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Authors: Elizabeth Mansfield

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BOOK: The Phantom Lover
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“That's most interesting,” Lord Thorne mused. “The very
thought
that the house may be haunted sent him scurrying off in the rain …” He leaned comfortably on his crutch and smiled at the boy admiringly. “Jemmy, I think that was very clever of you. Very clever.”

“Are you thinkin' what I'm thinkin', Cap'n?” Will asked eagerly.

Henry nodded. “I certainly am. Perhaps the same ghost will scare away our other intruders. “What do
you
think, my dear?” he asked Mrs. Penloe.

She shook her head doubtfully. “Those two be too stubborn-like and shrewd to take to their heels just because we tell 'em a ghost story.”

Henry Thorne grinned. “But we'll give them
more
than a story, love. We'll give them a … a … what was it you said, Jemmy? A
presence
!”

Mrs. Penloe, picking up the tea tray to deliver to the visitors, paused and looked at him suspiciously. “I don't mind what you mean. Be 'ee plannin' some devilment, Master Harry?”

“Yes, I am, love,” Lord Thorne said, his smile widening. “Real devilment. If they won't be frightened off by the
story
of a ghost, we'll give them a ghost in the flesh … if a ghost can be said to be ‘in the flesh' at all.”

Mrs. Penloe stared at him closely, peering through the tiny spectacles perched on her nose. She noticed that a spark of amusement had ignited in his eyes. For a moment she was reminded of a younger Master Harry, full of spirit and mischief. Could it be that he was
enjoying
this dilemma? If he could turn this disastrous occurence into a
lark
, there was real hope that the Harry of old was yet alive in him. She put down the tray. Her feeling of depression slid away, and although she did not smile, her eyes held an unmistakable gleam as she placed her hands on her hips and scowled at him in mock disapproval. “An' how do 'ee propose to bring in a
ghost
, I ask 'ee?”

“Never you mind, my dear. I have a plan. But I've decided that the ladies should not be given rooms in the east wing after all. Put them in the front bedrooms of the
west
wing, if you please.”

Mrs. Penloe frowned in earnest. “The west wing? Are 'ee daft?”

“Not a bit. The large corner bedroom has a secret passage that will just suit my purpose.”

“Aha!” Will Penloe nodded approvingly. “I begin to follow 'ee now.”

Lord Thorne winked at him and started out the door. But Mrs. Penloe was not comfortable with the shift in plans. “But I don't follow 'ee at all!” she complained. “I don't like 'em bein' so close to 'ee. 'Tis a dangerous game you're playin'.”

“Don't worry, love,” Lord Thorne said, reaching over and chucking her affectionately under the chin, “there's nothing dangerous about it. I'll simply provide a few sights and sounds that the good ladies are not expecting, and by tomorrow morning they'll be
begging
Will to drive them into Padstow.”

“But … which one do you want put in the corner room?” she asked, not very reassured.

“Either one. It won't make a particle of difference. When I send the lady you put in the corner bedroom flying out, screaming in fear, you can be sure that the other will follow.” And with an almost hearty laugh, he left the room.

It was well past midnight by the time the bedrooms had been prepared for the newcomers and almost one before Lady Amelia had found a warm nightgown in her voluminous trunk and had prepared herself for bed. She had fallen into a deep sleep when a strange clanking disturbed her. At first she thought she was dreaming and endeavored to ignore the sound, but the noise was quite real and very close. At last she realized that it was not a dream and opened her eyes. The clanking seemed to come from somewhere near the window—a casement which was set, dormer-like, into an alcove cut in the two-foot-thick wall. A heavy drapery curtained the window, and the arched opening of the alcove was dressed with a pair of sheer white curtains.

Her heart beat rapidly, for the sound was both unexpected and horrifying. It seemed to combine the rattle of chains and an unidentifiable clumping noise. But before she could shake off her paralysis of fear, something more horrifying occurred: a shimmering light seemed to materialize behind the curtain. At first it was faint, but it quickly brightened until …

Amelia gasped in terror. She could make it out distinctly. It was a candle … a candle floating in the air all by itself! It swayed back and forth behind the curtain, and with each sway it seemed to come closer. With eyes bulging in fright, a racing pulse and a scream which stuck in her throat, she threw back the covers, bounded out of bed with the speed of a much younger woman and flew to the door.

She slammed the door behind her and, in her bare feet, crossed the hall to Nell's room. Without bothering to knock, she burst in. “Nell,
Nell
!” she cried into the darkness. “Get up! Quickly!”

Nell woke with pulse-racing suddenness. “Amelia?” she asked tensely. “Is that you?”

“Yes, yes!” the old woman said breathlessly. “Where
are
you? I can't see anything in this darkness. Light a candle, quickly!”

Nell did as she was bid. With the first spark of the match, Amelia found her way to the bed. Tremblingly, she threw her arms around the bemused Nell. “Oh, Nell, I saw it! I
saw
it! The
ghost
!”

Nell stared at her in astonishment. “What are you talking about? Please, dearest, try to calm yourself. I can't understand a word of what you're saying.”

“I tell you, it's true, Nell! There
is
a ghost—just as the coachman said!”

Nell, now fully awake, smiled at Amelia as if she were a child. “Goosecap!” she said affectionately. “You were only dreaming.”

“No, no, Nell, I swear! I
thought
I was dreaming when I first heard it … You didn't hear anything, did you? A sort of clanking and thumping?”

“No, of course I didn't.”

“No, I didn't think so. You couldn't have been sleeping so soundly if you had. It was a dreadful noise, I can tell you! Dreadful! It came from the window alcove. I know I didn't dream it because I heard it for several seconds after I had sat up!”

“Well, I suppose there
could
have been some noise,” Nell said reasonably. “A bird trapped in the eaves, or the wind howling through some crack in the wall …”

“No, it wasn't like that. It wasn't like anything I've ever heard before.”

“But Amelia,” Nell comforted, taking the old woman's hands in hers, “there could be any number of explanations for strange sounds in the night. It's ridiculous to blame them on a ghost.”

Amelia shook her head. “But I
saw
it … or at least its candle!”

“What? You
saw
something?” Nell asked in disbelief.

“Yes,
truly
! A burning candle, floating in the air!” She lowered her voice to a tense whisper. “Held aloft by an
unseen hand
!”

Nell could not help herself—she laughed. “Oh, Amelia, what nonsense! You sound like a character in a book by Mrs. Radcliffe.”

Amelia sighed. “Very well, laugh at me. But I shan't remain here another day. And I shan't permit you to stay, either. We are both going home.
Tomorrow
!”

“You're quite upset, dearest. Let's not talk about this now. Tomorrow the sun may shine. You'll feel quite differently then. In the meantime, let's try to get a little sleep. Here, take the candle with you, and keep it lit beside your bed. That should frighten any ghost away.”

Amelia drew herself erect. “Are you suggesting,” she demanded angrily, “that I
return
… to … that room?”

“Don't you wish to—?”


Wish
to! I'll never set foot in there again!”

“Very well, then, I'll go,” Nell said firmly, climbing out of bed. “You sleep here.”

“No!” Amelia screamed, grasping her arm. “You
can't
go in there!”

“I'll take the candle. Ghosts don't like the light,” Nell improvised, trying to placate her.

“This one does. He carried his own candle, I tell you! Besides, I don't want to be alone. Please, Nell, stay here with me!”

Nell hesitated. But Amelia, sitting stiffly erect, the bedclothes clutched against her breast with one shaking hand while the other held on to Nell's arm with a grasp made firm by sheer terror, looked so pathetic that Nell weakened. “Very well, dear, we'll share the bed tonight,” she said with a soothing smile. And gently loosening Amelia's hold on her arm, she climbed back into the bed again.

After a while, Amelia became calm enough to permit Nell to blow out the candle. But even in the darkness, neither was able to fall asleep, Amelia because she was watching and listening for the ghost to make another appearance, and Nell because she could feel the tension in Amelia's body as she lay rigidly beside her. “Can't you relax, Amelia?” Nell asked gently. “Do try to forget about the ghost. I'
m
here with you. The ghost won't dare to make an appearance while we're together.”

Amelia sighed. “You don't believe me, do you?” she accused. “I can tell. Do you think I've gone mad?”

“Of course not! But eyes and ears can play tricks on one, especially in the night, when one is weary to the bone, as you are.”

“Hummmph!” the old woman grunted in annoyance. “You're trying to find excuses for me. But I don't want 'em. I know what I saw. I almost wish the ghost would reappear, so that you'd see him too!” With that, she drew the coverlet up to her neck and turned her back on Nell.

The two women lay silently beside each other and wished for sleep to come. But it was not until the light of dawn at last crept through the break in the draperies, and she realized that the ghost was not going to reappear, that Amelia finally drifted into sleep. And Nell, hearing the gentle snore from the lady beside her, at last permitted herself to do the same.

Chapter Five

T
HE RAIN HAD
ceased during the night, and the morning brought a pale promise of sunshine. Mrs. Penloe waited tensely for some word from the new arrivals, but none came. Finally, well past nine o'clock, she went upstairs to peep into their bedrooms. Discovering the corner room deserted, she was not surprised to see the two ladies sharing the bed in the other room. What surprised her was the soundness of their sleep. Although the “ghost” had succeeded in frightening Lady Amelia from her bed, it had not managed to keep her, nor Miss Belden, from enjoying a deep and peaceful slumber.

Realizing that they were not likely to rouse themselves very soon, she prepared a breakfast tray for Lord Thorne and climbed the back stairs to his rooms. She found him awake, dressed and peering frowningly out the window. “Good mornin', Master Harry,” she greeted him. “Lookin' for somethin' out there?”

“I was hoping to see signs of activity in the stables. Aren't the ladies leaving?”

Mrs. Penloe shrugged. “Don't know for sure. They be sound asleep.”

“They couldn't be! Why, I'm certain the poor thing was frightened out of her wits. Do you know who that old lady
is
? My Great-aunt Amelia! It gave me quite a turn, I can tell you, when I recognized her. I've no liking for what I did to her. If I'd known that it was my sweet old Aunt Amelia whom I was frightening half to death, I'd never have done it.”

“Well, never mind, Master Harry. There weren't no real harm done that I can make out. She be sleepin' like a babe. Come to the table an' have breakfast. I've made 'ee some eggs and covered 'em with scrolls, just the way you like 'em.”

Henry seated himself at the little table and picked up a fork. But his mind was not on eggs and bits of bacon, but on his unwelcome guests. “What am I to do now?” he asked, half to himself. “What if they
don't
leave today? They may go wandering through the house, or—”

“I'll keep an eye on'em,” Mrs. Penloe asured him. “An' you can try again tonight.”

“But I don't want to frighten poor Amelia again. Who's the other one? Did you get her name?”

“Miss Belden, I was told. Lady Amelia calls her ‘Nell'.”

“Nell? Nell Belden? I don't believe I know who … Wait, I seem to remember … a scrawny little brat that Sybil took under her wing. Helen Belden, that's who she is. Perfect! Do you think, my dear, that you can persuade them to change bedrooms?”

“There'll be no need, I'll warrant. Lady Amelia was too frightened to return to her room last night—she bedded down wi' Miss Belden. If they
do
stay on another night, 'tain't Lady Amelia who'll be in the corner bedroom.”

Henry Thorne smiled. “You may be right. Well then, my dear, by this time tomorrow, our house will be free of unwanted visitors.”

“'Tis a bit too cocksure you be, Master Harry,” Mrs. Penloe cautioned. “Miss Belden's growed up since you last seen her, seems like. 'Tain't no scrawny brat you'll be dealin' with. Seems to me she's a good head on her, and a wide streak o' stubborn pride.”

But Henry's expectations would not be dampened. “Have no fear, my dear. If the floating candle doesn't do it, I have one or two other tricks up my sleeve. They're bound to send her packing quickly enough.” And he attacked his eggs with cheerful enthusiasm.

Amelia and Nell made no appearance until noon, when they came down the stairs and settled themselves in the sitting room which they'd occupied the night before. They had slept well into the morning and had dissipated the rest of it by arguing about remaining at Thorndene. Amelia was somewhat calmed by her few hours of sleep and by the fact that the daylight did indeed make the events of the night before seem like a dream. Nevertheless, she was all for making a quick return to London. Nell pointed out reasonably that such a course would result in her enforced marriage to Sir Nigel. Since no other course suggested itself, and since Nell offered to change bedrooms with Amelia (just as Mrs. Penloe had predicted), the elderly lady agreed to give Thorndene another chance.

BOOK: The Phantom Lover
6.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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