Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Ghosts of Christmas Past: A Brisbane Tale...

 1938 Christmas Greetings Card, from your friendly Brisbane Dunny Man.

*Preface*  A century ago, it was customary to run Christmas ghost stories in the newspapers throughout the British Empire, a yearly event that Australia also indulged in - this tradition was most likely fueled by the famous author Charles Dickens, who published many works on ghosts centred around Christmas.  The newspapers of early Brisbane were no different - each year, a collection of ghost stories both fictional & real, would be published as a Christmas Supplement...& for this week's article, we will tap into the Christmas Supplement published in The Queenslander on the 17th of December 1887.  The story recollects a visit to a haunted house on the outskirts of 1887 Brisbane, at Albion, by two adventurous women - whilst it is quite lengthy, it demonstrates the language & intrigue of early Brisbane perfectly & is well worth the read.  So, without further ado, please enjoy our "Ghosts of Brisbane's Christmas Past" article - & Merry Christmas to you all, from the Haunts of Brisbane!

     Before beginning my story, I feel that I owe you, my readers, a few words of apology for expecting you to believe a ghost story written by a woman; but I wish you to understand that I am—for a woman—most unimaginative and strong minded, and had indeed always held in supreme contempt anything connected with ghosts and 'such like nonsense,' until something befell me which caused me to alter my opinion. The story I am about to relate to you is perfectly true, and as it happened to me so will I tell it you, merely changing the names of some of the people concerned for reasons of my own.
     One morning as we sat at breakfast in our cosy little cottage at Toowong, my husband said suddenly, "By the way, Dot (that was his pet name for me), I shan't be able to get home tonight I am afraid. I forgot to tell you that I had a telegram from an old friend—you have heard me speak of him, George Cortis—asking me to meet him at the wharf tonight. He has just come out from home, and left Sydney on Tuesday by the Eurimbla, which is due late tonight. He is going to settle out here now and practise as a doctor. There's a chance for you, Jo"—turning to my sister, who was staying with me. "He's good-looking, very clever, and one of the best fellows I ever met." 
     "All right, Charlie," said Jo, brightly; "Trot him along for my approval." Jo was rather prone to use slang in the bosom of the family.
     "I will," said Charlie, laughing. "I'll bring him home with me tomorrow." Then turning to me: "'Good-bye, little woman; take care of yourself. You won't be dull with Jo here, and I'll get back to lunch tomorrow and bring George with me to stay a few days with us. Good-bye, darling;" and he was gone, leaving us to our own devices for thirty-six hours.
     "What shall we do with ourselves, Jo?" I asked. "Go for a picnic, or what?" 
     Jo was silent for a minute and began another breakfast. 
     "I've got it!" she exclaimed at last. "'I've got it, Dot; we'll go ghost hunting tonight."
     "Ghost hunting, Jo!" I cried. "What do you mean? You know I don't go in for anything of the kind, and I thought you had too much sense to believe in it."
     "Well," she said doubtfully, "I'm not quite sure whether I do believe in it or not, but I want to "see the folly of it," as they say, and when a real ghost comes in our way, why not "explore" him? Dot, I'll tell you what put it into my head. We were talking about ghosts at Mrs Davis's last night, and someone told a story of a house at the Albion which was said to be haunted—a house belonging to a Dr. Macauly, who has been dead about twelve years. It seems he was a bit of a miser, and used to keep his gold in a disused upstairs room in a big iron safe, and one night he was shockingly murdered and robbed, and his body was found in the morning thrown down the quarry in front of the house. Now, the story goes that every year, on the anniversary of that night, lights are seen in the upstairs rooms, horrible shrieks are heard coming from the house and quarry, and the whole scene is enacted over again. As there is no one about the place but an old caretaker—caretakers can always be bribed, you know—what is to prevent our driving out there this afternoon, leaving our horse and cart at the hotel, picnicking in the quarries, and spending the night in the haunted room just to see if there's anything in the story? Dost like the picture, sweet one, or art thou "funking" on it?" she added, in her usual elegant style, coming round the table to me.
     "Funking?" I echoed; "no, not I, but I think it will be going out of our way for nothing. However, there may be some ferns about there, and the picnic will be jolly. It's a funny idea, you know, Jo; but I suppose it's all right."
     "Oh, quite all right," she answered, cheerfully. 
     "No one need ever know beside Charlie, and he'll enjoy it, especially if we have a thrilling tale for him when we get home. Well, we may consider that settled, Dot. I'll go and see if I can "raise" a "billy" to boil our tea in, and some food to take with us, and we'll have our picnic in the moonlight, and go to bed about 8, so as to give the ghost a fair show."
      "You seem to take things very much for granted, Jo," I remarked. "Remember, we are not there yet, and the old woman mayn't like the idea of two strange women going there on such an errand."
     "Oh, never mind the old woman. I'll settle her. I'll "grossly insult" her, you know. Now, I'm off to ask cook to make us some cakes."
      When she had gone and I had time to consider the matter seriously, it dawned upon me that our plan was certainly a mad, not to say undignified, one—and I had certain misgivings as to what Charlie would think of it all—but in the end my natural woman's curiosity prevailed, and about 3 o'clock we started. 
      It was pretty late in the afternoon when we reached the Albion, and leaving our horse and cart at the hotel we started off in the direction of the house, which was pointed out to us by one of the ostlers—a large bare-looking two-storied stone place, standing in an isolated position above one of the quarries, a commonplace looking house, not at all the sort of house where one would look for ghosts most certainly, and yet it had a dreary abandoned look that seemed to suggest a mystery. 
      We found a nice sheltered spot in the quarry for our picnic—had our tea there—made a goodly collection of ferns, and when the moon had risen we gathered up our belongings and repaired to the house. 
      It looked very lonely and deserted in the moon light—what is there in moonlight, I wonder, that gives to things and places such an eerie solemn look?—as we walked up what had once been a carriage drive to the big hall door. 
      A wide stone veranda ran all round, and was built right on to the ground, and over this a few creepers had struggled to climb, but, missing a careful training hand, had fallen to the ground and straggled there in a confused heap. 
      Jo rang a great peal on the bell, and we heard it echoing through the house; presently the door was opened by a sour-looking old woman with a lighted candle in her hand.
     "Now, Jo," I whispered, pushing her forward, "you must do it, you know."
      "All right," she answered confidently; "I'll manage it," and stepping forward she proceeded to state our errand. 
      The old woman regarded us with disfavour for a moment, and then said doubtfully: "It's a funny fancy for two young ladies to have; you look respectable too"
     "Oh, we are respectable, I assure you," Jo interrupted, forcing back a smile. "You see, we are writing a book, and we want to have a real ghost experience, if we can, to put in it. Now," she added in her peculiarly caressing way, at the same time pressing some money into the woman's hand, "now be an old dear and let us come in and rest a bit at any rate, and you can tell us the story."
     The woman's face softened, and she opened the door to admit us. 
      "Well, Miss, you're welcome to come in and rest a bit, but as to sleeping here, I think as you'll change your minds about that when you've heard all as I can tell you about it. Besides," she added quickly, "there's the young master. I don't know as he'd like to come home and find two strange young ladies sleeping here."
      Jo's face grew long at this. "The young master, eh? That changes the state of affairs, rather, Dot."
     Then, turning to the woman, "We were given to understand that the house was untenanted—but, of course, after what you have told us we should not think of staying."
      "Oh I don't say as he will come tonight, Miss," she returned—"but he may come any minute. He's in England just now." Jo's face cleared instantly. "But I have orders to keep the house ready for him whenever he comes."
      "Well," said Jo in a tone of relief, "if he's in England he can't very well be here tonight, can he? Couldn't do it in the time, you know. So just sit down like an old dear, and tell us all about the murder—this is the very night it happened isn't it?—the ghosts and everything."
      "Well, as to ghosts, Miss," she returned, seating herself, "I can't say as I've much belief in them. I says my prayers reg'lar night and morning, and I never seed a ghost yet—and thank God for it; but, about the murder I can tell you, as I was here when it happened. Yes, twelve years ago this very night, the poor master was murdered, and I the only one in the house beside himself, and never a man within call. I used to sleep in a room off the kitchen, and master he slept in an upstairs room at the back of the house, and in the middle of the night I heard three long shrieks coming from the house, and, thinking the master might be ill, I just put on a few clothes and ran up the back staircase to his room, and knocked; but there was no answer, so I went in and spoke to him, asked him if he was ill, and still there was no sound, so I got frightened, and ran along the passage to get some matches, and then I saw a light burning in the front room—that's the room he used to keep his gold in, in a big safe; he was fond of his gold, poor old gentleman— God rest his soul!—and there was the safe wide open, and all his gold gone; no sign of the master, only a big pool of blood in the middle of the room, and a long thin knife lying beside it. It made my flesh creep to see it, and, while I was looking, I heard the shrieks again, this time sounding outside the house down in the quarries. Then I ran out of the house to some huts at the back, roused the men, and they came back with me and searched the house, but couldn't see a trace of him, and daren't search the quarries till daylight came, and then we found him, with a dreadful stab in his back, his throat cut from ear to ear, and himself clasped in the arms of a big dark man with a large black beard, and all the master's gold and notes on him. He was dead, too, with his brains dashed out on the stones, and it seemed as if he had done the murder, and then took the body to throw it down the quarries and fell himself with it. I don't know as it's true, but folks about here do say that on this night every year the shrieks is heard and lights seen in the room where it happened. I never heard or seen it, but there was a young genta friend of my young master's —as heard the story, and two years ago came to me and asked to sleep in that room to see if the ghosts was there, and in the morning he was found dead in his bed, and never a word to say what killed him, or what he'd seen. Heart disease, the doctor said it was." "There, Miss," she added triumphantly as she finished her tale. "After that I don't suppose you'll care to sleep there." 
      "Oh yes, we shall," said Jo, though I fancied she was not quite so keen about it as at first. "Oh yes, we shall. It's a horrible tale, certainly, but I don't think it will alter our determination, if you will but let us stay."
      "Well, you're brave young ladies," she said, admiringly, "and I suppose it'll do no harm to let you stay, though I've warned you that there's nobody within call. I'll show you the room now, Miss, if you like—unless you'll have a cup of tea before you go to bed."
     We declined the tea, and followed her up a wide staircase and along a cold dark passage, with empty rooms on each side, till she stopped at the door of one at the end looking out on the balcony. 
      "This is the room, Miss," she said, throwing open the door, and holding the candle above her head.
     At this juncture, in a proper ghost story, I am aware that a gust of cold air should blow out the candle and a horrible moan echo through the darkness, and the sound of many feet passing over the uncarpeted floor around us fill our hearts with a nameless horror; but unfortunately nothing of the sort occurred, and we looked round the room as the old woman proceeded to make the bed, and were slightly disappointed, I must confess; there was nothing ghostly about it, as far as we could see—a big bare room with two French windows opening on to the balcony, and one at the opposite end to that by which we had entered. A big iron safe stood between the French windows, a dressing table under the one at the end, and at the opposite end, near the door, a washhand-stand. Near the dressing-table, with its heal to the wall and its foot to the door, stood a large double-bed, turned so that one side was against the wall and the other towards the iron safe. Altogether it was quite a simple room; no big wardrobes or heavy curtains where murderers might "lurk unseen."
      Jo turned to me with a little sigh of relief. "This is stunning, Dot! I think we'll go to bed now, don't you? I'm anxious for the play to begin. Yes"—looking at her watch—"it's 8 o'clock, quite time to turn in." Then, as the old woman prepared to take her departure, she added, "Good night, Mrs. Slade." [We had discovered in the course of conversation that her name was Slade.] "Come and call us early in the morning; we may have some wonderful story to tell you, you know."
     Mrs. Slade shook her head gravely. "Don't you joke about them things, Miss. We never can tell what may come to us before morning. We are in the hands of the Loard, my dear, and what is to be will be—good night, Miss," and she curtsied herself out of the room, looking, I thought, remarkably thankful that she was not in our shoes. 
     "Funny old dog," remarked Jo, seating herself on the edge of the bed to take off her shoes. "I didn't quite like her allusion to the Loard, but she means well, poor old soul, and it was awfully good of her to let us stay. Now, Dot, shall we undress or not? Perhaps better not, as we shall have to run out in pursuit of the ghosts, most likely, or one of us may faint and the other have to run for help." [Poor, dear Jo, how little she thought as she spoke that her words would come true before morning.] "Now," she rattled on, "we'll take off our dresses and shoes and just lie down as we are. It's awfully hot; we'd better have both these doors open. There," as she threw them both open and admitted the cool night air, "that's much better, and we'll leave the door into the corridor shut and give the ghost something to do to open it. Now, Dot, you may sleep inside and I'll go nearest the ghost. I've got my watch under my pillow. By Jove, though," she added in a tone of consternation, "we haven't any matches! What shall we do?"
      "Oh, never mind matches," I said lazily, "It's bright moonlight outside, and we most likely shan't want them. The chances are that we shall not wake till morning."
      So we turned in and slept hard till 11, when I awoke and looked at Jo's watch. 
      Everything was very still; no sign of a ghost. The moonlight streaming into the room lighted up every corner, and Jo slumbered peacefully at my side. Then I turned over and went to sleep again and began to dream in a troubled sort of way. We were at a wild beast show, Jo and I, and one of the lions would insist on coming out to shake hands with me, and was trying to get his cage door open. Jo seemed frightened, and begged the keepers not to let him out. Then I heard Jo's voice again, "Good God! The door's opening!" and her hand was laid on my arm.
     "Dot, Dot," she whispered in tones of horror, "Dot, for heaven's sake wake up. The door is opening!" 
     In a moment I was wide awake and sitting up beside her in bed, gazing spellbound at the door, which was opening slowly and without a sound. For a moment I turned sick and faint with dread and then the clasp of Jo's firm cool hand on mine pulled me together. At any rate, I thought, there were two of us, and ghosts can't do one much harm. 
      Breathlessly we sat and watched the door as it opened wider and wider, and at last there appeared the figure of a little old man, bent and tottering, with a thin white face, which looked ghastly in the moonlight, and long white hair hanging almost to his shoulders. 
      He held in one hand a roll of papers and in the other a small bag, and without looking towards the bed walked slowly across the room in the direction of the big safe, stopped at it, and, taking a key from his pocket, opened it, and began to deposit the papers in it.
     Now a cold wind rushing through the room from the open door caused us to turn to it, and there we saw something that made our hearts stand still with terror. Coming slowly and also noiselessly into the room was another figure—that of a tall dark man with a long beard, holding in his hand a long thin knife that glittered in the moonlight. 
     Hardly daring to breathe, we watched him creep nearer and nearer to the figure at the safe, and then the room was filled with three horrible unearthly shrieks, as he drove the knife into the old man's back, and fell with him to the floor, hiding the body from our eyes for a moment. Then he rose, and we saw the old man lying on his back with a hideous dark gash across his throat and horrible stains on the floor. The other form seemed busy with the safe, and, quickly transferring the papers and bags to his pockets, turned to the lifeless body on the floor, lifted it up lightly in his arms and bore it from the room, leaving the knife lying on the floor in a pool of blood, and the door closed swiftly and silently after them. 
      I turned to look at Jo, who was sitting straight up in the bed with a look of unutterable horror on her face, staring at the knife in the middle of the floor. 
     "Jo," I said, shaking her; "Jo, don't stare at it, darling; it has all been a horrid dream, or someone has been playing us a trick." This last I knew could not be the case, as no one had known of our idea, and there was not a soul in the house. "Jo, try and forget it, darling." She only turned to me with a little wild laugh, and seemed to be listening for something. 
      Then on the still night air came those three dreadful shrieks again, seemingly from outside the house. 
      I shuddered, and at the sound Jo uttered a little moan, and fell back in my arms perfectly rigid, with her eyes wide open and her hands clenched. 
      Here was a situation! No one within call if I screamed for help till morning, no matches, my darling sister perhaps dying in my arms, and I— I must confess it—too terrified to move from the bed. 
      What could I do? The very idea of opening that awful door and traversing the whole length of the dreary empty corridor froze the blood in my veins. 
      So for some time I sat with Jo in my arms, striving to master up courage to go for help—and to persuade myself that what we had seen was nothing but a dreadful dream—but the pool of blood and the knife on the floor prevented my believing this. 
      At last Jo began to moan and talk hurriedly, and then a thought struck me. If I could only muster up enough courage to get over to the washhand-stand and get her some water! I would do it! 
      It wanted some courage certainly—as the washhand-stand was at the other end of the room and close to the awful door—but one look at Jo's face convinced me that there was no time to lose—and I leaped from the bed, and went slowly across the room keeping my eyes fixed on the door. 
     I got safely to it, however, and was pouring out some water—when a slight sound in the room arrested my attention and for a moment I was too terrified to move—then, summoning up my courage, I forced myself to look round in the direction whence the sound had come, and there to my unspeakable horror, in the middle of the room, sat Jo, dabbling her hands in the blood, and talking and laughing in a strange voice to the knife. 
     The sight was too much for me, added to the other horrors of the night, and I shrieked aloud, and rushing wildly to the door opened it, fled down the passage, and at last found the staircase. 
      Some wild thought of my husband came into my head, and tearing down the stairs I shrieked, "Charlie! Charlie! Oh Charlie, save me!"
      A door opened somewhere; there was a blaze of light, a confused murmur of voices, and I heard one I knew and loved exclaim, "Good God, it's my wife!" 
     Then I felt my husband's strong arms round me, and his kisses on my face, and for the first time in my life I fainted. When I came round I was lying on a sofa in a big well-lighted dining room, with my husband kneeling beside me.
     "My darling, my darling," he murmured, holding me closely in his arms, "I can never forgive myself for what has happened."
      "Forgive yourself!" I echoed. "The question is whether you can forgive me for coming here without your leave; but, oh, Charlie, we have been justly punished for our misdeeds by the dreadful things we have seen." Then as the remembrance of it all came back to me I hid my face on his shoulder and shuddered.
     "I am not angry, dearie," he answered quickly; "not with you at any rate—there was nothing wrong in what you did—only a trifle wild, like poor old Jo herself. No, darling, I am only sorry."
     But his mention of Jo had brought back to my mind the terrible state in which I had left her, and I sprang up from the sofa. 
     "Oh, Charlie, let me go to Jo. I left her alone in that dreadful room, in such an awful state. We must see to her."
      "Jo's all right, darling," he said, putting me gently back on the sofa. "We have got her to bed in a downstairs room, and Mrs. Slade and Cortis are attending to her."
      "Cortis! why, how did he come here?" I asked, getting more and more bewildered. "And how did you know we were here?"
     "I didn't," he laughed. "Hadn't an idea you were within ten miles of us till you came rushing downstairs shrieking "Charlie!" and then I knew your dear voice at once. 
      "Now lie down quietly and I will tell you all about it. First let me inform you that this house belongs to Cortis. He is the "young master" Mrs. Slade told you about—and as the boat arrived earlier than we expected, and I knew you wouldn't be expecting us, George suggested that instead of putting up at a an hotel we should come out here to sleep; so having dined in town we drove out here about 10, and heard Mrs. Slade's story about the two adventurous young women who had come here to spend the night for the express purpose of seeing a ghost, and thinking it would be a pity to disappoint them we resolved to act for their benefit the little tragedy that occurred here twelve years ago. Cortis knew the whole story, and as he was the smaller man of the two he "made up" as the old man, and I as the murderer. Some red dye did duty for blood, which we spilt plentifully, and the rest you know, darling; but I don't think you ever can know how miserable it makes me to think that the trick had been played on my own wife and sister, though I must say you are two of the pluckiest women I know to go through all that without a single scream, for I flatter myself we did it very well. Don't you think so, little woman?"
     "I do, indeed," I answered. "No wonder it all seemed so real to us."
     A knock at the door interrupted me, and in answer to Charlie's "Come in!" a slight dark man entered, whom I recognised at once as Dr. Cortis, from Charlie's description of him. 
      "How is Mrs. Lancaster now, Charlie?" he began anxiously. Then catching sight of my face he came quickly forward with outstretched hand. "Mrs. Lancaster, I am wondering if you can ever forgive me for the part I have played in this night's work. I do hope that Charlie has made every possible excuse for our conduct, even to confessing that we drank each other's health in champagne before coming out here."
      "No," I answered, laughing, "he certainly didn't tell me that; but seriously I don't think anyone is to be blamed, unless it is Jo and I, for coming out here at all. But tell me, Dr. Cortis, how Jo is now. Charlie won't let me go to her, and this affair had had such a terrible effect on her when I left her."
     "You can do no good by going to her, Mrs. Lancaster," he returned. "She is sleeping quietly now, though she certainly has had a severe shock; but I have given her a sleeping draught, and we must get her away from here in the morning before she wakes, and as soon as she is able to talk it over we'll explain it all to her."
     The next day we drove home—Charlie and I in our cart, and Dr. Cortis with Jo in a cab, and for some weeks afterwards Jo was in a very precarious state, and Dr. Cortis in constant attendance. 
      He it was who, when she was strong enough to hear it, told her the story of the pretended ghosts, and when she heard it explained she rapidly grew better. The funny part of it was, though, that even when she was quite well again Dr. Cortis still continued his visits, and came regularly every day to inquire for her. One day I happened to come quickly into the drawing-room, and to my surprise and horror found Jo's golden head pillowed on the doctor's shoulder in a most confiding attitude. 
      My appearance seeming to call for some slight explanation, he said, quietly: 
      "I have been telling Jo another story, Mrs. Lancaster."
      And Jo, looking up, laughing and blushing from his shoulder, interrupted him— 
      "I suspect it is a story too, Dot. He was telling me that he loves me."

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