“The room that I was now given was a dim little triangular room in the west wing of the house. It could only be reached by crossing the ‘picture-gallery’, or by climbing a little flight of stairs which led directly upward from the low-browed arch of a door that opened into the garden area. There was one more room on the same landing, but it was used mainly to house broken furniture, old toys, and bits of timber that had accumulate over the years. As for the room in which I was to sleep for the next few nights there were tapestries on the wall, with old, faded green velvet curtains, , fresh clothes on the bed, which had been hurriedly made, and quite oddly a new carpet. The furniture in the room was half old and half new, and on the dressing-table stood a very old oval mirror, in a frame of black ebony. It is many years ago now, but my memory of that night is so good that I will never forget one detail of it.
“Every Christmas several local girls were hired to act as maids for the guests that had been invited to our home. That short winter’s day had drawn to a close and the maids busied themselves with the large number of guests, who were very much looking forward to a Christmas feast and party. A large variety of traditional yuletide foods was served to them and, after dinner, a large number of guests gathered together in the huge drawing-room, in which a great wood-fire blazed in the ornate marble hearth. Among the crowd were, of course, the old, hard-riding, hard-drinking men of the fox-hunting clique, mumbling to each other over their port in the dining-room, and father was obliged to remain with them. The ladies and all the younger gentlemen, in the meantime, were all together in the drawing-room. Some of these had been invited to spend the night at our house, while others would have to make their own way home in the early hours, navigating narrow, dark and lonely country roads.
“Roger was at the gathering, of course, and he sat by my side. It was well known by everyone that we were engaged and were only waiting until the spring came so we could marry. My sisters were not very far away, and they seemed to have found handsome men whose hearts were very responsive to them. I could see the eyes of those men sparkle and soften as they met these young, attractive women. They were full of the joys of youth, innocent and very loving young ladies to whom the young gentlemen wanted to converse.
“The drawing room was large and lofty, with an arched roof that had somewhat sombre character, caused by the polished black oak features. On the walls hung ornate mirrors and many beautiful paintings, and the room was filled with tasteful furniture, a marble chimney-piece, and a large, colourful carpet. Many lights were burning, but in a forlorn hope of brightening the dark walls and roof. But, the black oak just appeared to ingest the rays of light like the mouth of a huge cave. A searchlight might have had serious difficulty in giving that room a cheerful glow of a modern drawing room. The gloomy richness of the panels, however, matched well with the ruddy gleam from the enormous wood-fire in which, crackling and glowing, lay the mighty Yule log.
“There was a blood-red lustre from the fire, reflected off the walls and roof. I was with a large group of the young people gathered around the antique hearth in a wide circle. The light from the fire, candles, and bulbs fell upon each of our faces though not on all equally, for some preferred to stay in the shadow of another. I remember still how tall, manly and handsome Roger looked that night. He was at least a head taller than any other person in the drawing room, and full of high spirits and fun. I must admit that I too was in the highest of spirits, and the rest the rest of our company joined in our joyous mood. All, that is, except for one.
“Lady Hurst was dressed in grey silk and was wearing a quaint head-dress. She was sitting in a big, comfortable armchair, facing the fire, very quiet, with her hands and her sharp chin propped on a sort of ivory-handled stick that she used because she was lame. All the while the old woman was peering at me with half-closed eyes. She was a small, old, and had very delicate features. The grey silk dress, her spotless lace, old-fashioned jewellery, and her overall neatness in appearance, were well suited to the intelligent face, with its thin lips, and eyes of a piercing black that were undimmed by age. But, in spite of my high spirited mood, those eyes made me feel uncomfortable as they appeared to follow my every movement around the room. Still, I tried hard to be both merry and happy, even to the point where my own sisters began to wonder what come over me. my ever-ready mirth, which was almost wild in its excess. Nevertheless, Lady Hurst’s eyes did make a disagreeable impression upon me and others quickly began to notice her scrutinising, but they put it down to her eccentricity.
“That disagreeable impression lasted only a few moments I was more pleasantly distracted. My aunt now began to take part in the conversation that was happening and we found ourselves listening to a weird legend. The old lady was a good teller of stories, and one tale would, naturally, lead to another.
“Everyone in the room was called upon to contribute to the entertainment, and each story contained some form of demonology and witchcraft. It was, after all, Christmas and the season for such tales to be told. The old drawing room, with its dusky walls was the perfect place to relate stories like these. The huge logs were crackling in the hearth and burned with a warm glow. The blood-red glare of the ‘Yule log’ reflected on the faces of storyteller and listeners alike, on paintings and the holly wreaths wrapped about their frames. It is no wonder, in the shimmering lustre of an ominously ruddy hue upon the oaken panels that the ghost and goblin stories took on a life of their own. As the tales unfolded the blood of the more timid grew chill and curdled. They felt their flesh creep while their hearts beat irregularly. The young ladies peeped fearfully over their shoulders and huddled close together like frightened sheep, believing that some impish and malignant face was cackling at them from the dark corners of the old room.
“By degrees my high spirits began to die out, and I started those childish tremors that I long thought I had left behind. I listened intently to each story as it was told, but I never asked myself if I believed in the authenticity of such dismal tales. A fear grew on me, like a child left alone in the nursery and menaced by variously shaped dark shadows. I am sure that most of ladies that were present in the room, both young and middle-aged, were affected in a variety of ways by the wild and fantastic characters in these tales. Those fears and tremors would die out with the first light of a new day, when the bright sun would shine again on the frost covered grass and tree branches and was reflected by the rich red berries and glossy green spiked holly leaves. This form of entertainment soon ended, however, as my father and the older men returned into our midst. No one was courageous enough to relate such tales when these hard-headed, unimaginative men, returned, because they scorned such idle legends and superstitions.
“The previous quiet that had prevailed now disappeared, to make way for quite a bit of stir and bustle. There was tea, coffee, and other refreshments being served as some played piano and others sang. Roger and I sang a duet together. He had a very fine voice and good musical skills that carried me through the song. Surprisingly my singing was praised for its power and pathos. At the same time, I heard one lady say to another that I was by far the cleverest of my father’s daughters, as well as being the prettiest. Such compliments, however, did not make me vain since there was absolutely no competition between myself and my sisters. Roger whispered some soft, loving words in my ear as he put on his coat and got into the taxi to bring him home. It was now time for shawls, coats and other apparel to be called for as various vehicles rolled up to the porch of the house, and the guests gradually began to make their way home. At last there was no one left in the house but those who were staying the night there. Then I noticed my father, with a look of great annoyance evident on his face.
“”I have just been told a very strange story,” I heard him say, “One of the tenant farmers has just informed me that we have lost four of best ewes that we have been rearing on his land. It was that new flock that arrived at the end of October and the poor man says that they have been killed in a very strange way, with their carcasses having been torn to pieces and horribly mangled.”
“There was a collective sound of shock in the room when this news was revealed. Some of the younger men suggested that the culprit could very well have been a vicious dog. “It would seem so,” said father, “it would appear to be the work of a very vicious dog, and yet there is no dog fitting that description in this area. There are only sheepdogs and sporting dogs, all of which are well secured in yards. But, the sheep have been gnawed and bitten, because they show the marks of teeth distinctly. Some creature has done this thing, and torn those bodies apart like a wolf would. The mystery is that very little, or no, flesh has been taken from any of the bodies and that the attack was apparently made just to suck the blood from the sheep.”
“Heavens above!” was one excited cry when this news was revealed. Then one of the men recalled having heard that dogs could become addicted to sheep- killing and even wipe out an entire flock. “They say that the sight that is left to us is one of complete wantonness, scarcely waiting even a moment to taste a single morsel of flesh.”
“My father shook his head. “I also have heard of such cases,” he said, “but in this case I think that this might be the work of some unknown enemy. The teeth of a dog have been busy, of that there is no doubt, but these poor sheep have been mutilated in a very unusual manner that was as strange as it was horrible. The hearts of the animals have been torn out, and left several feet away from the carcasses, half- gnawed. The men, moreover, insist that they discovered the print of a naked human foot in the soft mud of the ditch. Near to it, this was found.” And he held up what appeared to be a broken link of a rusted iron chain.
“These revelations brought more exclamations of wonder and alarm, as well as many more suggestions, none of which appeared to have a bearing on the case. Then, when my father went on to say that two lambs of the same valuable breed had been killed in the same manner three days previously, there were further loud exclamations. All the while Lady Hurst had listened very calmly, but joined in none of our exclamations. Finally, she spoke to my father, “Try to remember if you have you any enemies among your neighbours?”
“My father gave her a puzzled look and frowned heavily at her. “Not one that I know of,” he replied, confident that he was a popular and kind man.
“Then, you are indeed a lucky man,” said the old woman, with one of her grim smiles.
“The hour was now very late, one-by-one we went off to our rooms to rest. Unfortunately, I was the family who was selected to escort old Lady Hurst to her room, the room I had vacated for her to use. It was not a task that I was fond of, because I did not like her much, godmother or not. My aunts, however, insisted that I should ingratiate myself with a woman who had as much money as she had, in case she might leave to a favourite such as might become. The old lady hobbled up the broad oaken stairs using both my arm her ivory crutch as props. When we reached the door to the room I opened it and led her into the brightly furnished room, which had a warm fire, glowing in the hearth. “This is a very nice room, dear,” she said as she looked around her new surroundings, “I should thank you, since I have been told that you have given it up to me.”
“All I could do was to smile at her compliment. “But, My dear, I sure you’ll be sorry for your generosity to me, when you consider the strange bedchamber that you have been given, especially after all those ghost stories that were told. Yes?” the old lady added. I simply shrugged this off, telling her that I didn’t believe in such things.
“Where have they put you, child?” she asked, “in some little mouse-hole in the turrets, or in a glory hole somewhere else to sleep among the discarded things of the house. You need not try to be so brave, for I can hear your heart pounding with fear at this moment. I don’t think should be alone tonight.”
“Calling up every ounce of my pride, I tried to laugh off her doubts about my courage. Deep inside my own mind, however, I realised there was quite a lot of truth in what she had said. “Is there anything more that I can get for you, Lady Hurst?” I asked her, while trying to trying to pretend to yawn in the hope that she would see that I was already very sleepy.
“There was to be no such luck for me, because the old woman’s eyes stared directly at me. “You know my dear, I rather like you,” she said, “I also liked your mother well enough before she treated me so shamefully about the christening dinner. Now, dear, I know you are frightened and fearful, and if some bird should even flutter at your window to-night, it just might drive you into hysterics. There is a lovely little sofa-bed over there which can be quickly made up for you, and you can sleep there snugly, under the old witch’s protection. Rest assured no creature will harm you, and no one will be any bit the wiser, or mock you for being afraid.” It was my chance to accept her kind offer, and if I had only known what would happen I might have said “Yes”. Unfortunately, none of us can see into the future with any sense of certainty.