The Green Scarf
By A.M. Burrage
When the Wellingford family became extinct the days of Wellingford Hall as one of the great country homes of England were already numbered. The estate passed into the hands of commercial-minded people who had no reverence for the history of a great house. The acres around the old Hall became too valuable as building sites to be allowed to remain as a park surrounding a country mansion. So the fat Wellingford sheep were driven elsewhere to pasture, and surveyors and architects heralded the coming of navvies and builders.
All this happened many years ago. The old park became crossed and criss-crossed by new roads, and perky little villas with names like ‘Ivyleigh’ and ‘Dulce Domum’ sprang up like monstrous red fungi. Even these have since mellowed, and grown their own ivy and Virginia creeper, and put on airs of respectable maturity. The Hall itself, forlorn and abandoned, like some poor human wretch deserted in his old age, began slowly to crumble and decay.
Wellingford Hall was no more than an embarrassment to the new owners of the estate, who were willing to let it or sell it at the prospective tenant’s or purchaser’s own price; but to dispose of a great house with no land attached to it and surrounded by a garden city is no easy matter. It was too big for its environment. After some vicissitudes as a private school and the home of a small community of nuns, it was abandoned to its natural fate: ‘for,’ said one of the directors of the Wellingford Estate, Ltd, a gentleman not above mixing his metaphors, ‘what was the sense of keeping a white elephant in a state of repair?’
Three years before this present time of writing came Aubrey Vair, the painter, as poor as most other painters, a lover of old buildings and all the cobwebby branches of archaeology, and took Wellingford Hall at a weekly rental of fewer shillings than might be demanded for the use of a gardener’s cottage. He knew one of the directors, and he had discovered that a few rooms in the middle of the block of buildings were still habitable. The directors, I suppose, wondered why anyone should wish to live in the damp-ridden, rat-riddled old hole, but they did not despise shillings, and they let him come.
Vair wrote me several letters, begging me to come down and rough it with him. It was just the place for a writer, he assured me; it would give me ideas. He had been searching after priests’-holes and had discovered no less than five. One of the great rooms made the finest studio he had yet painted in. And really, as regards comfort, he avowed, it wasn’t so bad, so long as one came there already warned to expect only the amenities of a poor bachelor establishment. And then, he added temptingly, there were the historical associations.
I already knew something about the latter, having discovered my facts in a book dealing with old English country houses. Charles the First had spent a night there during the Great Civil War. Charles the Second was supposed to have ridden there after the battle of Worcester. But best of all was the romantic tale of the capture and execution of Sir Peter Wellingford in 1649.
Briefly, Sir Peter was a proscribed Royalist who lived hunted and in hiding after the failure of the royal arms. A wiser man would have crossed the Channel, but Sir Peter had a young wife at Wellingford Hall. He had often visited her in safety, and might have continued to do so, but for a traitor in his own household. This fellow, so the story went, betrayed his master by waving a green scarf from one of the windows, this being a prearranged signal to inform a detachment of Parliamentary troops that the head of the house was secretly in residence. The soldiers burst in at night, and ransacked the house before Sir Peter Wellingford was discovered in a hiding-hole — or ‘privacie’, as the old chronicle described it. The cavalier was dragged outside and shot in his own courtyard.
Here was a story romantic enough to inveigle the fancy of most men with-a grain of imagination. I fully intended to visit Wellingford Hail, but circumstances caused me to defer my intention for the first summer and it was not until the following May, when Vair had been in residence a full year, that I paid him my deferred visit. I journeyed by road, driving myself in my small two-seater, so that Vair had no opportunity to meet me, and I had my first view of Wellingford Hall before I could be biased by his enthusiasms.
Holy writ speaks of the abomination of desolation standing when it ought not; and here was this grim, forbidding, crumbling old ruin still surrounded by its moat and standing in the midst of jerry-built ‘Chumleighs’ and ‘Rosemounts’. It was like finding the House of Usher in the middle of a new garden city. In spite of its moat the Hall had never been intended for a fortress and the bridge I crossed must have been nearly as old as the house itself.
Vair heard me coming and pushed open the great nail- studded door under the archway of the main entrance to come out and greet me with a grin and a handshake. He climbed up beside me and directed me round into the yard, where there was plenty of accommodation for a dozen cars. Strangely enough, the stables and coach-houses were in better repair than the old house itself.
The hall had once been magnificent, but most of the ceiling was gone, and the oak balustrade of the staircase, having had a commercial value, had been long since removed. A trail of sacking across broken paving stones pointed the way to Yair’s apartments beyond. He ushered me into a fine room, in quite a reasonable state of repair, furnished with products of his speculations at country auctions. Although the month was May the weather was none too warm, and I was glad of the sight of the log fire which lent the room an additional air of comfort, Vair laughed to hear me exclaim, and asked if I were ready for tea.
He lived there, he explained, entirely alone, except that a charwoman came each morning to do the rough work and cook his one hot meal of the day.
‘You won’t mind putting up with cold stuff and tinned things of an evening?’ he asked anxiously.
I hate tinned foods, but, of course, I could not say so.
After tea, Vair showed me the rest of the rooms which he had made habitable, and, really, he had managed to make himself much more comfortable than I had expected. He had contrived – Heaven knows how —to learn a lot of intimate history of the old place, and knew the name by which every room had been called in the house’s palmy days of dignity and prosperity. My bedroom, for instance, was known as ‘Lady Ursula’s Nursery’, although history had long since forgotten who Lady Ursula was.
It was easy to see that Vair had a boyish enthusiasm for the place. He was a queer chap, with more than the average artist’s share of eccentricities, and he believed in all manner of superstitions and pseudo sciences. He was one of those ageless men who might have been anything in the twenties, thirties, or forties. I happened to know that he was nearly fifty, but his thin wiriness of figure and boyish zest for life kept him youthful. Obviously his pleasure at having me down was not so much for my own sake as his. I was somebody to whom he could ‘show off’ the house. He was clearly as proud of it as if it had been restored to its former dignity and he were the actual owner.
‘For Heaven’s sake, don’t go about the place by yourself,’ he said, ‘or you’ll break your neck. I’ve nearly broken mine a dozen times, and I’m beginning to know where it isn’t safe to walk. It must be rather rare to find damp-rot and dry-rot in the same house, but we’ve got both here.’
I promised faithfully that I wouldn’t move without him. Even the main staircase did not appear too safe to me, but Vair assured me that it was all right.
After tea he took me over such parts of the house as it was safe to visit, but I shall make no attempt to describe most of this pilgrimage. My memory carries dreary pictures of damp and decay, of dust and dirt, and cobwebs, moldering walls and crumbling floors. The old place must have been a warren of secret rooms and passages, and he showed me those he had discovered. All I can say is that the refugees of the bad old days must have been very uncomfortable, and those who escaped deserved to.
One large room under the roof, which we visited, had once been a secret chamber. It was called the Chapel, and here Mass had been said in defiance of the law throughout part of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
‘There must be a lot more secret rooms,’ Vair remarked. ‘Little Owen, who was a master at constructing such places, is known to have spent months here during the reign of Elizabeth. The house was always being raided, and the raiders had little satisfaction.’
‘They got the poor old cavalier,’ I laughed.
‘Oh, yes. But he was given away, or sold, by a servant. I’ve shown you the place where I’m almost sure he hid-behind where the bedhead used to be in the room called the King’s Chamber. We’ll see if we can find some more while you’re here, if you like.’
It suddenly occurred to me that Vair had always called himself ‘sensitive’, or psychic, and it was perhaps natural of me to put on the non-committal smile of the polite sceptic and enquire if he had seen any ghosts. Rather to my surprise, he shook his head.
‘No,’ he answered; ‘it isn’t at all that kind of place. The house is quite friendly. I should have felt it at once if it had been otherwise.’
‘But I should have thought with its history.’
‘Ah, it’s seen troubled days, but they were always nice people who lived here. There are no dreadful legends of bloodshed and cruelty.’
‘There is the story of the cavalier,’ I objected. ‘Surely his ghost ought to haunt the place.’
‘Why? He was a good man from all accounts and he died a man’s death. Only troubled or wicked people linger about the scenes of their earth-life. When he was taken out and slaughtered all the hatred and blood-lust came from outside. If any impressions of those spent passions remain, they’re not inside the house, and I don’t want them inside.’
I smiled to myself, knowing that, from Yair’s point of view, the house ought to be haunted, and his excuses for the non- appearance of a ghost or two struck me as ingenious but farfetched.
‘That’s a pity,’ I said, tongue in cheek. 1 quite hoped to be introduced to a Grey Lady or Specter Cavalier.’
He frowned, knowing that I was laughing at him.
‘Well, you won’t be,’ he said, ‘unless — ’
‘Well, unless something happens to alter present conditions. If, for instance, we were to find something which someone long forgotten desired should remain hidden.’
‘I doubt if you do. And I doubt if anything could be done now to disturb any of the Wellingfords in their long sleep. They seem to have been an ideal family; I haven’t been able to find a word of scandal on any page of their history. Where there has once been bitterness and hatred, there you may look for ghosts. There was none here. All that came from outside. That frenzied desire, for instance, to trap and kill a man because he had fought for his king, long after his cause was well lost; that bitter bigotry which sought to prevent folk from worshipping according to their consciences. It all came from outside, I tell you!’
Yair’s voice had risen. Like most men with no particular faith he respected all creeds, and religious intolerance always moved him to violent anger. Respect for his deadly seriousness kept my face grave.
‘Do you mean just outside?’ I asked.
‘How do I know? And so long as they remain outside what does it matter? I assure you, I don’t want them brought in.’
To my relief, he then veered away from a subject which was hardly within my scope of conversation. There was little of the mystic in me. All the same, when at last I retired to bed in Lady Ursula’s nursery, I was glad to remember that Vair had given the house a clean bill of health in the psychic sense. By the time I had been Vair’s guest for twenty-four hours I had begun to feel with him that the old ruin had a kindly and friendly atmosphere, in spite of its apparent gloom, and that this might have been the legacy of good people who had lived and died within its walls.
At the risk of giving this narrative an air of being disconnected, I must pass hurriedly over the next two or three days of my visit, for they brought forth little that is worth recording. Sometimes Vair did a little painting, and then his preoccupation drove me to my own work. We did a little fishing and sometimes walked three-quarters of a mile to the Wellingford Arms where, according to Vair, who accounted himself an expert, the bitter beer was better than the average. Sometimes we risked our necks on rickety stairs and crumbling floors, looking for more secret hiding-places, an occupation in which I soon became infected with some of Yair’s schoolboy zest.
The place was quiet enough during the day, but the villas and bungalows which had marched almost to the edge of the moat made themselves audible at night. Every Lyndhurst and Balmoral seemed able to boast of a musical daughter or a powerful gramophone. The effect of sitting in one of those dignified old rooms with the windows open and hearing echoes from the musical comedies was grotesque in the extreme. Vair had evidently grown used to it, for be made no comment.
I had arrived on a Saturday, and it was on the afternoon of the Tuesday following that, between us, we made a discovery of historical interest; a discovery which we came afterwards bitterly to regret having made. We were on the first-floor landing, where long windows, deep in a recess, looked out over the Wellingford Park estate, when Vair mentioned that he had never examined the window-seats.
‘Sliding panels,’ he said, ‘certainly have existed, but they belong mostly to fiction. They were too hard to construct and too easily discovered. Take the five hiding-places you’ve seen in this house. Three of them are behind fireplaces, one under the stairs, and the other must have been masked at one time by the head of a bedstead. Window-seats were very often used, and this one looks likely. Let’s try it.’
We rapped it with our knuckles and, although it did not sound hollow, there was obviously an empty space beneath it. We pushed and tugged and teased the surface of the wood with our fingers. And suddenly I saw a crack widen, and part of the seat which had fitted into the rest of the woodwork as neatly as a drawer came away in my hands, and we stared at each other with laughter and curiosity in our eyes.
‘Hallo, what’s this! ’ Vair exclaimed.
The cavity disclosed was very small. It was obviously not the entrance to any place of concealment capable of holding a human being. I lit a match and thrust it down into the darkness. Then cheek by jowl we peered together into a cavity no more than three feet deep.
‘Nothing here,’ I said, breaking cobwebs as I moved my wrist to and fro.
‘Isn’t there! ’ exclaimed Vair.
He brushed me aside and his arm disappeared up to the shoulder. His hand was black when he drew it forth, and an end of something like a black rag was between his fingers. It was an old piece of silk, so rotten with age that it almost crumbled under our touch; but when we had blown on it and brushed it with our fingers we saw that it owed its present color to the dirt of ages, and that it had once been green. On the instant the old tale leaped into the minds of both of us, and we exclaimed together:
‘The Green Scarf!’
I forget what we said for the first minute or two. We were both excited and elated. There is some peculiar pleasure, difficult to analyze or explain, in discovering a relic which serves to corroborate some old tale or passage of ancient history. We neither of us doubted that we had discovered the green scarf by which Sir Peter Wellingford had been betrayed nearly three hundred years before.
‘The traitor must have kept it here in readiness,’ said Vair, his eyes dancing, ‘and when he’d signaled he dropped it back again, and there it’s lain from that day to this.’
‘And most likely,’ I added, taking the relic from his hands, ‘this is the very window he waved from.’
The window was open and I leaned out and let the dingy rag flutter from my hand in the warm afternoon breeze.
‘Don’t! ’ said Vair sharply, and pulled me back.
The silk was so rotten with age that even the weak breeze tore it slightly, and I thought at the time that Vair’s sharp ‘Don’t! ’ was uttered because of the damage I had unwittingly done. It was a relic of treachery and bloodshed, but we both regarded it with a queer sort of reverence, as if it were associated with something sacred.
I should think an hour must have passed before we mentioned anything else. We were both agreed that one of us should write to a newspaper announcing our discovery and that the scarf should be cleaned by an expert and offered to a museum. One remark of Vair’s struck me at the time as a little strange, but the full force of it did not come to me until some hours later.
‘I wish you hadn’t waved it out of the window,’ he said.
‘It’s what that damned traitor did. That’s what made you do it, of course – trying to re-enact part of an old tragedy.’
‘I don’t see that it matters,’ I returned lightly. ‘Nobody saw.’
He turned on me at once.
‘How do you know?’ he demanded sharply.
I could not help laughing then.
‘My dear fellow,’ I exclaimed, ‘are you afraid that the wife or daughter of one of your neighbors will think — ’
‘I wasn’t thinking of them,’ he returned curtly. ‘When that rag was waved out of that window nearly three hundred years ago, you know what happened, you know what it brought into the house.’
I thought I had caught the drift of his meaning. Vair had always declined to walk under ladders or make the thirteenth of a party, and he was unhappy for days after he had spilled the contents of a salt-cellar.
‘Oh, don’t be an ass, Vair,’ I begged. ‘If there’s any ill-luck about I give it leave to attack me and leave you alone.’
He did not answer, and in a few minutes the incident had passed temporarily from my mind, I have tried to tell this story so many times by word of mouth, and been compelled at this point to pause and hesitate, as now I am compelled to pause and think. It is not that my memory fails me; memory, indeed,, serves me all too well. But hereabouts I am brought to realize the failure of my small command of words. A bad speaker can at least convey something otherwise unexpressed by look, gesture, hesitation, tone of voice. But with nothing but pen, ink, paper, and a limited vocabulary, I see little chance of giving an adequate account of what happened to us that night; of how, with the twilight, depression was laid upon us, straw by straw, and how with the coming of darkness horror was laid upon us, load by load.
Even before supper I found myself restless and ill at ease. Something began to weigh upon my spirit as if my mind carried the knowledge of some ordeal which I had presently to face. Of course, I put it down to an attack of ‘liver’ and made up my mind to forget it. The intention was good, but it was unjustified by the desired result.
My discovery that Vair was suffering from a similar malaise did not help my own case. His spirits were far below normal, and I think our mutual discovery that the other was ‘below form’ added weight to that which was already dragging at our hearts. To make matters worse we each began to act for the other’s benefit, to force laughter, to crack heavy jokes, and make cumbersome epigrams. But when at twilight we lit the lamp and sat down to supper we tacitly agreed to give up pretending.
‘Do you feel that there’s a weight crushing you whenever there’s thunder about?’ Vair asked suddenly.
I was glad to think of some excuse to account for my mood and answer quickly:
‘Yes, very often. And I wouldn’t mind betting there’s some thunder about tonight.’
Vair looked at me and seemed suddenly to change his mind over what he had been about to say. He shook his head.
‘The glass hasn’t gone down.’
I rose from the table without apology, went to the window, pulled aside the curtains, and looked out. It was just after sunset on a very perfect May evening. There was a red glow in the west, and around this glow there was an area of sky which was almost apple-green. This merged into a very deep blue in which one or two pale stars were already beginning to play hide-and-seek.
‘No,’ I agreed grudgingly, ‘there isn’t a cloud in the sky. Still, storms come up very quickly.’
‘Yes,’ said Vair, ‘and so do other things.’
My lips moved to ask him what he meant, but I thought better of it. Whatever morbid imaginings he might be entertaining, they were scarcely likely to help my own mood. We ate in silence, continuing thus for a long time before I forced a laugh and exclaimed:
‘Well, we’re a jolly pair, aren’t we? What the devil’s the matter with us this evening? I only wish I knew.’
‘I only wish I didn’t think I know,’ he answered strangely.
‘Well, what do you think – ’
‘I think we ought to go out somewhere tonight and stay out.’
‘Why? You haven’t felt like this before, have you?’
‘No. And it’s because I haven’t felt like this before – ’
He came to another sudden pause, and we looked into each other’s faces for a moment before he lowered his gaze.
‘Now, look here,’ I said, trying to keep my voice steady, “let’s be as honest as we can and try to analyze this thing. I’ll say it first. We’re both afraid of something.’
He went a step further.
‘We’re both afraid of the same thing,’ he said.
‘Well, what is it, then? Let’s find it out and confront it. When a horse shies at a tree you lead him up to it to show him that it’s only a tree.’
‘If it happens to be a tree or something like a tree. But if it isn’t . . . Look here, let’s go out. Straight away now, while there’s time. They’ve got bedrooms at the Wellingford Arms. Let’s go and spend the night there.’
With all my heart I wanted to. But Pride borrowed the voice of Reason and spoke for me.
‘Oh, don’t let’s make fools of ourselves,’ I urged. ‘I for one don’t want to truckle to my nerves. If we give way like this once we shall always be doing it.’
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘Let’s have a drink.’
He brought out the whisky. I am a temperate man with a weak head for spirits, and I admit that I exceeded my usual allowance, but it made no more difference to me than if it were water. We sat facing each other gloomily in silence which became increasingly difficult to break.
The unusual quality of this silence had already begun to impress me when Vair mentioned it, as if my thought had communicated itself to him.
‘Don’t you notice how extraordinarily still everything seems?’ he asked presently.
‘Yes,’ I agreed, and snatched suddenly at a straw. ‘The silence before the storm. There is a storm about, you see.’
He shook his head.
‘No,’ he said. ‘It isn’t that kind of stillness.’
And then, with a little leap of the heart and a tingling of the nostrils I suddenly realized a fact which seemed to me inexpressibly ugly. This stillness was not the hush of Nature before some electrical disturbance. For some time past we had heard no sound at all from the outer world. The gramophones and pianos in the little houses around us were all silent. It was the hour when at many houses on the estate hosts and guests were parting for the night, yet there was not the faint echo of a voice, nor the comfortable workaday sound of a car droning along a road. It may seem ludicrous, but I would have given a hundred pounds just then to hear the distant shunting of a train.
Vair rose suddenly, went to the window and looked out I followed him. For some while now it had been completely dark. Overhead in a very clear sky the stars looked peacefully into our troubled eyes.
‘No storm about,’ said Vair shortly.
He heard me catch my breath, and a moment later he was aware of what I had already perceived.
‘Look! There aren’t any lights! There isn’t a light anywhere!’
It was true. The hour was not late, and yet from the rows of houses which began not so many yards distant, not a light was visible, nor was it possible to discern an outline of roof or chimney against the sky. We had been cut off from the lights and sounds of the outside world as completely as if we were in a cavern miles under the ground, save that our isolation -1 can think of no other word – was lateral.
Vair’s voice had risen high and thin. He made no effort to disguise the terror in it.
‘There must be some fog about,’ I said; and I was so anxious lest my voice should sound like Vair’s that I spoke out of the base of my chest.
‘Fog! Look, man!’
I looked. Truly there was not the least sign of fog or mist. Until we raised our eyes to the sky we stared into impenetrable, featureless darkness.
Vair let the window curtains fall from his hand. He turned to me in the oppressive stillness, and his face worked until by an effort he controlled the muscles.
‘Try to tell me,’ he said hoarsely, ‘what you’ve been feeling all the evening.’
‘How can I? The same as you, I suppose!’ A reminiscence of soldiering came back to me. ‘It’s been like waiting to go over the top. A horrible aching anxiety. No, something more than that. A sense of being trapped, of being surrounded – ’
‘Surrounded!’ He caught up the word with a cry. ‘That’s just what you are! That’s just what we both are!’
I drew him away from the curtained window.
‘Surrounded! By what?’ I made myself ask.
He spread out his hands and shook them helplessly.
‘The Powers of Darkness, Hatred, Blood-lust, Intolerance — they were all waiting, waiting for the signal. Do you think these things die like spent matches? Do you think the black act of treachery, which brought them into this house, left nothing behind it? They were waiting – all these years – I tell you!’ Suddenly he bared his teeth at me. ‘You fool, to have waved that rag at them! ’
Just for a moment I felt my brain turning like a wheel, but I made a fight for my sanity and won it back.
‘Look here,’ I said, ‘for God’s sake don’t let’s behave like madmen. Let’s get out of it if the house is going to affect us like this.’
He stared back at me, giving me a look which I could not read.
‘No,’ he muttered; ‘you wanted to stay.’
‘Let’s go down to the Wellingford Arms.’
‘They’re closed now.’
‘It doesn’t matter. They know you. They’ll open for you.’
I found myself lusting for the world beyond that unnatural girdle of darkness. The Wellingford Arms, with its vulgar tin advertisement of Somebody’s Beer, and Somebody Else’s Whisky, and its framed Christmas Number plates —at least there was sanity there.
But Vair suddenly turned on me the eyes of a hunted animal.
‘You fool!’ he burst out. ‘It’s too late! We can’t pass through Them!”
‘What do you mean?’ I faltered.
‘They’re all around us. You know it, too. They’ll break in – in their own good time – as they did before. We’re trapped, I tell you!’
Against my will, and Heaven knows how hard I fought for disbelief, Vair had captured my powers of reason. In theory, if not in action, I was now prepared to follow him like a child.
‘What do they want?’ I stammered.
‘Us! One of us or both! What did Murder and Hatred and Blood-lust ever want but sacrifice?’
He fairly spat the words at me and I seized his arm.
‘Come on,’ I said, ‘we’re going to get out of this. We’re going to run the gauntlet.’
‘Ah,’ said Vair thickly. ‘If we can.’
We must have crossed the hall, although I do not remember it. My next recollection is of helping Vair in his fumbling with the bolts and lock of the great door. We wrenched it open and stood looking at an opaque wall of darkness.
I tried to force myself across the threshold, only to find myself standing rigid. As in a nightmare, my legs were shackled so that I could not move a step forward, but although terror clawed at me like a wild beast, my senses were keenly and even painfully alert.
I knew that this belt of darkness around the house was alive with whisperings and movements, with all manner of stealthiness, which lurked only just beyond the horizon of vision and the limits of hearing. And as I stood straining eyes and ears I knew that the barriers must soon break and that I should both see and hear.
We stood thus a long while on the edge of the threshold we could not pass, but whether it were seconds or minutes I could not say. To us it seemed hours ere the darkness passed, melting into the living forms of men. We could see, and there was movement everywhere; we could hear, and voices were shouting orders, although the actual words eluded us. They were human voices with strange nasal intonations, snarling and shouting. Even in my extremity I remembered having heard that the soldiery of Cromwell had affected a hideous nasal accent. And now the darkness was sundered and shivered by a score of lights, the lights of naked torches which nodded to the rhythm of men marching. I saw the glint of them on the metal heads of pikes, and on the long barrels of muskets outlined clearly now against a naked sky of stars.
Terror may bind a man to the spot, but another turn of the rack may torture him back into motion. So it was with us. Blind instinct alone made me slam the great door and shoot the nearest heavy bolt. I saw Vair groping for me like a tear-blinded child and I took his arm. We ran futilely back into the room we had vacated and crouched in the corner farthest from the door, while great noises like thunder began to reverberate through the house, as pike-handles and musket-butts crashed sickeningly on the great outer door.
We must both have taken leave of reason then, for neither Vair nor I can remember anything more until the great nail- studded door, smashed off its hinges, fell on to the broken flags of the hall with the loudest crash of all. The tramp of feet, mingled with the sound of arms carelessly handled, thudding against the floor and wall, and with the sharp nasal snarling of voices. In a moment it seemed they were everywhere – in the hall, on the main staircase, in the room over our heads.
Vair had all this time the grip of a madman on my wrist, and suddenly he leaned to me and screamed into my ear:
‘The Chapel . . . under the roof . . . it’s consecrated . . . there’s a chance . . . there’s a chance, I tell you . . .’
‘They’re on the stairs!’ I cried back in my despair.
‘The back stairs! Come on!’
A second door in the old room gave access to a passage leading to the back stairs. Those stairs we knew to be unsafe, but ordinary human peril was something far beyond and beneath our consideration. I remember the rumble and murmur of sounds about the house as we rushed out into the passage. Footfalls and voices sounded everywhere, and musket-butts were smiting heavily against stairs and walls. As we stumbled and ran I expected at every step to be seized and overwhelmed by some horrible and nameless Power.
How we reached the attics I cannot say. The narrow, crumbling staircase creaked and swayed under us, and once I went down thigh deep through a rotten stair, with splinters of hard wood tearing clothes and flesh. But we were near the top ere the hunt had scented their game and sounds of pursuit began to clamor behind us.
Vair forced open the door of the little room which had once been a chapel. I blundered in over his body, which lay prone just across the threshold. He had fallen unconscious, and I had to force his legs aside before I could close the door.
I slammed it to in the faces of vague forms which filled the passage to the stair-head, and drove home the wooden bolt inside. And then it seemed to me that our pursuers recoiled from that closed door like a great wave from the base of a cliff and ugly cries outside died down to uneasy whisperings; and instinctively I knew that we were safe.
I must have fainted then, for I remember nothing more until I woke in bright sunlight. Vair was sitting beside me, watching me, with a chalk-like face. We hardly spoke, but sought each other’s hands like frightened children.
Eventually we nerved ourselves to go downstairs into the ruin and disorder of the old house, through which, one might have thought, a whirlwind had passed during the night.
About the Author
Alfred McLelland Burrage (1889–1956) was noted in his time as an author of fiction for boys which he published under the pseudonym Frank Lelland, including a popular series called “Tufty”. After his death, however, Burrage became best known for his ghost stories. After his father died in 1906, A. M. Burrage began writing fiction, partly to support his familY. Burrage’s main market for his fiction were British pulp magazines, such as The Grand Magazine, The Novel Magazine, Cassell’s Magazine and The Weekly Tale-Teller.
He served in the Artists Rifles in the First World War, and published a memoir of his war experiences, War Is War, as “Ex-Private X”. Burrage is now remembered mainly for his horror fiction, some of which was originally collected in the books Some Ghost Stories (1927) and Someone in the Room (1931) – often under his “Ex-Private X” name. His work generally is on a spectrum somewhere between the ghost stories of M.R. James and H.R. Wakefield, neither as stuffily antiquarian as the former, nor as sensationalistic as the latter. He died at Edgware General Hospital at the age of sixty-seven on 18 December 1956.
About the Narrator
Marc Burrows is an author, critic, musician and occasional stand-up comic from London. His 2020 biography of Terry Pratchett won the Locus Award for Best Non-Fiction, and his second book, The London Boys: Bowie, Bolan and the Sixties Teenage Dream will be published in 2022. He is a member of the cult punk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, and lives in North London with his wife, who deserves your sympathy, a small black cat called Princess (who doesn’t) and two tropical fish he suspects might be psychopaths.