A couple of years ago I posted a story with the mouth-watering title of “A Ghost With the Smell of a Charnel House.” The story was reported, second-hand, by an acquaintance of the lady who had taken a cottage haunted by a terrible smell—and worse. The family was still in residence at the time of writing, so I was intrigued to come across a later, first-hand account by the lady herself, which gave more detail and an ending of sorts. In my recent post on Morris-dancing fairies, I noted some discrepancies between an eye-witness’s story and that of a secondary reporter. Here we have a rare opportunity to hear the entire dire story from a traumatized, yet plucky witness.
From Across the Abyss
Just how I came to live in the house I will call Holly Tree Cottage would take too long to relate here; it will be sufficient for me to explain that I am a journalist, on the staff of a London daily, and that on my return from an important mission to a North African court I was faced by the immediate necessity of finding a new home. Weary with the exhaustion consequent on six weeks in the saddle, most of the time with fever on me, and no proper food available, it will be easily understood that when Holly Tree Cottage was suggested, on condition that I would pay just sufficient rent to cover the rates and taxes, I at once moved in and took possession, and having settled my furniture, began on the huge accumulation of work awaiting me.
Holly Tree Cottage was a very old house, built in the seventeenth century solid and picturesque. I had only gone through the house once before I went there to live, because, it being imperative that my series of articles should begin instantly on my return, I really had not the time for much investigation. Nor did it occur to me, till long afterwards, that it was an odd thing so prettily quaint and comfortable a little place should go seeking a tenant, evidently for some considerable time, as evidences showed.
The rooms were all panelled, there were odd little casement windows and a tortuous stair with a wicked sudden twist in it that was exceedingly dangerous to the unwary. In one of the rooms, which I made my study, was a carved chimney-piece that rejoiced me every time I looked at it. In front was a long stretch of garden, with box borders and the holly tree enclosed within an old hammered iron gate and railing ; the path from the gate to the porch was paved with oblong flags of sandstone. The steps leading down to the kitchen were also sandstone, as was another little path running down the yard. The front door with its obsolete bell, opened directly into the dining-room hall; out of the dining-room the steep uneven staircase ascended on the left. Behind a screen of panelling hid a little tiny room we made into a bath-room; on the first floor was the room with the carved mantel, with its windows overlooking the garden, the road and the wide expanse of meadow and orchard lands across the river. At the back was a smaller room which I made my bedroom. On the next landing were three other rooms. A long quaint apartment was over my study, with a charming old leaded casement looking out on the meadows, and a pretty old seventeenth-century fireplace, with deep old-fashioned cupboards on either side. The ceiling was very low in this room, and the boards sunken here and there with age. The other two rooms looked out on the gardens behind—neither of them boasted fireplaces—and all three doors opened on a small landing. Curiously enough the door of the front room could not be opened if either of the other doors were open; in the top of the front- room door, about five feet from the floor, was a small sliding shutter, through which one could look into the room without being observed.
I came back to England at the end of November. In the first week of December, 1906, I was installed in the cottage and hard at work. A cousin who was with me did all my removing, and when I was not engaged in writing we were always busy together in making the top room very pretty with such quaintly fashioned things as we could collect at such short notice, to furnish a seventeenth-century interior in time for the Christmas holidays, so that we could pleasantly surprise my little daughter, then at the convent at Roehampton. [Society of the Sacred Heart school.] On the Monday of Christmas week, my housekeeper began to complain of a sound in her room, as if somebody were spitting at her in the dark; I laughed a good deal, and told her it was a dream. At the same time I asked her why she came down so regularly in the night, and had such bad stumbles on the stairs at the crooked comer. To my surprise she utterly denied ever having left her room in the night since she had come to the cottage. I did not know what to think, and asked my cousin if she had not heard Maggie going down at night. She told me she had heard her regularly, and wondered what she could have on her feet to make her shuffle so badly. Maggie, however, still stoutly denied ever having left her room, and there it remained.
That night I waited for the slow shuffling step on the stair; but it did not come, nor did I hear it again till after the child had come home from the convent, and was almost ready to return again after the holiday. Then one night I heard it, very loud and distinct crossing the floor of her bedroom, and coming slowly and haltingly down the stair. I wondered what had taken Maggie into the child’s room at such an hour, and pushing my writing on one side, I went softly to the door and waited till the step was on the landing outside. Then I flung it open, expecting to confront my servant, and found—nothing but a most revolting and horrible odour. In all my travels and experiences—and I have seen and experienced some gruesome things—I never encountered anything so terrible as that stench; it was the quintessence of decomposition.
I fell back, overcome, sick and faint, calling on my cousin, and the child, and saw, to my horror, the door slowly closing, as if brought to by an unseen hand; then the steps shuffled on down to the dining-room and ceased. I was too horrified to follow, and as neither of the young people seemed to have heard my call I remained in my study; but, finding it impossible to work, I opened wide the windows and went to bed. Some time afterwards I was awakened by the sound of a large soft body rubbing slowly and unsteadily against the panelling of the staircase as the footsteps went up again. That was too much for me. I rose and raced up the stair into my daughter’s room, and found her sitting clasping her knees in bed, with all the candles in the room alight on her little altar, and her rosary in her hands, praying.
I did not say anything, only that I had heard a noise, and wondered if she were awake. She asked me if I noticed a smell, and I, trying to conceal my feelings, opened her window, and advised her to try and sleep. There was no gas laid on in this top room, but I went down for my reading-lamp, and lighting it placed it on the table below her altar, and left it there. There was no sound from either my cousin or the servant, so I returned to my own room, and tried to think it was all imagination.
My daughter went back to school, and immediately after my housekeeper left me. She “had no fault to find with the situation, but she thought she would like a change.” Her place was filled by a younger woman, and I plunged into the book I was writing again. I finished the book, but no sooner was it in my publisher’s hands than I became seriously ill, and my daughter was sent for. For some time it was feared I might not recover. However, I pulled through, and began to see early in my convalescence that both my daughter and my cousin looked far more fagged and unhappy than the circumstances justified; also my servant departed without the usual notice or wages due to her. Another who came to take her place served us in the same fashion, and soon, till after some difficulty a seventh servant was obtained. She also departed, complaining, like Maggie, of some one who spat at her in the dark. The smell and the footsteps became such common occurrences that the terror of them left us to a certain degree; but one night my daughter came down to me about two in the morning, after the footsteps had gone up, and declared nothing would induce her ever to sleep in that room of hers again; she had been awakened by a “soft flabby hand on her mouth, and another at her throat.” She spread her eiderdown on the study couch and slept there. The night after, my cousin descended, and slept on the floor beside her; she said the odour was so terrible that she could no longer bear it.
From that time we were never free from this visitation. Even in the broad day the shuffling, unsteady steps would come down the stair, accompanied by the odour of death, and passing us by would go down through the dining-room and out of the porch down the red path to the gate and return.
Once while I had a little lunch on, the steps came down, and the awful smell sent us all flying into the garden. Only one of my friends had the courage to re-enter the house; the others went home. I entertained at my club after that. A friend, Mrs. P__,who had been wintering abroad, wrote to me at this time, asking me to put her up for a week. I thought I would say nothing about the room and put her in. The first night nothing happened. On the second night she came down and expressed her determination of sleeping on the study couch; as my little daughter was away, she was able to rest there. She told me that she was awakened by soft fingers fumbling over her face and an overwhelming odour of corruption. She realized immediately that she had to deal with something not of this world, and sitting up quickly, inquired what it was. “What are you?” she asked; “and what is it you want me to do for you?” “But the Thing, whatever it is, only puffed out corruption at me, and I grew faint, so I rushed down to you.”
This friend is one of the most courageous women I know. She is a great huntress, very matter of fact, and sensible, and in no way given to imaginings; but she would not remain with me after that night, and went off, advising me to get another house. She was sure the Thing was evil, and intended us harm. I laughed at that, and though I would have liked to remove to another house I was so pressed with work that I could not do so; besides, it seemed to me a poor thing to fly from the place at the bidding of an impalpable “Something” that could not even be seen. However, my illness was followed by my daughter’s; then my cousin was ill; and my doctor advised me to shut up the cottage and go into the country for a while. I was further depressed by hearing that my friend Mrs. P__’s horse had rolled on her and nearly killed her. At this juncture I one day paid a visit on business to Mr. S__, [W. T. Stead?] and thinking it would interest him I told him about the hauntings. Mr. S__, being furnished with the names of my cousin and my friend, and having satisfied himself that the Thing was real, wrote some account of it for a London paper, and instantly I was overwhelmed by offers of investigation. Nobody took into consideration that I could not work with “investigators” in the house, nor could I fill my small abode with men who wanted to sit up all night to “see a smell.” However, in my absence the sub-editor of one of the daily papers arrived at the cottage; my cousin received him, and took him over the house. He asked to be left alone in the haunted room, and remained there for some time. He heard the steps shuffling across the room, and tried to follow them. He then went all over the house, into all the rooms, and made a thorough investigation. He wanted to stay all night, but my cousin, who was only airing the rooms, could not of course allow that without my consent, and he went away. He was a very tall, strong, young man, of about thirty or less, very keen, intellectual and kindly. My cousin, a very conservative person indeed, was greatly taken with him. A fortnight after he was dead—of pneumonia.
There was peace after this for a short time on my return; but at the end of July the disturbances began again, infinitely worse, and very terrifying. I began to look for another house. At this time, too, a distinguished savant, a man of great intellect, desired permission to come and investigate the phenomena. I agreed, but nothing could be discovered, of course. Finally I went to pay some visits in the Channel Islands, taking my daughter with me, and my cousin going home. As no servant would even come in by the day now, the cottage was shut up, and remained so till we came back to England.
We returned to it in September of last year, and set about finding another house—not an easy thing, when one is seriously engaged the best part of the day in writing. However, it seemed almost possible we were to be left in peace, as both noise and odour were absent. I forgot to say my bedroom opened on the study.
On the night of the third of October, I was awakened by a strange noise, as if some heavy body were being slid downstairs, and had stuck at the angle. Presently it seemed to be righted, and came with a terrific bang against my study door. The door did not open; but in some horrible fashion the heavy body came through and entering the room was hurled, as it were, at the window facing the couch. My daughter called out to me in terror, and I rushed out into the middle of the room in time to hear a slow grinding noise, as if the body, whatever it was, had been thrust through the open window, and down over the porch to the path beneath, where it fell with a wooden thud—such a sound as would have been made by a large packing case filled with sawdust, or a coffin containing a dead body. We were both so thoroughly frightened now that I went out in the morning and took the first house that offered, as far away from the cottage as could be discovered. But before leaving I determined to have a thorough hunt from top to bottom of the place; my cousin came up to assist me, and we investigated, following on the sounds and the intolerable odour persistently, and discovered no more than we already knew: that the whole thing emanated from the front room on the top floor, and returned there.
At this time I opened my paper one morning and read in it the news that the great writer who had last followed the Thing had, like the newspaper man, come to an untimely end, and my fear grew. I did not say anything to my cousin, but I could see she was frightened also. We sent over sufficient things to keep us going, and left the cottage that day.
Two days afterwards, the vans brought over all the furniture, and while the men in charge of the removal were placing it, I went, with my little girl, to see a friend who had been unwell for some time—I may mention here that I am very light on my feet, quick and sure-footed—on my way back, I was hurled off my feet on the station staircase and fell to the very bottom. One of my arms was broken at the elbow and the wrist, my knee put out, my middle finger on one hand broken, and my back badly jarred. I was picked up unconscious and brought home. It was as narrow an escape from death as I ever hope to have.
So it would appear that impalpable as the Something is haunting the cottage, it has power to select evil circumstances for those who trouble it or interfere with it in any way. Mr.S__’s suggestion is that “It” does not know it is dead and needs some one to tell it so—Perhaps! I am recounting a plain tale, just as the thing happened, and leave it for some one more courageous than myself to discover the why and the wherefore, and to face the possibility of death or accident as a result.
So far those who have escaped disaster are the child and the young girl, who both met “It” with prayer for Its rest and ultimate salvation in Christ.
The Occult Review, February 1909: p. 98-103
Note that the original story I posted was published in the Daily Chronicle of 15 April, 1908 and quoted by The Annals of Psychical Science. It sounds as though several prominent people interested in psychic research investigated, but with no result. The Tatler for 6 May 1908 began with the statement that “Mr W.T. Stead is busy explaining the strange phenomena that have appeared in Carmine Villa,” but gives no other details.
Any clues about the identity of the author, who must have been quite an intrepid woman for her time, covering “important missions” abroad from the saddle? Possibly Frances Violet C__? Florence Victoria C__? And who were the Great Writer and the newspaper man who came to such untimely ends? If you can sniff them out, contact chriswoodyard8 @gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.