The Spectre Bride
The attitude of to-day is so strongly sceptical towards stories of the supernatural that I scarcely expect to be credited when I make the assertion that there is, or was, a haunted house in Auckland. It stood not a hundred yards from the busiest part of the Manukau Road, in Parnell, and probably stands there still, for aught I know to the contrary. An old-fashioned, eerie-looking structure, which still boasted some pretension to architectural style, it had probably been built in the days when Auckland was the capital city of the colony, and Parnell the centre of local military and official and, consequently, fashionable society. Twenty years ago, when the existence of this house first came to my knowledge, I was a clerk in one of the principal land and estate agency offices in Auckland. The house was on our books “to be let furnished,” but, though there was a scarcity of better-class dwellings at that period, we could not secure a tenant for it. Again and again, cards to view were given to eligible tenants, but invariably the keys were returned with the excuse that the house would not suit, and occasionally something was said about queer stories told by the neighbours, or hints were quietly dropped about a mystery.
In those days, when life was young and the blood coursed vigorously through my veins, the suggestion of a mystery was as the breath to my nostrils. If there was a “mystery,” I was eager to be in it. But what was the mystery? The property was managed for absentee owners by a leading firm of solicitors, and one quiet afternoon towards Christmas, when I was indolently planning my holiday arrangements, Jack Morris, the managing clerk of that firm, dropped in to fix up some deeds with me. Here was an opportunity to pump him about the “mystery.” His merry countenance became grave at once when I mentioned the matter. Yes, he admitted, there was a mystery about the property, but they didn’t like stories concerning it to get about, because they depreciated the letting value.
“Letting value,” I repeated, scornfully. “Why, old man, the place has no letting value. It has been occupied six times in two years, and not a single tenant has remained for a full week.”
“Yes, and before we handed it over to your people, our experience was worse. The only man who lived in the house for any time was stone deaf, and he would probably have been there yet if he hadn’t died, worse luck.”
“But what is the matter with the house?”
“You don’t say!” I sprang at him in delight. “Do you mean to say there are ghosts there?”
“Armies of them.”
I lay back and laughed incredulously. “Well, Jack, I took you for a sensible man. Why, you shudder when you say ghosts as if you were a nervous school girl.” Jack rallied under my chaff, and when I proposed a midnight adventure in the furnished house, he reluctantly agreed to join me. But I could see he didn’t half like the proposal. However, after what I had heard, I was resolved upon the experience. Consequently, eleven o’clock that night found us indulging ourselves with a whisky at the Glass Barrel before we took possession of the haunted house. Though the month was December, and the season summer, the night was a wet and miserable one, and, as I jocularly remarked, just the occasion that a hair-raising ghost would choose for its extraordinary nocturnal wanderings. However, the weather was close and warm, so that we had no need of a fire to make us comfortable, but we carried along with us a bottle of whisky, and it is needless to say that we had our meerschaums in our pockets.
The house was easily found, an uncanny looking place surrounded by a high fence and evergreen hedge. Having lighted our candles, and as a preliminary to our ghostly experiences, if any were destined to happen to us, we made an exploration of the house. There was, however, nothing remarkable about it. Of some eight or nine rooms, its interior was arranged without much regard to systematic design, and the whole place was decidedly old-fashioned. The drawing-room and sitting-room, both of which were well and tastefully furnished, were separated from each other by folding doors. Evidently, the owners had been people of some musical taste, because there was a handsome parlour organ in the drawing-room, as well as a fine piano in the sitting-room. Taking up our quarters in the latter apartment, we disposed of ourselves in capacious easy chairs, and having lighted our pipes and uncorked our bottle, proceeded to make ourselves comfortable for the night. Bed was, of course, out of the question, because, even if we had been in the humour to sleep, the beds were not provided with linen or blankets.
For the first half-hour we were both fairly quiet, impressed as we were by the solemnity of the occasion. Say what you like, it is solemn work waiting for spirits, whether you expect them to materialize or not. Occasionally, the scuttle of a rat in the ceiling or a heavier rattle of water than usual in the spouting, would cause Jack to start nervously and glance apprehensively at the door. However, the hour of midnight struck, and there was no ghostly visitation. Then, under the influence of the whisky, our restraint vanished, and we proceeded to swap spicy yarn for spicy yarn, as men have a habit of doing when alone. Thus the time sped on pleasantly, minutes growing into hours, and the hands of the clock pointed to three. But still there were no ghosts. Truth to tell, I was not surprised, because I had discounted the haunted house story from the outset, and I do claim that at that stage of the adventure I was disappointed.
Our stories were eventually exhausted, and, seating himself at the piano, Jack sang in a fine baritone voice several stirring music hall ditties, just to relieve the creepy feeling, he said. Then, obeying a melancholy impulse, he struck a chord or two of the “Dead March in Saul.” Then an astounding thing happened. Before the sound of the final note had died away, the solemn and majestic strains of the same Dead March, on the organ, broke on our startled senses. We listened amazed. The music came in sonorous volume from the next room. I was not frightened. Neither had I any thought at that moment of ghosts. Surely there were other occupants in the house besides ourselves. We must have disturbed them, and they were repaying us in our own coin. Higher and higher the music rose, in all its wailing intensity and moving grandeur.
I glanced at Jack. His face was deathly white, his eyes were fairly starting out of his head, and he sat rigidly, holding the arms of his chair with tightly clenched hands, as if he feared he would be hurled from it. Then there was a pause. It seemed to me in the deadly stillness as if I could hear the beating of my own heart. Then the music rose again, still the majestic strains of the “Dead March,” swelling higher and higher in melancholy solemnity. What in the name of Heaven and Earth could it mean? Even then I was not frightened. Jack, however, had sunk back in his chair in a state of collapse. Suddenly, seizing the candle, I drew open the folding door leading into the drawing-room, and entered. However, I was the only occupant. There was no one, not even a spirit, seated at the organ, which was closed. Solemnly, sadly, however, the organ continued to peal forth the strains of the “Dead March.” For the first time my nerves began to fail me. I felt, my J knees trembling, and my flesh took on a strange, cold, creepy feeling.
Could this be some trick that Jack Morris had planned to perpetrate on me, in order to test my courage? Thoroughly mystified, and trembling in every limb, I returned to the sitting-room with the intention of taxing him with the gruesome joke. But any idea of this kind was dispelled by the spectacle of Jack lying unconscious in his chair, evidently in a dead faint. This roused me to action, and diverted my thoughts for the moment. Bathing his face with water from the jug on the table, and loosening his collar, I gradually brought him around. By this time, the music had ceased. Jack was trembling violently, and, when he found his voice, he ejaculated excitedly, “For God’s sake, old man, let us get out of this place. It is too much for me.” For my own part, if I must confess it, I had also been scared, but nevertheless I was loth to go before I had seen the adventure through. But we had no time to argue the matter.
Suddenly, the organ pealed forth again. This time, it was the strains of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. Then the folding doors slowly opened, evidently of their own accord, and an extraordinary scene was revealed to my astounded and Jack’s unquestionably terrified gaze. The drawing-room was illumined by a strange, unearthly light, and, as if through a gauzy screen, we saw a wedding ceremony in progress at the further end of the room. The clergyman, in his surplice, stood with his back to us, and facing him was a beautiful girl in white costume and veil, whose features we could distinguish plainly. Lovely as her face was, it reflected no happiness, but, on the contrary, tragic sorrow. Beside the girl, was the terrifying spectacle of a headless man, in gay military uniform, and from the severed neck blood fairly spurted. I stood rooted to the spot, trembling like an aspen leaf, and powerless to speak or fly. To my dying day I shall never forget the terror of that moment. As for Jack Morris, he gave one low incoherent cry, and fell prostrate at my feet in a fit.
Not a word was spoken by the parties to this strange drama. From the organ close beside us, the strains of the Wedding March rose triumphantly, but otherwise the silence was not broken. And yet it seemed to me, and my eyes were fascinated by the scene, that the wedding was actually in progress, that the responses were made, and that the clergyman pronounced the winsome bride and the headless officer man and wife. Because, at what was evidently the end of the ceremony, she bowed her head and burst into tears. All this time I stood petrified with horror. When the ceremony ended, or appeared to end, the light with which the room was illumined seemed to die away, leaving it in darkness. My first terrified instinct was to revive Jack, who was still on the floor at my feet, and get him away from the accursed place. Before I could stoop, however, the room was again filled with the uncanny light, the organ pealed out the Dead March in Saul once more, and turning my eyes instinctively towards the spot where the bridal couple had so recently stood, I saw a sight that froze the blood in my veins.
In a polished wood coffin lay the headless uniformed body of the officer, and beside the bier sat the bowed figure of the bride, attired in deep mourning, wringing her hands and sobbing out her grief. With a desperation that was superhuman in its strength, I seized Jack Morris and fairly dragged him from the house, to find, when I reached the open air, that day was breaking. This is the tale of our adventure, truthfully told. Of what happened subsequently, I have, little to say. Jack was in a high fever for a fortnight after that night, and for many months I never alluded to our experience. Eventually, however, he told me that the daughter of the former owner of the house was betrothed in the early sixties to an officer in one of the British regiments. On the very day that had been fixed for their marriage, he took part in the Rangiriri engagement, and was killed under terrible circumstances, his head having been blown from his body by a shot. The body lay for two days at the house of his betrothed, and the funeral took place from there. The poor girl, Jack added, gave way completely under her bereavement, and only survived her affianced by two months. So much for the story of my ghost adventure. I doubt not that it will be sceptically laughed at as the invention of a diseased imagination, or that some people will attribute our experiences to the particular brand of whisky we took with us for our comfort, but whether the story is credited or not, I know to my own terrible cost that the old house in Parnell I have spoken of was haunted the night we spent there.
Observer, 3 December 1904: p. 18
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil finds Handel’s Dead March rather more relaxing than sinister, but, of course, hearing it played by invisible hands must have added a certain frisson of horror.
The Battle of Rangiriri was a major battle in the New Zealand land wars with the indigenous Maori. Parnell is the oldest suburb of Auckland. Manukau Road is now Parnell Road, a major thorough-fare. It is possible that the site of this shiversome tale still stands.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.