Frightening tales from two wayside inns

The Midnight Prowler

IT was dark when Burnett, and I pulled up at Sunder’s pub and asked the distance to Muralla. We had just finished a droving contract and were bound for that one-horse township to see if we could pick up another. The day had been one of mud, slush and drizzle. It was now raining heavily and as we were in formed that the township was twelve miles further on, we decided to put up at Sunder’s for the night.

***

There was nothing flash about Sunder’s. It was merely a roadside grogshop, but it was a shelter where we would be able to take something wet inside to balance the wet with out, and after all wet, hungry men do not expect a bush shanty to be as good as the pub in the city. I did not like the looks of Sunder or his wife. They seemed a scowling, furtive pair, given to whispering together in corners, and eyeing us sourly, as if they did not wish us to stay. A generation ago the fellow might have been a bush telegraph, or perhaps would have taken to the road. Even now he looked the type that would cut a man’s throat for five bob, if he could do so without danger. His wife would have made an excellent accomplice. The whole pub, with its low-roofed, dark bar-room, its low-browed scowling host, its general shabbiness, and its distance from anywhere in, particular reminded me of mediaeval stories wherein travellers were decoyed into lonely wayside inns and murdered in their sleep for whatever money they had about them. I mentioned all tills to Burnett after we had dined on cold corned beef and dry bread, but he laughed at my uneasiness. “Your logic is at fault, old man,” he said; “If they wanted to rob us, or anything like that, they would make more fuss over us. We are obviously unwelcome guests.” His careless good nature did not allay my suspicions and when I re-tired to the apology for a bedroom which had been allotted to me, I slept with my revolver under the pillow.

***

I had been dreaming that we were droving along the Barwon, that we were camped for the night, and that the cattle were stampeding. I awoke. The rain had ceased. The moon riding high flushed the room with a flood of silver light so that I could see distinctly the thing of horror that bent over me. It had the form of a man but the face – it was a death’s head rather than a mortal face. The nose and lips were missing and the skin stretched tightly over misshapen facial bones was of a sickly dead white colour, while the prominent teeth wore set in a demon’s grin. I felt the blood freezing in my veins, the hair bristling on my head, and my heart throbbed out a regular tattoo. I could only lie still and gaze up at that hideous face. Was it some loath-some spectre? Was it Death himself come to summon me away? Or was it our scowling landlord playing the fool for some sinister purpose? This last thought made me normal again. I slipped my hand under the pillow and in a flash covered the Thing with my revolver. Then it spoke. “Steady on, mate! I only want to borrow a match. I generally have a smoke at this time of night, and I couldn’t find a match in the house.” Whatever it was then departed with a box of my matches.

***

In the morning when we were well on our way to Muralla, Burnett explained things. He had known the Sunders years before when they had kept a swell hotel in Forbes. Their only son had gone to Sydney to learn engineering, but before he was out of his time he had been caught in some machinery and his face was horribly mangled. Had it been in these days of plastic surgery the injured features might have been reconstructed, leaving no very noticeable disfigurement. As it was the Sunders sold out of their hotel and hid their boy away from the world in this roadside pub. Young Sunder, usually slept all day and prowled about at night, and we would certainly have been refused had we not been so wet and miserable at the time we arrived.

– “Pip Tok.”

– Smith’s Weekly May 28 1921

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The following tale was printed in the The Burrangong Argus on February 19 1870. This tale was retold in various newspapers across the nation for almost 50 years. The following version was published in the Tasmanian News on April 6 1904:

THE WHITE SPECTRE

At the Crown Inn, at Antwerp [Victoria], some years ago, a white spectre was seen bearing a lamp in one hand and a bunch of keys in the other, the unpleasant visitor being observed by a variety of travellers passing along the corridor.

Nothing would satisfy the neighbors that an unfortunate traveller had not been, at some period or other, despatched in that fatal room by one of the previous landlords of the house; and the hotel gradually obtained the name of the “Haunted Inn”.

The landlord, finding himself on the brink of ruin, determined to sleep in the haunted room, with a view of proving the groundlessness of the story. To make the matter more sure, as he said, he caused his ostler to bear him company on pretence of requiring a witness to the absurdity of the report; but, in reality, from cowardice.

At dead of night, however, just as the two men were composing themselves to sleep in one bed – leaving another which was in the room untenanted – the door flew open, and in glided the white spectre!

Without pausing to ascertain what it might attempt on approaching the other bed, towards which it directed its course, the two men rushed out of the room; and by the alarm they created, confirmed more fully than ever the evil repute of the house.

Unable longer to bear the cost of so un-productive an establishment, the poor landlord advertised for sale the house in which he and his father before him were born and had passed their lives. But bidders were as scarce as customers; the inn remained on sale for nearly a year, during which, from time to time, the spectre re-appeared.

At length an officer of the garrison, who had formerly frequented the house, and recollected the excellent quality of its wine, moved to compassion in favor of the poor host, undertook to clear up the mystery by sleeping in the aforesaid haunted chamber; nothing doubting that the whole was a trick of some envious neighbor, desirous of deteriorating the value of the freehold in order to become a purchaser. His offer having been gratefully accepted.

The captain took up his quarters in the fatal room, with a bottle of wine and a brace of loaded pistols on the table before him, determined to fire at whatever object might enter the door.

At the usual hour of midnight, accordingly, when the door flew open and the white spectre, bearing a lamp and a bunch of keys, made its appearance, he seized both his pistols, when, fortunately, as his finger was on the point of touching the trigger, he perceived that the apparition was no other than the daughter of his host, a young and pretty girl, evidently walking in her sleep.

Preserving the strictest silence, he watched her set down the lamp, place her keys carefully on the chimney-piece, and retire to the opposite bed, which, as was afterwards proved, she had often occupied during the lifetime of her late mother, who slept in the room.

No sooner had she thoroughly composed herself than the officer, after locking the door of the room, went in search of her father and several competent witnesses, including the water bailiff of the district, who had been one of the loudest in circulating the rumors concerning the Haunted Inn.

The poor girl was found quietly asleep in bed, and her terror on waking in the dreadful chamber afforded sufficient evidence to all present of the state of somnambulism in which she had been entranced.

From that period the spectre was seen no more; probably because the landlord’s daughter removed shortly afterwards to a home of her own; and the tale of horror so freely circulated to the bewilderment of the poor neighbors ended in the simple story of a young girl walking in her sleep.

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