Fiction: A Tale Before Supper by Ray Cluley

A Tale Before Supper by Ray Cluley

It was the practice of Eliot Thomas, in the later years of his life, to visit old friends in the weeks preceding Christmas, provided, of course, they lived at no further distance than could be comfortably reached within a few hours travel. It was his habit, as well, to arrive bearing gifts of brandy and fine wine, together with a box of good quality cigars, were his friend inclined to enjoy such things; a generosity that ensured his visits were never anything of an imposition, though he was indeed an amiable fellow and would have been quite welcome regardless.

One particularly memorable Christmas, however, it was the turn of his good friend and former classmate George Wilson to receive him as a houseguest. Wilson had become a widower earlier in the year and though for the most part he enjoyed his retirement tucked away in the country, he had made it very clear in a lengthy correspondence that he would greatly appreciate Thomas’s company during the coming holiday season, for he feared such festivities would make him more vulnerable to melancholy. Thomas had been instrumental in resolving some complicated financial issues after the sudden passing of Wilson’s wife, carefully investing for his friend what remained of her fortune, and he welcomed the chance to visit again under more pleasant circumstances. And so it was he found himself travelling a little further than was usual into rural seclusion to be greeted in high spirits by a very grateful friend, his apologies concerning the lateness of his arrival kindly dismissed; after all, he could not be held responsible for the heavy snow, nor the terrible conditions of the roads. Dinner had been missed, but Wilson saw to it that a hot supper could be easily prepared and in the meantime the two gentlemen admired the gifts each had bought for the other, taking them to enjoy in Wilson’s study where a large fire had already filled the room with a great deal of very welcome warmth.

Wilson had been a school master for most of his life and he spent his retirement years writing papers for various scholarly journals. Thomas had always found him enjoyable company for his knowledge on a wide range of subjects, and this visit proved no exception. Once they had exchanged pleasantries they talked of a great many things seemingly all at once, as friends who have spent a long time apart often do, until Thomas’s admiration of a handsome bronze reminded Wilson of a story he had quite forgotten until that moment.

“Ah, you’ve discovered my Shakespeare.”

“An apt paperweight,” said Thomas. “He’s so very heavy.”

Wilson smiled. “Do you know The Winter’s Tale?”

Thomas told him that he was familiar with the play, and that he had enjoyed a performance of it recently in London. It was not his favourite play, and he told Wilson this as well, though with more tact than I relay the information here. He praised, instead, Hamlet, and let it be known through comparison that one was more in his favour than the other.

“Certainly, it is no Hamlet,” Wilson agreed, “but do you recall the character Mamilius? You do? Well, he tells a story in The Winter’s Tale and it begins thus: ‘there was a man dwelt by a churchyard’.”

Thomas did not remember the story.

“Little wonder, as that line is all we hear of it. ‘There was a man dwelt by a churchyard’, and then the rest Mamilius tells in quiet to Hermione while others take to the stage. Well, it’s become something of a tradition among scholars to continue that tale to a conclusion, holding in mind Mamilius’s fondness for sprites and spectres. An old school master of mine provided just such a thing, for his amusement and for ours, back when I was at Kings, though it never became as famous as some of his other stories. Indeed, I’d quite forgotten it myself until I saw you admiring the bronze there. As a man of the bank you will perhaps enjoy it, for it concerns a great deal of money, though I did not find the story entirely agreeable when I first heard it. It had the lasting effect of ensuring my avoidance of graveyards—for as long as any of us are able!—and it has soured my appreciation of one of the great bard’s plays.”

“I am intrigued.”

“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, wasn’t that Hamlet’s view of things? You’ll need to consider that as well, if you are to take full enjoyment from the tale.”

Wilson quite revelled in the telling, leaning forward in his chair and savouring each spoken detail, though he was only a short way into the narrative when Thomas realised he remembered it himself. Describing an old miser, John Poole, who had taken this house by the churchyard, Wilson stopped mid-sentence to say, “You know it.”

Thomas confessed that some of it seemed familiar. “Did a priest and his wife live in the house before him?”

“That’s right. But the wife wanted something better, as wives are wont to do.”

Was there a trace of bitterness in the remark, or was it merely jest? Thomas nodded, though unlike Wilson he had never taken a wife and while he did not altogether regret living his life as a bachelor, he often wished he could have known the pleasure of being otherwise.

“The wife also claimed to have seen strange things in the churchyard.” Wilson paused to coax his cigar back to life. “A strange light, or curious figures amongst the gravestones, depending on the storyteller. Some versions of the story … Well, they’re far more grisly than this shall be. I haven’t the stomach for morbid details.

“Poole, however, was not so faint of heart, by all accounts, peering from the window of his house by the churchyard to watch funerals as they occurred. Ah, you’re nodding, you have certainly heard this before.”

“Or something very like it. An old woman is buried?”

Wilson nodded. “A witch.”

Thomas remembered. There was an old woman, financially comfortable but not so very rich with friends. “She left her money to the Church,” he said, “but it was buried with her.”

Wilson showed both his hands and settled back into his chair, neither offended nor disappointed. “Continue as far as you can,” he said.

Now that the story was Thomas’s to tell, however, he found the details slipped away from him, dissipating like the windblown snow outside.

“The Church didn’t want her money,” he recalled. “On account of her dubious nature and non-Christain ways, no doubt.”

Wilson smiled. “No doubt.”

“So they buried it with her. But she comes back, doesn’t she?”

“Of course she does. Even unfamiliar with the story you could have supposed as much.”

Thomas conceded the point with a raised glass and Wilson took the story back from him.

“The woman is buried and so is her money, but the miserable miser Poole watches and later he digs it up. He spends some small amount but otherwise remains as careful with it as he had always been with his own, even taking it to bed when he sleeps. And then one night …”

Wilson’s pause was not for dramatics but for Thomas to complete.

“The woman comes to him.”

“The woman comes to him, yes. Very good.”

Thomas smiled at how easily his friend wore the old role of school master.

“She comes to him in the dead of night to torment him. A shrouded woman, cowled around the face by the linen she was buried in. Corpse or ghost, imagine her how you will. Grave dirt in the creases of her burial cloth, and a fetid, loamy odour as she sweeps around the room looking for her exhumed purse.”

Thomas was beginning to doubt the validity of his friend’s earlier statement against morbid details.

“At this point it’s customary for the storyteller to whisper her words,” Wilson said, proceeding to do exactly that for part of what came next. “‘Where …  is … it?’ she asks. ‘Where …’ and then … ’YOU’VE GOT IT!’”

Thomas flinched in his armchair as Howard lunged from his.

“Ha! You see? I apologise, I simply could not resist the opportunity.”

Thomas inspected his clothes and the upholstery for spilled brandy and Wilson offered him a handkerchief. “It’s an effective story,” Thomas said, more than a little embarrassed, though he took pains not to show it.

“Effective, yes, perhaps. But can we judge a story’s merits when it’s incomplete?”


“That’s where the story ends for some, and I believe it has been written that way, as well, in a collected volume, but—no, no, keep the handkerchief—I have heard an extended version of the tale.”

The rest he told with more deliberate care, his words measured and careful as if he was only now creating the narrative.

The woman, Wilson said, did not harm poor John Poole physically. She sought no violent revenge, despite the usual way in which the story is told and, indeed, even performed. She may well have frightened the man out of his wits, and the rest of the tale certainly suggests a damaged mind, but she did not lunge for him with clawed hands or rake his face with wicked fingernails. She certainly did not tickle him as many a nanny has done to her charge in the telling of such a frightful story. What the woman inflicted upon the morbid ghoul Poole was a curse, whispered with all the vehemence and forceful intent a corpse’s voice could allow, and the curse was thus: the fortune he had stolen had to be spent.

Thomas was about to remark upon the leniency of such a curse when Wilson shook his head, having seen the beginnings of protest in his friend’s posture. Before Thomas could voice his disbelief, Wilson addressed the full terms of Poole’s punishment.

“Poole now had in his possession enough money to buy a new house. I mean to say, Poole was in possession of a tidy fortune. But this Wilkins woman—yes, that was her name, I knew it would come to me—she gave him merely a year in which to spend it, down to the very last coin.”

“A year? My friend, I have worked in a number of banks; I know how easy it is to spend even a large fortune quickly.”

But Wilson did not amend his tale except to provide another caveat, namely that Poole had to spend his ill-gotten gains upon ‘uncharitable things’. A fitting punishment not only of Poole but the ungrateful Church which had refused her final act of charity. Poole had to spend his stolen fortune on whatever would ruin him and others.

If there is a strange pleasure to be had in contemplating the ill fate of another, then that is what Thomas felt now, complicated by a curious exhilaration at the permission Poole had been granted to behave selfishly. It reminded him in no small way of a certain doctor of Robert Louis Stevenson’s invention, or rather the alter ego the doctor created in order to experience the guiltless joy of selfish actions.

Poole was able to spend some of the money in the village, frequenting the inn he had hitherto ignored, but for all the coin he had to dispose of not once did he pay for the drink of another customer. He could not, for it would have been a kindness, unpermitted as according to the strictures of his curse. He tried gambling, but such pursuits were few in the village and what there was of such a pastime involved only small amounts of coin, for as much as everyone desired to win they had very little they could afford to lose. Yet lose they did, and to Poole. So it was he travelled to a nearby town, but he did so only once for the purpose of gambling as on that first occasion he won as much as he’d managed to spend prior to that day. His victory earned him a violent verbal rebuke and he made a few enemies, but that was all, and though he longed to be robbed of his newly replenished fortune, flaunting his money and behaving carelessly with drink, no one accosted him or forced themselves into his rented lodging, nor did they follow him home to his dwelling beside the churchyard. No, the only one he feared to see there was her. So he did as she bid him do, spending all he could to the detriment of his already failing health and his worsening reputation. No longer was he merely the reclusive old miser but now the sinful spendthrift as well, gluttonous and indulgent at the expense of his rectitude, though he’d been far from morally rich even before these events.

Here Thomas was reminded of the portrait Wilde had written about so admirably. He remarked as much to Wilson—if only Poole could have found such an artist!—and Wilson laughed as much as the comment deserved.

“I wonder,” he said, “if commissioning something as vain as a portrait would have met the criteria of his curse.”

The story’s momentum interrupted, Wilson refilled their glasses and made enquiry as to their supper but settled in front of the fire again before any answer could be returned. “A few minutes more is all we need,” he said. “And if there is nothing for us to eat by then, well then you can take up the storyteller’s mantle.”

“I fear a life in banking has somewhat dulled whatever creativity I once had,” Thomas replied. “I have very few stories to tell, and any I try to invent will no doubt resemble something you have heard already. At best I would be pouring old wine from a new bottle, I am afraid.”

Wilson dismissed this with a wave and a friendly scowl as if Thomas’s comments were merely displays of modesty, and though Thomas made no further effort to persuade him otherwise, he hoped supper would be ready before the truth of his remarks could be proven.

“So what happened to poor John Poole? And please, don’t leap at me yelling some new curse, my nerves won’t manage it at all well.”

There was little left to tell. Poole spent his stolen fortune and was ravaged by it. He bought the most lavish clothes he could find for his new obesity. The habitual abuse of various substances best omitted from this tale left signs upon him which he tried to conceal or counter with expensive cosmetics and dubious medications. His body shook violently if he did not partake of alcohol and he was clumsy to the point of violent injury when he did, due to the quantities he consumed. He had closed businesses by favouring others heavily with his custom and he had ruined relationships with his casual disregard of propriety, and all because some spectre bid him do so. It was allegorical, Thomas realised, a cautionary tale against the vagary and vulgarity of sudden unexpected wealth.

“Upon spending the very last of his stolen coins, Poole retired to his bed, sick with regret but finally free of his miserable fortune. A year had passed—of course it had—and that night he was visited again by the dreadful Wilkins woman. The ghostly benefactor came to him in the same moaning wind and silver shine of moonlight as she had that first night, graceless with movements her body, or perhaps its shimmering image, had forgotten but she was purposeful regarding her destination, which was to the foot of Poole’s bed. Poole clutched the bedclothes beneath his chin in a fierce grip, a child caught in a nightmare, while the dead woman pointed her wormy finger at him and declared, “Thy money perish with thee!

Wilson spared his friend the full volume of her cry.

“And thus, of course, he died. He died having squandered all of the money at the expense of his morals, condemning himself to a fate in death far worse than any he had known in mortal life. Abyssus abyssum invocat.

Thomas nodded, staring at the hearth while he considered the good book’s lake of fire and brimstone. He watched the flames and tried not to hear echoes of Poole’s pain in the pop and crackle of the spitting wood. He asked, “And what of the woman?”

The question rather surprised Wilson for he thought the story concluded. Nevertheless, he offered his friend an answer.

“Well,” he said, casting what was left of his cigar into the fire. “Perhaps she keeps him company.”

Thomas congratulated his friend on a tale well told and commented how glad he was to have invested his own modest income rather than spend it frivolously, adding that were he still in a position to do so he would use the story as a means to advise clients the same. Upon which their supper was served and they enjoyed a very welcome hot meal, the rest of the evening spent in altogether more pleasant conversation.

Indeed, there was much merriment and celebration, Christmas welcomed in with more wine than was perhaps wise, though regrettably there was a brief moment of mourning when talk turned to Wilson’s wife and how much she enjoyed the festive season. Fearing this a poor note upon which to end their evening, Thomas made an effort to steer the conversation to fonder, more recent, memories and reminded his friend of the scare he had administered earlier in the study, glad to see Wilson amused. He re-enacted with some exaggeration how startled he had been and some humour returned to the table until eventually they retired to their beds in lifted spirits. Thomas, though, encouraged by the success of his earlier dramatics in cheering his friend, had one last idea with which to entertain his host. His previous claim was true—he could not tell a good story—but there was still some good natured retribution to be had for how he had been startled, and so it was that, influenced, perhaps, by some overindulgence of alcohol, Thomas crept the short length of hallway to Wilson’s bedroom having draped himself with a single sheet of bed linen. He entered the room with his head bowed and covered, turning the chuckle that tried to spoil his joke into a choked groan and moaning, pointing his sheet-wrapped arm to where Wilson lay. Yet sooner than he could cry ‘YOU’VE GOT IT!’ or ‘Thy money perish with  thee!’, Thomas was startled again himself by Wilson who emitted a chilling cry of his own. Disturbed not only by his host’s obvious distress but also the violently passionate way in which he called, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Thomas hurried to cast aside his linen shroud, though it was not to Thomas that Wilson addressed his apology. No, the name to whom Wilson called as he cowered in his bed was one Thomas remembered well from the various deeds and transactions he’d handled in managing her will, for Wilson’s frightened contrition was addressed to his recently deceased wife, whereupon he collapsed in a faint from which it took a long time to recover.


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