The Haunted Spinney
by Elliott O’Donnell
It was a cold night. Rain had been falling steadily not only for hours but days, the ground was saturated. As I walked along the country lane the slush splashed over’ my boots and trousers. To my left was a huge stone wall, behind which I could see the nodding heads of firs, and through them the wind was rushing, making a curious whistling sound, now loud, now soft, roaring and gently murmuring. The sound fascinated me. I fancied it might be the angry voice of a man and the plaintive pleading of a woman, and then a weird chorus of unearthly beings, of grotesque things that stalked along the moors, and crept from behind huge boulders.
Nothing but the wind was to be heard. I stood and listened to it. I could have listened for hours. for I felt in harmony with my surroundings, lonely. The moon showed itself at intervals from behind the scudding clouds, and lighted up the open landscape to my left.
A gaunt hill covered with rocks, some piled up pyramidically, others strewn here and there; a few trees with naked arms tossing about and looking distress-fully slim beside the more stalwart boulders; a sloping field or two, a couple of level ones, crossed by a tiny path, and
the lane where I stood. The scenery was desolate. not actually wild, but sad and forlorn, and the spinney by my side lent an additional weird aspect to the place, which was pleasing to me.
Suddenly I heard a sound, a familiar sound enough at other times, but at this hour and in this place everything seemed different. A woman was coming along the road, a woman in a dark cloak with a basket under her arm, and the wind was blowing her skirts about her legs. I looked at the trees. One singularly gaunt and fantastic one appalled me. It had long, gnarled arms, and two of them ended in bunches of twigs like hands – huge, murderous-looking hands, with bony fingers. The moonlight played over and around me. I had no business
to be on the earth; my poor place was in the moon; I no longer thought it. I knew it. The woman was close at hand. She stopped at a little wicket gate leading into the lane skirting the north walls of the spinney. I felt angry; what right had she to be there. interrupting my musings with the moon? The tree with the human hands appeared to agree. I saw anger in the movements of its branches, anger which soon blazed into fury, as they gave a mighty bend towards her as if longing to rend her to pieces.
I followed the woman, and the wind howled louder and louder through those rustling leaves. How long I scrambled on I do not know. As soon as the moonlight left me I fell into a kind of slumber, a delicious trance, broken by nothing save the murmurings of the wind and the sighing and groaning. of the wind, sweeter music I never heard. Then came a terrible change. The charm of my thought was broken. I woke from my reverie. A terrific roar broke on my ears, and a perfect hurricane of rain swept through the woods. I crept cold and shivering beneath the shelter of the trees.
To my surprise a hand fell on my shoulder; it was a man and. like myself, he shivered. ‘Who are you?’ he whispered, in a strangely hoarse voice. ‘Who are you? Why are you here?’
‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,’ I replied, shaking off his grasp.
‘Well, tell me, for God’s sake, sir.’ He was frightened, trembling with fright. Could it be the storm, or was it, was it those trees? I told him then and there why I had trespassed; I was fascinated, the wind and the trees had led me thither.
‘So am I,’ he whispered, ‘I am fascinated. It is a long word, but it describes my sentiments. What did the wind sound like?’
I told him. He was a poor, common man, and had no poetical ideas. The wildly romantic had never interested him. He was an ignorant labouring man.
‘Sounded like sighing, groaning, and so on?’ he asked, shifting uneasily from one foot to another. He was cold, horribly cold. ‘Was that all?’
‘Yes, of course! Why ask?’ I replied. Then I laughed. This stupid, sturdy son of toil had been scared; to him the sounds had been those of his Cornish bogies, things he had dreaded in his infancy. I told him so. He didn’t like to hear me make fun of him; he didn’t like my laugh, and he persisted ‘Was that all you heard?’
Then I grew impatient and asked him to explain what he meant.
‘Well’ he said, ‘I thought I heard a scream, a cry. Just as if someone had jumped out on someone else and taken them unawares. Maybe it was the wind, only the wind, but it had an eerie sound.’ This man was nervous. The storm had frightened away whatever wits he may
‘Come, let us be going,’ I said, moving away in the direction of the wall. I wanted to find a new exit, I was tired of paths. The man kept close to me. I could hear his teeth chatter. Accidentally I felt his hand brush against mine; his flesh was icy cold. He gave a cry as if a snake had bitten him. Then the truth flashed through ‘me, the man was mad. His terror, his strange manner of showing it, and now his sudden shrinking from me, revealed it all. He was mad. The moon and the trees had done their work.
‘I’m not going that way,’ he said. ‘Come along with me; I want to see which of the trees it was that cried.’ His voice was changed, he seemed suddenly to have grown stronger. There was no insanity in his tone now, but I knew the cunning of the insane, and I feared to anger him. So I acquiesced. What an idea! One of the trees had cried; did he mean the wind? He grew sullen when I jeered at him. He led me to a little hollow in the ground, and I noticed the prints of several feet in the wet mud; then I saw something which sent the cold blood to my heart, a woman lay before me bathed in blood. Somehow she was familiar to me. I looked again, then again. Yes, there was the dark shawl, the basket, broken it was true, with the contents scattered, but it was the same basket; it was the woman I had seen coming down the road.
‘My God, whatever is this?’ the man~ by his side spoke. He swayed backwards and forwards on his feet, white and awful in the moonlight. He was sick with terror. ‘Oh, God, it is horrible, horrible!’ Then, with a sudden earnestness and a crafty look in his eyes, he bent over her. ‘Who is it?’ he cried. ‘Who is the poor wretch?’
I saw him peer into her face, but he didn’t touch her, he dreaded the blood, Then he started back. his eyes filled with such savage fury as I had never seen in any man’s before. He looked a devil, he was a devil. ‘It’s my wife!’ he shrieked. ‘My wife!’ His voice fell and turned into what sounded like a sob. ‘It’s Mary! She was coming back to St. Meave. It was her cry. There, see it, confound you. You have it on your arm, your
coat, it is all over you! ‘ He raised his hand to strike me; the moonlight fell on it, a great, coarse hand, and I noticed with a thrill of horror a red splash on it. Blood! The man was a murderer! He had killed her, and with all the cunning of the madman was trying to throw the
guilt on me.
I sprang at him with a cry of despair. He kicked, bit and tried to tear my arms from his neck; but somehow I seemed to have ten times my usual strength. And all the while we struggled a sea of faces waved to and’ fro, peering down at us from the gaunt trees above.
He gave in at length; I held him no longer with the iron grip, and help came in the shape of a policeman. The constable seemed to grasp the situation easily. There had been a murder, the man whom I secured was known to him. He was a labouring man, of unsteady habits; he had been drinking, had met and quarrelled with his wife. The rest was to be seen in the ghastly heap before us.
The wretch had no defence; he seemed bewildered, and eyed the bloodstains on his face and clothes in a dazed kind of way.
I slipped five shillings into the policeman’s hand when he parted. He thanked me and pocketed the money; he knew his position and mine.
I was a gentleman and a very plucky one at that. So I thought as I walked back to my rooms, yet I lay awake and shuddered as visions of the nodding heads of the trees rose before me, and from without, across the silent rows of houses, lanes and fields, there rose and fell again the wailing of a woman, of a woman in distress.
The murder in the spinney was an event in the neighbourhood; the people were unused to such tragedies, and it afforded them conversation for many weeks. The evidence against the husband was conclusive. He had been caught red-handed, he was an habitual drunkard; and he paid the penalty for his crime In the usual manner. I left Cornwall, I had seen enough of it and thirsted for life in London once more. Yet, often at night, the sighing of the Wind in the trees sounded in my ears and bid me visit them once more. One day, as I was sitting by my fire with a pile of magazines by my side, taking life easily, for I had nothing to do but kill time, my old friend, Frank Widmore, looked me up.
We had been at Sefton together, and he was the only friend of the old set of whom I had lost sight. He had not altered so much, in spite of a moustache and a fair sprinkling of white hairs: I should have known him had I met .him anywhere. He was wearing a new overcoat, and looked very spruce and smart. His face was red with healthy exercise. ‘How are you, old chap?’ he exclaimed, shaking hands in the hearty fashion of true friendship.
I winced, for he had strong hands. ‘Oh, fit enough,’ I said, ‘but a bit bored. But you, well. You look just the same, and fresh as a daisy.’ I gave him the easy chair.
‘Oh, I’m first-rate, plenty of work. I’m a journalist, you know. Plenty of grind, but I’m taking a bit’ of a holiday. You look pale. Your eyes are bad.’
I told him they got strained if I read much.
‘I daresay you will think me mad,’ he went on, ‘but I’m going to ask you a rather curious question. I remember you used to be fond of ghosts and all sorts of queer things.’
I nodded. We had many such discussions in my study at school.
‘Well. I’m a member of the New Occult Research Society.’
I smiled doubtfully ‘You can’t say they have discovered much,’ I sneered. ‘The name is high-sounding but nothing beyond.’
‘Never mind,’ he retorted, ‘some day, perhaps, we shall show the Public that at present Occult Research is only in the embryo stage.’
Widmore lit a cigarette, puffed away in silence for a few seconds, and then went on: ‘I am undertaking work for the Society now.’
‘Where?’ I asked.
‘In Cornwall. Ever been there?’
I nodded. Widmore was very much at his ease.
‘Been to St. Meave?’ he inquired.
I knew by instinct he would mention the place. He thought I looked ill, and’ told me I had been overdoing it.
‘It is merely a case of the ‘flu,’ I assured him. ‘I had it six weeks ago, and still feel the effects.’ The woman in the hollow was before me. I saw again her shabby shawl and the blood round her throat.
‘There was a murder down there a short time ago.’
‘I heard of it,’ I remarked casually. ‘It was a wife murder, I believe:
‘Yes, just a common wife murder, and the fellow was caught and hanged.’
‘Then. why the ghost?’ I commented.
‘Well, that is the odd part of it,’ Widmore said slowly, leaning back in his chair, his long legs stretched out. ‘I have heard from two St. Meave artists that screams have been heard in the spinney there just about twelve o’clock at night. Not the time for practical jokers, and the Cornish are too superstitious to try their pranks in unsavoury spots; And from what I heard the spot is singularly uncanny.’
‘They haven’t seen anything?’ I said.
Widmore shook his grey head. ‘No, ‘only heard the cries, and they are so appalling that no one cares to pass the place at night; indeed, it is utterly banned. I mentioned the case to old Potters, you may have heard of him. He is the author of When the Veil is Cleared Away, and he pressed me to go down to St. Meave and investigate. I agreed. Then I thought of you. Just the man to accompany me. Do you remember your pet aversion in the way of ghosts?’
I nodded. ‘Yes, and I still have the aversion. I think locality exercises strange influence over some minds. The peaceful meadow-scenery holds no lurking horrors in its bosom, but in the lonesome moorlands, full of curiously-moulded boulders, grotesque fancies must assail one there. Creatures seem to come, odd and ill-defined as their surroundings. As a child I had a peculiar horror of those tall, odd-shaped boulders, with seeming faces, featureless, it is true, but sometimes strangely resembling humans and animals. I believe the spinney may be haunted by something of this nature, terrible as the trees.”
‘You know the spinney?’
‘I do. And I know the trees.’ Again in my ears the
wind rushed as it had on the night in question.
‘Will you come with me?’ Widmore eyed me eagerly. The same old affection he had once entertained for me was ripening in his eyes; indeed, it had always remained there. Should I go? An irresistible impulse seized me, a morbid craving to look once more at the blood-stained hollow. to hear once more the wind. I looked out of the window, the sky was cold and grey. There were rows and rows of chimneys everywhere, a sea of chimneys, an ocean of dull, uninviting smoke. I began to hate London and to long for the wide expanse of the Atlantic, and the fresh resin-laden air of the woods. I assented, when better judgment should have led me to refuse. ‘Yes, I will go,’ I said. ‘As for the ghost, it may be there, but it is not as you apparently think, it is not the apparition of a man or woman. It may be in part like a human, but it is one of those cursed nightmares I have always had. I shall see it, hear it, shriek, and if I drop dead from fright, you, old man, will be to blame.’
Widmore was an enthusiast, psychical adventure always allured him. and he would run the risk of my weak heart, and have me with him. A thousand times I prepared to go back on my word, a thousand tumultuous emotions of some impending disaster rushed through me. I felt on the border of an abyss, dark and hopeless. I was pushed on by invisible and unfriendly hands. I knew I must fall. knew that the black depths in front would engulf me eternally. I took the plunge. We talked over school-days and arranged our train to the West.
Widmore looked very boyish, I thought, as he rose to go, and stood smiling his good-bye in the doorway. He was all kindness, I liked him more than ever. I felt my heart go out to him, and yet, somehow, as we stood looking at one another, a grey shadow swept around him, and an icy pang shot through my heart.
It was night once more, and the moonlight poured in, floods from over the summit of the knoll where the uncanny boulders lay. Every obstacle was silhouetted against the dark background. A house with its white walls stood there grim and silent. and the paths running in various directions up and alongside the hill were made doubly clear in the whiteness of the beams that fell on them. There were no swift clouds. nothing to hide the brilliance of the stars. and it was nearly midnight. The air was cold. colder than was usual in St. Meave.
The lights of many boats twinkled in the bay and Godrevy stood out boldly away to the right. looking not more than a mile away. There were no lights to be seen in St. Meave itself. The town was absolutely still and dark; not a voice. not a sound. not even the baying of a dog. It was very ghostly. I shivered.
Widmore stood by my side. I glanced apprehensively at him. Why did he stand in the moonlight? What business had he there? I laughed. but I fear there was little mirth in the sound.
‘I wish you would stop that infernal noise,’ he said. ‘I am pretty nervous as it is.’
‘All right: I whispered. ‘I won’t do it again.’ But I did. and he edged sharply away from me. I looked over his head; there was the gaunt tree with the great hands. I fancied the branches were once again fingers. I told him so. ‘For God’s sake. man. keep quiet: he said. ‘you are enough to upset anyone’s nerves.’ He pulled out his watch for the hundredth time. ‘It’s close on the hour.’
I again looked at the trees and listened. Suddenly, although there had been absolute silence before. I heard a faint breathing sound. a very gentle murmur. It came from over the knoll. Very soft and low. but gradually louder and louder. and then. as it rushed past us into the spinney beyond. I saw once more the great trees rock beneath it, and again came those voices. those of the woman and the man. Widmore looked ill, I thought.
I touched him on the arm. ‘You are frightened,’ I said. ‘You a member of the New Occult Research Society, you afraid! ‘
‘Something is going to happen,’ he gasped. ‘I feel it, I know it, we shall see the murder. We shall know the secret of her death. What is that?’
Away in the distance the tapping of shoes came through the now still night air. Tap. tap, tap. down the path from the knoll. I clutched Widmore by the arm. ‘You think you will see the murder. do you? And the murderer?’ Widmore didn’t answer. his breath came in
gasps. He looked about him like a man at bay.
‘And the murderer! Ha! It comes from there! See, it is looking at us from those trees. It is all arms and legs. It has no human face. It will drop to the ground, and then we shall see what happens.’
Tap. tap. tap. The steps grew louder. Nearer and nearer they came. The great shadows from the trees stole down one by one to meet them.
I looked at Widmore. He was fearfully expectant; so was I.
A woman came tripping along the white path, her black shadow keeping pace with her. I knew her in an instant; there was the shabby shawl, the basket on her arm.
It was the same person. She approached the wicket. I looked at Widmore. He was spellbound with fear. I touched his arm. I dragged him with me. ‘Come!’ I whispered. ‘We shall see which of us is right. You think the ghostly murderer will resemble some. man, some human. It won’t. Come! I dragged him forward. Had it not been for me, he would have fled. He, a member of the learned New Occult Research Society. I laughed. I could not help myself. It was so comical. Such fear! We passed through the gate. We followed the figure as it silently glided on. We turned to the left. The place grew very dark as the trees met overhead. I heard the trickling of water and knew we were close to the ditch.
I gazed intently at the trees. When would the horror drop from them? A sickly terror laid hold of me. I turned to fly.
To my surprise Widmore stopped me. He had recovered, pulled himself together, and he was all excitement now. ‘Wait: he hissed, ‘wait. It is you who are afraid. Hark! It is twelve o’clock.’
And as he spoke the clock of St. Meave Parish Church slowly boomed midnight. Then the end came. An awful scream rang out, so piercing ‘and so full of terror that I felt all the blood in my body turn to ice.
My heart stood still. But no figure dropped from the trees. Not from the trees. From behind the woman a form darted forward and seized her round the neck. It tore at her throat with its white. curved fingers. It dragged and hurried her into the moonlight, and then, oh God! I saw its face. It was my own!
About the Author
ELLIOTT O’DONNELL (1872-1965) preceded, in the popular consciousness, the more familiar Harry Price as one of the most widely read figures purporting to be a ghost-hunter and investigator into the unknown. Born in Bristol, O’Donnell claimed an encounter at age 5 with an “elemental spirit”, as well as his family line being cursed by a Banshee, as prerequisites for his lifelong interest in the paranormal. On graduating The Queen’s Service Academy (where he claimed to have wrestled a spectral strangler), he went to America, where he lived as a rancher in Oregon, worked as a policeman in Chicago during the great railroad strikes and also claimed to have been a journalist in San Francisco and New York, all while collecting tales of ghosts in the New World, finally returning to England in 1900 to work as a schoolmaster and traveling actor. (more…)