The History of Cranleigh Abbey
The legend of Ulric, the Cistercian lay brother who became a hooded robber by night, was apocryphal in the extreme, but the public showed a growing disposition to believe in him.
“Rather an odd coincidence, isn’t it,” queried Dixon Hawke of his old college friend, the Rev. Austin Bowen, rector of the old-world village of Cranleigh, “that Ulric s ghost should suddenly start haunting the abbey after you’d publicised him in your book?”
Bowen also smiled.
“It’s wonderful what the power of suggestion will do, old man,” he said.
He pointed to the open book, “The History of Cranleigh Abbey,” which lay on the table at the visitor’s side.
“I drew on my imagination a bit for that chapter about Ulric,” he confessed, “and it inspired the reviewers. Since when four trippers have been scared out of their wits by a shadowy figure they think they saw within the ruins.
” It’s been good for trade, though,” he added, his smile broadening as he pointed through the leaded drawing room window at the gaunt figure of a grey-haired, bushy-browed man who was carrying a coil of hosepipe across the perfectly-kept lawn.
“Ask old Carter. I allow him to charge visitors threepence a time for his services as guide, on condition that he hands over fifty per cent, to the Abbey Church Restoration Fund, and twenty-five per cent, to the Old People’s Relief Fund.”
Hawke, whose visit to Cranleigh had been prompted partly by curiosity concerning the ghost of Brother Ulric, and partly by a desire to renew an old acquaintanceship, gazed abstractedly through the window for a moment.
“You must come and meet Carter,” said Bowen. “He is that curious institution of village life known as the local character.”
Together they strolled out to the grounds of the rectory.
Away to their right, as they crossed the lawn, some thirty people, in straggling file, were labouring up the gravelled path towards the creeper- covered abbey ruins, and parked near the ancient stone parapet by the river were two yellow motor-coaches and a number of cycles, motor-cycles and cars.
“Carter will be pitching them a fine tale presently,” chuckled Bowen. “What he doesn’t know about the abbey he invents. The old rascal tells them he knows where Ulric’s treasure is hidden, but intends to let it stay lest he be stricken low by the unknown.”
A few moments later Bowen was effecting a one-sided introduction, in which the formality of handshaking was waived.
“Friend of mine, David,” he said, indicating Hawke with a sweep of his arm. “He wants to know if you’ve seen Ulric’s ghost.”
“Perhaps,” was the grim reply, “but you know I never speak of such things.”
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What the Rector Saw
From Bowen’s frivolous demeanour and David Carter’s exaggerated show of attention to his words, Hawke gathered that there was something a little queer about the man.
Just how queer Hawke was to learn in the rectory library about an hour later, after Carter had seen the touring party off.
He brought in a pocketful of coppers, which the rector counted out and divided into three piles, one of which he returned to the man.
“Oh, David,” called the rector as Carter was about to leave. “I rather prize that book-end you’ve just put in your pocket. I’ll have it back, if you don’t mind.”
Without any show of embarrassment Carter produced a carved book-end from his voluminous jacket-pocket and put it down on the table.
“An accident,” he said evenly.
“Quite,” answered Bowen.
Hawke stared at the rector in surprise after Carter had gone.
“Kleptomania,” explained Bowen. “The funny thing is he can be completely trusted with money. He steals odds and ends, irrespective of their value.”
“And is this trait of his generally known in the village?”
“They invariably search him before he leaves the village inn, having missed numerous tankards, ashtrays, and so on, and he is actually credited with having got away with the village policeman’s handcuffs.”
“What exactly,” asked Hawke with a grin, “is his function in life?”
“Organ-blower, sexton, and general handyman.”
Hawke frowned thoughtfully at the carpet.
“He sounded to me,” murmured the detective presently, “as though he might really believe in this legend about Ulric’s ghost. Or is he simply trying to create an impression?”
It was the rector’s turn to frown.
“I’ve been trying for some time to settle that point, but without success. The village is content to label him ‘Daft David,’ and leave it at that, but I — I’m not so sure. He’s capable of astonishing depth of thought at times.”
Hawke stared at his old friend.
“What’s going on at the back of your mind, Bowen?”
The rector coloured slightly, and then coughed.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose this is where you get a good hearty laugh at my expense. I — I’ve seen the ghost myself.”
“Tell me about it,” said Hawke. Bowen looked momentarily uncomfortable.
“It’s a story I’m not particularly proud of,” he stated. “You sec, I ran away from the blessed thing. My only excuse is that, I was just recovering from a bout of flu, and my nerves were all to pieces.”
“What, for goodness sake,” asked Hawke, “was it like?”
He was surveying Bowen with a kind of dumbfounded curiosity, for the clergyman was decidedly not the type to let his imagination run away with him.
“It — it was like nothing in particular. Something disturbed me during the night. A noise of some kind from just below my window. I looked out and saw nothing at first, except the odd shapes of the broken stone walls of the abbey in the moonlight. Then I saw something move. It was almost the same colour as the background. A kind of light beige colour, similar to that of the Cistercians’ garb.
“The thing was about man size,” went on the rector, “but shapeless, except — “
“Yes,” encouraged Hawke, “except what?”
“Except that it gave me the impression of raising one of its draped arms and beckoning to me.”
Hawke inclined his head in the direction of Bowen’s book.
“In accordance with the tradition?”
“Well, there is a story to the effect that Ulric beckons his victims on towards his treasure hoard, and that they are afterwards found lying horribly strangled.”
“Well, what happened?”
“I was as bold as could be while I was indoors, and I swaggered out to investigate. I crossed the kitchen garden, which has no fence, and walked across the strip of ground in front of the cloister walls.
“The thing had retreated, and was standing, quite still, against one of the walls. I continued to walk towards it, and it continued to remain perfectly still. I involuntarily slowed my pace, and then I stopped.
“There it was, just a weird, shapeless apparition, waiting. That was what broke my nerve. The suggestion that it was waiting, d’you understand? Just waiting. I turned and sprinted back indoors, and spent a busy night fighting down my shame by telling myself that it was the aftermath of my ‘flu. I took another look out of the window before getting into bed, but the thing had gone.”
“Probably it was all due to the ‘flu,” ventured Hawke. “Your fancy is apt to play tricks with you when you’re recovering from an illness.”
Bowen agreed, but with no great show of conviction.
“Don’t forget,” he said, “that four visitors claim to have had the same experience.”
“Yes, but after the publication of your book. You yourself hinted at the power of suggestion.”
Bowen conceded the point.
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The Sexton’s Story
The following afternoon Hawke and his young assistant, Tommy Burke, accompanied a party of visitors, whom Carter showed over the ruins.
Carter surveyed them all with a kind of fierce dignity as he told them that he knew where the treasure hoard was.
He was proof against such badinage as that levelled at him by a London member of the party.
“Why don’t ye dig it aht, chum? I pay the best prices for old gold an’ joolry.”
“It stays where it is,” declared Carter solemnly, “and I’m not telling.”
He then went on to relate, with showmanlike declamation, how Ulric’s ghost was sometimes to be seen standing guard over his plunder, and woe betide any who approached within reach of the apparition.
Hawke took him to task after the party had gone, but the sexton stuck to his story.
“I’m not telling lies,” he protested. “There is a treasure hoard, and I know where it is. D’you think I’d deceive these visitors? That would be obtaining money by false pretences.”
“And have you seen the ghost?” Carter hesitated.
“I’ll say nothing about that,” he declared with finality.
Hawke later repeated the conversation to Bowen, who said:
“As I told you, David’s scrupulously honest over money. He’d scorn to gain any by deceit. Though I can’t quite understand his insistence on that story about the treasure.”
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Tommy Gets a Fright
Two nights later events took a sudden, startling turn.
It was one of those glittering moonlit nights, the landscape being thrown into sharp, purple shadowed relief.
Hawke had retired to bed at about eleven, and was aroused from his slumbers a little over an hour later.
Drowsily he realised that the cause of the disturbance was the rattling of his bedroom door handle, and he got out of bed and unlocked the door.
It was thrust open, and he was almost pushed back into a sitting position on the edge of his bed by Tommy Burke.
The youth was half-dressed, without jacket or waistcoat, and his feet were encased in bedroom slippers.
His physical appearance gave Hawke a shock.
Gone was the normal ruddy complexion, and the shaft of moonlight which streamed in through the window showed a chalk-white face under a ruffled mop of hair.
There were two long scratches across the young man’s forehead, and a thin, vivid trickle of blood ran down his right cheek.
His breathing was laboured in the extreme, and his first attempts at speech were abortive gulpings.
“What’s happened? Here, take it easy, son. Sit down and get your wind before you start talking.”
“I — I’m all right, guv’nor, only — bit of a shock, that’s all.”
“Yes? What kind of a shock?”
Tommy then proceeded to relate a story almost identical with Bowen’s, except that it went further and had a remarkable conclusion.
“It sounds silly, sir, but d’you think there can be such things — I mean, I seem to have read somewhere of spirits that cannot make themselves visible, but have the power to inhabit clothing — and make themselves visible that way.”
“I have heard such stories but never treated them seriously, of course.”
Tommy gulped once more, and then, seeming to get a grip on himself, proceeded:
“It was out in the kitchen garden when I first looked through the window, but when I got outside it had retreated to that bit of wall near the old cloisters.
“When I got within ten yards of it I felt my back hair creep. The thing was about your height, and sort of bulky at the top. It was the same colour all over — a kind of light brown — and the face, if there was any face, was entirely hooded.
“I wanted to bolt, but I didn’t dare turn my back on the thing, guv’nor. I had the feeling that it would catch up with me in a flash.
“After standing still for a second, I took a pace backwards, and it — it — “
“I didn’t get any farther away from it, because it took a pace forward.”
Tommy paused to dab his brow with his handkerchief.
“So,” he continued, “I went forward again, simply because — because I found it impossible to do anything else. I got about as close to it as I am to you, guv’nor, and then — gosh!”
Tommy gulped once more.
“It suddenly pounced on me, guv’nor. I shall never forget it as long as I live. It didn’t make a solid impact, but all the same I rolled on the ground under it, kicking and struggling like mad with it.
“As soon as I’d recovered some of my wits,” concluded the youth, “I realised that I wasn’t struggling with anything at all. It was just — cloth. There was nothing else there.”
“What kind of cloth?” asked the astonished detective.
“It was the dust sheet off Mr. Bowen’s car. I’ve put it back.”
The two stared at one another while the seconds ticked by.
“So you think,” said Hawke at length, “that the sheet was pulled off the car by some supernatural agency and temporarily — inhabited?”
Hawke strolled to the window and stood looking out towards the abbey ruins for a moment. Then he suddenly peeled off his pyjama jacket and reached into the wardrobe for his clothes.
“I’ll go and have a look round.”
“I’ll come with you, guv’nor. It’ll help to restore my nerve.”
The two were presently strolling through the ruins, gazing keenly about them.
Tommy, pointed out the spot where the apparition had stood, and signs of a scuffle on the hard, gravelly ground bore testimony to the accuracy of his story.
Hawke idly picked up a short broken pine branch which lay on the ground, and stood moodily beating his log with it as he stared at the marks.
He then wandered round to the other side of the wall, which was in shadow, and again examined the stony ground, this time by the light of his pocket torch.
He stooped and picked up what Tommy at first took to be small, white stones, but which proved, on closer examination, to be pieces of broken porcelain, one of the fragments of which was perforated.
“What is it, sir?”
“I don’t know. Piece of a china ornament or something that somebody has trodden on.”
He continued his inspection of the ground, and proceeded eventually to the shed where the rector kept his car, and where Hawke’s car was also parked.
It is a rare thing for cars to be stolen from remote places like Cronleigh, and the rector seemed sufficiently conscious of this fact to dispense with shed doors. A light brown sheet protected his car from dust.
Hawke and Tommy related their adventures at breakfast next morning, and Bowen was excited and quite patently relieved that someone else besides himself should have encountered the apparition.
“I knew it. I knew it,” he said. “There’s something queer about the atmosphere of this place. I’ve felt it. Dash ! Look, I’ve ruined my kidneys and bacon. Mary, why on earth must you leave the lid off this pepper-pot?”
He had tipped a heap of pepper on to his breakfast dish, which the apologetic maid hastened to replace, amid protests that she had not touched the pepper-pot.
“Tommy,” said Hawke suddenly, “did you say that apparition bulged out at the top and was thin at the foot?”
“That’s right, sir. Why?”
Hawke smiled faintly.
“I’ll be on the look-out for it,” he said.
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The story of Tommy’s experience spread as only small villages can spread such things, and two newspaper reporters called during the day.
The resultant publicity brought a new and bigger influx of curious sightseers, and Carter reaped a rich harvest for himself and the church funds.
Hawke, having perambulated about the abbey on four successive nights without result, was due to return to London, and was almost in despair of clearing up the mystery.
On the fifth night, the last of his stay at Cranleigh, he quietly left the rectory shortly after everyone had retired, and commenced his usual patrol of the grounds.
He was passing by the shed where the cars were kept when he noticed something that aroused his interest.
The dust sheet was missing from the rector’s car.
As on the night of Tommy’s adventure, a brilliant moon was shining from a cloudless sky, and a very faint, almost imperceptible breeze rustled the ivy leaves on the abbey walls.
Hawke stepped cautiously round the end of the rectory, and then, a few seconds later, his attention was attracted by a slight movement.
There was the shrouded figure against the cloister wall, exactly as Tommy had described it.
Hawke walked steadily towards it and then affected to hesitate, exactly as Tommy had done, whereupon the shape seemed to quiver slightly, and to thrust itself a little forward.
The detective continued his advance for a few paces, and then made a movement which, to an onlooker, must have been as unexpected as it was swift.
He ran at a low part of the wall a few feet to one side of the “apparition,” and vaulted it nimbly.
Plunging into the deep shadow on the other side of the wall, he encountered something a little more solid than Tommy had done. There was clothing, and inside the clothing was a creature of flesh and blood.
A pair of strong hands closed round the detective’s neck, and in a second he was hitting out in a desperate struggle with an adversary who was possessed of considerable strength.
He rolled over, and his opponent rolled on top of him. The grip on his throat tightened, but a sharp, left-arm jab which caught the other a painful crack on the elbow joint caused the grip to loosen.
An instant later Hawke got in a telling right to the jaw, and freed himself of the clawing, horny hands.
He had mastery of the situation when he heard the sound of running feet on the other side of the wall.
Tommy and the rector came on the scene, and helped Hawke to drag his captive out into the moonlight.
“David !” exclaimed Bowen.
“Yes,” Hawke said. “It’s Mr. Carter. The gentleman who took the porcelain top off your pepper-pot.”
“David, you fool, what have you been playing at?”
Hawke stepped forward and picked up a broken pine branch, similar to the one he had previously found.
“He had the dust sheet draped over this,” he said, “and stood behind the wall, peeping over the top as his victim approached. D’you realise,” he snapped, turning on the shamefaced sexton, “that you might have caused somebody’s death by fright?”
Carter, in a whimpering tone, admitted that he hadn’t thought of that aspect of it.
“Practical joking at your age, David!” chided the rector.
“It wasn’t practical joking,” interrupted the man. “I wanted to draw the visitors.”
“You certainly did that all right,” said Hawke, “but I thought you told me you were above deceiving them. When I questioned you about that plunder hoard story of yours —”
“There is a plunder hoard. There had to be a plunder hoard.”
A few moments later Carter had pulled aside a few bricks from the base of the wall, and there, before the astonished eyes of the onlookers, was the plunder.
It is a matter of eternal speculation with Hawke and Tommy as to exactly how far Carter was rational and how far he was mad. Where exactly did reason leave off and idiocy begin ruling the man’s actions? He stuck to his peculiar idea of honesty all the way, and there was undeniable logic in all his actions.
There had to be a plunder hoard, and there was a plunder hoard.
It consisted of such widely varied things as tankards and ashtrays stolen from the village inn; spoons, the works of an alarm clock, a door-knocker, and — the village policeman’s handcuffs!