16 July 1923, I moved into Exham Priory after the last workman had finished
his labours. The restoration had been a stupendous task, for little
had remained of the deserted pile but a shell-like ruin; yet because it
had been the seat of my ancestors, I let no expense deter me. The
place had not been inhabited since the reign of James the First, when a
tragedy of intensely hideous,
though largely unexplained, nature had struck down the
master, five of his children, and several servants; and driven forth under
a cloud of suspicion and terror the third son, my lineal progenitor and
the only survivor of the abhorred line.
With this sole heir denounced as a murderer, the estate
had reverted to the crown, nor had the accused man made any attempt to
exculpate himself or regain his property. Shaken by some horror greater
than that of conscience or the law, and expressing only a frantic wish
to exclude the ancient edifice from his sight and memory, Walter de la
Poer, eleventh Baron Exham, fled to
Virginia and there founded the family which by the next
century had become known as Delapore.
Exham Priory had remained untenanted, though later allotted
to the estates of the Norrys family and much studied because of its peculiarly
composite architecture; an architecture involving Gothic towers resting
on a Saxon or Romanesque substructure, whose foundation in turn was of
a still earlier order or blend of orders -- Roman, and even Druidic or
native Cymric, if legends
speak truly. This foundation was a very singular
thing, being merged on one side with the solid limestone of the precipice
from whose brink the priory overlooked a desolate valley three miles west
of the village of Anchester.
Architects and antiquarians loved to examine this strange
relic of forgotten centuries, but the country folk hated it. They
had hated it hundreds of years before, when my ancestors lived there, and
they hated it now, with the moss and mould of abandonment on it.
I had not been a day in Anchester before I knew I came of an accursed house.
And this week workmen have blown up
Exham Priory, and are busy obliterating the traces of
its foundations. The bare statistics of my ancestry I had always
known, together with the fact that my first American forebear had come
to the colonies under a strange cloud. Of details, however, I had
been kept wholly ignorant through the policy of reticence always maintained
by the Delapores. Unlike our planter neighbours,
we seldom boasted of crusading ancestors or other mediaeval
and Renaissance heroes; nor was any kind of tradition handed down except
what may have been recorded in the sealed envelope left before the Civil
War by every squire to his eldest son for posthumous opening. The
glories we cherished were those achieved since the migration; the glories
of a proud and honourable, if
somewhat reserved and unsocial Virginia line.
During the war our fortunes were extinguished and our
whole existence changed by the burning of Carfax, our home on the banks
of the James. My grandfather, advanced in years, had perished in
that incendiary outrage, and with him the envelope that had bound us all
to the past. I can recall that fire today as I saw it then at the
age of seven, with the federal soldiers shouting, the
women screaming, and the negroes howling and praying.
My father was in the army, defending Richmond, and after many formalities
my mother and I were passed through the lines to join him.
When the war ended we all moved north, whence my mother
had come; and I grew to manhood, middle age, and ultimate wealth as a stolid
Yankee. Neither my father nor I ever knew what our hereditary envelope
had contained, and as I merged into the greyness of Massachusetts business
life I lost all interest in the mysteries which evidently lurked far back
in my family tree. Had
I suspected their nature, how gladly I would have left
Exham Priory to its moss, bats and cobwebs!
My father died in 1904, but without any message to leave
to me, or to my only child, Alfred, a motherless boy of ten. It was
this boy who reversed the order of family information, for although I could
give him only jesting conjectures about the past, he wrote me of some very
interesting ancestral legends when the late war took him to England in
1917 as an aviation officer.
Apparently the Delapores had a colourful and perhaps
sinister history, for a friend of my son's, Capt. Edward Norrys of
the Royal Flying Corps, dwelt near the family seat at Anchester and related
some peasant superstitions which few novelists could equal for wildness
and incredibility. Norrys himself, of course, did not take them so
seriously; but they amused my son and made
good material for his letters to me. It was this
legendry which definitely turned my attention to my transatlantic heritage,
and made me resolve to purchase and restore the family seat which Norrys
showed to Alfred in its picturesque desertion, and offered to get for him
at a surprisingly reasonable figure, since his own uncle was the present
I bought Exham Priory in 1918, but was almost immediately
distracted from my plans of restoration by the return of my son as a maimed
invalid. During the two years that he lived I thought of nothing
but his care, having even placed my business under the direction of partners.
In 1921, as I found myself bereaved and aimless, a retired
manufacturer no longer young, I resolved to divert my remaining years with
my new possession. Visiting Anchester in December, I was entertained
by Capt. Norrys, a plump, amiable young man who had thought much
of my son, and secured his assistance in gathering plans and anecdotes
to guide in the coming
restoration. Exham Priory itself I saw without
emotion, a jumble of tottering mediaeval ruins covered with lichens and
honeycombed with rooks' nests, perched perilously upon a precipice, and
denuded of floors or other interior features save the stone walls of the
As I gradually recovered the image of the edifice as it
had been when my ancestors left it over three centuries before, I began
to hire workmen for the reconstruction. In every case I was forced
to go outside the immediate locality, for the Anchester villagers had an
almost unbelievable fear and hatred of the place. The sentiment was
so great that it was sometimes communicated to
the outside labourers, causing numerous desertions; whilst
its scope appeared to include both the priory and its ancient family.
My son had told me that he was somewhat avoided during
his visits because he was a de la Poer, and I now found myself subtly ostracized
for a like reason until I convinced the peasants how little I knew of my
heritage. Even then they sullenly disliked me, so that I had to collect
most of the village traditions through the mediation of Norrys. What
the people could not forgive,
perhaps, was that I had come to restore a symbol so abhorrent
to them; for, rationally or not, they viewed Exham Priory as nothing less
than a haunt of fiends and werewolves.
Piecing together the tales which Norrys collected for
me, and supplementing them with the accounts of several savants who had
studied the ruins, I deduced that Exham Priory stood on the site of a prehistoric
temple; a Druidical or ante-Druidical thing which must have been contemporary
with Stonehenge. That indescribable rites had been celebrated there,
few doubted, and there
were unpleasant tales of the transference of these rites
into the Cybele worship which the Romans had introduced.
Inscriptions still visible in the sub-cellar bore such
unmistakable letters as 'DIV... OPS ... MAGNA. MAT...',
sign of the Magna Mater whose dark worship was once vainly forbidden to
Roman citizens. Anchester had been the camp of the third Augustan
legion, as many remains attest, and it was said that the temple of Cybele
was splendid and thronged with worshippers who
performed nameless ceremonies at the bidding of a Phrygian
priest. Tales added that the fall of the old religion did not end
the orgies at the temple, but that the priests lived on in the new faith
without real change. Likewise was it said that the rites did not
vanish with the Roman power, and that certain among the Saxons added to
what remained of the temple, and gave it the
essential outline it subsequently preserved, making it
the centre of a cult feared through half the heptarchy. About 1000
A.D. the place is mentioned in a chronicle as being a substantial
stone priory housing a strange and powerful monastic order and surrounded
by extensive gardens which needed no walls to exclude a frightened populace.
It was never destroyed by the Danes,
though after the Norman Conquest it must have declined
tremendously, since there was no impediment when Henry the Third granted
the site to my ancestor, Gilbert de la Poer, First Baron Exham, in 1261.
Of my family before this date there is no evil report,
but something strange must have happened then. In one chronicle there
is a reference to a de la Poer as "cursed of God in 1307", whilst village
legendry had nothing but evil and frantic fear to tell of the castle that
went up on the foundations of the old temple and priory. The fireside
tales were of the most grisly description, all
the ghastlier because of their frightened reticence and
cloudy evasiveness. They represented my ancestors as a race of hereditary
daemons beside whom Gilles de Retz and the Marquis de Sade would seem the
veriest tyros, and hinted whisperingly at their responsibility for the
occasional disappearances of villagers through several generations.
The worst characters, apparently, were the barons and
their direct heirs; at least, most was whispered about these. If
of healthier inclinations, it was said, an heir would early and mysteriously
die to make way for another more typical scion. There seemed to be
an inner cult in the family, presided over by the head of the house, and
sometimes closed except to a few members.
Temperament rather than ancestry was evidently the basis
of this cult, for it was entered by several who married into the family.
Lady Margaret Trevor from Cornwall, wife of Godfrey, the second son of
the fifth baron, became a favourite bane of children all over the countryside,
and the daemon heroine of a particularly horrible old ballad not yet extinct
near the Welsh border.
Preserved in balladry, too, though not illustrating the
same point, is the hideous tale of Lady Mary de la Poer, who shortly after
her marriage to the Earl of Shrewsfield was killed by him and his mother,
both of the slayers being absolved and blessed by the priest to whom they
confessed what they dared not repeat to the world.
These myths and ballads, typical as they were of crude
superstition, repelled me greatly. Their persistence, and their application
to so long a line of my ancestors, were especially annoying; whilst the
imputations of monstrous habits proved unpleasantly reminiscent of the
one known scandal of my immediate forebears -- the case of my cousin, young
Randolph Delapore of Carfax
who went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest
after he returned from the Mexican War.
I was much less disturbed by the vaguer tales of wails
and howlings in the barren, windswept valley beneath the limestone cliff;
of the graveyard stenches after the spring rains; of the floundering, squealing
white thing on which Sir John Clave's horse had trod one night in a lonely
field; and of the servant who had gone mad at what he saw in the priory
in the full light of day. These
things were hackneyed spectral lore, and I was at that
time a pronounced sceptic. The accounts of vanished peasants were
less to be dismissed, though not especially significant in view of mediaeval
custom. Prying curiosity meant death, and more than one severed head
had been publicly shown on the bastions -- now effaced -- around Exham
A few of the tales were exceedingly picturesque, and made
me wish I had learnt more of the comparative mythology in my youth.
There was, for instance, the belief that a legion of bat-winged devils
kept witches' sabbath each night at the priory -- a legion whose sustenance
might explain the disproportionate abundance of coarse vegetables harvested
in the vast gardens. And, most
vivid of all, there was the dramatic epic of the rats
-- the scampering army of obscene vermin which had burst forth from the
castle three months after the tragedy that doomed it to desertion -- the
lean, filthy, ravenous army which had swept all before it and devoured
fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before
its fury was spent. Around that
unforgettable rodent army a whole separate cycle of myths
revolves, for it scattered among the village homes and brought curses and
horrors in its train.
Such was the lore that assailed me as I pushed to completion,
with an elderly obstinacy, the work of restoring my ancestral home.
It must not be imagined for a moment that these tales formed my principal
psychological environinent. On the other hand, I was constantly praised
and encouraged by Capt. Norrys and the antiquarians who surrounded
and aided me. When the task
was done, over two years after its commencement, I viewed
the great rooms, wainscoted walls, vaulted ceilings, mullioned windows,
and broad staircases with a pride which fully compensated for the prodigious
expense of the restoration.
Every attribute of the Middle Ages was cunningly reproduced
and the new parts blended perfectly with the original walls and foundations.
The seat of my fathers was complete, and I looked forward to redeeming
at last the local fame of the line which ended in me. I could reside
here permanently, and prove that a de la Poer (for I had adopted again
the original spelling of the
name) need not be a fiend. My comfort was perhaps
augmented by the fact that, although Exham Priory was mediaevally fitted,
its interior was in truth wholly new and free from old vermin and old ghosts
As I have said, I moved in on 16 July 1923. My household
consisted of seven servants and nine cats, of which latter species I am
particularly fond. My eldest cat, "Nigger-Man", was seven years old
and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts; the others
I had accumulated whilst living with Capt. Norrys' family during
the restoration of the priory.
For five days our routine proceeded with the utmost placidity,
my time being spent mostly in the codification of old family data.
I had now obtained some very circumstantial accounts of the final tragedy
and flight of Walter de la Poer, which I conceived to be the probable contents
of the hereditary paper lost in the fire at Carfax. It appeared that
my ancestor was accused with
much reason of having killed all the other members of
his household, except four servant confederates, in their sleep, about
two weeks after a shocking discovery which changed his whole demeanour,
but which, except by implication, he disclosed to no one save perhaps the
servants who assisted him and afterwards fled beyond reach.
This deliberate slaughter, which included a father, three
brothers, and two sisters, was largely condoned by the villagers, and so
slackly treated by the law that its perpetrator escaped honoured, unharmed,
and undisguised to Virginia; the general whispered sentiment being that
he had purged the land of an immemorial curse. What discovery had
prompted an act so terrible, I could
scarcely even conjecture. Walter de la Poer must
have known for years the sinister tales about his family, so that this
material could have given him no fresh impulse. Had he, then, witnessed
some appalling ancient rite, or stumbled upon some frightful and revealing
symbol in the priory or its vicinity? He was reputed to have been a shy,
gentle youth in England. In Virginia he
seemed not so much hard or bitter as harassed and apprehensive.
He was spoken of in the diary of another gentleman adventurer, Francis
Harley of Bellview, as a man of unexampled justice, honour, and delicacy.
On 22 July occurred the first incident which, though lightly
dismissed at the time, takes on a preternatural significance in relation
to later events. It was so simple as to be almost negligible, and
could not possibly have been noticed under the circumstances; for it must
be recalled that since I was in a building practically fresh and new except
for the walls, and surrounded by a
well-balanced staff of servitors, apprehension would
have been absurd despite the locality.
What I afterward remembered is merely this -- that my
old black cat, whose moods I know so well, was undoubtedly alert and anxious
to an extent wholly out of keeping with his natural character. He
roved from room to room, restless and disturbed, and sniffed constantly
about the walls which formed part of the Gothic structure. I realize
how trite this sounds -- like the
inevitable dog in the ghost story, which always growls
before his master sees the sheeted figure -- yet I cannot consistently
The following day a servant complained of restlessness
among all the cats in the house. He came to me in my study, a lofty
west room on the second storey, with groined arches, black oak panelling,
and a triple Gothic window overlooking the limestone cliff and desolate
valley; and even as he spoke I saw the jetty form of Nigger-Man creeping
along the west wall and scratching at
the new panels which overlaid the ancient stone.
I told the man that there must be a singular odour or
emanation from the old stonework, imperceptible to human senses, but affecting
the delicate organs of cats even through the new woodwork. This I
truly believed, and when the fellow suggested the presence of mice or rats,
I mentioned that there had been no rats there for three hundred years,
and that even the field mice of the
surrounding country could hardly be found in these high
walls, where they had never been known to stray. That afternoon I
called on Capt. Norrys, and he assured me that it would be quite
incredible for field mice to infest the priory in such a sudden and unprecedented
That night, dispensing as usual with a valet, I retired
in the west tower chamber which I had chosen as my own, reached from the
study by a stone staircase and short gallery -- the former partly ancient,
the latter entirely restored. This room was circular, very high,
and without wainscoting, being hung with arras which I had myself chosen
Seeing that Nigger-Man was with me, I shut the heavy Gothic
door and retired by the light of the electric bulbs which so cleverly counterfeited
candles, finally switching off the light and sinking on the carved and
canopied four-poster, with the venerable cat in his accustomed place across
my feet. I did not draw the curtains, but gazed out at the narrow
window which I faced.
There was a suspicion of aurora in the sky, and the delicate
traceries of the window were pleasantly silhouetted.
At some time I must have fallen quietly asleep, for I
recall a distinct sense of leaving strange dreams, when the cat started
violently from his placid position. I saw him in the faint auroral
glow, head strained forward, fore feet on my ankles, and hind feet stretched
behind. He was looking intensely at a point on the wall somewhat
west of the window, a point which to my eye had
nothing to mark it, but toward which all my attention
was now directed.
And as I watched, I knew that Nigger-Man was not vainly
excited. Whether the arras actually moved I cannot say. I think
it did, very slightly. But what I can swear to is that behind it
I heard a low, distinct scurrying as of rats or mice. In a moment
the cat had jumped bodily on the screening tapestry, bringing the affected
section to the floor with his weight, and exposing a damp,
ancient wall of stone; patched here and there by the
restorers, and devoid of any trace of rodent prowlers.
Nigger-Man raced up and down the floor by this part of
the wall, clawing the fallen arras and seemingly trying at times to insert
a paw between the wall and the oaken floor. He found nothing, and
after a time returned wearily to his place across my feet. I had
not moved, but I did not sleep again that night.
In the morning I questioned all the servants, and found
that none of them had noticed anything unusual, save that the cook remembered
the actions of a cat which had rested on her windowsill. This cat
had howled at some unknown hour of the night, awaking the cook in time
for her to see him dart purposefully out of the open door down the stairs.
I drowsed away the noontime,
and in the afternoon called again on Capt. Norrys,
who became exceedingly interested in what I told him. The odd incidents
-- so slight yet so curious -- appealed to his sense of the picturesque
and elicited from him a number of reminiscenses of local ghostly lore.
We were genuinely perplexed at the presence of rats, and Norrys lent me
some traps and Paris green, which I had the
servants place in strategic localities when I returned.
I retired early, being very sleepy, but was harassed by
dreams of the most horrible sort. I seemed to be looking down from
an immense height upon a twilit grotto, knee-deep with filth, where a white-bearded
daemon swineherd drove about with his staff a flock of fungous, flabby
beasts whose appearance filled me with unutterable loathing. Then,
as the swineherd paused and
nodded over his task, a mighty swarm of rats rained down
on the stinking abyss and fell to devouring beasts and man alike.
From this terrific vision I was abruptly awakened by the
motions of Nigger-Man, who had been sleeping as usual across my feet.
This time I did not have to question the source of his snarls and hisses,
and of the fear which made him sink his claws into my ankle, unconscious
of their effect; for on every side of the chamber the walls were alive
with nauseous sound -- the veminous
slithering of ravenous, gigantic rats. There was
now no aurora to show the state of the arras -- the fallen section of which
had been replaced - but I was not too frightened to switch on the light.
As the bulbs leapt into radiance I saw a hideous shaking
all over the tapestry, causing the somewhat peculiar designs to execute
a singular dance of death. This motion disappeared almost at once,
and the sound with it. Springing out of bed, I poked at the arras
with the long handle of a warming-pan that rested near, and lifted one
section to see what lay beneath. There was
nothing but the patched stone wall, and even the cat
had lost his tense realization of abnormal presences. When I examined
the circular trap that had been placed in the room, I found all of the
openings sprung, though no trace remained of what had been caught and had
Further sleep was out of the question, so lighting a candle,
I opened the door and went out in the gallery towards the stairs to my
study, Nigger-Man following at my heels. Before we had reached the
stone steps, however, the cat darted ahead of me and vanished down the
ancient flight. As I descended the stairs myself, I became suddenly
aware of sounds in the great room below;
sounds of a nature which could not be mistaken.
The oak-panelled walls were alive with rats, scampering
and milling whilst Nigger-Man was racing about with the fury of a baffled
hunter. Reaching the bottom, I switched on the light, which did not
this time cause the noise to subside. The rats continued their riot,
stampeding with such force and distinctness that I could finally assign
to their motions a definite direction. These
creatures, in numbers apparently inexhaustible, were
engaged in one stupendous migration from inconceivable heights to some
depth conceivably or inconceivably below.
I now heard steps in the corridor, and in another moment
two servants pushed open the massive door. They were searching the
house for some unknown source of disturbance which had thrown all the cats
into a snarling panic and caused them to plunge precipitately down several
flights of stairs and squat, yowling, before the closed door to the sub-cellar.
I asked them if they had
heard the rats, but they replied in the negative.
And when I turned to call their attention to the sounds in the panels,
I realized that the noise had ceased.
With the two men, I went down to the door of the sub-cellar,
but found the cats already dispersed. Later I resolved to explore
the crypt below, but for the present I merely made a round of the traps.
All were sprung, yet all were tenantless. Satisfying myself that
no one had heard the rats save the felines and me, I sat in my study till
morning, thinking profoundly and recalling every
scrap of legend I had unearthed concerning the building
I inhabited. I slept some in the forenoon, leaning back in the one
comfortable library chair which my mediaeval plan of furnishing could not
banish. Later I telephoned to Capt. Norrys, who came over and
helped me explore the sub-cellar.
Absolutely nothing untoward was found, although we could
not repress a thrill at the knowledge that this vault was built by Roman
hands. Every low arch and massive pillar was Roman -- not the debased
Romanesque of the bungling Saxons, but the severe and harmonious classicism
of the age of the Caesars; indeed, the walls abounded with inscriptions
familiar to the antiquarians
who had repeatedly explored the place -- things like
"P. GETAE. PROP... TEMP... DONA..." and "L.
PRAEG... VS... PONTIFI... ATYS..."
The reference to Atys made me shiver, for I had read Catullus
and knew something of the hideous rites of the Eastern god, whose worship
was so mixed with that of Cybele. Norrys and I, by the light of lanterns,
tried to interpret the odd and nearly effaced designs on certain irregularly
rectangular blocks of stone generally held to be altars, but could make
nothing of them. We
remembered that one pattern, a sort of rayed sun, was
held by students to imply a non-Roman origin suggesting that these altars
had merely been adopted by the Roman priests from some older and perhaps
aboriginal temple on the same site. On one of these blocks were some
brown stains which made me wonder. The largest, in the centre of
the room, had certain features on the
upper surface which indicated its connection with fire
-- probably burnt offerings.
Such were the sights in that crypt before whose door the
cats howled, and where Norrys and I now determined to pass the night.
Couches were brought down by the servants, who were told not to mind any
nocturnal actions of the cats, and Nigger-Man was admitted as much for
help as for companionship. We decided to keep the great oak door
-- a modern replica with slits for
ventilation -- tightly closed; and, with this attended
to, we retired with lanterns still burning to await whatever might occur.
The vault was very deep in the foundations of the priory,
and undoubtedly far down on the face of the beetling limestone cliff overlooking
the waste valley. That it had been the goal of the scuffling and
unexplainable rats I could not doubt, though why, I could not tell.
As we lay there expectantly, I found my vigil occasionally mixed with half-formed
dreams from which the uneasy
motions of the cat across my feet would rouse me.
These dreams were not wholesome, but horribly like the
one I had had the night before. I saw again the twilit grotto, and
the swineherd with his unmentionable fungous beasts wallowing in filth,
and as I looked at these things they seemed nearer and more distinct --
so distinct that I could almost observe their features. Then I did
observe the flabby features of one of them -- and
awakened with such a scream that Nigger-Man started up,
whilst Capt. Norrys, who had not slept, laughed considerably.
Norrys might have laughed more -- or perhaps less -- had he known what
it was that made me scream. But I did not remember myself till later.
Ultimate horror often paralyses memory in a merciful way.
Norrys waked me when the phenomena began. Out of
the same frightful dream I was called by his gentle shaking and his urging
to listen to the cats. Indeed, there was much to listen to, for beyond
the closed door at the head of the stone steps was a veritable nightmare
of feline yelling and clawing, whilst Nigger-Man, unmindful of his kindred
outside, was running excitedly round
the bare stone walls, in which I heard the same babel
of scurrying rats that had troubled me the night before.
An acute terror now rose within me, for here were anomalies
which nothing normal could well explain. These rats, if not the creatures
of a madness which I shared with the cats alone, must be burrowing and
sliding in Roman walls I had thought to be solid limestone blocks ...
unless perhaps the action of water through more than seventeen centuries
had eaten winding tunnels
which rodent bodies had worn clear and ample ...
But even so, the spectral horror was no less; for if these were living
vermin why did not Norrys hear their disgusting commotion? Why did he urge
me to watch Nigger-Man and listen to the cats outside, and why did he guess
wildly and vaguely at what could have aroused them?
By the time I had managed to tell him, as rationally as
I could, what I thought I was hearing, my ears gave me the last fading
impression of scurrying; which had retreated still downward, far underneath
this deepest of sub-cellars till it seemed as if the whole cliff below
were riddled with questing rats. Norrys was not as sceptical as I
had anticipated, but instead seemed profoundly
moved. He motioned to me to notice that the cats
at the door had ceased their clamour, as if giving up the rats for lost;
whilst Nigger-Man had a burst of renewed restlessness, and was clawing
frantically around the bottom of the large stone altar in the centre of
the room, which was nearer Norrys' couch than mine.
My fear of the unknown was at this point very great.
Something astounding had occurred, and I saw that Capt. Norrys, a
younger, stouter, and presumably more naturally materialistic man, was
affected fully as much as myself -- perhaps because of his lifelong and
intimate familiarity with local legend. We could for the moment do
nothing but watch the old black cat as he pawed
with decreasing fervour at the base of the altar, occasionally
looking up and mewing to me in that persuasive manner which he used when
he wished me to perform some favour for him.
Norrys now took a lantern close to the altar and examined
the place where Nigger-Man was pawing; silently kneeling and scraping away
the lichens of the centuries which joined the massive pre-Roman block to
the tessellated floor. He did not find anything, and was about to
abandon his efforts when I noticed a trivial circumstance which made me
shudder, even though it implied
nothing more than I had already imagined.
I told him of it, and we both looked at its almost imperceptible
manifestation with the fixedness of fascinated discovery and acknowledgment.
It was only this -- that the flame of the lantern set down near the altar
was slightly but certainly flickering from a draught of air which it had
not before received, and which came indubitably from the crevice between
floor and altar where
Norrys was scraping away the lichens.
We spent the rest of the night in the brilliantly-lighted
study, nervously discussing what we should do next. The discovery
that some vault deeper than the deepest known masonry of the Romans underlay
this accursed pile, some vault unsuspected by the curious antiquarians
of three centuries, would have been sufficient to excite us without any
background of the sinister. As it
was, the fascination became two-fold; and we paused in
doubt whether to abandon our search and quit the priory forever in superstitious
caution, or to gratify our sense of adventure and brave whatever horrors
might await us in the unknown depths.
By morning we had compromised, and decided to go to London
to gather a group of archaeologists and scientific men fit to cope with
the mystery. It should be mentioned that before leaving the sub-cellar
we had vainly tried to move the central altar which we now recognized as
the gate to a new pit of nameless fear. What secret would open the
gate, wiser men than we would
have to find.
During many days in London Capt. Norrys and I presented
our facts, conjectures, and legendary anecdotes to five eminent authorities,
all men who could be trusted to respect any family disclosures which future
explorations might develop. We found most of them little disposed
to scoff but, instead, intensely interested and sincerely sympathetic.
It is hardly necessary to name
them all, but I may say that they included Sir William
Brinton, whose excavations in the Troad excited most of the world in their
day. As we all took the train for Anchester I felt myself poised
on the brink of frightful revelations, a sensation symbolized by the air
of mourning among the many Americans at the unexpected death of the President
on the other side of the world.
On the evening of 7 August we reached Exham Priory, where
the servants assured me that nothing unusual had occurred. The cats,
even old Nigger-Man, had been perfectly placid, and not a trap in the house
had been sprung. We were to begin exploring on the following dlay,
awaiting which I assigned well-appointed rooms to all my guests.
I myself retired in my own tower chamber, with Nigger-Man
across my feet. Sleep came quickly, but hideous dreams assailed me.
There was a vision of a Roman feast like that of Trimalchio, with a horror
in a covered platter. Then came that damnable, recurrent thing about
the swineherd and his filthy drove in the twilit grotto. Yet when
I awoke it was full daylight, with normal
sounds in the house below. The rats, living or
spectral, had not troubled me; and Nigger-Man was still quietly asleep.
On going down, I found that the same tranquillity had prevailed elsewhere;
a condition which one of the assembled servants -- a fellow named Thornton,
devoted to the psychic -- rather absurdly laid to the fact that I had now
been shown the thing which certain
forces had wished to show me.
All was now ready, and at 11 A.M. our entire group
of seven men, bearing powerful electric searchlights and implements of
excavation, went down to the sub-cellar and bolted the door behind us.
Nigger-Man was with us, for the investigators found no occasion to depise
his excitability, and were indeed anxious that he be present in case of
obscure rodent manifestations. We
noted the Roman inscriptions and unknown altar designs
only briefly, for three of the savants had already seen them, and all knew
their characteristics. Prime attention was paid to the momentous
central altar, and within an hour Sir William Brinton had caused it to
tilt backward, balanced by some unknown species of counterweight.
There now lay revealed such a horror as would have overwhelmed
us had we not been prepared. Through a nearly square opening in the
tiled floor, sprawling on a flight of stone steps so prodigiously worn
that it was little more than an inclined plane at the centre, was a ghastly
array of human or semi-human bones. Those which retained their collocation
as skeletons showed
attitudes of panic fear, and over all were the marks
of rodent gnawing. The skulls denoted nothing short of utter idiocy,
cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom.
Above the hellishly littered steps arched a descending
passage seemingly chiselled from the solid rock, and conducting a current
of air. This current was not a sudden and noxious rush as from a
closed vault, but a cool breeze with something of freshness in it.
We did not pause long, but shiveringly began to clear a passage down the
steps. It was then that Sir William, examining
the hewn walls, made the odd observation that the passage,
according to the direction of the strokes, must have been chiselled from
I must be very deliberate now, and choose my words.
After ploughing down a few steps amidst the gnawled bones we saw that there
was light ahead; not any mystic phosphorescence, but a filtered daylight
which could not come except from unknown fissures in the cliff that over-looked
the waste valley. That such fissures had escaped notice from outside
was hardly remarkable,
for not only is the valley wholly uninhabited, but the
cliff is so high and beetling that only an aeronaut could study its face
in detail. A few steps more, and our breaths were literally snatched
from us by what we saw; so literally that Thornton, the psychic investigator,
actually fainted in the arms of the dazed mem who stood behind him.
Norrys, his plump face utterly white and
flabby, simply cried out inarticulately; whilst I think
that what I did was to gasp or hiss, and cover my eyes.
The man behind me -- the only one of the party older than
I -- croaked the hackneyed "My God!" in the most cracked voice I ever heard.
Of seven cultivated men, only Sir William Brinton retained his composure,
a thing the more to his credit because he led the party and must have seen
the sight first.
It was a twilit grotto of enormous height, stretching
away farther than any eye could see; a subterraneous world of limitless
mystery and horrible suggestion. There were buildings and other architectural
remains -- in one terrified glance I saw a weird pattern of tumuli, a savage
circle of monoliths, a low-domed Roman ruin, a sprawling Saxon pile, and
an early English edifice of
wood -- but all these were dwarfed by the ghoulish spectacle
presented by the general surface of the ground. For yards about the
steps extended an insane tangle of human bones, or bones at least as human
as those on the steps. Like a foamy sea they stretched, some fallen
apart, but others wholly or partly articulated as skeletons; these latter
invariably in postures of daemoniac
frenzy, either fighting off some menace or clutching
other forms with cannibal intent.
When Dr Trask, the anthropologist, stopped to classify
the skulls, he found a degraded mixture which utterly baffled him.
They were mostly lower than the Piltdown man in the scale of evolution,
but in every case definitely human. Many were of higher grade, and
a very few were the skulls of supremely and sensitively developed types.
All the bones were gnawed, mostly by rats,
but somewhat by others of the half-human drove.
Mixed with them were many tiny hones of rats -- fallen members of the lethal
army which closed the ancient epic.
I wonder that any man among us lived and kept his sanity
through that hideous day of discovery. Not Hoffman nor Huysmans could
conceive a scene more wildly incredible, more frenetically repellent, or
more Gothically grotesque than the twilit grotto through which we seven
staggered; each stumbling on revelation after revelation, and trying to
keep for the nonce from thinking
of the events which must have taken place there three
hundred, or a thousand, or two thousand or ten thousand years ago.
It was the antechamber of hell, and poor Thornton fainted again when Trask
told him that some of the skeleton things must have descended as quadrupeds
through the last twenty or more generations.
Horror piled on horror as we began to interpret the architectural
remains. The quadruped things -- with their occasional recruits from
the biped class -- had been kept in stone pens, out of which they must
have broken in their last delirium of hunger or rat-fear. There had
been great herds of them, evidently fattened on the coarse vegetables whose
remains could be found as a sort
of poisonous ensilage at the bottom of the huge stone
bins older than Rome. I knew now why my ancestors had had such excessive
gardens -- would to heaven I could forget! The purpose of the herds I did
not have to ask.
Sir William, standing with his searchlight in the Roman
ruin, translated aloud the most shocking ritual I have ever known; and
told of the diet of the antediluvian cult which the priests of Cybele found
and mingled with their own. Norrys, used as he was to the trenches,
could not walk straight when he came out of the English building.
It was a butcher shop and kitchen -- he had
expected that -- but it was too much to see familiar
English implements in such a place, and to read familiar English graffiti
there, some as recent as 1610. I could not go in that building --
that building whose daemon activities were stopped only by the dagger of
my ancestor Walter de la Poer.
What I did venture to enter was the low Saxon building
whose oaken door had fallen, and there I found a terrible row of ten stone
cells with rusty bars. Three had tenants, all skeletons of high grade,
and on the bony forefinger of one I found a seal ring with my own coat-of-arms.
Sir William found a vault with far older cells below the Roman chapel,
but these cells were empty.
Below them was a low crypt with cases of formally arranged
bones, some of them bearing terrible parallel inscriptions carved in Latin,
Greek, and the tongue of Phyrgia.
Meanwhile, Dr Trask had opened one of the prehistoric
tumuli, and brought to light skulls which were slightly more human than
a gorilla's, and which bore indescribably ideographic carvings. Through
all this horror my cat stalked unperturbed. Once I saw him monstrously
perched atop a mountain of bones, and wondered at the secrets that might
lie behind his yellow eyes.
Having grasped to some slight degree the frightful revelations
of this twilit area -- an area so hideously foreshadowed by my recurrent
dream -- we turned to that apparently boundless depth of midnight cavern
where no ray of light from the cliff could penetrate. We shall never
know what sightless Stygian worlds yawn beyond the little distance we went,
for it was decided that such
secrets are not good for mankind. But there was
plenty to engross us close at hand, for we had not gone far before the
searchlights showed that accursed infinity of pits in which the rats had
feasted, and whose sudden lack of replenishment had driven the ravenous
rodent army first to turn on the living herds of starving things, and then
to burst forth from the priory in that historic
orgy of devastation which the peasants will never forget.
God! those carrion black pits of sawed, picked bones and
opened skulls! Those nightmare chasms choked with the pithecanthropoid,
Celtic, Roman, and English bones of countless unhallowed centuries! Some
of them were full, and none can say how deep they had once been.
Others were still bottomless to our searchlights, and peopled by unnamable
fancies. What, I thought, of
the hapless rats that stumbled into such traps amidst
the blackness of their quests in this grisly Tartarus?
Once my foot slipped near a horribly yawning brink, and
I had a moment of ecstatic fear. I must have been musing a long time,
for I could not see any of the party but plump Capt. Norrys.
Then there came a sound from that inky, boundless, farther distance that
I thought I knew; and I saw my old black cat dart past me like a winged
Egyptian god, straight into the illimitable gulf
of the unknown. But I was not far behind, for there
was no doubt after another second. It was the eldritch scurrying
of those fiend-born rats, always questing for new horrors, and determined
to lead me on even unto those grinning caverns of earth's centre where
Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly in the darkness to the
piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players.
My searchlight expired, but still I ran. I heard
voices, and yowls, and echoes, but above all there gently rose that impious,
insidious scurrying; gently rising, rising, as a stiff bloated corpse gently
rises above an oily river that flows under the endless onyx bridges to
a black, putrid sea.
Something bumped into me -- something soft and plump.
It must have been the rats; the viscous, gelatinous, ravenous army that
feast on the dead and the living ... Why shouldn't rats eat a de
la Poer as a de la Poer eats forbidden things? ... The war ate my
boy, damn them all ... and the Yanks ate Carfax with flames and burnt
Grandsire Delapore and the secret ... No, no, I tell
you, I am not that daemon swineherd in the twilit grotto!
It was not Edward Norrys' fat face on that flabby fungous thing! Who says
I am a de la Poer? He lived, but my boy died! ... Shall a Norrys
hold the land of a de la Poer? ... It's voodoo, I tell you ...
that spotted snake ... Curse you, Thornton, I'll teach you to faint
at what my family do! ... 'Sblood, thou stinkard, I'll learn ye
how to gust ... wolde ye swynke me thilke wys?...
Magna Mater! Magna Mater!... Atys... Dia ad aghaidh's ad aodaun...
agus bas dunarch ort! Dhonas 's dholas ort, agus leat-sa!... Ungl
unl... rrlh ... chchch...
This is what they say I said when they found me in the
blackness after three hours; found me crouching in the blackness over the
plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and
tearing at my throat. Now they have blown up Exham Priory, taken
my Nigger-Man away from me, and shut me into this barred room at Hanwell
with fearful whispers about my
heredity and experience. Thornton is in the next
room, but they prevent me from talking to him. They are trying, too,
to suppress most of the facts concerning the priory. When I speak
of poor Norrys they accuse me of this hideous thing, but they must know
that I did not do it. They must know it was the rats; the slithering
scurrying rats whose scampering will never let me sleep;
the daemon rats that race behind the padding in this
room and beckon me down to greater horrors than I have ever known; the
rats they can never hear; the rats, the rats in the walls.