The Nanny – A Ghost Story For Christmas
It was November and the war had been over for more than a year when I took Rosamond Furnivall to live with her great aunt in Cumbria.
Like me, Rosamond was an orphan. On a clear summer’s day in 1944, a V2 fell silent, dropped out of the sky and obliterated her parents leaving her silent and brittle.
My parents died before the war. My father drove the car off the road and into a ravine. We lived in Kenya at the time. They were on the way home from a house party. He was drunk and they were probably arguing. They always argued. My mother didn’t stand a chance.
A few weeks after the funeral, I was packed off to a boarding school in Kent. I was eight. When school ended I found myself homeless so I joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the WAAFs. It was 1939.
I spent the next six years in Whitehall typing orders for the Allied High Command. Like Rosamond, I was burdened with grief but my sorrow was not for my parents it was for the people I had grown to love in London, the friends and lovers I would never see again. I was sad too for the countless, nameless people who had died following the orders I so carefully typed. You see, from an early age, I knew there was no gentle way to destroy a life.
Peace found me signing on at one of London’s most prestigious domestic service agencies. I wanted to get away from the city; put the past behind me. More than anything, I wanted to live in a place where I could breathe fresh air and feel the ground under my feet.
The woman at the agency was impressed saying staff of my calibre were hard to find. So, after a single interview with the owner of the agency I was engaged to escort Rosamond to Cumbria.
The Journey North
“Hester, where shall we sit?” Rosamond whispered nervously as we struggled down the platform with our suitcases. A porter saw us and picked up our cases. I showed him our tickets and caught a glimpse of a photograph I kept in my wallet. It was a photograph of my parents sitting on the veranda of our house in Kenya drinks in hand and smiling at the camera. The porter showed us to a first class compartment at the front of the train and we settled into our seats.
I thought for a moment about the photograph. The camera had caught my mother and father in a vignette of happiness; the lens had trapped a fiction but I was glad of it. I looked at little Rosamond and was sad that she had no photograph, no memento of happier times.
At precisely nine-thirty, the Glasgow train pulled out of the station. The journey through the bombed scared city was slow but gradually the dereliction of war was replaced by a frozen white landscape of winter fields.
Rosamond was a beautiful child. Her thick hair was the colour of burnished copper and her blue eyes were proud and defiant like the portrait of her namesake by Rossetti I had seen in the National Gallery before the war. When she grew up she would have the power to break many hearts. My own heart had been broken many times. My father was the first of course, and I had inherited my mother’s knack for picking the type of man guaranteed to disappoint.
I had never had much to do with children. During the long years of war I had never thought of having a family of my own but now, looking at Rosamond, or Rosy as I was starting to call her, I felt an overwhelming urge to care for her, to hold her and keep are safe. She stirred some deep primal instinct in me. I thought it was because I understood her vulnerability and her pain but I really didn’t care what it was, it was strong and I liked it.
We read stories and played cards to pass the time and arrived in Keswick after dark. Following the instructions I had been given we waited on the platform for Miss Furnivall’s chauffeur to take us to the Hall. The train pulled away. We watched anxiously as the alighting passengers pulled up their collars and headed for the ticket hall and their homes.
The platform cleared and a man in a heavy coat and flat cap approached us. After a brusque and perfunctory greeting, he led us to an old black Bentley parked outside and put our suitcases in the boot. We sat in the back and Mr. Lewis coaxed, the Bentley into life. The car lurched forward with a splutter and we were off, heading away from the town.
I suddenly felt nervous. I realised I knew nothing of Rosamond’s great aunt or where we were heading. The idea of living in a hall in Cumbria had seemed romantic and exciting in London but now sitting in the car travelling into the night I was not so sure.
A few miles outside the town, we turned off the main road into a steep lane. The engine began to labour. The moon was high bathing the frost covered hills and vales in its cold milky light. We passed through a pair of large stone gateposts with spiky statues of rampant stags on top. The drive was overhung with trees. There were no neat lawns or rhododendrons at Furnivall Hall. Jagged rocks pocked out of the ground catching the moonlight on their angry faces. Rosy slipped her hand into mine and I held it tightly.
Eventually, the drive flattened out and a large stone house came into view. Fashioned from dark Cumbrian stone it stood proudly silhouetted against the densely wooded hillside. The leafless branches dragged against the walls. Beyond the woods, the bare fell stretched up towards the starry sky. The car crunched onto the gravel of the oval drive and stopped in an eerie silence.
Every sound was amplified by the stillness. Our feet crunched loudly on the gravel. A pair of owls hooted in the distance. The paintwork was ancient and peeling and everywhere there was a strong smell of musty earth and decay. The house was dark. Rosamond turned her face to mine and I smiled to reassure her.
Our driver found a torch in the glove compartment and waved it at the door. “We live in the back in the winter.”
I took Rosy’s hand and we followed him through the vast, oak door. The beam of golden light revealed a large central hall. In the gloom I could see a magnificent bronze chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling; standing next to the west wall there was a handsome grand piano, and at the end of the room there was a great fireplace with a set of fire dogs but there was no welcoming fire burning tonight. A life-sized portrait of a woman dressed in a white high collared gown, the sort worn by debutantes, hung over the empty fireplace. The moonlight from the window above the front door made the woman’s face as ghostly as her frock. Her smile was almost a sneer. Her cold blue eyes looked as sharp as a pair of steel daggers. “Who’s that?” I asked pointing to the portrait.
“That’s Miss Maud, your aunt, Miss Rosamond,” replied Mr. Lewis immune to its hostility. In the kitchen, at the back of the house, we were introduced to his wife. Mrs. Lewis was the cook and housekeeper. She explained that Miss Maud and Miss Stark her companion, were in bed and that we would meet them in the morning.
There was no electricity in the house. It had never been connected, the house was too remote. Taking an oil lamp the Housekeeper led us to our rooms taking us up the hall’s Jacobean staircase past portraits of generations of Furnivalls. Rosamond’s bedroom was at the back of the house and mine at the front. Mrs. Lewis departed and left me alone with my charge. I put the lamp on the dressing table so that the light would be reflected and magnified by the mirror, a trick I had learned as a child in Kenya. e room was freezing.
I dressed Rosy in her pajamas and got her into bed. to sleep Rosy,” I said kissing the back of her head, “you’ll soon be cosy and warm.”
“Goodnight Hester,” my little darling yawed back to me and it was then that I realised just how like her aunt Rosy was; she had inherited her aunt Furnivall’s piercing blue eyes.
The curtains in my room were open. I looked out across the frozen landscape. Beyond the drive, I could see a patch of shiny black water catching the moonlight. The scene was sublime but eerie. I undressed reluctantly and got into my cold damp bed. I decided to leave the curtains open so that I could look at the stars and listen to the silence which after so many years in London was totally alluring if a little unnerving.
As the need to sleep fastened its grip on me I was sure I could hear a strange tapping noise on the landing. I thought I could hear the piano music coming up from the hall below. Mr. Lewis must have left a radio or a gramophone on somewhere. I turned over and went to sleep.
In the days that followed, Rosy and I found that most of the house was off bounds to us.The whole of the East wing was locked and the windows were shuttered from the inside. Miss Maud and her companion, Miss Stark occupied the west-wing.
The octogenarian Miss Maud was no longer the beauty in the portrait. Her once proud face was lined with deep heavy creases. Her cruel lips had all but disappeared but her eyes were still as sharp as two icy jewels. Maud’s hearing obliged her to use an extravagant ear trumpet to hear the snippets of conversation Miss Stark barked down it otherwise she was content to read a book or work at the tapestry. The two old ladies seemed pleased to have Rosy for company.by the fire.
Rosy and I spent many happy hours exploring the house.The nursery like the rest of the house was frozen in time, stuck in bygone days. There had been no babies at Furnivall Hall for at least two generations.
Over a cup of tea in the kitchen one morning I asked Mrs. Lewis about Rosy’s parents and why they had not lived at the Hall.
“Old Lord Furnivall, cut him off,” the housekeeper clucked. “Chucked him out of the family from what I’ve heard. He’d turned communist or some such thing and fell out with the old man. Rosy’s grandfather was the last Lord Furnivall’s only son. By rights, he should have inherited everything but he never got a bean. By all accounts, he went to London and made a name for himself in Law. I believe his son was a doctor and was on leave when he and his wife were killed.”
“Yes, that’s what I was told,” I concurred. Then I changed the subject to Miss Maud.
“You think Maud was beautiful, well you should see the portrait of her sister Aida. Now she was a real beauty,” roared Mrs. Lewis. “I can show you if you like but if I do you must never let on. Miss Maud has forbidden anyone to look at it.”
Intrigued I followed Mrs. Lewis up the stairs to a room Rosy and I had discovered was kept locked at the front of the house. Mrs. Lewis slipped the key into the lock and turned it. The door opened onto a dark and dusty room. The housekeeper drew the curtains and the grey winter light flooded in. Above the mantelpiece, there was a portrait of a woman similar to that of Miss Maud in the hall below. The woman in this picture was wearing the same type of high-collared gown. Miss Aida was a beauty indeed. In the picture, her thick red hair hung in a loose bun at the nape of the neck but unlike her sister’s shape angular features Aida’s features were soft. The woman looking at me had the same haughty look as her younger sister. Her eyes were as cold as crystal and emitted a look of total disdain.
“What happened to her Mrs. Lewis?” “
She died, my dear, went mad in the asylum. Now, Miss Maud can’t bear to look at her.”
“Oh, how awful for the family,” I said thinking of the photograph in my wallet. Although the image of my parents gave lie to their true relationship, I had always carried it with me. Somehow, I needed the comfort of the fantasy. I need to remember them in better days; it made me feel that I had once been happy and that I could be happy again. Miss Maud clearly did not feel the same about her sister.
That night I woke to the sound of tapping on the landing and piano music in the hall. This time it was louder and more discordant as if someone was playing out their anguish and distress. The wind whipped up outside and started to howl. The window frames began to rattle. I turned the wick of my lamp up and got out of bed. Outside it was snowing. The jagged landscape was disappearing under a smooth blanket of white.
I had to know where the music was coming from. I opened my bedroom door and peered over the gallery balustrade. I am not sure what I expected to see. There was no one at the piano but the sound seemed to be coming from it. Trembling, I forced myself down the stairs. When I was halfway Mrs. Lewis appeared from the kitchen. “Go back to bed Miss Hester. There is nothing to fear. It’s just Miss Aida playing her piano. She does no one any harm, let her be.”
Miss Aida! Miss Aida was dead. Mrs. Lewis, was she talking about a ghost? I turned around slowly taking in what the housekeeper had said. She was telling me that the Hall was haunted by the spirit of Miss Maud’s sister. Was that why Maud could not look at the portrait of Aida?
The next day was my free day so I asked to borrow the Bentley saying I wanted to buy Christmas cards in the village. It was true I did need to buy cards but I also wanted to get out of the house. I needed to think. Miss Stark agreed to my request reluctantly. Her concern was not my driving but the icy weather.
I drove the old car out of the garage and made my way down the snow-covered lane into the village and parked ext to the pub. I chose my cards then retired to the pub where a large fire burned in the grate. I was relieved to be away from the Hall, glad to have a moment outside its gloomy and increasingly oppressive atmosphere. I was just wondering if I would be able to afford a cottage for Rosy and me when a man’s voice startled me back to the present.
“You must be from the Hall,” said the man.
I looked up to see a fair-haired man in his thirties dressed in tweed and a thick woollen jumper holding a pint of ale.
“Yes, I am,”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I recognised the car. I have a habit of put two and two together. My name’s Peter, Peter Wilson. I live in the village. Well, my parents do. I’m just visiting; between jobs as it were.”
“Hester McKinnon,” I said shaking his hand. “I’m Miss Furnivall’s niece’s Nanny.”
“It’s a pleasure Miss McKinnon, or may I can you Hester?” he said sitting beside me.
“Oh, Hester’s fine,” I said returning his smile, which was quite unlike me.
“How are you getting on up there? I can’t imagine old Miss Maud with a niece who needs a nanny.”
“You know the family then?”
“Everyone around here knows them and I can’t help wondering what a nice girl like you is doing working up there.”
I had to admit I was beginning to wonder myself, although I wasn’t sure I liked his tone, it was a long time since I was a nice girl. I was desperate to spill the beans about what was going on at the Hall but decided to say nothing. I didn’t want to look like a neurotic fool talking about ghosts and pianos that played tunes in the night and the way the family seemed to take Aida’s nightly musical ramblings it in their stride.
“Will you be here for Christmas?” he asked tentatively.
“Yes,” I replied feeling he was about to make me a proposal I did not want to reject.
“I have two tickets for the Christmas Eve barn dance in the Village Hall. Would you do me the honour of being my guest?”
I had quickstepped and jived in London but I hadn’t been country dancing since I was at school. I looked into his eyes and found myself agreeing. He said he would pick me up from the Hall at seven on Christmas Eve. When he had finished his pint he insisted on accompanying me to the post box before he waved me goodbye.
The Girl in the Snow
It started to snow again. I drove back to the Hall and went to look for Rosy. The daylight was fading. I lit a lamp and called for her but no child came running to see me. I checked all Rosy’s usual hidey-holes and favourite places but she was nowhere to be found. Finally, I went to the kitchen and asked Mrs. Lewis if she had seen the child. Mrs. Lewis shook her head. “No love, I haven’t. I thought she was in the drawing room with Miss Maud.”
My heart sank, neither Miss Maud nor Miss Stark had seen her. Sensing my distress Mrs. Lewis said. I’ll send Mr. Lewis out to look for her. She won’t have gone far in this weather. The silly girl’s probably trying to make a snowman.”
I pulled on my coat and followed Mr. Lewis out of the house. I watched as the beam of his torch picked out a single line of tiny footprints being filled by the fast falling snow. Miss Furnivall was watching from the drawing-room window. She was in a fearful state. We followed the footprints through the thorny undergrowth, past the gnarled oak trees across the road and down the hill towards the lake.
Tears started to stream down my face and froze on my cheeks. I followed in Mr. Lewis’s footprints hoping and praying we would spot her soon. Then through the snow, we saw a shepherd coming towards us carrying my little Rosy in his arms. Fear ripped at my heart. Oh God, I thought. Is she dead?
In the kitchen, Mrs. Lewis and I stripped the child of her cold wet clothes and warmed her by the stove. I wrapped Rosy in a blanket and cradled her in my arms and Mr. Lewis went to fetch the doctor on Miss Maud’s orders. As the child’s face turned from white to pink the terror in my mind subsided. An hour later, Mr. Lewis arrived with Peter Wilson in tow.
“The doctor’s out. His son’s here instead.”
“I am a doctor too,” assured Peter with a smile. He was always smiling. I think that’s what first attracted me to him. He examined Rosy then pronounced her fit enough to go to bed with a hot water bottle. Before he left he reminded me of my promise for Christmas Eve.
I decided to Rosy why she had gone out into the snow over breakfast the next day.
“It was the girl,” she said. “She called for me.”
“What girl Rosy?” I demanded.
“The little girl at the window. She said she needed me to go to her mother.”
“Don’t tell me lies Rosy,” I said angrily. “We followed your footprints Rosy. There was no little girl. Besides, where would this girl have come from. There are no houses around here?”
“I’m not lying Hester. I didn’t look at her feet. She held my hand tightly. Her hand was very cold Hester. She took me down the path towards the lake. Her mother was there. She was crying, Hester. She was very upset. She called me over and put me on her knee then she started to sing and I fell asleep. I’m telling you the truth. My mother in heaven knows I’m not lying.”
Rosy had never mentioned her mother before, this was a new development, and I was not sure it was good one. Why would she make up such a story and why would she bring her dead mother into it? I tried not to be angry but I was perplexed. I went to Miss Furnivall and shouted Rosy’s story down her ear trumpet. When I came to the part about the little girl out in the snow, coaxing and tempting Rosy outside and the woman by the lake the old woman threw her arms up and screamed, “Oh! Heaven, forgive! Heaven have mercy!”
Miss Stark stepped forward to comfort her mistress but to no avail. Miss Furnivall was hysterical. She shrieked, “Hester! Keep our Rosy from that child! It will lure her to her death! That child is evil like that woman! Tell Rosy the girl is a wicked and that she must have nothing more to do with her.”
Maud collapsed into the back of her chair sobbing and Mrs. Stark escorted me out of the drawing room. I did not understand what was happening. I stood in the hall wondering if the ghost of the child was linked to the ghost of the woman who played the piano. Had Aida had a child that no one ever talked about? Was it the loss of the child that drove her mad? As I was thinking these thoughts, I remembered that I did not believe in ghosts, at least I had not until I had come to Furnivall Hall. I had lived through the blitz. I thought I knew what death was but this business of ghosts and spirits was something I did not comprehend. Had I not heard Aida’s ghostly music in the dead of night? Had I not heard the strange tapping sound on the landing each night before I went to sleep as if someone were walking with a stick? A shiver ran down my spine but it was not because I was cold. I shook off the shuddered and decided to pull myself together. For goodness sake, I told myself, the music must have come from a radio or a gramophone, what other explanation could there be? Then I thought, but there is no electricity in the house!
I was uneasy and decided to keep Rosy close.When I put her to bed I stayed with her until she was asleep then locked the door. As we counted the days to Christmas Aida’s nocturnal piano playing became wilder and angrier. Everyone seemed fearful as if they were expecting something terrible to happen.
I tried to keep things as normal as possible for Rosy but inside I felt as if I were going crazy. I was sure that if I didn’t get away I would soon end up as mad as everyone else in the house.
I decided to tackle Mrs. Lewis again on the subject of the Furnivall’s again. I needed to understand what was happening.
Mrs. Lewis, poured herself a cup of tea and explained that the last Lord Furnivall was a man eaten up with pride and his daughters, Aida and Maud, were much the same. Suitors came and went but no one it seemed was good enough for his girls.
“They say that the two sisters fell in love with the same man; their music master! The man was a handsome foreign gentleman, an Italian called Carboni,” she said, “and he was a cad. It seems that Miss Aida, being the older and more beautiful of the two sisters decided the scoundrel should be hers and stole him from under Maud’s nose. Aida said she was going to Switzerland for her health but in reality, she was in Venice in a love nest with the fellow. When Aida returned to England, she had a little girl with her. Her father would not have approved of her choice of husband; if they had ever married of course. I heard the child was farmed out to a couple in the village, in the house where Dr. Wilson and his family live today.”
“Oh,” I wonder if Peter knew the story when he asked me how I was getting on at the Hall,” I said thinking aloud.
“Everyone around here knows my love. It’s only Miss Maud that thinks it’s still a secret.”
“What happened to Aida?”
“Well, they say her husband, if he ever was, of course, abandoned her and that she was forced to keep the child secret especially from her sister. Maud had a very jealous nature when she was young. By all accounts, Aida was a good a mother as she could be in the circumstances. The little girl was left at the cottage and her mother rode over to see her once a week.” “Maud, however, had not given up the hope that the music master would return one day to marry her and Aida could not resist mocking her sister’s false hope. Knowing what she did Aida taunted her sister mercilessly saying that the man of her dreams would never come back and that Maud was too ugly and fat to be wanted by any man let alone a handsome man like Signor Carboni. In the meantime, their brother had become a communist or some other kind of discontent at Oxford and the old lord had disowned and disinherited him. “
“As the years went by the family grew further and further apart. Old Lord Furnivall suffered a stroke and was forced to walk with a cane. The stroke made him even more bad-tempered and angry. Aida, who loved her daughter dearly, was desperate to be with her child and with her father’s growing incapacity she became brave and moved the child into her rooms in the East wing saying she was a cottager’s child she had taken a fancy to.
Miss Stark, who was always more of a friend to Maud than a servant found out about Aida’s marriage and on Christmas Eve in 1910 she told the old Lord all about it. Well, you can imagine what happened can’t you Hester? There was a big bust up by all accounts and people say the old man hit his daughter with his stick then he turned her and her child out of the house with only the clothes they stood in. The next day some shepherds found Miss Aida sitting under tree nursing her child. The child was dead poor think. They said it had a terrible gash on its right shoulder. Aida has lost her mind and was taken to the asylum in Keswick. She died in the ‘flu’ in 1919.”
Mr. Lewis brought a Christmas tree up from the village and Rosy and I made paper chains to hang on it. Winter had the fells in its vice-like grip. The frost was bearing hard into the ground and a freezing wind was howling in the trees. I did my best to carry on as normal. As the last of the daylight faded on Christmas Eve I heard the west drawing-room bell ring three times, it was Miss Maud’s call for me. I took Rosy by the hand and went to see the old woman. From the drawing room windows, I could see that it had started to snow again and I wondered if Peter would be able to get his car up the lane to collect me for the dance.
“Why did you bring Miss Rosamond with you?” demanded a disgruntled Miss Stark. “Because I was afraid of her being tempted out by the child in the snow, Miss Stark, “ I said knowing I had Miss Maud on my side. “I have decided Rosy must be with someone at all times. Mrs. Lewis will stay with her while I am away at the barn dance.”
“That is what we wanted to speak to you about. Surely, you are not going out on a night like this Miss McKinnon. Rosamond needs you here.”
I was about to argue my case when Miss Maud’s face drained to grey. “’I hear voices! Oh no, it’s my father!”
“I can hear him too, Aunt Maud,” cried Rosy clinging to my dress. “Hester, he’s going to hurt the little girl. She wants me to help her.”
Fear gripped me. The warmth of the sitting room disappeared and the ghostly whispers spread through the air. Soon I could hear them myself.
Miss Furnivall walked as if in a trance into the hall. Miss Stark followed. My chest was so tight I could hardly breathe. I held Rosy close to me. The ghostly whispers were replaced by the sound of a woman screaming. Rosy tugged my arm, I picked up a lamp and we followed the old women into the hall.
The bronze chandelier hanging from the ceiling began to sway and the doors of the East wing that had been locked since the day we arrived snapped open. Rosy looked up at me. “’Hester! I must go,” she cried. “The little girl is here; she needs me.”
“No Rosy,” I said holding her tight to my body. If I had died at that moment, I swear my hands would not have released her. I would not let these phantoms have her.
There was a thunderous crash and the front door swung open. Snow began to blow into the great hall. I was still holding Rosy as a milky light began to fill the room. An image of a tall old man appeared. He was poking a beautiful woman with a child clinging to her skirts with his walking cane.
“Hester! Look!’ cried, Rosy. “It’s the lady! The little girl is with her.”
I held her tightly as we watched the phantom images replay their horrific scene. Miss Maud and Miss Stark stood under the swaying chandelier transfixed.The old man raised his stick and struck Aida and her child. The ghostly woman stood firm shielding her child from his blows. Then he caught her with a savage blow to the head. The ephemeral woman crumpled and the old man raised his stick to the child. Then Maud called out, “Oh, father! Father, spare the child!”
A new figure appeared in the ghostly scene. It was the figure of a woman in a diaphanous high-collared gown. She joined the old man. The look on her face was one of terrifying hate and triumphant malice.
The new apparition raised her head and laughed at the woman on the floor. Her cruel eyes rejoiced and her lips quivered in anticipation. I turned to Rosy. We both recognised the figure from the portrait in the hall. We watched as Maud took her father’s cane and smashed it into the child’s shoulder. Her sister screamed as the child fell beside her. Then Maud chased sister and her child out of the house and into the freezing December night.
When the drama was over, I scanned the room for old Miss Furnivall. I found her prostrate on the floor with Miss Stark by her side. She looked dead but her lips were moving. I leaned forward to hear her last words. “What is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!” the old woman muttered over and over again.
As Maud fell silent the yellow beam of car headlights flashed through the open front door. It was Peter. He had made it up the lane. He examined Miss Maud and pronounced her dead then he gave a sedative to Miss Stark. We retired to the drawing room, Mrs. Lewis made everyone hot sweet tea, then and put Rosy to bed. The atmosphere in the house had changed; the ghosts had disappeared and taken their venom with them.
“I wasn’t sure you’d make it because of the snow,” I said as Peter was about to leave. I was in no mood for a dance and I could not leave Rosy.
“I didn’t want to disappoint you,” he replied with a smile.
I smiled back and kissed him lightly on the cheek knowing that somehow he never would.