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Authors: Virginia Coffman

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“If you have finished your rumfustian, we are awaited elsewhere, I believe. Come.”

With a meekness that astonished myself and would have astonished Papa. I gave the mug into his waiting fingers and he set it back in the
red-
h
aired
woman’s hand, lifting it over the heads of those men and women in the way. The red-haired woman said quite audibly, “Ah! So that’s the way of it!”

I did not like this insinuation, and I held back almost instinctively at Sir Nicholas’s typical attitude of command, especially since it appeared that Patrick Kelleher had seen my difficulty at last and was cuffing villagers out of the way in the friendliest manner to reach me.

“So you’ll be favoring His Worship, me dear.
That’s the doing of the old dragon, as you’ll find. And more. What’s said of me may be true of our squire.”

I assumed this was his tasteless form of a joke, but Sir Nicholas ignored it and reached for my arm.

“Don’t be tiresome. Come along, Kathleen.”

I had not given him leave to use my first name and resented it more from him than I would have minded Patrick’s use of it, for the Irishman was a free-spoken man whom one need not take seriously.

Patrick grinned, but I saw that his tawny eyes were very still, unreadable, as he and Sir Nicholas gazed at each other over my head, and I remembered with a chill that both men had loved Patrick’s dead wife, Megan Sedley Kelleher. Was it possible that Patrick’s “tasteless joke” had been a hint to me of the baronet’s guilt in the awful crime that others laid to Patrick himself? I had a strange, crushed sensation entirely foreign to me, as though I did not know which way to turn
for help.

Sir Nicholas left me no such problem. When he took my reluctant, resisting arm, I noticed how quickly everyone dropped away from me, once my connection with him was discovered. I noted too that there was in their manner more than the respect normally accorded to the local squire—there was a scarcely hidden fear, a hesitancy to touch him. Or perhaps that was only my fancy, for I had just learned, through Patrick’s barbed joke, that when I said “good day” to the Irishman and went out with Sir Nicholas, I might still be walking with a murderer. It was easy enough to dismiss the Irishman’s accusation as an old jealousy, but these men and women in the Owl of York shared a common fear of the aristocrat, and their sharing of it spread it to me. From all I had heard and observed of the men of Yorkshire, it would take something rather astounding and fearful to produce in them any terror, much less a sense of the superiority of the squire over the workman!

Once we reached the cobblestones and what I conceived to be the cold safety of the moorland wind, I said, with an attempt at recovering my self
-
assurance, “I was just leaving when you spoke, but in any case, thank you. Good day.”

It was hard to keep any dignity with this man. Before I could leave him—and this was something I did at his chosen time, not mine—he managed to enrage me all over again.

“You are undoubtedly the most foolish child I have encountered in a lifetime of foolish females!”

“Indeed!” I said, drawing myself to my full height and looking up at him with what he afterward told me was a good deal of murderous fury. The difficulty was, I could not think of anything bad enough to say to him after that first “indeed” except to add another, ending a trifle lamely, “Well, indeed, sir!”

To my complete chagrin, he laughed aloud at
this, uncovering to me an entirely new facet of his personality and one I was to find much more dangerous. This grim aristocrat with the bitter dark eyes could find amusement in the world. It was not surprising, however, that his amusement came at the cost of another person’s discomfiture. And I had to recall that vigorously; otherwise, I would have observed, to my own defeat, that when he did smile, he was even more handsome than the impossible man I had first met in the Hag’s Head. It is always confusing to be so undone by one’s dearest enemy!

“Come along up to Mrs. Sedley’s, like a good girl, and do not put me to the trouble of rescuing you another time—not, at least, today.”

But as we walked, I was already thinking hard, trying to imagine some way of disconcerting him. One idea, perhaps a trifle drastic, occurred to me. I could give serious consideration to the purchase of the Hag’s Head. That would avenge me and in fine style!

I became so obsessed with this delightful method of infuriating him that by the time we reached Sedley House and I saw Meg Markham waving to me to hurry, could be civil and pleasant to the aristocrat, not letting him suspect what was in my mind.

“You have been most kind, Sir Nicholas. I hope to repay you one day.”

“I’m sure that you do!” he said with the grim smile I remembered from yesterday and had wondered at then.

Now I thought I understood a little of its grimness. He had loved someone who had been murdered. Or he had murdered someone whom he loved
...

 

CHAPTER SIX

Meg said c
onfidentially, “Old Missus is pretty upset, ma’am. She’s a mind for making you known to her granddaughter. And then, seeing you with Sir Nicholas again, she’s that feared you’ll be stealing
th
e heart of him from Miss Elspeth. It did no good, me pointing up the feeling ’twixt you and Sir Nicholas.”

I said, “Really? What did she say to that?”

“She said any woman with eyes in her head would know good silver from dross.”

“And which is the baronet?”

Meg chuckled. “Miss Kate, you are the one! You’d not be knowing the thoughts hereabouts. If it wa’nt for the whispers, many’s the lass would throw her cap at Sir Nicholas. Him being that handsome! And rich, which is even better.”

Fearing he would hear us, I paused and looked over my shoulder, but he was far up the street, already on the verge of great Heatherton Moor. In another few minutes even his formidable figure would be swallowed in that vast, dun-colored sea. “What are the whispers, Meg?”

Her elbow jogged me painfully. “Could it be His
Worship that popped Miss Megan on the head and then set fire at Hag’s Head?”

This confirmation of Patrick Kelleher’s hint was rather horrible and lascivious. I wondered why people, especially women, got such wet-lipped pleasure out of reciting such stories.

I said stiffly, “A silly tale, surely, if he loved Mrs. Kelleher. I should think he would more sensibly kill her husband, in order to win her.”

Meg shook her head at my naive idea.

“It wouldn’t be Sir Nicholas, to be doing such things the way of sensible folk. Him with his dark temper and his dark doings at the Hag’s Head.”

I was fairly perishing to know what “dark doings” the magistrate and justice of the peace was about at the Hag’s Head, but I was ashamed to show my interest, and I departed on this tantalizing note and hurried up the stairs to Mrs. Sedley’s bed-sitting-room.

My hostess was sitting up in her large white-testered and frilled bed, looking at me a trifle grimly, although she motioned me to a place at the little drum table beside the casement windows. The other place was taken by Elspeth Sedley, immaculate in her pink-sprigged round gown, her exquisite complexion enhanced by the ribbon of pink holding her high-piled curls. If I felt my reception by Mrs. Sedley was cool, the greeting from her granddaughter was indeed frigid.

“Grandmama prefers to dine at correct hours, Miss Truro.”

“Miss Bodmun,” I corrected with my largest and, I am sorry to confess, my falsest smile. “You have the wrong town.”

“When a place is out of England, I take little interest in it,” Elspeth retorted, carefully buttering a scone with a precision that I might have envied in anyone else.

Since Cornwall was at that time of my life a part of Britain, though yet separated from England, I could find nothing sufficiently biting to say in return and took seat opposite Elspeth, still smiling for all I was worth. Not from me would she learn how her words and manner stung me or that I had not been informed of the change in breakfast habits this morning.

It was Mrs. Sedley who broke the difficult silence, with a soft, wistful glance at her granddaughter, by murmuring, “Now you have seen her, is she not worthy to be Lady Everett? She has all the femininity and all the careful rearing to support such a position at Everett Hall.”

“Oh, Grandmama! You promised you would not mention him this morning,” Elspeth complained, but I saw her glance up the street after Sir Nicholas, and I suspected I had her to thank for the talebearing about my second walk to Sedley House with him. I could not guess whether she disliked and suspected him, as she seemed to, or whether this was a mask for a quite different emotion.

“But dear,” Mrs. Sedley persisted, stiffly and absently rearranging the dishes of breakfast eggs, tea, and ginger
moogin
on her tray, “I have it on the very best authority that a certain distinguished personage will be making an offer for you within a fortnight.”

While Meg Markham served me, I listened and wondered how much of this was true and how much the mere product of Mrs. Sedley’s fond dreams.

In part, Elspeth’s contemptuous disbelief answered for me.

“Who is your best authority? That dreadful old crone his housekeeper?”

A little ruffled by this cynicism, Mrs. Sedley explained to me, “Mrs. Hardwicke is a woman of discernment, Kathleen. You must pay no mind to dear Elspeth. She is shy about marriage and covers it by this unbecoming attitude. But we shall have her the Lady of Everett Hall before the year is out; mind that.”

For the first time in our acquaintance, Elspeth gave me an almost friendly glance, a kind of shared amusement.

“Why not marry off Kathleen to her precious murderer? She has taken a fancy to him. They are forever being seen together.”

“A detestable, supercilious creature!” I said as positively as ever she had spoken. And as she gazed at me in disbelief, I went on, “But not, I think, a murderer!”

“You would know, of course!” said Elspeth nastily.

“Girls! Girls! That will do,” Mrs. Sedley interrupted us, genuinely alarmed at the turn our quarrel had taken. “Let there be no more whimsical talk of dear Nicky and murder. His only crime was that he was devoted to my poor Megan.”

“Dear Nicky!” repeated Elspeth, rolling her eyes. It was the first human expression I had noted on this face of hers, which had been extolled for its soft, feminine beauty. Elspeth’s reaction, however, was contagious, and we both laughed at the preposterous notion of Sir Nicholas Everett’s freezing countenance if he were addressed in that fashion.

Mrs. Sedley, naturally enough, did not see the humor of her own words. “I suppose I must allow Elspeth her little jesting moments during the last days of her maidenhood,” she said. “All that will be changed, once she has the responsibilities of Everett Hall at her fingertips.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Elspeth agreed ruefully. “That is one reason why I’ve no notion of
...
” She glanced at me and hastily ate her scone.

I wondered if she thought her uncle Patrick was a more honest man, less dangerous. Even in my dislike of Sir Nicholas I could not believe he was less honest, though possibly he was more dangerous than the Irishman.

I was startled when Patrick’s name was suddenly spoken in the room and for a minute was afraid Elspeth had forgotten her grandmother’s feelings toward him. But it was Mrs. Sedley who said with a new, deep note of bitterness, “The very least that can be spoken of Sir Nicholas Everett would scarcely be equal to the unspeakable villainy of that creature who has come back to Maidenmoor to murder some other defenseless and loyal woman.”

“Grandmother!”

“It is true, all the same. True that for twelve years your uncle has gone unpunished. But his time will come. He’ll die as my Megan did, in his blood!”

“Not at breakfast, please,” said her granddaughter coldly.

I was shocked, not so much by the expression of such violent passions—indeed, I have violent passions myself—but at the expression of them by fluttery, pretentious Mrs. Sedley. It also seemed pitiful to me that all her talk of Elspeth’s sweetness and feminine passivity were mere dreams of the older woman.

When breakfast had deteriorated into a series of small forays between grandmother and granddaughter, the former returning to her polite, frilly ways, the latter sullen as I knew her, I excused myself with the remark that I wanted to make an inspection of any empty large houses in the area.

Mrs. Sedley’s quick sparkle of hope made me feel quite sick with pity for her and anger at myself for having given her grounds to hope. She had enough problems without this new hope which might be blasted.

“You sly puss! I believe you are considering the Hag’s Head after all.”

“I fear it may be too large, ma’am. And it is always possible we cannot raise a sum sufficient to repair any of the damage which results when a house stands disused.”

“Oh-ho!” Elspeth hooted, and I had a nasty suspicion that she guessed I had not originally had any idea of purchasing the dreadful, ghost-ridden old house.

What with my secret intention of annoying Sir Nicholas Everett by pretending to consider the purchase of the inn, and now Mrs. Sedley’s dependence upon my making that very purchase, I realized there was nothing for it but to make good upon my visit to the Hag’s Head. I dressed for it this time, however, changing even my present clothing for a warm green wool gown, with long, narrow sleeves and a round neck just relieved from severity by a white frill. In case this should not be proof against another sudden storm, I put aside my shawls and decided to risk damage to my best coat, one of which I was inordinately proud. It was of the new mode, slim-skirted and high-waisted, with narrow sleeves. I was about to run out upon the moor without anything on my head until I remembered the stiff breeze I had felt earlier in the village, and I had to go back into my room to fetch my sturdy green bonnet. Its wide ribbons, as I tied them under my chin, already showed faint stains from an earlier rainstorm at home, though I had pressed the ribbons carefully afterward.

“Dear child,” Mrs. Sedley called to me as I came out of my room, “Do be sure your feet are well shod. You will not wish to be walking into potholes and such.”

I was familiar with potholes at home, and unlike yesterday, when I had run out after Timothy quite unprepared, I was snugly shod in shoes that were serviceable but not clumsy. I wished to walk about in the Hag’s Head as silently as possible, in the hope of discovering whatever natural phenomenon caused the odd sounds that had disturbed Timothy and me. If I must go to the dreadful old place, I should at least accomplish something by satisfying my curiosity about its “haunts.”

“Come in; there’s a good child,” Mrs. Sedley urged.

I was reluctant to join another quarrel with her granddaughter in the presence of the older lady, but fortunately for all of us, Elspeth had gone about whatever duties occupied her days, and I was able to step inside and receive Mrs. Sedley’s further instructions.

“Now, my dear Kathleen, you mother had ever as keen an eye for a bargain as though she were Yorkshire-born and bred up. So I am persuaded you will not be behind her in such matters. You must note carefully the solid construction. The flagstone floors. Safety was the watchword when the Hag’s
Head was put up. No storm could pierce those walls. No fire could—”

“I understand, ma’am,” I said hastily. “I noticed how serviceable the floors were.” Then I remembered something for the first time since I had left the Hag’s Head. “That is, except for the objections the magistrate made to the place. Sir Nicholas thought the floors would go through.”

She sat up straighter, puffing her pillows in an effort, I was sure, to hide her surprise and discomfiture.

“Oh, he did, eh? Made objections to Megan’s house! Well, it’s not surprising. It was an unhappy place for poor Nicholas. He was much younger then
...
when my Megan was alive. And each time that creature—that hateful, miserable Irishman—philandered with a different female, it cut Nicholas the more. He had not succeeded to the estate then, when my Megan was married, of course. Not until his older brother was lost two years later with his frigate off Cape Trafalgar, did Nicholas take the title. By then, it was too late for Megan.”

I found all this extremely romantic and could not help asking, “Was she in love with Sir—with Nicholas Everett before her marriage to Mr. Kelleher?”

Mrs. Sedley shrugged, a gesture that must have caused her some pain, for she grimaced.

“There was some
...
tendresse,
as they say, between them, I believe. But it came to naught. At that time Nicholas was on leave from his regiment, a mere lieutenant, with no expectations. How could I know he would come into the title and lands, the richest man in the West Riding, in two short years?”

And of course,
I thought,
you could never let poor Megan marry for love; so she married Patrick Kelleher—for what? A life of misery and perhaps e
ven a bloody death at his hands
.

“Why ever did you let her marry Mr. Kelleher?” She looked out the windows, and I wondered if she was realizing at this moment her dreadful responsibility for her daughter’s tragic life.

“His lying tongue! What else was I to do? The Irishman came here with tales of his estate, the full half of County Meath, his fabulous ancestry. Well, in short, I was never more deceived.”

No,
I thought.
You do not see your guilt in all this
.

“I trust the weather remains open,” Mrs. Sedley observed, gazing at the windswept sky. “I should prefer that you see the Hag’s Head at its best.”

I very nearly laughed at her absurd idea that the Hag’s Head had its “best” side, but I agreed with her that I too hoped the weather remained fair. Bidding her good day, I left her.

I was going through the lower floor passage, which was shadowed and drafty in the morning, when something soft darted across my ankles and I reached down, feeling around my feet. I would have been unpleasantly surprised to feel the sharp teeth of a rodent, but fortunately it was Timothy, who meowed, stood up, and clawed at my coat skirts.

“Really, Tim,” I scolded severely; “you are not going to take me on some fantastic chase today! You are going to stay home and catch a fat mouse.” He wasn’t, though. He knew perfectly well, the way cats and dogs always know, that I would feel more comfortable with him in my arms; for if anything odd truly was in the Hag’s Head, no one would be more quickly sensitive to it than a cat.

I stopped off and found Meg Markham in the downstairs parlor and asked for something to use as a lead for Timothy. She produced his own leather lead, and after I had attached it as securely as possible, Timmy and I walked out upon the cobblestones.

Meg called after us, “Have a care, Miss. I couldn’t but hear you talkin’ of that dreadful place. It’s that awful, I’d not even set foot inside! No, not if I was to be put to the stocks, I wouldn’t.”

I paused, turned back, and waited until she joined me.

“Meg, tell me the truth. What is it everyone fears at the Hag’s Head?”

“But mum, ain’t it known to you, about Miss Megan and all?”

“Yes, yes. You told me before supper last night. But what am I to expect there now? What do people see, or think they see?”

She looked over her shoulder as though she feared the ghostly visitants of the Hag’s Head even here in the village.

“Well, then, it’s the sounds that come and go. Like you wasn’t alone. And the lights. Little flickers that seem to float right past the windows. But there’s nothing. No light. Not even a candle, Miss. The lights ain’t real.” She startled me by reaching out, clasping my shoulders by her strong, heavy hands, and shaking me. “They ain’t real, Miss! I seen ’em.”

Bewildered, I ventured the question, “If they aren’t real, how can you see them? Have you been inside when these things were seen?”

A woman passed us, going down the steep Maidenmoor Hill. She looked chilly with only a thin shawl over head and shoulders. For an instant I did not recognize her, until Meg let me go, curtsied, and said, “Shall I fetch a wrap for you, Miss Elspeth?”

The girl shook her head and went on, past Sedley House.

“That’s an odd thing, indeed! Miss Elspeth in her aunt’s shawl.”

I looked after the girl with new interest. “You mean she is wearing Megan Kelleher’s shawl? Is the lady’s clothing in use at Sedley House?”

“Never! It would be bad luck to the giver and perhaps the wearer as well. Besides,” she leaned toward me and whispered, “Miss Megan’s clothing was never moved from the Hag’s Head. Madam—Mrs. Sedley, that is—would as lief traipse into hell as into the Hag’s Head.”

“But she told me there was no danger at the inn!”

“That’s as may be,” she said, nodding wisely. “But facts is facts. And long afore old Madam was twisted up in the hands and shoulders, she would not so much as set a toe in the place.”

The old she-rogue! I thought. And there she had been, hourly telling me of the inn’s fine qualities. Yet all the time she feared the place and looked upon it with the same superstitious terror as the veriest uneducated moorland dweller. However, so long as I had given my word, I intended, at the least, to have a look at the interior of the inn by broadest Yorkshire daylight. Just as Meg was going back into the house, I decided to verify my theory as to its location. I should be in fine case if I lost my way again on those endless moors.

“The Hag’s Head is that prominence to the north and east, isn’t it?”

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