Green Chain Walk
A quaint village, rural walks, good company and hospitality – surely the ingredients for a relaxing few days away? However, a fireside tale at the Haunted Man Inn leads to the boundaries of the Green Chain Walk, and events take a far from normal turn…
It was only after I had joined my local branch of the rambler’s association and gained approval from my fellow members that I heard a most extraordinary story. Indeed, it was one of those stories you would expect to hear as a child on a cold winter’s night safely tucked up in bed whilst your parents attempt to lull you off to sleep with a tale of the most unspeakable horrors. This time it was told to me over a pint of ale at an old hostelry aptly named The Haunted Man tucked away in a little village in Kent close to the borders of Greater London. I must point out at this point in my narrative that I have decided not to reveal the whereabouts of the village lest the same consequences befall any visitors that may wish to see the area as the story I have to tell occurred within walking distance from the inn. The authenticity of this strange tale I can certainly vouch for due to my own personal experience, an experience I may add that I wish never to repeat.
There were three of us enjoying that evening, sitting quietly in a cosy recess drinking and making merry. The noise and hubbub of the other diners were in full swing and at times it was difficult to make out what each other said. The evening had been mostly spent making small talk; however, when Robertson leant forward, looked at Hargreaves as if for permission and then whispered casually that he had a most extraordinary story to tell, I sat at up at once and took notice. It was as if Robertson had been waiting for this special moment to spring this tale upon us. At the time, I dismissed the story as fabrication, a made-up piece to liven up the evening. However, my subsequent enquiries and own personal experience have revealed the story is undoubtedly true, at least I believe so, though what occurred does appear to be fantastic in the cold light of day. Judge for yourself dear reader and if you wish to sleep well at night then I suggest you stop reading now… But if you are curious…
The tale concerned the arrival of a new member of the club a small, lithe man, with close-set eyes and a moustache who went by the name of Sedgwick. He was new to the area and as he was a keen walker, he soon became friends with fellow ramblers. On the day in question, Sedgwick had decided upon a morning run across the fields and country lanes near The Haunted Man, a place I may add where he also took lodgings, when he came upon the boundaries of the Green Chain Walk, that crisscross of little lanes that stretch across South East London. Sedgwick decided to come off the country lane and follow the signs to see where it took him. The lane wound through ancient woods strewn with nettles and brambles, which are always the bane of the rambler, when Sedgwick came to a sudden stop. He had reached a junction where one path veered off to the right and the other to the left. No other sign was there to indicate which way to go and he stood there for a few minutes contemplating which way to turn. After a time, he observed that the path to the right was clear of obstruction and was wide, so it indicated to him that this was the most used of the footpaths. The other path was narrower with nettles and grasses encroaching over it. It was at this point that Sedgwick heard a rustling in the undergrowth coming from an area where the narrow path disappeared into the woods. Thinking that it could only be a bird or small animal, he was not particularly perturbed, until he heard an unearthly guttural cry and a bizarre rushing sound that was making its way at high speed to where he stood.
At this point in the narrative, Robertson produced a small leather-bound diary which he proceeded to open.
“It may be better to read to you Sedgwick’s description of this event which I subsequently found in his diary,” Robertson said as if relishing every single word.
He carried on.
‘My God…I couldn’t move. What was it? It was like no sound I had ever heard before… I felt rooted to the spot as the rustling approached me and it was only with a superhuman effort that I pulled myself together and ran. Behind me, like some mad dog at my heels was this…this thing that I could not see but was coming ever closer. It must have been quite small, maybe not bigger than a large cat or small dog as I observed the undergrowth moving violently to and fro. I am back in my room now and will return tomorrow… I would like to get the bottom of it…’
Robertson continued reading from Sedgwick’s diary.
‘The following day I made my way back to the pathway and stood where I had heard the sounds before. After pausing for a moment, I made my way down the path and after a few minutes came across a small clearing. There was not a sound except for the distant crying of a crow and the faint rustling of leaves on the highest treetops. Suddenly I became aware of an old gravestone tucked away in the dark shadows of the clearing, made nearly invisible in the gloom cast by the overhanging branches of an ancient tree. I was naturally curious and wondered why there was a grave in such a place, so I made my way over and inspected the headstone which was covered with green algae and a strange diaphanous material like gossamer. The writing on the headstone had eroded but some of the inscription was there to read and I prodded the stone with my fingers. Scraping off the mould I read, ‘Here lies…John Kemble…died 1868. May he never return?’
And then it came, the same sounds as I heard before. The scratching and the furious rustling, yet this time the sounds didn’t come from the ground but high above amongst the branches and leaves, descending upon me getting louder and louder, ever nearer. I was rooted to the spot and suddenly there it was, moving fast on one single strand of cobweb, a huge spider about the size of a small child, its legs moving in voluntary jerking movements coming straight for me…down, down, coming closer, two eyes like burning coals glowing in the darkness. I ran, my God I ran as fast as I could go with this…this thing behind me…faster…faster. Will it catch me…oh god…GOD HELP ME?’
Robertson paused and then continued
‘I am back in my room again now. Escaped, yes I have outrun the beast but even as I write this entry in my diary I am determined to go back and get to the heart of these strange events. Who is John Kemble? Does he hold the key to this spider monstrosity? Where do I begin? I must start again tomorrow…?’
Robertson closed the diary and said slowly, ‘That’s where the diary ends … no more entries.’
The sound of the other party revellers suddenly became louder as I was jerked back to reality once more inside the cosy inn. I swigged at my ale.
‘Well, what do you think?’ said Robertson, ‘Strange story, eh?’
Hargreaves shrugged his shoulders.
‘What happened to him?’ he said, ‘He’s not been around for a couple of weeks.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘How did the story end?’
Robertson leaned forward and quietly whispered.
‘That’s the strange thing; Sedgwick has completely disappeared. He was staying at the Inn but has now left. Been gone for about five days. His clothes and his belongings are still in the room along with this diary…’
I interrupted, ‘How did you get in the room..?’
‘The landlord let me in as he was concerned. I went in with him, saw the diary after looking around and borrowed it, with the landlord’s permission, as there may have been a clue as to where he had gone. Thought I would share with you two this strange story.’
Hargreaves, with a puzzled look in his eye, leant forward even closer to Robertson.
‘But he can’t have just disappeared. What about the police? Family?’
‘Not sure if he had any family…no one really knew too much about him.’
After a while the conversation fizzled out, we all bade each other goodnight and went our separate ways. Robertson and Hargreaves, though I only knew them since joining the club, were leaving that day and caught the train back to London for business purposes. Roberson though would be returning by train in a day or two, as his curiosity had been stimulated and we were to meet up to discuss the matter further. I had decided to stay on as I had time on my hands and the story interested me. I had made a conscious effort to investigate the matter. So, that day I changed my hotel arrangements and rented a room at The Haunted Man.
The next day, after a comfortable night, I got up early, went downstairs and strolled into the dining room which lay at the rear of the inn. The smell of a cooked breakfast greeted me as I made my way to a small table and poured myself a welcome cup of tea. The room was occupied by only one other person who soon left, and I was suddenly on my own. As I sat there, I thought deeply over the story Robertson had told me the night before and the mystery of Sedgwick’s disappearance. I was apprehensive of what I may yet find out and I was intrigued, so after breakfast, I quickly made my way to the village library. I felt the link to his disappearance may come from the strange grave in the woods and from John Kemble, whoever he was.
At the library, the lady assistant showed me to the local history section and I spent some time looking through some fairly modern books and articles on the village’s past but did not come across anything that could give me a clue to John Kemble. It was only after I had pursued my enquiry that I was shown to a small reference room and there I was brought some old volumes of forgotten literature. The chief librarian, a crusty man in his early sixties looked in to see me from time to time as if checking that I was still there and had not run away with these old volumes. He eyed me quite curiously and I could tell that there was something on his mind. It was on the third occasion when his head popped around the door that I ventured to say something.
‘I have these books, sir, if you want them.’
‘No. Not at all…pray continue,’ he said.
‘Is there something you wish to say as…pardon my saying so but you appear to be quite concerned?’
‘It’s not that I’m concerned about the books sir… you see I was somewhat intrigued when I was told that you were seeking information about John Kemble.’
The librarian stepped into the room and closed the door and made his way over to the table where I sat. He pulled up a chair and sat down and it was then I noticed that he had a small leather-bound book which he promptly placed upon the table.
‘You see, sir…the younger folk around here – they don’t know the stories and even if they do they feel its something made up, a ghost story if you like… but we older folks remember the tale handed down by our grandparents and their grandparents. It’s largely forgotten now but it’s strange that someone like you, a relative stranger, should make such enquiries.’
I smiled and told him the strange tale. The expression on the face of the librarian became grave and pale and I swear that the room became colder and the shadows darkened.
‘John Kemble, sir, was an adventurer and explorer. On his travels, he came across a lost tribe deep in the forests of Peru, South America who worshipped…spiders, sir. Here in this book, the texts speak of the atrocities committed by the Spider Cults, and that when Kemble went to destroy their shrines, nothing could be found of the tribe or their followers. It was said that they had retreated back into the forests waiting for a time when they would return.’
‘What happened to Kemble?’
‘Well that’s the strange thing, sir… his expedition returned to England and he settled here in this village. It wasn’t long before folk began to talk. You see he was seen often in what you might say an agitated state…always looking behind him he was as if something was following him. It’s also said that you could hear him shouting and screaming as he paced around the village and his look and mannerisms became wilder and more extreme as each day passed.’
‘Go on,’ I said.
‘If you go to the grave, sir, the spider symbols on the gravestone… the Spider Cult you see had placed upon him a curse … or so it’s said.’
‘But why is he buried there in the wood?’
There was a pause from the librarian and his voice became quieter. Leaning ever so slightly towards me he continued.
‘At the time just before his death, strange events happened in the village… a series of the most diabolical deaths occurred…or should I say atrocities?’
‘What kind of atrocities?’
‘Don’t let me repeat them, sir.’
The librarian got up from the chair and paced the room wringing his hands as if to find the words he wanted to say, and every word that came from him appeared to be wrenched from his body.
‘Sir,’ he said as he stared at me intently. ‘Sir…there were five deaths. All died horribly. When they were found they were as white as snow, their skins shrivelled like screwed-up tissue paper. It was only after the post-mortem that it came out that most of their blood was gone…sucked out it was…they found puncture marks upon the skin.’
I was shocked and begged to hear more but at this point, the librarian would not or could not say any more.
‘It’s all in this book, sir.’ He pushed the volume over towards me and as he turned to leave, he quietly said, ‘The village knew…or believed it was Kemble and it was soon after that, they found him dead. Buried him they did, not in any hallowed ground, but away from any decent Christian folk.’
‘In the woods?’ I said
‘In the woods, sir, and if you ask me that’s the best place for him. I would advise not to search him out and your search for the truth of your friend’s disappearance may be best left unanswered.’
At that, he left the room and I was filled with a dread that permeated my body.
‘The curse,’ I mumbled, ‘What was the curse?’
I ran to the door and looked down the shadowy hallway to see the figure of the librarian in the distance about to disappear through an inner door.
I shouted, ‘The curse, sir…what was the curse?’
He turned and looked at me, smiled and without replying turned away again.
I was left alone.
That night I lay awake in my room with troubled thoughts. All was quiet and the darkness in the room was deep and uninviting. I had intended to go to bed early, which I did, but sleep had evaded me. To top it all the wind had picked up overnight and from where I lay all I could hear was the incessant scratching of a tree branch against my windowpane which gave me the uncanny feeling that someone was knocking to come in. It was difficult to ascertain whether there was an outside visitor or merely the tree as heavy curtains had been pulled, obliterating my view through the windowpane. Feeling grateful that they were closed and cursing my over fertile imagination, I smiled to myself and leant over to my bedside cabinet and switched on a small lamp which instantly cast eerie shadows throughout the room. From the cabinet, I picked up the book which the librarian had given me and then settled back into the pillows to continue my read. Since my meeting with the librarian I had become engrossed with the life history of Kemble but, much more to the point, his involvement with the Spider Cult and its devastating effect on the village.
The author had gone into detail with this part of the story and I was keen to finish the read and conclude the strange tale. I will not go into detail here but suffice to say that after many long hours of reading and finally finishing the story just as dawn broke over the village, I was led to believe that Kemble was indeed evil. He had brought death and destruction to the Spider Cults of South America for gold and gain and he was indeed cursed by them before their horrible deaths. The curse, dear reader, I will soon explain and perhaps you may then understand the sheer horror of the events that I am finally going to relate.
The next day, even though I had virtually no sleep, I got up early and made my way downstairs to the reception situated in the front hall of the inn. I had intended that day to search for the grave of Kemble and to re-trace the route Sedgwick had previously trodden. I also wanted some advice from the innkeeper and though I rang the small bell to summon assistance nobody came, despite my ringing the bell many times. Though I found this irritating, I didn’t think too much into it and decided therefore to carry on and go back to the library to hand back the book to the Chief Librarian. It was surprisingly quiet as I made my way through the village; in fact, I did not see a soul. Even when I arrived at the library, though the front door was open; there was not one person to be seen. I left the book on the counter with a hastily scribbled note, then attempted to make my way to the area where Sedgwick had found the footpath to the grave.
Again, I was puzzled by the absence of any people as I walked swiftly through the streets of the village. At the time I put it down to coincidence though I was soon to realise how wrong I was.
After a period, I finally arrived at what I believed to be the junction where the footpaths divided into two. Selecting the left path, I made my way to the area as described in Sedgwick’s diary and stood upon the edge of a clearing. My eyes quickly rested upon a grey gravestone, the grave of John Kemble. I made my way quickly to it and began studying the headstone and the grave surroundings. I knew the answer to this mystery must lie here and I felt an excitement well up inside me as I carried out my search. In my excitement, I failed to hear a slight rustling above me and if I had known what to expect next, I certainly would have ceased my toil at that precise moment.
After several minutes I noticed that much of the mould had now been scraped off the headstone and I read quite clearly the words that Sedgwick had written in his diary ‘Here lies…John Kemble…died 1868. May he never return?’ I was just about to turn away when I noticed what appeared to be the faint outline of a letter near the middle of the stone.
Scraping furiously, I started to uncover letters that then formed into words. I warmed to my work and when I had finished, I took a step back and read out loud, ‘I, Ichtataca lie in this coffin. My curse be with whatever man thou art that bringest forth this coffin! Do not, do not open me, nor disquiet me, for I have not indeed silver, I have not indeed gold, nor any jewels. Only I am lying in this coffin. Do not, do not open me, nor disquiet me, for that thing is an abomination. And if thou do at all open me, and at all disquiet me, mayest thou stand over me and to protect this place among the shades for all the years.’
‘Mayest though stand over me and to protect this place among the shades for all the years,’ I repeated the words slowly. ‘Who is Ichtataca?’ I said aloud and then it occurred to me that there was a possibility there were two bodies lying in the ground, one on top of each other, perhaps.
This surely is the curse, I thought as I bent down to see if there was any other writing on the grave. Scraping away more mould I soon discovered that though there was no more writing on the headstone, though the stone slab, which lay across the grave had been disturbed as it lay at a slight angle. Curiosity getting the better of me, with all my strength, I began to push the slab to one side when I felt a strange presence around me. It is very difficult to describe the feeling, but it was as if I was being watched and I felt at that moment the hairs on the back of my neck beginning to rise. I was also becoming aware of the rustling sound above me. Before I thought it was just birds high up in the treetops but this time the sound was as if a large object was falling through the trees snapping off branches as it plummeted to the ground. Looking up quickly I then saw it…a huge spider…how can I describe such a horror? It was furry all over like some mutant tarantula and its legs were moving and jerking involuntarily as if it was performing some strange dance. The size was about the size of a small dog and never, I repeat never have I seen such a sight in my life, in any book of fact or fiction. It swiftly came down on a silver thread and landed softly on top of the grave. I was transfixed with fear, but the fear soon gave away to sheer horror as I looked at its face or what resembled a face. You see dear reader the face was none other than poor Sedgwick. The same thinness of face and close-set eyes. Even the moustache was in evidence, though faint and obscure. What passed as a mouth was opening and shutting constantly but no sound came. Why I said it I don’t know but I shouted Sedgwick’s name aloud and the incessant opening and shutting of its mouth ceased, though the mouth remained open except for a slight trickle of dribble, drip, drip dripping onto the floor. I was in a nightmare but the horror of it was that I was fully awake. I backed away quickly from the grave and turned to run and as I did so I suddenly stopped in my tracks. For behind me from one side of the clearing, there were people, hundreds of them standing still – staring and smiling. Before I could even respond, a small man moved forward from the group towards me and I instantly recognised him as the chief librarian. I swiftly began to recognise other faces, the landlady of The Haunted Man, the greengrocer, the baker, various other people I had said hello to in my travels around the village; even the man who had shared my breakfast table yesterday morning.
‘Good morning,’ said the librarian still wearing the silly grin that appeared to be on every other villager’s face.
I stood there silent.
‘The curse, sir,’ said the librarian, ‘if you haven’t guessed it by now is to protect for all time the ground where you stand…the grave of the man who was our founder and leader.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I stuttered, ‘What leader?’
The librarian continued without bothering to reply to my question.
‘You are here, sir, to take over from your poor friend who so happily obliged to stand guard over the grave…albeit for a short while. You are here, sir, to pay penance for your intrusion into our lives…you are here because we,’ he paused and looked around at the others, ‘because we do not want you here…but alas here you must remain…forever.’
He smiled again and though I was in a grip of terror I needed to know more. Shaking, I barely managed to stutter forth words.
‘I don’t understand…what leader…leader of what?’
I was transfixed and though I waited for an answer, I noticed that the villagers were becoming restless. They were inching very slowly towards me; some were humming, making strange and eerie sounds like a chant and the smiles on their faces were just as expansive as ever.
‘Ichtataca…Ichtataca the great…the leader of the way…the founder of the great Spider Cults of Peru…he lived over 150 years ago but though he may be gone, he is here…and we are here, descendants of his seed.’
‘Is…’ I was abruptly interrupted and, as if he read my mind, he continued.
‘Yes, Ichtataca is here behind you as well as Kemble who rests with him. You see, Kemble was the first protector gloriously transfigured to a spider to live his life serving the master. Your friend Sedgwick also discovered the grave and he too took his place whilst Kemble returned to the earth. And now you have come…’
I did not need to hear the rest of the sentence to know what fate they had stored up for me. My head was buzzing and though I saw his lips moving I was only aware of one word, ‘protector’.
For a moment my head cleared as I scanned the villagers who were moving towards me. The librarian moved with them, all smiling all in a row moving in close synchronisation. As I stared ahead, I was suddenly aware of a sound behind me. I quickly turned and a hand from out of nowhere came out of a bush, grabbed me and pulled me backwards. As I stumbled, I looked up to see Robertson. He shouted some words and those words were good enough for me.
‘Run’, he said, ‘run like the devil!’
He pulled me up and we both ran, stumbling and running blindly through the thickets and woods. I didn’t know where I was going but Robertson knew as he held my arm and guided me furiously through the undergrowth. Why Robertson was there completely baffled me but he later explained that he had researched the cults, Kemble and the village and had found some disturbing evidence of a cover-up. He knew I was in mortal danger, though at the time none of this mattered as both of us were in a blind panic, careering our way through the undergrowth. From behind, I was aware of a close scrunching sound and I knew we were being pursued.
Suddenly, we came to the edge of the woods and we stumbled down a steep incline to a lane below. In the lane was parked Robertson’s car and as we landed on the road Robertson shouted out to me to get in. We both dived into the car, Robertson started the engine and with a screech of tyres, the car shot away. I breathlessly looked behind me and to my horror I saw, or believed I saw, hundreds of spiders pouring over and down the embankment and into the road, all shapes and sizes. In a second, though, I saw no more as the car shot around a bend in the road leaving this horrific scene far behind us.
Today, I am a thousand miles away from the Green Chain Walk.
As I sit alone in my modern apartment, all laminate flooring and chrome, I gaze out of my window which overlooks a beautiful river and I ponder at the events of a year ago. Yes, dear reader, it has now been twelve months since I experienced these strange events and though I live in a crowded urban environment, I do not venture into the county anymore. I have become obsessed with cleanliness and have instructed my housekeeper to clean the apartment twice a day and especially to remove any sign of cobwebs. Indeed, I have a fear so great that the sight of any spider roots me to the spot; they have become a detestable thing. I must go now as I can hear something by the front door. It could be nothing. But it could be something… Something, or someone, looking for me. Now, what is that strange shadow squeezing itself under the door?