One of Russell Kirk’s most celebrated “ghostly tales,” this short story is sure to enthrall and, ironically, enlighten.
Then shall it be too late to knock when the door shall be shut; and too late to cry for mercy when it is the time of justice. O terrible voice of the most just judgment which shall be pronounced upon them, when shall it be said unto them, Go ye cursed into the fire everlasting, which is prepared for the devil and his angels.
A Commination, or Denouncing of God’s Anger and judgments against Sinners.
Only one roof at Low Wentford is sound today. On either side of the lane, a row of stone cottages stands empty. Twenty years ago there were three times as many; but now the rest are rubble. A gutted shell of Victorian masonry is the ruin of the schoolhouse. Close by the brook, the church of All Saints stares drearily into its desolate graveyard; a good fifteenth century building, All Saints, but the glass smashed in its windows and the slates slipping one after another from the roof. It has been deconsecrated all this century. Beside it, the vicarage—after the soldiers quartered there had finished with it—was demolished for the sake of what its woodwork and fittings would bring.
In the last sound cottage livesMrs. Oliver, an ancient little woman with a nose that very nearly meets her chin. She wears a countrywoman’s cloak of the old pattern, and weeds her garden, and sometimes walks as far as the high-arched bridge which, built long before the cottages, has survived them. Mrs. Oliver has no neighbors nearer than the Oghams of Wentford House, a mile down a bedraggled avenue of limes and beeches twisting through the neglected park to the stables of that Queen Anne mansion.
Nearly three years ago, Sir Gerald Ogham sold the cottage to Mrs. Oliver, who had come back from Madras to the village where she was born. In all the parish, no one remained who remembered Mrs. Oliver. She had gone out to India with her husband, the Major; no one knew how long ago that had been—not even Mrs. Oliver, perhaps—with any precision, for she had known Sir Gerald’s father, but had grown vague about decades and such trifles. Sir Gerald himself, though he was past sixty, could recollect of her only that her name had been an old one in the village.
Village? Like the money of the Oghams, it had faded quite away: the Ogham fortunes and Low Wentford now were close to extinction. The wealth of the Oghams was gone to the wars and the Exchequer; the last of the villagers had been drained away to the mills at Gorst, when tractors had supplanted horses upon the farms which Sir Gerald had sold to a potato syndicate. Behind the shutters of the sixty rooms of Wentford House, a solitary daily woman did what she could to supply the place of twenty servants. Lady Ogham and the gardener and the gardener’s boy grew flowers and vegetables in the walled garden, to be sold in Gorst; Sir Gerald, with a feckless bailiff and a half-dozen laborers, struggled to wrest a few hundred pounds’ income from the home farm and the few fields he had left besides. The family name still meaning something roundabout, Sir Gerald sat in the county council, where he sided with a forlorn minority overborne by the councillors from sprawling Gorst.
Sir Gerald had tried to sell the other habitable cottages in Low Wentford; but the planning officer, backed by the sanitary officer, had put obstacles in the way. And it was only because they had been unable at the time to provide a council-flat for old Mrs. Oliver that they had permitted her to repair the cottage near the church. The windows were too small, the sanitary officer and the planning officer had said; but Mrs. Oliver had murmured that in Madras she had seen enough of the sun to last her all her days. The ceilings were lower than regulations specified; but Mrs. Oliver had replied that the coal ration would go the further for that. It must be damp, the sanitary officer felt sure; but he was unable to prove it. There were no communal amenities, said the planning officer; but Mrs. Oliver, deaf as well as dim of sight, told him she disliked Communists. The authorities yielding, Mrs. Oliver had moved in with her Indian keepsakes and her few sticks of furniture, proceeding to train rosebushes against the old walls and to spade her own little garden; for, despite her great age, she was not feeble of body or of will.
Mr. S. G. W. Barner, Planning Officer, had a will of his own, nevertheless, and he had made up his mind that not one stone was to be left upon another at Low Wentford. With satisfaction he had seen the last of the farm-laborers of that hamlet transferred to the new council houses at Gorst, where there was no lack of communal facilities, including six cinemas. Thus were they integrated with the progressive aspirations of planned industrial society, he told the county council. Privately, he was convinced that the agricultural laborer ought to be liquidated altogether. And why not? Advanced planning, within a few years, surely would liberate progressive societies from dependence upon old-fashioned farming. He disliked the whole notion of agriculture, with its rude earthiness, its reactionary views of life and labor, its subservience to tradition. The agricultural classes would be absorbed into the centers of population, or otherwise disposed of, the land thus placed at public command would be converted into garden cities, or state holiday-camps, or proving grounds for industrial and military experiment.
With a positive passion of social indignation then, S. G. W. Barner—a thick-chested, hairy man, forever carrying a dispatch case, stooping and heavy of tread, rather like a large, earnest ape (as Sir Gerald hadobserved to Lady Ogham, after an unpleasant encounter at a county-council meeting)—objected against Mrs. Oliver’s tenancy of the little red-tiled cottage. His consolation had been that she had not long to live, being wrinkled and gnarled amazingly. To his chagrin, however, she seemed to thrive in the loneliness of Low Wentford, her cheeks growing rosier, her step more sure. She must be got out of that cottage by compulsory purchase, if nothing else would serve. On Mr. Barner’s maps of the Rural District of Low Wentford as it would be in the future, there remained no vexatious dots to represent cottages by the old bridge; nor was there any little cross to represent the derelict church. (No church had yet been erected in the newest housing scheme at Gorst: Cultural Amenities must yield pride of place to material requirements, Barner had declared.)
Yes, that wreck of a church must come down, with what remained of Low Wentford. Ruins are reminiscent of the past; and the Past is a dead hand impeding progressive planning. Besides, Low Wentford had been a hamlet immediately dependent upon Wentford House and its baronets, and therefore ought to be effaced as an obsolete fragment of a repudiated social order. It was disconcerting that even a doddering old creature like the obdurate Mrs. Oliver should prefer living in this unhealthy rurality; and now a council-flat could be made available to her. She would be served a compulsory purchase order before long, if the Planning Officer had his way—which he was accustomed to have—and would be moved to Gorst where she belonged. The surviving cottages might be condemned to demolition as a public nuisance, Sir Gerald’s obscurantism notwithstanding. What should be done with the cleared site of Low Wentford? Why, it might be utilized as a dump for earth excavated in the Gorst housing schemes. That obsolete bridge, incidentally, ought to be replaced by a level concrete one.
“Let a decent old woman keep her roses,” Sir Gerald had said to the Planning Officer when last they met in Gorst. “Why do you whirl her off to your jerry-built desolation of concrete roadways that you’ve designed, so far as I can see, to make it difficult for people to get about on foot? Why do you have to make her live under the glare of mercury vapor lamps and listen to other people’s wireless sets when she wants quiet? Sometimes I think a devil’s got inside you, Barner.”
With dignity, S. G. W. Barner felt, he had replied to this tirade. “I am very much afraid, Sir Gerald, that you don’t understand the wants of common human beings. Elderly members of the community need to be kept under the supervision of social workers and local authorities, for their own welfare; indeed, I trust the time is not far distant when residence in eventide homes will be compulsory upon all aged persons, regardless of fancied social distinctions. Mrs. Oliver requires relief from her self-imposed isolation.”
“You’re no better than a walking bluebook, Barner,” Sir Gerald Ogham had answered—red as a beet, the Planning Officer recollected with relish—and had stamped away. Opposition from such a quarter was sufficient evidence of the need for taking Mrs. Oliver and Low Wentford in hand so soon as the Council could be wheeled into action. He must find time to draw up a persuasive report on the redundancy of Low Wentford.
* * *
In truth, Low Wentford was a lonely place, as Mrs. Oliver confessed to herself, though she knew it never would do to tell Mr. Barner so. Some things she seemed to forget, nowadays, but she knew whom she could trust and whom she could not. Lady Ogham came to visit her occasionally, bringing a present of fruit or flowers; otherwise, Mrs. Oliver was quite alone. Despite being deaf and nearsighted and English, she had enjoyed more company in Madras. How long was it since the Major had gone? She had little notion. Sometimes children, straggling down from the potato-syndicate farm, ran from her in fright, here in the village where she had been born; children never dreaded her in Madras.
But she wanted no more visits from the Planning Officer. She knew what he was about. He had come last week—or was it last month?—and she had made him shout properly, saying she was sorry to be deaf, though really she had understood him well enough when he spoke in a lower key. She had shaken her head again and again and again. She had bought this cottage, and it was hers, and she loved her roses, and she did not want to be cared for. He had turned from her quite disagreeable. It was something about maps. And communal amenities. He would not stay for tea, although she had told him that she still baked her own bread. Mr. Barner was a cheerless man, and he frightened her. Had he said something about an old witch when he banged the door after him?
Certainly he had said he was out of patience. Almost nothing in India had frightened her: the riots would not have made her come home; it was only that she had longed to see the country round Low Wentford, even though all the old neighbors were gone. But she was afraid of Mr. Barner, because he seemed more unchristian than any Indian, worshipping his maps. And he might do something about her cottage. Sir Gerald, if she had understood him properly, had said as much. She would not go to Gorst; it was not a nice place, not nice at all, even when she was young. And naughty children in such places pointed at her nose, and at her stick. If only there were a neighbor or two … Sir Gerald and Lady Ogham were busy people; and, too, she needed someone less grand. Why was it that the vicar never came to call? Though she had been reared a Methodist, she could recollect the plump old vicar of All Saints, Low Wentford. Was it he who had married her to the Major? She thought so. But she supposed that he, like the Major, was gone. Perhaps the vicar could have helped her against Mr. S. G. W. Barner. Really, she had come to hate Mr. Barner. She had been reasonably good most of her life, and so felt entitled to hate a man or two, at her age. Parsons knew how to manage such people. Did the vicar know she was living in Low Wentford again? Had anyone told him?
He must have more than one parish, surely, and have been too busy to call upon her as yet. For the church was locked always. She had tried the door a number of times, especially on Sundays, but it never yielded. She supposed the vicar must come late Sunday evening, after she had gone to bed; indeed, she thought—though she could not be sure—that she had seen lights, like little candles, moving within the church, once or twice when she had risen in the middle of the night to shut a window against the rain. Doubtless he would call eventually, this poor harried vicar, and she would give him tea and her own scones. Meanwhile, she had her cat to talk with; and a fine great cat he was, named Bentinck, and she could tell Bentinck of the iniquities of Mr. Barner. The milkman came in the morning, and the grocer’s van in the afternoon—that was company. But the vanmen were ever so shy: you would have thought them afraid of her. Should she fall ill, now, the vicar would be duty bound to call on her. Her health invariably was good, however—more’s the pity—better than ever it had been in Madras. Lady Ogham told her, laughing a little, that she was so hale and rosy she seemed more than human. “My flowers and my oven keep me brisk, Lady Ogham,” she had said, stroking Bentinck.
Though it had been disused for years beforeshe came, the cottage oven was a good one. She baked little sweet cakes of all shapes and dimensions. Being very ill-tempered the day after Mr. Barner had visited her, she had made of dough one cake that looked quite like the Planning Officer, and deliberately left it too long in the oven so that it burnt black, and Bentinck would not touch it even when it was soaked in milk. But that had been spiteful. She wished she did not have to think about Mr. Barner. Perhaps if she went out of the cottage more often, he would not come creeping into her mind. She ought to cross to the churchyard every evening, to forget the poor menaced cottage for a while; and there she might look at the tombstones, if she should take a little broom with her to brush the leaves away. She knew many of the folk that lay by the church, and it would be pleasant to sit among them in the sunset.
When had she decided this? Had it been last autumn? Or had it been only a fortnight ago? Nowadays she came daily, before sunset, to the churchyard and swept the gravestones. It being March, often rain came while she was there; then she sat in the south porch of the church, wrapped in her cloak and hood, and took no harm. Always the church door was locked, but that did not much matter, for everyone whose name she could remember was buried to the south of the church, not inside. She brushed with her little broom, and found Aunt Polly and Grandfather Thomas, and Ann with whom she had played in the schoolyard, and even the plump old vicar, who, she recalled now, had been the Reverend Henry Williams. But they were not altogether satisfactory as neighbors, for of course she could see them only in memory, and they could not answer. They did not succeed in keeping Mr. S. G. W. Barner from creeping into the back of her mind. He was detestable.
Except for the fallen limbs of old rowans and the high, damp grass, the south side of the churchyard was a cheerful place, far better than the north side. The graves were few on that latter cold and windy slope, and the weeds were thicker, and everything seemed squalid. She would have liked to tell the vicar so. A small porch clung to that side of the church, too, but she dared not sit there, for even she could perceive that the heavy porch roof threatened to collapse. Probably Sir Gerald Ogham was not able to maintain All Saints as his father had done. A little low archway—she supposed it was the Normans’ work—led from the porch into the tower. Sometimes it seemed to her that the door in the archway was ajar; but she could not make certain, for when she approached once, a slate fell right at her feet, and she feared she might bring the whole porch down upon her head. If this was the way the vicar entered the church, he must be rather a heedless man. She could not remember this door ever having been opened when she was a girl.
No, she did not like the north side. Having swept all the gravestones to the south, however, she felt that really she ought to treat the folk on the north equally well. One evening, then, she found herself brushing the thick wet leaves from a slab close by the north porch. Was there a name upon it? She put on her spectacles and, leaning on her stick, bent as close as she could. Then a shadow fell across the slab.
Mrs. Oliver turned sharp round, thinking that perhaps Mr. Barner had come again. But it was someone else: a parson, a tall man with a long, long face, hatched lines crossing on forehead and cheeks. She could see him more plainly than she could see most people. He must have come from the little doorway under the tower. He was nothing like the old vicar, Mr. Williams. This would be his successor, and it was good that he had come. Drops of moisture ran from his long black hair down the furrows in his sad face, so he must have walked a great way in the rain.
“I am Mrs. Oliver,” she said. Why did she have trouble getting the words out?
Though clear, his voice was harsh and grating; he did not seem to be speaking loudly, unlike everybody else, who shouted at her. “I am Abner Hargreaves,” he said, “your vicar.”
* * *
“Something curious happened today,” Sir Gerald Ogham remarked to his wife, at dinner. He stared at a place on the high ceiling where the faded Chinese paper was peeling, and paused, as if he regretted having spoken.
“Well?” said Lady Ogham. “You know, this room is fallingto bits. What was strange?”
“Mrs. Oliver was odd,” Sir Gerald told her. “You’d best say nothing of this to anyone, Alice: if Barner knew, it might improve his case.”
“Odd? I always have thought her a sensible old dear, aside from her way of talking to that monstrous cat as though he were a viceroy.”
“Perhaps it was only some person passing on his way to Gorst,” Sir Gerald went on. “But she said the vicar came to call, yesterday evening, and took tea with her.”
“Vicar? Whom could she have meant, Gerald? Mr. Harris, of Holy Trinity, in Gorst?”
“Harris has nothing to do with this parish; besides, he scarcely bothers to call anywhere in Gorst. He knows he has emoluments to receive, but forgets he has duties to perform. He never would have been poking about a deconsecrated church. And you know what a frail reed Harris is, while this fellow seems to have been a strapping parson of the old breed. Mrs. Oliver was quite overawed by him; I had thought nothing could make such a distinct impression on her—though she did forget his name while she was talking with me. I wish I had seen him. It never would do for word to get about that Mrs. Oliver talks with shadows: in no time, Barner would have her off to some insufferable eventide home. Yet I do believe—if I understood her—that she fancies the church still is in use.”
“Oh, no, Gerald, really she can’t! It must have been shut when she was a girl here.”
“No, All Saints has not been derelict that long. I was a half-grown boy before they locked it. Even then, it was in a bad way; almost no one but our family used to attend. There were few parishioners left about Low Wentford, and the vicar offended most of those few. He was remarkably harsh, fond of nothing but the cursing psalms and Jeremiah. I recollect a commination, on Ash Wednesday—which, by the way, is nearly upon us again Alice—that gave me nightmares. Then the scandal put an end to things, and they took the furniture and the bells away to Gorst. One of these days the whole roof will fall through.”
“You never told me of a scandal.”
“A nasty story, Alice. The village schoolmaster was the village atheist—Rally was his name, or Reddy. The vicar loathed this schoolmaster, who, he said, was corrupting the parish. It was against Reddy the vicar preached that commination I remember. How he cursed him! When Reddy heard what had been said, he came round to face the vicar out. Both of them had beastly tempers.
“During the first week of Lent, Reddy was found in the brook by the bridge, his neck broken. Like most convinced atheists, he drank, however, and he might have fallen from the bridge to the stones, in the night.”
“Do you mean the poor vicar was slandered merely on that coincidence?”
“No. Of itself, Reddy’s death might have been passed over. Even the vicar’s death might have been passed over; for he was found drowned in our quarry six months later. He might have been bathing. It was a clause in his will that caused the talk—that, and his sermons and the look on his face for months before. He left instructions that he should be buried on the north side of the church, “with other murderers and perjurers and suicides, that burn forever.” The vicar was eloquent, as if inspired by angels; but what sort of angels, people wondered. How he talked of sinners in the hands of an angry God! Whatever he was, he thundered like the agent of Omnipotence. Yet Satan, for that matter … I believe hisname was Harbound, or Harcourt, or Harbottle; but it doesn’t signify any longer, except conceivably to the vicar himself, poor damned soul.”
* * *
Nearly every evening, now, Mr. Hargreaves came to call and Mrs. Oliver was comforted. Though he was in no sense a cheerful being, she was convinced that he possessed immense powers of sympathy. He sat moodily in his corner away from the fire, always dripping, somehow, even when Mrs. Oliver had thought the evening fair; and Mrs. Oliver told him her tribulations. He would eat nothing, yet he drank her tea with a prodigious thirst; and he seemed to need it, for his voice was fearfully dry and harsh; and to judge by his eyes, he suffered from malaria. She wished that she might hear him preach: he held a command of language she never before had encountered in a parson. But when she asked him about the hours of service, he did not seem to hear her. Bentinck, temperamental, wailed whenever Mr. Hargreaves entered, fleeing to the top of the cupboard, whence he spat at the vicar; but the Reverend Abner Hargreaves took no notice of the cat. Now and again he spoke at length, with wonderful passion, as clearly as he had spoken when they first met in the churchyard; and he seemed to anticipate her every thought. Mr. Barner, she told the vicar, was a wicked man.
“Cursed is he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, the fatherless and widow,” said Mr. Hargreaves.
“I wish you would speak to him,” said Mrs. Oliver.
“All thine enemies shall feel thy hand; thy right hand shall find them out that hate thee,” continued Mr. Hargreaves, almost chanting. “Thou shalt make them like a fiery oven in the time of thy wrath; the Lord shall destroy them in his displeasure, and the fire shall consume them.”
“I don’t wish him any harm,” said Mrs. Oliver, “but he is wicked.”
At that, Mr. Hargreaves rose abruptly, and went out of the cottage into the night. Mrs. Oliver hoped that she had not somehow offended him. But at all times he came and went unceremoniously. No doubt Mr. Hargreaves was zealous; yet he was not quite a cheering vicar.
* * *
Mr. S. G. W. Barner sat in his study, amusing himself by drawing up plans for a model collective agricultural unit adapted to British agronomy—something he did not intend to show to the county council, nevertheless, or at least not to a council of its present complexion—when a bell rang, and rang again, faintly.
“Susan, will you answer that?” he called to his wife, in annoyance.
“Answer what, dear?” his wife inquired, from the corridor.
“The doorbell, of course,” Barner told her, fidgeting with his ruler.
She was back in a moment. “No one …” Then he heard the faint bell again.
“The telephone, Susan,” said Barner. “Must I manage every trifling detail in this household?” She bit her lip and hurried out.
“No one telephoned either,” she called, in a moment. “And I never heard it ring, dear.”
Flinging down his ruler, Barner strode into the hall, and snatched the receiver from her. “Nonsense! Of course it rang!” And someone was speaking, as he had expected. Barner nodded contemptuously to his wife, who shrank into the kitchen.
The voice was deep, afflicted with a parched hoarseness. For some seconds, Barner thought he had the receiver the wrong end to, or that something was amiss with the instrument; but then the voice sounded more distinctly. “… without delay,” it was saying. “I have spoken with Mrs. Oliver. The thing must be done with.”
Barner gathered that the agent, whoever he was, desired a meeting. “Where?” asked Barner. This might be an opportunity to clear away the Low Wentford annoyance. “When?”
“At All Saints,” said the voice, with something like a gasp, and then paused,almost as if the idea of Time (Barner wondered why this foolish fancy passed through his brain) were alien to the speaker. “We meet,” said the parched voice, “at once.”
“In the dark?” protested Barner. “You’ve called far too late. Tuesday, possibly.”
“This night, at All Saints, Low Wentford.” The voice, imperious, startled Barner.
“Whoever are you?” he asked.
“Hargreaves, the vicar. I am waiting.” Then there was silence. Barner put down the telephone after an attempt to remonstrate to the void.
Well, the hour would do well enough, after all; but he would be short with this cantankerous vicar. Vicar of what? Barner knew no Hargreaves. Some relative, conceivably, of Mrs. Oliver. He was tempted to let the silly parson, with his bad manners, wait all night in the churchyard. Then, though, he might lose his chance to finish with Low Wentford. Telling his wife that he would return in an hour or two, Barner got into his automobile and drove out of the villadom that hems in Gorst toward Low Wentford.
* * *
As Barner switched off his ignition, it occurred to him that the churchyard of All Saints was a cheerless place to meet this fellow. The mist from the brook drifted upwards toward the church. Could they not have talked in that old woman’s confounded cottage? It was wet here, and hard to tell haar from stone. With proper employment of scientific methodology, one day society would plan its weather, perhaps eliminating altogether the seasons. But for the stupidity of entrenched interests, the thing would have been accomplished already. Superstition! Today, for instance, was some irrational relic of superstitious rubbish—Ash Wednesday, that was it. Barner walked through the tangled grass toward the south porch. He saw no one. Would this vicar have a key to let them in, or must they parley in the drizzle?
No one stood in this porch. Barner thought he caught a glimmer of light within the church; but the door was bolted. He blundered round to the north side. As he approached the small porch by the tower, someone stalked out to meet him.
The vicar was a man of great stature; it was too dark for Barner to perceive much more of him, though he recognized at once the parched and rasping voice. “I ask you, sir, for charity,” said the vicar, out of the fog.
“If you mean that old woman down the lane, Mr. Hargreaves,” Barner interrupted, “the most charitable thing we can do is to re-house her where amenities and social intercourse are available.” Though the vicar had come up close to him, Barner could not see his face well enough, through the mist, to make out his cast of countenance. It would be the face of a sentimental fool, Barner knew. They stood in the lee of the north porch, the grass up to their knees, some slippery slab underfoot; and a wind had risen, damply cutting.
“Who are you, sir,” the vicar went on—his throat seemingly dry as an oven—“and what am I, to meddle with an old woman’s longing? She called me from a great way to do her this service; and I must have your charity, or else you must seek mine; and now I have none to give. ‘Cursed is he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, the fatherless and widow.’ Do you know the verse which stands next to that, man? It is this: ‘Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbor secretly.’ In the universe are vicars of more sorts than one, but I am bound by special ordinances; and therefore I do entreat you, sir, to call it to mind that this woman’s house is as the breath of life to her. The breath of life, man. Think what that means!”
Well, reflected Barner, here’s the old-world Bible-thumper with a vengeance. “Individual preferences often must be subordinated to communal efficiency,” was what he said.
“I speak not simply of whim and inclination,” the vicar caught him up, “but of the memories of childhood and girlhood, the pieties that cling to our hearth, however desolated.”
“That’s rot you’re talking, you know,” Barner objected, exasperated. Did the vicar step closer to him? Barner shifted backward through the grass, so that he stood just within the porch. “Candidly, I consider parsons just so many impediments to social unity. Leave sociology to trained minds, Mr. Hargreaves. I see you have not the faintest conception of the essentials of planning. I have anAct of Parliament at my back. Who authorized you to meddle with official programs? Perhaps some people desire your services: old Mrs. Oliver, for instance, possibly extracts some solace from your Bible stories. I do not.”
The vicar laughed. Barner never had heard a laugh like it—a sound nearer the braying of a mule than anything from a man’s throat. It was indescribably dismal. “Blind, blind,” the vicar declared. “His fan is in his hand, and he will purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. For the sake of a void upon a map, man, would you cast away your hope of salvation?”
“Salvation?” asked Barner, with a shrug. “Salvation? I came to you for a practical settlement, not a sermon. I want that woman out of her cottage.”
“I have said all that it was required I should say,” the vicar answered, “and have done all that it was required I should do.” His voice was exhortatory no longer; now a quality of devouring eagerness was in it. He took another step toward Barner, who at last saw his face distinctly.
A sentimental parson? Not this man. The jaw, long and rock-like; the cheeks, seamed and hollow; the pallid, pallid skin; the high-bridged nose, with distended nostrils; the red and staring eyes, with the look of a beast in torment—these were thrust close up to Barner’s face in the gloom of the porch. Enormous beads of water or sweat ran down the vicar’s cheeks.
“But I do ask you, this last time,” said the vicar, “for charity.”
Or did he say it? His lips had not moved. And abruptly it came to Barner that the vicar’s lips had not stirred before; that rigid face was a mask; and the words Barner had thought he heard had sounded only in his own brain, not in his ears. Even on the telephone … Barner clutched a stone bench-end within the porch. What tricks the dark and the mist played! Of course the vicar’s lips must have moved; no one would play ventriloquist in this place. “No,” insisted Barner, scowling, his assurance partially recovered, “I never grant exceptions to any scheduled scheme.” How loathsome that parson’s features were! “I say, vicar, if you must talk of this longer, sha’n’t we shift out of this wind and wet into the church?” For Barner wanted mightily to put some interval between himself and that waxy face.
“Safe in the church? You and I? Never!” cried the parson, in a voice at once exultant and agonized. He smiled frightfully. “For now is the ax put to the root of the trees, so that every tree that bringeth forth not good fruit, is hewn down and cast into the fire.” Then he took Barner by the throat.
* * *
For more than a week, the curious death of S. G. W. Barner was a subject of conversation even beyond Gorst; the Review of Collective Planning observed that in Barner, pragmatic social reconstruction had lost one of its more promising younger advocates. Apparently Barner had been making a brief inspection of the derelict church of All Saints, which he intended to persuade the ecclesiastical authorities to demolish, when the roof of the north porch, weakened by incompetent restorers near the end of the eighteenth century and further imperilled by neglect, fell upon him. His body was not discovered until the following afternoon.
Two or three of Barner’s acquaintances remarked that he would have been vexed by a cultural lag connected with his cremation. The suffragan bishop of Wandersley, within whose cure Gorst lies, recently had spoken with vigor against the “barbarous practice” of scattering the ashes, after cremation, at random over unconsecrated ground; while the Reverend John Harris, vicar of Holy Trinity, Old Gorst, protested against the strewing of ashes within his churchyard, as offensive to the sensibilities of his parishioners and his wife. The undertaker and Mrs. Barner, therefore, were in some perplexity, until Mr. Harris suggested that the churchyard of Low Wentford might be suitable, there being no clergyman in residence, and the only person who might possibly object being Sir Gerald Ogham. Consulted, Sir Gerald said that, the Ogham tombs lying to the south of All Saints, these ashes ought to be strewn on the north side of the churchyard. This was done; and Sir Gerald, though not present on the occasion, told the county sanitary officer that he thought no ceremony could have been more fitting.
The county council has relinquished the scheme for clearing the site of Low Wentford; indeed, there appears to be some possibility that six or seven of the cottages near the bridge may be restored, with the aid of grants from local authorities, as part of a plan of deconcentration recommended by the new planning officer. Mrs. Oliver’s cottage, in any event, seems secure. She weeds her garden, and bakes her scones, and often sweeps the gravestones clean; thus she continues surprisingly vigorous for a woman of her years. Though the vicar no longer calls, as she told Lady Ogham one day, instead she has a new confidant—a Mr. Reddy, highly opinionated, given to denying the existence of Heaven, and suffering dreadfully from some old injury to his neck.
Copyright © 1957 Russell A. Kirk.