The Black Letter (Part 1 of 3)

Posted on Oct 10, 2011


August 1917, Oxford

To whomever this concerns

The following letter, The Black Letter is one that I found a year ago. The events of my life are unimportant and what subsequently happened in our lives. I ask you to read the letter that I had found in a dusty old box in the attic of this great yet sad house in my beloved Oxford I had come to many years before from my troubled home of Cork, Eire. War has come to us and I have seen more horror this past year than all that war has to show me. I am off to fight in France but know my life will be forfeit before I leave British shores… All I can say is demolish this house and make sure no-one builds on this land again for I hadn’t the heart to do so.

God speed and may you find a peace I did not.

John A. O’Hara

February 1874, Oxford

Well, you are reading this from whatever year you are in and I hope that you are well and safe. For me, I am long dead. At least I hope so. How much time has passed I wonder. Is this letter I have written faded with time over many years or is it only a few weeks? Who are you and what life do you have? Are there children in your life? Do they give you joy? Does your wife or husband make you happy? What do you do for a living? Are you a Judge, lawyer, Policeman, Accountant or something more exiting like a ship’s captain or Lieutenant sailing the seas fighting for Queen and country? Oh How I envy you the freedom of the seas if that be so. To escape and move constantly away from one place to another, no-one or nothing being able to restrain you and keep you prisoner…
I pray that it is years gone by since as your life may be in danger, from what I know took me from this life. Oh how I wish that I had more time to prepare myself for the next life but in truth you never have enough time, always putting off the inevitable. If only we all looked around us a bit more. Looked at the beauty of life that can be seen anywhere from the most beautiful flower to the grubby but sweet chimney-sweep that cleans our home.
Life is indeed precious and we should treat it as so but enjoy every moment that we can from it. You never know what lies around the corner, outside your home, under your bed or in your darkest dreams…
Oh but how I dither so upon this paper that I write! This letter is for you and you alone who now resides in my once happy home. For this letter is a warning. One that you should never ignore for one moment. This is no fanciful story that Poe, Sheridin Le Fanu, or any other Penny Dreadfuls that you are likely to read.
You shall have your heart chilled for what I have to tell you and I am sincerely sorry for that but your very life depends on it!
So, pray tell I hear you ask far from me this day. What is all this nonsense about? Sit, read and immerse yourself in what I have to say for as I have already said, this letter may save your life and all those that you love dearly.

I was born Mary Elizabeth Cassandra Hamilton in Edinburgh, Scotland and three years ago I met a man of high intellect and a humour of the most wicked side but not in a bad way that he would hurt anyone so for he loved all equally and without restraint. He was a lieutenant on board HMS Achilles for a brief period until he was given a task by Naval Command.
He had to infiltrate a ship of the Canadians called the Dei Gratia, A Brigantine ship which was of the merchant variety. My Husband wouldn’t tell me all the details as they were very secret but it seems as he let on later that the crew were up to something more than transporting goods but that was not his reason for being on the ship. Something else was afoot. Something that lead to this very sorry state of affairs and the unfortunate predicament that I now find myself in.
Around 15th November 1872, my husband Thomas Black, left New York Harbour on the Dei Gratia, as a normal seaman, his true identity a secret of course. His Captain was David Reed Morehouse from Nova Scotia and they had left harbour 7-8 days late owing to their cargo being held up somewhere. The Captain had dined with another of his rank from a ship called The Mary Celeste, a ship I am sure you have heard of, the week before around the same time as Morehouse had found out that he would have to stay in harbour till his cargo had arrived.
They left New York Harbour in good spirits according to my husband and seemed excited about something although he never did find out what as they didn’t as yet trust him fully. A few weeks later, just short of a month from when they had left, their Helmsman John Johnson spotted a ship five miles off their port bow from his spyglass. They were 600 miles west of Portugal on the 4th or 5th of December 1872 at around one in the afternoon.
Johnson asked his Second Officer to take a look for confirmation before approaching the captain. The ship they both saw was yawing, not quite right with its sail torn. They both informed the captain who told them to move closer but not too close as yet. As they did so they could see it was the Mary Celeste and the captain had a worried look on his face so Thomas said. As though he was expecting something else?
Captain Morehouse then said strangely why had she not made Italy as yet? It was strange to Thomas because it was obvious they had run into some trouble and were stuck there. Some of the crew wanted to go to her rescue straight away, others were more cautious. They moved to within four hundred yards of her and waited, observing her for two hours at most. Thomas said it was the strangest two hours of his life and was about to get even more so. His own mind was ever so good at working out problems but this one seemed strange indeed. Why, he wondered, was she sitting there and no-one on deck? Why was the ship in such a state of disrepair? Maybe they were all ill down below he guessed and asked the Captain to board alone if the others were worried. The captain was riled at this but strangely kept quiet and told no-one.
They eventually boarded but Oliver Deveau, the ships First Mate went alone in the first instance only to find that there was no crew, the ship was in total disrepair below decks as well as above, had taken in water below which was probably why the ship was yawing and everything seemed to be in place except for one lifeboat which was missing and was the only one, two pumps which Thomas said was the strangest of all, the clock had stopped working and the compass smashed. The sextant and the marine chronometer were also missing. The peak halyard which I was informed was used to hoist the main sail had gone but looked like was tied to the aft of the ship, trailing in the water. The ships papers had gone but the captains log book was still there? The words ‘ghost ship’ went through the Dei Gratia upon hearing of this strange event.
When the First Mate had reported all this to the Captain, Morehouse sent two more men across to see what else they could find? The Captain was now being very cautious and Thomas could now see no reason why he had to be so for no-one was on board or even close by? They were the only two ships in plain view for miles around. Why was he still being cautious? Did he know more than he was telling? Thomas thought so.
Charles Anderson and Charles Lund then came back from the deserted ship and reported that the cargo was in order, the crew’s personal possessions were still there as was all the food and drink in the store-room. The cargo was alcohol and later it was proved that nine barrels were empty even though all seemed full and to be on board.
Whatever reason for the strange events of the Mary Celeste and her crew, there was no signs of violence as such against the men of that fateful ship but for some reason they did seem to leave her in a hurry. The Captain of the Mary Celeste had his wife and child with him throughout the journey. Oh those poor people! What a fate that became them!
There was an investigation which lasted three months and which Thomas had to pretend to be a part of as he was still incognito. The whole crew was investigated in case it was them that had caused this calamity but alas no. They received their salvage rights and went about their business.
And that should have been the end of it, but no, it never really left the crew of the Del Gratia from the moment they went on board.
After all was finished with, my husband came back for a well deserved rest. All was well for the first three months then the news came of people involved in the whole incident of the Mary Celeste of illness, madness and death the worst of these. Some lost their livelihood and homes. Not everyone succumbed to these terrible events but bad luck indeed did follow these poor unfortunate souls.
And it followed us…

My husband never mentioned what was on board the Mary Celeste as he didn’t get long enough on board to have a look. He did say though that whatever happened on that ship came with them.
He said that some of the crew started to get sick and have bad dreams, those that went aboard anyway but when they arrived at port they all seemed fine again.
We went for a walk one sunny day by our home in Oxford and my husband became all strange and nervous. When I asked him what was wrong he replied, ”Do you not see?”
When I asked him see what, he just shook his head and we walked on. He was very quiet for the rest of the day and most of the following day.

Two days later he went out again slightly more cheerful to see his Father only to return four hours later in a state of shock. He ran to the study, locked the door and refused to come out for 3 days. We eventually got him out and fed him. Our Doctor looked at him but could find nothing physically wrong and said he would just need rest. He gave him some laudanum to help him sleep.
This seemed to work in the most, but eventually this seemed only to make matters worse. Thomas was prone to saying things about the wet man and his staring eyes. He said he kept seeing this man more and more and that he was following him for some reason, but when he once gave chase, the wet man was nowhere to be seen!
I must confess that this gave me a fright, that someone was watching my husband and could possibly be watching the house as well. I endeavoured to keep a watchful eye out for this mysterious man and if seen, then order one of the servants to go and find a policeman if they could as they were on strike at the time. Our prime Minister is not doing a good job at the moment is Mr Gladstone. They are all the same are they not, these politicians?
Anyway, Thomas eventually calmed down and all seemed to be fine and back to normal so to speak, but every now and then he would look out of the window and stare. Not for long, only minutes at a time but stare he would, then he would come away from the window and sit with me and read.
Then one night it began again when my Mother and Father came to stay, down from Manchester where they have resided for many a year now.
We were all discussing the fact that my parents were eager to be grandparents and Thomas bless him rolled his eyes up in his head, smiling that wonderful cheeky smile of his. He fenced off the answers expertly to both my parents but alas I could not. I wanted children so but as my husband was always away working for the government on something or other, we really never found the time which we both found very distressing, but accepted this all the same. My parents and indeed Thomas’s didn’t understand though. Thomas’s Father had fathered four children including my husband. One, his younger sister Eloise had died of fever aged only seven years and 3 months some years before I had met Thomas. They barely talked of her as it hurt so much. They still had a boy and a girl, all grown up and very successful too in their own right. All were very proud of them.
So there we were, the four of us, sitting in the living room talking when suddenly Thomas stops and looks away, his face a look of worry on it. My parents don’t notice at first, chatting away, me listening and answering them when the need arises, when Thomas just gets up from his seat and without a word walks from the room where we entertain. This was most peculiar for him and my Father was very upset by this, calling after him as does my Mother, but he seems not to hear them. It’s as if he is in a trance like those conjurers do to people at the theatre. My Father follows him whilst I sit with my Mother saying he has been very tired of late.
A few minutes later there is a terrible scream and we both get up and run to the sound. Our servants come from where they are, following us too up the stairs to a bedroom that rarely gets used. There in the room is Thomas rocking back and forth saying quietly, ”leave me be, leave me be” over and over in a soft but pitiful mantra.
We are all quite scared by now except for my Father who never seems to be scared of anything. We eventually get Thomas to move from the bed upon which he is sitting and take him to our own bedroom.
It’s as we are leaving that my Father says, ”I think someone had better clear up that water on the floor or someone shall slip!”
It’s then that I notice the footsteps…

The following morning Thomas awoke as though nothing had happened. Indeed he said we must have had a shared dream or some such nonsense and to put it out of our minds. My father I could tell was torn between saying something and doing something that he may later regret but he bit his tongue bless his soul. My Mother had a very worried look on her face, one that I fear I matched with my own concerns. They did not know about the Wet Man as yet and I feared to tell them for what they would do? They would think him mad and tell me to lock him away for his own safety! The thought of such a thing.
My parents decided to stay on a day or two longer, just to be sure all was well with their son-in-law and indeed myself as they thought I looked quite pale due to all the goings on of the past few weeks.
The next two days pass without anything happening and my parents go home putting Thomas’s night down to a lack of sleep and the stress of his duties.
But no sooner had they gone than it began again…

Thomas had gone out to attend to some business for the day and said he would be back before I retired to bed. But he didn’t come back that night. I was worried, pacing back and forth constantly and had to call Miles, our butler and all round miracle worker when it came to the run of the house. I knew that he had a past himself, serving in the army but like all men, most won’t talk about such things. Indeed, I had the impression that he preferred to leave the past where it was and to focus on the future.
He knew though how to get things done as I’ve said and I knew also that he had run some errands for Thomas that required skills that a house servant or butler should never need. I pretended not to know of such things where this was concerned but now I needed them myself to find out what had happened to my husband.
He knew of my concerns as it happened and had undertaken his own investigation as to my husbands whereabouts as soon as he had heard of it.
He put me at ease, telling me not to worry so, that all would be well. He wouldn’t tell me much, only saying that he had people helping on the matter and would have news soon.
There was no news the following day or indeed the day after but on the fourth day in the dead of night, I was awoke by a commotion downstairs.
I heard loud voices, doors opening and closing and various other sounds that didn’t make sense in my tired state. So I put on my gown and went to see what the fuss was about only to be greeted by Sarah, one of our maids. She seemed flustered and in distress.
”Come quick Miss!” she said in flurry of words.
”Why, whatever is the matter?” I said, heart now beating in my chest. I knew now that something was amiss.
”It’s your husband Miss, he’s back.”
I felt a sudden euphoria come over me and we both flew down the stairwell.
We came to the sitting room where a number of people where talking all at once around a figure laying down on the sofa. To my joy and absolute shock I saw it was Thomas. His clothes were torn, his face a ghostly white and his feet bare and dirty. There was a cut on his face that looked deep and even though he was awake, he was talking incoherently and not really looking at anyone in particular. His dark brown hair had gone white also. Pure white but as with the rest of him, dirt lay in his hair.
I just stood there rooted to the spot, shocked to the core. It was then that I noticed our butler Miles who was trying to get my attention. He was speaking to me but I just couldn’t hear the words. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Miles himself looked a mess. His clothes slightly dirty and his jacket torn. His words were far off but they were starting to come to me now.
”…iss, are you okay? Please go back to your room. Leave us for now. All shall be fine in the morning.” This was said in a loud voice.
I felt myself being led back to my room where I collapsed and fell asleep, exhausted all of a sudden by recent events. my sleep was filled with nightmares of wet men, dishevelled and bleeding figures, and worse, horrible and frightening things that I could not see but knew were there in the dark.
If I thought my dreams were bad, then the next few days were about to show me all the evil I have ever imagined…

* Read the second part of the Black Letter now.