I would like to relate here a tale of horror that occurred over one hundred years ago to a family, for whom members of my family worked. Those directly affected by the events of that Christmas season openly spoke about them to my distant relations, who recorded them and their story is related here as a warning to us all.
“I was only nineteen years of age when an incident occurred that, unfortunately, has thrown a dark shadow across my life since that time. My days and my years have dragged by since that time, and I have been worn out by it all. In the years before the incident I was a young and happy teenager, and much loved by my parents. I was once very much complimented on possessing a fine complexion and very attractive features. Now, when I look at myself in a mirror, my eyes are filled with the reflection of an old, haggard woman, with ashen coloured lips and a face that has the look of death about it.
“Despite what you might think, I am not complaining or lamenting the fact that I have grown old. But, it was not simply the passing of years that has brought me to such a sorrowful condition, a wreck of my former self. If it had been this alone, in fact, I could have accepted the result more cheerfully, in the knowledge that we all must grow older. In my case, however, it was not the natural progress of passing years that actually robbed me of my bloom of youth, of the hopes and joys of my life, and causing the heartbreak that would leave me doomed to suffer a lonely old age. Although I try hard to be patient with my lot, the concerns and worries of life are like a heavy weight, bearing me down. My heart is completely shattered, empty of any emotion, and so weary of life that I now long for the peace of a death that comes so slowly to those who pray for it.
“Your appetite has probably been whetted now to discover what terrible event has brought me to this condition. The time has come for me, then, to try and relate that terrible event in my life, exactly as it happened. Even though the event which blighted my life occurred many years ago, I cannot forget even the smallest detail of that time. That incident in my life has been placed into my brain and my heart as if seared there by the heat of a red-hot branding iron. Every millisecond of that time I can see in the wrinkles that cover my brow, and in the whiteness of my dying hair. In my youth that same hair was a glossy brown once, and it shone brightly with the life that was in it and within me. But my hair did not gradually change from brown to grey, or from grey to white in any natural manner. It was not at all like the hair of my friends whose later years are comforted by the love of their children and grandchildren. You must wonder if I envy them and, in many ways, I do. But, I admit this only as a means to point out to you the difficulty that I have in telling my story is due entirely to the fact that I remember the event too well. Even as I begin to write these things down, however, my hand begins to trembles, and my head begins to swim with faintness. There is a great sense of true horror that takes a grip of my being, pulling me back into a long-remembered terror. Despite all of these things I have been persuaded to grit my teeth and complete this record of that horror, which I have been through.
“At the time when my story begins, I was the young heiress to my family’s substantial fortune. My father was a wise and clever businessman, who had used his talents to gather a large amount of wealth about him. But, although he never showed any disappointment to us, there was very little doubt that he did not have a son to inherit what he had built. Instead, my parents had given life to three daughters, of whom I was the youngest, and we would each share equally in the wealth that our father would pass on to us.
“Being a youthful nineteen years old girl, I spent no time at all on my future inheritance because all my needs were so well taken care of. I was healthy at that time, young and in love, all of which made me feel quite indifferent toward other things. Of course, we three sisters knew that we were heiresses, but I do not think Lucy and Minnie were made any happier or prouder because of that fact. We all had everything that we needed, and life was good.
“Roger, who was the love of my life, did not take an interest in me only because of the money that I would inherit. This was sorely proven to me when, after the terrible event that overcame me, he abandoned me. It is, perhaps, the one thing that I can be truly thankful for, even in my lonely old age. He didn’t stay with me for the money unlike so many ‘gold-digging’ men would have. Now, in lonely old age, I can be happy in the knowledge that I was loved, and that in itself has prevented me from going mad through all the many weary days and nights.
“The house in which we lived was an old Tudor-style mansion, and my father was the type of person who would not tolerate any change in the structure. Like an old castle, the house had numerous turrets, battlements and gable walls remained. The old fashioned windows with their quaint lozenge-shaped panes of glass set in lead were as they had been three hundred years previously.
“Attached to the house there was a large area of deep, thick coniferous woodland, bordered by a slow flowing stream. All this land stretching from the house was owned almost entirely by my father, and was inhabited by good-hearted and hard-working tenant farmers. These countryfolk were steeped in ancient ideas and traditions, and it was within this superstitious atmosphere that we were reared as children. We constantly heard tales of horror, fables and legends of dark deeds done in olden times. We were fascinated by such stories, and we marvelled at the descriptions of creatures and spirits that were said to inhabit our world.
“Our mother had died when we were young, leaving our father a widower with three girls to care for. He was kind and loving to us in his own way, but he was very much absorbed in the day to day affairs of his business enterprises. I effect, there was no person who could control the flow and content of the traditions and superstitions that we were exposed to, and like sponges our innocent soaked them all up. But, all children eventually grow up and there came a time when ghostly tales gave way to dances, dresses and potential life partners. It was at a large ball held by a neighbouring judge that I first met Roger, who was destined to be the love of my young life. As I have said, I am sure that he loved me with every beat of his heart and, even in the times of my grief and anger, I have never doubted this fact. We also blessed by the fact that his father and mine approved of our growing attachment. Today, I can look back upon those happy days as being something of a beautiful dream that I have experienced. But, change was to come to me, and bright and happy days of youth came to an end as blight and sorrow took a grip of my life.
“Christmas was always a joyful and a hospitable time in our home, and among the neighbours that surrounded us. In our house we played all the traditional games and maintained all the old family customs and frolics that were so much a part of celebrating this great feast. The manor, as usual, was filled to capacity with a variety of guests, for whom there was just about enough sleeping accommodation. There were several narrow, dark rooms available in the turrets of the house. We were once told that they had provided, at one time, good shelter to many noble gentlemen in days gone by. But, to us they were nothing more than mere pigeon coops. This Christmas, however, they were to be allotted to those visitors who were bachelors, after having been empty for over a hundred years.
“Every spare room in the house and its wings of the hall were occupied that night, and those who had brought servants were lodged at the gate-house and the farm. But, the unexpected arrival of an elderly relative immediately caused an awful commotion and the drawing up of new accommodation plans. Months before Christmas, this elderly relative had been invited to the celebrations, but she had never announced her intention to accept the invitation. When she arrived, therefore, may aunts, who were the chief organisers, panicked and went about the house wringing their hands and wondering what they could do.
“Lady Hurst was a woman of some note and some consequence within our family. She was a distant cousin of ours, but had been very cold toward us for quite a number of years, because of some affront or slight that she alleged was shown to her on the last occasion that she visited our home. At seventy years old, Lady Hurst somewhat infirm, quite rich, and very testy. Her last visit to us was at the time of my christening and I was given the honour of having her as my godmother. Although, in the last number of years you would never have thought that she held such a position in my life and, as a result, I did not expect any kind of an inheritance from her if and when she passed away
“My Aunt Margaret had begun to panic when she saw Lady Hurst arrive unexpectedly. “We have no room! No room!” she said excitedly. “Isn’t this just our luck? The turret rooms are certainly not suitable, but where can we put her. She is Rose’s godmother, and she’s as rich as Croesus. After all these years of staying away from here, she comes back today and not a room available to her. What can we do?”
“My aunts could not surrender their rooms for the comfort of Lady Hurst, because they had already given them over to some of the invited married guests, who had already arrived. They could not approach my father and ask him to give up his room to the old woman. My father was, I can assure you the most hospitable of men, but he suffered greatly from rheumatoid arthritis to the extent that he was virtually incapable of walking normally. My aunts would not dared ask him to move rooms for they knew the man would have rather have lain on broken glass than sleep in a bed other than his own. Finally, it was I who settled the problem by giving up my room, though I was not exactly happy at having to do so. In fact, I surprised myself by feeling so selfish and especially when a trifling sacrifice on my part would make an old and infirm lady comfortable.
“My momentary selfishness annoyed me somewhat, because I was young, healthy and strong. The weather was not cold for the time of the year and, even though it was Christmas, there was no snow on the ground and the dark moist clouds overhead did not appear to be ready to unload any. But, I did do the generous thing and surrendered my room to Lady Hurst. My sisters laughed, and made fun of me for trying to wake his impression on my godmother.
“”Maybe she’s a fairy godmother, Rose,” said Mary, “and you know she felt slightly insulted at the time of your christening, and she had left the house swearing that one day she would have her revenge. Now, here she is! She is coming back to see you and I hope she brings some golden gifts with her.”
“In all honesty I thought little of Lady Hurst, or even her golden gifts. In fact, I cared very little for the fortune gathered by this elderly woman, which my aunts talked about all the time. But, since that time, I have wondered if I had shown some obstinacy and refused to give up my room to Lady Hurst, would my life have been much different. If I had not surrendered the room then Lucy or Mary would have had to offer and then suffered the horror that I met. My heart is still torn when I asked myself, “Would it have been better if the horror did fall on someone else rather than me?”