Whenever I play the organ at a remembrance service, I think of a story told to me by a vicar. I believed his story. There was no reason to disbelieve him. Each service, from my position in the organ well, I leant with passion towards Rector Beaumont’s every word. The pulpit shone as light beamed from him. The congregation were enrapt. They loved the new vicar, he was filled with enthusiasm, until this particular remembrance service. He seemed to come undone. The emotion of it all was clearly carved upon his face. The sound of the bugle’s Last Post sent shivers down my spine, and the lone piper slowly fading as he walked into the darkness, brought me to tears, as an unexplainable sadness filled me.
‘How haunting that service was Rector Beaumont,’ I said in the vestry after everyone had left. ‘Indeed,’ he replied, removing his cassock. ‘You have your flock in the palm of your hands. They trust you.’ He took on such a reflective gaze, that I was concerned for him all of a sudden. I asked him if he was alright, but my words seemed not to register with him. After a moment he thumped himself down in a chair, laid his head in his hands, and he moaned. ‘He couldn’t be saved,’ I thought I heard him say. ‘Who,’ I asked. It seemed like hours passed before he spoke, the silence, a void, pulling us in. I was perched on the arm of the chair opposite him, his ashen face chilling me, his eyes glazed, a faraway look held within them. When he spoke, his voice was faint.
‘It was a number of years ago,’ he began. ‘I was asked to take the congregation of a church in a nearby village, but I had other almighty ideas. I had a city parsonage to consider. I suggested my colleague, a man who’d followed in my footsteps, who’d shadowed me for some time before looking for a placement of his own, be recruited as vicar there. I knew Mr Forbes as a real country gent and felt he would fit in wonderfully with the locals.
He visited me in the city a short time later, and he looked happy with life in the country. The locals were personable and friendly. The ones that had been there for years told him a bit about the town, and it interested him greatly, being a history man. He told me of a battle in 1303 which took place around the town. Many were killed, mainly the English. The Scot’s were hugely outnumbered but they won. Probably down to knowing the lay of the land. The land there was precipitous. A forest disguising the dark and dangerous ground. The pathways are flat to begin with, gradually dipping towards the river, and then out of nowhere a ravine so dark, and deep, lined with black sneering rock, and boulders bundled under the sparkling flow of the river. It’s the most awesome place I’ve ever seen, Mr Forbes told me that day. Many of the English, on chasing the dark knights, were led to this ravine, falling to their death. Prisoners were taken for their value, to be used for bartering, but those surrendering, and having no value were bludgeoned towards the steep gulley, where they fell to certain death. The Scot’s went to pray afterwards, knowing that they had gone against the chivalric code. Yes, Mr Forbes spoke so excitedly about the place that I felt appeased at my refusing the offer.
A few months later, he came again to my vicarage and his hair was tinged with grey, his eyes were lined and he wore an expression I couldn’t quite pin down. He told me he’d taken walks in his spare time. He was propelled into the rugged and dim land. It was so dreary, no sun ever reached the bottom of the gulley, springs broke free from the sheer rock face only crows dare inhabit. He feared he was becoming obsessed by the land, that some unearthly being had infiltrated his mind. I tried to calm him, aware that a man of his standing could not be seen to be so disturbed. He laughed at my account of a member of the congregation wanting to be baptised but being afraid of the holy water, then he left with a promise to return again soon.
His return in the summer was markedly strange. His words were disjointed, he seemed distracted, his shoulders stooped. He spoke of superstitions, of the darkness of the land, of caverns and ghostly hounds and horsemen. Parishioners were dying, as were visitors to the village. Desperately awful deaths, young and old, victims of the vicious land. After a glass of port and a prayer, he left.
He didn’t return until the fall of that year, when the trees were displaying their fiery colours, when images of witches and warlocks hung from windows, when the sun shone faint, and low. He was thin, the bones across his neck sharp and protruding, his hair was almost white and his eyes were dim and lifeless. He spoke little. I tried to cheer him with antidotes from my parishioners, how one man would nod off, how the women sang loud, each trying to outdo the other, and how the organist, (he did apologise to me later, saying he exaggerated simply to jolly up his dear friend) would pretend there was no wrong note, by playing another, and another, in an odd major, minor plonk. But he wasn’t to be cheered. He said only that he had work to do and couldn’t linger long.
Some time passed and I hadn’t received a visit from my vicar friend, so I decided to visit him. On reaching the vicarage I was told Rector Forbes was down by the chapel. I left the house immediately and made my way downhill to the ancient chapel. There I found him, sitting on a wall outside. I didn’t recognise him at first, his hair was snow-white. He was gazing at the ground. ‘What ails you, my friend,’ I asked. He looked up, lifting his head as if it was a boulder resisting being taken from its base. His eyes were glazed, red, as if he’d been crying. I moved closer and laid my hand on his shoulder, to offer my support. What has happened to you, my friend. He licked cracked lips, and asked if ghosts were real.
I was puzzled by his question, as well as concerned. I saw in his eyes a disturbed man. ‘I only know of the Holy Ghost,’ I said. But he shook off my words and began ranting about men working in the crypt, and how three sets of three men, each after a night working down there, refused to work another. Someone was watching them, they said. They spoke of shuffling, chanting, bells tinkling. Something wasn’t right. Each set of three downed tools, and turned their backs away from the chapel. Forbes looked up at me hopelessly and told me that on the fourth night, having no more workers, he stepped into the crypt to finish the job.
It was cold and it was damp. He began to tap at the worn step, the hairs on his neck rising. He heard shuffling and he shouted out. In the name of the lord who are you. It was at that moment a monk appeared at the far end of the crypt, his hands tying and untying the cord around his robe, his hood hiding his face. Who are you, what do you want? Forbes asked, but the monk remained silent. He only stood, teasing the cord around his middle, and then he began chanting. Tell me who you are, my friend insisted, by now feeling very unnerved. But a reply did not come. The silence screamed at Forbes and he stepped forward only in time to catch the glare beneath the hood. Held within was such a look of regret. Forbes couldn’t think what ailed him. He needed to help. As he stepped further forward to touch the monk his hands came upon only the cold moist stone. The monk, no longer at the back of the crypt, had dissolved in holy sheen. ‘He couldn’t be saved,’ said Forbes.
‘Those words keep me awake at night, especially this night of nights,’ ended Rector Beaumont. ‘But why should they?’ I asked. ‘A mere two weeks after I’d visited Mr Forbes, a letter arrived. It was the 11th of November. Mr Forbes had taken unwell, down by the chapel. He was found on his knees, his hands clasped in front of him, blabbering incoherently and they lifted him, and they carried him to the nearby asylum. He never came out.’ ‘How sad,’ I said, distressed to see this fine man so low. ‘But don’t you see? It was me who sent him there,’ said my pastor, on that Remembrance Day. Now when I play at church it’s another cassocked man who leads the flock, Mr Beaumont leaving to preach in the country, but it’s always him, and his friend Forbes, in my thoughts.
2 thoughts on “The Crypt”
This may possibly be your best work yet Jan. I’m thinking of these BBC Ghost stories from the 1970’s…M. R. James springs to mind. Yes…I can see this as a short story on BBC Sounds or BBC 2 late at night. Battle of Roslin I presume?
Thanks Ian. Yes, Battle of Roslin and Rosslyn Chapel. Also I did this after a reading by MR James. And Dickens.