Strange Tale from Brighton - circa 1926
IT will be news to all but a few people that Brighton is the scene of an extra-ordinary and well authenticated ghost story. It is a story of a prim house, exactly like its neighbours in a prosaic street ; of a grim apparition ; of noises, strange and even terrifying ; and of a dramatic, and apparently effective, exorcism, with candle, bell and book in the most approved medieval manner.
It is altogether a curious, and in some ways a disturbing story.
The teller of it started with the disadvantage that, as it was a true story, concerning a house rated, rented and inhabited, and about local people , reticence has to be observed about names and addresses.
I have seen four witnesses and cross-examined them closely. Three of them told me their story only on condition that their names were not made public. In the case of the most important witness, a maiden lady whose calling is that of a companion to other ladies, mostly nervous, it is obvious that any suggestion of association with the supernatural would be most harmful. I speak of her as Miss Louise.
It was diffidently, yet with precision and clearness, that Miss Louise told me her uncanny story.
" It must be nearly thirty years ago," (about 1896) said Miss Louise, " that my aunt and I went to live at this house you mention. I was quite a young girl, in my teens. My aunt took a three-year lease of the house. The first Sunday we were in the house we were in the sitting-room, in the evening.
My aunt was reading, aloud, a chapter from the New Testament. She came to the verse 'Judas went and hanged himself.' As she read those words, there was a great crash in the room overhead. The crash was followed by the sounds of some one stamping about the room—heavy, thumping sounds. We thought at once that it was an animal, dog or cat, that had got into the room, and was knocking down the vases and other things we had stored there for the time. I seized the poker and ran up. I could see nothing in the shape of an animal or human being. Still more puzzling, there was nothing knocked down or broken. We agreed that it was strange, but we neither of us doubted that the explanation was quite natural."
Miss Louise went on to tell how, a little later, her aunt became ill and had to remain in bed. One Sunday afternoon, Miss Louise was playing hymns, alone, in the sitting-room. The sitting-room is one of the kind which can be divided into two by folding doors. The piano stood between the two rooms, in the corner made when the doors, then open, are closed.
" I got tired of playing hymns," said Miss Louise, " and, getting up from the stool, turned my back to the piano to open a music cabinet. I took out a piece. I remember quite well," she interjected, with a smile, " that it was called 'Gaieté de cœur.' "
" With that piece in my hand, I turned to the piano. I saw something which gave me a terrible fright. Standing just behind the piano, staring over it at me, with awful dead eyes, was a woman. She was dressed in black There was something most awful about her. Her face—how can I describe it—was the face of a corpse."
As she spoke, Miss Louise made a gesture with her hands over her face to indicate the heavy, pendulous cheeks of the apparition, and the dropped jaw.
" Her eyes, as I looked at her, were those of a dead person, and yet they seemed to see. " I didn't call out : I was too frightened. There we stood, staring at each other. Then somehow or other, I had a desperate hope that it might be my aunt. I stammered out, ' Oh. auntie ! What is the matter ? What are you looking at me like that for ? ' " The woman did not answer, but continued to stare at me with those dreadful eyes. I knew then it was not my aunt. The figure stared at me steadily, then moved a little across the room, and faded out of sight. I stood there, stunned,"said Miss Louise, with my music still in hand. Then I relaxed, I dropped the music."
"I pulled myself together, and ran upstairs to my aunt. She was sitting up in bed, combing out her hair. " I asked her if she had been downstairs. 'Of course not,' she answered. 'Why?' `Well' I stammered, ' I - I thought I heard some one about.' I didn't dare tell her more. She was in a very delicate state, and I felt at once that I must not give her a shock.
" I locked the secret up in my own heart," said Miss Louise to me, pressing her thin yellow hand on her breast. " But I prayed earnestly to God every night that He would protect me from seeing such a vision again, and that I know is the reason that I never did see it again. " But we had any number of disturbances. Night after night I have shuddered to hear those footsteps going about the room upstairs. Blows would be struck on doors, and the bells would ring."
"I spoke to my cousin about the noises "— here Miss Louise named a lady who occupies a high social position in Brighton" she told me that I was fanciful and suffered from delusions. She said : ' It is your servant who rings the bells to frighten you. Send her away.' Well, I thought I would try it. I sent the girl to her parents at Portslade. While she was away the bells rang worse than ever. So 1 sent for Mr. Williams, the ironmonger, and he disconnected the bells. That stopped the ringing. But it did not stop the tramping about in the rooms or the banging on the doors."
" As to the servant, once she heard the noises. She sat down on the stairs in hysterics, and declared that she wouldn't stay in the house an hour longer. She went off, and my aunt and I had to manage as best we could.
" What I suffered in those three years of our lease I could hardly tell you. It was only my prayer to God that made me endure it.
" At the end of our three years' lease I begged my aunt not to renew the lease, but she would insist upon it, for the house suited her, and she put down the noises to natural causes. Of course I did not tell her of the vision I had seen. Some time after we renewed the lease, my aunt died. I got the agent to cancel the lease, and got out of the house as quickly as I could. I felt like one who had escaped from a cage or from a mad house.
" I went to live at a house not far away, and I knew the lady who took the house on after me. I did not tell her anything about the house. I did not wish to prejudice her against it, and there might be just the chance that it was all a delusion of mine. The lady who took it was a Mrs. Gibson, from India.
" She hadn't been there many days when she came dashing across the road to me. She was in a state of deadly terror. ' Oh she cried, ' something awful has happened. I was in the kitchen stoning raisins. Suddenly I felt as though some dreadful thing was about me. Then, just behind me, I saw a terrible old woman in black. She was there all in a moment, and there she stood, staring at me with awful dead eyes. I screamed out and flung my dish of raisins at her, and dashed out of the house. You lived in the house. Do you know what it is ? I shall never go back to that awful place again.'
" I told her what I had seen," said Miss Louise, "and she did not go back. I have since been told that two clergymen went to the house and offered up prayers. I suppose that had the right effect in counteracting the evil influence. For I do know that people who have lived in the house since have not been frightened by anything."
The story is continued by a witness of whom I may speak by name. He is now dead. He did not impose any stipulation of silence. His name was William Oldham Dawson. He was a barrister-at-law, living in one of the older, stately houses on King's Cliff. When I knew him, he was an elderly man, impetuous of speech, quick in manner, with finely chiselled, intellectual features. He was familiar to the Brighton of a few years ago by his habit of riding up and down the sea front on horseback and wearing a white riding habit.
He told me his experiences, in his own imperious, explosive fashion :
" I know the house. I heard it was haunted. So I made a compact with two of my friends, a clergyman and a doctor, that we would investigate. Was the clergyman, you ask, Mr. Ouseley ? Yes, he was. If you had not known the name I should not have told you. No, I shall not tell you the name of the doctor. Suffice it for you that we three went and watched in this house.
" I took with me a revolver, lest anybody should be trying to play tricks on us, and I also took with me my Irish terrier, a fierce little creature who would have gone for anything, devil or man. I was taking no chances.
" The first night nothing happened. The second night, about midnight, I was going up the stairs from the double room to the bedroom above. Suddenly my dog, which was going up in front quite eagerly, stopped dead, and then backed till it was between my legs. It was quivering with terror. I could see nothing. I told it to go on, but it wouldn't go.
" Just then I heard the doctor's voice, ' For God's sake, come here at once.' I dashed back to the room. I tell you that, as truly as I can see you now, and as plainly, I saw the figure of a woman in a dark grey or black dress walking across the room. She was between the two rooms. Her figure was clearly defined against the window, which was lit up from outside. There was something most awful about the look of the figure. It crossed the room, and disappeared. For a moment we could do nothing. Then we all dashed forward. We searched the house. But we could find nothing."
Later on the clergyman told Mr. Dawson that he visited the house alone. The spirit appeared to him and he conjured it to make confession of the evil it had done. The spirit made full and ample confession. Mr. Ouseley shrived the hapless thing, after the rites of the Church, and bade it rest. " Requiem eternam dona eis, Domine."
What the confession was Mr. Ouseley would not say. It was under the seal of confession, and therefore inviolable. According to Mr. Dawson, Mr. Ouseley was a member of the most advanced branch of what is now called the Anglo-Catholic, Church. He was connected with the Church of the Annunciation in Washington Street, Brighton.
To resume Mr. Dawson's narrative :
" A night or two afterwards, the clergyman took me with him to the place. The house, of course, was quite empty, as it had been for some time. He gave me very careful instructions as to what I was to do. He said that, quite apart from the hapless, earth-bound, unquiet spirit, whom he had sent to its eternal rest, the house was obsessed by a real influence of evil. I had no more specific information as to what was meant by this.
" Under Mr. Ouseley's instructions, I drew on the floor of the front room a circle, and marked the circumference with certain signs, as he told me. We had with us a censer, filled with incense, blessed by the priest. I was to swing this censer, lighted, around the circle, stopping more particularly to tense the spots that were specially marked. At the same time, I was to be quite sure that we were both inside the circle. ' If you so much as let any portion of your clothes get outside the circle, once the invocation has begun,' Mr. Ouseley had said to me, ' the consequences to you may be most terrible.'
" The circle and the tensing of it were to create a wall of influence through which the evil power could not penetrate."
Mr. Dawson did as he was told. He duly swung the censer about the circle, he and the clergyman carefully keeping inside the chalk marks and the protecting wall of incense. The clergyman, who was in cassock and biretta, started reading certain invocations in Latin. Mr. Dawson understood that he was reading the service duly appointed by the Roman Church for the exorcism of evil spirits.
The immediate result was a certain disturbance in the air. The disturbance increased, growing more and more intense. " It seemed to me that we were in the centre of a mighty rushing whirlwind. It was whirling with tremendous velocity around the circle wherein we were standing. Within the circle all was calm. I can hardly describe to you exactly what the rushing was. It was the furious endeavour of something hideously evil. I knew that it was evil. I did not need the injunction of the clergyman to beware of getting outside the circle into its power. I felt that some unclean, horrible thing was raging around us. I could see nothing. I could only hear, and feel.
" I should think that this rushing terror was maintained for something like twenty minutes. It rose to a climax, and then gradually died away. Presently it was gone altogether. It fell to a whisper. Then all was peace.
" The clergyman closed his book. 'The invocations and prayers of Holy Church have prevailed,' he said. ' The evil spirit has been sent back to the place whence it came and I have adjured it never to trouble this world again. I do not think it will be able to do so. The danger is over. We may now step out of the circle.' "
Mr. Dawson took hold of the clergyman's arm, and walked out of the house with him. Such is Mr. Dawson's story.
The end of this "strange, eventful history" is supplied by Mr. and Mrs. Robinson. There is something of an anti-climax, perhaps, in their story. It is worth giving, however, for the sake of the curious corroboration it affords of certain statements by the two other witnesses.
They must have been the first people to live in the house after the exorcism. It was after they had left the house that I made their acquaintance, and told them the story of the exorcism. The comment of Mrs. Robinson was, " Well, now. When I was looking over the house, I saw a chalk ring on the floor of the sitting-room. I thought some one had been playing marbles."
Mr. and Mrs. Robinson agreed that, just after they entered on their tenancy, some peculiar sounds were heard, but they attached no importance to them at the time. It was only on hearing the story told above that they thought it worth while recalling these incidents. They had hung a guitar on the wall in the corner where Miss Louise saw the " ghost." One night, they were about to go to bed. Mrs. Robinson was kneeling in front of the fire. Her husband was lying half asleep in the far corner of the room.
The guitar sounded, loudly, three notes. A competent musician, Mrs. Robinson described them as an arpeggio of the three notes, A, C, E. Astonished, she and her husband at once jumped up and looked at the guitar. As they looked at it, it sounded the same arpeggio, a second time and then a third time. They took the instrument down and examined it, but could find nothing to account for its sounding. In the room above a servant girl slept. A night or so later, when the household was asleep, she awakened them all by a shrill scream. She ran out of the room, screaming. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson came from their room to ask her what was the matter. The girl, genuinely terrified, stated that she was awakened by some one dropping a basket of crockery outside the door. She heard the plates smash, she declared. She added, what seemed a comic enough touch, that she heard serpents hissing.
Mr. and Mrs. Robinson roundly laughed at her, and sent her back to bed, assuring her that she had merely had a bad nightmare. A few nights later, this same room was occupied by Mrs. Robinson's sister, a lady who, in younger days, had played principal boy in many provincial pantomimes. On coming down to breakfast next morning, this lady derided them for their silly attempt to frighten her. I'm not so easily scared," she assured them.
They asked her what she meant. Still scornful, she told them that one of them, just after she had got to sleep, awakened her by hammering on her door three times with a heavy stick. The entire household pleaded " not guilty." Mr. and Mrs. Robinson looked at each other in some perplexity. They remembered what the servant girl had said. This, I have ascertained, was the room referred to by Miss Louise wherein, on the reading of the verse about Judas, she heard the crash and the stampings—and found nothing.
Mr. Robinson took me aside to make a private communication. It put the keystone, as it were, on the whole arch of the story " On that door, where my sister-in-law heard the knocking, a woman hanged herself. There was an inquest, and a verdict of ' Suicide while of unsound mind.' I was told a very ugly story as to the reason for her going mad and hanging herself. It is so ugly I won't repeat it."
Miss Louise gave me the same explanation, and added the name of the man who was concerned in the tragedy. One item of corroboration may be offered.
Mr. Robinson told me that, some time after all these events, an elderly clergyman, very deaf, called at the house and inquired if anything had happened there lately to cause any uneasiness. At that time, Mr. Robinson knew nothing more than the occurrence of the sounds mentioned. He answered, " No."
The clergyman seized his hand and wrung it effusively. "I have," he said, "to congratulate you, and myself, that I have rid this house of a very terrible visitation." Mr. Robinson had not the least idea then what the clergyman meant. He had forgotten this incident, and only recalled it when I told him the tale of the exorcism.
We came to the conclusion that the exorcism was not effective all at once, and that what Mr. and Mrs. Robinson heard were the evil spirit's last sullen kicks by way of farewell ! Since then, the house has been at peace.
Requiescat in pace.