Watching on St. Mark's Eve


Ellen Wood

First published in The Argosy, April 1868.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Sat Jun 27 22:34:34 2015.

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Watching On St. Mark’s Eve.

Easter–Day that year was nearly as late as it could be-the twenty-third of April. That brought St. Mark’s Day (the twenty-fifth) on the Tuesday; and Easter Monday was St. Mark’s Eve.

There is a superstitious belief in our county, and in some others—more thought of in our old grannies’ days than in these—that if you go to the churchyard on St. Mark’s Eve and watch the gate, the shadows, or phantoms, of those fated to die that year, and destined there to be buried, will be seen to enter it.

Easter Monday is a great holiday with us; the greatest in all the year. Christmas–Day and Good Friday are looked upon more in a religious light; but on Easter Monday servants and labourers think themselves at liberty to take their swing. The first day of the wake is nothing to it.

Now Squire Todhetley gave in to these holidays: they did not come often, he said. Our servants in the country are not a bit like yours in town; yours want a day’s holiday once a month, oftener sometimes, and strike if they don’t get it; ours have one or two in a year. On Easter Monday the work was got over by mid-day; there was no cooking, and the household could roam abroad at will. No ill had ever come of it; none would have come of it this time, but for St. Mark’s Eve falling on the day.

Tod and I got home from school on the Thursday. It was a despicable old school, taking no heed of Passion Week. Other fellows from other schools could have a fortnight at Easter; we but a week. Tod entered on a remonstrance with the pater this time; he had been planning it as we drove home, and thought he’d put it in a strongish point of view.

“It is sinful, you know, sir; awfully so. Passion Week is Passion Week. We have no right to pass it at school at our desks.”

“Well, Joe, I don’t quite see that,” returned the pater, twisting his lip. “Discipline and lessons are more in accordance with the season of Passion Week than kicking up your heels at large in all sorts of mischief; and that’s what you’d be at, you know, if you were at home. What’s the matter with Johnny.”

“He has been ill for three days, with a cold or something,” said Tod. “Tell it for yourself, Johnny.”

I had no more to tell than that. For three or four days I had felt ill, feverish; yesterday (Wednesday) had done no lessons. Mrs. Todhetley thought it was an attack of influenza. She sent me to bed, and called in the doctor, Mr. Duffham.

I was better the next day—Good Friday. Old Duff—as Tod and I called him for short—came in while they were at church, and said I might get up. It was slow work, I told him, lying in bed for one’s holidays. He was a wiry little man, with black hair; good in the main, but pompous, and always carried a gold-headed cane.

“Not to go out, you know,” he said. “You must promise that, Johnny.”

I promised readily. I only wanted to be downstairs with the rest. They returned home from church, saying they had promised to go over and take tea with the Sterlings; Mrs. Todhetley looked grave at seeing me, and thought the doctor was wrong. At which I put on a gay air, like a fellow suddenly cured.

But I could not eat any dinner. They had salt fish and cold boiled beef at two o’clock—our usual way of fasting on Good Friday. Not a morsel could I swallow, and Hannah brought me some mutton-broth.

“Do you mind our leaving you, Johnny?” Mrs. Todhetley said to me in her kind way—which Tod never believed in. “If you do—if you think you shall feel lonely, I’ll stay at home.”

I answered that I should feel very jolly, not lonely at all; and so they started, going over in the large carriage, drawn by Bob and Blister. Mr. and Mrs. Todhetley, with Lena, in front, Tod and Hugh behind. Standing at the window to watch the start, I saw Roger Monk looking on from the side of the house.

He was a small, white-faced chap of twenty or so, with a queer look in his eyes, and black sprouting whiskers. Looking full at the eyes, when you could get the chance, which was not very often, for they rarely looked at you, there was nothing wrong to be seen with them, and yet they gave a sinister cast to the face. Perhaps it was that they were too near together. Roger Monk was not one of our regular men; for the matter of that, he was above the condition; but was temporarily filling the head-gardener’s place, who was ill with rheumatism. Seeing me, he walked up to the window, and I opened it to speak to him. “Are you here still, Monk?”

“And likely to be, Mr. Ludlow, if it depends upon Jenkins’s coming on again,” was the answer. “Fine cattle, those that the governor has just driven off.”

He meant Bob and Blister, and they were fine; but I did not like the tone, or the word “governor,” as applied to Mr. Todhetley. “I can’t keep the window up,” I said; “I’m not well.”

“All right, sir; shut it. As for me, I must be about my work. There’s enough to do with the gardens, one way or another; and the responsibility lies on my shoulders.”

“You must not work today, Monk. Squire Todhetley never allows it on Good Friday.”

He laughed pleasantly; as much as to say, what Squire Todhetley allowed, or did not allow, was no concern of his; and went briskly away across the lawn. And not once, during the short interview, had his eyes met mine.

Wasn’t it dull that afternoon! I took old Duffham’s physic, and drank the tea Hannah brought me, and was hot, and restless, and sick. Never a soul to talk to; never a book to read—my eyes and head ached too much for that; never a voice to be heard. Most of the servants were out; all of them, for what I knew, except Hannah; and I was fit to die of weariness. At dusk I went up to the nursery. Hannah was not there. The fire was raked—if you understand what that means, though it is generally applied only to kitchen fires in our county—which proved that she was off somewhere on a prolonged expedition. Even old Hannah’s absence was a disappointment. I threw myself down on the faded sofa at the far end of the room, and, I suppose, went to sleep.

For when I became alive again to outward things, Hannah was seated in one chair at the fire, cracking up the coal; Molly, the cook with the sharp tongue and red-brown eyes, in another. It was dark and late; my head ached awfully, and I wished them and their clatter somewhere. They were talking of St. Mark’s Eve, and its popular superstition. Molly was telling a tale of the past, the beginning of which I had not heard.

“I can’t believe it,” exclaimed Hannah; “I can’t believe that the shadows come.”

“Did ye ever watch for ’em, woman?” asked Molly, who had been born in the North.

“No,” acknowledged Hannah.

“Then how can ye speak of what ye don’t know? It is as true as that you and me be a-sitting here. Two foolish, sickly girls they was, both of ’em sweet upon the same young man. Leastways, he was sweet upon both of them, the deceiver, which comes to the same thing. My sister Becky was five-and-twenty that same year; she had a constant pain and a cough, which some said was windpipe and some said was liver. The other was Mary Clarkson, who was subject to swimmings in the head and frightful dartings. Any way, they’d got no health to brag on, either of ’em, and they were just eat up with jealousy, the one of the other. Tom Town, he knew this; and he played ’em off again’ each other nicely, little thinking what his own punishment was to be.”

Hannah gently put the poker inside the bars to raise the coal, and some more light came out. Molly went on.

“Now, Hannah, you mustn’t think bad of them two young women. They did not wish one another dead—far from it; but each thought the other couldn’t live. In natural course, if the one went off, poor thing, Tom Town, he would be left undivided for the other.”

“Was Tom Town handsome?” interrupted Hannah.

“Well, middling for that. He was under-sized, not up to their shoulders, with big bushy red whiskers; but he had a taking way with him. He was in a shop for himself, and doing well, so that more young women nor the two I am telling of would have said Yes to his asking. Becky, she thought Mary Clarkson couldn’t live the year out; Mary, she told a friend that she was sure Becky wouldn’t. And what should they do but go to watch the graveyard on St. Mark’s Eve, to see the other’s shadow pass!”

“Together?”

“No; but they met there. Awk’ard, wasn’t it? Calling up their wits, each of ’em, they pretended to have come out promiskous, just on the spree, not expecting to see nobody’s shadow in particular. As they had come, they stopped; standing back again’ the hedge near the graveyard, holding on to each other’s arms for company, and making belief not to be scared. Hannah, woman, I don’t care to tell this. I’ve never told it many times.”

Molly’s face had a hard, solemn look, in the fire’s blaze, and Hannah suddenly drew her chair close to her. I could have laughed out loud.

“Just as the clock struck—ten, I think it was,” went on Molly, in a half-whisper, “there was a faint rustle heard, like a flutter in the air, and somebody came along the road. At first the women’s eyes were dazed, and they didn’t see distinct, but as the gate opened to let him in, he turned his face, and they saw it was Tom Town. Both the girls thought it was himself, Hannah; and they held their breath and kept quite still, hoping he’d not notice them, for they’d have felt ashamed to be caught watching there.”

“And it was not himself?” asked Hannah, catching up her breath.

Molly gave her head a shake. “No more than it was you or me: it was his shadow. He walked on up the path, looking neither to the right nor left, and they lost sight of him. I was with mother when they came home. Mary Clarkson, she came in with Beck, and they said they had seen Tom Town, and supposed he had gone out watching, too. Mother advised them to hold their tongues: it didn’t look well, she said, for them two, only sickly young girls, to have run out to the graveyard alone. A short while after, Tom Town, in talking of that night, mother having artfully led to it, said he had gone up to bed at nine with a splitting headache, and forgot all about its being St. Mark’s Eve. When mother heard that, she turned the colour o’ chalk, and looked round at me.”

“And Tom Town died?”

“He died that blessed year; the very day that folks was eating their Michaelmas gooses. A rapid decline took him off.”

“It’s very strange,” said Hannah, musingly. “People believe here that the shadows appear, and folks used to go watching, as it’s said. I don’t think many go now. Did the two young women die?”

“Not they. Becky’s married, and got half-a-dozen children; and Mary Clarkson, she went off to America. Shouldn’t you like to watch?”

“Well, I should,” acknowledged Hannah; “I would, too, if I thought I should see anything. I’ve said more than once in my life that I should just like to go out on St. Mark’s Eve, and see whether there is anything in it or not. My mother went, I know.”

“If you’ll go, I’ll go.”

Hannah made no answer to this at first. She sat looking at the fire with a cross face. It had always a cross look when she was deep in thought. “The mistress would think me such a fool, Molly, if she came to know of it.”

“If! How could she come to know of it? Next Monday will be the Easter holidays, and we mayn’t never have the opportunity again. I shouldn’t wonder but the lane’s full o’ watchers. St. Mark’s Eve don’t often come on a Easter Monday.”

There’s no time to go on with what they said. A good half-hour the two sat there, laying their plans: when once Hannah had decided to go in for the expedition, she made no more bones over it. The nursery-windows faced the front, and when the carriage was heard driving in, they both decamped downstairs—Hannah to the children, Molly to her kitchen. I found Tod, and told him the news: Hannah and Molly were going to watch in the churchyard for the shadows on St. Mark’s Eve.

“We’ll have some fun over this, Johnny,” said he, when he had done laughing. “You and I will be on to them.”

Monday came; and, upon my word, it seemed as if things turned out on purpose. Mr. Todhetley went off to Worcester with Dwarf Giles, on some business connected with the Quarter Sessions, and was not expected home until midnight, as he stayed to dine at Worcester. Mrs. Todhetley had one of her excruciating face-aches, and she went to bed when the children did—seven o’clock. Hannah had said in the morning that she and Molly were going to spend an hour or two with Goody Picker after the children were in bed; upon which Mrs. Todhetley told her to get them to bed early. It was something rare for Hannah to take any holiday; she generally said she did not want it. Goody Picker’s husband used to be a gamekeeper—not ours. Since his death she lived how she could, on her vegetables, or by letting her odd room; Roger Monk had it now. Sometimes she had her grandchild with her; and the parents, well-to-do shopkeepers at Alcester, paid her well. Goody Picker was thought well of at our house, and came up occasionally to have tea in the nursery with Hannah.

I was well by Monday; nothing but a bit of a cough left; and Tod and I looked forward to the night’s fun. Not a word had we heard since; but we had seen the two women-servants whispering together whenever they got the chance; and so we knew they were going. What Tod meant to do, he wouldn’t tell me; I think he hardly knew himself. The big turnips were all gone, or he might have scooped one out for a death’s head, and stuck it on the gate-post, with a candle in it.

The night came. A clear night, with a miserable moon. Miserable for our sport, because it was so bright.

“A pitch-dark night would have had some sense in it, you know, Johnny,” Tod remarked to me, as we stood at the door, looking out. “The moon should hide her face on St. Mark’s Eve.”

Just as he spoke, the clock struck nine. Time to be going. There was nobody to let or hinder us. Mrs. Todhetley was in bed groaning with toothache; old Thomas and Phoebe, neither of whom had cared to take holiday, were at supper in the kitchen. She was a young girl lately had in to help the housemaid.

“You go on, Johnny; I’ll follow presently. Take your time; they won’t go on the watch for this half-hour yet.”

“But, Tod, what is it that you are going to do?”

“Never you mind. If you hear a great noise, and see a light blaze up, don’t you be scared.”

“I scared, Tod! That’s good.”

“All right, Johnny. Take care not to be seen. It might spoil sport.”

The church was about half-a-mile from our house, whether you crossed the fields to it or took the highway. It stood back from the road, in its big churchyard. A narrow lane, between two dwarf hedges, led up from the road to the gate; it was hardly wide enough for carriages; they wound round the open road further on. A cross-path, shut in by two stiles, led right across the lane near to the churchyard gate. Stories went that a poor fellow who had hung himself about twenty years ago was buried by torchlight under that very crossing, with never a parson to say a prayer over him.

We guessed where the women would stand—at one of these crossing stiles, with the gate and the churchyard in full view. As Tod said, it stood to reason that shadows and the watchers for them would not choose the broader road, where all was open, and not so much as a tree grew for shelter.

I stole along cautiously, taking the roadway and keeping under shade of the hedge, and got there all right. Not a creature was about. The old grey church, built of stone, the many-shaped graves in the churchyard, stood white and cold in the moonlight. I went behind the cross-stile at the side furthest from our house, and leaned over it, looking up and down the lane. That the women would be on the opposite side was certain, because the churchyard gate could not be seen so well from this.

The old clock did not tell the quarters, only struck the hour; time went on, and I began to wonder how long I was to wait. It must be turned half-past nine; getting nearer to a quarter to ten; and still nobody came. Where were the watchers? And where was Tod? The shadows of the trees, of the hedges, of the graves, fell in distinct lines on the grass; and I don’t mind confessing that it felt uncommonly lonely.

“Hou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou!” burst forth over my head with a sudden and unearthly sound. I started back in a fright for one moment, and called myself an idiot the next, for it was only an owl. It had come flying forth from the old belfry, and went rushing on with its great wings, crying still, but changing its note. “Tu-whit; tu-whoo.”

And while I watched the owl, other sounds, as of whispering, made themselves manifest, heralding the approach of the women from the opposite field, making for the stile in front of me, through the little copse. Drawing behind the low hedge, to sit down on the stump of a tree, I pushed my head forward, and took a look at them through the lower bars of the stile. They were standing at the other, in their light shawls and new Easter straw-bonnets; Molly’s trimmed with green, Hannah’s with primrose. The moonlight fell full on their faces—mine was in the shade. But they might see me, and I drew back again.

Presently they began to gabble; in low tones at first, which increased, perhaps unconsciously to themselves, to higher ones. They said how lonely it was, especially with “them grave-marks” in view close by; and they speculated upon whether any shadows would appear to them. My sense of loneliness had vanished. To have two practical women, each of them a good five-and-thirty, for neighbours, took it off. But I wondered what had become of Tod.

Another owl! or perhaps the last one coming back again. It was not so startling a noise as before, and created no alarm. I thought it a good opportunity to steal another look, and propelled my head forward an inch at a time. Their two faces were turned upwards, watching the owl’s flight towards the belfry.

But to my intense astonishment there was a third face. A face behind them peeping out from the close folds of a mantle, and almost resting on their shoulders. At the first moment I thought of Tod; but soon the features became familiar to me in the bright light, and I knew them for Phoebe’s. Phoebe, whom I had left in the kitchen, supping quietly! That she had stolen up unseen and unheard while they talked, was apparent.

A wild screech! Two wild screeches. Phoebe had put her hands on the startled women, and given vent to a dismal groan. She laughed: but the others went into a desperate passion. First at having been frightened, next at having been followed. When matters came to be investigated later, it turned out that Phoebe had overheard a conversation between Molly and Hannah, which betrayed what they were about to do, and had come on purpose to startle them.

A row ensued. Bitter words on both sides; mutual abusings. The elder servants ordered Phoebe home; she refused to go, and gave them some sauce. She intended to stay and see what there was to be seen, she said; for all she could tell, their shadows might pass, and a good thing if they did; let alone that she’d not dare to go back by herself at that hour and meet the ghosts. Hannah and Molly cut the matter short by leaving the stile to her; they went round, and took up their places by the churchyard gate.

It seems very stupid to be writing of this, I dare say; it must read like an old ghost-story out of a fable-book; but every word is true, as the people that lived round us then could tell you.

There we waited; Hannah and Molly gathered close against the hedge by the churchyard gate; Phoebe, wrapped in her shawl, leaning on the top of the stile; I on the old tree stump, feeling inclined to go to sleep. It seemed a long time, and the night grew cold. Evidently there were no watchers for St. Mark’s shadows abroad that night, except ourselves. Without warning, the old clock boomed out the strokes of the hour. Ten.

Did you ever have the opportunity of noticing how long it takes for a sound like this to die quite away on the calm night-air? I seemed to hear it still, floating off in the distance, when I became aware that some figure was advancing up the lane towards us with a rather swift step. It’s Tod this time, I thought, and naturally looked out; and I don’t mind telling that I caught hold of the bars of the stile for companionship, in my shock of terror.

I had never seen the dead walking; but I do believe I thought I saw it then. It looked like a corpse in its winding-sheet; whether man or woman, none could tell. An ashey-white, still, ghastly face, enveloped around with bands of white linen, was turned full to the moonlight, that played upon the rigid features. The whole person, from the crown of the head to the soles of the feet, was enshrouded in a white garment. All thoughts of Tod went out of me; and I’m not sure but my hair rose up on end as the thing came on. You may laugh at me, all of you, but just you go and try it.

My fear went for nothing, however; it didn’t damage me. Of all the awful cries ever heard, shrill at first, changing to something like the barking of a dog afterwards, those were the worst that arose opposite. They came from Phoebe. The girl had stood petrified, with straining eyes and laboured breath, like one who has not the power to fly, while the thing advanced. Only when it stopped close and looked at her did the pent-up cries come forth. Then she turned to fly, and the white figure leaped the stile, and went after her into the copse. What immediately followed I cannot remember—never could remember it; but it seemed that not more than a minute had elapsed when I and Molly and Hannah were standing over Phoebe, lying in convulsions on the ground, and the creature nowhere to be seen. The cries had been heard in the road, and some people passing came running up. They lifted the girl in their arms, and bore her homewards.

My senses were coming to me, showing plainly enough that it was no “shadow,” but some ill-starred individual dressed up to personate one. Poor Phoebe! I could hear her cries still, though the group was already out of the copse and crossing the open field beyond. Somebody touched me on the shoulder.

“Tod! Did you do it?”

“Do what?” asked Tod, who was out of breath with running. “What was all that row?”

I told him. Somebody had made himself into a ghost, with a tied-up whitened face, just as the dead have, and came up the Green Lane in a sheet; and Phoebe was being carried home in convulsions.

“You are a fool, Johnny,” was his wrathful answer. “I am not one to risk a thing of that sort, not even for those two old women we came out to frighten. Look here.”

He went to the edge of the copse near the road, and showed me some things—the old pistol from the stable, and gunpowder lights that went off with a crash yards high. It’s not of much use going into it now. Tod had meant, standing at a safe distance, to set a light to the explosive articles, and fire off his pistol at the same time.

“It would have been so good to see the women scutter off in their fright, Johnny; and it couldn’t have hurt them. They might have looked upon it as the blue-light from below.”

“What made you so late?”

“Late!” returned Tod, savagely; “I am late, and the fun’s spoilt. That confounded old Duff and his cane came in to see you, Johnny, just as I was starting; there was nobody else, and I couldn’t leave him. I said you were in bed and asleep, but it didn’t send him away. Down he sat, telling a tale of how hard-worked he’d been all day, and asking for brandy-and-water. The dickens take him!”

“And, Tod, it was really not you?”

“If you repeat that again, Johnny, I’ll strike you. I swear it was not me. There! I never told you a lie yet.”

He never had; and from that moment of strong denial I know that Tod had no more to do with the matter than I had.

“I wonder who it could have been?”

“I’ll find that out, as sure as my name’s Todhetley,” he said, catching up his pistols and lights.

We ran all the way home, looking out in vain for the ghost on our way, and got in almost as soon as the rest. What a hullabaloo it was! They put a mattress on the kitchen floor, and laid Phoebe on it. Mr. Duffham was upon the scene in no time; the Squire had returned earlier than was thought for, and Mrs. Todhetley came down with her face smothered in a woollen handkerchief.

As to any concealment now, it was useless to think of it. None was attempted, and Molly and Hannah had to confess that they went out to watch for the shadows. The Squire blustered at them a little, but Mrs. Todhetley said the keenest thing, in her mild way:

“At your age, Hannah!”

“I have known a person rendered an idiot for life with a less fright than this,” said old Duff, turning round to speak. “It was the following her that did the mischief.”

Nothing could be done that night as to investigation; but with the morning the Squire entered upon it in hot anger. “Couldn’t the fool have been contented with what he’d already done, without going over the stile after her? If I spend a fifty-pound note, I’ll unearth him. It looks to me uncommonly like a trick you two boys would play,” he added, turning sharply upon me and Tod.

And the suspicion made us all the more eager to find out the real fox. But not a clue could we discover. Nobody had known of the proposed expedition except Goody Picker; and she, as everybody testified, was true to the backbone. As the day went on, and nothing came of it, Tod had one of his stamping fits.

“If one could find out whether it was man or woman! If one could divine how they got at the knowledge!” stamped Tod. “The pater does not look sure about us yet.”

“I wonder if it could have been Roger Monk?” I said, speaking out a thought that had been dimly creeping up in my mind by starts all day.

“Roger Monk!” repeated Tod, “why pitch upon him?”

“Only that it’s just possible he might have got it out of Goody Picker.”

Away went Tod, in his straightforward fashion, to look for Roger Monk. He was in the hot-house, doing something to his plants.

“Monk, did you play that trick last night?”

“What trick, sir?” asked Monk, twitching a good-for-nothing leaf off a budding geranium.

“What trick! As if there were more tricks than one played! I mean dressing yourself up like a dead man, and frightening Phoebe.”

“I have too much to do with my work, Mr. Todhetley, to find time to play tricks. I took no holiday at all yesterday, day or night, but was about my business till I went to bed. They were saying out here this morning that the Squire thought you had done it.”

“Don’t you be insolent, Monk. That won’t answer with me.”

“Well, sir, it is not pleasant to be accused point-blank of a crime, as you’ve just accused me. I know nothing at all about the matter. ‘Twasn’t me. I had no grudge against Phoebe, that I should harm her.”

Tod was satisfied; I was not. He never once looked in either of our faces as he was speaking. We leaped the wire-fence and went across to Goody Picker’s, bursting into her kitchen without ceremony.

“I say, Mrs. Picker, we can’t find out anything about that business last night,” began Tod.

“And you never will, gentlemen, as is my opinion,” returned Mrs. Picker, getting up in a bustle and dusting two wooden chairs. “Whoever did that, have took himself off for a bit; never doubt it. ’Twas some one o’ them village lads.”

“We have been wondering whether it was Roger Monk.”

“Lawk-a-mercy!” cried she, dropping a basin on the brick floor. And if ever I saw a woman change colour, she did.

“What’s the matter now?”

“Why, you sent me into a tremble, gentlemen, saying that,” she answered, stooping to pick up the broken crockery. “A young man lodging in my place, do such a villain’s trick! I’d not like to think it; I shouldn’t rest in my bed. The two servants having started right out from here for the churchyard have cowed-down my heart bad enough, without more ill news.”

“What time did Monk come in last night?” questioned Tod. “Do you remember?”

“He come in after Mrs. Hannah and the other had gone,” she replied, taking a moment’s pause. “Close upon it; I’d hardly shut my door on them when I had to open it to him.”

“Did he go out again?”

“Not he, sir. He eat his supper, telling me in a grumbling tone about the extra work he’d had to do in the greenhouses and places, because the other man had took holiday best part o’ the day. And then he went up to bed. Right tired he seemed.”

We left her fitting the pieces of the basin together, and went home. “It wasn’t Monk,” said Tod. “But now—where to look for the right man, Johnny?”

Look as we might, we did not find him. Phoebe was better in a day or two, but the convulsive fits stuck to her, coming on at all sorts of unexpected times. Old Duff thought it might end in insanity.

And that’s what came of Watching for the Shadows on St. Mark’s Eve!

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