THE DARKEST HOUR – by Bernard VanCuylenburg
Nuwaraeliya in the hill country is a masterpiece of mother nature, its geography offering extraordinary natural diversity – lush woods, winding mountain roads, carpets of green tea, and in the evenings the mists roll down to merge with the landscape in a fleecy embrace. It is one of the finest tea growing districts in the island. Some of the best tea estates are found in the area, one of which is Oliphant estate.
When I was twelve years old, my younger brother and I spent a holiday in the home of a cousin who was then the Assistant Superintendent on Oliphant. His bungalow nestled high in the hills. To get there one passed the factory, the Superintendent’s bungalow, and from there the road wound uphill all the way to his bungalow. The scenery was therapeutic with fresh mountain air, flowing mountain streams, and scores of flowering plants exploding in a riot of colour. And up from the valleys came the mist in thin strands to scamper up the slopes of the hills and disappear over their crests. It was during this holiday that I heard the following story which contrasted sharply with the beautiful scenic setting of Oliphant estate. It dwells in the realms of the supernatural…….terror in the deep dark night.
The Superintendent at the time was an Englishman, named Dennis Hodgson. A young creeper – I shall call him David – was appointed by the Company to learn work as a ‘creeper’ and then kick start his planting career. He stayed in the superintendent’s bungalow, and Mr.Hodgson had planned a rigid training programme and laid down all the ground rules for his young protégé. One evening he told David that he and Mrs.Hodgson were going to town to watch a movie after which they would go to the Hill Club for dinner. Consequently they would be returning late, so they asked David not to wait up for them, but to have an early dinner and retire for the night.
THE GALLOPING GHOST
Pardon the pun, but the nights on a lonely tea plantation are deathly quiet. The stygian darkness and the mist surrounding the area like a shroud resembles a scene from a Hammer Films horror movie. It was on such a night that David suddenly awoke from a deep sleep. He sat up in bed with a start, senses alert, his heart pounding as if to burst out of his rib cage, hardly believing what he had heard ! What he heard beyond a doubt was the sound of galloping hooves. Yes ! At this ungodly hour there was a horse galloping around the bungalow on the lawn outside ! He glanced at his watch It was twenty minutes past midnight…..the bewitching hour.
Convincing himself that all this could have been a bad dream, he dismissed the thought from his mind and settled in once more hoping for a long nights sleep. He had barely drifted off to slumber land, when the same sound awoke him again. This time, gripped in terror he listened to the galloping sound in the distance as the sound grew louder until finally it seemed to be outside his bedroom window. By now he was paralyzed with fear and frantically rang for the bungalow appu in panic until the latter appeared at his door. Mustering all the Tamil he knew he told the appu of what he had heard, glad that there was another human being in the room. The appu’s reaction left him aghast. He first made a pot of tea for the young “Dorai”, (Master) managed to calm him down, and then related this hair raising tale. Many years ago he said, there was a superintendent on Oliphant who owned a fine horse. This was long before the Morris Station Wagons were the mode of transport for the Superintendents on estates for their field rounds etc. (The Assistants had to walk !) This Superintendent who enjoyed horse riding sometimes rode his horse around the bungalow specially on Sundays. One fateful day the horse had reacted wildly during such a ride, and threw the SD off its back. The fall proved to be fatal due to a severe blow to his head and tragically, he died two days later.
It was a year later that his successor had a similar experience. And then the appu went on to explain to the petrified David, that on each death anniversary of the Superintendent who suffered the fall from his horse, the sound of galloping hooves would be heard just after midnight and over the years many Superintendents had heard it. In fact it became such a regular occurrence that they began to take it for granted. Please pardon the digression, but in similar vein I once asked a policewoman on guard duty at Hampton Court Palace in London, about the story of the ghost of Queen Catherine Howard who has been seen wandering the corridors of the palace at night. Her nonchalant answer surprised me. She replied that whenever she was rostered for guard duty at night with another police officer, they had seen this spectre so often that they did not take notice any more ! Queen Catherine Howard incidentally was the 5th wife of King Henry the 8th and following a charge of adultery, was beheaded in 1542.
Mr.& Mrs.Hodgson returned to the bungalow shortly after the excitement had abated, and were surprised to see most of the lights on at this ungodly hour. The appu explained what had happened, and they spent some time with David to lend him all the moral support and reassurance he needed. The next day after breakfast, Mr.Mills summoned David to the drawing room, sat him down and counselled him on the events of the previous night, gently advising him to focus on his goal in life – to succeed as a planter, and not to let an incident of this nature however harrowing it was, cloud his thinking. Sadly, his words had no effect.This ghostly ‘encounter’ had an adverse effect on the young ‘Creeper’ and three weeks later he submitted his resignation and left the estate.
Death as they say is a transition from this life to another. But some souls don’t rest and are trapped in a kind of ‘Twilight Zone’, wandering earthly dimensions for various reasons seeking to be released from the shackles that bind them. Incidents of supernatural manifestations in a way try to answer the big questions that loom in every heart. Why are we here ? What can we do?Where are we going ? If history tells us anything, it is that human culture and knowledge are evolving constantly. We are all in the process of awakening and opening up to who we really are – and what we came here to do. Opinions on the supernatural and psychic phenomena vary. There is some controversy if “ghosts” are in fact the souls of the departed.
There is a school of thought which suggests that traumatically or emotionally charged events may cause a burst of energy to be released and absorbed by inanimate objects in the immediate vicinity. It is called Psychometry. According to this line of belief, a sensitive person coming into contact with the charged objects would experience the emotions imprinted on them and may even “see” the events which took place years before. But one central fact remains. The supernatural will not go away even if one chooses to deny it. Psychic events have happened in the past, are still happening now and will continue to happen.
I am grateful to Des Kelly for suggesting the title for this article.