The Ash-Tree VI

‘I applaud your determination. It can hardly be wholesome to have the air you breathe strained, as it were, through all that leafage.’ ‘Your lordship is right there, I think. But I had not my window open last night. It was rather the noise that went on–no doubt from the twigs sweeping the glass–that kept me open-eyed.’ ‘I think that can hardly be, Sir Richard.

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Here–you see it from this point. None of these nearest branches even can touch your casement unless there were a gale, and there was none of that last night. They miss the panes by a foot.’ ‘No, sir, true. What, then, will it be, I wonder, that scratched and rustled so–ay, and covered the dust on my sill with lines and marks?’ At last they agreed that the rats must have come up through the ivy. That was the Bishop’s idea, and Sir Richard jumped at it. So the day passed quietly, and night came, and the party dispersed to their rooms, and wished Sir Richard a better night. And now we are in his bedroom, with the light out and the Squire in bed. The room is over the kitchen, and the night outside still and warm, so the window stands open. There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads, round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out of the window in a flash; another–four–and after that there is quiet again. _Thou shall seek me in the morning, and I shall not be._ As with Sir Matthew, so with Sir Richard–dead and black in his bed! A pale and silent party of guests and servants gathered under the window when the news was known. Italian poisoners, Popish emissaries, infected air–all these and more guesses were hazarded, and the Bishop of Kilmore looked at the tree, in the fork of whose lower boughs a white tom-cat was crouching, looking down the hollow which years had gnawed in the trunk. It was watching something inside the tree with great interest. Suddenly it got up and craned over the hole. Then a bit of the edge on which it stood gave way, and it went slithering in. Everyone looked up at the noise of the fall…

by Montague Rhodes James

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