In North America, we are accustomed to think about ghostly and creepy tales during autumn, most especially at the end of October. However, in Merrie o’ England, the tradition for telling such stories occurs in winter, and somewhat counterintuitively, during Christmastime. The low winter sun and long cold evenings were quite conducive to the sharing of chillers and spine-tinglers with the most famous and obvious example of this long-standing tradition being typified in A Christmas Carol by Dickens. Another fine historical instance was the yearly reading of a new ghost story by M. R. James. In grand fashion, the master held a select audience spellbound every Christmas Eve with many of the recited tales finding publication after their yuletide debut. This phenomenon was finely defended by the words of our guide for this Christmas season: “These particular stories lie on the border land between the seen and unseen; they may be very incredible; but they will serve to pass away the happy time around the Yule Log, when mythic stories are most acceptable.”
The Reverend Augustine David Crake (1836-1890) belongs to a long list of English priests who contributed to ghost story literature, including Sabine Baring-Gould, whom he name-drops, and E. G. Swain. Mostly, Crake wrote historical religious fiction and devotional books, but we will be exploring his singular contribution to the fantastic, A Sheaf of Yule Log Stories (1888). The book is a collection of stories Crake heard around the fireplace as a child in the 1840s and is divided into the seven nights of Christmas week. Below is the first story.
Crake’s Introduction to the volume is not to be passed over. It is a delightful recounting of Crake’s childhood holidays full of snow-laden hills, iceskating atop deep lakes and the nightly sharing of cheer and spine-tingling thrills. Seemingly, it is a time and experience now vanished. In an era of drone-delivered consumer products, major holiday discounts and a multiplicity of screens, we don’t seem to talk to each other; we don’t share stories any longer. Say what you will about “progress,” but I feel a loss.
A Sheaf of Yule Log Stories
Rev. A. D. Crake
“The boy’s bright dream is all before,
The man’s romance lies far behind;
Had we the present, and no more.
Fate were unkind.”
WHEN I was young it was my good fortune to spend my Christmas holidays in a remote farm house, amongst the mountains of the lake country—a dear old home—snug and sequestered, abounding with all which could delight a boy’s heart.
We approached it from the west by a difficult road, skirting the precipitous shores of one of the grandest of “The Lakes,” although not a well-known one, for railroads and steamboats have not even now found their way there, and the post-town is a day’s journey away across wild and rugged mountains.
The house lay in the entrance to a most sombre and mysterious valley, utterly uncultivated, and almost pathless. The mountains rose sheer to an awful height on each side, and a river rushed brawling and shallow down the vale, now creeping and swirling under one mountain side, now under the opposite. It contained abundance of trout, but this was not the season for fishing.
Sometimes a storm cloud would fill the desolate head of the valley, and it looked like the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” which I used to read about in the “Pilgrim’s Progress,” almost the only book of fiction permitted then by strict people. At such seasons one hardly dared to be alone up the valley; the peaks above veiled in cloud and mist, the hoarse brawling of the many currents rushing down the mountain side, the fearsome silence so impressed people, that one could not be left alone there.
But when the sun came out it turned those mountain tops to the “Delectable Mountains,” and suggested the land Elysian to my day dreams, for I was an imaginative youth.
There was plenty to feed the imagination. The old folk, each and all, were story-tellers, and I knew that alternately we should be made to laugh and shudder—with that pleasant sensation which a tale of mystery produces.
One happy Christmas Eve, nearly half a century ago, I had escaped from school at Redwell Regis, under dear old Doctor Roper, stern, but kind of heart, and had travelled a long way northward, at first with many companions, who all joined heartily in the holiday refrain,
“No more Latin, no more Greek,
No more cane to make us squeak.”
But one by one my companions reached their homes, or took other routes, and I was alone when I reached the dear old holiday home.
Oh, how my heart beat with joy when I saw the Pillar mountain, and Red Pike in the distance, what visions of skating and sledging by day, and glorious evenings around the cheerful fire, in the huge cavernous chimney-place, where I generally contrived to get one of the corners, watching the snow flakes, hissing as they fell from the darkness above, into the cheerful flames.
There was no road passable for carriages up to the farm house, at least not in the winter, and one of my cousins met me with horses at the Anglers’ Inn; we left the baggage to the care of the groom, and skated across the frozen lake, heedless of the depth of some few hundreds of feet beneath us, for these lakes are as deep as the hills are high. I might feel nervous now, but I had no nerves then.
Oh, how clear rose the mountain tops in the bracing air, how homelike the smoke rose from the old familiar chimneys which drew nearer and nearer, as we flew along; and what a welcome awaited me when we had landed, and had traversed the remaining mile up the steep valley, with the guardian hills on either side.
And now I am going to recall those
“Hours that are to memory dear”
and to re-tell the stories I heard night after night, as I sat in that chimney-corner, beginning with Christmas Eve.
IT was just the seasonable weather that night, cold and starlight without, while the flames leapt merrily from our glorious fire; their edges were tinged with blue, and we all predicted a continuance of the frosty weather in which we delighted, and glorious skating on the lake.
Oh, how delightful those old-fashioned Christmases in that land of mountains and lakes, when Red Pike had put on his snow-cap: the higher passes were all blocked by huge drifts; the lakes were already covered with ice, the sheep had all been brought down from the upper valleys to the well protected folds, and it made one shiver to think of the bleak heights above.
But we sat in the glow of the fire, all around the blazing log; the candles were huge monsters, made to last till Twelfth Day, and the log was to burn all that night and the next day, casting its deep glow into all parts of the room, especially the chimney corners on each side the vast fire place. Oh, how cosy those corners were!
And we all sang as we lighted the candles, and kindled the log—
“Come, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing,
While my good dame, she
Bids you all be free,
And eat to your heart’s desiring.
With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in its spending,
On your psalteries play,
That good luck may
Come, while the log is trending.”
Who was there that night? Let me recall the forms and faces of the dear friends of my childhood, who did so much to make my young life bright; there was grandfather, still a hale hearty old man, although he had passed the limit of three score and ten; grandmother, so loving and kind, in full possession of all her faculties, although her hand sometimes shook, and was unsteady as she poured out our coffee or tea at breakfast table; uncle Tom, a bachelor uncle, skilled in drawing the long bow; aunt Mary, a spinster aunt, a second mother to us all; no end of cousins, four from London—three boys and two girls; seven from the country; and one, a high-spirited, ready-witted lad from Canada, who had come over to England for his education, and was most popular amongst us, for his skill in skating and sledging, and his readiness in all kinds of winter sports out of doors, made him the leader amidst the ice and snow, although only fourteen years of age.
We indulged in all manner of games that evening—played forfeits and blind-man’s buff; acted the mummers; dipped our fingers into burning brandy, lighted in shallow tins, for the hot raisins; caught blindfolded at apples suspended by strings to the ceiling—caught them with our teeth, while our hands were tied; and so on, until we were fairly tired.
And then the cry was raised—“A story, a story.”
“Yes, grandfather, a story?”
“What is it to be about?”
“Oh, about your adventure in the moor, to be sure, that Christmas Eve long ago.”
“Yes, the haunted moor, and the abbey, and the robbers.”
And we all settled ourselves with that love of the sensational so natural to the young, and what more delightful than to sit round a bright fire, and hear stories of wanderers lost in dismal goblin-haunted wastes.
“Well, you have all of you heard it before.”
“Yes, and we want to hear it again, ‘tis the Christmas Eve tale.”
“Well, then, my children, you shall have it once more; remember, ‘twas nearly sixty years ago, and times have much changed.”
The little town of Moorside was rightly named, for it stood on the borders of an extensive common, a moor in the Northern country, which stretched for many a weary mile, covered with heath or shaggy wood, save where the mere or bog diversified its surface.
It was the haunt of grouse and wild fowl, which in the good old days, before such districts were let by their proprietors at enormous rentals, afforded excellent sport to the country folk, and added savour to their otherwise frugal meals.
A good road, that is good for those districts, stretched across from north to south, connecting Moorside with the cultivated districts beyond, and at one time it was tolerably well worn by rustic traffic, but at this particular time it was shunned by all who were not forced to cross it. Something ailed the moor; they said the place was cursed—at least such was the story they told me when I arrived to spend my Christmas with my uncle and his daughter, my cousin Maggie, one winter sixty years ago, when George III. was king, and had only just begun to reign.
I was then very fond of shooting, and that, with a certain other reason, made me choose Moorside at Christmas-tide, when I suppose I ought to have been in the home circle.
On the morning of the 24th my uncle met me, equipped in shooting costume, just starting for the moor.
“Do not be late to-night, remember ’tis Christmas Eve.”
“No, I will be back in good time for dinner.”
“And take care of both robbers and ghosts.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Then you are before your time, for most people about here say the old abbey is alive at night with goblins and spectres, blue lights, clanking chains, dismal groans, and all that sort of thing.”
“Just the kind of thing I should like to see for once,” said I, gaily.
“But that is not the worst, John,” said my cousin Maggie, “there are well authenticated stories of highwaymen on the moor, and some rich travellers have disappeared, and never been heard of since.”
“Got into the bogs, I suppose.”
“Men whisper, murder.”
“Well, you need not be anxious about me, I will be home by dark.”
I gave her a kiss, a cousin’s privilege, and started on my way to the moor, armed with a double-barrelled gun, but minus a dog, for I had lost my poor “Carlo” and not found another to suit me.
It was a keen frosty day, and the sun shone brightly; the ground was crisp and the air most exhilarating. I was in high spirits.
Arriving at an eminence on the edge of the waste I gazed over the moorland: the view was delightful. Here the streamlet murmured in the depths of the ravine, there the jagged peaks of the hills rose crowned with masses of granite fantastically grouped together, looking for all the world like the ruins of some ancient castle reared by giant hands, and destroyed by the storms of centuries. Faint mists filled the hollows, and gathered around the hill tops, making them appear higher than they really were, and adding the effect of light and shade to the scene.
But I was a sportsman; birds were plentiful, and I went on filling my bag; I did wonderfully well with grouse and blackcock, considering that I had no dog. How I wished I had got my pointer Carlo with me; but, poor dog, he lay beneath the turf in my garden at home. I sat down to eat my luncheon at mid-day, and for the first time noticed gathering clouds in the north-west.
“That looks like snow,” I thought; “but I shall be home before it comes on.”
I resumed my sport and wandered further and further into the depths of the moor, the hours sped on so quickly that I did not notice their swift passage till the sun sank westward towards a bank of angry-looking clouds, and I began to think it was time to trudge homewards.
I looked around for the landmarks by which I was accustomed to guide my way, for it was not the first time I had visited this moor, as the reader may guess, and was astonished to see how far I had wandered. I was many miles from home; far to the southward lay the peak called “The Fool’s Cap,” from its quaint resemblance to the head-dress with which naughty boys were invested at school.
I started vigorously on my homeward path, but the miles before me seemed long, and the heath and gorse were too thick for fast walking. The sun had disappeared behind the heavy bank of deep black snow clouds before I had conquered the ascent of the hill, to the south of the valley, which had been the limit of my ramble.
But the twilight was unusually long, and I had little fear of losing my way, when a gust of wind swept with a dismal wail over the hill top, and the fir trees bent before it.
Another, then another, and I perceived that a storm was rising fast. I looked behind; the bank of clouds had risen and had entirely lost its monotonous outlines; it was broken into spires and pinnacles of vapour, and one huge mass had assumed the form—at least, I thought so—of a giant fiend, stretching forth its arms as if to embrace mid-air.
I hurried onward; I gained the table land; I saw the acclivity before me from which, when gained, I should obtain a view of the town. Onward, onward, for about ten minutes, when down it came and the air was thick with snow.
They are plucking their geese over head in style to-night thought I, and still strode on; but alas! I could no longer see a hundred yards before me, and the snow was up to my ankles. Onward for another quarter of an hour, and I could not see ten yards; there was no path, no track, and I was utterly lost; I knew not where I was going.
Still I strode mechanically on, for the air was bitterly cold, and when I hesitated for a moment to think, the blast chilled me through and through.
How long I wandered I knew not, nor where, but it must have been for hours, and I became very much alarmed, and indeed the danger was great. Could I persevere till morning? if I did not the cold would kill me. How I longed for my uncle’s warm fire-side; how I thought of the promised Christmas Eve festivities, and then of the anxiety of my uncle and Maggie. Poor Maggie. Well, there was a secret between us, I shall not tell you youngsters for you wouldn’t understand it.
“Maggie is short for Margaret which is grandmamma’s name, isn’t it?” said a childish voice.
“Sh, sh, sh,” said the rest.
At last the snow ceased, but it still continued very dark; I was about to dig me a hole in the snow and lie down, for I had heard that the snow itself will give warmth if it quite covers you, when I saw—a light!
I hurried towards it, my strength renewed by hope; I crossed ravines, half choked with snow; I emerged on the open moor. Yes, it was the light from a window, but what window? Now I was close: why, it was a Gothic window—a kind of church window; how came it there on the moor? Now I saw through it all, it was the abbey—the old ruined abbey—raising its form in the darkness before me.
A queer shudder passed through me, what you may call a creepy feeling. I remembered my uncle’s story that morning. The light proceeded from a window in one of the chambers of the abbey, which was almost untouched by the hand of time, and it came from a fire, for it flickered and flickered as the flame rose and fell.
“Well,” thought I, recovering my courage, “it doesn’t burn blue; some benighted travellers have taken shelter there, and I will join them and take my chance what manner of men they may be.”
I crossed a ditch, ascended a bank, clambered over ruined walls, entered a corridor, and there before me was the chamber, probably once the “hospitium,” lighted up by the fire, I advanced, my gun ready in case of need.
The room was empty.
There was a bundle of sticks and blocks of wood by the fire, from which it had been replenished; other traces of inhabitants there were none.
I was not, however, credulous enough to believe that ghosts had lighted this earthly fire; I had always been a staunch disbeliever in such things, and I concluded—well, I did not know what to conclude—but this I saw, there was a comfortable fire before me, and I meant to stay there.
So I opened my wallet, got out my whisky flask, found I had a sandwich or two left, and made as good a supper as circumstances permitted, and watched my steaming boots and leggings as the fire expelled the damp they had gathered in the snow.
An hour had passed, and I felt sleepy, but still, not knowing who they were who had built the fire and when they might return, I kept my self awake as long as I could, but every now and then I nodded and brought myself up with a start.
I tried to think of various things to keep myself awake, but I was in that state when one hardly knows when one is awake or dreaming, when I became conscious of a strange sound—strange at that place and hour.
It was the sound of solemn music, and it seemed to come from the ruined chapel hard by. I listened intently, and fancied I distinguished Latin words; there was a pause, and I thought that a single voice intoned “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” when the whole choir took up the strain, “pax in terra hominibus bonæ voluntatis,” or I dreamt they did.
I remembered all at once that this was Christmas night, when the monks of old were wont to chant their midnight mass, and a thrill of awe passed through me. Could it be that the spirits of those long departed votaries were permitted to re-enact the scenes of their past worship on earth on this night of nights? I rose now, fully awake, and on tip-toe was about to seek the spot whence the sounds seemed to proceed, when the music was no longer heard.
“Oh, grandfather, what was it?”
Perhaps a dream, who shall say? but at all events I was now fully awake, and, as it turned out, that wakefulness saved my life.
I had just reached the portals of the chapel, bent on ascertaining the cause of the sounds, which I supposed had broken my sleep, when I heard heavy footsteps approaching.
Had I been before the fire I should, I think, have remained there to abide the approach of the owners thereof, but now being in darkness, and in a spot whence I could see into the chamber I had left through a dark window, I thought it as well to discover who they were before introducing myself to them.
The steps drew nearer, and I heard rough voices.
“Take care, this bloke is heavy, you will hurt him if you let him fall.”
“Curse him, he has given more trouble than he is worth.”
“He almost managed to crack your lubbery head.”
Four men carrying a burden, followed by two others, came forward into the light, and then let the burden fall with a dull thud on the ground. What was it, that ghastly burden?
I bent forward and looked through the window, taking care not to expose myself.
“See what he has got in his pockets.”
I saw now, the burden was a murdered man, and the six were assassins, foul midnight assassins.
There lay the victim, a middle-aged man, respectably dressed, with a ghastly wound on his forehead, evidently inflicted by some blunt instrument; he had not fallen without a struggle, as was evident by the state of the clothes of his murderers, which were disarranged and spotted with blood.
And now they were rifling his pockets, and as they did so, one looked up for a moment, and I caught his face, and I knew him.
It was the face of a well-known vagabond, always lounging about the town of Moorside, with no ostensible means of getting his living, yet always seeming flush of money, and treating other scamps to drink. I knew now where he got his wealth.
“Don’t leave anything behind you to go down with the carcase into the peat-hag.”
“Where he will find good company before him,” said another, laughing grimly.
“A poor spec this time, only twenty shiners, not more than four apiece.”
“The toggery is worth something.”
“Too dangerous to keep; people may know clothes again, but not money.”
“Why, Bill, you told us that he was rich, and that he had offered you a guinea to guide him over the moor.”
“WelI, we must be glad of what we can get, ‘taint many who will venture to cross the moor now, we have made it too hot, and if this fellow hadn’t had particular business he’d never have been game for the trip.”
“Here is a pocket-book,” said one, producing it as he spoke, and they opened it eagerly; it was full of bank notes, as I could gather from their talk.
They sat by the fire to count them, and I was just meditating how I could best get away. What could I do in so wild a night?—when one of them suddenly exclaimed with an oath—
“How came that whiskey flask there?”
I had left my flask by the fire.
“Must have tumbled out of the bloke’s pocket.”
“Nothing haven’t been near the fire, and here somebody’s been chawing his supper; there’s been a cove here.”
“To be sure there has.”
They looked suspiciously around, and conversed with each other in so low a tone that I could not catch their words.
What was I to do?
They were strong ruffians, men who seemed as if they might have strangled a baby in its cradle and thought it a joke; no mercy was to be expected, and if caught I could only hope to sell my life dearly. Two courses at once suggested themselves: the first to go forth into the storm; the second to hide amongst the ruins, for by the help of torches they might track my footsteps through the snow, with the certainty of blood hounds, and I was stiff and faint already with fatigue: even if they did not catch me, before morning I should sink down somewhere and freeze to death, while the ruins would at least give some shelter, and afforded many a hiding place, which I knew, for I had visited the place often in my boyish days, and enjoyed many a prank among its recesses.
The men had at last come to the resolution to search the place, and rising, took large brands, which they lit to serve as torches.
Now I remembered a circular staircase which led up the half-ruined tower, and which had a door, half way up, opening into a gallery, which ran all round the choir of the abbey church above the arches, just where the clerestory began, the like passage you may see in many an old cathedral.”
“Yes, there is one at Exeter,” said grandson Frank.
“And in Christ Church, Oxford; I have often thought how I should like a run round,” said young Guy.
“Oh, go on, go on” said a dozen voices.
Well, then, it struck me as they rose that they would have a job to hunt me round that gallery, and they could not come on by any possibility more than one at a time, while I had my gun and plenty of powder and shot. I began to feel some hope; I groped in the darkness for the foot of the central tower, and found it just as their lights began to appear where I had been a moment before.”
“Oh, grandfather, if you had not known the place,” said little Florence.
We are all in GOD’S hands, dear, and it was not without His foreknowledge of the future, when I searched that very passage out, under the blazing light of a July sun, streaming through the shattered windows; but now how different, the snow had drifted into the staircase, and I trod upon it as I clambered up, and at last entered the long narrow corridor of which I spoke, running all round above the choir, piercing the buttresses which supported the roof at frequent intervals.
I heard them pursuing me, and from my elevated post in that wind-swept gallery, beheld them searching every nook and corner of the church below, looking behind ruined pillar and shattered altar, their bludgeons in their right hands, their torches in their left.
“There is no one here,” said one, and I began to think I might escape their search, when one of them, as they returned to the nave, noticed that the old door at the foot of the tower steps was open—in my haste, for they were close behind me, I had forgotten to shut it.
“That door was shut last night,” said another.
“Very well, go upstairs and search the tower, but I don’t think you’ll find anybody.”
I omit the oaths which garnished every phrase they used.
Swearing at the cold wind as they ascended, and cursing their ill-luck in having to leave the fire and break their shins over the fallen stones, but still aware that their wicked livelihood, and their very necks were in danger if any visitor had seen their doings, they ascended.
“Here are steps in the snow; there is one footmark, there another; we shall have him, curse him.”
Their blood was up; they were now on a level with the gallery, wherein I had taken shelter, and my blood was up, too. The passage was so narrow that only one man could advance at a time, the second, and all the rest, must come on in a line behind him. I felt determined to avenge the blood they had shed, as well as to save my own life. I was at the extremity of the passage, which was nearly fifty feet in length, and of course quite straight; luckily there was light enough to see my work, their torches supplied that, and I stood with my double-barrelled gun presented.
They had all entered the long, narrow passage, and the leader was within a dozen paces of me, when I fired my first barrel.
Down went the leader with a fearful shriek, which was echoed by the second villain, who had caught some of the discharge too. I fired the second barrel, seeing the following men clearly as the first two had dropped and choked the passage with their bodies, and the third brute caught it also, and fell staggering; the fourth must have been wounded, and I expect the fifth got some stray shots.
Then I dashed round the passage, ran into a recess, and coming on the other side of the choir unpursued, loaded both barrels again. I watched them across the choir, which lay beneath, and saw them bear two of their comrades away, dead, one for each barrel; they must have been the first and third in line, while the second and fourth, who seemed to stagger dreadfully, got out on their legs, and I think the fifth must have smarted somewhat.
This I only indistinctly saw by the moonlight, for they had put out their torches—it was now clear overhead.
Crack! crack! came pistol bullets, fired at random down the passage, but I was in the other gallery; still, I knew they would fire down that in its turn—the two, if not three, who were left, would sell their own lives to get mine.
I didn’t stay in the gallery over the north side long; ’twas well I didn’t, for some bullets came down and flattened against the wall where the passage turned. I was then at the eastern end where the gallery ran across from side to side, but I anticipated a rush along each side north and south at the same time, so that my opponents would come upon me in two opposite directions. They knew the abbey well enough, and would easily guess where to find me.
Before me was a flight of steps leading up to the roof; I ascended them rapidly and reached the summit. I was safe here from all but the bitter weather, for only one at a time could ascend the spiral staircase, and I carried two lives with me, one to each barrel of my gun.
Crack! crack I went their pistols or guns, whichever they were; they were firing along each gallery south and north at the same time. Ah! there goes the rush, they are trying to get at me from both sides at once, as I anticipated. I laughed inwardly as I thought of their disappointment when they met from opposite directions and discovered the bird was flown.
All was still for a moment, and I had leisure to look abroad; the wind had gone down, the snow had ceased, the moon was shining calmly on the whitened expanse of the moor. Ah! what is that on the moor, a body of men with torches approaching the abbey; there goes a horn.
Friends or foes? there are twenty of them.
Oh, how my heart beat for the next few minutes, until I saw my late enemies rush out of the abbey in the opposite direction to the advancing party and fly towards a deep ravine for shelter. The horn was again blown, and I knew now that these were my friends come out to seek and save me. I ran down the tower, and in a few minutes my hand was clasped by my uncle, and then shaken again and again with heartiness by all present.
They had heard the guns while they were seeking me, not far off, and had come to my rescue, not quite comprehending the cause of the fusillade, and I was saved.
They found the body of the murdered man, a commercial traveller, which the robbers had not found time to hide, and two dead bodies besides, but neither of them was the man I knew.
You can guess the joy with which I was welcomed at my uncle’s fireside. Maggie, poor Maggie, actually cried for joy. I consoled her by telling her I lived for her, and so I did, and she for me.
“Grandmamma,” said several voices.
“But what became of the rest of the robbers?”
The ruffian they called Bill was speedily arrested, and I identified him on oath; he split, as they called it, upon his ‘pals,’ of whom only three survived, for a third of their party fell a victim to my double-barrelled gun, dying in the ravine where they took refuge, and where it was useless to pursue them that night. The other two were caught in time, and all three swang together as they deserved, but not till they had confessed to a dozen murders at least. They had buried their victims in a peat-hag, as they called a certain quicksand in the moor, which swallowed the bodies up, so that they never could be recovered, and they had spread carefully abroad the report that the abbey was haunted, so that it might serve for their lurking place the better.
And now, dear ones, here comes Jennie to say the Christmas supper is ready. Hurrah for turkey and mince-pie!