I had been a rogue; worse some might say. Though in my defence, neither a murderer, nor snitch, nor liar, and my philandering was nothing to dwell upon — an honest thief you might say! Indeed, my career had not been of an entirely villainous order; though, I had seen fit to trouble the magistrate on two occasions.
But this was the city of London – wicked and corrupt, and spawning the likes of I. It had required far less time than I had served at His Majesty’s pleasure to conclude that it was no longer the place for a man of my considerable talents, for a better man at a lock or window you couldn’t find. When the key turned in its iron mantle, I was off like the wind.
The Prisoners’ Aid Society found me a job, on board a ship, coal trimming. I’ve never trimmed a scuttle full of coal, and as for a life on the ocean wave why, I’d much rather walk the plank! (I get seasick you see, even if I so much as think of taking a walk on a pier.) So I said “Thank you, but no,” and, getting a few tools together, I looked round for a job in my own line. But, as I had refused Society’s offer, the police were very anxious to know what exactly I did intend to do, and there wasn’t a minute of the day and night that there wasn’t somebody in “plain clothes” hovering about, watching me. So, when my last bob was spent, I beat if for the sticks.
Now, as house-breaking was my game, I had to choose carefully, well away from your average copper, and in an area where property was not so close together as to cause a swarm if there was a holler. So, with the smell and taste of London behind me, I set off for Dorsetshire where I knew there to be an assortment of villages ripe for busting. But it was hard work — all I got for my trouble was plenty of grub and any bits of clothing I wanted. Everybody in the country seemed to sleep with their cash-box and jewel-case under their pillow, and I never was a man to make any fuss or disturbance.
So here I was, on this November evening, tramping the Dorset hills without a bean in the world. It was a fair beast of a November evening, too. Dark, wet and cold. The road appeared to follow the edge of the downs, for, far away below, I could see the twinkle of a light here and there, but to the left there was nothing but the darkness and the rain. I was very wet and very tired, but the cursed road seemed to stretch on endlessly, without any sign of a shelter.
At last I stopped. Yeovil, I knew, was at least ten miles ahead, whilst Cerne Abbas was not more than four behind. I would go back. I had noticed several comfortable-looking houses as I came through the little town. I would wait until everything was quiet for the night and then try my luck. But, even as I turned, up from the valley, muffled by the damp, heavy air, came the sound of a bell. I left the road and crossing the wet, spongy turf until I came to the edge, looked down. The ground sloped abruptly at my feet, almost like a precipice. I could see no sign of a light or building, and the only sound was the tolling of the church bell.
I’ve never understood why I wanted to get down to that bell, but I did. It seemed to call me. I looked around for some way to get down, and saw, not far from me, a rough road or track winding down the side of the hill. It was very steep, and, in the darkness, my feet slipped several times on the loose stones, but at last I reached the bottom, where the road dwindled into a lane bordered by high hedges. Through a gate in the hedge I could see the church. It stood by itself in the middle of a field. The door in the tower was open, revealing the lighted interior. I climbed the gate and crossed the field though there was no sign of a footpath, evidently the church was approached by some other way. A young lad was tugging at the bellrope when I entered.
“What church is this, sonny?” I asked.
“Batcombe,” he replied, apparently surprised at my question. It was a funny little church, hundreds of years old, I should say, though I am no judge of that sort of thing. It was lighted by oil lamps and, what was most welcome to me, in the middle of the church a big coke-stove was humming merrily.
I made my way inside and took a seat close to the stove. My clothes were soaking wet and I was chilled to the bone so the warmth of the stove was very comforting. A scanty congregation dribbled in by ones and twos and the service commenced. I did not pay much attention. I had had enough of the “road” for that night, so I decided to pass the rest of the night in the church. It would be easy. I would leave just before the service ended and then, when the people had gone home, return and make myself comfortable until the morning. I had given a professional glance at the door as I came in, and I knew the lock would give me no trouble.
Everything worked “according to plan.” When the parson appeared to be getting toward the end of the sermon I rose and tiptoed out. The congregation looked at me severely. Thought I was dodging the collection plate, no doubt. Outside it was still blowing and raining and as pitch as black. I ensconced myself in a hedge from which I had a full view of the church-door without being seen unless anyone passed very close. It was a very unpleasant situation, my feet in a ditch and the rain beating on the back of my neck, and sending cold trickles down my spine. It seemed a terrible long time before the service ended and the people came out. They all went off in a different direction from that by which I had entered the field. The last to come out were the minister and an old lady. They shook hands at the church door and he walked off and, after she had closed the door and locked it, she followed him. I waited until I thought it was safe and then, emerging from my hiding place, returned to the church.
But, before entering, I thought I would take a look round the outside of the old place, a precaution I always take when I am at work. On the north side, not far from the wall, was a small tomb not more than three feet square. I remember, I thought it was for a child, it didn’t look big enough for a grown person. Having completed my tour of inspection I started on the lock of the door. It gave me more trouble than I had expected, but at last I forced it back. The church was in total darkness, and I daren’t not strike a match for fear of the reflection on the windows. But after closing the door, I felt my way to where the stove was still giving out a good heat. I searched the vestry as well as I could, in the dark, and fetching out what seemed to be some coats or cassocks, I spread them in the pew nearest to the stove and settled down for the night. I was very tired and the warmth of the stove helped to make me drowsy so I was very soon asleep.
How long I slept I don’t know, but I awoke suddenly and feeling very cold. The church was lighter. I sat up and looked around. The wind and rain had stopped and the moonlight was streaming through the windows. But, what scared me most was, the door of the church was wide open. Someone had entered the church while I was asleep. I could see no-one but, from the other side of the church, close to the vestry door came the sound of tapping and scraping, as though someone was there, hidden by the pew seats. “Who could it be and what were they doing in the church at that time of night?” I wondered.
The scraping ceased, and from above the pews, rose the figure of a man. He had his back partly towards me, but I could see he was holding a paper in his hand, which he appeared to compare with something on the ground, for he looked from one to the other several times. Then, with a gesture of anger, he crumpled the paper in his hand and turned, so that the rays of the moon fell full upon him. He was a big man, dressed in a sort of sleeve-waistcoat, knee-breeches, and what looked like worsted stockings and heavy boots. His eyes were sunken, and his face deathly pale. I could see his lips moving as though he was muttering to himself, but I couldn’t hear a sound. Then, he moved towards me, and I screamed with terror, for except that the eyes gleamed in their hollow sockets, his face was as the face of a corpse.
Round his throat, exposed by the open shirt, were livid marks, such as once I saw on the throat of a convict, who hanged himself in his cell.
Now, I want you to understand, I never did believe in “ghosts.” That figure looked to me as solid and substantial as myself. What put the wind up me was the deathly look on the face and the noiseless way he moved. I crouched back against the wall, anticipating the breath of death upon me, but as he approached to within a few feet of my trembling body something pulled him back and, turning sharply, he moved down the church. I rose and followed him. I couldn’t help it. I had to. The figure passed out and round the outside of the church until he came to the small tomb I had noticed before. Here he stopped and again looked at the paper in his hand. I saw him kneel down and do something at the side of the tomb.
Suddenly, he raised his head and looked up. And, to my dying day, I shall never forget his face as he stared upward at something that I could not see. He threw up one arm as if to ward off a blow, and then I saw two hands at his throat. Nothing else, just those two hands. They were the hands of an old man, skinny, veinous, but the fingers buried themselves in the flesh of his throat as if they were of steel. He struggled to his feet, clutching and tearing at those hands, but they gripped him as an iron vice. His face blackened, and his tongue protruded from the mouth. Suddenly, his struggles ceased. His head rolled back and he sagged at the knees. The hands vanished and he dropped back across the tomb, limp and motionless.
That’s all I remember. The next morning they found me lying in the middle of the road, a quarter of a mile from the church. How I got there, God only knows. They carried me into a cottage and, when I came to my senses, I told them I had been up on the hills, lost, all night, just to account for my pathetic state. The woman gave me some breakfast, and, while I was eating it, she told me a lot about the countryside. I brought the conversation around to the church.
“That old church!” she exclaimed. “Ah, there’s some queer tales about Batcombe Church and the old ‘Conjurer’s Tomb.’ ”
“What ‘Conjurer’s Tomb?’ ” I asked.
“Why, Old Conjurer Minterne, as used to live in these parts in times gone by. Terrible old rip he was, by all account. ‘Ad dealings with the devil and such like. He ‘ad all ‘is books and things buried with ‘im and they buried ‘im ‘alf in the church and ‘alf out, ‘cos they weren’t sure whether he belonged to God or to the devil. The old church was far bigger then than ’tis now, so when they pulled the old wall down it left ‘arf ‘o the old man’s tomb standin’ same as ’tis now. My old father says, as, when he was a boy, a man went to the old church one night to rob the old tomb, and the next morning they found the poor fellow choked to death, and ’twas never known who choked ‘im. But ‘ow true ’tis, I dunno.”
I stared at the old woman, and she stared back in bleak fascination at the colour which had drained from my face. Though the figure now had a name, I was no less horrified by it and, with the personality described by the woman, it at once grew into such a devilish form in my mind that I suddenly felt a terrible blackness upon my soul.
I shuddered but felt compelled to ask the question. “Was there anything else about the body?”
“That there was, in the poor devil’s throat, a piece of paper, all wet ‘n crumpled, shoved in by the beast that did ‘im in. My father said it ‘ad all this funny writing on it. Not a soul could read it but it was spells, or so ‘e reckoned.”
As I said, I never did believe in “ghosts.” Nor did I ever consider I would turn my back on house-breaking. Funny, my old man always said that the thought of death is more a feast to us than a fast.