Category Archives: Ghost story

A Ghost in the Garden

I was trying to find out about early nineteenth century plant labels (I will tell you why another time), when I came across an interesting name, a name associated with ghosts in the garden.

Now I don’t mean ghosts like the young lady, wearing a long white dress,  who I saw one late summer evening, long years ago, walking across an old garden in Bristol. She stepped behind a clump of shrubs and vanished. I hope she walks there still. I can think of worse ways to spend your afterlife than walking though English gardens in the summer twilight.

 

No this ghost is very real.

 

At the beginning of the last century lived Ellen Willmott, she was a great gardener. One person dubbed her “the greatest of all living women gardeners”, though none would agree with that now, simply because the remark was made by Gertrude Jekyll, who was the greatest of all women gardeners.

 

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Ellen Willmott was a great gardener. She was also a notable garden writer, writing for magazines like ‘Country Life’. In the course of her journalism she visited many gardens, up and down the land, nervously welcomed as everyone wanted a good review from Miss Willmott, and all dreaded a bad one.

 

And then – after a few years gardeners everywhere began to notice a new flower appearing in their herbaceous borders, a straggly blue flower with spiky leaves. Then it was realised that the flowers began to make an appearance a year or so after a visit from Miss Willmott. She never admitted it, but people though that she had a secret pocket full of the seeds, which she discretely scattered in the flowerbeds as she bent to admire a particular flower.

 

It is for this reason that Eryngium giganteum is now known as;

Miss Willmott’s ghost

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A Light in Dark Places

He struck the chisel with the wooden mallet, carefully. There was hardly any light as there was firedamp in the mine. Any flame or spark and the explosion would be devastating.

Then he saw it – a flame. It was approaching, he had nowhere to run, he shouted.

“Stop! there’s firedamp, stop!”

The flame approached, he continued to scream, the man was trying to shout something but the miner didn’t hear, as he fainted in terror.
He came too to see his vicar looking down, by the light of an impossible flame burning in – the world’s first safety lamp.

Firedamp, which mostly consisted of methane, was a terrible danger in early coal mines. It was highly inflammable, and as candles were the only way of lighting mines, the cause of many disasters.
After a terrible explosion which killed over ninety miners in 1812 the Rev. John Hodgson, vicar of Jarrow, campaigned for a safe way of lighting mines. The challenge was taken up by Sir Humphrey Davy and George Stephenson, in 1815 the two men had come up with similar solutions. It was whilst demonstrating Stephenson’s light that my tale took place.

 

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a chisel. Use chisel as a noun or a verb. Hope you enjoy it.

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The Village Snowbound – The Marlpit Oak Gibbet

A little while ago my brother posted one of our father’s poems, illustrated with some recent photographs, I have decided to do something similar, as our village is snowbound like the village in the poem – there the similarity ends – I hope!

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The Marlpit Oak Gibbet

 

For many years, according to an old New Forest Legend, there stood at the crossroads, known as Marlpit Oak, on the high plain between Sway and Brockenhurst, a great double-armed gibbet. Visible for miles around, and frequently bearing a grisly load, it must have been a fearful sight, brooding over the remote and lonely countryside. It was, therefore, a matter of widespread satisfaction when, in the early part of the nineteenth century, the gibbet was at last demolished.

However, superstition was very powerful in those far-off days and strange stories soon began to circulate among the Forest people.

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When I was young and not long from school
Like all braggart youth I was brazen and brave,
And I laughed him to scorn and called him a fool
Who spoke of the dead that returned from the grave.

 

‘When they are dead, they are dead -so much mouldering day’
‘And he who says not is drunk or insane!’
And the wager seemed nought in the bright light of day
To spend that night, alone, by the knoll on the plain.

 

By the time evening came and the winter sun set
In a great blood-red glow over Wilverley Hill,
Every soul in the village had heard of the bet,
And my arrogant heart had felt the first chill.

 

For I knew the story, like all of us there,
Of the Marlpit Oak Gibbet which, many years gone,
Had stood, high and grim, in the very place where
I’d boasted I’d spend the whole night alone.

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A hillock of bare earth is all that remains
Standing just a few yards from the well-trodden way
Which, crossing the miles of gorse-covered plain,
Brings the traveller at last to the village of Sway.

 

Even in Spring, when the moorland glows gold,
And the warm-scented furze calls the foraging bees,
The ground at this place stays mortally cold
And no skylark nests here, no pony takes ease.

 

No sun-loving lizard, no close-crouching hare,
No adder, loose-coiled, seeks this chilly mound.
No beast of the Forest, no bird of the air,
No grass, gorse or heather, is here to be found.

 

And a tale was told by the old men of Sway
Of a travelling merchant who would not take heed,
Who had to reach Lyndhurst by early next day
And who swore his two pistols were all that he’d need.

 

They said he was found with his hair turned quite white,
Eyes fixed and staring, and mouth open wide,
Silently screaming at some ghastly sight,
And no mark on his body to show how he died.

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Just tales? Superstitions of foolish old men?
But my heart filled with terror that pride would not show,
And I drank deep and waited the dread moment when
Someone would say it was time now to go.

 

Too soon came the moment, and into the night
Drunken and singing we lurched through the snow,
All close round the lantern, whose pale yellow light
In the menacing darkness cast scarcely a glow.

 

And I sung the loudest of all of us there,
And shouted with laughter at each feeble jest,
And I threw out the challenge that I didn’t care
If the Devil himself came -I’d soon give him best!

 

And then we were there, and the merriment died
As, suddenly sober, we stood in the snow,
But still I obeyed my obstinate pride
And in confident tones urged the others to go.

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The sound of their voices died quickly away,
The gleam of the lantern was soon lost to Sight,
As they hurried thankfully back home to Sway,
To bolt cottage doors and to shut out the night.

 

The air, when the snow stopped, was bitterly cold,
The darkness intense, the stillness profound,
And the whole world was silent as, no longer bold,
I fearfully stood by the old Gibbet mound.

 

Trembling, I looked to the left and the right,
While the terrible cold froze me through to the bone,
Then I suddenly knew, though no soul was in sight,
That, beyond any doubt, I was not alone!

 

How can I describe that unreasoning fear,
That primitive terror no thought can prevent,
Of knowing that someone, or something, was near,
And directing at me its evil intent.

 

Filled with blind panic, I turned and I fled,
Stumbling and sobbing and cursing the night,
Until, just as my strength was beginning to ebb,
Far ahead I discerned a faint glimmer of light.

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Faltering now, and filled with despair,
Like a desperate fox hunted over the moor,
Heart beating wildly, and gasping for air,
I staggered at last to the furze-cutter’s door.

 

Exhausted, defeated, I sank to my knees,
A pitiful, tremulous, cowering wreck.
And then, with infinite horror, I felt
Long bony fingers encircling my neck.

 

I remember no more -I fainted away
With that fearful pressure unbearably tight,
And they say that I lay there, half-dead, half-alive,
Till the furze-cutter came in the grey morning light.

 

I’m told that for weeks I was kept to my bed,
Mumbling and muttering and never quite sane,
Then at last came the Spring, and with it my strength,
And I became part of the village again.

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But the fear has remained, throughout my long life,
And I sometimes awake in the depths of the night
And though it be Summer my blood turns to ice,
And I cry out in terror as reason takes flight.

 

I was only a boy but my memory stays clear
Of that dreadful night, now so far and remote.
But you don’t believe me? Then what is this scar,
This ring of dead flesh like a noose round my throat?

 

And who among you, on this black Winter night,
When the fog is so thick and the village snowbound,
Will go out from his house, leave the fire and the light,
And keep vigil, alone, by the old gibbet mound?

 

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How to See Ghosts – A Victorian Guide

Many Victorians were fascinated with the supernatural, so it is hardly surprising to find a book describing ways to see ghosts. The only thing unusual about this volume is that it works!

I was immediately attracted to the title, Spectropia or, Surprising Spectral Illusions. Ghosts Everywhere, and of Any Colour.

The book attacks ‘modern’ superstitions.

It is a curious fact that, in this age of scientific research, the absurd follies of spiritualism should find an increase of supporters; but mental epidemics seem at certain seasons to affect our minds, and one of the oldest of these moral afflictions — witchcraft — is once more prevalent in this nineteenth century, under the contemptible forms of spirit-rapping and table-turning. The modern professor of these impostures, like his predecessors in all such disreputable arts, is bent only on raising the contents of the pockets of the most gullible portion of humanity, and not the spirits of the departed, over which, as he well knows, notwithstanding his profane assumption, he can have no power.

One thing we hope in some measure to further in the following pages, is the extinction of the superstitious belief that apparitions are actual spirits, by showing some of the many ways in which our senses may be deceived.

After a very interesting discussion of the physiology of the eye, as understood in 1865, it describes the phenomenon of Afterimage, and how it can produce ghosts.

To see the spectres, it is only necessary to look steadily at the dot, or asterisk, which is to be found on each of the plates, for about a quarter of a minute, or while counting about twenty, the plate being well illuminated by either artificial or day light. Then turning the eyes to the ceiling, the wall, the sky, or better still to a white sheet hung on the wall of a darkened room (not totally dark), and looking rather steadily at any one point, the spectre will soon begin to make its appearance, increasing in intensity, and then gradually vanishing, to reappear and again vanish; it will continue to do so several times in succession, each reappearance being fainter than the one preceding. Winking the eyes, or passing a finger rapidly to and fro before them, will frequently hasten the appearance of the spectre, especially if the plate has been strongly illuminated.

The colours in the plate will be found to reverse themselves in the spectres, the spectres always appearing of the complementary colour to that of the plate from which it is obtained. Thus, blue will appear orange, and orange blue, &c.

Many persons will see one coloured spectre better than the others, in consequence of their eyes not being equally sensitive to all colours.

Now for some pictures.

picture 2

 

As an apology for the apparent disregard of taste and fine art in the plates, such figures are selected as best serve the purpose for which they are intended.

 

picture 1

 

picture 4

 

picture 3

 And even ghost dogs.

picture 5

Try them and see ghosts in your own home.

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations – Part 4

The Reckoning – Explanations and Conclusions?

Miss Fluart woke late, the sun was well up as she sipped her tea and read the various letters that had been delivered. There were letters from Sir Charles Campinet and another magistrate saying they would wait on her later in the day, there was a more official, but very gracious letter from the local Riding Officer delighted to have a large consignment of smuggled goods to collect, and an obsequious letter from a local lawyer, agreeing to everything the ‘honoured lady’ was suggesting.

As she was reading the last Charlotte came in, she was still very sore, but had insisted on getting up as she wanted to see the fun. She settled gratefully on the sofa and read through the letters. The last surprised her until she was shown the parchment covered book. Miss Fluart then took it away, and retuned empty handed.

“I have put it somewhere safe, I will say more when the men have gone.”

The Riding Officer was the first to arrive, he brought a wagon and Miss Fluart told Watson to oversee the unloading of the coach. After he left she brought his receipt to the two ladies.

“He says there will be a big reward for all the smuggled goods, at least forty guineas.”

“And it will be yours Watson.” Said Maria to her shocked maid. “Miss Sumelin and I will be rewarded in other ways, so we have decided that this money would be yours.” Watson left, babbling her thanks, delighted and even more devoted to her amazing mistress.

“What am I getting Maria?” Asked Charlotte from the sofa.

“Wait and see my dear,” Miss Fluart replied, “The gentlemen are here and they will want an explanation.”

Sir Charles and Mr Saxby, the other local magistrate entered the room. Miss Fluart rose to greet them and Charlotte apologised for not rising.

“My dear young lady,” Said Sir Charles, “After such a shock and injury should you not be in bed when you may be cared for and leave this unpleasant business to us?”

“Sir Charles, I have suffered more from falling off my horse. Despite what your philosophy might teach, we young ladies do not wish to be wrapped in cotton wool all the time. Also I was as much involved in this matter as Miss Fluart and should be here.”

Sir Charles shook his head, but sat down as Miss Fluart took several papers from the table.

“I first heard of this supposed ghost when the vicar’s cook refused to cook me dinner, because it had frightened her husband. Like most people I thought that he had been drunk, but soon discovered that many more were seeing the ghost coach. This began to cause me a great deal of embarrassment as people seemed to think I was responsible, so I began to investigate. Amongst the various stories I soon realised that there were some that seemed to refer to a real coach. This coach was only seen on little used roads that ran from the coast inland, and I asked myself why this should be, then realised that the obvious answer was free traders.”

the-smugglers

“Why did you not come to us?” asked Mr Saxby, “With that information we would have sent out the dragoons.”

“With respect what use would they have been?” Replied Miss Fluart. “The dragoons idea of secrecy is to shout once rather than twice. Everyone, including the smugglers, would hear them coming three or four miles away. That is all those who would not have drunk so much out of fear of the ghost that they couldn’t sit in the saddle. There were only three people I had any confidence in to help me hunt down whoever was taking my great-aunt’s name in vain, my maid, my friend and myself. So we set a trap and caught a ghost.” She paused, “But sadly the men escaped, I would love to have them in prison as one of them shot at Miss Sumelin.”

“Was the coach the only vehicle you saw that night?” Asked Sir Charles.

“Why?” replied a puzzled Miss Fluart.

“Because four men have been found dead this morning, all of them have been crushed by a broad wheeled cart, so it couldn’t have been your coach. One is a known smuggler, two are petty criminals who have both been before the bench on more than one occasion, whilst the fourth is unknown to us, but had a French made coat and a plan of Plymouth in his pocket.”

“A Spy?”

“Most likely and we suspect these men were the ones who escaped from you last night.”

“We certainly never saw a waggon or cart, I was more concerned about getting Charlotte home. Did John Taylor see anything?”

“That fool, no he saw nothing at all.”

“Well, the deaths of those men is a mystery that will probably never be solved.”

“Very likely, now tomorrow I will send a man to collect the coach and horses.”

“You will not Sir Charles, the coach is mine.”

“Come madam, how can you suggest such a thing. It was clearly made to scare people and was used in a criminal conspiracy.”

Miss Fluart smiled sweetly. “I have here a letter from a legal gentleman, well known to you both, who tells me that the coach was built for a number of local worthies, who intended to present it to me as a mark of their esteem. It was being ‘tested’ in secret and was apparently misappropriated by the smugglers.”

“Tested indeed,” snapped Mr Saxby, “You know who was behind the whole operation. You must tell us at once, or you will be liable.”

“Liable for accepting a valuable gift. I think not.” She replied. “Anyway I am sure there will be no more smuggling runs like that again, indeed I rather suspect that smuggling will also be much reduced locally.”

“Do you really mean to keep it then.” He was getting angry now,

“Yes, and Mr Corrow it acting for me in this respect.”

“Corrow, he is a rogue. He was a rogue when he worked for Lord Grondale and he is a rogue now.”

“Oh no, Mr Corrow is a kind and generous gentleman. As soon as he heard what had happened he not only informed me that the carriage was intended for me, but personally offered to recompense Miss Sumelin for the damage to her riding habit.”

“So Corrow is the gentleman. I think we should take a close look at him.”

“But please wait until the mantua-makers account is settled.”

Sir Charles laughed, “ Come Saxby, you must see that Miss Fluart has this well in hand. Even if we were able to convict, I am sure that whoever is concerned is powerful enough to escape with a fine smaller than that which they are paying to these gallant ladies.”

His companion nodded, Miss Fluart rose and handed Sir Charles a thick package.

“And here is something that might make interesting reading if anything untoward were to happen.”

He rose too and bowed.

“Such as a mantua-makers account not being settled.”

“Exactly,” she replied, curtsying. “Now gentlemen I must ask you to leave, Miss Sumelin is still unwell and needs to return to bed.”

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Over supper, Charlotte said,

“You said nothing about Lady Susanna?”

“No, it would have confused them, ghosts don’t fit into the philosophy of Sir Charles.”

“But it was her, wasn’t it?”

“Oh yes, I think she was as irritated by people pretending to be her as I was. She was appearing around the house as her first priority was always to protect her family. Then when you were shot at she got as angry as I was and you can guess the rest.”

Charlotte was silent, thinking of what those wicked men must have endured, being hunted by a spectral coach, she was sure Lady Susanna would have wanted them to be terrified.

 

Later, when she was in bed, Miss Fluart came to say goodnight, Charlotte looked up at her friend and said.

“You said that Lady Susanna got angry when I got shot because her first concern was to protect her family.”

“Yes my dear.”

“But I am not family.”

Maria Fluart bent and kissed her friend on her forehead.

“But you are my dear, you are.”

But Charlotte was already asleep.

 

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations – Part 3

The Hunt is On.

The path led from the village, across the field, over the common and onto the moorland. It had once been a favoured route for young couples, there were plenty of places where two people could ‘get comfortable’ as the saying went, but over the past two months it had lost its popularity, few people wanted to risk meeting the ghost coach. Despite this the sight a young woman on the arm of a young man still wasn’t that unusual, but if their appearance wasn’t strange, their conversation was.

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“Aren’t you even going to give me a kiss?” The young man asked, almost plaintively.

“Of course not.” The young woman replied, “we are only here to keep a lookout. You know what my lady wants, and you are being paid.”

“But it’s been three days now, I don’t think anything is going to happen.”

“That certainly won’t.” Nancy Watson caught the young man’s hand as he tried to get too close and twisted it. He cried out, then to his amazement, she wrapped her arms round him hard and screamed.

“What the…” he gasped, then was pulled back by Nancy as the coach galloped past, he turned to look and screamed as well. The galloping horses had no heads.

Nancy pushed the man away.

“All right Bob, you can go home now.”

“But, but that was the ghost coach.”

“Of course it was, what do you think we have been looking for these past few days.”

There was the sound of a shot, far away.

“Oh, they have caught them.”

“Who have the ghosts caught?” said Bob in terror.

“No Miss Fluart and Miss Sumelin have caught the ghosts.”

Bob looked in terror at the sturdy maidservant, who was looking up the path. She was holding a pistol in her hand.

“I will just wait here in case any try to escape this way, you can go home now.”

He ran.

 

Miss Fluart waited in the shadow cast by a tall tree beside the old road. She had been alerted by Nancy’s scream, her hiding place had been chosen deliberately, at the top a short, steep slope. As she expected the coach horses had slowed on the slope and were only walking slowly at they came over the brow. She rode out into the moonlight and took her position in the middle of the road. The coach approached her slowly, when it showed no sign of stopping she fired a single shot into the air. Her horse skipped a little and the coach stopped. She dropped the old gun she had fired, and drew a deadly looking duelling pistol from her pocket. She pointed the long barrelled weapon at the headless coachman and said calmly.

“Now we will try an experiment. I will count to five, then I will shoot you. If you are a ghost it will do you no harm and I will come and greet my great aunt. If you are a man and don’t want to be turned into a ghost you will remove that silly mask, now – ONE.”

As the coachman scrabbled to remove the mask a voice from inside the coach shouted.

“Drive on, ignore her, drive on or I will shoot you.”

“But its Miss Fluart,” called the coachman.

“I don’t care who it is, drive on.” An arm holding a pistol was stuck out of the coach window.

“Don’t be cruel to the coachman.” Said Miss Fluart, “he isn’t sure if you would shoot him, but he knows that I would. Well done John Taylor.” She added looking up at the coachman who had now removed the mask, and was looking down in terror, his eyes flickering from Miss Fluart to his employer and back again.

“I wonder if Sir Charles knows what his coachman gets up to at night?” She turned to the coach and ordered the occupants to get out, slowly two men stepped out, the second one had just put his foot on the ground when there was a shout behind her.

“Stop that and drop your gun.”

Miss Fluart didn’t move, but said calmly.

“Thank you Charlotte, how many are there.”

“Two,” her friend replied, “they were on the back of the coach and dropped down when it stopped, then crawled round to try and take you from behind.”

The two men stepped forward to join the others, Charlotte stepped out of the shadows, she was holding another pistol, her green riding habit had rendered her almost invisible.

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“Now I guess you are free traders, I don’t mind you avoiding the revenue, I don’t approve of giving money to the government if I can help it, they only waste it. But I am not having you taking my family name and frightening my neighbours with it. So I am going to let you run away and never do it again. John drive the carriage to my house then run home. You rest can take off your shoes and stockings and go. If you don’t I will take you to the magistrates.”

The two men whom Charlotte had stopped pulled off their shoes, dropped them and ran. One of the men from the coach tried to say something, but his companion stopped him, bent as if to unbuckle his shoe, then turned, a small pistol in his hand, and fired.

Maria’s horse shied, she fired but her shot went wide, the men now ran. Maria went to draw her second pistol but a moan made her stop. Looking down she saw Charlotte lying on the road.

She slid from her horse and bent to help her friend, John Taylor had also slid from the box, taken the coach horses heads and grabbed the reins of Miss Fluart’s horse.

“How is she?”

“I’m all right.” Charlotte tried to rise and winced. “I think I have twisted my leg in the fall. The ball has torn my skirt though.”

She up looked at her friend and gasped, she had never seen Maria like this before. Her face was suffused with anger.

“John take Charlotte home, if any further hurt comes to her I will kill you.”

“Yes miss.” He said, terrified.

“What are you going to do?” Gasped Charlotte.

“They tried to kill you.” Snapped Maria, “I am going to kill them.”

Charlotte tried to grab her arm but Miss Fluart was already scrambling back onto her horse. She was just settling in the saddle when there was a noise, and another rider galloped up. Charlotte looked around to see the rider, the stopped in surprise, John Taylor stood, half bending as if to help her, but frozen to the spot, his eyes glazed and sightless. She then looked up at the strange woman, who was wearing a broad brimmed hat, and looked somehow familiar. The woman rode up to Maria, and placed her hand on hers. Charlotte suddenly saw the gloves, and realised who she was.

“Hold niece, you stay here.”

“But they hurt Charlotte.”

“Stay with your friend, she needs you. This hunt is mine.”

Stunned Miss Fluart stopped as the strange woman rode off, as she passed through the shadow cast by the large tree she seemed to fade and, on the other side of the tree, Charlotte could have sworn she saw an old-fashioned coach head off in the direction of the escaping men.

Who was that?” asked Charlotte quietly.

“I think we both know.” Replied Maria, “So now to get you and this carriage home.”

She went to help Charlotte to get into the coach, as Charlotte stepped up she gasped.

“No thank you, I will ride on the box. It smells like a tavern.”

Maria looked inside, there were brandy barrels filling up most of the floor, packets smelling of tobacco up one side, and smaller packets tucked into every available crevice. The only space left was just big enough for the two man who had shot at Charlotte. As she looked around she saw a thin, parchment bound book tucked into the pocket on the door. She slid this into her own pocket, then went to help John lift Charlotte onto the box.

Back home they found that Nancy had only just returned, having seen no sign of the men, Charlotte was lifted down and Nancy helped her into bed. The horses were stabled and the coach locked up. John Taylor was ordered to walk home carrying a letter for his master. Maria then went to study the book. It was late by the time she had finished, she then wrote several letters and left orders that they were to be delivered as soon as it was light. She was smiling as she went to bed, one ghost at least had been laid.

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To be continued

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations – Part 2

Investigating the Impossible

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Two weeks later, Charlotte Sumelin walked straight into the dining room and found Miss Fluart bent over the table, which was covered with piles of papers and large scale maps of Devon and Cornwall.

“Why cannot cartographers agree where the county boundary is?” She muttered, “At no point do these maps agree, and they are supposed to be drawn at the same scale.”

“I have no idea.”

Miss Fluart spun round, her mouth dropped open. For the first time in her life Charlotte saw her friend truly surprised and shocked. She stepped forward and hugged her.

“I told you I would be back in two weeks.”

“And I was going to wait another week before I came to rescue you?”

“ You have taught me too much, I’m not like Caroline Campinet, needing to be rescued by a gun wielding young lady.”

“You can wield your own gun?”

“You know I can, but happily I didn’t need to, I was a dutiful daughter until early this morning when a chaise arrived at the front door. It had been quite difficult to persuade the inn to send it, I was quite cross that my father had expressly forbidden them to supply me with a vehicle.”

“So?”

“It is amazing what the promise of an extra half-guinea can do. So here I am, so you don’t need to worry any more. Now what are all the papers covering the table, are they plans for rescuing me?”

“No, those plans are lodged in my head.” Replied Miss Fluart, surprising herself by blushing slightly. Recovering quickly she continued, “These are all the sightings of the ghost coach. I wrote to all the local newspapers asking for them to send me details of any sightings that were reported to them. Also Watson has been invaluable, gossiping with everybody at the local markets. Knowing that she works for me people have loved trying to terrify her with all the stories that are going around.”

“There seem to have been a lot of sightings, your ancestor can certainly travel.”

“Yes, but far fewer when I disregard all those I think are rubbish. Men who have drunk too much, silly servant girls needing an excuse for not getting back when they should, and so on. Then the ones I suspect having something real behind them I have had to divide into two groups. The first group, and the most widespread, describe a carriage driving across the moors, with a headless coachman and pulled by headless horses.”

“And those are the ones you suspect are real!” said Charlotte in amusement, “Headless horses driven by a headless coachman.”

“Yes, now listen to this one. The Exeter Mail sent it to me. Someone seems to have taken down the report verbatim. The coach was seen by Timothy Manners.”

“But he’s an idiot.”

“True, in all but one respect – horses. I wouldn’t trust him on anything, apart from horses and anything to do with them. Now listen, it’s just like him, always sounds a little drunk.” She took the paper and read.

‘It was Tuesday, was coming back from the races, had done quite well so was rather late, good moon though. Coach on old hill road, funny that, never take a coach up there myself. Good coach though, looked like one of Hills, had his strapping, had crest I knew. Miss Fluart, good filly though beyond my touch, like her friend, good fillies both. Horses odd, matched greys, no heads, odd, would have asked coachman, no head either. Very odd.’

“What do you think?” Asked Miss Fluart, but Charlotte was giggling.

“Are we a matched pair of fillies?”

“From him that’s a compliment, as I said he only knows about horses. From any other man that would have been insulting, but from him no. But his account is interesting. If we forget about the headlessness what he saw was a coach made by Hills of Exeter drawn by four matching greys.”

2-stagecoach

“But what about the headlessness?”

“Pale horses, coachman with a pale greatcoat, then the heads of men and horses covered with black cloth or something similar. Even in moonlight they would appear headless.”

“So they are real, but why go to all that trouble?”

“ I have an idea, but there are the other sightings as well, and for these we have a witness who cannot be doubted.” She pulled on the bell-pull, and Watson entered. “Sit down and tell Miss Sumelin what you saw that night.”

“Yes Miss,” the maid began, clearly very excited to be the centre of attention. “I had been at Sir Charles Campinet’s where his head housemaid is getting married and he had allowed there to be a feast in the servants hall. I had gone…”

“Let me guess, to see if you could hear any more stories of the ghost coach.”

“Yes Miss, but there were none worth listening to, only Bill Mathers, and he was drunk when he told the story and probably drunk when he claims it pushed him into a ditch. Well, it was just dark when I started walking back, I had crossed the great field, and was on the lane leading up to the house when I saw it, the coach.” She paused dramatically. “It was driving down the cross road towards the ford, there was no driver and it was pulled by four black horses.”

“Did they have heads?”

“Yes miss, and tails as well. But the coach was a funny thing, a big box on four wheels, just like the one in the back of the picture of my lady, not like a modern coach at all.”

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She continued in the same vein for a few minutes before Miss Fluart thanked her and sent her away.

“What do you think?” She asked. Charlotte, who had been looking at the portrait of Lady Susanna, and discovering that there was a tiny, picture of an old-fashioned coach in the background, replied.

“I suspect she saw something and it got confused with this image she had seen in the portrait.”

“Perhaps, but I went down to the ford the next morning. No wheeled vehicles had passed that way in the previous two days.” She paused, then continued, “But the first coach is a different kettle of fish. I think I know what it is up to, and hopefully where to find it. Would you like to go ghost hunting?”

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations

Readers of my blog will remember the intrepid Miss Fluart, who was created back in the 1790’s and about whom I have woven additional tales. This is another contribution, part of which is based on fact, I will tell you what if you manage to read to the end of the tale.

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A Ghost spoils Dinner

“I’m not making dinner for that woman!” The cook turned and marched out of the kitchen, slamming the door as she left.

The vicars wife turned to the frightened maids.

“Just serve what cold meat there is, that will have to do.” She waited to help the terrified girls as upstairs her husband was trying to explain what was happening to his guests.

“I am afraid that our cook is refusing to cook dinner for you.” He said to Miss Fluart.

“And she called you names.” Added the vicar’s daughter.

“Oh dear, what have I done now?” asked Miss Fluart.

“It isn’t you.” Continued the vicar, clearly rather embarrassed, “It is your great aunt Susanna.”

“My great aunt,” gasped his guest, “but she has been dead for nearly a hundred years. I was looking at her monument in the church last Sunday, a wonderfully inaccurate piece of stonework.”

“She is a ghost, and frightened Cook’s husband so he fell in a ditch and injured his leg. That’s why Cook is angry with you.” Anna, the vicars daughter, added excitedly.

“That will do miss.” Said her mother rising, and leading her unwilling child from the room.

“I am afraid it is true, that is what Cook has said.” Continued the vicar.

Miss Fluart nodded, “The phantom coach, I suppose? I didn’t think it had been seen for years?”

“And I don’t think it has been seen now.” He replied, “I suspect that he had taken too much drink, fell in the ditch and didn’t want to admit to his wife what really happened.”

They left soon afterwards, as soon as the carriage turned out of the vicarage drive, Charlotte Sumelin, who had been, rather unsuccessfully, trying to hide her curiosity, burst out;

“What was that about! Your great aunt is a ghost!”

“Yes.” Miss Fluart sighed, “though I suspect that the vicar is right, the man had simply drunk too much. I wish he really had seen her, I would love to meet her.”

Charlotte looked at her friend in wide eyed amazement.

“You would like to meet your great aunt – who is a ghost.”

“Oh yes, when we get home I will tell you all about her.”

As soon as they entered their house, Maria led Charlotte to an upstairs room. On the wall was a painting of a woman dressed in a riding habit, seated on a bench. She had a broad brimmed hat and was holding elaborately embroidered gloves, a riding crop – and an old fashioned pistol!

“Meet Lady Susanna Sterling, my great, or should it be great-great, aunt.”

They watched as a servant took the picture down and carried it into the parlour, finally Miss Fluart began.

“It was about a hundred and fifty years ago, during the great civil war. As parliament was taking control of this part of the country, there were various risings against the new government. These were all put down, but one of the last involved Lady Susanna’s nephew. He was imprisoned in Taunton Castle and sentenced to death. His mother begged Lady Susanna to try and intervene, so she went to Taunton, there she was approached by the governor of the Castle who offered to release her nephew for money!”

“Did she pay?”

“Of course.” Maria replied, “such arrangements were common then. No one knew which side would eventually win, and people in authority wanted to have friends on both sides, and if you could make money out of it so much the better. So Lady Susanna handed over five hundred pounds, the nephew was released, and immediately left for France. Then a few days later all the prisoners were pardoned and released, the governor had cheated her.”

“I imagine she was angry.”

“She was livid, but there was nothing she could do, at least not legally.” Miss Fluart paused dramatically, “So she turned highwaywoman.”

“What!” Charlotte was both shocked and amused.

“Turned highwaywoman, she first stopped the governor, and got back the money she had given him. Then she robbed other men who were friends of the governor. Soon the tale of the mysterious highwaywoman spread, but they never caught her, she had various secret ways into this house. Then after the king returned she allowed the story to get out. There were ballads and tales written about her, she never admitted anything but it was all true. Then when she died, the ‘Virtuous Ornament of Womankind’ as it says on her monument, was given the dead coach to ride.”

“Do you think it’s true?”

“Oh, I am sure she was a highwaywoman.”

“And a ghost?”

“I suspect not?” Miss Fluart sighed. “but I wish she was. I doubt we will be hearing any more of Lady Susanna and her coach.”

Within two weeks Miss Fluart knew she was wrong, the coach and Lady Susanna were being seen across half of Devon and Cornwall. Some of the reports were clearly fictitious but others seemed to come from respectable people, in one case a physician and a clergyman. Also, to her irritation, the old ballads were being resurrected and reprinted, her maid returned with several from the market in Tiverton. And people began to look askance at her.

“People either think I am wicked because Lady Susanna’s ghost is walking or pity me for having such a terrible relative.”

“And you aren’t wicked, at least not for that reason.” Giggled Miss Sumelin, “and you certainly don’t think that she was at all terrible.”

“Quite right, my dear.” She replied, “I think the best thing is to keep quiet and hope it blows over soon.”

It didn’t, and the next day proved it. Charlotte received a letter.

“It’s from Harriet, she says mama isn’t feeling very well, and wants to see me. I will have to go.”

“Do you believe her?”

“Of course not.” Replied Charlotte, “I don’t think mama has felt well in all her life, it’s the way she has of making sure her family does what she wants. I think that it is my father, he has heard the stories of the ghost and no longer thinks that you are a suitable person to be my companion.”

“Did he ever think that I was a suitable person?”

“No, but this affair gives him an excuse to take me away from you. I must go though, I will do my best to be back in two weeks.”

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Maria Fluart watched the chaise depart sadly, she wondered when and if she would ever see her friend again. If she had been a melancholy female she would have burst into tears, and ran to her room and refused to leave it. But melancholy didn’t make up any part of her nature, she allowed herself one tear, wiped her eye, and went to her desk. She knew what she had to do, to both sort out the problem and hopefully win back her friend and companion from her irritating father. She sat down and wrote several letters, then called her maid.

“Watson, I want you to post these letters, then I have another task for you.”

Nancy Watson, who had worshipped Miss Fluart ever since the memorable day when she drew a pistol on Lord Grondale, bobbed a curtsey and listened wide eyed and open mouthed to her mistresses instructions.

To be continued

 

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Magic in Jane Austen

This is the third of my series of blogs, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.

 

Magic would seem to have no place in the world depicted by Jane Austen it is, after all, a very realistic depiction of the early nineteenth century. In fact that is one of the reason I enjoy the novels so much, they provide a wonderful window on the period. However, despite the apparently rationality of the age, magic did have a place in Britain at this time.

Medicine was remarkably ineffective, the way in which the body worked was only just beginning to be understood and many medical procedures were probably more dangerous than the condition they were attempting to treat. For this reason, even educated people, frequently resorted to magical charms to treat various ailments.

The Reverend James Woodforde, a former fellow of Oxford and rector of a Norfolk parish was, despite being highly intelligent and very well educated, a great believer in charms to cure medical conditions. He is also one of the greatest diarists of the period and records various charms he tried and the effect they had. In 1790 he suffered from a swelling on the eyelid.

‘Mar.11, Friday The Stiony on my right Eye-lid still swelled and inflamed very much. As it is commonly said that the Eye-lid being rubbed by the tail of a black Cat would do it much good if not entirely cure it, and having a black Cat, a little before dinner I made a trial of it, and very soon after dinner I found my Eye-lid much abated of the swelling and almost free from Pain.’

However;

‘Mar. 15, Tuesday.. , My right Eye again, that is, its Eye-lid much inflamed again and rather painful. I put on a plaistor to it this morning, but in the Aft. took it of again, as I perceived no good from it.

Mar. 16,Wednesday …. My Eye-lid is I think rather better than it was, I bathed it with warm milk and Water last Night. My Eye-lid about Noon rather worse owing perhaps to the warm Milk and Water, therefore just before Dinner I washed it well with cold Water and in the Evening appeared much better for it.’

Fortunately he finally managed to do something sensible, there is no further mention of the eyelid so presumably simply washing it and keeping it clean worked.

In Mansfield Park the Bertrams and the Crawfords, accompanied by Fanny Price and Mrs Norris visit Sotherton, the home of Mr Rushworth. During this visit Mrs Norris;

‘Had been met by the gardener, with whom she had made a most satisfactory acquaintance, for she had set him right as to his grandson’s illness, convinced him that it was an ague, and promised him a charm for it.’

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So there it is, the most unpleasant character in Jane Austen’s works is the one to offer magical help. An Ague was an intermittent fever, possibly a form of malaria. As the disease could naturally disappear it is one where charms would appear to work, so what might the charm have consisted of? It might have sounded vaguely medical, in The Compleat Housewife: or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion there are several recipes for the cure of ague which would have had no practical benefit and so to modern eyes look like charms. This is typical,

country-housewife-ague

Or perhaps it was a magical one such as this, recorded in Devon in the nineteenth century;

‘To cure ague, when a sufferer feels that an attack is imminent, he should go to the nearest crossroads at midnight, on five nights, and there bury a new-laid egg.’

Though let’s hope it wasn’t the cure that Parson Woodforde tried on his servant;

‘May 22 1779 My Boy Jack had another touch of the Ague about noon. I gave him a dram of gin at the beginning of the fit and pushed him headlong into one of my Ponds and ordered him to bed immediately and he was better after it.’

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A nineteenth century ghost, no relation to what I am saying, but I like the picture.

Mrs Norris is, of course, the only character from Jane Austen’s works referenced in the Harry Potter novels, depicted as a wicked cat. J K Rowling says she chose the name as she always disliked Mrs Norris (who doesn’t), though I suspect she also knew that Mrs Norris practiced magic.

 

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Wicked Ladies – Some Legendry Highwaywomen

In an earlier blog I mentioned what was possibly one of the few true stories of a Highwaywoman, now for some whose reality is much less certain.

I first came across the most famous of all legendry highwaywomen in Haunted England by Christina Hole (1941), a fascinating collection of traditional ghost stories, which includes the tale of the wicked Lady Ferrers.

Markyate Cell, near Dunstable, was long haunted, and perhaps still is, by the ghost of the “wicked” Lady Ferrers. She is said to have taken to highway robbery in the seventeenth century from sheer love of excitement and power. She used to leave the house by a secret way at night and ride about disguised as a man, robbing such belated travellers as were abroad on Watling Street and killing those who showed signs of resistance.

She had a secret room prepared against emergencies which was reached by a concealed staircase in the kitchen chimney. Here she fled one night, after being badly wounded in a fight, and died at the foot of the staircase. Her body was found there next morning, and after her funeral the staircase was bricked up. But if the family hoped the curious circumstances of her death would be forgotten, they were disappointed.

Her ghost haunted the neighbourhood, sometimes swinging on the branch of an old tree under which she was supposed to have buried the proceeds of her robberies, sometimes riding along the roads or over the tree-tops. She was also seen near the kitchen chimney and in various parts of the house. Like Peg O’Nell, she was regarded as the author of every local misfortune, and three serious fires in the house were ascribed to her.

Historians have pointed out that, for example, Lady Ferrers never lived in Markyate Cell, and though she had owned the property it had been sold years before she died. However folk tales have never allowed truth to get in the way of a good story and this is a good story. It was read by a, sadly almost forgotten but very fine, novelist Magdalen King-Hall. Inspired by the tale she wrote Life And Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (1945), this novel was dramatized as The Wicked Lady a classic 1945 film starring Margaret Lockwood (and a very poor 1983 remake starring Faye Dunaway).

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This tale includes one detail that is to be found in most stories of Highwaywomen, and which I think almost guarantee’s its fictional nature, she is supposed to have dressed as a man and ridden a horse. Whilst cross dressing is, of course, perfectly possible, riding astride is more doubtful. If she had learnt to ride she would naturally have been taught to ride side saddle, riding astride is a very different skill. To learn this would have taken time, and would have to have been accomplished in secret.

This is just one of the reasons I find the following story doubtful.

Oxford Journal – Saturday 23 July 1763

 We find the following extraordinary Letter in the London Chronicle of this Day:

SIR,    July 19

You may depend on the Truth of the following Robbery. – Last Friday a Gentleman and his Lady were attacked on the Harrow Road by a supposed Highwayman, who demanded their Money with the usual Imprecations, making them dismount. The Gentleman, after delivering his Money, imagining all was over, was going to remount, when the Robber unbuttoning, shew’d herself to be Woman, and insisted he should go into yonder Lane to her a Favour; which being backed by his Lady, he withdrew with her. Being under a thick Hedge, the real Highwayman made his Appearance, and insisted that the Gentleman’s Spouse should retire with him for the fame Purpose, saying, One good Turn deserves another. All being reconciled, they were about part, when our former Highwayman whisper’d the Gentleman, that she heard the Ticking of a Watch when under the Hedge; and should be glad if he would make her a Present of it: which with some Reluctance he did. We hear these Blades are of the Hatters Gang; and that the Posse of a certain Magistrate is now in Pursuit of them. I am your constant Reader and humble Servant, R. C.

An extraordinary letter indeed.

I think I should return to the ghost of the wicked Lady Ferrers

The last record of her appearance being early in the present (20th) century, when she was seen by a number of people at a parish tea. One cannot help wondering whether this manifestation does not go to prove the survival of a sense of humour in ghosts; it is difficult to imagine Lady Ferrers taking an interest in anything so humdrum as a parish tea except from a desire to frighten the company.

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