Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Romance
The walk with Lewis was about what she expected. He knew virtually nothing about the architecture and the gardens of the house. When she dallied in the rose garden, he flicked a bloom and said, “Those are roses, I believe. Yes, that’s it. I’ve been pricked by a thorn. Curst things. I cannot imagine why Mama wants a gardenful of thorns.”
Her questions about the landscaping of the park were met with a similar lack of knowledge or interest. There was said to be a Judas tree planted to mark the execution of Charles I, but Lewis had no notion of which tree it might be.
“Someone called Reptile, or Repton, or some such thing did the place up years ago. I daresay he chopped it down. He made a mess of the place. Put in that little stream you see there and clumped the trees in threes. I shall show you where I fish for trout.” Lewis the poet would have shown her a more interesting tour, but he had decided poetry was dull stuff after all when compared to hunting for ghosts in a dandy satin-lined cape.
About the only area they were both interested in was the stable. Merton did indeed keep an excellent one. There were twenty stalls occupied, counting Mr. Wainwright’s team. Well-muscled brown and black flanks gleamed in the sunlight. A pair of grooms tended the horses, brushing them and leading one pair out for exercise. Charity tentatively chose a bay mare called Charmer for her mount. When they espied the vicar’s gig driving through the park, they decided to return to the house to oversee the patching up of the holes in the clothes-presses and the wall between.
“About as much fun as watching grass grow” was Lewis’s opinion of watching the estate carpenter putty up the holes in the clothespresses and the wall between them. “Let us see what your papa is up to instead.”
They found Wainwright in the library poring over yellowed and sere documents pertaining to the history of Keefer Hall.
“Have you found any more ghosts, sir?” Lewis asked.
“An interesting account of the ravens,” Wainwright replied. “I had heard of them before, of course. It is said they have been here since the execution of Charles I.”
“Really? That long!” Lewis exclaimed. “I had no idea ravens were such long livers.”
“Not the same birds, Lord Winton, but six ravens.”
“Ah, hatched right there on the roof, no doubt.”
Mr. Wainwright did not like to have his dramatic soliloquies interrupted by the audience. He lowered his black brows and continued. “Birds are frequently harbingers of luck, either ill or good. At Longleat it is said the family will die out if the swans that nest on the lakes of Longleat ever leave.”
“Yes, I have heard that old canard—er, legend— forever.” Lewis nodded.
“At Radley Hall, where I was doing my research last year—perhaps you read my extract? No? I have a copy in my room if you would like to have a glance at it. At Radley Hall the swans fly around the house to foretell a death. There are black swans at Radley. There was a theory that unwonted activity of black birds foretold death. The ravens here at Keefer Hall throw that theory askew. What I have found in this account of Sir Nicholas Dechastelaine, your great-uncle—”
“You never want to believe anything Uncle Nick said. Drunk or sober, he never told the truth in his life.”
“Indeed!” Wainwright exclaimed, aghast at the fellow’s impertinence. “It is pretty well documented that the ravens have been circling the house in a frenzy to foretell good luck for nigh on two hundred years—numerous victories at war, births, marriages. They flew when the Royalists took Marlborough in 1642. Your ancestor, Lord Whitby Dechastelaine, led a regiment in that campaign. And again in 1745 when another Dechastelaine took part in the British victory at Louisburg in Canada. Various of Admiral Nelson’s victories, too. Word of those triumphs did not reach Keefer Hall for months, but the ravens knew. They flew on the dates of the occurrences. The account goes on for pages, documenting not only issues of national importance, but family births and marriages, as I mentioned. Your mama will know if the ravens flew at the time of her marriage.”
“I shall ask her.” Lewis was more interested in ghosts than in birds and said, “Have you found any more ghosts?”
“I am just looking for confirmation of my feeling that Knagg and the Ironside ghost are related by blood. It is bound to be here someplace.”
Lewis poked through a few books, then came up with a different idea. “Perhaps you would like to see the secret panel, Mr. Wainwright, and the priest’s hole? We call it a priest’s hole, but as we never were Papists I daresay it actually had something to do with hiding from Cromwell’s men.”
“I took the liberty of investigating the secret panel and the priest’s hole earlier, Lord Winton. Lady Merton was kind enough to tell me to make myself at home. Very interesting, but there are no ghosts there.”
“How did you find them?” Lewis demanded. “Mama did not leave her room until Vicar arrived.”
Wainwright just smiled. “I knew where they were. Something beckoned to me. I have a sixth sense regarding such matters.”
His daughter suspected he had also taken a glance at the plans of the house. Three long cylindrical tubes of the sort that often held house plans sat on the table where he was working.
“By Jove!” Lewis exclaimed. “Would you like to see them, Miss Wainwright?”
“Indeed I would.”
“We shall do it after lunch. It is a bit late to begin now. I daresay you will want to brush out your pretty hair. Not that it needs it. Or your long eyelashes or your satiny cheeks either,” he added foolishly.
Charity was too kind to state the obvious: that she never brushed her eyelashes or cheeks. “My hands are a little dusty,” she said, and darted upstairs.
The vicar, St. John, remained for lunch. Charity feared the meal would be an uneasy one. Vicars often took her papa’s interest in ghosts amiss. Fortunately, St. John was not adamant on the matter.
“There were instances of ghostly apparitions in the Old Testament,” he mentioned. “Saul’s visit to the witch of Endor comes to mind. Samuel the prophet materialized. And of course during the witch trials of the Middle Ages there were various appearances of spirits.”
Lord Merton was unhappy with this wanton encouragement of his mama’s folly. “I had not expected a man of the cloth to hold such views, St. John,” he said.
Lady Merton bridled up like an angry mare. “Are you saying I am mad, Merton?” she asked. “I know what I saw.”
“I doubt you will be bothered by these ‘ghosts’ again, Mama,” he said.
“I hope you may be right,” she said doubtfully.
“I am right.” He stared across the table at Miss Monteith. “I have taken certain steps, and if any more spirits come to harass you, I am ready to take further action. Now can we not discuss something more tangible? How is the St. Alban’s fund coming along, Vicar?”
“The kind ladies of the parish are holding a sort of spring bazaar. The proceeds of that will, I hope, take care of the necessary repairs to the perishing stonework in the church tower. You know it is my hope to build up an emergency fund. There are times when money is required on the spot, as it were. The horrible fire that consumed the Danson residence comes to mind. Six children—fortunately all survived, but for that poor widow to have to start from scratch, outfitting a house and six children—I wished I could have done more for her.”
He shook his head sadly. Sadness seemed to come naturally to him. He was all skin and bones, like a tuppenny rabbit. A tall, austere gentleman with wispy blond hair, pale blue eyes, a long nose, and a weak chin.
“Your contribution was most welcome,” he added to Merton. “Very generous, to be sure, but had it occurred while you were in London—well, you see why I am eager to have an emergency fund at my disposal.”
The vicar went to the library with Wainwright after lunch to look over the family documents pertaining to ghosts. Lord Merton suggested that his mama go for a drive, hoping the spring sunshine would raise her spirits.
“Yes, I would like to drive into the village,” she said. “I have a little business to attend to.”
“Miss Wainwright will accompany you,” Merton said with a meaningful glance at Charity.
She assumed this was an effort to get Lady Merton away from Miss Monteith, to allow her to confess her past transgression. “I would be happy to accompany you, ma’am,” she said at once.
Lady Merton showed only lukewarm pleasure. “You are entirely welcome to come with us, my dear, but I fear you would be bored. I really do not feel up to visiting the shops or anything of that sort. I have to see my man of business, Mr. Penley.”
That “us” suggested Miss Monteith was going along.
“There you are then,” Lewis said. “We can investigate the secret panels and so on, as we planned, Miss Wainwright.”
“That will be more amusing for you,” Lady Merton said at once, and left.
Merton gave a grimace at Miss Monteith’s retreating back. “The woman is worse than a burr. I wonder what mysterious ‘business’ Mama has to take care of.”
Lewis said, “Arranging to give St. John money for his charity, I daresay. I know she has been giving him plenty. When I asked her for that advance, she said her pocket was to let. She has not bought a new bonnet or gown for two years. What else could she be doing with her blunt?”
“Very likely she contributed something for the Dansons,” Merton mentioned. “Yet she would hardly have to visit her man of business for such a trifle as that....”
Lewis gave a quick frown. “I hope she ain’t planning to hand over my fortune to that trust fund St. John is always nattering about.”
“She would not do that,” Merton said. “Yet it is odd she is visiting Penley. I shall have a word with the vicar about this trust fund before he leaves.”
“Then we are off,” Lewis said, offering Charity his arm.
Merton gave his brother a sharp glance. “You have weighed the wool from the shearing and arranged for its removal to Eastleigh, Lewis?”
“Eh? No, how could I? I have been busy all morning.”
“The wool is your responsibility.”
“But what about Miss Wainwright? Dash it, John, she is our guest.”
“I can look after myself,” Charity said, feeling she was a burden on the family. “In fact, I should see if Papa needs me. Very likely he has copious notes for me to copy.” She rose to go after her father.
Merton placed a restraining hand on her wrist. “No, no, you wish to see the secret panels. I will be happy to show them to you.”
“I do not want to be a burden on anyone. I am quite accustomed to looking after myself.”
“I fear I have already offended Mr. Wainwright by my lack of faith in ghosts. It would be unconscionable of me to offend both my guests. You must allow me to do the pretty, Miss Wainwright.”
There was some teasing manner in the speech that made her uncomfortable. Merton seemed unaware of it, however. He turned to Lewis and said, “Well, what are you waiting for? That load of wool ain’t going to get to town by itself.”
Lewis decided a trip into Eastleigh would offer some amusement. “I shall take a peek in Penley’s window while I am there and see if Mama is giving St. John my fortune.”
“Has Mr. Wainwright taught you to hear through walls?” Merton asked.
He did not observe the angry sparkle in Charity’s eyes. She had no argument with his lack of belief in ghosts, but when he derided her father in this way, he was going too far.
“Lord Winton said window, milord,” she snipped. “It would require lipreading for that, would it not? Unfortunately, reading lips is not one of my father’s accomplishments.”
“I am sorry,” he said at once. “But you must admit, Miss Wainwright, these notions of your father are a load of rubbish. No sane person can actually believe in ghosts.”
“Then you are calling your mama mad as well,” she pointed out.
“No, merely overly prone to suggestion. We know someone has been playing tricks on her. I do not suggest your papa is involved, for he only arrived yesterday and this has been going on for a month, but I fear his presence aggravates the situation. Ah, here is St. John!” he said, as the sound of footfalls in the hallway was heard.
Charity had no time to reply, but she felt an angry burning sensation in her breast.
Merton went to the doorway. “Have you a moment, St. John?” he asked.
The vicar entered the saloon with a shy, tentative step. “About this St. Alban’s Trust Fund,” Merton said. “Exactly how is it set up? Who is in charge of the money?”
“The board of directors, milord.”
“And you are the president of the board?”
“Why, yes. That is the arrangement.”
“Who is the treasurer?”
St. John blinked in perplexity. “You are, milord. Do you not recall, when the fund was set up last year, you were kind enough to assume the role of treasurer? Squire Lockhead is the secretary.”
“Ah! Just so.” A trace of pink was noticeable around Merton’s jaw. “It had slipped my mind as we never seem to have any meetings.”
“It is all very informal. You are busy, milord. I handle the day-to-day business. The spring bazaar and so on.”
“Yes, yes. I understand. I just wondered, as you mentioned it at lunch.”
“Was there anything else, milord?”
“No. That is all. Thank you for your time. I shall make a point to attend the bazaar.”
The vicar bowed himself out and Merton scowled at Lewis. “That was demmed embarrassing. I told you St. John was innocent.”
“I never said he wasn’t!” Lewis shrugged. “I only said Mama might be planning to give him my fortune.” He explained to Charity, “Since there are no girls in the family, Mama has left her money to me in her will. Ten thousand pounds. Merton is already rich as a nabob. As St. John is our cousin, and poor as a church mouse, she might feel sorry for him is all I meant.”
“You implied he was weaseling around to get her money for his trust fund,” Merton said.
Before the brothers came to cuffs, Charity tried to smooth the waters. “The vicar does not look like you two. Nor like Lady Merton either.”
“He ain’t a real cousin,” Lewis told her. “That is to say, he was adopted by the St. Johns at birth. They are our cousins. They live just a few miles away. Although he could be some kin, I daresay. Cousin Algernon cut a few capers in his day.”