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Authors: Elizabeth Mansfield

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“Almost eleven, but I don't mind. Rather stay at the inn in Padstow, y'see. You'd best do the same. Be glad to take you there,” the coachman said, edging toward the door.

“But … I don't understand …” Amelia said in bewilderment. “Didn't you tell me, not a half hour ago, that you were glad not to have to drive back tonight?”

“Aye, my lady, I did say that. But that was afore I heard …”

“Heard what?”

The coachman looked down at his hat, turning it around in his fingers uncomfortably. “What the Penloe boy was hintin' to me in the stable.”

Nell sighed impatiently. “What tale did he tell you? That there are no clean bedrooms? It's ridiculous, you know. There's plenty of room in a great house like this. I truly believe that they just want to avoid the extra work we'll give them. Take my advice, coachman, and ignore them. Go to the kitchen and tell them I want you to be given something to eat and that your clothes are to be dried and pressed. Then get yourself to bed.”

The coachman, disagreeing with Nell's assessment of the Penloes, shook his head disapprovingly and spoke up in their defense. “They already gave me a bite to eat, ma'am. Good Cornish pasty they brought me from their own supper, and a mug o' hot Shenagrum. And there's a warm, dry room they offered me over the stables. Good people they are, all three. But I'll not stay the night, not me.”

Nell looked at him with a puzzled frown. “You're quite free to go, of course. But why would you wish to venture out on such a night?”

The man shuffled his feet uncomfortably but didn't answer.

“Seems to me you're acting like a fool,” Amelia put in flatly.

The coachman's head came up in quick self-defense. “Foolish is as things turn out,” he said truculently. “Mayhap some others be the fools for stayin' in this place. You can call me a fool, but I don't stay in a house what's got a ghost!”

“A
ghost
?” Nell gasped in amused surprise.


What
?” Amelia squealed, startled.

“That's right, my lady,” the coachman said to Amelia, feeling a sense of satisfaction that he'd frightened her, “a ghost. The young lad didn't come right out with it, but I could tell he was tryin' to warn me.
Now
do you want to come back to Padstow wi' me?”

Nell laughed. “A ghost, eh? Is
that
what drives you out into the rain? Well, go ahead if you must, but we'll not go with you. It would take something much more real than a ghost to drive
us
out on a night like this.”

The coachman shrugged and bowed himself out. But Amelia was staring at Nell with frightened eyes, not courageous enough to admit to the young, intrepid girl that she, for one, would quite easily be driven out into the rain if anything even
remotely
resembling a ghost should wander into her vicinity.

Chapter Four

M
RS. PENLOE HURRIED
down the stairs and into the kitchen, carefully shutting the kitchen door behind her. The damp outer-garments that the ladies had given her were still clutched against her chest, but she gave no thought to them. Her eyes were fixed on the man who sat at the large oak table in the center of the room. “Oh, Master Harry,” she said in despair, “I be afeared we're in trouble!”

The man looked up at her and raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Oh?” he asked curiously. “Who was it at the door?”

“Two ladies!” Mrs. Penloe announced in a voice of doom. “Two ladies of the
family
!”

“Damnation!” the man muttered angrily. He was lean and tall and, even while sitting at the kitchen table in his shirtsleeves, had the look of a gentleman. His face was strikingly handsome, with dark, aristocratically arched brows and a strong, aquiline nose; his thick black hair was dramatically emphasized by a lock of white which grew from the center of his hairline and fell in disarray over his right eye; and his hands, while large and strong, were made surprisingly graceful by their long fingers. One hand was now supporting his chin and the other drumming impatiently on the table-top. “
Family
, you say?” he asked, looking up at Mrs. Penloe with a frown. “Who are they? Did you get their names?”

Before Mrs. Penloe could answer, the door opened and Will came in. Like his wife, he carefully closed the door behind him. He gave the man at the table a troubled look and, sucking at the stem of his still-unlit pipe, he asked, “Has she told 'ee?”

The man at the table nodded glumly.

“Well, you couldn't expect 'em to go out again on such a night,” Will said, crossing the room to the box where the firewood was stored.

“What are we to do?” asked Mrs. Penloe, shaking out the pelisses she'd carried in and hanging them on the backs of two chairs. “Are we to let 'em stay?”

“No!” the man at the table said adamantly.

Will stopped stacking the small load of firewood he was gathering and stared at the man in surprise. “There ain't nothing else for it,” he said. “Might as well face it. They're fixed here, for the night at least.”

“Mr. Penloe!” his wife declared angrily. “Mind what you say to his lordship, if you please! There'll be no disrespect to him in this kitchen—or anywhere else in this house!”

Will Penloe stared at his wife in chagrin. Then, reddening, he glanced embarrassedly at the man at the table. He often forgot that this man, Captain Henry Thorne, was now the sixth Earl of Thombury and the new Lord of Thorndene. Sitting here in the kitchen in his shirtsleeves, he was just like one of his family. In fact, at this time of his life, Captain Henry belonged more to the Penloe family than to the Thornes. Will Penloe very much doubted that the Thornes would even recognize him at this moment, if any of them should chance to wander in. It was not only in the recently acquired streak of white hair that Captain Henry had changed. He was much thinner than he'd been when he left for Spain, and his boyish look was gone. But the greatest change—the change that had brought him here to live in modest anonymity among the Penloes—was one that would not have been noticed except by the most discerning: the crutch that rested against the table was the only sign that the Captain's left leg had been replaced by one of wood.

Will Penloe had known Captain Thorne since he was a boy, and the intimacy of their present way of life made him feel very close to his lordship. Mrs. Penloe's reproof had cut him to the quick. After three months of intimate association with the young Earl, he often forgot to address him with proper formality. But he never crossed beyond the bounds of deepest respect, and he would rather have had his tongue cut out than to say anything offensive to the man he held in such high regard. “Disrespect?” he asked defensively. “Is it
you
who talks o' disrespect? 'Tain't me what calls him ‘Master Harry' like he was still twelve years old.”

“Cain't help it,” Mrs. Penloe said shamefacedly. “I'm that used to't, I cain't seem to stop. You don't mind, do 'ee, Mas—your lordship?”

Lord Thorne looked up at the housekeeper, who was watching him with troubled affection. “I much prefer ‘Master Harry' to ‘your lordship,' I assure you,” he said with an abstracted smile. “Now stop worrying about showing me disrespect (which neither of you has ever done, even when I was a boy), and let's set our minds to finding a way to rid ourselves of our unwanted guests.”

“There ain't no way, my lord,” Will muttered glumly. “Not unless you face 'em and order 'em out.” He sucked on his pipestem meditatively. “After all, Cap'n Henry, it is your house.”

“No,” Mrs. Penloe said sharply, “he cain't do that. 'Twould give the whole game away. We must think o' somethin' else.”

The three fell silent. Mrs. Penloe studied the face of her adored “Master Harry” with heartfelt concern. She'd known Henry Thorne since he had first visited Cornwall, the summer after his father had died. The lonely, orphaned boy had touched her heart, and she had set about filling him with all the nourishing food and honest affection that he could absorb. She had taken an almost proprietary pride in his growth to praiseworthy manhood. She'd looked forward eagerly to his annual visits to Thorndene, had read, reread and treasured his occasional letters, and had looked at him in his first uniform with that mixture of pride and fear that a mother feels. Even the birth of her own son had not lessened the strong maternal affection she felt for him.

Her fears for his safety when he'd gone off to the Peninsula had turned out to be justified; the handsome, confident, happy Henry Thorne who'd gone to war was not the same man who'd come back. He'd returned with a face lined with pain, with eyes from which all the laughter had been washed away, with a streak of white hair cutting through the dark mass like a knife … and with his left leg cut off just below the knee.

Mrs. Penloe sighed deeply and set about preparing a tea tray for the new arrivals, though she did it with ill will. The ladies were obviously cold, fatigued and hungry, but she had no sympathy for them. They were causing trouble for her dear Harry, and therefore she had no room in her heart to care for
their
concerns. It was Harry for whom she cared—her dear, kind, good Captain Harry, who had come back from the war so altered in body and spirit.

It still pained her to look at him, even though the three months he'd spent here at Thorndene had brought some color back to his face and filled out the gaunt hollows of his cheeks. Although he was still the handsomest man she'd ever laid eyes on, the lines about his mouth, the weariness of his eyes, the awkwardness of his movements when he walked with the crutch under his arm, the tinge of bitterness in his attitude toward his future—all caused her heart to constrict. He wanted only one thing of life now: to live in solitary, undisturbed peace in this out-of-the-way place. She and Will had begged him, when they'd felt that he was restored to good health, to return to London and take his rightful place as his grandfather's successor, but he would hear none of it. As soon as he'd learned that the old Earl had died, his interest in the life of London had waned. London was the last place to which he wished to go. He wanted nothing to do with his family or friends. There was no one he cared to see. He wanted no attention, no pity. Let them think him dead, he declared. Let them give the titles to his Uncle Charles. He no longer cared about titles and estates. They were part of the past, like the leg he'd lost.

Convinced that a life of peaceful solitude was the only thing that would make Lord Thorne happy, Mr. and Mrs. Penloe and their son, Jemmy, joined forces to keep the knowledge of Henry Thorne's existence from the rest of the world. His name was never mentioned to outsiders. Their orders of food and necessaries, which they purchased in Padstow, were carefully planned to conceal the fact that anyone but the Penloes resided at Thorndene. Captain Henry ate the same food they did, and he took his meals with them in the kitchen or alone in the study he'd set up in the rear of the west wing. There he would not be discovered by any chance visitors. Much of the house was closed off and unused; no one could guess that a few of the rooms in the west wing had been made into a comfortably habitable apartment.

The only time Lord Thorne left the house was to ride his horse—a form of exercise he loved, but which he indulged in only in the very early mornings when the road was free of travelers. In the three months since his arrival his presence had remained undetected.

The unheralded arrival of the two ladies of the Thorne family was a severe blow to their sense of security. Mrs. Penloe, who by this time had developed so fierce a sense of protectiveness toward her “Master Harry” that she was not unlike a mother bear with a wounded cub, would gladly have locked the two intruders in the coal cellar or, better still, pushed them out of the house into the rain. But since such action would be only a temporary solution to the problem (for the ladies would be certain to return with the proper authorities, who would hold investigations and put their magisterial noses where they were not in the least wanted) she refrained from taking such drastic action. But what action she
could
take, she did not know.

Will Penloe took his pipe from between his teeth and spoke. “You may as well make up rooms for 'em, m'dear. They'll have to stay the night. Per'aps, Cap'n, you'll think o' somethin' by mornin'.”

Lord Thorne nodded. Leaning on the table for support, he pushed himself up from his chair. “Will's right, I suppose. You may as well make them comfortable for the night,” he told Mrs. Penloe with a sigh. He reached for his crutch and swung himself to the door. “I'll keep to my room until we find a way to send them packing. Put them in the east-wing bedrooms.”

Mrs. Penloe hurried to open the door for him (a service which made him wince with irritation every time she performed it, for he was quite able to do it for himself), but the door opened before she reached it and Jemmy entered, his face lit with a self-satisfied grin. “Well, I scared the
coachman
off good and proper,” he announced proudly. “The coach took off down the road so hasty-like, you'd 'ave thought the devil was after it.”

“Did you indeed?” Lord Thorne asked admiringly. “How did you manage to accomplish
that
?”

“'Tweren't a bit hard, m'lord,” the boy said proudly. “I just tol' him we had a presence.”

“A
presence?

“Yes, sir. You know what I mean … a ghost.”

Lord Thorne looked at Jemmy with interest. “Are you saying you told the coachman the house is
haunted
?”

“That's
just
what I tol' him. Turned a proper green, he did!” Jemmy bragged.

Will Penloe gave an amused snort. “You mean the fool heard ‘ghost' and took to his heels?”

“Like a shot,” Jemmy said proudly.

BOOK: The Phantom Lover
13.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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