Shrieks in the West Room at Flesbury
A plain statement of the facts, as they occurred, without any attempt to embellish or magnify them, will be given.
Early in 1835, my brother John was taken seriously ill, and for many weeks his life hung in the balance. A crisis was reached and passed, followed by a fortnight of mingled hope and despair. At the end of that time his condition showed so great an improvement that the most sanguine hopes for his recovery were entertained by all the family, except his mother and aunt, who continued to be very anxious so long as the doctors were unwilling to give a decidedly favourable opinion.
It was between five and six o clock on a fine spring evening, towards the end of March. The sinking sun was cheerfully lighting up the West room, where three of John’s sisters and his brother William were sitting, having just left their father in the dining-room. Their mother and aunt had returned to John’s room. The West room adjoins the principal staircase, which leads up from the entrance hall through the centre of the house. There is a small landing at the door of the West room, the stain ascending a little further to the principal landing. A second flight leads to the upper landing, on which opened the room occupied by John. Owing to the centre of the house being open, any sound in the hall is distinctly audible on the upper floor. The offices are reached by a long passage behind the hall and the dining-room, so that ordinary sounds from the hall or the staircase cannot be heard there.
The children in the West room were all in the highest spirits. They were no longer feeling anxious about their brother and were even a little inclined to think that their elders had been unnecessarily alarmed. Poor dear Johnnie, they told each other, after all the fuss that had been made, was getting well.
To be sure, it was impossible to spoil him; he was such a dear good boy and never made a fuss about himself. But even now Mamma and Aunt would not believe that he was not going to die. In fact, that very day at dinner. Mamma had been actually crying again. The children went on to discuss the two doctors who were attending John. The younger of the two had particularly annoyed them that day m reporting on the state of the patient to their father. While admitting an increase in strength and appetite, he had added, ‘Still, I see no improvement.’ ‘Papa said he was ridiculously inconsistent,’ one of the children remarked; and someone went on to say something which raised a general laugh. The laughter had not ceased when a piercing shriek rang through the room. It was as if uttered by someone standing on the landing just outside the open door.
There was silence, and then a second shriek like the first; another silence, and then yet a third shriek, even louder and more prolonged than the others, and ending in a rattling, gurgling sound, as though someone were dying.
The children in the room were struck with horror. None of them is likely to forget that awful sound. As I write, it seems to ring in my ears.
In a moment the door of the drawing-room, on the further side of the hall, was thrown open, and Mr Carnsen, who had been sitting in the room alone, hurried across the hall to the foot of the staircase. He called in an agitated voice to his daughter, whom he knew to be in the West room ‘Gertrude, what is the matter! Who is screaming in that dreadful manner!’
‘Papa,’ we answered, ‘we don’t know. It wasn’t one of us, though it seemed quite close.’
‘It sounded as though someone were in great distress,’ our father said. ‘Go down to Grace and ask her if the people in the kitchen are all right, although the noise did not seem to come from there.
Gertrude went at once and found the housekeeper alone in the big front room. She was standing as if listening and declared she had distinctly heard three shrieks. She was wondering what could be the matter and though positive that the sound had come from further off than the kitchen, she went there to enquire if the servants knew anything.
When she returned her usually florid face was quite pale. ‘Oh, Miss Gertrude,’ she said, ‘there is no hope for Master John — that is what it means. What we heard was none of the servants, and no human voice. The servants heard the screams too but they seemed to come from far off.’
‘How can you talk such nonsense!’ Gertrude replied. ‘A person like you ought to know better. Papa says you must find out what it was and let him know.’
The girl then returned to the hall, where she found her father talking to the old doctor, who had just arrived. Mr. Carnsen was saying: ‘It was like a woman’s voice, screaming as though in the utmost distress. You would have supposed she was being murdered.’
The doctor replied that he had been crossing the lawn at the time, and that if the noise had come from outside the house, he must have heard it.
After Gertrude had reported the failure of her enquiries, her father asked her to tell her mother, who was in John’s room, of the doctor’s arrival. On her way upstairs, she looked into the West room, where she found that the others had been joined by Ellen, a faithful and attached servant, with the youngest child, then about two and a half, in her arms. Ellen said they had been in one of the rooms on the first landing when they had heard the shrieks, coming, as it were, from the West room or near it. The child asked, ‘Who is screaming, Ellen; I didn’t scream’; and picking her up the maid had run to the West room to find out what was the matter.
One of the children remarked: ‘Poor Johnnie! How frightened he must have been!’
Whereupon Ellen suggested: ‘Could it have been Master John seized with a fit?’
Struck with this idea, Gertrude ran upstairs. The door of her brother s room was partly open, and when she went in she saw him lying with a very placid look on his fact. As she passed the bed, he gave her a look and a smile, but did not speak. Her mother was resting on the sofa and her aunt was reading by the window. Nothing in short, could have been quieter or more composed than the room and its inmates.
After announcing the doctor s arrival, Gertrude went over to the bed to discover if possible, without alarming her brother, if he had heard the shrieks.
‘Johnnie, how quiet you look!’ she said. Have you been asleep?’
No, Gertrude,’ he replied, ‘I was not asleep and I knew the doctor had come. I heard Dash give his little bark’ — meaning a short single bark which the old dog, who lay on a mat in the hall always gave when the doctor arrived. So it seemed that John had heard the bark, but not the awful shrieks which had rung through the house and been heard by everyone in it except himself and those who were with him.
The doctor was now on his way up and Gertrude, as she left, beckoned to her aunt to follow her. In the West room she told her of their experience, the aunt replying that everything had been exceptionally quiet that afternoon in John’s room.
He had been lying awake, but without speaking for some tune and no unusual noise of any kind had been heard.
An immediate search was made, every possible and impossible cause being sought for and suggested; but all was in vain; no explanation was forthcoming.
Next morning, the doctor came to breakfast, accompanied by his brother, the old clergyman, who occasionally visited John; and while they were there, the housekeeper and the farm bailiff were called in and questioned as to the result of the enquiries which, by Mr. Carnsen’s orders, they had made. One point was clear: the sounds had been made in the house, since no one outside had heard them. The accounts of all those inside the house talked: there had been three shrieks at short intervals; it was as though a woman’s voice were being strained to the utmost; and the noise had ended in a dying rattle. What was most unaccountable was that the shrieks were loudest on the staircase, close to the West room, and therefore should have been distinctly audible in John’s room just above; yet everyone there was utterly unconscious of them.
Nothing more could be done. The servants were given strict orders not to allow any report of what had happened to leak out. Mr. Carnsen, who disliked the subject so much that no one ventured afterwards to allude to it in his presence, enjoined a similar silence on the children. The clergyman, after hearing all the evidence, pronounced the incident to be of a kind for which it was impossible to give a natural explanation. He told us that we could not pretend to deny the reality of what we had heard, but must not give way to superstitious fancies Some lesson or warning which time would make more clearly known, was intended.
From that day onwards, even those of us who had been most hopeful, found their confidence gone, though for another week John’s health continued to show signs of improvement.
After that he took a turn for the worse, and three weeks from the day when the shrieks were heard he died. It may be asked whether a similar warning was given on the occasion of the death of any other member of the family
Fifteen years later, John’s young sister, Emma, was on her deathbed. In the middle of the night, just before the end, those who were watching in her room heard sounds of hysterical wailing and lamentation passing through the house The noises ceased as she drew her last breath A few months later, when the daughters were watching by the deathbed of their mother they had so strong an expectation of hearing that unearthly voice once more, that they told each other they ought to doubt the evidence of their senses if it came but it did not come. Nor was any warning given of the deaths of two of the sons in distant lands, or when Mr Carnsen himself passed away in March 1860 as he knelt in prayer by his bedside.
Further Stories from Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book, 1937, pp. 3-9 (reported earlier in an abbreviated form in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 16 November 1888).
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: As the Proceedings and the introduction to this story in The Ghost Book says, ” Lord Halifax copied the following story from a manuscript, written by the sister of John Carnsen, the child concerned, who died on April 22nd 1835, aged eleven. He added the information that ‘the house where the events of this narrative occurred is Flesbury, a lonely country house on the north coast of Cornwall. The family who reside there are the only descendants of the Carnsens of Carnsen, in Cornwall.’ The names are given as they appear in The Ghost Book, but Carnsen should probably be Carnsew, the name of an old Cornish family, and Flesbury, should probably be Flexbury, near Bude.”
Ah, that is so often the trouble with supernatural accounts: the narrator wishes to disguise the name of the family or the location so that the family is not embarrassed or the house does not get a bad name. One wonders if such subterfuges confused the wailing spirit, who did not appear at the death of the narrator’s brothers, mother, or father, but instead found itself in the Bude-Stratton Business Centre car park, puzzling over a Ordnance Survey map in search of a non-existent family and house.
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.