Authors: Caroline Dunford
|The Mistletoe Mystery|
|Accent Press (2013)|
The Mistletoe Mystery is a seasonal installment in the excellent Euphemia Martins Mysteries by Caroline Dunford.
It's Christmas, and Euphemia is again working for Bertram Stapleford at his ill-fated estate in the Fens, White Orchards. As it’s Bertram's first Christmas at White Orchards since he purchased it, he has a sudden desire for a big Christmas party – which creates a huge task for Euphemia, one which her normally excellent staff are reluctant to take part in. For, as she struggles with her responsibilities, Euphemia learns that White Orchards is built on the site of Hadwell House, a manor which suffered a terrible fate one Christmas Eve …
As Christmas draws closer, and people start behaving strangely, there is a palpable sense in the air that something is very, very wrong. Forming an unlikely alliance with Bertram's step-sister Richenda, Euphemia tries to prevent disaster befalling the entire household, and faces her most terrifying mystery as she sets herself against seemingly supernatural forces…
Euphemia Martins and the Mistletoe
A Christmas Story
Last night I dreamed again of one of the strangest experiences of my career. The incident took place one Christmas Tide, during one of my short sojourns as housekeeper at the Hon. Mr Bertram Stapleford’s estate, White Orchards. Richenda and I had quarrelled and she had sent me away. This had been something of a surprise, as since she had married Richenda had softened immensely. Bertram had come to my rescue. While he thought the housekeeper role was far beneath my station, he knew I had to support my family and so had somewhat unwillingly offered me again the job of housekeeper at White Orchards. Of course, at this time none of the Staplefords knew that I was in truth the granddaughter of an earl.
I had not thought to include this episode in my journals, but I find my daughter is keen to know as much as she can of her mother’s former life, as it is so far from her own.
I make no apology for the seemingly supernatural theme of this work. My father was a vicar and I was brought up to believe in more than the material world. I offer no explanations of our experiences, but leave it to my readers to divine their own truths.
|The Mistletoe Mystery|
go home for Christmas!’ Mr Bertram’s tone was petulant to the extent that I would not have been surprised if he had stamped his foot and made his bottom lip tremble.
‘With respect, sir, all I said was I considered Christmas a time for family.’
Mr Bertram ignored my calm interjection and continued to stride around the breakfast room. White Orchards, Mr Bertram’s newly-built and newly-bought estate, boasted most ample accommodations. The breakfast room had extensive views out onto the Fens on one side and on the other the famous White Orchard. I noticed the floor, a blonde oak, had been brought to perfection by the administrations of the maid, Lee, and I resolved to remember to praise her. Though the Fens here were beautiful, and the sunsets most amazing, our staff was necessarily drawn from a small pool of either local people or servants willing to be outcast from the rounds of society most large houses enjoyed.
‘Euphemia, are you listening to me?’
My head jerked up from admiring Lee’s handiwork. ‘Really, sir,’ I said still using my calmest tone, ‘now I am your housekeeper you should address me as Mrs St John.’
Bertram’s eyes blazed.
‘Well, Miss St John, at least,’ I conceded.
‘Stop being so damnably calm!’ shouted Mr Bertram. ‘There is no point in having an argument if one party refuses to participate!’
I smiled inwardly. ‘Indeed, sir, it is not my place to argue with you.’
‘Euphemia, if you don’t stop being so wretchedly annoying I will throw aside all social protocol and shake you heartily by the shoulders!’
‘Wouldn’t by the neck be more satisfying?’ I asked, in the full knowledge that Mr Bertram would never lay a finger upon me.
My comment drew from my master an unwilling crack of laughter, and he sat down once more to his breakfast.
‘I fear the eggs, kippers, and toast will no longer be at their best,’ I said. ‘Shall I ask the cook to make more?’
Mr Bertram wiped his hand across his not unhandsome face and regarded me ruefully. ‘No, Euphemia, you will not. I do not wish to acquire the reputation among my servants of making more work for them due to my bad temper.’
‘The staff are more than aware that you have had much to deal with the – er –
in the house. I do believe they find you a kind and generous master under difficult circumstances.’
‘And now you upbraid me for rushing in to purchase this house without checking how well it had been built!’
I sighed inwardly. It seemed nothing I said this morning would be taken well. I decided to take one last gamble.
‘Sir, if you are set against returning to the family seat of Stapleford Hall, perhaps we should have some festivities here.’ My intention had been to mention a small party for our staff, who were already agitating to know if they would be required over the festive period and hopeful that as a bachelor, Mr Bertram, would be shutting up the house for a time. Unfortunately, he took me all awry. His eyes lit up and he cried, ‘Excellent idea, Euphemia! We shall have a grand house party here! It shall be a combination of housewarming and Christmas Tide celebration.’
My heart, normally a most reliable organ, turned to lead and sunk to the bottom of my well-polished boots. And so it was I inadvertently brought chaos and adventure down upon us once more.
‘Mrs Tweedy, we are to have a party at Christmas in the house,’ I said, getting directly to the heart of the matter.
Mrs Tweedy, our redoubtable cook, who had stayed at White Orchards despite once having the kitchen floor collapse in its entirety beneath her, nodded and said, ‘Certainly, Miss St John.’
Her sudden formality signalled to me this was to be an uphill battle. ‘Ruth,’ I said, ‘I know you had hoped to be home with your family over the holiday, but when you were engaged in service here you never asked for time away at Christmas. Indeed you will fare better than me, for my mother and brother are far away and your son and his family are within twenty minutes’ walk of the house.’
‘I’m not one to ask for favours,’ said Mrs Tweedy and shut her mouth in a tight little line. This was also true.
‘I am going to suggest that we also have a celebration for the staff, and,’ I added, struck by a sudden idea, ‘why do I not suggest to Mr Stapleford that he includes the families of his local staff as there are so many of you nearby, and most of them are already his tenants.’
Mrs Tweedy’s grim face softened slightly. ‘There’s no point, Euphemia,’ she said. ‘None of them would come.’
‘Why ever not?’ I asked. ‘Is Mr Stapleford so disliked? I thought now he has appointed the factor and all is in place for getting the land back into condition, his people would be grateful for the work he has brought to the area.’
A faint flush crept over the cook’s face. ‘It’s true his coming has been a blessing to the village. It’s not that.’
‘Then what has he done that they would all spurn him at Christmas?’
Mrs Tweedy shook her head. ‘It’s not his fault,’ she said. ‘I’m just saying don’t go making more work for yourself with a servants’ and tenants’ party. No one will thank you for it.’
I continued to press her, but she would reveal nothing more. In the end I gave orders for dinner, lunch being already in preparation, and left her to it. I noted that Jenny, our kitchen maid, stayed safely in the pantry, so I was unable to question her without trapping her in her tiny domain, which I was loath to do as Jenny had yet to grow out of her crushing shyness.
Instead I turned my thoughts to Mr Bertram and how long a guest list he might currently be writing. I should ensure that he kept his expectations within the bounds of reality. By now he would be in his study. I left the kitchen and had got no further than the first corridor before I was accosted by a strange hissing noise.
I froze, at once fearing the gas lamps were malfunctioning. They were my true terror of this house. Some of the fittings had looked so odd to me that I had ordered parts of the house to be lit only by candlelight in case we were all overcome in our beds or blown into the next life by explosion.
The noise came again and this time a grubby little hand tugged at my sleeve. ‘Sam!’ I said to our young boot boy, ‘you scared the life out of me!’
‘Hush, please m’um!’ He put a finger to his lips and tugged harder on my sleeve. Intrigued by his forwardness, not that Sam is one to ever shirk the opportunity for mischief, I let him lead me into a quiet corner of a servants’ passage.
‘Sorry, m’um,’ he said, taking off his cap and twisting it to and fro in his small hands,’ but I reckons none of them is ever going to tell you and I’m mortal feart.’
‘Of what, Sam?’ I asked kindly. Sam had come to us from a London orphanage and neither he nor we had any idea of his true age. At this time we thought he was younger than ten, but years of malnourishment had kept him smaller than he should be.’
‘It’s the curse, m’um. No one wants to be here over Christmas.’
‘But,’ I began,’ and then realised that it was the first Christmas under Bertram, as White Orchards had been shut up each previous Christmas since he had bought it, for one reason or another, mostly due to the series of necessary repairs.
‘Please m’um. I don’t want to die.’
‘Sam, if this is one of your stories,’ I warned.
‘No m’um, it ain’t. I had it from Billy. Mrs Tweedy’s grandson. I go down to the village on my afternoon off and play with the other lads.’ He cast his eyes down at this as if it was some great transgression.
‘I’m sure they were only teasing you, Sam,’ I said though there were little prickles running up and down the back of my neck. Raised as a vicar’s daughter in a rural area I was only too aware of what chaos superstition could bring. Indeed, it had sometimes seemed to me that when the winter nights were drawing in the local people did little in the dark evenings other than create increasingly darker and more terrifying stories in an attempt to scare each other out of their wits. London servants have it quite right that outside of work there is hardly anything to do in the country. Our countryside may be amongst the most beautiful in the world, but it affords little in the way of leisure activities when the harsh winters roll in.
‘No m’um, you only have to look at the stones of the house to see the scorched ones they used from the old house.’
‘Old house?’ I said blankly.
‘Hadwell? Like the farm?’
Sam nodded frantically. ‘It got all burnt up and everyone in it!’
‘Well, Sam, that’s very sad, but just because we have some stones from the Old House doesn’t mean that anything like that will ever happen here. Mr Bertram, Mrs Tweedy, and I are very careful with fire.’
Sam fairly danced in frustration. ‘You don’t understand m’um. It happened at Christmas! And it’s almost Christmas now!’
‘Well, that’s even more sad, Sam, but I don’t see why that should worry you. Mr Bertram has already survived one Christmas …’ I trailed off. Of course, he hadn’t. He had returned home to Stapleford Hall last Christmas. ‘The house didn’t catch fire last Christmas,’ I said as stoutly as I could manage. Sam looked unimpressed.
‘I don’t want to be burnt up, m’um,’ he said and then to my horror burst into tears.
I immediately crouched down and threw my arms around him. I have never been happy with the idea of children servants, but as an orphan I knew Sam fared far better here than he might elsewhere. I hugged him tight and said the kind of foolish things I said to my own little brother when he was frightened. The crux of which was I promised to protect him. Finally Sam hiccupped to a stop and disentangled himself from me. He turned a tear stained little face up to me, and I tried to ignore the runnings of his nose which were now doubtless all over my blouse, ‘Thank you m’um,’ he said. ‘But will you talk to Mr Bertram?’
I should have known that nothing short of the reassurance of the master of the house would satisfy Sam. I managed to persuade him not to accompany me to Mr Bertram’s study – I am unclear where he stands on children, but I suspect like most bachelors he is at the least wary – but I had to promise Sam I would speak to the master myself.
As I had feared, Mr Bertram was writing an exceedingly long guest list. He looked up from his labours as I entered and I noticed that as well as his cuffs, his nose was also smeared with ink. The ability of the male to begrime himself I have observed is not tempered by age.
‘Euphemia, do you think the village inn could put up a couple of old bachelor friends of mine? One’s in the army, so he shouldn’t mind roughing it a bit.’
‘The Farmer’s Head is a basic establishment,’ I said, ‘but it is clean and well-run. I’m sure a little extra income at Christmas for the Finches would be most welcome.’
‘The owners, sir.’
‘Really, Euphemia, in every conversation we have about my lands you always make me feel the inferior. If you were my wife you couldn’t be more involved in my tenants’ lives.’
I blushed fiery red and within moments saw the same colour glow in Mr Bertram’s face. He had given me more than one proposal of marriage, which I had declined and I had finally persuaded him to make no more such offers. He coughed and turned his attention back to his list. His head might be away from me, but his ears and neck remained a very seasonal red. ‘What do you want?’
I attempted to compose myself. ‘I had thought to come and speak to you about the numbers of your party, so I could begin to ready the house and order provisions, but I fear we have a slight – er – problem.’
Mr Bertram scribbled another couple of names onto his list. From what I could see he was being most optimistic. We would be lucky to accommodate half that number.
I continued. ‘Sam has come to me with a tale of how the previous house here burned down around Christmas and is terrified the same will happen to White Orchards.’
At this Mr Bertram did turn round again, an expression of anger on his face. ‘So I am to cancel my plans to suit Sam?’ he growled.
I sighed. Why did he always have to be so combative? I decided one of us had to be the adult in this conversation. ‘I am offended you would even think I would suggest such a thing. I thought merely to ask you if you knew the truth of what happened to the previous house. You may not be aware but country people can be most superstitious and I had thought to nip any silly tales in the bud with the clarity of truth.’ I sniffed. ‘Did you enquire into the history of the estate when you bought it, sir?’
Mr Bertram got to his feet. ‘Seeing as I didn’t even enquire into the solidity of the kitchen floor, what do you think, Euphemia?’
At this point I decided the best choice left open to me was to exit. I heard a smash as I closed the door behind me. It was probably the vase on his desk. A green and orange thing selected for him by Richenda with her unique taste. I reflected that at least some good had come out of our conversation after all.
I went to the linen room to check through our sheets wondering why it was that men, and Mr Bertram in particular, had to be so very difficult. I would make enquiries about Hadwell House myself. Though how not to provoke the very rumours that concerned me, I did not yet see.
Sadly, my good intentions came to naught. I was able to tell Sam that I had seen Mr Bertram and he touchingly believed that his master would set all to rights. In this way I tried to put my mind to rest that I had kept my promise, but the reality was I was all too busy with the Christmas Tide preparations. It did not help that this was my first time putting a house to rights for the festive season. Nor did it help that my staff seemed to be becoming increasingly nervous. No one mentioned Hadwell House to me, but then the number of conversations that halted abruptly when I entered a room was growing too many for comfort. I tried to tell myself that I was being paranoid. I caught Sam in the kitchen one evening and despite using all my best techniques learned as being the older sister of a truly mischievous brother he would not admit to talking to the staff of any of his fears. ‘Nah, I ain’t worrit now, m’um,’ he said with a cheeky grin. ‘Mr Bertram’s promised me a sixpence on Christmas morn if get him some good boughs in. I told you he’d make everything right. Don’t you go a-worryin’.’
Which left me quite speechless. The impudence of Sam needed curbing, but in truth a happy Sam, though prone to cause more chaos, made the whole house feel a little lighter. Despite being a servant, and speaking a most mixed dialect due to his unsought travels in his short life, he did remind me of Joe.
I badly wanted to be with my family this Christmas. Like the rest of the staff I had been quite sure Mr Bertram would shut up house and head back to Stapleford Hall. However, I had chosen to be a servant and I must submit to my master’s wishes. This did not stop me being very angry with him and because I knew this to be wrong I continued to go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure his ridiculous party would be the talk of the Fens. Admittedly, the only competition was the two-headed lamb that had been born at Hadwell Farm this spring and was currently being touted as the major event of the year.
Even if Mr Bertram suddenly decided to cancel his party, and it was not out of the range of possibilities that such a thing could occur with a man of such varied passions, I knew the chances of my reaching my family were now most remote. The cold was coming in. There were fingers of frost on my window when I woke and my morning jug for washing was becoming a test of endurance. I had also started to oversleep, an unforgivable sin in a housekeeper and quite out of the norm for me. I could only think that I was shivering in my sleep and so not getting the full rest I required. I plundered the linen cupboard for extra blankets and made the staff aware of the availability of extra covers. No one but I seemed to need to avail themselves of this. Indeed Mr Bertram threw the extra covers I had had put on his bed at Janie, one of our better housemaids, yelling that ‘this was only the ruddy Fens and not the ruddy Arctic!’ He further complained that the extra covers had caused him to dream he was being burned alive. ‘It made me come over all queer-like,’ Janie confided in me. ‘It’s not like the master to swear at me. And well, you know, with the story like, and it being near the Christmas Tide. It fair sent shivers down my spine, Miss.’
I redirected Janie’s thoughts to the dusting of all the upstairs rooms as the first of our visitors was due in less than a week and pointed out that the furniture would need to be waxed, the mattresses aired, and all the rugs beaten. In short order, Janie along with our other maids, found there was no time to indulge in idle fantasising.
But no matter what I did or how hard I worked the staff the legend of Hadwell House was creeping in amongst us like the mist crept in across the Fens.