The collected supernatural tales of a famous literary priest
Robert Hugh Benson was one of the three famous, literary Benson Brothers who, in addition to their other occupations, developed a taste for penning stories of the ghostly and weird. Born in 1871, one of six siblings and the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, R. H. Benson’s ghostly fiction has certainly taken (together with the comparable work of brother, A. C. Benson) a subordinate place to the considerable cannon of work in the genre produced by a third brother, E. F. Benson, who was also a well-regarded author of other works including the humorous ‘Mapp and Lucia’ stories of upper-middle class ‘one-upmanship’. Robert Benson was originally ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1895, but unusually became a Catholic priest in 1904. He nevertheless continued to write prolifically on a number of subjects which included religious matters, works of historical fiction and children’s stories. Particularly highly regarded was ‘Lord of the World’ (1907) which is considered to be the first modern dystopian novel. His supernatural fiction, which despite its comparative obscurity is well worth the time of aficionados of the golden age of the genre, was principally gathered in two collections, ‘The Light Invisible’ and ‘A Mirror of Shallot’. Selected stories have previously been combined with those of A. C. Benson in single volumes, but Leonaur has elected to publish the collected supernatural fiction of the brothers individually as they undoubtedly merit. Robert Benson died in 1914 aged 42 years of pneumonia.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
“Well, I came down here once, suddenly, on a summer evening, bearing heavy news. I need not go into details; it would be useless to do that—but it will be enough to say that the news did not personally affect me or my family. It was a curious series of circumstances that led me to be the bearer of such news at all—but it was to a lady who happened by the merest chance to be staying with my family. I scarcely knew her at all—in fact I had only seen her once before. The news had come to my ears in London, and I had heard that the one whom it most concerned did not know it—and that they dared not write or telegraph. I volunteered of course to take the news myself.
“It was with a very heavy heart that I walked up from the station—the road seemed intolerably short. I may say that I knew that the news would be heart-breaking to her who had to hear it. I came in by the gate at the end of the avenue” (he waved his hand round to the right) “and passed right down to the back of the house, behind us. This door at which we are sitting had been the front door, but the drive had just been turfed over, and we used the door at the back instead, and this lawn here was very much as you see it now, only the drive still showed plainly like a long narrow grave across the grass.
“As I came in through the door at the back, she was coming out, with a book and a basket-chair to sit in the garden. My heart gave a terrible throb of pain—for I knew that by the time my business was done there would be no thought of a quiet evening in the garden, and that look of serene happiness would be wiped out of her face—and all through what I had to say. For a moment she did not recognise me in the dark entry and stood back as I came in, and then
“‘Why it is you,’ she said; ‘you have come home. I did not know you were expected.’
“I breathed a moment steadily to recover myself.
“‘I was not expected,’ I said; and then, after a moment: ‘May I speak to you?’
“‘Speak to me? Why, certainly. In the garden or here?’
“‘In here,’ I answered, and went past her and pushed open the door into this room.
“She came past me, and stood here by the door still holding the book, with her finger between the leaves.
“Now you are wondering, I expect, why I did not get some other woman to break the news to her. Well, I had debated that ever since I had volunteered to be the bearer of these tidings: and partly because I was afraid of being cowardly—call it pride if you will—and partly for other reasons which I need not mention, I felt I was bound to fulfil my promise literally. It might be, I thought too, that she would prefer the news to be known by as few people as possible. At least, whether I judged rightly or wrongly, here was my task before me.
“She stood there,” the old man went on, pointing to the doorpost on the right, “and I here,” and he pointed a yard further back, “and the door was wide open as it is now, and the fragrant evening air poured past us into the room. Her face would be partly in shadow; but in her eyes there was just a dawning wonder at my abruptness, with perhaps the faintest tinge of anxiety, but no more.
“‘I have come,’ I said slowly, looking out into the garden, ‘on a very hard errand.’ I could not go on. I turned and looked at her. Ah! the anxiety had deepened a little. ‘And—and it concerns you and your happiness.’ I looked again, and I remember how her face had changed. Her lips were a little open, and her eyes shone wide open, half in shadow and half in light, and there were new and terrible little lines on her forehead. And then I told her.
“It was done in a sentence or two, and when I looked again her lips had closed and her hand had clenched itself into the moulding of the doorpost. I can see her rings now blazing in the light that poured over the chestnut tree (it was lower then) into the room. Then her lips moved once or twice—her hand unclenched itself hesitatingly—and she went steadily across the room. There was a great sofa there then, and when she reached it she threw herself face downwards across the arm and back.
“And I waited at the doorway, looking out at the iron gate. Sorrow was new to me then. I had not learnt to understand it then, or to be quiet under it. And as I looked I knew only that there was a terrible struggle going on in the room behind. There in front of me was a garden full of peace and sweetness and the soft glow of sunset light; and there behind me was something very like hell—and I stood between the living and the dead.
“Then I remembered that I was a priest, and ought to be able to say something—just a word of the Divine message that the Saviour brought—but I could not. I felt I was in deep waters. Even God seemed far away, intolerably serene and aloof; and I longed with all my power for a human person to pray and to bear a little of that strife behind me, from which I felt separated by so wide a gulf. And then God gave me the clear vision again.
“You see the iron gate,” the old man went on, pointing. “Well, right between those posts, but a little above them, outlined clearly against the chestnut tree, beyond, was the figure of a man.
“Now I do not know how to explain myself, but I was conscious that across this material world of light and colour there cut a plane of the spiritual world, and that where the planes crossed I could look through and see what was beyond. It was like smoke cutting across a sunbeam. Each made the other visible.
“Well, this figure of a man, then, was kneeling in the air, that is the only way I can describe it—his face was turned towards me, but upwards. Now the most curious thing that struck me at the time was that he was, as it were, leaning at a sharp angle to one side; but it did not appear to be grotesque. Instead the world seemed tilted; the chestnut tree was out of the perpendicular; the wall out of the horizontal. The true level was that of the man.
“I know this sounds foolish, but it showed me how the world of spirits was the real world, and the world of sense comparatively unreal, just as the sorrow of the woman behind me was more real than the beams overhead.