The Screaming Skull.
Burton Agnes, Yorkshire, February 1872
My third investigation (to this day I do not count my time in Alverton as anything other than a failed exercise) came by way of an invite to Burton Agnes Hall. This particular manor house had occupied the same site since the days of the Norman Conquest, changing hands over the centuries not by means of sale but by family lineage. I was instructed to pack for a short stay and informed that I would be briefed as to my duties in person by the lord of the manor. There was little in the way of further information.
Located in Burton Agnes, Yorkshire, the manor house was an impressive example of Norman construction, though I must admit that its subsequent history was of far more interest to me. It seemed that my reputation as an investigator of note had spread further afield than I had dared imagine, having caught the attention of Lord Fawksby, and I was only too eager to begin my work anew.
Upon my arrival, my belongings were taken to my room and I was ushered into the study, whereupon I was introduced to Lord Fawksby. He was a fellow of similar age to myself, and as I listened, I judged him to be well read and of high intellect. We drank excellent port and discussed my previous investigations. Satisfied that there was nothing in his demeanour which would suggest an air of the fantastical, I accepted his invitation to remain as his guest and to investigate the claims of which he spoke at length. Indeed, a crucial part of my investigation focused on the credibility of key witnesses, and this was a skill that I would be able to hone further over the countless cases yet to come.
Presented here, in words told to me by Lord Fawksby himself, is the plight of Burton Agnes Hall.
“You may well know that the hall and its many treasures have passed through the ownership of many generations, yet not one single penny has ever changed hands to procure her ownership. It is blood that inherits the manor, not wealth nor influence, and it is said that many lengths have been taken to keep it so.
“In 1643, the manor and its land were owned by Lady Anna Farlish. History tells us that her husband, Lord Timothy Farlish, was a most unpleasant sort. A letch and a drunk, it is said, he indulged in many extramarital affairs, yet his wife stood resolutely by his side.
“One such affair involved Lady Farlish’s sister, Margaret Anstey. She was the younger of the two, and it is said that Lord Farlish had lusted after her for many a year. Margaret fell pregnant by Lord Farlish, who at this time had no immediate heir. With no plans to divorce Anna (for she held the rights to the estate), it is said, he attacked Margaret as she guested in the east wing, stabbing her with a pocket knife in a desperate attempt to rid her of child.
“Sadly, Margaret succumbed to her injuries and died that very night. With her dying breath she cursed Lord Farlish for his deeds, citing that she belonged in the manor house with her family, and should her head not remain perched atop the mantelpiece until the manor did crumble, then each who resided within would suffer terribly.
“The murder of Margaret Anstey was attributed to one of the servant boys and the claim put about that having been spurned in his efforts to woo her, he had attacked her out of fury. He was hanged from a tree in the grounds at the very same time that Margaret was interred in the Anstey family crypt, in Burton Agnes Cemetery, which lay on the opposite side of the village.
“That night, the house was beset by all manner of terrors, so much so that the body of Margaret was ordered exhumed the next morning and her head removed and brought back to the manor.”
It was at this point that my host stood and bid me follow him. I asked what specific terror had befallen the house that night, but he did not answer. We left the study and followed a narrow, oak-panelled corridor as it weaved its way through the bowels of the house. After passing several rooms, Lord Fawksby stopped before a set of grand double doors. He searched his pockets for a moment and produced a small key. He paused for breath after turning the key and spoke to me, his eye fixed upon the keyhole. “I shall warn you, no person has set foot in this room in almost a decade. I cannot prepare you for what you may experience in this place. Know that you look upon Margaret of your own will. Yes?”
I nodded and assured him that I wished to continue.
The door eased open with a groan, and we stepped inside. Lord Fawksby threw aside a pair of heavy drapes, thick with dust, and the mid-afternoon sun flooded into the room. I moved deeper inside as my host busied himself with the second set of drapes.
The vast chamber would have served as a dining room at one time; such was its size, shape and location. Though now devoid of all furniture, the air rang with the memories of countless engagements past.
Lord Fawksby began to speak. “There.” He pointed, covering his mouth with a handkerchief. “The mantelpiece.”
I turned in the direction Lord Fawksby had indicated and saw something sat in the centre of the mantelpiece. With a nod, Lord Fawksby gave permission for me to proceed, and I approached. The object was covered with a black, silken cloth, which despite the environment was utterly devoid of dust. My hand hovered tentatively above it. I knew that beneath this lay the head of Margaret Anstey, and I required a moment to compose myself before unveiling her.
With a quick motion, I removed the silken cloth and stared at the sight before me. The skull was tinged with patches of black and grey. The lower jawbone was cracked and several of her teeth were absent. Though long dead, the gaze of Margaret Anstey seemed to mock my repulsion. I staggered backward, dropping the cloth onto the floor, feeling nauseous and dizzy.
“You are not the first to react so poorly to our permanent guest,” remarked Lord Fawksby. “Tell me, do you feel unwell?”
I assured him that whatever sickness had taken upon me had quickly subsided, for several feet away from her, I felt immediately better. I concluded that now was not the time to show distaste, not in front of the man who tasked me with dispelling her myth. I stared at the skull, and the skull stared back.
Lord Fawksby replaced the cloth over the skull, breaking my concentration. “Come, friend,” he said. “Let us to your chambers. There shall be plenty of time for you two to become acquainted over the next couple of days.”
Much to my surprise, I slept soundly that first night. Any thoughts of the rotted skull of Margaret Anstey remained far from my mind. It was at breakfast I first encountered Lady Jasmine Fawksby. Boiled egg and freshly baked bread in hand, I had seated myself at the foot of the table. Lord Fawksby, having sent his apologies, was conspicuous by his absence, meaning that the table was shared by only Lady Fawksby and me. We engaged in pleasantries and light conversation while the servants busied themselves, and I remember feeling at ease in her company. I guessed her to be a shade younger than myself. She was of similar height and a slender build, and had long, dark hair that lay unnaturally straight. Her face held quite the softest features I had ever set eyes upon and she spoke with intelligence and enthusiasm. Her eyes sparkled with a mischievous nature, and she wielded with ease the sharpest of wit. It would be safe to say that I was enchanted by her presence, and I allowed myself to linger at the breakfast table a while longer than I had initially planned.
She took a keen interest in my ideas regarding the paranormal and revelled in hearing tales of my work. She had several keen theories of her own, though lamented that she had few around her with whom to share her interest. Even her husband forbade her from conducting an investigation into the skull of Margaret Anstey, a practice which I assured her was most unfair. Time slipped quickly by that morning. All too soon was she called away to carry out the duties required of the lady of the manor, and I was left with the lingering feeling that she and I had experienced a unique connection.
It was decided by Lord Fawksby that on the second evening of my stay I would remain alone in the great hall, with nought but the remains of Lady Margaret Anstey, the means to record any observations I might make and a solitary candle. Were it not for the kindness of Lady Fawksby, who in the dead of night sought my company and delivered a thick woollen blanket, I wager that I would have perished, it being so cold! The lady stayed but a few moments, curious as to my findings, before returning to her chambers. What little warmth the blanket afforded seemed to dissipate upon her departure.
Aside from a ferocious wind which seemed to pound the outer walls for the majority of the night, there was little out of the ordinary to note.
I spent a good part of the third day sleeping in the guest quarters, having being granted so little reprieve by the uncompromising weather the night before. I knew that tonight would be where the real crux of my investigative work would begin, for Lord Fawksby had ordered one of the kitchen staff to remove the skull from the mantle and to deposit it somewhere within the gardens. The exact location of Lady Anstey’s skull was known only to the lord and the poor wretch ordered to hide her.
It was not long after dusk when the disturbances began. Again I was settled in the great hall, my notes at my side and the thick woollen blanket gifted from Lady Fawksby laid across my lap. At first, the sounds consisted of a series of sharp raps that seemed to emanate from within the area occupied by the fireplace. They would cease whenever I ventured close, so it was impossible for me to identify the exact location of their origin. This game of back and forth continued until approximately one o’clock.
After a brief hiatus, the sound of slamming doors echoed throughout the manor house, followed hastily by heavy footfalls that seemed to walk in several parts of the house at once. Lord Fawksby had instructed that all serving staff remain in their chambers after dark and promised that he and Lady Fawksby would do likewise. Several times did I venture from that room, convinced that I would successfully identify the person whose footsteps at times shook the very fabric of the house. Not once did I observe anyone walking the halls, despite a thorough search. The footfalls continued, gaining in volume. On occasion, they seemed to occur in my immediate vicinity, and to my ears, appeared to be heading straight towards me. Again, I saw nothing of their origin, even when they sounded so close to my person.
It was the wailing which finally prompted me to knock upon the chambers of Lord and Lady Fawksby. The house was alive with the sounds of the damned and I was at a loss as to their source. What began as a resonant moan, which one could easily mistake as the sound of the wind billowing over the tops of the chimney pots, soon developed into a chorus of screams and lamentations the likes of which would unnerve even the hardiest soul. Lord Fawksby answered my furtive knocking, his face ashen with terror. “I have heard naught as harrowing as the wails that have shaken these walls this night!” he began. “Come, we must return Margaret to her resting place above the mantle.”
I agreed, for whatever manner of horror afflicted us showed no sign of waning. The two of us hurried through the darkened corridors of Burton Agnes Hall, beset on all sides by ferocious rappings, the crashing of doors and a cacophony of anguished cries. Leaving the hall, it was a relief to be outside, free from the sombre mood that had befallen the manor house with the advent of darkness, if only temporarily. The shrieks and crashes that gripped the house could still be heard as we made our way deep into the gardens, and my thoughts turned to those still in the house, those who must have been cowering in their beds, afraid to peek out from beneath their blankets.
Lord Fawksby led me first into a barn, then to an upturned bucket. “Here,” he said, lifting the tin pail, “take her back inside.” Only nothing lay beneath. Curses flowed from his lips as he searched the barn. “Dammit, boy, you said you had placed her beneath an upturned pail! Yet she is not here? Will this madness continue until it drives us from our home?”
I joined the search, remarking that it might be possible another bucket was the hiding place of Margaret’s skull. After a further ten minutes of searching, Lord Fawksby cried out. “Success! Come, let us return! Jasmine shall be at her wits end, no doubt!”
As we carried the skull of Margaret back inside, an instant hush settled upon the manor. Lord Fawksby and I stood a moment, unnerved by the sudden calm. Moments before, chaos had raged within these walls. Now all was still. Lord Fawksby made his way towards the great hall and I followed, eager to see Margaret returned to her rightful place, grateful that we might be able to savour a moment’s peace before dawn. With shaking limbs, Lord Fawksby placed her skull onto the centre of the mantelpiece, back in the position where she had long held court.
What followed was a curious feeling. The mood lightened the moment she touched the wood of the mantel. It was then that I noticed the first rays of sunlight piercing the ill-fitting drapes, and heard with a sense of welcome relief the opening notes of the dawn chorus.
The night’s events were discussed at length during breakfast (which was taken later than usual due to the disturbed night that all occupants of the house had suffered). Lord Fawksby appeared the more shaken of our number. I assumed he felt an air of blame in regard to our torment, as it was he who had arranged for this experiment to be carried out. Both Lady Fawksby (who seemed utterly fascinated with the night’s events) and I explained that he need not feel he ought to take any form of accountability.
I concluded that despite my best efforts, I could find no rational explanation for what we had endured during the night. Though at first I had been confident that I could at the very least attribute the heavy footfalls to a person or persons actively wandering the house, this was not the case. Throughout my searches at the height of the disturbances, I had failed to apprehend anybody.
Again, with regard to the wailing, which I had initially attributed to the wind, I concluded that this was not its origin, given the variety, volume, location and content of sounds heard. There had been a human element behind the majority of the sounds. Genuine emotion, that of anger and torment, had carried through the halls. Occasional words had been heard such as lament, love, return and family. These I could not satisfactorily explain away.
Nor the rapping and the slamming of doors. For frequently they had occurred in several locations at once. I was confident that should hoaxers have been at large within the manor, I would have caught sight of them at some point during the night.
I advised that for the time being, in order to keep an air of calm in the hall, the skull of Margaret Anstey remain on the mantelpiece.
That was not the last I saw of Lady Jasmine Fawksby. Little did I foresee the profound influence that she would have upon me. Alas, those are tales for another time.
In our first correspondence (of which there were many), she informed me that her husband had taken to excavating a nook behind the top of the mantelpiece, in which the skull was soon interred. The remains of Margaret reside there still. There have been no further reports of disturbances occurring in or around the manor house to date.