The Third Grave
It was a glorious morning in the town of Kirkbride. The tintinnabulation of the church bells summoned the faithful to prayer, of which I was one. Or at least I paid dutiful lip service, making the journey on the Sabbath to St. Cuthbert’s Church. I would sit at the back. My walking tweeds and leather satchel would draw stern glances from the evangelical black-suited members of the congregation who filled the front rows. Perhaps my contravention of the dress code symbolized the tepid nature of my faith.
After the service I would walk out through the back gate onto Furnscombe Moor, following the path across the heather clad moorland until it reached plateau at the base of Mount Cairndow. There at the ancient stone circle I would meet Caruthers and Dalgleish, fellow clerks at McPhee and Grimshaw solicitors. They would take a path there from the area where we lodged as neither of them attended church.
Dalgleish’s excuse for non-attendance was recovery from Saturday night’s revels. A sociable fellow he would spend the day hunting for grouse or foxes according to the season, then pass the evening supping ale in the Kings Arms. Consequently, he would rise at ten thirty on a Sunday when I was already listening to Reverend Patrick’s sermon. Dalgleish was a good sport and I could rib him about being a ‘heathen’. He cared not a jot for matters spiritual and was rooted as firmly in the terrestrial world as the old oak tree on Kirkbride Common.
Curuthers was a different kettle of fish. Baiting him would provoke a combative response, albeit in good humour. “Heathen, eh?” he would say and proceed to inform me that we were living in 1867. The God of Genesis created the Christian world eight thousand years ago, he would continue, but Mr. Darwin officially ended it in 1859 with his ‘Origin of Species’. Caruthers knew my commitment to the Holy Writ was a surface one so he would not push matters, having a gentlemanly respect for my conformity to the social norms. Moreover, he himself would not publicly espouse atheism, though he was indubitably a non-believer
That Sunday morning I was strolling across the moor to the plateau for my rendezvous with my colleagues at the stone circle, which the locals referred to as the Druid Stones. No one knew their age or whether they had been used by Druids, but they were beyond doubt prehistoric. Twenty of them protruded about two feet above the ground, forming a circle approximately forty yards in diameter.
A cliff rose sheer into the mountainside behind, curving outwards at the top so that the ledge some hundred feet above actually veered over its centre. Looking in the opposite direction the town of Kirkbride lay snug in the valley below. Above the cliff and its ledge loomed Mount Cairndow. Legend had it that this was a place of human sacrifice with victims ritually slaughtered in the centre of the circle, or cast down into it from the top of the cliff.
The Druid Stones were generally avoided by the locals because of their ungodly reputation. The path I took from the church passed some thirty yards from the perimeter where it was joined by the path my friends took from the town. One had to tramp through rather thicker heather to get to the circle. Mysteriously, the other moorland flora had never encroached within the circle itself which was covered in grass.
At this ancient landmark we would eat the sandwiches prepared by our landladies, before embarking on our walk. Mine were the contents of the leather satchel I have mentioned. Caruthers and Dalgleish would choose stones to sit on. For some reason I baulked from sitting on these ancient relics, so I would sit on the grass. Our repast over, we would set off, rejoining the path along the side of the mountain. The path rose a few hundred feet as it skirted the mountainside, making the drop down to the River Sprey below quite precipitous. After a half a mile or so it descended into the valley to the village of Morton next to the river. We would go to the inn there for a pint of cider before returning along the valley road to Kirkbride.
The night before I had slept only fitfully and I had nodded off during Reverend Patrick’s sermon. I hoped the fresh moorland air would revive me. There was an azure sky, though a line of cumulus clouds on the horizon presaged a change of weather later in the day.
As I traversed Furnscombe Moor my lack of sleep caught up with me and I experienced a drowsiness and a wish to go back home to bed. Notwithstanding, I plodded on. I would usually arrive at the stone circle a few minutes earlier than Caruthers and Dalgleish, so perhaps I could lie down there for a short nap.
I must have closed my eyes momentarily for I tripped on a worn stone. After this jolt I suddenly became aware that the sunlight had turned into a kind of twilight. I glanced upwards thinking perhaps the clouds on the horizon had somehow covered the distance to Kirkbride. However, I saw that the entire sky had become a lurid brown. The sun directly overhead was a giant red orb that yet brought no heat and I shivered beneath my tweed jacket.
My confusion was compounded when I observed my surroundings. The moor was covered by gorse-like plants with spiky stems. The path itself was wider and rutted with footprints of man and beast, as if it was an ancient thoroughfare. I instinctively thought I must get back to the church and away from this unholy environment. Yet behind me a mist concealed the path and was rolling towards me. Soon it enveloped me and the moor beside me, leaving only the path ahead visible. I had no choice but to move forward towards the Druid Stones.
I trudged on and to my bewilderment noticed the trunks of huge trees bordering the path of a type not known to me. They reminded me of the drawings of prehistoric trees in the books of the paleontologists.
My consternation became terror when I noticed enormous footprints on the path. They appeared to be of some kind of beast. I imagined the dinosaurs that were the talk of the age, but this was anno Domini 1867. Furthermore, what kind of dinosaur would frequent a path? Assuredly not brutes with names like Brontosaurus and the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The path widened further and the trees at the side were replaced by huge fluted stone columns. Behind me I heard a roaring and the thud of heavy steps that shook the ground. I started to run. Ahead I saw the plateau that held the Druid Stones. I prayed the ancient circle of stones might afford some sort of sanctuary, a protection from whatever came behind me.
I rushed onto the plateau and scrambled through the gorse-like flora onto the grass. The stones themselves had become monolithic plinths. On each stood a monstrous stone figure that must have been eight feet tall. A ring of low-lying mist swathed the figures and plinths. The heads of the figures were similar to those of the demons in Goya’s macabre paintings. However, their bodies were reptilian and they had leering saurian eyes. I thanked God they were mere statues.
It was then that I began to hear sounds that harrowed my soul. The mist in front of the plinths cleared to reveal large rectangular stone structures that reminded me of raised graves. From each grave, as I will call them, I could hear a cacophony of howls and screams. The creatures above were not human but the sounds below were indubitably the cries of mortal agony and torture in extremis.
I knew I must leave this dread place immediately. Let whatever lurked behind hunt and devour me. I would take my chances to escape from this Hell on earth.
When I turned I noticed that three plinths to my side had no statues on them. The top slabs had been opened and stood upright so that they looked like horizontal doors that were ajar. From the holes the screams and howls were even louder than those of the enclosed graves. I had the impression there were thousands of tortured souls in each one and that they would surely be of great depth if one looked down into them.
I had no such intention and began to run. I was stopped in my tracks by monstrous roars that I knew came from living creatures. The mist now swirled around me. Then I felt something grasping my shoulders and I lost consciousness.
The next thing I heard was the voice of Dalgleish. He was shaking my shoulders, imploring me to wake up. I opened my eyes and there were my two colleagues. I was lying in the centre of the circle of stones, which had now reverted to their familiar disposition. Caruthers told me they had rushed to the circle when they heard my screams. I tried to gather my wits, but my mind felt heavy and sluggish. I couldn’t possibly tell them what I had experienced. The rational Caruthers and the worldly Dalgleish would not have believed my tale anyway. Therefore, I explained that I had been feeling indisposed and had lain down for a nap, and had had a nightmare.
I assured them I was quite alright and simply needed to go back and rest, and that they should carry on without me.
Back at my lodgings, I slumped on my bed and slept until Monday morning. I made my way to the offices of McPhee and Grimshaw. Neither Dalgleish nor Caruthers appeared, and old Mr. McPhee asked if I had seen them on the weekend. I told him we had been walking and that I had been unwell and left them to proceed without me. He asked me whether I thought they had been caught in the freak storm. Having slept all the day I had been unaware of the storm and could not say.
Dalgleish and Caruthers were never seen again. The police investigation surmised they must have been taken by surprise by the storm and had probably fallen off the path into the swollen River Sprey. Everyone regarded my indisposition as a stroke of luck, even as an act of Providence.
I left Kirkbride as soon as I could, and transferred to a law firm in Edinburgh. There I joined the Calvinist Church. This severe institution’s ideas of predestination had a resonance with me, the cause of which I dared not explain to anyone. That some are saved and some are damned from birth no longer appeared an irrational doctrine.
Nowadays I attend church clad in black. I am regarded as a man of true faith and am respected for the grim fervor of my religious practice.
Throughout my life I have been plagued by a nightmare related to the event I have recounted. The dream is short and stark. I am back in the stone circle at the very moment my eyes originally alighted on the three open graves. However, now there is only one open grave. The other two are like the others and stone creatures lie atop the plinths. The remaining open grave has no creature above it. I hear a frightful bestial roar, then wake up drenched in sweat.
I have arranged my burial plot in the churchyard of my adopted church. I pray that my interment in hallowed ground will protect me.
Whether there is a Heaven or not I confess I do not know. If not, I will be content with mere oblivion and that my bones turn into dust in the quiet earth.
For I know where Hell is, may God have mercy on my soul.