Nex Hath Plures Visio

THE SIGNS OF DEATH


HISTORY

In Scotland she was called the bean-nighe, or "washing woman." Small and squat - sometimes even childlike in appearance - the bean-nighe was seen by travelers passing distant ponds and rivers. She continually beat bloodstained shrouds on the river stones and wrung the water from the cloth, sometimes she would sing a funeral song to herself. It was said that if the traveler dared to talk to her he would hear the names of those about to die and would also hear - if he wished - his own fate foretold.

The bean-nighe was often described as a ghost herself - usually the ghost of a woman who had died in childbirth. This was an untimely death, a shortening of normal life. The dead mother was doomed to be a beckoner of the living, washing the shrouds of those among them who were about to join her, until the date of what would have been her natural death had been reached.

There was another beckoner, much less obtrusive than the banshee, one not attached to Celtic countries: it appeared in every land and in every walk of life. It was a quiet creature, but its demand was unchangeable, and those who saw it knew its purpose. A 17th century tale shows it at work.

The episode began late one summer afternoon in the formally paterned garden of a Kentish country house. Most of the family was away visiting a neighbor, but a daughter of the house lingered there, walking on graveled paths among the sculptured boxwood, past fragrant flower beds carefully planted to make ornamental carpets on the lawn. She walked slowly because of the heat and because her movement was restricted by the fashions of the time - lace, ribbons, ruffles and thick fallls of skirt.

She glanced at the brick facade of the house, glowing in the late light. A movement caught her eye. In the dark square of a window she could see the pale oval of a face, indistinct at this distance, yet seeming to regard her steadily. It was, no doubt, a servant, idling about upstairs.

The young woman took another turn around the garden, but the afternoon was fast dimming into dusk, and from the river that coursed nearby, mist began to rise and curl gently across the lawns, bringing a chill with it. The woman went indoors.

The house seemed unnaturally quiet. In the hall, she paused, overcome by the sensation - not, of course, uncommon in an empty house - that she was being watched. Nothing was in the hall, however, save for ancestral portraits, the usual collection of bewigged gentlemen and white-haired ladies swathed in folds of gleaming fabric and attended by solemn children and arrays of lap dogs.

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