My uncle used to talk of the legends and superstitions of Exmoor when I was a schoolboy at Blundell’s in the 1940s, having left my family in Ceylon to gain an English education. He was the vicar of Timberscombe in Somerset. You can tell the number of years before you will be married by hanging [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Christopher Ondaatje has a chat with the Ghost of Glenthorne


My uncle used to talk of the legends and superstitions of Exmoor when I was a schoolboy at Blundell’s in the 1940s, having left my family in Ceylon to gain an English education. He was the vicar of Timberscombe in Somerset. You can tell the number of years before you will be married by hanging a sheep’s heart in your house and counting the drops of blood that drip from it. If a door refuses to remain closed it is a warning of imminent death. Keep a donkey among your cows to drive off witches.

Rumours of the ‘Beast of Exmoor’ began in the 1970s. Farmers reported sightings of large, cat-like creatures. Eighty sheep were found dead on Exmoor with their throats ripped out and incidents persisted. I personally have seen claw marks six feet high on trees above my house at Glenthorne, similar to the territorial markings of a leopard.

Glenthorne occupies the only piece of flat land between Porlock and Lynmouth on the north Exmoor coast. The edge of my lawn is a cliff, woods cover the steep hills behind the house and there are old smugglers’ paths all around. The house was built by the Reverend Halliday, a reclusive clergyman who fell in love with the magnificent situation in 1830. I had heard about it from my clergyman uncle while I was at Blundell’s but never visited. There were stories that it was haunted.

Shrouded in superstition: Glenthorne

Glenthorne was virtually in ruins when I eventually bought it. I restored the many rooms to their original prime paying particular attention to Halliday’s magnificent library and his first-floor study. The Reverend Halliday died in 1872, yet I always felt that he was watching. When I hung some old hunting prints in the hall one was literally thrown across the room. A radio and tape-player installed in the downstairs library caused the paneled door to bang constantly for nearly ten minutes – to the amazement of the engineer.
The reverend seemed to be around mostly at night and usually in his study. I often heard him but never saw him. Until one December night, soon after I returned from a research visit to Sri Lanka. I was battling with the manuscript that became Woolf in Ceylon, tracing the seven years that Leonard Woolf spent in Ceylon from 1904 to 1911 before he wrote his powerful novel, A Village in the Jungle, and married Virginia. Empire was on my mind and, in truth, I felt overwhelmed by the task I had set myself.

It was very late. I settled down in my favourite armchair, closed my eyes and suddenly I realized that there was someone else in the room. An old gentleman, well wrapped up in a scarf and nightgown, was seated in a chair (not one of mine) a short distance away from me. He was looking at me quizzically. I was in the presence of the Reverend Halliday.

“I see that you’re writing a book about Ceylon.” His voice was low, but quite audible.

‘I am, Sir,’ I replied, ‘and I’m not having an easy time of it.’

Christopher Ondaatje

‘You know,’ he said, ‘you’re not the first person from Ceylon to have lived at Glenthorne. A friend of my favourite nephew also came from Ceylon. I say that he lived here, and he did, but only for a few months.’

I was startled by his next question. ‘What do you know about the cat people of Ceylon?’

I have always been intrigued by mythology, witchcraft and superstition and had been reading up on the history of Ceylon for my book on Woolf. I replied: ‘Well, Sir, I do know that the beginnings of Ceylon remain in the realm of fantasy, but I don’t know whether the myths are really true. The story in the Sinhalese epic, Mahavansa, is that there was an Indian king who was the result of a princess mating with a lion, a shinha. This king produced a son, Vijaya, but he sent him into exile in a rudderless boat for his riotous ways. Somehow, the boat arrived at the island of Ceylon. Am I on the right track?’

‘Possibly, what else do you know?’

‘Prince Vijaya took a local enchantress, Kuveni, for his mistress and she gave birth to two children. Thus Vijaya became the founder of the Sinhalese race. When he discarded Kuveni she turned into a leopard in order to avenge herself.’ At this point I hesitated.

The reverend continued. ‘My nephew’s friend was very taken by Ceylon. He fell in love with an aristocratic Sinhalese girl called Kumari and, despite her family’s objections, they married. He brought her back to England less than six months later to live here at Glenthorne. Almost from the outset the marriage ran into trouble. One night, actually in this very room, the young man came to me in a terrible state and broke down. He told me that the marriage had never been consummated.

I had been half expecting this – the same was true of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s marriage. But what came next was beyond my wildest imaginings. Here, at Glenthorne, Kumari had confessed to her young husband that, as the direct descendant of an aristocratic family whose ancestors sprang from the relationship between a human and a cat, she feared that if she allowed herself to become sexually aroused by a man she would be transformed into a leopard. I might have relished such a tall tale if told to me in Sri Lanka but here I was, in the heart of England, hearing the story from a long-dead English clergyman. I didn’t dare to ask: ‘What happened next?’ At last, he spoke again.

‘There was nothing I could do to console my young friend. I assured him that tales of the supernatural were seldom true. He should give his bride all the affection and comfort she so obviously craved. In time, I said, her fears would be overcome and the two of them would live a normal and happy married life.

‘For the next few weeks nothing more was said. The couple came down to meals together as usual, walked hand in hand around the gardens, and sometimes followed the smugglers’ paths onto the heights of Exmoor.

‘However, one night I was awakened by my young friend in a state of great agitation.

‘”She’s gone,” he told me.

‘”What do you mean?” I asked, not wanting to believe him.

‘”I woke up in Kumari’s arms. She had been crying and she clung to me as if her very life depended on it. We held each other close, neither one of us wanting to release the other. Somehow she seemed released of her strange belief, free and different, almost happy – the passionate lover I always desired and hoped she would be. I knew she wanted me as I wanted her. Her breathing became faster. I felt her body arch and quiver and her head force itself under mine. Her naked passion appeared to have no boundaries. Then, writhing beneath me, she suddenly screamed, still gripping me tightly: ‘No. No. Not yet.’ She broke away and was gone.”

‘What on earth was I to do?’ the reverend asked, almost as if speaking to himself. ‘I summoned all the servants. We lit lanterns and searched the grounds and nearby paths. Eventually I came back here and sank into this chair.’

‘Did you find her?’

‘All we found was a broken window in the hall. The panes had been shattered and there were scratch marks and blood on the sill. Outside the window there were tracks that seemed to have been made by a large cat leading away into the beech wood. Of course the constabulary also organized search parties. She was never found.

‘So there is something for you to write about’, the old man concluded companionably. I looked down for a moment, horrified but thrilled by his story. I wanted to tell him of the claw marks I had observed on the trees near his house. But when I looked up, the Reverend Halliday was no longer there.

(This account is based on one of the chapters in Christopher Ondaatje’s book ‘The Man Eater of Punanai”. ‘The Man Eater of Punanai’ and his other book, ‘Woolf in Ceylon’ both published by Vijitha Yapa Publications are now available at Vijitha Yapa Bookshops)

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