The Stilton, pungent and creamy, melted into my palate like mist, crackers roughing up the tongue, a generous slug of Cockburn’s clearing the stage for a second, prolonged assault.
“Ghosts!” I roared, “Never heard such bloody nonsense – the only spirit I know is the one that disappears …down Merry’s gullet!”
Laughter rolled extravagantly round the table, it had been an excellent dinner, Muster’s cook Benedict certainly knew a thing or two about pheasant, the rich meat still moist, rolling the shot around the tongue. Hattie’s bread sauce, cloves adding just a suggestion of continental brio, potatoes roasted in goose fat, crisp and succulent, a gravy fit for kings. Outside, the wind howled like a banshee around the house, inside, log fires roared defiantly, warming the cold flag floors and keeping the spirits high.
Musters beaming at the head of the table, whiskers bristling with pride, a man in his pomp. The Reverend James Montague Rhodes, thin lipped, ascetic and drawn, wiping his mouth fastidiously with a napkin. He spoke, tremulous at first.
“You may mock sir, but there are things we understand and things that we do not, never say never. I have myself some experience of the inexplicable…”
“You’ve seen a ghost?” I banged the table “Well let’s hear it sir! Out with it man!” The others joined in, a tribal drumming, rising in volume and intensity. Rhodes raised a hand “Very well then, but first let me assure you, every word of what I am about to tell you is true – ghosts? Who knows, I have my opinions, you will have yours.”
“Twenty years ago, when I was at Cambridge, it was my habit to take an early morning stroll before prayers, clear the sleep from my head, prepare for the day. I’d walk down by the canal, enjoy the birdsong, the quiet before the city woke up. There was a towpath, besides St. Bartholomew’s, it was said on a hot day that the smell of the dead found its way through the stones of the wall beside the path. One thing was sure, in the old days, the horses refused to go through that path, the barges would have to be pulled through by hand, the horses led up the hill and rejoin the canal at the next lock. The gypsies used to charge a pretty penny for manning the ropes – of course, most people thought it was the gypsies that spread the story.
Goes without saying, it was absolute rot about the smell. I suppose it was the stories and the fact nobody was around at that time in the morning, but I’d always imagine it was colder and hurry through that little bit faster. It might have been my imagination, but there was a sadness, a sense of desolation about the place, I never could explain it.”
A hush had descended upon the table, the reverend had our attention, the clink of glass on glass as he carefully poured a measure of water into the crystal tumbler beside him. The Stilton suddenly seemed a lot less inviting. He drank, wiped his lips and continued.
“One morning in particular, I suppose it must have been April or May, sunshine breaking through, but still cold at that hour, I made my walk as usual and got back to the church to prepare my lesson for the service. As I walked down the aisle I heard, quite distinctly, a sob – there was nobody in the church and I didn’t hear another sound, but I tell you, the hairs on my neck stood on end – there is no doubt in my mind about that sob, I can hear it now.
Anyway, I searched the church from top to bottom, not another soul in the place and so I marched outside to see if I could see anybody in the grounds, don’t know why there should have been, there was ample time for somebody to make the short walk from church to road while I had been inside. Couldn’t see anybody in the graveyard or on the road and feeling a little puzzled, returned to my books. The morning service went without a hitch and I was relieved to feel quite better afterwards as I conversed with the congregation on their way out of the church. Of course I was tragically premature.
As the last of the congregation filed through the graveyard towards the gate, there was a terrible commotion, the wall beside the towpath collapsed, without warning, burying a small boy, who had by all accounts been seen prying stones out of the wall with a clasp knife and pitching them across the canal, we all rushed down and started pulling the stones away. The boy was killed of course, but here’s the odd thing – there was a second body found, quite mummified, a baby wrapped in a shawl. Must have been there for years.”
There was a deathly quiet around the table, somehow the wind had been removed from our sails – bloody nonsense I’m sure, but nevertheless it cast quite a chill onto the gathering. Musters coughed after a second or two and we made our way through to the drawing room, rejoining the ladies.
Musters busied himself with the fire, rearranging the logs, coaxing a welcome blaze out of the smouldering pyre, sparks spitting and roaring up the chimney, soon the party had perked up. I was unusually quiet, there was something about that story that had spooked me, I don’t mind admitting and I took very little part in the rest of the evening’s gaiety, preferring to refill my glass and drink. It must have been two or three o’clock when I found Musters, shaking me violently by the shoulder. The storm was still blowing and rain lashed against the windowpanes, the fire had died down and the other guests had made their way to bed.
“Oatenshaw! time for bed old chap”
I made my excuses and taking a final balloon of brandy, made my way up the butlers stairs to the west wing. The lights flickered and cursing my thick head I hurried along the passage wondering if the lights would stay bright – I got my answer almost immediately, a mighty clap, a fizz and a splutter and then darkness. I froze, my heart racing. There was a still, and in that split second before the lightning I swear I heard a single, solitary sob. I gasped and reached out for the wall for support – the flash lit the passage up like daylight and in that flash I saw, quite clearly, the reverend, standing by the window, his face ghastly, his thin lips spread in a rictus as he gazed out at that terrible storm.
The thunder rolled and I stood absolutely still, the drink had left me now, I’ve never been more sober – in a second, the lights flickered and came back, I can’t say how delighted I was and draining the balloon in one, I started forward, of the reverend there was no sign, and if I say so, I was quite relieved – I’d had enough of the bloody man and his scaremongering for one night. Reaching the sanctuary of the bedroom, I built up the fire and snuggled deep into the linen sheets, dreaming of Hattie, her pert backside and mischievous giggle.
Waking around eight o’clock I found a pitcher of steaming water had been prepared and pouring it into the bowl I happily shaved, working up a splendid lather, the cut throat gliding across my taught skin, I reviewed my progress periodically in the glass and as that handsome fellow stared back, winked conspiratorially. Dapper and in high spirits, I made my way downstairs anticipating the froth of battered eggs and grilled tomatoes that Muster’s house parties enviable reputation was built upon.
I found Musters in the hall, his raised hand stopped me in my tracks.
“Oatenshaw old chap, rather a rum do. The Reverend…. I had a telegram this morning, from his sister – seems the rectory was struck by lightning last night – roof caught fire and well, his wife and daughter… “