Kirkham's Chair

Reads: 170  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
A peaceful village in 17th Century England becomes infected with the evil of witch-hunting but the outcome is surprisingly unexpected.

Submitted: March 18, 2008

A A A | A A A

Submitted: March 18, 2008

A A A

A A A


Kirkham’s Chair
 
Darkness descended upon the village of Houghton Prior in 1654 but was to reach a terrible climax almost exactly three years later, in the summer of 1657.
 
For many generations, the village had been a thriving, secure and contented place in the heart of England. Its surroundings were idyllic, its inhabitants proud and its community strong.
 
Responsible for this state of affairs to no small extent, was Oliver Wordingham, the wealthy owner of Houghton Hall, together with much of the surrounding countryside, and landlord to many of the villagers. Unlike many of his kind, Squire Wordingham’s wealth was matched by compassion and concern for his fellow villagers and this was evident from his many and frequent acts of generosity, benevolence and philanthropy.
 
But in the summer of 1654, Squire Wordingham, by then in his sixty-eighth year, suffered a heavy fall from his horse.Within a week he was dead.The village was stunned and dismayed at the loss of its popular benefactor and by the suddenness of the blow.The outpouring of grief was widespread and heartfelt. 
 
So complete was the sense of shock at the Squire’s unanticipated demise that the question of who or what might come in his place did not come to occupy the minds of the villagers for some time.The fact was however, that there was no obvious successor.Oliver Wordingham had been a widower for fifteen years or more and, his only son Richard had lost his life during the dark days of the recent war between King and Parliament.
 
Indeed, it was several months before the villagers heard of the outcome of the matter.They received news that the Wordingham estate was to become the inheritance of a cousin of the late Squire, one Matthew Kirkham.He was a small farmer somewhere in East Anglia, a distant and little known part of the country, and nothing at all was known of him in the locality of Houghton Prior.
 
Nonetheless, Kirkham duly arrived to occupy his new residence at the Hall and to take the place of the late squire.At first, there was considerable relief in the village that matters appeared to have been settled.There was much hope that the wounds of the community would now be healed so that it could continue to thrive in peace.
 
It seemed that Kirkham was a godly man, a strong believer in the rituals of the church and a man who practised what he preached.When it was announced, within two weeks of his arrival, that he was to preach at the village church of St. Petrock, the curiosity of the villagers as well as their piety assured him of a large congregation. In the event, the building was as full as it had ever been.
The most favourable interpretation that could be placed upon the initial reactions of the congregation would be to describe them as mixed but, in truth, the villagers were bitterly disappointed with their new squire and not a little horrified by their first encounter with him. Kirkham presented an unprepossessing figure; of portly build with a ruddy complexion his dark hair long and lank. His attire typified the garb favoured by the more extreme members of the Puritan tradition and his manner of speech was loud and bellicose. Indeed, his sermon was little more than a rant. 
It was, however, what Kirkham had to say rather than the manner of its delivery that produced the most negative reaction.Given that this was a time of religious zeal and that the villagers were almost exclusively devout, the tone of Kirkham’s oratory, its fanaticism and its emphasis on fire and brimstone, rather than Christian charity, were the cause of shock and disquiet.It was particularly plain that he had a particular enthusiasm for the vogue for rooting out witchcraft.
 
After this bad start to the relationship between the citizens of Houghton Prior and their new squire, matters got steadily worse.It took little time to reveal that the contrast between Kirkham and his late cousin could hardly have been greater.Unlike his predecessor, the new Squire’s only concern for his tenant farmers seemed to be to grind as much money out of them as possible whilst doing little or nothing in return. For the village at large and its inhabitants he had nothing but openly expressed contempt.Within three months of his arrival, three tenants of Kirkham’s properties had been dispossessed and evicted and several long-established charitable trusts set up by his predecessor had been wound up.
 
In the spring of 1655, much worse was to follow. About this time, Kirkham began to demonstrate the real extent of his zeal for seeking out and destroying so-called witches. The first manifestations of the extent of his fanatical cruelty began to be revealed when two elderly sisters who dwelt reclusively at the edge of the village became the victims of absurd allegations.They had, it was claimed by Kirkham’s cronies, communed with Beelzebub.A noted Witchfinder and an associate of Kirkham’s was sent for to preside over a trial to be held in the parish hall. There were brave attempts on the part of a number of prominent villagers to muster a defence but it soon became clear to the horrified onlookers that they were in reality, powerless to prevent the predictable and appalling outcome.With a horrible inevitability, the victims were pronounced guilty, sentenced to death and hanged.
 
Even after this monstrous happening, there remained some in Houghton Prior who wished to give the Squire the benefit of the doubt, either on the grounds of their own sincere beliefs in such superstitions or, at least, on the assumption that his actions were securely and genuinely based in his own.But the numbers of such individuals were severely reduced and continued to dwindle.
 
Before the year was out, Kirkham was to provide further hateful and all too tangible evidence of the extent of his dark and sinister obsession. At one edge of the village was a small green behind which was a large, deep pool. The area around it was pleasant and picturesque and provided a customary, favourite location for the relaxation of villagers for evening and Sunday afternoon walks.Now, however, its whole aspect was to be changed fundamentally.Kirkham commissioned the construction of a new device for the promotion of his sadistic obsession, in the form of a ducking stool.This was a substantial machine made of timber and fixed permanently at the side of the pool, unlike the wheeled varieties then commonly in use about the country. It consisted of a large fixed pillar on the bank of the pool with a rotating top from which a boom could be pivoted vertically and swung out over and into the water through the operation of a system of levers. The boom projected some fifteen feet from the pillar and had at its end a rough chair into which the victim could be confined. When the boom was swung out from the bank, the chair overhung the pool at its deepest part. It could then be pivoted downwards so that the chair, and its victim, was submerged.
 
Over the next months, this sinister engine was employed on numerous unfortunates from Houghton Prior.It was even put to use by other like-minded zealots from distant settlements, in their pursuit of “the Lord’s work”.Kirkham’s perverted pride led him to advertise his installation widely and to welcome the employment by others of what was to become known as “Kirkham’s Chair”.
 
The villagers were, in the main, appalled but there was little they could do. The religious orthodoxy of the time and the power wielded by the new squire made it impossible to protest without the certainty that they or their families would fall victim to acts of retribution through trumped up charges.
 
The penultimate stage of these events commenced early in 1656. At that time, there remained one former tenant of the Hall who continued to occupy a substantial cottage in the centre of the village.This was a woman of sixty-two years, one Prudence Thornton, widow of a much-respected overseer on Wordingham's farms and a much-loved member of the community. Goodwife Thornton was a dedicated member of the church, which she attended with unfailing regularity.She was a familiar figure in the village, her attire invariably surmounted by a green plaid shawl fastened at the neck by an unusual and attractive brooch of copper and enamel, in the form of a pheasant.This was an object of particular pride to her, having been presented to her personally by Squire Wordingham, at a reception held at the hall to mark the her husband’s retirement, through incapacity, from his post.
 
Such sentimental matters cut no ice with Kirkham however. The popularity of Prudence Thornton irked him greatly especially in the light of his long-standing and hitherto frustrated objective of removing her from his property.At length, he conceived a strategy to achieve this aim using the means at which he had developed such skill since his arrival at Houghton Prior. With the assistance of the cronies with whom he had surrounded himself, he succeeded in trumping up the usual ludicrous charge of witchcraft against his victim.In this case, she was accused of communing with the dead and of the raising of evil spirits and, once again, the renowned Witchfinder Smardon was brought in to examine the matter.
 
Prudence had been a popular woman and there was groundswell of opposition from within the village.Despite his unsurprising orthodoxy when it came to such matters there were even vociferous protestations from the Reverend Alloysious Prendergast, Rector of the church so diligently attended by the accused.Sadly, however, all this support could do nothing to save poor Prudence. Smardon, like all contemporary professionals in the field of seeking out Satan’s supposed followers, was well versed in techniques of trumping up charges and making them stick and in this process, Kirkham was soon to have his way in the application of the Chair to the task in hand.
 
It was on the morning of the eleventh of August of that year of 1656 that the wretched Prudence Thornton was led to the pool, under the supervision of her tormentors, Kirkham and Smardon.She was closely escorted by two of the Squire’s paid ruffians and her hands were manacled. Most of the villagers stayed away, too distraught to witness this evil farce.Of the few who had the stomach to attend, several were bold enough to call out to Prudence with expressions of support but it was clear to all that her situation was hopeless.Nonetheless, the unfortunate woman maintained her dignity throughout the ordeal, right up the point at which Kirkham’s wretched contraption submerged her beneath the waters of the pool.It was soon all too apparent that, at that very moment, she expired, no doubt from the sheer horror and shock of the living nightmare that had engulfed her.
 
Of course, the customary conclusions were drawn by the Prudence’s persecutors; she was clearly guilty of witchcraft and had been the subject of divine retribution.In truth, Kirkham’s interest in the matter was now ended.His real aims had been achieved in that he now possessed the vacant property no longer required by its former tenant and had enjoyed a further opportunity to exercise his sadistic impulses.
 
The Reverend Prendergast had no hesitation defying the convention that witches were denied Christian burial and he did so with the total support of his flock. He conducted the funeral service at Prudence’s burial in the churchyard, when she was laid to rest in a fine coffin paid for by the villagers.Her friends saw that she was dressed in her Sunday best, including the plaid shawl and copper brooch she had loved so much.The attendance at the service was unprecedented and bore witness not only to the universal sympathy felt for her but also to the rank hostility in which Squire Kirkham had come to be held. 
 
As if sensing the strong antipathy he had aroused, Kirkham began to isolate himself at the Hall and was seldom seen about the village.The atmosphere in the Houghton Prior improved perceptibly and, although the fearful shadow of the Squire was still unmistakably present, there was much relief at the respite from witch-hunting and its attendant horrors. Foe months on end, Kirkham’s Chair remained unused, its boom at right angles to the bank of the pool, the operating levers lashed firmly with stout ropes to hold it in that position.
 
So things remained throughout much of the summer of 1657 until exactly one year after poor of Prudence’s tragic demise, on the morning of the eleventh of August, when a certain Farmer Fenwick made a discovery.His land bordered the pool band he generally did his best to ignore the fearful contraption situated there but, that day, he was surprised to notice that something had changed.The mechanism was still tightly lashed as usual but the boom was now in its operative position, at right angles to the bank with the chair fully submerged.Fenwick approached the bank and peered through the murky water at the point where which the chair was located.Despite a thick layer of green weed he was horrified to see that a human figure appeared to be occupying the chair.
 
Help was summoned and, at length, the boom was raised and swung to dry land. The body in the chair was largely concealed by verdant fronds and it took several minutes before this vegetation could be removed sufficiently to reveal something of the face of the victim. When this was done, those present were aghast to find that Kirkham’s Chair contained none other than the body of Kirkham himself.
 
The body was removed to the parish hall, ironically the very place where so many of Kirkham’s victims had suffered at his hands.The formal examination of the corpse fell to the local doctor, Andrew Harrison.He had been kept busy with such work in recent times and for him the most gruelling of these tasks had been dealing with the cadaver of Prudence, widow of his closest friend John Thornton.
 
Doctor Harrison stood by as his assistant continued the removal of the strands of water plants that seemed to have become tightly entangled in Kirkham’s hair and clothing. This completed, the horrific sight of Kirkham’s face was fully revealed.The visage still bore an expression of complete and utter terror; the eyes were still wide open and staring, though dimly now, as they had at whatever dreadful vision had been his last.
 
The doctor’s assistant was well used to deathly horrors but so ghastly indeed was this sight that he involuntarily took two or three steps back from the improvised mortuary table and was, clearly, severely shocked.
 

Harrison too was appalled by what he saw but unlike his assistant, it was not the dead face that took his attention. He quickly approached the corpse and began attempting to uncover its clothing.“For God’s sake” he cried, “see here!” and pointed to the throat and upper chest of the body on the table.Tightly wrapped around it was a distinctive green plaid shawl.The shawl was firmly held in place by an unusual copper and enamel brooch. It was in the shape of a pheasant.


© Copyright 2017 Elliott John. All rights reserved.

Booksie 2017-2018 Short Story Contest

Booksie Popular Content

Other Content by Elliott John

Trauermarsch

Short Story / Horror

Kirkham's Chair

Short Story / Horror

Strange Encounter

Short Story / Horror

Popular Tags