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A.E.W. MASON

THE VICAR'S CONVERSION

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Syndicated internationally and published, e.g., in:
The Telegraph, Brisbane, Australia, May 18, 1917
(this text)
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2015
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"THESE are fancies," said the vicar.

The vicar was fresh to the parish, and had come straight from a college lecture room. The peasant with whom he was walking on the trim gravel path between the lich-gate and the church door had heard that clock strike six on every morning of his 72 years.

"These are fancies, Jan, and reprehensible. It is disheartening to notice how the traditions of ignorance still live in distant villages. In olden times there was more excuse, and to be sure instances were more common. An unexpected draught of wind on a calm day and a rustle of the trees, and at once it was the fairies calling 'horse and hattock,'* as they were transported from place to place. To see oneself in a dream divided into a two-fold person was a sign of death, doubtless because such a vision had happened to a man in a delirium and near his end. Superstition was an excuse, too, for quacks, and by them encouraged. There was a miller in Norfolk who owned a beryl set in a circle of silver, on which were engraved the names of four angels—Ariel, Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel—and in his beryl he professed to see prescriptions written on the images of herbs, and so to cure the sick."

[* "Horse and hattock." A phrase that, according to folklore, fairies utter when they move themselves or an object from one location to another.]

Jan shook his head in admiration of the vicar's harangue.

"There's book-larnin' in every word," he said.

"Then there are the phantasmata proper," continued the vicar, "such as corpse-candles, which, rightly understood, are no more than will-o'-the-wisps or marsh fires and exhalations of the soil, and when seen in churchyards are indeed an argument for cremation."

The vicar was enjoying his lecture too much to remark the look of dismay on Jan's old, wrinkled face, or to pay any heed to his expostulation against that or any argument for cremation. He bore Jan down with knowledge.

"Besides these, there are the apparitions, reserved, it would seem," he continued, with a severe look at Jan, "to those who have the second sight. The Scotch are the chief offenders in claiming that gift, and they tell many ridiculous stories about meeting people on the high road with winding sheets up to their knees or necks, according as they are to die immediately or only soon. There is a legend told of the Macleans, whose child's nurse began suddenly to weep when she saw Maclean and his lady entering together. She wept, it seems, because she saw between them a man in a scarlet cloak and a white hat, who gave the lady a kiss. And the meaning of that rubbish was that Maclean would die and his lady marry again, and marry a man in a scarlet cloak and a white hat."

"An' did she?" interrupted Jan.

"Did she?" said the vicar with scorn. "Would any woman marry a man in a scarlet cloak and a white hat?"

"She might be daft loike," said Jan.

The vicar waved the suggestion aside.

"The Scotch, indeed, make the most absurd pretensions. Aubrey writes that in the Island of Skye they offered in his day to teach second sight for a pound of tobacco."

"They couldn't do that,'' said Jan. "'Tisn't to he larned. 'Tis born in the blood so to speak. My father had it afore me—"

"Now, Jan," interrupted the vicar, "I cannot listen to you. It is mere presumption for you to speak in that way."

"Be sure, vicar," replied Jan. "Oi aren't proud o' the gift. Would get rid of it if Oi cud. 'Tisn't pleasant to sit suppin' your ale with them as you knows are corpses already, so to say, and many years Oi've never been near churchyard at all on New Year's Eve, so as Oi' moighn't knaw. But when Oi do come, sure enough all who are goin' to doi durin' the year comes down the lane, through the gate, and on the path into the church. An those who'll doi first comes first. They don't wear no sheets or trappin's, but they comes in their clothes, opens gate, and so into church. An' Oi'll prove it to you, vicar."

"How?"

"Oi'll watch to-morrow, bein' New Year's Eve, and Oi'll wroite down the names of the three who first go through the gate. Then Oi'll put the names in envelopes and mark 'em outside, '1,' '2,' '3,' and give you the envelopes. Then, when the first person doies you open the first envelope, and there you'll find the name, and same wi' the second and the third."

The vicar was in a quandary. It was undignified to accept the challenge; it would seem cowardly to refuse it. He compounded with his dignity and accepted.

"Not because I have any doubts myself," he said to Jan, "but in order to convince you of the absurdity of your pretension."


On the first day of January the three envelopes were delivered to him by Jan. They were sealed and numbered. The vicar tossed them contemptuously into a drawer, and locked them up. He forgot them altogether until the end of the month, when he was summoned hastily to the bedside of a labourer who was ill with influenza. The man was very old—84, the doctor said.

"Is there a chance of his living?" asked the vicar when he came out of the cottage with the doctor.

"Not one in ten thousand. He has been breaking for months. Last autumn I didn't think he would see another summer."

The vicar met Jan in the street, and remembered the envelopes. He shrugged his shoulders at the recollection of the ridiculous challenge, and went home to his study. His uncompleted sermon lay on his desk, and he sat down to it. In a minute or two he went to his bookcase for a reference, and, standing before his shelves, forgot why he had risen from his chair. He was thinking, "After all, old Peter Stewer's death was an easy guess." He went back to his table and unlocked the drawer. "It wouldn't be proof if Peter Stewer's name was in envelope No. 1."

He took out envelope No. 1. "Anyone, it seemed, might have known in the autumn that Peter Stewer was breaking." And his next thought was, "Those envelopes are very thick." He woke up with a start, to realise that be was holding the envelope up to the light of the window, and he tossed it back impatiently and snapped the drawer to. Peter Stewer died at three o'clock in the morning. The vicar heard the news at nine, as he was walking to the cottage, and he suddenly turned back as though he were going home. He changed his mind, however, and turned again, continuing his walk to the cottage.

"He was eighty-four," said Peter's daughter, phlegmatically.

"A ripe age," replied the vicar.

He repeated, "Eighty-four," to himself more than once as he went home.

"Eighty-four. Very likely his name's in the envelope. There's no proof in that."

And he felt himself grabbed by the arm. It was the doctor who had caught hold of him.

"You're in a great hurry," said the doctor.

"Am I?" said the vicar, colouring red. "I did not notice. My thoughts were busy."

"On to-morrow's sermon, eh? Well I won't spoil it."

The vicar, however, now would not let the doctor go. He loitered; he had word for everybody he passed in the street and it was not until the evening that he opened the envelope. He opened it with a great show of carelessness all the greater because he was conscious that his heart was beating a little quicker than usual. He was prepared for the name and yet the sight of it written there in black and white, "Peter Stewer," was a shock to him. He tore the paper into fragments and tried to thrust the matter from his mind.

But Jan was at the funeral, and after the ceremony he said:—

"What did I tell 'ee, vicar?"

"Peter was old," said the vicar, "and breaking fast. It was easy to guess his name."

"Wait to the next, vicar," said Jan. "Oi'm not proud o' the gift. Oi wish oi hand't it. But wait to the next."


Now, the parish was situated in a healthy upland district and the winter was mild. One or two of the elder people suffered the usual ailments in February and March, but there was no serious illness. More than once the vicar was inclined to tear up his envelopes during that time, for he had come to live in an expectation of a summons to a death-bed. But it would have seemed almost a confession that he gave in, that he admitted the possibility of second sight, and the possession of it by Jan.

He did not. He assured himself often that he did not. Indeed, it would after all prove nothing if all three envelopes contained the correct names. For there were extraordinary flukes; they happened every day. The vicar had read in his newspaper of their happening at gambling saloons. Jan was just gambling on the names as a player on numbers. No, the vicar did not object to the letters because he shirked the challenge, but because they kept him, in spite of himself, speculating who of his parishioners would be the next to go.

Half-way through March he knew. A servant from the great house on the hangar* above the village came to fetch him. A runaway horse, a collision with a cart and the daughter of the house was seriously hurt—this was the footman's story. The vicar hurried up the hill. The envelopes in his drawer were at that time swept clean out of his mind. He had no thoughts but thoughts of dread and pity. The girl who had been injured was barely nineteen, and she had all her acquaintances for her friends.

[* Sic. Presumably a variant of "hanger" in the sense of "a wooded upland area."]

The doctor was already upstairs. The vicar waited in the great hall with the girl's father, hearing over and over again a broken narrative of the accident. At last the doctor descended, and neither of the two men waiting below had the courage to put the question. The doctor replied to their looks, and replied cheerfully. He recommended that a telegram should be sent for a specialist.

"There is a chance, then?" asked the father, in a voice he could not raise above a whisper.

"More than a chance," replied the doctor, and the vicar was at once, in spite of himself and against his will, certain there was no chance—not one in ten thousand. Perhaps it was that he remembered a similar question put by him outside old Peter Stewer's gate. At all events the envelopes were recalled to his mind. Jan had as much as told him that the next of his parishioners to go would be young. And a conviction, which he could not shake off, stood fixed in his mind that "Gertrude Leslie" was the name written within the envelope.

He seemed, as he stood there in the hall, listening to the interchange of hopeful words, to be actually reading the name through the envelope, and it was with a start almost of guilt that he roused himself to take his leave. In three days' time he had occasion to open the second envelope. "Gertrude Leslie" was the name inscribed in it, and he opened it on the day of Gertrude Leslie's death.

"What did I tell 'ee, vicar?" said Jan.

The vicar hurried away without answering. He could not argue that Jan had merely made a lucky guess. Apart from the other circumstances, it hardly seemed natural that Jan should have guessed at the squire's daughter at all, when there were all his cronies and acquaintances to select from. The vicar from that moment took an aversion to Jan as to something repellent and uncanny, and it became a surprise to him that the villagers regarded the peasant with indifference, and almost with pity, as being endowed with a commonplace but uncomfortable gift.

The vicar no longer disbelieved in Jan's second sight. He owned as much frankly to himself one evening, and took the third envelope from the drawer.

"I may as well burn this, then," he debated, "since I am already convinced." And even while he was debating he replaced it in the drawer. His disbelief was replaced by curiosity—curiosity to know not so much whose name was in the envelope, but rather which of his parishioners would be the next to die, a point upon which the breaking of the seal would surely illumine him. He felt that it would be weak, however, to break the seal. He had a sense, too, that it would be wrong. It seemed to him almost that it would he an acknowledgment of a submission to the powers of darkness.

But he kept the envelope, and it tormented him like a forbidden thing. It called him to break the seal and read; it became permanent in his thoughts. His parishioners began to notice a curious, secret look of inquiry, which came into his eyes whenever he met or spoke with them. He was speculating, "Is it you?"

And the spring came.

Thee vicar threw up his window one morning, and felt his blood renewed. He drew in the fresh morning air, with a consciousness that of late he had been living in and breathing a miasma. The trees in his garden were living and musical with birds, there were sprouts of tender green upon the branches, the blackbirds were pecking at his lawn, and between the blades of grass he saw the shy white bells of snowdrops. He determined to brush all this oppressive curiosity from his mind, to forget the envelope lurking in his drawer.

He breakfasted and went out to make a call. On his way to the cottage he was visiting he passed the post office. By the letter box the schoolmistress was standing with some letters in her hand. She raised her hand and slipped one of the letters into the box just as the vicar came up to her. The vicar was a keen-sighted man, and it chanced that his eyes fell upon the envelope. He read the superscription, and recognised the handwriting. The envelope was addressed to Jan's son, a yeoman with the South African Field Force, and the address was written in the same handwriting as the names in the enveloped marked "1" and "2" which he had opened.

"So you are posting Jan's letters?" said the vicar, who was a trifle puzzled.

"Yes," explained the schoolmistress. "Jan's an old man, and there was no school here when he was a boy. So he never learned to read or write. He tells me what he wants to say to his boy, and I write it for him."

"Then you know the name in the third envelope?" cried the vicar.

The question was out and spoken before he was aware of what he said. Then he flushed with shame. It was humiliating, it was most undignified to betray such vehement curiosity. The vicar was so disconcerted that he barely paid heed to the confusion and excuses of the school mistress.

"I did not know why Jan wanted the names written," she pleaded. "He never told me. I would not have done it if I had known that this was one of his heathenish tricks. I did not guess until the squire's daughter died. I don't believe it, sir, even now, any more than you do."

"Well, well!" The vicar cut her short, anxious to escape from his undignified position! "You were not to blame, since you did not know. But it is not right to encourage Jan in these"—he cast about for an ambiguous word, and found it—"in these devices."


The vicar hurried home in a turmoil of indignation against Jan, and more particularly against himself. He would put an end to the obsession of this sealed envelope which was daily engrossing more and more of his life. He went straight to his study, unlocked the drawer, and pulled out the envelope. He tore it open, shutting his eyes the while unconsciously, so that he might read the name at once and have done with it. Then he opened his eyes and read.

The name was his own!

The vicar looked out of his window upon his garden, but the spring morning had lost its charm for him.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.