We fell in love at first sight with the imposing old stone house on the side of the valley in the small Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge and came to live there as soon as we could. It had been built to last until the end of time by a wealthy Victorian mill-owner and had become a ladies’ finishing school after his death. I just knew this was home for my young family when I opened the front door onto the entrance hall bathed in soft warm red light pouring down from the stained-glass window at the top of the flight of stairs.
Thinking it was easier for me to shift heavy boxes down stairs rather than up, I had the removal men carry the burden of our storage boxes to the attic bedroom. This was a curious queer cold room which time had forgotten. It was longer than it was wide, and at the far end opposite the door there was a small arched window under the eaves with views over the valley and the bleak moors in the far distance. There were bars across this window, built for a reason which for ever escaped me – no thief could scale the wall to break in – and a street lamp below. The light from the corridor and this dim little street light did their best to lift the gloom from the room, but failed. Flaking plaster clung to the walls and ceiling, and a fungal growth the shape of a giant’s hand crept down in a corner. Hard floor boards provided no comfort either, but the previous owners had left a small oak chest on the floor containing some school reports and deeds and secrets of the old house. I made a mental note to rummage through these fusty pages when the dust from our arrival had settled.
I slept an uneasy fitful sleep on our first night in Fern Villa, but was awoken suddenly in the small dark hours by a dull thud, or a crash, or a thump, on the floor of the attic room above, followed for a minute or so by a scratching on the floorboards, as of fingers scrabbling in panic. There was no human voice or animal sound. The grandfather clock struck three slow heavy chimes, and then silence fell upon the old house once more. A packing case must have fallen, my wife reassured me. Not convinced, I climbed the stairs in darkness to the attic bedroom and opened the door. Some light from the street lamp entered the window at the far end of the room, and cast thin shadows of the bars onto the wall in the corner. But no packing cases seem to have slipped or fallen, and the thud was a mystery.
The small oak chest in the attic room held my attention as I unpacked the cases. Inside were a few old school reports of former pupils – satisfactory in arithmetic and reading, but room for improvement in deportment was the recurring theme – and Ms Ash’s diary. The attic had evidently been the dormitory for the pupils, and the bedroom of the maidservant, Ms Stella Crow, after Ms Ash’s retirement. Deportment was still a concern for Ms Ash, and her dealings with her servant were fraught with tension. Poor Ms Crow was banished to her room when her day’s work clearing the grates and dust of Fern Villa and tending her cantankerous mistress was done, taking her food on a tray, her washing, and her book up the flights of stairs to read by the dim light of the lamp outside in her attic existence. But the diary left so much of Ms Ash unsaid and ended abruptly on Christmas Eve in the year 1895.
A few months after our arrival I was awoken once more by the dull thud from the attic bedroom above, as of a soft heavy object falling onto a hard surface, followed by the scrabbling scratching fingers. The grandfather clock again struck three, then silence in the old dark house. No human sound. Squirrels in the loft, my wife reassured me. No, was my reaction, and I steeled myself to the attic room with my heart pounding in my chest. It was lit only in one corner by the light of the street lamp, with the shadows of the bars cast on the wall. All was still, but on the top bar was the silhouette of a large bird, a crow. Peering out through the bars on the window and into the fog of the night, there was no bird to be seen, but staring back at the shadows, it had gone.
Peace of mind deserted me in Fern Villa, but I found some sort of macabre explanation in the newspapers in the local library. ‘Mysterious Death in a Clothes Horse’ was the headline. On Christmas Day Ms Crow, sitting on a stool in her attic bedroom, had fallen, or been pushed, backwards onto her clothes horse. Laden with wet clothes, the horse had fallen forwards, and Ms Crow’s neck had become entangled by the lower two bars. She had lived a short while, trying in vain with her outstretched hands to lift the burden from her neck. Ms Ash found the horrific scene the following morning, her servant’s face and her fingers spattered with blood.
Somehow I made my way back up the hill from the library to the old house. Peering down the street at me from the attic window was the vague form of a figure, or was it the reflection of the clouds? I found out some years later, long after we had left Fern Villa for a modern house, that Ms Ash spent her final years in an asylum, before she took her own life.
Image courtesy of: Anthony Bowler (Hebden Bridge Web)