Few, I think, outside the immediate vicinity, will have heard of the small village of Abbots Frome. Fewer, I am sure, would take much more than a fleeting interest if they had. Tucked unobtrusively away in a quiet part of the western portion of Worcestershire, it is surrounded and all but concealed by a thick fringe of woodland which in turn gives way to fields and remote countryside. The nearest place of any size is the old and dignified town of Great Malvern, some seven miles distant, and the village can only be reached by an undesignated single track road surmounted by thick hedges, which threads its way along the short main street, its few arteries leading to some three or four decaying and semi-somnolent farms and smallholdings. If Abbots Frome were not so far 'off the beaten track' it would doubtless attract more visitors, for it is a pretty village, but the casual tourist, having had his fill of the beauties of Worcester and its Cathedral and the Abbey at Malvern, and finding them so full of interest and more readily accessible, ignores the obscure signposts to Abbots Frome and travels on his way. Modern guides make little and cursory mention of the place, having a wealth of other material at hand, and I think it has not been properly documented since the publication of The King's England by the indomitable Arthur Mee.
The main street I have briefly mentioned contains a great many Tudor houses, most still crowned with roofs of mellow thatch. These, and the green, complete with stone water pump and time weathered stocks, make the place so quintessentially English. The inn, an impressive many-gabled, half-timbered frontage with diamond-lattice casements, which dominates the street, leans in its great age over the road and proclaims on its overhanging painted board the curious name of The Fallen Trooper. The sign must be mentioned: a redcoated cavalryman, unseated from his plunging mount which rears above him, reaches for his sword as several assailants, armed with pitchforks and other makeshift weaponry, close in on him threateningly from all sides. Enquiries directed to the present-day landlord about the sign will illicit little information other than the scant fact that it refers to a soldier killed at the Battle of Sedgemoor, who now lies in the church. The curious visitor wishing to verify this must walk some distance out of the village, past the fine Queen Anne rectory and along a gently rising track which leads to the thirteenth century church of St Stephen's.
I must refrain from turning this narrative into a comprehensive guide, but some mention of the church should be made. As the visitor passes through a fine oak lych-gate and walks along the short path, further progress seems barred by the bricked-up state of the original church doorway set in the base of the tower. The bricks, though of much later date than the surrounding fabric, are of considerable antiquity, and it is only by going almost up to their face that a narrow path can be detected, at a sharp right-angle and hemmed in between the church walls and a profusion of old tombs. Following this, a porch of seventeenth century construction is reached, somewhat incongruously positioned, surrounded as it is by several earlier table-top tombs whose moss covered surfaces have erased any legible inscriptions.
The interior space of St Stephen's is much taken up with floor-brasses and tablets, many to the memory of the Vasey family who once held land in the area, and fought in conflicts from the times of Crecy and Poitiers to the Zulu War of 1879, when, it is recorded, the last male heir perished beneath 'The Washing of the Spears' at the disastrous engagement at Isandlwhana. The tomb of one's enquiry may be easily missed. It can only be seen by passing through a recently erected screen, situated near the base of the tower. There, curiously placed before the bricked-up old entrance, is a marble edifice of considerable splendour, with two recumbent figures lying beneath a richly decorated and pillared canopy. Unexpectedly, the two effigies are not the usual man and wife, but are in fact both male, one youthful, the other more advanced in years. Both wear heavy full-bottomed wigs, long braided coats with immense turnback cuffs and the knee-length Rhinegrave breeches of the late Stuart period. A lengthy Baroque script picked out in black and gold around the fluted pillars informs the reader the tomb is that of Sir Ryland Stapleton, Baronet, and his only son Fulke, who died at the ages of seventy-eight and thirty-five respectively; the latter (I quote from the inscription) "defending the Divine Right, Royal Personage and Hallowed Property of his Sovereign Lord, James the Second, against James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and Base Pretender, at the Battle of Weston Moor, Somersetshire, on the morning of July 6th, 1685". The memorial goes on to mention that Sir Ryland died eleven years after his son's untimely demise, "A Dispirited and Unhappy Man of Thwarted Hopes and Ambitions".
I have been to Abbots Frome once only, and that many years ago, and my interest in its history was not confined to the Stapleton tomb alone. The small guide I purchased at the time of my visit listed the various clergy during the church's history. For one name, that of the Reverend Arthur Mostyn, an incumbency of just a single year was given. A puzzle that most probably had a mundane explanation was emphasised by the lengthy tenures of the other rectors listed, and during some research into the history of the parish of Abbots Frome, I have found what seems to be a darker side to St Stephen's history.
It would have been in the spring of the year 1890 that the Reverend Arthur Mostyn arrived to take up the living of Abbots Frome. He appears to have been an outgoing and pleasant gentleman of some fifty-two summers, and from an old photograph I have seen, he was a bespectacled, bald and plump man of middle height, resembling somewhat the popular idea of Dickens's Mr Pickwick. I believe he had an easy charm and was well liked, and if flaws in his character he possessed, it seems that the overriding one was a fixed stubbornness in certain ideas and viewpoints that came to him from time to time. Although bookish and intelligent, a narrowness of mind, not unusual in a Victorian clergyman, sometimes clouded his better judgement. These narrow confines allowed no space or time for ancient custom, tradition or folklore of any kind. The Reverend Mostyn proudly considered himself a 'modern' man and his entrenched attitude had, time and again, caused minor disagreements with past colleagues and parishioners of more archaic tendencies. Unfortunately, the good reverend gained nothing in tact, and lamentably less in understanding, from these earlier disputes and confrontations in his history.
Despite these shortcomings, the aforementioned easy charm prevailed and did him good service, and Arthur Mostyn settled without incident into his new parish, taking up residence in the same square red-brick house where the previous vicar had lived for nearly half a century. This predecessor, an ancient octogenarian scholar, the Reverend Archibald Toft, had spent the last forty-six years of his parochial life in devoted service to the church and inhabitants of Abbots Frome, and had died quietly in office. A withdrawn and retiring clergyman, he had been well loved and respected, and his tenacious resistance against the mock Gothic Revival and the 'improving' works of Sir Gilbert Scott and his contemporaries had succeeded in protecting St Stephen's from the loss of any of its extant Early English character. The church was architecturally therefore very nearly wholly original, save for the porch I have already mentioned, and, of course, despite his venerable age, Reverend Toft had not been around at that time to prevent its inclusion.
Having been cordially received and accepted by the small community, notwithstanding the long tenure of the previous incumbent and the upset and upheaval his passing had caused, Mostyn integrated himself well and without discord in the first few months following his arrival. Such a pleasant and well ordered scheme of things might have lasted indefinitely, and the new clergyman, like the aged Toft, might have passed his days quietly and unremarkably in this small rural backwater.
Unfortunately, as already intimated, Arthur Mostyn was unlike his predecessor in one important particular, which would ultimately cause events which neither he nor the inhabitants of Abbots Frome could have envisaged.
It was on a Sunday in mid-September, some six months after the reverend's arrival. Evensong was over, and the verger, an old and quiet gentleman by the name of Bancroft, had been summoned to the rectory by the vicar. He was admitted to the study by Mrs Jensem, who had been housekeeper there for many years. The verger, who had only twice ever set foot in the rectory study in Reverend Toft's era, was somewhat mystified to be asked over after such a short time by the new incumbent. The clergyman was busy at his writing table, but he looked up as Bancroft entered the room, accompanied by a discreet tap at the door and a sharp push in the back from the suspicious Mrs Jensem. Waving him to a chair and dismissing the housekeeper who stood glaring at the visitor's back with a stern and matriarchal air, the vicar smiled and asked the verger what he thought of the sudden inclement weather.
"The weather, sir? You've asked me over to discuss the weather?"
Reverend Mostyn sat back in his chair and smiled indulgently. "Not exactly, Mr Bancroft, although it has turned rather cool of an evening and I've become aware of how draughty the church is while conducting services. I fear the cold is also the cause of some irreverence, as a gentleman at the rear of the church saw fit to retain his hat throughout today's lesson. I would have had words with him afterwards, but he must have left before the end. Still, no matter. I'm expecting a contractor from Malvern next week, who is coming to look at the church doors for me."
"They've let in draughts for a fair few years, sir," the verger assented. "It's a fact that Reverend Toft used to wear his overcoat over his surplice when winter-time came. He'd always had it in mind to get them replaced but never got around to it."
Mostyn smiled gently. "You misunderstand me. I'm having the porch doorway looked at, to be sure, but I'm talking of re-opening the old tower doors. Apart from the draughts, they're a much more convenient means of access than the porch at the side."
The verger's demeanour changed dramatically as he received the news of Reverend Mostyn's plan. "The old doorway's best left alone, sir. It was closed up years ago, when the tomb was put in place, and if you open the doors you'd have to shift the tomb. No one's ever seen fit to do that since it was put there."
"Well, look at it as a return to an old tradition," the vicar replied rather shortly. "Of course the tomb will have to be moved, but it can be replaced in the north transept. It's not as if we've got to disturb any remains, only a few pieces of marble, and I can assure you the thing will be carried out most respectfully. I can't understand why it was put in such an awkward place originally. The porch entrance was ill-conceived, hemmed in as it is by those old tombs outside. I've had the sad duty of conducting one funeral here, two months ago, and that unfortunate office decided my course of action. I've never seen a cortege have such a struggle getting a coffin into a church, and the whole sorry spectacle was more like some absurd furniture removal than the last rites in the House of God. I'm surprised the Reverend Toft allowed such things to..."
Here the verger, who had to this point listened to the vicar's monologue quietly enough, interrupted him. "Reverend Toft came in and out of the church the same way as you describe before he was laid to rest, sir. No one's ever complained before."
Mostyn, sensing a growing opposition to his plan, tried a fresh tactic and a different approach. "I don't want to be at odds with you or anyone else over this, Mr Bancroft. Perhaps you might tell me over some tea why you feel so strongly on this matter?"
If the vicar was hoping to gain some ground, he was sadly disappointed. Bancroft declined the offer of tea and turned in his chair, looking around him at the large glazed bookcases that lined the study walls.
"You've still got the Reverend Toft's books here, sir, as well as I remember them. Very bookish he was, always reading and writing, at that very table you're sitting at. Very much interested in local history he was, and I dare say you'd find more in some of those books than anything I might tell you over a cup of tea. If that will be all, sir?"
Mostyn all but lost his temper over the verger's obstinate reticence. "I've better things to do with my time than read ancient history, Mr Bancroft, and it appears you have too. I don't believe you can tell me anything at all."
Bancroft rose from his seat to leave. His demeanour seemed unruffled by the clergyman's outburst. "I can only say this, sir. Putting a pavement over some bones is fine, but Sir Ryland Stapleton wasn't a man to be walked over in life, and I don't think he'd like it in death."
Reverend Mostyn, not trusting himself to speak, waved the verger away in a dismissive gesture, returning to the papers on his desk. He heard Mrs Jensem show the old man out, and, going to the window, he watched as the verger made his way down the rectory drive to the street. For a moment the vicar's attention was caught by some furtive movement in the thick shrubbery next to the gatepost. Was that a head he'd seen duck down in the foliage, or was there more than one? Bancroft passed by the spot and turned out of sight; and stare as he might, Mostyn saw nothing else but the lengthening evening shadows. Rubbing his eyes against the tricks of the gathering dusk, he shuddered disagreeably and drew the heavy brocade curtains.
The main facts of the preceding narrative and parts of the story that follow were constructed from quite copious entries made by the Reverend Mostyn in a diary dated 1890. This, together with others of his papers, reposes in the Derby Record Office (Derby being the place of his birth), to which they must have been presented anonymously by a member of his family. That he took the verger's advice despite his original misgivings is attested to by the following quite lengthy entry dated September 17th of that year:
"I have spent this evening going through some of the volumes left by the Reverend Toft; many of them are quite antique and must have some considerable rarity value despite the absurdity of their contents. My predecessor's interest in local history is quite evident, and I can no doubt learn much of interest about the parish and its environs. While not wishing to cast aspersions on that deceased and distinguished gentleman, I cannot help but feel he had a certain unhealthy fascination with the most lurid and fantastic stories to be found outside of what are commonly known as 'Penny Dreadfuls'. A certain volume, notwithstanding a very fine gilt and morocco binding, dating from 1796 and entitled Antiquities Esoteric of Herefordshire and Worcestershire by Matthew Tranter, transcribes a rather coloured account and history of the Stapleton family and Abbots Frome. I have neither patience nor time to enter it here. Suffice to say I am not at all surprised that my verger was reticent about disclosing such superstitious details."
I have sadly been unable to trace the book mentioned by the Reverend Mostyn but have found the following account in Varley's Reminiscences of Old Worcestershire:
"Abbots Frome. 17 miles SW of Worcester. Originally the home of two families of distinction, the Stapletons and the Vaseys, now extinct. Of the first, the name of Sir Ryland provides a curious tale. The manor house, which used to stand in fields near to the church, is long gone, but tales persist in the locality of its evil name and haunted ground. The baronet acquired the reputation quite early in life of being something of a mystic, travelling frequently abroad and, when in residence at his home, causing affright, annoyance and in some cases injury to his long-suffering neighbours. Of Lady Elizabeth Stapleton little is known, but it is believed that she died shortly after the birth of their only child, Fulke. Her last resting place is not known, and one story persists that she fled the manor house never to be seen again. Of the boy, both his monument and an attributed portrait in a local private collection show a handsome if rather weak young man, but it can hardly be imagined that such a strange upbringing would have had favourable results on the formation of his character. He is known to have joined the army at an early age, receiving a commission in the regiment of Colonel Percy Kirke, who was both friend and patron of Sir Ryland. The regiment saw service in the Tangier and latterly at the Battle of Sedgemoor where Fulke Stapleton was killed, reputedly after going ahead of his company and falling foul of a group of resolute rebels who stood long after their comrades had fallen and broken.
"Sir Ryland, who was present at the time as an observer and guest of the infamous Colonel Kirke, returned to Abbots Frome some days later with the body of his son. It is also believed that he participated in some of the atrocities that followed the battle, when many captured rebels were dealt summary justice. None saw him arrive back at his manor house one night in his closed carriage, but tales of strange comings and goings were told on following days. One certainly involved a hurried journey to London, where Sir Ryland is said to have witnessed the execution of the unfortunate Duke of Monmouth and dipped a handkerchief into his blood. Another concerned the interment of his son in the church of St Stephen's. Following a dispute with the clergyman and others, Sir Ryland had the old church doorway sealed and a tomb of Italian marble erected in front of it. He also had a small doorway in the north wall enlarged, adding a handsome porch, which was apparently acceptable at the time, though inconvenient. His instructions that he should be buried with his son when the time came were duly carried out, and the effigy of himself was made and placed alongside that of his deceased son during his lifetime, although he never went into the church again until the day of his own funeral.
"The reasons for the choice of site are a subject for conjecture, although a story persists that, before going to the West Country, Sir Ryland made an unholy vow with his son beneath the tower doorway that the next time they entered there they would take in with them the heads of at least three traitorous rebels as victory offerings. This dreadful promise was never carried out, and it would appear doubtful, knowing Sir Ryland's dark character, that the burial site chosen was made out of contrition or remorse. A more possible motive was that Sir Ryland, remembering the consequences of his blasphemy, determined to be as obstructive in death as he had been in life. Certainly he has been long remembered in the district for the questionable site of his last resting place.
"The manor house acquired a more fearful reputation than ever in the remaining years of his life. The baronet became ever more reclusive, no windows were seen to be lit even on the darkest winter nights, and the servants quickly dwindled and left until no one remained there but himself. The house soon fell into disrepair, and few would venture near the place by day or night. The baronet's death was as remarkable as his odd life had been. During the uncommonly hot summer of 1696, the tradesman who left his monthly supplies in the disused gate-house discovered that the previous bundle of provisions was untouched and spoiled. No payment had been put out as was the usual arrangement, and fat black flies hovered and swarmed over the rancid mess that had lain for weeks in the humid confines of the lodge. The alarm was raised, and Sir Ryland was found sitting in the dark and squalid shambles of his library. Various papers and books were in the detritus on the table in front of him, including some letters treating of a past correspondence with Judge Jeffreys of the Bloody Assizes infamy, while others were of such an objectionable nature that they were carried out and burnt to ashes. How long Sir Ryland had been dead could not properly be ascertained, and although his body was not corrupted, a fearful and noxious stench of decay forced the onlookers to press both handkerchiefs and nosegays to their mouths, and brush away with convulsive motions of disgust the vile black flies that would alight on them, after crawling around the room and corpse.
"A rough casket was quickly obtained, and the body was deposited into it without benefit of shroud or ceremony. A large handkerchief was dropped over the face as some complained of the dead man's eyes that stared from their darkened sockets with an intensity too frightening to contemplate. The interment took place in the early evening of the corpse's discovery, as soon as the tomb could be opened to receive its new occupant. The service was hurried and brief, and, according to a contemporary account: 'Flies inn theire hundreds clung to the sides of the shelle, whiche were the morneres all, and wee did see the shelle turning foule and black, swetting putrede odoures and greese, itts ledden hue vannished before our verie eyes. Wee closed up the tombe with rapid moves.'
"The manor house became an object of curiosity for a short while after the demise of its owner, quickly followed by a certain amount of damage and despoliation. The arms and escutcheon of the Stapletons was broken down and smashed to fragments, and the very fabric would have been similarly treated, but these activities were curtailed as suddenly as they had started by the fate of two of the perpetrators who were found to have died violently in the vicinity, horribly slashed and mutilated. The house was left for the elements to finish what human hands had begun, and finally succumbed to a terrible fire in 1724. Little now survives except for a few fallen stones and foundations, but the Stapleton monument remains at St Stephen's inviolate."
More from Varley need not be quoted. I assume that in essence much the same was read by the Reverend Mostyn in the 1796 Tranter volume, although it is possible that a little more information was forthcoming from that particular source, as I will disclose towards the end of my story. Whatever the case, it would seem, as Mostyn made clear from the entry in his diary, that he was not to be so easily deterred in his intended project. It is certain that, before the month of September was out, he was discussing the ways and means with the contractor from Malvern. Mr Solby, a large gentleman with an immense growth of luxuriant brown beard, had listened carefully to the vicar's requirements, and was soon busying himself. First, he took measurements of the church doorway, shook his head non-committally at the large canopied tomb and effigies, and made copious notes in a large heavy-lined notebook, tutting, whistling through his teeth, and shaking his head doubtfully from time to time as he thought most appropriate to the situation. With a final whistle, and after breathing out several times through his beard, the gentleman tilted his bowler to one side of his head and waxed confidential to the anxiously waiting clergyman.
"That doorway fillin' is goin' to take some shiftin'," he summed up, slowly scratching the bushy growth at his chin with his pencil. "Whoever filled that in made a right proper job of it." He stepped over and, producing a small crowbar, rapped the bricks with it. "Good an' solid that is, sir, not yer usual run-of-the-mill brickwork." Having imparted this grave news and quickly registering the crestfallen look on the reverend's face, he added brightly: "But anythin' that man puts up, man can take down again an' that's a fact, sir." He rapped with the crowbar again to emphasise his statement.
"And what about the tomb, Mr Solby? I've already encountered some local opposition so I don't want any damage during its removal."
Mr Solby rubbed his prodigious beard once more, this time with the crowbar, and began to pace around the tomb, giving the impression of a prize-fighter weighing up his opponent. "I think it'll be straightforward enough, sir, once we've got the lid thing an' pillars down. It'll take a few of my chaps to lug it aroun', fair weight in all that marblin' I should say, but takin' it to pieces'll be easy enough, I reckon."
He bent down on the far side and, transferring the crowbar from beard to monument, began to make a few exploratory taps and probings. "The old mortar's crumblin' quite badly at the base. Bit damp. If we - Oh!" Solby leapt back, faster than seemed possible for a man of his size. He leant against the wall, puffing noisily and nervously through his beard. Reverend Mostyn hurried over to him, with the horrible thought that the contractor had disturbed a rat or a large species of spider.
"Are you alright, Mr Solby?"
That gentleman was staring perplexedly at a black hole in the base of one of the pillars, where a chunk of mortar had crumbled inwards following his impromptu probings. He smiled weakly at the vicar's concern.
"I've lost a good crowbar down there," he puffed. "I know how this will sound, but I 'eard a noise as if somethin' was movin' around in there."
Reverend Mostyn, intent on investigating this wonder for himself, knelt down to inspect the small, dark aperture. Mr Solby remained where he was, as if expecting something to lunge from the opening. The blackness was impenetrable, and apart from musty and rather unwholesome air, nothing of an untoward nature could be detected. Feeling around the broken edge of the small hole, he displaced some more fragments of mortar, which dropped into the darkness and rattled hollowly below before coming to rest. Trying hard to suppress a smile at the contractor's fancy, he turned back to Mr Solby, who had recovered his composure enough to sheepishly resume pulling at his beard.
"How long will the job take and when can you start?" he asked, injecting normality back into the situation. Mr Solby collected himself and consulted his capacious notebook, his attitude brisker than his earlier approach. "About a week, sir, give or take a day, and we can start on Monday next." An offer of tea in the rectory was politely turned down as Solby remembered a pressing appointment in Malvern.
The work which commenced on the promised Monday was finished, earlier than expected, by the Friday morning of the same week. Indeed, after making what seemed to be slow progress on repairs to the porch and opening up the tower doorway, Mr Solby and his four workmen appeared to be in quite injudicious haste when, on the Wednesday afternoon, they began to dismantle the tomb itself. When the slab bearing the two recumbent figures was removed to the northern transept, a deep cavity was revealed, disclosing to view after nearly two centuries a pair of heavy leaden coffins, bolted beneath an iron lattice-work grille or mort-safe of considerable ornate workmanship. While one casket was of grey leaden colour, speckled with the white oxidisation of its age, the other was quite black, with beads of some unpleasant moisture upon its surface. Crumbling greyish-brown coils, which had evidently been the ropes used to lower the coffin, lay rotting across the top of its noxious lid, testifying to the haste in which it had been deposited by the bearers. Mr Solby's crowbar was to be seen as well, having fallen through the grille and seemingly to have pierced the black lead near the head of the casket. He expressed no interest in trying to recover his property, and no one else in his party volunteered to reclaim it for him. The grille was soon covered with stout timber, filled and paved over, the old church doors rehung, and the tomb reconstructed over nothing more than earth and flagstones in the north transept. Mr Solby and his men won the praise of Reverend Mostyn for their diligence and speed in clearing up their things and removing themselves and the traces of the work they had carried out.
According to the reverend's diary, the alterations at St Stephen's were completed in early October. There are no entries of remark for several days following, but the one for October 15th gives a hint of disquiet:
"A curious incident today, and I have difficulty in finding an adequate and sensible explanation for it. I had occasion to go over to the church early this evening, and was annoyed at finding the key very hard to turn in the lock. Indeed, all my strength would not answer to the purpose, and I hope to be forgiven for the silent curse I made as I struggled. Then the key turned quite suddenly and easily as I had been on the point of releasing it, so unexpectedly that I hurt my fingers. I seemed to catch some words being spoken, which ceased abruptly as I fully opened the door. My imagination has coloured them with a certain furtiveness and urgency, but they were too quiet and indistinct to convey any meaning. I must confess I went quickly about my business and was thankful that the door locked easily enough on my departure."
And on October 18th: "The same problem with the church door and lock again late this afternoon. Upon opening the door after another struggle, the voices were there once more and no room for doubt this time. Louder and more insistent, but ceasing as if suddenly aware of my intrusion. The words conveyed no meaning to me but they seemed to end with a short, dry laugh."
Again, on October 21st: "Mrs Jensem complained to me this morning of some intruders in the rectory grounds. Apparently, while cleaning the windows of the best bedroom that overlooks the rear gardens, she had seen somebody in the shrubbery at the end of the lawn. She is rather near-sighted, and could not describe them very well, other than that their apparel was ragged and their appearance dark and swarthy. The poor lady was quite distressed and I made an immediate search of the garden, but the vagrants, for that is what I suppose they were, had made a clean set of heels.
"October 22nd. I have made enquiries in the village but no one resembling Mrs Jensem's descriptions has been reported elsewhere. The last tramp seen here, who indeed I recall myself as I gave him a farthing, was in July."
There are other entries on following days, and the impression grows steadily that the Reverend Mostyn is the victim of intimidation from an agency against which he is powerless:
"October 24th. I saw some men working in the field opposite the church this morning, or rather, standing motionless paying somewhat close attention to me as I walked through the churchyard back to my home. Perhaps they are clearing stones from the old manor house site, although I saw no cart or conveyance surely necessary for such a task.
"October 25th. The same men there again today and this time they began to approach me. This does not sound rational, but I could not bring myself to look at them directly after yesterday, and I must confess to running home. My nerves are not what they were.
"October 26th. Someone was laying in wait for me in the lych-gate this afternoon as I went to the church. I was quite alone but am sure I saw a head bob up and go down again as I approached. My courage quite failed me, for the face that I glimpsed momentarily was black and it glistened, and, I shudder to write this, it seemed to have no eyes but was aware of my proximity. Needless to say, my visit to St Stephen's was postponed. I don't know who can help me with this particular situation. What am I to do?"
What indeed? Reverend Mostyn's entries are absent from this date on, where before they had been constant and meticulous, but if the strain he was under decided him against keeping his day book, other more pressing duties could not be so easily ignored. So it was that following the Evensong service on a Sunday early in November, Mrs Jensem, concerned at the reverend's unaccustomed lateness at his dinner table, took herself over to St Stephen's to see what was keeping him. She met with no one on her short journey from the rectory to the church, and must have been surprised to find that, although Mr Bancroft had extinguished all the lamps but one before leaving, the church doors were wide open and the Reverend Mostyn had locked himself in the darkened vestry.
He had suffered a complete breakdown and was confined to his bed for several weeks. Even there he seemed to find no lasting peace, and his story of what had occurred that evening in the church was eventually related to the verger whom he summoned to his bedside. It can be told in a very few lines.
After the service, Mr Bancroft had gone home, leaving the light close to the church doors burning for the vicar to see his way out. The two had not been particularly cordial following the incidents already related, and the old man had left while Reverend Mostyn was hanging up his surplice and gown in the vestry, and attending to one or two things. It wasn't, in fact, until the vicar walked into the nave that he realised he was quite alone. It is almost certain that he had been intending to leave with someone, even if it was only in the company of the recently taciturn verger. Making haste along the aisle, the reverend had almost reached the doors when he was pulled up quite short. The heavy curtains that hung above them to exclude draughts were stirring, and with fright gripping his heart Reverend Mostyn had the sudden and horrible realisation that they were concealing some agency within their folds. A quick glance at their base confirmed his worst suspicions. Two naked feet, human certainly, but hard and sinewy, covered with some dark and viscid substance, protruded beneath them. Hardly had his brain taken this in than the feet began to move, slowly and stumblingly; and, as they advanced, the curtain, pulled forward by the momentum of whatever it concealed, started to rise, disclosing bony black shins draped in crisp dark strands of some long rotten garment. An arm forced its way from behind the impeding curtain, wispy rags dangling from its horrible thinness, seemingly intent on throwing aside the hanging drapery that obstructed its movements.
It was then that Mostyn fled, on legs turned to ice-water, back along the church to fling himself inside the vestry, the only refuge his terrified mind could think of in his awful predicament. With cries of terror bubbling in his throat he locked the door and retreated to a far corner, hardly wondering whether such an action might be effective against whatever lurked beyond it. Here Mrs Jensem later found him.
It will come as no surprise that following the telling of this incident to Mr Bancroft, a short consultation took place and Mr Solby and his workmen were summoned back to St Stephen's to replace the Stapleton tomb in its original position.
So it was that, after being opened for little more than six weeks, the doorway was closed up once more, with the same bricks which had lain piled in a corner of Mr Solby's yard at Great Malvern. Neither that gentleman and his men nor the old verger made any comment over the sudden and complete reversal of decision on the part of Reverend Mostyn, and it would be agreeable to report that the clergyman's utter capitulation in the affair brought the matter to a close. However, Arthur Mostyn left the parish of Abbots Frome in late November, ostensibly for a period of rest and recuperation, yet my suspicions are that he was fleeing from what had become an unrelenting and untenable position.
The final climactic hour of this history can only be pieced together from the later testimony of Mr Brady, the driver of the conveyance hired to take the clergyman to the railway station at Great Malvern. He had been expected at the rectory at three o'clock in the afternoon, although the reverend's train was not due to leave the station until seven that evening. His journey to Abbots Frome had been very trying: three miles from his destination a wheel had worked loose, and then, as he began to stop, a rein snapped in two, nearly upsetting the fly. Effecting repairs in the lane took some considerable time, and when a hot and flustered Mr Brady finally arrived in the rectory drive at ten minutes past four, he found Reverend Mostyn in a considerable state of nerves and anxiety. That gentleman immediately began throwing his bags into the conveyance without waiting for assistance or explanation.
"Don't know 'ow it could 'ave 'appened, Mum," Mr Brady explained to Mrs Jensem, who had taken it upon herself to upbraid him on Reverend Mostyn's behalf. "The wheel was bad enough, although the ruts along them lanes is something cruel, but the rein looked like it 'ad bin cut through. Can't understand it, 'onest." Further conversation on the subject was cut short by the vicar, who seemed to be preoccupied with the failing light. With an order to the driver to hurry, he took a quick farewell of his angry housekeeper and climbed swiftly into the fly. As it rattled away down the drive, the last Mrs Jensem saw of her master was a glimpse of his drawn face as he looked over his shoulder, not towards her and the rectory but rather to the adjoining church behind its screen of trees.
The journey proceeded briskly through the empty streets of the village, and they were soon in the narrow lanes and bleak countryside beyond. Dusk was falling quickly, accentuating the black trees and bare fields that lay on either side of the road. Mist was gathering distantly in the hollows, but Mr Brady's suggestion that he might halt and light his lamps was curtly refused. The reverend, wrapped in a thick rug and overcoat, was becoming increasingly nervous, and his conversation was strictly restricted to urging the driver to go faster.
Brady's own anxiety, no doubt inspired by the demeanour of his passenger, also seemed to communicate itself to the horses, which became ever more skittish and difficult to handle as the journey progressed. The driver's relief at seeing the fingerpost for Malvern, indicating the close proximity of the town, was short-lived as he caught sight of movement in a field some way ahead. The mist, steadily rising from the ground, was swirling in an ominous manner at one point, but this was not what had attracted his eye. Something indistinct and black was moving within it, low to the ground. As he watched, it rose shakily and resolved itself into a spindly form that crouched and hobbled, as if long unused to walking. A crooked pole lay on one shoulder, a pole terminating in some long curved blade; and as the figure stumbled across the field, its attention was on the rapidly approaching fly.
Mr Brady saw all this in a few fleeting moments. He also realised that whoever was crossing the field seemed intent on intercepting his vehicle and would almost certainly succeed in this design. A cry from his passenger made him turn quickly in his seat, thinking as he did so that the clergyman must have seen the strange figure in the field; but this alarm alerted him to a worse situation. The fly was being followed, and not by one but two pursuers, who also carried poles threateningly clutched in front of their thin and wasted chests. They were close enough for the driver to discern in one awful moment that their mouths were fixed in wide grins, disclosing dry and white teeth in faces that were black and pitted and otherwise without expression.
Brady turned back to his driving and, ignoring the screams of his terrified fare, applied his whip feverishly to the two plunging horses, which by now needed no such encouragement and had taken matters out of his control. The fly rocked dangerously, suddenly tilted, and the next moment he was speeding past the dreadful figure that had tried to intercept him. It was in the act of crossing a stile into the road, and Mr Brady was unpleasantly reminded of something he'd seen many years ago as a child, etched on a monument brass which had frightened him badly. Its interest no longer seemed to be on the fly and driver. As he glanced back along the road, futilely trying to halt his horses in their headlong flight, he saw the three stark forms closing in swiftly on a huddled dark shape sprawled in the road. The Reverend Arthur Mostyn had fallen or been flung from the conveyance.
It was a pair of shaking and sweat-lathered horses that finally came to an exhausted halt in the middle of Great Malvern. Mr Brady, after soothing and quieting his charges somewhat, and feeling in need of similar treatment himself, made his way to the police station and gasped out the more credible elements of his story there. A fresh conveyance and two officers of the law accompanied the reluctant man back to the place where Reverend Mostyn had last been seen, and he was found, after some searching in the dark, in a ditch by the side of the road, perhaps having crawled there for refuge. He was still alive and apparently unharmed by his fall from the vehicle, but pushed at his rescuers wildly with both hands, his eyes staring with a terror he could not communicate, for inarticulate sounds only escaped from his throat. He was taken gently to Great Malvern, where later a relative, his younger brother, collected him. He died the following year at his brother's home in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, collapsing after an apparent sudden seizure outside the gates of St Oswald's church there. He never recovered his senses or power of speech in the short time left to him.
A well known Midlands writer and journalist of the twenties and thirties of this century, Mr W. Byford-Jones, would seem to have had more success in locating reference material than myself. In his Midland Curiosities, a collection of local tales originally published in the newspaper Express and Star, I find the following:
"A Public House in the village of Wyton, a few miles outside of Great Malvern in Worcestershire, long demolished, went by the quaint and rather dreadful name of The Three Grim Reapers. The old sign, preserved in a small local museum, depicts three scythe-carrying images of Death, much as we imagine them on a set of gypsies' Tarot reading cards. The explanation for this unusual sign is derived from events which are said to have taken place in the vicinity during the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion. Retribution for the defeated rebels in the infamous Bloody Assizes included hanging, drawing and quartering of the unfortunate victims. Their remains were put on public display, not only in the West Country where the Rising had taken place, but in other counties around England as well. The dissected parts of these poor bundles of humanity were tarred, or covered with pitch, this being used as a crude but nonetheless effective preservative, and were afterwards placed in prominent places to remind all of their King's wrath, and the terrible price of treason and infidelity. It is recorded that three hanged rebels, known only as Tanner, Day and Lyle, were sent to Wyton, to hang at the crossroads, on the 14th of September, 1685. It is curious to note that these proceedings took place on the express desire of Sir Ryland Stapleton, Bart., whose son had fought and died for James II at Sedgemoor. On his peculiar whim, the bodies were left whole, to hang in gibbets with the weapons of their insurrection fixed in their hands. It would seem that some brave and virtuous soul, sickened by the daily sight of the poor wretches and risking the severe penalty of interfering with them, removed the corpses during the hours of darkness within a week of their hanging, and, sparing them any further ignominy, buried them in an unmarked grave.
"The actions of this deliverer would appear
to have been in vain, at least as far as the dead men's troubled souls were
concerned. Odd sightings of the three persisted in the area for years, carrying
their scythes still, and were fearfully believed to augur death or misfortune
to any who saw them. A brief account may be found in Macaulay's History
of England and a fuller record in Tranter's Antiquities Esoteric
of Herefordshire and Worcestershire."
I conclude with a curious episode which occurred fully fifty years after the events I have laid down. A local farmer, utilising some long-fallow land for the war effort, close to the site of the old manor house, moved several old stones from the original foundations which were impeding his plough, and this implement turned up some ancient bones. A shallow grave was uncovered, and within it were found the remains of three men, who appeared to have lain there for centuries. That they were incomplete is perhaps not necessary for me to intimate, and as well as some long-rusted blades, a small crumbling box, impressed with strange designs and its contents long since decayed and unidentifiable, caused a certain amount of interest and conjecture before all were re-interred in an unmarked corner of the churchyard.
Copyright © 1999 C.E. Ward
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