The Superstitious Man's Story by Thomas Hardy
"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
"To her great surprise, and I might say alarm, on reaching the foot
of the stairs his boots were standing there as they always stood when
he had gone to rest. Going up to their chamber, she found him in bed
sleeping as sound as a rock. How he could have got back again without
her seeing or hearing him was beyond her comprehension. It could only
have been by passing behind her very quietly while she was bumping with
the iron. But this notion did not satisfy her: it was surely impossible
that she should not have seen him come in through a room so small. She
could not unravel the mystery, and felt very queer and uncomfortable
about it. However, she would not disturb him to question him then, and
went to bed herself.
"He rose and left for his work very early the next morning, before
she was awake, and she waited his return to breakfast with much anxiety
for an explanation, for thinking over the matter by daylight made it
seem only the more startling. When he came in to the meal he said,
before she could put her question, 'What's the meaning of them words
chalked on the door?'
"She told him, and asked him about his going out the night before.
William declared that he had never left the bedroom after entering it,
having in fact undressed, lain down, and fallen asleep directly, never
once waking till the clock struck five, and he rose up to go to his
"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
"'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
"'Yes. And we were frightened enough, I can tell 'ee by what we
"'What did ye see?'
"(You may not remember, sir, having gone off to foreign parts so
young, that on Midsummer Night it is believed hereabout that the faint
shapes of all the folk in the parish who are going to be at death's
door within the year can be seen entering the church. Those who get
over their illness come out again after awhile; those that are doomed
to die do not return.)
"'What did you see?' asked William's wife.
"'Well,' says Nancy, backwardly--'we needn't tell what we saw or who
"'You saw my husband,' said Betty Privettin 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
"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' lunch 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