The Superstitious Man's Story





"There was something very strange about William's death--very strange

indeed!" sighed a melancholy man in the back of the van. It was the

seedman's father, who had hitherto kept silence.



"And what might that have been?" asked Mr Lackland.



"William, as you may know, was a curious, silent man; you could feel

when he came near 'ee; and if he was in the house or anywhere behind you

without your seeing him, there seemed to be something clammy in the air,

as if a cellar door opened close by your elbow. Well, one Sunday, at a

time that William was in very good health to all appearance, the bell

that was ringing for church went very heavy all of a sudden; the sexton,

who told me o't, said he had not known the bell go so heavy in his hand

for years--it was just as if the gudgeons wanted oiling. That was on the

Sunday, as I say.



"During the week after, it chanced that William's wife was staying up

late one night to finish her ironing, she doing the washing for Mr and

Mrs Hardcome. Her husband had finished his supper, and gone to bed as

usual some hour or two before. While she ironed she heard him coming

downstairs; he stopped to put on his boots at the stair-foot, where he

always left them, and then came on into the living-room where she was

ironing, passing through it towards the door, this being the only way

from the staircase to the outside of the house. No word was said on

either side, William not being a man given to much speaking, and his

wife being occupied with her work. He went out and closed the door

behind him. As her husband had now and then gone out in this way at

night before when unwell, or unable to sleep for want of a pipe, she

took no particular notice, and continued at her ironing. This she

finished shortly after, and, as he had not come in, she waited awhile

for him, putting away the irons and things, and preparing the table for

his breakfast in the morning. Still he did not return, but supposing him

not far off, and wanting to go to bed herself, tired as she was, she

left the door unbarred and went to the stairs, after writing on the back

of the door with chalk: _Mind and do the door_ (because he was a

forgetful man).



"To her great surprise, and I might say alarm, on reaching the foot of

the stairs his boots were standing there as they always stood when he

had gone to rest. Going up to their chamber, she found him in bed

sleeping as sound as a rock. How he could have got back again without

her seeing or hearing him was beyond her comprehension. It could only

have been by passing behind her very quietly while she was bumping with

the iron. But this notion did not satisfy her: it was surely impossible

that she should not have seen him come in through a room so small. She

could not unravel the mystery, and felt very queer and uncomfortable

about it. However, she would not disturb him to question him then, and

went to bed herself.



"He rose and left for his work very early the next morning, before she

was awake, and she waited his return to breakfast with much anxiety for

an explanation, for thinking over the matter by daylight made it seem

only the more startling. When he came in to the meal he said, before she

could put her question, 'What's the meaning of them words chalked on the

door?'



"She told him, and asked him about his going out the night before.

William declared that he had never left the bedroom after entering it,

having in fact undressed, lain down, and fallen asleep directly, never

once waking till the clock struck five, and he rose up to go to his

labour.



"Betty Privett was as certain in her own mind that he did go out as she

was of her own existence, and was little less certain that he did not

return. She felt too disturbed to argue with him, and let the subject

drop as though she must have been mistaken. When she was walking down

Longpuddle Street later in the day she met Jim Weedle's daughter Nancy,

and said: 'Well Nancy, you do look sleepy to-day!'



"'Yes, Mrs Privett,' said Nancy. 'Now, don't tell anybody, but I don't

mind letting you know what the reason o't is. Last night, being Old

Midsummer Eve, some of us church porch, and didn't get home till near

one.'



"'Did ye?' says Mrs Privett. 'Old Midsummer yesterday was it? Faith, I

didn't think whe'r 'twas Midsummer or Michaelmas; I'd too much work to

do.'



"'Yes. And we were frightened enough, I can tell 'ee by what we saw.'



"'What did ye see?'



"(You may not remember, sir, having gone off to foreign parts so young,

that on Midsummer Night it is believed hereabout that the faint shapes

of all the folk in the parish who are going to be at death's door within

the year can be seen entering the church. Those who get over their

illness come out again after awhile; those that are doomed to die do not

return.)



"'What did you see?' asked William's wife.



"'Well,' says Nancy, backwardly--'we needn't tell what we saw or who we

saw.'



"'You saw my husband,' said Betty Privett in a quiet way.



"'Well, since you put it so,' says Nancy, hanging fire, 'we--thought we

did see him; but it was darkish and we was frightened, and of course it

might not have been he.'



"'Nancy, you needn't mind letting it out, though 'tis kept back in

kindness. And he didn't come out of the church again: I know it as well

as you.'



"Nancy did not answer yes or no to that, and no more was said. But three

days after, William Privett was mowing with John Chiles in Mr Hardcome's

meadow, and in the heat of the day they sat down to their bit o' nunch

under a tree, and empty their flagon. Afterwards both of 'em fell asleep

as they sat. John Chiles was the first to wake, and, as he looked

towards his fellow-mower, he saw one of those great white miller's-souls

as we call 'em--that is to say, a miller moth--come from William's open

mouth while he slept and fly straight away. John thought it odd enough,

as William had worked in a mill for several years when he was a boy. He

then looked at the sun, and found by the place o't that they had slept a

long while, and, as William did not wake, John called to him and said it

was high time to begin work again. He took no notice, and then John went

up and shook him and found he was dead.



"Now on that very day old Philip Hookhorn was down at Longpuddle Spring,

dipping up a pitcher of water; and, as he turned away, who should he see

coming down to the spring on the other side but William, looking very

pale and old? This surprised Philip Hookhorn very much, for years before

that time William's little son--his only child--had been drowned in that

spring while at play there, and this had so preyed upon William's mind

that he'd never been seen near the spring afterwards, and had been known

to go half a mile out of his way to avoid the place. On enquiry, it was

found that William in body could not have stood by the spring, being in

the mead two miles off; and it also came out that at the time at which

he was seen at the spring was the very time when he died."



"A rather melancholy story," observed the emigrant, after a minute's

silence.



"Yes, yes. Well, we must take ups and downs together," said the

seedman's father.





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