The Haunted Vicarage: 1840s

An oak coffin-shaped box with mahogany lid. Lid with diagonal split, and hinged around pin. Metal studs nailed around edges of coffin and lid.

An oak coffin-shaped box with mahogany lid. Lid with diagonal split, and hinged around pin. Metal studs nailed around edges of coffin and lid.

The Haunted Vicarage

We had been engaged eight years, Martin and I, ever since I was seventeen and he twenty four and the ‘living’ for which we have been patiently waiting had not yet been offered to him. Martin was still a hard-working curate in the smoky town where my father resided, and those kind friends who are always ready to play the part of Job’s comforters began to ‘hope that Eleanor’s long engagement would end in marriage after all.’

Great, therefore, was our satisfaction when a country vicarage was offered to Martin. The nomination came so strangely too. The living had first been offered to one of his college friends, a much older man than Martin, but as Mr Brown wrote to say that he felt that a younger man would do better justice to the work of a scattered country parish, and that he had therefore mentioned Martin to his friend the patron ,who was ready to offer him the living, it is needless to say this offer was thankfully accepted. The income was a fair one, at least to our modest views, and both of us looked forward to a residence in the country as only dwellers in a murky town are capable of doing. We felt quite touched by Mr Brown’s self-abnegation in declining Heathhurst for himself, at least until we saw the place.

I am writing now of the days of my youth, some fifty odd years ago Travelling was then a more difficult and expensive business than it is nowadays, and our slender means did not justify our making a long journey by coach to ‘prospect’ our new abode before settling there. Martin had agreed to take the furniture of the Vicarage at a valuation from the executors of the former incumbent (who had been an old bachelor and an invalid, and had resided as little in his parish as possible without provoking episcopal censure), and the price asked for ‘plenishing’ was so very moderate that Martin was willing to risk paying it without inspection of the articles named. Our quiet wedding, followed by a few weeks’ honeymoon at the seaside, then took place, and we left for our new home.

Both of us were looking forward to a life of activity and usefulness. We reached Heathhurst with some difficulty —it appeared to be off the track of every line of coaches; but at last our post-chaise lumbered into the village at the close of a summer’s day. My first impression of the place was that of dampness. The straggling village was low-lying and even on this July evening mist gathered heavily over the sluggish stream which meandered through the valley. The church stood on slightly higher ground, and the Vicarage nestled against the churchyard wall. As its name implies, Heathhurst was surrounded by magnificent woods, now gay with the glory of their summer foliage, but this added to the prevailing dampness of the atmosphere. As we found in our subsequent excursions in the neighborhood, the soil abounded in what the country folk called ‘ground springs,’ unexpected little water courses which bubbled up after rain, and converted a portion of the woods and pastures into veritable morasses. The scenery around was pretty, but as I looked at my new home I understood why Mr Brown, who had attained an age when people consider the possibility of rheumatism, was so willing to transfer Heathhurst to his ‘dear young friend.’

However, here we were, and both young and strong, and ready to make the best of things. The Vicarage was a roomy old house, and its furniture was of a solid old-fashioned description, far better than we had expected to find it. Martin would have abundant exercise for his zeal in bringing his parish into something like decent order, to judge from the neglected condition in which poor old Mr Hamilton had allowed it to fall, and after the first shock of arrival (and disillusion) was over we set ourselves resolutely to work. Sanitary science was less studied some half-century ago than it is now, and even the discovery that the churchyard itself formed, as it were, one side of our kitchen (the house being built against the churchyard wall) did not alarm us on health grounds, though the circumstance explained the persistent damp which oozed through the kitchen wall on this side. We had brought an old servant with us from my father’s house, and this maid and a girl from the village comprised our domestic staff.

For the first few weeks we were both so busy, I unpacking and arranging within doors, Martin organising his parish arrangements, that we had no time to think of other matters, But as we became settled in the home I noted a dejection in our faithful maid’s demeanor. One day when I was remarking how Mr Hamilton had neglected the parish, Sarah ‘spoke out,’ as she phrased it.

‘Oh, ma’am, ’tis easy to talk of neglection, but as Susan says, ‘tisn’t everyone as can live at Heathhurst Vicarage.’

Susan was the rosy -cheeked village girl imported to assist our factotum.

‘The house is rather damp, certainly,’ I said; ‘but so is all the neighborhood. We keep up good fires, and we are all well enough.’

‘Ah, I wish it was nothing more than damp that’s wrong here,’ sighed Sarah.

Then came out a long story. It appeared that the proximity of the churchyard was supposed to be objectionable, not on grounds of health, but for other causes. Some occupants of the burial ground–notably a certain squire deceased many years back were said to ‘walk,’ or at least to rest uneasily in their graves. Knocks and sighs, and other unpleasant sounds were said to be heard in the Vicarage kitchen, especially during the autumn and winter months and these occurrences prevented any good cook consenting to tenant the servants’ premises, and were said to have induced Mr Hamilton to spend so much of his time at a place ten miles away, driving in on Sunday to perform the usual church services.

Summer waned early that year, and the winter came in unusually wet and windy. There was much illness in the village, and Martin was overworked visiting the sick. We, too, were busy at home, for the local doctor lived a long way off, and Sarah’s experience was often of value in carrying out his directions regarding invalids. She and I were often out all day, tramping long distances to carry nourishing food and simple medicines to our poorer parishoners.

There was literally no society at Heathhurst. The population consisted of a few farmers and their laborers, the former being little better educated than the latter. Ten miles away was a pretty country town, but we seldom went there, as we had not conveyance, unless we borrowed or hired a farmer’s gig. A great depression sometimes settled on me as I sat in the Vicarage parlour and looked over the damp, dripping landscape. It rained almost continuously for weeks, and I contracted a chill which clung about me and affected my health. Then—was it fancy?—I began to think that there really were odd noises in the house. Susan had occupied all her hours of leisure in relating various ghost stories, local and otherwise, to Sarah, who conscientiously retailed them to me with all the certainly of unquestioning faith. Then Susan herself discovered that she was ‘feared to remain at the Vicarage come the winter,’ and departed to seek another service.

Martin, who had scoffed at the story of ghostly visitation, asserted that it was the dulness, not the noises, that led Susan to weary of her place, and to enter the service of an adjoining farmer, where as he remarked, ‘the girl has all the farming men to flirt with, and no old servant like Sarah to scold her.’

But anyway Susan left, and we had great difficulty in supplying her place, finally being reduced to take an orphan from a distant workhouse, who couldn’t be expected to indulge in the luxury of ‘nerves.’ Betsy was a stolid-looking young person with an abnormal appetite; but the Vicarage kitchen was too much for her after a week or two. She came to me one morning in floods of tears beseeching to be sent back to the workhouse. ‘For them knocks and groans behind the kitchen wall, ma’am, is more than I can stand.’

‘It’s the old Squire,’ remarked Sarah, grimly; ”tis his vault that lies nearest to our kitchen, and I tell Betsy it’s a warning to her—as tells so many lies every day—to see how the wicked do not rest even in their graves,’

‘He’ll bust in some day, I know he will,’ sobbed Betsy, ignoring the personal application of Sarah’s remark. ‘Please, ma’am, you and master is very good to me, and I never had such a sight of good victuals before, but I can’t—I can’t abear them noises.’

‘What are the noises like?’ I asked, for though, sitting alone in the evening when Martin had been called out to baptise a dying child or visit a sick person, I often fancied I heard odd sounds, they were not of the distinct and terrible kind described by Betsy.

‘He rummages about in his grave,’ sobbed the girl, ‘and he sighs, and he groans, and then he raps, raps, raps agin our wall.’

‘Sarah, you cannot believe all this?’

‘I believes my ears,’ remarked Sarah, ‘and hearin’ what I have about Squire Parsons I don’t wonder he does sigh and groan. Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, I don’t hold that reading any form of words over a grave makes the wicked rest easy in it.’

Sarah was, as I have before remarked, a sturdy Methodist, and only attended our church because there was no other place of worship within ten miles. The woman was superstitious, and yet courageous, but her superstition was more infectious than her courage, believed in the restlessness of the defunct Squire as firmly as did the New English Puritans in the certain existence of the Salem witches, and was prepared to confront the perturbed spirit as Cotton Mather did the supposed emissaries of Satan.

‘If the Squire comes, he comes,’ said Sarah, with grim resolution.

‘I’m thankful to say I’m better prepared, having been converted many years ago, to see a ghost than Betsy is. But it’s my thinking that the old Squire is obliged to keep his own side of the wall while pious folks are in the kitchen, and it’s just that makes him so mad. Now, if Betsy sat there alone, seeing that Betsy tells lies, which is one of the greatest of sins—‘

But Betsy was not inclined to put her virtue to the test, and departed back to the union, nor did we attempt to supply her place.

Sarah was willing to face the noises alone. I think Martin, fully occupied out of doors, scarcely thought about the matter as I did. He believed that the Vicarage, like all old houses, was full of odd noises probably due to rats which were exaggerated by the superstitious fears of the servant. But to myself, now out of health, and a good deal alone owing to Martin’s multifarious occupations in the parish the ‘fancy’ which I might have laughed at in days of health and spirits became a real terror. I myself had never heard the full noises; they only occurred in the kitchen itself but I thought about them, and dwelt on the subject till I became so unwell and nervous that Martin urged me to go to my father for a visit to recruit myself. But I would not leave my husband, neither was I strong enough to undertake a long journey at this time of year. The local doctor prescribed tonics, and asked if I had no friends who could come and stay with me and cheer me up. But I had led a very retired life owing to my father’s bad health I had no sisters, and my few girl friends were now married and scattered. My stepmother—I had lost my mother in infancy—was a kind woman, but too much occupied with father to be able to pay a visit.

Martin and the Doctor comforted themselves with the reflection that by-and-by more cheerful noises than the supposed knocks and groans might resound in the old Vicarage.

‘Of course Mrs Fleming is inclined to be nervous and fanciful just now,’ said the Doctor to my husband, ‘but when the baby comes we shall hear no more of the noises in the kitchen. That superstitious old servant of yours will be too busy to notice them.’

Kind and devoted as Sarah was, I could hardly have had a worse companion at this time. Strong in her religious convictions, she sat day after day in her kitchen, like a sentinel on guard, singing hymns in a cracked voice in the evening, and apparently deriving a grim enjoyment from the very idea that she was carrying on a successful struggle with the restless sinner on the other side of the wall. But I, ailing and lonely in the parlour above, would shiver and cower with nervous terror as I fancied I caught some sound, like a knock or a sigh, which might be the wind, and might be the Squire.

One evening in December—how well I remember it still!—a veritable tempest raged and shook the house. Martin had been summoned to the deathbed of a parishioner at a distance, and so bad was the weather that I had urged him to accept the proffered offer of a bed at the house, instead of returning through the winter night. He had been reluctant to leave me so long, but finally consented; indeed, he could hardly have found his way back in the storm of wind and rain. I was so solitary that, little as I liked the idea of entering the kitchen, I made up my mind to descend and speak to Sarah, whom I found tranquilly knitting by the fire. The kitchen looked so cheerful in the ruddy glow of the logs that I lingered awhile after I had given the order which I had made the pretext for my visit. Suddenly ‘rap, rap, rap’ sounded loudly on the wall behind me, followed by a long-drawn gurgling sound. I screamed with terror, but Sarah was calm.

‘Eh, ma’am, but he’s worse than ever to-night,’ she remarked ‘I’m thinking maybe ’tis the day of the month when he died, or something like that; but I never mind.’ But here the noise recommenced, so loudly and wildly that even the resolute woman grew pale. ‘Come away, come away, Miss Eleanor,’ she exclaimed, clutching my arm; but as she spoke came a rending sound; the wall of the kitchen burst open, a rush of water filled the room, and oh horror! a large black coffin sailed out of the aperture in the wall, and fell with a crash on the floor! I knew no more!

I was ill for many, many weeks, they told me afterwards, and Martin expected to lose his wife as well as his child. When I gradually awoke to consciousness I was not at the Vicarage, but at the house of a kindly neighbour, where the doctor had advised my being carried as soon as I could be moved on a mattress.

It was long before I recovered the shock of that awful night; long before I could even hear the explanation of that terrible apparition. It was a simple enough story after all. The churchyard, like the rest of the neighbourhood, had its ‘ground spring.’ One of these had sprang up in the vault of the wicked Squire, and actually floated the coffin, for years when the spring was full the water had been striving to burst through the wall, and the leaden coffin had acted as a kind of battering-ram, Hence the odd noises (always worst at the wettest times of the year), hence the terrible catastrophe.

We never returned to Heathhurst Vicarage. A friend of my father happened to have a living fall in his gift, which he offered to Martin, and some months after my illness we removed to the pretty south-country Rectory where I have passed the rest of my days, first with my husband, then with my son. Homebury Rectory has been ‘noisy’ enough during the last half century, tenanted by our merry healthy children and grandchildren; but the ‘knocks’ were of a different description from those that froze our blood at Heathhurst.

The patron of that latter living, who was a kindly and liberal man, was so horrified at the occurrence which so nearly cost me my life that he pulled down the old Vicarage and rebuilt it on higher ground, so that the present vicar’s family are not exposed to the risk of the irruption of coffins into their kitchen. But I shall never forget my residence in that haunted Vicarage home fifty years ago.

Southland Times 18 June 1892: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A salutary lesson, indeed, about the importance of well-drained soil. Modern builders would surely not be so careless as to abut a kitchen against a churchyard wall with all its attendant unpleasant effluvia. Mrs Daffodil does not usually attend the cinema, but she has been told that this story echoes the plot of a “horror” film called Poltergeist, which exaggerated the number of coffins and pictured mummified corpses emerging from their graves. One coffin was certainly bad enough for the unfortunate Eleanor.

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.

 

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