It was April and John Moore was studying for an important examination. As the date of the exam came nearer, he decided to go somewhere and read by himself. He did not want the amusements of the seaside, or the beauties of the countryside. He decided to find a quiet, ordinary little town and work there undisturbed. He packed his suitcases with clothes and books. Then he looked in a railway timetable for a town that he did not know. He found one, and bought a ticket to go there. He did not tell anyone where he was going. After all, he did not want to be disturbed.
That is how Moore arrived at Benchurch. It was a market town, and once a week it was quite busy for a few hours. The rest of the time it was a very quiet, sleepy little place. Moore spent his first night at the only hotel in the town. The landlady was very kind and helpful, but the hotel was not really quiet enough for him. The second day he started looking for a house to rent.
There was only one place that he liked. It was more than quiet — it was deserted and very lonely. It was a big, old seventeenth-century house. It had tiny windows like a prison, and a high brick wall all round it. It would be hard to imagine a more unwelcoming place. But it suited Moore perfectly. He went to find the local lawyer, who was responsible for the house.
Mr Carnford, the lawyer, was very happy to rent the house to him.
'I'd he glad to let you have it free,' he said, 'just to have somebody living in it again after all these years. It's been empty so long that people have spread a lot of foolish stories about it. You'll be able to prove that the stories are wrong.'
Moore did not think it was necessary to ask the lawyer for more details of the 'foolish stories'. He paid his rent, and Mr Carnford gave him the name of an old servant to look after him. He came away from the lawyer's office with the keys of the house in his pocket. He then went to Mrs Wood, the landlady of the hotel.
'I'm renting a house for a few weeks,' he said. 'Can you advise me about shopping, please? What do you think I shall need?'
'Where are you going to stay, sir?' the landlady asked. Moore told her.
She threw up her hands in horror. 'Not the Judge's House!' she said, and she grew pale as she spoke.
He asked her to tell him more about the house. 'Why is it called the Judge's House?' he said, 'and why doesn't anyone want to live in it?'
'Well, sir,' she said, 'a long time ago — no, I don't know how long — a judge lived there. He was a hard, cruel judge, sir — a real hanging judge. He showed no mercy to anyone. But as for the house itself — well, I can't say. I've often asked, but nobody could tell me for certain.' She found it hard to explain. The general feeling in the town was that there was something strange about the Judge's House. 'As for me, sir,' she said, 'I won't stay there alone, not for all the money in the bank!'
Then she apologized to Moore. 'I'm sorry to worry you, sir, really I am. But if you were my son I wouldn't let you stay there one night on your own. I'd go there myself and pull the big alarm bell that's on the roof!'
Moore was grateful for her kindness and her anxiety. 'How good of you to be so anxious about me, Mrs Wood!' he said. 'But there's really no need to worry. I'm studying for an important examination and I have no time for horrors or mysteries.'
The landlady kindly promised to do his shopping for him. Moore then went to see the old servant whom Mr Carnford had recommended to him. Her name was Mrs Dempster, and she seemed pleasant and eager to please her new master.
When he returned with her to the Judge's House two hours later, he found Mrs Wood waiting outside it. She had several people with her — men and boys carrying parcels, and another two men with a bed.
'But there are beds in the house!' cried Moore in surprise. 'And nobody's slept in them for fifty years or more! No, sir, I won't let you risk your life in an old, damp bed.'
The landlady was obviously curious to see the inside of the house. At the same time she was clearly afraid. At the smallest noise she held nervously to Moore's arm. Together they explored the whole house. After his exploration, Moore decided to live in the dining-room. It was big enough for both working and sleeping. Mrs Wood and Mrs Dempster began to arrange everything. Soon the baskets were unpacked. Moore saw that kind Mrs Wood had brought many good tilings from her own kitchen. Before she left she turned to Moore and said, 'I do hope you will be all right, sir. But I must say — I couldn't sleep here, with all those ghosts!'
When she left, Mrs Dempster laughed. 'Ghosts!' she said. 'Ghosts! There are no ghosts! There are rats and insects, and doors that need oiling. There are windows that blow open in the wind… Look at the old oak walls of this room, sir. They are old — hundreds of years old! Don't you think there'll he rats and insects behind the wood? You'll see plenty of rats here, sir, but you won't see any ghosts — I'm sure of that. Now you go and have a nice walk, sir. And when you come back. I'll have this room all ready for you.'
She kept her promise. When Moore returned he found the room clean and neat. A fire was burning in the ancient fireplace. She had lit the lamp and put his supper ready on the table.
'Good night, sir,' she said. 'I have to go now and get my husband's supper. I'll see you in the morning.'
'This is wonderful!' said Moore to himself as he ate Mrs Dempster's excellent food. When he had finished his supper, he pushed the dishes to the other end of the table. He put more wood on the fire and began to study.
Moore worked without stopping until about eleven o'clock. Then he put some more wood on the fire. He also made a pot of tea. He was enjoying himself very much. The fire was burning brightly. The firelight danced on the old oak walls and threw strange shadows around the room. His tea tasted excellent, and there was nobody to disturb him. Then for the first time he noticed how much noise the rats were making.
'Were they making all this noise while I was studying?' he thought. 'No, I don't think they were. Perhaps they were afraid of me at first. Now they have become braver, and they are running about as usual.'
How busy they were! And what a lot of noise they made! Up and down they rushed, behind the old oak walls, over the ceiling and under the floor. Moore remembered Mrs Dempster's words: 'You'll see plenty of rats, but you won't see any ghosts.'
'Well,' he said with a smile, 'she was right about the rats, anyway!'
He picked up the lamp and looked around the room. 'How strange,' he said to himself. 'Why doesn't anybody want to live in this beautiful old house?' The oak walls were very beautiful. There were some old pictures on the walls, but they were covered with dust and dirt and he could not see them clearly. Here and there he saw small holes in the walls. From time to time the curious face of a rat stared at him. Then with a scratch and a squeak, it was gone.
The thing that interested him most, however, was the rope of the great alarm bell on the roof. The rope hung down in a corner of the room on the right-hand side of the fireplace. He found a huge, high-backed oak chair and pulled it up beside the fire. There he sat and drank his last cup of tea. Then he put more wood on the fire and sat down at the table again with his books. For a time the rats disturbed him with their scratching and squeaking. But he got used to the noise, and soon he forgot everything except his work.
Suddenly he looked up. Something had disturbed him, but he did not know what it was. He sat up and listened. The room was silent. That was it! The noise of the rats had stopped. 'That's what disturbed me!' said Moore with a smile. He looked around the room — and saw an enormous rat. It was sitting on the great high-backed chair by the fire, and it was staring at him with hate in its small red eyes. Moore picked up a book and pretended to throw it. But the rat did not move. It showed its great white teeth angrily, and its cruel eyes shone mercilessly in the lamplight.
'Why, you-' cried Moore. Me picked up the poker from the fireplace and jumped up. Before he could hit the rat, however, it jumped to the floor with a squeak. It ran up the rope of the alarm bell and disappeared in the darkness. Strangely, the squeaks and scratches of the rats in the walls began again.
By this time Moore no longer felt like working. Outside the house the birds were singing: soon it would be morning. He climbed into bed and immediately fell asleep.
He slept so deeply that he did not hear Mrs Dempster come in. She dusted the room and made his breakfast. Then she woke him with a cup of tea.
After breakfast he put a book in his pocket and went out for a walk. On the way he bought a few sandwiches. ('Then I shan't have to stop for lunch,' he said to himself). He found a pretty, quiet little park and spent most of the day there, studying. On his way home he called at the hotel to thank Mrs Wood for her kindness. She looked at him searchingly.
'You must not work too hard, sir. You look pale this morning. Too much studying isn't good for anyone. But tell me, sir, did you have a good night? Mrs Dempster told me you were still asleep when she went in.'
'Oh, I was all right,' said Moore with a smile. 'The ghosts haven't troubled me yet. But the rats had a party last night! There was one old devil with red eyes. He sat up on the chair by the fire. He didn't move until I picked up the poker. Then he ran up the rope of the alarm bell. I didn't see where he went. It was too dark.'
'Dear God!' cried Mrs Wood, 'an old devil sitting by the fire! Take care, sir, take care.'
'What do you mean?' asked Moore in surprise.
'An old devil! The old devil, perhaps.' Moore started to laugh.
'Please forgive me, Mrs Wood,' he said at last, 'I just couldn't help laughing at the idea of the Devil himself sitting by my fire...' And he began to laugh again. Then he went home for dinner.
That evening the noise of the rats began earlier. After dinner he sat down beside the fire and drank his tea. Then he sat down at the table and started to work again.
The rats disturbed him more than the previous night. They scratched and squeaked and ran about, and stared at him from the holes in the walls. Their eyes shone like tiny lamps in the firelight. But Moore was becoming used to them. They seemed playful rather than aggressive. Sometimes the bravest rats ran out onto the floor or across the tops of the pictures. Now and again, when they disturbed him, Moore shook his papers at them. They ran to their holes at once. And so the early part of the night passed quite quietly.
Moore worked hard for several hours.
All at once he was disturbed by a sudden silence. There was not a sound of running, or scratching, or squeaking.
The huge room was as silent as the grave. Moore remembered the previous night. He looked at the chair by the fireside — and got a terrible shock. There, on the great high-backed oak chair, sat the same enormous rat. It was staring at him with hate.
Without thinking, Moore picked up the nearest book and threw it. It missed, and the rat did not move. So Moore again picked up the poker. Again the rat ran up the rope of the alarm bell. And once more the other rats started their scratching and squeaking. Moore was unable to see where the rat had gone. The light of the lamp did not reach as far as the high ceiling, and the fire had burned low.
Moore looked at his watch. It was almost midnight. He put more wood on the fire and made a pot of tea. Then he sat down in the great oak chair by the fire and enjoyed his tea.
'I wonder where that old rat went just now,' he thought. 'I must buy a rat trap in the morning.' He lit another lamp. He placed it so that it would shine into the right-hand corner of the wall by the fireplace. He got several books ready to throw at the creature, Finally he lifted the rope of the alarm bell. He put it on the table and fixed the end of it under the lamp.
As he handled the rope, Moore noticed how pliable it was. 'You could hang a man with it,' he thought. Then he stood back and admired his preparations.
'There, my friend,' he said aloud. 'I think I'll learn your secret this time!'
He started work again, and was soon lost in his studies. But once again he was disturbed by a sudden silence. Then the bell rope moved a little, and the lamp on top of the rope moved too. Moore made sure that his books were ready for throwing. Then he looked along the rope. As he looked, the great rat dropped from the rope onto the old oak chair. It sat there staring at him angrily. He picked up a hook and aimed it at the rat. The creature jumped cleverly to one side. Moore threw another book, but without success. Then, as Moore stood with a third hook in his hand, ready to throw, the rat squeaked and seemed to be afraid. Moore threw the book and it hit the rat's side. With a squeak of pain and fear, and a look of real hate, it ran up the back of the chair and made a great jump onto the rope of the alarm bell. It ran up the rope like lightning, while the heavy lamp shook with its desperate speed. Moore watched the rat carefully. By the light of the second lamp, he saw it disappear through a hole in one of the great pictures on the wall.
'I shall check my unpleasant little visitor's home in the morning,' said Moore to himself as he picked up his books from the floor. 'The third picture from the fireplace: I shan't forget.' He examined the books. He picked up the third book that he had thrown. 'This is the one that hurt him!' he said to himself. Then his face turned pale. 'Why — it's my mother's old Bible! How strange!' He sat down to work again, and once more the rats in the walls started their noise. This did not worry him. Compared with the huge rat, these ones seemed almost friendly. But he could not work. At last he closed his books and went to bed. The first red light of morning was shining through the window as he closed his eyes.
He slept heavily but uneasily, and he had unpleasant dreams. Then Mrs Dempster woke him as usual with a cup of tea, and he felt better. But his first request to her surprised the old servant very much. 'Mrs Dempster, while I'm out today, will you please dust or wash those pictures — particularly the third one from the fireplace. I want to see what they are.'
Again Moore spent most of the day studying happily in the park. On his way home he again visited Mrs Wood at the hotel. She had a visitor with her in her comfortable sitting-room.
'Sir,' said the landlady, 'this is Doctor Thornhill.'
As soon as she had introduced them, the doctor began to ask Moore a great many questions. 'I'm sure,' said Moore to himself, 'that the good doctor did not call here by accident.' He turned to Doctor Thornhill.
'Doctor, I'll gladly answer all your questions, if you'll just answer one of mine.'
The doctor seemed surprised, but he agreed at once.
'Did Mrs Wood ask you to come here and advise me?' asked Moore. The doctor looked surprised. Mrs Wood's face turned very red and she looked away. But the doctor was an honest, friendly man, and he answered quickly, 'She did, but she didn't want you to know. She's worried about you. She doesn't like you staying there all alone, and she thinks you study too hard and drink too much strong tea. She asked me to give you some good advice. I was once a student too, you know, so I know what I'm talking about.'
Moore smiled and held out his hand to Doctor Thornhill. 'I must thank you for your kindness — and you too, Mrs Wood. I promise to take no more strong tea, and I'll be in bed by one o'clock. There, will that please you both?'
'Very much,' said Doctor Thornhill. 'Now tell us all about that old house.'
Moore told them all about the events of the previous nights. When he told them how he had thrown the Bible, Mrs Wood gave a little scream. When Moore had finished his story, Doctor Thornhill looked very serious.
'The rat always ran up the rope of the alarm hell?' he asked.
'I suppose you know,' said the doctor, 'what the rope is?'
'No, I don't,' said Moore.
'It is the hangman's rope,' said the doctor. 'After the judge condemned someone to death, the unfortunate man was hanged with that rope.' Mrs Wood gave another scream. The doctor went to fetch her a glass of water. When he returned, he looked hard at Moore. 'Listen, young man,' he said. 'If anything happens to you tonight, don't hesitate to ring the alarm bell. I shall be working quite late tonight too, and I'll keep my cars open. Now don't forget!'
Moore laughed. 'I'm sure I shan't need to do that!' he said, and went home for his dinner.
'I don't like that young man's story,' said Doctor Thornhill after Moore had left. 'Perhaps he imagined most of it. All the same, I'll listen tonight for the alarm bell. Perhaps we'll reach him in time to help him.'
When Moore arrived home, Mrs Dempster had already left. But his supper was ready for him. The lamp was burning brightly and there was a good fire in the fireplace. It was a cold, windy evening, but the room was warm and inviting. For a few minutes after he came in, the rats were quiet. But, as before, they soon became used to his presence in the room. Soon they started their noise again.
He was glad to hear them. He remembered how silent they had been when the great rat appeared. Moore soon forgot the squeaking and scratching. He sat down to his dinner with a light heart. After dinner he Opened his books, determined to get some work done.
For an hour or two he worked very well. Then his concentration weakened, and he looked up. It was a stormy night. The whole house seemed to shake, and the wind whistled down the chimneys with a strange, unnatural sound. The force of the wind shook the alarm bell. The pliable rope rose and fell a little, and the bottom of it hit the oak floor with a hard and hollow sound.
As Moore watched it, he remembered the doctor's words: 'It's the hangman's rope.' He went over to the corner by the fireplace and took the rope in his hand. He looked at it very hard. He wondered how many people had died on the end of that rope. As he held it, the movement of the bell on the roof still lifted it now and again. Then be felt a new movement. The rope seemed to tremble, as if something was moving along it. At the same time, the noise of the rats stopped.
Moore looked up, and saw the great rat coming down towards him. It was staring at him with hate. Moore dropped the rope and jumped back with a cry. The rat turned, ran up the rope again and disappeared. At the same moment Moore realized that the noise of the other rats had begun again.
'Very well, my friend,' thought Moore, let's investigate your hiding place.'
He lit the other lamp. He remembered that the rat had disappeared inside the third picture on the right. He picked up the lamp and carried it across to the picture.
He almost dropped the lamp. He stepped back at once, and the sweat of fear was upon his pale face. His knees shook. His whole body trembled like a leaf. But he was young and brave, and he moved forward again with his lamp. Mrs Dempster had dusted and washed the picture, and Moore could now see it quite clearly.
It showed a judge. He had a cruel, clever, merciless face, with a big curved nose and very bright, hard eyes. As Moore looked into those eyes, he realized that he had seen that look before. The great rat's eyes were exactly the same. They held the same look of hate and cruelty. Then the noise of the rats stopped again, and Moore became conscious of another pair of eyes looking at him. The great rat was staring at him from the hole in the corner of the picture. But Moore took no notice of the creature and continued to examine the picture.
The Judge was sitting in a great, high-backed oak chair, on the right-hand side of a great stone fireplace. In the corner a rope hung down from the ceiling. With a feeling of horror, Moore recognized the room where he now stood. He looked around him, as if he expected to see another presence there. Then he looked across to the corner of the fireplace. He froze with fear and the lamp fell from his trembling hand.
There, in the Judge's chair, sat the rat. The rope hung behind, exactly as it did in the picture. The rat looked at Moore with the same merciless stare as the Judge in the picture. But there was a new, triumphant look in the small red eyes. Everything was silent except for the storm outside.
'The lamp!' thought Moore desperately, fortunately it was a metal one, and the oil had not caught fire. However, he had to put it out. In doing so, he forgot his fears for a moment.
Then he stopped and thought, 'I can't go on like this, he said to himself. 'The doctor is right. Late hours and strong tea are no good for me. They just make me nervous. However, I'm all right now.' He made himself a warm, milky drink and sat down to work.
Nearly an hour later a sudden silence disturbed him again. Outside, the storm was growling and whistling as loudly as ever. The rain drummed on the windows. But inside the house everything was as quiet as the grave. Moore- listened carefully, and then he heard a strange squeaking noise. It came from the corner of the room where the rope hung down. At first he thought the rope itself was making the sound. Then he looked up and saw the great rat. It was chewing the rope with its ugly yellow teeth. It had almost bitten through it, and, as Moore watched, part of the rope fell to the floor. Only a short piece was still attached to the bell, and the rat was still hanging onto it. Now the rope began to swing backwards and forwards. Moore felt a moment of terrible fear. 'Now I can never ring the alarm bell,' he thought. Then he was filled with anger. He picked up the book he was reading, and threw it violently at the rat. He aimed it well. But before the book could bit the creature, it dropped off the rope and landed on the floor. At once Moore rushed towards it, but the rat ran away and disappeared into the shadows.
'Let's have another rat hunt before bed!' said Moore to himself. He picked up the lamp — and almost dropped it again.
The figure of the Judge had disappeared from the picture. The chair and the details of the room were still there. But the man himself had gone. Frozen with horror, Moore moved slowly round. He began to shake and tremble. His strength left him, and he was unable to move a muscle. He could only see and hear.
There, on the great high-backed oak chair sat the Judge. His merciless eyes stared at Moore. There was a smile of triumph on his cruel mouth. Slowly he lifted up a black hat. Moore's heart was drumming wildly. There was a strange singing noise in his ears. Outside, the wind was as wild as ever. Then, above the screams of the wind, he heard the great clock striking in the market place. He stood and listened, stiff and unmoving. The triumph on the Judge's face grew. As the clock struck twelve, the Judge placed the Black hat on his head. Slowly and deliberately, he rose from his chair and picked up the piece of rope from the floor. He pulled it through his hands. Slowly and carefully he made the thick, pliable rope into a noose. He tested the noose with his foot. He pulled hard at it until he was pleased with it. Then he began to move slowly and carefully past the table, on the opposite side to Moore. Then with one quick movement he stood in front of the door. Moore was trapped! All this time, the Judge's eyes never left Moore's.
Moore stared into the cruel eyes, like a bird watching a cat. He saw the Judge coming nearer with his noose. He saw him throw the noose towards him. Desperately Moore threw himself to one side, and saw the rope fall harmlessly to the floor. Again the Judge raised the noose and tried to catch Moore. Again and again he tried. And all the time he stared mercilessly at the student. 'He's just playing with me,' thought Moore, 'like a cat playing with a bird. Soon he'll catch me, and hang me...'
He looked desperately behind him. I Hundreds of rats were watching him with bright, anxious little eyes. Then he saw that the rope of the alarm bell was covered with rats. As he watched, more and more were pouring down onto the rope, from the round hole in the ceiling that led to the bell itself. The rats were hanging from the rope, and there were so many of them that the rope was swinging backwards and forwards.
The alarm bell began to ring, softly at first, then more strongly. At the sound, the Judge looked up. A devilish anger spread across his face. His eyes burned like red jewels. Outside there was a sudden, deafening crash of thunder. The Judge raised his noose again, while the rats ran desperately up and down the rope of the alarm bell.
This time, instead of throwing the rope, the Judge moved nearer to Moore, and held the noose open. Moore was unable to move. He stood there like a stone figure. He felt the Judge's icy fingers and the pliable rope against his neck.
He felt the noose against his throat. Then the Judge picked up the stiff body of the student in his arms. He carried him over to the great oak chair and stood him on it. Then, stepping up beside him, the Judge put up his hand and caught the rope of the alarm bell. At his touch the rats ran away, squeaking with fear. They disappeared through the hole in the ceiling. Then the Judge took the end of the noose which was around Moore's neck. He tied it to the hanging bell rope. Then he climbed down, and pulled away the chair.
When the alarm bell of the Judge's House began to
Wring, a crowd soon gathered. People came running with lanterns and torches, and soon hundreds of people were hurrying to the house. They knocked loudly at the door, but there was no reply. Then they broke down the door, and poured into the great dining-room. The Doctor was the first to reach Moore. But too late.
There at the end of the bell rope hung the body of the student. The Judge stared out once more from his picture. But on his face there was a smile of triumph.
— THE END -