuries, indeed, before the Romans came, the men of the Stone Age had passed on their long journeys to celebrate mysterious rites at Stonehenge. What secrets might not lie hidden beneath the sombre shade of these ancient yews, what discoveries might here await the spade of the archaeologist? Imagination could people that ancient track with strange presences. Mr Jones shivered in the twilight of the dark over-hanging boughs; he was beginning to grow cold. Some elusive memory seemed struggling into consciousness, casting its shadow before: the memory of something unfamiliar, and somehow unpleasant. The fluttering of a large bird in the branches of one of the yews startled him out of his reverie. He resumed his climb.
At the top of the hill he found two paths. As he stood consulting his ordnance map he became aware of an approaching rustic who greeted him with a civil "Nice day, sir."
"Is this the way to Godstanely church?" asked Mr Jones.
"Yes, follow the lane, and when you comes to the cross-roads, go straight down, and then up past the vicarage. I'm going that way myself; I'll show you if you like."
Mr Jones accepted the offer and continued the conversation. "Do you think I can get into the church? I want to see the frescoes. Or shall I have to go to the vicarage and ask for the key?"
"Vicar, he aren't been over willing to let strangers into the church since he found them painted things. Mostly it's kept locked; but bein' 'as it's Saturday there might be the woman as does the cleanin' about somewhere."
"Perhaps I ought to call at the vicarage first, and ask permission?"
"Well, that's as might be. Vicar aren't best pleased with folks as interrupts him Saturday."
"Isn't the vicar glad to find people taking an interest in his discovery and coming to see the church?"
"Well, Mrs Gant - that's Vicar's housekeeper, him bein' a widower - she says to me, bein' her second cousin like, 'I dunno what's come over him,' she says; 'first he was pleased as Punch when chaps as writes for the papers comes and asks him about them picters, and now he's as cranky as I never did see. Comes of shuttin' hisself up with them 'orrors,' she says. 'Porin' over them and goin' without his food regular - and there at nights, too!'"
"Ah!" said Mr Jones, "I understand that the fresco represents a crude but vigorous conception of Hell."
"Well, it aren't what I calls right, sir - that picter."
"Not right? In the old times when the fresco was painted the clergy used to think such representations very good for you. People couldn't read or write, you know. No education in those days as there is now! They tried to frighten people into goodness by showing them what would happen to sinners hereafter."
"May be, but it aren't to my way of thinkin', sir, beggin' pardon for the liberty of contradictin', and it weren't to the way of thinkin' of them as put plaster over the thing. Best have left the devils under the whitewash."
"The mediaeval artists and poets painted hell in lurid colours and we prefer it whitewashed, sic tempora mutantur," said Mr Jones sententiously.
"Well, here's the vicarage, sir, and there's the church. And darn me if that aren't Mrs Harris, the cleaner, comin' out of the gate. She'll let you in all right. Good afternoon."
"Good-bye, and thanks!" said Mr Jones, going quickly to overtake Mrs Harris and explain to her his desire to look over the church. She had finished her cleaning and was just going home; she demurred at first to Mr Jones' proposal that she should leave him the key on condition that he brought it back presently to her cottage. "Do you get teas?" he said, "Perhaps you could accommodate me with some. In the meantime please let me give you this for your trouble." A sixpence changed hands. Mrs Harris expressed herself satisfied that Mr Jones was a person to whom the key might be entrusted, and explained the way to her cottage. He promised to be with her in about half-an-hour.
Mrs Harris's cottage was some distance away, and out of sight. Apart from the vicarage, which stood in its own grounds not far off, there was no house in the immediate vicinity of the church. All trace of the ancient town of Godstanely except its medieval church had long since disappeared, and even the church, as far as its exterior was concerned, had been so much restored that Mr Jones was not inclined to linger outside. He was struck, however, by the site of the edifice. It stood on a circular mound and, except on one side, where the path led up to the gate, was surrounded by a ditch. Could the mound be a tumulus? Mr Jones did not remember that this had been mentioned in the account he had read of the finding of the frescoes. Were churches ever built, he wondered, on prehistoric burial-grounds? He must remember to look up that point when he got home; at any rate it was well-known that churches were built sometimes on the sites of heathen temples, the temples themselves being sometimes consecrated to Christian worship. He was thinking of this as he proceeded through the porch. He unlocked the door and, leaving the key in the lock, entered the church.
The interior was very small, with ancient beams overhead, and several old-fashioned high-backed pews round the pulpit; but Mr Jones had no attention to spare for these. The whole of the western wall was covered by a very remarkable fresco. It was extraordinary that it had not been destroyed by some zealous Protestant vicar of the past, and that, instead, it had been covered up and then forgotten, thus being preserved for the curious of a later age. The work was crude but vigorous; twelfth-century certainly, but of less artistic merit than is usual in the frescoes of that period. The upper section represented the weighing of the good and evil deeds of the dead, and the joy of those souls that were saved; the lower section, separated from the upper by a band decorated with what looked like cinerary urns, showed the torments of the damned. Intersecting the band at right angles so as to form with it a cross, a ladder stretched from heaven to hell; from its lower half diminutive human figures were tumbling in spite of frantic efforts to clutch the rungs, or, clinging vainly to these, were plucked off by gigantic demons with malignant enjoyment, and carried on pitchforks to a boiling cauldron and other forms of punishment. The leering faces of the devils, their hanging tongues, animal ears, huge eyes, and claw-like feet showed gruesome imagination on the part of the artist. Mr Jones bent down to examine the painting more closely. Some of the figures were less distinct than others, and the occupations in which they were engaged were not always quite clear. In one corner especially the details were vague and blurred. Something or other was being done by a figure - apparently a demon - whose face was turned away and whose hand held some kind of weapon, while other demons, squatting on their haunches, looked on. Upon the back of the first demon was painted distinctly a neat little quatrefoil in a triple ring. "The dedication cross," muttered Mr Jones to himself. As he said this he was again aware of the feeling that he was on the point of remembering something which he had unaccountably forgotten. He bent down to look at the cross more closely. The plaster on which it was painted and a fragment of stone underneath seemed half detached from the wall. Without thinking what he was doing Mr Jones put out his hand and touched it. Immediately the fragment fell to the ground, revealing a narrow but apparently deep hole.
Mr Jones was horrified by his unintentional act of vandalism. He felt like a child who has broken some valuable ornament which he has been told not to touch, and at the same time the repressed memory which had been beating vainly against the barriers of consciousness grew more insistent, colouring his emotional tone. It was a memory of something that had happened in his childhood, he felt sure - something connected with the dark: perhaps a dream. Yes, it must have been a dream. He did not want to remember it. He felt frightened lest it should come back.
Then his eyes became riveted to the hole. It was a queer elongated sort of hole. Darkness seemed to be pouring out of it, filling the church. With curiosity and alarm he struck a match and bent down to examine the hole more closely. Thus he became aware of a change in the figure of the demon into whose vitals it seemed to lead. Surely the colours were more distinct! The hole itself - he had not noticed the face before - had a curious likeness to a mouth. This perception gave the clue to other lines and markings. It was a mouth. There, at the lower end of the demon's back was a face - a horrible face - malignant, bestial, with greedy eyes and lustful lips. Mr Jones gazed upon it fascinated. Then the veil that had rested on his memory quivered and lifted. His senses swam. The hole appeared to be rapidly enlarging and contracting like a horrible sucker. The match burnt his fingers and he dropped it; this restored to him his powers of movement; he fled and left the church.
Jackie Cosstick, a half-witted urchin of twelve, who had been on an errand for his mother and was returning along the lane past Godstanely church, had that December afternoon the fright of his life. It was nearly dark in the lane, which was overshadowed by elms on both sides. Up the lane came dashing a gentleman, coat-tails flying. "Go it!" shouted Jackie with the irreverence of youth, "you'll catch him." "Stick it, mister!" he yelled after the retreating figure. At that moment he was aware of a rustling in the hedge behind him, and picking up a stone he threw it in the direction of the sound. Then something bounded out of the ditch, something that might have been a big dog but for its extraordinary mode of progress; for it went suddenly up a tree, moving by bringing its hindquarters to its head and then elongating its body swiftly, just as if it were released by a spring, "like them caterpillars," thought Jackie afterwards, "a-goin' up bluebells, but, 'struth, what a size!" He stared up into the branches. Then he caught sight of two eyes looking down at him - two luminous awful eyes. He darted off in the opposite direction to the path of Mr Jones's flight and never ceased running till he reached his mother's cottage in New Godstanely.
Mr Jones had instinctively run in the direction of Hopton, looking fearfully on either side. He saw nothing, but he was conscious of some terrible danger from something which was tracking him, keeping pace with him behind the hedgerows. Yet he had an odd sort of assurance that he was invisible to it, that he and his pursuer were engaged in a psychic game of hide and seek, and that he might escape its notice if he did not commit some false move. Physically he was running away; mentally he was dodging down byways of the spirit, instinctively making use of occult means of protection. He was in two separate modes of existence at once. The danger would come if these existences were unified and his enemy became aware of him on the physical plane.
Suddenly he reached the main road to Hopton, and the sight of some other pedestrians brought him sharply over the border-line into the world of everyday life. In a short time he reached the railway station and found himself in due course in the train for home.
There were several people in the compartment, a third smoker. "How close it is this evening," said a lady to her husband. "I hadn't noticed it; yes, now you mention it, it does seem stuffy," the husband replied. "Shockin' bad, these carriages on the South-Eastern," said another passenger, addressing the company generally, "smell always bad, though I've never noticed one worse than this." "Sulphur - so many tunnels - terrible amount of smoke!" remarked another.
Mr Jones said nothing. He was conscious of an oppressiveness in the atmosphere. He looked at the faces of his companions; they all showed signs of nervous tension. A grimly unattractive female in the corner was regarding him with disapproval.
The train stopped at the next station, and everybody got out immediately except the unattractive female and Mr Jones. A stout middle-aged man was on the point of entering when the lady jumped up exclaiming, "I want to get out, let me get out, please." The stout man made way for her and then took his seat. "She don't like travelling with young fellows like you and me," he said roguishly to Mr Jones. "Perhaps she doesn't like travelling in a smoker," Mr Jones protested feebly. "She's got into a smoker next door," was the answer. The stout man chuckled and then sniffed. His expression changed. The puzzled look had not left his face when the train drew up at the Junction and Mr Jones got out.
He did not go straight to his flat. His daily housekeeper regularly took her evening out on Saturdays, not putting in an appearance again till Sunday morning in time to prepare breakfast. He first went to a Lyons' restaurant for some tea. In the brilliant glare of the streets his fantastic experience began to fade into unreality. Could he have been the victim of an hallucination? Had he been working too hard, and was his odd feeling the result of over-wrought nerves? What he wanted was amusement. The 'Pictures'? No, a rattling good farce - something to make him forget: that was the best way of spending the evening. He boarded a motor-bus for the Hilarity.
In the pleasure of witnessing the performance Mr Jones for a time completely lost his burden of fear; and, afterwards, at a restaurant, he did justice to a nice little supper. Like Tam O'Shanter he sallied forth little caring for the miles that separated him from home; but the courage with which he mounted the bus had nearly evaporated by the time he got off at the nearest point to his destination and thought of his cold and cheerless home-coming. Unhappy bachelor! Better an irate spouse, "nursing her wrath to keep it warm," than the empty flat, reached by five flights of stairs and unlit by any glow of welcome, where he must get for himself such comfort as a man needs after an hour's ride on a bus in winter, or go uncomforted straight to bed. The electric light on the staircase in the block of flats where he lived, pretentiously styled Duke's Mansion, was always switched off at 11 p.m., and it was now past midnight.
Mr Jones picked his way up the staircase with the help of matches, which he struck one after another, and kept alight as long as he could. There were anxious intervals between the going out of one match and the lighting of the next. What if something were awaiting him at the top and were even now peering down at him over the balustrade? He with difficulty refrained from looking upwards. Instead, he fell to doing odd things to protect himself from the unseen terror - odd occult things, prompted (who knows?) by inherited memories: the sort of things children do in dread of the dark. He crossed his fingers in an odd fashion; it was difficult to do this properly while holding the matchbox. Then, he must put his foot down on the staircase linoleum on a particular portion of the pattern. And he must touch every third banister. Above all, he must reach the landing at the top of each flight with his right foot first. All these difficulties he surmounted, with a consciousness of his cleverness in outwitting his antagonist. He had never before counted the number of stairs in each flight. Odd or even? The even number would be lucky. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve. Thank Heaven there wasn't a thirteenth! He reached his front door safely; but what might lie behind it? He inserted his key softly in the lock, the match in his left hand lasting just long enough for him to do this; for a few seconds he listened in the darkness; then, taking a deep breath - which he must hold until he reached the safety of his room - he threw the door open to its full extent and rushed for the switch of the electric light in the hall. In another second he was panting and safe behind the locked door of his study.
Mr Jones was a student of German, and it happened that Goethe's Faust was lying on the table and that it caught his eye. He remembered the scene in which Faust conjures the spirits, and thought of the magical symbols of the pentagram, or Solomon's Seal - a symbol ever potent to protect the student of the Black Art from the perils of his calling. In a moment he was down on his knees, drawing on the floor with a piece of chalk which he providentially had with him in his waistcoat pocket. He moved about while doing this, in order that he might have a fortification large enough to lie down in. He was very careful about the join of the angles and about seeing that no part of himself projected beyond the figure whilst he drew. During the time that he was engaged in this work he became conscious of a growing oppressiveness of the atmosphere: a dark cloud seemed to be forming between himself and the electric light. Suddenly, while he was putting the finishing touch to the last apex, the light went out. He was aware of a faint luminosity near the door. He watched it from his knees. Then it seemed to contract and grow less vague; gradually it took shape - the shape of the face that had glared at him from the fresco. Something seemed to snap in his brain and he swooned.
It was daylight when he came back to consciousness out of a particularly vivid dream of dramatic intensity, in which he had figured as the principal actor. He had been in a procession of youths and maidens, who sang as they danced round him and by his side. He knew, and the knowledge made him proud, that he was the central figure of the procession and an object of reverence to his companions. The procession was approaching Godstanely church. Then the church disappeared and in its stead there was a mound on which stood the white-robed figures of old men with long snowy beards; they were grouped around a great slab of stone, which was supported by two others. One of the white-robed figures, wearing a mask, advanced, and kneeling, proffered him with both hands a goblet from which he was to drink, but to which he was reluctant to put his lips. Then he was suddenly seized from behind, and at this moment the mask fell off and revealed the leering countenance of the devil in the fresco. He struggled in vain. The face came nearer with protruding tongue, which quivered with eagerness. He was suffocated by the monster's foul breath. Then a drum began to beat, and the sound got louder and louder, till suddenly he was awake and the tapping resolved itself into a repeated knocking at the door.
"Are you there, Mr Jones?" It was the voice of his housekeeper. "Whatever is the matter, sir? The front door's wide open and the electric light left on."
"I came in late and forgot," said Mr Jones, opening the door of his room. "The fact is," he went on, noticing that his housekeeper was looking at him with surprise, "I had a fit or something - No, I'm all right now; get me some breakfast as soon as you can."
"That I will, sir; you look as if you had seen a ghost. And the damp has got in terrible; look at the marks on the walls. It gave me a turn, it did, when I came in; I thought it was burglars."
While having breakfast Mr Jones reflected. He felt that he was in deep waters spiritually, and that he must obtain advice. What better person before whom to lay his peculiar experiences than the vicar of Godstanely? He would explain to him what had happened in the church and offer to make such reparation as was possible. He would tell him of his supernatural visitant - if indeed the thing were not an hallucination; in the latter case he must see a brain specialist.
Mr Jones ascertained from a timetable that there was an early train on Sunday mornings to Hopton. As he breakfasted at 8.30 he reckoned that he could just catch it, and that he would have time enough to get to Godstanely for the morning service. He left with this object, after giving his housekeeper, who begged him to stay at home and rest, certain instructions.
The journey was uneventful. He arrived just as the service was about to begin. As he entered the church he glanced nervously at the fresco, his eyes seeking the spot where the dedication cross had been. The light was too dim for him to distinguish any details, but he thought that there was some difference between the fresco as it was and as it had been when he had last seen it. He had no time for close observation while he was conducted to a pew.
As the service droned its way along, the small size of the church enabled Mr Jones to study the vicar's appearance attentively. He was a smallish man with deeply-lined face; he might have been fifty years of age or more. He had a noble forehead, but a cast in his left eye rendered his appearance unprepossessing. His expression was both haughty and furtive. It reminded the schoolmaster oddly of a colleague he had once had - a secretive sort of man whom he had disliked, and who, as it turned out, had a guilty secret. By the time the sermon began Mr Jones felt that it would be difficult to approach such a person as the vicar on the subject of his visit. The sermon itself, however, was to give him an opening.
The text was from II Samuel: "He hath cut off those that have familiar spirits and the wizards out of the land", and the preacher, apropos of Saul's visit to the witch of Endor, spoke of the long-continued efforts of mankind to obtain knowledge of the future by consulting the dead. It was clear that he had studied necromancy deeply; indeed, he spoke as one having a first-hand knowledge of the subject. So interspersed, however, was his sermon with Latin quotations and references to cabalistic writings that it almost certainly remained unintelligible to his rustic congregation. He was like a man soliloquizing rather than preaching, and his delivery, moreover, was faulty, so that, had it not been for Mr Jones' intense interest in the subject matter, he would probably have failed to follow the thread. On happening to look round he saw from their vacant expressions that few people besides himself were listening to the preacher. One passage struck Mr Jones particularly. It concerned the visibility of spirits to some persons while they remained invisible to others who were present, and it offered an explanation of the general invisibility of the spirit world. The explanation was mathematical and involved the fourth dimension. We ourselves are unable even to imagine an object which has not three dimensions. We may, however, by analogy, obtain some notion of the way in which the spirit world, which is of four dimensions, can, exceptionally, become visible. If, for example, there were a two-dimensional world - a world in which there existed length and breadth but no thickness - the inhabitants of this world would clearly be unable to perceive the existence of such a world as ours. A three-dimensional object, though quite close, would remain invisible unless it happened to impinge on their two-dimensional world, and, if it did so, it would itself appear as an object of two dimensions. Hence, a four-dimensional object impinging on our world would appear as a thing of three dimensions, though at the same time, since it belonged to a Space which was not ours, it would remain what we call immaterial. Only those people who were attuned, as it were, by some mental twist to this unseen world would in certain circumstances obtain sight of it. The preacher went on to speak of the important scientific knowledge and power which might be obtained by such persons, and he hinted darkly at ways by which the 'twist' might be naturally or artificially produced. The secret of the method had been known to certain adepts in the Middle Ages, but the Church had set her face against such researches, the more so as they involved propitiation by sacrifice. In this connection the symbols of religion were of cosmic significance and implied meanings which even the most learned could not understand. At this point Mr Jones thought the preacher glanced in the direction of the fresco, but, as if recalling his wandering attention, he then continued in a more conventional manner. He wound up his discourse with an appeal to his congregation to observe a Christian humility and to accept Divine Providence without seeking curiously to enquire into matters too deep for human understanding.
At the end of the service Mr Jones waited till the rest of the congregation had dispersed and then knocked at the door of the vestry, which, upon an invitation to come in, he entered. "Might I presume to have a word with you, sir?" he asked in a faltering voice. He met an answering look of surprise.
"It is about the fresco..."
"Surely this is hardly a time..."
"I beg your pardon for my intrusion, but it is in connection with your sermon; I want to explain that I was in the church yesterday and something happened - an accident."
"An accident?" said the vicar in astonishment.
"I touched the fresco; I don't know why; I really had not the least intention of..."
"What! you touched the fresco?" interrupted the vicar, with rising wrath. "You dared to lay your finger on a priceless, on a unique piece of work of the most sacred, I say, sir, of the most sacred..." his indignation choked his utterance.
"I am very sorry," said Mr Jones lamely.
"What damage did you do?" said the vicar, restraining himself with an effort. "Come with me." He hurried out of the vestry into the church, followed by Mr Jones, and went up to the fresco, at which he gazed with anxious enquiry. "You see, it was like this," said Mr Jones, plunging into this story, "the cross on the back of the demon was somehow loose - that demon there." He pointed to the thin gap, hardly noticeable to the casual eye. Then he started back in amazement. Where was the demon? Around the hole the fresco was a blank. There was no sign of any further injury, but the figure, so clearly visible yesterday, with its unspeakable hinder face, had simply vanished as if it had never been. "It's gone; it got out and followed me," said Mr Jones, clutching at the vicar's arm, "Oh! what is to be done? Hell is loose!" The vicar was staring in the direction indicated by the schoolmaster's outstretched finger. "This is very curious," he said in an altered tone, "Very curious indeed," he repeated, looking now at Mr Jones and now at the fresco. Then the tide of his anger welled up. "You meddling idiot," he exclaimed, "you sacrilegious fool; you have removed the Seal. Where is it? What have you done with it?"
"The Seal? The Cross?" said Mr Jones.
He stooped and picked up from the corner a small piece of stone, turning it over as he did so. "Here it is, look!" he cried, showing the quatrefoil on the back. He placed it in the outstretched hand of the vicar; it seemed strangely heavy for such an object. No sooner had the latter touched it than he let it fall as if it had been of molten metal. Fury blazed in his eyes. He seemed about to strike Mr Jones. "Damn the thing!" he shouted, "out of my presence, impostor! Your story is a lie; there was nothing - nothing, I tell you - nothing!" He pushed Mr Jones out of the church, locked the door, and hurried in the direction of his house, leaving the schoolmaster even more puzzled than frightened in the porch. "Mad!" he whispered to himself, "stark mad! And he cursed the Cross!" He looked round fearfully.
Mr Jones retraced his steps slowly along the lane and over the Down till he reached the Pilgrims' Way. A line from Lycidas kept repeating itself in his mind: "The golden opes, the iron shuts amain." The iron shuts amain: the key of Hell! Who should shut it again, if once it were opened? "He called it the Seal," he muttered. He sat down under the shadow of the same yew beneath which he had rested the day before. His hand mechanically sought his pocket for his pipe and encountered a packet of sandwiches which his housekeeper had pressed upon him when he left the flat; she had also handed him his flask. He ate the food and quenched his thirst. The flask was very welcome. He noticed to his surprise that he felt much easier than he had before his interview with the vicar. The danger seemed to have receded. Might there not be some occult means of preventing its return? Atonement - propitiation - had not the vicar said something about propitiation in his sermon? He looked about him, at the dark foliage overhead and the thick twisted roots at his feet, with flints lying here and there in the soft mould. He picked up some and examined them curiously.
Late that afternoon Mr Jones returned to Godstanely churchyard. How he spent his time after his lunch and what he did that evening in the churchyard were matters which he could never afterwards clearly remember. He moved as one in a dream. Indeed it was the memory of his previous night's dream that apparently prompted his actions, and when subsequently he tried to disentangle the dream vision from the reality the two got fantastically mixed. There was a dragging of stones together, and the building of a sort of altar on a spot surrounded by trees. Then there was a ritual which the moon shone upon through the branches. There were shadowy spectators and shadowy helpers. Ultimately he found himself in a dazed condition at the railway station. On his way home the cloud upon his intelligence gradually lifted; but for the rest of that evening and the whole of the next day he felt like one who is convalescing after an illness, too weak for mental exertion and disinclined to face the unpleasant. Nevertheless he went to school on Monday, and routine carried him through his work. Naturally he said nothing to anybody about his experiences during the week-end. He turned upon them a blind eye. If the subject recurred to him, he told himself that he had been the victim of his imagination.
On Tuesday morning, however, as he read his newspaper at breakfast, he experienced a great shock. A paragraph headed "Mysterious Death of a Clergyman" caught his eye. What he read was as follows:
An unfortunate and up to the present inexplicable tragedy has cast a gloom over the village of Godstanely, near Hopton, where for the last twenty-two years the Rev. Augustine B. Brandon, M.A. (Oxon.) has been the esteemed incumbent of the parish. It will be remembered in archaeological circles that a short while since the reverend gentleman earned the gratitude of all virtuosos by discovering on the wall of Godstanely church an exquisite fresco said to belong to the twelfth century, and which he munificently restored at his own expense. Early yesterday morning the body of the unfortunate clergyman was found by a parishioner not far from the sacred edifice. Dr Boodle, who is the nearest medical practitioner, was immediately sent for, and on his arrival pronounced life to be extinct. It transpired that the deceased had left the vicarage at 9 p.m. on the previous evening, apparently for a stroll as was his wont, telling his housekeeper not to sit up for him should he return after ten. When found, the body was adjacent to a slab of stone over which, it is believed, the elderly vicar had stumbled in the dark, thus injuring his head upon an ancient implement known to antiquarians as a 'celt' which was lying by his side. The learned archaeologist possessed several such curiosities in his collection and it is surmised he was carrying the instrument in his hand, though for what purpose is beyond conjecture. As to whether his death, however, was the result of an accident of this nature has been discredited by some. Our special correspondent learns that a village lad named John Cosstick deposes to having seen on Saturday evening in the vicinity of the church a large animal which he took to be a mad dog and from which he narrowly escaped. The torn condition of the deceased gentleman's clothes and the trampled state of the adjacent ground might lend foundation to the hypothesis that Mr Brandon was the victim of a ferocious attack by an animal of this description; the theory however has not gained credence with the guardians of law and order. It was found that the features of the corpse were much contorted, and it is feared that the unfortunate gentleman suffered great pain as he lay in extremis. It would be beyond the limits of our space to adequately portray the consternation into which the tragedy has plunged the erstwhile happy village of Godstanely.
Mr Jones sat staring at his paper, while his bacon and eggs grew colder
and colder, unheeded, on his plate.
back to top
back to the Ghosts & Scholars book Home Page
back to the Ghosts & Scholars Archive Home Page