When Arthur Jephson wrote to me to join his Christmas party at Northavon Priory, I was set wondering where I had heard the name of this particular establishment. I felt certain that I had heard the name before, but I could not recollect for the moment whether I had come upon it in a newspaper report of a breach of promise of marriage or in a Blue-Book bearing upon Inland Fisheries: I rather inclined to the belief that it was in a Blue-Book of some sort. I had been devoting myself some years previously to an exhaustive study of this form of literature; for being very young, I had had a notion that a Blue-Book education was essential to any one with parliamentary aspirations. Yes, I had, I repeat, been very young at that time, and I had not found out that a Blue-Book is the oubliette of inconvenient facts.

It was not until I had promised Arthur to be with him on Christmas Eve that I recollected where I had read something about Northavon Priory, and in a moment I understood how it was I had acquired the notion that the name had appeared in an official document. I had read a good deal about this Priory in a curious manuscript which I had unearthed at Sir Dennis le Warden’s place in Norfolk, known as Marsh Towers. The document, which, with many others, I found stowed away in a wall-cupboard in the great library, purported to be a draft of the evidence taken before one of the Commissions appointed by King Henry VIII. to inquire into the abuses alleged to be associated with certain religious houses throughout England. An ancestor of Sir Dennis’s had, it appeared, been a member of one of these Commissions, and he had taken a note of the evidence which he had in the course of his duties handed to the King.

The parchments had, I learned, been preserved in an iron coffer with double padlocks, but the keys had been lost at some remote period, and then the coffer had been covered over with lumber in a room in the east tower overlooking the moat, until an outbreak of fire had resulted in an overturning of the rubbish and a discovery of the coffer. A blacksmith had been employed to pick the locks, which he did with a sledge-hammer; but it was generally admitted that his energy had been wasted when the contents of the box were made known. Sir Dennis cared about nothing except the improvement of the breed of horses through the agency of race meetings, so the manuscripts of his painstaking ancestor were bundled into one of the presses in the library, some, however, being reserved by the intelligent housekeeper in the still-room to make jam-pot covers—a purpose for which, as she explained to me at considerable length, they were extremely well adapted.

I had no great difficulty in deciphering those that came under my hand, for I had had considerable experience of the tricks of early English writers; and as I read I became greatly interested in all the original “trustie and well-beelou’d Sir Denice le Warden” had written. The frankness of the evidence which he had collected on certain points took away my breath, although I had been long accustomed to the directness with which some of the fifteenth-century people expressed themselves.

Northavon Priory was among the religious houses whose practices had formed the subject of the inquiry, and it was the summary of Sir Denice’s notes regarding the Black Masses alleged to have been celebrated within its walls that proved so absorbing to me. The bald account of the nature of these orgies would of itself have been sufficient, if substantiated, to bring about the dissolution of all the order in England. The Black Mass was a pagan revel, the details of which were unspeakable, though their nature was more than hinted at by the King’s Commissioner. Anything so monstrously blasphemous could not be imagined by the mind of man, for with the pagan orgie there was mixed up the most solemn rite of the Mass. It was celebrated on the night of Christmas Eve, and at the hour of midnight the celebration culminated in an invocation to the devil, written so as to parody an office of the Church, and, according to the accounts of some witnesses, in a human sacrifice. Upon this latter point, however, Sir Denice admitted there was a diversity of opinion.

One of the witnesses examined was a man who had entered the Priory grounds from the river during a fearful tempest, on one Christmas Eve, and had, he said, witnessed the revel through a window to which he had climbed. He declared that at the hour of midnight the candles had been extinguished, but that a moment afterwards an awful red light had floated through the room, followed by the shrieks of a human being at the point of strangulation, and then by horrible yells of laughter. Another man who was examined had been a wood-cutter in the service of the Priory, and he had upon one occasion witnessed the celebration of a Black Mass; but he averred that no life was sacrificed, though he admitted that in the strange red light, which had flashed through the room, he had seen what appeared to be two men struggling on the floor. In the general particulars of the orgie there was, however, no diversity of opinion, and had the old Sir Denice le Warden been anything of a comparative mythologist, he could scarcely fail to have been greatly interested in being brought face to face with so striking an example of the survival of an ancient superstition within the walls of a holy building.

During a rainy week I amused myself among the parchments dealing with Northavon Priory, and although what I read impressed me greatly at the time, yet three years of pretty hard work in various parts of the world had so dulled my memory of any incident so unimportant as the deciphering of a mouldy document that, as I have already stated, it was not until I had posted my letter to Arthur Jephson agreeing to spend a day or two with his party, that I succeeded in recalling something of what I had read regarding Northavon Priory.

I had taken it for granted that the Priory had been demolished when Henry had superintended the dissolution of the religious establishments throughout the country: I did not think it likely that one with such a record as was embodied in the notes would be allowed to remain with a single stone on another. A moment’s additional reflection admitted of my perceiving how extremely unlikely it was that, even if Northavon Priory had been spared by the King, it would still be available for visitors during the latter years of the nineteenth century. I had seen many red-brick “abbeys” and “priories” in various parts of the country, not more than ten years old, inhabited mostly by gentlemen who had made fortunes in iron, or perhaps lard, which constitutes, I understand, an excellent foundation for a fortune. There might be, for all I knew, a score of Northavon Priories in England. Arthur Jephson’s father had made his money by the judicious advertising of a certain oriental rug manufactured in the Midlands, and I thought it very likely that he had built a mansion for himself which he had called Northavon Priory.

A letter which I received from Arthur set my mind at rest. He explained to me very fully that Northavon Priory was a hotel built within the walls of an ancient religious house.

He had spent a delightful month fishing in the river during the summer,—I had been fishing in the Amazon at that time,—and had sojourned at the hotel, which he had found to be a marvel of comfort in spite of its picturesqueness. This was why, he said, he had thought how jolly it would be to entertain a party of his friends at the place during the Christmas week.

That explanation was quite good enough for me. I had a week or two to myself in England before going to India, and so soon as I recalled what I had read regarding North-avon Priory, I felt glad that my liking for Jephson had induced me to accept his invitation.

It was not until we were travelling together to the station nearest to the Priory that he mentioned to me, quite incidentally, that during the summer he had been fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of a young woman who resided in a spacious mansion within easy distance of the Priory Hotel, and who was, so far as he was capable of judging,—and he considered that in such matters his judgment was worth something,—the most charming girl in England.

“I see,” I remarked before his preliminary panegyric had quite come to a legitimate conclusion—“I see all now: you haven’t the courage—to be more exact, the impudence—to come down alone to the hotel—she has probably a brother who is a bit of an athlete—but you think that Tom Singleton and I will form a good enough excuse for an act on your part which parents and guardians can construe in one way only.”

“Well, perhaps——Hang it all, man, you needn’t attribute to me any motives but those of the purest hospitality,” laughed my companion. “Isn’t the prospect of a genuine old English Christmas—the Yule log, and that sort of thing—good enough for you without going any further?”

“It’s quite good enough for me,” I replied. “I only regret that it is not good enough for you. You expect to see her every day?”

“Every day? Don’t be a fool, Jim. If I see her more than four times in the course of the week—I think I should manage to see her four times—I will consider myself exceptionally lucky.”

“And if you see her less than four times you will reckon yourself uncommonly unlucky?”

“O, I think I have arranged for four times all right: I’ll have to trust to luck for the rest.”

“What! you mean to say that the business has gone as far as that?”

“As what?”

“As making arrangements for meetings with her?”

My friend laughed complacently.

“Well, you see, old chap, I couldn’t very well give you this treat without letting her know that I should be in the neighbourhood,” said he.

“Oh, indeed. I don’t see, however, what the——”

“Great heavens! You mean to say that you don’t see——Oh, you will have your joke.”

“I hope I will have one eventually; I can’t say that I perceive much chance of one at present, however. You’ll not give us much of your interesting society during the week of our treat, as you call it.”

“I’ll give you as much of it as I can spare—more than you’ll be likely to relish, perhaps. A week’s a long time, Jim.”

“‘Time travels at divers paces with divers persons,’ my friend. I suppose she’s as lovely as any of the others of past years?”

“As lovely! Jim, she’s just the——”

“Don’t trouble yourself over the description. I have a vivid recollection of the phrases you employed in regard to the others. There was Lily, and Gwen, and Bee, and—yes, by George! there was a fourth; her name was Nelly, or——”

“All flashes in the pan, my friend. I didn’t know my own mind in those old days; but now, thank heaven!—Oh, you’ll agree with me when you see her. This is the real thing and no mistake.”

He was good enough to give me a genuine lover’s description of the young woman, whose name was, he said, Sylvia St Leger; but it did not differ materially from the descriptions which had come from him in past days, of certainly four other girls for whom he had, he imagined, entertained a devotion strong as death itself. Alas! his devotion had not survived a single year in any case.

When we arrived at the hotel, after a drive of eight miles from the railway station, we found Tom Singleton waiting for us rather impatiently, and in a quarter of an hour we were facing an excellent dinner. We were the only guests at the hotel, for though it was picturesquely situated on the high bank of the river, and was doubtless a delightful place for a sojourn in summer, yet in winter it possessed few attractions to casual visitors.

After dinner I strolled over the house, and found, to my surprise, that the old walls of the Priory were practically intact. The kitchen was also unchanged, but the great refectory was now divided into four rooms. The apartments upstairs had plainly been divided in the same way by brick partitions; but the outer walls, pierced with narrow windows, were those of the original Priory.

In the morning I made further explorations, only outside the building, and came upon the ruins of the old Priory tower; and then I perceived that only a small portion of the original building had been utilised for the hotel. The landlord, who accompanied me, was certainly no antiquarian. He told me that he had been “let in” so far as the hotel was concerned. He had been given to understand that the receipts for the summer months were sufficiently great to compensate for the absence of visitors during the winter; but his experience of one year had not confirmed this statement, made by the people from whom he had bought the place, and he had come to the conclusion that, as he had been taken in in the transaction, it was his duty to try to take in some one else in the same way.

“I only hope that I may succeed, sir,” he said, “but I’m doubtful about it. People are getting more suspicious every day.”

“You weren’t suspicious, at any rate,” said I.

“That I weren’t—more’s the pity, sir,” said he. “But it’ll take me all my time to get the place off my hands, I know. Ah, yes; it’s hard to get people to take your word for anything nowadays.”

For the next two days Tom Singleton and I were left a good deal together, the fact being that our friend Arthur parted from us after lunch and only returned in time for dinner, declaring upon each occasion that he had just passed the pleasantest day of his life. On Christmas Eve he came to us in high spirits, bearing with him an invitation from a lady who had attained distinction through being the mother of Miss St Leger, for us to spend Christmas Day at her house—it had already been pointed out to us by Arthur: it was a fine Georgian country house, named The Grange.

“I’ve accepted for you both,” said Arthur. “Mrs St Leger is a most charming woman, and her daughter—I don’t know if I mentioned that she had a daughter—well, if I omitted, I am now in a position to assure you that her daughter—her name is Sylvia—is possibly the most beautiful——But there’s no use trying to describe her; you’ll see her for yourselves to-morrow, and judge if I’ve exaggerated in the least when I say that the world does not contain a more exquisite creature.”

“Yes, one hour with her will be quite sufficient to enable us to pronounce an opinion on that point,” laughed Tom.

We remained smoking in front of the log fire that blazed in the great hearth, until about eleven o’clock, and then went to our rooms upstairs, after some horse-play in the hall.

My room was a small one at the beginning of the corridor, Arthur Jephson’s was alongside it, and at the very end of the corridor was Tom Singleton’s. All had at one time been one apartment.

Having walked a good deal during the day, I was very tired, and had scarcely got into bed before I fell asleep.

When I awoke it was with a start and a consciousness that something was burning. A curious red light streamed into the room from outside. I sprang from my bed in a moment and ran to the window. But before I had reached it the room was in darkness once more, and there came a yell of laughter, apparently from the next room.

For a moment I was paralysed. But the next instant I had recovered my presence of mind. I believed that Arthur and Tom had been playing some of their tricks upon me. They had burnt a red light outside my window, and were roaring with laughter as they heard me spring out of bed.

That was the explanation of what I had seen and heard which first suggested itself to me; and I was about to return to bed when my door was knocked at and then opened.

“What on earth have you been up to?” came the voice of Arthur Jephson. “Have you set the bed-curtains on fire? If you have, that’s nothing to laugh at.”

“Get out of this room with your larking,” said I. “It’s a very poor joke that of yours, Arthur. Go back to your bed.”

He struck a light—he had a match-box in his hand—and went to my candle without a word. In a moment the room was faintly illuminated.

“Do you mean to say that you hadn’t a light here just now—a red light?” he cried.

“I had no light: a red light floated through the room, but it seemed to come from outside,” said I.

“And who was it laughed in that wild way?”

“I took it for granted that it was you and Tom who were about your usual larks.”

“Larks! No, I was about no larks, I can promise you. Good Lord! man, that laugh was something beyond a lark.” He seated himself on my bed. “Do you fancy it may have been some of the servants going about the stables with a carriage-lamp?” he continued. “There may have been a late arrival at the hotel, you know.”

“That’s not at all unlikely,” said I. “Yes, it may have been that, and the laughter may have been between the grooms.”

“I don’t hear any sound of bustle through the house or outside,” said he.

“The stables are not at this angle of the building,” said I. “We must merely have seen the light and heard that laughter as the carriage passed our angle. Anyhow, we’ll only catch cold if we lounge about in our pyjamas like this. You’d best get back to bed and let me do the same.”

“I don’t feel much inclined to sleep, but I’ll not prevent your having your night’s rest,” said he, rising. “I wonder is it near morning?”

I held the candle before the dial of my watch that hung above my bed.

“It’s exactly five minutes past twelve,” said I. “We’ve slept barely an hour.”

“Then the sooner I clear out the better it will be for both of us,” said he.

He went away slowly, and I heard him strike a match in his own room. He evidently meant to light his candle.

Some hours had passed before I fell into an uneasy sleep, and once more I was awakened by Arthur Jephson, who stood by my bedside. The morning light was in the room.

“For God’s sake, come into Tom’s room!” he whispered. “He’s dead!—Tom is dead!”

I tried to realise his words. Some moments had elapsed before I succeeded in doing so. I sprang from my bed and ran down the corridor to the room occupied by Tom Singleton. The landlord and a couple of servants were already there. They had burst in the door.

It was but too true: our poor friend lay on his bed with his body bent and his arms twisted as though he had been struggling desperately with some one at his last moment. His face, too, was horribly contorted, and his eyes were wide open.

“A doctor,” I managed to say.

“He’s already sent for, sir,” said the landlord.

In a few moments the doctor arrived.

“Cardiac attack,” said he. “Was he alone in the room? No, he can’t have been alone.”

“He was quite alone,” said Arthur. “I knocked at the door a quarter of an hour ago, but getting no answer, I tried to force the lock. It was too strong for me; but the landlord and the man-servant who was bringing us our hot water burst in the door at my request.”

“And the window—was it fastened?” asked the doctor.

“It was secure, sir,” said the landlord.

“Ah, a sudden cardiac attack,” said the doctor.

There was, of course, an inquest, but as no evidence of foul play was forthcoming, the doctor’s phrase “cardiac attack” satisfied the jury, and a verdict of “Death from natural causes” was returned.

Before I went back to town I examined the room in which our poor friend had died. On the side of one of the window-shutters there were four curious burnt marks. They gave one the impression that the shutter had at one time been grasped by a man wearing a red-hot gauntlet.

I started for India before the end of the year and remained there for eight months. Then I thought I would pay a visit to a sister of mine in Queensland. On my return at the end of the year I meant to stop at Cairo for a few weeks. On entering Shepheard’s Hotel I found myself face to face with Arthur Jephson and his wife—he called her Sylvia. They had been married in August, but their honeymoon seemed still to be in its first quarter. It was after Mrs Jephson had retired, and when Arthur was sitting with me enjoying the cool of the night by the aid of a pretty strong cigar or two, that we ventured to allude to the tragic occurrence which marked our last time of meeting.

“I wish to beg of you not to make any allusion to that awful business in the hearing of my wife,” said Arthur. “In fact I must ask you not to allude to that fearful room in the Priory in any way.”

“I will be careful not to do so,” said I. “You have your own reasons, I suppose, for giving me this warning.”

“I have the best of reasons, Jim. She too had her experience of that room, and it was as terrible as ours.”

“Good heavens! I heard nothing of that. She did not sleep in that room?”

“Thank God, she didn’t. I arrived in time to save her.”

I need scarcely say that my interest was now fully aroused.

“Tell me what happened—if you dare tell it,” I said.

“You were abroad, and so you wouldn’t be likely to hear of the fire at The Grange,” said my friend, after a pause.

“I heard nothing of it.”

“It took place only two days before last Christmas. I had been in the south of France, where I had spent a month or two with my mother,—she cannot stand a winter at home,—and I had promised Sylvia to return to The Grange for Christmas. When I got to Northavon I found her and her mother and their servants at the Priory Hotel. The fire had taken place the previous night, and they found the hotel very handy when they hadn’t a roof of their own over their heads. Well, we dined together, and were as jolly as was possible under the circumstances until bedtime. I had actually said ‘Good night’ to Sylvia before I recollected what had taken place the previous Christmas Eve in the same house. I rushed upstairs, and found Sylvia in the act of entering the room—that fatal room. When I implored of her to choose some other apartment, she only laughed at first, and assured me that she wasn’t superstitious; but when she saw that I was serious—I was deadly serious, as you can believe, Jim——”

“I can—I can.”

“Well, she agreed to sleep in her mother’s room, and I went away relieved. So soon as I returned to the fire in the dining-room I began to think of poor Tom Singleton. I felt curiously excited, and I knew that it would be useless for me to go to bed,—in fact, I made up my mind not to leave the dining-room for some hours, at any rate, and when the landlord came to turn out the lights I told him he might trust me to do that duty for him. He left me alone in the room about half-past eleven o’clock. When the sound of his feet upon the oaken stairs died away I felt as fearful as a child in the dark. I lit another cigar and walked about the room for some time. I went to the window that opened upon the old Priory ground, and, seeing that the night was a fine one, I opened the door and strolled out, hoping that the cool air would do me good. I had not gone many yards across the little patch of green before I turned and looked up at the house—at the last window, the window of that room. A fire had been lighted in the room early in the evening, and its glow shone through the white blind. Suddenly that faint glow increased to a terrific glare,—a red glare, Jim,—and then there came before my eyes for a moment the shadow of two figures upon the blind,—one the figure of a woman, the other—God knows what it was. I rushed back to the room, but before I had reached the door I heard the horrible laughter once again. It seemed to come from that room and to pass on through the air into the distance across the river. I ran upstairs with a light, and found Sylvia and her mother standing together with wraps around them at the door of the room. ‘Thank God, you are safe!’ I managed to cry. ‘I feared that you had returned to the room.’ ‘You heard it—that awful laughter?’ she whispered. ‘You heard it, and you saw something—what was it?’ I gently forced her and her mother back to their room, for the servants and the landlord’s family were now crowding into the corridor. They, too, had heard enough to alarm them.”

“You went to the room?”

“The scene of that dreadful morning was repeated. The door was locked on the inside. We broke it in and found a girl lying dead on the floor, her face contorted just as poor Singleton’s was. She was Sylvia’s maid, and it was thought that, on hearing that her mistress was not going to occupy the room, she had gone into it herself on account of the fire which had been lighted there.”

“And the doctor said——?”

“Cardiac attack—the same as before—singular coincidence! I need scarcely say that we never slept again under that accursed roof. Poor Sylvia! She was overwhelmed at the thought of how narrow her escape had been.”

“Did you notice anything remarkable about the room—about the shutters of the window?” I asked.

He looked at me curiously for a moment. Then he bent forward and said—

“On the edge of the shutter there were some curious marks where the wood had been charred.”

“As if a hand with a red-hot gauntlet had been laid upon it?”

“There were the marks of two such hands,” said my friend slowly.

We remained for an hour in the garden; then we threw away the ends of our cigars and went into the hotel without another word.


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