The Christmas Horror I

Part I

XMAS 1I would like to relate here a tale of horror that occurred over one hundred years ago to a family, for whom members of my family worked. Those directly affected by the events of that Christmas season openly spoke about them to my distant relations, who recorded them and their story is related here as a warning to us all.

“I was only nineteen years of age when an incident occurred that, unfortunately, has thrown a dark shadow across my life since that time. My days and my years have dragged by since that time, and I have been worn out by it all. In the years before the incident I was a young and happy teenager, and much loved by my parents. I was once very much complimented on possessing a fine complexion and very attractive features. Now, when I look at myself in a mirror, my eyes are filled with the reflection of an old, haggard woman, with ashen coloured lips and a face that has the look of death about it.

“Despite what you might think, I am not complaining or lamenting the fact that I have grown old. But, it was not simply the passing of years that has brought me to such a sorrowful condition, a wreck of my former self. If it had been this alone, in fact, I could have accepted the result more cheerfully, in the knowledge that we all must grow older. In my case, however, it was not the natural progress of passing years that actually robbed me of my bloom of youth, of the hopes and joys of my life, and causing the heartbreak that would leave me doomed to suffer a lonely old age. Although I try hard to be patient with my lot, the concerns and worries of life are like a heavy weight, bearing me down. My heart is completely shattered, empty of any emotion, and so weary of life that I now long for the peace of a death that comes so slowly to those who pray for it.

“Your appetite has probably been whetted now to discover what terrible event has brought me to this condition. The time has come for me, then, to try and relate that terrible event in my life, exactly as it happened. Even though the event which blighted my life occurred many years ago, I cannot forget even the smallest detail of that time.  That incident in my life has been placed into my brain and my heart as if seared there by the heat of a red-hot branding iron. Every millisecond of that time I can see in the wrinkles that cover my brow, and in the whiteness of my dying hair. In my youth that same hair was a glossy brown once, and it shone brightly with the life that was in it and within me.  But my hair did not gradually change from brown to grey, or from grey to white in any natural manner. It was not at all like the hair of my friends whose later years are comforted by the love of their children and grandchildren. You must wonder if I envy them and, in many ways, I do. But, I admit this only as a means to point out to you the difficulty that I have in telling my story is due entirely to the fact that I remember the event too well. Even as I begin to write these things down, however, my hand begins to trembles, and my head begins to swim with faintness. There is a great sense of true horror that takes a grip of my being, pulling me back into a long-remembered terror. Despite all of these things I have been persuaded to grit my teeth and complete this record of that horror, which I have been through.

“At the time when my story begins, I was the young heiress to my family’s substantial fortune. My father was a wise and clever businessman, who had used his talents to gather a large amount of wealth about him. But, although he never showed any disappointment to us, there was very little doubt that he did not have a son to inherit what he had built. Instead, my parents had given life to three daughters, of whom I was the youngest, and we would each share equally in the wealth that our father would pass on to us.

“Being a youthful nineteen years old girl, I spent no time at all on my future inheritance because all my needs were so well taken care of. I was healthy at that time, young and in love, all of which made me feel quite indifferent toward other things. Of course, we three sisters knew that we were heiresses, but I do not think Lucy and Minnie were made any happier or prouder because of that fact. We all had everything that we needed, and life was good.

“Roger, who was the love of my life, did not take an interest in me only because of the money that I would inherit. This was sorely proven to me when, after the terrible event that overcame me, he abandoned me. It is, perhaps, the one thing that I can be truly thankful for, even in my lonely old age. He didn’t stay with me for the money unlike so many ‘gold-digging’ men would have. Now, in lonely old age, I can be happy in the knowledge that I was loved, and that in itself has prevented me from going mad through all the many weary days and nights.

“The house in which we lived was an old Tudor-style mansion, and my father was the type of person who would not tolerate any change in the structure. Like an old castle, the house had numerous turrets, battlements and gable walls remained. The old fashioned windows with their quaint lozenge-shaped panes of glass set in lead were as they had been three hundred years previously.

“Attached to the house there was a large area of deep, thick coniferous woodland, bordered by a slow flowing stream. All this land stretching from the house was owned almost entirely by my father, and was inhabited by good-hearted and hard-working tenant farmers. These countryfolk were steeped in ancient ideas and traditions, and it was within this superstitious atmosphere that we were reared as children. We constantly heard tales of horror, fables and legends of dark deeds done in olden times. We were fascinated by such stories, and we marvelled at the descriptions of creatures and spirits that were said to inhabit our world.

“Our mother had died when we were young, leaving our father a widower with three girls to care for. He was kind and loving to us in his own way, but he was very much absorbed in the day to day affairs of his business enterprises. I effect, there was no person who could control the flow and content of the traditions and superstitions that we were exposed to, and like sponges our innocent soaked them all up. But, all children eventually grow up and there came a time when ghostly tales gave way to dances, dresses and potential life partners. It was at a large ball held by a neighbouring judge that I first met Roger, who was destined to be the love of my young life. As I have said, I am sure that he loved me with every beat of his heart and, even in the times of my grief and anger, I have never doubted this fact. We also blessed by the fact that his father and mine approved of our growing attachment. Today, I can look back upon those happy days as being something of a beautiful dream that I have experienced. But, change was to come to me, and bright and happy days of youth came to an end as blight and sorrow took a grip of my life.

“Christmas was always a joyful and a hospitable time in our home, and among the neighbours that surrounded us. In our house we played all the traditional games and maintained all the old family customs and frolics that were so much a part of celebrating this great feast. The manor, as usual, was filled to capacity with a variety of guests, for whom there was just about enough sleeping accommodation. There were several narrow, dark rooms available in the turrets of the house. We were once told that they had provided, at one time, good shelter to many noble gentlemen in days gone by. But, to us they were nothing more than mere pigeon coops. This Christmas, however, they were to be allotted to those visitors who were bachelors, after having been empty for over a hundred years.

“Every spare room in the house and its wings of the hall were occupied that night, and those who had brought servants were lodged at the gate-house and the farm. But, the unexpected arrival of an elderly relative immediately caused an awful commotion and the drawing up of new accommodation plans. Months before Christmas, this elderly relative had been invited to the celebrations, but she had never announced her intention to accept the invitation. When she arrived, therefore, may aunts, who were the chief organisers, panicked and went about the house wringing their hands and wondering what they could do.

“Lady Hurst was a woman of some note and some consequence within our family. She was a distant cousin of ours, but had been very cold toward us for quite a number of years, because of some affront or slight that she alleged was shown to her on the last occasion that she visited our home. At seventy years old, Lady Hurst somewhat infirm, quite rich, and very testy. Her last visit to us was at the time of my christening and I was given the honour of having her as my godmother. Although, in the last number of years you would never have thought that she held such a position in my life and, as a result, I did not expect any kind of an inheritance from her if and when she passed away

“My Aunt Margaret had begun to panic when she saw Lady Hurst arrive unexpectedly.  “We have no room! No room!” she said excitedly. “Isn’t this just our luck? The turret rooms are certainly not suitable, but where can we put her. She is Rose’s godmother, and she’s as rich as Croesus. After all these years of staying away from here, she comes back today and not a room available to her. What can we do?”

“My aunts could not surrender their rooms for the comfort of Lady Hurst, because they had already given them over to some of the invited married guests, who had already arrived. They could not approach my father and ask him to give up his room to the old woman. My father was, I can assure you the most hospitable of men, but he suffered greatly from rheumatoid arthritis to the extent that he was virtually incapable of walking normally. My aunts would not dared ask him to move rooms for they knew the man would have rather have lain on broken glass than sleep in a bed other than his own. Finally, it was I who settled the problem by giving up my room, though I was not exactly happy at having to do so. In fact, I surprised myself by feeling so selfish and especially when a trifling sacrifice on my part would make an old and infirm lady comfortable.

“My momentary selfishness annoyed me somewhat, because I was young, healthy and strong. The weather was not cold for the time of the year and, even though it was Christmas, there was no snow on the ground and the dark moist clouds overhead did not appear to be ready to unload any. But, I did do the generous thing and surrendered my room to Lady Hurst. My sisters laughed, and made fun of me for trying to wake his impression on my godmother.

“”Maybe she’s a fairy godmother, Rose,” said Mary, “and you know she felt slightly insulted at the time of your christening, and she had left the house swearing that one day she would have her revenge. Now, here she is! She is coming back to see you and I hope she brings some golden gifts with her.”

“In all honesty I thought little of Lady Hurst, or even her golden gifts. In fact, I cared very little for the fortune gathered by this elderly woman, which my aunts talked about all the time. But, since that time, I have wondered if I had shown some obstinacy and refused to give up my room to Lady Hurst, would my life have been much different. If I had not surrendered the room then Lucy or Mary would have had to offer and then suffered the horror that I met. My heart is still torn when I asked myself, “Would it have been better if the horror did fall on someone else rather than me?”

The Sham Fight

Sham FightThis story is set in Northern Ireland, not so very long ago, and gives the reader some idea about the sectarianism that is prevalent in that land, which has been based on historical events over three hundred years ago. The characters are fictitious, though the sham fight continues to be played out every year on 13th July in the village of Scarva….

Tommy Hyde was a well-known, character in the area where I lived. He had the sagacity that long life can bring, but he could also be quite a cantankerous old man with a tongue that cut deeper than any knife. At first sight he could be described as a small man, though he was very broad and brawny in stature. He had a big, round face that had been reddened by years of working outdoors, attending to his fields in all types of weather. On his head of thick, grey hair sat Tommy’s trademark cloth cap. But, Tommy’s thick grey hair was also quite long for a man of his age, matching his thick, rather unkempt grey beard, spotted dark brown with the tobacco juice that he often spat out when smoking his pipe. In fact it was a rare sight to see Tommy without a pipe stuck in his mouth, and him puffing out grey clouds of that “Walnut Plug” tobacco that he so enjoyed.

It was one summer’s morning, as I was taking my customary stroll on the outskirts of town, that I encountered ‘Old Tommy’ standing at the edge of the narrow lane that was known to most as ‘Castle Lane.’ It was  Tommy’s way to let people see  that he was a very busy man and, when encountering a person, he could be found digging at this or hammering at that. On this particular morning I found him leaning on his hoe and contemplating the weeds on the roadside verge that, despite his attention, never seemed to decrease in number. Indeed, even when, on those rare occasions that actually began to do some work, the same man never appeared to be in a hurry unrushed and always carried himself with a certain, calm dignity. Tommy, however, fankly could not have cared less about what people thought about him. He had the attitude that whatever he decided he would do, or not to do, it was no person’s business but his own.

As I was approaching him I could see that he was ready for a bit of ‘Craic’ by the glint in his eye as he glanced at me. Putting down his hoe, Tommy leaned up against a nearby dry-stone wall, took  a drag from his pipe, exhaled a large cloud of grey smoke, and spat a globule of deep brown saliva on the grass verge. Greeting him with a nod of recognition I ambled up to where he stood, and positioned myself next to him. In his gruff voice, and without removing his pipe he began, “Do you know, Jimmy, what I’m goin’ to tell you?

I knew from experience that this was the way that he normally began a conversation. He does not, of course, expect you to answer him because you would need to be a clairvoyant of some sort to know the answer. But, Tommy did not say anything more for a moment or two, but lifted his hoe to raise a large weed out of the ground before placing it on the edge of the tarmac road. He took another drag from his pipe and, after exhaling, declared, “Do you know, Jimmy, there’s not a hair’s breadth of a difference between any two women that you would ever meet.

This was definitely not a conversation opener that I had expected at that moment. Having absolutely no opinion on this subject, I found it very difficult to give him an answer. “There’s that boy of mine,” said Tommy, ” and although I say it myself, he’s a fine boy in many ways, so he is. There is no way is he a wrong one, who would cause trouble and strife.”

“That’s true,” says I honestly.

 “And another thing,” Tommy continued, ” I can tell you that he’s as brave a boy as you’d ever wish for to see.”

“Aye!” I nodded in affirmation.

 “Do you know, that from the time that boy was six years old, he was that particular about himself that he wouldn’t go to church without his Sunday boots on his feet. Those boots were great ‘creakers’, and you could’ve heard them all over the church when he came in for Sunday service, always just a wee bit late. But, that wee boy could rhyme off all the responses to the prayers better than a grown up. Mind you, Jimmy, that was no wonder since it was myself who learned him his religion, and encouraged him follow the example of him that has gone before us!

I thought Old Tommy was going to take a bit of a pause at this junction, but devil the bit of him. He continued, “But then the buck eejit took to messing around with a group of wee fellas who hung around the corner at the top of ‘Irish Street’. That’s the truth, but I soon quit him out of that. Says I to him: ‘Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? Me heart’s broke with ye, so it is. I’ll have no messing about from only boy that I have, so I won’t. You’ll have no more contact with them, no, nor will ye pass the the time of day with anyone that’s not your own sort. None that would differ from the Very Reverend  Clamp, me, Reverend Johnston of Ballykeel, and the Big Man himself. What’s that ye say? Who is the Big Man? Now! Now! Who else would it be, but yer man on the white horse?’

Now, those of you who are reading this might wonder where the man rode a horse in St. John’s vision of the Apocalypse as recorded in the ‘Good Book’. But it is an easily recognisable image to those who are in the know, so to speak. It is an allusion to William of Orange, of ‘Glorious, pious, and immortal memory, Defender of Protestantism in Ireland’, who is always represented on a white horse. “But,” I argued with Old Tommy, “King Billy did converse with those who disagreed with him. It is even said, you know, that when he came to England he was subsidised by the Pope in Rome.”

Old Tommy, it appeared, did not hear a word that I had said and continued to rattle on about his son. “As I was saying to ye, that boy of mine has a mind to get himself wed. So I says to him, ‘There’s not a hair’s difference between any two of them.’ You see, it’s this way. He has the two of them courted down to the asking, and he’s afeard that if he asks one of them he’ll be always thinking about the other, or maybe he’ll think he’d sooner have had the other. He is not behaving well at all. He can’t, of course, marry them both, and yet he has raised hopes which must in one case be disappointed, and he might break the poor girl’s heart. Break her heart! What a load of bollix, heart is it?”

Old Tommy had told me on previous occasions what he thought about ‘love’ and the relationships between young boys and girls. “But,” I interrupted him, hoping that I could delve a little deeper, “Don’t you believe in love, Tommy?”

I knew, of course, that Old Tommy had been married to two different women. His first wife was called Peggy, and the poor woman only lived for a year after her marriage. I didn’t know the woman personally because she died before I was born, but those who did know Peggy say that she was a handsome woman and the love of Old Tommy’s life.  The current Mrs. Hyde, has been his wife for twenty-five-years and he always spoke of her as “That oul’ widow woman.” She was once the wife of John Adams, who was a simple man whose only reason to be remembered seemed to be the fact that he was Old Tommy’s second wife’s first husband. For his part, Tommy had little time for the man or his memory, insisting that he held heretical views that certainly have prevented him from entering Heaven.

Do I not believe in love, you ask me? Why, haven’t I seen it all myself? Sure, and didn’t I have an uncle, my own mother’s brother, that was taken in that way? And what do you think he went and did, but got the whole of Paul’s wickedest Epistle learned off by heart, so he did, and he offered for to tell it all to her in one single sitting. Boys, oh! but he was the quare poet! And she got married to a boy out from Ballinahoe, and do ye know what I’m goin’ to tell ye? He took to the hills and never did a hand’s turn after that.”

“Surely, Tommy you have been in love yourself. When you first met Peggy and now with your present wife? When you asked them to marry you, you must have had to at least pretend you loved them. What did you say to them at the time?”

“Well, I’ll tell you it was this way with me and Peggy. The two of us went the whole way to Scarva village on the thirteenth. Did ever ye hear tell of the ‘Battle of Scarva’? I mind it all so well. I had a packet of cold meat sandwiches in my coat pocket, and Peggy, she had taken a few wee home-baked buns. Says I to her, “Peggy, would ye care for a wee sandwich?” And says she to me, “Take a wee bun, Thomas!” And the very next morning I went in and gave our names to the Reverend Clamp, so I did.”

There are many worse ways to conclude such business , after all, and very  few that would be more full of symbol. There is the mutual help, the inevitable “give and take” of married life. There is the strength and fulfilment of the cold meat sandwiches, combined with the freshness and sweetness of the maidenly home-baked goods. These were two souls that had been united in the flavour of both scents which, when combined, rose to heaven on the summer air.  In all honesty, I cannot recall any tale or reminiscence of my married friends on this particularly interesting topic, that describes a “proposal” of marriage more delicately and less ostentatiously. While Old Tommy graciously accepted my congratulations on his elegant good taste, he was not as forthcoming about his current wife. When I asked about the manner of his proposal to his second wife, he only shook his head despairingly and muttered, “Them widows! Them widows!” In his answer to me there was almost a suggestion that he was taken at a disadvantage, but I could hardly give it credit. It seemed impossible to me that this crafty old man would not have extricated himself from such a situation with all the inspired dexterity of a Sherlock Holmes, or the undoubted abilities of a Disney hero.

“As I was saying,” he resumed, “Did ever ye hear tell of the ‘Battle of Scarva’?” I had, of course, heard of it. After all who has not heard of the open air, theatrical epic of the North? But just in case you haven’t heard of it, let me explain. Every year, in a quiet country village thousands of people gather at a pretty, wooded park, on a large open meadow that slopes down to a clear running stream. There, on 13th July, they enacted what is a veritable ‘Passion Play’ of the historically influential ‘Battle of the Boyne’.

I suppose you have often been to the celebrations in Scarva, Tommy.

Indeed, I have me boy. Many and many a time. But there was one time when the battle beat all those before and since! Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would give a thousand pounds to see that battle again, so I would. But, me boy, oh! it was grand thing to see. There was my own aunt’s nephew acting as King William, and him on the top of the loveliest white horse ye have ever seen, with his flowing mane tied with wee loops of braid in orange and blue. Yer man had an orange scarf on him and blue feathers to his hat, and he looked just like one of them foreign Princes. And his Generals and officers were just the same, only not so grand. For the Papish King, James, they had a fine young horse under him that Dan Collins had bought off the Reverend Jackson in the Fair at Dungannon. But the horse set his ears back, and let a squeal out of him, and took a buck leap all over the place whenever Andy Watson came near to him. At that Andy, who was playing King James, shouts aloud, “I am not used with this sort of horse exercise, and I don’t trust that beast.”

“But,”’ says Dan Collins, “Get up there with ye sonny boy, and no more whining about it.

“Well, with that Andy turned about, and, says he, “I’ll ride no bloody horse out of Dungannon. Sure I’d sooner walk. I tell ye I’ll ride none, without I have my own mare that brought me and the wife and the children out of the ‘Pass’, so I won’t.”

“With that the Generals and the officers and the rest of the aide-Campuses headed off until they found Andy’s mare, which was eating on the grass by the roadside, and not too agreeable to coming with them. But, she was finally coaxed along by one of those de-Campuses boys who was sweet talking her and complimenting her, “There’s a good wee daughter, sure you’re a wee jewel.” At the same time one of those Generals was holding a bit of grass in the front of her, while another General persuading her in the rear. Finally, they got King James onto her, and the two armies was drawn up on the banks of the wee stream that was to be representing the Boyne River. It was then that they began, in a quite friendly and agreeable fashion, teasing each other with a, “Come on, ye thirsty tyrant ye,’ from King William. “Come on, ye low, mean usurper,” shouted James in answer. “Come on ye devil’s son, and enemy to civil and religious liberty,” William cried out to the cheers of the people attending. “Come on, ye glorious, pious, and immoral worm of a man,’ said James. “Are you going to come at all ye traitor to your people, ye Judas, and Rome lover,” calls William amid loud cheering.  Come on ye parasite ye, and disciple of Cromwell,“ says James. “Here’s to the victory of God and Protestantism,” says William and with those words he began to go forward. At the same time James should have come forward in front of him, but Andy’s mare just planted her fore-feet into the ground and stood there like a statue that was growing up out of the ground. With that there was two of the Aid-de-Campuses came to his assistance and began to pull and haul at the old mare! But devil a toe would she budge, and all the boys began laughing and pointing, so they did.

Then William came up and says he, “Come on or I’ll pull the neck out of ye…. Come on, me brave boy…. Fetch her a clip on the lug! Hit her a skelp on the arse! Give her a jab with your knee, man alive. Och, come on, ye arsehole, ye!” Well, even having the skin of a Rhino wouldn’t let a man stand up and take that from anyone, and Andy, he was quick tempered at best and shouted back “Arsehole yourself.” And as soon as he had said that he let a growl out of him ye might have heard in Portadown. You have never heard the like of that noise and, what’s more, nor had Andy Watson’s mare. That old horse was so taken aback that she just took the one leap and she landed in the stream, just in front of William. Then King James took a tight hold of William, and screamed at him “Arsehole!” and with that he threw him off his grand white horse, and he dragged him into the cold stream water.

“Then all hell broke loose on the meadow and it was the best entertainment I have ever seen. Some of the people were for William, and some they were for James. But whoever they were for every one lifted his foot or raised his fist, or any other weapon that they came across.  The boys were all thumping, and beating each other, drawing blood from all parts of the body and causing chaos and all sorts injuries.”

I thought you were all friends at Scarva?” I asked Old Tommy.

He gave me a sly smile and a wink of his eye as he told me, “And so we were! Just friends fighting through one another.

But, was there any one hurt?

Was anyone hurt?” he laughed. “Sure, they were just trailing themselves off the ground. You would have died laughing. There’s Jimmy Hara who has never been his own man since then, and sure I had my nose broke and it still not fixed. There were some who said there was a wee man from Tandragee got himself killed.”

What became of William?”

Och, sure he was clean drowned.” Old Tommy told me, matter-of-factly.

And King James?”

“He’s in hell with Johnny Adams.”

I tried to explain to him that I had not meant the King himself, but the actor whose nature had been stronger than his dramatic instinct. Old Tommy, however, could not or would not make a difference between the two. He really was not listening to me at all. I had come to a conclusion that over some time Tommy’s thoughts were wandering far from our conversation. Suddenly a spasm convulsed his features. With one hand he raised the hoe in the air like a tomahawk, disregarding the weeds and soil from his afternoon’s toil, which were left abandoned and helpless on the gravel of the road. With his other hand he grasped his side. For a moment, I was afraid that the old man was going to have a fit, but it was only uncontrollable laughter at some joke that I was, as yet, unaware of.

“Well, do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would just agree that William was a man of great cleverness, so he was. He was subsidised by the Pope of Rome, was he? Boys, oh! Do ye tell me that? Well I’ll tell you that beats all, and him going to do exactly the opposite of what he let on.

Old Tommy, without question, was absolutely sober at the beginning of our conversation, and he had remained “dry” during our talk, but he now became gradually intoxicated with what had appeared to him to be his hero’s cunning ways. The thought of a genius who could outsmart someone else in a bargain rose to his brain like a glass of cold stout. He swayed on his feet and his words ran into each other. Old Tommy was now assuming a gaiety of manner and expression that was quite unusual for him. I stood still, watching him lurch down the walk, and then pause on the bridge. He supported himself by holding on to the wooden railing, which creaked loudly as he swayed to and fro, and he began to talk to the stream and the trees, “Do ye know what I’m going to tell ye? I would just agree that he was a man of great cleverness, so he was.”