Originally published: 30.10.14
A Halloween story for children:
This is actually a true story. It happened in this house. I didn’t want to tell you before in case you were scared. Is everyone ok with hearing the story? You can go and play in the dining room if you like. The lights are on in there.
You all want to hear it?
All right then.
This is something that happened in Victorian times, about a hundred and fifty years ago. At that time the house belonged to one very rich old lady who lived here all by herself. Her name was Mrs Taylor.
Now, when I say by herself, she actually had servants. There was a gardener called Mr Bean who lived down the street and just came in the morning, but there was also a cook-housekeeper called Mrs Brain who slept in the attic and most of the time, another servant girl who would be the maid-of-all-work.
Being a maid-of-all-work was a hard job. And the shocking thing is, the girls who did it sometimes weren’t even grown-ups or even teenagers, they were children like you. They had to be the first person to get up in the morning, to do the fires, carry up Mrs Taylor’s bathwater and even empty her smelly old chamber pot from under the bed. Then during the day they were at everybody’s beck and call, doing the hard jobs, the scrubbing and scraping and blackleading and fetching and carrying. At night they would collapse into bed exhausted but they still had to listen out for the bell, in case Mrs Taylor wanted anything in the night. There was a bellpull right by her bed and if she woke in the night she would ring it as hard as it could so that it jangled in the attic bedrooms and woke up the poor maid to come down and see what she wanted.
To make matters worse, Mrs Taylor was mean. She paid her servants as little as she could get away with and she fed them on her leftovers: stale bread, scrapings from her plate. Even then they didn’t get enough. And she beat her little servant girls with her walking stick if they made a mistake or didn’t come fast enough when she rang.
Not surprisingly, nobody ever stayed in the job for any longer than they could help, so she was always having to write to the Malton workhouse master or the orphanages in York to see if they knew of anyone who was desperate enough to take the position.
One day, Mrs Taylor was sitting by her cosy fire, reading the latest installment of a magazine story about a missionary being eaten by cannibals, when the doorbell rang.
The cook-housekeeper, Mrs Brain, put down her rolling pin with a sigh and went to answer the door. Of course Mrs Taylor didn’t actually get up and answer her own door – that was what servants were for.
In the doorway stood the master of the workhouse, and next to him, a tiny scrap of a girl, no bigger than Lily here.
The workhouse master tipped his hat. ‘Brought your new servant girl, ma’am. The lady of the house wrote me a letter.’
Mrs Brain screwed up her eyes. The girl didn’t look like she’d be much use. Her arms and legs were skinny as twigs and her cheeks were hollowed out, as if she never had enough to eat. She didn’t just look weak, she looked ill. Her eyes were red with dark circles under them, and she kept her hand pressed in front of her mouth, as if she was always trying to stop herself coughing.
Mrs Brain showed her into the drawing room and Mrs Taylor looked the girl up and down. ‘She doesn’t look much, but she’ll have to do,’ she said. ‘She can start right away. Tell her to go and fetch some water to scrub the floor in the hall, and when she’s done that, the water closet wants scouring.’
She didn’t even ask the little girl’s name.
The girl’s name was Hannah, and she had lived in the workhouse nearly all her life. She was actually suffering from an illness called tuberculosis, which was why she coughed so much. Anyone who cared enough to notice could have seen she was ill, but the workhouse master didn’t care, Mrs Taylor didn’t care as long as the fires were lit and the chamber pots emptied, and even Mrs Brain, who might have been kind to her, only grumbled about how feeble and slow she was, and how she couldn’t carry a heavy bucket of water without stumbling and spilling half. If she had been properly fed, and rested, and kept warm, she might have recovered, but there was no hope of that in this house.
Poor Hannah had a terrible time of it. It wasn’t enough that she was kept on her feet all day long. Mrs Taylor was a bad sleeper, and woke several times in the night, and each time, she would ring her bell and Hannah was expected to come running. Sometimes it was to fetch a book, or a biscuit, sometimes Mrs Taylor complained she was cold and wanted the fire lighting. Each time, Hannah had to struggle out of bed in her thin nightgown in the freezing cold attic room. It was not surprising that her cough got worse, and she grew thinner and thinner.
I am very sad to have to tell you that Hannah died. One night when Mrs Taylor rang the bell and Hannah stumbled out of bed as usual, she found that she could hardly stand up. At the top of the stairs she wobbled, and tried to reach for the rail to stop herself falling, but instead she tumbled right down the stairs and broke her neck. She was only ten years old. The vicar suggested Mrs Taylor might like to give some money to pay for a proper burial for her, but she was too mean, and Hannah’s tiny remains were buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave without even a coffin to protect her from the earth and the worms.
A week or so later, Mrs Brain had to go to visit her sister in Pickering, who was sick. Mrs Taylor grumbled, but she let her go, because she knew that if she didn’t, Mrs Brain might leave, and she might never find another cook-housekeeper to look after such a big house for so little money. So Mrs Brain arranged for Mr Bean the gardener’s wife to come in just before bedtime to help Mrs Taylor to bed, and once again early in the mornings to light the fires. This meant that Mrs Taylor was completely alone in the house.
It was a wild, windy night, so windy that the streetlights blew out and the street was in pitch darkness. The wind rattled the windowframes and blew down the chimneys, making a noise like somebody moaning, ‘Oh, oh.’ Alone in her comfortable bed, Mrs Taylor shuddered. She pulled the thick bedcovers up around her head and tried to block out the noises, until at last she fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, there was a loud bang on the window. She sat bolt upright in bed, her heart racing. But the tapping continued, until Mrs Taylor realised with relief that it was just a branch of one of the holly trees blowing against the window. She slid back under the covers and went back to sleep.
There was another bang, a lighter one this time. Mrs Taylor half woke up, and groped for the bell. As it clanged in the distant empty attic she remembered she was alone, and there was no-one in the house to answer. ‘Fiddlesticks!’ she said. ‘If that silly girl hadn’t gone and fallen downstairs…’ Light, pattery footsteps sounded on the uncarpeted attic stairs.
Mrs Taylor gasped.
‘Rats,’ she whispered to herself. ‘It must be rats or mice.’ But the footsteps were on the landing now, and were coming closer and closer.
They stopped. Mrs Taylor held her breath. And then there was a cough, just outside the room.
Mrs Taylor froze. She had to send the maid away! Summoning up all her courage, she managed to squeeze some words out. ‘I – I don’t need you after all,’ she called shakily.
The door of her bedroom slowly opened. Mrs Taylor squeezed her eyes tight shut.
‘It’s quite all right,’ she said faintly. ‘You can go back to bed now.’
The footsteps came closer and closer, until at last they stopped right beside her bed.
Mrs Taylor forced herself to open her eyes.
It was Hannah all right, standing only inches away from her, and looking even thinner and sicker than she had done in life. Her skin was a deathly white, and there were still bluish bruises on her bony arms, where Mrs Taylor had hit her with her walking stick just two weeks earlier. Her hair hung down by her cheeks, clods of earth clinging to it. Something writhed in her ear. Mrs Taylor let out a cry of horror when she saw that it was a worm.
The apparition made a little, tired curtsey. ‘I came at once, Ma’am,’ she said. ‘I was in my grave but I came at once.’
Mrs Taylor screamed. ‘I don’t need you,’ she gabbled. ‘Go back to bed – I mean back to your grave – you’re ill – I’ll pay for the doctor – oh, I’m too late, aren’t I? I’m too late! Please, go!’
The ghost gave a slight, feeble smile. But she did not move.
When Mrs Bean came the next morning to help Mrs Taylor dress, she found her curled up into a ball on the floor in the corner of the room, gabbling incoherently about maids-of-all-work, graveyard mud and bells. She went straight back home to fetch her husband, who took one look at her and went straight for the doctor. The doctor decided she must have had a nervous breakdown, and she was sent to a hospital for a very long time.
When she came out of hospital, Mrs Taylor did try to make amends. The house had been shut up while she was gone, and Mrs Brain had found another job in Pickering, near her sister, but she engaged new staff, a cook and two maids, who she paid almost twice as much as she had given the wretched Hannah. She also gave a considerable amount of money to the workhouse master, to buy better food for the paupers. Unfortunately he stole it, and something terrible happened to him as a result, but that is a story for next Halloween.
You’ve probably noticed the bell next to the fireplace. That’s one of the bells Mrs Taylor used to ring to call Hannah. Does anyone want to ring it? No?
Katharine Edgar is a Yorkshire-based feminist who writes young adult fiction, including the forthcoming Five Wounds. She blogs about her historical fiction writing: Tudor history, women’s history, crafts and writing.