A strange little tale to open the new year, narrated by a person with a literary bent, hiding behind a veritable hedge of initials.
The Strange Carpenter
A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE BY M. T. R. C.
I recollect—though for a time I had forgotten—that when I was a child of eight and walking one sunny afternoon with nurses and other children past the old, drab-painted, slated house in which my grandmother chanced to dwell, I noticed emerging from the front door the figure of a man wearing the old-fashioned paper-cap common to the journeyman carpenter of thirty years ago, and familiarized to later eyes by the illustrations of Tenniel in Lewis Carrol’s books.
I pointed him out to the nurse, and asked why he was letting himself out of grandmother’s house. By this time he had turned the corner into a narrow lane and had disappeared, without, it would seem, the nurse or other children having remarked him. Instead, they saw some one solemnly lowering the window-blinds of my grandmother’s bedroom . . . and very soon we were told that she had died just before we passed the house.
Ten years later I had gone to a fashionable watering-place to pay a visit to an invalid uncle, who lay bedridden and incurable in charge of my mother and her sister.
The month was November and the weather of unusual mildness. The house was pleasantly situated in a garden bordered with aucubas and other shrubs, upon which a covered verandah gave. Here I was seated after dinner smoking a pipe, the light from the French windows of the dining-room falling upon the stones of the patio. Suddenly, from the darkened doorway on my left hand, I noticed the carpenter of my childhood emerge, and cross the lawn noiselessly and very swiftly, to disappear amid the laurels. . . . A few seconds later my name was called in startled tones, and, hurrying within, I found that my uncle had that moment expired with unexpected suddenness. . . .
In the spring of 1904 I was in London, and, having lunched rather earlier than usual at Frascati’s Restaurant, took my way up Oxford Street, with the purpose of strolling down Regent Street and spending an indolent afternoon among the magazines at the club. The day was fine and really spring-like; painters and decorators were busy with ladders and suspended paint-pots on the fronts of many shops ; there was a novel brightness and gaiety in the costumes of feminine passers-by: the spring had really come. . . .
I proceeded aimlessly enough along the southern side of the way until I neared Oxford Circus, when I half-turned towards Regent Street, in accordance with my original intention. As I did so I was brushed against a little roughly by some one whom I did not particularly notice, but of whom I took vaguely the impression that he was clad in workman’s garb of some sort. The encounter was sufficient in my indeterminate mood to make me go on across the Circus. It had just occurred to me that the unknown workman had muttered something as he touched me, and that the words he had spoken in a low, peculiarly hollow tone were: “Not yet.” I was beginning lazily to ponder the matter when I heard a sharp crackling sound coming from the right-hand side of Regent Street. . . . A policeman on point duty immediately in front of me turned sharply in the direction of the noise. . . . I caught a glimpse of sudden horror in his eyes . . . blowing his whistle he darted across the road.
Seeing, as I too turned, that some ladies were entangled in the débris of the awning that had screened the windows of a large draper’s establishment—through which a workman’s cradle had descended with a crash into the street—I hastened to the spot. I noted that it was equidistant from the corner of the Circus where the workman had brushed against me and from that where I stood when the crash came. But for his interference I should have lain under that awning amid the pools of red blood flooding the pavement, the broken glass, splinters, paint-pots, ropes, tools, and mangled bodies of several men. As I stood amid the confusion incident to the summoning of cabs, the temporary assistance rendered to the injured and to fainting women and terrified children, I caught a glimpse of a man in a carpenter’s paper cap helping to place the dying body of one of the fallen house-painters in the cab which was to take him to the Middlesex Hospital. For an instant only his eyes met mine. . . . I knew him intuitively for the unknown workman who had altered my course.. . I tried to force my way through the press to have speech of him . . . but he had disappeared. . .
During that same summer I entered an omnibus in the Bayswater Road, bound eastward. The afternoon was hot and dusty, and I was tired and worried. . . . As the omnibus swung along under the green trees of the park, the outlines of passing vehicles grew blurred and dim as I yielded to natural drowsiness.
The ’bus stopped at a tavern at which the result of some big race had just been received. The conductor mentioned the name of the winning horse, and my fellow-passengers began to talk excitedly about it. For me the event had no interest. . . . During the past few weeks I had been away from town, entangled in a series of almost tragic occurrences that had left me neither time nor inclination to attend to current happenings.
My eyes were attracted to a broad-shouldered young man in a brown suit, wearing a blue white-spotted tie fastened with a cheap horse-shoe pin, who sat opposite me. He looked very ill, and the mention of the winner’s name, after flushing his cheeks unnaturally for a second, had left them drawn and grey; while I could see fear lurking in his dark eyes.
As the ’bus started again a carpenter came out of the tavern and jumped in. He seated himself by the young man in brown. I saw his face quite closely and distinctly. It was a horrible face. Under the paper cap were eyes in which the pupils were mere black and sparkling points ; the nose was partially consumed by disease; the face dead white. A curiously unpleasant smell seemed to exhale from him. I felt a physical nausea and repulsion overcoming me and was inclined to stop the ’bus and alight. . . .
Suddenly the young man opposite repeated in a low tone of voice, with a pathetic sort of gasp, the name of the winner of the big race, adding, “I will never bet again, s’elp me. . . .” The carpenter turned sharply towards him, extending his hand, and saying, “Never,” in a strange, half-questioning, half-positive tone.
I saw the young man grasp the proffered hand, and heard him repeat the word, “Never.” Immediately afterwards he sank back into his corner with starting eyes and saliva coming from his lips. . . . He looked as though about to have a fit. . . .
A fellow-passenger, who called out that he was a doctor, came across the ’bus between me and the young man, and took his hand almost as it fell from the grasp of the carpenter. . . . There was some confusion. . . . The women screamed and hastened to get out of the vehicle. . . . The conductor signalled to the driver to stop. . . . A policeman entered and examined the body of the young man-who had just died. . . . Then the doctor and I alighted, the former handing his card to the constable. . . . “Hawful!” commented the conductor. . ..
I looked hastily round for the strange carpenter; but he had vanished in the confusion.
The Occult Review, Vol. 8, July 1908
Well, it was very rude of him to come and spoil the fun. It doesn’t appear that the Carpenter shed any bitter tears for his victims, if victims they were. I’m not sure what to make of this tale of a carpenter come to bear away the dying. How many carpenters might be spotted in any given day in Edwardian London if we assume it was all coincidence? Like most of the working class, perhaps they were invisible until something jarred the narrator into noticing them. Yet, there is that strange scene where the carpenter emerges from the uncle’s house…. Returning to rational explanations, the man’s face sounds sinister in the extreme, but one suspects that exposure to lead, solvents, varnishes, and other poisons might explain his nose and odor. The narrator is perhaps deliberately unclear about whether others saw the carpenter.
And why a carpenter as a conductor of souls? He makes a very curious token of death. At a stretch, could he be connected with the hammer-and-saw sounds of a phantom coffin-maker, which are believed to signal a death? The only other death-dealing carpenter I know of is the Demon Lover of the “House Carpenter” ballad. Carpenters simply do not have the supernatural cachet of smiths, but perhaps I’ve not read the right issue of Notes and Queries.
I’ve been scouring psychical research journals and spiritualist literature for the identity of the narrator, but haven’t yet hit the nail on the head. If anyone recognizes the initials or knows of other sinister carpenters, well, you know the drill: Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. Why did carpenters wear paper hats, by the way?
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.