THE WITCH'S ROOM
"I've been on a sea voyage again," said Carnacki, as we made ourselves comfortable after dinner, "but as Dodgson will no doubt remark, not a very long one. A fortnight ago I received a most intriguing letter from a Captain Lemprière, a native of the Island of Jersey, in response to which I took advantage of the steamship service to pay him a visit. I may add that those who only know the Island as a place to take a holiday have not sailed to it in the month of October.
"Captain Lemprière lives in a big old house in the North of the Island near Bouley Bay, some four or five miles from St Helier, and he met me himself with a pony and trap.
"He had already, in his letter, indicated the nature of his problem, which was twofold. It appeared that in the sixteenth century the house was owned by one Guillaume de Lemprière who enjoyed -- if that is the word -- a considerable reputation as a witch. Indeed it was held locally that he had a 'familiar spirit' which enabled him to lead a charmed life. As long as he had this 'familiar' he could be killed neither by 'forged steel nor hempen band' (as Lemprière translated from the old Norman French patois): in other words, neither by sword nor gallows. This presented a problem inasmuch that while in Guernsey witches were burned alive, in Jersey this barbaric practice was not followed. The compromise which was settled upon was to wall Guillaume up alive in the room where he was supposed to have held his conferences with evil spirits and let him starve to death.
"So much for the legend. And indeed Lemprière had always taken it to be just that: legend. But in the course of some rebuilding work which he was having done, a secret room was uncovered, and in it, indeed, a skeleton found: a man's bones, from their size. The remains were duly buried in nearby Trinité churchyard and the room restored to use, with a new window and door in their blocked-up frames.
"No sooner had this been done than the door began to 'nod', as Lemprière described it -- referring to its moving shadow on the stairs if a light were shone on it, I took it -- it swung upon its hinges, to and fro, to and fro, and would not remain closed, even when locked and bolted. And sometimes at night a keening sound could be heard, and the 'feel' of the room was very bad indeed.
"Well, it certainly sounded to me like a genuine 'haunt', and I was keen to investigate.
"As I said, Captain Lemprière met me at the quayside, and during our journey to his house -- which led, for the most part, along a road in a deep wooded valley -- he attempted to describe the phenomena, not without a kind of mournful pride. He is a gentleman of middle years who speaks English with a slight accent, for you must remember that it is only since the turn of the century that English has been the official first language on Jersey.
" 'Well, M. Carnacki,' he said to me, 'I cannot in all conscience bring you to my house without trying to convey to you how absolutely horrible my poor home has become. I would wall up that infernal room again tomorrow if I thought it would do a scrap of good.'
" 'Probably not,' I told him. 'It sounds as if the opening of the room has triggered off the haunting: quite the reverse of the usual tales, when giving old remains a burial can put an end to long-established phenomena.'
" 'Indeed,' he said, 'that was my thought too. M. Carnacki, the room is halfway up a spiral staircase; it cannot be seen from the ground floor. When I set my foot upon the bottom step, I do not want to be there. And the higher I climb, the greater is this feeling of reluctance. My back "creeps", you understand. I am no coward: I have been a soldier. Yet it is not a physical danger I seem to fear, but a horrid uncleanliness of... of the soul, if that is not too fanciful a phrase.'
"I hurried to reassure him that it was entirely understandable, but I was becoming profoundly uneasy. For an unimaginative soldier to speak in such terms argues a very powerful influence -- don't you think? And the feeling of being tainted is a characteristic of Saiitii mischief, if not worse.
" 'After all this,' he went on, 'the noise, one might think, could not be worse. But, somehow, it is. Do you recall Isaiah, xxxiv, 14: the satyr shall cry to his fellow? That is what it puts me in mind of. O, it's a lost and lonely sound, and entirely the wrong shape to come from the throat of anything living.'
"He fell silent then, and we travelled without speaking, the only sound being the clop, clop of the pony's hooves, until a church came into view. Lemprière identified it as Trinité church, where Guillaume's bones had been interred. Shortly after this the sea came into view, gunmetal-coloured, between two steep headlands, and then we turned into the driveway of his house. It was a stone manor house, grey and forbidding in the dull light despite the bright scarlet leaves of the Virginia-creeper which covered it and the warm glow of lamplight from the windows.
" 'I've sent my wife and family away, except for my oldest boy, Philippe,' Lemprière said to me. 'He's a sensible lad and gives me a bit of company -- and one needs that when the crying comes in the deep night.' He raised his voice and called Philippe's name, and presently a young man of nineteen or twenty emerged from the front door. His father performed the introductions, after which Philippe led the pony away and Lemprière conducted me into the house.
" 'I suppose it's too late to do anything today,' he said.
" 'It's been here long enough, Papa; another day won't hurt,' remarked Philippe, coming into the room carrying a basket which had been in the trap with us. 'Here's supper,' he added.
" 'Perhaps you'd show me the room anyway,' I said. Father and son exchanged a glance. Lemprière then led me to the foot of a spiral staircase, and as I stepped onto the bottom stair the feeling came over me all at once that I was walking into something unspeakably vile. And not only vile, but rottenly dangerous as well.
"Without a word, Lemprière handed me his lantern. I started up the staircase, and the horror increased as I climbed, until I was literally shaking with it. And yet nothing had happened yet. I wonder if you can imagine that? And then I saw the door. It opened outwards and was just ajar. As I watched it moved gently, swinging to and fro in the lamplight so that its shadow did indeed appear to be nodding.
"And then, you know, I heard the noise. It began quietly, like a moan, and rapidly built to a screeching crescendo. I can't convey in words the utter inhumanity of it; it occurred to me then that something hunting might make that cry. 'In the forests of the night' was the phrase which came into my mind, but a 'Tyger' would have been clean and wholesome and welcome compared to what made that sound. Sweat broke out on my face, and I couldn't get my breath.
"I reached up with my free hand and slammed the door, and with the special chalk I had ready rapidly made the First and Last Signs of the Saaamaaa Ritual on both door-posts, joining each with a triple line. The keening was in no way lessened by the closing of the door, which only increased my unease -- for Sigsand maintains that 'gayrds of holienesse' are likely to be ineffective when the monster 'hath pow'r to speake throe woode and stoene'.
" 'Let's get out of here,' I said to Lemprière, and he followed the suggestion with alacrity. It was all I could do to prevent myself from looking back over my shoulder. The wailing followed us, mockingly.
" 'What do you make of it, M. Carnacki?' Philippe asked me when Lemprière and I entered the dining-room. He had set out a cold supper on the table, and I gratefully accepted the glass of wine he handed me, although I have to say I would have preferred something stronger.
" 'It's too early to say for certain,' I replied, 'but I'm reasonably sure that there's something pretty nasty in that room of yours. Now, have either of you been into the room?'
" 'Only once,' said Lemprière. 'We went in together.'
" 'For courage,' added his son, with an engaging grin.
" 'Well, you felt it on the stairs; it was twenty times worse in the room. Filthy -- frightening.'
" 'Then I don't need to warn you not to go in again,' I said, and gave them a little lecture about Saiitii manifestations and how there is no protection against that type of monster, except possibly for a fractional period of time, because it can reproduce itself out of, or use for its own purpose, your own protective material; even form 'wythin the Pentacle' given time. And that, if you recall what I told you about the 'Noving Fur' case, can be a hideous business.
" 'But then what can be done about these... Saiitii?' asked Lemprière.
" 'Discover the cause, and remedy it,' I told him, 'or, failing that, destroy the affected room.'
" 'That sounds a little drastic,' observed Philippe.
" 'No more so than amputating a diseased limb,' I said. 'But it may not come to that.'
"In the morning I mounted the stairs to find the door open again, and swinging gently back and forth. This made me feel rather queer, for it had broken through the guards I had set, albeit that they were an abbreviated form of the ritual.
"Going into the room after discovering that took all my pluck, even in daylight. It was silent, but even the quiet was malevolent; it gave one a sense that Something was waiting, and anticipating some unholy pleasure. As I went in a sense of draining and debilitating terror settled over me like a blanket, and a feeling of being irrevocably soiled, as if the very uncleanliness of the atmosphere were somehow contagious.
"As quickly as I could I tested walls, floors and ceiling with hammer and probe, for I had no wish to spend any longer than I had to in that sickening place. Still, it took me most of the day and I was glad that the weather had turned sunny. When I was done I rigged up my camera with a wire to take a photograph if the door should open again, and sealed it outside with all Eight Signs of the Saaamaaa Ritual.
"Over supper I explained to the Lemprières, father and son, what I had done and what I intended to do, and repeated my warning about not approaching the room. 'I think there is something rottenly dangerous in there,' I told them. I found I was waiting in real dread for the vile hooning cry to begin again, and felt my heart sink when it did; I may have been imagining it, but I fancied it had taken on a horrid gloating note, as if it knew what I was up to.
"The following day I returned to the staircase to find the door open once more, with its infernal, unceasing nodding movement. I was in and out like a shot, retrieving my camera with hands which were none too steady. Then I sealed the head and the foot of the stairs not only with the Eight Signs but also with the Seal of Solomon.
"When I developed the plate, I found merely a picture of the empty room, with the door standing just ajar. Staring at that picture I felt the 'creep' come upon me, and I felt pretty ineffectual there, meddling with hell's own mysteries.
"That made me wonder about Guillaume's 'familiar spirit', and I went to find Lemprière senior to ask him if he knew any more details about his notorious ancestor.
" 'No more than I have already told you,' he replied, 'save that the name of his familiar was said to be "M'sieu Crapaud"; but that is only what les ânes Guernsais call the Jerseymen, toads.'
"When evening came I checked my seals once more and we all adjourned to the dining-room.
" 'I am going to break one of my rules,' I said. 'I must tell you that if the seals are broken again tonight you will probably have to demolish that room.'
"Lemprière looked, if anything, relieved. 'You have not found the cause of the phenomena, then?'
" 'No,' I replied. 'Yet I believe that whatever is in that room is horribly dangerous.'
" 'It could... kill, you think?' asked Philippe.
" 'It could,' I agreed. 'But the danger to the soul is greater.'
" 'The soul?' he repeated, looking doubtful.
" 'Whatever makes you yourself: your essence, if you prefer.' And I told him a little about poor Aster, who stayed outside the Pentacle in the 'Black Veil' case.
" 'It sounds as thought he was driven insane and died of fright,' observed Philippe.
" 'You can think of it that way, if you like.'
" 'Sh--shh!' said Lemprière suddenly.
"The wailing had begun. But as I listened I heard what had alerted him: there was a new note in it. Overlying that terrifying sense of yearning was an awful kind of exultation.
" 'Stay here!' I told them, and ran for the back-stairs; but young Philippe followed me. Light from my lantern cast bobbing shadows on the corridor, and in that light we both saw, at the foot of the stairs where I had set my strongest wards, a monstrous distorted form, pushing against a cloudy barrier. First a hand-like member made a protruberance in the semi-transparent stuff, then some kind of a face, then again a hand; and to my utter horror, I saw it begin to tear, like thin flimsy cloth.
"I seized Philippe's arm. 'Go back,' I told him desperately. 'Get your father out of the house.' I could barely speak for the overwhelming, choking sense of something unspeakably foul close up against me; then a dreadful limb poked through the 'fabric' of the Defenses, and then another: arms that were long and thin, with webbed hands.
" 'M'sieu Crapaud,' breathed Philippe in a horrified voice.
" 'Go!' I shouted; and he ran. Now I could see, too, what the creature was: an immense and hellish toad. As I watched, it pushed its ghastly head through, and looked straight at me with a kind of vile knowing look in its red eyes, and screeched its terrible cry.
"I yelled out in sheer funk, and took to my heels. Outside the house, I found Lemprière standing watching the door, his face as white as cheese.
" 'Mon Dieu!' he exclaimed, seeing me, and took a step towards me. 'Are you all right?'
" 'Yes,' I said, waving him back. 'Where's your son?'
" 'Philippe's getting the trap. We can join my wife at her sister's for tonight. Can...it get out of the house?'
" 'Not yet,' I replied. 'But every night it's getting stronger.'
" 'What in heaven's name is it?'
" 'Guillaume de Lemprière's familiar spirit. Which tells you everything, and nothing. It's a -- let's call it an elemental -- which manifests itself as a monstrous toad.'
" 'Is it a demon?'
" 'You could call it a demon, yes.'
"Philippe appeared round the corner of the house driving the trap, and we scrambled in. None of us spoke very much during the half-hour drive: I for one was too shaken; but if Mme Lemprière's sister was surprised to see us turn up, she concealed it well.
"Mme Lemprière herself, a tall, brown-haired lady, listened thoughtfully to my explanation, and then looked in her husband's direction and said, 'I wonder, Henri, if it has anything to do with the medallion?' He looked startled; she turned back to me. 'M. Carnacki, when they found the...bones, there was a kind of charm or amulet with them; it had some queer words and signs on it.'
" 'I forgot all about that,' said her husband.
" 'What happened to it, Madame?' I asked.
" 'It went to the Société Jersaise; my sister's husband, M. de Carteret, is the President.'
"It took only a few minutes, with Philippe's help, to convince Lemprière's brother-in-law that I needed to see this medallion, and in the morning I was able to examine it. Mme Lemprière's guess proved to be correct: it was inscribed with words of summoning and binding, and also with a pentagon: which, as you will remember from the 'Gateway' case, is a focus and a figure which will 'fayvor thee Evill Thinge'.
"Later that day I returned to the Lemprière house with an oxyhydrogen jet and cylinders, and inside the room on the stairs I drew a Pentacle and melted down that unclean thing.'
Our friend, his narrative completed, leaned back and concentrated upon his pipe.
"I take it that stopped the... does one call it a haunting?" I asked.
Carnacki shrugged. "Manifestation?" he suggested. "Yes, it stopped it."
"But what started it--" began Arkright.
"--Is more interesting," agreed Carnacki.
"The opening of the room?" said Taylor.
"No," said Carnacki. "The burying of the witch Guillaume de Lemprière in consecrated ground. Witches' bodies in the sixteenth century in Jersey were always burned after execution to prevent any malign influence remaining; but that would also have the effect of releasing anyone, or any thing, that the witch had bound. While Guillaume's bones and the amulet were together, the familiar spirit was present but quiescent. When the remains were buried it was "sealed off" from his influence, and made a bid for freedom. It nearly gained it, too."
"You said it could be called an elemental, or a demon," said Jessop. "Was it not a Saiitii manifestation, then?"
"Not in the sense of being a sort of ætheric fungus whose 'mycelium' is rooted in, and pervades, the fabric of the house," replied Carnacki, "but analogous in that it grew , as Saiitii manifestations do, over a length of time until it reached tremendous proportions. Names are, after all, just labels, when all's said and done."
He rose and conducted the four of us to his front door, to usher us out in his genial way.
"Good night," we all called to him, and he answered us in kind. But I found myself walking a little faster as I passed Chelsea Old Church on my way home that night.
(First published in LICHGATE)