Man-size in Marble - Bill Bowler

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Part one

My name is Jack Collis, and every word of this story is true — although many people probably won't believe it. These days people need a logical explanation before they believe anything. If you want an explanation like that, perhaps my wife Laura and I just imagined everything that happened to us on that 31st of October 1893. I'll let you, the reader, decide.

When I became engaged to Laura, we knew we wouldn't have much money when we married. I used to paint in those days, and Laura wrote. Living in town was expensive, so we started looking for a country cottage — something pretty but with an inside toilet — to live in after we were married. We searched in newspaper advertisements for some time, but all the cottages that we visited with inside toilets looked terrible, and all the pretty ones had no inside toilets.

On our wedding day we were still homeless, but on our honeymoon we found the perfect place. It was in Brenzett, a little village on a hill in the south, not far from the coast. We'd gone there from the seaside town where we were staying to visit the church. Nearby we found a pretty cottage with a bathroom, standing all alone about two miles from the village. It was a long low building with flowers round it, all that was left of a big old house which had once stood here. We decided to rent it at once. It was awfully cheap.

We spent the rest of our honeymoon buying old furniture from shops in the nearby market town, and new curtains and chair covers from one of the big shops up in London, and the place soon began to feel like home. It was easy to work there. I never got tired of painting the countryside and the wonderful sky I could see through the open window, and Laura sat at the table and wrote about all of it, and about me.

We found a tall old woman from the village to cook and clean for us. She was tidy, skilled at cooking, and understood everything about gardens. She also told us the old names of the places nearby, and tales of robbers who'd once lived there, and of ghosts who sometimes met people in the neighborhood when it was late at night.

She was the perfect servant for us. Laura hated cooking and cleaning, and I loved listening to old stories. So we left Mrs Dorman to manage the cottage, and used her old tales in stories with pictures that we sent to magazines, which helped to bring in some money.

We had three months of married happiness, and never argued. Then one October evening I went to visit our only neighbor, Dr Kelly — a pleasant Irishman — for a talk and a smoke of my pipe. I left Laura all smiles, writing a funny magazine story about village life. But when I came back, I found her sitting on the window seat, crying.

'What's the matter?' I asked.

'Oh, Jack! It's Mrs Dorman,' she moaned. 'She says she has to go before the end of the month to care for her sick niece. But I don't believe her because her niece is always ill. I think someone's turned her against us. She seemed so strange when she spoke to me.'

'Don't worry dearest,' I said.

'But don't you see? If she leaves, none of the other villagers will want to come here, and I'll have to cook and wash plates and you'll have to clean knives and forks and we won't have time for writing or painting.'

'I'll speak to Mrs Dorman when she comes back,' I said, trying to calm her down. 'Perhaps she wants more money. It'll be all right. Let's walk up to the church.'

The church was large and lovely, and we enjoyed going there on nights when the moon was full. The path to it went through a wood, past two fields, and round the churchyard wall. It had been the old way they used to take coffins to the church for funerals.

There were lots of dark trees in the churchyard. The church door was a heavy wooden one, and the windows were of colored glass. Inside there were rows of dark wooden seats, and at the eastern end there were two grey marble figures of old knights in armor, one on each side, lying on their tombs.

Strangely you could always see them, even if the rest of the church was nearly in darkness.

Their names were lost in the past, but the villagers said they'd been wild and terrible men, and that one night, in a great storm, lightning had struck their big old house and destroyed it. Interestingly this was the place where now our cottage stood. For all that, their sons' gold had bought them the place in the church where they were buried.

Looking at their hard, proud marble faces, it was easy to believe the story was true.

The church looked at its best and strangest that evening. We sat down together without speaking, and stared for a time at the fine stone walls around us. We walked over to look at the sleeping knights. Then we went out and rested on the seat by the church door, looking across the fields while the sun went down. As we came away, we felt that even doing the cooking and cleaning ourselves wasn't really so bad.

When we arrived home, Mrs Dorman had come back from the village. I asked her to come into my painting room for a short talk.

'Mrs Dorman,' I said, when we were alone, 'Aren't you happy here with us?'

'Oh, no, sir. You and your dear lady have always been most kind to me.'

'Aren't we paying you enough?'

'No, sir. I get quite enough.'

'Then why don't you want to stay with us?'

'My niece is ill,' she said uneasily. 'I must leave before the end of the month.'

'But your niece has been ill since we arrived.'

A long uncomfortable silence followed. I broke it.

'Can't you stay for another week?'

'No, sir. I must go by Thursday. But perhaps I can come back to you next week.'

I was now sure all she wanted was a short holiday.

'But why must you leave this week?' I asked.

She looked nervous and went on slowly.

'They say sir, that this was a big house in the old days, and that many strange, dark things happened here. The owners, when young men, loved nothing better than attacking, robbing, and killing both men and women on land and sea. They were dangerous men, sir, and no one stood up against them. So, year by year, they went from bad to worse. In the end their terrible crimes against nature, and all the deaths of the poor little children from the villages nearby, brought the lightning down from the sky to destroy them.'

I was pleased that Laura wasn't in the room with us. She was always nervous, and I felt that these old stories would perhaps make our house less dear to her.

'Tell me more, Mrs Dorman,' I said. 'Please. I'm not like lots of young people these days who laugh at strange things like that.'

This was true in a way. I loved her stories, although I didn't really believe them.

'Well, sir,' she began in a low voice, 'Perhaps you've seen the two figures in the church.'

'You mean the knights,' I said cheerfully.

'I mean those two bodies man-size in marble. They say that at Halloween those two bodies sit up and get off their tombs, and that — as the church clock strikes eleven — they walk in their marble out of the church door, over the graves, and along the path.'

'And where do they go?' I asked interestedly.

'They come back here to their house, sir, and if anyone meets them...'

'Well, what happens?' I asked.

But I couldn't get another word from her, although she warned me, 'Lock the house early on Halloween, sir, and make the sign of the cross over the door and windows.'

'But who was here at Halloween last year?'

'No one, sir. The lady who owned the house only stayed in the summer and always went to London a full month before the night. I'm sorry to bring trouble to you and your lady, but my niece is ill and I must go on Thursday.'

She'd decided she would go, and that nothing we could say would stop her.

I didn't tell Laura the tale of the figures that 'walked in their marble'. I didn't want to upset her. This was, I felt, different from Mrs Dorman's other stories — and I didn't want to talk about it until the day was past.

I was painting a picture of Laura in front of the window all that week, and while I worked on it, I couldn't stop thinking about the tale of the two knights.

On Thursday Mrs Dorman left, saying to Laura as she went, 'Don't go out too much, madam, and if there's anything I can do for you next week, I'll be happy to help.'

From that I understood she wished to come back after Halloween, though to the end she continued with the story of her sick niece.

Thursday went well. Laura cooked a lovely dinner, and I washed the knives, forks and plates not too badly afterwards. Soon Friday came, and it's what happened then that this story is really about.

Part two

Everything that happened on that day is burned into my memory, and I'll tell the story as clearly as I can.

I got up early, I remember, and had just managed to light the kitchen fire when my lovely wife came running downstairs as bright as that clear October morning. We enjoyed making breakfast together, and washing the plates and knives afterwards. We cleaned and tidied all morning, and then had cold meat and coffee for lunch. Laura seemed, if possible, even sweeter than usual and the walk that we took together that afternoon was the happiest time of my life. When we'd watched the sun go down, and the evening mist thicken in the fields, we came back to the house, silently, hand in hand.

'You're sad, dearest,' I said as we sat down together in our little sitting room.

'Yes, I am,' she replied, 'Or a little uneasy. I don't think I'm very well. I've shivered two or three times since we came in, and it isn't cold in here, is it?'

'You haven't caught a cold from the mist, have you?' I asked her worriedly.

'I don't think so,' she said. Then she added suddenly, 'Jack, do you ever feel something evil's going to happen?'

'No,' I smiled. 'I don't believe in that kind of thing.'

'I do,' she went on. 'The night my father died I knew it, although he was far away in the north of Scotland.'

We sat watching the fire for some time in silence. In the end she jumped up and kissed me suddenly.

'Don't worry about me,' she said. 'I'm better now. What a baby I am! Let's play some music together.'

So we spent a happy hour or two at the piano.

At about half past ten I felt I needed my pipe. Laura looked so white I felt it would be awful to smoke inside, so I said, 'I'll take my pipe outside.'

'I'll come too.'

'Not tonight, dearest. Go to bed. You look really tired.'

I kissed her, and was turning to go when she threw her arms round my neck, and held me close, saying, 'I never want to let you go. Don't stay out too long.'

'I won't.'

I walked slowly out of the front door, leaving it unlocked. What a night it was! The sky was full of dark clouds hurrying by, and a thin mist covered the stars. The moon swam high up, sometimes disappearing behind the fast-moving cloud river, and sometimes shining down on the trees which waved slowly and noiselessly below. There was a strange grey light that night which shone over all the earth.

I walked up and down. Everything was silent. The wind was so high in the sky even the dead leaves on the path were still and quiet. Across the fields I could see the church tower standing black against the sky. I heard the church bell striking. It was eleven o'clock already.

I turned to go into the cottage, but the night held me. I couldn't go back into our warm rooms just yet. I decided to walk over to the church. I felt in a strange way I should offer up my thanks there for my faithful, loving wife. I imagined then our long, sweet life together.

As I walked slowly along the edge of the wood a sound from among the trees broke the stillness of the night. I could clearly hear footsteps that echoed mine. 'It's probably a villager looking for fallen branches for their fire, or hoping to catch some forest animal under cover of darkness,' I thought. 'But he really should learn to step more lightly.'

I turned into the wood. Now the footsteps seemed to come from the path behind me. 'It must be an echo,' I said to myself.

Soon I was crossing the churchyard. I stopped for a while at the seat where Laura and I had watched the sun go down. Then I saw the church door was open. I felt bad about not closing it well on our last visit, for we were the only people who came there except on Sundays. Then, suddenly, I remembered this was the day and the hour when the villagers believed 'the shapes in man-size marble' began to walk.

I knew I had to go into the church. I planned to tell Mrs Dorman I'd seen the knights there at eleven o'clock on Halloween and that her tale was just a crazy story, nothing more. When I walked inside, everything was in darkness.

As I went towards the eastern end of the church it seemed strangely larger. Then the moon came out and showed me the reason. The man-size marble bodies were gone!

Was I going crazy? I went forward and put my hand out to touch the flat tops of the tombs. Had someone stolen them? A sudden nameless fear filled my heart, and I shivered. Something unbelievably evil was going to happen, I knew. I ran from the church, biting my lip to stop myself from screaming.

I hurried across the fields towards the light that shone from our cottage window. Suddenly a black figure jumped out of the blackness in front of me. I ran towards it crazily, shouting, 'Get out of my way!'

But a hand took my arm and held it strongly. The big Irish doctor shook me repeatedly.

'Hey, there,' he cried.

'Let me go,' I shouted. 'You don't understand! The marble figures have gone from the church!'

He laughed long and loud at that. 'You've been listening to too many old village tales,' he said.

'I've seen the empty tombs, I tell you,'

'Look, come with me. I'm going over to old Palmer's. His daughter's ill. We can stop at the church on the way and you can show me what you think you saw.'

'All right,' I said.

He still held my arm as we entered the church and walked to the eastern end of it. I had my eyes closed. I knew that the figures wouldn't be there. I heard Kelly strike a match.

'Here they are,' said the doctor. 'As large as life.'

I opened my eyes and by the light of Kelly's match I saw the two shapes lying 'in their marble' on the tombs.

'Thank you,' I said. 'Perhaps it was a trick of the light, or perhaps I've been working too hard. I can't understand it. I was sure they were gone.'

'I know. Just don't let your thoughts run away with you.'

He was looking closely at the figure on the right, whose stony face was the most evil and deadly.

'Will you look at that!' he said, pointing. 'The hand on this one's broken.'

He was right, but I was sure that the last time Laura and I had been there it had been perfect.

'Perhaps someone was trying to steal them,' he said calmly.

'That still doesn't explain what I thought I saw.'

'Too much painting and too much of your old pipe explains that,' he laughed.

'Let's go,' I said, feeling a little better. 'My wife will be worried. Come and have a glass of whisky with me. We'll drink to logical explanations, and to hell with ghosts.'

'All right. It's late. I'll go to old Palmer's in the morning,' he replied. Perhaps he thought that I needed his help more than Palmer's daughter.

So, talking of different explanations for ghosts, we walked back to our cottage, As we came nearer I saw the light shining out of the front door. The sitting room door was open, too. Had Laura gone out?

'Come in,' I said, and Dr Kelly followed me into the sitting room. It was brightly lit by candles all over the place. Light, I remembered, was Laura's answer to nervousness. Poor girl, I thought. I'd been so stupid to leave her. But where was she?

Then I turned to the open window and saw her. Had she gone there to watch for me? And what had come into the room behind her? To what had she turned with her face full of horror? My poor wife! Had she thought it was my footsteps she'd heard as she turned to meet — what?

She'd fallen back across a table by the window, and her body lay half on it and half on the window seat. Her head was thrown back, her long untied hair was touching the carpet. Her lips were pulled back from her teeth and her eyes were wide open in fear. They saw nothing now. What had they seen last?

The doctor moved towards her, but I pushed him to one side and ran to her, crying, 'It's all right, Laura. You're safe now.'

Her soft body fell against mine. I held her and kissed her, calling her dear name again and again, but I think I knew already that she was dead.

Both her hands were closed. In one of them she held something very strongly. When I was quite sure she was dead, and that nothing mattered any more, I let Doctor Kelly open that hand to see what it held.

It was a grey marble finger.

— THE END -

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