After nearly three hundred years, the old house was slowly being brought back to life. From across the Cathedral Close the full extent of the restoration work could be seen: a new slate roof, shining in the afternoon sunshine, dominated by a high chimney stack that stood proud and newly pointed against a cloudless sky; scaffolding, like a protective rib cage, half screening ancient brick, the mellow red exaggerated by the neatly scraped out and re pointed joints, and windows that looked original but were, in fact, the result of the craft of men skilled in the art of cutting out old, rotting timber and blending in new.
The exterior was virtually finished and the activity had moved inside to the musty, crumbling rooms that were originally home to notable city families and later to solicitors and commissioners of oaths.
The low growl of the city's traffic, diffused by high walls and terraces, provided a constant reminder of the rush of modern life beyond The Close where only the arrival of an occasional car and the hammering of the workmen intruded on the timeless silence; although today, the door of Number One stood open and from deep within the house, from a rear ground floor room, the scream of a silicon carbide disc slicing through ancient brickwork fractured the silence.
A spray of fine dust whisped out from the front door into the still afternoon; it hung in the air of the passageway and filled the room where the foreman, Bert Hobbs, assisted his bricklayer to remove a marble fire surround before starting on the renovation of the room. Fine dust covered everything, thrown up by the spinning disc. It floated on the air like spray from a fountain before settling on every surface and Bert, blowing dust from his nose into a large grimy handkerchief, crossed the room and threw open the window.
Gradually the valuable antique was freed from ancient fixings, lifted clear and carefully laid against a wall. The two men stood back and wiped dust from their hands and faces.
Bert turned to leave. 'That's the worst bit done, Taff. You can manage the rest on your own. Harry can come through every now and then and clear your rubble.'
'Leave the door open,' Taff said. 'The dust...you know!'
The dust was an obvious excuse. The fact of the matter was that he didn't fancy seeing the door close on him in that room. There was something about it he didn't like. He'd felt it the very first time he'd walked in, but then, as now, had been unable to explain it.
It was the cold: a damp, musty coldness that hung on theair;a chill that long years of insufficient heating and direct sunlight might, perhaps, explain: And there was a deep silence. Even the activities of the carpenters on the floors above was muted, and the sounds of the world outside, the occasional sound of traffic and aeroplanes, of children's laughter and the chatter of passers-by was absorbed in the walls.
It was a large square room, cobwebbed, dust-layered, sad from neglect, with peeling wallpaper and cracked plaster. An old iron grate had been set in the marble surround on a deep chimney breast opposite the door and a single window threw a half-hearted light into the room from the centre of the wall on the right.
With the exception of the recent repairs to the window frame and the twentieth century intrusion of electricity, it was easy to imagine that nothing what-so-ever had changed since its original construction, although common sense suggested that from time to time, all-be-it in the distant past, it had been redecorated.
Atmosphere was not something that normally bothered the bricklayer. David Robert Thomas did not consider himself particularly sensitive, although growing up in a small village in the shadow of Snowdon, submerged in the mythology of Wales from early childhood, had left its mark. He was a shy, quiet man, unmarried at thirty-one, a bit of a drifter, quite happy totake the tools of his trade to where-ever work was offered and more comfortable in the Methodist Chapel than the Bull andButcher. After a momentary hesitatiorickwork.
As he drove the chisel into the next course of bricks he heard the voice cry out. He dropped the hammer and spun around.
Except for him, n he shook off his feelings in the comfort of the lump hammer he took to the brickwork.
He started on the ironwork of the grate and soon lost himself in the task. It did not take much to loosen it and, afterwards, he was left with a blackened cavity with soot congealed into concrete-hard lumps on the sloping walls of the chimney. The old mortar between the joints of the brickwork gave him no bother, it was weakened by the years of heat that had once been absorbed from the fires, and he worked quickly as the chimney-breast was cut back and the pile of rubble grew in the centre ofthe room.
After a while he rested and stepped back to examine his progress. He was nearly half way through his task, although he realised he had been working to the level of the wall of the recess on the right hand side of the fire place which was a good eighteen inches shallower than the recess to the left.
He shrugged. The instruction was to remove the chimney-breast and make good. He was working to the shallower of the two recesses and that would have to do, unless they wanted him to undertake the major task of removing the whole twelve feet of brickwork along the width of the recess.
As he considered the problem, he was suddenly again overwhelmed by the silence. Despite the open window, none of the sounds of a busy city seemed to invade this room. He felt he was standing at the centre of a vacuum.
He gazed at the debris at his feet; real, solid bricks and mortar. He looked out at the shadowed courtyard at the rear of the house and saw the evidence of their work on the building: piles of broken timber, rejected slates, stored scaffold poles and tools, the normal chattels of a building site. Everything normal, real and solid; yet still in his head there lingered a shadow of doubt, a tongue of fear. He did not like this room. It touched him with its chill and silence.
He shuddered involuntarily, looked at the steel chisel and heavy hammer in his hands with some degree of reassurance and moved back towards the bthe room was empty. He stood transfixed in the stillness, waiting again for the sound, but the silence was complete.
'I'm going barmy,' he murmured, 'now I'm hearing things,' but as he stooped to retrieve his hammer, the words he thought he'd heard seeped back into his subconscious and he instinctively spoke them aloud;
'Deus ad me eos ducat.'
The hammer forgotten, he squatted in front of the fire-place, his mind a sea of confusion. He slowly repeated the words, words he had never before spoken, a language he neither understood nor recognised.
He felt the chill again creep over him but now the silence was eroded by the heavy footfalls of Harry Stubbs, pushing his wheelbarrow into the room to remove the pile of debris.
'It looks like it's coming down easy,' Harry remarked as he attacked the broken bricks, breaking the suspense.
When the barrow had been filled and wheeled from the room, Taff returned to his task, the 'voice' dismissed as imagination. The pile of debris once more started to grow as he worked his way upthe chimney-breast to a point where the need for a step ladder brought him to a temporary halt and he dropped his tools and rested.
Immediately the silence descended on him, heavy as the particles of dust that floated on the still air, oppressive, nerve tingling, swamping him, isolating him from the comfortable noises he took for normal, driving his senses to search desperately for a sound, any sound that would re-assure him of his existence.
But the sound that came to him brought a new terror. Through the stillness he heard a faint but unmistakable tapping.
Two taps as of metal against brick.
At first he would not accept it as anything other than the sound of other workmen elsewhere in the house, but after the tapping, the silence returned to drown him.
He held his breath and stood motionless, his ears aching with concentration. And again he heard it, but this time he was waiting for it and turned his face towards it. The faint sound of metal against brick came from the wall of the recess.
The noise brought back his senses and with them his fear. With a strangled cry he turned and dashed towards the doorway but before he got there the heavy door swung on silent hinges, propelled by an unseen force - and slammed shut in his face.
Desperately, he grasped the handle. It turned uselessly in his hand. Panic rose like bile in his throat and he threw himself against the door and hammered furiously on the solid panels, calling Bert's name over and over.
He heard running footsteps and the door burst open against his weight, throwing him backwards onto floor.
'What the hell's wrong?' the Foreman cried.
Taff struggled to his feet. 'I've got to get out of here,' he said, his voice all but a sob in his throat.
Bert grabbed his arm and held him. 'What's the matter with you, man? You look as though you've seen a ghost.'
'It's this bloody room. There's something wrong here and it's scaring the wits out of me.'r something.'
Taff's words rushed out
'Why were you hammering on the door? I thought you'd brought the ceiling down oin a breathless flow; 'It wouldn't open. I heard the tapping and I just wanted to get out, and I ran for the door and it slammed in my face and the handle just turned in my hand. I was trapped.'
'What do you mean you heard the tapping. Calm down, Taff. Start at the beginning.'
Taff looked suspiciously at the door, pushed it open against the wall and wedged it there with bricks.
'You've got to believe me, Bert. I'm not usually easily scared but this little lot has scared me shitless. There's something wrong with this room and I seem to be the only one who feels it. I sensed it the first time I walked in and now, alone in here, I've felt it again and I heard a voice.'
'Oh, come on Taff! You heard a voice? You're having me on!'
'I thought it was my imagination but I can tell you what it said. It said, "Deus ad me eos ducat"'.
'What the hell does that mean?'
'I don't know, Bert. I don't know what language it is or if it's gibberish, but there's no way I could have made it up.'
Bert said nothing, but his anger had drained from him. He looked around the room, and saw only an ordinary room that had nowhere to hide any secrets.
'Then I heard the tapping,' Taff said, 'that's when I made a dash for it and the door slammed on me. It was as though something was determined to keep me in the room.'
Bert was now very conscious that without doubt something had frightened the bricklayer but he could not accept the supernatural and sought for a logical explanation that would rationalise the situation.
'Perhaps a breeze blew the door closed.'
'No breeze could have produced the force that slammed that door,' Taff said vehemently.
'And why didn't the handle work? It just turned in my hand. Something was determined to keep me in here and made certain I couldn't escape.'
'Calm down, Taff. You're getting hysterical. I accept something has upset you, but you can't expect me to believe tales of strange voices and unseen hands slamming doors!'
Taffy Thomas looked uncertainly at the foreman, consciousof how tenuous his account sounded; but it did notremovehis unease.
'Stay in here for a few minutes, Bert. See if you feel or hear anything.' He walked to the wall of the recess. 'The tapping came from here.'
Bert nodded but said nothing. Together they stood gazing at the wall, plastered and decorated like the rest. Once more the deep silence descended on the room and wrapped itself around the two men. Taff glanced at his companion and saw his sceptical expression change to uncertainty as the oppressive atmosphere surrounded them. His own senses were tense and alert, seeking any slight sound that resembled the noises that had so scared him.
And then it came. Not the tapping, but a faint scratching, like the sound of mice behind the wainscot.
'There,' Taff whispered. 'Did you hear that?'
Bert nodded. 'Mice?'
The silence deepened.
Then, twice in quick succession, the tap-tap of metal against brick brought the hair at the back of Taffy Thomas's neck on end and when he glanced at the foreman he saw his face visibly pale, his eyes widen and his mouth fall open in silent disbelief.
'You heard it,' he said.
'From that wall. Something....someone knocking.'
Bert nodded, afraid to speak the words that contradicted everything he had ever believed.
Taff, his confidence renewed by Bert's acknowledgement that it wasn't his imagination, picked up his hammer and chisel and moved to the wall.
'What are you going to do?' Bert asked, hesitantly.
'I'm taking this wall down.'
He drove the chisel into the corner of a course of bricks of the recessed wall a couple of feet above the floor and struck it firmly into the joint. Carefully he prised the brick free and twisted it until it slipped easily from the wall.
It revealed a black cavity.
He glanced at Bert. 'It's hollow behind.'
Bert stooped and peered into the space. 'I can't see anything. Take out some more but do it carefully in case there's anything.....' his words trailed off with the realisation of the awful consequence of their meaning.
Taff returned to his task and took out the next brick in the course and then the brick beneath and lay them carefully on the floor. His actions were slow and careful, as though he were performing a religious ritual.
He moved to take out the next brick but Bert's restraining hand grasped his shoulder. 'Ssh. Listen,' he said breathlessly.
In the silence the faint scraping sound could be heard again. They stared at the black cavity they had created. The scraping seemed to come from inside their heads and, at thesame time,from within the dark recesses of the wall, but they both heardit and felt their eyes dragged to the aperture, drawn to the sight of a tarnished silver cross that was slowly being raised into their view, slowly rising from within the blackness to the opening in the wall until thetop and the two arms of the cross trembled in their vision for several seconds before, as slowly, sinking again from their sight.
'Dear God, there's someone in there,' Taff gasped.
Bert just stared silently at the now empty aperture, his face deathly white.
Taff reached into the hole he had made and urgently smashed the hammer against the brickwork, knocking the old bricks outward, the restraint of a few minutes earlier forgotten. Dust obscured his view but he maintained his attack and the hole quickly grew. In a frenzy, he knocked out the courses on which he had originally started and then started on those above and below, until he felt Bert's hand take his shoulder.
'Let the dust settle, Taff. The hole's big enough.'
He stepped back beside his companion. Slowly the cloud of dust thinned and,like a scene emerging from a deep fog,the interior of the cavity gradually came into view.
From where they stood they could see the back wall, grey with age, dust ridden and cobwebbed. As though drawn, they moved, together, nearer to the hole, nearer, until the floor of the recess was visible.
'Holy Mother of God!' Bert gasped and crossed himself.
David Thomas sighed. He had been dreading what he would find but somehow knew that the corpse would be there. It had been calling him ever since he had arrived in this house. It had been guiding him towards its resting place ever since he had struck the first blow with his hammer.
It had demanded he stay and had locked him into the room when every instinct had told him to flee the terrible unknown thing that was calling him. And now his fear was gone to be replaced by a sense of relief that was equally difficult to understand as he looked upon the cadaver lying on the floor of the recess.
He should have felt horror, for by some freak of circumstance the dry, airless grave had mummified the body. It lay on its back staring with wide sightless sockets at the blackness of the ceiling. Thin straggling hair hung to its shoulders. The skin was stretched tight over bones that thrust out from cheek and chin and even as they gazed on it, it seemed to tighten grotesquely across the mouth, as though smiling its satisfaction at their discovery.
The hands lay on the floor by its side, long thin hands that seemed all fingers, the fine bones tracing a pattern beneath the wafer thin tissue of skin. And the right hand,a long-deadhand, clung to the silver cross.
Bert let out a gasp as his eyes touched it;
'Taff, the cross! How could it raise the cross to guide us. You saw the cross appear, didn't you. It wasn't my imagination?'
'Yes, I saw the cross.'
As he gazed on this being that had once lived and breathed, had once walked in this very room, Taff felt a new calmness, a sense of comprehension. The words that had been whispered into his subconscious came to him again but, suddenly, with understanding.
'How could the cross rise to our sight?' Bert asked again, 'and the tapping?'
'Deus ad me eos ducat,' Taff murmured.
'What?' Bert asked.
'It's latin. The words I heard were latin. Don't ask me how I know or understand them. I just, suddenly do. It means, " God, guide them to me". The cross guided us.'
'Dear God! I think he was bricked up alive and tried to free himself with the cross,' he said in a hoarse whisper.
Behind him, he heard Bert move to the window.
'We'll have to call the police,' he said.
'Yes,' Taff agreed, but he knew that it was all over and the police would be but a formality.
'At least he can now be laid to rest properly,' he said, and as he spoke a little of the warmth of that lovely early evening began to seep into the room.