Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Romance
“Pity,” he said, “but as you are here, you must by all means bring our other ghosts to heel, if possible.”
“Aye, the young lady in your bedroom interests me considerably.”
Merton’s lips twitched, but he refrained from any of the outré remarks that occurred to him. It was for Lewis to shame the family.
“I shouldn’t mind having a young lady in my bedchamber, Mr. Wainwright. If John wants to be rid of her, you can send her to me.”
“That might be the quickest way to be rid of her,” Merton said with a blighting stare.
Wainwright quizzed Merton about the ghost in his room. When he had been assured a few times that Merton had never felt or seen any manifestation of the lady, he asked about the historical records of the house and was told that he must make himself free of the library.
When tea was finished, it was approaching one o’clock, and they all retired.
“Mama has given you Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber, Miss Wainwright,” Merton said with the air of one conferring an honor.
“How nice,” she said weakly.
Charity had slept in many lumpy beds formerly occupied by Queen Elizabeth, enough to make her wonder if the ancient queen had ever slept in her own bed. She was happy to see that at Reefer Hall the mattress was of more recent vintage than the sixteenth century. Accustomed to travel, she slept well. No echo of Lady Merton’s ghost came to disturb her slumber. She did not hear until morning that there had been another apparition.
Normally Lady Merton would bestir herself to take breakfast at the table when she had guests, but guests who arose at eight were too much for her, especially after a restless night. She took toast and cocoa at ten in her bed. At eight-thirty the gentlemen and Miss Wainwright were tucking into gammon and eggs in the breakfast room, each looking forward to the excitement of the day’s doings. Wainwright excused himself immediately after breakfast and went to the library to begin looking into the history of the Hall.
“Shall we begin our investigations now, Miss Wainwright?” Merton asked.
Lewis, his kerchief tamed to a proper cravat and his gaudy waistcoat to a plain one, jumped up. “What is this? Your investigations? Since when did you believe in ghosts, John? You called Wainwright a quack!” Lewis cast a quick, apologetic glance at the young lady. “This is a trick to be with Miss Wainwright.”
“Quiet, cawker! We are only going to check the attic.”
“Mr. Wainwright did not mention any ghosts there,” Lewis said accusingly. “You are just trying to get her alone.”
“Mama’s ghost is a dummy hung on a string outside her window to frighten her,” Merton said curtly. “We are going to look for evidence of it.”
“I shall come along with you,” Lewis said at once, with a jealous peep at Charity, who pretended not to notice.
Lewis was easily swayed to consider that his mama’s problem had a purely human cause. “By gad, it could easily be done. I daresay Monteith still has the dummy she used concealed up there.”
“You assume that Miss Monteith is behind it?” Charity asked.
“Don’t see who else it could be. Unless it is Sabourin,” he added, frowning. “She was none too happy when Mama retired her, John. I think Sabourin had a few good years left in her, though she was nudging seventy.”
“Miss Sabourin was Mama’s dresser,” Merton explained to Charity. “Mama is paying her an excellent pension. Sabourin was happy to retire. As she is residing with her daughter in Eastleigh, I fail to see how she could be behind this mischief.”
They took their bearings on the landing before mounting to the attic. “No one occupies the room above Mama’s,” Lewis said. “It is stuffed full of lumber.”
“Let us have a look,” Merton said, and they went up a narrow, uncarpeted stairway to the attic, past servants’ quarters to that part of the area used for storage. The room above Lady Merton’s was as Lewis had described it. Old trunks, chairs and tables with broken legs, sofas with the stuffing half out, and other such discarded items filled the room. It was possible to move between the lumber, however, and they went to the window.
“No footprints,” Lewis mentioned.
“How could there be? There is a carpet,” Charity pointed out. “Odd there should be a carpet on this part of the attic floor. The rest of it is not carpeted.”
A long strip of worn carpet ran from the doorway to the window. “This is the bit of carpet you had replaced in the library hallway,” Lewis said to his brother.
“It has been laid to muffle the sound of footfalls,” Merton said, glancing down at it. “I call that prima facie evidence that we are on the right track. Let us have a look at the window.”
It raised easily and noiselessly. He ran his finger along the groove. It came away smeared with oil. He tried the next window; it was hard to move and had not been treated with the oil. “Now to find the stuffed gown,” he said, and they began peering behind furniture and opening trunks.
Lewis had a dandy time, reliving his childhood. “Look at this, John! My first long trousers!” he exclaimed, drawing them out of a trunk. A flurry of moths hovered around the trousers. “And here is my set of tin soldiers. I was wondering what had become of them.”
Before long he had assumed the role of Wellington, with his men arranged for battle, carefully positioned in the hills provided by folds of old clothing in the trunk. Whistling sounds of imaginary flying bullets punctuated the silence.
Charity looked at Merton and smiled.
“If he finds an officer’s shako amidst this rubbish, he will have it on his head by lunchtime,” Merton said, and began looking around the room.
“There is nothing here,” he said after they had examined all possible hiding places. “But I, for one, am certain this attic is the source of Mama’s ghost. Why else was this one window oiled?”
“That still leaves the clothespress,” Charity said. She was a little disappointed that Merton had not mentioned sending off for her riding habit. It could hardly be at Keefer Hall by tomorrow if he waited much longer, yet she disliked to remind him of it.
“We shall leave Wellington here and get on with it,” he said, glancing at Lewis.
His brother was not that easily gotten rid of. He stuffed the tin soldiers into his pockets and went below with them. In the hallway Merton said, “This is Mama’s room. Her sitting room is to the left and Miss Monteith’s room is next to it. That does not give her access to the clothespress. It is in Mama’s bedchamber, against the right-hand wall. The adjoining wall is in this room—a guest room,” he said, walking along and opening the door.
They went into a bright room done up in shades of gold and green. “Mama’s clothespress would be against this wall,” Merton said, walking hastily to the adjacent wall, where another clothespress stood. Merton was just about to open the door when Miss Monteith spoke from behind them. No one had heard her silent entry.
“Her ladyship would like to speak to you, Miss Wainwright,” she said. As she spoke, her eyes made a quick tour of the room. Her expression was not smiling, but it held a sort of secret irony.
Charity jumped in surprise. “Oh, thank you, Miss Monteith. I did not hear you come in. I shall be happy to see her,” she said, and followed the woman out.
She found Lady Merton still in her bed, looking ten years older than she had looked the evening before. Her hair had been arranged and she wore a handsome silk bed jacket, but she had not applied her rouge.
“Miss Wainwright, kind of you to come.” She smiled sadly. “I have been thinking about what your papa said last night, about there not being a ghost here.”
“He is quite certain there is no ghost in this part of the house, ma’am.”
“Yes, yes, I understand that. But you are a woman—a lady—and you have considerable experience with this sort of thing as well. No doubt this power runs in families. I am not denying your father’s powers, my dear. What he said to me last night the moment he came into the room convinces me he has great powers. But in this one case he has failed. The ghost came again last night. Not to the window, but from there,” she said, pointing to the clothespress.
“What did it look like?” Charity asked, glancing at Miss Monteith, who had taken up a stance behind Lady Merton and was listening with both ears.
“Oh, dear, it is difficult to say, in the dark, you know. She—the ghost, I mean—had opened the curtains again, letting in the moonlight. I made a particular point of closing them before going to bed. Miss Monteith will vouch for that.” Miss Monteith nodded firmly. “By the light of the moon I saw a—how shall I say it?—disembodied spirit. A sort of smoke, or ether, coming from the clothespress. She had opened the clothespress door. I always make a point of closing it since ... recently.”
As the lady spoke of actually seeing the ghost, Charity did not like to suggest it did not exist. “Who do you think it is?” she asked.
Lady Merton looked at Miss Monteith, who stared back, lizardlike. A secretive look came over Lady Merton’s face. “I am sixty years old, Miss Wainwright. No one has lived sixty years without doing a little harm, however unintentional. It must be someone I have wronged in the past, do you not think?”
“That seems the likeliest answer,” Charity agreed. With Miss Monteith on the qui vive, she did not like to go into details. “Perhaps if you could rectify this wrong, your ghost might leave.”
“Exactly what I thought. I am willing to do what I can to make restitution, and you must be rid of my ghost for me, for I cannot go on like this. She will be the death of me.”
When Charity looked at Miss Monteith again, the woman wore a very satisfied smile.
“There we are then,” the companion said. “Now you must not weary yourself, milady. Perhaps you should leave her now, Miss Wainwright. You can see Her Ladyship is in no condition to talk at the moment.”
“We shall have a longer chat another time,” Charity said.
Lady Merton smiled. “You will send for the vicar now, Miss Monteith,” she said.
“That I will. And perhaps you could convince His Lordship to leave the room next door, Miss Wainwright. The noise is bothering Her Ladyship.”
“What is John doing in the gold guest room?” Lady Merton asked.
“He has been giving me a little tour of the house, ma’am. I shall ask him to show me the downstairs, as you are trying to rest.”
“It is a fine old house,” Lady Merton said, “but not a happy one, I fear. The watercolor of the cloisters in the gold room next door was done by my sister, Lady Holcroft, when she visited me in the last century. That little shadow in the fifth archway is the singing nun. Beth, my sister, saw her.”
“How interesting. I shall take a good look at it another time. Now I shall leave you.”
They parted amicably. Charity was convinced Miss Monteith was up to no good. She hastened back to the gold room to tell Lord Merton what had transpired.
He beckoned her to the clothespress. She went on tiptoe, to hide her actions from prying ears in the next room. “Speak softly. Miss Monteith is listening next door,” she whispered. The clothespress held Lady Merton’s winter gowns, moved here for convenience for the coming summer.
“Feel this,” Merton whispered.
Charity felt a gray merino gown. “It is damp!” she said in a low voice.
“There’re traces of a fire in the grate,” Lewis told her. “We think someone was boiling water there. There is a knothole in the back of the clothespress, with a hole in the wall behind it, and another little hole leading right into Mama’s clothespress. With a hose stuck in the kettle spout to direct—”
“Her ghost was steam!” Charity said. “She had another visitation last night. Let us go belowstairs to discuss this.”
They walked as silently as they could to the staircase and down to the Blue Saloon.
“Lady Merton asked me to try to remove her ghost,” Charity said. “She admitted to some wrongdoing in her past, but with Miss Monteith listening in, I could not press for details. I hope to have a private talk with her soon.”
“I wish you luck,” Lewis said. “I have been trying to get her alone to ask for an advance on my allowance for a week. Monteith sticks like a barnacle. She don’t let Mama stir an inch without her.”
“I shall arrange it,” Merton said. “Perhaps this evening. I wonder when those holes were poked in the clothespresses and in the wall between them.”
“You cannot blame old Monteith for that,” Lewis said. “That peephole has been there forever. I used to spy through it to see where Mama was hiding my birthday present when I was a lad. She usually hid it under the bed.”
“As Miss Monteith was an upstairs maid, no doubt she was aware of it and decided to put it to use,” Merton said. “I shall have the holes plugged up this very day. And I shall have the attic window nailed shut while I am about it.” He went to the hallway and spoke to Bagot, the butler.
When he returned, he said, “Mama has asked the vicar to call this afternoon. Bagot will take care of the holes and the window while she is belowstairs for the visit. Monteith usually accompanies her.”
“What, St. John coming again?” Lewis scowled. “He will be moving in bag and baggage next thing we know. I say, John, you don’t think he could be working with Monteith?”
Lord Merton rolled his eyes ceilingward. “I think we can assume the vicar is innocent, Lewis. Mama’s fit of vapors is more troublesome to him than to anyone else. She quite relies on his support. We have never had any trouble with St. John. An excellent chap.”
Lewis said aside to Charity, “He is our cousin. John gave him the living.”
As there was nothing else to be done at the moment, Lewis offered to take Miss Wainwright on a tour of the grounds. She was sorry she had accepted when she noticed that Merton looked a little disappointed.
Her spirits were restored when Merton called after them, “You might take Miss Wainwright to the stable to pick out a mount, Lewis.” He turned to Charity. “I took the liberty of sending a footman off to London for your riding habit early this morning, ma’am. With luck he should be back by this evening.” He had remembered! The speed of his action suggested he was very eager for that ride.