There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Moonlight on the fen: The Barn On the Marsh by Charles G.D. Roberts

In a Facebook post last week the author Mark Fuller Dillon mentioned the Charles G.D. Roberts story "The Barn On the Marsh."

It is a perfectly executed gem-like anecdote of rural horror.

The Barn On The Marsh

It had not always stood on the marsh. When I was a little boy of seven, it occupied the rear of our neighbor's yard, not a stone's throw from the rectory gate, on one of the windy, sunshiny spurs of South Mountain. A perpetual eyesore to the rector; but I cannot help thinking, as I view it now in the concentrated light of memory, that it did artistic service in the way of a foil to the loveliness of the rectory garden. This garden was the rector's delight, but to my restless seven years it was a sort of gay-colored and ever-threatening bugbear.

Weeding, and especially such thorough, radical weeding as alone would satisfy the rector's conscience, was my detestation; and, moreover, just at the time of being called upon to weed, there was sure to be something else of engrossing importance which my nimble little wits had set themselves upon doing.

But I never found courage to betray my lack of sympathy in all its iciness. The sight of the rector's enthusiasm filled me ever with a sense of guilt, and I used to weed quite diligently, at times.

One morning the rector had lured me out early, before breakfast, while the sun yet hung low above the shining marshes. We were working cheerfully together at the carrot-beds. The smell of the moist earth and of the dewy young carrot-plants, bruised by my hasty fingers, comes vividly upon my senses even now.

Suddenly I heard the rector cry, "Bother!" in a tone which spoke volumes. I saw he had broken his hoe short off at the handle. I stopped work with alacrity, and gazed with commiserating interest, while I began wiping my muddy little fingers on my knickerbockers in bright anticipation of some new departure which should put a pause to the weeding.

In a moment or two the vexed wrinkles smoothed themselves out of the rector's brow, and he turned to me with the proposal that we should go over to our neighbor's and repair the damage.

One end of the barn, as we knew, was used for a workshop. We crossed the road, let down the bars, put to flight a flock of pigeons that were feeding among the scattered straw, and threw open the big barn doors.

There, just inside, hung the dead body of our neighbor, his face distorted and purple. And, while I stood sobbing with horror, the rector cut him down with the draw-knife which he had come to borrow.

Soon after this tragedy, the barn was moved down to the marsh, to be used for storing hay and farm implements. And by the time the scene had faded from my mind, the rector gave up the dear delights of his garden, and took us off to a distant city parish. Not until I had reached eighteen, and the dignity of college cap and gown, did I revisit the salty breezes of South Mountain.

Then I came to see friends who were living in the old rectory. About two miles away, by the main road, dwelt certain other friends, with whom I was given to spending most of my evenings, and who possessed some strange charm which would never permit me to say good-night at anything like a seasonable hour.

The distance, as I said, to these friends was about two miles, if you followed the main road; but there was a short cut, a road across the marsh, used chiefly by the hay-makers and the fishermen, not pleasant to travel in wet weather, but good enough for me at all times in the frame of mind in which I found myself.

This road, on either hand, was bordered by a high rail fence, along which rose, here and there, the bleak spire of a ghostly and perishing Lombardy poplar. This is the tree of all least suited to those wind-beaten regions, but none other will the country people plant. Close up to the road, at one point, curved a massive sweep of red dike, and further to the right stretched the miles on miles of naked marsh, till they lost themselves in the lonely, shifting waters of the Basin.

About twenty paces back from the fence, with its big doors opening toward the road, a conspicuous landmark in all my nightly walks, stood the barn.

I remembered vividly enough, but in a remote, impersonal sort of way, the scene on that far-off sunny summer morning. As, night after night, I swung past the ancient doors, my brain in a pleasant confusion, I never gave the remembrance any heed. Finally, I ceased to recall it, and the rattling of the wind in the time-warped shingles fell on utterly careless ears.

One night, as I started homeward upon the verge of twelve, the marsh seemed all alive with flying gleams. The moon was past the full, white and high; the sky was thick with small black clouds, streaming dizzily across the moon's face, and a moist wind piped steadily, in from the sea.

I was walking swiftly, not much alive to outward impressions, scarce noticing even the strange play of the moon-shadows over the marshes, and had got perhaps a stone's throw past the barn, when a creeping sensation about my skin, and a thrill of nervous apprehension made me stop suddenly and take a look behind.

The impulse seized me unawares, or I should have laughed at myself and gone on without yielding to such a weakness. But it was too late. My gaze darted unerringly to the barn, whose great doors stood wide open. There, swaying almost imperceptibly in the wind, hung the body of our neighbor, as I had seen it that dreadful morning long ago.

For a moment I could hear again my childish sobs, and the remembrance of that horror filled me with self-pity. Then, as the roots of my hair began to stir, my feet set themselves instinctively for flight. This instinct, however, I promptly and sternly repressed. I knew all about these optical illusions, and tried to congratulate myself on this opportunity for investigating one so interesting and vivid. At the same time I gave a hasty side-thought to what would have happened had I been one of the superstitious farmhands or fishermen of the district. I should have taken to my heels in desperate terror, and been ever after faithfully persuaded of having looked upon a veritable ghost.

I said to myself that the apparition, if I looked upon it steadfastly, would vanish as I approached, or, more probably, resolve itself into some chance combination of moonlight and shadows. In fact, my reason was perfectly satisfied that the ghostly vision was due solely to the association of ideas,--I was fresh from my classes in philosophy,--aided and abetted by my own pretty vivid imagination. Yet the natural man, this physical being of mine, revolted in every fibre of the flesh from any closer acquaintance with the thing.

I began, with reluctant feet, to retrace my steps; but as I did so, the vision only grew so much the clearer; and a cold perspiration broke out upon me. Step by step I approached, till I stood just outside the fence, face to face with the apparition.

I leaned against the fence, looking through between the rails; and now, at this distance, every feature came out with awful distinctness--all so horrible in its distortion that I cannot bear to describe it.

As each fresh gust of wind hissed through the chinks, I could see the body swing before it, heavily and slowly. I had to bring all my philosophy to bear, else my feet would have carried me off in a frenzy of flight.

At last I reached the conclusion that since my sight was so helplessly deceived, I should have to depend upon the touch. In no other way could I detect the true basis of the illusion; and this way was a hard one. By much argument and self-persuasion I prevailed upon myself to climb the fence, and with a sort of despairing doggedness to let myself down on the inside.

Just then the clouds thickened over the face of the moon, and the light faded rapidly. To get down inside the fence with that thing was, for a moment, simply sickening, and my eyes dilated with the intensity of my stare. Then common-sense came to the rescue, with a revulsion of feeling, and I laughed--though not very mirthfully--at the thoroughness of my scare.

With an assumption of coolness and defiance I walked right up to the open doors; and when so close that I could have touched it with my walking-stick, the thing swayed gently and faced me in the light of the re-appearing moon.

Could my eyes deceive me? It certainly was our neighbor.

Scarcely knowing what I did, I thrust out my stick and touched it, shrinking back as I did so. What I touched, plain instantly to my sight, was a piece of wood and iron,--some portion of a mowing-machine or reaper, which had been, apparently, repainted and hung up across the door-pole to dry.

It swayed in the wind. The straying fingers of the moonbeams through the chinks pencilled it strangely, and the shadows were huddled black behind it. But now it hung revealed, with no more likeness to a human body than any average well-meaning farm-implement might be expected to have.

With a huge sigh of relief I turned away. As I climbed the fence once more I gave a parting glance toward the yawning doorway of the barn on the marsh. There, as plain as before I had pierced the bubble, swung the body of my neighbor. And all the way home, though I would not turn my head, I felt it at my heels.

(The end)
Charles G. D. Roberts's short story: Barn On The Marsh


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