Thursday, 28 October 2021

DANSE MACABRE: a ghost story



“I’m bored,” Philip whined. “Can't we go now?”

            “Hush!” said Mum.

He hadn’t been that loud. It was just that in this cold dim abbey every sound was magnified. A whisper rustled around the walls. A cough made you jump. Each shuffling footstep woke echoes that scurried off across the floor to bury themselves in nooks and crannies and little dark spaces. Philip longed to be outside, where the little lizards flickered over the hot stone steps in the sunshine.

His parents had stopped in front of another tomb: a sort of stone box with a marble bishop lying flat on top of it, scowling at the roof. His face was like a cake of dirty soap, half rubbed away by time. “Dad,” Philip pleaded. “Can we go?”

“We’ve hardly been here ten minutes,” said Dad. “Try to take an interest!”

“He’s only eight,” said Mum. “Phil, this is a famous place, a treat for Dad. He lectures about medieval things, remember? I could take him out, Mark, we can wait for you in the square.”

“But then I’ll feel I’ve got to rush. And you can’t miss seeing the Danse Macabre, it’s the reason we came. It’ll be exciting, Phil. Skeletons! You’ll like that, won’t you?”

“Real ones?”

“Of course not real ones, don’t be silly.” (Though why was it silly? There must be hundreds of skeletons in a place like this.) “It’s a painting,” Dad went on, “a marvellous painting. Come and see.”

He led them into a dismally lit side aisle. “Here it is!”

There were marks on the plaster, but Philip couldn’t see properly until Dad went to find one of the guides – a monk, a tall man in a grey robe. The monk had a torch. He switched it on and danced it over the wall. Philip gasped. Out sprang a horrible face – bald, bony, with hollow eyes and grinning teeth –   

 But it of course it was just a grubby old picture. The torchlight travelled down over a laddery chest, pinched waist and long spidery legs, then swung up to show that the creature had its arms round some person wearing a cloak and a crown. 

Un cadavre et l’Empereur,” said the monk. He glanced at Philip and dropped into English. “The Dance of Death, m’sieur, ’dame. Many such paintings were made after the Great Plague. Here you see Death meeting emperor, bishop, knight, peasant – all the estates.”

He swung the torch along the dirty plaster wall to pick out a procession of figures: people being waylaid by skeletons. Not clean Halloween ones. Their spindly limbs were clothed in withered muscle. They grinned with awful glee as they linked arms with the living to yank them away into the dance of shadows. And the living figures stood in frozen sadness at the surprise of death.

 “Wonderful!” Mark paced along the wall, studying it. “Look at this group, Becky. So powerful.” He stopped near the end of the fresco, where one of the Deaths bent down coaxingly to a little child, hiding its pitiless face behind one crooked elbow, stretching out its other hand to touch.

 

 

                “Oh…” Mum sounded breathless and odd. She stepped forward, blocking Philip’s view. 

“Mark, it’s not very suitable –” 

Dad wasn’t listening. “The fresco was never finished?” he asked the monk.

 “That is correct, m’sieur. The drawings were made in charcoal, the background painted in. Then the artist went no further. The clothes, the faces, the figures were left as you see them – sketches, without colour.”

“Why?”

The monk shrugged. “No one knows.”

“Are there no records? When was it painted?”

Quinzième siècle… perhaps 1470s. In the time of Abbot Renaud, it is thought. But nothing is known of the artist. He may have been a monk here…”

He droned on. And on. Losing interest, Philip saw something like a stone bed sticking out from the wall. What a funny thing! There was even a stone pillow at one end, and a strange hole, like the plug hole in a bath, at the other. Intrigued, he sat on the stone edge and poked a pencil down the hole to see how deep it was. The point went into something soft. Chewing gum? No; this felt mushy…

“Get up! You mustn’t sit there!” the monk shouted.

Philip jumped up. The pencil went flying. Mum and Dad glanced his way, shook their heads and went on talking. The pencil rolled into a gloomy corner and he scrambled after it. Horrible abbey! Horrible monk! He picked up the pencil and in revenge scrawled his own name on the wall.

 

His scream shocked the echoing spaces. All the murmuring and whispering and fidgeting went small and still. Mum and Dad came running to snatch and scold him.

“How could you, Philip? Scribbling on a wall, in a church, of all places – defacing a wonderful fresco – ” Dad drew a disbelieving breath. “What were you thinking?”

“I’d better take him out,” said Mum.

They waited in the strong, comforting sunshine for Dad to finish apologising. Philip hung his head while Mum ranted. “I don’t care how bored you were, there’s no excuse. And, goodness, what’s this on your trousers? It’s all black and sticky.” She whipped out a tissue and rubbed. “It’s some kind of tar, I believe – and it smells revolting. You’ve got it on your fingers, too. Where did it come from?”

 “My pencil,” he whispered, pulling it out of his pocket. 

“Throw it away!” She twitched it from his hand and sent it spinning down the steps, adding more gently, “But what made you scream?”

“A nasty man,” he whispered.

Unexpectedly, Mum was silent. “Those paintings,” she said at last. “I’m sorry, Phil. They were nasty, I agree.” 

“Mum – ”

“Don’t think any more about them.” She gave him a brief hug. “We’ll do something fun this afternoon.” She turned as Dad emerged from the cold mouth of the abbey door. “Was he very angry, Mark?”

“It’s worked out well!” He was looking gleeful. “Phil’s silly scribble will clean off easily enough, and guess what? The monk who showed us the fresco is the librarian – Dom Raphael, he’s called. So I introduced myself, told him I’m a medievalist and asked if I could see the library – he says it’s full of old books and manuscripts. And he’s going to let me see them this afternoon! How about that?”

“Lovely,” Mum sighed.

 

That afternoon she and Philip went riding on rough little ponies through the resinous sunlit glades of the pinewoods. But the sunshine dazzled his eyes and his head ached. By suppertime he felt worse. Their guesthouse was in the village, a few crooked streets from the abbey. Madame Bertrand, the proprietress, was concerned. “He is pale, it is no good for children to look so. Can you not eat the tart, mon lapin? Non? Ah, quel dommage! 

“Bedtime,” said Mum rather grimly.  She took Philip up to the room they all shared. There was a big four-poster bed for his parents, and a small couch against the wall for Philip. The ceiling sagged, the walls bulged as if the whole room might collapse with age. Up till now Philip had liked it. He hadn’t minded being left there while Mum and Dad had a last drink and an evening stroll. Tonight –

“Don’t go,” he begged, grabbing Mum’s hand.

“Now what’s wrong?” She stroked back his hair. “You’re not frightened, are you? Are you?” He nodded. “What of?”

“That man I saw in the abbey,” he muttered, picking at the covers.

“Oh Phil! It was only a picture, not a very nice one, but just a picture.”

“It wasn’t a picture. He spoke to me.”

“What?...In English?”

Philip looked confused. “No – I don’t know. But he did speak. He said, ‘I shall come and get you.’ And I didn’t like it. He hadn’t got any lips.”

She drew a sharp breath. “Phil. What an imagination you have! It was a nasty old wall painting, that’s all. Now lie down and go to sleep.”

Downstairs in the dining room, she said, “Mark, the fresco in the abbey has scared Philip stiff. It took ages to get him to sleep. He’s scared of a nasty man who’s going to come and get him.” 

“Probably Dom Raphael! Phil’s upset, that’s all. He got in trouble for writing on the wall, and this is the reaction.”

 “Well you can’t expect an eight year-old to enjoy trailing around old abbeys. I wish you'd pay him a bit more attention –”

They went to bed annoyed with each other. Philip was sound asleep, and Mark soon dropped off. Becky lay restless for a while, fretting and dozing, till she drifted into some kind of dream. She was lying back to back with Mark, but in the dream it was not him. It was someone else – someone long and stringy, who would presently turn and wind leathery arms around her…

She struggled out of sleep with a muffled shriek, and sat up. Nearby in the darkness, Philip was tossing and moaning. She was about to get up and go to him when she heard scratching on the outside of the bedroom door.

The cat…

She didn’t believe it was a cat. The door was old and loose-fitting. A clumsy bolt prevented it from drifting open in the middle of the night. The door rattled softly and the old-fashioned latch clicked as it lifted and dropped, but the bolt held. Then there was more scratching, like something picking at the edges of the door. It went on for a time, then stopped. A moment later, as if trying one last thing, there came a quiet, stealthy knock.

She sat frozen. The knock was not repeated.

It was much, much later before she could get to sleep.

 

Next morning at breakfast, pleasant Madame Bertrand was in a bad mood. Setting the croissants abruptly on the table, she launched into forthright French.

            She was sorry to say it, but le petit Philippe must have brought something in on his shoes yesterday. This morning she had found the passage covered in dirty marks, leading up the stone staircase to just outside their door. She had had to scrub the steps on her knees, and it was hard to remove, black and sticky, and of an ‘odeur pestilentiel’. She could not allow such a thing to occur again.

            “I’m very sorry, Madame,” said Mark, “but it couldn’t be Philip; there were no dirty marks when we went to bed last night. Your shoes are clean, Phil, aren’t they? Show Madame!” Obediently, Philip stuck his feet out. He was pale, with black rings under his eyes. He said he had had bad dreams, that man had been trying to get into the room during the night.

            “It was his footprints,” he said with a hysterical laugh. His parents looked at him uneasily, and Madame Bertrand suddenly patted him on the shoulder. “La, la, la,” she said. “It matters nothing. You are tired, mon pauvre. Boys should not be tired.  Now, m’sieur” – she turned to Mark – “do not take him to the abbey. Let him run in the sunshine. It will be better.” She beckoned Philip. “Viens, mon petit. Come with me, I have a sucette for you,” and she led him away to the kitchen to give him sweets.

            “And shall we?” Becky looked at Mark.

“Shall we do what?”

“Run about in the sunshine.”

“Ah…” He looked shifty. “I just wonder – would you mind very much if I went to the abbey again? There’s some fascinating old rolls of accounts which haven’t been touched for years. Dom Raphael says he needs more help. And I didn’t tell you last night, but we found an item relating to the fresco. A man called Jehan le Necre – ‘Black John’ – was given money ‘at the command of Abbot Renaud, to pay for a great brush of hogshair and two others of squirrel, for the Danse Macabre on the wall west of the choir.’ Of course we don’t know if he was the painter. But it’s likely, quite likely, and it would be such a coup if we could prove –”

            “Yes, of course. I see.” She sighed. “I suppose so.”  

“Becky, you’re a darling.” He took her hand. After a moment she withdrew it. “Mark, tell me something. Why did Dom Raphael shout at Phil yesterday for sitting on that little stone bed?”

            “Ah – that.” He looked uncomfortable. “It’s not a bed, you see, though of course Phil would think it was. It’s a medieval funerary bench – a mortuary slab.  They laid out all the dead monks there. That’s a drainage hole at the bottom end.”

            “Ugh! Madame Bertrand is right. From now on, Phil and I are staying out of the abbey.”

 

She took him for a picnic. They climbed the hill above the village and she sat watching cloud shadows chase over the sloping fields while Philip played football with some English boys whose parents had stopped their car nearby. 

            “We’re staying at a campsite,” the boys boasted. “There’s a swimming pool, and table tennis, and barbecues every night. Is it just you and your mum? Where are you staying?”

            “Down there.” Philip pointed. “In the town. My Dad’s working in the big abbey. See it?”

            “In the abbey? Weird! Is he religious or something?”

            “No. He just likes history.”

            When the boys had left, he said, “I wish we could go camping.”

“Next year! If Dad agrees.”

The wind had whipped colour into Philip’s face and his eyes were brighter.  But when she tucked him into bed that evening, he held her hand more tightly than ever, and looked at her pleadingly.

“Phil –” She didn’t know what to do. “We’re only downstairs. We’ll be coming to bed later, you won’t be alone. How I wish we’d never taken you into the abbey. Are you still scared of that painting?”

He shook his head. “I’m afraid of that man.” His lips trembled and his eyelashes were suddenly spiky and wet. He put his arms around her and buried his face.  “Philip, dear…” She hugged him back. “You’re quite safe. Shall I stay till you go to sleep?”

He shook his head again. Just as she got to the door he said in a flat, tired voice, “It wouldn’t help. He won’t come until after you’ve gone.”

She went back, held his hand, looked him in the eye. “Philip. Listen to me.  Nobody is going to come. Nothing bad will happen.  I promise.  I promise!  Now lie down, and go to sleep.”

He was tired after all, and it didn’t take long. When she saw him breathing peacefully, she drew the covers up and switched off the light.

Downstairs, Mark was full of excitement. “We’ve found out more. The Abbot himself is interested now. It really was ‘Black John’ who made the Danse. But we don’t know much about him. He was probably from another monastery, on loan as it were, to do the work. Clearly a brilliant artist, but a bit of a troublemaker. Malicious.  The other monks complained to the abbot that he quarrelled in the cloisters and ‘disturbs our peace.’ They may have got tired of him you see, and sent him away. That could be why the fresco was never finished.”

“I wish it had never been started! Phil’s still terrified. And I didn’t sleep well last night myself.”

“It is strong stuff,” Mark admitted. “Intended to be.” He hesitated. “I’m not surprised he’s nervous, it’s even affected me. While we were working on the Latin, Dom Raphael left the room to fetch something. But I felt I was not alone. I kept twisting about to see who was watching me. Just as he came back, I could swear I heard a voice say in a very strange accent, ‘Je vous mène à la danse.’ I asked Dom Raphael if he’d spoken, but he just looked at me and shook his head.”

“What did it mean?” Becky asked apprehensively.

“Well… ‘I will lead you in the dance,’ or ‘take you to the dance,’ I should think. It was my mind playing tricks: no one was there.”

“Mark…” Becky swallowed, and stopped.

“No! No, no, no!”  Mark smacked his hand on the table. “And to show you all’s well, we’ll go for an evening walk. Yes, now! You mustn’t get into a silly, superstitious panic. We’ll just walk down towards the abbey and back. It’s a lovely evening.”

They set off arm in arm down the narrow street. Few people were about. The uneven roofs showed dark against a clear sky in which tremulous stars were opening.  In the square, they looked up at the mighty bulk of the Abbey, reared high on its great flights of steps. A wonderful sound drifted from the glimmering windows: a sonorous humming that rose and sank, musical as a hive. The monks were chanting the evening prayers. 

“Oh, you’re right, Mark,” said Becky softly. “No harm could come out of a place like this.”

They walked slowly, listening till it ended. “We’ve stayed too late. Philip might wake,” she said at last. As they turned to go back, something slipped from the dark Abbey doorway and scuttled down the steps. It was too dark to be sure –

“A very big dog?”

Becky shivered. “It moved like a spider.” They could not see where it had gone. “Hurry!” she said, grasping his hand.

The street was quiet. Ahead of them, someone else was out late. They could see his shoulders and head in silhouette, bobbing along about fifty metres ahead of them. He seemed very tall and thin, and, as he passed below a street lamp, wasp-waisted. “Isn’t there something odd about that chap,” began Mark. Becky didn't reply. She tore her hand free from his and began to run.

With some dread knowledge stirring within him, he started after her. She was racing, hair flying, but he gained on her with long strides. Beyond, the figure she was pursuing passed below another lamp, and the head gleamed bald. It turned at the door of the guesthouse and vanished inside.

Mark crashed past his wife in the doorway and leaped upstairs three at a time. The treads were patched and soiled, the doorhandle sticky. He burst into the bedroom, hearing Becky sobbing as she clawed her way up behind him.

Philip lay asleep. Poised over him was a spindly figure, black and dripping as an oiled bird dragged from a slick. It reached out, hesitated. Hid its face in the crook of one arm. Jerkily, the other hand plucked at Philip.

The little boy woke. Screaming, he drew up his knees and thrust himself backwards. Heart thudding with revulsion, Mark snatched at the wiry black arm, feeling the skin break and ooze under his fingers, and flung the creature in one violent movement against the wall. Becky threw herself between, shielding her son. Phil was huddled against the headboard, his eyes like black pennies. “You promised he wouldn’t come!” he shrieked. “Mummy, you promised!

Mark turned upon the thing, which had fallen and was crawling brokenly in the corner. “Go!” he stammered in unspeakable horror. “Go away!”

Feet hammered on the stone steps. Two men burst into the room in a swirl of grey robes. The Abbot and Dom Raphael! And after them puffed Madame Bertrand, shocked and open-mouthed. Towering over the thing on the floor, the Abbot lifted his right hand. With slow, emphatic ceremony he made the sign of the cross. “Jehan le Necre!” he commanded, and the creature writhed, “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, discede hinc in locum qui paratum est tibi. Vade, et reverte nunquam!”*

 

Madame Bertrand was wonderful.  After a single glance at the mess on the floor, she swept them all into her private sitting room, where she made Philip drink a bowl of hot chocolate and plied the rest with tiny glasses of old cognac, strong and aromatic enough to exorcise any number of ghosts.

“How did you know to come?” Mark asked when, safe and warm at last, Philip had fallen asleep on Becky’s knees. “How did you know?”  

“Dom Raphael feared you were in danger,” said the Abbot.

“But why?”

“He had found this piece of loose parchment. It may be in Abbot Renaud’s own hand, for this is what it says –

            “ ‘The Danse Macabre will not be completed. For since the death of the painter, no one will undertake to begin where he left off. They say the Evil One came to claim him, and that he is as jealous in death as he was in life, and will not suffer another hand so much as to touch his work.’”

            “And I thought” – stammered Dom Raphael – “I thought at once of your son, who in innocence had written his own name at the foot of the Danse Macabre. And I believed he was in danger. For here in the margin, see?” – he leaned over, pointing – “some other hand has written, ‘He died of the plague, but does not rest’.

            The Abbot said, “When Dom Raphael showed this to me, I doubted. But he said we should clean off the writing, and soon, for he had heard the whispering of the enemy, and it chilled his soul.

            “I was still doubtful, though I have known Dom Raphael a long time. But after Vespers we went to look at the Danse together and he showed me with a torch where your son had written on the wall. So childish a thing, I almost laughed, but Dom Raphael did not laugh. No, he took my arm and led me along the wall past all the dancing Deaths, counting them as we went, and he said, and his voice shook, ‘Mon père, there have always been eight Deaths in the Danse, but here are only seven. There is one Death missing.’”

Dom Raphael said, “It was the one with the child.”



 
© Katherine Langrish 2021

 *   In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be gone from this place to the place prepared for you. Go, and never return!”

Note: The Danse Macabre in this story is closely based upon that of the Abbey Church of St. Robert in the town of La Chaise Dieu, Auvergne, France. For unknown reasons, it was left unfinished. 

Needless to say, all events and personages in the story, including ‘Jehan le Necre’, are entirely fictional.

The photographs of the Danse are from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Danse-macabre-chaise-dieu-panneau-1.jpg

 

 

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