I started writing for the papers when I was barely turned fifteen and since 1899 I have been a constant contributor to the local press. When I began, provincial dailies were the big thing, and ‘The Cornish Chronicle’ had one of the largest distributions in the south west. When eastern Cornwall had no daily of its own, I doubt if the sale of all the London newspapers amounted to a few thousand copies a day there. The Chronicle, a small, twelve-paged sheet, begun in Launceston, was transferred to Looe in the summer of 1901. I contributed to it, and in 1903, when 19 years old, I joined the staff officially as a junior reporter. The provincial paper was then very different from its successor to-day. Political news was the mainstay, and far less attention was paid to theatrical, sporting, and personal chat than now. In those days people followed politics seriously, and did not make them merely the pastime of an idle hour.
In my time, I have made the journalism rounds of stories so far-fetched that they would either have you drop the paper at a glimpse of the article and remain in laughter for several minutes or dismiss the journalism as desperate headline-grabbing sensationalism. However, nothing quite prepared me for the story I was asked to cover in the winter of 1919, certainly one of the strangest I have ever come across.
The story I was asked to report on related to a set of mysterious events that had caused considerable upset in the lives of Florence Duttine, a Dorsetshire woman whose family had lived in “Thomas Hardy country” for many generations. My first impressions was that she was a warm and spirited woman who made every effort to convince me that she was not one to make up fanciful stories. Indeed, she was described by those who knew her as “honest” and “down-to-earth”, and by another as “one who never put her status before her duty; which, for the most part, was benefaction”.
“I wish my father had left me the Abbey,” said Mrs Duttine. “Such, a grand old place; I feel proud to belong to the family who have lived there for so many generations. I could understand it if father had left it to Harold; men can’t bear to let the family name fall into oblivion, and a Duttine has lived at St Matthew’s for centuries. It would be an ideal life, full of occupation and enjoyment, and plenty to do each day — servants to interview, improvements to arrange and my husband Sidney would have delighted in it.”
Sadly this was not to be, as, for reasons unknown to Florence and her brother, her father had omitted them from his will.
In the winter of 1917, Florence and her three-year old daughter went to stay with her niece and nephew in Cornwall. An old and apparently charming house, with a quaint cave that stretched from the cellar down to the sea. It had been mentioned to her as a suitable place in which they could remain for however long they required. She agreed to take it, and they were installed with two maids and a nurse. But there were unhappy times ahead:
“I have certainly tried to forget it, but I can’t. The cold and sombre sea-girt house and the eerie, repulsive spectres that nightly wander through its gloomy, crumbling walls are photographed on my mind, never to be wiped out.”
“Every time I hear the sound of a bell or a certain tone of footstep or the click of a closing door my mind is sent back to that awful place—”
The young family had settled in with surprisingly little disruption.
“During the first week we had a glorious time; nothing unusual happened. Then my husband wrote that he would be down for a couple of nights, and soon after he arrived. He was the first to make the discovery that there was something untoward in the house. He told me that he had heard during the night the sound of a man’s footsteps and the click of a closing door.”
“I told him that he must have been dreaming.”
” ‘Oh, no,’ he replied, and repeated that he had heard the footsteps distinctly.”
“My husband remained five days, but he heard nothing further. Then my brother came for a short time. I had been in the house about a month then, and although my husband had declared that the place seemed to him eerie and lonely, it had not affected me in that way at all.”
“Strangely enough, with my brother’s arrival something peculiar again happened. During the night he got up and called to me that he had heard a man’s footsteps, and that he was sure the man had gone into the servants’ room.”
Florence went on to say that she was not one much given to foolish frights, and far too knowing to believe in things that go bump in the night ; but, all in all, she was rather intrigued, and was sure that some dialogue had taken place between her husband and brother.
“I continued to question my brother but he was most certain that the sound of footsteps had been clearly audible.”
“I told him that I was quite suspicious that Sidney had written to him and said something, because it was very strange that they both had imagined the same thing.”
Her brother went on to describe what he had heard: “They paused for a moment on the top, and then I heard them fading away above the landing. A door was opened and then shut — gently.’ “
What was this thing that prowled the house at night and haunted the family? Was the noise caused by the roaring of the sea? Perhaps, because the cave between the house and the shore carried the sound of the waves until they seemed to be lapping at the sides of the place.
“These strange happenings began to make me nervous,” continued Florence, “but when nothing further happened, my usual composure returned. My brother left soon afterwards. On the day of his departure my daughter fell ill. The doctor was sent for, and when he called he said the child was in a dangerous condition. He gave us some medicine that had to be administered every half-hour. As nurse could not manage to give it herself, I had to go to help her.”
“At one o’clock in the morning I was just putting on my dressing-gown when I heard someone coming slowly up the stairs. I froze on the spot and felt the intense throbbing of my heart. The footsteps continued but at such a slow pace as to have barely sent the individual beyond the first flight. I tried to calm myself enough to venture out to the landing, and there I almost fainted with fear. For there, nearing the top of the stairs, I saw dimly a formless black shape. ”
“The thing crept along the opposite wall, then advanced swiftly, as if an omen of evil, to where I stood, then noiselessly drew back further into the shadow. My faintness was over, but as the figure stood not two feet from me, restlessly turning its head from side to side, for a minute I feared that the loud throbs of my heart would betray me. Then my courage returned and I determined that if the form moved towards me then I would turn around and run back to the room, slamming the door behind me and call out for the servants. For a moment the figure stood motionless. I took a step or two back but in that instant the figure appeared to turn, as if studying me. Then, as my thoughts once again turned to terror, it moved, transforming into something more grotesque, and now with cloak-like wings began gliding like a bat along the landing.”
“I thought I would be paralysed by terror but the fear only served to propel me towards the door. As I grappled feverishly for the handle, I felt a heated breath upon my neck and the movement of air as if it were fanned.”
“Inside the room, my hand still resting upon the handle, I could do nothing but stand still in silent terror, hardly able to believe what had just happened. Then, I heard the voice of one of the servants, and I recovered my senses and nervously called out to her.”
“I peered out to check that it was her before opening the door fully. She found me breathing heavily, and in a considerable state of shock but, despite this, I felt I should keep the story to myself.”
“The next day the doctor said he knew of a woman of mature years he could send to help us in the care of our child. When the woman arrived, she appeared much younger and was possessed with a vitality and vigour that I had not imagined from the description given by the physician. However, I was certain that she would not stay for long; for it was only a short time after our introduction, when I was sitting with her, that I heard once more the footsteps on the stairs. With this, I began to tremble violently – and then I fainted.”
“Curiously enough, I was the only one in the house who had heard these noises, but a night or two later, when my child was beginning to get better, the nurse rushed into my room with the girl in her arms. She fell on her knees and cried, ‘Don’t go down the stairs! There’s a dreadful old man there!'”
“A day later my husband returned. When I told him my story, he said he was going to solve the mystery. During the next few days he made very close and diligent investigations.”
“There was, as I have said, an underground tunnel between the sea and the house, and when my husband discovered this he decided to make the journey through the cave from the shore to the house. This we did together; but although both of us made our way right up to the cellar of the house, nothing happened.”
“But there were fresh horrors in store for us. That evening we paid another visit to the cellar. My candle was blown out by the wind, and I was about to apply a match to it when my husband whispered, ‘Don’t light it. There is enough light.'”
“I looked into the cellar, and a dreadful sight met my gaze. Enshrouded in a sickly jaundiced yellow glow were the eerie figures of a man and a woman, one of them the old man I had already seen. They were struggling fiercely. In his hand the old man held a dagger. His opponent weakened, and the dagger was plunged into her heart.”
“Only the presence of my husband kept me from shrieking aloud. He put his hand over my mouth. Then we watched the ghostly murderer throw his victim into the water — and then, with the colour draining from her cheeks, her eyes closing, I saw her face full and declared, sobbing, to my husband, with words torn from my throat through harsh ragged breaths, that I thought I knew her. It appeared to be the woman whom we had employed to look after our child!”
What was this dreadful mystery, the shadow of which had fallen upon their path?
“When we returned to the house the woman had disappeared. There was simply no trace of her or her belongings. Together we searched the house (I was in no fit state to roam the house alone) but we were unable to find any clues to her disappearance.”
“A few days later, the house having spent days and nights free of disturbance, the doctor called and asked after our child. We informed him that the girl was well. It was then that he apologised and told us that it was most unfortunate that the woman he had requested to assist us had been struck down by illness and had taken to her bed these past few days.”
“A spasm of fear gripped me and tightened in my chest like a knot; whilst my mind, reeling, conjured up pictures of something dreadful — who in God’s name had been looking after our child?”
It was a short time later when Mr and Mrs Duttine learned of the story attached to the house.
The woman who lived there several decades before was married to a violent brute, many years her senior. The man had molested his own daughter and it appeared not to be a single instance. One night he had arrived home intoxicated, and after a good deal of arguing with his wife he had left the room and gone upstairs. The woman, fearful for her daughter’s safety, followed him and, on the top landing, a vicious fight ensued. After threatening to call the police, she ran and her husband gave chase — following her down into the underground tunnel. One of the servants heard the couple arguing but decided it best not to intervene. At some distance along the tunnel, he had grabbed up a sharp instrument which was near, and rushing at his wife, stabbed her with such terrible force as to completely pierce her heart.
Thus it is a sad and piteous story, and one concluded best by the words of Mrs Duttine:—
“And, so, it was the ghost of the murderer that haunted the house. But before we left the place — for now we had no wish to stay, and mostly for the sake of my child — my husband came upon a dagger buried deep in the earth of the cellar. It was a Spanish stiletto, the very same weapon we had seen in the hands of the ghostly murderer. And it convinced us that what we had seen had been no product of our imagination, but an actual and visible, though ghostly, tragedy.”
However, it is the woman who had arrived at the house claiming to have been sent by the doctor that troubled her most:
“To this day, I have no real clue to who she was; but I am led to believe that though she was here for only a short time, she was here for a reason—”