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Lord Dufferin's Tale

Lord Dufferin, a British diplomat, was the central figure of this story, which has become one of England's classic tales of the supernatural.

O ne night during a stay at a friend's country house in Ireland, Lord Dufferin was unusually restless and could not sleep. He had an inexplicable feeling of dread, and so, to calm his nerves, he arose and walked across the room to the window.

A full moon illuminated the garden below so that it was almost as bright as morning, as Lord Dufferin stood there by the window. Suddenly he was conscious of a movement in the shadows and a man appeared, carrying a long box on his back. The silent and sinister figure walked slowly across the moonlit yard. As he passed the window from which Lord Dufferin intently watched, he stopped and looked directly into the diplomat's eyes.

Lord Dufferin recoiled, for the face of the man carrying the burden was so ugly that he could not even describe it later. For a moment their eyes met, and then the man moved off into the shadows. The box on his back was clearly seen to be a casket.

The next morning Dufferin asked his host and the other guests about the man in the garden, but no one knew anything about him. He was even accused of having a nightmare, but he knew better.

Many years later in Paris, when Lord Dufferin was serving as the English ambassador to France, he was about to step into an elevator on the way to an important meeting of diplomats. For some unexpected reason he glanced at the elevator operator, and with a violent start recognized the man he had seen carrying the coffin across the moonlit garden. Involuntarily he stepped back from the elevator and stood there as the door closed and it started up without him.

His agitation was so great that he remained motionless for several mintutes. Then a terrific crash startled him. The cable had parted, and the elevator had fallen three floors to the basement. Several passengers were killed in the tragedy and the operator himself died.

Investgation revealed that the operator had been hired for just that day, and no one has ever known who he was or where he came from.

I am struck by the similarity of this account to a part of The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers (1895), specifically The Yellow Sign, a portion of which follows:
When I first saw the watchman his back was toward me. I looked at him indifferently until he went into the church. I paid no more attention to him than I had to any other man who lounged through Washington Square that morning, and when I shut my window and turned back into my studio I had forgotten him. Late in the afternoon, the day being warm, I raised the window again and leaned out to get a sniff of the air. A man was standing in the courtyard of the church, and I noticed him again with as little interest as I had that morning. I looked across the square to where the fountain was playing and then, with my mind filled with vague impressions of trees, asphalt drives, and the moving groups of nursemaids and holidaymakers, I started to walk back to my easel. As I turned, my listless glance included the man below in the churchyard. His face was toward me now, and with a perfectly involuntary movement I bent to see it. At the same moment he raised his head and looked at me. Instantly I thought of a coffin-worm. Whatever it was about the man that repelled me I did not know, but the impression of a plump white grave-worm was so intense and nauseating that I must have shown it in my expression, for he turned his puffy face away with a movement which made me think of a disturbed grub in a chestnut.

And later, from another character in the tale...
"One night last winter I was lying in bed thinking about nothing at all in particular. I had been posing for you and I was tired out, yet it seemed impossible for me to sleep. I heard the bells in the city ring ten, eleven, and midnight. I must have fallen asleep about midnight because I don't remember hearing the bells after that. It seemed to me that I had scarcely closed my eyes when I dreamed that something impelled me to go to the window. I rose, and raising the sash, leaned out. Twenty-fifth Street was deserted as far as I could see. I began to be afraid; everything outside seemed so - so black and uncomfortable. Then the sound of wheels in the distance came to my ears, and it seemed to me as though that was what I must wait for. Very slowly the wheels approached, and, finally, I could make out a vehicle moving along the street. It came nearer and nearer, and when it passed beneath my window I saw it was a hearse. Then, as I trembled with fear, the driver turned and looked straight at me. When I awoke I was standing by the open window shivering with cold, but the black-plumed hearse and the driver were gone. I dreamed this dream again in March last, and again awoke beside the open window. Last night the dream came again. You remember how it was raining; when I awoke, standing at the open window, my nightdress was soaked."

From Strangely Enough! by by C. B. Colby (1959).

I have seen this story repeatedly over the years, and it is always completely consistent, and appears to be based on the account of a real person - Lord Dufferin himself.

Lord Dufferin, Frederick Temple Blackwood, Marquis of Dufferin, lived from 1826-1902. He also served as Governor General of Canada, (1872-1878) and as Viceroy of India (1884-1888). By some accounts he was also Britian's Ambassador to France and Italy.

In April of 1998, I read that this is indeed an urban legend, told by Dufferin himself for years. It was nicely adapted into the "room for one more inside" tale The Hearse Driver within the classic Dead of Night in 1945.