By WJR, Fri Dec 9 2022
Note: A story related to Messrs. Harvey and Quint by Lewis, the butler, at Crawford Hall following the incident with the chimney stone. See the related papers. -Editor
Few sights are more evocative to the wanderer than that of the small, old, stone church. Many such examples populate the English landscape. The most affecting ones are found in suitable surroundings: atop a high prominence, hidden within a deep valley, or in the midst of a forest glade.
Often close by such churches are the gravestones of the church membership. The inscriptions they once bore have long since worn away. Many lean precariously to one side or another. Some unfortunate ones lie flat upon their face, half-buried in the soil or overgrown with ivy. Others still lie broken, separated from bases still firmly planted in the earth.
The noblest examples of this species of church appear untouched by the hand of man. Indeed, it is as if they sprang from the soil of their own accord. They share its characteristic color, texture, and substance. Too, their materials reflect the sky above. Some are as dark as storm clouds while others, decorated in lichen, are as blue as a rain-washed sky.
The condition of these spiritual outposts varies. Some are little more than crumbling stone walls. Others, intact for the most part, have been demoted and are used to store farm equipment. Or, they serve as shelter for livestock during the winter. But there are many that remain faithful to their mission. By necessity, they have a diligent staff dedicated to their upkeep.
Such places have expansive memories. Sometimes, these memories awake and manifest in the most unexpected ways. Such an awakening occurred some years ago in a small, old, North Yorkshire church.
It began as Mr. Denton, the handyman, arrived at the church early one November morning. The night before, he had spoken with Father Harrison. Over a pint, the vicar asked him to attend to repairs in the wall of the south transept, where it met that of the chancel.
It was dark, inside and out, as Denton let himself into the church. Lighting a lamp the vicar had left next to the door, he passed through the nave. His breath shone in the frigid air. Reaching the south transept, he examined the wall. A little pile of mortar, dust, and rock lay at its base. High above, near a corner, dark gaps were visible where the wall had crumbled away.
Denton returned to his cart to retrieve his tools. The sky, pale and overcast, spoke of the dreary weather to come. Grateful to be inside for the day, Denton lifted his toolbox from the back of the cart. He made another trip as well to retrieve a scaffold. By nine, he had assembled it next to the affected portion of the wall. As he climbed to the top, dim light filtered through the colored glass in the eastern wall and the tall, narrow windows close by.
Placing a lamp next to the wall, he surveyed the damage. The ancient mortar had disintegrated, revealing dark gaps between the stones. Placing his hand against one of them, he felt a chill draft. The job was simple enough: chisel away the bad mortar and apply a new batch. He anticipated completion around lunchtime.
Soon the church rang with the sound of hammer on stone. Denton had been working for a quarter of an hour when he paused. There had been another noise: a muffled thump. It had been sufficiently loud as to be audible over the sound of his hammer. He turned toward the door, expecting that he had heard the vicar or sexton enter. But he was alone in the church. With a shrug, he returned to his work.
After only a minute or two, the handyman once more suspended his work. He had heard it again: a muffled, heavy thump. It was not unlike the sound of his own hammer, but it was as if it had come from far away. He turned round once more to survey the church. It was somewhat brighter now, the corners no longer so dark. But he was still alone. He checked his watch and wondered what was keeping the others.
Out of curiosity, Denton tapped hard on the stone in front of him. The impact echoed through the church. A moment later, a single muffled thump sounded. This time, it seemed close by. He repeated the experiment, varying it by delivering two hard blows. Before he could let his breath out, two muffled taps came as if in reply. Denton paused and scratched his head, then jumped as the voice of the vicar, who had recently arrived, rang out from far below.
"What on earth are you doing, Denton?" he said.
The handyman looked down at the vicar.
"Someone's hammering back," he said, after some hesitation.
"Nonsense," said the vicar, "it's the sound of your own hammer, echoing off the walls."
"Can't be that, sir. The tone is all wrong."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"Well, it sounds different from my hammer. It's muffled, like it's coming from somewhere else. And it happens too long after, to be an echo."
"Ridiculous," insisted the vicar.
"Listen for yourself, sir," said Denton. Climbing partway down the scaffold, he offered the man a hand up.
With a sigh, the vicar took his hand. In another moment, both men stood atop the scaffold. Taking his hammer, the handyman gave the stone in front of him a solid rap. It echoed about them. The vicar looked at the handyman with a raised eyebrow. But in the length of time it would take someone to count to two, a muffled rap sounded from somewhere close by. The vicar's expression changed to one of bafflement.
"What do you make of that?" said Denton.
"A bird on the roof, tapping on the slate."
"It doesn't sound like it's coming from the roof. It sounds like it's coming from this here stone."
"A rat then, behind the wall."
"So high up? And I've never heard of a rat making such a noise."
"Nor have I. Well, whatever it is, I must attend to my duties. When will you finish?
"By lunchtime, I should think," said Denton.
Climbing down from the scaffold, the vicar entered his office. There he tried to concentrate on writing the coming weekend's sermon. This proved difficult, as the sound of Denton's hammer echoed around him. He tried closing the office door, but it was to little avail.
He pressed on. In time, he grew accustomed to the pattern of noise: three or four taps of the hammer followed by the swish of a broom.
An hour later the pattern changed, distracting the vicar once more from his work. There was a scraping sound, as of the shifting of something large and heavy. Several seconds of silence followed. He caught the sound of the handyman's voice, but there was something odd in its tone. Then, a scream and a tremendous crash echoed from beyond the office door.
The vicar was up from his desk and through the door in an instant. Aside from the echo of his footsteps, the church was silent once more. Crossing the chancel to the south transept, he came to a sudden stop. On the ground before him a large stone lay shattered upon the floor. Far above, slumped over the top rail of the scaffold, was Denton.
"Good Lord," said the vicar, running down the central aisle between the pews. Opening the door, he called out to Roberts, the sexton. The two men climbed the scaffold and lowered the stricken man to the floor. They lay him upon a bench near the entrance and the vicar covered him with his overcoat.
The two men sat close by as Denton woke with a sudden spasm. Wild-eyed, he covered his face with his hands as if to ward something off. The vicar placed his hand on his shoulder.
"I though you'd fallen off the scaffold, old man," he said, attempting to affect a light tone. "What happened?"
Denton was silent for a moment, and the wild look in his eyes began to fade. When he finally spoke, it was in a whisper.
"Someone was there," he began, "behind the stone. I saw a face."
"But how?" said the sexton. "There's naught behind it but the stone wall of the chancel."
"No, there's a dark space," said the handyman. "I shined my light in it but couldn't see much beyond a bit of white in the distance. It rushed up and filled the opening. I put my hands in front of my face. I couldn't bear to look at it."
"What was it?" said the sexton.
"A face. Very pale, and only one eye."
"That's enough," said the vicar, fearing to further excite the handyman. The sexton returned to his work and the vicar to his office, there retrieving a small flask of brandy from his desk. He gave it to Denton. Soon, he was feeling well enough to work, but the vicar insisted he go home for the day.
Having seen the handyman to his cart, the vicar climbed to the top of the scaffold and examined the hole. It was roughly one foot square and twice that in depth. It appeared as the sexton had described: the rock of the chancel wall was visible beyond the open space. To what to attribute the dark space Denton had seen, not to mention the face, the vicar was uncertain.
As he lifted the lamp higher, he spotted an object lodged behind one of the stones. Reaching into the opening, he felt a wooden handle. It came loose as he pulled it. From the opening he withdrew a hammer. At first, he thought it must have been left there by Denton. However, it was in poor repair and, in fact, appeared quite old. When Denton returned the next day to finish his work, he stated that he had never seen it.
There is a postscript to this story. It came to light some years after the incident with Denton as the vicar was reviewing some old church records. One document, written around the time of the church's construction, recorded a casualty: a worker had died after falling from the top of the south transept. Among the few specifics documented was the fact that he had only one eye.