From the Sussex County Magazine August 1929
The Lavender Lady
It happened many years ago – my first uncanny experience. It was not terrifying, but never since have I – till then a staunch unbeliever in ghosts – laughed to scorn any story of the unseen world.
I was completely converted to the belief that not only is there a world beyond the borderland of this life, but that its inhabitants can, and do, revisit the scenes which they once loved, and which have held their most cherished memories, be they sad or otherwise.
For years I had had a great longing to live in the country. I went over in my mind the many beautiful parts of England I had seen, but found that nothing appealed to me like the beauty and peace of the Sussex Downs.
So I set out to find my ideal spot, and amid the beauty and peace of the Sussex Downs I found it. I came upon it unexpectedly, after roaming many miles over the hills from the town where I was staying. Just a little village, far from a main road, town or even another village. I could see Chanctonbury in the far distance, and I knew that deep in my mind had been a wish to live where that beautiful spot formed part of the scenery.
For where can one find anything to compare with Chanctonbury, with its soft, restful beauty, unmarred by the frowns and scars and barren slopes of grander and more imposing heights?
Wandering around, I saw my ideal home. It was a very old house, in fact an unusually large cottage, but sufficient for my needs. It had evidently been uninhabited for years and needed much in the way of repairs. But it appealed to me, and I felt I must have it.
After exhaustive inquiries I found the owner, who seemed only too pleased to be rid of it, and when the usual formalities were completed it became mine. The next thing was to make it habitable – no easy matter in such an out-of-the-way spot. But when that difficulty was at length overcome the place was, in my eyes, at least, a thing of great beauty. It had a red-tiled roof, on which grew clumps of "house-green" and patches of moss. Imagine this after a gentle rain. An ancient vine adorned the southern wall, and in spite of its age and untidy appearance I decided to let it remain; in fact I had a strange reluctance to destroy anything belonging to that house and its past.
The windows were diamond-paned and faced east and west, and overlooked a vast expanse of land and sky. To see the dawn stealing over the Downs, and to watch the red and gold splendour of the sunrise, and to see the wonder of the setting sun bathing my little homestead in golden light was to catch a glimpse of "the glory that shall be revealed."
But the garden was the greatest attraction. It was large and in every way a real country garden. Ancient fruit trees were dotted about a big grass plot, which in spring, was gay with the gold of daffodils, and again, a little later, the bloom on the trees made it a perfect picture. The borders were filled with old-fashioned flowers, vivid in hue and scented, and the gay disorder in which they grew seemed to add to their beauty.
The house stood well back in the garden, and a paved path led to it from the road. On each side of this path, at short intervals, were the oldest lavender bushes I had ever seen. And hereby hangs my tale.
As soon as possible I turned my attention to the garden, and in spite of my reluctance to destroy anything in it, I decided to remove the old lavenders and replace them with rose bushes. But each time I went to do so, some little incident occurred to prevent me. A sudden storm would drive me indoors; a violent headache would make my task impossible ; or a caller would arrive and stay until it was too late to resume gardening.
I was becoming annoyed at these and similar trivial interruptions, so at last I decided to ask an old villager, who seemed greatly interested in my place – and particularly in the lavenders – to uproot them for me. I went to bed and fell asleep on this resolution, but was suddenly awakened. I sat up and could not think what had roused me. Was it a sound? No. Had I seen anything? No. then I became aware of a powerful scent, which grew stronger every second. I recognised it as lavender. I was puzzled, knowing there was none in the room, and as the lavender season was long past I knew it could not arise from the garden. It became so overpowering that I arose to open the other window, which overlooked the path and bushes. In the bright moonlight I could discern every object plainly, and was amazed to see the gate wide open. Knowing I had fastened it firmly, I was surprised and rather alarmed. But all was still. After watching for some time and seeing no intruder, I went back to bed.
The next day was so wet that gardening was again suspended. Towards evening the rain ceased, the sky cleared and there was a magnificent sunset, followed later by an intensely bright moonlight night.
I went to bed and was soon asleep. About midnight I awoke suddenly as before, and the scent of lavender was even stronger than the previous night. Then I heard a gentle tapping, and rising quickly went to the open window. There, in the path, stood a little old lady with a great sheaf of lavender in her arms. Her dress was that of a bygone period, and she was gazing up at my window. I felt half afraid and watched her.
She placed the blooms on the ground and pointed to the bushes, then spread her arms over the nearest one as if to protect it, and finally held up her arms to me with a gesture of appeal. The next instant she was gone I knew not where, and the scent in the room had gone also.
The next day, without relating my experiences of the two previous nights, I plied the old villager with questions about the former history of my dwelling. I also asked him to remove the bushes.
"No, no, ma’am," cried he, "doan’t ‘ee do that, it ‘ud drive the little lady away!"
"What little lady?" I asked.
He then proceeded to tell me the tale handed down by his own great-grandfather – the tale of a young man who had planted the bushes the day before his wedding, and of how he and his young wife for a few short years used to gather the beautiful blue spikes, to be dried and used after the manner of those days, and how, one year, the young husband had gone out to bring in the last big sheaf and did not return.
The wife, occupied in spreading out the blooms to dry, did not for a time notice his absence, but eventually went to the door and called him. No answer. She went in search of him and found him near the gate, with the last sheaf of lavender in his arms – dead.
It was proved that he was a victim of an escaped maniac, who had stealthily dealt him a fatal blow and then sped on through the village leaving more death and destruction in his wake.
"And," said the old man, "when anybody do think of pulling up they bushes which he planted there the little lady comes and begs ‘em not. Most folks be afeared and leaves, but I doant think as how you will, ma’am, nor touch they bushes."
He was right. I did not leave, and the lavenders became my special care. And now, let them laugh who will when I say that many times since I have seen the little lady, in her quaint dress, bending lovingly over her flowers in the bright moonlight. And she seemed to smile. I am not afraid of her, and I like her to come and wander at will among the scenes she loved so well, in spite of the tragic memory it held for her.
I was told that she spent the remainder of her life there, and I love to think that perhaps she died in the room I occupied. And perhaps – who knows? – when I have passed beyond the veil, I too, who loved that garden, may return and walk its paved path in the company of my "Lavender Lady."