Aunt Barbara’s Ghost Story: 1870s

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AUNT BARBARA’S GHOST STORY

By Gerda M. Calmady-Hamlyn

MASSINGTON Rectory, near B—–, in Devonshire, was occupied at the time of which I speak by my uncle, the Rev. James Shepheard—”Uncle Jamie,” as we his younger relatives, to whom he was devoted, always called him. And I, Barbara Sinclair, being, I believe, a special favourite, frequently stayed with him there for weeks upon end, acting more or less as his housekeeper and as hostess to his guests. Uncle Jamie loved to see young and lively people about the place, and he allowed me to ask any friend I chose to keep me company, in case life in the country should seem dull.

Now there was one fact about the big rambling comfortable old house (kept in apple-pie order as it was, too, by some excellent elderly servants who had served their bachelor master for more years than he or they could count) that invariably puzzled and made me very curious; namely, that what was known as the “east wing” of the house, containing larger and better furnished bedrooms than any other part, was never by any chance used when we had guests. They always slept in the smaller, low-ceiled, narrow-gabled apartments in the centre or west wing.

Many and many a time have I entreated Mary, our trusty middle-aged housemaid (who knew all the “ins and outs “of the place) to enlighten me upon the matter. But she always shook her head and changed the conversation—never vouchsafed me any direct explanation or reply. Yet there was one lovely big bedroom, full of real antique rosewood furniture—draped in quaint patterned delicate chintz, and with such a view over the lake from its wide windows—that I often longed to see in constant use. My uncle knew of no story connected with the house, and neither he nor I believed in such nonsense as ghosts or “hauntings.” So we ascribed Mary’s obstinate determination to prevent anybody spending a night in the east wing to some silly superstition or fad on her part—founded, perhaps, on tales she had heard in the village!

In the November of 187—(a stormy, rain-swept, dismal month I remember it was, too!) I received a letter from two very great friends of mine—Hester and Connie Brackenford— who had lived abroad for some years with their parents, and now wrote to say they were returning to England, and of course I wrote and begged them both to come and stay with me at Massington. They accepted, and I then went off for a last decisive battle with obstinate old Mary. I would stand no more of her nonsense! My friends, being sisters, should occupy together the large sunny “ chintz ” bedroom in the east wing, which should be made even brighter and more attractive than it already was by the addition of flowers, books, and a cosy fire burning in the wide old-fashioned fireplace directly opposite the bed. I would brook no contradiction; possibly too Mary herself was tired of arguing the question by this time. “Very well, Miss,” she answered in an acid voice, and a mysterious expression, half-fearful, half-triumphant, flitted, across her withered sharp-featured face; while I swept back to the drawing-room elated at what seemed to me a very easy victory!

Just before five o’clock (when my guests were almost due) I thought I would run up to the east wing for a final inspection to see that everything was in perfect order for them. Up the wide front staircase I sped, along a narrow gallery, and under an alcove that led to a second and wider gallery, with yet another stairway beyond, and as I entered this hitherto unused part of the Rectory, I saw to my surprise (for the appearance was a very sudden and unexpected one) a tall female figure (very much it seemed to me, the height and build of our housemaid Mary) hurrying along in the direction of the further staircase and a few hundred yards ahead of me.

“Mary, is that you?” I called. But the figure made no answer.

“Mary, do come here; I want to speak to you.” But it never turned its head or uttered a word.

“Mary is still sulky, I suppose, because I insist on using the chintz room for our visitors! ” I said to myself, as I turned away and ran downstairs to the front hall, where at the end of the first flight I again came face to face with the recalcitrant and most-mysterious Mary, appearing now in quite a different direction, through a doorway leading from the kitchens in the centre of the house carrying two cans of hot water in her hands and some clean towels over one arm.

“Why, Mary,” I exclaimed, “I saw you only a few minutes ago in the east wing, and called to you. You were hurrying along the further passage and refused either to hear or to answer me!”

“You never spoke to me, Miss,” she replied with her sardonic little smile. “I haven’t been in the east wing at all this afternoon. I’ve been helping cook bake cakes in the kitchen, as it’s Elizabeth’s afternoon out, and I’m going upstairs now, for the first time since luncheon, with hot water for the young ladies’ room.”

I felt certain that Mary was telling me an untruth, and for some quite unknown and unusual reason. But I could not stay to argue with her; for, at that very moment, a carriage drove up to the door and Connie and Hester stepped out of it.

I must pass over our first memorable evening together; spent in laughing, chatting, playing chess for a short time with genial Uncle Jamie, making plans for the future, and listening to my friends’ adventures while abroad; till, soon after ten o’clock, Connie, the delicate sister, complained that she was tired. And I (bidding them “on no account to hurry” in the morning) escorted my guests to their quarters in the cosy spacious luxuriousness of the east wing, afterwards returning to my own small rooms on the other side of the house.

Next morning I was down betimes. Uncle Jamie appeared, read prayers, had his breakfast, and was off to a round of work in the parish. Still, no Connie or Hester appeared; and I told Mary to sound the gong again. It was half-past nine, and I was feeling a trifle vexed and worried!—when the dining room door at last stealthily opened, and the elder of the two sisters—Hester—stole nervously into the room, looking so white and weary and distraught—”exactly as though she had seen a ghost!” I said to myself.

She scarcely returned my morning greeting. “Connie will be down presently; she isn’t feeling very well this morning,” was all she said, as she slipped into her place at the breakfast-table, and began fumbling at her letters. “Oh, and by the way, Barbara” (she paused, and it seemed as though she dared not look me in the face), “I’m afraid we must leave you today, we ought never to have come. Aunt Maria wants us to go to her! ”

And then Hester’s gentle voice faltered; her blue eyes filled with tears. I knew that she was telling me a lie—and for some reason so strange and inexplicable that I could not pretend to fathom it.

“Leave me to-day? you must be mad! Hester? ” I exclaimed. “What is the matter, dear? aren’t Connie and you happy here? Of course, I know you are going to your Aunt Maria’s, but not for three weeks or more. You promised to pay me a nice long visit first. I can’t understand this sudden alteration.”

The poor child burst into a flood of wild hysterical weeping. It seemed as though her nerves had sustained some fearful shock. “Barbara, we daren’t—we simply could not pass another night in that dreadful, dreadful room! We should go raving mad if we did. You don’t know what we have seen, what we have suffered. As it is, poor Connie has lain unconscious half the night through, and is only just now coming round—–!” The rest of her sentence was lost in a burst of wild tumultuous sobbing.

“Connie unconscious, what can it all mean?” I exclaimed. “Let me go to her at once!” And in five seconds I was out of the room and in my uncle’s little parish surgery, hunting for brandy and other restoratives. Then, up the wide front- staircase, with Hester at my heels, under the alcove and along the passage leading to the east wing, we found poor Connie lying on a sofa, still half unconscious and moaning pitifully.

“Don’t let her come near me—don’t, don’t,” she muttered, waving away with trembling nervous hands some malign presence that she appeared to believe was threatening her.

It was not from her, but from Hester sometime after both girls had left me, that I learnt all they had endured that fatal night. I use the word “fatal” advisedly, though at the time I saw no connection between their terribly sudden deaths and the vigil I had unwittingly forced upon them. Both my poor friends died within the ensuing year. Connie was on her way to India to be married; the ship she sailed in was wrecked; and, though most of the crew and passengers ultimately got safe to land, she, alas, was not among the number! Hester was out riding in the following September, when her pony suddenly shied and threw her. It is supposed she struck her head against a hidden rock or tree trunk, for she was picked up unconscious, and died within a few hours.

The following is Hester’s account of her own and her sister’s experience:—

“We were lying very cosily and comfortably in bed, about an hour after you, Barbara, had left us—not actually asleep, you know, but more than a trifle drowsy—watching the flicker of the firelight on the walls and the shadows that it threw into dark distant comers, when, suddenly and very, very slowly, our door began to open inch by inch (although we never saw the handle move, and Connie felt certain she had turned the key in the lock before getting into bed), and a tall gaunt grey-clad figure, in shape like a woman, slithered across the floor with a swift and subtle motion that fairly made one’s flesh creep, while we lay trembling with horror (wondering furiously, wildly, who our midnight visitor could be), pulled aside the curtains that hung round our bed, and stood there looking down upon us with oh! such dreadful eyes! Barbara, as long as I live I shall never forget them! They were the eyes of a fiend, of an unimaginably wicked malignant soul, set in a spectral uncanny face. For just a few brief seconds as far as I can tell (but they really seemed years to me!) she stood there glaring down upon us, as though she would willingly seize us both and carry us away into hell. Then she turned and glided out of the room as silently as she had entered.

“Connie, poor child, at first sight of the terrible apparition gave one mad scream of terror that I thought must have aroused the entire house—then she fainted dead away, and I could do nothing to rouse her. When I tried to set foot in the long dark passage down which that baleful shadow had already passed, something seemed to paralyse my every movement, turning my heart’s blood to ice. Nobody answered my feeble cries for help, and I did not know in what direction your own room might be; so, shivering with fear and with Connie in a half-dead state in the bed beside me, I lay and waited for the morning.”

At the time (continued Aunt Barbara) I did not believe a single word of my friend’s story, and Fate decreed I was never to see her again. Not for some years, and till after Uncle James’ death, did I piece together the sinister legend that hung around Massington Rectory. Incumbent after incumbent was appointed to the living, and each in turn speedily made some excuse for leaving it again. One said the house was unhealthily situated and affected his health; another pleaded his family was too large and his income too small for the upkeep of such an expensive house and gardens. The Bishop alternately persuaded and expostulated, but all to no avail! there was talk of building a new rectory, only no funds were available. At length it passed to a distant connection of my own, with a well-off wife, iron nerves, and a love of “digging and delving” into old bygone legends, village tales, and genealogies. He it was who told me the story, bit by bit, as he could make it out.

About one hundred years previous to the incidents narrated in this story, the living had been held by an exceedingly wicked Rector, whose scandalously evil and immoral life made him a veritable “disgrace to his cloth” and notorious for miles round. He had married (and solely for her money) a wife who was several years his senior—a wealthy Scotch woman— and the ill-assorted pair led a “cat-and-dog” life, further complicated by the presence at the Rectory of a pretty and brazen young maid-servant, about whose relations with the Rector the ugliest rumours spread abroad. Quite suddenly the unhappy lady—mistress of the house—disappeared, and was never seen or heard of again! She had gone to pay a visit to her relations in Scotland, so her shameless husband explained and affirmed. Tongues were wagged, and heads shaken over the mysterious occurrence, but nothing was ever found out. Perhaps she had separated from him of her own free will, the misery and degradation of her marriage being common talk. Who could tell? And there were very few police in country districts, no telegrams, and hardly any newspapers in those long ago days. Later on, the wicked Rector himself died; and his companion in sin, the maid, took herself away from the parish. Then, little by little, there was built up a tale of the Rectory being inexplicably haunted by a tall gaunt woman with a terrible sinister glare in her eyes, who glided along passages and into certain bedrooms of the house. And (herein was the crux of the story) whoever she encountered, and looked full in the face, died within the year!

I myself never went back to the place till long after I was married. Then I stayed with the distant relatives aforesaid, and was very ill while there. Coming to my senses after several days’ unconsciousness, I found that the nurse in attendance had had me moved away from my cosy former quarters on the west side of the house to the “haunted bedroom ” (of all places) in that dire east wing! She declared it was more airy and pleasant for a patient; all my expostulations and entreaties to be moved back again to the west wing proved worse than useless. My agonized pleadings were treated solely as the ravings of a brain weakened by long illness. And for three long weeks I lay, trembling and helpless, fearful through each hour of the day and night lest I should glance up and see my door slowly and mysteriously slide open; that terrible ghostly female figure appear! and I receive my death sentence in the glare of those evil eyes! But still, to my relief she did not come. Till one dull grey Sunday afternoon when I was almost convalescent, that which I had prayed to be delivered from really seemed about to happen to me.

Nurse was seated by the window reading or writing letters; myself lying peacefully and happily in bed, thankful that the worst of my illness was over and I soon to be about again, when my very blood froze in my veins, as I saw my door-handle begin to turn; my door to slide ajar, thrust open by a spectral hand, a woman’s grey-clad dreadful figure enter and move swiftly towards the bed! But (thanks be to Heaven!) she did not draw the curtains or attempt to look at me.

She just sat down by the bed-side, in the chair that Nurse habitually used; I screamed loud enough to bring the household flocking to my couch; Nurse rushed to see what was amiss with me; but the figure disappeared from view without her noticing it. I was ill with brain-fever for a good many weeks afterwards, and neither doctors nor nurses were ever able to explain the cause of my relapse.

In due time my cousin chose to make some alterations in the Rectory, and even in the dire east wing itself; and in pulling down one of the walls of that very same “chintz ” room wherein I and my two poor friends had gone through such a vigil of fear and suffering, the workmen came across an opening in the wall covered with lath and plaster; and inside that a little winding stairway, leading to an apparently unguessed-at chamber, a large attic high up under the roof. The door of this room was likewise blocked, and must have been so for many, many years judging by the dust heaped around and the cobwebs across it. Bursting it open, nothing appeared but in one far comer a rope, old and frayed, hanging from the ceiling, and beneath it a heap of tattered rags and some decaying bones and a skull. The doctor who afterwards examined the remains declared them to be those of a female; but whether of the wicked Rector’s ill-used, and probably murdered wife, I am not prepared to say!

[Though the names given in this story are fictitious, I have received the fullest details from the people concerned. The ghost was seen many times by different people, and the narrative may be regarded as absolutely authentic. The rectory was subsequently burnt down under circumstances of a mysterious kind, and a factory was built on the site.—Ed.]

The Occult Review July 1916: p. 31-37

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil hopes that her modern readers will not find the discursiveness of the nineteenth-century ghost story too tiresome. They often occur in a country rectory (which raises a great many questions about the clergymen of the Church of England) and always end so satisfyingly, with mysterious bones found in sealed-up rooms; a technique Mrs Daffodil has always wanted to try.

Mrs Daffodil thinks it was very unkind of the narrator to “not believe a single word” of her unhappy friend’s story. Even if one put the horrifying vision down to hallucination induced by fatigue or doing oneself too well with cakes at tea, the young ladies’ terror was real and required sympathy and a stiff brandy.

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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