The Sexton's Adventure, by Joseph Sheridan Le
Those who remember Chapelizod a quarter of a century ago, or more, may
possibly recollect the parish sexton. Bob Martin was held much in awe by
truant boys who sauntered into the churchyard on Sundays, to read the
tombstones, or play leap frog over them, or climb the ivy in search of
bats or sparrows' nests, or peep into the mysterious aperture under the
eastern window, which opened a dim perspective of descending steps
losing themselves among profounder darkness, where lidless coffins gaped
horribly among tattered velvet, bones, and dust, which time and
mortality had strewn there. Of such horribly curious, and otherwise
enterprising juveniles, Bob was, of course, the special scourge and
terror. But terrible as was the official aspect of the sexton, and
repugnant as his lank form, clothed in rusty, sable vesture, his small,
frosty visage, suspicious grey eyes, and rusty, brown scratch-wig, might
appear to all notions of genial frailty; it was yet true, that Bob
Martin's severe morality sometimes nodded, and that Bacchus did not
always solicit him in vain.
Bob had a curious mind, a memory well stored with "merry tales," and
tales of terror. His profession familiarized him with graves and goblins,
and his tastes with weddings, wassail, and sly frolics of all sorts. And
as his personal recollections ran back nearly three score years into the
perspective of the village history, his fund of local anecdote was
copious, accurate, and edifying.
As his ecclesiastical revenues were by no means considerable, he was not
unfrequently obliged, for the indulgence of his tastes, to arts which
were, at the best, undignified.
He frequently invited himself when his entertainers had forgotten to do
so; he dropped in accidentally upon small drinking parties of his
acquaintance in public houses, and entertained them with stories, queer
or terrible, from his inexhaustible reservoir, never scrupling to accept
an acknowledgment in the shape of hot whiskey-punch, or whatever else
There was at that time a certain atrabilious publican, called Philip
Slaney, established in a shop nearly opposite the old turnpike. This man
was not, when left to himself, immoderately given to drinking; but being
naturally of a saturnine complexion, and his spirits constantly requiring
a fillip, he acquired a prodigious liking for Bob Martin's company. The
sexton's society, in fact, gradually became the solace of his existence,
and he seemed to lose his constitutional melancholy in the fascination of
his sly jokes and marvellous stories.
This intimacy did not redound to the prosperity or reputation of the
convivial allies. Bob Martin drank a good deal more punch than was good
for his health, or consistent with the character of an ecclesiastical
functionary. Philip Slaney, too, was drawn into similar indulgences, for
it was hard to resist the genial seductions of his gifted companion; and
as he was obliged to pay for both, his purse was believed to have
suffered even more than his head and liver.
Be this as it may, Bob Martin had the credit of having made a drunkard of
"black Phil Slaney"—for by this cognomen was he distinguished; and Phil
Slaney had also the reputation of having made the sexton, if possible, a
"bigger bliggard" than ever. Under these circumstances, the accounts of
the concern opposite the turnpike became somewhat entangled; and it came
to pass one drowsy summer morning, the weather being at once sultry and
cloudy, that Phil Slaney went into a small back parlour, where he kept
his books, and which commanded, through its dirty window-panes, a full
view of a dead wall, and having bolted the door, he took a loaded pistol,
and clapping the muzzle in his mouth, blew the upper part of his skull
through the ceiling.
This horrid catastrophe shocked Bob Martin extremely; and partly on this
account, and partly because having been, on several late occasions, found
at night in a state of abstraction, bordering on insensibility, upon the
high road, he had been threatened with dismissal; and, as some said,
partly also because of the difficulty of finding anybody to "treat" him
as poor Phil Slaney used to do, he for a time forswore alcohol in all its
combinations, and became an eminent example of temperance and sobriety.
Bob observed his good resolutions, greatly to the comfort of his wife,
and the edification of the neighbourhood, with tolerable punctuality. He
was seldom tipsy, and never drunk, and was greeted by the better part of
society with all the honours of the prodigal son.
Now it happened, about a year after the grisly event we have mentioned,
that the curate having received, by the post, due notice of a funeral to
be consummated in the churchyard of Chapelizod, with certain instructions
respecting the site of the grave, despatched a summons for Bob Martin,
with a view to communicate to that functionary these official details.
It was a lowering autumn night: piles of lurid thunder-clouds, slowly
rising from the earth, had loaded the sky with a solemn and boding canopy
of storm. The growl of the distant thunder was heard afar off upon the
dull, still air, and all nature seemed, as it were, hushed and cowering
under the oppressive influence of the approaching tempest.
It was past nine o'clock when Bob, putting on his official coat of seedy
black, prepared to attend his professional superior.
"Bobby, darlin'," said his wife, before she delivered the hat she held in
her hand to his keeping, "sure you won't, Bobby, darlin'—you won't—you
"I don't know what," he retorted, smartly, grasping at his hat.
"You won't be throwing up the little finger, Bobby, acushla?" she said,
evading his grasp.
"Arrah, why would I, woman? there, give me my hat, will you?"
"But won't you promise me, Bobby darlin'—won't you, alanna?"
"Ay, ay, to be sure I will—why not?—there, give me my hat, and
let me go."
"Ay, but you're not promisin', Bobby, mavourneen; you're not promisin'
all the time."
"Well, divil carry me if I drink a drop till I come back again," said the
sexton, angrily; "will that do you? And now will you give me my hat?"
"Here it is, darlin'," she said, "and God send you safe back."
And with this parting blessing she closed the door upon his retreating
figure, for it was now quite dark, and resumed her knitting till his
return, very much relieved; for she thought he had of late been oftener
tipsy than was consistent with his thorough reformation, and feared the
allurements of the half dozen "publics" which he had at that time to pass
on his way to the other end of the town.
They were still open, and exhaled a delicious reek of whiskey, as Bob
glided wistfully by them; but he stuck his hands in his pockets and
looked the other way, whistling resolutely, and filling his mind with the
image of the curate and anticipations of his coming fee. Thus he steered
his morality safely through these rocks of offence, and reached the
curate's lodging in safety.
He had, however, an unexpected sick call to attend, and was not at home,
so that Bob Martin had to sit in the hall and amuse himself with the
devil's tattoo until his return. This, unfortunately, was very long
delayed, and it must have been fully twelve o'clock when Bob Martin set
out upon his homeward way. By this time the storm had gathered to a
pitchy darkness, the bellowing thunder was heard among the rocks and
hollows of the Dublin mountains, and the pale, blue lightning shone upon
the staring fronts of the houses.
By this time, too, every door was closed; but as Bob trudged homeward,
his eye mechanically sought the public-house which had once belonged to
Phil Slaney. A faint light was making its way through the shutters and
the glass panes over the doorway, which made a sort of dull, foggy halo
about the front of the house.
As Bob's eyes had become accustomed to the obscurity by this time, the
light in question was quite sufficient to enable him to see a man in a
sort of loose riding-coat seated upon a bench which, at that time, was
fixed under the window of the house. He wore his hat very much over his
eyes, and was smoking a long pipe. The outline of a glass and a quart
bottle were also dimly traceable beside him; and a large horse saddled,
but faintly discernible, was patiently awaiting his master's leisure.
There was something odd, no doubt, in the appearance of a traveller
refreshing himself at such an hour in the open street; but the sexton
accounted for it easily by supposing that, on the closing of the house
for the night, he had taken what remained of his refection to the place
where he was now discussing it al fresco.
At another time Bob might have saluted the stranger as he passed with a
friendly "good night"; but, somehow, he was out of humour and in no
genial mood, and was about passing without any courtesy of the sort,
when the stranger, without taking the pipe from his mouth, raised the
bottle, and with it beckoned him familiarly, while, with a sort of lurch
of the head and shoulders, and at the same time shifting his seat to the
end of the bench, he pantomimically invited him to share his seat and
his cheer. There was a divine fragrance of whiskey about the spot, and
Bob half relented; but he remembered his promise just as he began to
waver, and said:
"No, I thank you, sir, I can't stop to-night."
The stranger beckoned with vehement welcome, and pointed to the vacant
space on the seat beside him.
"I thank you for your polite offer," said Bob, "but it's what I'm too
late as it is, and haven't time to spare, so I wish you a good night."
The traveller jingled the glass against the neck of the bottle, as if to
intimate that he might at least swallow a dram without losing time. Bob
was mentally quite of the same opinion; but, though his mouth watered, he
remembered his promise, and shaking his head with incorruptible
resolution, walked on.
The stranger, pipe in mouth, rose from his bench, the bottle in one hand,
and the glass in the other, and followed at the sexton's heels, his dusky
horse keeping close in his wake.
There was something suspicious and unaccountable in this importunity.
Bob quickened his pace, but the stranger followed close. The sexton began
to feel queer, and turned about. His pursuer was behind, and still
inviting him with impatient gestures to taste his liquor.
"I told you before," said Bob, who was both angry and frightened, "that I
would not taste it, and that's enough. I don't want to have anything to
say to you or your bottle; and in God's name," he added, more vehemently,
observing that he was approaching still closer, "fall back and don't be
tormenting me this way."
These words, as it seemed, incensed the stranger, for he shook the bottle
with violent menace at Bob Martin; but, notwithstanding this gesture of
defiance, he suffered the distance between them to increase. Bob,
however, beheld him dogging him still in the distance, for his pipe shed
a wonderful red glow, which duskily illuminated his entire figure like
the lurid atmosphere of a meteor.
"I wish the devil had his own, my boy," muttered the excited sexton, "and
I know well enough where you'd be."
The next time he looked over his shoulder, to his dismay he observed the
importunate stranger as close as ever upon his track.
"Confound you," cried the man of skulls and shovels, almost beside
himself with rage and horror, "what is it you want of me?"
The stranger appeared more confident, and kept wagging his head and
extending both glass and bottle toward him as he drew near, and Bob
Martin heard the horse snorting as it followed in the dark.
"Keep it to yourself, whatever it is, for there is neither grace nor
luck about you," cried Bob Martin, freezing with terror; "leave me
alone, will you."
And he fumbled in vain among the seething confusion of his ideas for a
prayer or an exorcism. He quickened his pace almost to a run; he was now
close to his own door, under the impending bank by the river side.
"Let me in, let me in, for God's sake; Molly, open the door," he cried,
as he ran to the threshold, and leant his back against the plank. His
pursuer confronted him upon the road; the pipe was no longer in his
mouth, but the dusky red glow still lingered round him. He uttered some
inarticulate cavernous sounds, which were wolfish and indescribable,
while he seemed employed in pouring out a glass from the bottle.
The sexton kicked with all his force against the door, and cried at the
same time with a despairing voice.
"In the name of God Almighty, once for all, leave me alone."
His pursuer furiously flung the contents of the bottle at Bob Martin;
but instead of fluid it issued out in a stream of flame, which expanded
and whirled round them, and for a moment they were both enveloped in a
faint blaze; at the same instant a sudden gust whisked off the
stranger's hat, and the sexton beheld that his skull was roofless. For
an instant he beheld the gaping aperture, black and shattered, and then
he fell senseless into his own doorway, which his affrighted wife had
I need hardly give my reader the key to this most intelligible and
authentic narrative. The traveller was acknowledged by all to have been
the spectre of the suicide, called up by the Evil One to tempt the
convivial sexton into a violation of his promise, sealed, as it was, by
an imprecation. Had he succeeded, no doubt the dusky steed, which Bob had
seen saddled in attendance, was destined to have carried back a double
burden to the place from whence he came.
As an attestation of the reality of this visitation, the old thorn tree
which overhung the doorway was found in the morning to have been blasted
with the infernal fires which had issued from the bottle, just as if a
thunder-bolt had scorched it.
The moral of the above tale is upon the surface, apparent, and, so to
speak, self-acting—a circumstance which happily obviates the
necessity of our discussing it together. Taking our leave, therefore, of
honest Bob Martin, who now sleeps soundly in the same solemn dormitory
where, in his day, he made so many beds for others, I come to a legend
of the Royal Irish Artillery, whose headquarters were for so long a time
in the town of Chapelizod. I don't mean to say that I cannot tell a
great many more stories, equally authentic and marvellous, touching this
old town; but as I may possibly have to perform a like office for other
localities, and as Anthony Poplar is known, like Atropos, to carry a
shears, wherewith to snip across all "yarns" which exceed reasonable
bounds, I consider it, on the whole, safer to despatch the traditions of
Chapelizod with one tale more.
Let me, however, first give it a name; for an author can no more despatch
a tale without a title, than an apothecary can deliver his physic without
a label. We shall, therefore, call it—