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Weird Tales

MARCH, 1943

Alone in the empty dwelling she felt the presence of one of those things our reason tells us is not there, but which our nerves and senses proclaim beyond all possibility of denial.

A Bargain With the Dead


MATILDA knelt on the first of the three steps leading to the chancel, her hands joined palm to palm, her fingertips just touching the dimple that cleft her chin. The altar was ablaze with candlelight, decked with roses and white lilac as for a wedding, and the scent of flowers mingled with the incense. From the grilled stalls where the choir sisters knelt the muted voices came as softly as a light breeze soughing through an enclosed shaded garden:

... the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, And the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.

The four bridesmaids with ceremonial overveils of crimson crepe above their veils of black bunting had fallen back and grouped around her in a semi-circle. One had the Arum lily she had held in her right hand -when she entered the chapel, another the tall lighted candle she had carried in her left, the third had taken up the silver alms basin to catch the hair that would be cropped with the long shears held by the fourth when her profession had been made. The chaplain, looking rather hot and uncomfortable in embroidered chasuable and Jerusalem cope, was bending over her. "Matilda, wilt thou freely and without reserve vow holy poverty unto the Lord?"

She heard, but dimly, hardly comprehendingly, as if the question had been whispered at her bedside while she was still asleep. It all seemed so unreal, so like a dream. She might have been an actress in an unconvincing play, or perhaps a real person in a world of gentle but uncomprehending phantoms. Why, she asked herself almost impersonally, was she there?...

Ever since she could remember Matilda Johnstone had known she was different from other girls. Other children played and romped, she walked sedately at her mother's side. Other little girls had frilly, lace-trimmed under-pretties, sometimes with satin ribbons on them. Matilda's little nainsook waists and panties were severely, plainly utilitarian. Other little girls wore socks or sometimes ran in barefoot freedom. Summer and winter Matilda wore long, heavy, ribbed stockings of black cotton and high-laced boots. At an age when other little girls were reveling in the adventures of Dorothy and Toto in the Wonderful Land of Oz she was memorizing the Book of Common Prayer and learning the hymnal by rote. She never had a chum or playmate, for until her twelfth year her mother acted as her teacher. A very strict and most efficient teacher. She spoke French and Spanish fluently and read Greek and Latin texts at sight. Algebra she mastered by her tenth birthday and plane geometry before her twelfth.

At thirteen she was entered at the school kept by the Sisters of Nazareth at Harrisonville, New Jersey, where she boarded the year round and studied without intermission. By the time she was. fifteen she had absorbed all the sisters had to teach and went back to her mother's house, which could be called a home only by the most torturing stretch of courtesy.

IT WAS a small, forbidding frame cottage with a frowning doorway and an air of almost sinister silence. The shingle roof was grayish-brown with age, the clapboards wanted painting, the steps that led up to the narrow porch were weather-warped, and some of their planks were loose. Inside the place seemed musty, as if it had been shut up a long time. In every room there was a smell of dust and scuffing leather, mildewed fabric and decay.

After the cleanly brightness of the convent school the house was like a prison and the silent, watchful-eyed woman who had met her at the station like a wardress or (she thought with a convulsive tightening of her throat) a mad woman who had somehow contrived to secure custody of a sane person.

"You do not care for it here, do you, Matilda?" asked her mother after dinner on the second day of her return. The meal had been a silent one preceded and followed by prayers of thanksgiving the length and eloquence of which were out of all proportion to both quality and quantity of food.

"Well, frankly, Mother, it isn't very cheerful, and you seem to lead such a lonely life—"

"We are withdrawn from the world, child. We have no need of human friendships."

"The sisters at Mount Nazareth are withdrawn from the world, too," Matilda began, and stumbled on her reply. For the first time she realized her mother's eyes were curiously pewter-gray and had a trick of sliding away obliquely to lose themselves under their lashes, like someone peeping skillfully beneath the drawn blind of a window.

"The sisters?"

"Why, yes, they—"

"Perhaps you'd like to live with them? Be one of them?" The question was casually put, almost too casually, for the momentary brightening of her mother's eyes betrayed some inner, secret excitement.

Matilda had not thought of it. She had been eager for the world as a young bird for its first flight, but at the question she compared the damp, cold cheerlessness of the house with the nunnery where the white-robed sisters passed along the phlox—and zenia-bordered sunlit walks as they read from their books of hours, or went silent-footed about their duties in the rooms and corridors, or wafted quietly as dedicated ghosts, hands hidden in the loose sleeves of their habits, to chant the offices of nones or compline in the chapel. "Yes, I should," she answered almost sharply. "I'd love it."

"You're sure of that?" Her mother's voice was low, but her eyes were on her with a hard insistence.

"Of course."

"You'll swear it?"

The intent, almost eager look in her mother's face startled her, but she kept her voice controlled and level. "Yes, Mother, if you wish it."

Mrs. Johnstone propped the family Bible on the seat of the dining chair before which Matilda knelt as before a priedieu, leafted through it till it opened at the twenty-third chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, and pointed to the black-letter text of the twenty-second verse: "When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God thou shalt not slack to pay it, for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee...."

"You understand that this is absolutely irrevocable, of course?"

"Yes, Mother."

"Then lay your hands upon the Book and vow as you have hope of everlasting life that when you are eighteen you will present yourself as an aspirant at the convent at Mount Nazareth and progress through postulancy and novitiate to your vows of perpetual obligation as a nun."

"I vow to do so, Mother."

"And may the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death deter me from the keeping of this, my solemn vow and oblation," her mother dictated.

"Amen," responded Matilda and bent to kiss the page.

HOW Janet Minchin came to marry Evans Johnstone was a mystery inscrutable as one of faith. A gentlewoman leaving home and family to follow after a gypsy would have seemed scarcely more incongruous. Her father had been vicar of an obscure North Country parish, a fragile man with thinning fair hair and eyes that glowed with mystic fervor as he expounded a theology as narrow as the grave, and as harsh and inexorable. His ghostly devotion centered on High C...

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