“…I think I may say that I am the first student in this field of inquiry who has had the boldness to break free from the old and conventional methods, and to approach the elucidation of so-called supernatural problems on the lines of natural law.”
Psychological detective and supernatural specialist Flaxman Low is the creation of the 19th-century writing team known as “E. and H. Heron”, which in real life consisted of Kate O’Brien Ryall Pritchard and her son, Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard. The collected investigations of Mr. Low – a pseudonym, of course, for one of the great minds of Victorian science! – can be found in the volume Ghosts: Being the Experiences of Flaxman Low, originally published in 1899. These stories are quirkily original, atmospheric, and often gruesome, and are rooted as firmly in the genre of detective fiction as in the ghost story.
The tale which is reproduced below is an unusual one for its genre, in that (like many of the Flaxman Low stories) it strays away from the standard supernatural beings (ghosts, vampires, and other similarly unquiet spirits) that haunt the pages of nineteenth-century spooky literature, and depicts incursions from a rather different kind of malevolent entity. In true Victorian style, it takes a combination of scientific know-how and athletic prowess to withstand the monster: when a large-bore hunting rifle fails, a bicycle may provide the necessary means of escape…
From Ghosts, Being the Experiences of Flaxman Low (pages 49-73), please enjoy:
THE TALE OF THE MOOR ROAD
by K. and Hesketh Pritchard
THE TALE OF THE MOOR ROAD
“The medical profession must always have its own peculiar offshoots,” said Mr. Flaxman Low, “some are trades, some are mere hobbies, others, again, are allied subjects of a serious and profound nature. Now, as a student of psychological phenomena, I account myself only two degrees removed from the ordinary general practitioner.”
“How do you make that out?” returned Colonel Daimley, pushing the decanter of old port invitingly across the table.
“The nerve and brain specialist is the link between myself and the man you would send for if you had a touch of lumbago,” replied Low, with a slight smile. “Each division is but a higher grade of the same ladder – a step upwards into the unknown. I consider that I stand just one step above the specialist who makes a study of brain disease and insanity; he is at work on the disorders of the embodied spirit, while I deal with abnormal conditions of the free and detached spirit.”
Colonel Daimley laughed aloud. “That won’t do, Low! No, no! First prove that your ghosts are sick.”
“Certainly,” replied Low gravely. “A very small proportion of spirits return as apparitions after the death of the body. Hence we may conclude that a ghost is a spirit in an abnormal condition. Abnormal conditions of the body usually indicate disease; why not of the spirit also?”
“That sounds fair enough,’ observed Lane Chaddam, the third man present. “Has the Colonel told you of our spook?”
The Colonel shook his handsome grey head in some irritation. “You haven’t convinced me yet, Lane, that it is a spook,’ he said dryly. “Human nature is at the bottom of most things in this world according to my opinion.”
“What spook is this?” asked Flaxman Low. “I heard nothing of it when I was down with you last year.”
“It’s a recent acquisition,’ replied Lane Chaddam. ”I wish we were rid of it, for my part.”
“Have you seen it?” asked Low as he relit his long German pipe.
“Yes, and felt it!”
“What is it?”
“That’s for you to say. He nearly broke my neck for me – that’s all I can swear to.”
Low knew Chaddam well. He was a long-limed, athletic young fellow, with a good show of cups in his rooms, and was one of the various short-distance runners mentioned in the Badminton as having done the hundred in level time, and not the sort of man whose neck is easy to break.
“How did it happen?” asked Flaxman Low.
“About a fortnight ago,” replied Chaddam. “I was flight-shooting near the burn where the hounds killed the otter last year. When the light began to fail, I thought I would come home by the old quarry, and pot anything that showed itself. As I walked along the far bank of the burn, I saw a man on the near side standing on the patch of sand below the reeds and watching me. As I came nearer I heard him coughing; it sounded like a sick cow. He stood still as if waiting for me. I thought it odd, because amongst the meres and water-meadows down there one never meets a stranger.”
“Could you see him pretty clearly?”
“I saw his outline pretty clearly, but not his face, because his back was toward the west. He was tall and jerry-built so to speak, and had a little head no bigger than a child’s, and he wore a fur cap with queer upstanding ears. When I came close, he suddenly slipped away, he jumped behind a big dyke, and I lost sight of him. But I didn’t pay much attention; I had my gun, and I concluded it was a tramp.”
“Tramps don’t follow men of your size,” observed Low, with a smile.
“This fellow did, at any rate. When I got across to the spot where he had been standing – the sand is soft there – I looked for his tracks. I knew he was bound to have a big foot of his own considering his height. But there were no footprints!”
“No footprints? You mean it was too dark for you to see them?” broke in Colonel Daimley.
“I am sure I should have seen them had there been any,” persisted Chaddam quietly.
“Besides, a man can’t take a leap as he did without leaving a good hole behind him. The sand was perfectly smooth, because there had been a strong east wind all day. After looking about and seeing no marks, I went on to the top of the knoll above the quarry. After a bit I felt I was followed, though I couldn’t see any one. You remember the thorn-bush that overhangs the quarry pool? I stopped there and bent over the edge of the cliff to see if there was anything in the pool. As I stooped I felt a point like a steel puncheon catch me on the small of the back. I kicked off from the quarry wall as well as I could, so as to avoid the broken rocks below, and I just managed to clear them, but I fell into the water with a flop that knocked the wind out of me. However, I held on to the gun, and, after a minute, I climbed to a ledge under the cliff and waited to see what my friend on top would do next. He waited too. I couldn’t see him, but I heard him – he coughed up there in the dusk, the most ghastly noise I ever heard. The Colonel laughs at me, but it was about as nasty a half-hour as I care to have. In the end, I swam out across the pool and got home.”
“I laugh at Lane,” said the Colonel; “but all the same, it’s a bad spot for a fall.”
“You say he struck you in the back?” asked Flaxman Low, turning to Chaddam.
“Yes, and his finger was like a steel punch.”
“What does Mrs. Daimley say to this affair?” went on Low presently.
“Not a word to my wife or Olivia, my dear Low!” exclaimed Colonel Daimley. “It would frighten them needlessly; besides, there would be an infernal fuss if we wanted to go flighting or anything after dark. I only fear for them, as they often drive into Nerbury by the Moor Road, which passes close by the quarry.”
“Do they go for their letters every evening as they used to do?”
“Just the same. And they won’t take Stubbs with them, in spite of advice.” The Colonel looked disconsolately at Low. “Women are angels, bless them! but they are the dickens to deal with, because they always want to know why.”
“And now, Low, what have you to say about it?” asked Chaddam.
“Have you told me all?”
“Yes. The only other thing is that Livy says she hears someone coughing in the spinney most nights.”
“If all is as you say, Chaddam – pardon me, but I cases like this imagination is apt to play an unsuspected part – I should think that you have come across a unique experience. What you have told me is not to be explained upon the lines of any ordinary theory.”
After this they followed the ladies into the drawing-room, where they found Mrs. Daimley immersed in a novel as usual, and Livy looking pretty enough to account for the frequent presence of Lane Chaddam at Low Riddings. He was a distant cousin of the Colonel, and took advantage of his relationship to pay protracted visits to Northumberland.
Some years previous to the date of the above events, Colonel Daimley had bought and enlarged a substantial farmhouse which stood in a dip south of a lonely sweep of Northumbrian moors. It was a land of pale blue skies and far-off fringes of black and ragged pine-trees.
From the house a lane swept over the windswept shoulder of the upland down to a hollow spanned by a railway bridge, then up again across the high levels of the moors until at length it lost itself in the outskirts of the little town of Nerbury. This Moor Road was particularly lonely; it approached but a single cottage the whole way, and ran very nearly over the doorstep of that one – a deserted-looking slip of a place between the railway bridge and the quarry. Beyond the quarry stretched acres of marshland, meadows and reedy meres, all of which had been manipulated with such ability by the Colonel, that the duck-shooting on his land was the envy of the neighbourhood.
In spite of its loneliness the Moor Road was much frequented by the Daimleys, who preferred it to the high-road, which was uninteresting and much longer. Mrs. Daimley and Olivia drove in of an evening to fetch the letters – being people with nothing on earth to do, they were naturally always in a hurry to get their letters – and they perpetually had parcels waiting for them at the station which required to be called for at all sorts of hours. Thus it will be seen that the fact of the quarry being haunted by Lane Chaddam’s assailant formed a very real danger to the inhabitants of Low Riddings.
At breakfast the next day Livy said the tramp had been coughing in the spinney half the night.
“In what direction?” asked Flaxman Low.
Livy pointed to the window which looked on to the gate and the thick boundary hedge, the last still full of crisp ruddy leaves.
“You feel an interest in your tramp, Miss Daimley?”
“Of course, poor creature! I wanted to go out to look for him the other night, but they would not allow me.”
“That was before we knew he was so interesting,” said Chaddam. “I promise we’ll catch him for you next time he comes.”
And this was in fact the programme they tried to carry out, but although the coughing was heard in the spinney, no one even caught a glimpse of any living thing moving or hiding among the trees.
The next stage of the affair happened to be an experience of Livy. In some excitement she told the assembled family at dinner that she had just seen the coughing tramp.
Lane Chaddam changed colour.
“You don’t mean to say, Livy, that you went to search for him alone?” he exclaimed half-angrily.
Flaxman Low and the Colonel wisely went on eating oyster patties without taking any apparent notice of the girl’s news.
“Why shouldn’t I?” asked Livy quickly, “but as it happens, I saw him in Scully’s cottage by the quarry this evening.”
“What?” exclaimed Colonel Daimley, “in Scully’s cottage. I’ll see to that.”
“Why? Are you all so prejudiced against my poor tramp?”
“On the contrary,” replied Flaxman Low, “we all want to know what he’s like.”
“So odd-looking! I was driving home alone from the post when, as I passed the quarry cottage, I heard the cough. You know it is quite unmistakeable; I looked up at the window, and there he was. I have never seen anybody in the least like him. His face is ghastly pale and perfectly hairless, and he has such a little head. He stared at me so threateningly that I whipped up Lorelie.”
“Were you frightened, then?”
“Not exactly, but he had such a wicked fact that I drove away as fast as I could.”
“I understand that you had arranged to send Stubbs for the letters?” said Colonel Daimley, with some annoyance. “Why can’t girls say what they mean?”
Livy made no reply, and after a pause Chaddam put a question.
“You must have passed the moor road about seven o’clock?”
“Yes, it was after six when I left the Post Office,” replied Livy. “Why?”
“It was quite dark – how did you see the hairless man so plainly? I was round on the marshes all the evening, and I am quite certain there was no light at any time in Scully’s cottage.”
“I don’t remember whether there was any light behind him in the room,” returned Livy, after a moment’s consideration; “I only know that I saw his head and face quite plainly.”
There was no more said on the subject at the time, though the Colonel forbade Livy to run any further risks by going alone on the Moor Road. After this the three men paraded the lane and lay in wait for the hairless tramp of ghost. On the second evening their watch was rewarded, when Chaddam came hurriedly into the smoking-room to say that the coughing could at that instant be heard in the hedge by the dining-room. It was still early, although the evening had closed in with clouds, and all outside was dark. “I’ll deal with him this time effectually!” exclaimed the Colonel. “I’ll slip out the back way, and lie in the hedge down the road by the field gate. You two must chivy him out to me, and when he comes along, I’ll have him against the sky-line and give him a charge of No. 4 if he shows fight.”
The Colonel stole down the lane while the others beat the spinney and hedge, Flaxman Low very much chagrined as being forced to deal with an interesting problem in this rough and ready fashion. However, he saw that on this occasion at least it would be useless to oppose the Colonel’s notions. When he and Chaddam met after beating the hedge they saw a tall figure shamble away rapidly down the lane toward the Colonel’s hiding-place.
They stood still and waited for developments, but the minutes followed each other in intense stillness. Then they went to find the Colonel.
“Hullo, Colonel, anything wrong?” asked Chaddam, on nearing the field gate.
The Colonel straightened himself with the help of Chaddam’s arm.
“Did you see him?” he whispered.
“We thought so. Why did you not fire?”
“Because,” said the Colonel in a husky voice, “I had no gun!”
“But you took it with you?”
Flaxman Low opened the lantern he carried, and, as the light swept round in a wide circle, something glinted on the grass. It was the stock of the Colonel’s gun. A little further off they came upon the Damascus barrels bent and twisted into a ball like so much fine wire. Presently the Colonel explained.
“I saw him coming and meant to meet him, but I seemed dazed – I couldn’t move! The gun was snatched from me, and I made no resistance – I don’t know why.” He took the gun-barrels and examined them slowly. “I give in, Low; no human hand did that.”
During dinner, Flaxman Low said abruptly; “I suppose you lately had an earthquake down here.”
“How did you know?” asked Livy. “Have you been to the quarry?”
Low said he had not.
“It was such a poor little earthquake that even the papers did not think it worth while to mention it!” went on Livy. “We didn’t feel any shock, and, in fact, knew nothing about it, until Dr. Petterped told us.”
“You had a landslip though?” went on Low.
Livy opened her pretty eyes.
“But you know all about it,” she said. “Yes, the landslip was just by the old quarry.”
“I should like to see the place to-morrow,” observed Low.
Next day, therefore, when the Colonel went off to the coverts with a couple of neighbours, whom he had invited to join him, Flaxman Low accompanied Chaddam to examine the scene of the landslip.
From the edge of the upland, looking across the hollow crowded with reedy pools, they could see in the torn, reddish flank of the opposite slope the sharp tilt of the broken slate. To the right of this lay the old quarry, and about a hundred yards to the left the lonely house and the curving road.
Low descended into the hollow and spent a long time in the spongy ground between the back of the quarry and the lower edge of the newly uncovered strata, using his little hammer freely, especially about one narrow black fissure round which he sniffed and pottered in absorbed silence. Presently he called to Chaddam.
“There has been a slight explosion of gas – a rare gas, here,” he said. “I hardly hoped to find traces of it, but it is unmistakeable.”
“Very unmistakeable,” agreed Chaddam, with a laugh. “You’d have said so had you been here when it happened.”
“Ah, very satisfactory indeed. And that was a fortnight ago, you say?”
“Rather more now. It took place a couple of days before my fall into that quarry pool.”
“Any one ill near by – at that cottage, for instance?” asked Low, as he joined Chaddam.
“Why? Was that gas poisonous? There’s a man in the Colonel’s employ named Scully in that cottage, who has had pneumonia, but he was on the mend when the landslip occurred. Since then he has grown steadily worse.”
“Is there anyone with him?”
“Yes, the Daimleys sent a woman to look after him. Scully’s a very decent man. I often go in to see him.”
“And so does the hairless man, apparently,” added Low.
“No; that’s the queer part of it. Neither he nor the woman in charge have ever seen such a person as Livy described. I don’t know what to think.”
“The first thing to be done is to get the man from here at once,” said Low decidedly. “Let’s go in and see him.”
They found Scully low and drowsy. The nurse shook her head at the two visitors in a despondent way.
“He grows weaker by the day,” she said.
“Get him away from here at once,” repeated Low, as they went out.
“We might have him up at Low Riddings, but he seems almost too weak to be moved,” replied Chaddam doubtfully.
“My dear fellow, it’s his only chance of life.”
The Daimleys made arrangements for the reception of Scully, provided Dr. Thomson of Nerbury gave his consent to the removal. In the afternoon, therefore, Chaddam bicycled into Nerbury to see the doctor on the subject.
“If I were you, Chaddam,” said Low, before he started, “I’d be back by daylight.”
Unfortunately Dr. Thomson was on his rounds, and did not return until after dark, by which time it was too late to remove Scully that evening. After leaving the doctor’s house Chaddam went to the station to enquire about a box from Mudie’s. The books having arrived, he took out a couple of volumes for Mrs. Daimley’s present consumption, and was strapping them in front of the bicycle, when it struck him that unless he went home by the Moor Road he would be late for dinner.
Accordingly he branched off into the bare track which led over the moors. The twilight had deepened into a fine, cold night, and a moon was swinging up into a pale, clear sky. The spread of heather, purple in the daytime, appeared jet black by moonlight, and across it he could see the white ribbon on road stretching ahead into the distance. The scents of the night were fresh in his nostrils, as he ran easily along the level with the breeze behind him.
He soon reached the incline past Scully’s cottage. Well away to the left lay the quarry pool like a blotch of ink under its shadowing cliff. There was no light in the cottage, and it seemed even more deserted-looking than usual.
As Chaddam flashed under the bridge, he heard a cough, and glanced back over his shoulder.
A tall, loose-jointed form he had seen once before was rearing itself up on upon the railway bridge. There was something curiously un-human about the lank outlines and the cant of the small head with its prick-eared cap showing out so clearly against the lighter sky behind.
When Chaddam looked again, he saw the thing on the bridge fling up its long arms and leap down on to the road some thirty feet below.
Then Chaddam rode. He began to think he had been a fool to come, and he counted that he was a good mile from home. At first he fancied he heard footfalls, then he fancied there were none. The hard road flew under him, all thoughts of economising his strength were lost, his single aim was to make the pace.
Suddenly his bicycle jerked violently, and he was shot over into the road. As he fell, he turned his head and was conscious of a little, bleached, bestial face, wet with fury, not ten yards behind!
He sprang to his feet, and ran up the road as he had never run before. He ran wonderfully, but he might as well have tried to race a cheetah. It was not a question of speed, the game was in the hands of this thing with the limbs of a starved Hercules, whose bony knees seemed to leap into its ghastly face at every stride. Chaddam topped the slope with a sickening sense of his own powerlessness. Already he saw Low Riddings in the distance, and a dim light came creeping along the road towards him. Another frantic spurt, and he had almost reached the light, when a hand closed like a vice on his shoulder, and seemed to fasten on the flesh. He rushed blindly on towards the house. He saw the door-handle gleam, and in another second he had pitched head foremost onto the knotted matting in the hall.
When he recovered his senses his first question was: “Where is Low?”
“Didn’t you meet him?” asked Livy. “I – that is, we were anxious about you, as you were so late, and I was just starting to meet you when Mr. Low came downstairs and insisted on going instead.”
Chaddam stood up.
“I must follow him.”
But as he spoke the front door opened, and Flaxman Low entered, and looked up at the clock.
“Eight-fifteen,” he said. “You’re late, Chaddam.”
Afterwards, in the smoking-room, he gave an account of what he had seen.
“I saw Chaddam racing up the road with a tall figure behind him. It stretched out its hand and grasped his shoulder. The next instant it shopped short as if it had been shot. It seemed to reel back and collapse, and then limped off into the hedge like a disappointed dog.”
Chaddam stood up and began to take off his coat.
“Whatever the thing is, it is something out of the common. Look here!” he said, turning up his shirt sleeve over the point of his shoulder, where three singular marks were visible, irregularly placed as the fingers of a hand might fall. They were oblong in shape, about the size of a bean, and swollen in purple lumps well above the surface of the skin.
“Looks as if someone had been using a small cupping-glass on you,” remarked the Colonel uneasily. “What do you say it is, Low?”
“I say that since Chaddam has escaped with his life, I have only to congratulate him on what, in Europe certainly, is a unique adventure.”
The Colonel threw his cigar into the fire.
“Such adventures are too dangerous for my taste,” he said. “This creature has on two occasions murderously attacked Lane Chaddam, and it would, no doubt, have attacked Livy if it had had the chance. We must leave this place at once, or we shall be murdered in our beds?”
“I don’t think, Colonel, that you will be troubled with this mysterious visitant again,” replied Flaxman Low.
“Why not? Who or what is this horrible thing?”
“I believe it to be an Elemental Earth Spirit,” returned Low. “No other solution fits the facts of the case.”
“What is an Elemental?” resumed the Colonel irritably. “Remember, Low, I expect you to prove your theories so that a plain man may understand, if I am to stay on at Low Riddings.”
“Eastern occultists describe wandering tribes of earth spirits, evil intelligences, possessing spirit as distinct from soul – all inimical to man.”
“But how do you know that the thing on the Moor Road is an Elemental?”
“Because the points of resemblance are curiously remarkable. The occultists say that when these spirits materialise, they appear in grotesque and uncouth forms; secondly, that they are invariably bloodless and hairless; thirdly, they move with extraordinary rapidity, and leave no footprints; and lastly, their agility and strength is superhuman. All these peculiarities have been observed in connection with the figure on the Moor Road.”
“I admit that no man I have ever met with,” commented Colonel Daimley, “could jump uninjured from a height of thirty feet, race a bicycle, and twist up gun-barrels like so much soft paper. So perhaps you’re right. But can you tell me why or how it came here?”
“My conclusions,” began Low, “may seem to you far-fetched and ridiculous, but you must give them the benefit of the fact that they precisely account for the otherwise unaccountable features which mark this affair. I connect this appearance with the earthquake and the sick man.”
“What? Scully in league with the devil?” exclaimed the Colonel bluntly. “Why, the man is too weak to leave his bed; besides, he is a short, thick-set fellow, entirely unlike our haunting friend.”
“You mistake me, Colonel,” said Low, in his quiet tones. “These Elementals cannot take visible form without drawing upon the resources of the living. They absorb the vitality of any ailing person until it is exhausted, and the person dies.”
“Then they begin operations upon a fresh victim? A pleasant look-out to know we keep a well-attested vampire in the neighbourhood!”
“Vampires are a distinct race, with different methods; one being that the Elemental is a wanderer, and goes far afield to search for a new victim.”
“But why should it want to kill me?” put in Chaddam.
“As I have told you, they are animated solely by a blind malignity to the human race, and you happened to be handy.”
“But the earthquake, Low; where is the connection there?” demanded the Colonel, with the hair of a man who intends to corner his opponent.
Flaxman Low lit one cigar at the end of another before he replied.
“At this point,” he said, “my own theories and observations and those of the old occultists overlap. The occultists held that some of these spirits are imprisoned in the interior of the earth, but may be set free in consequence of those shiftings and disturbances which take place during an earthquake. This in more modern language simply means that Elementals are in some manner connected with certain of the primary strata. Now, my own researches have led me to conclude that atmospheric influences are intimately associated with spiritual phenomena. Some gases appear to be productive of such phenomena. One of these is generated when certain of the primary formations are newly exposed to the common air.”
“This is almost beyond belief – I don’t understand you,” said the Colonel.
“I am sorry that I cannot give you all the links in my own chain of reasoning,” returned Low. “Much is still obscure, but the evidence is sufficiently strong to convince me that in such a case of earthquake and landslip as has lately taken place here the phenomenon of an embodied Elemental might possibly be expected to follow, given the one necessary adjunct of a sick person in the near neighbourhood of the disturbance.”
“But when this brute got hold of me, why didn’t it finish me off?” asked Chaddam. “Or was it your coming that prevented it?”
Flaxman Low considered. “No; I don’t think I can flatter myself that my coming had anything to do with your escape. It was a near thing – how near you will understand when we hear further news of Scully in the morning.”
A servant entered the room at this moment.
“The woman has come up from the cottage, sir, to say that Scully is dead.”
“At what hour did he die?” asked Low.
“About ten minutes past eight, sir, she says.”
“Five minutes before I got in. The hour agrees exactly,” commented Low, when the man had left the room. “The figure stopped and collapsed so suddenly that I believed something of this kind must have happened.”
“But surely this is a very unprecedented coincidence?”
“It is,” said Flaxman Low. “But I can assure that that if you take the trouble to glance through the pages of the psychical periodicals you will find many statements at least as wonderful.”
“But are they true?”
Flaxman Low shrugged his shoulders.
“At any rate,” said he, “we know this is.”
The Daimleys have spent many pleasant days at Low Riddings since then, but Chaddam – who has acquired a right to control Miss Livy’s actions more or less – persists in his objection to any solitary expeditions to Nerbury along the Moor Road. For, although the figure has never been seen about Low Riddings since, some strange stories have lately appeared in the papers of a similar mysterious figure which has been met with more than once in the lonelier spots about North London. If it be true that this nameless wandering spirit, with the strength and activity of twenty men, still haunts our lonely roads, the sooner Mr. Flaxman Low exorcises it the better.
This text has been prepared from an out-of-print book scanned by the British Library Labs, which is available in PDF format here. It is as faithful a reproduction as possible, but the formatting has been altered slightly for readability.
Illustrations – except for the picture indicated, which is from the original book – come from other works in the British Library Labs and Internet Archive digitised image collections.
Other stories in the Flaxman Low collection are available via Project Gutenberg Australia, while facsilime editions of the scanned book can also be bought online, but to the best of my knowledge, this particular story has never appeared online as an edited digital text before. Please feel free to use this edited version for any purpose.