Poor Shirley let out a deep sigh as she stood. Her creaking knees weren’t up to all this getting up and down these days. It was probably a good thing she was retiring, really. ‘You can’t go on forever!’ She thought to herself. ‘And Camilla understands now. She understands the house. At least, I hope she does .’
Shirley stepped back and looked at the presents under the sparkling tower of a Christmas tree. Boxes of all shapes and sizes were arranged at its base in just the right way, beautifully wrapped with tartan-coloured paper and luxurious gold ribbon bows. But one package sat just off to the side of the others, covered with silver paper and ribbon and looking a bit different. It was just so everyone knew to leave it there. Away from the rest. The same as it was every year.
Shirley gazed up at the tree. It really was stunning. There weren’t many entrance halls big enough to carry a tree like this, but Babbesley Hall was one that could. She was so proud to have served such a place for so many years. The sweeping wooden antique staircase curled down around the tree. The family portraits, hung on the wall for many generations, looked sternly down on the twinkling lights of the tree with its bounty of presents underneath. Shirley smoothed down her skirt. Her last day of work! Sixty years working here, starting as a lowly maid back in the 1950s and working hard to take on the prestigious role of head housekeeper. A position she had kept for forty years. But Shirley was looking forward to a rest if she was honest. However, leaving Babbesley after so many years would be very hard.
Camilla swept into the entrance hall, followed by Liezel, Shirley’s replacement. “Ah, Shirley. There you are! Are we all done here? Have you put the gift out for the…umm, the children?” Camilla trilled.
Shirley gestured towards the silver box. Camilla nodded back and looked briefly at her. What was it Shirley detected in the over-confident and no-nonsense new mistress? Was it a little fear? Or was it doubt? “Good. Good.” Camilla said. Almost as if she really didn’t want to acknowledge the box but knowing that she was expected to ask.
“You must get off then Shirley. It is your last day after all and I’m sure you want to get ready for Christmas. I can’t believe it! Your last day here with us.” Camilla blathered on about enjoying retirement and putting her feet up and the like, but Shirley wasn’t really listening. She was just absorbing her last look around the grand hall. It was a beautiful and majestic home, meticulously kept. Shirley returned from her thoughts as she realised Camilla was about to hug her and pack her out of the door.
“Goodbye Shirley. We will see you soon. But go for now. Liezel and I have much to do, don’t we? Happy Christmas!” Camilla squeezed Shirley in a final embrace and swept out of the entrance hall, off down the corridor towards the kitchens.
Shirley opened the massive door for the very last time and looked back at the tree. She couldn’t see them, the little ones, but she could feel them. They were here somehow. Shirley could tell. Maybe they had come to say goodbye! Shirley took great comfort from knowing they would be safe now. The present was out as instructed. Maybe Camilla did understand and perhaps she would keep up the traditions.
Shirley opened the back door to her cottage. It was rather small and very old, but cosy . It had been her cottage since she had married Jack, given to them on a peppercorn rent by the last mistress of Babbesley, Lady Towsham. That was how it worked on these big estates. A humble place to live was part of one’s employment package.
‘Jack?’ She called out.
‘In here Love.’ Jack called back. He had already lit the fire in the hearth and was reading a newspaper in his favourite old armchair. ‘All done then?’ He asked as Shirley sat down on the opposite side of the fire.
Shirley smiled at him. Jack was in his 80s now. Still a cheeky chap, despite the grey hair and weathered gardener’s face. ‘All done! I have officially retired. And just in time for Christmas!’ She forced a smile. But Jack knew his wife of many years too well.
‘What’s the sad face for then?’ He asked as he folded the newspaper into his lap and reached across to pour tea from the pot into the two cups waiting on the occasional table in front of him.
Shirley took the cup held out for her. ‘Oh, you know.’ She looked at Jack. ‘I am glad to finish work. I am! It’s a good year to go out on. It’s not been the same since Camilla took over. But Jack, I just hope she knows, really knows, exactly what she is taking on now. I just hope she keeps up the traditions.’
Jack smiled at his wife. Grey-haired, wider and rounder on the hips than she had been when she was younger and a little more unsteady on her feet. ‘Well,’ he stated. ‘She ‘as been warned.’
Shirley stared into the gentle flames in the fireplace, thinking back. ‘I remember Lady Lilith pulling Camilla aside after Lord Seb’s proposal.’ She looked up at Jack.’ I was there, pouring tea. Lady Lilith asked me to stay and tend to the fire.’
‘Oh yes!’ Said Jack, always keen to reminisce and rake over past happenings. ‘She was a fierce lady, was Lady Lilith. She set it out straight for her, didn’t she.’ Shirley agreed. Her mind flitted back to the night she had heard the downright spooky truth about Babbesley Hall.
They had sat in the drawing room in front of the fire. It was just before Christmas. Seb, the new Lord of Babbesley, had proposed to Camilla on a trip to Paris and it was looking likely she was to become the next Lady Towsham. He’d brought Camilla to visit his mother, Lady Lilith, to spend Christmas with her. It was also looking likely this was Lady Lilith’s last. Her health was failing. She was frail and thin. Her mind was as sharp as a pin, but her strength was disappearing. She had told Camilla she wished to see her privately and had something of great importance to tell her.
Jack rubbed his chin. Something he had always done when he dredged up memories. ‘Remind me what she said again.’ said Jack.
Shirley took a sip of tea and recounted exactly what was said. ‘Camilla, there is something you need to know about this house. As you know, I am not well. At some point soon, you are going to be the new mistress here and it will be your responsibility to keep it in good order. I do understand you will want to put your slant on it, and I have heard you speak of your grand plans for the place. Whether I agree or not, when I am gone, what am I going to do about it anyway?’
Shirley remembered how Lady Lilith would purse her lips when she disapproved of an idea.
‘The problem is Camilla, there are rules. Rules to living in this house and they must be obeyed. I have kept to the rules for the whole time I have been here and I have had little trouble.’ Lady Lilith had swallowed and taken a deep breath before beginning again. She believed in the ghosts of the hall, however, even after all this time, she still felt foolish to admit it. ‘Quite simply, you can do whatever you will to the house but there are a couple of rooms you must respect.’ Camilla had looked at Lady Lilith with interest. She was a confident young woman and was not intimidated by the dour old lady speaking seriously to her. Lady Lilith continued.
‘We have an ancestor. He was the Lord here in 1782 and he was called William. He was a cruel and evil man, corrupted by alcohol and gambling addictions. We know he was mean and petulant as a child, and he bullied anyone who didn’t stand up to him. He became Lord at the age of sixteen and was foul to all around him, except for the male cronies he called his friends. Married at seventeen to poor Isabella, he had more interest in prostitutes, fine wine and gambling.
He returned to Babbesley only when he needed more money for his terrible habits. Isabella bore him two daughters, both of whom he resented. To him, Isabella was simply there to provide him with a son and she had failed so far. He took his anger out on her on a regular basis.
Eventually, the money from the estate ran out and William began a gambling ring from the cellar of the Hall. He would bring all sorts of disgusting characters to his games through the tunnels which run from here, out of sight of the house. He was a useless businessman and hopeless drunk, so he ended up owing huge gambling debts to odious people with whom he should never have had any business.
He was becoming increasingly angry, probably because he knew his life was in danger. The money had gone and so William decided, in order to settle one debt, he would reach new depths of depravity.’
Camilla listened politely. She had no idea where this long, drawn-out story was heading, but she supposed it was okay to indulge this old lady in her history lesson. Camilla would need to learn a bit about the house and its history anyway, as her future guests would be sure to ask. Lady Lilith took a sip of tea and dabbed the corner of her mouth with a tissue.
‘He sold his daughters Camilla. It’s a terrible, terrible thing that he did. He sold his own daughters to one of his associates. A disgusting French character who planned to take the two pretty well-bred English girls to Paris and sell them for a very high price. I don’t think I need to explain any more about that. I’m sure you can imagine.’ Lady Lilith grimaced in disgust at the thought of such a vile act. She continued.
‘William shook on the deal and went to fetch his daughters. The story is that, whilst small and feeble compared to William, Isabella tried to fight him off with a poker from the fire. He struck her down and strangled her in front of his own daughters. He seized the screaming girls and handed them over to their new owner, who promptly sent them off to France with a couple of his men. Those poor girls. Whatever must have been going through their minds. And what happened next was a complete and utter tragedy. This terrible man took the children to Southampton and they boarded a ship for France. A terrible storm blew in, capsizing the ship in the English Channel. Everyone onboard the ship, including the two sisters, drowned. William found out what had happened. He was already blind with rage, having killed his own wife and now he was also terrified. The French man had declared the debt still unpaid, and his enemy was bloodthirsty. He came to the hall soon after the tragic death of the sisters and cut the throat of William in his own gambling den.’
Lady Lilith finished for a moment to take a breath. It was a horrific story to have in one’s family history. Camilla was surprised by the heinous crime committed in this place, but didn’t every good aristocratic family have a murderer for a relative? She seemed relatively unmoved by the story.
‘How does this relate to the rooms you mentioned?’ Asked Camilla
‘Since there was no heir, following William’s murder, his unmarried sister Lady Louisa became the mistress of the hall. There were just the two of them left in the family. His sister was understandably completely shocked by the events. She was a pious lady and highly religious, so she generally had very little to do with her despicable brother while he was alive. I believe she lived in the hall for only a short while. She demanded the cellar be emptied and bricked up as she wanted no reminder of the scene of her brother’s murder. She also ordered the nursery to be barricaded shut. Once a week, the housekeeper is to enter the room and tidy up. Dust the shelves and straighten the curtains. It is to be left, as it was before the sisters were stolen, as a reminder of the terrible loss to the family.’
‘Oh.’ Said Camilla. ‘Is that the locked door at the end of the house? I was going to get that opened up to use as another bedroom. It has an exceptional view out over the lawns and fantastic light.’
‘No.’ Snapped Lady Lilith. ‘You can’t do that.’ Camilla looked a little taken aback. She tried hard not to roll her eyes.
‘That is one of the rules. Leave the nursery for the sisters. They live there. Leave their beds and their toys. They are safe in there and they are happy. Do not disturb them. But have your housekeeper straighten and clean the room once a week. That is of the utmost importance.’
Lady Lilith looked up at Camilla. ‘One more thing. Leave them a gift at Christmas.’ she said.
‘What?’ Camilla smiled and half laughed. ‘What are you trying to say? I have to leave a present out at Christmas for some ghost children?’
‘That’s correct.’ Lady Lilith tilted the corner of her mouth up in a hint of a smile. ‘It sounds farcical, I agree. But you will see, when you live here, two little girls are indeed here too. And you will be aware of them. They will cause you no problems as long as you keep to the rules.’
Camilla found the whole thing completely ridiculous. ‘I’m sorry.’ she said. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts.’
Lady Lilith’s face turned serious again. ‘Well, neither did I.’ She said. ‘But I soon changed my mind.’
‘There is one final rule. Do not touch the cellar. It has been bricked up for a reason. I cannot say what is down there and I wouldn’t want to speculate, but I have been told it must stay like that forevermore. Another of our family apparently opened it up seventy years ago and it stayed open for only six days. I was told a blackness came over the house. A deep depression was felt by the family and the servants alike. A dark shadow was seen on several occasions, which came with a malodorous smell that would hang around before suddenly disappearing. The children began to have terrible nightmares of the same man. He was a terrible man, they told their parents. And he would come into their rooms at night and stare at them with black holes for eyes. The staff were terrified. They told the family they wouldn’t work in the house until the cellar was bricked up again and a Priest had been called to bless the house. Normally, servants do not get to demand such things, but I think the family was so scared that they agreed. The cellar was bricked up, and the house was blessed. The house returned to normal. That is what I was told.’
‘Camilla was very dismissive of the whole thing, I recall.’ Shirley said to Jack. ‘She was as arrogant as her Lord Seb. I remember her telling Lady Lilith she wouldn’t be keeping the cellar bricked up as she was planning on building an entertainment space in the style of a gentleman’s club. Lady Lilith was furious. She accused Camilla of being dismissive. She told her she had to do what she was told or face the consequences. I could tell, even then, Camilla was not going to do that, but she decided to keep the peace and promised Lady Lilith she would keep to the rules.’
Jack looked at his wife. ‘Well, I’ll bet my bottom dollar she will wish she had listened if she goes ahead with ‘er big plans.’
Shirley smiled. ‘You know, she doesn’t believe any of the stories. Now Lady Lilith has passed, I think she’s definitely planning to put her mark on the place. I heard her talking with Lord Seb about opening up the cellar.’ Shirley shuddered at that thought. ‘Rules or not. She’s the sort that does exactly as she pleases. But she is going to get a surprise, I think.’
‘She might get one tomorrow,’ nodded Jack.
Shirley smiled knowingly. ‘Yes, maybe that’s what she needs.’
Camilla waltzed into her husband’s office after barking orders at Liezel in the kitchen. Seb held an expensive crystal brandy glass in his hand and continued to talk loudly on the phone to one of his old school chums as Camilla waited.
‘Yes, Raph, yes, exactly. Yes, marvellous to talk to you. That’s right, in the new year.’
Seb ended the conversation with much Christmas bonne homme and looked to his wife, who waited impatiently, fidgeting like a bottle of over-shaken champagne, ready to pop.
‘This bloody nonsense with the rooms, Seb. Shirley has left out a present with silver ribbon. For the “ghost children.” I told Liezel to put it in the storeroom. It doesn’t match the other wrapping paper. It’s such a load of nonsense. Farcical almost.
Anyway, I just came to say everything is ready for tomorrow and organised sooooo, I’m going to take a bath and get ready. We’re to head over to the Glanville’s for 7 pm. Make sure you’re ready. Don’t forget we’re staying over and I have our new driver picking us up at 8 am, Liezel coming at 9 am. Then we’ve two hours before the family arrives.
Oh, I am so excited! It’s only a little affair, but next year, when everything here is done, we’ll have the Christmas to end all Christmases. A big party in our new bar room in the cellar. I cannot wait!’ Camilla squealed, giddy with the excitement of all that was to come, and she flounced back out of the office to have a long soak in her bath.
Christmas day dawned across the land and many families had already been up for hours. In other households, pounding heads, thick from alcoholic celebrations of the night before, dared to poke out from beneath the duvet. Camilla and Seb did exactly that. Wiping her blonde hair from her face, Camilla nudged Seb. ‘Happy Christmas darling. Now wake up! Our driver will be here in fifteen minutes. We really do need to get back.’
Seb, a seasoned drinker, rubbed at his face and groaned. He felt the thick feeling within his head and a churning in his washing machine stomach. But he pulled himself up and walked straight into the bathroom to revive himself under a hot steaming shower.
Twenty-five minutes later, with gushing thankyous, goodbyes, and happy Christmases, Seb and Camilla left their friend’s beautiful country pad and were driven back to the darkened Babbesley Hall. A thick foreboding fog settled over the chimney tops of the sprawling Georgian property. It was a dank and grey day—the type of day that chills you to the bone. There were no lights on, not even the Christmas lights on the trees outside. All the curtains appeared to be shut.
‘Ohhh.’ Sighed Camila. ‘Not much of a welcome, is it? Liezel must have turned all the lights off before she left last night.’
‘She didn’t turn off all the lights, though!’ Seb pointed up at the top right bedroom window. The nursery. From the window shone a strange light. It wasn’t bright and it had a blue hue to it. The curtains were open.
Camilla gasped a little. ‘They weren’t open Seb. They are never open. And what’s that light in there? The room is meant to be locked.’
Seb made a wooh-hoo-hoo sound and waved his hand at Camilla as the car pulled up to the hall’s main door. ‘Must be the ghooossssstttt children.’ He laughed teasingly. Seb thought the whole thing was a load of tripe. He had never seen anything in the house. Not that he had lived there much, having spent most of his childhood either in boarding schools or away at fancy destinations in the holidays.
Camilla tutted at her husband. It must have been Liezel for some reason. No matter. This nonsense with that room and cellar had to stop. The renovations would happen next year, no matter what superstitious nonsense stories were attached to the house.
Seb pulled his scarf up around his neck as he got out of the car, and Camilla climbed out of the back door as their driver attended to their bags. The couple headed up the large stone set of stairs. Seb unlocked the heavy wooden front doors that lead into Babbesley’s entrance hall. It creaked as he pushed it, and it swung lazily open. Camilla, following closely behind, stepped into the hall behind her husband. They stopped suddenly. Their eyes were drawn to the tree and they immediately spotted a horror scene at its base. Camilla let out a small shriek. Seb stared at the scene and, under his breath, muttered, ‘What the bloody hell has happened here?’
Camilla ran towards the tree. For her, this was a scene of utter horror. All around the base, every beautifully wrapped present had been ripped apart. Ribbons were strewn around the floor and each bit of paper had been shredded into pieces and thrown around the room.
Each of the lovingly chosen gifts had been pulled out of its packaging. Some gifts had been smashed, including several expensive bottles of wine and port. Puddles of deep red liquid had poured across the floor and were soaked up by a pricey antique rug. Toiletries from the exclusive department stores of London had been poured from their bottles and thrown down, the liquids mixing together. A beautiful pashmina lay, ruined. All material and clothing items had been destroyed. A pair of earrings, separated, were both covered in the gooey wine and toiletry mess. The floor around the tree was blanketed in the most terrible state.
‘We’ve been vandalised.’ Camilla cried out. She was horrified. ‘Who would do this? Who?’
A faint little giggle came from the top of the stairs. It wasn’t a nice laugh. It was scornful. Camilla heard the sound and looked up to the top of the stairs. A small dark shadow flitted around the corner and disappeared into the darkness of the upstairs landing.
‘Did you see that Seb? Did you hear the laughing?’ Camilla felt the blood pumping into her veins blood pressure rising. A chill, like light fingertips running up her spine, rose up the back of her neck. A deep and dark cold enveloped her body. Senses heightened, she grabbed onto Seb’s arm.
‘What is that?’ What is going on?’ Camilla yelped.
Seb had heard the noise, the faint sound of a laugh. He looked up from the ruined gifts. Fury had come over him. He looked back in rage at the ruins of Christmas, his first as the Lord of the Manor, and his anger grew harder.
‘There’s someone up there, Seb. Someone. Or something!’ cried Camilla.
Seb, who didn’t entertain the notion of anything supernatural, assumed the laugh had come from an intruder. Likely the same person who had decimated the vast pile of presents. He strode towards the stairs. ‘Hey. You. Who are you? Come back here.’ Seb took off on a chase. Two at a time, he gobbled the stairs up beneath his stride. The hunt had begun.
Although overcome by nerves, Camilla was not going to be left alone and scurried up the sweeping staircase after her husband. Seb was after whomever it was that had dared to come into his ancestral home. He heard the noise again. A mocking laugh. He ran towards it, along the hallway. Past the paintings of his relatives. Past the antiques, the coat of arms on guard outside one of the bedrooms. Onward until he reached the end of the hall and ended up outside the nursery door. It was firmly closed, just as it had always been and yet a strange, dull, blue-tinted light shone out from under the crack at the bottom.
Seb ground to a halt. He turned his head and spun his body around. Where had the bloody burglar gone? The only place they could have disappeared to was into the nursery, although that was impossible. The room was locked.
Seb panted as he tried to work out what was happening. The adrenaline coursed through his veins, cancelling his excessive alcohol-induced symptoms. He felt confused and angry. Camilla caught up to him and grabbed onto his arm again. She looked at him with questioning eyes.
‘In there?’ she asked Seb.
He didn’t know how to answer her, so he took the doorknob and turned it. Typically, it just rattled around and would not turn. It was always locked. But, this time, it was different. The knob turned smoothly, and a small click indicated it was actually open. Seb pushed open the door, sweat beading on his brow, trepidation setting in. Whether this intruder was alive or dead, he was about to come face to face with them.
He pushed the door open, expecting to see someone there. Seb was prepared to fight with his alpha male stance, veins popping on his forehead. He was ready to pounce. But here’s the thing. There was nothing in the room out of the ordinary. There was certainly no one there. At least, not unless they were well hidden. Camilla stood behind Seb in the doorway. The room was lit by the slim amount of grey light from outside and a small nightlight was sat in the middle of the room, gently glowing and throwing stars onto the ceiling, many feet above. Seb looked under both beds and opened the completely empty wardrobe. Nothing. There was no one there.
Camilla stood shaking and suddenly took a deep breath. What remaining colour she had in her face drained out of it. There, in the middle of the nursery floor, was the nightlight Shirley had purchased on Camilla’s behalf. The light that had been wrapped in silver paper and silver ribbon. The gift that had been taken from under the tree on Christmas Eve and stashed in the storeroom at the back of the house.
Camilla felt sick. Weak. Her knees began to tremble and she clung to Seb.
‘Seb. Seb. That’s, umm. That’s. That’s the present we bought for under the tree. The one we bought for the, umm, children. The one that I had put into the storeroom yesterday.’
Seb looked at her. ’What? What are you saying? That, this is the gift you were going to leave out for the ghosts?’
Camilla nodded. Seb walked over to the light. ‘What the hell is going on here?’ He picked up the light in his hands. It continued to glow its cold blue star shapes across the room. As he held the light in his hands, he suddenly realised the light wasn’t even plugged in.
Shirley was up early, as always. It’s hard to break habits you have held for many years. She had put a brew in the teapot and was just about to pour a cup for her and Jack. The first of Christmas day. She squeezed Jack’s knee as she handed him the steaming cup.
The phone rang. Shirley jumped. It was a bit early for phone calls, even for Christmas day greetings.
A very shaky and rather quiet version of Camilla was on the other end of the line.
‘Shirley. Hello. I’m so sorry to bother you. It’s just, well. We have a bit of a problem here.’
‘Miss!’ Shirley said in reply. ‘What a surprise! There’s nothing wrong, I hope?’
Shirley sat herself down in the armchair next to the fire and with Jack opposite and she listened as Camilla recounted the whole horrifying scene that had awaited her that morning. She told of the ghostly laughter, the open nursery and the very unsettling moment they found the children’s gift, working beautifully but unplugged from any electrical socket.
Shirley was shocked. She knew of the rules and obeyed them diligently, not that it would have ever been her place even to question them. And so, over the course of many years of service at Babbesley Hall, there had never been a problem.
‘Oh, my dear. You left out the present, didn’t you? So, I’ve no idea why this has happened. The children, they are normally so happy with their gift. You’ll always find it up in the nursery when you go to look for it. Hidden away, behind the locked door.’
Camilla shuddered. ‘I think that may be the problem, Shirley.’ She took a deep breath. ‘After you went, I told Liezel to put the gift in the storeroom.’
Shirley was silent for a moment. She had a realisation of what had happened.
‘Well, Miss Camilla. I’m sorry, but you do know the rules of the house.’
Camilla winced. ‘Well yes, of course. As you know.’
‘But you cannot choose to ignore them Miss. As you were told, all will be quiet in the house as long as you follow the rules. You’ve upset the children, I think.’
Camilla showed a little humility, probably for one of the first times in her life. ‘Yes, I know. I should have listened and I didn’t. I mean, I couldn’t believe all the old ghost stories. But I can see now. Well, I can see they are all very, very real.’ There were several more seconds of silence.
‘I must go Shirley. Liezel is here now. I need to deal with… with, whatever. I need to clear up the presents.’
Shirley felt sad for poor Camilla. She almost offered to go and help her, but Jack, knowing his wife as well as he does, put a restful hand on her arm and gave his head a simple shake. Shirley, being so in tune with this man she had lived with for so long, took the cue.
‘Miss,’ said Shirley. ‘Just before you go, can I ask one thing? Please, will you reconsider the cellar? I know you have grand plans and all, but you just need to think of the rules to live peacefully in the hall. I don’t want to think about what might happen.’
Camilla sucked in air through her teeth and exhaled again. She hated to go back on her grand plans, but if locking away a silver box was going to cause this much upset, what in God’s name would happen if they were to break the rule of which they had been warned they should strictly not do?
‘Erm, yes.’ she replied. ‘I think we will very much be reconsidering our plans for those two rooms. I think that we might, well, we might just leave them as they are.’
Shirley smiled to herself. ‘Leave a present out under the tree next Christmas, Miss, and follow the other rules. You will be just fine.’
‘Happy Christmas Shirley.’ Said Camilla to bring an end to their conversation.
‘Yes, thank you, Miss. Happy Christmas to you too.’
Shirley looked to Jack, who had listened in to the whole conversation. He gave another slight nod of his head. They didn’t need to say a word. Camilla had been given a sign and it seemed likely that the cellar would stay bricked up for now, and the ghostly children would be left in peace. At least for the next generation, anyway.
Image originally by annie-spratt-IMuIrInlK10-unsplash.jpg
Copyright 2022 Emma Heard Weird Wiltshire. All rights reserved.
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