Having just spent a wonderful week in Cornwall, seeking out its darker corners, I have been inspired to write about this ancient kingdom and its ghosts and legends. Here is the first tale – one of Cornish men and the spectres that haunt them…
Do you believe in ghosts? Or are you one of those fortunate persons who have no fear of the unseen? Or, again, do you belong to the great majority, who keep an open mind, but who like to feel on certain occasions that, after all, just round the corner, in the mysterious darkness, something might happen? …
I believe in ghosts, and not only on Christmas Eve and other occasions much celebrated. For it was on a perfect summer evening, in July, 1911, tranquil and moonlit, that the astounding experience befell me which the editor of the “Weekly Chronicle” has requested me to relate.
I was staying in Cornwall with an old Cambridge friend, who had taken Orders. I had been living a delightful, care-free existence in the open air, bathing and playing tennis, in fact, doing everything but think of ghosts.
Then, one night, at dinner, the conversation turned, as it so often does, to the psychic, and the usual discussion took place. John, my Cambridge friend, had been reading stories by MR James, and was still deeply affected by the impression they had made on him. His brother, Philip, a clever, cool-headed young man, who was spending his long vacation at home, openly scoffed at his foolishness, and a keen argument took place.
Finally, John leaned forward and said: “Well, we have an opportunity of testing all these theories.”
I asked him what he meant.
And then he explained. Not a mile away, on the farthest side of the hill, standing off the road in a desolate and overgrown garden, was a house, which I had often noticed. We will call it Buke Court (not its correct name). This house had been empty for years. It had an evil reputation. Grass had grown thick on the deserted drive, bats had built their nests in the blank windows, the roof had fallen in making the top floor unapproachable. But no workmen would venture to repair the roof, and, though the house was for sale, no tenant could be found for it.
“Why not go there, and see, and test for yourselves?”
The question came from Philip, who did not believe anything he had not thoroughly tested for himself. And something in his tone of cool scepticism made me feel that I should like to take him at his word.
And so it came that eventually, at about 10 o’clock, we set out. The night was very still, with that luxuriant beauty that one associates with a Cornish midsummer.
We must have looked a strange trio as we walked along the lonely road — John with a candle and matches in his hand and a crucifix in his pocket, Philip swinging a stick and whistling a familiar tune, myself wondering what was in store for us.
“Here we are,” said John, after we had been walking about twenty minutes.
I shall never forget the strange and sinister appearance of that house. It stood back from the road in a garden tangled with undergrowth, the plaster was falling from the walls, and not even the moonlight could give any glamour to its gaunt nakedness.
To enter the house it was necessary to climb a high gate, to go down some steep area steps, and to skirt the outside until one arrived at the front. It was then possible to enter by means of a window giving into the basement.
This we accomplished. The window was old and without a sash, and I remember that John decided to prop it up with a stick, “in case anyone wants to come out in a hurry.” It was lucky that he did so.
We stepped into the basement, John holding the candle. Never was there such a scene of desolation. Plaster had fallen from the ceiling, and the floor was littered with rubble, so that it was impossible to move one’s foot even an inch without waking the echoes — a point I would ask you to remember.
“This way,” said John, pointing to the stairs. We went up the stairs, which were rickety, but safe, and found ourselves in a large hall.
Our first plan was to examine the house thoroughly. It was right at the beginning of this examination that what I may term the prelude to the adventure took place. We had been to the front room, and had looked over every nook and cranny, Philip keeping up a running fire of conversation, which was in some ways was rather comforting. And then suddenly he stopped. I looked at him. His face was dead white, and over part of it there seemed to be creeping a shadow. Then he spoke, in a blank, expressionless voice:—
“The candle — quick, the candle.” And he staggered down the stairs. We found him in a state of collapse outside.
This is John’s account, which he has written for me:—
“To tell the honest truth I was bored with the whole proceeding. I did not believe in psychic phenomena, and considered it foolish to waste a wonderful evening in tramping round an old house. And so, when we started to examine the rooms, I admit I treated the whole thing as a joke.”
“When we came out into the hall, I was thinking, to be quite precise, of the geology of the rock field I was studying at the moment. Then suddenly I felt what I can only describe as an anaesthetic. I have had several operations for my throat in the past, and each one has always affected me in precisely the same way. That is to say a black film has gradually stolen over my brain, from left to right. The right half of my brain remains active to the last; the left is gradually paralysed.”
“To the smallest detail this was what happened then. It was so sudden that it took me completely by surprise. I had just enough presence of mind to get out before I collapsed. For I knew that the whole trouble came from a small room on the right down the corridor at the end of the hall.”
“I have no explanations to offer.”
That is the account of Philip, the confirmed sceptic.
Naturally, after what had happened, we felt trepidation about leaving Philip. However, he affirmed after a few minutes that he felt perfectly all right, “as long as he remained in the garden.” Nothing would induce him to go back to the house.
John and I returned with the candle, in order to search the house from top to bottom. This we did with absolute thoroughness. Not a cupboard, not a crack in the wall escaped us. We paid particular attention to the little room from which Philip said the evil influence emanated. It was bare and desolate, with a few shreds of dirty green paper hanging from the walls.
We therefore went out again, empty handed. Then I determined, by what irresistible force I did not know, to return. Something called me. Philip’s experience had made me feel that, after all, there were things to discover in that house. On the other hand, John, I imagined, whether on account of his mentality or on account of the crucifix which he carried, was not a good subject.
Of course, they endeavoured to dissuade me. However, I persisted, and it was arranged that I should whistle from time to time to show that I was still alive, and that they should whistle back.
I took the candle, and gingerly climbed back through the window. I admit that I felt a little creepy as I ascended the silent stairs and heard the voices of my friends drift farther and farther away. But, as I entered the hall, a broken patch of moonlight fell on the floor through the cracked roof, and reminded me of the sane, wholesome world outside.
I should here point out that not only was the house empty (our search had been meticulous) but that there was no possibility of anybody entering it without passing John and Philip, and, in any case, without making considerable noise on the rubbled floor.
I sat down at the bottom of the stairs— it was the only place to sit—and waited. There was absolute silence. Opposite me were the two large front rooms, and to the right of them a corridor which led to the small room from which I had felt all the evil influences coming. The door of the room, which was some 20 feet away, I watched intently.
I buried my head in my hands, and fell to wondering what type of people had inhabited this strange house in the past. Weird tales ran through my brain of some of the things which had been seen here, which John had told me as we walked along; the tales of a strange man who had been the last tenant, and who had never ventured outside, but had taken in provisions through the door with his white hands — long, thin, with fingers pale as death. And how those hands had been seen on the wall, tapping — tapping…
I pulled myself together and thought of more cheerful things. I whistled again, the echoes resounding shrilly against the cold walls. From outside came the answering whistle. That reassured me, and I turned my attention again to the little room.
Suddenly I felt that all was not well. Somebody, something was trying to make me go away. The air was charged with a hostile influence. I knew I was not wanted. And I knew that the force came from the little room with the open door down the corridor which I was watching.
I leant forward, and looked into the semidarkness. As I looked, I felt, as though it were a keen wind, this influence growing stronger and stronger. I summoned every effort of will power, and tried to rise to my feet.
It happened. Out of the door, down the dark passage, something rushed, like an immense bat, towards me. I say something, because in the few seconds in which the episode lasted, I had no time to see clearly. It was black from head to foot, and it seemed to be built in the form of a very powerful man. But two things made me know that it was no human being that sprang towards me. First, I could see no face. There was just a hideous blank, that was all. And secondly, though it came with huge leaps over the rough, rubbled floor, it made no noise. There was absolute silence all the time.
Now, I am not a small man. As a matter of fact, I am six feet two in my socks, and I think I may say that I am built in proportion to my size. Moreover, I was in the best of condition and seated as I was in a defensive position. I think I may say that it would have taken a pretty powerful man to knock me over.
But when this thing dashed out, I was struck backwards with an irresistible force. And, as I fell, I felt a sensation of incredible evil, as though the forces of hell were conspiring against me. And with it something warm, not physically warm, but with a psychic warmth that cloyed and enveloped.
The rest is told in a few words. For a moment the whole world was blank, and then I found myself fighting, struggling with I know not what down the steep stairs. Who or what it was – if it was one, or two, or a dozen – I do not know. All I know is that I saw nothing, and that I just managed to fight my way outside, where I sank down on to the grass.
The rest is best told by John, from whose written narrative I quote.
“When Mr. Greeley first went into the house, we naturally felt somewhat anxious as to what would happen. After all, he was our guest, and, after my brother’s experience, I did not feel that I was justified in letting him go in alone. However, when he whistled, I felt reassured. I whistled back, and waited with interest, but without fear.”
“I think about a quarter of an hour must have passed without anything uncanny happening. I was just about to turn to my brother to suggest that we should call him back and go home, when something so extraordinary happened that I must narrate it in detail.”
“The night was absolutely windless. That is an important point. I noticed that a tall belt of poplar trees at the end of the garden were without movement of any sort. It therefore follows that what we heard and felt was, whatever else it may have been, not wind.”
“With absolute suddenness, sweeping over our heads, something came. I could not call it a wind, though I felt it. I could not call it a noise, though there was in one’s ears sensation of rushing. A second afterwards there came from the house one of the most terrible cries I have ever imagined as though somebody had been violently stabbed in the back. It was Mr Greeley’s voice, and was followed by the sound of a heavy crash.”
“Aghast, I turned to my brother, who rushed to the entrance. Then we realised that we could not get in, for the place was pitch dark, and so blocked up that it was quite impossible to force an entry. A cloud had drifted over the moon, and it was impossible to find our way through the wreckage of the basement without a candle.”
“We therefore ran at full speed to the neighbouring house, whose tenants I fortunately knew, in order to obtain a light. As we vaulted the gate, the whole house resounded with violent shocks and shouts.
“We secured the candle, and tore back. The noise in the house was indescribable. And then it suddenly ceased, and we saw Mr. Greeley advancing towards us, covered with dirt and plaster.”
I offer no explanation for this story beyond saying that it is true in every detail. However, the following point may be of interest:
That evening, when I returned to the house of my friend, whilst taking off my jacket and placing it upon the back of a chair, I noticed something slip from the inside pocket. Examining it, I found it to be a photograph — dusty, with ageing grey edges — but one I had not knowingly placed there. I do not want to describe it fully, for it is not something that one wishes to dwell upon, except to say that the room pictured in the photograph was the same one that had announced its intentions whilst I stood within its shadow. And, at its centre, seated on a chair, a man stretched forward and bent over his knees; his hands, the fingers splayed apart, resting upon the floor, whilst around him, candles shining brightly; and upon him, something resting, nestled in the small of his back — the wiry head of a ram, its horns gleaming in the light. At the periphery, though swallowed by the gloom, it was possible to make out arms and legs — tens of them, wrapped together, entirely divorced from their bodies — oh so many limbs….