Late on Christmas Eve 1926 Police Commander John Parker was summoned to the home of Margaret Swann, the widow of his old boss Herbert Merriman Swann, one of the finest policemen that ever lived.
“ John, thank you for coming.”
“ Is something wrong?”
“ No, nothing is wrong. It’s just that I’ve I come across this small notebook which I think you should have. I know that Scotland Yard have asked you to privately investigate the fire at the Memorial Theatre, and I think you might find this notebook of interest. ”
“ How did you know that I had been asked to…”
“ John, I was married to Herbert for over thirty years and still have many friends in the force and the Black Section…”
“ He told you about the Black Section?”
“ After the Great Christmas Train Robbery of 1881 he told me everything.”
“ I see. The Great Christmas Train Robbery, my goodness that was a night and no mistake.”
“ Take the note book home and read it, and before Christmas Day dawns you will have your answer.”
“ What did Margaret want?” asked my wife when I reached home.
“ She gave me this notebook of Swann’s. She want’s me to read it tonight, although I fear my eyesight is not up to it.”
“ Would you like me to read it?”
“ Yes please, my love”
I poured two glasses of wine and we settled down in front of the fire. Hilary began to read.
“ My dear John, I left a note asking Margaret to give this notebook to you as you are the only man who could possibly even try and understand what happened one Christmas Eve many years ago. Other than Margaret and the Revd. Arbuthnot, I have never told a living soul this story. It was 1902, and if you remember you were away investigating the Dreadnought case in Southampton…”
“ The Dreadnought case, yes…”
“ Anyway, I decided to take a walk round the river. It had started snowing quite heavily and I just felt like a good walk, and you know how much I loved the snow. If you remember, in those days, Margaret and I lived in one of those houses next to the Black Swan? “
“After wrapping up well, with Margaret fussing that I was too old to be out in the snow, I eventually turned left out of the house and headed toward the theatre. The pub was closed and all was quiet, so quiet I swear you could hear the snowflakes falling one upon the other. After lighting a good pipe of tobacco I decided to walk around the river side of the theatre and, like the good policeman, check that all the doors on that side were secure. It was then, as I passed behind the Gower monument and in front of the theatre that I felt the ground move, as if there had been a small earthquake, and I swear I could hear laughter, a strange thick unearthly laughter. I looked toward the snow shrouded statue of Lady Macbeth. Had she moved, was her dead stare directed now at me and not at her blood stained hands? Pull yourself together Swann I told myself, don’t be such an old fool. The ground moved again and I fell, hurting my back on one of the stone plinths, with my pipe swirling away into the deepening snow. It was then, as I sat propped awkwardly against the plinth, that I saw the open door and a strange almost demon like face looking down at me from a high window. I turned my gaze away, and then looked again. Nothing. But the door was still open. I know I should have gone home, John, or gone for help, but somehow I just knew the open door was meant for me. I managed to get to my feet, and do you know I swear I felt an invisible hand at my elbow helping me up. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, John, the old fool had had too much to drink and too many pipes of Turkish tobacco. I might have agreed with you at that moment, but not later. After brushing myself down I entered the theatre, and as I did so the small door slammed shut behind me. I was in utter darkness, the sort of darkness that enfolds you like black velvet, almost suffocating the very breath out of you. The thick unearthly laughter came again — and the sound of hammering — from the direction of the auditorium. I tried to light matches, but they died immediately as if an invisible finger and thumb had snubbed them out. It began to get extraordinarily cold too. But like you John I knew the inside of the theatre well and quickly found the staircase where I knew, higher up, there were windows that would reflect the whiteness of the snow outside. I found the windows, but they too were shrouded in blackness, a blackness that felt like soot to my fingertips, soot that I could not scrap off, it was as if the interior of the theatre had suffered a great fire with everything covered in this hard, dreadful, death like soot. I could feel it building up on my body too, entering my mouth with every breath, building up in my nostrils, my ears, and on my eyes, I felt as if I was slowly being buried. It was then I saw the small speck of light ahead of me, encouraging me upward. I followed. The row of windows on the landing were also encased in blackness. Suddenly I felt hands at my throat, hands that were trying to strangle me, hands that squeezed with a manic pressure, like the Devil’s noose . I fought like a maniac smashing whatever it was that held me against the windows until at last, with my last breath, the window crashed open and the evil that had taken hold of me fell to the ground outside into black snow where it lay, laughing. All was blackness inside and out. The snow that fell was black, the ground it covered was black, the river was now black ice, the sky. Then I heard a voice. It spoke gently, calmly. ‘ Follow the light.’ And there it was again, the small light, but like no other light you’ve ever seen, a gentle light that gave a small arc of colour to the blackness, a small flame of hope. ‘Help me, please help me,’ said the voice. I will, I replied. Then I heard the Guild Chapel bell strike twelve. Christmas Day. And the blackness that had covered everything flew out from the broken window, and all was white with snow. John, I’m not a Christian like you, but I knew where I needed to be. Slowly, painfully I made my way home, told Margaret we must get to the midnight service, that everything depended upon it. And we did, with many in the congregation looking at my soiled clothing and my contorted features with horror. But gradually what I had experienced fell away with the contemplative spirit and good will that pervading every nook and cranny of that old building, although that plea for help still permeated in my head and my heart. After the service I explained to the vicar, George Arbuthnot, what had happened. I have to say I was expecting something of a rebuttal, but no. George took me to one side and told me a story.”
“ Herbert, we live in an age of horror do we not, of exploitation and cheapness?” I nodded. “ You may have read Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula?” I shook my head. “ No? Well it deals with idea of the vampire, of the anti-Christ, of that which sucks at our very humanity. For many such a notion is a nonsense of course, for others it is the truth. I believe that it is the truth. Many years ago when I was a young man I took many walking holidays across Europe. One such adventure was in the Carpathian mountains, in Transylvania, the homeland of the 15th century ruler, Vlad the Impaler, or Count Dracula if you prefer. Anyway, during my walking tour I became lost late on Christmas Eve in a forest. I decided to camp for the night and find my way out the following morning. Around midnight, as I was reading by the light of a candle, with the snow gently falling outside my tent, the ground began to move and I heard a distant hammering. Once the initial fear had left me I decided to investigate, and as I drew nearer I heard laughter, an unearthly laughter that filled me with dread. The same laughter that you heard tonight. As I came closer I saw, in the dying glow of a small fire, a man hanging by his nailed hands from the boughs of a beech tree, his feet nailed to the trunk of the tree. Crucified. I managed, with some difficulty, to get the man down and tend his wounds. He had only rudimentary English, but eventually I found out that he was a Sabbatarian priest, and that those of his faith had been persecuted for centuries in Transylvania. Before he died he cursed the beech tree to which he had been nailed, and all beech trees, and as he did so the snow that surrounded the beech tree turned black, and the tree itself began to burn. I believe it is another manifestation of that curse you experienced tonight.”
“ But why the theatre?”
“ Simple. There is a great deal of beech in the theatre, and a good deal of it comes from Transylvania.”
“ And the light?”
“ The True Christ — the Light of Life. What you experienced is the continuing battle between good and evil fought out in a place of unrealities. The only thing I believe that will kill the curse is fire. One day it will happen.”
Herbert and Margaret went home and slept soundly.
At midnight on that Christmas Eve, John Parker and Hilary went to the midnight service at Holy Trinity. Half way through holy communion John decided his report to Scotland Yard on the cause of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre fire would be the careless throwing away of a lighted cigarette. He also suggested that in future steel be used in preference to beech, especially Translyvanian beech.