By the Blood

by Pedro

Peter headed for his room on the south side of the Quad.

The dampness didn't have the decency to condense into a proper mist, but still chilled the soul. It wrapped around and flowed with Peter up the staircase to make his room even colder than usual.

A real November night.

Peter remembered the date. The month did not start until tomorrow.

Footsteps in the lane below the window.

A straggling reveller using the lane as short cut back to his college having tarried after ten thirty closing time to finish a conversation or kiss his love goodnight. His? It was always a he. Peter looked down through the window to check his theory. Yes, a young man. And he was not walking in the direction Peter had guessed from the sound of the steps. He had noticed before that the narrow zig-zag lane captured echoes disguising the source of sounds coming to his room.

The Colleges had cleaned their public facades in the 70’s, but a decade later the walls on either side of the lane still carried their sooty patina of a hundred or more years. The dim street lights only added to the air of hidden menace, made stronger by the dampness of this night.

As he turned from the window, Peter suppressed the thought of who he would have liked to kiss goodnight. He changed into his nightclothes and climbed into bed. At least it would be warm in there.

After dinner in Hall, Peter had spent the evening with friends including the one who had been mistaken for his brother. An understandable mistake. They did look alike and were often in each other's company. The group of friends had been in the pub discussing life and vying for who could make their pint last the longest.

Peter had hoped that the beer would help him fall asleep. On another night it probably would have done, but tonight it just made him maudlin. All he could manage was to doze in that state of semi-conscientiousness before sleep, as his mind churned over something he knew about himself but could not bring himself to act upon.

More footsteps in the lane. Peter looked at his clock. Five to twelve. Another straggler. One who had been invited back for coffee? Perhaps more? Maybe he should have invited his proxy brother back for coffee. The steps faded away and Peter dozed.

A cry in the night. Peter surfaced from semi-sleep and looked for the clock again. Ten minutes had passed. He thought it should have been more.

The cry again. The sound of a baby in distress. Another wail. Insistent.

Peter did not want to leave his bed, but he could not resist the latent instinct. He rose, crossed to the window and opened it. The dampness caressed his face and neck as he looked down into the lane.

A ground floor window rattled open. A form crossed the dim pool of the street light and leapt through the window before it was clanged shut.

Dr Clarke's cat. Peter had seen the Don in Hall and should have guessed the Siamese would be in residence.

Peter relaxed and breathed in. The cold, damp air made him cough. He closed his window and climbed back under his bedcovers. He shivered as he tried to draw some of his own body heat back out of the mattress. He felt alone. He wished for the warmth of someone in his arms. He wanted a brother's hug.

Sleep would not come. Peter had become used to the sounds of the lane on clear nights. Tonight, muted by the miasma, those sounds that reached his ears were more insinuating.

A duck quacked.

'A duck? The river is half a mile away.'

With that thought Peter gave up on sleep. He was cold. Not bothering with the light, he pulled his street clothes back on and set the kettle to boil. Maybe a cup of coffee would warm him, although it probably wouldn’t help him sleep.



'At night?' Peter found the concept of an insomniac duck disturbing.


The sound seemed unreal. Peter wrapped himself in the bedcovers and opened the window to hear better. A mist had started to congeal from the damp air. Wispy fingers flowed in, taking him into their cold embrace.

Muffled voices.

"Milord, Milord."

Peter could not distinguish the next words.

More voices joined in.

"Blood, the blood of King Edward

"By the blood, the blood of King Edward

"... whop him, whop him, Milord."

The voices were coming from the college opposite. Peter did not know what to make of it. He knew the college was for Fellows only and the Warden the only person likely to be in residence.

He looked through the mist to the roof opposite to see an ethereal procession. In the light of candle lanterns, a score or so dressed in strange robes and strange bonnets passed by. A Holbein scene alive.

"By the blood, the blood of King Edward

"By the blood, the blood of King Edward

"... whop him, whop him, Milord."

The ghost-like column moved west along the roof through the mist, soon lost to Peter's view.

Peter stood there shivering. His shivers were not from the cold alone. The coffee had no taste as he drank it. He cradled the warm cup in his hands as he tried to digest what he had seen.

The cup empty, Peter broke from his nervous introspection and reached to close the window. An act he did not complete.

A scream pierced the muting dampness. To Peter's ears the sound of someone being tortured. Tortured to death.

A second scream.

Peter dropped his cup, and ran from his room. Someone was being murdered. He must raise the alarm. He sprinted towards the Porter's Lodge. The Porter would know what to do.

As he ran up the steps to the Lodge he was relieved to see Porter Newcombe on duty. Mr Newcombe was understanding of naive undergraduates. Peter crashed open the Lodge door. The Porter turned to admonish the panting student.

"Really, sir, there is no need to wreck... good God sir. You look as though you have seen a ghost."

"I think maybe I have, Mr Newcombe. Raise the alarm. I think there has been a murder."

"A murder, sir? Where?"

"In the college opposite."

"Opposite? Ah! You are on one of the South staircases in the Front Quad. Is that right?"

"Yes. Please hurry."

"So that would be All Souls opposite?"

"Yes, yes. Hurry man."

Whilst Peter was getting more worked up, Mr Newcombe remained calm.

"You had better sit down, sir, and tell me about it from the beginning. Then we can ring the police if we need to."

The Porter lifted the cosy from the teapot that was always on his desk, put milk and three sugars in a mug and poured the thick stewed tea. He pushed the mug across to Peter. He knew the extra sweet tea would have a calming effect.

Peter recounted the night's events starting with his fear for the baby, and his relief that it turned out to be a cat. He told how the idea of a duck quacking in the middle of the night made him apprehensive. Then the ghostly parade.

“I didn’t believe in ghosts until tonight, now I am not so sure.”

A smile started to grow on Mr Newcombe's face. Peter continued with his tale and began to get upset as the Porter did not seem to be taking it seriously.

“Then, just as I was shutting the window, I heard the screams. The screams of someone in fear of their life. So I ran straight down here.”

The Porter was struggling to hide his amusement. A chuckle escaped and he started to explain.

"I'm sorry to laugh at you, sir, but there’s nothing to worry about. I thought your step-brother would have told you. He was in one of those rooms last year. What you saw was the Fellows of All Souls commemorating the College's foundation, reciting the Legend of the Mallard. Something to do with finding a whopping great duck when they were building the place. They always do it after Hall on All Hallows' Eve, starting at midnight. The sound effect was a decoy duck call. "

"But the ghosts were in Tudor clothes."

"No, sir. Academic Dress. They all hold Doctorates of some kind, hence the bonnets, and any that are Peers can turn up in their Ermine. On a night like this, the rest borrow their wives fur coats if they've got any sense."

"What about the screams? It certainly sounded as though some one was being murdered over there."

"You know where our Warden's Lodgings are? Next to All Souls on the dog leg in the lane west of your room?"

Peter nodded.

"The Warden reported to me the other day that a fox was making a den in the corner of his garden. Don't you have urban foxes where you live?"

Peter came from a small rural market town so they didn't have that problem. He shook his head.

"What you heard was the vixen calling. If you've never heard it before, it is pretty unnerving.

"If you've finished your tea, why don't you head off and try and get some sleep."

Peter got up and turned to leave.

"Thanks, Mr Newcombe. Oh, by the way, he's not my step-brother, we're not related at all."

Peter added a thought to himself, 'I wish we were though.'

With apologies to the Warden and Fellows of All Souls College, Oxford

For more about the Legend of the Mallard try these links (in the second one look for pages 106-113):

Image Lane in Oxford by Doc Searls (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Copyright © Pedro October 2015