It was 7:30 on a clear, chilly night in October, when our last dinner guest bolted through the door. He was out of breath, and in the firelight he looked a little wild, definitely a man in need of a drink. Driving on Dartmoor can have that effect. Fog patches rise out of nowhere, and cows, sheep, and ponies wander in the narrow lanes.
"It's the most extraordinary thing!" he exclaimed, "I've just run into a pack of hounds! I didn't even hear them, suddenly they were all over the road. I braked hard, and I was sure I'd hit them, but when I got out they were gone. They must be rioting, because there wasn't a huntsman in sight! Do you think we should call the police?"
"Where did you see them?" our neighbor, John, asked. Unlike the rest of us, he's lived in the west of England all his life, and his family have farmed the same land on the edge of Dartmoor for ten generations.
"On the moor," our guest replied.
At this John nodded and smiled.
"And were they running due south-west, making for Hound Tor?"
The black granite rocks of Hound Tor, which feature in The Hound of The Baskervilles, seem to hang off of the edge of one of the highest ridges on this part of Dartmoor, and its profile, which looks uncannily like something leaping into flight, can be seen for miles around. Our guest nodded, looking uneasy. And John smiled again.
"You needn't call the police," he said. "Those hounds will be home by now."
"So you know who hunts them?" my husband asked.
"Of course," John said. "You've just seen the Wisht Hounds, and some folks say they're hunted by The Devil himself."
John wasn't allowed to drop his story there, and after dinner we banked up the fire, and gathered around to hear the tale of the Wisht Hounds.
In the late 1700s, John told us, a large tract of land on the edge of the moor was bought by a mysterious nobleman. The new lord was a dark, handsome man with no family, and he built himself a great house that looked out over Dartmoor. No one knew where he came from, but rumor had it that he had made his money in the slave trade. He had a passion for horses and hunting, and he built a fine kennel, hired a huntsman, and bought himself a pack of huge hounds that were said to come from Ireland. Soon he began to invite all the local gentry to go hunting with him, and they were happy to accept.
The estate the lord had bought was large, but just on the edge of it, in a shallow valley under a high ridge right up on the moor, there was a small free-holding. It was nothing but a stone cottage and a hay barn, and the old woman who lived in it owned a few sheep and had been there for as long as anyone could remember. She had a reputation for being strange, and some said she was the granddaughter of a famous highwayman, who had given her the land, and that she had been a great beauty in her youth. Women sometimes went to her to be cured of warts, or of nightmares, or loutish husbands, and she was both respected and a little feared by the locals.
The new lord eyed her valley, and he wanted her land. But when he tried to buy it from her, she declined. He was not a man who liked to be crossed, and from that time forward the old woman became a thorn in his side.
The summer came, and the weather was very hot and dry, and after the harvest the old woman's barn was filled with enough hay to get her sheep through the winter. And then one night it caught fire. She must have tipped a lantern over, but no one ever knew for sure, because the place went up in flames, and she was killed.
Read the conclusion of "Tale of The Black Brush"