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  • The Mason’s Worst Task April 2, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    This story has haunted Beach more than any other in the last month. Is it true, fiction or an inspired urban legend? In either case it would be a brilliant detective story. Beach was reminded of Sherlock Holmes and the Engineer’s Thumb (pub 1892). It appeared in 1894 in the Wicklow People (11 Aug). Enjoy and do write in if anyone puts this into a novel as it richly deserves: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    The following relation of a true story was given to the writer in conversation at Paris by General Hulot, who was aide-de-camp to Marshal Junot, Duke of Abrates, at the time it happened. In the year 1805, while General Junot was Governor of Paris, a poor mason, who was returning one evening from his day’s work through the Champs Elysees, was accosted by three men, whose features the darkness of the evening prevented him from distinguishing. They asked him if he was willing to come with them once for the purpose of executing a work in masonry, which it was necessary should be completed before morning. He expressed his readiness to do so, provided he was well paid for it. They then promised him five-and-twenty napoleons as his reward, on condition that he would consent to have his eyes blindfolded, and would come with them without an instant’s delay. The mason acceded to this proposal, and a handkerchief was bound over his eyes. The men then led him along a quick pace for some time. At length they stopped, and told him he was now to get into a carriage. Having placed him in it and got in it themselves, the carriage drove off with great rapidity. For a considerable space of time they rolled over the stones, but afterwards left them, and appeared to be passing along a cross-road. About an hour’s drive brought them to the end of their journey. The carriage halted, and the mason was taken out of it. He was then led through various passages and up and down staircases, probably for the purpose of rendering it the more difficult for him on any future occasion to trace his way.

    Here the creepiness begins.

    When the bandage was taken from his eyes he found himself in a room illuminated with many wax candles and hung with black cloth. The floor, the walls, and the ceiling were alike covered with these mournful hangings, and no part of the apartment was without them, except one large niche in the wall, near which were placed stones and mortar and the implements for making use of them. The man astonished and alarmed at all he saw turned round to ask an explanation of it all, but found himself alone. He had full leisure to examine the funereal ornament by which he was surrounded but at length he heard noise and a portion of the hanging was lifted up, uncovering a door, which was thrown open. Through this entered number of men in black cloaks, and whose faces were concealed by masks. They came, dragging with them a lovely young woman, whose dishevelled black hair, streaming eyes, and disordered dress were evidences of her misery and the compulsion under which she was suffering. As soon as she was in the room she fell on her knees before her masked conductors, and besought them in the most moving manner to have pity on her, but they only replied shaking their heads. She particularly addressed herself to one of them, who from his grey hairs appeared to be older than the rest. She embraced his knees, and with sobs and cries besought his mercy. To these supplications no answer was given, but upon a signal made she was again dragged forward, and in spite her screams and resistance was forced into the large niche inferred to above, where she was bound with cord. The grey haired mask then desired the mason to begin his task, and to wall her up. But the poor man, horror struck with what he had seen, and affected beyond measure by the imploring lamentations of the poor lady, who besought him not to be an accessory to so foul a murder, refused to proceed. Upon this the masks began to threaten him. The man fell on his knees, and entreated to be permitted to depart. But the masks drew their swords from beneath their cloaks and told him, with imprecations that if he continued to refuse to perform what he promised instant death should his portion, while, on the other hand, if he obeyed his reward should be doubled. The poor man, thus intimidated, commenced unwillingly the horrible task, but stopp’d from time to time and requested to be permitted to desist. The masks, however, stood over him the whole time with drawn swords, and obliged him to proceed. The shrieks of the victim became every instant more dreadfully piercing as the wall rose upon her which was to shut her out from life. But at length the tragedy was completed, and the niche was solidly closed in with masonry. The mason, more dead than alive, threw down his trowel, the gray-haired mask put fifty napoleons into his hand, his eyes were again covered, and he was hurried from the room in which this tremendous scene had taken place. As on his arrival, he was carried up and down through various passages, and then put into a carriage. The carriage was then whirled along as rapidly as before, and after the stated period the mason found himself with his eyes uncovered on the spot in the Champ Elyses where he had been first met and alone!

    Then the irrelevant denoument.

    The night was now far advanced, or rather the morning was approaching. The man was stunned and bewildered by what he had witnessed, but after a short time he recovered the use of his intellect so far as to determine go forthwith to the Governor of Paris. With difficulty he got admission to Marshal Janet, but his tale; was first disbelieved. The fifty napoleons, which he produced, and still more the unvarying accuracy with which he related the different circumstances of that dreadful night, however, at length gained him entire credit. The police employed themselves very diligently for some weeks in attempting to trace the scene of the crime and the perpetrators of it. Various houses within a certain distance of the capital were searched, and the walls of rooms inspected, to see if any marks of fresh-made stone-work could be discovered. The chief house agents of Paris, the letters-out of carriages and horses, the guards at the barriers, &c., were examined, in the hope of finding some clue, but entirely without success. The mysterious murder remained, and still remains, unexplained and unpunished, but conjecture imagined it to have been an act of family vengeance. According to this solution the masks were the fathers and brothers of the lady, who was considered, in some way or other, to have dishonoured her race. They were also supposed to have been strangers from some distant part of the country, who had come to the neighbourhood of Paris for the purpose of completing this vindictive act, and had gone away again after its perpetration.


    Chris S writes, 30 Apr 2017: The mason’s task reminds me of Poe’s Cask of Amontillado. Immurement is/was a popular mode of execution in many countries, often performed as punishment but also religious and ascetic reasons. It’s a play on being buried alive, a common fear of the 19th century. Balzac’s La Grande Bretèche has the lover of a wife walled up in the closet he’s used to hide from her husband. The married couple stay in the room ’til the struggles cease. She has her lawyer declare the house off-limits after her death. Poe may have found inspiration from this story (1831) for Cask (1846) then inspiring the tale you ably related.

    Open Sesame (been a long time) writes, 29 May 2017: Interesting the mason story. But it is not unique by any means. I have half a dozen other stories with this from the newspapers. In other words you have your favourite thing: a late 19C urban legend!