THE COWL DOES NOT MAKE THE MONK
Margaret was astonished to see me home so early that morning. She was even more astonished when I said we weren‘t going to take the house after all.
‘But, Bill – ! It‘s completion day on Tuesday ! I thought there was a contract or something – ?‘
I knew already that she would be bitterly disappointed. We‘d been looking for just such a house, in the right place and at the right price, for years. But I knew that we couldn‘t live there.
‘I‘m sorry, darling, believe me ! But there‘s a – a reason we can‘t take it ! Please don‘t say any more till I‘ve seen the solicitor !‘
It was a lovely house, too. Centuries old, standing in the grounds of what had once been a priory. We both fell for it at first sight. We even gave it a name – Prior‘s Close.
Not surprisingly, it needed some re-decoration, inside and out; it had stood empty for some time. I remember wondering what house buyers were thinking of to pass up such a bargain for so long. However, there wasn’t any shortage of property at the time, and old houses do sometimes stick on the market.
Naturally, with a house of that age, I asked for a full survey, and even went through the property myself looking like a Sherlock Holmes for any sign of dry rot or beetle. When I found a door screwed up tight in the bedroom that we‘d earmarked for the nursery I insisted on knowing what was behind it.
To give him his due the estate-agent didn‘t try to cover up.
‘It‘s one of those old clothes closets, Mr Graham ! We did find some evidence of woodworm in there, so we‘ve put the work in hand. We‘re getting the specialists in to treat it. There‘s no evidence that the joists are affected, but there is some slight apparent infestation of the floorboards, so we‘ve had the door secured. Not to worry, we shall guarantee the finished job.‘
Actually, the specialists couldn‘t promise to get the work done before completion date, but it was agreed that satisfactory arrangements could be made to undertake it thereafter. I had no possible cause for concern, and the vendor‘s solicitors had been more than ordinarily helpful from the start. When I asked if I could have a key to do some measuring up, they raised no objection. What I actually wanted the key for was to do some decorating before we moved in, but I thought it wiser not to say so.
I certainly hadn‘t asked for permission to sleep in the house; solicitors tend to be fussy about that sort of thing, even with completion date near. But I wanted to put in as much time as possible during my holiday, and the long journey every day would have taken up a great deal of time. So I fixed up a camp-bed with a sleeping-bag in the nursery, and said nothing.
I suppose I did rather overdo things that first day. I got to the house very early in the morning, and worked right through with only a sandwich to keep me going, until it grew too dark to see. I‘d meant to change into my day clothes and go out for food and drink before turning in, but I was so dog-tired I just undressed and rolled into bed. I remember thinking as I stripped off in the uncurtained room that people who live in glass houses should undress in the dark.
And then, maddeningly, and perhaps because I really was over-tired, I couldn‘t get off to sleep. Every time I began to doze off I saw the paint-brush going up and down, up and down, until I thought I should scream.
In the end, perhaps from sheer exhaustion, I did drop off, only to have my sleep disturbed by erratic and rather unpleasant dreams. Not nightmares, exactly, because even in the course of the more disturbing ones I seemed to be aware that I was only dreaming after all.
There was one dream in particular which was – well, upsetting, to put it mildly. I saw myself lying in the same room – and, so far as I could tell, on the same bed – when I heard the creak of a door opening behind me. Craning my neck so that I could look back, I saw in my dream the door of the cupboard opening slowly, and out of the darkness a figure appearing with a cowl pulled forward over its head.
I lay quite still as the figure moved to the side of the bed and bent over me as though to see if I was awake. Through eyes half closed I looked up into the pitch blackness within the cowl. I was not so much afraid as apprehensive, for I still had the comforting feeling that this was all a dream.
The figure moved away, rounded the foot of the bed, and out through the door that led to the staircase. I seemed to know that it would come back, and I lay without moving until I saw the habit re-appear round the edge of the door. It passed the foot of the bed, and again bent over me, before re-entering the cupboard.
The next thing I knew was that sunlight was flooding the room. As consciousness returned, I realized that I was still tired and stiff from my efforts of the day before.
Of course I checked the cupboard door, and of course it was tightly screwed up. In the bright morning glare the whole night‘s business seemed vague and unreal.
I made up my mind that this time I would be less enthusiastic in my labours, and I worked steadily through the day. But, before it became too dark to see, I changed out of my working togs and set off in the car in search of food. A couple of hours later I was back at the house with my hunger appeased, and slightly flushed with wine. I undressed at once, and slept undisturbed through the night.
The next evening I repeated the performance in every detail. I went to the same pub, ordered the same meal and the same wine, and this time got them to fill my flask with coffee. When I got back to the house it was by the light of a rising moon that I found my way up the front path and into the spacious hall.
It wasn‘t until I reached the nursery that I realized that there was a major drawback to sleeping in an empty house – for me at any rate. By nature I‘m one of those who prefer darkness in my bedroom, and here was moonlight streaming through uncurtained windows, already bright and promising to be brighter.
By the light of my torch I searched the house in the hope of finding something with which to cover the window. I unearthed only two dust-sheets which felt far from clean and which were far from whole. But I could devise no way of fastening them to the window frame, and in the end I rigged up the decorator‘s steps in front of the window through which the moon was shining, and draped the dust-sheets over them. It was a makeshift job, and far from secure, but it promised at least to stop the moonlight from falling on my face. I had to move the camp-bed a little, too.
When I‘d done all I could I slid into the sleeping-bag, hoping for a good night‘s sleep, but by no means confident. I lay for a long time tossing and turning, but in the end sheer weariness overcame me.
I‘ve no idea how long I slept, not what it was that wakened me. It may have been the moonlight which had moved past my makeshift curtains and was threatening to fall on my face in no short time. Or it may have been the creak from the door behind me.
Something warned me not to move. I screwed my eyes to the left as far as I could without turning my head. The cupboard door was open, cutting off the moonlight from the cupboard itself, and revealing a space as black as the pit of Hell.
And out of that blackness came the remembered figure of the monk. Only this time I knew that this was no dream. This time I was wide awake – and icy cold with fear.
I lay quite still, and lowered my eyelids until I was peering through slits at the dreadful figure approaching my bed.
Again the figure bent over me. I believe that only the dryness in my throat prevented me from crying out.
The figure moved on, across the foot of the bed, and out through the door. The relief was beyond words.
But at once I realized that if the earlier dream was repeated in reality he would soon be back, and once more I should have to suffer that awful sightless scrutiny. I knew I could not face it again.
I slipped out of the sleeping-bag and scrabbled about on the floor in search of my torch. In my haste I came up against the steps, and they fell with an appalling clatter. I knelt there on the floor in the moonlight , hardly daring to breathe.
I found it an enormous effort to get to my feel without the reassurance of the torch‘s light. But, as I did so, my hand fell on the torch and I breathed a sigh of relief. I flicked the switch as courage began to seep into my veins.
Nothing happened. Nothing.
There was not a flicker of light in the torch. I knew that, before I had fallen asleep, the battery had been full of power. I knew it. I knew it. But not all my frantic efforts with the switch produced any light.
Desperately I screwed the base of the torch round. Nothing happened. There was not a trace of life in it.
I was about to dismantle it when the thought struck me that at any moment the cowled figure might return and find me still here. Still clutching the torch, I slipped out of the room, groped for the newel post at the head of the stairs, and began to descend. The hallway below was half lit by moonlight, A few more steps, one quick rush for the door, and I should be outside and free.
There was a movement in the darkness at one side of the hall. I stood on the step, frozen with horror, as the figure of the monk stepped out of the darkness,
As he approached me he began to remove the cord encircling his waist. Without a sound he came on, now holding the cord between his outstretched hands. His intention was clear. Unless I did something – now – I should soon feel it about my neck.
I raised the torch to strike, and caught the switch as I did so.
And this time it worked.
The light fell full upon the face of the oncoming figure.
Only there was no face. Nothing. The beam of the torch could not penetrate an emptiness deeper than the night sky, blacker than the tomb.
The next moment the torch was dashed from my hand. He was too strong for me. I was borne backwards towards the stairs, clutching desperately at the cord.
At that moment there was a succession of short raps on the outer door. The overpowering pressure on my hands ceased.
I shook my head and looked about me. The only inhabitants fo the hall were myself and the moonlight, That, and a crumpled gown.
I began to shudder uncontrollably. Stumbling to the door, I turned the latch.
Silhouetted against the moonlit trees was the enormously comforting figure of a policeman.
‘Oh, I‘m sorry, sir ! I didn‘t realize you‘d moved in ! Only I happened to see a light, and I thought I‘d better have a look ! I say, sir, are you all right ?‘
‘Yes, yes ! It‘s nothing, constable. I - I thought I heard intruders. It was just your knock – it startled me for a moment !‘
‘I see, sir !‘ He leaned forward. ‘What did you intend doing with the intruder, then ? Were you going to tie him up ?’
I looked down at my hands.
I was still holding the cord . . .
On the pretext of a cup of coffee from my flask, I persuaded him to come in. While he drank it I dressed quickly, explaining my presence in the empty house as I did so. Then I left the house with him, got into the car, and drove home as dawn came up.
It cost me some of my deposit, of course. We wouldn‘t occupy the house, and it didn‘t sell quickly. I had a bad conscience over keeping quiet about my experience, but I doubted the possibility of anyone believing the story, anyway.
And that, you might think, was that. But there was a sequel . . .
Some time later I had a letter from that same agent.
‘Dear Mr Graham, We are advised that, on the contractor‘s men opening the clothes-closet in the small room over the hall of the property you were recently interested in, they found an article of clothing. It would appear to be some kind of robe, which we thought might be your property. If this is the case, perhaps you would let us have your instructions as to its disposal.‘
I omitted to point out that I had never had access to the clothes-closet, but – remembering what I had done with the cord – I replied that the gown was of no value. But, in view of the fact that it had been in contact with a floor affected by woodworm, I suggested that they burn it.
I hope they did . . .