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 [Page
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 [Page
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
There, just inside, hung the dead
[Page 222] body of our neighbor, his
face distorted and purple. And, while I stood sobbing
with horror, the rector cut him down with the drawknife
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
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 [Page
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
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 dyke, and further to the
right stretched the miles on miles of naked marsh, till
they lost themselves in the lonely, shifting waters of
About twenty paces back from the
fence, with its big doors opening [Page 224] 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 [Page 225]
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 [Page 226] 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 farm-hands
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 [Page 227], revolted in
every fibre of the flesh from any close acquaintance with
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
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
At last I reached the conclusion
that since my sight was so helplessly [Page 228]
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
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 [Page 229] 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 [Page 230] 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 [Page 231].