Witches of the Bog

In every corner of Ireland you will hear wondrous stories of various Witches and Pookas, and the great influence that they have had on the lives of the people in any particular area. My Father, may God rest his soul, was a Tyrone man, born and reared and, when I was a young boy, we would visit many of his friends in the countryside around Carrickmore. It was during this period of my life that I was told the following story by one of my father’s oldest and most trusted friends. He told me that, not so many years previously, there was a small party of young and boisterous men who arrived in the area to enjoy several days of hunting and fishing.

Within the County of Tyrone hunting and fishing are still popular and very much loved past-times among the local country folk. But, in those days, the visit of several very well-dressed young men from the city was a rarely seen event so deep in the county’s heartland. My father’s friend told me that, at that time, there were very few visitors from outside of the county, because there were very few inns, hotels, or other facilities to accommodate them comfortably. To the locals the visit of these young men came as quite a shock, especially when it was known that they had brought their own tents and camping equipment with them. Along the bank of a small river, flowing with clear mountain water, the men established their camp just below a hill, known locally as “Sluggan Hill”. The hill itself was covered by thick woodland of mixed deciduous and conifer trees, which the local people called “O’Neill’s Planting.

The hunting party that had come out of the city was comprised of four tall, well-built young gentlemen, who wasted very little time in erecting their tents, and establishing their campsite on the river bank. One of their number placed a kettle of water upon the camp fire and, when the water was boiled, they each had a cup of hot, sweet tea with some sandwiches before they set out on their first hunt. As soon as the hunters had eaten their fill they gathered their guns and ammunition belts before they moved across the stream into the woods, where they immediately began to seek out their prey. Stealthily, with all the trickery of a hunter, the four men moved through the trees and bushes. All the while they attuned their senses to the cry of a pheasant or woodcock, or the rush of a big, buck hare breaking cover. Onward they went until one of the men was alerted by movement in some nearby bushes, causing him to raise his gun in anticipation. Before he had raised the shotgun fully, a huge hare jumped from its cover in the undergrowth, and he fired a shot in the direction of the scampering animal.

The first shot missed, but was rapidly followed by shots from the guns of the other hunters as their sights lined up with the escaping hare coming their way. The rapid fire of the shotguns had broken the quiet of the woodland like shots from a machine-pistol, but none of the bullets hit their target, and the lucky hare continued on its merry way. These keen young men were, however, not prepared to accept anything that even resembled failure, and they immediately began to pursue the fugitive creature. They followed the escape route of that lucky hare, through trees, bushes, and the undergrowth, occasionally firing their guns as they moved along. Yard after yard they continued to chase the hare until it, finally, rushed through the open door of a small, thatched and white-washed cottage, which had been virtually hidden by all the greenery of the woodland. The cottage appeared from its condition to be unoccupied and they carried out their pursuit up to the door of the building. Just as they made ready to step through the door, they were brought to an abrupt halt when they were confronted by a huge, snarling, black dog that barred their way into the cottage.

Devil dogThis huge dog was a vicious black creature that resembled something which had been thrown up from the deepest bowels of hell. It glared at the men, baring its great ivory teeth, as if ready to tear them from limb to limb, and growling like the remnants of some great thunderstorm. Those glaring eyes of the great hound glowed red, like wooden embers taken from a blazing fire, but the creature itself was being restrained by a large, ringed-chain, collar around its thick neck, which was attached to a robust metal leash. There were great amounts of foam and spittle gathered around the hound’s snarling mouth as it continued to growl and snap at the unwanted visitors, increasing the very real sense of danger that they were now beginning to feel.

The man closest to the cottage door and, therefore the hound now turned towards his friends and called out to them, “Shoot that black devil!” This young man was of average stature, although he did have broad, muscular shoulders, and he differed from his friends in that he had bright, copper coloured hair. Even as he called out his orders to the others he was lifting up his own shotgun and began aim it directly at the monster dog. But, before he could raise his gun level with the target, the huge dog lunged at him and grabbed the barrel of the gun in its massive mouth’s vice-like grip. The hound’s great teeth bit into the gun barrel, chewing on it for a few moments before spitting it out on the ground outside the door. Such was the shock that all four companions suffered by this incident that they were frozen to the spot where they stood by fear. One of the taller four men came quickly recovered his senses, and immediately began to raise his gun slowly. The gigantic dog, however, was not about to allow itself to be taken unawares and it began to lunge at each one of the men, in turn, seizing their weapons in its jaws and destroying them before they could be fired.

As the last of the young men’s weapons fell, uselessly, to the ground the huge monster of a dog began to growl threateningly at the men. This was a deep eerie growl that sounded like nothing on this earth and it added greatly to their growing sense of terror. Each of the men took a step back from the door as their sense of vulnerability grew and, with the proximity of the monster to them, death seemed to them to be imminent. But, much to the amazement f the four friends, an old and bent over woman suddenly came to the door. She was almost bent double and she was dressed all in black, with long silver-coloured hair that hung limply over her face, almost covering her bright white eyes that appeared to be missing an iris. Those haunting eyes sat either side of her long, slender, crooked nose, below which her long, white, sharply pointed teeth protruded from her thin, bloodless lips.

Just what are you doing with my wee puppy dog?” she asked the men in a shrill voice that sounded like a steel rod being dragged over a pile of broken glass.

Although he was filled with a great fear, the young man with the copper-coloured hair, hesitatingly stepped forward to speak with the old woman. “We were hunting in those trees over there, and a prize hare we were chasing escaped us by running into your house.  We are sorry, but we didn’t think that anyone was living here, and we were about to follow the hare into the house until your large dog barred our way.” But, even as the young man was speaking to the old woman, the dog that towered above them both continued to snarl threateningly at all the hunters.

Now, lie down my little puppy dog, that’s a good boy!” the old woman spoke sweetly to the monster dog. Her sweet tones appeared to calm the dog, and then she turned to the four young men and gave them an invitation. “You are welcome to enter our home, gentlemen, if it is your wish.

Not surprisingly, none of the four young hunters were too willing to enter the old woman’s cottage and, nervously, the leader of the hunting party asked the old lady, “Are there any other persons in the house with you?

Without hesitation the old woman answered, “There are six of us here, and we are all sisters to one another.

I really don’t mean to be rude, but would it be possible to see all of you?” he asked. To his surprise, no sooner had these words crossed his lips than all of the six old women stepped out of the shadows of the white-washed cottage. As the men, finally, got to see all the women together they quickly realised that all the women were, indeed, related. Each of the old women resembled the first old lady in some way, but all possessed the long, sharp teeth that protruded from bloodless lips. It was something that none of these young men had never experienced before this moment, and they were very reluctant to go into the building any further. Slowly and quietly the men backed away from the cottage into the trees and, when they reached the cover of the woodland, they turned away as quickly and as quietly as they could. Several minutes later, as the four hunters made their way between the trees and the bushes, they came upon another mysterious sight. Ahead of them lay a large, fallen tree upon which were sat seven large, black-feathered birds that screeched threateningly at the approaching men.

Now that they were a good distance from the cottage, and feeling more secure, none of those four men were about to stop and investigate. One of their number, who had a pistol beneath his jacket, pulled out the gun and began shooting at the large birds. He fired bullet after bullet at these creatures but, again, not one of the bullets found a target, and the gun’s magazine soon ran out of ammunition. Then, as he began to reload the pistol’s magazine, he was surprised to see that a very old man, with a long grey beard, suddenly appear by his side.

Fool! Put away that gun!” the old man angrily told the young man with the pistol, and the attention of the other young men was suddenly directed towards him.

Those creatures are not of human flesh. They are the “Witches of the Bog” and they live in that white-washed cottage that you have just left. They are held there by a spell. It is an enchantment that has held them as prisoners in this cottage for over a hundred years. As a further protection, these servants of the underworld have a massive black hound that never permits any person to enter their little cottage. They also have a great fortress that has been built under the nearby lake, and there are many people who tell stories of these witches turning into seven swans before entering that place.

This was enough for one day and, thoroughly exhausted by their experiences, the young men returned to their campsite and prepared a meal for themselves. As they sat around their campfire, eating, they discussed all that they had been told by the strange old man in the woods. Although the men had been witnesses to several strange, and frightening apparitions they remained very dubious about the accuracy of the old man’s tale. Instead, they resolved that after breakfast the next morning they would make their way to the nearest chapel and call upon the priest, who may have a more realistic explanation for their experiences.

When they arrived at the priest’s house the next morning they found themselves being made very welcome by the elderly cleric. They began to their experiences from the previous day, and, he listened attentively to every word that they told him. The old priest, however, was as sceptical of their story as they had been of the old man’s tale. But, impressed by the fervour in which the young men spoke of their encounter, the old priest decided that he would accompany the hunters if they would return to the woodland cottage later that same day. Nervously, the four men agreed and the small party set off toward the woodland.

The old priest followed at the rear of the small group of men as they left to seek out the strange cottage once again. When they came to the cottage, at last, the first thing that the encountered was a huge, snarling, black mastiff dog, which was glaring at them with its fiery red eyes. At the rear of the group the priest gathered up his rosary beads, his gilt cross, and his small bottle of holy water, and put them out of sight in his cassock. At the same time, from one of his pockets he took out a thick book with gilt-edged pages, all of which were bound in a thick, black leather cover. Nervously, the priest opened the book and began to read some of the prayers it contained. But, just as the priest began to get into his stride, reading the prayers aloud, the gigantic hound began barking even more savagely causing the small group of men to be gripped in terror.

The wizened, bent over, old women who lived in the cottage came out from its shadows and stood defiantly at their front door. As they stood there they glared at the group of men before them and muttered curses toward them. The priest made his way through the group from his place at their rear, speaking prayers to God in a clear and a loud voice. When they heard the priest’s prayers the witches uttered a high pitched, piercing scream of pain, as though they had been struck through the heart by a spear. The scream was so loud and piercing that the men were forced to cover their ears to protect them from any damage. Despite the screams, the old priest continued to pray aloud and the old women began to transform themselves. Instead of wizened old women they became huge, terrifying, black birds like those the hunters had seen on the previous day, perched upon a fallen tree. They immediately opened their great black, shiny wings and flew up into an enormous tree nearby, the branches of which spread like a great parasol over the small cottage. Without showing even the slightest sign of fear the elderly cleric continued to approach the huge, snarling hound until he finally came within two or three feet of it. In a surprisingly swift movement this snarling monster leapt up from the ground, striking the priest with each of its four paws, and knocking him head over heels, in a backward motion. Immediately, the four hunters ran quickly to assist the priest but, as they lifted him up from the ground, they quickly began to realise that the old man was now both deaf and dumb. The dog, meanwhile, had not moved even one inch from its station at the cottage door. The hunting companions, however, were much more concerned for the health of the old priest and they gathered him up to bring him home to his own house, which stood just a few miles away. Seeing that the old priest’s strength was spent and that he was not going to defeat ‘The Witches of the Bog’, they sent a messenger post-haste to the to the local Bishop, pleading for his help in the matter.

In his large home the Bishop received the messenger but was reluctant to believe what he was being told. He was, however, very concerned that one of his own priests had been injured in the confrontation with the alleged witches. In the meantime, the news of what had happened to their Parish Priest had spread quickly through the district and the people gathered together to meet the Bishop when he arrived. Several of the leading men of the community came forward and began to plead with the Bishop to use every power that his faith could muster to rid them of these old witches. The Bishop listened to them, but lost for words to reply with, he began to doubt if he could do anything in this time, and decided to say nothing at this stage. As a Bishop, of course, he had knowledge concerning the sacramental actions that could be taken to oust the servants of the devil. In his case, however, the Bishop also had serious doubts about his possession of the necessary faith needed to succeed in such work. At the end of the meeting the Bishop stood in front of the people gathered there, and told them, “I have not the means of removing these terrible things from among you, but I ask you all if you will allow me to leave now and go gather all the knowledge that I shall need to succeed in my mission. Let me assure you all that I will return to this place at the end of the month, and I will banish this evil presence from among you.” The crowd now made way for the Bishop, who hurried off to learn what he could.

The old priest, stricken both deaf and dumb, lay in his bed nursing the injuries he had received in his encounter with evil. Unfortunately, the priest could not explain to the men around him that he now knew exactly who the old witches and their big black dog were. During his confrontation with these creatures he had been given a sudden revelation that unmasked their entire story. But, to help him explain what had been revealed to him, the old priest was handed a pen and a notepad, on which he began to write. The priest told the men that the ferocious, large, black hound was, in reality, a man who had once lived in the Parish among them, and he was known to all by the name, Dermot O’Malley. They, of course, had heard that name before, when men and women told of the man who had died in disgrace many years ago. The story of Dermot O’Malley told of how he was brutally murdered by his son because he had been found sleeping with the young man’s wife the day after their wedding. Dermot’s son was totally overcome by a great rage that gripped his entire body and made him blind to the consequences of his actions. He was determined that there would be no witnesses left to report his bloody actions and, in the bloodbath that ensued, he killed his sisters in fear that they would inform on him to the authorities.

In the meantime, the Bishop had begun to feel that he would be much safer in his own home, rather than facing down any creature that might have been sent by the Devil. Then, one night, after going to the elderly priest, the Bishop had a very disturbed night as he lay in his bed. His mind was troubled greatly by both thoughts and visions that caused him to toss and turn in his efforts to get some sleep before the daylight returned. In the dark of the bedroom the Bishop was certain that he saw one of the old witches open the bedroom door and enter the room. To suddenly see such a creature as this standing at the side of his bed startled the Bishop to such an extent that his body was overcome by a great chill as a cold sweat of fear soaked him. He couldn’t even speak to the creature, because his body felt as though it had lost control of hid faculties. The creature, however, spoke to the Bishop in a clear, though low hissing voice, “Do not have any fear of me, because I did not come into your presence in order to do you any harm. I have come so that I could pass on some very good advice to you. We have heard that you have promised the people that you shall return and remove us from our long-time home in “O’Neill’s Planting”. Our advice to you, Bishop, is that you should stay away because if you do come to do battle with us you will never leave alive.”

As the witch spoke to him, the Bishop continued to lie on his bed, very still and quietly listening to every word of the warning she gave him. He had been suddenly startled by her sudden appearance and yet he summoned every ounce of courage he could muster to answer her nervously, “I am a man of my word and I am not going to break my solemn word because of your threats.”

It was a brave response but the creature was not yet finished with him. “Listen to me, priest. We have only one year and one day left to enjoy the peacefulness of that lonely woodland bog,” she told him. “Surely a man of your stature has enough influence to ensure that they leave us in peace until that time comes.

I might just consider it,” said the Bishop, “but, tell me first, just how and why did you all come to be living in those woods, in the form that you have taken?

I will tell you that we six sisters and our father were all murdered at the hands of our brother,” she began to explain. “When we arrived at the gates of heaven, and stood before the guardian, we were told the judgement that had been passed upon us. The guardian told us that we could not pass through until we lived in this form for two hundred years. We were also told that the judgement upon us was so severe because of the great crime that our father committed when took our new sister-in-law to bed the day after her marriage to our brother. When our brother discovered the outrage that had been done against him he completely lost his mind, killing our father and all of us in his madness. The only refuge from the hardships of this world that was left to us now lies beneath the lake and we must be inside it every night.

I will admit that this was indeed a harsh punishment to be given to you and your sisters,” the Bishop sympathised. “But, we must all obey the will and the judgement of the guardian to the gates of Heaven. Be assured, however, I will not give you or your family any further trouble.

I thank you, Bishop, and we shall talk again, when we are gone from the wood,” said the witch, and she immediately vanished from his presence.

When the morning light appeared the Bishop arose quickly from his bed and dressed hurriedly, before he drove to the village. As soon as he arrived there he sent out a notice to all the inhabitants, informing them that they should gather in the parochial hall. Once the people had assembled, the Bishop began to speak to them, “It is the judgement of heaven that the magical spell that lies upon the cottage in the woodland bog will not be removed for another year and a day. I call upon all of you to keep away from that woodland bog until this period of time has ended. It surprises me that these witches had not been discovered prior to these hunters from the city arriving here. I shall only say that it is indeed a great pity that they did not stay at home in the city.

About a week after this meeting the elderly priest was in his room, alone and resting. It was a very warm, sun-filled day and he had the window in the room open wide to allow some cool, fresh air to circulate. Unexpectedly, a small red-breasted Robin flew in through the open window, carrying a small sprig of an herb in its beak. In response, the old priest stretched out his wrinkled hand and the small bird laid the sprig of herb upon his palm. He smiled at the little Robin softly and, thinking that he had been sent a gift from Heaven, the priest ate the herb. But, almost as soon as he placed the herb into his mouth he began to feel a lot better than he had been previously, and his eyes looked upward to Heaven. “A thousand thanks to Him who is Lord of all and against whom evil cannot stand,” he prayed.

At this moment, much to his surprise, the bird began to speak. “Do you recall the Robin with the broken foot that you kindly helped two winters’ ago?” it asked.

Yes, I remember that poor little bird well,” replied the priest. “I was so very sad when he went away as the summer came.

Well, be sad no more, for I am that same Robin,” declared the bird. “It is because of the love and attention that you gave to me that I am alive and well today. In return I have been able to ensure that you will not remain deaf and dumb for the rest of your life. Now, take my advice, and make sure steer clear of witches of the bog, and never tell a living soul that it was I who gave you the herb.” The old priest nodded his agreement and the little bird spread its wings and flew away from him.

An hour or two later the elderly priest’s house-keeper entered his room to discover, much to her astonishment, that he had regained both his speech and his hearing. The old priest wasted no time in ringing the Bishop to announce to him that he had been cured. When the Bishop questioned the elderly cleric about how he had been cured so quickly, the priest simply explained, “I have been sworn to secrecy, my Lord Bishop. But, I will tell you that a certain close friend of mine gave me a little herbal medicine, and I was cured almost immediately.

Everything in the village remained quiet as the weeks passed into months, and eventually the ear expired. It was at this time, when the Bishop was alone in his study, that the door creaked opened, and in walked the witch that he had met previously. In her strange voice she told the Bishop, “I have come here to let you know that we will all be leaving the wood bog a week from this very day. But, I would like to ask you to do one more thing for us, if you are able.

If it is possible to do something for you that does not go against my faith, then rest assured that I will do it,” replied the Bishop.

In a week from today there will be seven large vultures lying dead at the door of our cottage. My simple request is that you give instructions that they should be buried in the quarry that is sited on the other side of the bog.

Well, rest assured then, I will do that for you,” he told her and she left the room, never to return. The Bishop was not sorry to see the back of the witch but, exactly one week after this encounter, he went to the village and summoned the men together. On the morning of the next day, the Bishop led a group of these men to the witches’ cottage in the bog, where they found the huge black hound sitting by the door.  The moment that the hound saw the Bishop approach with a group of men it jumped to its feet and ran off screaming as if it had been scalded. The hound drove itself into the wood and did not stop until it finally jumped into the lake. The Bishop continued to the cottage, noticing the seven dead vultures at the door, and he turned to the men behind him, telling them, “Lift those dead creatures and follow me.” It didn’t take the men very long to clear the vulture bodies and carry them to the brink of the quarry. These men were now told by the Bishop to throw the bodies into the quarry just as he had been asked to, by the old witch. But, almost as soon as the bodies of the vultures reached the bottom of the quarry, there arose from the same place seven swans that were as white as snow.

Their penance has now been served, “sighed the Bishop, “and they have been called to their place in heaven.” From that mystical moment no person ever again saw the ‘Witches of the Bog’, or their huge, black hound.

Curious Coincidences

Superstition is, and will probably remain, one of the major characteristics of the Irish people. One of the greatest sources of superstition, however, and one which has been the most productive of what are styled “well-founded and authenticated stories of supernatural occurrences,” is that ever changing ‘monster’ that is known in all its forms by the title of “Remarkable or Curious Coincidences.”

When events, which are precisely similar in detail, occur, they are considered coincidental. Some may consider them to be remarkable, given that these events are usually simple and ordinary. But, if these precisely similar events were repeated then they were considered to be a wonder. Quite recently, I was given an excellent example of this when I heard mention of a particularly curious coincidence having occurred not far from my home. It was the story of three men having been found drowned at various times during one winter season. Each body was found in the same river, at virtually the same place, and each wore two shirts. From that time it became a very strong belief among the locals that wearing two shirts was very unlucky.

Some people would suggest, however, that those people who would allow themselves to be guided by such beliefs would find their lives very burdensome. To be guided in their actions by these observations would require them to be in a state of constant alertness for the rest of their lives. The following story will, for instance, demonstrate the necessity of a person getting to know the names of fellow travellers, in case anyone with the name of Paddy Murphy be among them.

There was a time when the children in a large inland town rarely if ever saw the sea, unless they went on a day excursion organised by a local church group. In many of these seaside resorts enterprising persons often organise boat trips for fishing, sight-seeing, or simply for the experience of being on the open water. This was such in a resort that was, at one time, reachable by train from our home town. On one September morning a small pleasure boat with forty-one persons on board set out to travel down the Lough to the sea. It was a windy day, but not stormy enough to give any concern. When the boat reached the middle of the Lough the boat was overturned and only one man was saved. This fortunate man was called Paddy Murphy, a passenger on an excursion from m home town. Less than ten years after this incident a similar fate befell the twenty-five passengers aboard a small excursion craft. Again, only one man survived the incident, and he was called Paddy Murphy.

There are people who put a lot of credence in such coincidences, while others have belief in such things at all. Some people who have heard this story actually fear to trust their lives on any kind of boat with any man called Paddy Murphy. A little local knowledge and calm reflection, however, would go quite a way to removing such apprehensions. There are very few, if any, events in this life that cannot be traced back to natural causes.

The name of Murphy is very common in my home town, and Patrick, shortened to Paddy, is of course a favourite Christian name throughout all Ireland. There is every possibility, therefore, that persons with the name of Murphy, and very possibly even Paddy Murphy, were lost amongst the passengers on each of those occasions. But, the fact that people from the same town were on the excursions on each of those days appears to have been overlooked, while the coincidence of the individual saved on each occasion being of the same name was recorded. The events could have been simply accounted for by the ordinary rules of calculating odds or chances. Where the name of Paddy Murphy was common, there was certainly a greater chance of a person of that name being saved than one of any other, and, as has been remarked previously, no notice was taken of just how many Paddy Murphys had perished in these events.

© Jim Woods Nov. 2017 (www.irelandloreandtales.wordpress.com)

Sacred Tree of Killygann

The breeze of that cold March day blew harshly as I walked steadfastly across the wide windswept fields towards the old burial-ground that rested in the townland of Killygann. On reaching the remains of the ancient church, I sat down for a moment upon the grassy bank that enclosed the cemetery. Taking a moment or two I contemplated the ground that lay before me and my mind wandered, thinking upon the generations of men that had taken the road to this place over the many years of its existence. In this place they had been buried to spend an eternity waiting upon the judgement of God, for whom an altar had been raised on this spot so many long years previously.

If you didn’t know what was inside this grassy enclosure, you would never have guessed that it was indeed a place of burial. There were, however, little hillocks here and there on the surface, which were about two or feet long, and defined by a stone. They were tombstones, marking the little graves that were the last resting-places of unfortunate babies that died in the act of being born, or who been born and fated to live but a short time before uttering a brief cry of pain, and going to sleep for eternity. These innocent, but unbaptized, children were never permitted to mingle with the baptised Christians and were always placed in these long disused cemeteries. In this old churchyard had not received the body of a baptised person in many decades, and its presence was almost untraceable beneath the long, rich green grass that flourished there.

It was said that the grandfather of the present landowner had decided to plant the entire area with fir-trees, which flourished in the rich soil formed by the decomposed bodies that lay many feet below. The trees, themselves, had grown to a very unusual size, and demonstrating to all that no man is totally useless, even in death. When his time is finished, and his labours are ended, a dead man’s body may still enrich the ground that is so often impoverished by his greed. In the meantime, among these tall, sheltering trees, a colony of rooks had established their airy city. And, while the young settlers to the place busily built their new nests, the older residents of the grove were engaged in repairing the damage their homes had received from the storms of winter. The air itself was busy with the shrill discordant voices of the black horde as they seemed to be mock those that sought sleep in the lower branches.

1_fairy_treeAs I sat upon that grassy bank, reflecting upon the old graveyard before me, I noticed a man walking along the same path that I had followed. He appeared to be very advanced in years, but he a tall figure of a man, who supported himself with a long wooden staff.  Against the chill of the March wind the old man was wrapped in a blue-grey coat that folded close under a belt of string, and a woollen hat that was drawn over his face, as if to screen it from the sharp blast of a cold-wind that rushed toward him. He suddenly stopped, then fixed his eyes on a spot in the burial ground where a wind-blasted and branchless whitethorn stood. This ‘fairy tree’ looked as if it had become part of the fabric of this ancient, lingering as it did over its grass-grown foundation. The old man then raised his eyes heavenward and sank to his knees, while his lips moved as if speaking some silent prayer. His actions at that place fuelled my imagination as to why this old man’s deep devotion, at such a place and time. I was confident that it was not from some ordinary motive that the old man had felt the need to pray. There must have been some reason, or some tradition connected with this ancient place, that had caused the old man to pray with such enthusiasm. So, as the old man rose from his knees, I approached him and said, “My friend, I hope you will pardon me for intruding, for your sudden and impassioned prayer has awakened my inquisitiveness.”

To my surprise the old man answered me in Irish and explained, “I was only begging mercy and pardon for the souls who in the close darkness of their graves cannot help themselves and I begged the good Lord to cease placing the guilt of their fathers upon the children. This spot caused me to remember a terrible act of sacrilege that my forefathers had committed. For this great sin their descendants continue to suffer, and I did not think for one moment that someone other than God had seen me.”

“Perhaps,” he continued, “as you seem to be a stranger in these parts, you have never heard of the Bald Berrys, and the blessed Whitethorn of Killygann. It is a very old tradition, and you might even say it is just a superstitious legend. But there is the whitethorn, blasted and decayed from the contact of my ancestors’ unholy hands. And here, before you, stands the last of their name. I am a homeless wanderer, with no other inheritance than this mark of the curse and crime of his race.” Removing his woollen hat as he said this, revealing a perfectly smooth head, upon which there was not one single hair.

“That old heads should become bald, is not a rare thing,” I told him, “and I have seen younger men whose heads are as hairless as yours.”

“My head,” he replied, “from my birth to this moment, never had a single hair upon it. Sadly, my father and grandfather endured the same fate, while my great-grandfather was deprived of his long, thick hair in one tearful moment. I shall tell you the whole story as we walk along together, if you are going in the direction of this path.”

As we walked together, he told me the following story. The old man spoke in such a poetic and energetic way that I wish I was able to infuse these qualities into my translation. But, for a wider audience I have had to write in English, which is a much colder language than Irish and fails to do justice to the wonderfully poetical language of the story.

“Many a biting March wind has passed over the heads of men since Colonel Berry lived at Lisnarick, whose veins had the true blood of one of old Strongbow’s chiefs, who became a sovereign prince in the land. His forebears had formed strong alliances with the ancient owners of the land, eventually renouncing any Anglo-Saxon connection and name. This noble family subsequently gloried in the title of McCoille and the colonel did nothing in his life that would bring shame on his forebears. He kept open house for all comers, and every day an ox was killed and consumed at Lisnarick. All the influential men of note in the province came there to hunt, fish and hawk. To feast and lodge there and enjoy the hall, which was always crowded with harpers and pipers, rich men and beggars, and jesters and story-tellers, who came and went as they pleased, in constant succession.” Then the old man let out a long sigh, “I can recall some of these good old times, but now they are vanished and gone for ever. The great hospitality that was so much a part of the chieftain’s hall has gone now and the hall has become a hovel on the moor. The wanderer now turns from the great towers of a Lord’ home, seeks the shelter of the peasant’s shed!

Davey Berry and his seven brothers lived with McCoille and held his name and family. Whether McCoille went hunting on horseback, or took the opportunity to shoot, or moved among the high and titled families of the land, they always went with him. They acted like a sort of body-guard, share in his sports or helping him assert his will in any quarrels. At that time, on the banks of the Bann, near the ruined tower of Shanlieve, lived a man named Edward Berry. On his farm there was a thick and thorny thicket that, for many years had been the hiding place for a fox. This, however, was no normal fox. This fox was famous throughout the Province and was celebrated for the extraordinary speed and prowess that he had shown to those many men who had tried so hard to hunt him down. There had, indeed, been many gallant and noble huntsmen sought the honour of bearing that fox’s tail as a trophy. But all efforts had been in vain and after exhausting both hounds and horses in the arduous pursuit the fox invariably returned every night to his favourite sanctuary. To outsiders it seems that a treaty of peace existed between Edward Berry and the fox. Edward’s poultry for several years, whether they sought the banks of the Bann or the barn door, never suffered because the fox was nearby. It would mix with Barry’s dogs and spend an hour or two playing with them, almost as if he belonged to the same species. Mr. Berry gave his wild crafty friend the same protection and freedom that he permitted his own domestic animals. The fame of this strange union of interests was widespread and even to this day the memory of Berry’s fox survives in the traditions of the country.

One evening as McCoille and his followers returned from a long and unsuccessful chase of Edward Berry’s fox, their route lay by the ruins of the ancient church of Killygann. Near this sacred spot a whitethorn tree had stood, and its beauty and bloom were talked about by every man, woman, and child. The simple prayerful folk who poured their petitions to God beneath its holy shade believed that the hands of guardian angels pruned its luxuriance and developed its form of beauty. They believed also that dewfall from heaven was sprinkled by angel hands to produce its rich and beautiful blossoms, which filled the cold winds of December with many tokens of holy fragrance that welcomed the heavenly coming Him who left his Father’s throne to restore to the sons of Adam the lost inheritance of heaven. McCoille was so enamoured by the beauty of the tree and caring little for its sanctity or the superstitious awe that was attached to it, he was firmly resolved to move it to his home at Lisnarick. He wanted his lawn to have that rare species of thorn which blooms in beauty when all other trees in the field are bare and barren.

Next day, when McCoille made known his intention to remove the sacred whitethorn of Kilygann, his people were astonished at his blatant lack of respect for tradition. In response they all declared that they would resist until death any attempt to commit such an audacious act of sacrilege. Now, McCoille was not a man who would permit resistance to his will and had always been accustomed to his commands being obeyed immediately and without question. When he found that his men were now refusing to obey him he exploded with uncontrollable anger. He cursed and damned all those who were standing around him, shouting, “Traitors!  You have all eaten at my table and enjoyed the hospitality of McCoille, and you have all sought and been given my protection. Yet, there are none you who are grateful enough to abandon your superstitious nonsense and carry out my commands!”

“Here, my Lord, are seven of your own name and Clan,” cried Davey Berry, “men who are sworn to stand or fall together, who obey no commands but yours, and acknowledge no law but your will. The whitethorn of Killygann shall leave its sacred place, if their strong hands and brave hearts can manage its removal. If it be a sacrilege to disturb the tree, which generations have revered, the curse for this sacrilege does not rest on us. Even should McCoille command us to tear the blessed gold from the shrine of a saint, we would not hesitate to obey him. We are just carrying out the will of our legal chieftain.”

They sang McCoille’s praises as they marched to where the tree had stood for many centuries, and they immediately proceeded to desecrate the spot that was made holy by those who had revered it over the ages. Such was the reverence shown to this holy whitethorn that a mystic circle surrounded it, within which no mortal foot may go. But, men have committed many wrongs and salved their consciences by convincing themselves that they acted in obedience to the commands of their leaders, and that a prayer of contrition will purify their souls.

That same evening McCoille saw the beautiful whitethorn planted in his garden and many were thanked for bringing it to him. Gold and rank were his rewards to those faithful men who had risen to the challenge and overcome the terrors of superstition to carry out his commands. But, McCoille was very much surprised when Davey Berry interrupted his morning sleep and announced that the tree had disappeared during the night. Confusion when he told his chieftain that the tree was again planted where it had stood for ages before, in the ancient cemetery of Killygann. McCoille was convinced that the tree venerated by the people had been secretly taken by them during the night to where it formerly stood. He immediately sent his most trusted men bring it back and stand guard until morning.

The Berry brothers obeyed the call of their chief and brought the whitethorn back. They replanted the tree, carefully covering its roots with rich mould, and made ready to watch over it all night. It proved to be a long and dark night, and they were wide awake. The night-breeze had stilled and all of nature appeared to have been mysteriously silenced. In this strange quietness a deep and undefinable feeling of dread crept into the hearts of the guards. These were men who had been tried and tested in the heat of battle but were now frightened by this fearful calmness. Their normal steadfast obedience to the commands of McCoille could not still their hearts against the remorse they began to feel, and there was talk amongst them against the sacrilege he had committed. As the night advanced their fear increased and they spread out their watchful circle around the mysterious tree. Davey, the eldest and bravest of the brothers, finally fell asleep. But, his short and fitful dozes were disturbed by wild and indistinct dreams. Then, as his sleep settled down and those vague images disappeared, the following vision came into his mind –

He began to dream that as he was keeping watch by the sacred whitethorn of Killygann, there stood before him a saintly man. This man’s radiant features and shining ancient clothing illuminated the entire area around him, piercing far into the darkness that surrounded him. In his hand he held a crosier, and upon his head sat a towering mitre. His long, white beard descended to the belt that encircled his rich bishop’s clothes, and he looked every inch the mitred abbot of some ancient monastery, which the rage of the English reformation had levelled to dust. The face of this saintly man, however, bore a fearfully severe expression, and the sleeping man fell to the ground, prostrate before the piercing eye that searched his inner-most soul.

“Wretched man,” said the shining apparition, in a thunderous voice, “ lift your head and listen carefully to your fate, and the fate that shall befall your sacrilegious brothers.”

Berry lifted his head in obedience to the instruction he received, though his soul sank within him, as stood before this dreadful voice and eye of terror. “Because you have violated the sanctity of this place” the holy man continued, “which has been consecrated to God, you and your family shall wander homeless ever more as beggars, and your heads, as a sign and a warning to future generations, shall suffer the pelting of every storm, and the severity of every changing season, unprotected by the defence that nature has bestowed upon all other men. This curse will last until your name and family be erased from memory.”

After hearing this angry denunciation against him the terrified man fell to the ground prostrate pleading for mercy, and he awakened with a cry of terror which alarmed the other guards. As he began to tell them about the terrible vision he had seen in his sleep, there was a crash of thunder, a flash of lightning, and the sweep of a whirlwind, which enveloped them all. As the new day dawned, the guards were to be found senseless, and at a considerable distance from the spot where they had lain the preceding night to guard the sacred tree. The thorn had also disappeared and, most strangely of all, the long black hair that shone like a raven’s wing, and was their pride, no longer adorned their heads. The fierce whirlwind, that had tossed them about, like the stubble of the field, had brought reality the dream, and removed their thick, long hair in its vengefulness.”

This was the story of the of the ‘Bald Berrys’ as it was told to me and I hand it on to you, the reader. I will make no further comment or note on this story, but I leave it to you to decide the truth of it. Some will question how an apparently cultured people can attribute the downfall of families, or the entailment of hereditary disease, to be caused by supernatural intervention. Others will remind you of an old saying –

             “There are more things in heaven

and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your

philosophy.”

Bob Harte Part II

It was over a year since the tragic death of Paddy Slane when the Curate of the Church was given a letter that was delivered to him by hand. The letter that he received was a polite request for a funeral to be conducted within the Church, and it contained a series of instructions as to how the family wished the grave to be prepared. Because it was not the responsibility of the Curate to act upon such instructions personally, and he, therefore,     sent a message to Bob Harte, asking him if he would call at the Curate’s house to be briefed on the family’s requests.

It was a heavy, early autumn night and there were large numbers of threatening thunder-clouds slowly rising from the earth, loading the sky with a dark and foreboding storm canopy. The deep, low growl of a distant thunder and could be heard echoing over many miles on the dull, still air of the night. It appeared almost as if all of nature had chosen to cower under the threatening influence of the approaching storm. The old clock in the hall had just struck nine o’clock when Bob put on his coal-black coat, and he readied himself to attend to the Curate’s message.

Listen to me now, Bobby darlin’,” said Bob’s wife quietly as she handed him his hat, after she had taken it from the hat-rack. “Will you just go straight there and come straight home again,  won’t you Bobby darlin’? You’ll not go near, the you know where?

What are you talking about, woman?” he replied rather tersely and snatched his hat from her hand.

Ah, Bobby, sure you’ll not go near the pub at all?” she asked, in a pleading tone of voice, as she moved her hand away to avoid her husband’s grasp.

Now, why would I want to be doing such a thing, woman? Just give me my hat, for God’s sake, so I can be on my way! It’s already late.

But, Bobby, will you not just promise me you won’t? Now promise me, darling!” she pleaded with him as tears filled her eyes.

Ay, ay, of course I’ll promise you. Sure, why would I not?” he replied in a way that showed his frustration with his wife’s constant pleas.

Ah now, Bobby, I hear you talking, but you’re not giving me your solemn promise,” she pressed him.

Listen, woman!” said Bob, “May the devil take me if I should take a single drop of drink until I come back home again! Now, will you give my head a bit of peace now?

It will my darlin’,” she smiled, “and may God keep you safe.

With this parting blessing from the lips of his wife, Bob Harte went out of the door, breathing a lot easier as his wife closed the door behind him. The night was, by this time, quite dark as Bob stepped out on to the street, while his wife, contented by her husband’s promise, returned to her armchair in the living room, where she resumed her knitting and would wait until he returned. These last few weeks she had been very worried that, perhaps, Bob had taken to drinking much more often. This would, of course, be inconsistent with his apparent reformation from previous indiscretions. Her deepest fear, however, was the temptations provided by at least a half-dozen public houses that he would have to pass on his way to the curate’s house, which stood at the other end of the town. Despite the lateness of the hour, these ‘pubs’ would still be open for business, and they gave off a sweet aroma of whiskey and porter, which smelled so enticing to a drinking man. But, true to his word, Bob continued on his way, passing each of them without once turning his head in their direction. Bob deliberately put his hands into his coat pockets and looked straight ahead as he walked, whistling a merry tune to himself, and thinking only of his forthcoming meeting with the curate and the fee that he would get for the work he would be asked to do. In this manner Bob made his way, safely avoiding all temptation, to the curate’s house feeling very pleased with himself.

At length, Bob reached the curate’s house and knocked on the front door, which was answered by the housekeeper. She informed Bob that the curate had been called out unexpectedly to attend to a very ill parishioner, but she told him that he could sit in the hall and await the curate’s return. There Bob sat in a large blood-leather armchair amusing himself by reading some magazines, that lay on the hall table, and biting his nails until the clergyman returned home. The minutes passes slowly into hours as he waited and waited. But, it was not until almost half-past eleven that the cleric returned home, and it was just gone midnight when Bob finally set out on his journey home. By this time, however, the storm clouds had gathered to a deep, pitch darkness and the roars of thunder could be heard above the barren rocks and hollows of the distant mountains. Pale, blue lightning flashes broke the darkness, reflecting upon the rain soaked facades of the houses. Bob was fully aware that, by this time of the night, every door in the street would be closed and securely locked. But, as he trudged his way home, Bob’s eyes strained through the gloom as he sought out the public-house which had once belonged to late friend, Paddy Slane.

XMAS 3When he came to the building, Bob noticed a faint light making its way through the slats in the window shutter, as well as the frosted-glass panes over the door-way, which created a sort of dull, foggy, and mystical halo about the front of the public houses. Now that Bob’s eyes had become very much accustomed to the darkness of the night, that faint halo of light was just enough illumination to allow him to see a strange figure of a man before him. The closer that Bob came to the strange man he began to notice that the man was wearing a type of loose overcoat, which was tightly pulled around him as he sat upon a wooden seat that was firmly fixed into the pavement below the pub’s huge main window. The seated figure was also wearing a large, broad-brimmed hat that hung very much over his eyes, and he was smoking a long, strangely shaped pipe.

On the seat, at the side of the stranger, Bob could just discern the outline of a glass and, also, a half -bottle was dimly noticeable on the pavement, just to the side of his foot. The longer that he watched this strange figure, the more certain he was that there was something extremely odd about him. This stranger had the appearance of travelling man, who had simply stopped to refresh himself on that wooden bench in a rain-soaked street. At first, Bob thought it was likely this stranger had been drinking in the pub when it closed for the night. He thought that, perhaps, this stranger had taken what remained of his drink out to the seat, where he could enjoy it as he watched the lightning flashes light up the sky. At any other time, it is likely that Bob would have given the stranger a friendly greeting as he passed him by. On this particular night, however, Bob Harte was feeling quite low in his spirits, and was certainly not in any kind of mood to be genial to any stranger. Just as he was about to pass the seated man without greeting him, the stranger lifted his half-bottle of whiskey and, without removing the pipe from his mouth, he beckoned Bob over to him. At the same time, with a slight nod of his head, and a shrug of his shoulders, the stranger indicated he wanted Bob to share his seat and his bottle.

Bob watched as the man shifted along the seat to the end, making room for Bob to sit down. There was a wonderful aroma of malt whiskey coming from the area where the man sat, and Bob was sorely tempted by it. But he recalled the promise he had made to his wife, which reinforced his will-power just as it began to weaken, and he politely told the stranger, “No. But, I thank you for your kind offer, sir, but I cannot stop for a drink this night.”

The stranger, however, was not to be so easily placated, and he beckoned to Bob even more vehemently. He pointed to the empty space on the seat beside him, as if commanding Bob to sit. This time he gave the strange man a smile as he, once again, began to excuse himself, “Thanks again for your very polite offer, but I’m very late as it is, and I don’t have any time to spare. So, I wish you a very good night.

 Jingling his glass against the neck of the whiskey bottle, the stranger was suggesting that Bob could at least swallow one mouthful of the whiskey without losing much time. He was sorely tempted, and he wondered what harm a mouthful of whiskey would him. Although his mouth watered at the prospect, he remembered the promise that he had made. Bob shook his head strongly to demonstrate that his decision was now final and, there was nothing that would move him from his resolve. But, as Bob walked on, the stranger arose from his seat with his pipe still in mouth. He had the whiskey bottle in one hand, the glass in the other, and he now began to follow close behind the sacristan. This now caused Bob some major concern, and he quickly became very suspicious of the stranger’s intentions.

Bob now began to quicken his step and listened intently as the stranger followed close behind him. The sacristan now began to feel very anxious about this pursuit and he nervously turned around to face the stranger. He was still very close behind Bob, and he was continuing to invite him to share in his liquor, with increasingly impatient gestures.

I have already told you,’ said Bob, who was both angry and frightened, ‘I don’t want a drink and that’s final! Now just go away! Take yourself and your whiskey bottle and go!” The stranger, however, continued to approach him very slowly, causing him to become irritated and angrily he shouted at him, “In God’s name, get back from me and stop tormenting me in this way!

But, even as he spoke these words Bob recognised that his words and attitude had only increased the anger building within the stranger. In response to Bob the stranger began to shake the whiskey bottle toward him with violent, menacing gestures. Bob continued hastily on his way and the distance between him and the stranger increased considerably. As they both continued along the street Bob could see the stranger following behind, because his pipe gave off such a warm, wonderful red glow, which duskily illuminated the stranger’s entire figure despite the darkness of the badly lit street. Bob stopped again and called out to the stranger in a rage, “I just wish you would go to the devil, whoever you are!

Just get away from me!” he shouted as he hurried away. But, as he walked and looked back, over his shoulder, to discover that much to his dismay, the infuriating stranger was as close as ever to him.

Damn you to hell,” cried out Bob in desperation as he began to feel himself almost overcome with fear and rage. “Just what is it you want of me?

The strange man just ignored Bob’s anger in Bob’s voice and approached him even more confidently than before. He continued nodding his head and extending both glass and bottle toward Bob as he moved ever closer. Then, out of the darkness behind the stranger , Bob noticed a large black horse following them in virtual silence.

You can keep your temptations to yourself, you devil, for there is nothing but a dark evil that surrounds you,” cried Bob Harte as he felt a real sense of terror spread rapidly through his entire body. “Will you just leave me alone?” he called out aloud as he fumbled through his confused mind for a suitable prayer to rescue him from what was, he thought, a servant of Satan. Realising that he was now very close to his own front door, Bob quickened his pace to a jog rather than a walk.

As he came to the front door of his house, Bob hammered his fist upon it and called out, “Let me in, let me in, for God’s sake! Molly, please open the door!” He was breathing heavily by this time and, weak with exhaustion, he leant his back against the heavy wooden door. From the street the strange man now confronted him and, although there was no longer a pipe in his mouth, a dusky red glow still lingered around him. From the depths of his body the stranger uttered some indescribable, cavernous sounds, which imitated closely the growls of a great wolf, or some other indescribable beast. Meanwhile, just as he uttered his strange howl, he poured some of the liquid from the bottle into the glass.

Hysterical with fear, Bob kicked at the front door with all the force he could muster and, despairingly, he tearfully screamed, ‘In the name of God Almighty, once and for all, leave me alone!

After Bob had recovered he was told that it was likely the strange figure of a man, who had sat upon the wooden seat outside Paddy Slane’s ‘pub’ was actually the spectre of Paddy’s suicide. It was suggested to Bob that this spectre had been summoned by the ‘Evil One’ to lure the church sacristan into abandoning the promise that he had solemnly sworn to his wife. The person who interpreted Bob’s encounter with this evil spectre suggested that if the apparition had succeeded in his task, it is more than likely that the ghostly, black horse that had appeared would have carried a double burden back to the underworld.

As a matter of proof that these events happened as described, the old thorn tree which overhung the front door of the house was found, in the morning, to have been blasted with the infernal stream of fire flung by the evil spectre from the glass. It looked just like a lightning-bolt had scorched the front of the house, and it was to remain in that condition for several years, because people of the town were too afraid to repair the damage they believed had been caused by the ‘fires of hell.”.

Bob Harte Part I

The following story concerns a well known character, who resided in this town over one hundred years ago, which was just before the Great War began in 1914. He was employed as a church sacristan and caretaker who worked in and about the town’s impressive Church of Ireland Church. Known to all as Bob Harte, he was a familiar figure about town, who was much respected by some, and disliked by most of the young boys in the place. He spoiled every effort they made to play truant from school in the expansive grounds that were a part of the Church. There and in the adjoining grave-yard these children would play their war-games among the many trees and tombstones. In the warmth of long summer evenings Bob would chase and chastise the local boys whom he found climbing the many bushes to seek out the nests of bats, sparrows and other birds.

There were occasions, while patrolling the grounds, that Bob would discover groups of boys peeping through a small, mysterious window that gave them a view into a dark, dusty room within the Church basement. They would gasp at the lidless coffins that gaped horribly back at them from among large, tattered wine-coloured, dust filled, velvet drapes. In the dim light that was provided by several small windows the observers could see what appeared to be various bones that lay strewn over the floor and covered with the dust of time. But, the enterprising young observers almost always were caught by the constantly alert Mr. Harte, who could often deal out his own form of punishment. These local boys considered Bob Harte to be a scourge on their enjoyment, constantly terrorising them. Even Bob’s personal appearance did not help to improve their perception of this man, because he was always dressed in black from head to toe.

Bob Harte was an imposing figure of a man; tall, thin and lanky, who seemed always to wear the same clothes, which never appeared to fit him correctly. He had a small, pointed and emotionless face covered with a sallow coloured skin that was matched by his cold, grey eyes. To add to the man’s strange appearance, his head was crowned by a mop of rust-brown hair that he usually left ungroomed. To many of the older generation Bob’s appearance was not at all startling, and they considered him to be a very devout man adhered strongly to his very strict conservative moral standards. In reality, however, just because he loudly upheld such convictions didn’t mean that he had no vices. Just as working in the Church and its grounds did not make him a saint. There were many occasions when Bob’s apparent severe sense of morality took time out and he suddenly became a genial sort of a man, who very much enjoyed some of life’s vices, particularly smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol.

The caretaker had many hidden talents that very few knew about, one of these was the great memory he had for recalling tales of all kinds, and a real talent for being able to relate those stories to others in a very entertaining manner. Being a man of almost sixty years, he was a deep well of knowledge about the history of the town and the people who lived in it, both past and present. One thing always seemed to surprise those who would listen to his tales and that was the seemingly never ending supply of local stories, which were often true and very amusing. But, at the same time, Bob was also very well known for telling dark tales of terror, which he particularly relished relating to an attentive audience.

In most people’s eyes, Bob’s job as a caretaker and a, sometime, grave digger gave some semblance of truth to the stories that he told. He appeared to know what he was talking about when he began to speak of graves, goblins, ghosts and banshees. At the same time, his involvement in church weddings, baptisms and other Church celebrations helped him in maintaining when relating stories about the fuss, the tears and the secret meetings between men and women on such occasions. Furthermore, being aged sixty-years old, Bob had the great ability to tell interesting stories concerning the history of the town, because he had personally gathered an almost inexhaustible amount of accurate and entertaining local anecdotes during his lifetime.

Common sense would tell you that working for the Church as a sacristan and caretaker was not among the most financially reading of jobs in any society. In fact, the income that Bob earned from his work in the Church could hardly provide him with what would be normally regarded as a living wage. As a result, therefore, he was often called upon to supplement his meagre wage with income from several other jobs, for which he had the necessary talents. Indeed, quite a few of these extra employment opportunities would be considered by some as being far from dignified work for a man of his standing within the community. As in many of these cases, however, it was always a case off “when needs must” that encouraged Bob to take them upon himself.

One particular, and sometimes unpopular, way that Bob had was his regular gate-crashing of parties. There was also his annoying habit of imposing himself on small drinking groups that might just contain one or two people that he knew only as a passing acquaintance. But, wherever he was and whatever group he would impose himself into, Bob would entertain the people with his amusing stories. When the occasion demanded, he would select tales of terror, or local anecdotes, from his huge reservoir of stories. His one saving grace on these occasions was his choice not belittle himself by accepting drinks of any type as payment for telling his stories. He preferred payment in coin that was given to him, or he underhandedly salted away from those careless enough to leave their change on a table, or counter-top.

There was one particular person, called Paddy Slane, who had a genuine liking for the company of Bob and, indeed, always welcomed him to enjoy his ‘craic’. Paddy Slane was owner of a popular local public bar that stood in the centre of the town, and quickly became Bob’s local public bar. But, Paddy was far from any person’s idea of a jolly, fun-loving barkeeper, because he was, probably, the most gloomy and depressing person you could have ever had the misfortune to come across. Normally, when left to his own devices, Paddy never drank excessively. It must be said, however, that being a sombre man with a melancholic personality, Paddy always found himself in need of something, or someone to raise his spirits from the depths of the despair into which he fell. Bob Harte was just the man to fill this need, and Paddy began to develop a close with him. Over the years that followed Bob became the only real bright, entertaining source of light in Paddy’s dark personal life.

When he was in Bob Harte’s company, Paddy appeared to be a different man. He seemed to be freed from all of his melancholia, smiling as he listened to the fascinating stories and marvellous tales that Bob told him. It is, sadly, a fact that their friendship did not contribute positively to the credit, or the honour, of either man with regard to their reputation, or prosperity. In this case it wasn’t a matter of Bob taking a coin as payment for telling his stories. He would much rather accept a drink. Bob’s apparent conservative moral values did not quite stretch to his enjoyment of strong alcohol, and it was not unknown for him to drink far more than was good for his health.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Bob’s drinking habits did very little to enhance his character as a functionary of the church. At the same time, Paddy Slane found himself being drawn into a very similar lifestyle because he too began to find it was increasingly difficult to resist the urgings of his gifted and genial companion to enjoy himself. Paddy, being the owner of the public house in which Bob always drank, continually felt that he, under the circumstances, was the person to pay for all the drinks they had consumed. All the other regulars of the public house could only sit and watch what was happening to Paddy. As the weeks passed into months, these customers became increasingly aware that both Paddy’s wallet and bank balance was suffering just as much as his head and liver because of this friendship with Bob Harte. The men could see exactly what was happening and began to hold Bob Harte responsible, as the man who had turned the once respectable businessman into a virtual alcoholic. As the rumours about him spread Bob’s reputation in the town slid rapidly downward with his character, in the estimation of many.

There were some in the town, however, who saw Paddy Slane as the man who had encourages Bob Harte to be an even bigger blackguard than he had been before they met. Because of his generous habit of buying all the drinks for his binges with Bob, it came as no surprise to many that, under such circumstances, the accounts of Paddy’s public house became somewhat disorganised. Very quickly his once lucrative town centre hostelry began to become overcome with financial difficulties, increasing Paddy’s depression. Finally, one bright summer’s day, when the weather was warm, heavy and humid, Paddy decided to leave the bar in the capable hands of one of his barmen. This was not unusual for him to do this and quietly retire into the quieter back room, which was his office.

The accounts books for the business were laid out untidily across a large desk, behind which was a tall dirty, dusty window that overlooked a boring, red brick wall that hid the outside world from view. Paddy turned the key in the lock and then went immediately to sit down on the office chair at the desk. The small desk drawer to Paddy’s left was nervously pulled out to reveal everything that he had expected to be in it. Reaching quite gingerly into the desk drawer, Paddy took hold of a loaded pistol that he had kept hidden there. Hesitatingly, Paddy gripped the muzzle of the gun, wrapping his fingers around it and guiding the pistol into his open mouth. Then, closing his eyes, Paddy muttered a short prayer to himself, and gently squeezed the trigger. There was a mighty explosion that echoed throughout the back area of the public house. At the same time the upper portion of his head was blown off by the force of the shot. Blood, splattered out of the large exit wound in his head, which spread widely across the ceiling above, and the dusty window behind him.

The barman and the customers in the bar heard the explosion of the bullet, and immediately rushed to the office door in the rear of the building. Finding the office door locked against them, broke the door open and saw Paddy’s body lying on the floor at the rear of his desk. As they stood over the body the witnesses saw deep red blood flowing rapidly across the linoleum floor covering to form a large pool. The news of Paddy Slane’s tragic death spread throughout the town like an uncontrollable bush fire, and there was a deep sense of loss felt by many of the residents, who had once held the man in high esteem.

Bob Harte was, himself, very shocked by the news of the horrible incident, and the manner in which Paddy took his own life. Paddy had, after all, had been both his benefactor and his friend. There were some in the town whose opinions had turned against Bob and, quite uncharitably, suggested that the grief he was feeling was due, entirely, to selfish reasons. His sorrow, they alleged, was due, for the most part, to the fact that he would now find it very difficult to find himself a new source of free hospitality on the scale that he had enjoyed from Paddy Slane. But, for a period of time after the tragedy, Bob stopped drinking alcohol in any form, and he also ceased his once frequent calls on the town’s many public houses.

During this short period of time, Bob presented himself almost as a paragon of virtue; a perfect example of temperance and sobriety for others. There were some, of course, who preferred not to believe that Bob’s new sober lifestyle was simply a pretence. They spread rumours that Bob, on several recent occasions, had been found to be rather the worse for wear a far as his alcohol intake was concerned. Some suggested that people had found Bob late at night, on several occasions, in a drunken stupor. Others said that he was, sometimes, found wandering the streets of the town in a highly intoxicated condition. Many of the rumour mongers tried very hard to convince people that Bob had been forced to change his wicked ways simply because of the threat made to him by church authorities. It was said that he was made aware of the possibility of dismissal from all his church offices if he did not curb his over indulgence in alcohol. The truth, however, was that Bob Harte was determined to observe his resolution to remain sober, much to the pleasure of his wife, and to the total surprise of his neighbours. Never again was Bob Harte found drunk in public or, for that matter, even the slightest bit tipsy. In fact, so incredible was the overall change in the man that people who, at one time, would never have given him the time-of-day on the streets of this town, now greeted him warmly as he passed them by.

The Christmas Horror Final

Part III

Spirit Council“Still smiling bravely I closed her door behind me and, as I crossed the landing a bright light came from another room, whose door was left slightly open. The light fell like a golden path across my way and, as I approached the light’s source, the door opened wider and my sister Lucy came out. She had bee waiting for me and came out in a white cashmere robe, over which her loosened dark hair hung heavily, like tangles of silk. “Rose,” she whispered, “Mary and I cannot bear the idea of you sleeping in that place, all alone. That isolated bedroom, and the very room the old housekeeper used to talk about! Mary has already given up her room to come to sleep in mine. We would also like for you to stay with us, for tonight at least still we should so wish you to stop with us to-night at least. We could make up a bed on the sofa for me or you–“ I stopped Lucy’s speech with a kiss of thanks.

“I declined Lucy’s offer and did not allow her to finish her plea to me. I was angry, full of self-pride, and I would have done anything but accept a proposal that was made in the belief that my nerves had been shaken by all the ghostly tales that had been told. I wondered if they really thought that I was a weak, superstitious little girl, unable to spend a night in a strange bedroom. Again I kissed Lucy and bade her good-night, before proceeding on my way with a laugh, just to show that I was not frightened. Yet, as I looked back along the dark corridor and could see Lucy’s door was still open and she was peering after me. For a moment I wanted to return to her, but a sense of shame at such cowardice forced me to go on, and I waved her good night.

“Turning the corner, I peeped back over my shoulder and saw the door close, extinguishing the light and bringing back the darkness. Just at that very moment I thought I heard a heavy sigh, and I looked sharply around to see where the noise was coming from. But, there was no one there, and there no door was open. Yet, I did hear with great clarity a sigh, which was breathed not far from where I stood. It was a clear sigh, and not to be confused with the groan of tree branches as the wind outside tossed them to and. I was afraid, and my nervous system was kicking in as my imagination began to play strange tricks on me.

“Ahead of me lay the picture-gallery and I had never passed this part of the house without light before. There was a gloomy array of tall portraits whose eyes seemed to follow my every movement. The lozenge-paned or painted windows rattled as the wind blew fiercely past them. In the darkness many of the portraits looked stern and very different from their daylight expression. In other portraits a furtive, flickering smile seemed to mock me as my torch light illuminated them. Not surprisingly, I felt ill at ease under their stony gaze, though I knew that they were not real people. To ease my passage I smiled and hummed a song to myself. I would even laugh to myself at some of those pictures as I confronted them, and slowly, nervously continued on my way in silence.

“Shaking off my earlier fears, I blushed at my weakness, and continued to look for my room, very happy that I was the only one to witness my trembling. As I entered my room I thought I heard something move in the much neglected ‘glory-hole’, which was the only neighbouring room to mine. But I was determined not to let my nerves send me into a panic again and I closed my eyes and ears to slight noise. After all, between the rats and the wind, an old manor-house on a stormy night needs no ghosts or other spirits to disturb it. So, I entered the bedroom, and rang for a maid. But, as I did so, I looked around my room, and a terrible, inexplicable repugnance to my new surroundings overcame me, despite of my best efforts.

“This was not a simple chill that made my body shiver, and could be easily shaken off. There was an intense feeling of dislike, accompanied by a deep sense of apprehension; the sort of instinct that allows us to regard certain places and people are not entirely beneficial to us. Some of you will undoubtedly consider such things as being irrational, but it is by instinct that we often can distinguish friends from enemies. It is often said, ‘Show me a man whom children and dogs shrink from, and I will show you a bad man, who speaks lies, and has murder in his heart.’ So, we should never despise the gift of instinct that causes the horse to tremble when the lion crouches in the thicket. As I looked around me in this strange bedroom I felt the presence of danger, and yet I could not explain why I should feel this way. It was a nice room, with drawn green damask curtains, a warm fire burning bright in the hearth, and small table lamps that provided light. The pretty little white bed, also, looked peaceful and inviting, promising me a peaceful night’s sleep.

“My maid arrived in the room and immediately began to assist in my preparations for bed. She was a friendly face on a night when I just did not want to be on my own, and I shamelessly encouraged her to gossip. In fact we gossiped so much that it took Maura, the maid, a half an hour longer than usual to get through her duties. Then, when all was done that had to be done, Maura asked me if there was anything more that I required from her. She gave a little yawn as she spoke, and I felt sorry for having kept her so long. “There’s nothing more,” I told her and she left me, closing the door gently behind her.

“With the closing of the bedroom door I was left all alone once again, and I quickly began to feel very uneasy. Everything that was in the room that I had previously liked, I now took a terrible dislike. In fact, I was sorely tempted to put on a dressing-gown and run, half-dressed, through the corridors to my sisters’ room, and tell them that I had a change of mind and wanted to take up their kind offer to sleep in their room. But thinking that they must be asleep by this time, I decided it would not be very kind to awaken them again. Instead, I said my prayers with a little more earnestness than was usual and with a heavy heart I put out the lamp. I was just about to lay my head on my pillow, when I suddenly had the idea that I should lock bedroom door with the key. The flames from the burning fire were enough to guide me in the darkness and I quickly managed to reach the door. There was indeed a lock, but it would not allow me to turn the key in it, no matter how hard I tried. It was evident that there was, at one time, a bolt on the door, but it was now broken and completely worthless to me. Contenting myself that there was nothing more that I could do I returned to my bed, where I lay awake for a good while, watching the red glow of the burning coals in the grate.

“Everything was quiet now, and I was feeling a lot more composed within my mind. Talking to Maura had done me a lot of good and had helped divert my thoughts. I was just about to drop off to sleep, when I was suddenly disturbed, twice. The first occasion was caused by an owl, which was hooting from its hiding place within the ivy outside my window. It was a sound that I had heard many times but, this time, it much more harsh and melancholy. The second disturbance was a long and mournful howl created by the family’s large hound that had been chained-up in the yard. It was a long-drawn out howl, and sounded almost as if it was heralding a death in the family. I knew, of course, that this was nonsense, but I could not help feeling that those mournful tones were sad, and expressed the dog’s terror of something evil that it could sense nearby. But, my body was tired and I soon fell asleep in that small, comfortable bed.

“I cannot tell how long I slept, but I awoke at once with an abrupt start which took me from a state of utter unconsciousness to the full use of my senses in a matter of seconds. The coals in the fire were still burning in the grate, but the light it radiated was very low, and more than half the room was now in deep shadow. Instantly I felt that there was someone, or something, in the room with me, but, in the low light nothing unusual could be seen. Nevertheless, I could sense that there was a danger present, and it was that sense of peril that had aroused me from my sleep. I experienced that chill and shock of alarm, knowing that there was an intruder in that room who was invisible to me. My ears were attuned  to hear the slightest sound that might give away the intruder’s position, but I could only hear the faint sounds of the fire, and the loud, irregular beatings of my own heart.

“Perhaps it was intuition that told me that I was not alone in that room. I waited, and my heart pounded quicker, and its pulsations grew as my fear deepened. It was this time that I heard a faint, distinct sound of a chain rattling, and I tried to lift my head from the pillow. Although the light was very dim I saw the curtains shake, and I caught a glimpse of something darker beyond them. I tried to cry out, but I could not utter a single word. The chain rattled again, but much louder and clearer this time. In the dim darkness, I caught a glimpse of something, but no matter how hard I tried I could not penetrate the shadows at the other end of the room, where the noise appeared to be generated.  My mind was now suddenly filled with all sorts of questions. Was it a robber? Could it be a supernatural visitor? Or was I the victim of some sort of an unpleasant practical joke? My anxiety levels continued to rise, restraining me and preventing me from speaking.

“Then the chain clanked nearer to my bed as I began to notice a dusky, shapeless mass appear between the curtains on the opposite side to where I was lying. I could hear no sound but that of the curtains rustling and the clash of the iron chains. Suddenly, the dying flames of the fire leaped up, and the door to the room was firmly closed. It was then that I saw something resembling human form that now threw itself heavily upon the bed, and lay there, huge and dark, in the red gleam that now died away after arousing so much fear and returned the room to darkness. There was now no light in the room, though the red cinders remaining in the hearth glowed like the eyes of wild beasts. The chain did not rattle again, but I still tried to scream wildly for help. My mouth was so parched, my tongue refused to co-operate and I could not utter a cry.  Even if I could have called out I could not be sure that anyone would have heard me from my lonely room, which was so far from another living being. The storm that howled outside would have easily drowned out my pleas, even if help had been nearer to hand. To call out aloud would have been both useless and perilous, especially if the intruder was a robber and my calls had angered him to violence. Whatever it was that lay by my side could not be seen and I began to pray aloud as my mind filled with images from the weird and fascinating stories of my childhood. The spirits of wicked men that were forced to revisit the scenes of their earthly crimes, of demons that skulked about in certain accursed spots, of ghouls and vampires that wandered among the graves, which they broke into and gather for their ghostly banquets. Thoughts of such creatures caused me to shudder and I could feel it stirring beside me, moaning hoarsely. Again I heard the clinking of chains close to me, and I pulled myself away from it in my fear and loathing. I did not know what the presence was, but I was certain that it was something malignant, and a harbinger of evil.

“Although I was very much afraid, I knew that I dared not speak. I wanted to be silent, because I was still convinced that, whatever this presence was, it had not yet discovered that I was in the room with it. And then I remembered all the events of the night, Lady Hurst’s ill-omened half-warnings, and particularly my sister’s remark that this was the room the old housekeeper used to warn us to avoid. Then I recalled the long-forgotten repute that this disused room had gained, the many grievous sins it had witnessed, the blood that had been spilled, the poison administered by unnatural hate and greed, and the stories that condemned it as haunted. It was ‘The Green Room’, and how the servants avoided it, how it was rarely mentioned, and then only in whispers, when we were children. The entire household regarded it as a mysterious place that was totally unfit for mortal habitation. I wondered if this presence was the creature which haunted the room, and what type of creature was it?

“The chain faintly rattled again and the hair on my head bristled at the sound, as my eyes strained in their sockets, and the cold sweat of terror dripped from my brow. My heart did not beat so freely, occasionally appearing to stop, and sometimes its pulses were hurried, which caused my breaths to be short and extremely difficult. Although my body shivered, as if it was cold, I was still much too fearful to move. But, the mysterious presence moved, moaned, and its chains clanked dismally, while the bed creaked and shook. This presence, therefore, was not a spectre, but something very solid and real that its presence increased my terror a thousand times. At that moment I felt that I was in the grasp of something both evil and dangerous, in the presence of which I was now sick with fear. In desperation I slipped silently from the bed, grabbed a nearby dressing-gown, which I wrapped around me, and tried to inch my way to the door on my hands and knees.

“I was very excited at the possibility of escaping this unknown being, but I had scarcely moved a foot before the moaning began again. In a moment it changed into a threatening growl that sounded as if it had come from the depths of some dark a wolf’s throat, and a hand appeared as if from nowhere and clutched at my sleeve. I became frozen to the spot. That muttering growl changed again to a moan and, although there was no further clanking of the chain, the ghostly hand still held a tight grip of my sleeve. I was afraid to move even an inch because I was now certain that this being was aware of my presence. My brain was spinning as the blood pounded through my heart, and my knees lost all of their strength, while my body shook like that of a deer caught in the stare of a wolf pack. In my numbing terror it appeared to me that I was losing all of my senses at once.

“Once my senses returned I found myself sitting on the edge of the bed, shivering with cold, and barefooted. There wasn’t a sound, but I could still feel my sleeve still being gripped by a strong, unearthly being. The silence seemed to last a long time, though it may have only been a matter of minutes, and it was eventually by a devilish laugh that almost caused the marrow in my bones to freeze. Then I heard what appeared to be the gnashing of teeth, and then a wailing moan, which was followed by silence once again. My fear was such that I could not feel time passing, or hear the hours chime on the clock. All the while hideous visions passed before my eyes, which continued to gaze into that pitch blackness where the invisible being lay.

“In my feverish fear I pictured the being in every abhorrent form imaginable to me. I saw it as a skeleton with hollow eye sockets and grinning, fleshless jaws. Next, I envisaged a vampire, with its ashen coloured face and a mouth dripping with blood. I longed for daylight, and yet I knew that when the morning light came I would have to meet the beast face-to-face. There were tales that said ghosts and devils faded away as morning broke, but I was sure that this creature was too terrible a thing that dawn’s light would have no effect upon it. It was my destiny, I was certain of it, to see this creature, and a great chill once again seized my body. My teeth began to chatter, and every part of my body shivered as a cold, damp sweat burst upon my brow. In response I grabbed at a shawl, which lay upon a nearby chair, and I wrapped it around me. My movement, of course, caused that demoniacal moan to return and the chain to clank again, causing all hopes to dissipate. Time flew by quickly, and I sat there rigid and silent. I may have even slept for a time. I remember the cold grey light of another winter’s morning on my face, and it gradually stole around the small, dark room from between the heavy curtains that hung at the window.

“Shuddering with great fear I turned to see what horror had plagued my night. In the grey light of that winter dawn I saw that the being was not a ghost, a dream, or hallucination brought on by fear. There it lay on the bed, with its grim head on the pillow. I could not tell if it was a man, or a corpse that had arisen from its grave to await the demon that brought it to life. It was a gaunt, gigantic form, wasted to a skeleton, half-dressed, covered with dirt and clotted blood, its huge limbs flung upon the bed, and its shaggy hair streaming over the pillows like a lion’s mane.

“This creature’s wild, hideous face was turned toward me. Its features were human, covered in a horrible mask of mud and half-dried blood, while the expression it bore was a brutish and savagely fierce one, its white teeth visible between parted lips in a malignant grin. The creature’s tangled hair and beard were crumpled together, and there were scars disfiguring the brow. Around the creature’s waist was a ring of iron, to which was attached a heavy but broken chain that was undoubtedly the chain that I had heard clanking. I noticed that part of the chain was wrapped in straw to prevent it rubbing against the creature. There were marks of the chains on the creature’s wrists, and the bony arm that protruded through one tattered sleeve was scarred and bruised. His feet were bare, and cut by stones and briers, with one foot wrapped in a kind of rag bandage. The lean hands, one of which held my sleeve, were armed with talons like those of an eagle. In that moment I knew that I was at the mercy of a madman. It would, perhaps, have been better if this had been a ghost that merely scares people, rather than a beast that tears a quivering body limb from limb. I was now sure that this was a pitiless brute which had no heart that could be softened, and whose intentions no plea could change. My terror was complete as I looked upon those blood covered fingers and wolfish jaws that, along with its face, were smeared with blackening blood!

“In that moment the mystery of the slain sheep had been solved. The manner in which they had been mangled and torn apart, the print of a naked foot, and the broken chain link found near the slaughtered animals were now fully explained. This creature had escaped from some institution, where his wild rages had been bound up. How had this grisly creature broken its chains? It must have been a mighty rage that gave him the strength to escape those prison bars, most likely he was encouraged by the scars whippings he had received from his guardians. Now this creature was loose, free to play the tortured brute his captors had made him. Was I already caught in his clutches, to be his next victim? I felt overcome by a terrible sickness and was struck dumb by the total fear in which I was encased. All I could do was to wait until the moment when he should open his eyes and be aware of my presence.

“Something told me that the creature was not yet aware of my presence. He had used the room as a lair in which he could hide and, after killing and gorging himself on the sheep, he wearily flung himself down on the bed to sleep. He had not expected to find any other person in that room and had, therefore, no reason to suspect that he was not alone. Even when he grasped my sleeve it was, most likely, an action carried out in his sleep, just his unconscious moans and laughter.

“Time was passing and I was sure that the entire house would be awake soon. Someone would be sent to awaken me and would awaken the creature. Then I heard a light footstep outside the door, which was followed by a quiet knock. There was a pause and the knock was repeated, only more loudly on this occasion. In that moment I saw the creature stretch his limbs, uttering a moaning cry, and he slowly opened his eyes. And as his eyes opened they met mine. There was another knock, and I worried that the door would open, the grim creature would be seen, and bring about a catastrophe.

“There was wonder and surprise in those wild, bloodshot eyes as I saw him stare at me half vacantly. In an instant I could see a murderous demon begin to peep from those hideous eyes, while its lips to part in a sneer, and its wolf-like teeth bared themselves. My fear, however, now gave me a new and desperate composure that I had not felt before. I stared at the glare of those terrible eyes, remaining steady, undaunted, and motionless. Those dreadful eyes began to sink, as if from shame, as he moaned and his shaggy head drooped between his gaunt, squalid hands.

“Seizing my chance I jumped to my feet and, with one spring, reached the door, which I tore open and, with a shriek, rushed through. As I caught the girl by the arm I screamed at her to run for her life, and rushed through the corridor, and down the stairs. Maura’s screams filled the house as she fled at my side. Then I heard a long-drawn, raging cry, the roar of a wild animal robbed of its prey, and I knew what was behind me. I never turned my head to check, preferring to run as fast as I could. It seemed to be only seconds before I was in the hall, and all around me there was a rush of many feet. There was a cacophony of many voices, brutal yells, swearing, heavy blows, and I suddenly fell to the ground crying out, “Help me!”

“I awoke from a delirious trance and there were kind faces all around my bed, and I saw the loving looks from all who were there, but I fainted once again. I did not recover for a long time afterward, and was nursed tenderly through this period. When I awoke, the pitying looks of those who cared for me made my body tremble. Although I asked for a mirror on many occasions it was denied me, but I prevailed. A mirror was finally brought, and I saw that all of my youth was gone from me in one fell swoop. The glass showed a livid and haggard face, blanched and bloodless, with ashen lips, wrinkled brow, and dim eyes. There was nothing of my former self reflected back to me. My rich dark hair was now as white as snow, and in one night it was as if I had aged fifty years. My nerves, too, never recovered after that dire shock, and my life was blighted to the extent that my lover abandoned me.

“I am old now and very much alone. My sisters wanted me to live with them, but I chose not to sadden their happy homes with my ghostly face and dead eyes. Roger, meanwhile, married another and he has been dead for many years now. As for me, my sadness is almost over and I am near the end of my life. I have not been bitter or hard, but I cannot bear to see many people, and I am probably best alone. The wealth left to me by Lady Hurst is doing whatever good that it can do. After all is said and done, what need do I have of wealth, being the shattered wreck of a woman that was left by that one night of horror!

The Christmas Horror II

Part II

XMAS 3The 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.XMAS 3