would YOU get on that?

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards

The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards is an imperfect tale, yes, but the imperfections are forgiveable because of the story’s ambition, and the perfection with which the atmosphere is created. It touches on the Great Subjects, introduces a couple of characters that put the bland narrator to shame (although perhaps they turned up later as villains on a Scooby Doo episode), and then, near the end, gets into the ghostly business.

That said, it’s enjoyable, and very, very creepy, if briefly. If you can’t take drawn-out suspense, but like a good shock with some old-fashioned fripperies like coach houses and mysterious manors and charmingly colloquial servants, this story is for you.


The Phantom Coach
by Amelia B. Edwards

would YOU get on that?

would YOU get on that?

The circumstances I am about to relate to you have truth to recommend them. They happened to myself, and my recollection of them is as vivid as if they had taken place only yesterday. Twenty years, however, have gone by since that night. During those twenty years I have told the story to but one other person. I tell it now with a reluctance which I find it difficult to overcome. All I entreat, meanwhile, is that you will abstain from forcing your own conclusions upon me. I want nothing explained away. I desire no arguments. My mind on this subject is quite made up, and, having the testimony of my own senses to rely upon, I prefer to abide by it.

Well! It was just twenty years ago, and within a day or two of the end of the grouse season. I had been out all day with my gun, and had had no sport to speak of. The wind was due east; the month, December; the place, a bleak wide moor in the far north of England. And I had lost my way. It was not a pleasant place in which to lose one’s way, with the first feathery flakes of a coming snowstorm just fluttering down upon the heather, and the leaden evening closing in all around. I shaded my eyes with my hand, and staled anxiously into the gathering darkness, where the purple moorland melted into a range of low hills, some ten or twelve miles distant. Not the faintest smoke-wreath, not the tiniest cultivated patch, or fence, or sheep-track, met my eyes in any direction. There was nothing for it but to walk on, and take my chance of finding what shelter I could, by the way. So I shouldered my gun again, and pushed wearily forward; for I had been on foot since an hour after daybreak, and had eaten nothing since breakfast.

Meanwhile, the snow began to come down with ominous steadiness, and the wind fell. After this, the cold became more intense, and the night came rapidly up. As for me, my prospects darkened with the darkening sky, and my heart grew heavy as I thought how my young wife was already watching for me through the window of our little inn parlour, and thought of all the suffering in store for her throughout this weary night. We had been married four months, and, having spent our autumn in the Highlands, were now lodging in a remote little village situated just on the verge of the great English moorlands. We were very much in love, and, of course, very happy. This morning, when we parted, she had implored me to return before dusk, and I had promised her that I would. What would I not have given to have kept my word!

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     Even now, weary as I was, I felt that with a supper, an hour’s rest, and a guide, I might still get back to her before midnight, if only guide and shelter could be found.

And all this time, the snow fell and the night thickened. I stopped and shouted every now and then, but my shouts seemed only to make the silence deeper. Then a vague sense of uneasiness came upon me, and I began to remember stories of travellers who had walked on and on in the falling snow until, wearied out, they were fain to lie down and sleep their lives away. Would it be possible, I asked myself, to keep on thus through all the long dark night? Would there not come a time when my limbs must fail, and my resolution give way? When I, too, must sleep the sleep of death. Death! I shuddered. How hard to die just now, when life lay all so bright before me! How hard for my darling, whose whole loving heart but that thought was not to be borne! To banish it, I shouted again, louder and longer, and then listened eagerly. Was my shout answered, or did I only fancy that I heard a far-off cry? I halloed again, and again the echo followed. Then a wavering speck of light came suddenly out of the dark, shifting, disappearing, growing momentarily nearer and brighter. Running towards it at full speed, I found myself, to my great joy, face to face with an old man and a lantern.

“Thank God!” was the exclamation that burst involuntarily from my lips.

Blinking and frowning, he lifted his lantern and peered into my face.

“What for?” growled he, sulkily.

“Well — for you. I began to fear I should be lost in the snow.”

“Eh, then, folks do get cast away hereabouts fra’ time to time, an’ what’s to hinder you from bein’ cast away likewise, if the Lord’s so minded?”

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     “If the Lord is so minded that you and I shall be lost together, friend, we must submit,” I replied; “but I don’t mean to be lost without you. How far am I now from Dwolding?”

“A gude twenty mile, more or less.”

“And the nearest village?”

“The nearest village is Wyke, an’ that’s twelve mile t’other side.”

“Where do you live, then?”

“Out yonder,” said he, with a vague jerk of the lantern.

“You’re going home, I presume?”

“Maybe I am.”

“Then I’m going with you.”

The old man shook his head, and rubbed his nose reflectively with the handle of the lantern.

“It ain’t o’ no use,” growled he. “He ‘ont let you in — not he.”

“We’ll see about that,” I replied, briskly. “Who is He?”

“The master.”

“Who is the master?”

“That’s nowt to you,” was the unceremonious reply.

“Well, well; you lead the way, and I’ll engage that the master shall give me shelter and a supper to-night.”

“Eh, you can try him!” muttered my reluctant guide; and, still shaking his head, he hobbled, gnome-like, away through the falling snow. A large mass loomed up presently out of the darkness, and a huge dog rushed out, barking furiously.

“Is this the house?” I asked.

“Ay, it’s the house. Down, Bey!” And he fumbled in his pocket for the key.

<  4  >

     I drew up close behind him, prepared to lose no chance of entrance, and saw in the little circle of light shed by the lantern that the door was heavily studded with iron nails, like the door of a prison. In another minute he had turned the key and I had pushed past him into the house.

Once inside, I looked round with curiosity, and found myself in a great raftered hall, which served, apparently, a variety of uses. One end was piled to the roof with corn, like a barn. The other was stored with flour-sacks, agricultural implements, casks, and all kinds of miscellaneous lumber; while from the beams overhead hung rows of hams, flitches, and bunches of dried herbs for winter use. In the centre of the floor stood some huge object gauntly dressed in a dingy wrapping-cloth, and reaching half way to the rafters. Lifting a corner of this cloth, I saw, to my surprise, a telescope of very considerable size, mounted on a rude movable platform, with four small wheels. The tube was made of painted wood, bound round with bands of metal rudely fashioned; the speculum, so far as I could estimate its size in the dim light, measured at least fifteen inches in diameter. While I was yet examining the instrument, and asking myself whether it was not the work of some self-taught optician, a bell rang sharply.

“That’s for you,” said my guide, with a malicious grin. “Yonder’s his room.”

He pointed to a low black door at the opposite side of the hall. I crossed over, rapped somewhat loudly, and went in, without waiting for an invitation. A huge, white-haired old man rose from a table covered with books and papers, and confronted me sternly.

“Who are you?” said he. “How came you here? What do you want?”

“James Murray, barrister-at-law. On foot across the moor. Meat, drink, and sleep.”

He bent his bushy brows into a portentous frown.

<  5  >

     “Mine is not a house of entertainment,” he said, haughtily. “Jacob, how dared you admit this stranger?”

“I didn’t admit him,” grumbled the old man. “He followed me over the muir, and shouldered his way in before me. I’m no match for six foot two.”

“And pray, sir, by what right have you forced an entrance into my house?”

“The same by which I should have clung to your boat, if I were drowning. The right of self-preservation.”

“Self-preservation?”

“There’s an inch of snow on the ground already,” I replied, briefly; “and it would be deep enough to cover my body before daybreak.”

He strode to the window, pulled aside a heavy black curtain, and looked out.

“It is true,” he said. “You can stay, if you choose, till morning. Jacob, serve the supper.”

With this he waved me to a seat, resumed his own, and became at once absorbed in the studies from which I had disturbed him.

I placed my gun in a corner, drew a chair to the hearth, and examined my quarters at leisure. Smaller and less incongruous in its arrangements than the hall, this room contained, nevertheless, much to awaken my curiosity. The floor was carpetless. The whitewashed walls were in parts scrawled over with strange diagrams, and in others covered with shelves crowded with philosophical instruments, the uses of many of which were unknown to me. On one side of the fireplace, stood a bookcase filled with dingy folios; on the other, a small organ, fantastically decorated with painted carvings of medieval saints and devils. Through the half-opened door of a cupboard at the further end of the room, I saw a long array of geological specimens, surgical preparations, crucibles, retorts, and jars of chemicals; while on the mantelshelf beside me, amid a number of small objects, stood a model of the solar system, a small galvanic battery, and a microscope. Every chair had its burden. Every corner was heaped high with books. The very floor was littered over with maps, casts, papers, tracings, and learned lumber of all conceivable kinds.

<  6  >

     I stared about me with an amazement increased by every fresh object upon which my eyes chanced to rest. So strange a room I had never seen; yet seemed it stranger still, to find such a room in a lone farmhouse amid those wild and solitary moors! Over and over again, I looked from my host to his surroundings, and from his surroundings back to my host, asking myself who and what he could be? His head was singularly fine; but it was more the head of a poet than of a philosopher. Broad in the temples, prominent over the eyes, and clothed with a rough profusion of perfectly white hair, it had all the ideality and much of the ruggedness that characterises the head of Louis von Beethoven. There were the same deep lines about the mouth, and the same stern furrows in the brow. There was the same concentration of expression. While I was yet observing him, the door opened, and Jacob brought in the supper. His master then closed his book, rose, and with more courtesy of manner than he had yet shown, invited me to the table.

A dish of ham and eggs, a loaf of brown bread, and a bottle of admirable sherry, were placed before me.

“I have but the homeliest farmhouse fare to offer you, sir,” said my entertainer. “Your appetite, I trust, will make up for the deficiencies of our larder.”

I had already fallen upon the viands, and now protested, with the enthusiasm of a starving sportsman, that I had never eaten anything so delicious.

He bowed stiffly, and sat down to his own supper, which consisted, primitively, of a jug of milk and a basin of porridge. We ate in silence, and, when we had done, Jacob removed the tray. I then drew my chair back to the fireside. My host, somewhat to my surprise, did the same, and turning abruptly towards me, said:

“Sir, I have lived here in strict retirement for three-and-twenty years. During that time, I have not seen as many strange faces, and I have not read a single newspaper. You are the first stranger who has crossed my threshold for more than four years. Will you favour me with a few words of information respecting that outer world from which I have parted company so long?”

<  7  >

     “Pray interrogate me,” I replied. “I am heartily at your service.”

He bent his head in acknowledgment; leaned forward, with his elbows resting on his knees and his chin supported in the palms of his hands; stared fixedly into the fire; and proceeded to question me.

His inquiries related chiefly to scientific matters, with the later progress of which, as applied to the practical purposes of life, he was almost wholly unacquainted. No student of science myself, I replied as well as my slight information permitted; but the task was far from easy, and I was much relieved when, passing from interrogation to discussion, he began pouring forth his own conclusions upon the facts which I had been attempting to place before him. He talked, and I listened spellbound. He talked till I believe he almost forgot my presence, and only thought aloud. I had never heard anything like it then; I have never heard anything like it since. Familiar with all systems of all philosophies, subtle in analysis, bold in generalisation, he poured forth his thoughts in an uninterrupted stream, and, still leaning forward in the same moody attitude with his eyes fixed upon the fire, wandered from topic to topic, from speculation to speculation, like an inspired dreamer. From practical science to mental philosophy; from electricity in the wire to electricity in the nerve; from Watts to Mesmer, from Mesmer to Reichenbach, from Reichenbach to Swedenborg, Spinoza, Condillac, Descartes, Berkeley, Aristotle, Plato, and the Magi and mystics of the East, were transitions which, however bewildering in their variety and scope, seemed easy and harmonious upon his lips as sequences in music. By-and-by — I forget now by what link of conjecture or illustration — he passed on to that field which lies beyond the boundary line of even conjectural philosophy, and reaches no man knows whither. He spoke of the soul and its aspirations; of the spirit and its powers; of second sight; of prophecy; of those phenomena which, under the names of ghosts, spectres, and supernatural appearances, have been denied by the sceptics and attested by the credulous, of all ages.

“The world,” he said, “grows hourly more and more sceptical of all that lies beyond its own narrow radius; and our men of science foster the fatal tendency. They condemn as fable all that resists experiment. They reject as false all that cannot be brought to the test of the laboratory or the dissecting-room. Against what superstition have they waged so long and obstinate a war, as against the belief in apparitions? And yet what superstition has maintained its hold upon the minds of men so long and so firmly? Show me any fact in physics, in history, in archæology, which is supported by testimony so wide and so various. Attested by all races of men, in all ages, and in all climates, by the soberest sages of antiquity, by the rudest savage of to-day, by the Christian, the Pagan, the Pantheist, the Materialist, this phenomenon is treated as a nursery tale by the philosophers of our century. Circumstantial evidence weighs with them as a feather in the balance. The comparison of causes with effects, however valuable in physical science, is put aside as worthless and unreliable. The evidence of competent witnesses, however conclusive in a court of justice, counts for nothing. He who pauses before he pronounces, is condemned as a trifler. He who believes, is a dreamer or a fool.”

<  8  >

     He spoke with bitterness, and, having said thus, relapsed for some minutes into silence. Presently he raised his head from his hands, and added, with an altered voice and manner, “I, sir, paused, investigated, believed, and was not ashamed to state my convictions to the world. I, too, was branded as a visionary, held up to ridicule by my contemporaries, and hooted from that field of science in which I had laboured with honour during all the best years of my life. These things happened just three-and-twenty years ago. Since then, I have lived as you see me living now, and the world has forgotten me, as I have forgotten the world. You have my history.”

“It is a very sad one,” I murmured, scarcely knowing what to answer.

“It is a very common one,” he replied. “I have only suffered for the truth, as many a better and wiser man has suffered before me.”

He rose, as if desirous of ending the conversation, and went over to the window.

“It has ceased snowing,” he observed, as he dropped the curtain, and came back to the fireside.

“Ceased!” I exclaimed, starting eagerly to my feet. “Oh, if it were only possible — but no! it is hopeless. Even if I could find my way across the moor, I could not walk twenty miles to-night.”

“Walk twenty miles to-night!” repeated my host. “What are you thinking of?”

“Of my wife,” I replied, impatiently. “Of my young wife, who does not know that I have lost my way, and who is at this moment breaking her heart with suspense and terror.”

“Where is she?”

“At Dwolding, twenty miles away.”

“At Dwolding,” he echoed, thoughtfully. “Yes, the distance, it is true, is twenty miles; but — are you so very anxious to save the next six or eight hours?”

<  9  >

     “So very, very anxious, that I would give ten guineas at this moment for a guide and a horse.”

“Your wish can be gratified at a less costly rate,” said he, smiling. “The night mail from the north, which changes horses at Dwolding, passes within five miles of this spot, and will be due at a certain cross-road in about an hour and a quarter. If Jacob were to go with you across the moor, and put you into the old coach-road, you could find your way, I suppose, to where it joins the new one?”

“Easily — gladly.”

He smiled again, rang the bell, gave the old servant his directions, and, taking a bottle of whisky and a wineglass from the cupboard in which he kept his chemicals, said:

“The snow lies deep, and it will be difficult walking to-night on the moor. A glass of usquebaugh before you start?”

I would have declined the spirit, but he pressed it on me, and I drank it. It went down my throat like liquid flame, and almost took my breath away.

“It is strong,” he said; “but it will help to keep out the cold. And now you have no moments to spare. Good night!”

I thanked him for his hospitality, and would have shaken hands, but that he had turned away before I could finish my sentence. In another minute I had traversed the hall, Jacob had locked the outer door behind me, and we were out on the wide white moor.

Although the wind had fallen, it was still bitterly cold. Not a star glimmered in the black vault overhead. Not a sound, save the rapid crunching of the snow beneath our feet, disturbed the heavy stillness of the night. Jacob, not too well pleased with his mission, shambled on before in sullen silence, his lantern in his hand, and his shadow at his feet. I followed, with my gun over my shoulder, as little inclined for conversation as himself. My thoughts were full of my late host. His voice yet rang in my ears. His eloquence yet held my imagination captive. I remember to this day, with surprise, how my over-excited brain retained whole sentences and parts of sentences, troops of brilliant images, and fragments of splendid reasoning, in the very words in which he had uttered them. Musing thus over what I had heard, and striving to recall a lost link here and there, I strode on at the heels of my guide, absorbed and unobservant. Presently — at the end, as it seemed to me, of only a few minutes — he came to a sudden halt, and said:

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     “Yon’s your road. Keep the stone fence to your right hand, and you can’t fail of the way.”

“This, then, is the old coach-road?”

“Ay, ’tis the old coach-road.”

“And how far do I go, before I reach the cross-roads?”

“Nigh upon three mile.”

I pulled out my purse, and he became more communicative.

“The road’s a fair road enough,” said he, “for foot passengers; but ’twas over steep and narrow for the northern traffic. You’ll mind where the parapet’s broken away, close again the sign-post. It’s never been mended since the accident.”

“What accident?”

“Eh, the night mail pitched right over into the valley below — a gude fifty feet an’ more — just at the worst bit o’ road in the whole county.”

“Horrible! Were many lives lost?”

“All. Four were found dead, and t’other two died next morning.”

“How long is it since this happened?”

“Just nine year.”

“Near the sign-post, you say? I will bear it in mind. Good night.”

“Gude night, sir, and thankee.” Jacob pocketed his half-crown, made a faint pretence of touching his hat, and trudged back by the way he had come.

I watched the light of his lantern till it quite disappeared, and then turned to pursue my way alone. This was no longer matter of the slightest difficulty, for, despite the dead darkness overhead, the line of stone fence showed distinctly enough against the pale gleam of the snow. How silent it seemed now, with only my footsteps to listen to; how silent and how solitary! A strange disagreeable sense of loneliness stole over me. I walked faster. I hummed a fragment of a tune. I cast up enormous sums in my head, and accumulated them at compound interest. I did my best, in short, to forget the startling speculations to which I had but just been listening, and, to some extent, I succeeded.

<  11  >

     Meanwhile the night air seemed to become colder and colder, and though I walked fast I found it impossible to keep myself warm. My feet were like ice. I lost sensation in my hands, and grasped my gun mechanically. I even breathed with difficulty, as though, instead of traversing a quiet north country highway, I were scaling the uppermost heights of some gigantic Alp. This last symptom became presently so distressing, that I was forced to stop for a few minutes, and lean against the stone fence. As I did so, I chanced to look back up the road, and there, to my infinite relief, I saw a distant point of light, like the gleam of an approaching lantern. I at first concluded that Jacob had retraced his steps and followed me; but even as the conjecture presented itself, a second light flashed into sight — a light evidently parallel with the first, and approaching at the same rate of motion. It needed no second thought to show me that these must be the carriage-lamps of some private vehicle, though it seemed strange that any private vehicle should take a road professedly disused and dangerous

There could be no doubt, however, of the fact, for the lamps grew larger and brighter every moment, and I even fancied I could already see the dark outline of the carriage between them. It was coming up very fast, and quite noiselessly, the snow being nearly a foot deep under the wheels.

And now the body of the vehicle became distinctly visible behind the lamps. It looked strangely lofty. A sudden suspicion flashed upon me. Was it possible that I had passed the cross-roads in the dark without observing the sign-post, and could this be the very coach which I had come to meet?

No need to ask myself that question a second time, for here it came round the bend of the road, guard and driver, one outside passenger, and four steaming greys, all wrapped in a soft haze of light, through which the lamps blazed out, like a pair of fiery meteors.

<  12  >

     I jumped forward, waved my hat, and shouted. The mail came down at full speed, and passed me. For a moment I feared that I had not been seen or heard, but it was only for a moment. The coachman pulled up; the guard, muffled to the eyes in capes and comforters, and apparently sound asleep in the rumble, neither answered my hail nor made the slightest effort to dismount; the outside passenger did not even turn his head. I opened the door for myself, and looked in. There were but three travellers inside, so I stepped in, shut the door, slipped into the vacant corner, and congratulated myself on my good fortune.

The atmosphere of the coach seemed, if possible, colder than that of the outer air, and was pervaded by a singularly damp and disagreeable smell. I looked round at my fellow-passengers. They were all three, men, and all silent. They did not seem to be asleep, but each leaned back in his corner of the vehicle, as if absorbed in his own reflections. I attempted to open a conversation.

“How intensely cold it is to-night,” I said, addressing my opposite neighbour.

He lifted his head, looked at me, but made no reply.

“The winter,” I added, “seems to have begun in earnest.”

Although the corner in which he sat was so dim that I could distinguish none of his features very clearly, I saw that his eyes were still turned full upon me. And yet he answered never a word.

At any other time I should have felt, and perhaps expressed, some annoyance, but at the moment I felt too ill to do either. The icy coldness of the night air had struck a chill to my very marrow, and the strange smell inside the coach was affecting me with an intolerable nausea. I shivered from head to foot, and, turning to my left-hand neighbour, asked if he had any objection to an open window?

<  13  >

     He neither spoke nor stirred.

I repeated the question somewhat more loudly, but with the same result. Then I lost patience, and let the sash down. As I did so, the leather strap broke in my hand, and I observed that the glass was covered with a thick coat of mildew, the accumulation, apparently, of years. My attention being thus drawn to the condition of the coach, I examined it more narrowly, and saw by the uncertain light of the outer lamps that it was in the last stage of dilapidation. Every part of it was not only out of repair, but in a condition of decay. The sashes splintered at a touch. The leather fittings were crusted over with mould, and literally rotting from the woodwork. The floor was almost breaking away beneath my feet. The whole machine, in short, was foul with damp, and had evidently been dragged from some outhouse in which it had been mouldering away for years, to do another day or two of duty on the road.

I turned to the third passenger, whom I had not yet addressed, and hazarded one more remark.

“This coach,” I said, “is in a deplorable condition. The regular mail, I suppose, is under repair?”

He moved his head slowly, and looked me in the face, without speaking a word. I shall never forget that look while I live. I turned cold at heart under it. I turn cold at heart even now when I recall it. His eyes glowed with a fiery unnatural lustre. His face was livid as the face of a corpse. His bloodless lips were drawn back as if in the agony of death, and showed the gleaming teeth between.

The words that I was about to utter died upon my lips, and a strange horror — a dreadful horror — came upon me. My sight had by this time become used to the gloom of the coach, and I could see with tolerable distinctness. I turned to my opposite neighbour. He, too, was looking at me, with the same startling pallor in his face, and the same stony glitter in his eyes. I passed my hand across my brow. I turned to the passenger on the seat beside my own, and saw — oh Heaven! how shall I describe what I saw? I saw that he was no living man — that none of them were living men, like myself! A pale phosphorescent light — the light of putrefaction — played upon their awful faces; upon their hair, dank with the dews of the grave; upon their clothes, earth-stained and dropping to pieces; upon their hands, which were as the hands of corpses long buried. Only their eyes, their terrible eyes, were living; and those eyes were all turned menacingly upon me!

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     A shriek of terror, a wild unintelligible cry for help and mercy; burst from my lips as I flung myself against the door, and strove in vain to open it.

In that single instant, brief and vivid as a landscape beheld in the flash of summer lightning, I saw the moon shining down through a rift of stormy cloud — the ghastly sign-post rearing its warning finger by the wayside — the broken parapet — the plunging horses — the black gulf below. Then, the coach reeled like a ship at sea. Then, came a mighty crash — a sense of crushing pain — and then, darkness.

 

It seemed as if years had gone by when I awoke one morning from a deep sleep, and found my wife watching by my bedside I will pass over the scene that ensued, and give you, in half a dozen words, the tale she told me with tears of thanksgiving. I had fallen over a precipice, close against the junction of the old coach-road and the new, and had only been saved from certain death by lighting upon a deep snowdrift that had accumulated at the foot of the rock beneath. In this snowdrift I was discovered at daybreak, by a couple of shepherds, who carried me to the nearest shelter, and brought a surgeon to my aid. The surgeon found me in a state of raving delirium, with a broken arm and a compound fracture of the skull. The letters in my pocket-book showed my name and address; my wife was summoned to nurse me; and, thanks to youth and a fine constitution, I came out of danger at last. The place of my fall, I need scarcely say, was precisely that at which a frightful accident had happened to the north mail nine years before.

I never told my wife the fearful events which I have just related to you. I told the surgeon who attended me; but he treated the whole adventure as a mere dream born of the fever in my brain. We discussed the question over and over again, until we found that we could discuss it with temper no longer, and then we dropped it. Others may form what conclusions they please — I know that twenty years ago I was the fourth inside passenger in that Phantom Coach.

St. Bartholomew's Church in London, reputed to be the most haunted in the city

Christmas Ghost Story: The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral

It’s not a good ghost story roundup without representation from the immortal M. R. James, Dean of the illustrious School of Great Old-Fashioned English Ghost Stories Often With A Christian Moral Lurking Somewhere Abouts. You can tell he’s a genius because the Moral doesn’t get in the way of the story; the story exists because of the moral. It’s the same with George Macdonald, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien; you know, that lot. I wrote a paper in university about them, trying to come up with a Grand Unifying Theory of Early 20th Century Fantasy Tale Christianity, and as you can tell from the fact that my name is not revered around the planet, I failed to actually find such a theory, but by the time I realized it was a bust, I was two days away from deadline with no other topics to hand. Can hardly submit a 12,000 word paper saying “Yup, this ain’t the case”.

But enough of me and my esoteric university studies (did a paper on comparative etiquette in the early 20th Century, and that was a corker, I assure you. I almost wish I’d handed it in). Time now for a very festive, and somewhat grand, story of a most horrible haunting in and out of a church. Love church stories. Don’t get ANY of the references at all. Like, when they say “and then he proceeded through the narthex” I’m all like, “narthex, that must be where they keep the dilithium crystals”. To me, stories about church ARE speculative fiction in almost every sense.

But not to M. R. James, who took such things VERY seriously indeed. And let’s let him at it, shall we? Here is The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, a quite historic, very churchy with bits of pagany, and quite creepy ghost story. Incidentally, if you click on the link you can find a map to the ACTUAL church at the bottom of the page. Go. Look for them!


The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
by M.R.James

St. Bartholomew's Church in London, reputed to be the most haunted in the city

St. Bartholomew’s Church in London, reputed to be the most haunted in the city

This matter began, as far as I am concerned, with the reading of a notice in the obituary section of the Gentleman’s Magazine for an early year in the nineteenth century:

On February 26th, at his residence in the Cathedral Close of
Barchester, the Venerable John Benwell Haynes, D.D., aged 57,
Archdeacon of Sowerbridge and Rector of Pickhill and Candley. He was
of —— College, Cambridge, and where, by talent and assiduity, he
commanded the esteem of his seniors; when, at the usual time, he took
his first degree, his name stood high in the list of wranglers .
These academical honours procured for him within a short time a
Fellowship of his College. In the year 1783 he received Holy Orders,
and was shortly afterwards presented to the perpetual Curacy of
Ranxton-sub-Ashe by his friend and patron the late truly venerable
Bishop of Lichfield…. His speedy preferments, first to a Prebend,
and subsequently to the dignity of Precentor in the Cathedral of
Barchester, form an eloquent testimony to the respect in which he was
held and to his eminent qualifications. He succeeded to the
Archdeaconry upon the sudden decease of Archdeacon Pulteney in 1810.
His sermons, ever conformable to the principles of the religion and
Church which he adorned, displayed in no ordinary degree, without the
least trace of enthusiasm, the refinement of the scholar united with
the graces of the Christian. Free from sectarian violence, and
informed by the spirit of the truest charity, they will long dwell in
the memories of his hearers. [Here a further omission.] The
productions of his pen include an able defence of Episcopacy, which,
though often perused by the author of this tribute to his memory,
affords but one additional instance of the want of liberality and
enterprise which is a too common characteristic of the publishers of
our generation. His published works are, indeed, confined to a
spirited and elegant version of the Argonautica of Valerius Flacus,
a volume of Discourses upon the Several Events in the Life of
Joshua , delivered in his Cathedral, and a number of the charges
which he pronounced at various visitations to the clergy of his
Archdeaconry. These are distinguished by etc., etc. The urbanity and
hospitality of the subject of these lines will not readily be
forgotten by those who enjoyed his acquaintance. His interest in the
venerable and awful pile under whose hoary vault he was so punctual
an attendant, and particularly in the musical portion of its rites,
might be termed filial, and formed a strong and delightful contrast
to the polite indifference displayed by too many of our Cathedral
dignitaries at the present time.

The final paragraph, after informing us that Dr Haynes died a bachelor, says:

It might have been augured that an existence so placid and benevolent
would have been terminated in a ripe old age by a dissolution equally
gradual and calm. But how unsearchable are the workings of
Providence! The peaceful and retired seclusion amid which the
honoured evening of Dr Haynes’ life was mellowing to its close was
destined to be disturbed, nay, shattered, by a tragedy as appalling
as it was unexpected. The morning of the 26th of February —

But perhaps I shall do better to keep back the remainder of the narrative until I have told the circumstances which led up to it. These, as far as they are now accessible, I have derived from another source.

I had read the obituary notice which I have been quoting, quite by chance, along with a great many others of the same period. It had excited some little speculation in my mind, but, beyond thinking that, if I ever had an opportunity of examining the local records of the period indicated, I would try to remember Dr Haynes, I made no effort to pursue his case.

Quite lately I was cataloguing the manuscripts in the library of the college to which he belonged. I had reached the end of the numbered volumes on the shelves, and I proceeded to ask the librarian whether there were any more books which he thought I ought to include in my description. ‘I don’t think there are,’ he said, ‘but we had better come and look at the manuscript class and make sure. Have you time to do that now?’ I had time. We went to the library, checked off the manuscripts, and, at the end of our survey, arrived at a shelf of which I had seen nothing. Its contents consisted for the most part of sermons, bundles of fragmentary papers, college exercises, Cyrus , an epic poem in several cantos, the product of a country clergyman’s leisure, mathematical tracts by a deceased professor, and other similar material of a kind with which I am only too familiar. I took brief notes of these. Lastly, there was a tin box, which was pulled out and dusted. Its label, much faded, was thus inscribed: ‘Papers of the Ven. Archdeacon Haynes. Bequeathed in 1834 by his sister, Miss Letitia Haynes.’

I knew at once that the name was one which I had somewhere encountered, and could very soon locate it. ‘That must be the Archdeacon Haynes who came to a very odd end at Barchester. I’ve read his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine . May I take the box home? Do you know if there is anything interesting in it?’

The librarian was very willing that I should take the box and examine it at leisure. ‘I never looked inside it myself,’ he said, ‘but I’ve always been meaning to. I am pretty sure that is the box which our old Master once said ought never to have been accepted by the college. He said that to Martin years ago; and he said also that as long as he had control over the library it should never be opened. Martin told me about it, and said that he wanted terribly to know what was in it; but the Master was librarian, and always kept the box in the lodge, so there was no getting at it in his time, and when he died it was taken away by mistake by his heirs, and only returned a few years ago. I can’t think why I haven’t opened it; but, as I have to go away from Cambridge this afternoon, you had better have first go at it. I think I can trust you not to publish anything undesirable in our catalogue.’

I took the box home and examined its contents, and thereafter consulted the librarian as to what should be done about publication, and, since I have his leave to make a story out of it, provided I disguised the identity of the people concerned, I will try what can be done.

The materials are, of course, mainly journals and letters. How much I shall quote and how much epitomize must be determined by considerations of space. The proper understanding of the situation has necessitated a little — not very arduous — research, which has been greatly facilitated by the excellent illustrations and text of the Barchester volume in Bell’s Cathedral Series .

When you enter the choir of Barchester Cathedral now, you pass through a screen of metal and coloured marbles, designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, and find yourself in what I must call a very bare and odiously furnished place. The stalls are modern, without canopies. The places of the dignitaries and the names of the prebends have fortunately been allowed to survive, and are inscribed on small brass plates affixed to the stalls. The organ is in the triforium, and what is seen of the case is Gothic. The reredos and its surroundings are like every other.

Careful engravings of a hundred years ago show a very different state of things. The organ is on a massive classical screen. The stalls are also classical and very massive. There is a baldacchino of wood over the altar, with urns upon its corners. Farther east is a solid altar screen, classical in design, of wood, with a pediment, in which is a triangle surrounded by rays, enclosing certain Hebrew letters in gold. Cherubs contemplate these. There is a pulpit with a great sounding-board at the eastern end of the stalls on the north side, and there is a black and white marble pavement. Two ladies and a gentleman are admiring the general effect. From other sources I gather that the archdeacon’s stall then, as now, was next to the bishop’s throne at the south-eastern end of the stalls. His house almost faces the west front of the church, and is a fine red-brick building of William the Third’s time.

Here Dr Haynes, already a mature man, took up his abode with his sister in the year 1810. The dignity had long been the object of his wishes, but his predecessor refused to depart until he had attained the age of ninety-two. About a week after he had held a modest festival in celebration of that ninety-second birthday, there came a morning, late in the year, when Dr Haynes, hurrying cheerfully into his breakfast-room, rubbing his hands and humming a tune, was greeted, and checked in his genial flow of spirits, by the sight of his sister, seated, indeed, in her usual place behind the tea-urn, but bowed forward and sobbing unrestrainedly into her handkerchief. ‘What — what is the matter? What bad news?’ he began. ‘Oh, Johnny, you’ve not heard? The poor dear archdeacon!’ ‘The archdeacon, yes? What is it — ill, is he?’ ‘No, no; they found him on the staircase this morning; it is so shocking.’ ‘Is it possible! Dear, dear, poor Pulteney! Had there been any seizure?’ ‘They don’t think so, and that is almost the worst thing about it. It seems to have been all the fault of that stupid maid of theirs, Jane.’ Dr Haynes paused. ‘I don’t quite understand, Letitia. How was the maid at fault?’ ‘Why, as far as I can make out, there was a stair-rod missing, and she never mentioned it, and the poor archdeacon set his foot quite on the edge of the step — you know how slippery that oak is — and it seems he must have fallen almost the whole flight and broken his neck. It is so sad for poor Miss Pulteney. Of course, they will get rid of the girl at once. I never liked her.’ Miss Haynes’s grief resumed its sway, but eventually relaxed so far as to permit of her taking some breakfast. Not so her brother, who, after standing in silence before the window for some minutes, left the room, and did not appear again that morning.

I need only add that the careless maid-servant was dismissed forthwith, but that the missing stair-rod was very shortly afterwards found under the stair-carpet — an additional proof, if any were needed, of extreme stupidity and carelessness on her part.

For a good many years Dr Haynes had been marked out by his ability, which seems to have been really considerable, as the likely successor of Archdeacon Pulteney, and no disappointment was in store for him. He was duly installed, and entered with zeal upon the discharge of those functions which are appropriate to one in his position. A considerable space in his journals is occupied with exclamations upon the confusion in which Archdeacon Pulteney had left the business of his office and the documents appertaining to it. Dues upon Wringham and Barnswood have been uncollected for something like twelve years, and are largely irrecoverable; no visitation has been held for seven years; four chancels are almost past mending. The persons deputized by the archdeacon have been nearly as incapable as himself. It was almost a matter for thankfulness that this state of things had not been permitted to continue, and a letter from a friend confirms this view. ‘[Greek: ho katechôn],’ it says (in rather cruel allusion to the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians), ‘is removed at last. My poor friend! Upon what a scene of confusion will you be entering! I give you my word that, on the last occasion of my crossing his threshold, there was no single paper that he could lay hands upon, no syllable of mine that he could hear, and no fact in connexion with my business that he could remember. But now, thanks to a negligent maid and a loose stair-carpet, there is some prospect that necessary business will be transacted without a complete loss alike of voice and temper.’ This letter was tucked into a pocket in the cover of one of the diaries.

There can be no doubt of the new archdeacon’s zeal and enthusiasm. ‘Give me but time to reduce to some semblance of order the innumerable errors and complications with which I am confronted, and I shall gladly and sincerely join with the aged Israelite in the canticle which too many, I fear, pronounce but with their lips.’ This reflection I find, not in a diary, but a letter; the doctor’s friends seem to have returned his correspondence to his surviving sister. He does not confine himself, however, to reflections. His investigation of the rights and duties of his office are very searching and business-like, and there is a calculation in one place that a period of three years will just suffice to set the business of the Archdeaconry upon a proper footing. The estimate appears to have been an exact one. For just three years he is occupied in reforms; but I look in vain at the end of that time for the promised Nunc dimittis . He has now found a new sphere of activity. Hitherto his duties have precluded him from more than an occasional attendance at the Cathedral services. Now he begins to take an interest in the fabric and the music. Upon his struggles with the organist, an old gentleman who had been in office since 1786, I have no time to dwell; they were not attended with any marked success. More to the purpose is his sudden growth of enthusiasm for the Cathedral itself and its furniture. There is a draft of a letter to Sylvanus Urban (which I do not think was ever sent) describing the stalls in the choir. As I have said, these were of fairly late date — of about the year 1700, in fact.

‘The archdeacon’s stall, situated at the south-east end, west of the episcopal throne (now so worthily occupied by the truly excellent prelate who adorns the See of Barchester), is distinguished by some curious ornamentation. In addition to the arms of Dean West, by whose efforts the whole of the internal furniture of the choir was completed, the prayer-desk is terminated at the eastern extremity by three small but remarkable statuettes in the grotesque manner. One is an exquisitely modelled figure of a cat, whose crouching posture suggests with admirable spirit the suppleness, vigilance, and craft of the redoubted adversary of the genus Mus . Opposite to this is a figure seated upon a throne and invested with the attributes of royalty; but it is no earthly monarch whom the carver has sought to portray. His feet are studiously concealed by the long robe in which he is draped: but neither the crown nor the cap which he wears suffice to hide the prick-ears and curving horns which betray his Tartarean origin; and the hand which rests upon his knee, is armed with talons of horrifying length and sharpness. Between these two figures stands a shape muffled in a long mantle. This might at first sight be mistaken for a monk or “friar of orders gray”, for the head is cowled and a knotted cord depends from somewhere about the waist. A slight inspection, however, will lead to a very different conclusion. The knotted cord is quickly seen to be a halter, held by a hand all but concealed within the draperies; while the sunken features and, horrid to relate, the rent flesh upon the cheek-bones, proclaim the King of Terrors. These figures are evidently the production of no unskilled chisel; and should it chance that any of your correspondents are able to throw light upon their origin and significance, my obligations to your valuable miscellany will be largely increased.’

There is more description in the paper, and, seeing that the woodwork in question has now disappeared, it has a considerable interest. A paragraph at the end is worth quoting:

‘Some late researches among the Chapter accounts have shown me that the carving of the stalls was not as was very usually reported, the work of Dutch artists, but was executed by a native of this city or district named Austin. The timber was procured from an oak copse in the vicinity, the property of the Dean and Chapter, known as Holywood. Upon a recent visit to the parish within whose boundaries it is situated, I learned from the aged and truly respectable incumbent that traditions still lingered amongst the inhabitants of the great size and age of the oaks employed to furnish the materials of the stately structure which has been, however imperfectly, described in the above lines. Of one in particular, which stood near the centre of the grove, it is remembered that it was known as the Hanging Oak. The propriety of that title is confirmed by the fact that a quantity of human bones was found in the soil about its roots, and that at certain times of the year it was the custom for those who wished to secure a successful issue to their affairs, whether of love or the ordinary business of life, to suspend from its boughs small images or puppets rudely fashioned of straw, twigs, or the like rustic materials.’

So much for the archdeacon’s archaeological investigations. To return to his career as it is to be gathered from his diaries. Those of his first three years of hard and careful work show him throughout in high spirits, and, doubtless, during this time, that reputation for hospitality and urbanity which is mentioned in his obituary notice was well deserved. After that, as time goes on, I see a shadow coming over him — destined to develop into utter blackness — which I cannot but think must have been reflected in his outward demeanour. He commits a good deal of his fears and troubles to his diary; there was no other outlet for them. He was unmarried and his sister was not always with him. But I am much mistaken if he has told all that he might have told. A series of extracts shall be given:

Aug. 30th 1816 — The days begin to draw in more perceptibly than
ever. Now that the Archdeaconry papers are reduced to order, I must
find some further employment for the evening hours of autumn and
winter. It is a great blow that Letitia’s health will not allow her
to stay through these months. Why not go on with my Defence of
Episcopacy ? It may be useful.

Sept. 15. — Letitia has left me for Brighton.

Oct. 11. — Candles lit in the choir for the first time at evening
prayers. It came as a shock: I find that I absolutely shrink from the
dark season.

Nov. 17 — Much struck by the character of the carving on my desk: I
do not know that I had ever carefully noticed it before. My attention
was called to it by an accident. During the Magnificat I was, I
regret to say, almost overcome with sleep. My hand was resting on the
back of the carved figure of a cat which is the nearest to me of the
three figures on the end of my stall. I was not aware of this, for I
was not looking in that direction, until I was startled by what
seemed a softness, a feeling as of rather rough and coarse fur, and a
sudden movement, as if the creature were twisting round its head to
bite me. I regained complete consciousness in an instant, and I have
some idea that I must have uttered a suppressed exclamation, for I
noticed that Mr Treasurer turned his head quickly in my direction.
The impression of the unpleasant feeling was so strong that I found
myself rubbing my hand upon my surplice. This accident led me to
examine the figures after prayers more carefully than I had done
before, and I realized for the first time with what skill they are
executed.

Dec. 6 — I do indeed miss Letitia’s company. The evenings, after I
have worked as long as I can at my Defence , are very trying. The
house is too large for a lonely man, and visitors of any kind are too
rare. I get an uncomfortable impression when going to my room that
there is company of some kind. The fact is (I may as well formulate
it to myself) that I hear voices. This, I am well aware, is a common
symptom of incipient decay of the brain — and I believe that I should
be less disquieted than I am if I had any suspicion that this was the
cause. I have none — none whatever, nor is there anything in my family
history to give colour to such an idea. Work, diligent work, and a
punctual attention to the duties which fall to me is my best remedy,
and I have little doubt that it will prove efficacious.

Jan. 1 — My trouble is, I must confess it, increasing upon me. Last
night, upon my return after midnight from the Deanery, I lit my
candle to go upstairs. I was nearly at the top when something
whispered to me, ‘Let me wish you a happy New Year.’ I could not be
mistaken: it spoke distinctly and with a peculiar emphasis. Had I
dropped my candle, as I all but did, I tremble to think what the
consequences must have been. As it was, I managed to get up the last
flight, and was quickly in my room with the door locked, and
experienced no other disturbance.

Jan. 15 — I had occasion to come downstairs last night to my
workroom for my watch, which I had inadvertently left on my table
when I went up to bed. I think I was at the top of the last flight
when I had a sudden impression of a sharp whisper in my ear ‘Take
care .’ I clutched the balusters and naturally looked round at once.
Of course, there was nothing. After a moment I went on — it was no
good turning back — but I had as nearly as possible fallen: a cat — a
large one by the feel of it — slipped between my feet, but again, of
course, I saw nothing. It may have been the kitchen cat, but I do
not think it was.

Feb. 27 — A curious thing last night, which I should like to forget.
Perhaps if I put it down here I may see it in its true proportion. I
worked in the library from about 9 to 10. The hall and staircase
seemed to be unusually full of what I can only call movement without
sound: by this I mean that there seemed to be continuous going and
coming, and that whenever I ceased writing to listen, or looked out
into the hall, the stillness was absolutely unbroken. Nor, in going
to my room at an earlier hour than usual — about half-past ten — was I
conscious of anything that I could call a noise. It so happened that
I had told John to come to my room for the letter to the bishop which
I wished to have delivered early in the morning at the Palace. He was
to sit up, therefore, and come for it when he heard me retire. This I
had for the moment forgotten, though I had remembered to carry the
letter with me to my room. But when, as I was winding up my watch, I
heard a light tap at the door, and a low voice saying, ‘May I come
in?’ (which I most undoubtedly did hear), I recollected the fact, and
took up the letter from my dressing-table, saying ‘Certainly: come
in.’ No one, however, answered my summons, and it was now that, as I
strongly suspect, I committed an error: for I opened the door and
held the letter out. There was certainly no one at that moment in the
passage, but, in the instant of my standing there, the door at the
end opened and John appeared carrying a candle. I asked him whether
he had come to the door earlier; but am satisfied that he had not. I
do not like the situation; but although my senses were very much on
the alert, and though it was some time before I could sleep, I must
allow that I perceived nothing further of an untoward character.

With the return of spring, when his sister came to live with him for some months, Dr Haynes’s entries become more cheerful, and, indeed, no symptom of depression is discernible until the early part of September when he was again left alone. And now, indeed, there is evidence that he was incommoded again, and that more pressingly. To this matter I will return in a moment, but I digress to put in a document which, rightly or wrongly, I believe to have a bearing on the thread of the story.

The account-books of Dr Haynes, preserved along with his other papers, show, from a date but little later than that of his institution as archdeacon, a quarterly payment of £25 to J. L. Nothing could have been made of this, had it stood by itself. But I connect with it a very dirty and ill-written letter, which, like another that I have quoted, was in a pocket in the cover of a diary. Of date or postmark there is no vestige, and the decipherment was not easy. It appears to run:

Dr Sr.

I have bin expctin to her off you theis last wicks, and not Haveing
done so must supose you have not got mine witch was saying how me and
my man had met in with bad times this season all seems to go cross
with us on the farm and which way to look for the rent we have no
knowledge of it this been the sad case with us if you would have the
great [liberality probably, but the exact spelling defies
reproduction ] to send fourty pounds otherwise steps will have to be
took which I should not wish. Has you was the Means of me losing my
place with Dr Pulteney I think it is only just what I am asking and
you know best what I could say if I was Put to it but I do not wish
anything of that unpleasant Nature being one that always wish to have
everything Pleasant about me.

Your obedt Servt,

Jane Lee.

About the time at which I suppose this letter to have been written there is, in fact, a payment of £40 to J.L.

We return to the diary:

Oct. 22 — At evening prayers, during the Psalms, I had that same
experience which I recollect from last year. I was resting my hand on
one of the carved figures, as before (I usually avoid that of the cat
now), and — I was going to have said — a change came over it, but that
seems attributing too much importance to what must, after all, be due
to some physical affection in myself: at any rate, the wood seemed to
become chilly and soft as if made of wet linen. I can assign the
moment at which I became sensible of this. The choir were singing the
words (Set thou an ungodly man to be ruler over him and let Satan
stand at his right hand .)

The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight. I seemed not
to be rid of it in my room. I have not noticed this before. A nervous
man, which I am not, and hope I am not becoming, would have been much
annoyed, if not alarmed, by it. The cat was on the stairs tonight. I
think it sits there always. There is no kitchen cat.

Nov. 15 — Here again I must note a matter I do not understand. I am
much troubled in sleep. No definite image presented itself, but I was
pursued by the very vivid impression that wet lips were whispering
into my ear with great rapidity and emphasis for some time together.
After this, I suppose, I fell asleep, but was awakened with a start
by a feeling as if a hand were laid on my shoulder. To my intense
alarm I found myself standing at the top of the lowest flight of the
first staircase. The moon was shining brightly enough through the
large window to let me see that there was a large cat on the second
or third step. I can make no comment. I crept up to bed again, I do
not know how. Yes, mine is a heavy burden. [Then follows a line or
two which has been scratched out. I fancy I read something like
‘acted for the best’.]

Not long after this it is evident to me that the archdeacon’s firmness began to give way under the pressure of these phenomena. I omit as unnecessarily painful and distressing the ejaculations and prayers which, in the months of December and January, appear for the first time and become increasingly frequent. Throughout this time, however, he is obstinate in clinging to his post. Why he did not plead ill-health and take refuge at Bath or Brighton I cannot tell; my impression is that it would have done him no good; that he was a man who, if he had confessed himself beaten by the annoyances, would have succumbed at once, and that he was conscious of this. He did seek to palliate them by inviting visitors to his house. The result he has noted in this fashion:

Jan. 7 — I have prevailed on my cousin Allen to give me a few days,
and he is to occupy the chamber next to mine.

Jan. 8 — A still night. Allen slept well, but complained of the
wind. My own experiences were as before: still whispering and
whispering: what is it that he wants to say?

Jan. 9 — Allen thinks this a very noisy house. He thinks, too, that
my cat is an unusually large and fine specimen, but very wild.

Jan. 10 — Allen and I in the library until 11. He left me twice to
see what the maids were doing in the hall: returning the second time
he told me he had seen one of them passing through the door at the
end of the passage, and said if his wife were here she would soon get
them into better order. I asked him what coloured dress the maid
wore; he said grey or white. I supposed it would be so.

Jan. 11 — Allen left me today. I must be firm.

These words, I must be firm , occur again and again on subsequent days; sometimes they are the only entry. In these cases they are in an unusually large hand, and dug into the paper in a way which must have broken the pen that wrote them.

Apparently the archdeacon’s friends did not remark any change in his behaviour, and this gives me a high idea of his courage and determination. The diary tells us nothing more than I have indicated of the last days of his life. The end of it all must be told in the polished language of the obituary notice:

The morning of the 26th of February was cold and tempestuous. At an
early hour the servants had occasion to go into the front hall of the
residence occupied by the lamented subject of these lines. What was
their horror upon observing the form of their beloved and respected
master lying upon the landing of the principal staircase in an
attitude which inspired the gravest fears. Assistance was procured,
and an universal consternation was experienced upon the discovery
that he had been the object of a brutal and a murderous attack. The
vertebral column was fractured in more than one place. This might
have been the result of a fall: it appeared that the stair-carpet was
loosened at one point. But, in addition to this, there were injuries
inflicted upon the eyes, nose and mouth, as if by the agency of some
savage animal, which, dreadful to relate, rendered those features
unrecognizable. The vital spark was, it is needless to add,
completely extinct, and had been so, upon the testimony of
respectable medical authorities, for several hours. The author or
authors of this mysterious outrage are alike buried in mystery, and
the most active conjecture has hitherto failed to suggest a solution
of the melancholy problem afforded by this appalling occurrence.

The writer goes on to reflect upon the probability that the writings of Mr Shelley, Lord Byron, and M. Voltaire may have been instrumental in bringing about the disaster, and concludes by hoping, somewhat vaguely, that this event may ‘operate as an example to the rising generation’; but this portion of his remarks need not be quoted in full.

I had already formed the conclusion that Dr Haynes was responsible for the death of Dr Pulteney. But the incident connected with the carved figure of death upon the archdeacon’s stall was a very perplexing feature. The conjecture that it had been cut out of the wood of the Hanging Oak was not difficult, but seemed impossible to substantiate. However, I paid a visit to Barchester, partly with the view of finding out whether there were any relics of the woodwork to be heard of. I was introduced by one of the canons to the curator of the local museum, who was, my friend said, more likely to be able to give me information on the point than anyone else. I told this gentleman of the description of certain carved figures and arms formerly on the stalls, and asked whether any had survived. He was able to show me the arms of Dean West and some other fragments. These, he said, had been got from an old resident, who had also once owned a figure — perhaps one of those which I was inquiring for. There was a very odd thing about that figure, he said. ‘The old man who had it told me that he picked it up in a woodyard, whence he had obtained the still extant pieces, and had taken it home for his children. On the way home he was fiddling about with it and it came in two in his hands, and a bit of paper dropped out. This he picked up and, just noticing that there was writing on it, put it into his pocket, and subsequently into a vase on his mantelpiece. I was at his house not very long ago, and happened to pick up the vase and turn it over to see whether there were any marks on it, and the paper fell into my hand. The old man, on my handing it to him, told me the story I have told you, and said I might keep the paper. It was crumpled and rather torn, so I have mounted it on a card, which I have here. If you can tell me what it means I shall be very glad, and also, I may say, a good deal surprised.’

He gave me the card. The paper was quite legibly inscribed in an old hand, and this is what was on it:

When I grew in the Wood I was water’d w’th Blood Now in the Church I stand Who that touches me with his Hand If a Bloody hand he bear I councell him to be ware Lest he be fetcht away Whether by night or day, But chiefly when the wind blows high In a night of February. This I drempt, 26 Febr. Anno 1699. JOHN AUSTIN.

‘I suppose it is a charm or a spell: wouldn’t you call it something of that kind?’ said the curator.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I suppose one might. What became of the figure in which it was concealed?’

‘Oh, I forgot,’ said he. ‘The old man told me it was so ugly and frightened his children so much that he burnt it.’

the Haunted Hulk

Christmas Ghost Stories: Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk by Frank Cowper

I have been negligent, kittens, and skipped yesterday’s story. By way of apology, here’s an extra-creepy one! Perhaps “genuinely creepy” is our theme for this week, as “droll and broad” was for last week.

Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk never actually shows you anything, nor does it fall into the Lovecraftian habit of describing things as “unnameable,” clearly a dodge to get around a limited ghostie-and-ghoulie-related vocabulary. It simply makes you aware that you are far, far away from anyone who cares if you are alive or dead, and that you are, most horribly, not alone!


Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk
by Frank Cowper

the Haunted Hulk

the Haunted Hulk

I shall never forget that night as long as I live.

It was during the Christmas vacation 187_.  I was staying with an old college friend who had lately been appointed the curate of a country parish, and had asked me to come and cheer him up, since he could not get away at that time.

As we drove along the straight country lane from the little wayside station, it forcibly struck me that a life in such a place must be dreary indeed. I have always been much influenced by local colour; above all things, I am depressed by a dead level, and here was monotony with a vengeance. On each side of the low hedges, lichen-covered and wind-cropped, stretched bare fields, the absolute level of the horizon being only broken at intervals by some mournful tree that pointed like a decrepit finger-post towards the east, for all its western growth was nipped and blasted by the roaring south-west winds. An occasional black spot, dotted against the grey distance, marked a hay-rick or labourer’s cottage, while some two miles ahead of us the stunted spire of my friend’s church stood out against the wintry sky, amid the withered branches of a few ragged trees. On our right hand stretched dreary wastes of mud, interspersed here and there with firmer patches of land, but desolate and forlorn, cut off from all communication with the mainland by acres of mud and thin streaks of brown water.

A few sea-birds were piping over the waste, and this was the only sound, except the grit of our own wheels and the steady step of the horse, which broke the silence.

“Not lively is it?” said Jones; and I couldn’t say it was. As we drove “up street,” as the inhabitants fondly called the small array of low houses which bordered the highroad, I noticed the lack-lustre expression of the few children and untidy women who were loitering about the doors of their houses.

There was an old tumble-down inn, with a dilapidated sign-board, scarcely held up by its rickety iron­work. A daub of yellow and red paint, with a dingy streak of blue, was supposed to represent the Duke’s head, although what exalted member of the aristocracy was thus distinguished it would be hard to say. Jones inclined to think it was the Duke of Wellington; but I upheld the theory that it was the Duke of Marlborough, chiefly basing my arguments on the fact that no artist who desired to convey a striking likeness would fail to show the Great Duke in profile, whereas this personage was evidently depicted full face, and wearing a three-cornered hat.

At the end of the village was the church, standing in an untidy churchyard, and opposite it was a neat little house, quite new, and of that utilitarian order of architecture which will stamp the Victorian age as one of the least imaginative of eras. Two windows flanked the front door, and three narrow windows looked out overhead from under a slate roof; variety and distinction being given to the facade by the brilliant blending of the yellow bricks with red, so bright as to suggest the idea of their having been painted. A scrupulously clean stone at the front door, together with the bright green of the little palings and woodwork, told me what sort of landlady to expect, and I was not disappointed. A kindly featured woman, thin, cheery, and active, received us, speaking in that encouraging tone of half-compassionate, half-proprietary patronage, which I have observed so many women adopt towards lone beings of the opposite sex.

“You will find it precious dull, old man,” said Jones, as we were eating our frugal dinner. “There’s nothing for you to do, unless you care to try a shot at the duck over the mud-flats. I shall be busy on and off nearly all to-morrow.”

As we talked, I could not help admiring the cheerful pluck with which Jones endured the terrible monotony of his life in this dreary place. His rector was said to be delicate, and in order to prolong a life, which no doubt he considered valuable to the Church, he lived with his family either at Torquay or Cannes in elegant idleness, quite unable to do any duty, but fully equal to enjoying the pleasant society of those charming places, and quite satisfied that he had done his duty when he sacrificed a tenth of his income to provide for the spiritual needs of his parish. There was no squire in the place; no “gentlefolk,” as the rustics called them, lived nearer than five miles; and there was not a single being of his own class with whom poor Jones could associate. And yet he made no complaint. The nearest approach to one being the remark that the worst of it was, it was so difficult, if not impossible, to be really understood. “The poor being so suspicious and ignorant, they look at everything from such a low standpoint, enthusiasm and freshness sink so easily into formalism and listlessness.”

The next day, finding that I really could be of no use, and feeling awkward and bored, as a man always is when another is actively doing his duty, I went off to the marshes to see if I could get any sport.

I took some sandwiches and a flask with me, not intending to return until dinner. After wandering about for some time, crossing dyke after dyke by treacherous rails more or less rotten, I found myself on the edge of a wide mere. I could see some duck out in the middle, and standing far out in the shallow water was a heron. They were all out of shot, and I saw I should do no good without a duck-punt.

I sat down on an old pile left on the top of the sea-wall, which had been lately repaired. The duck looked very tempting; but I doubted if I should do much good in broad daylight, even if I had a duck­punt, without a duck-gun. After sitting disconsolately for some time, I got up and wandered on.
The dreariness of the scene was most depressing: everything was brown and grey. Nothing broke the monotony of the wide-stretching mere; the whole scene gave me the impression of a straight line of interminable length, with a speck in the centre of it. That speck was myself.

At last, as I turned an angle in the sea-wall, I saw something lying above high-water mark, which looked like a boat.

Rejoiced to see any signs of humanity, I quickened my pace. It was a boat, and, better still, a duck­punt. As I came nearer I could see that she was old and very likely leaky; but here was a prospect of adventure, and I was not going to be readily daunted. On examination, the old craft seemed more water-tight than I expected. At least she held water very well, and if she kept it in, she must equally well keep it out. I turned her over to run the water out, and then dragging the crazy old boat over the line of seaweed, launched her. But now a real difficulty met me. The paddles were nowhere to be seen. They had doubtless been taken away by the owner, and it would be little use searching for them. But a stout stick would do to punt her over the shallow water; and after some little search. I found an old stake which would answer well.

This was real luck. I had now some hope of bagging a few duck; at any rate, I was afloat, and could explore the little islets, which barely rose above the brown water. I might at least find some rabbits on them. I cautiously poled myself towards the black dots; but before I came within range, up rose first one, then another and another, like a string of beads, and the whole flight went, with outstretched necks and rapidly beating wings, away to my right, and seemed to pitch again beyond a low island some half-mile away. The heron had long ago taken himself off; so there was nothing to be done but pole across the mud in pursuit of the duck. I had not gone many yards when I found that I was going much faster than I expected, and soon saw the cause. The tide was falling, and I was being carried along with it. This would bring rile nearer to my ducks, and I lazily guided the punt with the stake.

On rounding the island I found a new source of interest. The mere opened out to a much larger extent, and away towards my right I could see a break in the low land, as if a wide ditch had been cut through; while in this opening ever and anon dark objects rose up and disappeared again in a way I could not account for. The water seemed to be running off the mud-flats, and I saw that if I did not wish to be left high, but not dry, on the long slimy wastes, I must be careful to keep in the little channels or “lakes,” which acted as natural drains to the acres of greasy mud.

A conspicuous object attracted my attention some mile or more towards the opening in the land. It was a vessel lying high up on the mud, and looking as if she was abandoned.

The ducks had pitched a hundred yards or so beyond the island, and I approached as cautiously as I could; but just as I was putting down the stake to take up my gun, there was a swift sound of beating wings and splashing water, and away my birds flew, low over the mud, towards the old hulk.

Here was a chance, I thought. If I could get on board and remain hidden, I might, by patiently waiting, get a shot. I looked at my watch; there was still plenty of daylight left, and the tide was only just beginning to leave the mud. I punted away, therefore, with renewed hope, and was not long in getting up to the old ship.

There was just sufficient water over the mud to allow me to approach within ten or twelve feet, but further I could not push the punt. This was disappointing; however, I noticed a deep lake ran round the other side, and determined to try my luck there. So with a slosh and a heave I got the flat afloat again, and made for the deeper water. It turned out quite successful, and I was enabled to get right under the square overhanging counter, while a little lane of water led alongside her starboard quarter. I pushed the nose of the punt into this, and was not long in clambering on board by the rusty irons of her fore-chains.

The old vessel lay nearly upright in the soft mud, and a glance soon told she would never be used again. Her gear and rigging were, all rotten, and everything valuable had been removed. She was a brig of some two hundred tons, and had been a fine vessel, no doubt. To me there is always a world of romance in a deserted ship. The places she has been to, the scenes she has witnessed, the possibilities of crime, of adventure–all these thoughts crowd upon me when I see an old hulk lying deserted and forgotten–left to rot upon the mud of some lonely creek.

In order to keep my punt afloat as long as possible, I towed her round and moored her under the stern, and then looked over the bulwarks for the duck. There they were, swimming not more than a hundred and fifty yards away, and they were coming towards me. I remained perfectly concealed under the high bulwark, and could see them paddling and feeding in the greasy weed. Their approach was slow, but I could afford to wait. Nearer and nearer they came; another minute, and they would be well within shot. I was already congratulating myself upon the success of my adventure, and thinking of the joy of Jones at this large accession to his larder, when suddenly there was a heavy splash, and with a wild spluttering rush the whole pack rose out of the water, and went skimming over the mud towards the distant sea. I let off both barrels after them, and tried to console myself by thinking that I saw the feathers fly from one; but not a bird dropped, and I was left alone in my chagrin.

What could have caused the splash, that luckless splash, I wondered. There was surely no one else on board the ship, and certainly no one could get out here without mud-pattens or a boat. I looked round. All was perfectly still Nothing broke the monotony of the grey scene–sodden and damp and lifeless. A chill breeze came up from the southwest, bringing with it a raw mist, which was blotting out the dark distance, and fast limiting my horizon. The day was drawing in, and I must be thinking of going home. As I turned round, my attention was arrested by seeing a duck-punt glide past me in the now rapidly falling water, which was swirling by the mud-bank on which the vessel lay. But there was no one in her. A dreadful thought struck me. It must be my boat, and how shall I get home? I ran to the stern and looked over. The duck-punt was gone.

The frayed and stranded end of the painter told me how it had happened. I had not allowed for the fall of the tide, and the strain of the punt, as the water fell away, had snapped the line, old and rotten as it was.

I hurried to the bows, and jumping on to the bitts, saw my punt peacefully drifting away, some quarter of a mile off. It was perfectly evident I could not hope to get her again.

It was beginning to rain steadily. I could see that I was in for dirty weather, and became a little anxious about how I was to get back, especially as it was now rapidly growing dark. So thick was it that I could not see the low land anywhere, and could only judge of its position by remembering that the stern of the vessel pointed that way.

The conviction grew upon me that I could not possibly get away from this doleful old hulk without assistance, and how to get it, I could not for the life of me see. I had not seen a sign of a human being the whole day. It was not likely any more would be about at night. However, I shouted as loud as I could, and then waited to hear if there were any response. There was not a sound, only the wind moaned slightly through the stumps of the masts, and something creaked in the cabin.

Well, I thought, at least it might be worse. I shall have shelter for the night; while had I been left on one of these islands, I should have had to spend the night exposed to the pelting rain. Happy thought! Go below before it gets too dark, and see what sort of a berth can be got, if the worst comes to the worst. So thinking, I went to the booby-hatch, and found as I expected that it was half broken open, and anyone could go below who liked.

As I stepped down the rotting companion, the air smelt foul and dank. I went below very cautiously, for I was not at all sure that the boards would bear me. It was fortunate I did so, for as I stepped off the lowest step the floor gave way under my foot, and had I not been holding on to the stair-rail, I should have fallen through. Before going any further, I took a look round.

The prospect was not inviting. The light was dim; I could scarcely make out objects near me, all else was obscurity. I could see that the whole of the inside of the vessel was completely gutted. What little light there was came through the stern ports. A small round speck of light looked at me out of the darkness ahead, and I could see that the flooring had either all given way or been taken out of her. At my feet a gleam of water showed me what to expect if I should slip through the floor-joists. Altogether, a more desolate, gloomy, ghostly place it would be difficult to find.

I could not see any bunk or locker where I could sit down, and everything movable had been taken out of the hulk. Groping my way with increasing caution, I stepped across the joists, and felt along the side of the cabin. I soon came to a bulkhead. Continuing to grope, I came to an opening. If the cabin was dim, here was blackness itself. I felt it would be useless to attempt to go further, especially as a very damp foul odour came up from the bilge­water in her hold. As I stood looking into the darkness, a creepy, chilly shudder passed over me, and with a shiver I turned round to look at the cabin. My eyes had now become used to the gloom. A deeper patch of darkness on my right suggested the possibility of a berth, and groping my way over to it, I found the lower bunk was still entire. Here at least I could rest, if I found it impossible to get to shore. Having some wax vestas in my pocket, I struck a light and examined the bunk. It was better than I expected. If I could only find something to burn, I should be comparatively cheerful.

Before reconciling myself to my uncomfortable position, I resolved to see whether I could not get to the shore, and went up the rickety stairs again. It was raining hard, and the wind had got up. Nothing could be more dismal. I looked over the side and lowered myself down from the main-chains, to see if it were possible to walk over the mud. I found I could not reach the mud at all; and fearful of being unable to climb back if I let go, I clambered up the side again and got on board.

It was quite clear I must pass the night here. Before going below I once more shouted at the top of my voice, more to keep up my own spirits than with any hope of being heard, and then paused to listen. Not a sound of any sort replied. I now prepared to make myself as comfortable as I could.

It was a dreary prospect. I would rather have spent the night on deck than down below in that foul cabin; but the drenching driving rain, as well as the cold, drove me to seek shelter below. It seemed so absurd to be in the position of a ship­wrecked sailor, within two or three miles of a prosy country hamlet, and in a landlocked harbour while actually on land, if the slimy deep mud could be called land. I had not many matches left, but I had my gun and cartridges. The idea occurred to me to fire off minute-guns. “That’s what I ought to do, of course. The red flash will be seen in this dark night,” for it was dark now and no mistake. Getting up on to the highest part of the vessel, I blazed away. The noise sounded to me deafening; surely the whole countryside would be aroused. After firing off a dozen cartridges, I waited. But the silence only seemed the more oppressive, and the blackness all the darker. “It’s no good; I’ll turn in,” I thought, dejectedly.

With great difficulty I groped my way to the top of the companion-ladder, and bumped dismally down the steps. If only I had a light I should be fairly comfortable, I thought. “Happy thought, make a ‘spit-devil!’ ” as we used when boys to call a little cone of damp gunpowder.

I got out my last two cartridges, and emptying the powder carefully into my hand, I moistened it, and worked it up to a paste. I then placed it on the smooth end of the rail, and lighted it. This was brilliant: at least so it seemed by contrast with the absolute blackness around me. By its light I was able to find my way to the bunk, and it lasted just long enough for me to arrange myself fairly comfortably for the night. By contriving a succession of matches, I was enabled to have enough light to see to eat my frugal supper; for I had kept a little sherry and a few sandwiches to meet emergencies, and it was a fortunate thing I had. The light and the food made me feel more cheery, and by the time the last match had gone out, I felt worse might have happened to me by a long way.

As I lay still, waiting for sleep to come, the absurdity of the situation forced itself upon me. Here was I, to all intents and purposes as much cut off from all communication with the rest of the world as if I were cast away upon a desert island. The chances were that I should make some one see or hear me the next day. Jones would be certain to have the country searched, and at the longest I should only endure the discomfort of one night, and get well laughed at for my pains; but meanwhile I was absolutely severed from all human contact, and was as isolated as Robinson Crusoe, only “more so,” for I had no other living thing whatever to share my solitude. The silence of the place was perfect; and if silence can woo sleep, sleep ought very soon to have come. But when one is hungry and wet, and in a strange uncanny kind of place, besides being in one’s clothes, it is a very difficult thing to go to sleep. First, my head was too low; then, after resting it on my arms, I got cramp in them. My back seemed all over bumps; when I turned on my side, I appeared to have got a rather serious enlargement of the hip­joint; and I found my damp clothes smell very musty. After sighing and groaning for some time, I sat up for change of position, and nearly fractured my skull in so doing, against the remains of what had once been a berth above me. I didn’t dare to move in the inky blackness, for I had seen sufficient to know that I might very easily break my leg or my neck in the floorless cabin.

There was nothing for it but to sit still, or lie down and wait for daylight. I had no means of telling the time. When I had last looked at my watch, before the last match had gone out, it was not more than six o’clock; it might be now about eight, or perhaps not so late. Fancy twelve long hours spent in that doleful black place, with nothing in the world to do to pass away the time! I must go to sleep; and so, full of this resolve, I lay down again.

I suppose I went to sleep. All I can recollect, after lying down, is keeping my mind resolutely turned inwards, as it were, and fixed upon the arduous business of counting an imaginary and interminable flock of sheep pass one by one through an ideal gate. This meritorious method of compelling sleep had, no doubt, been rewarded; but I have no means of knowing how long I slept, and I cannot tell at what hour of the night the following strange circumstances occurred–for occur they certainly did–and I am as perfectly convinced that I was the oral witness to some ghastly crime, as I am that I am writing these lines. I have little doubt I shall be laughed at, as Jones laughed at me–be told that I was dreaming, that I was overtired and nervous. In fact, so accustomed have I become to this sort of thing, that I now hardly ever tell my tale; or, if I do, I put it in the third person, and then I find people believe it, or at least take much more interest in it. I suppose the reason is, that people cannot bring themselves to think so strange a thing could have happened to such a prosy everyday sort of man as myself, and they cannot divest their minds of the idea that I am–well, to put it mildly—“drawing on my imagination for facts.” Perhaps, if the tale appears in print, it will be believed, as a facetious friend of mine once said to a newly married couple, who had just seen the announcement of their marriage in the ‘Times,’ “Ah, didn’t know you were married till you saw it in print!”

Well, be the time what it may have been, all I know is that the next thing I can remember after getting my five-hundredth sheep through the gate is, that I heard two most horrible yells ring through the darkness. I sat bolt-upright; and as a proof that. my senses were “all there,” I did not bring my head this time against the berth overhead, remembering to bend it outwards so as to clear it.

There was not another sound. The silence was as absolute as the darkness. “I must have been dreaming,” I thought; but the sounds were ringing in my ears, and my heart was beating with excitement. There must have been some reason for this. I never was “taken this way” before. I could not make it out, and felt very uncomfortable. I sat there listening for some time. No other sound breaking the deathly stillness, and becoming tired of sitting, I lay down again. Once more I set myself to get my interminable flocks through that gate, but I could not help myself listening.

There seemed to me a sound growing in the darkness, a something gathering in the particles of the air, as if molecules of the atmosphere were rustling together, and with stilly movement were whispering something. The wind had died down, and I would have gone on deck if I could move; but it was hazardous enough moving about in the light: it would have been madness to attempt to move in that blackness. And so I lay still and tried to sleep.

But now there was a sound, indistinct, but no mere fancy; a muffled sound, as of some movement in the forepart of the ship.

I listened intently and gazed into the darkness.

What was the sound? It did not seem like rats. It was a dull, shuffling kind of noise, very indistinct, and conveying no clue whatever as to its cause. It lasted only for a short time. But now the cold damp air seemed to have become more piercingly chilly. The raw iciness seemed to strike into the very marrow of my bones, and my teeth chattered. At the same time a new sense seemed to be assailed: the foul odour which I had noticed arising from the stagnant water in the bilge appeared to rise into more objectionable prominence, as if it had been stirred.

“I cannot stand this,” I muttered, shivering in horrible aversion at the disgusting odour; “I will go on deck at all hazards.”

Rising to put this resolve in execution, I was arrested by the noise beginning again. I listened. This time I distinctly distinguished two separate sounds: one, like a heavy soft weight being dragged along with difficulty; the other like the hard sound of boots on boards. Could there be others on board after all? If so, why had they made no sound when I clambered on deck, or afterwards, when I shouted and fired my gun?

Clearly, if there were people, they wished to remain concealed, and my presence was inconvenient to them. But how absolutely still and quiet they had kept! It appeared incredible that there should be anyone. I listened intently. The sound had ceased again, and once more the most absolute stillness reigned around. A gentle swishing, wobbling, lapping noise seemed to form itself in the darkness. It increased, until I recognised the chattering and bubbling of water. “It must be the tide which is rising,” I thought; “it has reached the rudder, and is eddying round the stern-post.” This also accounted, in my mind, for the other noises, because, as the tide surrounded the vessel, and she thus became water-borne, all kinds of sounds might be produced in the old hulk as she resumed her upright position.

However, I could not get rid of the chilly horrid feeling those two screams had produced, combined with the disgusting smell, which was getting more and more obtrusive. It was foul, horrible, revolting, like some carrion, putrid and noxious. I prepared to take my chances of damage, and rose up to grope my way to the companion-ladder.

It was a more difficult job than I had any idea of. I had my gun, it was true, and with it I could feel for the joists; but when once I let go of the edge of the bunk I had nothing to steady me, and nearly went headlong at the first step. Fortunately I reached back in time to prevent my fall; but this attempt convinced me that I had better endure the strange horrors of the unknown, than the certain miseries of a broken leg or neck.

I sat down, therefore, on the bunk.

Now that my own movements had ceased, I became aware that the shuffling noise was going on all the time. “Well,” thought I, “they may shuffle. They won’t hurt me, and I shall go to sleep again.” So reflecting, I lay down, holding my gun, ready to use as a club if necessary.

Now it is all very well to laugh at superstitious terrors. Nothing is easier than to obtain a cheap reputation for brilliancy, independence of thought, and courage, by deriding the fear of the supernatural when comfortably seated in a drawing-room well lighted, and with company. But put those scoffers in a like situation with mine, and I don’t believe they would have been any more free from a feeling the reverse of bold, mocking, and comfortable, than I was.

I had read that most powerful ghost-story, “The Haunted and the Haunters,” by the late Lord Lytton, and the vividness of that weird tale had always impressed me greatly. Was I actually now to experience in my own person, and with no possibility of escape, the trying ordeal that bold ghost-hunter went through, under much more favourable circumstances? He at least had his servant with him. He had fuel and a light, and above all, he could get away when he wanted to. I felt I could face any number of spiritual manifestations, if only I had warmth and light. But the icy coldness of the air was eating into my bones, and I shivered until my teeth chattered.

I could not get to sleep. I could not prevent myself listening, and at last I gave up the contest, and let myself listen. But there seemed now nothing to listen to. All the time I had been refusing to let my ears do their office, by putting my handkerchief over one ear, and lying on my arm with the other, a confused noise appeared to reach me, but the moment I turned round and lay on my back, everything seemed quiet. “It’s only my fancy after all; the result of cold and want of a good dinner. I will go to sleep.” But in spite of this I lay still, listening a little longer. There was the sound of trickling water against the broad bilge of the old hulk, and I knew the tide was rising fast: my thoughts turned to the lost canoe, and to reproaching myself with my stupidity in not allowing enough rope, or looking at it more carefully. Suddenly I became all attention again. An entirely different sound now arrested me. It was distinctly a low groan, and followed almost immediately by heavy blows–blows which fell on a soft substance, and then more groans, and again those sickening blows.

“There must be men here. Where are they? and what is it?” I sat up, and strained my eyes towards where the sound came from. The sounds had ceased again. Should I call out, and let the man or men know that I was here? What puzzled me was the absolute darkness. How could anyone see to hit an object; or do anything else in this dense obscurity? It appalled me. Anything might pass at an inch’s distance, and I could not tell who or what it was. But how could anything human find its way about, any more than I could?  Perhaps there was a solid bulkhead dividing the forecastle from me. But it would have to be very sound, and with no chink whatever, to prevent a gleam or ray of light finding its way out somewhere. I could not help feeling convinced that the whole hull was open from one end to the other. Was I really dreaming after all? To convince myself that I was wide awake, I felt in my pockets for my notebook, and pulling out my pencil, I opened the book, and holding it in my left hand, wrote as well as I could, by feel alone: “I am wide awake; it is about midnight–Christmas eve, 187_.” I found I had got to the bottom of the page, so I shut the book up, resolving to look at it the next morning. I felt curious to see what the writing looked like by daylight.

But all further speculation was cut short by the shuffling and dragging noise beginning again. There was no doubt the sounds were louder, and were coming my way.

I never in all my life felt so uncomfortable–I may as well at once confess it–so frightened. There, in that empty hull, over that boardless floor, over these rotting joists, somebody or something was dragging some heavy weight. What, I could not imagine; only the shrieks, the blows, the groans, the dull thumping sounds, compelled me to suspect the worst;–to feel convinced that I was actually within some few feet of a horrible murder then being committed. I could form no idea of who the victim was, or who was the assassin. That I actually heard the sounds I had no doubt; that they were growing louder and more distinct I felt painfully aware. The horror of the situation was intense. If only I could strike a light, and see what was passing close there­–but I had no matches. I could hear a sound as of some one breathing slowly, stertorously, then a dull groan. And once more the cruel sodden blows fell again, followed by a drip, drip, and heavy drop in the dank water below, from which the sickening smell rose, pungent, reeking, horrible.

The dragging shuffling noise now began again. It came quite close to me, so close that I felt I had only to put out my hand to touch, the thing. Good heavens! was it coming to my bunk? The thing passed, and all the time the dull drip, as of some heavy drops, fell into the water below. It was awful. All this time I was sitting up, and holding my gun by its barrel, ready to use it if I were attacked. As the sound passed me at the closest, I put out the gun involuntarily; but it touched nothing, and I shuddered at the thought that there was no floor over which the weight could be drawn.

I must be dreaming some terribly vivid dream. It could not be real I pinched myself. I felt I was pinching myself. It was no dream. The sweat poured off my brow, my teeth chattered with the cold. It was terrific in its dreadful mystery.

And now the sounds altered. The noises had reached the companion-ladder. Something was climbing them with difficulty. The old stairs creaked. Bump, thump, the thing was dragged up the steps with many pauses, and at last it seemed to have reached the deck. A long pause now followed. The silence grew dense around. I dreaded the stillness-­the silence that made itself be heard almost more than the sounds. What new horror would that awful quiet bring forth?  What terror was still brooding in the depths of that clinging darkness–darkness that could be felt?

The absolute silence was broken,–horribly broken,–by a dull drip from the stairs, and then the dragging began again. Distant and less distinct, but the steps were louder. They came nearer–over my head–the old boards creaked, and the weight was dragged right over me. I could hear it above my head: for the steps stopped, and two distinct raps, followed by a third heavier one, sounded so clearly above me, that it seemed almost as if it was something striking the rotten woodwork of the berth over my head. The sounds were horribly suggestive of the elbows and head of a body being dropped on the deck.

And now, as if the horrors had not been enough, a fresh ghastliness was added. So close were the raps above me that I involuntarily moved, as if I had been struck by what caused them. As I did so, I felt something drop on to my head and slowly trickle over my forehead: it was too horrible! I sprang up in my disgust, and with a wild cry I stepped forward, and instantly fell between the joists into the rank water below.

The shock was acute. Had I been asleep and dreaming before, this must inevitably have roused me up. I found myself completely immersed in water, and, for a moment, was absolutely incapable of thinking. As it was pitch-dark and my head had gone under, I could not tell whether I was above water or not, as I felt the bottom and struggled and splashed on to my legs. It was only by degrees I knew I must be standing with my head out of the foul mixture, because I was able to breathe easily, although the wet running down from my hair dribbled into my mouth as I stood shivering and gasping. It was astonishing how a physical discomfort overcame a mental terror. Nothing could be more miserable than my present position, and my efforts were at once directed to getting out of this dreadful place. But let anyone who has ever had the ill-luck to fall out of bed in his boyhood try and recollect his sensations. The bewildering realisation that he is not in bed, that he does not know where he is, which way to go, or what to do to get back again; everything he touches seems strange, and one piece of furniture much the same as any other. I well remember such an accident, and how, having rolled under the bed before I was wide awake, I could not for the life of me understand why I could not get up, what it was that kept me down. I had not the least idea which way to get out, and kept going round and round in a circle under my bed for a long time, and should probably have been doing it until daylight, had not my sighs and groans awoke my brother, who slept in the same room, and who came to my help.

If, then, one is so utterly at fault in a room every inch of which one knows intimately, how much more hopeless was my position at the bottom of this old vessel, half immersed in water, and totally without any clue which could help me to get out! I had not the least idea which was the ship’s stern or which her stem, and every movement I made with my feet only served to unsteady me, as the bottom was all covered with slime, and uneven with the great timbers of the vessel.

My first thought on recovering my wits was to stretch my arms up over my head, and I was relieved to find that I could easily reach the joists above me. I was always fairly good at gymnastics, and I had not much difficulty in drawing myself up and sitting on the joist, although the weight of my wet clothes added to my exertions considerably. Having so far succeeded, I sat and drained, as it were, into the water below. The smell was abominable. I never disliked myself so much, and I shivered with cold.

As I could not get any wetter, I determined to go on deck somehow, but where was the companion­ladder? I had nothing to guide me. Strange to say, the reality of my struggles had almost made me forget the mysterious phenomena I had been listening to. But now, as I looked round, my attention was caught by a luminous patch which quivered and flickered on my right, at what distance from me I could not tell. It was like the light from a glow­worm, only larger and changing in shape; sometimes elongated like a lambent oval, and then it would sway one way or another, as if caught in a draught of air. While I was looking at it and wondering what could cause it, I heard the steps over my head; they passed above me, and then seemed to grow louder on my left. A creeping dread again came over me. If only I could get out of this horrible place–but where were the stairs? I listened. The footfall seemed to be coming down some steps; then the companion-ladder must be on my left. But if I moved that way I should meet the Thing, whatever it was, that was coming down. I shuddered at the thought. However, I made up my mind. Stretching out my hand very carefully, I felt for the next joist, reached it, and crawled across. I stopped to listen. The steps were coming nearer. My hearing had now become acute; I could almost tell the exact place of each footfall. It came closer–closer,–quite close, surely–on the very joist on which I was sitting. I thought I could feel the joist quiver, and involuntarily moved my hand to prevent the heavy tread falling on it. The steps passed on, grew fainter, and ceased, as they drew near the pale lambent light. One thing I noticed with curious horror, and that was, that although the thing must have passed between me and the light, yet it was never for a moment obscured, which it must have been had any body or substance passed between, and yet I was certain that the steps went directly from me to it.

It was all horribly mysterious; and what had become of the other sound–the thing that was being dragged? An irresistible shudder passed over me; but I determined to pursue my way until I came to something. It would never do to sit still and shiver there.

After many narrow escapes of falling again, I reached a bulkhead, and cautiously feeling along it, I came to an opening. It was the companion-ladder. By this time my hands, by feeling over the joists, had become dry again. I felt along the step to be quite sure that it was the stairs, and in so doing I touched something wet, sticky, clammy. Oh, horror! what was it? A cold shiver shook me nearly off the joist, and I felt an unutterable sense of repulsion to going on. However, the fresher air which came down the companion revived me, and, conquering my dread, I clambered on to the step. It did not take long to get upstairs and stand on the deck again.

I think I never in all my life experienced such a sense of joy as I did on being out of that disgusting hole. It was true I was soaking wet, and the night wind cut through me like a knife; but these were things I could understand, and were matter of common experience. What I had gone through might only be a question of nerves, and had no tangible or visible terror; but it was none the less very dreadful, and I would not go through such an experience again for worlds. As I stood cowering under the lee of the bulwark, I looked round at the sky. There was a pale light as if of daybreak away in the east, and it seemed as if all my troubles would be over with the dawn. It was bitterly cold. The wind had got round to the north, and I could faintly make out the low shore astern.

While I stood shivering there, a cry came down the wind. At first I thought it was a sea-bird, but it sounded again. I felt sure it was a human voice. I sprang up on to the taffrail, and shouted at the top of my lungs, then paused. The cry came down clearer and distinct. It was Jones’s voice–had he heard me? I waved my draggled pocket-handkerchief and shouted again. In the silence which followed, I caught the words, “We are coming.” What joyful words! Never did shipwrecked mariner on a lonely isle feel greater delight. My misery would soon be over. Anyhow, I should not have to wait long.

Unfortunately the tide was low, and was still falling. Nothing but a boat could reach me, I thought, and to get a boat would take some time. I therefore stamped up and down the deck to get warm; but I had an instinctive aversion for the companion-ladder, and the deep shadows of the forepart of the vessel.

As I turned round in my walk, I thought I saw something moving over the mud. I stopped. It was undoubtedly a figure coming towards me. A voice hailed me in gruff accents­—

“Lily, ahoy! Be anyone aboard?”

Was anyone aboard? What an absurd question! and here had I been shouting myself hoarse. However, I quickly reassured him, and then understood why my rescuer did not sink in the soft mud. He had mud-pattens on. Coming up as close as he could, he shouted to me to keep clear, and then threw first one, then the other, clattering wooden board on to the deck. I found them, and under the instructions of my friend, I did not take long in putting them on. The man was giving me directions as to how to manage; but I did not care how much wetter I got, and dropped over the side into the slime. Sliding and straddling, I managed to get up to my friend, and then together we skated, as it were, to the shore-­although skating very little represents the awkward splashes and slips I made on my way to land. I found quite a little crowd awaiting me on the bank; but Jones, with ready consideration, hurried me off to a cart he had in a lane near, and drove me home.

I told him the chief points of the adventure on our way; but did not say anything of the curious noises. It is odd how shy a man feels at telling what he knows people will never believe. It was not until the evening of the next day that I began to tell him, and then only after I was fortified by an excellent dinner, and some very good claret. Jones listened attentively. He was far too kindly and well bred to laugh at me; but I could see he did not believe one word as to the reality of the occurrence. “Very strange!” “How remarkable!” “Quite extraordinary!” he kept saying, with evident interest. But I was sure he put it all down to my fatigue and disordered imagination. And so, to do him justice, has everybody else to whom I have told the tale since.

The fact is, we cannot, in this prosaic age, believe in anything the least approaching the supernatural. Nor do I. But nevertheless I am as certain as I am that I am writing these words, that the thing did really happen, and will happen again, may happen every night for all I know, only I don’t intend to try and put my belief to the test. I have a theory which of course will be laughed at, and as I am not in the least scientific, I cannot bolster it up by scientific arguments. It is this: As Mr. Edison has now discovered that by certain simple processes human sounds can be reproduced at any future date, so accidentally, and owing to the combination of most curious coincidences, it might happen that the agonised cries of some suffering being, or the sounds made by one at a time when all other emotions are as nothing compared to the supreme sensations of one committing some awful crime, could be impressed on the atmosphere or surface of an enclosed building, which could be reproduced by a current of air passing into that building under the same atmospheric conditions. This is the vague explanation I have given to myself.

However, be the explanation what it may, the facts are as I have stated them. Let those laugh who did not experience them. To return to the end of the story. There were two things I pointed out to Jones as conclusive that I was not dreaming. One was my pocket-book. I showed it him, and the words were quite clear–only, of course, very straggling. This is a facsimile of the writing, but I cannot account for the date being 1837­—

I am wide awake – it is Xmas Eve 1837

The other point was the horrible stains on my hands and clothes. A foul-smelling dark chocolate stain was on my hair, hands, and clothes. Jones said, of course, this was from the rust off the mouldering iron-work, some of which no doubt had trickled down, owing to the heavy rain, through the defective caulking of the deck. The fact is, there is nothing that an ingenious mind cannot explain; but the question is, Is the explanation the right one?

I could easily account for the phosphorescent light. The water was foul and stagnant, and. it was no doubt caused by the same gases which produce the well­known ignis-fatuus or Will-o’-the-wisp.

We visited the ship, and I recovered my gun., There were the same stains on the deck as there were on my clothes; and curiously enough they went in a nearly straight line over the place where I lay, from the top of the companion to the starboard bulwark.

We carefully examined the forepart of the ship: it was as completely gutted as the rest of her. Jones was glad to get on deck again, as the atmosphere was very unpleasant, and I had no wish to stay.

At my request Jones made every inquiry he could about the old hulk. Not much was elicited. It bore an evil name, and no one would go on board who could help it. So far it looked as if it were credited with being haunted. The owner, who had been the captain of her, had died about three years before. His character did not seem amiable; but as he had left his money to the most influential farmer in the district, the country-people were unwilling to talk against him.

I went with Jones to call on the farmer, and asked him point-blank if he had ever heard whether a murder had been committed on board the Lily. He stared at me, and then laughed. “Not as I know of” was all his answer–and I never got any nearer than that.

I feel that this is all very unsatisfactory. I wish I could give some thrilling and sensational explanation. I am sorry I cannot. My imagination suggests many, as no doubt it will to each of my readers who possesses that faculty; but I have only written this to tell the actual facts, not to add to our superabundant fiction.

If ever I come across any details bearing upon the subject, I will not fail to communicate them at once. The vessel I found was the Lily of Goole, owned by one Master Gad Earwaker, and built in 1801.

The ghost bag

Christmas Ghost Story: The Kit-Bag, by Algernon Blackwood

We’ve had several amusing, and one wistful, Christmas ghost stories in our series. Now it’s time for something genuinely terrifying, and you can always rely on Algernon Blackwood to bring the blood-curdling and subtle. This is his seasonal masterpiece The Kit-Bag.

A jolly young man with jolly young friends prepares to go on a jolly young holiday, with all the skiing, cocoa, sleighing, and friendly girls in furs that the youthful heart (or other organs) could desire. Have you ever gone away for a holiday? You’ll know, then, that the worst part is packing, as our hero discovers, to his chagrin.

I venture to say, however, none of us have had quite as much trouble with our luggage as this poor unfortunate, and thank god for that!


The Kit-Bag
by Algernon Blackwood

The ghost bag

The ghost bag

From “Pall Mall Magazine”, December 1908

When the words ‘Not Guilty’ sounded through the crowded courtroom that
dark December afternoon, Arthur Wilbraham, the great criminal KC, and
leader for the triumphant defence, was represented by his junior; but
Johnson, his private secretary, carried the verdict across to his
chambers like lightning.

‘It’s what we expected, I think,’ said the barrister, without emotion;
‘and, personally, I am glad the case is over.’ There was no particular
sign of pleasure that his defence of John Turk, the murderer, on a plea
of insanity, had been successful, for no doubt he felt, as everybody who
had watched the case felt, that no man had ever better deserved the
gallows.

‘I’m glad too,’ said Johnson. He had sat in the court for ten days
watching the face of the man who had carried out with callous detail one
of the most brutal and cold-blooded murders of recent years.

Thee counsel glanced up at his secretary. They were more than employer and
employed; for family and other reasons, they were friends. ‘Ah, I
remember; yes,’ he said with a kind smile, ‘and you want to get away for
Christmas? You’re going to skate and ski in the Alps, aren’t you? If I
was your age I’d come with you.’

Johnson laughed shortly. He was a young man of twenty-six, with a
delicate face like a girl’s. ‘I can catch the morning boat now,’ he said;
‘but that’s not the reason I’m glad the trial is over. I’m glad it’s over
because I’ve seen the last of that man’s dreadful face. It positively
haunted me. That white skin, with the black hair brushed low over the
forehead, is a thing I shall never forget, and the description of the way
the dismembered body was crammed and packed with lime into that–‘

‘Don’t dwell on it, my dear fellow,’ interrupted the other, looking at
him curiously out of his keen eyes, ‘don’t think about it. Such pictures
have a trick of coming back when one least wants them.’ He paused a
moment. ‘Now go,’ he added presently, ‘and enjoy your holiday. I shall
want all your energy for my Parliamentary work when you get back. And
don’t break your neck skiing.’

Johnson shook hands and took his leave. At the door he turned suddenly.

‘I knew there was something I wanted to ask you,’ he said. ‘Would you
mind lendang me one of your kit-bags? It’s too late to get one tonight,
and I leave in the morning before the shops are open.’

‘Of course; I’ll send Henry over with it to your rooms. You shall have it
the moment I get home.’

‘I promise to take great care of it,’ said Johnson gratefully, delighted
to think that within thirty hours he would be nearing the brilliant
sunshine of the high Alps in winter. The thought of that criminal court
was like an evil dream in his mind.

He dined at his club and went on to Bloomsbury, where he occupied the top
floor in one of those old, gaunt houses in which the rooms are large and
lofty. The floor below his own was vacant and unfurnished, and below that
were other lodgers whom he did not know. It was cheerless, and he looked
forward heartily to a change. The night was even more cheerless: it was
miserable, and few people were about. A cold, sleety rain was driving
down the streets before the keenest east wind he had ever felt. It howled
dismally among the big, gloomy houses of the great squares, and when he
reached his rooms he heard it whistling and shouting over the world of
black roofs beyond his windows.

In the hall he met his landlady, shading a candle from the draughts with
her thin hand. ‘This come by a man from Mr Wilbr’im’s, sir.’

She pointed to what was evidently the kit-bag, and Johnson thanked her
and took it upstairs with him. ‘I shall be going abroad in the morning
for ten days, Mrs Monks,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave an address for letters.’

‘And I hope you’ll ‘ave a merry Christmas, sir,’ she said, in a raucous,
wheezy voice that suggested spirits, ‘and better weather than this.’

‘I hope so too,’ replied her lodger, shuddering a little as the wind went
roaring down the street outside.

When he got upstairs he heard the sleet volleying against the window
panes. He put his kettle on to make a cup of hot coffee, and then set
about putting a few things in order for his absence. ‘And now I must
pack–such as my packing is,’ he laughed to himself, and set to work at
once.

He liked the packing, for it brought the snow mountains so vividly
before him, and made him forget the unpleasant scenes of the past ten
days. Besides, it was not elaborate in nature. His fraend had lent him
the very thing–a stout canvas kit-bag, sack-shaped, with holes round the
neck for the brass bar and padlock. It was a bit shapeless, true, and not
much to look at, but its capacity was unlimited, and there was no need to
pack carefully. He shoved in his waterproof coat, his fur cap and gloves,
his skates and climbing boots, his sweaters, snow-boots, and ear-caps;
and then on the top of these he piled his woollen shirts and underwear,
his thick socks, puttees, and knickerbockers. The dress suit came next,
in case the hotel people dressed for dinner, and then, thinking of the
best way to pack his white shirts, he paused a moment to reflect. ‘That’s
the worst of these kit-bags,’ he mused vaguely, standing in the centre of
the sitting-room, where he had come to fetch some string.

It was after ten o’clock. A furious gust of wind rattled the windows as
though to hurry him up, and he thought with pity of the poor Londoners
whose Christmas would be spent in such a climate, whilst he was skimming
over snowy slopes in bright sunshine, and dancing in the evening with
rosy-checked girls–Ah! that reminded him; he must put in his
dancing-pumps and evening socks. He crossed over from his sitting-room to
the cupboard on the landing where he kept his linen.

And as he did so he heard someone coming softly up the stairs.

He stood still a moment on the landing to listen. It was Mrs Monks’s
step, he thought; she must he coming up with the last post. But then the
steps ceased suddenly, and he heard no more. They were at least two
flights down, and he came to the conclusion they were too heavy to be
those of his bibulous landlady. No doubt they belonged to a late lodger
who had mistaken his floor. He went into his bedroom and packed his pumps
and dress-shirts as best he could.

The kit-bag by this time was two-thirds full, and stood upright on its own
base like a sack of flour. For the first time he noticed that it was old
and dirty, the canvas faded and worn, and that it had obviously been
subjected to rather rough treatment. It was not a very nice bag to have
sent him–certainly not a new one, or one that his chief valued. He gave
the matter a passing thought, and went on with his packing. Once or
twice, however, he caught himself wondering who it could have been
wandering down below, for Mrs Monks had not come up with letters, and the
floor was empty and unfurnished. From time to time, moreover, he was
almost certain he heard a soft tread of someone padding about over the
bare boards–cautiously, stealthily, as silently as possible–and,
further, that the sounds had been lately coming distinctly nearer.

For the first time in his life he began to feel a little creepy. Then, as
though to emphasize this feeling, an odd thing happened: as he left the
bedroom, having, just packed his recalcitrant white shirts, he noticed
that the top of the kit-bag lopped over towards him with an extraordinary
resemblance to a human face. The canvas fell into a fold like a nose and
forehead, and the brass rings for the padlock just filled the position of
the eyes. A shadow–or was it a travel stain? for he could not tell
exactly–looked like hair. It gave him rather a turn, for it was so
absurdly, so outrageously, like the face of John Turk the murderer.

He laughed, and went into the front room, where the light was stronger.

‘That horrid case has got on my mind,’ he thought; ‘I shall be glad of a
change of scene and air.’ In the sitting-room, however, he was not
pleased to hear again that stealthy tread upon the stairs, and to realize
that it was much closer than before, as well as unmistakably real. And
this time he got up and went out to see who it could be creeping about on
the upper staircase at so late an hour.

But the sound ceased; there was no one visible on the stairs. He went to
the floor below, not without trepidation, and turned on the electric
light to make sure that no one was hiding in the empty rooms of the
unoccupied suite. There was not a stick of furniture large enough to hide
a dog. Then he called over the banisters to Mrs Monks, but there was no
answer, and his voice echoed down into the dark vault of the house, and
was lost in the roar of the gale that howled outside. Everyone was in bed
and asleep–everyone except himself and the owner of this soft and
stealthy tread.

‘My absurd imagination, I suppose,’ he thought. ‘It must have been the
wind after all, although–it seemed so _very_ real and close, I thought.’
He went back to his packing. It was by this time getting on towards
midnight. He drank his coffee up and lit another pipe–the last before
turning in.

It is difficult to say exactly at what point fear begins, when the causes
of that fear are not plainly before the eyes. Impressions gather on the
surface of the mind, film by film, as ice gathers upon the surface of
still water, but often so lightly that they claim no definite recognation
from the consciousness. Then a point is reached where the accumulated
impressions become a definite emotion, and the mind realizes that
something has happened. With something of a start, Johnson suddenly
recognized that he felt nervous–oddly nervous; also, that for some time
past the causes of this feeling had been gathering slowly in has mind,
but that he had only just reached the point where he was forced to
acknowledge them.

It was a singular and curious malaise that had come over him, and he
hardly knew what to make of it. He felt as though he were doing something
that was strongly objected to by another person, another person,
moreover, who had some right to object. It was a most disturbing and
disagreeable feeling, not unlike the persistent promptings of conscience:
almost, in fact, as if he were doing something he knew to be wrong. Yet,
though he searched vigorously and honestly in his mind, he could nowhere
lay his finger upon the secret of this growing uneasiness, and it
perplexed him. More, it distressed and frightened him.

‘Pure nerves, I suppose,’ he said aloud with a forced laugh. ‘Mountain
air will cure all that! Ah,’ he added, still speaking to himself, ‘and
that reminds me–my snow-glasses.’

He was standing by the door of the bedroom during this brief soliloquy,
and as he passed quickly towards the sitting-room to fetch them from the
cupboard he saw out of the corner of his eye the indistinct outline of a
figure standing on the stairs, a few feet from the top. It was someone in
a stooping position, with one hand on the banisters, and the face peering
up towards the landing. And at the same moment he heard a shuffling
footstep. The person who had been creeping about below all this time had
at last come up to his own floor. Who in the world could it be? And what
in the name of Heaven did he want?

Johnson caught his breath sharply and stood stock still. Then, after a
few seconds’ hesitation, he found his courage, and turned to investigate.
Be stairs, he saw to his utter amazement, were empty; there was no one.
He felt a series of cold shivers run over him, and something about the
muscles of his legs gave a little and grew weak. For the space of several
minutes he peered steadily into the shadows that congregated about the
top of the staircase where he had seen the figure, and then he walked
fast–almost ran, in fact–into the light of the front room; but hardly
had he passed inside the doorway when he heard someone come up the stairs
behind him with a quick bound and go swiftly into his bedroom. It was a
heavy, but at the same time a stealthy footstep–the tread of somebody
who did not wish to be seen. And it was at this precise moment that the
nervousness he had hitherto experienced leaped the boundary line, and
entered the state of fear, almost of acute, unreasoning fear. Before it
turned into terror there was a further boundary to cross, and beyond that
again lay the region of pure horror. Johnson’s position was an unenviable
one.

By Jove! That was someone on the stairs, then,’ he muttered, his flesh
crawling all over; ‘and whoever it was has now gone into my bedroom.’ His
delicate, pale face turned absolutely white, and for some minutes he
hardly knew what to think or do. Then he realized intuitively that delay
only set a premium upon fear; and he crossed the landing boldly and went
straight into the other room, where, a few seconds before, the steps had
disappeared.

‘Who’s there? Is that you, Mrs Monks?’ he called aloud, as he went, and
heard the first half of his words echo down the empty stairs, while the
second half fell dead against the curtains in a room that apparently held
no other human figure than his own.

‘Who’s there?’ he called again, in a voice unnecessarily loud and that
only just held firm. ‘What do you want here?’

The curtains swayed very slightly, and, as he saw it, his heart felt as
if it almost missed a beat; yet he dashed forward and drew them aside
with a rush. A window, streaming with rain, was all that met his gaze. He
continued his search, but in vain; the cupboards held nothing but rows of
clothes, hanging motionless; and under the bed there was no sign of
anyone hiding. He stepped backwards into the middle of the room, and, as
he did so, something all but tripped him up. Turning with a sudden spring
of alarm he saw–the kit-bag.

‘Odd!’ he thought. ‘That’s not where I left it!’ A few moments before it
had surely been on his right, between the bed and the bath; he did not
remember having moved it. It was very curious. What in the world was the
matter with everything? Were all his senses gone queer? A terrific gust
of wind tore at the windows, dashing the sleet against the glass with the
force of small gunshot, and then fled away howling dismally over the
waste of Bloomsbury roofs. A sudden vision of the Channel next day rose
in his mind and recalled him sharply to realities.

There’s no one here at any rate; that’s quite clear!’ he exclaimed aloud.
Yet at the time he uttered them he knew perfectly well that his words
were not true and that he did not believe them himself. He felt exactly
as though someone was hiding close about him, watching all his movements,
trying to hinder his packing in some way. ‘And two of my senses,’ he
added, keeping up the pretence, ‘have played me the most absurd tricks:
the steps I heard and the figure I saw were both entirely imaginary.’

He went hack to the front room, poked the fire into a blaze, and sat down
before it to think. What impressed him more than anythang else was the
fact that the kit-bag was no longer where he had left at. It had been
dragged nearer to the door.

What happened afterwards that night happened, of course, to a man already
excited by fear, and was perceived by a mand that had not the full and
proper control, therefore, of the senses. Outwardly, Johson remained calm
and master of himself to the end, pretending to the very last that
everything he witnessed had a natural explanation, or was merely
delusions of his tired nerves. But inwardly, in his very heart, he knew
all along that someone had been hiding downstairs in the empty suite when
he came in, that this person had watched his opportunity and then
stealthily made his way up to the bedroom, and that all he saw and heard
afterwards, from the moving of the kit-bag to–well, to the other things
this story has to tell–were caused directly by the presence of this
invisible person.

And it was here, just when he most desired to keep his mind and thoughts
controlled, that the vivid pictures received day after day upon the
mental plates exposed in the courtroom of the Old Bailey, came strongly
to light and developed themselves in the dark room of his inner vision.
Unpleasant, haunting memories have a way of coming to life again just
when the mind least desires them–in the silent watches of the night, on
sleepless pillows, during the lonely hours spent by sick and dying beds.
And so now, in the same way, Johnson saw nothing but the dreadful face of
John Turk, the murderer, lowering at him from every corner of his mental
field of vision; the white skin, the evil eyes, and the fringe of black
hair low over the forehead. All the pictures of those ten days in court
crowded back into his mind unbidden, and very vivid.

‘This is all rubbish and nerves,’ he exclaimed at length, springing with
sudden energy from his chair. ‘I shall finish my packing and go to bed.
I’m overwrought, overtired. No doubt, at this rate I shall hear steps and
things all night!’

But his face was deadly white all the same. He snatched up his
field-glasses and walked across to the bedroom, humming a music-hall song
as he went–a trifle too loud to be natural; and the instant he crossed
the threshold and stood within the room something turned cold about his
heart, and he felt that every hair on his head stood up.

The kit-bag lay close in front of him, several feet nearer to the door
than he had left it, and just over its crumpled top he saw a head and
face slowly sinking down out of sight as though someone were crouching
behind it to hide, and at the same moment a sound like a long-drawn
sigh was distinctly audible in the still air about him between the
gusts of the storm outside.

Johnson had more courage and will-power than the girlish indecision of
his face indicated; but at first such a wave of terror came over him that
for some seconds he could do nothing but stand and stare. A violent
trembling ran down his back and legs, and he was conscious of a foolish,
almost a hysterical, impulse to scream aloud. That sigh seemed in his
very ear, and the air still quivered with it. It was unmistakably a human
sigh.

‘Who’s there?’ he said at length, findinghis voice; but thought he meant
to speak with loud decision, the tones came out instead in a faint
whisper, for he had partly lost the control of his tongue and lips.

He stepped forward, so that he could see all round and over the kit-bag.
Of course there was nothing there, nothing but the faded carpet and the
bulgang canvas sides. He put out his hands and threw open the mouth of
the sack where it had fallen over, being only three parts full, and then
he saw for the first time that round the inside, some six inches from the
top, there ran a broad smear of dull crimson. It was an old and faded
blood stain. He uttered a scream, and drew hack his hands as if they had
been burnt. At the same moment the kit-bag gave a faint, but
unmistakable, lurch forward towards the door.

Johnson collapsed backwards, searching with his hands for the support of
something solid, and the door, being further behind him than he realized,
received his weight just in time to prevent his falling, and shut to with
a resounding bang. At the same moment the swinging of his left arm
accidentally touched the electric switch, and the light in the room went
out.

It was an awkward and disagreeable predicament, and if Johnson had not
been possessed of real pluck he might have done all manner of foolish
things. As it was, however, he pulled himself together, and groped
furiously for the little brass knob to turn the light on again. But the
rapid closing of the door had set the coats hanging on it a-swinging, and
his fingers became entangled in a confusion of sleeves and pockets, so
that it was some moments before he found the switch. And in those few
moments of bewilderment and terror two things happened that sent him
beyond recall over the boundary into the region of genuine horror–he
distinctly heard the kit-bag shuffling heavily across the floor in jerks,
and close in front of his face sounded once again the sigh of a human
being.

In his anguished efforts to find the brass button on the wall he nearly
scraped the nails from his fingers, but even then, in those frenzied
moments of alarm–so swift and alert are the impressaons of a mand
keyed-up by a vivid emotion–he had time to realize that he dreaded the
return of the light, and that it might be better for him to stay hidden
in the merciful screen of darkness. It was but the impulse of a moment,
however, and before he had time to act upon it he had yielded
automatically to the original desire, and the room was flooded again with
light.

But the second instinct had been right. It would have been better for him
to have stayed in the shelter of the kind darkness. For there, close
before him, bending over the half-packed kit-bag, clear as life in the
merciless glare of the electric light, stood the figure of John Turk, the
murderer. Not three feet from him the man stood, the fringe of black hair
marked plainly against the pallor of the forehead, the whole horrible
presentment of the scoundrel, as vivid as he had seen him day after day
in the Old Bailey, when he stood there in the dock, cynical and callous,
under the very shadow of the gallows.

In a flash Johnson realized what it all meant: the dirty and much-used
bag; the smear of crimson within the top; the dreadful stretched
condition of the bulging sides. He remembered how the victim’s body had
been stuffed into a canvas bag for burial, the ghastly, dismembered
fragments forced with lime into this very bag; and the bag itself
produced as evidence–it all came back to him as clear as day…

Very softly and stealthily his hand groped behind him for the handle of
the door, but before he could actually turn it the very thing that he
most of all dreaded came about, and John Turk lifted his devil’s face and
looked at him. At the same moment that heavy sigh passed through the air
of the room, formulated somehow into words: It’s my bag. And I want it.’

Johnson just remembered clawing the door open, and then falling in a heap
upon the floor of the landing, as he tried frantically to make his way
into the front room.

He remained unconscious for a long time, and it was still dark when he
opened his eyes and realized that he was lying, stiff and bruised, on the
cold boards. Then the memory of what he had seen rushed back into his
mind, and he promptly fainted again. When he woke the second time the
wintry dawn was just beginning to peep in at the windows, painting the
stairs a cheerless, dismal grey, and he managed to crawl into the front
room, and cover himself with an overcoat in the armchair, where at length
he fell asleep.

A great clamour woke him. He recognized Mrs Monks’s voice, loud and
voluble.

‘What! You ain’t been to bed, sir! Are you ill, or has anything ‘appened?
And there’s an urgent gentleman to see you, though it ain’t seven o’clock
yet, and–‘

‘Who is it?’ he stammered. ‘I’m all right, thanks. Fell asleep in my
chair, I suppose.’

‘Someone from Mr Wilb’rim’s, and he says he ought to see you quick before
you go abroad, and I told him–‘

‘Show him up, please, at once,’ said Johnson, whose head was whirling,
and his mind was still full of dreadful visions.

Mr Wilbraham’s man came in with many apologies, and explained briefly and
quickly that an absurd mistake had been made, and that the wrong kit-bag
had been sent over the night before.

‘Henry somehow got hold of the one that came over from the courtoom, and
Mr Wilbraham only discovered it when he saw his own lying in his room,
and asked why it had not gone to you,’ the man said.

‘Oh!’ said Johnson stupidly.

‘And he must have brought you the one from the murder case instead, sir,
I’m afraid,’ the man continued, without the ghost of an expression on his
face. ‘The one John Turk packed the dead both in. Mr Wilbraham’s awful
upset about it, sir, and told me to come over first thing this morning
with the right one, as you were leaving by the boat.’

He pointed to a clean-looking kit-bag on the floor, which he had just
brought. ‘And I was to bring the other one back, sir,’ he added casually.

For some minutes Johnson could not find his voice. At last he pointed in
the direction of his bedroom. ‘Perhaps you would kindly unpack it for me.
Just empty the things out on the floor.’

The man disappeared into the other room, and was gone for five minutes.
Johnson heard the shifting to and fro of the bag, and the rattle of the
skates and boots being unpacked.

‘Thank you, sir,’ the man said, returning with the bag folded over his
arm. ‘And can I do anything more to help you, sir?’

‘What is it?’ asked Johnson, seeing that he still had something he wished
to say.

The man shuffled and looked mysterious. ‘Beg pardon, sir, but knowing
your interest in the Turk case, I thought you’d maybe like to know what’s
happened–‘

‘Yes.’

‘John Turk killed hisself last night with poison immediately on getting
his release, and he left a note for Mr Wilbraham saying as he’d be much
obliged if they’d have him put away, same as the woman he murdered, in
the old kit-hag.’

‘What time–did he do it?’ asked Johnson.

‘Ten o’clock last night, sir, the warder says.’

THE END

A Christmas Tea Party for one...or is it?

Christmas Ghost Stories: Christmas Meeting by Rosemary Timperley

Tonight’s feature Christmas Ghost Story, Christmas Meeting by Rosemary Timperley, is melancholy rather than spooky, bittersweet rather than bone-chilling, and I think this is far more like real ghosts are than those featured in most of these stories.

Or I mean, would be, if they existed! Right? I mean, ghosts aren’t real. Look around you, there, in the existential bubble of emptiness which surrounds each of us clinging to this glob of frozen lava, hurtling through the void towards the death, not only of ourselves, but of all living things and even the stars. No ghosts here, amirite???

Moving on…

Since this is about a schoolteacher, it even comes with a short quiz. Enjoy!


Christmas Meeting
by Rosemary Timperley

 

A Christmas Tea Party for one...or is it?

A Christmas Tea Party for one…or is it?

I have never spent Christmas alone before.

It gives me an uncanny feeling, sitting alone in my “furnished room”, with my head full of ghosts, and the room full of voices of the past. It’s a drowning feeling -all the Christmases of the past coming back in a mad jumble: the childish Christmas, with a house full of relations, a tree in the window, sixpences in the pudding, and the delicious, crinkly stocking in the dark morning: the adolescent Christmas, with mother and father, the war and the bitter cold, and the letters from abroad; the first really grown-up Christmas, with a lover – the snow and the enchantment, red wine and kisses, and the walk in the dark before midnight, with the grounds so white, and the stars diamond bright in a black sky -so many Christmases through the years.

And, now the first Christmas alone.

But not quite loneliness. A feeling of companionship with all the other people who are spending Christmas alone -millions of them – past and present.

A feeling that if I close my eyes, there will be no past or future, only an endless present which is time, because it is all we ever have.

Yes, however cynical you are, however irreligious, it makes you feel queer to be alone at Christmas time.

So I’m absurdly relieved when the young man walks in. There’s nothing romantic about it – I’m a woman of nearly fifty, a spinster schoolma’ am with grim, dark hair, and myopic eyes that once were beautiful, and he’s a kid of twenty, rather unconventionally dressed with a flowing wine-colored tie and black velvet jacket, and brown curls which could do with a taste of the barber’s scissors. The effeminacy of his dress is belied by his features – narrow, piercing, blue eyes, and arrogant, jutting nose and chin.

Not that he looks strong. The skin is fine-drawn over the prominent features, and he is very white.

He bursts in without knocking, then pauses, says: “I’m sorry. I thought this was my room.” He begins to go out, then hesitates and says:” Are you alone?”

“Yes.”

“It’s – queer, being alone at Christmas, isn’t it? May I stay and talk?”

“I’d be glad if you would.”

He comes right in, and sits down by the fire.

“I hope you don’t think i came in here on purpose. I really did think it was my room,” he explains.

“I’m glad you made the mistake. But you’re a very young person to be alone at Christmas time.”

“I wouldn’t go back to the country to my family. It would hold up my work. I’m a writer.”

“I see.” I can’t help smiling a little. That explains his rather unusual dress. And he takes himself so seriously, this young man! “Of course, you mustn’t waste a precious moment of writing,” I say with a twinkle.

“No, not a moment! That’s what my family won’t see. They don’t appreciate urgency.”

“Families are never appreciative of the artistic nature.”

“No, they aren’t,” he agrees seriously.

“What are you writing?”

“Poetry and a diary combined. It’s called “My poems and I”, by Francis Randel. That’s my name. My family say there’s no point in my writing, that I’m too young. But i don’t feel young. Sometimes I feel like an old man, with too much to do before he dies.”

“Revolving faster and faster on the wheel of creativeness.”

“Yes! Yes, exactly! You understand! You must read my work some time. Please read my work! Read my work!” A note of desperation in his voice, a look of fear in his eyes makes me say:

“We’re both getting much too solemn for Christmas Day. I’m going to make you some coffee. And i have plum cake.”

I move about, clattering cups, spooning coffee into my percolator. But I must have offended him, for, when i look around, I found his has left me. I am absurdly disappointed.

I finish making coffee, however, then turn to the bookshelf in the room. It is piled high with volumes, for which the landlady has apologized profusely:”Hope you don’t mind the books, Miss, but my husband won’t part with them, and there’s nowhere to put them. We charge a bit less for the room for that reason.”

“I don’t mind,” I said. “Books are good friends.”

But these aren’t very friendly-looking books. I take one at random. Or does some strange fate guide my hand?

Sipping my coffee, inhaling my cigarette smoke, I begin to read the battered little book, published, I see, in Spring, 1852. It’s mainly poetry – immature stuff, but vivid. Then there’s a kind of diary. More realistic, less affected. Out of curiosity, to see if there are any amusing comparisons, I turn to the entry for Christmas Day, 1851. I read:

“My first Christmas alone. I had rather an odd experience. When I went back to my lodgings after a walk, there was a middle-aged woman in my room. I thought ,at first, I’d walked into the wrong room, but this was not so, and after a pleasant talk, she disappeared. I suppose she was a ghost. But I wasn’t frightened. I liked her. But I do not feel well tonight. Not at all well. I have never felt ill at Christmas before.”

A publisher’s note followed the last entry: Francis Randel died from a sudden heart attack on the night of Christmas Day 1851. The woman mentioned in this final entry in his diary was the last person to see him alive. In spite of requests for her to come forward, she never did so. Her identity remains a mystery.