“Going back a few years I light on Mrs. Everett’s The Death Mask, of a rather quieter tone on the whole, but with some excellently conceived stories.”
—M. R. James, “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories” (1929)
Largely forgotten today, Henrietta Dorothy Everett (1851-1923) found success in writing several eccentric novels which dealt with revived Egyptian mummies, vampirism via massage, and weight loss through Spiritualism. As was common with many women writers of the time, Everett published her work under a pseudonym, “Theo Douglas,” including the aforementioned classic ghost story collection, The Death Mask and Other Ghosts (1920). As James suggested, it is a strong volume.
As regular readers of this series may note, the theme of “priest as hero” crops up frequently. (See A. C. Benson and Gertrude Atherton, as well as priest-authors R. H. Benson, E. G. Swain and Sabine Baring-Gould.) Yet, in the following story, Everett not only provides a protagonist cleric, but a second man-of-the-cloth as a spiritual opponent. The aptly named Parson Clench will not let it go.
H. D. Everett
Stoke-St. Edith is a small and deeply rural parish, a complete backwater; at least it was so fifteen years ago, and changes move so slowly within its boundaries that I should doubt it being greatly altered, even now. It has been said about the Stoke-St. Edith people that they just begin to realise they are born when it is time for them to die, and that it takes at least as long to convince them they are dead. And by the latter proposition hangs a tale.
As sometimes happens, though the case is rare, this retired and unimportant parish has a fatly endowed living, such as was reckoned in former times a suitable provision for younger sons. And some two-and-sixty years before the period of this story, the Albury younger son of that date not being of an age to take orders, the Reverend Augustus Clench was put in to keep the benefice warm for him.
But when the time came for Mr. Clench to surrender his cure, the younger son had developed other views, and the warmer was undisturbed. And so the long procession of years went on, and the old gentleman—whom none of us could picture as ever having been young—became more and more autocratic, more deeply conservative, more blind to all advantage in change, even when change was plainly for the better. It seemed to us juniors that he must have been born in a black gown and bands, bald-headed and wearing spectacles—(no doubt the bald head was fact)—and that of all things at Stoke-St.Edith he was the least mutable. So it came as a shock to us all, then scattered far and wide, when among the newspaper announcements we read that the Reverend Augustus Clench was no more.
I was not a resident in the parish when the following events took place, but I heard of them from a faithful correspondent, and later supplemented her account by personal inquiry on the spot.
The next presentation to the living was in the gift of the widowed Mrs. Albury at the Hall, who had long designed that fat provision for her nephew, the Reverend Basil Deane. He was working as curate in an East London parish, and when Mr. Clench’s death took place he had his doubts whether he would be justified in exchanging strenuous duty so early in his career, for the soft cushion of rural ease. But it was now or never for his chance in life; his aunt Emmeline, good gentle soul, was a confirmed invalid, and at her death the Albury property, with the presentation right, would pass under her husband’s will to a distant cousin, who would have no concern or care for any Deane.
Mr. Clench was only just buried when Mrs. Albury wrote: “I want you to come down for this next Sunday and take the services here, as the churchwardens are in a difficulty, and then we can arrange about your succession to the living. You know it is my earnest wish to have you settled at the Rectory. I cannot be thankful enough that I returned from France to be here at this time. I do not generally leave the Riviera so early in the spring, and it really was as if I had been led. But I caught a severe cold on the homeward journey, and am obliged to keep to my own two rooms, which I know you will excuse.”
Mrs. Albury used to spend the greater part of the year abroad, and Basil’s visits to her had hitherto been paid either at the Riviera villa or in London: he had not seen Stoke-St. Edith since his childhood. So he came with only the faintest recollection of what the place was like, and none of the old man it was proposed he should succeed.
He was unable to get away from his London duties till the Saturday, and his first appearance at the village church was shortly before the eleven o’clock service: there was, he had been told, no celebration, as that took place only once a month, and had been held the Sunday before, after the funeral sermon. Basil reflected that he would change all that, but it was too early yet to announce intentions: at the present moment he was called upon to do no more than carry on the services in the well worn rut of many previous years.
The clerk, an elderly man wedded to Stoke-St. Edith ways, awaited him in the vestry ready with instructions, and looking somewhat askance at the coloured stole Basil took out of his vestment bag. “We aren’t used to that sort of thing here,” the official ventured to hint; but Basil proceeded to assume it, despite the disapproval. It was likely to be a lengthy service. The Litany was expected of him, and also the ante-Communion office, but Basil reflected he might shorten his sermon, and took the opportunity to glance at the notes he had prepared. The choir were not surpliced, so he would have to go in alone; a final instruction from Aldridge dictated where he was to read the service.
“When you come to the chancel, sir, you’ll see two reading-desks, one on the right hand side and one on the left. ’Twas the one on the left hand the old Rector always used, and that will be your place. We keep the other for a visiting parson when there is one, like as may be a missionary coming to preach for the Gospel in Foreign Parts collection. I think I mentioned there would be no collection today.”
But when Basil marched into church, feebly accompanied by a voluntary on the wheezy old harmonium, he found the desk on the left of the chancel already occupied, so turned into the other. He felt some slight surprise, concluding he had mistaken Aldridge (who was frowning disapproval from one of the back pews at this insubordination on the part of his pupil). And, when the music ceased and he opened his book, he looked across at his vis-a-vis.
It was an elderly clergyman who was seated opposite, wearing a black skull-cap to cover his baldness, and spectacles over which a pair of very keen eyes critically regarded the younger man. He did not stand for the opening of the service, so Basil concluded he was infirm as well as aged; as old, or nearly so, as the nonagenarian priest who had officiated there for so many years. Probably he was a retired parson resident in the village, who came in to give assistance in some part of the service—a part he had not yet reached, but Aldridge ought to have told him.
He made a slight pause on arriving at the Lessons, both the first and the second, but the opposite parson did not budge; and again before the Litany, with the same absence of result. He did not rise for either of the Creeds, but was observed distinctly to frown when Basil turned to the East, which doubtless had not been Mr. Clench’s practice. When it came to sermon time, however, he got up very alertly, and ascended the pulpit stairs just as Basil was approaching them. Then from that elevation he looked back at the younger priest with a distinctly malicious smile.
What was Basil to do? He could not challenge the usurper of his pulpit then and there, or drag him out in the face of the watching congregation and take his place. He went back to the reading-desk as if for a book; and then, the loudly shouted hymn having come to an end, he became aware that the man in the pulpit was not intending to preach, though he occupied the legitimate place of the preacher. There was an awkward—an extremely awkward—pause. Aldridge was fidgeting at the bottom of the church; the sparsely filled aisles displayed a vista of astonished faces. So in desperation Basil came forward to the chancel step, and from there delivered his address.
He had been in priests’ orders close upon four years, and during that time had faced many congregations; the nervousness of the raw hand was no longer his, or so he flattered himself. Why should it be harder to speak to these country bumpkins than to the keener people of the towns? But on this occasion his nerve failed him, he stumbled over his words, lost the place in his notes, and recovered the thread of the argument with agonizing difficulty, while a cold perspiration broke out over him, and he turned from red to white, and then to red again. Yet, had he been cool enough to analyse his feelings, he would have discovered the disturbing element emanated from one only among his hearers, the strange old man who had mounted into the pulpit, and who now bent forward over the tasselled cushion, staring him in the face, and smiling with a sort of evil amusement and triumph.
He had intended to shorten his address, and short it was indeed, as he stumbled through it to a premature and pointless close. The blessing followed, the wheezy harmonium struck up with renewed spirit, and as he turned towards the vestry, the old man descended the pulpit stairs as if to follow him thither. But on reaching the door which Aldridge was holding open, there was no one to be seen.
Aldridge shook his head more in sorrow than in anger, as he prepared to help Basil off with his vestments.
“People here always make such a talk over any little difference. I’m afraid, sir, they won’t half like you preaching to them from the floor, when they have been used to take their sermons out of the pulpit. Begging your pardon, sir, have you always been accustomed to preach so?”
“I have often done so,” Basil answered. “But to-day, as you would see, I had no choice. Who was the old clergyman who sat on the left side of the chancel, and then went up into the pulpit, though he did not preach? It was impossible for me to ask him to give place.”
“Old clergyman, sir? I didn’t see no old clergyman. Where was he, did you say?”
“In the reading-desk when I went in, and he went up before me into the pulpit. Where do you sit in the church, that you did not see?”
“I could have seen right enough anything that was there,” blurted out Aldridge, forgetful of his manners. “The pulpit was open to you the whole time, and the reading-desk as well, sure as I am here a living man. Begging your pardon, sir, for being positive.” And then the clerk paled from his usually healthy colour, as a strange thought occurred to him. “Might I ask, sir, what the gentleman you saw was like?”
“An old clergyman in a surplice and a black stole. An Oxford hood he had too, for I saw the crimson silk as he went up the pulpit stairs. He had on a black skull-cap and spectacles, with sharp eyes looking over them. Bushy white eyebrows, and thin bony hands, with the veins standing out on them.”
“The Lord have mercy upon us!” Aldridge was staring with his jaw dropped. “It was Parson Clench himself, and you not knowing! And him buried a fortnight come Wednesday! Lord save us: what is to be done?”
“Come, come, my good man, this is rank nonsense.” But Basil was dismayed as well as angry, and a horrid creeping shiver about his scalp might verily have raised his hair had it not been so short-cut. “Mr. Clench is dead and buried. It could not have been Mr. Clench in church.”
“It would be him if it was any one at all,” the clerk said doggedly. “He was buried in his vestments just as you saw him. I went to the Rectory for a last look before the coffin was closed, so I know. And I daresay you’ve heard tell how bent he was on preaching to the last, even after he began to fail. He hated letting any one else up into his pulpit, and he wasn’t one to change. I’d lay odds a feeling he had in life wouldn’t be so much different now. Heaven itself would have a tough job to alter Parson Clench, where he had set his mind; begging your pardon, sir, for speaking free. But to think of him in the church, and seen by you!”
This was a last mutter, as Basil assumed his coat. He said no more to Aldridge in the way of assertion or contradiction, but he went out of the vestry utterly dazed. The church as he glanced round it was empty, except for a girl sorting music at the harmonium—no doubt the “organist” who had officiated at that wheezy instrument: she looked completely undisturbed. Had no one else shared his vision? Basil was of course aware that there were records of such happenings, and that popular interest in them (or curiosity?) had of late years greatly increased; but hitherto he had been indifferent if not skeptical, and utterly unexpectant of any such experience happening to himself. He would fain, even now, have withheld belief, but it was difficult to remain incredulous when he had seen, and had been able minutely to describe, a man who was a stranger to him, with whose appearance in life he was unacquainted, and of whom he had no thought other than indifference in coming to Stoke-St. Edith to fill his place.
He returned to the Hall and the waiting luncheon much perturbed in mind. It was not easy to face aunt Emmeline and her affectionate interest: what did he think of the church, and was it easy to fill (a matter of voice)—also had he a full congregation, and did they appear attentive and interested? He hated himself for giving such half-hearted replies to her enquiries, and was sensitively aware of her disappointment in them; and yet how could he help it and what could he say, wishing as he did that he had never seen the Stoke-St. Edith church, and might never set foot in it again. And a renewal of his ordeal was before him as close at hand as three o’clock, the custom there dictating that the evening service should be read in the afternoon.
Mrs. Albury’s catechism did not last long on this occasion, as the butler came to say luncheon awaited him in the dining-room; his aunt had her tiny invalid meal served to her upstairs. “I shall see you again this evening, my dear, and then we will have a, real talk,” she said as she dismissed him. Alas! a real talk must mean his acceptance of the Stoke-St. Edith living, or a confession of the barrier of the ghost.
As he walked across to the church, which was situated at no great distance from the Hall, he reflected that perception of this species of appearance, may happen to a man on some isolated occasion, once in a lifetime, never to be repeated again. He might take the duty at Stoke-St. Edith year in and year out, and never again encounter the wraith of the late incumbent, though the fact that he once had done so would be an unforgotten and unforgettable experience. But, despite all reasoning, the ordeal before him made heavy demands upon his courage, and it was a very dour-looking young man who walked into the vestry, and was assisted by Aldridge to robe.
“I can’t make out that anybody else saw what you saw, sir, in the church this morning,” that functionary whispered. “But I’ve been told since, there’s a talk about in the village that the late rector walks. There are some who met him in the lane when he was on his death-bed, stricken so that he could not move; and one at least who saw him going by, out of her cottage window, the day after he was buried. People will tell such-like stories as you know, fancies running away with them; and there are few that heed.”
The wheezy harmonium struck up a voluntary, and Basil went on into the church. Approaching the chancel, he saw that both reading-desks were vacant, and he fully purposed to take possession of the left hand one, which was his own. But he found himself powerless to carry intention into action. It was as if he was firmly seized by the shoulders, and pushed into the right-hand seat by a force he could not resist, or was unable to do so without a struggle, which would have been unseemly in the face of the congregation. What Aldridge was thinking in his place at the west end, Basil could only conjecture, but probably his guess only erred by falling short of the fact.
For the first part of the service the left-hand reading-desk remained empty, but on returning to his seat after the second Lesson, he found that it was filled by the same appearance as before, the old man in his vestments and skull-cap, peering at him over spectacles with unfriendly and defiant eyes. It was almost a relief when the presence externalized and became visible, instead of being merely felt in every fibre of his bodily frame.
What was to happen when sermon time arrived? The figure opposite made no movement when Basil was about to leave the desk, and yet in a moment, instantaneous as a flash of light, there it stood at the bottom of the pulpit stairs, barring his way, and facing him with a malignant smile.
Basil did not contest the passage. He delivered this second address from the chancel step, and when he turned at the conclusion, the figure had disappeared.
“Did you see him again, sir?” demanded Aldridge, who was waiting in the vestry, and Basil briefly assented: he was in no humour to discuss the marvel a second time, and Aldridge had no fresh explanation to advance.
There was nothing for it now but to be candid with aunt Emmeline, and how she would take the communication he dreaded to think: women were always a mass of nerves, especially invalid women. But his aunt was more reasonable than he had ventured to expect, and was ready to respond to his wish that they should keep the matter to themselves.
“I do not want to be labelled as a man with a supernatural extra sense, or to give Stoke-St. Edith a bad name. I am afraid the matter may to some extent have gone abroad through Aldridge, but I’ll try to see him to-morrow, and give him an injunction not to talk.”
“Yes, my dear,” the aunt acquiesced. “It was wonderful, of course, that you should see, and be able to describe a perfect stranger. But it may never happen again, to you or to anybody else. And Basil, I hope, I do trust, that this will not set you against accepting the Living. We know it is likely—I suppose it is likely—that the spirits of the dead are about us always: you know it speaks in the Bible of the great cloud of witnesses. So surely we need not take it as extraordinary if we see one of them now and then. And Mr. Clench was a good man. He would do nobody any harm.”
His aunt might have thought differently, Basil reflected, had she seen the malignant eyes of the apparition which barred his way.
“If it went on happening, I could not stay here. Better for someone to come who would not see.”
“I don’t want you to decide in a hurry; take a week or two to think it over. I will not have you give me a definite answer to-night. Things may look different on reflection. It is such a chance for you, my dear; and it would be so happy for me to know you were here looking after the people, when I am obliged to be so much away. And there is such an excellent rectory-house, quite a country gentleman’s place, the best rectory in the county, so they say, and in very good repair. You need not open the whole of it, if you thought it too large for you alone. It could be made so nice. I was not going to tell you just at once, but I have five hundred pounds put aside to help you with the furnishing!”
What was he to say to all this kindness—how was he to repulse the soft entreating hands held out to him full of gifts? It would make no difference, of that he could be certain; but yes, if she wished he would take a longer time to think the matter over, and he would see the Rectory on the following morning, as he need not take train for London till the afternoon. And then he endeavoured to tell her how deeply he felt her kindness, and what a disappointment it would be to him too, so to put the great chance of his life away.
That ended the Sunday evening, and after Monday’s breakfast he went across to the Rectory, in fulfillment of the promise given over night.
The red-brick Georgian mansion, with its stone pediments and cornice, and formal garden-court, was surely an attractive dwelling, cheerful to look at in the Spring sunshine, a home of which any young divine might well be proud. Probably Parson Clench had some such thoughts of it, when he came into possession at Stoke-St. Edith two-and-sixty years before. But he would not have had the same shrinking from the habitation in which his predecessor lived and died, that now disquieted Basil Deane.
Mr. Clench’s housekeeper opened to him. She was staying on as caretaker, so she told him, until Mr. Clench’s relatives decided what would be done about the sale. Nothing had been disturbed as yet, she was waiting instructions; and it was what the poor old gentleman had wished, that everything should be kept on just the same. He had spoken of it when he was wandering at the last, thinking he had a journey to go, but that he was coming back.
“Yes, sir, they are handsome rooms, both upstairs and down. A fine old house, just right for a family, but rather large and lonesome for one alone. The dining-room is on this side as you see, with a small breakfast-parlour behind, though it never was used for breakfasting, not in my time. May be you are the gentleman who is to succeed Mr. Clench, and who preached yesterday up at the church?” Basil told her that he took the services only as a visitor, and that nothing was decided yet about the living: the last not quite the truth, for in his own mind the decision against taking it was already made.
“Most gentlemen admire the staircase, which is oak as you see, and real old. And here is the drawing-room, but not in order, as we put up the bed you see for Mr. Clench when he got feeble at the last, and it was here that he died. It was convenient, being next to the study. A fine room the study is, and looks handsome lined with bookcases. It was a lot of books Mr. Clench had, and he was that particular over them. We have put a fire in here to keep away the damp, as I know he would have wished.”
She was opening the door as she spoke, and holding it for Basil to enter. Yes, there was a fire on the hearth, and in a chair drawn near it was seated an old man, a man in a black cassock and skull-cap, with sharp eyes peering over spectacles: the old man of the church, though the white surplice was no longer worn. And there was the same hostility in the silent gaze which met and held his own.
Basil drew back.
“Who is the old gentleman who is using the room?” he asked in a low voice of the housekeeper.
“No one is using the room, sir. There is nobody in the house but myself.”
“Why there he is, just before you, sitting by the fire.”
The woman looked round in a scared way, and then shut the door again.
“Are you meaning to put a fright upon me, sir?” she said as they stood together in the hall; she seemed both indignant and alarmed.
Basil disclaimed any such intention.
“I am perfectly serious. I would be the last to wish to frighten you. I saw him so plainly sitting there, that I thought you must see him too. An old man in a skull-cap.”
The housekeeper wrung her hands.
“If I was to see him I could not stay here, no, not for double the wage. People in the village make a talk about the old parson walking, but I never heed such tales. I saw him die, and I saw him buried. It is altogether past belief.”
Basil declined to visit the upper floors: what was the use? It should never be his house; upon that he had now unalterably determined. It remained only to break the decision to aunt Emmeline, and then to return to the mill-horse grind of the East London toil.
Some ten days later he received the following letter:—
“My dear Nephew,—
I have had you much in mind since we parted, and yesterday our solicitor, Mr. Kempson, came down to see me. I wanted to consult him what I could best do in your interests about the vacancy at Stoke-St. Edith. He thinks it will be quite possible to arrange an exchange of this benefice now vacant for the right to present to another one likely to fall vacant before long, of the same, or nearly equal value.
Of course I did not tell him why you had refused Stoke-St. Edith; I left him to suppose you were too much engrossed in your present work to wish to give it up just at once. But, oh my dear Basil, it is indeed a cruel disappointment to me not to have you here.
Your affectionate Aunt,
“P.S.—The £500 for Rectory furniture will now be invested in your name, ready for you when the time comes, whether I live or die.”