The Maid with Red Hair: 1899

 

In the spring of 1899, being then a member of a certain Psychical Research Society, and hearing that a ghost had been seen at No — Southgate Street, Bristol, I set off to interview the ladies who were reported to have seen it. I found them (the Misses Rudd) at home, and on their very graciously consenting to relate to me their psychical experiences, I sat and listened to the following story (told as nearly as possible in the eldest lady’s own words) : ” It is now,” she began, ” some ten years since we were the tenants of the house you mention, but I recollect what I saw there as vividly as if it were yesterday.

“The house, I must tell you, is very small (only eight or so rooms), dingy, and in a chronic state of dilapidation ; it stands in the middle of a terrace with no front garden to speak of, save a few yards of moss-covered tiles, slate-coloured and broken, whilst its back windows overlooked a dreary expanse of deep and silent water. Nothing more dismal could be imagined.

“Still, when we took it, the idea of it being haunted never for one instant entered our minds, and our first intimation that such was the case came upon us like a thunderbolt.

“We only kept one maid, Jane (a girl with dark hair and pleasant manners), my sisters and I doing all the cooking and helping with the light work. The morning on which incident No. 1 happened, knowing Jane to be upstairs occupied in dusting the rooms, and my sisters being out, my mother asked me to go into the kitchen and see if the stove was all right as ‘there was a smell of burning.’

“Doing as she bid, I hastened to the kitchen, where a strange spectacle met my sight.

“Kneeling in front of the stove, engaged apparently in polishing the fender, was a servant-girl with RED hair; I started back in astonishment. ‘Who could she be?’

Too intent at first to notice my advent, she kept on at her work, giving me time to observe that she was wearing a very dirty dress, and that her rag of a cap was quite askew. Satisfied she was not ‘Jane,’ and wondering whether some one else’s maid had mistaken our kitchen for her own — the houses in the terrace being all alike — I called out, ‘Who are you? what do you want?’ — whereupon, dropping the fire-irons with a clatter, she quickly turned round, displaying an ashen-pale face, the expression on which literally froze me with horror.

“Never! never had I seen such an awful look of hopeless, of desperate, of diabolical abandonment in any one’s eyes as in those of hers when their glance met mine.

“For some seconds we glared at one another without moving, and then, still regarding me with a furtive look from out of the corner of her horrible eyes, she slowly rose from the hearth, and gliding stealthily forward, disappeared in the diminutive scullery opposite.

“Curiosity now overcoming fear, I at once followed. She was nowhere to be seen; nor was there any other mode of exit by which she could have made her departure than a tiny window, some four feet or so from the floor and directly overlooking the deep waters of the pond to which I have already alluded.

“Here, then, was a mystery ! What had I seen? Had I actually encountered a phantasm, or was I but the victim of an exceedingly unpleasant and falsidical hallucination? I preferred to think the former.

“Not wishing to frighten my mother, I intended keeping the incident to myself, writing, however, a complete account of it in my diary for the current year, but, a further incident occurring to my youngest sister within the next few days, I determined to reveal what I had seen and compare notes.”

The eldest Miss Rudd now concluded, and on my expressing a desire to hear more, her youngest sister very obligingly commenced:

“I had been out shopping in the Triangle one morning,” she said, “and having omitted to take the latchkey, I was obliged to ring. Jane answered the summons. There was nothing, of course, unusual in this, as it was her duty to do so, but there was something extremely singular in what appeared at her elbow.

“Standing close beside — I might almost say leaning against her (though Jane was apparently unaware of it) — was a strange, a very strange, servant-girl, with red hair and the most uncanny eyes; she had on a bedraggled print dress and a cap all askew ; but it was her expression that most attracted my attention — it was horrid.

“’Oh Jane!’ I cried, ‘whoever is it with you?’

“Following the direction of my gaze, Jane immediately turned round, and, without a word, FAINTED.

“That is all. The apparition, or whatever you may please to call it, vanished, and the next time I saw it was under different circumstances.”

“Will you be so kind as to relate them?” I inquired.

Miss Rudd proceeded: “Oh! it is nothing very much!” she exclaimed, “only it was very unpleasant at the time — especially as I was all alone.

“You see, mother, being delicate, went to bed early, my sisters were at a concert, and it was Jane’s ‘night out.’

“I never, somehow, fancied the basement of the house; it was so cold and damp, reminding me not a little of a MORGUE or charnel-house; consequently I never stayed there a moment longer than was absolutely necessary, and on this night in question I was in the act of scurrying back to the drawing- room when a gentle tap! tap! at the scullery-window made me defer my departure. Entering the back kitchen, somewhat timidly I admit, I saw a face peering in at me through the tiny window.

“Though the night was dark and there was no artificial lighting at this side of the house, every feature of that face was revealed to me as clearly as if it had been day. The little, untidy cap, all awry, surmounting the shock-head of red hair now half- down and dripping with water, the ghastly white cheeks, the widely open mouth, and the eyes, their pupils abnormally dilated and full of lurid light, were more appallingly horrible than ever.

“I stood and gazed at it, my heart sick with terror, nor do I know what would have happened to me had not the loud rap of the postman acted like magic; the thing vanished, and ‘turning tail,’ I fled upstairs into the presence of my mother. That is all.”

I was profuse in my thanks, and the third Miss Rudd then spoke:

“My bedroom,” she began, “was on the top landing — the window over-looking the water. I slept alone some months after the anecdotes just related, and was awakened one night by feeling some disgusting, wet object lying on my forehead.

“With an ejaculation of alarm I attempted to brush it aside, and opening my eyes, encountered a ghastly white face bending right over me.

“I instantly recognised it, by the description my sisters had given, as the phantasm of the red-headed girl.

“The eyes were terrible! Shifting its slimy hand from my forehead, and brandishing it aloft like some murderous weapon, it was about to clutch my throat, when human nature would stand it no longer — and — I fainted. On recovering, I found both my sisters in the room, and after that I never slept by myself.”

“Did your mother ever see it?” I asked.

“Frequently,” the eldest Miss Rudd replied, “and it was chiefly on her account we relinquished our tenancy — her nervous system was completely prostrated.”

“Other people saw the ghost besides us,” the youngest Miss Rudd interrupted, “for not only did the long succession of maids after Jane all see it, but many of the subsequent tenants ; the house was never let for any length of time.”

“Then, perhaps, it is empty now?” I soliloquised, “in which case I shall most certainly experiment there.”

This proved to be the case; the house was tenantless, and I easily prevailed upon the agent to loan me the key.

But the venture was fruitless. Three of us and a dog undertook it. We sat at the foot of the gloomy staircase; twelve o’clock struck, no ghost appeared, the dog became a nuisance — and — we came away disgusted.

A one-night’s test, however, is no test at all; there is no reason to suppose apparitions are always to be seen by man ; as yet we know absolutely nothing of the powers or conditions regulating their appearances, and it is surely feasible that the unknown controlling elements of one night may have been completely altered, may even have ceased to exist by the next. At all events, that was my opinion. I was by no means daunted at a single failure. But it was impossible to get any one to accompany me.

The sceptic is so boastfully eager by day. “Ghosts,” he sneers, “what are ghosts? Indigestion and imagination! I’ll challenge you to show me the house I wouldn’t sleep in alone! Ghosts indeed! Give me a poker or a shovel and I will scare away the lot of them.” And when you do show him the house he always has a prior engagement, or else the weather is too cold, or he has too much work to do next day, or it isn’t really worth the trouble, or — well! he is sure to have some very plausible excuse; at least, that has been my invariable experience.

There is no greater coward than the sceptic, and so, unable to procure a friend for the occasion, I did without one; neither did I have the key of the house, but — taking French leave — gained admittance through a window.

It was horribly dark and lonely, and although on the former occasion I did not feel the presence of the superphysical, I did so now, the very moment I crossed the threshold. Striking a light, I looked around me: I was in the damp and mouldy den that served as a kitchen; outside I saw the moon reflected on the black and silent water.

A long and sleek cockroach disappeared leisurely in a hole in the skirting as I flashed my light in its direction, and I thought I detected the movement of a rat or some large animal in the cupboard at the foot of the stairs. I forthwith commenced a search — the cupboard was empty. I must have been mistaken. For some minutes I stood in no little perplexity as to my next move. Where should I go? Where ought I to go if my adventure were to prove successful?

I glanced at the narrow, tortuous staircase winding upwards into the grim possibilities of the deserted hall and landings — and — my courage failed.

Here, at least, I was safe! Should the Unknown approach me, I could escape by the same window through which I had entered. I felt I dare not! I really could not go any further. Seized with a sudden panic at nothing more substantial than my own thoughts, I was groping my way backwards to the window when a revulsion of feeling made me pause. If all men were poltroons, how much would humanity ever know of the Occult? We should leave off where we began, and it had ever been my ambition to go — further.

My self-respect returning, I felt in my pocket for pencil, notebook and revolver, and trimming my lamp I mounted the stairs.

A house of such minute dimensions did not take long to explore; what rooms there were, were Lilliputian — mere boxes; the walls from which hung the tattered remnants of the most offensively inartistic papers were too obviously Jerry built; the wainscoting was scarred, the beading broken, not a door fitted, not a window that was not either loose or sashless — the entire house was rotten, paltry, mean; I would not have had it as a gift. But where could I wait to see the ghost? Disgust at my surroundings had, for a time, made me forget my fears ; these now returned reinforced: I thought of Miss Rudd’s comparison with a morgue— and shuddered. The rooms looked ghastly! Selecting the landing at the foot of the upper storey, I sat down, my back against the wall — and — waited.

Confronting me was the staircase leading up and down, equally dark, equally ghostly; on my right was what might once have been the drawing-room, but was now a grim conglomeration of bare boards and moonlight, and on my left was an open window directly overtopping the broad expanse of colourless, motionless water. Twelve o’clock struck, the friendly footsteps of a pedestrian died away in the distance; I was now beyond the pale of assistance, alone and deserted — deserted by all save the slimy, creeping insects below — and the shadows. Yes! the shadows; and as I watched them sporting phantastically at my feet, I glanced into the darkness beyond — and shivered.

All was now intensely suggestive and still, the road alone attractive; and despite my spartonic resolutions I would have given much to be out in the open. The landing was so cramped, so hopeless.

A fresh shadow, the shadow of a leaf that had hitherto escaped my notice, now attracted and appalled me; the scratching of an insect made my heart stand still ; my sight and hearing were painfully acute; a familiar and sickly sensation gradually crept over me, the throbbing of my heart increased, the most inconceivable and desperate terror laid hold of me: the house was no longer empty — the supernatural had come! Something, I knew not, I dare not think what, was below, and I knew it would ascend.

All the ideas I had previously entertained of addressing the ghost and taking notes were entirely annihilated by my fear — fear mingled with a horrible wonder as to what form the apparition would take, and I found myself praying Heaven it might not be that of an elemental.

The THING had now crossed the hall (I knew this somehow instinctively) and was beginning to mount the stairs.

I could not cry out, I could not stir, I could not close my eyes: I could only sit there staring at the staircase in the most awful of dumb, apprehensive agonies. The thing drew nearer, nearer; up, up, UP it came until I could see it at last — see the shock-head of red hair, the white cheeks, the pale, staring eyes, all rendered hideously ghastly by the halo of luminous light that played around it. This was a ghost — an apparition — a bona fide phantasm of the dead ! And without any display of physical power —it overcame me.

Happily for me, the duration of its passage was brief.

It came within a yard of me, the water dripping from its clinging clothes, yet leaving no marks on the flooring. It thrust its face forward; I thought it was going to touch me, and tried to shrink away from it, but could not. Yet it did nothing but stare at me, and its eyes were all the more horrible because they were blank; not diabolical, as Miss Rudd had described them, but simply Blank! — Blank with the glassiness of the Dead.

Gliding past with a slightly swaying motion, it climbed upstairs, the night air blowing through the bedraggled dress in a horribly natural manner; I watched it till it was out of sight with bated breath — for a second or so it stopped irresolutely beside an open window; there was a slight movement as of some one mounting the sill: a mad, hilarious chuckle, a loud splash — and then — silence, after which I went home.

I subsequently discovered that early in the seventies a servant-girl, who was in service at that house, had committed suicide in the manner I have just described, but whether or not she had RED hair I have never been able to ascertain.

P.S. — The Ghost I am informed on very reliable authority, is still (August 1908) to be seen.

Some Haunted Houses of England & Wales, Elliott O’Donnell, 1908

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Red hair was considered to be either the mark of the Devil or a sign of a coarse or depraved person. While one might consider engaging a red-headed scullery maid, a red-headed parlour maid could not have been countenanced.

We have heard supernatural tales from Mr O’Donnell before: The Ghost with One Shoe; The Banshee Sang of Death; The Spectral Hound.  He, Mrs Daffodil has observed, had a wide streak of misogyny, was obsessed with “Elementals” and decay, and—Mrs Daffodil knows that you will be grieved to hear it—often paltered with the truth. Still, we are obliged to him for providing us with the grues on snowy afternoons.

 

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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