Extract from 'After Midnight - Stories of Mystery and the Macabre'
I only remember Sidney Wainwright angry on one occasion. It was when I told him I planned to attend a spiritualist conference in America. He said that it was a short step from frequenting such gatherings to developing an unhealthy obsession. I never did understand his caution on my interests in Spiritualism.
“Much as you may want to, you can’t bring him back, Jerome!” he had shouted, boiling over for the briefest moment. I had never even mentioned my eldest brother, who had been killed at Monte Casino, to Sidney before. He must have heard about it from one of my colleagues at the firm.
When he saw how resolute I was, though, he had quickly resumed his usual calm nature and accepted my going. Nothing further was mentioned on the subject, until I was boarding a ship bound for New York where I received his letter.
Upon reflection on our most recent conversation, I have decided to share with you the following recollection of one of the few tales which I myself still cannot explain. I send this to you as a warning. Reach out to the unknown my friend, if that is what you wish to do, but do not let yourself get lost, or else you may not find your way back again.
The wild fringe of the West Country fascinated my children when we would holiday there, with its legends of smugglers, the trials and tribulations of the miners, and the strange happenings at Bodmin and Dartmoor.
There was one tale in particular, of a place called Dumbarton Cove, that my children were told by an old weather-beaten fisherman in Plymouth. When they heard the tale of the cove, the children persuaded me to hear it also, from the horse’s mouth as it were. In what I presumed to be the naivety of three souls, none of whom was greater than eleven, they decided that they wanted to take a seventy-mile detour to investigate. The next day, when together we visited the fisherman in his boat shed, I thought the fellow’s stories were likely to be just as thick a smoke screen of tall tales as the haze from his incessant pipe smoking.
The fisherman gave us only the sketch of a story, its bare bones, and little more about the cove. He said that upon occasion a ship could be seen there sailing before the beach, a ship that had sunk many years earlier. Charlotte, Mary and John were of the age where they were very curious about tales of mystery. As we were due in London in two days time, I had to deny them their wish to visit the cove.
However, by the next holiday we had together they had not forgotten the story. And so, in the autumn we went down as a family to the cove in Cornwall to discover anything we could about the events that had allegedly happened there some twenty years previously.
What follows is what happened to us on that journey, as best as I can remember it.
I read the letter twice upon receiving it before daring to examine the tale in the pages that followed, wondering what he of all people could possibly want to warn me about.
“Never go looking for Dumbarton.” That was what the lady in the cottage at the end of the road in Trevenick had said to us when she opened the door. It was a peculiar greeting. Dumbarton was the strangest of names for this part of Britain. Why should the nearby cove be named after a place in Scotland?
We had travelled down to Trevenick early that day, from the Inn we had been staying at, to see if we could ask any locals about the tale of the cove, which was but a half a mile up the coast. However, we had found the village was more than sleepy that Friday morning. The public house and the shops were all devoid of life and not a single door that we knocked on at any of the whitewashed cottages produced any response, except for the last.
The lady who finally answered our calls was in a black mourning dress that included a veil drawn over her hair so that only the centre of her face was visible. She wore it with such determined dignity that cast her in elegance. Her age was difficult to say, but I’d have guessed between thirty-five and forty. She was very handsome, with a meek white face but one creased with emotion. She had not seen a smile in a long time and her eyes hinted at far more life experience than most people I have met. The other peculiar feature of the lady was her accent. It was not local at all, but out of place in such a humble village abode. It was well educated and refined. Her place could easily be amongst the politest of London society.
At once I felt too forward in continuing our enquiry. She had clearly suffered recent bereavement. But my eager children clouded my judgement. I was somewhat taken aback by her words of warning to us when she opened the door. I concealed this as best I could and carried on.
“Oh, good morning , madame,” said I, with my children watching on beside me. “The children and I apologise for disturbing you. We have been hoping to ask someone here about the story of Dumbarton Cove. My children would like to know more about it. The fishermen we met in the summer scarcely told them anything.” The lady did not blink, her eyes were fixed on mine. “No one seems to be about, you see, yours was the last door to try.”
There was still no response. I was inclined to back out of the conversation. I felt she must have been very taken aback by the sight of us. A man with his three children from out of town who had come to question her, and his wife waiting with the coachman in the open carriage in the lane beyond the gate. “We will take our leave if you do not wish to be imposed upon.”
But then the lady retreated into the depths of the cottage, leaving the door open for us to follow. The poor coachman was uneasy about the questions we had been asking and so it was that my wife stayed with him. As for myself, however, I was glad to accompany the children inside. The coach ride had been uncomfortable and I was wishing there was room in my Rover Eight for all of us. But , alas, it was only a two-seater.
It was dark inside. All the curtains were drawn and the presence of excessive moisture was pungent in the air. Not the pleasant sea air mind you, but the mildew smell of damp that clung to every surface. Most of the cluttered armchairs to which the lady directed us were caked in the dust of neglect, not having seen visitors in years. They were arranged around an iron stove built into the old brick fireplace that scarcely gave off even a hint of heat.
The lady, therefore, took quite a while to boil the tea which she had decided to brew for us without question or comment. We sat in silence, neither the children nor I sure of what to say or do. I offered her help with pouring the tea when the saucepan finally showed a wisp of rising steam but she declined with a raise of her hand.
“No, sir, I can manage, so you see.” These words did not even seem addressed to me, or any of us. They were faint, yet confident.
Before bringing the tea the lady went to the door. She seemed anxious as she peered through its crack. She turned the latchkey and the lock clicked. I was sure I was the only one to notice it, for it would have made the children jump had not the fire cracked and popped at the very same moment.
She dispersed a battered plain china tea set of mismatching cups and saucers. It was as she commenced pouring for each of us that she began. What follows is as best I can remember her words.
“It was 1883. Alison Little and her friend Margaret, school girls from London, were on holiday in these parts with Alison’s younger brother Toby. They had left the adults for two days to go off camping on their own by the seaside. Toby had been a nuisance to the girls the whole trip. They wanted to be on their own, you see, sir, but he had been included in the party at the behest of their parents. Alison and Toby had never got on. It was more than just the attention that the younger sibling got or the burden of being left responsible for him. Many a young man she would meet on her holidays, and yet none would find her quite so attractive with a troublesome sibling in tow. When Alison, Margaret and Toby arrived in Trevenick they were told by the shopkeeper, Mr Amery, that they could camp wherever they pleased around the village, except for the headland, and that they were not to go looking for Dumbarton.”
The lady’s swimming eyes stared right at me as she took a sip of her tea and caused me to nervously gulp my own. The children, taking my lead, drank as well.
Whatever the brew was, it was not tea, and its foul sour taste caused me to recoil so much as to have to hide my displeasure in a cough. Johnny, my youngest, made no attempt at concealing how bitter he found the tea, although he did not actually comment how much he disliked it. I thanked my wife under my breath for her guidance of our children’s manners.
The lady, however, did not seem to notice our reactions. Something far heavier weighed on her mind and imprisoned the air in the whole room. Without ceremony, she continued. “The children wondered, as they gathered their supplies, who this Dumbarton was, whether he was the local crank or a murderous convict on the run. They had all been told to ‘never go looking for Dumbarton’ but the children’s thinking as to the warning’s nature was far off the mark. You see, Dumbarton was no man. ‘The Dumbarton,’ the shopkeeper said…”
Now the name made sense to me. “Dumbarton was no man,” the lady continued, “nor even a place as it is now. It was a ship. ‘Up'n the headland, many a year ago,’ Amery had said. ‘The wreckers had laid a trap, and the Dumbarton fell right into it; dashed upon the rocks were ship and mariner alike. Do not go lighting fires on that headland my darlings, for not a soul will survive once you do!’ The children laughed at such a preposterous warning, yet they wondered whether any remains of the Dumbarton could be seen at the cove, and so set about finding their way to camp above the beach. Indeed, they were so impatient that they left before Mr Amery could finish his story.”
It was at this point that the lady’s eyes were downcast for the first time, and in a serious way too, for she studied the floor intently as she continued. “When Alison and her companions arrived at the beach, they met and spoke at length with some other children, two Irish boys hiking along with big packs on their backs. They were called MacDonagh and they had just returned to the beach from a voyage in their boat.”
“What sort of boat?” I’d interrupted enthusiastically at a point where I had thought it appropriate to try and lighten the lady’s mood. I’d grown up around boats myself and always enjoyed hearing about the adventures people had in them.
“It was a rowing boat, sir, it had two sets of oars,” said the lady, clearly not more familiar than that with what type of craft it was. “The older MacDonagh boy was charming and very handsome, and Alison found that she warmed to him very quickly upon their acquaintance. Toby, though, in his usual way, stole the show and the older boys humoured him extensively and even offered to take him out in their boat the next day. No matter how hard Alison tried to make him out to be not worth their attention, the MacDonaghs laughed her off and were only too happy to share their seaside adventure stories with Toby. The two boys were to camp on the headland that night. Neither Alison nor Toby thought much of the shopkeeper’s warning. It was Margaret, however, who insisted that their party not join its new friends but instead be content on the sand dunes above the beach for the evening. Reluctantly Toby consented to this, wishing instead to go off with the other boys. Alison only agreed to please her friend, knowing that a night on the beach would let her come up with an excuse not to take Toby the next day.”
The lady took a long sip of her tea, swirled the cup and examined the murky depths. I couldn’t help but be impressed with her. She told her tale so persuasively. Indeed, she was a gifted storyteller, whether or not there was any truth in what she was saying. The children sat as silent and still as I had ever known them. Her dreamy voice, the dark room, the smells, they all held sway. It was how I myself would have been, was I still their age. “That night the three children clearly saw the bright flickering light of the MacDonaghs’ campfire on the stark and towering headland that was overlooking the cove. But, as they slipped off to sleep, from outside the tents they heard more than the waves crashing. Muffled shouts and the cracks of smashing timbers seemed to be carried to them by the wind. When the children ventured outside, though, the beach was all quiet and there was nothing to be seen in the gloom.”
My children had forgotten how sour their tea was by now, and even I had to catch myself from letting my cup to droop too far. “The next morning the MacDonaghs’ boat was still where they had left it, high up the sandy beach near the camp, yet the boys were late to come down from the headland. A wisp of smoke from their extinguished fire rose in a trail with its long finger pointing gently inland. But as Midday came and went, their meeting time being ten o’clock, Alison and Margaret thought the boys may well have forgotten them. It was only Toby who did not believe that for a second and pointed out that they would not have left the beach without their wonderful boat. At that moment, however, the children were greeted by the strangest of sights beyond the surf. From behind the far headland came a tall ship, drifting slowly. The craft was a glossy black topsail schooner with white sails, not particularly noteworthy. To the children’s eyes, its entrance to their cove seemed particularly grand. The schooner was not really under sail, with only the jib and staysail loosely flailing about in the breeze. What was even stranger than its risky drifting inshore was that the schooner did not appear to have anyone on watch. Certainly, the children could see no one on the decks or up the masts.”
A shudder went through me when the lady said that. I remember it to this day. “Alison decided that she and Margaret should row out to the ship to inquire as to its purpose. Seeing her chance to be rid of Toby for the day and row along the beach towards the MacDonagh tent, she insisted that her brother stay with their camp. Toby, however, would not take to heart her instruction about what their parents would want him to do, and so, as a shaky Margaret and a furious Alison pushed the MacDonaghs’ boat down the beach, Toby ran off to the headland. Knowing he would beat them there, even if they rowed straight along the coast, Alison cursed her little brother, and no longer did so under her breath either, furious that he would not just stay in his tent!”
The lady took another great gulp of her tea. I glanced around at my children and found all of them to be alert, waiting in silence to hear the rest of the story. The lady put her cup and saucer down again and yawned. The children may not have seen what she had done, but I had, for that yawn had been to hide a sob.
“How did they fare with the surf?” I enquired.
“Not well. The girls were inexperienced with boats and so took some time to battle out through the waves. As they made it out beyond the breakers, though, and the schooner came more clearly into view, they could make out that unless the sailors were all below decks, there was no one on board. The girls rowed under its lee enough to even make out the name written on the bow. It was ‘Dumbarton’. But just as they were close enough to examine the ship, Margaret saw something curious on the headland. There was a bright flash of light as if the sun was reflecting from a mirror. The light flashed three times, but the girls were too far from shore to be able to make out if there was anyone up there. The two girls thought little of it. Perhaps one of the MacDonaghs had a telescope that was causing a reflection. At that moment, however, the air changed. The sea breeze became somehow thicker. It was as if the air was starting to choke them, and when the girls turned around again to look at the Dumbarton, the ship had vanished, just as if it had been a mirage.”
Johnny gasped at this. “Baffled and confused, their heads swimming, the girls somehow made it back to shore. They struggled in the surf, but eventually managed to drag the boat above the high-water mark in the sand. Frightened now by what had happened and not having seen Toby or the other boys, the girls scrambled up the dunes and across the rocky outcrops to the camp on the headland. The tent and smouldering fire were clearly visible on the highest point of the cliff, but there was no sign of anyone.”
The lady’s pause this time was not to drink tea, or shift herself in her chair, or even to offer us any further refreshment. She sat right where she was, adrift herself.
“Where were the boys?” Charlotte piped up. The lady considered my daughter for a moment before continuing, a tear now sliding down her face.
“The camp was deserted, there was no one on the cliff, and the girls searched and searched the rocks below but it didn’t seem like anyone had fallen. However, when they turned back and headed for the beach again, they saw that the boat on the beach, perfectly watertight when they had left it, had been carried up higher onto some rock. There was a good deal of seawater in the bottom and the hull had been splintered open in a couple of places. But that was not the worst of it. All of the MacDonagh boys’ belongings were in the stern. Their big packs of books and rations, a spyglass, and a red sweater. It was Toby’s sweater. None of those items had been in the boat before. The two girls fled back to Trevenick where they found Amery. To their distress, he did not offer them help or council. He merely sat them down in his shop with some tea and finished the story of Dumbarton just as I am relating this tale to you now.”
The lady finished the last of her tea in one gulp and stared now into the smouldering ruins of the fire. “Amery had not told all of the tale, you see. There was a shipwrecked on that coast, the Dumbarton. The ship was carrying wool and other valuable cargo but had been led onto the headland’s reef by a wrecker’s light. The sailors had been thrown upon the rocks in the heavy seas, and most were washed away by the waves or else drowned trying to swim to safety. But one man clung to life for two days on a ledge of the cliff, the skin on his hands growing raw from the iron grip he had to keep on the jagged stone. When the wreckers came to examine the splintered remains of the wreck, and what they could salvage at nightfall on the second day, they met his wrath. He murdered those men with his rigging knife, as they murdered his shipmates. Since then not a soul has survived a night upon that headland if a fire has been lit. For the flame, just as the wrecker’s brazier once had, calls the ghosts of the Dumbarton back from the deep.”
As the lady finished her tale, her eyes drifted off once more into the coals of the fire. I knew in my stomach what my children, who were sitting in polite silence, may not yet have grasped.
“Well, I thank you for the tea and that very detailed account, madam. Now, if you will excuse us, my children and I will take our leave.” Already spooked by the surroundings and the ghostly story with which we had been regaled, the children were only too eager to make their way to the door. Suddenly the lady became alert, and her head turned swiftly to us. The sharp move had let the veil fall so that at last we could see her whole head in its entirety. That was what throttled my exhalation.
The children and I were in the presence, not at a lady, but of a girl. Her face may have been puffy and lined with grief, giving the illusion of age, but she could not be more than sixteen.
“Mummy and daddy moved to Trevenick then,” sobbed Alison. “We have been waiting for so long, and now they are gone without seeing poor Toby!” She stood up, buried her head in her hands and sobbed like a child who had lost her favourite toy. One by one my children realised as well just how strange this was. They hid behind the hems of my coat again as we retreated for the door.
“Can you help me find my brother!” Alison shrilled, as she held out her hand towards us. “Please help me!” We had been sitting all that time with a haunted woman, with a woman who had never stopped searching for her baby brother. It was Alison’s living room we were in, her home for forty years, but she had not aged a day.
The children reached the door before me. “Please help me find my brother! I don’t know where he is!” Alison’s voice was getting nearer behind us, trying to appeal to me. The children pulled at the door handle in vain, not knowing it was locked. I fumbled with the latchkey in the lock, jamming it several times before at last breaking out.
We fled that little house, not daring to look back. We only wanted to be out in our carriage and already a mile distant. My wife was utterly perplexed by the four white-faced souls she greeted, but I could not say a word to her for some time. None of us could. Even now, if the children do speak of it, they only say they felt the same way I did. We all felt as if we were in some kind of dream, or nightmare.
I can still hear that childlike voice sometimes. I still feel guilty for leaving her, however young or old she really was. But it was all too strange to say I would react any differently were I there again.
My children and I still wonder. Had time stood still in that place for many a year, or had we somehow gone into the past? And the boat, to have been taken out and then wrecked all in the short time that Alison and Margaret had been looking for their friends and their brother. If it was all true, it defied logic.
If it was all true. I had no doubt that we had met Alison and I had no doubt her words described events just as she remembered them. I just knew it.
Suffice to say, we never did go down to Dumbarton Cove. We never looked out from the headland for that ghostly ship. And, as we fled from Alison, the coachman whipped up the horses and we were on our way, I wished I had my Rover. I wished that we could speed away from that place all the more quickly, and back to our own time.