An Old

(from Ghosts & Scholars 16.)
This anonymous tale first appeared (as "An Old MS.") in the 1911 May Week Supplement (June 7) to the Cambridge Review. As far as I know, it has only ever been reprinted in G&S 16 (1993). I have added a new note on the Beale Treasure at the end.

The following story was discovered among the papers of my great-uncle, the Rev. Ernest Thommason, after his death, and is published here for the first time in the hope that it may interest Cambridge readers. It was, from the date put above (March, 1887), apparently written down by my great-uncle some three weeks before his death; the handwriting which, in the beginning, was clear and resolute, towards the end shews signs of some over-mastering emotion, and the manuscript breaks off abruptly. The events recorded must have taken place during the summer of 1844, as I have learnt by consulting various others of my great-uncle's letters and papers.


My tenure of the cure at Colton in Cambridgeshire (begins the manuscript), as representative of the Reverend Prof. Newall, will always be a terrible memory, and even now I cannot but wonder how it was that I was not driven mad by the horrors of the last night that I slept in that accursed cottage by the churchyard. Colton, in those days, was a tiny village, numbering only some twenty souls, and by the church itself were only three dwellings, the rest of the village being some way from the churchyard. In the smallest of these three dwellings (the other two were respectively the vicarage, that was never tenanted, and a tumble-down cottage, only used by day) I lived for two years, and being young, able-bodied, and poor, I kept no servant, but had the cooking and house-keeping done by an old woman from the village.

On the terrible night in question, the last I ever slept in that village, I remember clearly that I was haunted in my sleep by some vision of an unknown man tapping at my bedroom window in an appealing fashion, but for some dreamy reason I was afraid to go and open to him. From this unhappy nightmare I suddenly awoke to find myself sitting up in bed, my knees tucked up under my chin in a posture of fear, while I shielded my eyes with my hand. Looking through my fingers I was surprised unpleasantly to see that the window, which I had shut before going to bed, was gaping wide open, and I felt the warm night-wind sweeping through it. I took down my hands and was gazing uncomfortably through the window, when a sudden sharp sound of a pick-axe striking on masonry came from the churchyard. Startled from my sleepy state, I went to the window and looked towards the church (my bedroom was facing obliquely towards the west end). It was a hot, windy summer night, and just as I looked out the moon dipped behind a cloud, and suddenly there sprang into my ken, under the shadow of the church, a wavering circle of lantern-light. The lantern itself I could not see, but I saw most plainly thrown upon the grass and over a tomb-stone, the grotesque shadow of a man digging under the wall. While I stood gazing stupidly at this sight, the lantern was snatched up and in another moment I saw a man come round the southern angle of the west end, and holding the lantern, look earnestly and somewhat nervously towards the window where I stood; then, as though reassured the figure disappeared round the corner again; but in those few seconds I had had time to recognise the features of a dark one-eyed sailor I had seen hanging round the church some days previously. He had, I suddenly remembered, asked me with a surly air if I could shew him "old miser Beale's" grave, but, not liking his looks, I had sent him about his business.

It suddenly dawned on me that this rascal must be digging up the old man's grave in the hope of finding some treasure in it, for 'old Beale' had had the reputation of being a man of mysterious hidden wealth in the country round, and when he was dying he had made me promise to bury him in a certain spot in the churchyard, whence, in the village wiseacre's gossip, it came to be said that he had been buried above his treasure.

A sleepy determination was borne in upon me to put a stop to this sacrilege, and before I knew what I was about, I found myself going down stairs and then unlocking my door. Once out in the open air, however, I was fully roused and stopped to bethink [me?] what I was about. I resolved after a minute's deliberation to enter the church by the porch on the northern side and spy upon the sailor, for I had an uneasy fear that I might find two or three confederates with him. I made my way quietly through the dark church and looked through one of the northern windows. I was startled to see the sailor's broad back almost underneath me as he bent over his work, digging in the ground by the wall. By the lantern-rays, as I had expected, I saw old Beale's grave dug up and his coffin lying open to the night. As I was looking, the moon shone out with sudden, quick radiance and, to my alarm, I suddenly saw a huge shadow shoot across the ground, of a man, leaning on a tomb-stone out of sight, nodding and pointing, it seemed, at the sailor.

I withdrew from the window to think what I should do against these two ruffians. For several minutes I stood undecided, until suddenly I heard an exclamation from the sailor outside and then the sound of something being pulled from the ground. I looked out of the window once more and beheld the sailor standing erect with a small copper casket in his left hand. In the right hand he held a piece of paper which he was puzzling out with some difficulty by the lantern light. I heard him mutter to himself, "Vy three times, vy three times! may be 'tis the key" in some perplexity. After a few minutes hesitation he said suddenly quite loud "Ah vell, ve'll try it!" and putting down the piece of paper on a tomb-stone near by, with the casket on it to prevent the wind from blowing it away, he snatched up the lantern, and slowly walked round the corner; just as he disappeared from sight, his lantern cast a fleeting shadow on the grass of a strange bleak profile that faded as soon as it fell. In another moment I saw the glimmer of the lantern on the east window and then along the bottom of the northern windows; slowly and painfully it wandered round the church, and at the end of the third round, stopped by the window from which I had looked. Suddenly there came a strangled oath and I saw the sailor staring with frightened eyes into the church, the lantern above his head. The next moment he was jerked sharply round and I heard him gasp in a hoarse whisper, "Vy dad, vatever..." and then a tense silence, on which there broke a horrible withered cry of madness and fear, that rose and fell upon the night, until another voice seemed to join in, like a reverberation in nightmare, shouting down the first cry in hideous mockery, until both died away in smothered sobs.

For a few minutes I stood motionless with horror, then in a sudden fit of fury rushed from the church and round to old Beale's tomb. Fallen across the open coffin I beheld the sailor writhing in horrible convulsions and almost before I came up to him, he flung up his arms and died. I bent over him, was about to examine him to see how he [had?] come by his death. My eye fell on the casket at his side, I took it up in my hands and examined it curiously, when I heard on the other side of the church the tapping of that stick on the pavement. With an inward cry of 'the murderer!' I laid hold of the sailor's pick-axe and ran round the west end of the church. The tapping of the stick increased in noise and celerity, and seemed to sound just round the corner, a few paces ahead of me. Wildly I rushed down the northern side of the church, and at every step I took, the stick beat upon the pavement with a more deafening clamour, and, every moment I seemed to be nearer my unseen foe, yet as I rounded each corner he seemed to have dodged out of [sight] round the next. Twice had we raced round the church, and a third time I ran on from old Beale's coffin blindly, madly as a dream. Suddenly, almost as I was most round the last corner, the blows on the pavement stopped, the running feet died down as suddenly as they had sprung into sound, and with the silence a wild fear fell upon me, coming with the rush of wind through trees. Vy three times? I dared not move a step further, but fell in a panic upon my face. I saw upon the grass, waiting as I fell...


Pinned on the back of the last sheet of this extraordinary tale, are three pieces of paper, covered with dirt, through which a great coarse sprawling handwriting is discernible (on two of them at least). Why my uncle should have attached them to his manuscript, I have never been able to make out. They are not even in his handwriting and seem to have no connection with his story, but in the hope that some more intelligent reader than myself might be able to interpret them, I reproduce the remarks scrawled over them. The first fragment (which is torn) runs in the following manner:

Seek o sun
Acurst my sun
Acurst who stirs my...(torn here)

The second has the following cryptic sentence:

6l 2s 3d 8 paces towrds wall

The third has a rough plan, certainly not of Colton Church as it stands today, with the figures 1, 2 and 3 set round it and a rough drawing of a shrouded figure holding out a key underneath. Behind the drapery on the face, there is faintly outlined a grim, rather malicious and expectant smile.

Editor's Note: The association of hidden treasure with a certain "old miser Beale" is intriguing. The author of this tale must have been thinking of Thomas Jefferson Beale, whose treasure and accompanying cryptograms were the subject of The Beale Papers by James B. Ward, published in 1885. Beale had made his fortune in the California gold and silver fields, and supposedly buried it in 1819 and 1821. It remains undiscovered, and some of the cryptograms are unsolved to the present day. Many people are continuing the hunt and there is a good deal of Internet activity on the subject. Before you get out your shovel and start digging up graveyards all over Cambridgeshire, however, you should know that the treasure, if it exists and was not a nineteenth century hoax, is somewhere in Bedford County, Virginia.

September 4, 1999

back to top

back to Ghosts & Scholars Archive

back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page

Bar by Syruss