This week I was going to give you the final round-up of the Cadogan letters, ‘Who was Charles Cadogan?’ but there’s one last thing I’d like to find out, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I postpone him for a fortnight. Looking for something to post instead, I found this story of my father’s, very fit for a night this time of year, when the moon grins through scudding cloud, the trees creak and groan in a howling gale, and ancient family portraits mouth eldritch curses from the shadows. A frightening tale’s best for Winter.
‘In medieval England Christopher de Courcy was tried for witchcraft, sorcery and Werewolvery. He was tortured on the rack found guilty and burned at the stake. De Courcy said at his trial that he had been given a book by the Devil containing the knowledge to metamorphose—every full moon—into the likeness of a large Wolf. After the execution of de Courcy his book disappeared and legend has it that it was smuggled away by an old Cistercian monk and taken to an Abbey somewhere in the north of England.’
The Werewolf by Robert Mulraine
Monday 13th June 1864 is a day that I shall remember for the rest of my life. On that day I received a letter from Obadiah Sims an Uncle of mine whom I had not seen for over fifty years. My late father had told me some years ago that his brother had dropped out of society and bought a large house in Yorkshire and had told his friends and family that he wanted to be left alone to study his passion for the ‘Occult’. In the letter Obadiah pleaded for me to come immediately as he urgently needed my help. He said that all would be explained on my arrival. Directions to his house were enclosed.
I was extremely intrigued by the letter and my curiosity aroused by its contents and as I had time to spare I would go and see what I could do to help him.
He lived in a property near the small isolated village of Barstow in Yorkshire, and so I boarded a train to Yorkshire the next day.
The journey was long and slow so I had plenty of time to reflect on my Uncle’s letter. What on earth did he mean by ‘urgently needing my help’? He had not communicated with any member of the family for such a long time. But I must be patient and wait until I see him, as he had said in his letter that all would be explained on my arrival. The train eventually pulled into the small station at Hayton Pacey where I hired the driver of a pony and trap to take me the last few miles to Obadiah’s house near Barstow. The driver at first seemed reluctant to take me at all and only agreed if I accepted that he would only take me as far as the gates to the house. Nothing I could say—even to offering him a substantial tip—would make him change his mind.
The summer sun was sinking lower in the sky as we flew along the narrow country lanes, even the horse seemed to sense the urgency of his master. We passed into Barstow a small village of cottages built of local Yorkshire stone where the driver stopped at The Three Feathers Inn with the excuse “Refreshment for the horse Sir”.
I took advantage of this break in the journey to ask some questions of the landlord regarding Obadiah. He was hesitant to talk about him at first but after I had bought him a large whiskey he told what he knew.
It seems that at one time Obadiah— an eccentric solitary man—was well liked by the villagers. Then suddenly one day a dark shadow came over the village and strange unnatural howlings were heard coming from the area of Obadiah’s house. Terrible happenings suddenly started to occur in the surrounding area, and cattle and sheep were found ripped apart as if by some huge creature. Obadiah at this time stopped coming to the village and the rumours and gossiping started.
Suitably refreshed my driver and his horse were ready and eager now to finish the journey and so we set off again at a fast pace and after a mile or so further on the driver came to a halt in front of a pair of tall metal gates. “This is as far as I go, Sir”
I tried very hard get him to take me on to the house but there was no way that I could persuade him to go any further, in fact he pleaded with me to let him take me back to the village, especially as nightfall was fast approaching. He said “I will return to these gates tomorrow at midday if you wish to return to the village” and with a shout to his horse he was gone.
As I watched the horse and trap disappear, I began to feel very alone and strangely uneasy. I picked up my valise opened the gates and began my walk up the winding drive. On either side the once cultivated grounds had become overgrown, the shrubs and flowers now a smothered tangled mess.
The house came into view somehow sooner than I expected. It was very old, 16th century and had been built on to the ruins of an old 12th century Cistercian Abbey. The walled beams of the house were discoloured and damaged due to centuries of dampness and neglect. Weeds clung to the house in an unnatural embrace as if thriving on some unseen nourishment from below. Tree growth covered part of the tiled roof and the windows looked dark and uninviting. The leaves of the trees in the front of the house hung down brown coloured and shrivelled. The gate to the house hung limply on one hinge, pushing it open I walked up the weed strewn pathway to the large oak front door which still appeared solid and secure, I wondered how the inside had fared.
I knocked on the door the sound echoing through the house but there was no response. Perhaps Obadiah was occupied elsewhere. I knocked again this time a lot harder still no response but the force of my knocking had pushed open the door which gave way with an eerie creaking sound to reveal my first look inside..
A smell of mustiness and dampness of years of airlessness made me cough and reach for my handkerchief. The way in was along a small flagstoned passageway with oak panelled walls which led into a large hall. There was very little light, coming through the high windows on each side, due to the dust and grime but even so I could just make out a long oak table on which were plates with scraps of food still on them. Old candlesticks were set in the centre and at each end. The whole scene was covered in several inches of dust and cobwebs. Damp mildewed portraits still hung at odd angles on the wall, their occupants faces staring out unblinking on this scene of desolation and neglect,
At the far end of the hall I could just make out in the gloom a wide staircase which curved upwards. To the right of the staircase and in the corner of the hall a bad leak in the roof had allowed water in and the wall there was green with mould all the way down to the floor.
I decided to investigate further — before the daylight faded completely— and see what rooms there were at the top of the staircase. I passed more portraits on the stairs in a similar state to those in the hall. Brushing cobwebs from my face I reached the top and a long corridor ran out, for what I assumed to be the length of the house. I found the rooms on either side of the corridor were empty but deep in dust except one which still contained an old four poster bed, the torn ragged curtains of which were hanging limply down a badly worn carpet covered the floor. Two ancient chairs and a table in the centre completed the furniture. This must be where Obadiah slept. But there was still no sign of him and the late afternoon shadows were getting longer as evening drew near.
After a half an hour I had searched the whole house and found no sign of Obadiah so I decided to return to his bedroom where I had left my valise. It was very odd but on entering this room I found a difficulty in keeping my eyes open my eyelids seemed strangely heavy. The four poster bed looked very inviting and so I thought perhaps a few minutes rest on the bed would refresh me after my long journey.
The bed was indeed very comfortable and in a few seconds I had fallen asleep and as I slept I became aware of a voice and the figure of an old man appeared by my bed his hands clasped together, “Thank goodness you have come, Help me, please you must help me.’ Then I heard a deep growling noise echoing behind him, and he turned with a look of such fear on his face and disappeared.
The morning came with still no sign of Obadiah and finding no food in the house—except the stale remnants left on the table in the hall—I remembered that the driver had said he would return to the gates at midday, so I thought it best to return to the village find some food and have further talks with the landlord then decide what to do.
The driver was patiently waiting and secretly I was very pleased to see him. “Good day Sir, I hoped you would be here” he said, as I climbed aboard the trap and we made our way back to Barstow.
Once back at The Three Feathers Inn I ordered a large breakfast and asked the landlord if he would join me and tell me more about Obadiah and the house and what had caused the villagers to be so scared. Unfortunately he could only repeat what he had already told me, that all was well with Obadiah and the villagers until one night frightening sounds were heard and the animal killings started. He suggested that I might find out more about the origins of the house from the village church archives.
Just a short walk from the Inn the Church of St Peter was beautifully set in a slight hollow. It comprised a chancel with a south chapel, nave, south aisle and on the North the tower embattled and pinnacled. The base of the tower and the first two stages were Saxon. The porch entrance had a muniment room above in which were deposited the archives. I was accompanied by the local church warden who was only too pleased to show me his church’s treasures.
The room was very small with just enough light coming in from a tiny window enabling me to see the row of old books and papers pertaining to the history of the church, the village and the surrounding countryside. I explained to the Warden that I was interested in what might be known of the history of the old house that my uncle, Obadiah lived in. The warden showed me the books that he thought would interest me, which gave details on the day to day running of the church and information about Barstow over the last five hundred years. Then he said that there was a small book on the top shelf that had been of particular interest to my uncle and reaching up he brought down a dust covered black leather book, which he said was the history of the ruined Cistercian Abbey. He then said that he had to rush off on urgent church business and that I could take the book away to read at my leisure. I thanked him and assured him that I would take great care of it.
Returning to The Three Feathers I felt a certain excitement and I couldn’t wait to begin reading about the ruined Abbey and so I asked the landlord if he had a room for the night as time was passing and the driver of the pony and trap would not take me back to the house after dark. The Landlord was only too happy to oblige.
Eager to retire to my bed I went to my room early that night and quickly settled down in my bed with the book. Outside the wind had got up and was rattling the wooden shutters.
The book told the story of the Abbey, and its founding in 1128 as the ‘Abbey of Barstow’. For many years the order followed the strict observance of the Rule of St Benedict. Then after an order of Cistercian nuns was taken in by the Abbot immorality and debauchery became rife amongst a small number of monks and nuns. But one monk in particular named Bernard de Riche became bored and had the taste for even greater depravity after he had discovered a book in the Abbey Crypt. Unbeknown to him he was to unwittingly ‘Open the door to something Evil’
Outside my room the wind was howling a storm was brewing. I jumped from my bed to ensure the window shutters were secure. Then returning to my book the writer went on to say that after Bernard de Riche had opened the book he disappeared, he was nowhere to be found even after a thorough search of the Abbey and grounds. It was then— on the first night of the following full moon— the villagers first heard the blood curdling howls of a large wolf. In the morning the part remains of cattle and sheep were found, savaged and their throats ripped open. At that moment I dropped the book remembering what the landlord had told me when I first asked him about Obadiah. He’d told me that unnatural howling sounds were heard coming from Obadiah’s house and animals had been found horribly mutilated with their throats ripped open.
Part 2 of Robert Mulraine’s ‘The Werewolf’ at the same time next week.