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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

“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

“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

“‘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

“‘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

“‘What did you see?’ asked William’s wife.

“‘Well,’ says Nancy, backwardly–‘we needn’t tell what we saw or who we

“‘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

“Yes, yes. Well, we must take ups and downs together,” said the
seedman’s father.

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