Grandfather’s Clock

Can a family heirloom really predict disaster?


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Most of you will no doubt have heard the popular song recently penned by Mr Henry Work about a grandfather’s clock that ceases to function upon the death of its owner. Some of you would also have heard no doubt that he was inspired in his creation by a tale he heard in a certain County Durham hotel. At the risk of earning the ire of the residents of Piercebridge, the town in which the inspiration is said to have come, I fear I must contradict that proposition.

It is true that Mr Work visited the establishment and also true that the hotel in question is indeed home to a fine long-cased clock, although it no longer keeps time. It is equally without doubt that the publican informed the song writer of the peculiar history of the timepiece. That story I think you will agree howbeit, bears faint resemblance to the narrative of the musical piece in that it involves two brothers. As the locals would have it, the clock in question began to behave erratically after the death of the first brother and finally ceased its labours after the death of the second.

I met Mr Work on the day of his visit to the hotel and was in his company when the tale was told. He expressed an interest to be sure, and that interest emboldened me to tell him the tale of the infernal clock that I had had reason to encounter. True, the clock in my telling did not stop upon the death of the owner; it actually commenced to function, or rather re-commenced since the timepiece behaved contrary to that of Mr Work’s creation. I flatter myself that he merely reworked the tale, if I may be so bold as to make light of the worthy gentleman’s name, in order to make the telling less dreadful to the listener.

You may think it odd that I would use expressions like infernal and dreadful when relating the tale of a clock, even one of the long-cased variety that to my ear at least sound as though they ring a death knell with every chime, but I assure the reader that the words scarcely do justice to the machine at the house of Mr Wentworth of Kensington, wherein it was housed.

I first had occasion to visit Mr Wentworth’s property in the spring of 1873 in my capacity as an Inspector of the Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard, having been given the unhappy task of responding to a complaint of murder. The home was a town house in a quiet, established, and wealthy area. It seemed an unlikely scene for an act of a blood-curdling nature, and in the event that proved very much to be the case, as the supposed victim, Mr Wentworth, was very much alive, albeit in an extremely agitated state. So great in fact was his state of discomfiture that it initially proved impossible to obtain any sense at all from the gentleman. His various servants were unhelpful, knowing only that their employer had suddenly become very distressed for no reason they could divine and insisted the police be contacted immediately and apprised of his “murder.”

I confess that I was extremely put out at being summoned for what appeared to be no other reason than a delusion, but in the interests of fairness, not to mention curiosity, I remained while a doctor was brought hence and Mr Wentworth plied with an opiate to calm his extreme agitation.

When the gentleman had calmed sufficiently to unveil his story, I seated him before the fireplace in his withdrawing room and demanded of him an explanation for his bizarre behaviour. What he told was both fantastic and chilling, albeit not to be credited as the product of a sound mind; for it seems his panic had been sparked, not by any mortal threat, but by the cessation of his long-cased clock.

It appears that his great-grandfather had purchased the clock many years before on the birth of his son, Mr Wentworth’s grandfather, and from the moment of its entry into the house, the timepiece had exhibited a sinister tendency to predict the death of those within its ambit. Apparently it did this by ceasing its function some twenty-four hours prior to a death, its hands frozen at the hour of the forthcoming demise. Upon the very second of the sad passing, the clock would then resume its normal workings, keeping precise time until the next passing was to be heralded.

Over the years the clock had stopped on eleven occasions, each one presaging the death of one within the house. The manner of death was of no import, as it forecast death by disease, age, accident, and in one case war. You may well imagine that I found the story very difficult to credit and began to believe that the gentleman before me should perhaps be seeking the services of a doctor or perhaps even an asylum rather than the police. Before I could seek the answer as to why Mr Wentworth thought he was to be murdered, the opiates coursing through his veins brought about the effect desired by his doctor, and the wretched gentleman slipped into an untroubled sleep.

I took advantage of Mr Wentworth’s slumber to further question the staff. Even the most recently employed member could cite one occasion on which the clock had stopped before the death of a householder, and the venerable butler, a Mr Watson, claimed to be personally acquainted with five such occasions. His late father, also a butler in his day, had told of other occasions, and his passing had been one of those experiences cited by the present Mr Watson. I found myself beginning to credit the weird tale even though my policeman’s training told me that the servants were merely aping their master’s delusion.

After some hours, Mr Wentworth came to his senses and almost immediately flew into a panic. He pulled forth his pocket watch and paled visibly on noting the time. Through his ravings I managed to glean that he had but hours to live. Alas my attempts to discover the reasons for his belief that he was to be murdered proved fruitless. I did my best to reason with him, querying why it should be he to die and, as an instance, not the elderly butler, but he continued babbling excitedly, demanding time and time again that I save him.

I was spared having to deal further with his ravings by the timely arrival of the doctor come to assess his patient’s progress. Upon seeing the state of his client, he immediately pressed me into aiding him in the delivery of an even higher dose of sedative than previously. We were forced to struggle with the poor creature before he again succumbed to the wonders of modern medicine. The doctor, I should add at this point, was not privy to the tale of the demonic machine in the entrance hall, but he being a man of science, I do not believe for an instant would have given credence to the tale nor behaved any differently than he did. Reluctantly the good doctor declared that Mr Wentworth should forthwith be transported to a hospice wherein he could be cared for and diagnosed, that gentleman having no immediate family to render the care of which he was in such urgent need. Having no further business at the address, I returned to Scotland Yard where I sought out my immediate superior to inform him of the strange events at Kensington.

I hesitate to confess it here but we laughed together at the preposterousness of it all. My chief claimed through his mirth that it was a story of the phantasmagorical worthy of that great author of dark tales, the Yankee Mr Edgar Allan Poe. Our mirth was at its height when a constable knocked tentatively at the door and, being permitted entrance, informed us of the death by murder of Mr Wentworth. Although I felt that I already knew the answer, I was forced to enquire as to the time of his assassination. You will not be surprised when I tell you it was at the precise hour predicted by the clock. I felt my skin crawl at the news, and I remain certain to this day that my superior’s hair stood on end.

A further questioning of the household servants elicited the information that their employer was an inveterate gambler and deeply in debt. Now that their master was dead, they had no qualms in providing the scandalous details of his debaucheries that had found him involved with creatures of dubious reputation. Such was the depth of their joint knowledge that the perpetrators were soon hunted down, arrested, and eventually tried and hanged.

This was the woeful tale that I had passed to Mr Work at the meeting aforementioned in County Durham.

It was probably the telling of the tale that sparked my curiosity only a little later when I heard of the auction of Mr Wentworth’s effects. As you may well imagine, I was curious as to the fate of the clock. Bidding on the items was quite brisk, and it soon became obvious that the clock was amongst the items most desired by the bidders. I did notice however that when its turn came there was the usual information concerning its manufacture, but no mention of the piece’s dreadful ability.

Prior to leaving, I sought out the item in question for a last look at the creation which had precipitated such drama. I wish now that I hadn’t, for as I stood before it for the last time, the clock suddenly ceased to function.

That was now twenty-three and one half hours ago. I am locked in my room with a pistol and my doctor in attendance. At my insistence he has with him all the necessary items of his trade to facilitate my revival if necessary. May God help me.

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  1. Thanks for the comment Bob. The reason I had him equipped with a pistol was because like me he wouldn’t want to take any chances in the circumstances, although he should have known that any steps he could take would ultimately prove futile.

  2. Grandfather’s clock really did have a tale to tell, Mr. Kernow. The way in which you told it made it that much more enjoyable, in that late 19th century style. Unhelpful servants, scandalous tales of debauchery, bidding, greed? Near constant suspicion of the clock? A doctor who plied his patient with opiates for the desired effect such a sedative would bring under the circumstances, was a good thing.

    To that end (per the final paragraph), it would seem the doctor had all he needed in his medical bag already to render the need for a pistol completely unnecessary. Nothing infernal or dreadful whatsoever.


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