I had met Mrs Crowley on three occasions and expected our next encounter to run upon similar lines; but this was not to be. On entering the room, all swish from the multitude of silk and other fabrics beneath her riding coat, I could tell she had no wish to dwell upon trivial matters.
She approached holding the hem of her skirt and briskly made her comfort on the seat beside me.
“Good evening to you Alice, shall we start with tea before I reveal all?”
I was now familiar with her informality and playful tone though not entirely comfortable with it.
“It’s lovely to see you again Mrs Crowley. The children, are they well?”
“Yes, yes, all happy. But it’s you that concerns me.”
I had little clue to what she was referring to and shifted nervously in my chair.
She paused and released her grip on the teapot.
“A holiday! That’s what you need.”
The comment took me by surprise as I had not expected the conversation to turn in this direction. I searched for a suitable response but neither facial expression nor words came to mind, though I was certain at least one was expected.
Mrs. Crowley paused, her brow furrowing momentarily at my immediate vacancy, then she proceeded to elaborate.
“I recall you mentioned that you and the children had not had a holiday since you lost your husband. This somewhat resonated with me — I myself have not had a break in a considerable time; and only a handful of times to my London residence since Albert passed these ten years gone.”
As she spoke, her fingers nervously twisted the beads of her necklace tugging them in quick succession along the thread.
“It occurred to me that this might be a fortunate coincidence: two people in much need of new surrounds. As you are well aware, this is a large house and one that requires constant tending and management. If I am to be elsewhere then I leave in confidence that the tending part is more than adequately covered by the servants and the management by Mrs Ingram our housekeeper. Nevertheless, it is a concern to me that most of the house is absent of life; I should like to leave knowing that it is not just the staff who will be lifting the shutters at the light of day and closing them when it darkens.”
Unconsciously, I had edged my chair a little closer to hers. The candles clustering around our corner of the room cast the face of my companion in varying degrees of light and shade. Stabs of white brilliance came from the silver rings on her upraised hands that caught the flickering light. I looked upon her and considered her ageing beauty: her dark hair unbound, falling upon and caressing the shoulders of a velvet dress trimmed with Mechlin lace.
I smiled, though it was faint. Could she detect my uncertainty?
“That’s such a kind offer,” I said faltering, ” it’s so considerate, but beyond what I could have earned from such a brief friendship. I couldn’t possibly…”
“Please my dear,” interrupted my host, “Though brief, I have been thoroughly charmed by your company since we met. The house is ideal for a family — and with its walled gardens and vast parkland such a playground for the children. And it would be no more than a few months.”
She smiled and cast her eyes across my face . “You won’t be persuaded to stay?”
There was a quality in her voice and general demeanour that was so genuine and heart-warming that it felt difficult to refuse her. “Well it would be a wonderful opportunity of course and as you point out the children could really do with a change of scenery.”
Mrs Crowley had left her chair and passed to my left, gently touching my shoulder as she stepped towards the window.
“I must say the loss of their father has imprinted on them somewhat; they have seemed so distant and joyless this past year.”
“So, thank you,” I said, ” We would love to stay.”
Despite my initial reservations, it was quite clear that the opportunity could not have come at a better time. The house was delightful and the children would undoubtedly benefit from exploring its multitude of rooms and corridors, a contrast to our modest home. I had raised concern about the children’s education but Mrs Crowley said that she would provide a governess who came highly recommended. It was the first time in months I could remember feeling that I knew exactly what I wanted. I could not wait to embark on the journey to Stalbridge Manor.
The morning of our departure was dank and drear and the December air had chilled the moisture into a light fog. Ahead, beyond the horse and carriage, an occasional snowflake could be seen floating to rest against the meagre light. It was Kitty and Grace who were the most excited, eager to see if their expectations of such a grand house were realistic; but it was the pale figure of Michael, his shoulder pressed firmly against the side of the carriage that troubled me the most.
The oldest child has much to gain from strong paternal guidance; but has much to lose when it is stolen from them. Hence, of my three children, it was Michael who had taken the death of his father the worst; and it was made all the more unbearable by the awful fact that he had witnessed the riding accident, an event that surely remained indelibly etched in his mind. No matter, I was confident that the change in surrounds would benefit him.
Arriving at the house, I reached into my purse and unfurled the letter Mrs Crowley had sent containing details of the finer points of living at Stalbridge. It was a most pleasant welcome, one that had me smiling, but there was one request that seemed at odds with the general tone of the communication. In the final paragraph was an instruction, one that we were to follow without question: that I was to do whatever the housekeeper Mrs Ingram required of me. Initially I was a little surprised, but on reflection it felt nothing more than a directive to place myself and the care of my children in the hands of greater experience.
Mr Chester, the house steward greeted us warmly whilst one of the assembled footmen dispatched our luggage to the house. Kitty and Grace raced up the steps and into the dimly lit hallway. There they caught sight of the elegant staircase, pointing and giggling nervously at the figures of the twelve apostles placed at intervals between the balusters. Then, attracted by the light streaming from its open door, they darted across the marbled floor in the direction of the library. Michael traipsed the same path but in evident agitation, glancing blankly at his new surrounds, clearly unimpressed. I dearly wanted to coax words of excitement from him but it would be pointless as the desire had to come from within. I would hope that given time there would be some lifting in his spirits.
Sharp, mouse-like squeals informed me that the girls had found their bedroom.
“Mummy!” Kitty’s head appeared over the balustrade, her blonde trellises lopping over the wide beam. “It’s simply magical — so much grander than I’d imagined.”
The delicate, porcelain features of Grace appeared beside her; a brilliant shock of chestnut brown hair contrasting with her sister’s unruly locks. “Yes, we’d love to stay!”
I giggled, something I had not done for as long as I could remember. “Well, under the circumstances, that’s very pleasing to hear as we are staying.”
The evening raced away with the children exploring their new surrounds and the servants attending to every need; something I was quite unused to. Despite their attendance, each seemed a little uneasy when conversation extended beyond the simple mechanics of the house and its running. Still, I found them all to be amenable, and genuinely interested in the children. It was only Mr Chester, a gruffly-spoken but unassuming gentleman, who had a tendency to remark in a less than formal manner.
“Curious lad is he?” he asked whilst passing me in the main hallway. I had expected him to continue, but his comment stopped abruptly, taking me by surprise. I stared and noted his eyes tracing Michael’s movement upon the stairs.
I took the opportunity to explain something of our recent history.
Chester smiled and nodded, though his only comment was one that related to the letter I had read whilst on the coach, reminding me that I should consult with Mrs Ingram regarding the affairs of the house.
The following day, I took it upon myself to engage Mrs Ingram in conversation. Her demeanour was a little stern and quite at a contrast to what I had expected Mrs Crowley to desire in a housekeeper. Still, I was sure that despite her severe countenance she was adept in her role. In discussion, she mentioned that the rooms of the house were largely unlocked, but there were some that were kept secured. It must have been my posture and expression that encouraged her to elaborate as to the reasons why, for I would not have had the impertinence to have requested so. The housekeeper explained that despite appearances there were a number of areas within the house that were unsuitable for children to play in. She added that Mrs Crowley had not mentioned this as she did not want to appear unwelcoming. I informed Mrs Ingram that the children were well behaved and would have no problem with such restrictions — nor, for that matter, would I.
It was on the fourth day of our residence, that Michael informed me of a most terrifying occurrence. The evening before, he had discovered an unlocked door. The strangest aspect of which was that it had been locked firmly the day before. He revealed to me that he had twisted the same set of doorknobs repeatedly for days, convinced that one would eventually reveal itself to be unsecured. Though it was likely the room remained occupied by one of the household staff, Michael waited, his ear pressed against the door, listening for footsteps and the emergence of whoever roamed behind it. For minutes, silence held constant; then, consumed by intrigue and curiosity, he slowly twisted the knob and stepped into the half-light behind the oak frame.
To his immediate surprise, a corridor and not a room occupied the space beyond. No further openings led off from the narrow length, apart from a door immediately ahead, framed by walls of flecking paint, some black-tipped and curled almost as if they had been charred. The area was deathly quiet and Michael posited that whoever had provided him entrance to the hallway was no longer there.
With his interest piqued, he ventured forward, inching his way down the corridor. As he passed, his shoulders clipped the furled sinews of paint coiling away from the walls sprinkling them upon his jacket. Brushing them off, the odour was unmistakable: the paint had been exposed to heat. Above him, the ceiling was much the same; streaks of ash ran the length of the entire hallway.
It was then that a noise startled him; for the door at the end of the corridor had clicked open and had begun to swing inwardly, gradually, creaking with a wretched sound. As it did so, a shaft of orange light leaked through into the passageway. To his horror, he could see that the light stemmed from the brilliance of flames burning within. And then, in an instant, he felt an intense heat, blasting across his face as if an oven door had been opened.
Only a moment later, from out of the inferno, came the most horrific of sights: a woman, her body aflame, shrieking with a hellish sound, pitifully attempting to pull the searing fabric away from her blistering flesh. Instinctively, Michael flattened himself against the wall of the corridor, turning his head away from the torturous sight. With the flames speeding towards him, he felt certain that he would be engulfed.
But this did not occur, for the burning woman simply passed him, streaking chaotically towards the open door he had entered by, bursting into fragments that spilt forth into the house. The only sensation was a raging temperature that smothered him, yet one that left no mark upon his body; and the indelible memory of the words she uttered in her passing: ‘I have done it. I have done it.’
Shocked beyond imagination, he turned his face away from the wall, and stared wide-eyed at the embers that extinguished themselves upon the floor. Around him, a few, faint whispers of ash fluttered away, consumed by the darkness.
Michael felt himself slumping towards the floor but quickly gained some composure; and not wishing to be exposed to any further horror he fled the haunted passage.
Nothing stirred within the house. Yet it was some time before he felt rid of the terrifying phantom. Throwing himself forward — the noise of the inferno still echoing in his ears — his descent of the long stairs was reduced to a mere second; and reaching the bottom he continued his chaotic dash to the room where I lay.
The sound of urgent knocking awoke me, and flinging himself into my arms, he told me, in the most vivid detail I have just described, what had occurred on the top floor of this house. Having just stirred from sleep, my immediate reaction was to look to a night terror that had disturbed his rest — a regular occurrence since the death of his father. But the lurid description appeared far in excess of the imagination invested in the average dream.
I dressed hurriedly and went in search of the corridor Michael had described. Reaching the top floor, I could see the row of doors and tried each in turn, but all were locked. There was no evidence to suggest that a disturbance had occurred yet I felt compelled to investigate further; such was my belief in his tale.
The next morning I requested of Mr Chester that I should have the keys to the upper floor, having been disturbed by such ghastly sounds emanating from this part of the house (I did not wish to reveal the true witness for fear of the story being dismissed as dream or a concoction of childish devilment). However Mr Chester was not forthcoming, explaining that the keys were in the care of Mrs Ingram and could only be issued with permission from Mrs Crowley. When I asked him if he had heard any disturbance in the night, he gave such a brief utterance of dismissal that I knew immediately something had troubled him; thereupon he quickly made his leave, reporting that he had to attend to some important duties within the grounds.
Taken aback by his reaction, I determined to be on the upper landing the next evening at the same hour. As the hour approached eight o’ clock, I took the stairs to the top of the house. There, I tried each of the doorknobs in turn but as before they remained locked. Despite this, I decided that I would remain there a while longer.
I was about to leave my vigil when I suddenly heard a deep rumble from within the walls, the frame of the wall appearing to shake briefly. I looked down through the stairwell to see if any of the servants were moving furniture around but it was apparent the house was at rest. As I stood there, I had the strangest of sensations: I was aware of a tickling irritation on my scalp, as if a hot needle were pricking the surface.
Instinctively, I turned and there before me was the most horrific vision. For it was just that, a picture of intense suffering but one completely noiseless as if it were a silent dream. The flames leapt around the woman, ripping holes through her torso, lifting and wrapping the strands of her hair into a glowing ball of fire. I could see her lips contort as if to scream but no words came forth, only a splatter of fire upon flesh. I grappled with the beam behind me as if to force myself away but I was gripped by fear and found myself bound by the spectacle. The burning figure approached reaching out towards the beam that supported me, but without firmness she passed through it toppling into the void. I turned to see the flames extinguish in the darkness leaving no trace of the poor woman. Suppressing a shriek, I fell to my knees, peering at the open doorway, watching it shut violently upon itself.
I did not sleep. I gathered the children into one room and made temporary beds beside me. I watched over them throughout the early hours whilst keeping an eye on the door. The night passed peacefully but my mind was the least bit calm having dwelt upon the phantom and its intentions, as unfathomable as they were.
The next day we left. I informed the household staff that having experienced two nights of unholy disturbance it was impossible for us to stay; a situation made all the worse by the their seemingly untroubled reactions. Indeed, Mrs Ingram was more dismissive than sympathetic; using the opportunity to scold the children for an inability to curb their curiosity.
I decided that we must confront Mrs Crowley and inform her regarding the ghastly events we had witnessed at Stalbridge. I desperately needed an explanation, though I could not imagine anything rational being offered.
On arrival, however, we were greeted by her sister who informed us that Mrs Crowley had been taken ill and was unable to receive visitors. Her sister, possibly older, her hair powdered and dressed high, escorted us to the parlour where we were offered tea.
Mrs Cooper asked politely as to the nature of our relationship with her sister, having informed us that she had had little contact with her over the past six months or so. I told her that we had just returned from a brief stay at her sister’s country home and wanted to explain the circumstances that had reduced our stay to days rather than weeks. However, when I mentioned the name of our temporary residence her face froze momentarily and her eyes became more suspicious than intrigued; her only words were of correction, “yes, but you mean the cottage of course …I hadn’t realised that my sister was in the habit of leasing it.”
Her description of the place confused me to such an extent that I quickly changed tact, asking only of the building she had corrected me on.
“Well I must say that I rarely pry into my sister’s affairs — in actual fact, we are not that close — but I do know that visitors have been infrequent over the years.”
“As for the main house, definitely not.” She paused for a moment. “And surely, you must have heard the stories?”
When I told her that I had no information regarding its history she looked greatly surprised.
The following story was then related to me:
Some years ago the house was inhabited by the ex-wife of Mrs. Cooper’s father, and her father’s only son. One day, when the son had come of age, he announced to his mother that he had fallen in love with the daughter of the estate’s gamekeeper. The mother reproached him for his scandalous conduct, forbidding him from mentioning his intentions again. But the boy was resolved to marry the girl, and shortly after he returned to the subject announcing his heart’s desire. Again, his mother refused to listen to him.
Several weeks afterwards, the son once more beseeched his mother to give her blessing to the marriage. When again she refused, he admitted that it would be far better for her to accept the inevitable as the girl had now been his wife for some months. The mother was so enraged that she ousted her son from the house and forbade him ever to enter it again. Months passed, and it seemed that the woman had a change of heart, for she went to her son and told him that she would receive the young lovers and give blessing to the marriage. They returned to Stalbridge Manor, and at first all was well; the girl was young and of gentle demeanour, and did her best to please her mother-in-law.
One day, however, the young man came back to the house late after a long day’s hunting, and was met by the devastating news that his young wife had been burnt to death. According to his mother, his wife had entered her dressing room about eight o’clock in the evening, attired for dinner. The mother-in-law was sitting in the furthermost part of the room before her dressing mirror, and the girl stood before the fire. Suddenly the elder lady heard anguished cries, and turning, saw her daughter-in-law enveloped in flames, having accidentally caught her dress on fire from the hearth.
This story was accepted without question; and it was not until the wretched woman lay on her deathbed that she confessed to her son that she had murdered his young wife, having thrust her into the fire to meet a horrible, painful end. After the death of the old woman, the old house was haunted by her figure bound in flames and smoke, doomed for an eternity to relive her own despicable crime.
There is nothing that could have prepared me for the horror of the story she revealed. Throughout I had felt my face sinking and becoming expressionless; for all details shed a light upon what both Michael and I had witnessed. But why us? Why, when the house must have had so many visitors and occupants over the years.
But when I questioned Mrs Cooper as to the current situation, her face sprang into quiet alarm.
“Staff? My dear, there has not been staff at Stalbridge for over thirty years. Surely you knew the house had been unoccupied for such a time? Staying at the cottage would have given you a view upon its dormant state — you did not see the boarded windows and doors?”
I felt faint and grasped the sides of the chair to recover my balance. My words pierced the air and took the colour from the face of the woman sitting opposite. “But that is indeed where we stayed — the manor, for four nights; myself and the children, and the servants, Mr Chester, Mrs Ingram …the kitchen staff.”
The old lady shook her head in disbelief and dropped her gaze to the floor.
“My dear, this is simply not possible. The house has been unoccupied for decades.”
After much searching for rationality, she escorted me to a room at the back of the house. There, in candlelight I saw the motionless outline of a woman, lying upon a bed positioned against the far corner; and on the wall beside her, I saw a painting illuminated by both flickering flame and the moonlight filtering gently through a nearby window.
My heart quickened as I studied the details; for then, I could see that the style had much in common with paintings I had seen at the manor; and as God is my witness, if then I had lost my sight, I would still be able to describe the woman from the image of her eyes alone: the velvet dress, in rich crimson; her hair unswept with curls dangling; and there, upon her finger, a set of brilliant silver rings.
And, though I did not dare to look, I knew that the woman occupying the bed beside the painting would not resemble the Mrs Crowley I had been introduced to.