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Authors: Elizabeth Mansfield

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BOOK: The Phantom Lover
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“No, Amelia. I can't go back to London. There is no situation here in Thorndene that is more disturbing than the thought of returning to London and marrying the puffed-up Sir Nigel.”

“But are you saying that we're to stay here? And say or do nothing? And that you'll sleep in that haunted room and let the ghost visit whenever he likes? You
couldn't
, Nell!”

“Why not? I don't believe we're in the least danger. And I truly find myself quite fascinated with this whole affair. I expected the sojourn to Cornwall to be dull beyond endurance, but this mystery is making our visit as exciting as a play at Covent Garden.”

Amelia eyed the girl with horrified disapproval. “Your idea of excitement is much too wild, my dear. I'm afraid I cannot permit it. I look on myself
in loco parentis
as regards your welfare, and I must insist—!”

Nell jumped up and knelt beside Amelia's chair, placing a finger gently on the older woman's lips. “Don't insist, dearest, for it will only cause a break between us, and I should be unspeakably distressed to see that come to pass. If you could but agree to remain here with me, we shall have
such
an adventure!”

“An
adventure
!” Amelia exclaimed, removing Nell's fingers from her mouth. “We shall be found
murdered in our beds
!”

“We shall have a
marvelous
adventure, and when we eventually
do
return to London, you'll have an endless supply of breathtaking stories to tell your friends over the teacups. And everyone will admire your youthful courage and remarkable intrepidity.”

“Youthful courage, humph! Intrepidity indeed!” Amelia snorted. But a gleam of interest in her eyes indicated that she had succumbed to Nell's blandishments. “You'll probably have all the adventures yourself, and I shall know nothing of 'em. I shall be left to worry and imagine all sorts of dire events.”

“Not at all. I shall tell you
everything
that happens. And, if you wish, you can share the haunted room with me,” Nell said tantalizingly.

“Pooh,” Amelia sneered, picking up her cup, “you know perfectly well that I won't spend another night in that room. If
you
insist on having adventures, go ahead and have them.
I
shall be quite content to hear about them at second hand. That is intrepid enough for me!”

Nell hugged her, laughing. “You are a
dear
! Thank you! And now, let's enjoy our breakfast. I think we're to have smoked pilchards again.”

“I shall not be able to eat a morsel,” Amelia grumbled. “Just pour another cup of tea for me.”


Another
cup?” Nell teased as she poured the still-steaming brew into the proferred cup. “I begin to believe that you are quite addicted to this innocuous beverage.”


Innocuous!
Did you say innocuous?” Amelia repeated in horror. “What blasphemy! I'll have you know that taking tea is one of God's true blessings. It is almost the only joy of life which is completely free of lust, gluttony or any taint of sin! I couldn't face a day without it! I warn you, love, that if you truly wish me to be intrepid—”

“I know, my dear,” Nell interrupted, raising a restraining hand and trying rather unsuccessfully to keep her smile from breaking forth into giggles, “I know. To keep you intrepid, I shall see that the teapot is always close at hand.”

It was noon before Nell arrived at the stables. She had brought Will Penloe with her, telling him that she did not like to ride unattended on unfamiliar territory. He saddled the mare for her, while she looked around the stables. Caceres was in his stall, his coat freshly rubbed and gleaming. There was no way to determine if he had been ridden that morning.

Will took for himself an aging, mild-mannered hack and climbed into the saddle with a stolid clumsiness. Nell could not find in his movements any sign of the grace of the morning rider. They rode out together, but when Nell spurred her horse to a gallop, Will lagged behind. He seemed to be content to ride steadily at a slow trot. Nell watched him covertly throughout the hour she spent on her ride. By the time they'd returned to the stables, she was convinced that he could not have been the man she'd seen riding Caceres that morning.

The ghost made his next appearance that night, just at midnight, but to Nell, who had been waiting eagerly for him since ten, it seemed much later. She had been about to give up and permit herself to slip into sleep when the candlelight appeared behind the white curtain. “Good evening, Mr. D'Espry,” she greeted the apparition cheerfully.

The answer was a low moan.

“Heavens, you sound ill,” she declared briskly. “Tell me, do ghosts suffer from ill-health? Headaches, or fevers, or inflammations of the liver?”

“Inflammations of the liver?” the ghost asked with that tinge of amusement in his voice which she'd heard before. “What does a young woman like you know of such things?”


I'll
ask the questions, if you don't mind,” Nell told him firmly. “Tell me about your health.”

“I am but a shade, a shadow, a phantasm. Obviously, I cannot suffer from headaches or inflammations,” the ghost explained patiently.

“Then, Mr. D'Espry,” Nell responded promptly, “I'd be much obliged if you would refrain from that lugubrious moaning.”

“I'm afraid I can't oblige,” the ghost said sadly. “Moaning is quite natural to us—a kind of relief, like a sigh or a cough. I'm sorry if it frightens you.”

“It doesn't
frighten
me at all. I just don't like it.”

“I'll try not to do it too often,” the ghost said apologetically. “Only when the pressure becomes too great.”

“Thank you. That's very good of you.”

The ghost moaned. “Sorry,” he said when the moan had faded away.

“Don't apologize, Mr. D'Espry. I quite understand. You can't help it.”

“You sound very cheerful tonight, Miss Belden. Am I to understand by this mood that you've decided to ignore my warning of last night?” the ghost asked in a deep, rumbling voice.

“Yes, I have. I can't see any danger in an illusory candle and a disembodied voice.”

“You are being foolhardy, my girl,” the voice said ominously.

“I am not foolhardy!” Nell said belligerently. “And don't call me ‘my girl' in that avuncular way.”

“I'll call you what I like,” the ghost retorted, equally belligerent.

“I
knew
you were a rudesby!” Nell declared.

“A ghost's prerogative. Only the living must abide by the rules of polite society,” the ghost responded, the amusement back in his voice.

“See here, Mr. D'Espry—would
you
like it if I called you ‘my boy'?”

“It would be quite inappropriate, since I am about one hundred and twenty-five years older than you. But you may call me Harry if you like.”

“I do
not
like!” Nell said promptly. “In fact, I do not like your name or anything about you!”

“Dear me!” the ghost said in mock chagrin. “And after I've tried so hard to please you! What is it about me you dislike? It
cannot
be my appearance.”

“That's just it, Mr. D'Espry. I dislike speaking to a disembodied voice. I would like to see what you look like.”

The ghost moaned. “No, you wouldn't. I am a dreadful sight. I look exactly as I looked when the excise-man took my life.”

“Oh?” asked Nell, her courage failing a bit. “And how was that?”

“Do you want to hear about my demise?” the ghost asked in surprise.

“I'm completely fascinated,” Nell assured him.

“Very well then. It was in this very room, of course—” the ghost began.

“Of course,” Nell said drily.

The ghost ignored the interruption. “I had hidden here behind the curtains. They were of a heavier material, then, and could not be seen through. Three excise-men burst into the room, swords drawn.” The ghost moaned again. “Are you sure you can stomach the details?” he asked in exaggerated concern.

“Go on,” Nell urged. “I'm all ears.”

“Well, one of them must have seen the tips of my shoes sticking out below the hem of the curtains, for he laughed evilly and brandished his sword. Before I realized what he was about, he lunged at me through the curtain and ran me through.”

“How
dreadful
. Just like Polonius behind the arras!”

“Exactly!” the ghost agreed.

“Do you mean to tell me that you have that sword sticking in you to this day?” Nell asked.

“No,” the ghost said with a gurgle. “Only the hole.”

Nell choked. “The …
hole
?”

“Would you still like to see me?” the ghost taunted.

“Well, I …” Nell hesitated.

There was the sound of a snort. “Not quite so sure, my girl, are you?”

Nell put up her chin. “I don't believe you'd
dare
to show yourself! I hope you aren't deluding yourself into believing that I take a single word of your story at all seriously.”

There was a threatening laugh, and the candle faded out. After a suspenseful moment of eerie silence, a ghostly figure came into view. It was dim and insubstantial and seemed to be floating about two feet above the floor. Nell felt a decided constriction in her chest. The figure was that of a tall man, his head shadowed, his trousers dark. The most clearly observable part of him was his white, belted smock, very much like a doublet, and over the belt was a gaping black hole surrounded by ugly bloodstains. Nell had all she could do to keep from gasping.

“How do you do, Miss Belden?” the figure said with a slight bow. “Are you satisfied now?”

“That is truly a
ghastly
hole, Mr. D'Espry,” she managed.

“Harry,” the ghost insisted.

“Harry,” Nell begged, “do you think you could … er … cover it up?”

The ghost laughed. “So you're frightened at last!”

“Not frightened at all,” she declared stubbornly. “I know this is a trick of some kind, although I don't know how it's done.”

“If you're so certain it's a trick,” the ghost asked reasonably, “then why does the sight of my … wound trouble you?”

“It's so
bloody,
” Nell said in a small voice. “Couldn't you wear a … a … waistcoat or something, to cover it up?”

“I must remind you that I'm only a shadow. One can't hang a waistcoat on a shadow, you know.”

“Oh, I see,” said Nell, trying to recover her composure.

“Would you rather that I disappear again? I'd be glad to return to my candle form,” the ghost offered.

“No, thank you. I'll grow accustomed to your appearance.”

The ghost shook his head admiring!y. “You are a remarkable girl, you know. Most ladies run screaming from the room when they see me.”

“Do they indeed?” Nell remarked, amusement having restored her equilibrium. “How very tiresome for you. Especially since you must have been a fine figure of a man when you were alive. I would imagine you were quite a favorite with the ladies.”

The ghost laughed. “However did you guess? Well, my girl, I know it's immodest to admit it, but the ladies
did
adore me. I had scores of 'em dangling at my heels.”

“Only scores of them? Not hundreds?”

“Oh, there
were
hundreds, if you count the married ones who offered to leave their husbands for me—”

“Let us count the married ones by all means.”

The ghost put his hands on his hips, his elbows akimbo. She could almost see him looking at her askance. “I can see that you don't believe me,” he said, a smile in his voice, “but many more ladies have made me welcome in their bedrooms when I was alive than have run away from me in the century and a half since my demise.”

“I've no doubt of it,” Nell said fastidiously, “but I don't find this an appropriate subject for discussion between a man and a young lady.”

“Between a
ghost
and a young lady,” he corrected, “
anything
may be discussed. As I pointed out to you earlier, there are no rules in this situation.”

“If you insist on speaking in an unseemly manner, sir, I shall have to ask you to … er … evaporate, or vaporize … or do whatever it is ghosts do when they take their leave.”

“Very well, we'll change the subject,” he acquiesced. “I don't wish to be considered crude or vulgar, even though I'm a ghost and therefore unaffected by such earthly epithets. However, in regard to taking my leave, may I remind you that I make my arrivals and departures only at
my
whims, not yours?”

“Hmmmph!” Nell snorted in annoyance. “Then there
are
rules for ghostly behavior. And they are very unfair, being designed for
your
convenience and not a bit for mine.”

“Not
all
in my favor,” the ghost pointed out ruefully. “There is one inflexible rule which is entirely in
your
favor. I may never touch you, you know, any more than a shadow may.”

“What does
that
signify?” Nell asked thoughtlessly. “You can have no need or inclination to touch me, anyway.”

“You can't know much about men—or ghosts—or how delightful you look sitting there in your nightdress, if you believe
that,
” the ghost said with a disturbing sincerity.

Nell blushed and pulled the bedclothes up to her neck. For a long moment neither of them spoke. Nell, her eyes fixed on the bedclothes, was quite conscious of the ghost's eyes on her. “I wish you would not say such things to me,” she said at last. “I am not accustomed to speaking so freely to gentlemen.”

“But I am no gentleman, you know.”

“You must have been, once.”

“No, never. Only a poor smuggler.”

BOOK: The Phantom Lover
10.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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