Tudor Ghost Story Contest 2011
The Tudor Coin by Debbie Fenton
Christmas is a magical time of the year, no fellow can deny that. But spirits also feel that magic and they are drawn to it. And when the souls of the dead are determined, the veil is parted.
Martha Chadwycke, maid.
Nightjar Court, December 1567
I am completely exhausted from the Yuletide preparations. For days now this old house with its endless corridors and secret stairs has been alive with the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas. There is no merrymaking for me though, only hard work. I fetch and carry, scrub and polish, bob and curtsey until I think every bone in my body will break. I take my leave now, the last reveller has collapsed on the floor in a drunken heap and I make my way wearily across the courtyard from the stifling kitchens to the servants’ rooms, unpinning my hair as I go. What a relief to be out in the night air. The house looks enchanted in the dead of night, with a ground frost encrusting its sculpted stone. I glimpse up at the night sky, and draw a deep relaxing breath, when I am startled by a window closing high up in the courtyard walls, and the sensation of something hitting me on my back. I turn on my heel instantly and touch my back as if to check if something is still there. I wish I brought a taper from the kitchen to guide my way as I cannot see a thing, only the moonlight reflecting on the diamond panes. ‘Who goes there?’ I call out as I strain my eyes to make sense of the shadows of the night. The silence is deafening apart from my heart thudding in my chest. ‘Is anybody there?’ I call up at the little window in the curve of the turret, watching a cloud of my breath disappear into the air. My voice is weak but echoes around the cobbled courtyard. All I can hear is a fox barking in the distance looking for its mate. It reflects my feelings as I stand here alone wishing I had a friend with me so that we could laugh this off together and be glad it is the end of another hard day.
I make my way to my room all the time quickening my pace and checking back to ensure no one is behind me. I am relieved to be back and I shut the door with force nearly waking another maid. I quickly get undressed and take the wool blanket from my bed and wrap it around me. I sit on a stool by the fire wondering if the last few moments really happened, I am so weary, maybe I dreamt it. I comfort myself with the thought that it was just someone merry playing a trick on an innocent maid for jest. But what were they doing in my lord’s private chamber?
I am up well before daylight breaks, and the dawn chorus is replaced by the clatter of servants running from the kitchen to the great hall, carrying food and jugs of small beer ready for the household to break their fast when they rise. Orders are being barked out as the servants come running from all corners of the house like bees to a hive ready to serve another day.
As I enter the courtyard, I can still see the moon smiling at me and I smile back thinking what a fool I was last night. Mrs Craven’s tales of ghosts and strange goings on in this house have gone to my head. I should never listen to that woman. She lives in a dark damp cottage at the bend in the river and often comes up to the house bent double with frailty trying to sell her herbs. I feel sad for the old lady but Mrs Grove the housekeeper has warned me never to speak to her, and said that she could be a witch; the thought of it makes me shudder.
Just then something glistening in the frost catches my eye, and I bend down to pick it up. It is a silver sixpence, laying on the cobbles with our Queen Elizabeth’s head facing up at me shining in the last glow of the moonlight. I scoop it up quickly as I don’t want anyone to see my little treasure and claim it for their own. I give it a kiss as if for good luck and tuck it deep into my pocket for safe keeping. Today will be a most lucky day.
I am to serve the ladies and gentlemen visitors to the house with their first meal of the day. I enquire whether I am to visit my lord’s private chamber to serve his guests.
‘Mrs Grove, shall I be serving in my lord’s chamber this morning?’ ‘Why ever would you? You are not to go anywhere near the master someone of your position.’ She amuses herself with the thought of someone like me in the master’s presence. ‘But there are people staying in my lord’s rooms in the tower, should I serve them?’ ‘No one is using the master’s private rooms, they are for his use only.’ She carries on about her business. ‘Forgive me, but last night someone was in the tower room as I heard them shut the window.’ With that, she turns to face me seething with anger. ‘There is nobody in that room, and you are not to go anywhere near it. It is forbidden, no one is to enter that room, especially not a maid like you. If I ever catch you up there,’ she threatens. I am shocked at the attack, I have never seen her so angry. I look around the kitchen and several people have stopped working to see what the noise is about. I feel small and wounded and lower my head to hide from the glare of the other servants. Mrs Grove aware of the show she has just put on calms herself. ‘You are mistaken girl that is the end of it.’ I turn around and quickly get on with my work. When I am out of view I wipe a tear from my eye, and think to myself this is not a lucky day at all.
I pass by the tower stairs several times today, not daring to even glance up at the door. I am relieved when the end of the day nears and I cross the courtyard again. Perhaps I am mistaken, and maybe the wind caught the window and slammed it shut.
In the shelter of my room, I dip my hand into my pocket to retrieve the coin I found this morning which now seems like a different day. I am sad and lonely, tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I feel no one in the world loves me so I decide to make a wish. I wish Mrs Grove had not scolded me, I wish I was not here, I wish I had a family, and a home, I wish I had a mother. I kiss the coin and put it under my sack bed. I think of Mrs Craven in her damp cottage with no one to love her.
Just then a thought flashes through my mind; I am back in the courtyard feeling something strike my back. My heart begins to race as I realise it was the coin I found on the cobbles this morning that struck me. Someone must have thrown it from the tower window and then slammed it shut. I knew someone was in that room, I did not imagine it.
The next morning I over sleep and leap from my bed to get straight to work. I hurriedly put on my clothes and reach under my bedding for my lucky coin. It is gone. I search about franticly in the blankets but it is not there. The day is in full swing outside my room and I do not have time to look further. Within a minute I am in the kitchen awaiting my orders, but with a new determination to find out what secret the tower room is hiding. People of the household are merry, and there is music being played all over the house. The men have gone out to hunt and the ladies are delighting in exchanging small gifts.
I over hear Mrs Grove say she will visit her family today in the village whilst everyone is at chapel, this will be the perfect time for me to climb the tower stairs and enter the forbidden room without fear of being caught. The house becomes quiet and calmness falls as it always does at this time on Christmas Eve. I watch Mrs Grove walk the long tree lined avenue to visit to her family, she has a full basket brimming with leftovers from the kitchen, she will not be back for a while.
The sky has turned a blue black as twighlight falls and I make my way to the master’s private rooms. I ascend the stairs quietly being careful not to make a sound, I feel no fear but my breath is quicker and it is difficult to swallow. I climb the stone stairs, twisting around each curve of the tower feeling the cold stone with my hand and when I reach the top I can see a light shining underneath the door. I am deciding whether or not to enter, what if the master is inside? ‘Hello my dear’. My heart leaps to my mouth and my whole body feels the prickles of fear, I turn around quickly to where the voice has called out and cling on to the wall behind me. ‘Mrs Craven, what are you doing here?’ I clasp my chest as if to slow down my heart and I feel a sense of relief that it is a friendly face staring back at me. ‘You should not be here, it is forbidden. You should not even enter the house, you should go now.’ She keeps her smile and looks at me with great expectation. ‘Please Mrs Craven, leave the house now, there is no reason for you to be here.’ She gestures to the heavy oak door of the room and climbs the stairs using her willow carved stick till she is standing right next to me. She points her long spindly fingers down to the foot of the door and I watch, eyes wide open as my lucky sixpence is pushed under the door from the other side. I step back in shock and I topple down a step. Mrs Craven steadies me, I can smell damp and fire smoke on her shawl which is strangely familiar to me. ‘Go forward, someone wants to see you.’ She lifts the latch for me and pushes the small of my back urging me to enter. I instantly check the small room, expecting to see a person waiting. There is only a table and two chairs, a fire which is lit and a beautiful tester bed covered with the finest hangings. I look to the window which was once slammed shut in the middle of the night. ‘There is no one here. Do you mean to frighten me Mrs Craven, because this is a terrible trick for you to play and I do not like it?’
‘This is my lady’s room,’ she says still smiling admiringly at me. ‘She wants to see you.’ ‘My Lady is dead and we must never speak of it for fear of angering the master,’ I chastise. Still she smiles as if my words are like a foreign language to her. I take a moment to look at the beautiful room with its ornate oak carvings as I have never seen it before then I turn to leave.
‘No dear, you must not go, not without greeting my lady.’ I lose my patience and push the frail old woman out of the way, but her strength is that of a man and she spins me back around and shoves me toward the fireplace and points up at a portrait hanging above the fire. Glowing in the firelight is the portrait of a lady, resplendent in all her finery. Her hair is draped down over her shoulders and she is almost wearing a smile. The same smile I see looking back at me when I peer into a mirror. The same hair I brush at the end of a day, the same dark eyes that cry longing to be loved. I am shocked to see my own face looking back at me.
‘She has been trying to talk to you Martha, this is your mother.’
I have learned that my mother died shortly after giving birth to me. My father was so grief stricken that he ordered the baby to be taken away from house and that my mother’s room be made a shrine. The baby was given to Mrs Craven and when I was of an age to start making memories I was taken back into the household as a working girl under the care of Mrs Grove, my birth right to be kept a secret between the wise woman and the housekeeper.
I will never know if it was Mrs Craven that threw the Tudor coin from the window, or if it was my mother’s spirit trying to rescue me.
My only challenge now – and I shall bear it well – is to seek my father’s forgiveness.