The Affair of Bleakirk-on-Sands
by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
[The events, which took place on November 23, 186-, are narrated by
Reuben Cartwright, Esq., of Bleakirk Hall, Bleakirk-on-Sands, in the
North Riding of Yorkshire.]
A rough, unfrequented bridle-road rising and dipping towards the
coast, with here and there a glimpse of sea beyond the sad-coloured
moors: straight overhead, a red and wintry sun just struggling to
assert itself: to right and left, a stretch of barren down still
coated white with hoar-frost.
I had flung the reins upon my horse's neck, and was ambling
homewards. Between me and Bleakirk lay seven good miles, and we had
come far enough already on the chance of the sun's breaking through;
but as the morning wore on, so our prospect of hunting that day faded
further from us. It was now high noon, and I had left the hunt half
an hour ago, turned my face towards the coast, and lit a cigar to
beguile the way. When a man is twenty-seven he begins to miss the
fun of shivering beside a frozen cover.
The road took a sudden plunge among the spurs of two converging
hills. As I began to descend, the first gleam of sunshine burst from
the dull heaven and played over the hoar-frost. I looked up, and
saw, on the slope of the hill to the right, a horseman also
At first glance I took him for a brother sportsman who, too, had
abandoned hope of a fox. But the second assured me of my mistake.
The stranger wore a black suit of antique, clerical cut, a shovel
hat, and gaiters; his nag was the sorriest of ponies, with a shaggy
coat of flaring yellow, and so low in the legs that the broad flaps
of its rider's coat all but trailed on the ground. A queerer turnout
I shall never see again, though I live to be a hundred.
He appeared not to notice me, but pricked leisurably down the slope,
and I soon saw that, as our paths ran and at the pace we were going,
we should meet at the foot of the descent: which we presently did.
"Ah, indeed!" said the stranger, reining in his pony as though now
for the first time aware of me: "I wish you a very good day, sir.
We are well met."
He pulled off his hat with a fantastic politeness. For me, my
astonishment grew as I regarded him more closely. A mass of lanky,
white hair drooped on either side of a face pale, pinched, and
extraordinarily wrinkled; the clothes that wrapped his diminutive
body were threadbare, greasy, and patched in all directions.
Fifty years' wear could not have worsened them; and, indeed, from the
whole aspect of the man, you might guess him a century old, were it
not for the nimbleness of his gestures and his eyes, which were grey,
alert, and keen as needles.
I acknowledged his salutation as he ranged up beside me.
"Will my company, sir, offend you? By your coat I suspect your
trade: venatorem sapit—hey?"
His voice exactly fitted his eyes. Both were sharp and charged with
expression; yet both carried also a hint that their owner had lived
long in privacy. Somehow they lacked touch.
"I am riding homewards," I answered.
"Hey? Where is that?"
The familiarity lay rather in the words than the manner; and I did
not resent it.
His eyes had wandered for a moment to the road ahead; but now he
turned abruptly, and looked at me, as I thought, with some suspicion.
He seemed about to speak, but restrained himself, fumbled in his
waistcoat pocket, and producing a massive snuff-box, offered me a
pinch. On my declining, he helped himself copiously; and then,
letting the reins hang loose upon his arm, fell to tapping the box.
"To me this form of the herb nicotiana commends itself by its
cheapness: the sense is tickled, the purse consenting—like the
complaisant husband in Juvenal: you take me? I am well acquainted
with Bleakirk-super-sabulum. By the way, how is Squire Cartwright
of the Hall?"
"If," said I, "you mean my father, Angus Cartwright, he is dead these
"Hey?" cried the old gentleman, and added after a moment, "Ah, to be
sure, time flies—quo dives Tullus et—Angus, eh? And yet a hearty
man, to all seeming. So you are his son." He took another pinch.
"It is very sustaining," he said.
"You have construed me, sir. Since I set out, just thirteen hours
since, it has been my sole viaticum." As he spoke he put his hand
nervously to his forehead, and withdrew it.
"Then," thought I, "you must have started in the middle of the
night," for it was now little past noon. But looking at his face, I
saw clearly that it was drawn and pinched with fasting. Whereupon I
remembered my flask and sandwich-box, and pulling them out, assured
him, with some apology for the offer, that they were at his service.
His joy was childish. Again he whipped off his hat, and clapping it
to his heart, swore my conduct did honour to my dead father; "and
with Angus Cartwright," said he, "kindness was intuitive. Being a
habit, it outran reflection; and his whisky, sir, was undeniable.
Come, I have a fancy. Let us dismount, and, in heroic fashion,
spread our feast upon the turf; or, if the hoar-frost deter you, see,
here are boulders, and a running brook to dilute our cups; and, by my
life, a foot-bridge, to the rail of which we may tether our steeds."
Indeed, we had come to a hollow in the road, across which a tiny
beck, now swollen with the rains, was chattering bravely. Falling in
with my companion's humour, I dismounted, and, after his example,
hitched my mare's rein over the rail. There was a raciness about the
adventure that took my fancy. We chose two boulders from a heap of
lesser stones close beside the beck, and divided the sandwiches, for
though I protested I was not hungry, the old gentleman insisted on
our sharing alike. And now, as the liquor warmed his heart and the
sunshine smote upon his back, his eyes sparkled, and he launched on a
flood of the gayest talk—yet always of a world that I felt was
before my time. Indeed, as he rattled on, the feeling that this must
be some Rip Van Winkle restored from a thirty years' sleep grew
stronger and stronger upon me. He spoke of Bleakirk, and displayed a
knowledge of it sufficiently thorough—intimate even—yet of the old
friends for whom he inquired many names were unknown to me, many
familiar only through their epitaphs in the windy cemetery above the
cliff. Of the rest, the pretty girls he named were now grandmothers,
the young men long since bent and rheumatic; the youngest well over
fifty. This, however, seemed to depress him little. His eyes would
sadden for a moment, then laugh again. "Well, well," he said,
"wrinkles, bald heads, and the deafness of the tomb—we have our day
notwithstanding. Pluck the bloom of it—hey? a commonplace of the
"But, sir," I put in as politely as I might, "you have not yet told
me with whom I have the pleasure of lunching."
"Gently, young sir." He waved his hand towards the encircling moors.
"We have feasted more Homerico, and in Homer, you remember the host
allowed his guest fourteen days before asking that question.
Permit me to delay the answer only till I have poured libation on the
turf here. Ah! I perceive the whisky is exhausted: but water shall
suffice. May I trouble you—my joints are stiff—to fill your
drinking-cup from the brook at your feet?"
I took the cup from his hands and stooped over the water. As I did
so, he leapt on me like a cat from behind. I felt a hideous blow on
the nape of the neck: a jagged flame leapt up: the sunshine turned to
blood—then to darkness. With hands spread out, I stumbled blindly
forward and fell at full length into the beck.
When my senses returned, I became aware, first that I was lying,
bound hand and foot and securely gagged, upon the turf; secondly,
that the horses were still tethered, and standing quietly at the
foot-bridge; and, thirdly, that my companion had resumed his position
on the boulder, and there sat watching my recovery.
Seeing my eyes open, he raised his hat and addressed me in tones of
"Believe me, sir, I am earnest in my regret for this state of things.
Nothing but the severest necessity could have persuaded me to knock
the son of my late esteemed friend over the skull and gag his
utterance with a stone—to pass over the fact that it fairly lays my
sense of your hospitality under suspicion. Upon my word, sir, it
places me in a cursedly equivocal position!"
He took a pinch of snuff, absorbed it slowly, and pursued.
"It was necessary, however. You will partly grasp the situation when
I tell you that my name is Teague—the Reverend William Teague,
Doctor of Divinity, and formerly incumbent of Bleakirk-on-Sands."
His words explained much, though not everything. The circumstances
which led to the Reverend William's departure from Bleakirk had
happened some two years before my birth: but they were startling
enough to supply talk in that dull fishing village for many a long
day. In my nursery I had heard the tale that my companion's name
recalled: and if till now I had felt humiliation, henceforth I felt
absolute fear, for I knew that I had to deal with a madman.
"I perceive by your eyes, sir," he went on, "that with a part of my
story you are already familiar: the rest I am about to tell you.
It will be within your knowledge that late on a Sunday night, just
twenty-nine years ago, my wife left the Vicarage-house, Bleakirk, and
never returned; that subsequent inquiry yielded no trace of her
flight, beyond the fact that she went provided with a small hand-bag
containing a change of clothing; that, as we had lived together for
twenty years in the entirest harmony, no reason could then, or
afterwards, be given for her astonishing conduct. Moreover, you will
be aware that its effect upon me was tragical; that my lively
emotions underneath the shock deepened into a settled gloom; that my
faculties (notoriously eminent) in a short time became clouded, nay,
eclipsed—necessitating my removal (I will not refine) to a madhouse.
Hey, is it not so?"
I nodded assent as well as I could. He paused, with a pinch between
finger and thumb, to nod back to me. Though his eyes were now
blazing with madness, his demeanour was formally, even affectedly,
"My wife never came back: naturally, sir—for she was dead."
He shifted a little on the boulders, slipped the snuff-box back into
his waistcoat pocket, then crossing his legs and clasping his hands
over one knee, bent forward and regarded me fixedly.
"I murdered her," he said slowly, and nodded.
A pause followed that seemed to last an hour. The stone which he had
strapped in my mouth with his bandanna was giving me acute pain; it
obstructed, too, what little breathing my emotion left me; and I
dared not take my eyes off his. The strain on my nerves grew so
tense that I felt myself fainting when his voice recalled me.
"I wonder now," he asked, as if it were a riddle—"I wonder if you
can guess why the body was never found?"
Again there was an intolerable silence before he went on.
"Lydia was a dear creature: in many respects she made me an admirable
wife. Her affection for me was canine—positively. But she was fat,
sir; her face a jelly, her shoulders mountainous. Moreover, her
voice!—it was my cruciation—monotonously, regularly, desperately
voluble. If she talked of archangels, they became insignificant—and
her themes, in ordinary, were of the pettiest. Her waist, sir, and
my arm had once been commensurate: now not three of Homer's heroes
could embrace her. Her voice could once touch my heart-strings into
music; it brayed them now, between the millstones of the commonplace.
Figure to yourself a man of my sensibility condemned to live on these
He paused, tightened his grasp on his knee, and pursued.
"You remember, sir, the story of the baker in Langius? He narrates
that a certain woman conceived a violent desire to bite the naked
shoulders of a baker who used to pass underneath her window with his
wares. So imperative did this longing become, that at length the
woman appealed to her husband, who (being a good-natured man, and
unwilling to disoblige her) hired the baker, for a certain price, to
come and be bitten. The man allowed her two bites, but denied a
third, being unable to contain himself for pain. The author goes on
to relate that, for want of this third bite, she bore one dead child,
and two living. My own case," continued the Reverend William, "was
somewhat similar. Lydia's unrelieved babble reacted upon her bulk,
and awoke in me an absorbing, fascinating desire to strike her.
I longed to see her quiver. I fought against the feeling, stifled
it, trod it down: it awoke again. It filled my thoughts, my dreams;
it gnawed me like a vulture. A hundred times while she sat
complacently turning her inane periods, I had to hug my fist to my
breast, lest it should leap out and strike her senseless. Do I weary
you? Let me proceed:—
"That Sunday evening we sat, one on each side of the hearth, in the
Vicarage drawing-room. She was talking—talking; and I sat tapping
my foot and whispering to myself, 'You are too fat, Lydia, you are
too fat.' Her talk ran on the two sermons I had preached that day,
the dresses of the congregation, the expense of living, the parish
ailments—inexhaustible, trivial, relentless. Suddenly she looked up
and our eyes met. Her voice trailed off and dropped like a bird
wounded in full flight. She stood up and took a step towards me.
'Is anything the matter, William?' she asked solicitously. 'You are
too fat, my dear,' I answered, laughing, and struck her full in the
face with my fist.
"She did not quiver much—not half enough—but dropped like a
half-full sack on to the carpet. I caught up a candle and examined
her. Her neck was dislocated. She was quite dead."
The madman skipped up from his boulder, and looked at me with
"I am so glad, sir," he said, "that you did not bleed when I struck
you; it was a great mercy. The sight of blood affects me—ah!" he
broke off with a subtle quiver and drew a long breath. "Do you know
the sands by Woeful Ness—the Twin Brothers?" he asked.
I knew that dreary headland well. For half a mile beyond the grey
Church and Vicarage of Bleakirk it extends, forming the northern arm
of the small fishing-bay, and protecting it from the full set of the
tides. Towards its end it breaks away sharply, and terminates in a
dorsal ridge of slate-coloured rock that runs out for some two
hundred feet between the sands we call the Twin Brothers. Of these,
that to the south, and inside the bay, is motionless, and bears the
name of the 'Dead-Boy;' but the 'Quick-Boy,' to the north, shifts
continually. It is a quicksand, in short; and will swallow a man in
"My mind," resumed my companion, "was soon made up. There is no
murder, thought I, where there is no corpse. So I propped Lydia in
the armchair, where she seemed as if napping, and went quietly
upstairs. I packed a small hand-bag carefully with such clothes as
she would need for a journey, descended with it, opened the front
door, went out to be sure the servants had blown out their lights,
returned, and hoisting my wife on my shoulder, with the bag in my
left hand, softly closed the door and stepped out into the night.
In the shed beside the garden-gate the gardener had left his
wheelbarrow. I fetched it out, set Lydia on the top of it, and
wheeled her off towards Woeful Ness. There was just the rim of a
waning moon to light me, but I knew every inch of the way.
"For the greater part of it I had turf underfoot; but where this
ended and the rock began, I had to leave the barrow behind. It was
ticklish work, climbing down; for footing had to be found, and Lydia
was a monstrous weight. Pah! how fat she was and clumsy—lolling
this way and that! Besides, the bag hampered me. But I reached the
foot at last, and after a short rest clambered out along the ridge as
fast as I could. I was sick and tired of the business.
"Well, the rest was easy. Arrived at the furthest spit of rock, I
tossed the bag from me far into the northern sand. Then I turned to
Lydia, whom I had set down for the moment. In the moonlight her lips
were parted as though she were still chattering; so I kissed her
once, because I had loved her, and dropped her body over into the
Quick-Boy Sand. In three minutes or so I had seen the last of her.
"I trundled home the barrow, mixed myself a glass of whisky, sat
beside it for half an hour, and then aroused the servants. I was
cunning, sir; and no one could trace my footprints on the turf and
rock of Woeful Ness. The missing hand-bag, and the disarray I had
been careful to make in the bed-room, provided them at once with a
clue—but it did not lead them to the Quick-Boy. For two days they
searched; at the end of that time it grew clear to them that grief
was turning my brain. Your father, sir, was instant with his
sympathy—at least ten times a day I had much ado to keep from
laughing in his face. Finally two doctors visited me, and I was
taken to a madhouse.
"I have remained within its walls twenty-nine years; but no—I have
never been thoroughly at home there. Two days ago I discovered that
the place was boring me. So I determined to escape; and this to a
man of my resources presented few difficulties. I borrowed this pony
from a stable not many yards from the madhouse wall; he belongs, I
think, to a chimney-sweep, and I trust that, after serving my
purpose, he may find a way back to his master."
I suppose at this point he must have detected the question in my
eyes, for he cried sharply.
"You wish to know my purpose? It is simple." He passed a thin hand
over his forehead. "I have been shut up, as I say, for twenty-nine
years, and I now discover that the madhouse bores me. If they
re-take me—and the hue and cry must be out long before this—I shall
be dragged back. What, then, is my proposal? I ride to Bleakirk and
out along the summit of Woeful Ness. There I dismount, turn my pony
loose, and, descending along the ridge, step into the sand that
swallowed Lydia. Simple, is it not? Excessi, evasi, evanui.
I shall be there before sunset—which reminds me," he added, pulling
out his watch, "that my time is nearly up. I regret to leave you in
this plight, but you see how I am placed. I felt, when I saw you, a
sudden desire to unbosom myself of a secret which, until the past
half-hour, I have shared with no man. I see by your eyes again that
if set at liberty you would interfere with my purpose. It is
unfortunate that scarcely a soul ever rides this way—I know the road
of old. But to-morrow is Sunday: I will scribble a line and fix it
on the church-door at Bleakirk, so that the parish may at least know
your predicament before twenty-four hours are out. I must now be
going. The bandanna about your mouth I entreat you to accept as a
memento. With renewed apologies, sir, I wish you good-day; and count
it extremely fortunate that you did not bleed."
He nodded in the friendliest manner, turned on his heel, and walked
quietly towards the bridge. As he untethered his pony, mounted, and
ambled quietly off in the direction of the coast, I lay stupidly
watching him. His black coat for some time lay, a diminishing blot,
on the brown of the moors, stood for a brief moment on the sky-line,
I must have lain above an hour in this absurd and painful position,
wrestling with my bonds, and speculating on my chances of passing the
night by the beck-side. My ankles were tied with my own
handkerchief, my wrists with the thong of my own whip, and this
especially cut me. It was knotted immovably; but by rolling over and
rubbing my face into the turf, I contrived at length to slip the gag
down below my chin. This done, I sat up and shouted lustily.
For a long time there was no reply but the whinnying of my mare, who
seemed to guess something was wrong, and pulled at her tether until I
thought she would break away. I think I called a score of times
before I heard an answering "Whoo-oop!" far back on the road, and a
scarlet coat, then another, and finally a dozen or more appeared on
the crest of the hill. It was the hunt returning.
They saw me at once, and galloped up, speechless from sheer
amazement. I believe my hands were loosened before a word was
spoken. The situation was painfully ridiculous; but my story was
partly out before they had time to laugh, and the rest of it was
gasped to the accompaniment of pounding hoofs and cracking whips.
Never did the Netherkirk Hunt ride after fox as it rode after the
Rev. William Teague that afternoon. We streamed over the moor, a
thin red wave, like a rank of charging cavalry, the whip even
forgetting his tired hounds that straggled aimlessly in our wake.
On the hill above Bleakirk we saw that the tide was out, and our
company divided without drawing rein, some four horsemen descending
to the beach, to ride along the sands out under Woeful Ness, and
across the Dead-Boy, hoping to gain the ridge before the madman and
cut him off. The rest, whom I led by a few yards, breasted the
height above and thundered past the grey churchyard wall. Inside it
I caught a flying glimpse of the yellow pony quietly cropping among
the tombs. We had our prey, then, enclosed in that peninsula as in
a trap; but there was one outlet.
I remember looking down towards the village as we tore along, and
seeing the fisher-folk run out at their doors and stand staring at
the two bodies of horsemen thus rushing to the sea. The riders on
the beach had a slight lead of us at first; but this they quickly
lost as their horses began to be distressed in the heavy sand.
I looked back for an instant. The others were close at my heels;
and, behind again, the bewildered hounds followed, yelping
mournfully. But neither man nor hound could see him whom they
hunted, for the cliff's edge hid the quicksand in front.
Presently the turf ceased. Dismounting, I ran to the edge and
plunged down the rocky face. I had descended about twenty feet, when
I came to the spot where, by craning forward, I could catch sight of
the spit of rock, and the Quick-Boy Sand to the right of it.
The sun—a blazing ball of red—was just now setting behind us, and
its level rays fell full upon the man we were chasing. He stood on
the very edge of the rocks, a black spot against the luminous yellow
of sea and sand. He seemed to be meditating. His back was towards
us, and he perceived neither his pursuers above nor the heads that at
this moment appeared over the ridge behind him, and not fifteen yards
away. The party on the beach had dismounted and were clambering up
stealthily. Five seconds more and they could spring upon him.
But they under-estimated a madman's instinct. As if for no reason,
he gave a quick start, turned, and at the same instant was aware of
both attacking parties. A last gleam of sunlight fell on the
snuff-box in his left hand; his right thumb and fore-finger hung
arrested, grasping the pinch. For fully half a minute nothing
happened; hunters and hunted eyed each other and waited.
Then carrying the snuff to his nose, and doffing his hat, with a
satirical sweep of the hand and a low bow, he turned again and
tripped off the ledge into the jaws of the Quick-Boy.
There was no help now. At his third step the sand had him by the
ankles. For a moment he fought it, then, throwing up his arms, sank
forward, slowly and as if bowing yet, upon his face. Second by
second we stood and watched him disappear. Within five minutes the
ripples of the Quick-Boy Sand met once more above him.
In the course of the next afternoon the Vicar of Bleakirk called at
the Hall with a paper which he had found pinned to the church door.
It was evidently a scrap torn from an old letter, and bore, scribbled
in pencil by a clerkly hand, these words: "The young Squire
Cartwright in straits by the foot-bridge, six miles toward
Netherkirk. Orate pro anima Guliemli Teague."