Sunday, February 26, 2017

If you'll pull, I'll push: R.H. Malden's story The Sundial

….It was more by instinct than by any deliberate courage that I ran straight across the lawn towards him. He was gone in a flash, and when I came through the archway where he had stood he was hurrying down the side of the hedge towards the other. He moved with an odd shuffling gait, and I made sure that I should soon overtake him. But to my surprise I found that I did not gain much. His limping shuffle took him over the ground as fast as I could cover it. In fact, when I reached the point from which I had started I thought I had actually lost a little. When we came round for the second time there was no doubt about it. This was humiliating, but I persevered, relying now on superior stamina. But during the third circuit it suddenly flashed upon me that our positions had become reversed. I was no longer the pursuer. He--it----whatever the creature was, was now chasing me, and the distance between us was diminishing rapidly.





A superb audio version of Malden's story can be found here.

THE SUNDIAL

The following story came into my hands by pure chance. I had wandered into a second-hand book-shop in the neighbourhood of the Charing Cross Road and was about to leave it empty-handed. On a shelf near the door my eye fell upon a copy of Hacket's Scrinia Reserata solidly bound in leather, which I thought well worth the few shillings which the proprietor was willing to accept for it. It is not an easy book to come by, and is of real value to anyone who wants to understand certain aspects of English Church History during the first half of the seventeenth century.

When I opened the book at home a thickish wad of paper fell out. It proved to consist of several sheets of foolscap covered with writing. I have reproduced the contents word for word.

From the look of the paper I judged that it had been there for at least thirty years. The author had not signed it, and there was nothing to indicate to whom the book had belonged. I think I could make a guess at the neighbourhood to which the story relates, and if I am right it should not be difficult to identify the house and discover the name of the tenant. But as he seems to have wished to remain anonymous he shall do so, as far as I am concerned.

The form of the story suggests that he intended to publish it; probably in some magazine. As far as I know it has not been printed before.

I belong to one of the numerous middle-class English families which for several generations have followed various professions, with credit, but without ever attaining any very special distinction. In our own case India could almost claim us as hereditary bondsmen. For more than a century most of our men had made their way there, and had served John Company or the Crown in various capacities. One of my uncles had risen to be Legal Member of the Viceroy's Council. So when my own time came, to India I went--in the Civil Service--and there I lived for five and twenty years.
My career was neither more nor less adventurous than the average. The routine of my work was occasionally broken by experiences which would sound incredible to an English reader, and therefore need not be set down here. Just before the time came for my retirement a legacy made me a good deal better off than I had had any reason to expect to be. So upon my return to England I found that it would be possible for me to adopt the life of a country gentleman, upon a modest scale, but with the prospect of finding sufficient occupation and amusement.

I was never married, and had been too long out of England to have any very strong ties remaining. I was free to establish myself where I pleased, and the advertisements in the Field and Country Life offered houses of every description in every part of the kingdom. After much correspondence, and some fruitless journeys, I came upon one which seemed to satisfy my requirements. It lay about sixty miles north of London upon a main line of railway. That was an important point, as I was a Fellow of both the Asiatic and Historical Societies, and had long looked forward to attending their meetings regularly. As a boy I had known the neighbourhood slightly and had liked it, though it is not generally considered beautiful. There were two packs of hounds within reach, which could be followed with such a stable as I should be able to afford.

The house was an old one. It had been a good deal larger, but part had been battered down during the Civil War, when it was besieged by the Parliamentary troops, and never rebuilt. It belonged to one of the largest landowners in the county, whom I will call Lord Rye. It generally served as the dower-house of the family, but as there was at that moment no dowager Countess, and as Lord Rye himself was a young man, and both his sisters were married, it was not likely to be wanted for some time to come. It had been unoccupied for nearly two years. The last tenant, a retired doctor, had been found dead on the lawn at the bottom of the steps leading up to the garden door. His heart had been in a bad condition for some time past, so that his sudden death was not surprising; but the neighbouring village viewed the incident with some suspicion. One or two of the older people professed to remember traditions of 'trouble' there in former years.

This had made it difficult to get a caretaker, and as Lord Rye was anxious to let again he was willing to take an almost nominal rent. In fact his whole attitude suggested that I was doing him a favour by becoming his tenant. About five hundred acres of shooting generally went with the house, and I was glad to find that I could have them very cheaply.

I moved in at midsummer, and each day made me more and more pleased with my new surroundings.
After my years in India the garden was a particular source of delight to me; but I will not describe it more minutely than is necessary to make what follows intelligible. Behind the house was a good-sized lawn, flanked by shrubbery. On the far side, parallel with the house, ran a splendid yew hedge, nearly fifteen feet high and very thick. It came up to the shrubbery at either end, but was pierced by two archways about thirty yards apart, giving access to the flower-garden beyond. Almost in the middle of the lawn was an old tree stump, or what looked like one, some three feet high. Though covered with ivy it was not picturesque, and I told Lord Rye that I should like to take it up. 'Do by all means,' he said, 'I certainly should if I lived here. I believe poor Riley (the last tenant) intended to put a sundial there. I think it would look rather nice, don't you?'

This struck me as a good idea. I ordered a sundial from a well-known firm of heliological experts in Cockspur Street, and ordered the stump to be grubbed up as soon as it arrived.

One morning towards the end of September I woke unrefreshed after a night of troubled dreams. I could not recall them very distinctly, but I had seemed to be trying to lift a very heavy weight of some kind from the ground. But, before I could raise it, an overwhelming terror had taken hold of me--though I could not remember why--and I woke to find my forehead wet with perspiration. Each time I fell asleep again the dream repeated itself with mechanical regularity, though the details did not become any more distinct. So I was heartily glad it had become late enough to get up. The day was wet and chilly. I felt tired and unwell, and was, moreover, depressed by a vague sense of impending disaster. This was accentuated by a feeling that it lay within my power to avert the catastrophe, if only I could discover what it was.

In the afternoon the weather cleared, and I thought that a ride would do me good. I rode fairly hard for some distance, and it was past five o'clock before I had reached my own bounds'-ditch on my way home. At that particular place a small wood ran along the edge of my property for about a quarter of a mile. I was riding slowly down the outside, and was perhaps a hundred yards from the angle where I meant to turn it, when I noticed a man standing at the corner. The light was beginning to fail, and he was so close to the edge of the wood that at first I could not be sure whether it was a human figure, or only an oddly shaped tree-stump which I had never noticed before. But when I got a little nearer I saw that my first impression had been correct, and that it was a man. He seemed to be dressed like an ordinary agricultural labourer. He was standing absolutely still and seemed to be looking very intently in my direction. But he was shading his eyes with his hand, so that I could not make out his face. Before I had got close enough to make him out more definitely he turned suddenly and vanished round the corner of the wood. His movements were rapid: but he somehow gave the impression of being deformed, though in what precise respect I could not tell. Naturally my suspicions were stirred, so I put my horse to a canter. But when we had reached the corner he shied violently, and I had some difficulty in getting him to pass it. When we had got round, the mysterious man was nowhere to be seen. In front and on the left hand lay a very large stubble field, without a vestige of cover of any kind. I could see that he was not crossing it, and unless he had flown he could not have reached the other side.
On the right hand lay the ditch bounding the wood. As is usual in that country it was both wide and deep, and had some two or three feet of mud and water at the bottom. If the man had gone that way he had some very pressing reason for wishing to avoid me: and I could detect no trace of his passage at any point.
So there was nothing to be done but go home, and tell the policeman next day to keep his eyes open for any suspicious strangers. However, no attempts were made upon any of my belongings, and when October came my pheasants did not seem to have been unlawfully diminished.

October that year was stormy, and one Saturday night about the middle of the month it blew a regular gale. I lay awake long listening to the wind, and to all the confused sounds which fill an old house in stormy weather. Twice I seemed to hear footsteps in the passage. Once I could have almost sworn my door was cautiously opened and closed again. When at last I dropped off I was disturbed by a repetition of my former dream. But this time the details were rather more distinct. Again I was trying to lift a heavy weight from the ground: but now I knew that there was something hidden under it. What the concealed object might be I could not tell, but as I worked to bring it to light a feeling began to creep over me that I did not want to see it. This soon deepened into horror at the bare idea of seeing it: though I had still no notion what manner of thing it might be. Yet I could not abandon my task. So presently I found myself in the position of working hard to accomplish what I would have given the world to have left undone. At this point I woke, to find myself shaking with fright, and repeating aloud the apparently meaningless sentence--'If you'll pull, I'll push.'

I did not sleep for the rest of that night. Beside the noise of the storm the prospect of a repetition of that dream was quite enough to keep me awake. To add to my discomfort a verse from Ecclesiastes ran in my head with dismal persistence--'But if a man live many years and rejoice in them all, yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many.' Days of darkness seemed to be coming upon me now, and my mind was filled with vague alarm.

The next day was fine, and after Church I thought I would see how my fruit trees had fared during the night. The kitchen-garden was enclosed by a high brick wall. On the side nearest the house there were two doors, which were always kept locked on Sunday. In the wall opposite was a trap-door, about three feet square, giving on to a rather untidy piece of ground, partly orchard and partly waste. When I had unlocked the door I saw standing by the opposite wall the figure which I had seen at the corner of the wood. His neck was abnormally long, and so malformed that his head lolled sideways on to his right shoulder in a disgusting and almost inhuman fashion. He was bent almost double; and I think he was misshapen in some other respect as well. But of that I could not be certain. He raised his hand with what seemed to be a threatening gesture, then turned, and slipped through the trap-door with remarkable quickness. I was after him immediately, but on reaching the opposite wall received a shock which stopped me like a physical blow. The trap-door was shut and bolted on the inside. I tried to persuade myself that a violent slam might make the bolts shoot, but I knew that that was really impossible. I had to choose between two explanations. Either my visitor was a complete hallucination, or else he possessed the unusual power of being able to bolt a door upon the side on which he himself was not. The latter was upon the whole the more comforting, and--in view of some of my Indian experiences--the more probable, supposition.

After a little hesitation I opened the trap and, as there was nothing to be seen, got through it and went up to the top of the orchard, where the kennels lay. But neither of my dogs would follow the scent. When brought to the spot where his feet must have touched the ground they whined and showed every symptom of alarm. When I let go of their collars they hurried home in a way which showed plainly what they thought of the matter.

This seemed to dispose of the idea of hallucination, and, as before, there was nothing else to be done but await developments as patiently as I could. For the next fortnight nothing remarkable took place. I had my usual health and as near an approach to my usual spirits as could reasonably be expected. I had visitors for part of the time, but no one to whom I should have cared to confide the story at this stage. I was not molested further by day, and my dreams, though varied, were not alarming.

On the morning of the 31st I received a letter announcing that my sundial had been despatched, and it duly arrived in the course of the afternoon. It was heavy, so by the time we had got it out of the railway van and on to the lawn it was too late to place it in position that day. The men departed to drink my health, and I turned towards the house. Just as I reached the door I paused. A sensation--familiar to all men who are much alone--had come over me, and I felt as if I were being watched from behind. Usually the feeling can be dispelled by turning round. I did so, but on this occasion the sense that I was not alone merely increased. Of course the lawn was deserted, but I stood looking across it for a few moments, telling myself that I must not let my nerves play me tricks. Then I saw a face detach itself slowly from the darkness of the hedge at one side of the left-hand arch. For a few seconds it hung, horribly poised, in the middle of the opening like a mask suspended by an invisible thread. Then the body to which it belonged slid into the clear space, and I saw my acquaintance of the wood and kitchen-garden, this time sharply outlined against a saffron sky. There could be no mistaking his bowed form and distorted neck, but now his appearance was made additionally abominable by his expression. The yellow sunset light seemed to stream all round him, and showed me features convulsed with fury. He gnashed his teeth and clawed the air with both hands. I have never seen such a picture of impotent rage.

It was more by instinct than by any deliberate courage that I ran straight across the lawn towards him. He was gone in a flash, and when I came through the archway where he had stood he was hurrying down the side of the hedge towards the other. He moved with an odd shuffling gait, and I made sure that I should soon overtake him. But to my surprise I found that I did not gain much. His limping shuffle took him over the ground as fast as I could cover it. In fact, when I reached the point from which I had started I thought I had actually lost a little. When we came round for the second time there was no doubt about it. This was humiliating, but I persevered, relying now on superior stamina. But during the third circuit it suddenly flashed upon me that our positions had become reversed. I was no longer the pursuer. He--it----whatever the creature was, was now chasing me, and the distance between us was diminishing rapidly.
I am not ashamed to admit that my nerve failed completely. I believe I screamed aloud. I ran on stumblingly, helplessly, as one runs in a dream, knowing now that the creature behind was gaining at every stride. How long the chase lasted I do not know, but presently I could hear his irregular footstep close behind me, and a horrible dank breath played about the back of my neck. We were on the side towards the house when I looked up and saw my butler standing at the garden door, with a note in his hand. The sight of his prosaic form seemed to break the spell which had kept me running blindly round and round the hedge. I was almost exhausted, but I tore across the lawn, and fell in a heap at the bottom of the steps.
Parker was an ex-sergeant of Marines, which amounts to saying that he was incapable of surprise and qualified to cope with any practical emergency which could arise. He picked me up, helped me into the house, gave me a tumbler of brandy diluted with soda-water, and fortified himself with another, without saying a word. How much he saw, or what he thought of it, I could never learn, for all subsequent approaches to the question were parried with the evasive skill which seems to be the birthright of all them that go down to the sea in ships. But his general view of the situation is indicated by the fact that he sent for the Rector, not the doctor, and--as I learned afterwards--had a private conference with him before he left the house. Soon afterwards he joined the choir--or in his own phrase 'assisted with the singing in the chancel'--and for many months the village church had no more regular or vocal attendant.

The Rector heard my story gravely, and was by no means disposed to make light of it. Something similar had come his way once before, when he had had the charge of a parish on the Northumbrian Border. He was confident, he said, that no harm could come to me that night, if I remained indoors, and departed to look up some of his authorities on such subjects.
That night was noisy with wind, so the insistent knocking which I seemed to hear during the small hours at the garden-door and ground-floor windows, which were secured with outside shutters, may have had no existence outside my imagination. I had asked Parker to occupy a dressing-room opening out of my bedroom for the night. He seemed very ready to do so, but I do not think that he slept very much either. Early next morning the Rector reappeared, saying that he thought he had got a clue, though it was impossible to say yet how much it might be worth. He had brought with him the first volume of the parish register, and showed me the following note on the inside of the cover:

'October 31st, 1578. On this day Jn. Croxton a Poore Man hanged himself from a Beame within his House. He was a very stubborn Popish Recusant and ye manner of his Death was in accord with his whole Life. He was buried that evening at ye Cross Roades.'
'It is unfortunate,' continued the Rector, 'that we have no sixteenth-century map of the parish. But there is a map of 1759 which marks a hamlet at the cross-roads just outside your gate. The hamlet doesn't exist now--you know that the population hereabouts is much less than it used to be--but it used to be called New Cross. I think that must mean that these particular cross-roads are comparatively recent. Now this house is known to have been built between 1596 and 1602. The straight way from Farley to Abbotsholme would lie nearly across its site. I think, therefore, that the Elizabethan Lord Rye diverted the old road when he laid out his grounds. That would also account for the loop which the present road makes'--here he traced its course with his finger on the map which he had brought.

'Now I strongly suspect that your visitor was Mr. Croxton, and that he is buried somewhere in your grounds. If we could find the place I think we could keep him quiet for the future. But I am afraid that there is nothing to guide us.'

At this point Parker came in. 'Beg your pardon, Sir, but Hardman is wishful to speak to you. About that there bollard on the quarter-deck, Sir--stump on the lawn, I should have said, Sir--what you told him to put over the side.'

We went out, and found Hardman and the boy looking at a large hole in the lawn. By the side of it lay what we had taken for a tree stump. But it had never struck root there. It was a very solid wooden stake, some nine feet in length over all, with a sharp point. It had been driven some six feet into the ground, passing through a layer of rubble about three feet from the surface. At the bottom the hole widened, forming a large, and plainly artificial, cavity. The earth here looked as if it had been recently disturbed, but the condition of the stake showed that that was impossible. It was obvious to both of us that we had come upon Mr. Croxton's grave, at the original cross-roads, and that what had appeared to be a natural stump was really the stake which had been driven through it to keep him there. We did not, of course, take the gardeners into our confidence, but told them to leave the place for the present as it might contain some interesting antiques--presumably Roman--which we would get out carefully with our own hands.
We soon enlarged the shaft sufficiently to explore the cavity at the bottom. We had naturally expected to find a skeleton, or something of the sort, there, but we were disappointed. We could not discover the slightest vestige of bones or body, or of any dust except that of natural soil. Once while we were working we were startled by a harsh sound like the cry of a night-jar, apparently very close at hand. But whatever it was passed away very quickly, as if the creature which had made it was on the wing, and it was not repeated.

By the Rector's advice we went to the churchyard and brought away sufficient consecrated earth to fill up the cavity. The shaft was filled up, and the sundial securely planted on top of it. The pious mottoes with which it was adorned, according to custom, assumed for the first time a practical significance.
'It not infrequently happens,' said the Rector, 'that those who for any reason have not received full Christian Burial are unable, or unwilling, to remain quiet in their graves, particularly if the interment has been at all carelessly carried out in the first instance. They seem to be particularly active on or about the anniversary of their death in any year. The range of their activities is varied, and it would be difficult to define the nature of the power which animates them, or the source from which it is derived. But I incline to think that it is less their own personality than some force inherent in the earth itself, of which they become the vehicle. With the exception of Vampires (who are altogether sui generis and virtually unknown in this country), they can seldom do much direct physical harm. They operate indirectly by terrifying, but are commonly compelled to stop there. But it is always necessary for them to have free access to their graves. If that is obstructed in any way their power seems to lapse. That is why I think that their vitality is in some way bred of the earth: and I am sure that you won't be troubled with any more visits now.
'Our friend was afraid that your sundial would interfere with his convenience, and I think he was trying to frighten you into leaving the house. Of course, if your heart had been weak he might have disposed of you as he did of your unfortunate predecessor. His projection of himself into your dreams was part of his general plan: I incline to think, however, that it was an error of judgment, as it might have put you on your guard. But I very much doubt whether he could have inflicted any physical injury on you if he had caught you yesterday afternoon.'
'H'm,' said I, 'you might be right there. But I am very glad that I shall never know.'

Next day Parker asked for leave to go to London. He returned with a large picture representing King Solomon issuing directions to a corvée of demons of repellent aspect whom he had (according to a well-known Jewish legend) compelled to labour at the building of the Temple. This he proceeded to affix with drawing-pins to the inside of the pantry door. He called my attention to it particularly, and said that he had got it from a Jew whom he had known in Malta, who had recently opened a branch establishment in the Whitechapel Road. I ventured to make some comment on the singularity of the subject, but Parker was, as usual, impenetrable. 'Beggin' your pardon, Sir,' he said, 'there's some things what a civilian don't never 'ave no chance of learnin', not even if 'e 'ad the brains for it. I done my twenty-one years in the Service--in puris naturalibus all the time as the saying is--and' (pointing to the figure of the King) you may lay to it that that there man knew 'is business.'

In death undivided: L.T.C. Rolt's story Bosworth Summit Pound

….When the hearing was eventually resumed, Rebecca Grimsden's interruptions made matters worse, for she seemed to be labouring under the ghastly illusion that she was attending her daughter's nuptials. Together with other singular observations, which are not recorded, she kept reiterating that she had fulfilled her promise to provide her daughter with a bridegroom, an assertion which proved so disquieting that the coroner was compelled to order her removal from the court.







Bosworth Summit Pound


WITH THE EXCEPTION OF the lock-keepers in their lonely cottages by the Cold Bosworth and Canonshanger locks, and of the infrequent boatmen who navigate its narrow, tortuous course, very few people are familiar with the little-used North Midland section of the Great Central Canal. Many have crossed over it and perhaps caught a brief glimpse of its still, reed-fringed waters as they hurried northward by those great main road and rail routes which stride so arrogantly across the Midland Shires. Yet they are seldom sufficiently interested to enquire whither this forgotten water road leads. Again, antiquaries and those who make it their hobby to 'collect' village churches will be familiar with the splendid broach spire of St Peter's, Cold Bosworth, which, standing four-square to the winds of the wolds, is such a prominent local landmark. But when they stand in the nave to admire the remarkable fourteenth-century rood-screen or the delicate tracery of the clerestory windows, they do not realise that the waters of the Great Central Canal lie directly beneath their feet. In fact, the church of St Peter stands upon that great belt of limestone which extends from the Dorset coast to the Yorkshire border, and which here forms the central watershed of England. As a glance at a contoured map will show, the erosion of the small streams which may carry the rain-water from the church roof to the Humber, the Wash or the Bristol Channel has considerably narrowed the ridge at this point. Consequently it was here that the canal engineers decided to cut the watershed by a tunnel over a mile long. Just above the lock called Bosworth Top, and within a few hundred yards of the churchyard wall, the canal disappears underground, but as both lock and tunnel portal are hidden in the thick undergrowth of Bosworth wood, a stranger standing in the churchyard would be unaware of their existence.


Before he leaves the precincts of St Peter's, I would draw the visitor's attention to a tombstone standing on the north side of the churchyard. The stone itself is of no particular merit, while it bears no inscription to attract the eye of the collector of curious epitaphs. It may therefore easily escape notice. Although a frequent visitor to the church, I must confess that I never noticed it myself until my attention was drawn to it by Fawcett's story. It was then that I appreciated that the inscription, though simple, is, after all, somewhat singular. It reads:


Here lies the body of

MARY GRIMSDEN

of Canonshanger in this parish

Aged 25 years


Here lies also the body of

JOHN FORTESCUE LOFTHOUSE

of Coppice Farm, Cold Bosworth

Died 14th February 1841, aged 31 years

'In death they were not divided.'


The fact that the date of Mary Grimsden's death is not given might conceivably be due to an error on the part of the village mason, but that two ostensibly unrelated persons should be buried in a common grave and accorded an epitaph usually reserved for those who have enjoyed many years of conjugal felicity should strike the reflective as peculiar.


Henry Fawcett was one of those men who love 'messing about in boats', to use a popular phrase, and as he was a man of independent means with no domestic ties (he was a confirmed bachelor), he was able to indulge his passion to the full throughout his long lifetime. Although I accompanied him on several occasions, even I had no idea of the extent of his voyaging until, after his death, there came into my possession a number of manuscript volumes in which, minutely detailed in his cramped characteristic hand, he had kept a complete record of his travels. From this it appeared that there were few harbours in the Mediterranean or along the north-western seaboard of Europe with which he was not familiar. As may be imagined, the log recorded many adventures, some of them experiences that would have induced many less intrepid sailors to leave the sea for solid earth. There is thus something oddly ironical in the fact that a man who, single-handed, could ride out an equinoctial gale in the Bay of Biscay without a qualm should have been scared almost out of his wits on the narrow landlocked waters of the Great Central Canal at Cold Bosworth in the heart of the English Midlands.


It happened in 1932, on what was fated to be his last voyage. In the autumn of '28, Fawcett had returned to England a sick man. He lay in hospital all that winter and when at last he was able to get about again he realised bitterly that his sea-going days were over. But he would not leave the water. 'I shall have to stick to fresh water,' he told me ruefully. He sold his yawl Deirdre and bought one of those long, narrow canal-boats which he proceeded to convert into a comfortable motor-driven house-boat. The last time I saw him was during the winter of '31 when he had a snug berth on the Trent and Mersey Canal. He then seemed in good health and spirits, and told me of his intention to move south in the spring. I had no further news of him until the following June when I heard, with some surprise, that his boat, the Wildflower, was up for sale. A week or so afterwards I read the announcement of his death in The Times.


Because Fawcett recorded his last voyage in his usual scrupulous manner, and thanks to my intimate knowledge of the district, it has been easy for me to reconstruct the story of his experience at Cold Bosworth. He was accompanied by a friend unknown to me who is referred to in the log as Charles. The journey from the Trent and Mersey to the Great Central was accomplished in good weather and without any untoward incident, and a fine May morning found them beginning the long climb up the Canonshanger locks towards Cold Bosworth summit level. Charles, it appears, had to return to London for a couple of days on business, so it was agreed that when they reached a convenient mooring point, Fawcett should await his return. Because it is connected by branch line with Rugby, Cold Bosworth was selected. Fawcett consulted the lock-keeper at Canonshanger as to a convenient mooring and was advised to tie up below Bosworth Top Lock. By midday they had reached the summit, and here they paused for lunch before entering the tunnel.


Navigating a boat through a canal tunnel is always a strange experience, but Fawcett seems to have found the passage of Bosworth tunnel singularly unpleasant. Not only was the narrow cavern of crumbling brickwork as cold and dark as a vault after the warmth and brilliance of the May sunshine, but water streamed from the roof and descended in cascades from the chimneys of the ventilation shafts. He had the utmost difficulty in keeping a straight course, for the damp atmosphere exhaled an evil-smelling mist which obscured the farther end of the tunnel and rendered the headlight on the bow ineffective. All he could see ahead was a lambent white curtain, patterned confusingly with shifting shadows. At one moment he thought he saw Charles leaning dangerously over the gunwale at the bow, and called out, fearing he would strike his head against the tunnel wall. But Charles answered from the aft cabin close at hand and the shadow presently vanished.


At length, a wan disc of daylight appeared and they presently emerged from the mists into the bright sunlight of the short pound between the tunnel mouth and Bosworth Top Lock. The canal here is well sheltered by the slopes of Bosworth Wood. On the one hand, the trees grow down to the water's edge, but on the towing path side a narrow border of smooth, green turf intervenes. It looks an ideal mooring, and Fawcett wondered why the lock-keeper at Canonshanger should have advised him to lie below the lock. Not only did this appear less inviting, but it was farther from the village. His recommendation seemed even less explicable when, having brought the Wildflower alongside the bank, Charles discovered rusty mooring rings buried beneath the turf. Obviously it was here that, in the days of horse-drawn traffic, the horses were detached and led over the hill while the boats were laboriously 'legged' through the tunnel. Now the horse-path has become a little-used footway climbing up the wooded slope towards the village, and in places almost blinded by the thick undergrowth of briar and hazel. It was up this path that Charles set forth half an hour later, just in time to catch the afternoon train from that sleepy station called Cold Bosworth and Marborough Road.


Fawcett was too well accustomed to his own company to feel lonely or at a loss after the departure of his friend. When he had brewed himself a pot of tea he filled his pipe, got out his rod, and sat out on the deck fishing. Though he caught nothing he was well content, for the contemplation of his motionless float was little more than an excuse for the enjoyment of a fine evening. The westering sunlight threw golden, moted rays between trees resplendent with new leaf, and the wood was loud with birdsong. The smoke of Fawcett's pipe made a thin, blue column in the windless air. Yet when the sun left the wood and the shadows began to gather around the mouth of the tunnel it grew chilly and he went below. He cooked himself a liberal supper, wrote up the log for the day and then, with a sigh of contentment, turned in to his comfortable bunk. But for some unaccountable reason he was denied his customary sound sleep. After a fitful doze, during which he tossed and turned uneasily, he suddenly awoke to full consciousness, and the dawn was already breaking before he slept again. Two distracting sounds contributed to this wakefulness. One was a soft, recurrent thudding as though some resilient object, floating in the water, occasionally nudged the hull of the boat. The other was a faint but desolate wailing, rising and falling in mournful, irregular cadences and sounding, now close about the boat and now infinitely far off. It seemed to come from the direction of the tunnel, and though Fawcett could see through his cabin window a pattern of branches in motionless silhouette against the moonlight, he concluded it must be some trick of the wind blowing over the top of one of the ventilation shafts. With the aid of a boat-hook he might, he reflected, dispose of one of these disturbances at all events, yet for some reason he felt singularly disinclined to leave his bed. He excused himself upon the grounds that the night seemed to be remarkably cold for the time of the year.


The following day passed uneventfully. After his uncomfortable night, Fawcett slept late and consequently it was nearly noon when, breakfast disposed of, he set off for Cold Bosworth to replenish his stores at the village shop. On his return, he spent the rest of another glorious afternoon happily engaged upon the numerous small jobs which can always be found on a boat. Charles was due to return the following morning, and this was a good opportunity to get everything ship-shape before they continued their journey. Tomorrow there must be no lying late abed, so he turned in early, and this time fell almost immediately into a deep sleep.


Whether what followed was a dream or not must be left for the reader to judge. He suddenly found himself standing on the stern of the Wildflower and peering into the mouth of the tunnel. He had no idea why he was doing so or what he expected to see, for though the moon was bright the blackness of the tunnel was impenetrable. The night was calm and beautiful, the moon-silvered water reflecting dark arabesques of leaf and branch with mirror-like perfection. Yet somehow the whole scene seemed to have become charged with that sense of imminent terror which is the prelude of nightmare. Still he continued to stare wide-eyed into the blackness, seeing nothing and hearing only the hollow echoing plash of the water which dripped from the tunnel roof. But at length he perceived a thickening of the shadows beneath the curving abutment wall, and presently saw a figure, more shade than substance, move down to the margin to crouch and stare into the still water. It moved without sound, and only the face showed pale in the moonlight. For a time, the figure seemed to grope beside the water, and Fawcett knew, without knowing why he knew, that it sought for something which it feared to find. Then with a swift movement which suggested that it had been startled by some sound inaudible to Fawcett, the figure rose and turned to peer intently into the tunnel. It was at this moment that the feeling of ominous expectancy, which all this while had been gathering like a thunder-cloud in Fawcett's mind, suddenly assumed most hideous shape. Something rose out of the water; something monstrous that the reason most vehemently questioned, yet which possessed the semblance of human shape. Mercifully, it could not be clearly seen. The face, if face there was, seemed to be hidden by dark hair as by a veil, but the phosphorescence of corruption dimly suggested a nakedness of obscene distension. The dark watcher on the bank, with a gesture of despair, made to turn away, but stumbled. Upon the instant his fearful antagonist fell upon him with such lithe and intent purpose that the issue of the brief and soundless encounter was never in doubt, and soon the waters had closed over them both.


Now long before this, Fawcett should have awakened with a shout to find himself trembling and sweating in his bed. But he maintains that there was no awakening; that his fear gradually ebbed away until he realised that he was in truth shivering in his pyjamas on the aft deck of the Wildflower. I have little doubt that the physical and mental rigours of this experience were at least partly responsible for his early death, for there is no further entry in the log, and I conjecture that it was his friend Charles who took the Wildflower on to Horton Junction, where she lay until she was sold.


My recollection of Fawcett convinced me that he had experienced something more than a nightmare accompanied by a risky feat of somnambulism, and it was this conviction which took me to Cold Bosworth. I will not weary the reader with all the details of a search which took me from the lock-keeper at Canonshanger, through the dusty files of the Marborough Messenger, to the tomb in the churchyard to which I have already referred.


The lock-keeper at Canonshanger proved to be uncommunicative and sceptical, though he admitted that the summit pound east of the tunnel was said by the boatmen to be 'disturbed' and that on this account they would never tie up there.


Old Tom Okey at Bosworth locks, however, was more loquacious. 'They do say,' he vouchsafed, 'that summit be troubled by a chap what drownded hisself there a long time back,' and it was this observation which was really the starting-point of my research.


The story begins, not with 'the chap what drownded hisself,' but with Mary Grimsden. She lived with her widowed mother in a small cottage, pulled down many years ago, which stood on common land on the fringe of Canonshanger woods. They appear to have been of gypsy stock, and Rebecca Grimsden is described as a herbalist. From this and other references I gather that she must have been a formidable old woman who, had she lived in an earlier period, might well have suffered death as a witch. It seems that Mary took after her mother, but this did not prevent young John Lofthouse from falling a victim to her dark good looks. The Lofthouses were substantial yeoman farmers who had held Coppice Farm for generations, so that it is easy to understand why the infatuation of their heir with a cottager of doubtful antecedents and dubious occupation soon set tongues wagging. Eventually, news of the affair reached the ears of his family, and the young man, who by this time may have realised the extent of his folly, undertook to see his Mary no more. Yet rumour hinted that the girl was with child by young John and that she intended by this means to retaliate against her faithless lover and his family. But from this embarrassing eventuality the family of Lofthouse was spared by an unforeseen and surprising circumstance. At dusk on a fine evening in the August of 1840, Mary Grimsden walked out of the little cottage at Canonshanger and never returned. Despite a most extensive search, no trace of her could be found, and though he had forsworn her, it was remarked that John Lofthouse appeared to be deeply affected by her loss. Though old Rebecca Grimsden persisted that she had been the victim of foul play, the village seems to have come to the conclusion that Mary's gypsy blood had got the better of her.


Hardly had the talk aroused by this affair died down when, in February of the following year, on the night of the fourteenth to be exact, it found fresh and startling matter in the disappearance of John Lofthouse. But this time the mystery was soon solved. A local boatman, who had delivered a cargo of lime for Coppice Farm and was working late down the Bosworth locks, claimed to have seen on the tow-path the figure of 'young mister John' walking swiftly and alone in the direction of the tunnel. Acting upon the strength of this evidence, it was decided to drag the canal beginning at the east portal of the tunnel. This led, almost immediately, to a discovery of a most shocking nature. For not only was the body of John Lofthouse recovered, but entangled with it in the grappling irons was another. Because the latter had been long dead, it was unrecognisable, nor was it possible to determine the cause of death. Death in such a form is never pleasant to behold, but this discovery seems to have had a singularly disconcerting effect upon the beholders.


Though the canal had been dragged without result at the time of Mary's disappearance, Rebecca Grimsden identified a ring recovered with the body as having belonged to her daughter. Had it not subsequently been confirmed by other more reliable witnesses, it is doubtful if this evidence of identification would have been admissible for, to judge from her conduct at the inquest, the old woman was out of her mind. Usually grim enough, there is a peculiar quality of the macabre about the account of the proceedings at this inquest. In the first place, when ordered to view the bodies of the deceased, the jury were so affected that proceedings had to be suspended for a time. When the hearing was eventually resumed, Rebecca Grimsden's interruptions made matters worse, for she seemed to be labouring under the ghastly illusion that she was attending her daughter's nuptials. Together with other singular observations, which are not recorded, she kept reiterating that she had fulfilled her promise to provide her daughter with a bridegroom, an assertion which proved so disquieting that the coroner was compelled to order her removal from the court.


Despite evidence that John Lofthouse had become increasingly morose since Mary Grimsden's disappearance, an open verdict was returned in both cases, perhaps in deference to the feelings of the young man's family. Yet why that family should have consented to the burial of their son in a common grave with a gypsy girl, and why they caused to be erected over it so curious a memorial is not explained. I have formed my own conclusion which I prefer not to discuss.


While we shall never know what occurred on that sultry August night so long ago when Mary Grimsden disappeared, I may mention in conclusion a discovery of my own which I consider significant. I was exploring the wood which gives Coppice Farm its name when I came across a circular wall of old brickwork, and, upon investigation, found that it protected the mouth of one of the ventilation shafts of Bosworth tunnel. The wall was not so high that an active man might not thereby rid himself of a heavy and unwelcome burden, and as I leant over the parapet I could hear, as from a well, the drip of water far below.


I returned in the gathering dusk of that winter evening past the east portal of the tunnel and along the towing-path. The water looked black and was very still under the shadow of the trees. Though I would assure the reader that I am not a credulous man, I have to admit that I felt disinclined to stop and look about me, but hurried on, keeping as far as possible from the water's edge, and must confess to a feeling of profound relief when I reached the lower level below the top lock.


***


The Ash-Tree Press edition can be ordered here.

It contains a very useful introduction, and Rolt's own essay, "The Passing of the Ghost story," which has its own lovely tail stinger.