The Croglin Vampire

Article excerpt

IT was the inimitable and irrepressible Augustus Hare (1834-1903) intrepid Victorian Euro-trotter and aristo-hunting prototype of the late James Lees-Milne, who brought us, in the fourth volume of his six-decker autobiography, The Story of My Life, 1896-1900, the only known tidings of the vampire of Croglin Grange.

The remote, fell-foot hamlet of Croglin lies tucked in among the fells and folds and dales and wide expanses of brooding water that pock the untamed landscape of Cumberland. The Cumbrian heights of the sullen Pennine range--the knobbly backbone of England as J.B. Priestley called it--are to this day haunted by the atmospheric echoes, the ghostly battle-cries, of long-past warring violence between feudal Englishman and marauding Scot. Here were the march fortresses, impregnable stone 'pele' towers to which northern communities were summoned by the peal of bells for safety during raids. The wild border country of the marcher lords is a timeless, ancient stretch of the roof of England, beaten by stunting gales, lashed by fierce rains that come and go as fast and fitful as the scudding clouds that bring them. Here is Croglin, and, a mile or so from the village, is the old, stone-built house which is the haunt of the legendary vampire.

The tale, as told to Augustus Hare by one Captain Fisher, begins quietly enough on a long-ago summer's day of stifling heat and scorching sunshine.

Croglin Grange, as the long, low, single-storey house now known as Croglin Low Hall was then called, had, said the Captain, been for many hundreds of years in the possession of the Fishers, a family of very ancient lineage. When, however, in the lapse of years, the Fishers outgrew the house in family and fortune and drifted south to reside at the more spacious Thorncombe, near Guildford, they determined to let the Grange.

It was their good fortune to find excellent tenants; two brothers and a sister. The new occupants' first months at Croglin passed most happily, and after the rigours of a bone-biting Cumberland winter, the bright, warm days of spring and early summer came as a pleasant, exhilarating relief. But as summer ripened, and day after day of blazing heat built gradually into a prostrating climax of breathless, sticky oppressiveness, exhilaration wilted into a kind of enervated exhaustion.

Then came that fateful summer's day. The brothers sprawled in the annihilating heat under the trees, listlessly turning the pages of the books that they were too drained of energy to read, while their sister sat, her embroidery lying idle in her lap, on the veranda of the house. Not a leaf, not a blade of grass, stirred in the sultry air. The heat haze shimmered like a migraine over the sun-parched lawn.

When evening came, even the shadows seemed hot as velvet. Not really hungry, the trio dined early and lightly, eating, as it were, out of habit rather than desire. Afterwards they all sat out on the veranda, anxious to be there to greet the first faintly cool breeze to follow the setting of the implacable sun. They watched the sun's blood-red descent; watched the moon rise over the belt of trees that separated their grounds from the adjacent churchyard. Its cold radiance bathed the whole lawn in silver, and the long shadows from the shrubbery struck across the smooth grass as if embossed. For a long time they remained there, simply luxuriating in the moon-beamed landscape, that soothed eyes jaded by endless-seeming exposure to the harshness of the sun, until at last the chiming of the grandfather's-clock in the hall sent them off to bed.

When she reached her ground-floor bedroom, the sister, found the heat still so uncomfortably intense that she could not sleep. So, having fastened her window, she forbore to close the shutters, and, propped against the pillows, she lay looking out through the window's casement, entranced by the view, the peace and beauty of that rural summer night. …