Scary Books: Border Ghost Stories
A cloud hung over the bishopric--the ancient patrimony of Saint
Bishop van Mildert had died and, sede vacante, great changes were
impending, for Parliament was about to shear off a large portion of the
privileges of the ancient franchise, to reduce the endowments, and to
hand over the mines to the Ecclesiastical Commission.
* * * * *
The Reverend Arthur Egglestone--the youngest of the 'Golden Canons' and
Lord of the Manor of Midhope, high up in Weardale--sat in his spacious,
oak-panelled dining-room above the Wear, discussing the situation with
his two companions over a very recherche supper prepared by the French
chef of the Dean and Chapter.
The time was Lent, the eve of Good Friday, but the 'Golden Canon' had
forgotten the season in his perturbation and his desire to show
hospitality to a distant cousin newly arrived from America, who was full
of curiosity and admiration of the city and cathedral of Saint
His other guest was a Minor Canon who had just been appointed to
instruct and train the choir-boys of the cathedral.
The 'Golden Canon' was of an imposing figure, a fine type of the English
country gentleman of the old school--admirably fitted for the post of
Chairman of Quarter Sessions.
It was not that he had mistaken his vocation so much as that his
vocation had mistaken the canon, for owing to the death of his two elder
brothers--one by an accident out hunting, one by drowning at sea when
admiral--he had unexpectedly succeeded to the family seat and rich
On this very day he had driven himself into his prebend's house in the
close in his four-in-hand to welcome his young American cousin.
The 'Golden Canon' was of a sturdy build, fair of complexion, a lover of
field sports, and an excellent judge of a horse and good claret.
An admirable host, he sat in his arm-chair looking after the comfort of
his two companions, passing the Chateau-Laffite, and discoursing
learnedly of the ancient glory of the bishopric.
His American cousin was an undergraduate of Harvard, eager as a hawk,
keen-faced, avid of every form of life: he drank down his Laffite
with evident enjoyment, listening to the music of the water on the weir
below, and eagerly following the wisdom of the 'Golden Canon.'
The Minor Canon, on the other hand, was not entirely at his ease, for he
was divided between his reverence to his host and his consciousness that
it was Lent, for hitherto he had always prided himself upon mortifying
the flesh during the Lenten fast.
He was of a delicate and distinguished appearance; not much more than a
lad yet,--sensitive and impressionable--one whom the Jesuits of the
sixteenth century would have trained to be a 'staff' in their hands to
be turned this way and that in the interests of the Church.
Gradually, however, he forgot his scruples in the charm of his
surroundings, the good cheer, and his superior's conversation; he helped
himself joyfully as the claret went swiftly about, and joined with
delight in converse about the great past of the cathedral.
''Tis a thousand pities,' said the 'Golden Canon,' 'to diminish in any
way the dignity of the bishop and the dean and chapter, since reverence
for the established order of the State is fast dying out.
'Now just as it is thought well to maintain the dignity of the judges
on assize by the attendance of the High Sheriff with his javelin men and
trumpeters, so it is needful to keep up the estates of the bishops and
the deans and chapters.
'In the old days of the great prince bishops,' continued the 'Golden
Canon,' 'the successor of St. Cuthbert was in reality a greater power
than the successor of St. Augustine. For myself I had rather have
reigned and ruled between Tees and Tyne than have lived in Lambeth
Palace. I should have had regal powers in regard to jurisdiction,
coinage, Chancery, Admiralty dues, and so forth, and when I journeyed to
London, on my way to my palace in the Strand, would have lain at my
various palaces on my way up.
'Then again as lord of many manors throughout the Palatinate I should
have had all the old feudal dues coming in to my treasury--waifs and
strays, treasure trove, deodands----'
'And merchet of women?' queried his cousin mischievously.
'Ay,' replied the 'Golden Canon' with a responsive twinkle in his eye,
'"merchet of women" also, but as an antiquary I must tell ye that it's
not what you two young men would wish it to be----'
He glanced at the blushing face of the Minor Canon, and the eager
visage of the undergraduate, and bade them fill their glasses yet again,
while they had the chance, for the Chapter's binn of Laffite was now
running very low in its deep cellar.
'No,' he went on regretfully, ''twas not the Droit de Seigneur which
we have all read of, and perhaps envied, but a fine upon marriage--a
feudal due exercised over women, as over all property on the feudal
lord's manor. Not but that I take it occasionally the Prince Bishop may
have indulged himself in what Richelieu styled "the honest man's
recreation," yet the jus primae noctis, of which also you will have
heard, was not the privilege of the seigneurial bishops, but the fine or
compensation paid to the Church by the impatient bridegroom, who in
early days of clerical discipline was enjoined to mortification of the
flesh for the first three nights of marriage.
'A lawsuit 'twixt the mayor and corporation of Amiens and the bishop
before the Parliament of Paris in the fifteenth century is still on
record, and proves this clearly.'
'St. Cuthbert, sir,' interposed the blushing but now emboldened Minor
Canon, 'would have severely reprehended Cardinal Richelieu in that
event, for 'tis said that the saint had a perfect horror of women; we
know of the line drawn beside the cathedral beyond which no woman was
allowed to pass.'
'Ay,' responded his host, 'St. Cuthbert was a great saint doubtless, but
an extremely ungallant man. He would allow no cow upon Holy Island, for
where there was a cow there was a woman, and where there was a woman
there was the Devil.'
'Luther and the Reformation changed all that,' said the young American,
with a laugh.
'"Who loves not woman, wine and song,
He is a fool his whole life long."
'Which of the two is in the right?'
'Luther!' replied the Minor Canon, somewhat unexpectedly, flushed with
vol-au-vent and generous claret, who was now beginning to look upon
himself as a gay Lothario. 'Asceticism for its own sake is mere vanity.'
'Here's then to Luther!' cried the 'Golden Canon,' with enthusiasm.
'Fill and drink a bumper to his memory!'
'Not but what I regret the Reformation myself, since had it not been for
Anne Boleyn, the bishopric might still be a Palatinate and the estates
of the canons inviolate.'
Curiously enough the Minor Canon had not on this especial occasion
filled up his glass; on the contrary he was now staring in dismay
towards the window recess opposite, which was suffused with a pale
light. On the right hand there hung a crucifix, and the moonbeams gently
illuminated the cross with its burden.
The two cousins continued their gay converse, but the Minor Canon was
completely absorbed in his contemplation of a vision which was being
unfolded before his affrighted eyes in the recess opposite. A figure
took shape in the misty light--the form of an old man rugged of aspect,
with grizzled locks like a fisherman's, appeared before his eyes; he
held forth his hand and pointed menacingly to the crucifix with fiercely
At that very moment there rose up from far away to the ears of the
stricken gazer the sound of a cock-crow. The gazer wilted back in his
seat; turning white, he held his hands to his eyes, his whole frame
trembling. His two companions, who had now been aroused by his movement,
looked upon him with astonishment.
'What's the matter, my dear fellow?' inquired the 'Golden Canon.' 'You
look as if you had seen a ghost.'
'I thought,' stammered the gazer--'I thought I saw St. Cuthbert--I mean
some apparition--in the recess there.'
'It's only the moon,' the 'Golden Canon' replied, after a cursory glance
in that direction. 'If you don't like it just draw the curtains.'
But the Minor Canon had already risen from his seat, and, with unsteady
footsteps, passed to the door murmuring brokenly to himself, 'Peccavi,
peccavi' as he withdrew from the dining-room.
'A nice fellow,' commented the 'Golden Canon,' 'but he has, I fear, a
'Help yourself to that white port, cousin; then we'll finish our talk
over a pipe of tobacco.'