Deep in the Woods – A Victorian Ghost Story

Transcribed from the private papers of the Victorian journalist Jack Vincent, this curious autobiographical fragment c. 1852 would seem to form something of a bridge between the first two volumes of his memoirs, Shark Alley and The Death Hunters. It is made public for the first time here…

I do not believe in anything. My dear wife was always more religious than I. That is to say she was more open-minded when it came to matters spiritual and incorporeal, tending towards a polite agnosticism over my own intractable atheism, and general scepticism towards the supernatural beyond the pages of my own fiction. She was, for example, greatly moved by the fact that I had seen her and our son, quite clearly, when I was taken by a white shark off Danger Point. This she ascribed to some sort of metempsychosis. I was loath to contradict, because it would have upset her, but I privately considered, and, indeed, was heartened by the knowledge that, upon the moment of our death, the mind concentrates upon those we love the most. God and ghosts, in my opinion, did not come into it. They were not there, and I was not here. They were in my heart, and perhaps Nature is kinder than it appears.

By the same token, Grace was considerably less superstitious, not having been raised among the primitive beliefs of the countryside as I had been. Where I came from the Old Faith endured, not so much in practice, but somehow in essence, as if the remains of all those saints and sinners had bled into the very fabric of the landscape. Every desolate woodland path carried the legend of a green man or a woman in white, their shades bound forever to the soil and doomed to eternally walk in the dark places, occasionally revealing a terrible visage to solitary travellers. In the village of my birth, few could walk alone out of sight of human habitation as dusk fell without recalling the old lines, ‘Christian had not gone far before he was severely tested, for he noticed a very foul fiend coming over the field to meet him.’

I had left this quaint little hamlet as a child, some thirty years since, and had never considered it necessary to return. It was, instead, Grace who first broached the suggestion.

It began as a perfectly ordinary day. As was my custom, I roused Joseph in the morning and let Grace sleep. We continued to share our labour as much as possible, one attending to Joseph while the other worked. I would write and Grace would draw, though on balance it had to be admitted that she still undertook more domestic duties than I. That being the case, I did not begrudge her a lie-in. In any event, I tended to wake early whether I wanted to or not, and preferred to use the quiet time productively. Generally, I would wash, dress and feed the boy, and then do a bit of work while he was eating. We both eschewed the idea of a servant, and could not have easily afforded a maid had we wanted one.

I recall on that particular morning there was a pot of raspberry jam overturned and flowing across the kitchen table and onto the floor when we came downstairs, as if a terrible and bloody crime had been committed as we slept.

‘What’s that?’ said Joseph.

‘Brains,’ said I, chasing him, giggling, across the flagstones. Bloody cat, I thought, as I finally persuaded Joseph to leave it alone and go and play while I cleaned up, with the strict injunction not to touch Mummy’s drawing board.

‘Must be pirates, maybe,’ he observed seriously.

‘Almost certainly,’ I agreed.

I threw the filthy stuff away, got a fire going and made some toast. Joseph settled quite quickly and let me write at the small desk in the parlour, occasionally coming over to show me this and that in a picture book or his favourite toy. I was still freelancing, and as the Birkenhead sunk once more, this time falling away from the view of the press and the public, I was wondering more and more if I had not shot myself in the foot by turning down Andrew Doyle’s offer to become a special correspondent for the Morning Chronicle. You must ride the rocket while it’s ascending, as they say, for the stick’ll come down soon enough.

At half past eight I took Grace some tea. She was already awake and looking rather pleased with herself.

‘I have had a revelation,’ she said.

‘Do tell.’

‘It occurred to me last night,’ she said, ‘but I didn’t want you ruminating for hours so I managed to contain myself.’

‘Dear God,’ I said, ‘you’re not pregnant?’

‘Perish the thought!’ she said, laughing. ‘Now hear me out, because this is a good idea.’

Grace’s good ideas usually involved spending money on home improvements, but I held my tongue and tried to look interested.

Instead she took me all a-mort. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ she said, ‘that we are perhaps missing something very obvious about your sister’s current whereabouts.’

I had long learned to respect my wife’s keen intelligence, so I offered her my unbroken attention. ‘How so?’ I said.

‘Has it ever occurred to you,’ said she, ‘that Freddie Biles has assumed your identity so completely, at least in his own mind if not in fact, that were he to flee anywhere beyond London it would, in all likelihood, be to your original home, rather than his own place of birth.’

‘My God,’ I said, sitting on the bed. ‘That’s quite brilliant.’

‘Perhaps, Jack,’ she replied, ‘it is time for you to go home.’

*

The last time I had covered the distance between London and my hometown it had been on foot with my baby sister in my arms. Now the Great Eastern Main Line took me almost all the way there in half a day. Only the final stage of the journey required a coach. I could not settle to a book, and stared out of the window at the bleak agricultural landscape as one might gaze upon an abyss, watching the flat, featureless fields and hedgerows slide by under a sky made vast and oppressive by the absence of buildings and the onset of rain. In that moment, I remembered where I came from and knew exactly where I was going. I thought on the journey on my life thus far, wondering what I would do if I found my sister and the imposter. That I did not know.

Though the sky was a deep, slate grey it was still only the early part of the afternoon when I arrived. I engaged a room in a small coaching inn, and was escorted there by a tall, morose man in his middle years that spoke not a word the whole time. He merely nodded towards the mean looking bed under the slanting roof and a small, barred skylight through which weak daylight glowed like water over skeletal ribs. He then moved as if to leave me to it. I asked if I might get a bite to eat before he made good his escape.

‘Too late,’ he said, closing the door on me.

I decided to go for a walk. Downstairs, I encountered a miserable looking maid wiping glasses behind a crude bar, and ascertained that a meal might be had if I returned after six but before eight, and that I could not have a drink now. After this brief exchange, she lapsed once more into a sullen silence. Eager to be free of the place, I offered a farewell that was not returned and stepped out into the street.

The rain had stopped. The meagre high street had what Grace would have described as a washed look to it, although to me it seemed pissed upon. I wandered as if in a directed dream. The shop fronts were familiar, yet I could not imagine myself here as a child, for although we lived in the countryside my father had kept his shop in town. I saw no one I recognised on the street, which was oddly deserted for a weekday afternoon, even without a market. I came to our old shop soon enough, knowing not what to expect and feeling slightly sick. It was still a shop, now selling hats, the area being known for its millinery. I looked up at the second-floor window and remembered Slaughter, who was presumably long dead by now. I hoped it had hurt. Feeling the need to nonetheless check, I entered the premises upon the pretence of seeking lodgings, lying that I had heard the rooms above the shop might be available for rent.

The woman behind the counter was as grim as the maid at the inn. ‘I surely don’t know who told you that,’ she said icily, ‘for my husband and I have occupied the apartments above for many years.’

The name on the window was not ‘Slaughter,’ so the husband meant nothing to me. ‘I beg you excuse my mistake, madam,’ said I, ‘it is clear that I was misinformed.’

‘By whom, I’d like to know,’ she demanded, ‘and who are you, sir, to ask me about my private quarters?’

I had no intention of disclosing my identity to her or anyone else, and found the thought of her private quarters most distasteful. ‘I am just a man in need of rooms,’ I said. ‘Please forgive me for troubling you.’

‘Well, there’s nothing for you here,’ she said.

I was clearly losing my touch, as I’d been hoping to fish a little for possible news of my sister and her keeper, and had actually been willing to make a modest purchase to oil the wheels. My bad leg was stiff from the journey, and although I mostly got by without a stick a cheap one would not have hurt just then.

It was a small, provincial town, hardly worthy of the designation, in fact, and Londoners would attract a lot of gossip. I needed to tap this vein, but thus far I had not even been capable of initiating a polite conversation. I could normally charm complete strangers as easily as Eve was deceived by the serpent, an indispensable talent in my profession, but seemingly my own people were inviolate. I left feeling more alien than prodigal, and trudged absentmindedly towards the church. Realising I had no plan to speak of, I thought I might at least visit my mother’s grave, and then, perhaps, walk out of town to the old cottage; not because I expected to find Sarah there, but just to see if it was still standing. Again, even though the rain was holding off, the place was remarkably empty for the hour. There was nary a horse and cart in sight, and no children played in roads or gardens.

It was an old church, presumably Norman, and smaller than I remembered, situated a little way out of town. I stood before my mother’s stone and tried to feel something, but she was not there.

I heard someone approaching from behind and turned defensively. It was an elderly rector, though not the man I remembered. He smiled amiably, but I sensed there was something beneath it. ‘There aren’t many faces that I don’t know in this neck of the woods,’ he said, ‘but I fear, sir, that I cannot place yours.’

‘I am a traveller, just passing through,’ I said, bowing. ‘I knew this woman, and thought to pay my respects.’

He looked at the stone. ‘Before my time, I’m afraid,’ he confessed. ‘A fine monument though, beautiful craftsmanship.’

‘Indeed.’

‘You must forgive my intrusion,’ he said, more natural now. ‘We seldom see strangers here.’

‘So I gather,’ I said. ‘What ails this parish? My landlord appears appalled by my presence, shopkeepers shun my trade, and I’ve seen not a living soul for miles.’

‘Then you do not know,’ he said sadly. ‘They are good people, and they have cause to mistrust the unfamiliar. A child has gone missing—not the first—the daughter of the man who runs the inn in point of fact. The squire has ordered a search today, and those not on it are keeping their children inside. You must take care, sir, because they’re suspicious of strangers here at the best of times, and these are the worst.’

The Death Hunter in me stirred, but I ignored his call. This was not my business.

I decided to trust the man, and disclosed part of my purpose. ‘I’m local,’ I admitted, ‘at least I was born here. I come in search of family, perhaps you know them—’ I described my sister and Freddie Biles. ‘I have heard,’ I said, ‘that she has medial powers. Does that strike a chord at all?’

He shook his head. ‘They are superstitious in these parts,’ he said carefully, ‘but pious, for all that, chapel folk many of them. They’d as soon think of praying to the devil as they would attend a séance. I do not think your relative would find profit in that line of work hereabouts.’

I recalled the writing on the door at Golden Lane all those years ago. ‘No tales of modern witchcraft, then?’ I ventured.

‘Only the local legends,’ he said, ‘which I’m sure you know yourself. Nothing contemporary, although there’s of course chatter about the spirits of the forest bearing away the children.’

‘People always look to the supernatural in times of horror,’ I said, ‘but in my experience the reality is always far more quotidian. It is likely this poor girl will not be found alive, and that she probably knew her killer.’

‘I fear you are right,’ said the rector. ‘She is with God now, although her father has more need of her, I think, than does the Almighty.’ He realised he had said too much, and clapped his hands together as if the report might dispel the wayward words. ‘But I can, at least, help you,’ he continued. ‘Come, I will walk with you to the inn. They will talk to you if they see that you are known to me. Perhaps someone there has heard of your relation.’

We chatted amiably as we strolled back through the woodland path towards the town. He was an educated man, and we spoke at length of literature—he had a passion for Shakespeare—as well as discussing the doings of his parish. I asked if he knew of the McGuire family. He did, but said they had long since left the area. His understanding was that they had gone to America. The disposition of the Grimstone house I left well alone, despite my curiosity. (It was, after all, my mother’s original home.) This had been his constituency seat until his recent death—some said at my hands—and might well have been a company asset. In this case his Machiavellian successor, Mr. O’Neil, might have his eye on the place and I had no desire to rattle his cage.

It was growing dark now, and the searchers were returning, working men carrying roughly hewn sticks by which they had been probing the undergrowth for signs of the missing child. There were none. When the rector inquired of a labouring man and his boy, who passed us on the road, the reply was a desultory, ‘Nothing.’

‘I thought it would be so,’ he whispered to me.

Others passed, saying little or no beyond paying their respects to the priest. Eventually one man stopped to talk. In truth, it was difficult to tell one from another, given the conformity of their rustic attire and the failing light. But this one had more to tell.

‘A load of us was up by Redgrave Pond,’ said he, once it had been satisfactorily established that I could be trusted. ‘There was something not right about it, sir, I felt, though I couldn’t rightly say what straight away.’

I suddenly remembered the place. My dad and I used to fish it. ‘Could you be more specific?’ I asked him, but even if I was not now a suspect he was clearly not inclined to speak to me.

‘Your words suggest you did ultimately form an opinion, Jeremiah,’ said the rector kindly.

‘Aye, I did,’ said the man, perking up. ‘It were the sheep.’

‘The sheep?’ enquired the rector.

‘The sheep, you see,’ explained the man, ‘always drink from that there pond, but today weren’t one of them anywhere near it. It had a rotten, stagnant smell to it, sir, even though it’s been raining all week.’ It seemed to me that the mystery had been resolved, albeit with a ghastly if inevitable conclusion, but the pond was not a particularly large one, and the men had sent for hook and chain and dragged it thoroughly, all to no avail. ‘There weren’t nothing in it ’cept bloody weeds,’ said Jeremiah.

The inn, when we returned, was crowded with muddy searchers, slaking their thirst with ale or warming their bones with planter’s punch. The landlord was doing his best, but it was clear that he was close to tears. The rector had told me that the man, Guthrie, had married late in life, and that the little girl, Ruth, was the only child. His wife had died of the fever a few years back and he had raised the girl himself. She would be six next birthday, and had been missing for two days. The summer before, a girl of about the same age, Peggy, had similarly vanished without a trace.

‘Even if she were merely lost in the wood,’ the rector had confided, ‘she’d not last long in this weather.’

A loud crash from the bar was the signal that Guthrie had lost control. He had dropped a large tray of tankards and was standing in a mess of wet debris weeping uncontrollably. ‘She was my life,’ he said, snorting and choking. ‘She would never run away.’ He wiped the tears carelessly from his face with the palm of his hand and then clenched his fist. ‘Someone here knows where she is,’ he said, in a low growl, ‘someone knows—’

I followed his gaze around the bar, but the awkward and genuinely troubled looks of all there assembled suggested to me that the culprit was not among them. The rector stepped up and took the man gently by the arm. ‘Come away, Peter,’ he said softly, guiding the broken man carefully into the kitchen behind the bar. Knowing no one else, I took the liberty of following.

‘Why does the Lord punish me so?’ said Guthrie, sitting carefully in a chair by the chimney corner like an old man.

‘I don’t know,’ said the rector.

It was apparent that the man wanted to talk so we remained. The smell of the smoked meat hanging in the pantry reminded me I had not eaten in a good twelve hours, if not more, but it would have been improper to ask just then. I looked around instead for strong drink, located some rum, and poured Guthrie a generous measure, helping myself to a large one as well. I looked enquiringly at the priest. He nodded so I gave him a glass, too.

‘When Ruth’s sad or frightened,’ said Guthrie, slurping hungrily at his glass, ‘she always hides in the cupboard in the taproom where we keep the spare pots.’ We both nodded with exaggerated interest. ‘I keep fancying I hear her,’ he continued, ‘but when I look she’s never there—’

He broke down again, and the rector moved to comfort him. ‘Let’s pray for her together,’ he said.

I left them to it and returned to the bar, which had emptied as quickly as it had filled. The maid was back at her station, wiping away miserably. I caught her eye and nodded, but she ignored me. My eyes then sought out the cupboard the grieving father had mentioned. It was by the doorway to the stairs and guestrooms, opposite the main entrance and to the right of the bar, a sturdy, free-standing cabinet with double doors, quite roughly constructed and stained to a dark oak. I resisted the urge to check it, lit a candle from the fire and retired to my room.

There was no news in the morning, and the atmosphere in the inn was funerary and bleak. I begged a knuckle of bread and some cheese from the maid lest I starved to death, for the anguished never eat, and got out early. I could not afford to tarry long, and I still had my own search to conduct.

Autumn mornings are usually quite clement in this part of the world, and the best time to catch the sun. This one was no exception, God and Nature undisturbed by the probable passing of little Ruth, for whom the sky should have continued to weep. Murdered children, I thought, how fucking dare he. But still the sun shone on.

My coat soon over my arm, I once more struck out for the countryside, this time with the intention of discretely visiting the old family cottage. It was a long shot but worth a try; and, anyway, I needed to see the place.

It was still standing, and occupied, for a thin trail of smoke escaped the chimney while the vegetable garden was well maintained. I remained in the copse that looked down on the front of the property from a slight incline, a few hundred yards distant from the garden gate. I concealed myself behind an ancient and knotted oak and waited.

The sun rose higher in the sky, but I was prepared for a long surveillance, and carried with me a large bottle of beer which I sipped periodically to ward off dehydration, occasionally taking a piece of bread. I dare not smoke, though, for fear of revealing my position. I felt slightly foolish, truth be told, for there was very little chance my sister would be there, and my rational self knew I should just knock on the door and, if needs be, pass myself off as a commercial traveller of some sort. But if they were there, I conjectured, then stealth and caution were necessary.

Finally, the door opened. A big man in shirtsleeves emerged. He was carrying a gnarled stick in the manner of a weapon rather than an aid to mobility, and I could see that he wore his hair in what we used to call a ‘Newgate crop,’ cut very short on the skull with whiskers and a beard but no ’tache. He was no longer in the prime of his life, but looked strong for all that. Even at a distance of several hundred yards I recognised him at once. It was Slaughter, the man I was reasonably confident had raped my mother when I was a child.

I presumed the cottage to have been a reward from his masters, Grimstone and O’Neil, for services rendered. He walked to the garden gate cautiously, brandishing his cudgel without conviction, and looking suddenly his age, which must have been well over sixty. ‘I know you’re out there,’ he called in my direction, his coarse voice chillingly familiar. ‘Show yourself,’ he demanded, ‘or get thee gone!’

I was discovered. I admitted defeat and stepped out from behind the tree, staring down defiantly. The result was unexpected. His face assumed the aspect and hue of a man about to be hanged, and he vomited over the gate.

‘Get back, you devil,’ he cried, once he had stopped heaving. ‘You’ll not accuse me, too.’

‘Accuse you?’ I said, more than a little puzzled.

He pointed his stick as if it were a pistol. ‘You keep away, Joseph Vincent,’ he said, ‘I’ve done you no wrong. And take those little bitches with you, back to the grave where you all belong.’ He continued to mutter, and I caught something like: ‘—always in the trees, in the tail of my eye.’

I realised then he thought me the ghost of my father, the man whose spirit he had broken, along with his face, and whose wife he had assaulted. If anyone deserved to be haunted by my dad, I thought, it was he. I had a shrewd idea who the little bitches might be as well.

I did not immediately reply.

Slaughter was backing to his door. ‘The devil take you, then, Joseph Vincent,’ he shouted.

‘And the devil take you, too, George Slaughter,’ called I, ‘and Peggy and Ruth can take you an’ all!’

He looked once more as sick as a dog as he slammed his door. I lost myself in the trees and quit the area, having discovered both more and less than I had expected.

I made haste to the church and bade the rector summon the Watch. I thought it unlikely that the probably baseless accusation of a stranger would carry much weight, but if Ruth was in the cottage then time was of the essence. I explained my reasons to the priest, and the details of Slaughter’s previous history of violence. To his credit, he did not dismiss as nonsense my supposition that Slaughter’s guilt was causing him to imagine phantoms, and made a strong case to the local Peeler. I kept out of the way, but the news soon reached me that a full search of the property had been conducted and nothing suspicious found.

That evening the rector paid me a visit at the inn. It was a wild night, and windswept rain lashed the building like a ship at sea. We met in the bar, to which custom was gradually returning, despite the unfolding tragedy. It was, after all, the only pub in the area. He came not to discuss Slaughter, but my sister.

‘I have made discrete enquiries, my friend,’ he said, ‘and I am satisfied that no one of her description, or the man of whom you have also spoken, is resident in the area, nor have they ever been.’

‘I am indebted to you,’ I said.

‘And I am sorry,’ he said. ‘You will find her one day, I am sure.’

Before I could reply the main door burst open, and there stood Slaughter, positively crackling with rage. The priest and I were at the bar so he spied us immediately. It was clear he no longer thought me a spirit. ‘You bastard,’ said he, stamping towards me, stick held like a sword.

‘Calm down, George,’ said the rector, facing the furious man without a trace of fear.

‘I am wrongly accused,’ said Slaughter, ‘my reputation besmirched.’

‘No one thinks ill of you, George,’ said the rector calmly, ‘these are difficult times, and trails must be followed by the authorities.’

Everyone in the taproom was looking upon us, including Peter Guthrie, who glowered at Slaughter. Apparently, some were more forgiving than others.

‘Trails be damned,’ spat Slaughter.

‘We’ll have no trouble here, George Slaughter,’ said Guthrie, with an authority in his tone I had not previously heard. My guess was that Slaughter was an unpleasant drunk, and that the two men had had bad business before. ‘Now buy a drink or get out, and stop bothering my paying customers.’

The atmosphere was tense and silent. No one spoke, and for a second there was no noise but the wind wailing in the loose casements with a sound so desolate that one thought of souls in torment. There was a tremendous gust, and the front door blew open as if hit by round shot. In an instant every candle in the room was extinguished. The wind ceased as suddenly as it had risen up, and all thus must have heard the slap and patter of feet in the silent darkness, unmistakably the footfalls of a barefoot child. This was followed by the sound of a sticky door opening and shutting.

‘Ruth?’ said Peter Guthrie.

The front door was closed and light restored. Upon the floor there had now appeared a disturbance that might have been a trail of tiny, wet footprints in the sawdust, leading from the entrance off the street to the large cupboard where the spare pots were kept. The landlord cried his daughter’s name once more in excitement and flew to the cabinet. He pulled the door open, his hands shaking.

It was empty. Guthrie searched it by candlelight anyway, as if the girl might be hiding, like a mouse, in a corner. Eventually he stepped back, looking lost. Someone near me swore quietly. All eyes were on the defeated landlord, except for those of Slaughter. His were fixed to bulging on the open cabinet, a look of undisguised terror on his face.

‘Get away from me, you black-hearted creature,’ he cried, whipping his stick before him as if fending off a wild dog and lurching backwards to the wall.

Whatever he saw, he alone saw it, and this time not just in the tail of his eye. We all looked on, mesmerised, as he slid along the wall, his right hand swinging the stick while the left desperately sought the door.

‘He sees the girl,’ hissed the rector in horror and amazement.

Slaughter was soaked with sweat by the time he reached the exit. He clawed at the bolt in panic, finally wrenching the door open and falling out into the muddy street. The door was hanging open, and in the last of the lamplight I watched him stumble to his feet and then let out a shrill scream, now attempting to strike something invisible in front of him. ‘Get away!’ he again yelled in desperation, his head darting about as if trying to cover every plane at one. It was clear he wished to turn right, which would take him towards his home, but something unseen was apparently barring his way. ‘Bastards!’ he cried, lurching off at a run to the left, north towards the church and the open fields beyond.

‘He sees the girl!’ the rector said again, this time crying out.

‘Ruth?’ said Guthrie, as if from a dream.

‘He’s the murderer,’ I cried, ‘after him!’

We piled as one onto the street, as if vomited out by the taproom, and set off in hue and cry after Slaughter, who by now had a good head start. His shadow could be seen but vaguely when the moon briefly cleared the clouds, some distance hence and moving at a hell of a lick. He was heedless of us, I suspected, and had no thought of eluding the authorities. He ran at a madman’s pace in fear of the other that pursued him.

The Watch was once more called. Some torches were procured from the inn, and then we set off after him, a smaller party dispatched to the south in case he found his way home, the rest of us heading towards the church, the younger men running, the rest of us marching as fast as we were able. I walked beside the rector, who could not contain his wonder. ‘If this were played upon a stage, now,’ he said, ‘I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.’

We reached the church soon enough, but there was no sign of Slaughter without or within. We combed the graves in pairs lest he be hiding behind a stone, meeting once more as a group by the gate to the churchyard. The man we had spoken to the night before, Jeremiah, was among us, and he voiced the opinion that Slaughter was not to be found here, but was most likely trying to escape across the fields, in order to meet the London road further up, by which he might stop a coach.

‘We must spread out,’ said he, ‘and beat about the bush until we turns him up. Whoever finds him must give a shout and the rest of us come running.’

This seemed a good plan, and we did just that, spreading out in an uneven chain across the darkening fields, pushing towards Redgrave Fen and the road beyond.

As a boy, I had never liked this land by night, and I cared for it even less now. My path took me through the woods, and I started at every sound, expecting at any moment to be assailed by Slaughter in a state of derangement, or perhaps by something worse. The trees became ancient and terrible, their branches animated by the wind and tearing at my clothes, and I started in terror every time I heard a fox scream like a baby lost in the night. Despite being born in these parts, I was no Corydon, and the pastoral idylls of Hesiod, Theocritus and the rest of that crowd were not for me, a background in Romanticism notwithstanding. As I once remarked to the late Mr. Wordsworth, I had always hated the fucking countryside.

It was with a considerable sense of reprieve that I once more found my way through and back into the rolling fields. I knew that somewhere to my right the rector walked, while Jeremiah was at my left, but I heard and saw them not. Although the sky had now cleared and the moon was bright, there was no sign of the murderer either. Instead, I blundered into a slumbering sheep glowing in the moonlight and nearly leapt from my own skin.

As the bleating shape resolved itself into the quotidian, I swore loudly in relief and exasperation.

‘Steady on, sir,’ said youthful voice somewhere in front of me.

‘Who goes there?’ said I, hoping the fear did not carry in my voice.

‘It’s only me,’ said the disembodied voice, which was male, cracked but not quite broken, and with a distinct regional burr. ‘It’s Oliver,’ he continued, ‘I watches the sheep at night.’

The figure that now came into view was reassuringly ordinary in aspect. I extended my hand. ‘Oliver, by God,’ said I, ‘I am glad to make your acquaintance.’

‘Lost are you, sir?’ said the boy, returning my greeting and adding, ‘it seems like the night for that.’

‘How is that?’ said I, as if we chatted casually in broad daylight.

‘Well,’ said the boy, clearly engaged by the uncommon circumstances, ‘I don’t usually see no one of a night, but about five or ten minutes ago this old fellow come running across the fields like you, straight towards the pond. I called out to him that he best not go that way after dark, but he didn’t listen. Instead he turned and threw something looked like a stick behind him, called me a bastard and kept on running.’

I felt a coldness not, I suspected, connected with the lateness of the hour, and delicate fingers of grue brushed the back of my neck like the touch of a spider. ‘Why shouldn’t he go that way after dark?’ I said.

‘Because of the voices,’ he said. ‘Always laughing and whispering. The sheep gives it a wide berth these days, and so does I.’

I quickly appraised him of the situation, thanked him, and gave a cry for assistance. I was soon joined by Jeremiah and the priest, and the three of us made our way towards Redgrave Pond, the shepherd preferring to remain with his sheep.

It was clearly a dismal spot at the best of times, lonely, cold, and overgrown, but by moonlight it was downright infernal. Leathern rushes clawed at the low hanging trees that hemmed the bank above brambles and nettles, lashing back and forth in the sullen midnight breeze, a clammy breath that did nothing to dispel the stink of the black water or the mist that lie upon it. Within this vile miasma two dark shapes moved. They might have been otters, but were more likely a brace of huge rats, swimming almost playfully in the pond.

‘Jesus Christ Almighty,’ exclaimed Jeremiah, pointing to the heart of the water, which appeared suddenly boiling, great gouts of air exploding up from below in vast, oily bubbles.

‘I am not so sure,’ said the rector slowly, ‘that it is the Saviour that watches over this place.’

The surface became still, as did the rats, which dived or gained the other bank for we saw no more of them after that. We backed away cautiously until once more on clean land, being disinclined to investigate further.

‘I’m not bloody jumping in after him,’ Jeremiah had said.

Gradually, other members of the search arrived to join us, and pipes were lit and flasks passed about. Although we could not swear to exactly what we had seen, no one appeared to think a further exploration of the area necessary. It was decided that the pond would once more be dragged at first light, and with great relief I returned to the coach inn, although I took the long path in the company of Jeremiah and the rector to avoid the woods. Guthrie met me at the door and escorted me to my room. I did not look at the taproom cupboard as I passed it by, and, although exhausted, I slept but little that night.

The Death Hunter in me took me back to that foul body of water with the coming of the dawn. I was therefore one of the very few who witnessed first-hand what was found there when the pond was again dragged.

It did not take long for the hooks to find their mark, and with some considerable effort on the part of the men at the chains the heavy object was hauled up onto the bank. It was not one body but three, all tied together with reeds. Slaughter’s bloated corpse formed the main part of the mass, his mouth and nose stuffed with silt and his eyes staring wildly at some unimaginable horror. Entangled with him was the pale, naked body of a young girl, her expression strangely soft, as one in sleep, her hands oddly placed by the movement of her recovery, as if deliberately about his neck. To this ghastly tableau, you must add in your mind an additional set of human remains. It was a small skeleton, another child, and coated in slime like a drowned rat. Its head still bore the vestiges of hair but little else, its limbs were thin and spindly, its frame held together only by a few strips of skin and gristle. The curious thing was that the wrappage of waterweeds gave the illusion that this tiny bag of bones was clamped around Slaughter’s left leg, its head buried in his thigh. And when those of us in possession of sterner stomachs investigated, it was discovered that the jaws of the little skull were biting down hard, to the extent that it took the intervention of a long clasp knife to release them.

An inquest was hastily convened in the nearest city, which was Norwich, and Slaughter’s death was ruled a suicide, the balance of his mind disturbed by guilt at the murder of the children. Much to the chagrin of those involved, the failure to find the girls in the pond when it was first searched was ascribed to human error. I attended the hearing, and then remained for the double funeral of the girls. After the service, I bade the rector a fond farewell and left the town that very afternoon, resolving to give the bloody place as wide a berth as possible for the remainder of my existence.

I had written briefly to Grace of my recent adventures, and she was waiting for me at the Shoreditch terminus, Joseph obediently at her side. I thought of the girls in the pond and embraced them in the working class way, heedless of the disapproving glances of those on the platform.

‘You didn’t find any trace of your sister, then?’ she said.

‘No, but I found someone else.’

She took my hands in hers and gazed earnestly into my eyes. ‘How do you feel?’ she said.

‘He got what he deserved.’

‘There are higher courts, I suspect, than those of man,’ she replied.

‘Perhaps,’ I said, suddenly exhausted. ‘I don’t know—’

‘Let’s get you home, my love.’

I resisted the temptation to retire early. There would be money in my report if I was quick. I could probably flog it to The Illustrated London News and, failing that, Ainsworth or Reynolds would almost certainly take it. I read a couple of bedtime stories to Joseph, and then shut myself away. I wrote late into the night, and managed to tell a tale that struck the right tone for a gothic story while at the same time reasoning it all out to my own satisfaction. Slaughter had clearly been driven mad by the horror of his own crimes. The disposition of the bodies was no more than an eerie coincidence. This is not to say that the telling was a pleasant experience. My desk downstairs faced away from the door, and several times I received the uncomfortable impression that someone was standing behind me. I turned expecting to see Grace or Joseph, but there was nothing there but shadows.

I lit another candle and had another drink. There can be no coming back, and the dead do not walk.

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