The Invisible Man: A Midsummer Tragedy

22nd April 2015

This story is by J R Le Ruez, and was published in the magazine Guernsey Gossip and Visitors' List, June 6 1908. The tale comes from Jersey, and is interesting because of the superstitions and beliefs it is based on; in the seventeenth century Elie Brévint of Sark, himself of Jersey extraction, wrote of the belief that one could aller à la graine de fougère, or 'use the fern seed' and become invisible.

Philip Duval whisked at the ferns in the hedge with his stick, scattering their fronds in every direction, whilst he chatted gaily with his fiancée, Marie Dugan.

'How many more ferns are you going to destroy,' Marie asked presently. 'If you go on much longer there won't be a single one remaining on Midsummer Eve, and then no-one will be able to become invisible,' she finished with a giddy laugh, then added more soberly, 'Have you ever tried it?' 'Tried what?' Philip asked. 'Gathering seed-bearing ferns on Midsummer Eve, to become invisible till Midsummer is past,' Marie explained. 'It's a silly superstition,' was Philip's rejoinder. 'I don't believe in it,' but his looks belied his words. 'Then why don't you try it?' Marie questioned, adding, 'I intend staying overnight in the church porch to see if there's any truth in that superstition.'

'Good God, Marie, you surely don't mean it,' the young man cried in anxious tones, 'why you know they say that if an unmarried lady spends the night before Midsummer in the church porch, she will see the spirits of everyone in the parish who will die within a year walk up ot the church door, knock thereon, and disappear; you surely don't mean to say that you intend facing that.'

Marie was obdurate. 'It's all nonsense,' she said laughing gaily, 'and in any case I want to see for myself.' Vainly the young man entreated her to refrain from this rash undertaking. She would not listen to reason and he had to be content, at last, with a half-promise that she would allow him to lead her as far as the church gates on the night in question.

Now, whilst Marie was inclined to laugh at the quaint superstitions of the country-folk, Philip was intensely superstitious and a firm believer in all these old-world fables and he felt certain that Marie would be incurring great risks in seeking after this manner to probe the mysteries of the future, for few of the maidens who kept lonely vigil in the church porch on Midsummer Eve, escaped unscathed from the nerve-shattering ordeal and none had ever been known to speak of it afterwards.

Out of the very depth of his wretchedness an idea came; if Marie persisted in her mad resolve, then she should not be unattended. It was commonly said that any man who accompanied a maid to the Church porch on St John's Eve would die, but it mattered not, for Marie's sake he would risk the penalty, and what is more, she would know nothing of the matter; though by God's grace he would be ready to succour her should any evil transpire.

The eve of St John arrived, Marie's resolve remained unchanged, she was determined to go on with the miserable adventure, so Philip accompanied her to the churchyard gate, and there they parted. Philip went silently down the lane, whilst Marie wended her way across the churchyard.

The moonlight fell more or less fitfully on the tombstones and grassy plots, lighting up everything with a weird eerie light which tended rather to intensify the haunting horrors of darkness, than to detract therefrom. Not for worlds would Marie have admitted to herself that she was afraid, yet she was forced to acknowledge that there was a vast difference between a churchyard by day and the same graveyard at night.

She hurried along the gravelled pathway towards the church porch, glancing neither to right nor left, for the tombstones seemed suddenly to have assumed living forms, and to be dancing hither and thither, in frolicsome mood, across the rich greensward, this being the effect of the strangely intermittent lunar light. The wild cry of an owl startled her, though she knew that a small colony of owls dwelt in the old church tower. She gained the porch at last, and sat down to commence her lonely vigil. The chimes told the quarter-hours as they fled; how leaden-winged time seemed to the girl's fevered fancy. Twice the great bell struck the hour—ten, eleven. Her solitary watch had lasted an hour and a half. It was at midnight, tradition asserted, that the ghastly visitants appeared.

Marie shuddered as this unwelcome thought forced itself upon her mind, and would not be banished. What if it was true after all, and the spirits of those who were doomed to die within the year should really appear to her. What could she say or do? 

Time seemed very slow in its flight, but it moved onwards all the same, and the bells continued the faithful record of its progress, until, at length, the four chimes again rang out, sweet and clear in the stilly night, whilst the big bell boomed the solemn midnight hour.

Marie groaned aloud; the hour of witchery and magic had arrived. She fancied there were strange, shrouded forms flitting among the tombs. What of some of her friends or loved ones should be among the doomed? The ordeal must be faced. She gazed steadily before her, and beheld her exact counterpart slowly advancing. A loud shriek escaped her lips; than as she perceived her beloved Philip's image, immediately behind the other form, she fell fainting to the ground.

When Marie left Philip by the churchyard gate, he sauntered down the adjoining lane in search of seed-bearing fern. Having found a patch of ferns, he pulled up one, and striking a match examined the back of the fronds to see if the seed was in a proper germinating condition. This proving to be the case, he believed, according to the local superstition, that he was now invisible, and he accordingly returned to the graveyard and wended his way among the tombs until he reached the church, when he immediately entered the porch and stood quite close to Marie.

Apparently there was some truth in the old belief, for Marie remained unaware of his presence, not having perceived his approach. Like Marie, he found the passage of time incredibly slow, whilst he was much more oppressed with credulous fears, being by nature very superstitious. He believed graveyards to be continually haunted at night by uneasy spirits of the departed, and his imagination readily filled the air with white visionary forms which fascinated, even while they awed him.

The booming of the midnight hour, and Marie's loud screaming afterwards, caused the young man's heart to beat furiously, for he was in a fever of apprehension as to what she might have seen; but as she fell fainting at his feet, he raised her tenderly and carried her away, intending to seek help at the nearest farmhouse. Marie, however, speedily revived, and finding herself being carried away by unseen hands, she commenced struggling violently, hitting out wildly in every direction. Philip, who had forgotten he was invisible to her, could not understand why she struggled and screamed continually, but supposing her to be delirious, he pushed forward steadily.

Suddenly the screaming stopped, the struggles ceased, she lay still and silent in his arms. A feeling of dread crossed Philip's mind, he leaned against one of the tombstones, then peered intently in to Marie's face; it has a strange fixed appearance, the eyes were opened wide, staring with an intense glassy stare. For some moments he remained thus, then passed a hand across her face; it was strangely damp, and chill, and the body had stiffened also, and lay in his arms inert and helpless. A low moan escaped him as he realised the awful truth; Marie was no more, for death had chilled her with his icy kiss, and that which Philip held in his hands was only a corpse. He leaned once more against the tombstone as a horrible presentiment flashed into his consciousness, when he remembered the penalty he had incurred in accompanying a maiden to the church porch on Midsummer Eve. A great weakness was upon him, yet he clung to his strange burden; more than once he shivered with cold, then he became conscious of a great awe-inspiring presence, felt rather than seen, a dark massive personality, which stretched far above and all around him, yet bent forward as if to embrace him, seeming to say: 'I that speak unto thee am Death.' He groaned once again, an awful blood-curdling groan, then all was still.

In the morning the parishioners found Marie's dead body apparently floating in the air. Many knew of the lonely vigil she had undertaken the previous night, and hiow she had scoffed at the superstition. One and all were afraid to touch the corpse, but at length the grave-digger and his assistant endeavoured to remove the body, whilst the Rector recited prayers for their protection. Then a strange thing happened, when they laid hold of the body ot seemed unaccountably heavy so that they were compelled to let it fall to the ground.

They desisted from their efforts for a while; but later in the day a fresh attempt was made to remove the body. This time fresh difficulties were encountered, for when one of the two men crossed form one side ot the other he was suddenly thrown by some invisible obstacle, and others coming to his assistance shared the same fate.

It was then discovered that this extraordinary obstacle could be felt, though not seen; and eerie whispers of witchcraft were freely spread, this being, in fact, the generally accepted explanation of the weird occurrence. Finally they decide to abandon all further efforts in connection with the matter until the following day, and in the early morning the grave-digger, his assistant and the Rector proceeded to the spot. They then discovered the body of Philip Duval lying crossways over that of Marie Dugan, where it had fallen when pulled away from the tomb, it having ceased to be invisible directly Midsummer Day was past.

This time the two bodies were removed without difficulty, and the finding of the front of fern, bearing germinable seeds, in the young man's pocket served to throw a little light on the mysterious occurrence, and the two bodies were interred, with the usual rites, some two days later.

This story is not forgotten, however, and the simple country folk will go right out of their way sooner than pass the graveyard on Midsummer Eve, for they assert that the whole tragedy is re-enacted every year, and that any person who sees Marie walking in the churchyard or standing in the porch, or who hears her scream, or beholds her body supported in the air by invisible hands, is certain to die very shortly, whilst in like manner anyone who sees Philip go down the lane in search of a fern, or hears his invisible body groan in the churchyard, is certain to die within twenty-four hours. Superstition, you say, well it may be so, still many persons have heard the piercing screams of Marie's unhappy wraith, but they have one and all been marked for death.