Julia Herdman is a writer and novelist living and working in the UK.
She specialises in historical romance with a realistic and feminist edge.
Her début novel is out in March 2017.
Tuesday, 27 December 2016
A Ghost Story for Christmas
Flight Officer Felicity Hanbury (1913–2002) c. 1943
by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale (British 1880–1952)
It was November and the war in Europe had been over for more than year when I, Hester McKinnon a demobbed WAAF officer, took Rosamond Furnivall to live with her octogenarian great aunt in Cumbria.
Like me, Rosamond had lost her parents. For Rosamond the calamity had occurred one day in 1944 when one of Hitler’s rockets fell silent, dropped out of a clear blue sky and obliterated them. By the miracle of being at school, Rosamond escaped their fate but the experience had left the seven-year-old silent and brittle.
My parents had been killed before the war when my father drove himself and my mother off the road and down a steep ravine to their deaths on the way back from a house party in Kenya. He was drunk of course. A few weeks after the funeral, I was packed off to boarding school in Kent. I was eight. When school ended I had nowhere to go so I joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, the WAAFs, in 1939, and spent the next six years in Whitehall typing orders for the Allied High Command.
Like Rosamond, I was burdened with grief but mine was not for my parents, they had brought their calamity upon themselves with their drinking and arguing. No, my grief was for the people I had grown to love, the friends and lovers who were never coming back:, and I was sad too for the countless, nameless people who had died following the orders I had so carefully typed. You see, from an early age, I knew there was no gentle way to destroy a life.
At the end of war, when my services were no longer required in Whitehall, I was left with the prospect of eking out a living in a typing pool and living in my gloomy basement flat. Being enamoured of neither prospect I took the unusual step of signing on at one of London’s most prestigious domestic service agencies with the aim of securing a position outside London with accommodation and enough money to begin to put the past behind me. I had had enough of the city and wanted a place where I could breathe fresh air and feel the ground under my feet.
The woman at the agency was impressed with my applications and said that staff of my calibre were hard to find these days. So, after a single interview with the owner of the agency in Soho, I was engaged to escort Rosamond to Cumbria.
“Hester, where shall we sit?” Rosamond whispered nervously as we struggled down the platform with our suitcases. A porter saw us and picked up our cases. I showed him our tickets and caught a glimpse of a photograph I kept in my wallet. It was a photograph of my parents sitting on the veranda of our house in Kenya drinks in hand and smiling at the camera. The porter showed us to a first class compartment at the front of the train and we settled into our seats and waited for our journey to begin. I thought for a moment about the photograph. The camera had caught my mother and father in a vignette of happiness; the lens had trapped a fiction, in reality they had in fact argued all the time, but I was glad of this fiction. I looked at little Rosamond and was sad that she had no photograph, no memento of happier times.
At precisely nine thirty, the Glasgow train pulled out of the station and we were on our way. Our journey through the bombed scared city was slow but gradually the dereliction of war was replaced by a frozen white landscape of winter fields as the train chugged north We sat in silence most of the time content to gaze out of the carriage window looking at the patchwork of frost-dusted fields as they sped by.
To my eye, Rosamond was a beautiful child. Her thick hair was the colour of burnished copper and her blue eyes were proud and defiant like the portrait of her namesake by Rossetti that had hung in the National Gallery before the war. I could see that when she grew up she would have the power to break many hearts. My own heart had been broken many times; my father was the first of course; and I had inherited my mother’s knack of picking the type of man guaranteed to disappoint.
I had never had much to do with children before and during the long years of war had never had any thoughts of a family of my own but now, looking at Rosamond, or Rosy as I was starting to call her, I felt an overwhelming urge to care for her, to hold her and keep are safe. She had stirred some deep primal instinct in me. I thought it was because I understood her vulnerability and her pain but I really didn’t care what it was, it was strong and I liked it. I enjoyed having someone who needed me. I wanted to keep her close, to hold her and comfort her to feel the warmth of her body next to mine and I loved it when she sat next to me and I could put my arm around her and stroke her beautiful hair.
Our journey north was long and slow. We read stories and played cards to pass the time and arrived in Keswick after dark. Following the instructions I had been given we waited on the platform for Miss Furnivall’s chauffeur to take us to the Hall. Standing on the platform as the train pulled away we watched anxiously as the passengers pulled up their collars and headed for the ticket hall and their homes. The platform cleared and a man in a heavy coat and flat cap approached us. After a brusque and perfunctory greeting, he led us to an old black Bentley parked outside and put our suitcases in the boot. Then he opened the car door and invited us to get in. The man, a Mr Lewis Miss Furnivall’s gardener, turned the key and the Bentley’s old engine coughed into life. It lurched forward with a splutter and we were off, being driven away from the town.
I suddenly felt nervous. I realised I knew nothing of Rosamond’s great aunt or where we were heading. The idea of living in a hall in Cumbria had seemed romantic and exciting in London but now sitting in the car travelling into the night I was not so sure. The knot in my stomach that had suddenly appeared started to tighten but I could not let Rosamond see my unease, I had to be brave for us both.
A few miles outside the town, our driver turned the car off the main road and into a steep lane. As the gradient increased, the engine began to labour as it struggled up the meandering fell road. The moon was high in the sky and the desolate landscape of hills and vales was bathed in its cold milky light. We passed through a pair of large stone gateposts each with rampant stags on top. The drive was overhung with trees; there were no neat lawns or rhododendrons at Furnivall Hall. All round the landscape was wild and desolate. Jagged rocks pocked out of the ground catching the moonlight on their angry faces. Rosy slipped her hand into mine and I held it tightly.
Eventually, the drive flattened out and a large stone house came into view. Fashioned from dark Cumbrian stone the it stood proudly silhouetted against the densely wooded hillside whose leafless branches dragged against its walls. Beyond the woods the bare fell stretched up towards the starry sky. The car crunched onto the gravel of the oval drive and stopped in an eerie silence.
As I got out of the car every sound seemed amplified by the stillness; our feet crunched loudly the gravel, and the sound of a pair of owls hooting in the distance sounded shrill in the stillness. In the strong moonlight, I could see the paintwork was ancient and peeling and everywhere there was a strong smell of musty earth and decay. The house was dark; there was not a single light on. Rosamond turned her face to mine and I smiled reluctantly to reassure her.
Our driver opened the boot and gave us our bags. Then he took a torch from the glove compartment. “We live in the back in the winter.”
I took Rosy’s hand and we followed him to the vast, oak front door. He clicked the torch on and pushed it open revealing a large central hall. In the gloom I could see a magnificent bronze chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling; on the west wall there was a handsome grand piano, and at the end of the hall there was a great fireplace with a set of dogs to hold logs but there was no welcoming fire burning tonight. Above the fireplace hung a life-sized portrait of a woman in a high collared white lace gown, the sort worn by debutantes when they were presented at Court. In the moonlight, the woman’s face looked as ghostly as her frock. Her smile was almost a sneer and her cold blue eyes were sharp like a pair of glinting daggers.
“Who’s that?” I enquired pointing to the portrait.
“That’s Miss Maud, your aunt Maud Miss Rosamond, when she was younger of course,” replied the gardener immune to its hostility. In the kitchen at the back of the house we were introduced to his wife, Mrs Lewis, the cook and housekeeper, who explained that Miss Maud and Miss Stark her companion, were in bed and that we would meet them in the morning.
Mrs Lewis was a gaunt and frail looking woman but she was kind and friendly and so was her husband now that he could put his feet up by the stove and enjoy his pipe. We ate a supper of fish paste sandwiches and fruit cake and chatted about our journey and state of the capital now that the war was over before we made for our beds.
There was no electricity in the house. It had never been connected to the mains on account of the house’s remoteness and of course the expense. So, when it was time to retire Mrs Lewis gave me an oil lamp and led us to our rooms taking us back through the hall and up the hall’s dark Jacobean staircase lined with portraits of generations of Furnivalls. The ancient staircase led to gallery that ran around the central hall. Rosamond’s bedroom was at the back of the house and mine at the front. Mrs Lewis departed and left me alone with my charge. I put the lamp on the dressing table so that the light would be reflected and magnified by the mirror, a trick I had learned as a child in Kenya where we did not have electricity either.
There the similarity between the Hall and my parents house in Africa ended. The room was freezing. I quickly dressed Rosy in her pyjamas and got her into bed. Then I climbed up next to her and curled my body against hers offering her what warmth I could. “Go to sleep Rosy,” I said kissing the back of her head, “you’ll soon be cosy and warm.”
“Goodnight Hester,” my little darling yawed back to me and it was then that I realised just how like her aunt Rosy was; she had inherited her aunt Furnivall’s piercing blue eyes. When she was asleep, I went to my own room, at the front of the house. Like Rosy’s room there was no welcoming fire. The curtains were still open so I looked out across the drive and down the wooded hill. In the distance, beyond the road I could see a patch of shiny black water catching the moonlight. Standing in the frigid air my skin to turned to goose flesh and I started to shiver. I had never been so cold or seen a landscape so austere but I understood immediately why the house had been built in the shelter of the fell. The scene before me was one of the most sublime but eerie beauty. The Furnivall’s had chosen their spot well.
I undressed reluctantly and got into my cold damp bed. I decided to leave the curtains open so that I could look at the stars and listen to the silence which after so many years in London was totally alluring and unnerving. As the need to sleep fastened its grip on me I was sure I could hear a strange tapping noise on the landing. I sat up and pricked up my ears, I was sure I could hear the piano music coming up from the hall below. Mr Lewis must have left a radio or a gramophone on somewhere I thought a allowed myself to the gently lulled to sleep.
In the days that followed, Rosy and I found that most of the house was off bounds tous; only a third of the house was in use. The whole of the east wing was closed; the doors to it from the central hall were locked and the windows were shuttered from the inside. Miss Maud and her companion, Miss Stark occupied the west-wing. Their drawing room was cheerful with a warm fire in it, and plenty of good, comfortable furniture.
The octogenarian Miss Maud was no longer the beauty in the portrait. Her once proud face was lined with deep heavy creases and her cruel lips had all but disappeared but her eyes were still as sharp as two icy jewels. Maud’s hearing obliged her to use an extravagant ear trumpet to hear the snippets of conversation Miss Stark barked down it otherwise she was content to read a book or work at the tapestry. The two old ladies seemed pleased to have Rosy for company and were happy to let her play by the fire while they amused themselves with their books and their needlework.
The house, even half of it, was a great rambling place and Rosy and I spent many happy hours exploring it. It was a dark house; the light from the windows was obscured by the boughs of the untrimmed trees and in places ivy crept between the window panes. In the gloom, we examined old China jars, carved ivory boxes, and the great heavy books in the library. In the afternoons we asked the old ladies about the portraits hanging on the stairs. Miss Maud was more than happy to tell takes of her ancestors’ exploits. For those portraits the old women knew little about Rosy and I invented our own histories for them in our schoolroom, which was the old nursery on the first floor. The nursery like the rest of the house was frozen in time, stuck in bygone days for there had been no babies at Furnivall Hall for at least two generations.
Over a cup of tea in the kitchen one morning I asked Mrs Lewis about Rosy’s parents and why they had not lived at the Hall.
“Old Lord Furnivall, cut him off,” the housekeeper clucked. “Chucked him out of the family from what I’ve heard. He’d turned communist or some such thing and fell out with the old man. Rosy’s grandfather was the last Lord Furnivall’s only son. By rights, he should have inherited everything but he never got a bean. By all accounts, he went to London and made a name for himself in Law. I believe his son was a doctor and was on leave when he and his wife were killed.”
“Yes, that’s what I was told,” I concurred warming myself by the stove.
“It’s strange isn’t it? Judging by her portrait, Miss Maud was a beautiful young woman but she never married.”
“You think Maud was beautiful, well you should see the portrait of her sister Aida. Now she was a real beauty. I can show you if you like but if I do you must never let on. Miss Maud has forbidden anyone to look at it.”
Intrigued I followed Mrs Lewis up the stairs to a room Rosy and I had discovered was kept locked at the front of the house. Mrs Lewis slipped the key into the lock and turned it. The door opened onto a dark and dusty room. The housekeeper drew the curtains and the grey winter light flooded in. Above the mantelpiece there was a portrait of a woman similar to that of Miss Maud in the hall below. The woman in this picture was wearing the same type of high-collared gown. Miss Aida was a beauty indeed. In the picture her thick red hair hung in a loose bun at the nape of neck but unlike her sister’s shape angular features, Aida’s features were soft but she had the same haughty look as her younger sister; like Maud her eyes were as cold as crystals and emitted a look of total disdain.
“There, what do you think Miss Hester?” demanded the housekeeper.
“I think you’re right she is more beautiful than her sister. What happened to her Mrs Lewis?”
“She died, my dear, went mad in the asylum. Now, Miss Maud can’t bear to look at her.”
“Oh, how awful for the family,” I said thinking of the photograph in my wallet. Although the image of my parents gave lie to their true relationship, I had always carried it with me. Somehow, I needed the comfort of the fantasy. I need to remember them in better days; it made me feel that I had once been happy and that I could be happy again although I had yet to find it. Miss Maud clearly did not feel the same about her sister.
That night I woke to the sound of tapping on the landing and piano music in the hall. This time it was louder. As I lay in my bed, the music grew louder and more discordant as if someone was playing out their anguish and distress. As it grew louder the wind whipped up outside and started to howl through the trees and the window frames began to rattle. I turned the wick of my lamp up and got out of bed. I looked out of my bedroom window. It was snowing. The jagged landscape of rocks and trees was disappearing in a smooth blanket of white.
The music continued and I decided that I had to know where it was coming from. In the days since we had arrived at the Hall it had turned from a gentle lullaby to a loud jumble of angry chords. I opened my bedroom door and peered over the gallery balustrade. I am not sure what I expected to see. There was no one at the piano but the sound seemed to be coming from it. My heart began to pound forced myself down the stairs. When I was halfway Mrs Lewis appeared from the kitchen. “Go back to bed Miss Hester. There is nothing to be fearful of. It’s just Miss Aida playing her piano. She does no one any harm, let her be.”
Miss Aida, I thought. Miss Aida was dead. Mrs Lewis said she had died in the asylum in Keswick. Was she talking about a ghost? I turned around slowly taking in what the housekeeper had said. She was telling me that the Hall was haunted by the spirit of Miss Maud’s sister. Was that why Maud could not look at the portrait of Aida? I returned to my room but I did not sleep.
The next day was my free day so I asked to borrow the Bentley on the pretext of wanting to buy Christmas cards at the post office in the nearby village. It was true I did need to buy cards but I also wanted to get out of the house to put some distance between me and the place and to think about what was happening there. Miss Stark agreed to my request reluctantly. Her concern was not my driving but the weather, the snow fall from the night before was would make the fell roads icy. I gingerly drove the old car out of the garage and made my way down the snow-covered lane into the village and parked the car next to the pub. I chose my cards then retired to the pub where a large fire burned in the grate. I didn’t have many cards to write, just a few to the girls I had worked with in the typing pool in London and a couple to old school friends in Kent. I was relieved to be away from the Hall, glad to have a moment outside its gloomy and increasingly oppressive atmosphere. I was just wondering if I would be able to afford a cottage for Rosy and me when a man’s voice startled me back to the present.
“You must be from the Hall,” said man.
I looked up to see a fair-haired man in his thirties dressed in tweed and a thick woollen jumper holding a pint of ale.
“Yes, I am,” I replied visibly taken aback.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I recognised the car. I have a habit of put two and two together. My name’s Peter, Peter Wilson. I live in the village. Well, my parents do. I’m just visiting; between jobs as it were.”
“Hester McKinnon,” I said shaking his hand. “I’m Miss Furnivall’s niece’s Nanny.”
“It’s a pleasure Miss McKinnon, or may I can you Hester?” he said sitting beside me.
“Oh, Hester’s fine,” I said returning his smile, which was quite unlike me.
“How are you getting on up there? I can’t imagine old Miss Maud with a niece who needs a nanny.”
“You know the family then?” I said.
“Everyone round here knows them and I can’t help wondering what a nice girl like you is doing working up there.”
I had to admit I was beginning to wonder myself, although I wasn’t sure I liked his tone, it was a long time since I was a nice girl. I was desperate to spill the beans on what was going on at the Hall but decided to say nothing. I didn’t want to look like a neurotic fool taking about ghosts and pianos that played tunes in the night and the way the family seemed to take Aida’s nightly musical ramblings it in their stride.
“Will you be here for Christmas?” he asked tentatively.
“Yes,” I replied feeling he was about make me a proposal I did not want to reject.
“I have two tickets for the Christmas Eve barn dance in the Village Hall. Would you do me of honour of being my guest?”
“A barn dance?” I had quick stepped and jived in London through the blitz and the victory celebrations but I ha’n't been to a barn dance since I was at school.
“I can see you’re a city girl,” he smiled.
Needless to say I found myself agreeing to Peter’s barn dance proposal and to his picking me up from the Hall at seven on Christmas Eve. When he had finished his pint he insisted on accompanying me to the post box before he waved my goodbye and it started to snow again.
I returned the Bentley and immediately went to look for Rosy. Outside the snow was falling thickly and the night was drawing in. I lit a lamp and called for her but no child came running to see me. I checked all Rosy’s usual hidey-holes and favourite places but I could not find her. Finally, I went to the kitchen and asked Mrs Lewis if she had seen her. Mrs Lewis shook her head. “No love, I haven’t. I thought she was in the drawing room with Miss Maud.”
My heart sank at this for I had already asked both Miss Maud and Miss Stark if they had seen her. I went back to Rosy’s hiding places calling and entreating her to stop being a naughty girl and to stop frightening me to death. I searched high and low but she was nowhere to be found so I returned to the kitchen. “Where can she be Mrs Lewis?” I implored with an increasing sense of unease.
“I’ll send Mr Lewis out to look for her. She won’t have gone far in this weather. The silly girl’s probably trying to make a snowman.”
I pulled on my coat and followed Mr Lewis out of the house. I watched as the beam of his torch picked out a single line of tiny footprints being filled by the fast falling snow. I could see Miss Furnivall watching from the drawing room window. She was in a fearful state. We followed the footprints through the thorny undergrowth, past the gnarled oak trees across the road and down the hill towards the lake. My mind was racing. What had possessed the child to go out in such weather? Didn’t she know that she could fall over, hurt herself and be unable to get home? Didn’t she know that I would be worried sick about her? Did she hate me for leaving today, for going to the village without her? Tears started to stream down my face where froze on my cheeks. I followed behind Mr Lewis hoping and praying we would spot her soon. Mr Lewis suddenly let out a shout and I knew he had found her. A shepherd was coming towards us carrying my little Rosy in his arms. Her face was deathly white, her lips were blue, and her hands were stiff and frozen. Fear ripped at my heart. Oh God, I thought. Is she dead?
Mr Lewis carried Rosy back to the kitchen where Mrs Lewis and I stripped the child of her cold wet clothes and warmed her by the stove. I wrapped Rosy in a blanket and cradled her in my arms sitting in the old Windsor chair by the kitchen stove while Mr Lewis went to fetch the doctor on Miss Maud’s orders.
As the child’s face turned from white to pink the terror in my mind subsided. An hour later, Mr Lewis arrived with Peter Wilson in tow. “The doctor’s out so his son’s here instead.”
“I am a doctor too,” assured Peter with a smile. He was always smiling. I think that’s what liked about him. He examined Rosy then pronounced her fit enough to go to bed with a hot water bottle and reminded me about my promise for Christmas Eve.
After breakfast the next morning, I asked Rosy why she had gone out into the snow.
“It was the girl,” she said. “She called for me.”
“What girl Rosy?” I demanded.
“The little girl at the window. She said she needed me to go to her mother.”
“Don’t tell me lies Rosy,” I said angrily. Mr Lewis and I followed your footprints in the snow and there was only one set of prints. There was no little girl. Besides where would this girl have come from. There are no houses around here?”
“I’m not lying Hester,” she said and started to cry. “I didn’t look at her feet Hester but she held my hand tightly. She was very cold Hester. She took me down the path towards the lake. Her mother was there. She was crying Hester. She was very upset. She called me over and put me on her knee then she started to sing and I fell asleep I’m telling you the truth. My mother in heaven knows I’m not lying.”
Rosy had never mentioned her mother before, this was a new development, and I was not sure it was good one. Why would she make up such a story and why would she bring her dead mother into it? I tried not to be angry but I was perplexed. I went to Miss Furnivall and shouted Rosy’s story down her ear trumpet. When I came to part about the little girl out in the snow, coaxing and tempting Rosy outside and the woman by the lake the old woman threw her arms up and screamed, “Oh! Heaven, forgive! Heaven have mercy!”
Miss Stark stepped forward to comfort her mistress but to no avail. Miss Furnivall was hysterical. She shrieked, “Hester! Keep our Rosy from that child! It will lure her to her death! That child is evil like that woman! Tell Rosy the girl is a wicked and that she must have nothing more to do with her.”Maud collapsed into the back of her chair sobbing and Mrs Stark escorted me out of the drawing room. I did not understand what was happening. Miss Maud clearly believed Rosy was being enticed to her death by a ghostly apparition. I stood in the hall wondering if the ghost of the child was linked to ghost of the woman who played the piano. Had Aida had a child that no one ever talked about? Was it the loss of the child that drove her mad? As I was thinking these thoughts, I remembered that I did not believe in ghosts, at least I had not until I had come to Furnivall Hall. I had lived through the blitz. I thought I knew what death was but this business of ghosts and spirits was something I did not comprehend. Had I not heard Aida’s ghostly music in the dead of night. Had I not heard the strange tapping sound on the landing each night before I went to sleep as if someone were walking with a stick. A shiver ran down my spine but it was not because I was cold. I shook off the shuddered and decided to pull myself together. For goodness sake, I told myself, the music must have come from a radio or a gramophone, what other explanation could there be? Then I thought, but there is no electricity in the house!
I was uneasy and decided to keep Rosy close by my side. When I put her to bed I stayed with her until she was asleep then locked her door behind me. As we counted down the days to Christmas Aida’s playing became wilder and more angry and the tapping sounds along the landing were getting louder too. Everyone seemed fearful and I felt trapped. I tried to keep things as normal as possible for Rosy but inside I felt as if I were going crazy and would soon end up as mad as everyone else in the house. I wanted to leave but Rosy and I had nowhere else to go.
I decided to tackle Mrs Lewis again on the subject of the Furnivall’s. This time she said that she had heard the tale in the village about Miss Maud’s family but she said she did not know whether it was true. I urged her to tell me what she knew. The housekeeper poured herself a cup of tea and explained that the last Lord Furnivall was a man eaten up with pride and his daughters, Aida and Maud, were much the same. Suitors came and went but no one it seemed was good enough for his girls. “They say that the two sisters fell in love with the same man; their music master! The man was handsome foreign gentleman, an Italian called Carboni,” she said, “and he was a cad. It seems that Miss Aida, being the older and more beautiful of the two sisters decided the scoundrel should be hers and stole him from under Maud’s nose by saying that she was going to Switzerland for her health but in reality she was in Venice in a love nest with the fellow.”
“When Aida returned to England, she had a little girl. Her father would not have approved of her choice of husband; it they had every married of course; and if that were the case the old man would never have accepted the child so the little girl was farmed out to a couple in the village, in the house where Dr Wilson and his family live today.”
“Oh,” I wonder if Peter knew the story when he asked me how I was getting on at the Hall,” I said thinking aloud.
“Everyone round here knows my love. It’s only Miss Maud that thinks it’s still a secret.”
“What happened to Aida?”
“Well, they say her husband, if he ever was of course, abandoned her and that she was forced to keep the child secret especially from her sister. Maud had a very jealous nature when she was young. By all accounts, Aida was a good a mother as she could be in the circumstances. The little girl was left at the cottage and her mother rode over to see her once a week.”
“Maud however had not give up the hope that the music master would return one day to marry her and Aida could not resist mocking her sister’s false hope. Knowing what she did Aida taunted her sister mercilessly saying that the man of her dreams would never come back and that Maud was too ugly and fat to be wanted by any man let alone a handsome man like Signor Carboni. In the meantime, their brother had become a communist or some other kind of discontent at Oxford and the old lord had disowned and disinherited him. “
“As the years went by the family grew further and further apart. Old Lord Furnivall suffered a stroke and was forced to walk with a cane. The stroke made him even more bad tempered and angry. Aida, who loved her daughter dearly, was desperate to be with her child and with her father’s growing incapacity she became brace and moved the child into her rooms in the East wing saying she was a cottager's child she had taken a fancy to.
Miss Stark, who was always more of a friend to Maud than a servant found out about Aida’s marriage from her maid and on Christmas Eve in 1910 she told the old Lord all about Aida’s secret marriage and about the child.”
“Well you can imagine what happened can’t you Hester? There was a big bust up by all accounts and people say the old man hit his daughter with his stick then he turned her and her child out of the house with only the clothes they stood in. The next day some shepherds found Miss Aida sitting under tree nursing her child. The child was dead poor think. They said it had a terrible gash on its right shoulder. Aida has lost her mind and was taken to the asylum in Keswick. She died in the ‘flu’ in 1919.”
Suddenly I was frightened. Winter had the fells in its vice-like grip. The frost was bearing hard into the ground and a freezing wind was howling in the trees. I did my best to carry on as normal. Mr Lewis brought a Christmas tree up from the village and Rosy and I made paper chains to hang on it. Mrs Lewis did her best with the rations and what she could glean from her black market suppliers to make the cakes and puddings but the atmosphere in the house remained morose. As the last of the daylight faded on Christmas Eve I heard the west drawing room bell ring three times, it was Miss Maud’s call for me. I took Rosy by the hand and went to see the old woman. From the drawing room windows, I could see that it had started to snow again and I wondered if Peter would be able to get his car up the lane to collect me for the dance.
“Why did you bring Miss Rosamond with you?” demanded a disgruntled Miss Stark.
“Because I was afraid of her being tempted out by the child in the snow, Miss Stark, “ I said knowing I had Miss Maud on my side. “I have decided Rosy must be with someone at all times. Mrs Lewis will stay with her while I am away at the barn dance.”
“That is what we wanted to speak to you about. Surely, you are not going out on a night like this Miss McKinnon. Rosamond needs you here.”
I was about to argue my case when Miss Maud’s face drained to grey. Using the arms of the chair she stood up and looked toward the drawing room door. “'I hear voices! Oh no, it’s my father!”
“I can hear him too aunt Maud,” cried Rosy clinging to my dress. “Hester, he’s going to hurt the little girl. She wants me to help her.”
Fear gripped me as the warmth of the sitting room disappeared and the ghostly whispers spread through the air. Soon I could hear them too. Miss Furnivall walked as if in a trance into the hall. Miss Stark followed. My chest was so tight I could hardly breath. I held Rosy close to me not knowing what was going to happen next. The ghostly whispers were getting louder and in the background I could hear the sound of a woman screaming. Rosy tugged my arm, I picked up a lamp and we followed the old women into the hall.
The sound of screaming was coming from behind the doors of the east wing. The bronze chandelier hanging in the centre of the hall began to sway and the doors of the East wing that had been locked-up since the day we had arrived snapped open. Rosy looked up at me. “'Hester! I must go,” she cried. “The little girl is here; she needs me Hester, let me go!”
“No Rosy,” I said as calmly as I could holding her tight to my body. If I had died at that moment, my hands would not have released her. I would not let these phantoms have her. There was a thunderous crash and the front door swung open. Snow began to blow into the great hall. I was still holding Rosy as a milky light began to fill the room. An image of a tall old man appeared. He was poking a beautiful woman with a child clinging to her skirts with his walking cane.
“Hester! Look!' cried Rosy. “It's the lady! The little girl is with her.”
I held her tightly as we watched the phantom images replay their horrific scene. Miss Maud and Miss Stark stood under the swaying chandelier transfixed by it. Petrified, we watched helpless as the old man raised his stick and struck his daughter. The ghostly woman stood firm shielding her child from his blows until he caught her with a particularly savage blow to the head. The ephemeral woman crumpled in front of him. The old man raised his stick to the child. Then Maud called out, “Oh, father! Father, spare the child!”
A new figure appeared in the ghostly scene. It was the figure of a woman in a diaphanous high-collared gown. She joined the old man. The look on her face was one of terrifying hate and triumphant malice. The new apparition raised her head and laughed at the woman on the floor. Her cruel eyes rejoiced and her lips quivered in anticipation. I turned to Rosy. We both recognised the figure from the portrait in the hall. We watched as Maud took her father’s cane and smashed it into the child’s shoulder. Her sister screamed as the child fell beside her. Then Maud picked up her sister and her child and chased them out of the house and into the freezing December night.
When the drama was over, I scanned the room for old Miss Furnivall. I found her prostrate on the floor with Miss Stark by her side. She looked dead but her lips were moving. I leaned forward to hear her last words. “What is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!” the old woman muttered over and over again.
As Maud fell silent the yellow beam of car headlights flashed through the open front door. It was Peter. He had made it up the lane. He examined Miss Maud and pronounced her dead then he gave a sedative to Miss Stark.
We retired to the drawing room, Mrs Lewis made everyone hot sweet tea, then and put Rosy to bed. The atmosphere in the house had changed; the ghosts had disappeared and taken their venom with them.
“I wasn’t sure you’d make it because of the snow,” I said as Peter was about to leave. I was in no mood for a dance and I could not leave Rosy.
“I didn’t want to disappoint you,” he replied with a smile.
I smiled back and kissed him lightly on the cheek knowing that somehow he never would.
Based on an original story by Elizabeth Gaskill. Julia Herdman 2016 (Copyright)