The Black Ghost – Part Two
Two years after the shocking attack, one of the witnesses, journalist and author Beverley Nichols published one of his autobiographies and devoted a chapter to the events of that night. Compare and contrast….
In Which We Meet a Ghost
At this point in the narrative it seems fitting to introduce a spiritual element which, up to the moment, has not been very noticeable.
You may have seen, two Christmases ago, a sensation article in The Weekly Dispatch, by one Lord St. Audries, telling of a ghostly midnight adventure which he had experienced with two friends in a Devonshire house. The article made something of a sensation at the time. The Daily Mail devoted a leading article to the subject, and many American papers quoted it in full. The full story of that adventure, however, has never been told. And since the two other conspirators mentioned in the article were my brother and myself, it seems that the time has now come when the true story of that very remarkable evening may be told in full.
It was the first week in June when Peter—as it is shorter to call him—came down, and it was in the third week in June that the thing happened. In case you might imagine that the atmosphere of my house was favourable to ghosts, it is necessary to state that we have lived, during those two intervening weeks, the most distressingly healthy of lives. Most of my mornings had been spent in wrestling with the foreign policy of Queen Elizabeth or the political theories of Mr. Aristotle, a task that was not made any the more pleasant by the thud, thud of tennis balls which came from the lawns below. But in the afternoon we would always set out together, sometimes to motor up to Dartmoor and picnic in heather, but more often down to the sea, where we bathed, and spent the long hot afternoons lazing about on the beach.
One Sunday—the last Sunday of Peter’s visit—we all went to evensong. It was a glorious evening when, at about seven o’clock, we came out of church, and we decided to walk home, taking the short cut by the road over the hill. This road, I may say, runs straight from the church, past various houses, until it reaches the gates which guard the approach to our own home.
A full moon hung over the hills—a little pale in the fresh light of dusk—and after we had been walking a few minutes, Peter stopped, looked over a wall and said:
‘What a fearful house.’
We looked with him. It was a house which I will call Weir. It had been untenanted for nearly thirty years and was falling to rack and ruin. The roof had long ago disappeared, the paint was peeling from the faded green shutters, and as we looked a bat flew out of one of the second-story windows, showing that the glass had also vanished.
‘Why has it been allowed to get like that?’ asked Peter.
‘Haunted,’ said my brother. ‘At least, that’s the legend.’ And then he told him how nobody could ever live in it, how strange sounds, screams and the pattering of hurried feet were heard by passers-by, how it was narrated that in years gone by there had been a terrible murder there, in fact, all the usual things which are told in Christmas numbers of popular magazines.
Peter interrupted him.
‘I’m for going in,’ he said.
‘What on earth for? You don’t believe in ghosts, do you?’
‘No. Nor disbelieve in them. But, it would be rather fun.’
And that was how it began, and how we found ourselves, three hours later, walking back over the road by which we had come.
The road was quite deserted, for the town went to bed at early hours, and as we swung along, wearing our flannels, for it was a hot night, I took a certain interest in the state of mind of my two companions. My brother was, frankly, a little on edge. He had a candle in one pocket, and a crucifix in the other, to meet the respective powers of darkness with which we might be confronted. Peter was just—how shall I say?—alert. He had had experiences which might be described as psychical in the past, and he was more or less prepared for anything that might happen. And I was just enjoying the whole thing, quite confident that we should see nothing at all, but none the less amused by the possibility that, perhaps, if we were lucky…
We clambered over the wall, for the gate was locked, walked down some steps, though some bushes, and round to the front of the house. It stood about thirty yards back from the road, and the main grounds stretched out in front. As it was built on sloping ground, the tangled grass and shrubberies in front were on a level with the basement, through which we had to enter. The first floor was on a level with the road behind us.
It was an absolutely still night, so still that the poplar trees behind us were etched against the moon in a motionless trelliswork of silver leaves.
‘Come on,’ said Peter. We decided to enter the house through one of the windows in front of us. The glass was broken, and there was no difficulty in raising the sash. We opened the window and as soon as we had done so, it fell down again with a bang. The sash had long ago rotted.
‘Give me your stick,’ said my brother. ‘I’ll prop this thing up. We might have to come out in a hurry, and we don’t want to crash into a lot of broken glass.’
I gave him the stick, and he wedged the window firmly into position. It is lucky that he did so.
We clambered in one by one, groping our way in the semi-darkness. As soon as the candle was lit, a room of indescribable melancholy flickered into view. The plaster had fallen in great lumps from the ceiling, so that we walked with a crunching noise that echoed all over the house. Wooden boxes and planks strewed the floor. The wall-paper had almost all peeled from the walls, though some of it still clung in strips, like pieces of decaying skin.
‘Where?’ said Peter.
‘Upstairs, I think—don’t you?
We spoke in whispers, as though afraid of disturbing something that might be lying asleep above, and one by one made our way up a narrow twisting staircase that led into the main hall.
In this hall we paused, undetermined where to go next. Right before us was the front door, and on the left, the two principal rooms of the house. Both of their doors were open, and though them one caught sight of a floor on to which the moonlight poured abundantly. To the right was a corridor leading to some rooms that were shrouded in darkness. Just by us was the continuation of the staircase, which in the old days had led up to the rooms above, but which now led (after turning a corner beyond which we could not see) straight up to the sky.
We began to make a tour of the house, and chose, firstly, one of the big rooms on the left. There was hardly any need for a candle here, since the moonlight was so brilliant, but we took it for the sake of dark corners. We found absolutely nothing. Only a big, silent room, looking out on to the garden, with a single cupboard, which was empty. A most prosaic room it must have been in daylight, and even now, there was nothing particularly alarming about it.
‘So far, so good,’ said my brother.
Let’s try the other room now,’ I said.
I went outside, and stood in the hall, waiting for them to follow. I was not feeling ‘creepy,’ although I should not in the least mind admitting it. As a matter of fact, I was rather disappointed that nothing had happened. I stood there waiting, looking into the darkness of the corridor on the right.
And then suddenly, the first alarm. It was not in the least the most important thing that happened that night, but since it happened to me, I take a particular interest in it.
As I stood there, I was thinking in the odd, inconsequent way in which one does think of an essay which I had been writing that morning, when suddenly I thought—‘I am thinking very slowly. My brain does not seem to be working properly.’ And then, with a thrill of dismay I realized that exactly the same physical process was taking place in my head as takes place on those dreary occasions when I have been forced to have an anaesthetic. The left side of the brain starts to be covered with a black film (almost like the shutter of a camera), which gradually closes over, from left to right. While this is going on I can think perfectly clearly with the right side. Thought and consciousness do not cease until the film has closed completely over. Then, everything is blackness.
This was now happening to me, but with two differences. The film was spreading over my brain far more quickly, and the agent which was responsible for it was not an anesthetic, but a force which I can only describe as a form of suction, coming very distantly from a room down the corridor on the right.
‘Hullo! What’s up?’
I saw them standing before me. With every effort of concentration, I managed to say, in an absurdly stilted voice: ‘The candle. Quick, the candle. Outside.’ I found the candle placed in my hand. My feet carried me downstairs, I half fell to the window, and then—the film closed over.
A minute later I found myself sitting up on the grass, feeling absolutely normal again, though strangely tired. What had happened? It was exceedingly difficult to say. Nothing—and yet, everything.
All I knew was, that here in the garden I was safe. But inside…
‘I wish to goodness you wouldn’t go in again,’ I said.
However, they were now more determined than ever to make a thorough investigation, and after waiting to see that I was all right, they clambered once more through the window.
Not one corner, not one crevice of that house did they leave unexamined. It was a very simple house to explore, because apart from the fact that the only possible entrance was by this particular window, the rooms themselves were square and stoutly built, and there were but few cupboards, and absolutely no mysterious closets or any other contrivances which might be thought to harbour ‘ghosts,’ or even failing a ghost, a harmless tramp.
They spent about twenty-five minutes over their examination, and came out reporting that they had been everywhere—including the little room from which I had felt the ‘influence,’ and had found absolutely nothing.
‘And now,’ said Peter, “I’m going in alone.’
‘Alone? Good Lord, man, haven’t you have enough of this business?’
He shook his head. ‘No. I believe Paul’s an “anti-influence.” Sort of lightning conductor. He keeps them off. Perhaps it’s the crucifix,’ he laughed. ‘Anyway, you remember that nothing happened to you until you went out in the hall away from him. And nothing happened to me, perhaps because we were together all the time.’
We tried to persuade him not to go. But he insisted, and we let him go in on the condition that he should take the candle, and that we should whistle to him every few minutes, while he would whistle back, to show that he was still there.
Once more, for the third time, he went into that house, while we sat down on the grass and listened to the sound of his footsteps as he clambered up the stairs. We heard him walk across the hall and sit down, as I judged, on the bottom of the steps, waiting. Then there came a faint whistle, and we whistled back.
Silence. We whistled again, and the answering echo sounded clearly. Another whistle, another answer. And so the minutes passed away.
It was about twenty minutes after Peter had climbed through the window, and nothing had happened. The last whistle we had heard, which was about two minutes before, had been particularly shrill and cheerful. It seemed quite evident that we had drawn a blank, and I turned to my brother to suggest that we should call Peter out, and go home.
But over our heads there came something which was not a sound, for there was no sound; not a wind, for the trees were still; nothing visible, for we saw nothing. A second later, a cry from the house, in Peter’s voice, the like of which I hope I shall never hear again. It was a long-drawn ah-h-h! The sort of cry that a man would give who had been stabbed in the back.
We sprang to our feet and rushed to the window. As we did so, a single cloud which had long been drifting slowly to the moon, started to obscure the light. Clambering through, we found ourselves in utter darkness. The planks and boxes which, by candlelight had been so easy to surmount, appeared gigantic. To add to the distraction there came from upstairs the wildest thuds and crashes, as though several men were struggling together.
‘For God’s sake, matches.’
‘Haven’t got any.’
‘We must get some.’
We scrambled to the patch of light made by the window, rushed through the bushes, the noise of the struggle inside increasing all the time, vaulted the wall into the garden of the house next door, whose occupants were fortunately well known to us, pushed wide the front door which was fortunately open, seized a lantern, which, by a miracle lay just inside the hall, tore back again, over the wall. As we vaulted the wall we heard a noise which was like a whole platoon of men stumbling down the stairs.
And then, ‘Oh, my God!’ in Peter’s voice.
We met him as he emerged, staggering round the corner, his face dead white, his hair, his hands and his clothes covered with plaster and dirt. We took him into the next house, dosed him with brandy, and listened to the following story:
‘When I got into the house,’ said Peter, taking a plentiful gulp of brandy, ‘I couldn’t at first decide where to take up a position. I eventually chose the bottom of the staircase, for two reasons. It was central—that is to say, it commanded a view of nearly every door on the ground floor, and it also allowed me to face the corridor on to which opened the little room from which you’ (turning to me) ‘felt the influence coming.
‘I wasn’t particularly hopeful of seeing anything. However, something seemed to tell me that if there were to be any manifestations, that is to say, quite crudely, if there was a ghost, the centre of its activity would be in that little room. My attention seemed constantly switched in that direction, and after a few minutes I sat quite still, my eyes fixed on the door of the little room, which I could just make out as a patch of greyish light in the darkness of the corridor.
‘The minutes sped by, bringing nothing with them. I heard your whistles outside. I whistled back. And though the echo of my whistle sounded a little uncanny in the lonely house, I still didn’t feel in the least “ghostly.” I felt extraordinarily matter of fact. I remember even wondering if the wood on which I was sitting was damp.
‘I supposed that about twenty minutes must have gone by like this, and I was seriously thinking of giving it up as a bad job. Your last whistle had just sounded, and, growing impatient, I began to rise to my feet, intending to have a final look at the little room, and then to go home.
‘Then, the thing happened. Out of that room, down the darkness of the corridor, something rushed. I don’t what it was, except that it was black, and seemed to be shaped like a man. But two things I did notice. The first was that I could see no face—only blackness. The second was that it made no noise. It rushed towards me over that bare floor without a sound.
‘I must have taken in those two facts subconsciously, for I had only two or three seconds in which to think. After that I was knocked flat on my back by some overwhelming force. I had a sickening, overwhelming sensation of evil, as though I were struggling with something beastly, out of hell.
‘After that I remember struggling—it seemed to me for my life—staggering with an incredible effort to my feet—and fighting my way downstairs. If one’s sensations in moments of half-consciousness are of any value, then I must have been fighting not with one thing, but with two or three. How I managed to get down the stairs, God knows. There was nothing but darkness and a hundred filthy influences sapping my strength. The next thing I remember is meeting you outside.’
Before I go on to the sequel to this story, just let me remind you of two things. Peter was, once again, a perfectly normal and healthy creature, going through the war like any other young man, fond of country life, the reverse of neurotic. Secondly, whatever it was that knocked him down, it was not a human being. That room from which the ‘thing’ emerged was empty. It had no cupboards, no secret doors. There was no possible way of entering it.
The sequel is as follows. We were naturally very anxious, after this exceedingly unpleasant experience, to find out a little more about Weir, and its antecedents, and with this object we paid a visit to a certain very charming lady who lived close by and who had an international reputation in things psychic. She knew all about it. She heard out story quite calmly, and without the least surprise.
‘But do you mean to say,’ she said, when we had finished,’ that you didn’t know?’
‘Didn’t know what?’ I asked impatiently.
And then it transpired that some forty years ago, Weir had been the scene of a particularly brutal double murder, in which a semi-insane doctor had done to death first his wife, and then a maid-servant. The actual scene of the murder was in the bathroom. And the bathroom was the little room at the end of the corridor from which I had felt the influence coming and from which the thing had rushed at Peter.
I could tell you a lot more about Weir if I had time—how when it was renovated, and re-inhabited a short time ago, no door in the place would keep shut, and how even the stodgiest tenants were forced to admit that something very devilish was on foot. How no dog can be got past the house after a certain hour. How—but one might go on like that for ever, and so I shall leave the facts as they stand.
Twenty-Five, Beverley Nichols, 1925: pp. 84-98
“Peter” was Alexander Peregrine Fuller-Acland Hood, 2nd Baron St. Audries. He was known as “Lord St. Audries” before he succeeded to the title on the death of his father in 1917. The house was “Castel-a- Mare,” in Middle Warberry Road. [also known as Castel a Mare without the hyphens] and the psychic lady was Violet Tweedale, who lived not far from the haunted house, in Villa Languard. Her account of her dealings with this stigmatized property are too long to quote in full here, but the basic story is this:
Castel-a-Mare had stood empty for many years due to its reputation as a haunted house. Neighbors said that they heard terrible screams from the house; sceptics said the screaming was merely some local peacocks. The owner told Tweedale that the house brought him “extreme bad luck” and gave her the keys in hopes she could give the house a “clean bill of health”. She and her husband scouted the property, concluded from the spider webs on the windows that no human had broken in, and experienced the sounds of footsteps and the mysterious opening of locked doors. They, too, found the bathroom to be the center of the problem.
Mrs. Tweedale spoke to a woman who had lived in the house thirty years before. She, too, told of footsteps, multiple “presences,” and the horrible screaming:
The scream was decidedly the most unnerving of the various phenomena. The family lived in constant dread of it. Sometimes it came from the garden, sometimes from inside the house. One morning while they sat at breakfast, they were violently startled by this horrible sound coming from the inner hall, just outside the room in which they sat. It took but a moment to throw open the door, but, as usual, there was nothing to be seen.
Tweedale finally heard the scream in 1916,
When I did at last hear it I was walking past the house on a very hot summer morning, about eleven o’clock. I was not thinking of the house, and had just passed it on my way home, when a piercing scream arrested my attention. I wheeled round instantly; there was not a doubt as to where the scream came from, but unfortunately, though there were people on the road, there was no one near enough to bear witness. The scream appeared to come from some one in abject terror, and would have arrested the attention of any one who happened to be passing.
The scream convinced her to accept an invitation in 1917 to join a party to investigate the haunted house. A medium had been booked and a soldier who was interested in psychic research, also joined the group, which totaled eight persons. The medium, a slight, elderly woman, sat down in a large bedroom, next to the bathroom and after a time leaped up and began to violently abuse the company in a loud, deep, male voice. Profanely, he told the group to get out or he would throw them out and “he” made a rush at the soldier, drawing blood.
The scene being enacted was really amazing. This frail little creature threw us off like feathers, and drove us foot by foot before her, always heading us off the bathroom. We tried to stand our ground, and dodge her furious lunges, but she was too much for us. After a desperate scuffle, which lasted quite seven or eight minutes, and resulted in much torn clothing, she drove us out of the room and on to the landing. Then suddenly, without warning, the entity seemed to evacuate the body he had controlled, and the medium went down with a crash and lay at our feet, just a little crumpled disheveled heap.
They carried the medium out into the garden where she revived and the party broke up. Days later the soldier asked for another sitting. The medium agreed and Tweedale, the soldier, and another man entered the house with her. There she was once again “possessed” by the violent male control until the soldier “tried a system of exorcising, sternly bidding the malignant entity depart.” The medium collapsed again, as the male control departed, but suddenly she was possessed by a new, female spirit and began crying and moaning bitterly.
“Poor master! On the bed. Help him! Help him!” she moaned, and pointed to one side of the room. Again and again she indicated, by clenching her hands on her throat, that death by strangulation was the culmination of some terrible tragedy that had been enacted in that room.
She wandered, in a desolate manner, about the floor, wringing her hands, the tears pouring down her cheeks, whilst she pointed to the bed, then towards the bathroom with shuddering horror.
Suddenly we were startled out of our compassionate sympathy by a piercing scream, and my thoughts flew instantly to the experiences of the former tenants, and what I myself had heard in passing on that June morning of the former year.
The medium had turned at bay, and began a frantic encounter with some entity unseen by us. Wildly she wrestled and fought, as if for her life, whilst she emitted piercing shrieks for “help.” We rushed to the rescue, dragging her away from her invisible assailant, but a disembodied fighter has a considerable pull over a fighter in the flesh, who possesses something tangible that can be seized. I placed the medium behind me, with her back to the wall, but though I pressed her close she continued to fight, and I had to defend myself as well as defend her. Her assailant was undoubtedly the first terrible entity which had controlled her. At intervals she gasped out, “Terrible doctor — will kill me — he’s killed master —help! help!”
Gradually she ceased to fight. The soldier was exorcising with all his force, and was gaining power; finally he triumphed, inasmuch as he banished the “terrible doctor.” Details emerged: an approximate date of the tragedy, her master’s name, that she was a maidservant who witnessed her master’s murder and was in turn killed by “a resident physician of foreign origin.”
The date and names the medium had given us were later on verified by means of a record of villa residents, which for many years had been kept in the town of Torquay.
There is no one left now who has any interest in verifying a tragic story supposed to have been enacted about fifty years ago. It must be left in the realms of psychic research, by which means it was dragged to light. Certain it is that no such murder came to the knowledge of those who were alive then, and live still in Torquay.
Ghosts I Have Seen: And Other Psychic Experiences, Violet Tweedale, 1919: pp. 251-275
You would think that an insane doctor murdering several members of a household might be found somewhere in the journalistic record, but I (and other researchers) have drawn a blank. Initially I thought the story might be the Buck Ruxton murders, where a doctor murdered his wife and a maid in a fit of jealous rage, then dismembered their bodies in the bath, but those murders were far north, in Lancashire, and did not occur until 1935. Still, the similarities are striking.
A good summary of the hauntings and Violet Tweedale’s experiences may be found in The Ghosts of Torbay by Deryck Seymour, in this post, with some good illustrations of the principal characters, and this excellent post about the attempted exorcism.
Can anyone find a trace of the insane doctor in the local papers? I found the death of one Captain Henry Hawkes, R.N., aged 36 25 July 1865, at Castel-a-Mare, Torquay, but no details were given. It was the only death I could find at the building. Give me a scream at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.