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from LORD HALIFAX'S GHOST BOOK (1936)
The following undated account was written by a Mr. Pennyman.
You expressed a wish to know what credit might be given to a story, a garbled version of which, after a lapse of between thirty and forty years, appeared recently as a "true ghost story." I will accordingly state the facts as they were recalled to me about a year ago by an old friend of mine, a daughter of the late Sir W.A. Court. She sent me the album in which the story had been written, requesting me to read it and let her know if there was any truth in it. She had been intimate with my mother and the whole family, and since she had never heard the matter mentioned she could not believe that it was true. I read the story with the greatest surprise. Clearly it could not have been written by any member of the family alive at the time, or indeed by anyone who was at all intimate with us. It was full of mistakes as to names, etc., yet in some parts was so near the truth that I was frankly puzzled. So many years had elapsed and so much had happened to drive the incident from my mind, that I had some trouble in recalling exactly what had occurred. However, I succeeded in doing so and am now able to answer your enquiries.
My father and mother, with myself, my sisters and one of my brothers (the other, Harry, was too young for the University and was nearly the head boy at Westminster), went abroad in the late autumn of 1785 or 1786. We children were supposed to be learning French, and after we had visited two or three towns in France our parents decided to make a rather longer stay at Lille. Besides finding the teaching particularly good there, we had letters of introduction to some of the leading families in the neighbourhood.
The first lodging we had was very uncomfortable and my father soon began to look about for a house. In due course he discovered a very large and well-built residence, to which we took a great fancy. We were told that we could rent it at what was a remarkably low figure, even for that part of the world. Accordingly we took the house and moved into it without delay.
About three weeks later I went with my mother to the bankers with a letter of credit, which we cashed. As the money was paid in large six franc pieces we could not take it with us and the banker offered to send his clerk. He asked our address and when we told him that our house was in the Place du Lion d'Or, he looked surprised. There was, he said, nothing there that would suit our family except indeed a house that had been long unlet on account of a revenant that walked about it. (This he said quite seriously and in a natural tone of voice.)
My mother and I laughed, but asked the clerk not to mention the revenant to the servants; and as we were walking home my mother remarked in fun: "I suppose, Bessie, that it was the ghost which woke us up by walking about over our heads." I was sleeping in the same room with her and on three or four nights we had been awakened by a slow, heavy step overhead, which we thought must be one of the menservants walking about. Our staff consisted of three Englishmen a footman who had been with us for years, a coachman and a groom; three Englishwomen my mother's maid and housekeeper, my own maid, and a nurserymaid. All these English servants returned to England with us and never had any idea of leaving us. The other women in the house were French, and so were the butler, the cook, the footman and Louis (a boy who came home with us).
A few days after our visit to the bankers, having been again awakened in the night by steps overhead, my mother asked Cresswell, her maid, who it was who was sleeping in the room over us, She replied: "No one, my lady. It is a large empty garret."
A week or ten days later, Cresswell came in one morning after breakfast and told my mother that most of the French servants were talking of leaving because there was a revenant in the house.
"Indeed, my lady," she said, "there is a very strange story about a young man who was heir to this and another house, with an estate in the country, and is said to have been confined by an uncle in an iron cage in this house. As he disappeared and was never afterwards seen, they supposed that he was killed here. The uncle left the house in a hurry and afterwards sold it to the father of the man from whom you took it. No one has ever remained in it for so long as we have done, and it has been a long time without a tenant."
"And do you believe this, Cresswell?" asked my mother.
"Well," she replied, "the iron cage is in the garret over your head, my lady, and I wish you would all come up and see it."
At this moment a friend of ours, an old officer with the Cross of St. Louis, arrived to call on us. We told him the story with some amusement and asked him to accompany us upstairs to see the cage. We found ourselves in a long, large garret, with bare brick walls. It was quite empty, except that in the farther corner there was an iron, cage attached to the wall. It recalled to us the kind of cage in which wild beasts are kept, only it was higher. It was about four feet square and eight feet high and there was an iron ring in the wall at the back, to which was attached an old rusty chain with a collar.
We really began to feel rather creepy at the idea that any human being could have been kept in such an unpleasant place, and our French friend was as horrified as we were. All the same, we were quite certain that the footsteps we had heard in the night were part of a plan to keep the house untenanted, and we were rather uncomfortable at the thought that there was a private way in, of which we knew nothing. We therefore decided to look about us for something else, but to stay in our present quarters until we were successful in finding it.
About ten days after our visit to the garret, Cresswell came to dress my mother in the morning, looking so pale and ill that we asked her what was the matter.
"Indeed, my lady," she said, "we have been frightened to death. Neither Mrs. Marsh (my maid) nor I can sleep again in the room we are now in."
"Well," said my mother, "you may come and sleep in the little spare room next to ours. But what has frightened you?"
"Someone, my lady," she said, "went through our room last night. We both saw the figure, but hid under the bedclothes and lay in a dreadful fright till the morning."
I burst out laughing, but Cresswell began to cry, and when I saw that she was really upset I tried to comfort her. I told her we had heard of a very good house and would soon move into it. Meanwhile, they could sleep in the room next to ours.
The room in which they had been so frightened had a door recessed from the first landing on a very wide staircase, leading to the passage on to which the best rooms opened. The door of my mother's room faced the staircase. In Cresswell's old room there was a second door which led to the backstairs, making it a kind of passage.
A few nights after the change of rooms my mother asked Charles and me to fetch from her bedroom her long embroidery frame, so that she might get her work ready for the morning. Although it was after supper and quite dark, we did not take a candle, as there was a lamp at the bottom of the staircase and we thought we could find the frame by leaving open the door of my mother's room. When we reached the foot of the stairs we saw a tall thin figure in a powdering gown and wearing hair down the back going up the stairs in front of us. We both thought it was Hannah and called out, "It won't do, Hannah. You can't frighten us." At these words the figure turned into the recess and when, in passing it, we saw nobody there, we concluded that she had gone through Cresswell's old room and down the back staircase.
When we returned with the frame we told my mother of Hannah's trick. She said, "That is very odd. Before you came in from your walk, Hannah went to bed with a headache."
We went at once to Hannah's room, where we found Alice at work, and she told us that Hannah had been sound asleep for more than an hour. A little later, on our way to bed, we saw Cresswell. When we told her of our mistake she turned quite white and exclaimed: "That is exactly the figure we saw!"
About this time my brother Harry came to spend ten days with us. He was sleeping up another staircase at the far end of the house and one morning, when he came down to breakfast, he asked my mother quite angrily if she had thought he was drunk the night before and could not put out his candle, since she had sent some of those "French rascals" to watch him. He added: "I jumped up and opened my door and by the moon through the skylight I saw a fellow in his loose gown at the bottom of the stairs. If I had had anything on I would have been after him and taught him to come spying on me."
My mother assured him that she had not sent anyone.
That very day we had arranged to take a delightful house with a charming garden belonging to a young nobleman who was going to Italy for a few years. An evening or two before we moved in, a Mr. and Mrs. Atkyns and their son, who lived three or four miles from Lille, came on horseback to call on us. We told them how frightened our servants had been and how disagreeable it was to be in a house which a person might enter unknown to us. We told them that no one now would sleep in the room in which Cresswell and my maid had seen the revenant. Mrs. Atkyns laughed and said that with my mother's permission she would much like to sleep there and that with her terrier to keep her company she would not be in the least afraid. On my mother replying that she had no objection, Mr. Atkyns rode home with the boy to fetch Mrs. Atkyns' things before the gates were shut.
In the morning Mrs. Atkyns looked ill and did not appear to have slept much. When we asked her if she had been frightened she declared that she had been roused from a sound sleep by someone moving about her room. The dog did not stir although he generally flew at an intruder, but by the lamp in the chimney she distinctly saw a figure. She said that she had tried to set the dog at it, but our belief was that she was much too frightened, and we were greatly entertained when Mr. Atkyns arrived to take her home and, to her indignation, said in his droll way, "Perhaps you dreamt it all."
After they had gone my mother said, as she had often done, "I cannot for an instant fancy it is a ghost, but I most sincerely hope I shall get out of the house without seeing what seems to frighten people so much; I know that to see any person in my room at night would alarm me dreadfully."
Three days before our move into the new house I had been for a long ride, and went to bed tired. It was hot and the curtains of our bed were undrawn on my side and at the foot. I was sleeping soundly when I was awakened, though by what I could not say (we were so accustomed to the footsteps overhead that by this time they never awakened either my mother or myself). We kept a light always burning in the room, and by it I saw a tall, thin figure in a long gown. One arm rested upon the chest of drawers that stood between the window and the door. The face was turned towards me; it was long and thin and pale, the face of a young man with a melancholy look on it which I shall never forget. I was certainly very frightened, but my worst fear was that my mother would wake. Fortunately she seemed to be in a sound sleep. At that moment the clock struck four and I lay for nearly an hour before daring to look again towards the chest of drawers. When at last I did so I could see nothing, though I never heard the door opened or shut, or any other noise.
I did not close my eyes for the rest of the night, and when Cresswell came in as usual I called out, "I need not get up to let you in, for you must have forgotten to put the key upon the chest of drawers last night." She said she had not forgotten and, to my surprise, when I got up, I found the key in the usual place. When I told my mother, she was most grateful that I had not wakened her and insisted that we should not run the risk of spending another night in the house. So directly we had had breakfast we set about moving all our things, so that we were able, to sleep in our new quarters.
Before we left, Cresswell and I examined every part of our room, but without discovering any secret way of entering.
In the disturbances that followed in France and various troubles of our own, we almost forgot about our revenant. On one winter evening, however, my mother made me tell the story, to Mrs. Hoare.
Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) wrote an article on the Lille hotel for Cornhill, probably the "garbled version" referred to at the top of this webpage. Baring-Gould later forwarded this letter to Lord Halifax.