The Coffin Road

Extract from 'After Midnight - Stories of Mystery and the Macabre'

“But…”

“But, what? Your overuse of conjunctions does you no credit, Jerome, particularly for a man of your profession.”

“But, you haven’t answered my question!” The hour was late and Sidney Wainwright was obstinately reading a volume of Philosophical Transactions in his armchair across the room from me. He always did that when I tried to draw him into a conversation that was not on his own terms. “Why are your investigating days over?” Across from us, on the far wall was the empty pin-board that I knew once had contained statements, maps and photographs of some of the most curious cases of the unknown you will ever hear.

For many years it had been Sidney Wainwright’s hobby, if you could call it that, or perhaps vocation is a better word, to investigate and document cases of the strange, of the mysterious. I knew for a fact that some of the most fascinating of such stories now lay buried in the files in his desk drawers, although to my shame I could never admit it to my friend, as he had never once given me permission to peruse them. Some of these cases had explanations, some did not. Some he had merely documented, through interviewing those local sources of legend from which all the best stories come, and others he had in fact solved.

“Is reading not one of the most rewarding investigations?” Sidney quipped as he turned the page.

“There are so many cases of the supernatural still to explore, are there not?”

“Again, you miss my point, Jerome. I have never been about the ‘supernatural,’ as you put it,” said Wainwright, marking his page.

“I’m not afraid of ghosts, I’m only intrigued.”

“You’re intrigued, my young friend because you are afraid. There is no problem with that, only that you are afraid of the wrong thing entirely.” Sidney stood up slowly, his long legs levering him out of his low chair. He put his volume on his desk next to his Underwood and took one of the files from his top drawer. His eyes met mine for just a moment, and they had a twinkle in them that accompanied the most minute of smirks. I had the horrible feeling he knew I had peeked at some of those files once, purely out of curiosity I want you to understand.

“Really? What should I be afraid of?” I said.

“You may well have heard of Temple Farrington,” Wainwright began, as he sat back down. “Years ago, that particular part of the country saw a series of disappearances that baffled all the authorities. Long after those events, though, I went to that town, and found the people there to be full of superstition. They said those that vanished on the roads about the area used to be seen on the lych way at night.”

Sidney Wainwright finished his glass before continuing. I remember thinking I would be gulping my own drink before long. “I met an old cripple, a mute who lived, on the edge of town and remembered those days. The man was still waiting it seemed, for those he had lost. He lived in a rundown barn, which had been long forgotten by the townsfolk. It housed a traveller’s wagon that was covered in dust and had been shut up and abandoned for decades. The barn was in the large grounds of the parish church there, St Judes. It was only when I learned about its Rector from that time, Herbert Proctor, that I found the truth.”

*

Herbert Proctor, the Rector of St Jude’s, was a very enigmatic man. When Mrs Hill said to him that she was positive she had seen a ghostly procession on the lych way from her bedroom window on Saturday last, he concealed his frustrated amusement with a feigned sneeze.

“I am adamant, Reverend, indeed I am!” she exclaimed, as they wandered towards her cottage in the evening gloom. She had spread the story throughout town.

“One of those impenetrable mysteries madam, I’m sure,” Herbert Proctor replied in earnest. “I’m sure I am far the better for your sensible warnings.” Mrs Hill’s paranoia was nonsense to the Rector. It was amusing to humour her, for a while, but Mrs Hill’s tongue had done a little too much work for his liking that evening.


“No mystery at all! You know what they say about coffin roads. It would be well for you to hurry back now with the light fading!” The Rector sighed. Mrs Hill was a useful lady to be acquainted with and the centre of society in town, but sometimes, like tonight, Reverend Proctor wished he could stop her inane babble immediately, then start it again when he was safely out of earshot.

“There shall be no more danger upon the lych way after a few hours and a warm meal. Besides, I don’t intend on returning up to the church tonight.”

“Don’t you indeed!” Mrs Hill gestured to the gipsy wagon that had just taken the laneway leading out of the centre of town and past the church. “More troublemakers, just like the last lot. You had better check that all is secure, for you don’t know what they’ll get up to.” The last lot, as Mrs Hill had called them, had indeed been trouble, or so several of the Reverend’s parishioners had made out.

“Perhaps you are right, madam.” Reverend Proctor slowed his pace, considering Mrs Hill’s for once useful observation. “I think I had rather better head back if you will excuse me not seeing you inside.”

“At least take a lantern of mine then!”

Not five minutes later the Rector’s progress was marked in the night by the floating dot of his lantern as he hurried up the lych way. The gravel of the ancient coffin path crunched under his feet. It snaked behind houses and garden walls from the cemetery on the far side of Temple Farrington all the way to the church. At one point, with a high stone wall on one side and a hedge on the other, the Rector could neither see where he was going nor whence he had come. It was in this very spot that the wind picked up and blew out the Rector’s lantern with the most abrupt snuff.

Absolute darkness enveloped the Rector, with only the greenish glow of where his light had been a moment before imprinted on his vision. The air was close, and Reverend Proctor was at once intimately aware of his own loud shallow breaths as he fumbled through his pockets for a match. At last, after several blind paces along the gravel, he had the way lit before him again and the gate into the side of the church grounds loomed into view.

He was not sure how far ahead of him the gipsies’ wagon would be by now, but likely as not they would be headed for the church’s field. It had been where the last lot, at that time a great host of them, had camped. As he approached, Reverend Proctor started to tiptoe along the overgrown side of the track in an effort to hide his footsteps, even just a little.

Looking into the church grounds, he tried to make out if there were any intruders beyond. Nothing moved in the churchyard, and the darkened gothic building with its sharply pointed steeple appeared secure. The lych gate swung rather too loudly upon the Rector’s entry to the grounds. He had dismissed his predecessor’ gardener who had kept the gate oiled.

The front doors and the side door looked intact. Approaching the side doors, the Rector glanced up at the skull and bones that stood proud of the other stonework above his head. They were the markings of the Templars. It was not for nothing that Mrs Hill had been concerned about the place’s safety; for within, upon the altar was a golden cross, a relic of the ancient order, or so it was said.

The Rector rattled the door. It was locked, as he had thought. He had left it that way an hour earlier when he returned to the village for the night. After turning the large rusty key in the lock, the Reverend had to push solidly to get the wooden doors, warped by weather and time, to open. The air within was completely still, and bone cold as well. The whiff of decay that was perennial in the church met his nose at once, but the Rector had grown too accustomed to it to notice.

The sound of each footstep on the stone echoed around the space as the ghostly altar, complete with golden cross, loomed ahead. Reverend Proctor realised he was ahead of the travellers, and set about igniting the gas torcheries. If they came, he did not want to be in the dark. By the time the nave was better lit under the flickering glow of the lights, the grinding of wagon wheels could be heard from beyond the walls.

Peering from one of the narrow windows next to the main doors the Rector could just about make out a large wagon pulling up by the closest tree. Its shadow flittered across the distant lights from the closest part of town. Several silhouetted figures were aboard. Almost immediately they dismounted and approached the church. There were three of them. One very large, and two who were close to the Reverend’s size but he could see no more. They spread out, slowly, but then honed in on the church’s entrances like dogs finding a scent. One approached the main doors and the other two investigated each side of the building.

The Rector retreated through the stale air of the church to the crossing where he had left his lantern on the frontmost pew. Behind him, apart from the ancient golden cross, was a very fine altar with chalices of solid silver and candle stands of gold. They were all in front of a great red shroud of cloth. The usual stained glass windows overlooking the altar were smaller and far higher than in many churches. The fine objects and the shroud were adornments suitable for a relic legendary for its miracles, and it was Reverend Proctor’s duty to see them kept safe.

The figures were on three sides of him now, he knew that much from the footsteps on the gravel. That was when Reverent Proctor heard the knocker on the main door. Three taps rang through the church, shortly followed by three more; then, more footsteps. A face peered in through the very window that the Rector had been at but a few moments before. He could not make out the gender of the person, but he or she seemed young, and the eyes were piercing. They found Proctor almost at once.

There was a muffled call, and the eyes vanished again. The bolt of the side door to Reverend Proctor’s left was retracted. He had left it unlocked. A moment later it swung open. Through the door came a great gipsy man who stood tall, well over six foot. His hair and thick long beard were jet black and he didn’t hesitate to cross the threshold. Behind him came a woman with a patchwork skirt, and a shabby boy of about fifteen. The boy had the same dark countenance as the man and was clearly his son.

The three travellers entered the church with no attempt to limit the noise of their footsteps. The boy stayed near the door but the man and the woman each approached the Rector. The woman then wandered up to the altar. Her eyes were fixed on the elaborate display in front of her. The man came into the centre of the nave and seemed interested in the ceiling. Slowly his eyes wandered down the walls and fixed themselves upon Reverend Proctor.

“My boy,” said the man, his accent thick. “His arm.” The Rector took his eyes from the man for a brief moment to notice the boy was holding his left arm in his right hand and seemed to be in quite some pain. Reverend Proctor wondered for a moment, at just how genuine their need for Christian charity might be.

“Ah, well… Let me see it,” said the Rector, and the boy sheepishly came towards him. The lad was young but looked well-built and strong, and the man was moving into the Rector’s blind spot.

“You give us sanctuary!” exclaimed the man. Reverend Proctor wasn’t sure by the man’s evidently sparse knowledge of English, whether that was a demanding question or an affirmed observation.

“If your boy will just let me see his arm…” said the Rector, trying to cool the fellow off. The boy held out his wrist towards Reverend Proctor. The forearm was indeed bent and it seemed to the Rector’s eyes the child did indeed have a very painful and quite severe fracture. “He needs a doctor, not a priest.”

“Doctor already say no!” said the woman, her voice full of malice. She had her hands on one of the silver chalices now.

“I believe I do have some bandages somewhere. That would be the best I can do, I’m afraid.” The Rector retreated into the far transept behind the organ, keeping his eyes on his guests as long as he could. The gipsy man seemed to be swelling with anger at the prospect of them being dismissed, but the woman motioned to the man to stay calm.

Her attention though turned to the golden cross. In such dim light even a cross such as this could not be expected to shine, and yet, unless her eyes were deceiving her, it was shining a little. Indeed, the more she looked at it the more it seemed to be sparkling with warm light, more powerful than any that the torcheries were giving out.

“It is special, no? The cross?” she asked.

“An ancient relic madam,” the Rector called from the darkness, “of the Order of the Knight’s Templar.”

“We had heard a story, people come far to see it, yes?”

“They do, madam,” said the Rector, his voice even more distant and echoed now. “It was made at the time when the Order was crumbling. It was persecuted across Europe, and those who once had great power were now outcasts and outlaws. The cross, it grants hope and renewal, for the lonely, and the friendless who pray before it. They come from many places to see it, and to find comfort in the knowledge, that God, at least, is always with them.” The Rector’s voice, wherever it was coming from, was dreamlike but full of conviction. The cross seemed to glow more strongly, and there was a buzzing in the air. It sounded like some form of strange energy, barely audible.

“We could do with such a thing,” said the woman, gazing into its golden heart. “We have fallen far behind the rest of our family, perhaps you saw them? That would be many days ago now…”

“They passed this way… Do they know where you are?”

“They don’t, we lost them.”

“What are you doing?” called the man, from behind her. But he also was only half aware of what he was saying. He too approached the cross. It was shining with terrific intensity now, and even the boy had stood up from the front pew to approach the altar with his father. The three gipsies were engulfed in their own awe at what was before them.

From beyond the church, there was the muffled screech of a rusty gate. Their horse whinnied in alarm. Then the chains of the wagon clanked. But only the boy thought anything of it. For the sound that was inside the church, it was growing too. What had begun as merely a strange energy in the air had built and built. The windows rattled to such low tones that they were almost inaudible. Higher trills cut deep into their ears.

It was as if all the notes of the organ were being sounded at once. Then the red shroud on the wall dropped to the floor.

A flash of light came from behind it. It was white, and pure, completely filling the space, blinding the gipsies as they stumbled in front of the cross. It was as if heaven’s light had opened to them. The boy could not see his father or mother now, and he called out. His eyes though stung with the pain of such burning white light. He reached out in front of him, stumbling forward. The boy was as sightless as if he had been in total darkness. Until—

The floor fell away beneath him. He fell into nothing…

The sound of harsh voices caused the boy’s head to split with pain.

The world was dark and blurred. He realised there must have been some sort of blindfold over his eyes. He blinked repeatedly, proving to himself that he was awake.

As his senses slowly returned, with an aching wave all over his body the boy became aware of just how full his mouth was. It was completely stuffed with something wet and it burned with the same sting as alcohol on a wound. The stench of decay he noticed in the church was putrid down here, but the voices seemed unconcerned.

Two pairs of shoes were in front of him. A brown pair of shoes covered by long robes, and a black pair of gaiter boots. The boots paced up and down. Then they stopped in front of him.

“The boy is injured!” growled the owner of the boots.

“He’ll mend,” said a familiar voice.

“No one has any use for a lame boy, how will I get rid of him?”

“The three are a very good price together. This one is an excellent physical specimen, and there would be several London customers who would pay handsomely for her…” The boy realised it was the priest from the church speaking. Were they still in the church? It was much darker now and the ceiling was low, with round arches supported by rough columns everywhere. Had he fallen into the crypt?

There was a pause. The man in the boots kneeled down close to him.

“Perhaps, if you accepted my first offer, that is, I might know somewhere who’ll take the odd boy as well as the women.” The boy’s heart began to pound furiously but he was in so much pain that he could neither move nor scream. “Who knows, though? One with such an injury, would they find him pleasing?”

“He is a risk, I know, but that’s business. And who’ll miss him if he’s found floating in the Thames?” The boy twitched his hands but found them tightly bound. Now was definitely not the time to move. But when? There was a long silence, then the man in the boots stood up again, and shook hands with the priest.

More hands came swooping down from up above. Who they belonged to was a mystery to the boy but he was pulled to his feet once more and the blindfold was untied. The gag was pulled out of his mouth and it stung again with pain. Looking up, the priest’s face, completely impassive at the boy’s suffering, was right in front of him, together with that of the other man. After the briefest moment, however, some sort of hood was thrust over the boy’s head and he was dragged towards some stairs.

The hood had slits in it, barely enough for the boy to see through such that he would not trip over himself. He could see other hooded figures ahead. Their backs were all black and some were leading others. His mother? His father? Where were they being taken?

A moment later they were hurried into the fresh night air. A gate screeched and although the boy didn’t know it, the procession hurried onto the lych way. Through the darkness, he was forced along the path, with only a couple of swinging green lanterns ahead of him to guide the way. He could feel rough hands on his back and his own hands were still tied, but the boy realised with terror that this might be his only chance of escape. If he could only make a break for it, or call for help!

Mrs Hill was awoken in her cottage bedroom by the same noises she had heard on Saturday last. There was a rustling of the hawthorn hedges outside, and a host of scraping footsteps coming from the lych way. Brushing the curtain aside, the little woman peered out of her window.

A stillness pervaded the air outside, not even a fox was on the prowl, nothing moved at all. But the sound, muffled behind the glass, grew louder, and it came from up the lane. Then, flittering amongst the moonlit shadows cast by the trees that hung across the roadway, came a swarm of ghostly figures in the coffin road beyond her garden.

The boy saw movement in a window from the corner of his eye and turned his head to see Mrs Hill. What he could not have known, though, was that the hood that covered him was a deathly iridescent mask. All the petrified Mrs Hill saw, was a twisted green face from beyond, one that had seen her and whose gaze was now fixed.

The boy knew he had only one hope. He opened his jaw, with great strain, and let out a scream of terror, a plea for ‘help!’ Any words at all! It did not matter! He tried to bellow his lungs out to wake anyone and everyone. But the sound that came was horrible and ghastly. It was enough to frighten Mrs Hill back behind her curtains, and the good parishioners of Temple Farrington beneath their sheets. Try as he might, the boy could not even form a single word.

It was then, as he swallowed in the damp night air, that the boy realised. He had no tongue.

All Sidney Wainwright correspondence should be marked "Care of the Curious Caretaker" at the following address: 

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