Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Romance
“He is not ancient. He is fiftyish,” Merton said with a speculative look at Charity. “And a spry fiftyish at that. I have seen him darting through the woods like a hare.”
“His white hair is long,” Charity said. “It would look blond by moonlight. And he is a small man. In that flowing gown he would look like a woman.”
Lewis gave a snort of derisive laughter. “Next you will be saying he has a kid sequestered in his shack.”
“No one actually saw the baby,” Merton said. “What we saw was a person of indeterminate sex holding a blanket—or Charity’s shawl. Imagination did the rest. I believe I shall call on Old Ned.”
“But why would he involve himself in this sort of carry-on?” Charity asked.
“He is mixed up in it somehow,” Lewis said vaguely. “He was Meg’s fellow, remember, before Papa lured her away from him. P’raps he bears us a grudge.”
“We shall soon know,” Merton said. “We are going to his grotto, Lewis, as soon as we have seen Charity safely into the house. I see Bagot has left the door wide open,” he added with an annoyed tsk as they drew nearer.
“That was my fault,” Charity said. “Papa left it open to give me a little light.”
Merton suddenly realized that Charity had been out alone in the darkness and was diverted from the open door to a reminder that this was unwise of her.
“I did not go far,” she assured him. “And with both you and Lewis for protection, I feel there would be no harm in my accompanying you to Old Ned’s house.”
“Definitely not!” Merton said, and took her elbow to lead her to the open door.
“What can happen to Miss Wainwright when you and I are here to protect her?” Lewis demanded. “You are becoming as bad as Papa, John, never wanting anyone to do anything.”
“What is there to be frightened of?” Charity said, adding her plea to Lewis’s.
Merton was soon talked around, for he did not want to appear stuffy in front of her. It was frightening enough, walking through the black forest with only small fragments of sky visible between the towering oaks. Leaves whispered ominous secrets to the wind. Night creatures stirred, disturbed by the incursion of human beings into their private domain. Charity began by offering her arm to Merton to aid his halting walk but ended up clutching his sleeve for protection from the encroaching shadows.
Lewis led the way. “Old Ned’s place is just around the bend,” he whispered. “I can hear the stream gurgling. We shall creep up on him.”
A lighter-colored square set against the dark hillside told them they had reached Ned’s domain. It was in perfect darkness: not a window lit, not a puff of smoke from the chimney. They crept up quietly.
“He is in bed,” Lewis said. “So much for his burning the midnight oil. I daresay you are right, Charity. He does drink more than he ought.”
“Knock on the door,” Merton said. Lewis tapped lightly.
“He’ll not hear that if he is sleeping,” Merton said, and banged loudly with his walking stick. When there was still no reply, he lifted the stick and unceremoniously broke a window. The crash of breaking glass shattered the eerie forest silence.
“Merton!” Charity exclaimed. “Surely that was not necessary.”
“How else are we to get in? Lewis, kick out the rest of that glass and climb in the window. Open the front door for us.”
“Seems a bit ... I mean to say ... Not quite the thing. A man’s house is his castle and all that.”
“This was still my house, the last I heard.”
Lewis picked up a rock to clear away the shards of glass before climbing in. They heard his uncertain call through the window. “Ned? I say, Ned. Are you home?” Next his head appeared through the gaping window frame. “He don’t seem to be home. I shall open the door.”
Soon the door opened. “Let us find a lamp,” Merton said, and began feeling around the dark chamber.
“Here, I’ve got one,” Lewis called from the other side of the room. “Now if I can find a tinderbox. Ah, here we are.”
He worked the flint, lit the lamp, and a chamber of baroque splendor sprang to life before their eyes. The windows, which appeared to be hung in simple cotton from the outside, revealed brocade drapes within, their grandeur hidden from prying eyes by a cotton lining that faced out. Elegant furnishings were ranged around the room. A striped satin sofa was placed beneath the window, with a bottle of Merton’s best claret and a glass on the sofa table before it. An opened magazine lay beside the glass. There was a Persian carpet on the floor, lamps on the tabletops, paintings on the walls. The paintings teased Merton’s memory.
“That Canaletto is from our gold guest suite!” he exclaimed.
Lewis picked up a Wedgwood vase. “This used to be in my room. Mama told me the servants had broken it!”
Merton limped across the room to the other chamber, drawing Charity by the arm with him. The bedchamber was also done up in the first style of elegance, with a canopied bed, more brocade curtains, a desk and toilet table, and all the appurtenances of a gentleman’s bedchamber.
“He has got Papa’s silver brush set! Really, this is the outside of enough!” Lewis exclaimed. “I am taking these home with me.” So saying, he gathered up the two brushes and matching comb and shoved them into his pockets.
“I fail to see how this could have been arranged without Mama’s contrivance,” Merton said. His eyes moved to the corner of the room, where a case of his best claret stood. There was an empty bottle on the bedside table. His lips tightened in an angry line. “Bagot has had a hand in this. Other than myself, he is the only one with a key to my wine cellar.”
“If this is how a hermit lives, I shall take up the role myself,” Lewis said. “Not a sign of a hair shirt or a prie-dieu or a crucifix or any holy pictures. The fellow lives in the lap of luxury, having his meals sent down by Cook. I wonder who does his cleaning up.”
“No one, from the looks of it,” Charity replied. Her sharp eyes had noticed the dusty surfaces and unswept carpet.
Lewis picked up a tome that lay on the dresser. “And no holy books either, by Jove, not even a Bible. The old fraud. He is reading Shakespeare. Fancy Old Ned liking Shakespeare.”
“I told you he quoted Shakespeare at us,” Charity reminded him.
“The question is,” Merton said, “where the deuce is he, in the middle of the night?”
Charity said, “If he was acting the role of Meg, then perhaps he has gone to report to whomever put him up to it. He is obviously not in this alone.”
“Miss Monteith!” Lewis growled.
Charity frowned. “Do you remember, when the card table was being set up, Miss Monteith arranged your mama’s chair? She said she would want the heat at her back, but it also gave her an excellent view of the window where the ghost appeared.”
“Give her credit, Monteith is awake on all suits,” Lewis murmured.
“And I remember something else, too,” Charity continued. “I noticed St. John coming out of the woods today after he left the Hall. Perhaps he is in on it, too, Merton.”
Lewis said, “St. John does visit Ned from time to time. I don’t see that Monteith needed any help. She and Ned between them arranged it. What a set of fools we are. Ned and Monteith are getting their heads together, plotting more mischief, while we come scrambling here busting windows. He will come back sooner or later. We shall wait him out.”
“I have seen enough. I shall deal with Old Ned tomorrow,” Merton said grimly.
“Let us keep an eye peeled on our way home. We might very well run into him,” Lewis suggested.
They extinguished the lamp and left. As a final act of defiance, Lewis took two bottles of the good claret. “He may count himself fortunate if he does not get one of these over the head.”
It was impossible for three adults, one of them limping, another weighted down with brushes and bottles, to proceed with much silence. They did not intercept, nor could they discover any trace, of Ned lurking about the Hall. As soon as they were home, Merton went limping upstairs. When he returned below, he said, “I have seen Mama locked into the Arras Room. Monteith is wearing her usual shifty eye. As she has been sitting with Mama since the alleged ghost appeared, she cannot have been in touch with Old Ned yet.”
“Then we shall stick around until he comes,” Lewis said. He set down the bottles of claret and began unloading the brushes from his pockets.
“She will have to come downstairs to admit him,” Merton said.
Charity added, “She may just speak to him from her bedchamber window. Someone ought to spy from outside.”
“That is true,” Merton agreed. They both looked at Lewis.
“I see I am to be stuck with the dirty work as usual,” he complained. He went to the table, drew the cork from one of the bottles of claret and said, “I am off. You won’t forget to let me know if he shows up at the front door, John? It will be demmed uncomfortable, squatting out in the bushes.”
“Take a blanket,” Charity said.
“No thank you, but I shall take this for a chair.” So saying, he stuck the opened wine bottle in his pocket and took up Merton’s footstool. Charity held the door for him, then returned to Merton.
She said, “We can see the bottom of the staircase from the sofa in the corner. With all the lights out, Miss Monteith will not see us hiding.”
“There is no need for you to miss your sleep,” he said politely, although he liked the notion of sitting in the dark with Charity for an hour or so.
“I could not possibly sleep with all these mysterious goings-on. I shall just wrap myself up in this shawl—which I did not give to Ned—and make myself comfortable.”
“You now have two sticks with which to beat me over the head. Once more, I apologize.” Merton drew the cork on the other bottle of claret and they were soon privately ensconced on the sofa. “Should we not put out the lamps?” Charity said.
“The hall is still lit. Bagot has not locked up yet. Monteith will wait until everyone is asleep. Ah, there is Bagot now. I shall have a word with him. Bagot, if you have a moment, please.” Bagot hastened forward.
“I have just returned from Old Ned’s castle, where I found a case of this,” Merton said, pointing to the wine bottle. “Only you and I have the key to the cellar, Bagot. I most assuredly did not give him the wine. Perhaps you can explain this mystery to me.”
Bagot blinked in confusion. “Why, we have always supplied the hermit with the necessities of life, milord. Since your late papa’s time.”
“I consider this excellent wine one of life’s luxuries, not necessities. Surely a hermit, devoted to a life of prayer and self-effacement, can do without a Canaletto painting, and the final straw—Papa’s dresser set. Really, this is going a good deal too far.”
“His lordship’s orders were to give him whatever he asked for, within reason.”
“It has gone beyond reason!” Bagot looked uncomfortable. “I did tell her ladyship you would miss the Canaletto—although you did not miss it for three years.”
Merton ignored Charity’s little explosion of laughter. “Then Mama is aware of all the depredations Ned is making on my estate?” he asked haughtily.
“I would never undertake to supply him so lavishly on my own recognizance, milord!”
“I see. Have you ever seen Ned lurking about the house, perhaps talking to someone?”
“He never leaves the woods. The way we handle it, milord, young Jamie, the footboy, takes down the meals and brings Ned’s written orders to me.”
“Orders! Who the devil does he think he is?”
“I should have said requests. If the request is for something unusual, I discuss it with her ladyship. A good many books have been leaving the library over the years, for instance. Old Ned is a great reader. Mind you, he always sends the books back after a few weeks.”
Charity listened eagerly. When Bagot had finished, she said, “Did he actually have the nerve to ask for the late Lord Merton’s dresser set?”
“Ah, no, that was a gift from her ladyship. Old Ned did hint for a keepsake. I think, myself, it was his lordship’s watch he was after, but your lordship”—he bowed to Merton—”had already taken that.”
“And a fine timepiece it is, too.” Merton grinned, drawing his papa’s old Grebuet watch from his pocket.
“So the upshot is, Old Ned has been living high on the hog all these years at no expense, without doing a hand’s turn of work,” Charity said. “He made a better deal selling Meg than if he had married her. It hardly seems fair.”
“It ain’t,” Merton agreed, “but in the future Old Ned’s perquisites will be limited to the same food and wine the servants drink. He may have what he requires for modest comfort. His days of living like a lord are over.”
“You mean you are going to let him stay on!” Charity gasped.
Merton blinked in astonishment. “It was Papa’s order. He made a bargain with Old Ned. He kept it, and naturally I, as his heir, shall do the same. Old Ned has always been with us, for as long as I can remember.”
“Naturally. That explains it,” she said resignedly.
“Was there anything else, milord?” Bagot asked.
“Yes, I think Miss Wainwright would like some tea and perhaps a sandwich.”
Bagot bowed and left.
“Your mama is very generous, to treat Old Ned so lavishly,” Charity said. “It is her guilty conscience that accounts for it, of course.”
“I should think so. And it is her easy capitulation to all of Old Ned’s extravagant requests that has given him the idea she is easy plucking. My only question is why Ned risked such a good thing. Perhaps he just became bored.”
“I daresay Miss Monteith put him up to it. She was not on to such a good thing, was she? You mentioned she was only an upstairs maid before your mama took her on as her companion.”
“That is true, but she is on to a much better thing now. What does she actually gain from all this ghost business? A firmer grip on Mama,” he said doubtfully. “Perhaps a little something in Mama’s will.”
“Surely she is older than Lady Merton? Why should she live longer—unless ...” She gazed at Merton while he puzzled out her meaning.
“Good God! Are you suggesting she is trying to get herself written into Mama’s will and will then make sure Mama dies before her?”