Father Macclesfield’s Tale
By R. H. Benson
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 it a conversation on the previous
‘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
Father Macclesfield arrived
He was a little unimposing dry man, with a hooked nose
and grey 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
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 he 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
‘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—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
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.
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
‘Then 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 Iwould
sleep in the room myself. I had no patience with such ideas then.
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.
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 some one 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
‘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
‘Well, then I turned and ran out and downstairs.’
Father Macclesfield stopped
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 rime 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 white hat on the shelf above. That is the first incident.’
Did you sleep there,
Father?’ said a voice softly.
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.
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
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 hold the gate open an instant, and a dog
came through and began to trot up the path towards the house with his
‘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 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.
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 anywhere.”
‘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
‘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
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 rime 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 some one
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.
don’t think either of us spoke a word; I was very uncomfortable indeed
by now; and yet I had to go on.
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, nor 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.
‘The 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 back by the
‘Nothing else happened; and the next morning we all
went off by the eleven o’clock train. ‘That is all, gentlemen.’