The Diary of Joseph Mortimer

By Chrissey Harrison
30th May 2011

Elizabethan land owner Joseph Mortimer discovers the price of a little charity when he turns away an old woman on a cold night.

In June 2010 a freak fire gutted a 16th Century farmhouse in Hampshire. During the renovation following the disaster the owners found, concealed beneath the floorboards, the diary of one Joseph Mortimer; a thirty-seven year old land owner of modest holdings, who died in 1583. The details of his fate are vague and his body was never found.

Below is presented the final entry. The language has been updated somewhat, but an effort has been made to preserve the flavour of the piece.

***

1st November 1583
At the home of Mr John Milner
Breamore, Hampshire, ENGLAND

The events of this night have been disturbing and traumatic. Were it not for the blood still staining my hands I would think it all a nightmare. But I am getting ahead of myself, I should tell the whole story. I will try to record exactly what happened.

The night started out with a strange visit. While my dear wife Catherine laid the children in their beds, there was a knock at the door. Perhaps not cause for alarm on any other night, but on the night of Samhain things are not always as they seem. I was not about to invite a stranger into my home. Cautiously, I opened the door.

“Good sir, might I be so bold as to beg a crust of bread, and the warmth of your fire for a time?”

On my doorstep stood a woman, or at least that is what she appeared. Her filthy grey hair hung lank in her face and she was dressed in layers of rags. The yellow stumps of her few remaining teeth flashed at me as she attempted to smile. I recoiled, covering my nose against her stench.

“Be gone woman, I have not the space or the food to spare. There is an inn at Fordingbridge.”

“Good sir, I have come from Fordingbridge, on the road to Salisbury. Please, I ask only scraps and perhaps an hour to rest my tired old legs. Perhaps you have a barn?”

“And have your stench spook my horses, I think not.”

“Those with no generosity in their hearts eventually realise that a little charity is a small price to pay to guard against losing more than they can afford.”

I blinked, baffled by her riddle and then shook my head. “I’m sorry, but you will have to continue on your way and try your luck elsewhere.”

I closed the door and thought no more about it. Catherine and I retired to our beds not long after.

***

A second knock at my door, a frantic pounding, woke me from my slumber scarcely two hours later. My eyes bleary with sleep, I lit a candle and went to investigate the commotion.

Standing in the crisp cold night, a single lantern between them, stood my two farm hands. Young Henry looked white as a sheet. His shock of bright ginger hair looked almost red in the candle light. Beside him Christopher, a little older and wiser, worried at a hangnail with his teeth. Something had frightened them.

“There is something in the stable, sir.” said Christopher. “The horses are fretting.”

“What kind of thing?” I asked, reluctant to leave the warmth of the house.

“I don’t know sir, but they are stamping and pulling at their tethers.”

They would not be satisfied until I looked with them. I pulled on my britches, boots and coat, lit another lantern from my candle, and followed them into the darkness.

***

In the stables the horses snorted and stamped, their hides glossy with a sheen of sweat. Sweat from fear. As I approached my mare, Jubilee, she reared, her eyes rolling. The only time I had ever seen the horses like this was when a rabid dog had been loose on the farm.

A faint scratching reached my ears. I bade the lads hold the horses steady, so I could listen, and traced the sound to a mound of hay in one corner. As I approached the mound rustled. I took a pitchfork from the rack on the wall and stepped slowly closer. With the tines of the fork I gently moved the top layer of hay.

An enormous rat leapt from the mound and darted for the door. My heart raced from the shock but I quickly recovered myself. Just a rat. Although, it was strange for the horses to fret so over a mere rat.

“I see it,” said Henry. “It made for the grain store.”

He hurried towards the door and Christopher followed him. I grumbled to myself that the problem could be investigated in the morning. Rats were always a problem around harvest time. But they were already half way across the yard.

***

The rat from the stable stood boldly by the door to the grain store. It was almost as if it wanted to be followed and was waiting for us to catch up. I pushed past the lads and opened the door. As our light flooded into the pitch black space a number of small furry bodies scattered to the sides and disappeared.

Scratching and chittering sounds came from every side but I could see no rats. Sacks of grain were piled high. It had been a good harvest this year and the mill was struggling to cope. My grain would not go to the mill for another week. If there was a problem with rats it could all be ruined by then.

I hung my lantern on a hook by the door and set about searching the edges. Henry and Christopher followed my lead, searching the opposite side of the room. The sound of rats seemed to be everywhere.

“Here,” Henry said, suddenly. “Behind this sack!”

Before I could stop him he reached for the corner of a sack near the bottom of the stack and wrenched it. The bag split and the grain spilled onto the floor. I held my breath for a moment as the sacks above settled into the gap that was forming. Another sack started to slip sideways, a third ripped open, and then the whole stack started to move, toppling forwards.

Rats appeared from everywhere, springing from the stack of grain from the top to the bottom, some flying through the air as they leapt. There must have been hundreds. Their warm little bodies brushed past my legs, claws scrabbling on the smooth stone floor.

Henry, standing closest to the stack, cried out as sack dislodged from the top and struck him on the shoulder. Before Christopher or I could react the slide engulfed him.

I felt a tug on my britches and a sharp pain. I looked down to see one of the creatures climbing up me, its sharp claws piercing my skin. I shuddered and struck it away. Another leapt at me from the stack and clamped its teeth into the flesh of my hand. I backed towards the door as more rats swarmed towards me. Across the room Christopher tried to fend off rats with a broom.

The dust from the fall settled and I could finally make out the prone form of Henry, pinned beneath the grain. The fingers of his one free arm dripped with blood as he frantically beat away the attacking rats. As I watched, one darted in and took a bite from his cheek. Christopher tried to make his way to Henry but the rats swarmed and forced him back towards the door. I am ashamed to admit I stood frozen with fear.

Henry’s screams became more frantic and I watched in horror as two rats clamped onto his hand, only falling back to the floor when his fingers detached. One eye was already a bloody pit, but the other found mine, pleading and terrified. Then he disappeared under a writhing mass of fur and needle teeth, and screamed no more.

Bile rose in my throat as Christopher dragged me through the door into the biting cold of the night. When I recovered my senses, I realised they were no longer attacking us. They were streaming across the yard, moving all as one, towards the house. Towards Catherine and the Children.

“Get Jubilee into the trap,” I instructed Christopher. He nodded and hurried back towards the stable to harness the horse.

I ran to the house. There were rats everywhere and I struggled to keep my balance when my foot came down on a small furry back instead of hard ground.

I managed to overtake the flood so that when I reached the door I had time to get through and close it before the tide struck. I backed away slowly. From outside the sounds of scrabbling claws and gnawing teeth was punctuated with soft thuds as the rats hurled their small bodies against the door. This was unnatural. But then, this was a night for unnatural things.

“Joseph?” Catherine’s voice from behind.

I fought down the rising panic and turned to her. “Get the children, we have to go.”

“Go where? Why?”

“Please Catherine, there’s no time.”

Her eyes widened and her face paled but she nodded and turned towards the children’s room.

The scratching and scraping came from all sides now. The windows, the eves… under the floorboards. We had only minutes until they found a way in. I picked up the fire iron and held it ready.

Catherine returned holding little Sarah by the hand. My daughter held her rag doll in her other hand. Edward followed behind, too old now for holding his mother’s hand. He rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn.

“What is that noise,” Catherine asked, her voice trembling, her gaze darting around.

“Rats.”

Sarah’s eyes widened and her face paled. At that moment a faint tinkling from the kitchen signalled a window pane had succumbed to the onslaught. Within seconds the first whiskered nose appeared around the door. Sarah screamed, dropped her mother’s hand and bolted for her bedroom. Catherine went after her.

***

Outside I heard the welcome sound of hooves on the courtyard stone. Moments later Christopher pounded on the door. I opened it and found him fending rats off the path with a broom. A couple slipped past into the house. It was incidental, we weren’t staying. I handed Edward the fire iron and told Christopher to get him to the trap while I went back.

In the children’s bedroom Sarah had crawled into a wall cupboard and would not come out. I crouched next to Catherine

“She’s frightened, she has nightmares about rats,” she said.

I knew why, although I did not think she remembered. She was barely two years old at the time. I had come home early one afternoon when the rain had halted work in the fields and found a huge rat in her basket, perched on her infant chest.

A small weight landed on my shoulder and hissed in my ear. I threw it off and turned to see half a dozen rats creeping closer, their backs bristling, teeth bared.

“Pull her out, I’ll keep them away,” I said to Catherine and aimed a swift kick at the leading rat.

Catherine pulled Sarah from the cupboard, with much difficulty as our daughter did not want to be moved. I lead the way back to the door, trying to clear a path. Catherine came last, forcing Sarah to keep moving.

The scene that greeted us at the door seemed like something from the ten plagues of Egypt. Jubilee, tethered to the gate, was a hair’s breadth from breaking her rope and bolting. Her legs were bloody from rat bites. In the trap behind her Edward darted about clearing rats from the wheels as they tried to climb up. Christopher, his shirt soaked in blood from a hundred tiny wounds valiantly kept the way clear.

I paused and swept Sarah up into my arms to carry her to the trap. I crossed the threshold with Catherine on my heels.

I had barely gone two steps when my wife screamed. Rats dropped from the eves, so many they weighed her down. I could not stop; I had to get Sarah to the trap. My heart broke as I turned my back and continued forward.

Christopher fought his way to Catherine and tried to free her but his strength was failing. A rat dropped onto his back and sank its teeth into his ear. He dropped the broom which was immediately swallowed up in the writhing mass. By the time I reached the trap and passed Sarah to Edward he was on his knees.

Catherine curled up in a ball, trying to protect her face and stomach. I didn’t know what to do. Jubilee danced in her tracers, foaming at the mouth. If the rope broke, Edward would not have the strength to hold her.

As I glanced back one last time Christopher cried out and threw his head back. I stared, unable to tear my gaze away as sharp rodent teeth dug into the flesh of his neck and ripped it open. Blood sprayed and he slumped forward with a stomach churning sound that was part way between a gurgle and a hiss.

As the drops of his warm blood fell on the writhing hoard they seemed to go into a frenzy. Catherine screamed and jerked as the mass descended. For a moment I could not see her and then a gap opened. I vomited. Her white linen night dress was shredded and red with blood, the flesh below a morbid pulp exposing white bone. She was still moving, but it would not be for long.

At that moment Jubilee reared and the trap jumped forward a pace. Hot tears coursed down my cheeks as I climbed into the trap and urged the horse forwards. Behind me Sarah screamed for her mother. Edward openly wept, although he sat stoically upright, holding his sister.

I did not push Jubilee too hard; she was already weak from fear and loss of blood. The children’s cries died down to a quiet plaintive murmur, and then silence as they fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Some two miles down the road I passed a figure huddled at the side of the road in tattered rags.

“Had some trouble, good sir?” she cackled as we passed. Her laughter continued to ring in my ears for some time. Witch! She had brought this curse down on me and mine.

***

And so I find myself here, in the home of my good friend John Milner. They kindly took us in and tended our wounds. John’s wife took Sarah and Edward and settled them in to sleep with their children some half an hour ago.

As luck would have it my diary was in the pocket of my coat and so I resolved to record the events as best I could, lest no one believe me when the dawn comes. I can scarcely believe it myself but the memory is so clear. It is almost as if I can hear the scratching of the rats at my door right now…

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