The old belfry stood apart from the church. An octagon-shaped building terminating in a squat, ungainly spire, it contained only two rooms. The room which occupied the whole of the ground floor was used as a lumber-room; the room above was known as the rope-room; a similar winding stair ran from the ground floor to a vault-like chamber below.
The older generation of bell-ringers had firmly believed the belfry to be haunted. No one had actually claimed to have seen the ghost, but when the subject was mentioned to one of them, he would look wise and shake his head with an expression that was meant to convey an idea that he knew something but would not tell. One man who, so it was said, could have told something definite if he wished, had recently taken leave of his senses and was no longer active in their circle.
None of the old bell-ringers would have ventured alone into the building after dark. Not one of them had ventured down the winding stairs that led to the vault below. Some of them may have been curious to know what it contained, or whether it contained anything, but their superstition overcame their curiosity. The younger men who had supplanted the older generation of bell-ringers laughed at the superstition of their predecessors. Still, not one of them displayed any curiosity to explore the recesses of the old building. They spent most of their time in the rope-room, and were apparently quite oblivious of the chamber underneath the building.
The belfry was an eerie, dismal old place even in the daytime. To those who understood such things, it was an ideal place for a ghost’s habitation. The exterior presented age-stained, weather-scarred walls; the interior was cheerless, barren and uninviting. There were long, narrow, stained-glass windows on the ground floor, and in the rope-room; but the glass was covered with dust, and the sunrays that succeeded in filtering through the dust-covered figures of saints, hardly dispersed the gloom of the place.
One New Year’s Eve, at eleven o’clock, a merry party of young men, all more or less expert campanologists, were seated on benches round the walls of the rope-room in the old belfry. They had taken part with the wild, unrestrained mob who paraded the city streets making the night hideous with blasts from tin trumpets and shrieking whistles, and indulging in rough horse-play. They had also imbibed pretty freely, and were waiting to usher in the New Year with merry peals from the bells.
As they passed a wine bottle round they sang a discordant dirge for the parting year, and laughed uproariously at what they thought to be the quaint humour of it. Though young in years, these men were experienced ropers, and their potations seemed to have taken little effect on them. To them “the ringing in of the New Year” was a huge joke, and they passed many ribald jokes concerning it.
One of that merry company, John Grieves, who was younger and less experienced than his companions, had mixed his drinks unwisely before coming to the belfry, and was consequently in a state of half-stupid, maudlin inebriety. Unnoticed by the others he took a candle, left the rope-room and staggered down the winding stairs. When he reached the ground floor he struck a match, lit his candle and, muttering incoherently to himself, sought the steps that led to the vault below. His muddled brain had conceived the idea of doing what he would never have thought of doing in his sober state, even in broad daylight. He had decided to explore the mysterious chamber.
He stumbled down the stone steps and reached a small landing. Pushing open a heavy door, which creaked dismally on its rusty hinges, he entered the vault. The place was empty. It was a square cell with a flagged floor. The walls were dry but covered with a thick layer of dust and cobwebs; the floor appeared to have been swept recently.
Although the night was mild, the place exuding a musty, earthly smell, seemed as cold as death. Grieves uttered a fatuous laugh, muttered something to himself and was about to return to his companions when a sudden draught of ice-cold air extinguished his candle. He took a step forward, his toe caught in something, and he stumbled and fell. After several vain attempts to rise and much incoherent expostulation, in snuggled in close to the cold, dusty stone wall and fell asleep.
The he dreamed. He sat in the vault in inky darkness, why he was there or how he came there he did not know. Heavy footsteps sounded on the stone steps, and two monks in black habits and cowls entered the chamber. One of them carried a lantern and stood near the door. They did not appear to notice Grieves, and he cowered closer to the wall out of the reach of the rays of the lantern. The monk advanced to the centre of the floor and, pushing an iron bar through one of the large flags, lifted it and disclosed a square hole. Quaking with fear, John Grieves watched with fascinated eyes. The monks descended through the opening in the pavement. He could hear the scraping sound of their feet descending a ladder. He sat still for several moments wondering what would happen next. He could hear the murmur of voices, but could not distinguish the words. The voices ceased. Then came the thud of a pick, followed by the unmistakable sound of a shovel throwing up earth.
Impelled by an irresistible curiosity, which overcame his fear, he crawled to the opening and peered below. He saw one of the monks digging a hole in the soft ground floor of what appeared to be a cellar. The other, by the feeble light of the lantern, examined the emaciated, ghastly face of a corpse clad in a monk’s habit. Fearing they might look up and see him, John Grieves crept back and cowered against the wall. After a time, the sound of the pick and shovel ceased. Again he heard the murmur of voices. Then came a dull thud, as though some heavy body had fallen on soft earth. John Grieves shivered. He knew the monks had thrown the corpse into the hole they had dug. For a few seconds all was quiet again. The silence was broken by the sound of a voice clear and distinct. “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,” it said. “Et lux perpetua luceat eis,” another voice responded.
John Grieves realised the monks were reciting a burial service over the corpse—over their dead brother. He heard the “Pater Noster” and other prayers recited, and the thud of the earth and the scraping sound of the shovel as they filled the grave. Then he woke, turned over, made some incoherent remark, and went to sleep again. The clang of the bells when the hour of midnight struck failed to wake him. Long after they had ceased to ring he woke again. He had a vague consciousness that something very cold and damp had brushed his face. He rubbed his eyes, and stretched himself. Some seconds passed before he realised where he was, but he had not the remotest idea how he came there. He fumbled in his pockets, found a match, lit it, and recovered his candle. The wick spluttered for a second, and then burned brightly. His dream came back vividly to his mind. He examined the flags that composed the floor of the chamber, but could not find the trace of an iron ring in any one of them. He was sobered now and full of apprehension, but he could not withdraw his fascinated eyes from the floor.
It was then a flag in the centre of the room began to rise, inch by inch with unfaltering and terrifying progress. Finally, it assumed the perpendicular and then fell back, making no sound, and disclosed a square opening. A monk, clad in a black, earth-stained habit and cowl, slowly emerged from the aperture. His parchment-like skin was drawn tight over the bones of his fleshless face; he carried a wooden crucifix in his hands; his eyes, glowing strangely and sunk deep in their hollow orbits, were fixed on the figure of the crucifix. His white lips drawn over the teeth moved, but no sound came from them. John Grieves knew he was praying.
He went to the door and passed out. John, fascinated, involuntarily followed him. The monk went slowly up the winding stone stairs, passed across the room on the ground floor, and ascended the steps to the rope-room. He went straight to the rope that hung from the tenor bell. He placed the crucifix carefully in his girdle, and, taking hold of the rope, pulled it. John Grieves, with bulging eyes and mouth agape, watched the slack of the rope glide up through the hole in the wooden ceiling like a sinuous snake, but no sound followed. The big bell did not ring. After an interval of several seconds the monk pulled the rope again. He was ringing a passing bell! Ringing it for himself, but no sound came from the bell above.
John Grieves did not wait to see any more. He ran down the stone steps, and finding the door leading to the street ajar, he rushed out and slammed it after him. He never ran faster in his life than he ran from the belfry to his home on that New Year’s morning. He could never be induced to go near the place afterwards, not even in the daytime.
A week later a priest was surprised to receive an envelope containing two sovereigns and a note requesting him to say masses for the repose of the soul of an unknown monk.
John Grieves kept what he had seen a close secret until some years after when, near to the church, he passed a procession of monks, heads cowled and bowed, when the last had straightened his neck to reveal a familiar face.
That very same day, the belfry was destroyed by fire.