It was a dark night and windy. I had walked across the marshes from Portsmouth town, keen to get away from the fevers, the evil humours from the effluence left by the King’s army. I’d spent half the year in Portsmouth, working day and night plying my wares to the troops, hoping to make enough sovereigns to take home to our farm in the northern end of Portsea Island. The farm was failing, the crops had been confiscated by the soldiers as they passed through to Portsmouth, our grain stores purloined to feed the sailors of King Harry’s fleet, the fleet still waiting to sail against the French who were readying to attack our shores. I had to earn some money somehow so had gone into Portsmouth and sought to make enough money to feed us for the winter, hoping to buy enough grain to plant for the next season. The streets of the walled town had been heaving, crammed full of troops, sailors, merchants and people like me, selling their bodies for pennies in any alleyway all over the town. Alas, not much had been earned as the soldiers had yet to be paid.
It had been early Spring when I’d arrived in the town and the cool sea breezes blew away the evil mists but as the year progressed, the wind had dropped, more and more troops crowded in and no provision was made to clear the cesspits on the edge of the town. Diseases began to spread and by September I decided it was time to leave. I was reluctant on one level as there were promises of the troops being rewarded by the King with still money to be made. The troops were bored and waiting for action. I hadn’t made nearly enough to see us through the winter but couldn’t risk the fevers, so here I was, footsore and weary, late evening in Froddington, entering the only inn I could find in this poor hamlet, hoping for a bed for the night.
The room was dark, lit only by the open fire; a kettle hung from the chimney on a chain, steam hissing from its spout. I’d been inside for a few moments before I noticed the three men who sat in a corner on the far side of the room. Beyond them, leaning across the bar, was a large woman, her huge grimy bosom forming a shelf resting on the counter, her lank hair escaping from a greasy mob-cap. She smiled a toothless grin across at me as I approached the bar.
‘Well child, you’ve come at last. You’ll be looking for a bed for the night, then?’ She winked at the shadows. ‘You can call me Meg.’ It was only then that I noticed the man in the darkness at the end of the bar. A face loomed towards me – I felt the stink of his breath before I met his eyes and in that moment I swear I saw a glint of red flash from them. I wanted more than anything at that moment to turn away and leave but something seemed to hold me there, in some kind of spell. How long I was held there, I cannot recall, I seemed to be falling into the deep pools of his black eyes. The magic was broken by the sound of a tankard slamming onto the bar and the deep laughter of Meg.
‘Here, you’ll be needing refreshment no doubt,’ and in that moment as I turned to her I felt a cold chill rush across the back of my neck.
‘Thank you, yes, and a little bite to eat, if you please,’ I replied. The woman ambled away through an arched doorway at the rear of the room. Unwilling to be left alone with the dark-eyed stranger, I moved to the warmth of the open-fire. When I’d settled onto a wooden stool near the hearth I glanced back to the bar but the man had gone. This was the first time I thought, how strange – no way out unless he’d walked past me or leapt over the bar.
I was still troubling myself with these thoughts when Meg returned with a bowl of broth and a hunk of dry bread. My hunger got the better of my curiosity and I was soon devouring the meagre meal with relish. After washing it down with the tankard of ale, the weariness of the day overcame any concerns other than where my bed would be. As I rose to follow Meg up the narrow stairs to the bedchamber, the three men were still in the corner, arguing over their dice-game. They didn’t seem to notice that I was even there, and still no sign of the man at the bar.
Meg pushed open a door and we entered the room, sparsely furnished with a large four poster bed on one side of the room and a chest pushed against the opposite wall. On the chest was a bowl and jug of water for washing; a linen cloth hung from a hook on the beam above the chest. The only window was uncurtained but tightly closed and the new moon could just be seen hanging in the dark sky outside. The flickering shadows of a tree danced in the weak moonlight on the walls of the room.
‘Here you are my dear.‘ Meg handed me the candle that had lit us up the stairs. ‘We haven’t had many guests recently but you’ll find the bed well-aired.’ She chuckled to herself as she turned her back on me and stomped back through the door and down the stairs. I was far too tired to wonder why there had been few guests in this busy time on this small island and soon sank into the softness of the feather down mattress.
Sleep came easily, fueled no doubt by the strong ale I’d consumed so I was alarmed to be woken so abruptly only a short time later. Or at least, I assumed only a short time had passed. The moon remained in sight from my bed and the shadows of the tree flickered on the walls. Still wondering what had woken me from my slumbers and a little frightened to look about the room, to tell the truth, I felt that chill across my face, the same chill I’d felt in the bar earlier. I wanted more than anything at that moment to hide under the covers and pretend that there was nothing there. Something however compelled me to turn my head and look about the room. Fear leapt at me as I saw the dark-eyed stranger standing at the foot of the bed, his eyes flashing red again. I hadn’t imagined it before and I wasn’t imagining it now.
‘Don’t be afeared,’ he whispered. ‘I knew you’d come in time. I’ve waited for so long.’
‘What do you want?’ My voice was shaking. Was this just another man after my body, or something else? To tell the truth I was sick of degrading myself for money although the thought of earning a few more coins was always welcome and I’d grit my teeth to get us through the winter.
‘Don’t worry, it’s not your body I’m after – not in the way you think, anyway.’ He smiled, a haunting shadow of a smile. ‘I need your help, that’s all. Come with me and you’ll be well rewarded.’
Well, the last thing I wanted at that moment was to leave the warmth and comparative safety of my bed to follow this awful-looking stranger. I tried to resist but something made me rise from the bed and still dressed I slipped on my shoes and followed him from the room. I had a passing thought that the floor-boards creaking under my feet were silent as he stepped over them. Soon we were in the lane outside the inn. Without even pausing the check that I was following, he moved on past the darkened cottages and down the lane towards the old church yard.
Ghostly fingers lingered across my face as we passed under the lych-gate into the shadow of the church. I stifled a scream. It was only a trail of ivy, loosened by the wind. I scurried on, trying to keep up with my guide, wanting more than ever to just be gone, back home to our farm but I couldn’t stop myself and followed him until we reached the darkest corner of the cemetery, under an ancient yew tree. Now yew trees have always brought me into a state of calm and I could feel myself relax a little. I remembered their purpose, to keep away evil spirits so why was I being brought here? Almost as soon as I had that questioning thought in my mind, the answer was there.
‘Look under the turf at the base of the headstone; there you’ll find what I am seeking.’
It was more of a thought in my head although at the time I was sure he’d spoken. I knelt by the grave and dug with my fingers into the soft earth around the base of the stone. The grass was growing thicker here but I somehow managed to make a hole with my bare hands.
‘Dig deeper,’ I heard in my ear and as I turned to him impatiently his eyes seared into mine. ‘It’s there, you’ll need to dig deeper.’
‘What exactly are you looking for?’ I muttered to myself as I turned back to the task. ‘And why me? Surely you could have done this yourself, any time.’
‘Just dig, and all will be shown to you. Dig, and when you’ve found it I’ll tell you what to do next.’
‘It would be easier if I had a light and some tools,’ I complained. As I spoke the evergreen branches above us seemed to part, shining thin moonlight onto a flat stone lying there on the grass next to the grave. Poor light indeed, but just enough to see clearer what I was doing. Soon with the help of the flat stone I was able to dig easier and was shovelling the soil from the hole.
‘Be careful. It should be just there. Use your hands only now.’ The stone fell from my grip and I felt around in the dirt. There was something there, hard and smooth and about the size of a coin. I felt all around the edge, carefully scraping away the soil. As soon as I’d uncovered it completely I managed to lift it from its earthly grave, shaking the loose soil from the long chain attached to it. It was a locket.
‘This what you want?’ I held the shiny artifact up to show him, thinking he would snatch it from my hands but he just sat on a nearby gravestone and smiled.
‘Thank you. Now for the next part of the task,’ he said.
‘Now, wait just a moment,’ I protested. ‘First you must tell me what this means. Is this yours, and if so what’s it doing buried here? And why couldn’t you just have got it yourself?’
I held up the locket watching as it spun, gradually slowing almost to a stop. Then without any help from me, it began to swing to and fro like a pendulum as it if had a life of its own. I looked from the locket back to the stranger. His eyes were even deeper, if that were possible.
‘Well? You haven’t answered my questions. You knew this was here. You could have collected it at any time without my help.’ I thrust the trinket at him thinking he would snatch at it but he stepped backwards away from me as though afeared of my touch.
‘No!’ he snapped. ‘I can’t touch it. You must carry it for me.’ He stopped. I waited.
‘I’m not moving until you explain.’ I felt suddenly brave and wondered how he’d persuaded me out of my warm bed to this dark graveyard. My determination only lasted a moment however, as he stood over me then turned to move away – I felt an overwhelming urge to follow, still clutching the chain and locket in my hand.
‘Where are you going?’ I called but there was no answer. He led me back out through the lych-gate and into the lane, turning back the way we’d come. I walked as though in a dream along the narrow leafy bridleway until we came to a halt in front of a pair of high wooden gates, tightly closed to the outside world. I wondered how we would get inside, if that was indeed what he intended. The gates were chained together and padlocked. The lock and chain were rusty and looked as though they’d not been opened for years. Then I realised that there was a gap at the side of the gates where the wall had crumbled. Without speaking the stranger made his way to the gap and whilst I was still wondering what I was doing there, he appeared to glide through to the other side. I felt myself compelled to follow and scrambled over the fallen stones.
Once inside the atmosphere seemed to have changed. The air was still, the trees no longer buffeted by the wind, all was quiet. Then I saw the house. A gloomy affair with thatched roof and small windows. I thought that it was uninhabited until I noticed a candle in one of the windows under the eaves. My stranger had stopped and was staring at the light. Then he turned to me.
‘Knock on the door and give the locket to the person who answers,’ he said. I hesitated, unwilling to waken the poor person living here. ‘Knock,’ he persisted, then all will be revealed to you.’
I stood in front of the door and knocked. ‘Louder,’ he insisted. ‘Louder.’ I knocked again, louder this time and stepped back to look up at the candle light in the window above. A woman’s face appeared in the light so I waved. The woman disappeared along with the light. I could hear the sound of footsteps on the stairs inside and finally the door creaked open. An old woman stood there, her long white neatly plaited hair reached below her waist.
‘What is it?’ she looked puzzled. ‘I haven’t had a visitor here for over forty years. How did you find your way in?’ She paused, waiting for an answer. When none came she went on, ‘Well, you’d better come in and explain yourself.’
She opened the door wider to let us in. Before I went inside I turned to look at the stranger but he’d gone. I seemed to be alone with the old woman. ‘Wait,’ I said. ‘There’s a gentleman with me. He led me here.’
The woman stepped outside and looked about. ‘Well there’s nobody there now,’ she said. ‘He must have gone away.’ She came inside and ushered me to the fire-side. ‘Sit here and tell me all about it,’ she said.
‘He wanted me to give you this.’ The locket was still entwined around my fingers. I held it out to her in the dim light of the glowing embers. She gasped as she reached for it.
‘My locket.’ There were tears in her eyes as she held the locket to her lips. ‘Where did you find it?’
‘It was in the graveyard, buried at the base of a headstone.’
‘What headstone? What was written on it?’
‘Sorry, I don’t know. Look, I don’t know what all this is about. I just got taken to the church yard by this man and told to dig until I found that locket. I’m staying at the Froddington Arms, just for one night, on my way home. I didn’t want to get involved in any of this but…’ I paused, wondering how to explain how I’d got involved in this mystery. ‘Look, it’s obvious the locket is yours but how did it get to be buried on that grave, and who was the man who led me there?’
‘I’d better try and explain then,’ she began. She opened the clasp at the edge of the locket and it sprung open. ‘Look at this.’ She passed it to me and taking it in my hands I could see that on the inside were two portraits, one of a young woman and the other a man. The woman was beautiful, her hair plaited around her head in coils, a jewel hung from each ear. She was wearing a rich gown of green. The man was dark haired and handsome and was also dressed in rich clothes. There was something about him that I recognised – his eyes perhaps, dark and deep-set. Then I realised that it was him – it was the dark-eyed stranger who’d led me to the locket.
‘The woman is me, many years ago,’ she said. ‘And the man was my love, my dear husband-to-be who alas disappeared before we could wed. People said he’d thought better of it and had run away but I never believed he would do that to me. We loved each other deeply and he’d never have betrayed me like that. My parents disapproved of him and said we couldn’t marry so we used to meet secretly under the yew tree in the church yard. He gave me that locket the day before we were due to elope together. It was the only way, we thought, then the next day when I awoke, the locket had gone and so had he. I waited for him under the yew tree but he never appeared. Every day I waited for him, every day for years but he never came back. I gave up in the end. My parents died some years later and I’ve lived here all alone ever since.’
‘Such a sad story,’ I held the locket out to her and she took it back into her hands, smiling to herself as she did so.
She went on. ‘I never forgot him and never married. He broke my heart.’ She held the locket by the chain and as she spoke it began spinning, just as it had for me at the grave. It seemed to be pulling her in the direction of the door. I stared, that chill swept across my shoulders again.
‘It’s telling you something,’ I whispered. ‘Perhaps we should go where it leads?’
The locket was moving with more urgency as she stood and made her way to the door. She opened it and stepped outside with me following closely behind. Then it stopped. Nothing. It was completely still. I looked about to see if the dark stranger was there but he was nowhere to be seen. As I turned back to her I noticed a small recess in the wall of the house, only about the size of a small apple. It was covered in cobwebs and dried leaves. I was drawn to the space as I’d be drawn to the grave. I shuddered, unwilling to put my hand into the unknown, wondering briefly if there were a spider’s nest in there but had no choice and thrust in my hand, groping about tentatively. I could feel something cloth-like and pulled it out. It was torn and faded, nothing but an old piece of rag.
‘Let me see,’ the woman took the rag from me. ‘We need some light,’ she said and went back into the house and sat down beside the fire once more. ‘Bring the candle closer, there’s writing on one side.’ As she read it out the tears began to fall from her eyes. I had never seen such pain nor heard such a sad tale.
‘I cannot put this letter into your hand, nor speak to you in person. Therefore I am leaving it in a place where I hope you will find it. Your father came to see me this morning and gave me no choice but to leave. He gave me your locket and said that you no longer loved me, that you had chosen to marry another. Is this true? If so, my heart is broken and I will leave this place forever tonight. I have sent a message to you through your sister to tell you to look in our secret place where I have left this letter. I couldn’t trust the letter to her hand as I believe all your family are against us but hope that she will at least tell you what I have asked her to.
‘I will wait until midnight tonight and if you come, we will be together for ever. If you don’t come, I will understand that what your father tells me is the truth and you will never see me again but I will carry your locket with me wherever I go as a memory of our love. Should you come and I am not there, then fear the worst, for your father has threatened me with death.
I am forever yours,
She sat weeping for a long while. I was weeping also, unable to comfort her. Finally she stirred herself, wiping her eyes. ‘You found this locket on a grave in the church-yard?’ she asked. I nodded. ‘Then he must be dead. So, he did love me. He wouldn’t have left my locket there. I think I’ve always known in my heart that he wasn’t alive.’
We sat for what seemed like hours, until the dawn light began to change the shape of the room. I was so tired, my eyelids heavy and soon a found myself slipping off to sleep. The old woman didn’t seem to notice as I laid down on the hearth to keep warm. I remember vaguely sensing her move about the room and then I heard a door gently open and close. I must have slept half the day away for when I awoke the sun was shining through the windows and was high in the sky. I stirred myself and looked about me. No sign of the woman although lying on the hearth next to me was a box, wooden, with a lock on the lid. I picked up the box, it was small though heavy and I could hear something metal rattling inside. Looking around for the key, I realised that something was hanging from a string around my neck. It was a key and it fit the lock. I opened the box and looked inside. It was filled with gold sovereigns, more than I could ever have dreamed of owning in my whole lifetime. I tipped them out on the floor, excitement mounting as I counted them – fifty sovereigns! A fortune indeed.
I sat for a while, pondering the mystery and decided to look about the house for the woman. I searched every room but there was no sign of her. Finally, I gathered up the sovereigns and once I had carefully locked them back in the box I carried them out of the house and began to make my way back to The Froddington Arms. As I left, however, I felt compelled to look in the secret place again and thrusting in my hand once again, I discovered that there was indeed something else in there. I pulled out a scrap of paper with the words “thank you” written on it. Inside the paper was wrapped the locket. I opened the clasp of the locket to look once more at the portraits but it was empty. The locket glistened in the sunlight and I felt a warm glow inside me whilst I gazed upon it.
Once again in the bridleway outside the wooden gates, I hesitated to go directly to the inn and turned instead towards the church yard. All looked so different in the sunshine but I soon found the yew tree and the grave-stone beneath its boughs. I crouched down to read the name on the grave but it was faded and worn with age. Feeling disappointed that the mystery would remain unsolved I stood up and made to leave. As I looked across in the bright light of day, I swear I could see the shadow of the dark stranger standing there, no longer alone, for next to him was a beautiful young woman with her hair plaited about her head, and they were both smiling at me.
Before leaving I felt obliged to return first to the Froddington Arms to pay for my lodgings but as I approached the inn I realised that it was just a shell of a building, neglected and empty. I slipped the locket’s chain over my head and began the long walk home, my night in Froddington a mystery I’ve never been able to fully fathom. Needless to say though, the farm was saved and we have had many a fruitful year’s harvests since.