I wasn’t the first to see the little girl: she had skipped past Emily in the north wing and held Mary’s hand as she showed a group of German tourists the Tiffany lamps. George had said she was the illegitimate child of a woman burned as a witch, but most guides didn’t believe him since the house was built in 1750 and the last witch burned in 1726.
I worked at Blackford Manor for eight months in total. On my first day Margaret, a retired teacher from Mintlaw, took me through the many back passageways and narrow staircases in the house so I would know the various fire exits before the public arrived, as well as to snoop behind the scenes in restricted-access areas. As we moved through the passage from the Music Room to the Johnston Bedroom she whispered, “Affa funny things happen in here fan you’re nae lookin” and as she reached for the back of the door she added “you press this button here to keep the door open or to close it. It his been fitted wi a wee spring so that in the event o’ a fire it closes itsel’.”
The manor was run by a community charity and so to fundraise we would host events like plays, paranormal investigations and children’s adventure days. My favourites were the musical recitals as once the audience were seated in the Music Room I was free to wander the house and examine the contents better than I could during normal tour hours. We would keep half the ticket money, which wasn’t a huge profit after staffing costs were taken into account, and we sold refreshments in the dining room before every event. Some of the older tour guides would grumble about these fundraisers, complaining that the paranormal investigations were disrespectful to the family or that the musical recitals were a waste of money for so little profit. “If only the faimly kent fit you lot were up t’. Mackin’ a mockery o’ their memory.” I would always offer my time for the events as it meant access to the archives afterwards to poke around. I would leaf through family journals and letters from centuries before and as the music floated through the house I could pretend I was one of them.
I once broke an urn while snooping in the Banff Bedroom, Chinese ceramic with hand painted women planting flowers around the base. I knocked it against the edge of the shelf as I returned it and with a great crack it chipped. Now one of the women held a great fractured orb instead of the pink cherry blossom. I replaced the urn more carefully and picked the chip up off the floor. I carried it with me in my pocket for another week, until my last day in the house.
The next morning, I found the urn’s lid had been removed and replaced with little wooden dolls from a Dolls’ house in the Johnston Bedroom. Their woollen hair was tangled and they hung with their arms over the neck of the opening, four bodies packed tightly together.
“The Devil’s work” Margaret cried, refusing to let me move the toys back and insisting on calling for the minister to remove them on our behalf. I left her to it.
The last fundraising event in October was a concert by a string quartet from the university. After the music finished and the guests had left Mary and I began to close the house. It was a warm evening for October and I had watched the sunset from the third floor as the string quartet played below. Now however, the rooms were cold and dark, the thick granite insulating the house from the outside world. The manor was built around a courtyard with the first floor being one continuous circuit flowing through the various family rooms. To save time I would close the first floor and Mary the ground floor. As I had started in the Music Room, I would wind my way back to the Johnston Bedroom and leave via the servant stairs, meeting Mary in the courtyard. First, I had closed the Music Room and locked the doors, then did the same in the Library and Dining Room: pulling down blinds, folding across and bolting shutters, and turning off the lights. I locked the door to the staircase in the north wing, then closed the Banff Bedroom. There were two doors in between the Banff and Johnston Bedrooms, like you see in hotels, with only about twenty centimetres between them. I paused after the second door to look out the window, startled by a light in the car park; the last of the musicians leaving. Even though you might nae be a ghost fearin’ person, listening to these stories from folk like Mary and Margaret means your imagination does start to run wild. I breathed a sigh of relief. The suddenness of the bright light had caught me off guard. I took my time to close the rest of the room, tracing my finger along the table tops and bedding as I moved between the windows. In the corner of the room was the dolls’ house and I seized the opportunity to open it and examine the dolls a little closer. As I picked one up I realised I had never noticed the expressions on the dolls’ faces, their mouths and eyes like black little o’s staring behind me at some unknown horror.
That’s when I was interrupted. The fire door Margaret had warned me about, in the passageway back to the courtyard and Music Room, slammed shut. As I turned around I saw a girl standing before me, dressed smartly in a white cotton dress but with black stains on her fingertips and pockets.
“Excuse me” she said, “but I want to play with her.”
She looked perhaps eight or nine years old, and she swung back and fore on her heels as I spoke to her.
“Oh my goodness, you can’t be in here, the concert is finished. Where are your parents? It’s home time.”
“They are outside. I would like to play with the dolls’ house.”
“Well I’m afraid you can’t. It’s an antique.”
“You touched it. And the cabinet and my bed. I saw.”
My face burned at her impudence, thinking she owned the place.
“Yes well I work here, now aff you get.” As I moved towards her something fell from my pocket and hit the floor with a light clink. The chip from the urn in the Banff Bedroom.
“I saw you do that.” She said as she picked it up off the floor with her sooty black fingers, “and I moved the dolls to warn you off but you’re here doing it again.”
“Oh wheesht! Get out, you dinna own the place. Out!”
I ushered her out the door to the servant’s stairs and watched her go, looking back at me over her shoulder as she slowly descended. Mary could deal with her at the bottom.
I replaced the doll and patted her little dress, then continued with closing the curtains and shutters. With the last door on my floor closed I walked down the servant’s stairs just as the girl had done. At the bottom the door opened directly in to the courtyard where Mary was waiting for me.
“Get her back to her parents alright did you?” I asked as the lock snapped behind me.
“The little girl? I caught her in the Johnston Bedroom, sent her this way.”
“No, are you sure she’s nae gone back in t’ the music room?” Mary asked, scrabbling for the keys to get back in and search for the girl.
“No can’t have, Music Room door was locked and I watched her gan. Must hiv come by afore you got here. She wis an affa quine.”
“Och aye well let’s go through the garden and do a wee circle of the house and keep an eye oot.” We left the courtyard through the arch, the gravel crunching under our tired feet as we looked around. “Anyway, fan you were upstairs I found iss” Mary said, producing her phone and showing me a photograph. “Niver noticed this portrait afore. It wis ahin the door in the old kitchens. Something aboot her caught my eye.”
As I squinted at the picture I realised my mistake. Dated 1892, it was signed J. E. Hay, and titled ‘Harriet’; the girl I had met in the bedroom. It was an unusual portrait, with a blood red background, her eyes looking upwards and her finger pointing to the sky.
I stopped and looked back up at the bedroom on the first floor. In the window she stood positioned as she was in the portrait, her finger pointing up and her eyes staring towards the sky. She looked back down at me and smirked before stepping backwards in to the fire she had set, disappearing behind the flames which would eventually engulf Blackford manor.