St. Andrews Ghost Stories/The Beckoning Monk

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The Beckoning Monk.

Many years ago, about the time of the Tay Bridge gale, I was staying at Edinburgh with a friend of mine, an actor manager. I had just come down from the paint-room of the theatre, and was emerging from the stage-door, when I encountered Miss Elsie H———, a then well-known actress.

"You are just the very person I wanted to meet," she said. "Allow me to introduce you to my friend, Mr Spencer Ashton. He's not an actor, he's an artist, and he's got such a queer, queer story about ghosts and things near your beloved St Andrews."

I bowed to Mr Ashton, who was a quiet-looking man, pale and thin, rather like a benevolent animated hairpin. He reminded me somehow of Fred Vokes. We shook hands warmly.

"Yes," he said, "my story sounds like fiction, but it is a fact, as I can prove. It is rather long, but it may possibly interest you. Where could we foregather?"

"Come and dine with me at the Edinburgh Hotel to-night at eight. I'll get a private room," I said.

"Right oh!" said he, and we parted.

That evening at eight o'clock we met at the old Edinburgh Hotel (now no longer in existence), and after dinner he told me his very remarkable tale.

"Some years ago," he said, I was staying in a small coast town in Fife, not very far from St Andrews. I was painting some quaint houses and things of the sort that tickled my fancy at the time, and I was very much amused and excited by some of the bogie tales told me by the fisher folk. One story particularly interested me."

"And what was that?" I asked.

"Well, it was about a strange, dwarfish, old man, who, they swore, was constantly wandering about among the rocks at nightfall; a queer, uncanny creature, they said, who was 'aye beckoning to them,' and who was never seen or known in the daylight. I heard so much at various times and from various people about this old man that I resolved to look for him and see what his game really was. I went down to the beach times without number, but saw nothing worse than myself, and I was almost giving the job up as hopeless, when one night 'I struck oil,' as the Yankees would say."

"Good," I said, "let me hear."

"It was after dusk," he proceeded, "very rough and windy, but with a feeble moon peeping out at times between the racing clouds. I was alone on the beach. Next moment I was not alone."

"Not alone," I remarked. "Who was there?"

"Certainly not alone," said Ashton. " About three yards from me stood a quaint, short, shrivelled, old creature. At that time the comic opera of 'Pinafore' was new to the stage-loving world, and this strange being resembled the character of 'Dick Deadeye' in that piece. But this old man was much uglier and more repulsive. He wore a tattered monk's robe, had a fringe of black hair, heavy black eyebrows, very protruding teeth, and a pale, pointed, unshaven chin. Moreover, he possessed only one eye, which was large and telescopic looking."

"What a horrid brute," I said.

"Oh! he wasn't half so bad after all," said Ashton, "though his appearance was certainly against him. He kept beckoning to me with a pale, withered hand, continually muttering, 'Come.' I felt compelled to follow him, and follow him I did."

I lit up another pipe and listened intently.

"He took me," resumed Ashton, "into a natural cave, a cleft in the rocks, and we went stumbling over the rocks and stones, and splashing into pools. At least I did. He seemed to get along all right. At the far end of this clammy cave, a very narrow staircase, cut out of solid rock, ascended abruptly about twenty or thirty steps, then turned a corner and descended again into a large passage. Then a mighty queer thing happened."

"What might that be?" I enquired.

"Well, my guide somehow or other suddenly became possessed of a huge great candlestick with a lighted candle in it, about three feet high, which lit up the vaulted passage.

"'We now stand in the monk's sub-way,' he said.

"'Indeed, and who may you be? Are you a man or a ghost?'

"The queer figure turned. 'I am human,' he said, 'do not fear me. I was a monk years ago, now I am reincarnate—time and space are nothing whatever to me. I only arrived a short while ago from Naples to meet you here.'

"Good heavens, Ashton," I said, "is this all true?"

"Absolutely true, my dear fellow," said Ashton. "I was in my sound senses, not hypnotised or anything of that sort, I assure you. On and on we went, the little man with his big candle leading the way, and I following. Two or three times the sub-way narrowed, and we had a tight squeeze to get through, I can tell you."

"What a rum place," I interjected.

"Yes, it was that," said Ashton, "but it got still rummer as we went up and down more stairs, and then popped through a hole into a lower gallery, and I noticed side passages branching off in several different directions.

"'Walk carefully and look where you tread,' said my monkish guide. 'There are pitfalls here; be very wary.'

"Then I noticed at my feet a deep, rock-hewn pit about two feet wide right across the passage. 'What is that for?' I asked. 'To trap intruders and enemies,' said the little monk. 'Look down.' I did so, and I saw at the bottom, in a pool of water, a whitened skull and a number of bones. We passed four or five such shafts in our progress."

"Pon my word, this beats me altogether," I interpolated.

"It would have beaten me altogether if I had fallen into one of those traps," said Ashton. "Suddenly the close, damp, fungus sort of air changed and I smelt a sweet fragrant odour. 'I smell incense,' I said to the monk.

"'It is the wraith, or ghost, of a smell,' he said. 'There has been no incense hereaway since 1546. There are ghosts of sounds and smells, just as there are ghosts of people. We are here surrounded by spirits, but they are transparent, and you cannot see them unless they are materialised, but you can feel them.'

"'Hush, hark!' said the monk, and then I heard a muffled sound of most beautiful chiming bells, the like I never heard before.

"'What is that?'

"'The old bells of St Andrews Cathedral. That is the ghost of sounds long ago ceased,' and the monk muttered some Latin. Then all of a sudden I heard very beautiful chanting for a moment or more, then it died away.

"'That is the long dead choir of monks chanting vespers,' remarked my guide, sadly.

"At this period the monk and I entered a large, rock-hewn chamber, wide and lofty. In it there were numerous huge old iron clamped chests of different sizes and shapes.

"'These,' said the monk, 'are packed full of treasures, jewels, and vestments. They will be needed again some day. Above us now there are ploughed fields, but long ago right over our heads there existed a church and monastery to which these things belonged.' He pointed with a skinny claw of a hand to one corner of the chamber. 'There,' he said, 'is the staircase that once led to the church above.'"

Ashton stopped and lit a cigar, then resumed.

"Well, on we went again, turning, twisting, going up steps, round corners, through more holes, and stepping over pitfall shafts. It was a loathsome and gruesome place.

"Out of a side passage I saw a female figure glide quickly along. She was dressed as a bride for a wedding; then she disappeared.

"'Fear not,' said the monk, 'that is Mirren of Hepburn's Tower, the White Lady, she can materialise herself and appear when she chooses, but she is not re-incarnate as I am.'

"Well, after we had gone on it seemed for hours, as I have described, the monk paused.

"'I fear I must leave you,' he said, suddenly. 'I am wanted. Before I go, take this,' and he placed in my hand a tiny gold cup delicately chased; 'it is a talisman and will bring you good luck always,' he said. 'Keep it safe, I may never see you again here, but do not forget.'

"Then I was alone in black darkness. He and his candle had vanished in a second. Quite alone in that awful prison, heaven only knows how far below the ground, I could never have gone back, and I feared to go forward. I was entombed in a worse place than the Roman Catacombs, with no hope of rescue, as it was unknown and forgotten by all."

"What a fearful position to be in," I said.

"I should think it was," said Ashton. "The awful horror of it I can never forget as long as I live. I was absolutely powerless and helpless. I had lost my nerve, and I screamed aloud in an agony of mind. I had some matches, and these I used at rare intervals, crawling carefully and feeling my way along the slimy floor of the passage. I had a terrible feeling, too, that something intangible, but horrible, was crawling along after me and stopping when I stopped. I heard it breathing. I struck a match, and it was lucky, for I just missed another of those pitfalls. By the light of the match I saw a small shrine in an alcove which had once been handsomely ornamented. My progress forward was suddenly stopped by a gruesome procession of skeleton monks all in white. They crossed the main sub-way from one side passage and entered another. Their heads were all grinning skulls, and in their long bony fingers they bore enormous candles, which illuminated the passage with a feeble blue glare."

"It's awful," I remarked.

"On, and on, I slowly went. It seemed hours and hours. I was exhausted and hungry and thirsty. After a time I passed through open oak nail-studded doors that were rotting on their hinges, and then—then, I saw a sight so horrible that I would never mention it to anyone. I dare not, I may know its meaning some day—I hope so—"

"What on earth was it?" I inquired eagerly.

"For heaven's sake let me go on and do not ask about it," said Ashton, turning ghastly pale. "The horror of the whole thing so upset me that my foot slipped, and I fell down what seemed to be a steep stairway. As I struck the bottom I felt my left wrist snap, and I fainted. When I regained my senses for a brief moment, I found that the White Lady, bearing a taper, was bending kindly over me. She had a lovely face, but as pale as white marble. She laid an icy cold hand on my hot brow, and then all was darkness again.

"Now listen! Next time I came to myself and opened my eyes I was out of the accursed passage. I saw the sky and the stars, and I felt a fresh breeze blowing. Oh! joy, I was back on the earth again, that I knew. I staggered feebly to my feet, and where on earth do you think I found I had been lying?"

"I cannot guess," I said.

"Just inside the archway of the old Pends gateway at St Andrews," said Ashton.

"How on earth did you get there?"

"Heaven knows," said Ashton, "I expect the White Lady helped me somehow. It all seemed like a fearful nightmare, but I had the gold cup in my pocket and my broken wrist to bear testimony to what I had gone through. To make a long story short, I went home to my people, where I lay for six long weeks suffering from brain fever and shock. I always carry the cup with me. I am not superstitious; but it brings me good luck always."

Ashton showed me the monk's gold cup. It was a beautiful little relic.

"Did you ever examine the place where you entered the passage?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," he replied, "I went there some years afterwards and found the cave, but it has all fallen in now."

"By Jove! It's very late, thanks for the dinner, I must be off. Good night."

I lit a pipe and pondered over that curious story. The entrance to the passage in the cave has fallen in; the exit from it in St Andrews is unknown to Ashton—only the White Lady knows.

On the whole, the story is wrapped in mystery, and does not help one much to unravel the wonders that lie in underground St Andrews. We may know some day or never.