‘RETURN AT DUSK’ – Extract from DARK ENCOUNTERS by William Croft Dickinson

  03 Dec '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Dark Encounters is a collection of classic and elegantly unsettling ghost stories first published in 1963. These tales are set in the brooding landscape of Scotland, with an air of historic authenticity – often referring to real events, objects and people. Edited by Alistair W.J. Kerr, the collection brings back into print the work of William Croft Dickinson. Better known for his work for the Scottish Historical Review, he was also a prolific and talented writer of Scottish ghost stories. In ‘Return at Dusk’ a group of soldiers encounter a vengeful presence bent on their descruction inthe cold heights of a Scottish castle.

In earlier days, indeed, the castle must often have seen such loyal lifelong service, and, earlier still, service of a different kind when loyalty to the House probably meant dying in its defence, and dying long before the attainment of old age. The very stones emphasized that. The place was more than a castle, it was a ‘strength’. Its massive structure was built in theshape of an L with the doorway in the re-entrant angle where it could be effectively defended from both wings. The old outer wooden door had been replaced by a modern one, but the inner ‘iron yett’ was still there. I can tell you, I wouldn’t have liked the task of breaking in, for, even when the iron yett had been won, there was what we should now call a ‘baffle-wall’ which put the defenders in the shadow, darkened the whole entrance, and made it impossible for more than one man at a time to gain the staircase which wound upwards immediately behind the wall. Again, the staircase itself was narrow – about thirty inches wide, I should say – and, being helical, was lit only at odd intervals, so that again the defenders could choose the shadows to contest its passage. And only by that staircase could one get into the castle at all. The stone stairs, worn with age, led direct to the first floor, to a corner of the ‘Hall’ – a long room, fully thirty-five feet long, and probably fifteen feet wide – with another staircase at its further end leading down again to the ground floor and to the vaulted kitchens below that. In the chamber, in the shorter wing, adjoining the Hall, a newel staircase led to the second floor. Thus the main staircase had to be fought for and won, step by step, before the castle itself could be won. Altogether a thoroughly interesting old place, and one ideal for security, ancient or modern.

The ground floor and the vaulted kitchens were wholly given over to the signallers, the two batmen-clerks, and the cook; though Mother Lum had kept her own room on the ground floor, in the wing. The big Hall was our general workroom (with an overflow into the adjoining chamber), and our sleeping quarters were upstairs on the second floor where, in the main wing, all the rooms led out of one another. In the shorter wing, however, there was one room only, larger than the rest, which had a second door leading outside to a kind of beacon-turret. That room in the wing, called the Turret Room, was at first mine; and being one who likes to know what there may be behind doors, or where doors may lead to, I had opened the second door almost as soon as I had crossed the threshold of the room. But the turret outside was empty (save for a dead bird), and, being corbelled, it was clearly impossible for anyone to reach it from the ground below, whilst even if the impossible were achieved, an iron grille which completely enclosed the turret-top would effectively prevent the climber from entering the turret and so gaining access to the room.

All these ancient precautions, as I have said, were ideal for security; and, to remain inconspicuous, we had no sentry or armed guard of any kind. Nevertheless our signallers had fixed an electric contact to the iron yett (which it was our practice to keep shut), and a whole battery of bells rang throughout the building whenever that gate was opened. In addition, a further press-bell was hidden in the darkness of the baffle-wall and, on this, whenever any one of us had entered by the iron yett he gave a series of rings (the number being changed each day) so that the whole battery of bells again informed us that only one of our own number was entering our strength.

For a month or so after our arrival at Cairntoul we were kept busy for a good sixteen hours out of every twenty-four. As a team we worked well together; and although nominally I was in charge, our work was essentially co-operative. I need not add that that first spell of intensive work was not without its reward.

Then came two or three slightly less busy days, and for the first time I was able to arrange for each of us, singly, to get out on to the moors to stretch his legs or, if he liked, to laze in the yielding heather. My own turn came last, and for a whole afternoon I lay deep in the heather, dozing, and drawing in physical and mental rest.

Returning to Cairntoul, in the gathering twilight, I passed a few words with the others, who were busy in the Hall, before climbing the further flight of stairs to my Turret Room. I was still in a happy mood of complete content, and, once in my room, I sat down on a chair, letting my mind absorb the quietness which seemed to be all around, bringing with it an air of peace so different from the work which we had just been doing and had still to do.

I had sat down on the chair in front of the table which served as a dressing-chest and over which an old mirror was hanging on the wall. Behind me was the door leading to the beacon-turret. Now what made me look up into the mirror, I cannot say. But look up I did, and, as I looked into the mirror, I saw that the door to the turret was slowly opening. I watched that opening door like one fascinated, and, somehow, I could neither move nor cry out. Slowly the opening grew wider and wider. Then a face appeared, peering round the side of the door. In the mirror, the face seemed to look straight into mine, but in the twilight I could recognize no features – just the blur of a face, that, and no more. Then the face withdrew, and the door began to close again, as slowly and as quietly as it had opened. It shut (though I could swear I heard no click of the latch), and, as soon as it had shut, the sense of powerlessness immediately left me. I felt suddenly and strangely released and, jumping up, I rushed towards the door. But, half-way, I stopped. Surely I had imagined it all. Probably my nerves had become too tightly stretched with that recent spell of intensive work. After all, one could dream by day as well as by night. Still, I’d better look into that beaconturret, if only to satisfy myself. I took the few remaining steps, paused, and then quickly flung open the door. Nothing! This time not even a dead bird, for I had previously removed the one that had been there on my first arrival.

Wisely, or unwisely, I said nothing about my ‘visitor’. But exactly ten days later, when the whole incident was beginning to fade from my mind, I was rudely brought back to reality, or unreality, and again at twilight. Again I was sitting in front of my dressing-chest, and this time I was certainly not dreaming.

Actually I was brushing my hair before dinner, my mind alive and alert with the details of a pretty problem that had cropped up during the course of the day’s work. And, in the midst of that simple operation of brushing my hair, my hands suddenly dropped. With a start, I had noticed in the mirror that the door to the beacon-turret was again opening, and opening as slowly and as quietly as it had opened before. Again an inquiring head peered round the side of the door. But this time it did not withdraw. The door opened wider and wider. The head was followed by a body. There was a quick movement, and my ‘visitor’ had entered the room…

You can read the rest of the story in Dark Encounters below.

William Croft Dickinson, CBE (28 August 1897 – May 1963) was an English historian, a leading expert in the history of early modern Scotland and an author of both children’s fiction and adult ghost stories.

Editor Alistair W. J. Kerr was born in Scotland. His father was an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, who later became an academic. Alistair studied History and Law at the University of Edinburgh and later became a civil servant. He is the author of Betrayal: The Murder of Robert Nairac GC (Cambridge Academic, 2015). He is also the editor of Tales for Twilight (Polygon, 2021).

    • Share: