Actions

Work Header

To Live More Vitally In The Present

Work Text:

Gareth strode into the grand parlour off the front hall, feeling perturbed. Of all the uncomfortable things to happen, on a visit to another man’s house! He hoped devoutly that the matter could be hushed up when it came to the other guests. Perhaps he could invent a reason for his absence; perhaps Amanda would not be curious.

Unlikely. He sighed, and grimly put his hand to the door that opened into the small sitting-room.

This is going to be unpleasant, he thought. But on the eminently logical reasoning that nothing was to be done but go forwards, he fixed a smile to his face and walked calmly inside. On seeing the woman tucked away in a cozy corner of the window seat, the smile became real.

“Hester, dearest.”

She looked up with that look of faint puzzlement that so often characterized her features. As if always half in another world, he thought fondly, and came and sat next to her.

Her expression became somewhat wistful. “You are here to tell me,” she said, putting a bookmark into her volume and setting it on a side table, “that you must leave at once, on urgent business, and won’t be back for at least a day.”

He sat back, open-mouthed. “How did you--”

She sighed. “Oh, well. It isn’t as if it were a big secret, you know. Amanda’s lady’s maid, Mrs O’Keefe, brought around the gossip with the breakfast-tray this morning.”

“And here I was thinking that only myself and General Summercourt were privy to the information.”

“No, not at all,” she said placidly. “For the young woman’s mother--Mrs Pritchett--is cousin to the under-butler’s wife, and she had spread the news through the servants’ hall before the house had woken.”

He grimaced. “I know you too well to imagine that you are shocked at the scandal. But it is distressing, my love.”

“It is that,” she agreed. “So you are off to manage the business with the rest of the men?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “In cases like this--where there is a young woman’s reputation at stake--we cannot formally bring it before the magistrate. Better to settle the matter quietly.” He groaned. “Or as quietly as possible. Damn the under-butler’s wife, anyway.”

“She did seem to take an inordinate pleasure in the affair, according to Mrs O’Keefe.”

They were both ruefully silent for a moment, considering the issue. Eventually she looked up, asking, as mildly as she ever did, “And you must go? Surely, as you are not a resident in the neighbourhood, and have no role in the local assizes . . . ”

He smiled and took her hand. “It isn’t a matter of justice, precisely, but courtesy. Fotheringale is an acquaintance of mine, although one I personally deplore. I must use what influence I can to persuade him into acting gentlemanly by the girl, which will be no small undertaking, I fear. Honestly, he shows ill-breeding in even suggesting that this matter can be settled with money, as if the girl were no more than a--well, we don’t have to go into all that.”

“A bit of muslin, I know,” said Hester musingly. “Or is ‘doxy’ more accurate, in this case?”

Gareth gave a suppressed shout of laughter and kissed her hand in a fit of spontaneous affection, then begged her not to use that kind of language where General Summercourt could hear, “for I fear,” he said half-seriously, “that he is the kind of gentleman to take an affront at such things.”

Hester sighed. “I am not sure I will ever understand male notions of honour and decorum.”

Entertained in spite of himself, and feeling his depressive mood lifting, he was about to embark in an informative discussion on the subject, when the door thudded open, letting a slightly corpulent gentleman into the room.

“My pardons!” he cried, on spotting the inhabitants of the window-seat. “I had thought this room quite deserted, I am sure.”

“Not at all. Let me make the introductions,” Gareth said politely, getting to his feet alongside Hester, who was decorously brushing out her skirts. “May I present Sir Harry Bramber, who I believe is staying for tea. Sir Bramber, Lady Hester Ludlow, my wife.”

“Good day, good day,” the man said jovially, pressing Hester’s hand with a warmth which Gareth suspected that she did not quite appreciate. “Summercourt and everyone in the library, hey? Very good.”

He passed on into the other room in a few sprightly steps. Hester turned a quarter circle on the spot and raised an eyebrow at him. “An old friend of the family, I presume?”

Gareth grimaced. “I believe he and the General are on such terms of easy intimacy that the house is quite open to him.” He looked at his wife narrowly, who still seemed discomfited. “He seems to have made a very poor impression on you, within such a short space of time.”

“Oh no,” Hester said immediately. She paused a moment. “Well, yes.”

Smiling, he went to her and took her in his arms. As ever, she relaxed quietly into his embrace, looking up into his eyes with that forthright simplicity which he cherished. “It was only that I could tell you did not like him,” she admitted.

Surprised, Gareth brushed a curl of her hair over her ear and frowned in the direction of the library, where he trusted Harry Bramber had disappeared to. “I hardly know the man,” he protested. “We’ve met a few times in Brooks’s, that is all.”

His wife was still looking at him searchingly. “It is because of the Fotheringale affair,” she said slowly. “He goes with you this afternoon, does he not? And he is not treating it as seriously as you are.” She was briefly silent, and he did not know how to respond. Before he could think of a comforting reply, she had continued: “The matter is not serious to him, because the poor girl is merely an apothecary’s daughter. So it doesn’t matter to him.” She smiled at him then, a little sadly, he thought. “But it matters to you.”

He felt weary, but comforted. Closing his eyes, he pressed his face to hers and kissed her ear. “My wife is a wise woman,” he murmured into her hair.

For a soothing minute or so, they stayed in a comfortable embrace, deaf to the general and growing hubbub of the house. After a while, Hester sighed and pushed at his arm, stepping away. “I must go, before I am missed at the tea table.”

“Likewise,” he said gloomily. On balance, he had liked their prolonged Christmastime visit to Summercourt Manor, and even found the old general much less irascible on closer acquaintance. But the house was today filled with neighbours of a much less congenial disposition, whose conversation was unlikely to make him feel any more sanguine about the disagreeable task ahead. Taking his wife’s arm, he escorted her to the door of the library, then bowed and left her to the women.

Now, how to get through the social occasion with the minimum of fuss? Gareth glanced around, hoping that the sensible Captain Kendal had come in from his afternoon ride.

It appeared that he had not. However, in the opposite corner, Mrs Kendal, or Amanda as he had always known her, was holding court. In fact, she was talking vigorously to several notable persons from the county, including Sir Harry Bramber, and seemed perfectly unconscious of the fact that she was holding a baby in the crook of one arm, as she gesticulated vigorously with the other. The baby’s nurse hovered immediately behind her with a resigned expression, clearly waiting to take the infant to her proper place in the nursery.

Gareth smiled. He imagined that some men might find Amanda’s present portrayal of motherhood charmingly domestic. He also imagined that those men would not appreciate the topic of discussion which she had introduced into the conversation.

“For before she was executed, it is said that the executioner prevented her from saying her prayers, as part of a deliberate strategy to imperil her soul.”

“How wicked,” murmured Sir Bramber, seeming a little discomposed.

“Ah yes! Or, it was because Queen Mary was Catholic, and her accusers were all Protestant. So there was a reason, although I agree that it does seem unjust. Killing her was probably enough.”

“And this was at Talbot Hall?” asked Mr Stafford curiously.

“No, Fotheringhay Castle, about two miles distant from the Hall.”

“Delightful! I propose a visit, if you will be our guide, Mrs Kendall.”

On the verge of searching out a plate of sandwiches, Gareth instead veered towards the knot of speakers. It was likely that young Stafford had imbibed something stronger than tea that afternoon; he seemed to be almost flirting with Amanda, as improper as that would be. He approached the group with a smile, intent on separating the two if necessary. Amanda was explaining to him, Sir Bramber and Mr Reynolds, that Fotheringhay Castle had been destroyed by James I in revenge for the cruel imprisonment and death of his mother, and was therefore sadly unavailable for visiting. “But it is said that the glass from the castle’s windows and the wooden planks from the staircase were removed to Talbot Hall, and so pieces are preserved.”

“And these pieces, they are haunted by the queen’s ghost?”

“I have heard so,” said Gareth genially, stopping just within the circle of the group. “However, you will find that Northamptonshire is a well-haunted county in general; you will hardly find a church or even barn that does not boast of a spirit or two.”

Amanda sniffed and looked at him provocatively. “Spirits there may be in their hundreds, but a queen is something more rare.”

“Naturally,” he said easily, sailing past her indignation. “I suppose the obvious question to ask is: what desperate and yet fascinating spirit inhabits Summercourt Manor?”

The girl--no, woman grown--glared at him in profound irritation. Gareth beamed back at her.

She took a breath, visibly considered her position and smiled at her assembled male admirers with verve. “Summercourt Manor, possessed of a truly incredible and bloody history, lays claim to several ghosts.”

“But of course,” Gareth said comfortably. He winked at Reynolds. “What lady would dare to admit her ancestral home lacking in appropriate spectral phantasms?”

To his slight surprise, she laughed at his raillery, instead of becoming angry. “You force me to defend my family home, sir! Listen, then, to the tale of how Summercourt Manor was originally a medieval nunnery, inhabited by the most corrupt and venial of the Cluniac Order, and how the arrival of a wounded soldier claiming sanctuary during the Battle of Northampton caused an unholy stir and led to the death of a beautiful if unlucky nun . . .”

The story was good. Amanda had picked up a few tricks here and there, he considered, to be able to command the attention of these educated and rational men with a fantastical children’s tale. Ghosts and goblins, indeed.

“Her body was surely not buried at the Manor?” blurted out young Stafford at the end of her blood-chilling recitation.

Sir Bramber, who was evidently more interested in the story than he desired to show, suggested: “The burial cannot have taken place on consecrated ground, after the ah--manner of the poor lady’s death. I imagine there is a place in the village, outside the bounds of the churchyard, for such unfortunates as her.”

Amanda, clearly thrilled at the captivated reception to her story, strongly rebuffed this train of supposition. “Her bones must lie somewhere on the grounds of the house, for her ghost has been seen walking the Long Gallery many times over the last few centuries.”

“She just walks?” Gareth asked in a mock-disappointed tone. “That seems rather tame; to be sure, I was expecting to hear of her gliding through the walls with a moaning wail and turning men’s hair white from shock.”

“I fear any gentlemen residing in this house will have to look for another cause for their whitening hair,” she replied sweetly. One of the avid listeners, Mr Reynolds, glanced at Gareth’s admittedly silvery hair and laughed suddenly into his sleeve. Amanda went on: “She does not moan--however, she is said to sing, with a voice so sweet listeners weep with pity.” She looked down, and gave a delicate and affecting sigh to the sleeping baby in her arms. “My grandmother heard her once on a yuletide eve when the house was empty, singing a lament for her lost child.”

There was a general hush. The men all looked fascinated and respectful, except for Gareth, who privately considered that most listeners, hearing a random woman singing a mournful son late at night would be more inclined to express irritation at having their peace disturbed, than to weep with pity.

Fortunately, it was at that moment that the nurse, who had been waiting with increasing irritation at Amanda’s elbow, finally succeeded in diverting her attention to the necessity of removing the child to the nursery for the evening. The party of men in the corner broke up in the general embarrassment of witnessing the domestic affairs of women, and Amanda, wholly unselfconscious, glided out of the room, bestowing a last gracious smile on her listeners.

Gareth grinned, swallowed the last of his tea with grateful haste, and took himself off to find the general.

***************

“More coffee, ma’am?”

Hester looked gratefully up at the footman and proffered her cup. “Thank you, Simons. It is a cold morning, is it not?”

Across from her, Hildebrand shook his head. “There’s no snow on the ground as yet. I daresay it will become much colder over the next week.” His voice held easy assurance; after a moment he seemed to catch himself and, flushing a little, asked her: “I hope you are not uncomfortably situated, Aunt?”

Silently thanking and dismissing the waiting servant with a nod, she smiled at Hildebrand reassuringly. “Not at all.”

At the other end of the table, Amanda frowned. “Are you sure? You don’t look as if you have slept very well.”

Internally, Hester sighed and thought: I will be charitable and ascribe their excessive care of me to affection, and not concern for my advanced years. Do I really seem that feeble?

Outwardly, she protested: “I slept very well, indeed. I am perhaps not used to such a lively household, but the rooms are very pleasant. I have a charming prospect from my window, a view of the park. Shall we walk there today?”

Her companions assented and, hopeful of turning the conversation from her frailties, she managed to provoke a discussion on the best time of day to visit the old yew grove. Neil, who had breakfasted early and been absent from the table, returned as the plates were being cleared away to suggest a call on the kennels.

“There is a new litter of puppies birthed last night,” he said, smiling. It was an inducement calculated to bring every member of the party to their feet, and for the next several hours Hester, Hildebrand and Amanda pleasantly wasted their time milling around the kennels, exclaiming over the handsome little pups and no doubt being very much in the way of the old kennel-master. He had accepted their invasion of his working space with good grace, however, and spoke with Hester knowledgeably for some time about the health difficulties inherent in the whippet breed.

“The knees are a weakness in the pug,” Hester admitted, gently stroking the fur of a small blenheim dog, who whimpered and pushed his face closer to his exhausted mother’s belly. “Still, there are similar problems in all of the lapdog breeds, and I do have a fondness for the peaceable nature of the pug.”

The kennel-master nodded in a slightly condescending fashion, and directed her attention to a few homemade remedies he had personally devised for this deficiency.

All in all, it was a very pleasant way to spend a few hours, followed as it was by a cheerful walk to the yew grove in the fresh air, and then tea by the roaring fire. Hester found herself perturbed when Neil walked into the sitting-room later that afternoon with a grim expression.

“Any trouble, Neil?” Amanda asked lightly, eyes sharp and watchful.

He compressed his lips together and looked at the assembled group for a moment without replying. He seemed to come to a decision and said, a little abruptly: “There may have been an attempted break-in last night. I do not wish to alarm you--”

Too late, Hester thought resignedly, as Hildebrand choked on the toasted bread he was eating and sputtered, “There are thieves in the house?”

“It might have been so,” Neil emphasised. “I am sure there is no need for alarm. I was merely talking to Thompson who was walking the rounds last night, and he appears to have seen something at the ground-floor windows on the east side, near the dining parlour.”

Amanda made a dissatisfied sound. “Thompson doesn’t worry about these things without cause,” she pointed out. “He saw someone looking into the window?”

“A beggar,” Hester suggested. “Hoping to find the kitchens, and get something to eat, or a warm place to sleep for the night.”

Neil looked at her approvingly. “Very true, ma’am. And he is not quite sure of what he saw. I only wish to remind everyone not to stir outside late tonight. With the General and Sir Ludlow away, we are a little isolated here.”

Hildebrand began to demand more information of the unfortunate Captain Kendal, who answered politely but distantly. Hester settled back in her chair, her cup of tea clutched comfortably in her hand. It was likely not a serious matter. Beside her, Amanda was uncharacteristically quiet, ruminating over something. She was about to ask her host if there was a plan for the next day when Amanda spoke up suddenly:

“There is something I wanted to ask, Aunt. You said--earlier at breakfast, you were looking tired, and mentioned that the house was livelier than you expected. Can you explain, if you please, what you meant by that?”

Hester looked at her in some surprise. “I meant no criticism, Amanda. Only that I was not exactly used to hearing music played late at night.”

She stared. “Music? You didn’t hear voices, or some other kind of disturbance from the house?”

“Inside the house?” Hildebrand had turned from his conversation with Neil and was looking at them with nervous excitement. “Perhaps Thompson saw someone actually within the house last night--”

“Ridiculous,” interrupted Neil, frowning at him. “We are perfectly safe inside.”

Amanda wasn’t listening to him. “Aunt Hester, think -- did you hear music played on an instrument of some kind, or did you hear singing?”

Hester was bewildered now. She glanced questioningly at Neil and Hildebrand, who also seemed confused by Amanda’s interrogation. “I believe it was singing,” she said slowly. “Some kind of sad song; possibly a ballad in a minor key.”

Amanda sprang to her feet, eyes fairly blazing with exhilaration. “It’s the Summercourt ghost!”

They argued with her, of course, and of course she effectively crushed all their protestations. She won Hildebrand over to her side shortly after describing the Grey Lady’s history at Summercourt Manor, after which he remembered reading about the haunting in a 16th century manuscript and became as enthusiastic about the possibility of a ghost-sighting as she was herself. Neil was worked on by an efficacious combination of logic, emotional appeal and finally the commands of a loving wife.

Narrowing her eyes at him, Hester suspected that he was in fact humouring the two younger members of the party as a means of distracting them from the phantasm of a potential thief. For herself, she was perfectly happy to accept the existence of a ghost, if slightly less sanguine about the consequent decision that they should all immediately form a ghost-hunting party.

Thinking wryly of the novel she had intended to take to bed with her, and the good night’s sleep she had been expecting, Hester surrendered to the inevitable.

A quarter of an hour later, the sitting-room had become a sedate state of shambles as the redoutable partnership of Amanda and Hildebrand searched for ideal ghost-hunting equipment.

“Have you ever hunted a ghost before, ma’am?” Neil said hopelessly, looking in dismay at the many articles of apparel and ‘ghost-catching’ devices that Amanda was happily accumulating on the dining room table.

Hester leaned against the doorframe, allowing the beleaguered Butterfield to carry out the china set. She was feeling a considerable sense of unimpaired freedom. Were this her own house, she would be forced, by the decrees of social convention, to either prevent Amanda from creating such a wreck of the room, or to apologise profusely to the housekeeper.

This not being her house, she simply enjoyed the dramatic scene. “I have, as it happens,” she answered mildly.

Neil looked taken aback. He was an intelligent man, Hester thought, but a little too inclined to adhere to fixed impressions about gently-born women who were not Amanda. She recalled several moments during the earlier part of her stay when he had solicitously begged her pardon for a too-free expression of Amanda’s, as if he thought she really would be shocked.

“Oh? Is that--” he fumbled, regrouping, “is this a common pastime, during the winter months?”

His voice betrayed his skepticism, but Hester did not mind. She understood: he was painfully incapable of asking her if she had acted out of the common way, because he believed it would be seen as an insult. He applied the same treatment to every other lady she had seen him encounter; excepting, of course, his Amanda. She smiled, wondering if the captain’s deep-seated conservatism and principles were ever shocked at what she did, or whether, in his heart, there lay a simple belief in his wife’s separateness from the strata of all other women.

Admiring the restrained chaos in front of her, Hester shook her head. “I don’t believe so. I was only ever once involved in a rout of this kind, and it was at the instigation of a friend who--was not wholly observant of convention.”

Neil nodded politely. “I see.”

They stood silent a few moments longer, enjoying (on Hester’s part at least) their roles as spectators and second-hand participants in the circus principally directed by the young matron and the playwright, currently arguing about the superiority of torches over lamps.

He ventured another question: “Was your friend ever successful in this kind of enterprise?”

Hester considered. “No--not during the event which I can bear witness to. Perhaps on another. She did--” catching his expression of bemused incomprehension she laughed, “she was a very active person, who loved nothing so much as riding and hunting. When poor weather kept her indoors she could transform on the instant from a vivacious, happy girl to the picture of a sulky bear.”

He grinned a moment, catching her enthusiasm, and then stilled. “She is no longer as you describe?”

Hester grimaced gently and he nodded in quiet understanding. They were silent once more, but this time Hester felt it incumbent upon herself to speak. “She died young,” she said wistfully. “A carriage accident; which people said afterwards could have been foreseen, but, oh.” She took in a breath. “No-one who knew her then could have imagined an end for such a vital, lively girl.”

He was not looking at her but at Amanda, eyes bright with mischief and glowing with life as she picked up a short knife and waved it energetically at an indignant Hildebrand. Hester looked inward, back sixteen years to whom she had been, and whom she had loved.

“You will agree with me, won’t you, Aunt Hester?”

Amanda was in front of them now, gesticulating fiercely with the same knife. Neil had already put out a hand and was watching carefully lest she hurt herself with it. A red-faced, complaining Hildebrand had likewise come around the table to meet them and seemed ready to renew the argument. “She will not!” he countered.

“Settle down,” said Neil calmly but firmly. “What’s the dispute?”

“Hildebrand thinks that we should wait until midnight to begin, as the ‘witching hour’, which is pure nonsense,” Amanda argued, tossing her head. “Sundown will suffice.”

“You just don’t want to wait,” expostulated her aggrieved opponent, “to do the thing properly.”

Amanda looked ready to enter into battle again, but Neil forestalled her. “I think we should agree with what Lady Ludlow says. She is, after all, the only member of our party to have engaged in this kind of action before.”

The other two looked their surprise at Hester. “Not really?” said Amanda.

Hester privately wished that Neil had kept her out of it, but assented. “Only the once,” she confessed. “On that occasion, however, we waited until moonrise. ‘Thou silver deity of secret night . . . my friend, my goddess, and my guide’, you see.”

Hildebrand was instantly all comprehension, Amanda considering and Neil politely confused. Regardless, her audience recognizing the compromise offered in her anecdote, this plan was straight away adopted. Hildebrand dragged Neil to the table, now covered in old papers; apparently he was looking for details of the original structure of the building and required another’s man’s eye.

Amanda warmly squeezed Hester’s shoulder. “Thank you for joining in; it will be such fun with everyone together.”

Hester smiled and agreed, and suggested that Sir Gareth might like to be included, a little maliciously. Amanda looked horrified. “But he would not! He dislikes adventures such as this, I am sure. He will be having a much better time with my grandfather.”

This was perfectly true. Hester had little doubt that, had Gareth been here, he would have reluctantly joined the party in wandering the house at night with two overzealous young people, a long-suffering soldier and his lady wife. “He enjoys creating fantastical stories,” she considered. “He would have been able to add substantially to our conversations this afternoon.”

Amanda agreed, somewhat sourly. “But I am much more glad that you are with us,” she said again, earnestly. “Particularly as you have done this work before.”

Hester hesitated, and then added: “In my youth, with a great friend of mine, who has since died.” She was not quite sure why she had spoken of her twice now. Something in the eerie, twilight shadows of the day was making her uncharacteristically mournful.

Her companion was sympathetic. “Then we will of course dedicate this, our first ghost-hunting expedition, to your friend. What was her name, aunt?”

Hester smiled, remembered, said sadly: “Her name was Clarissa Lincolm.”

**********

Their first ghost-hunting excursion into the house that evening, although properly illuminated by the light of the moon, was not otherwise a particularly well-lit affair. Amanda had carelessly ordered the servants to bed early, and that they should put out the lights as they went.

Hildebrand regretfully thought that this was both a romantic and an impractical notion.

“Ghosts won’t appear in full lamplight,” she argued self-importantly.

“If we can’t see what we’re doing, it will hardly matter,” he complained. In fact, he felt a little aggrieved at her handling the affair, as if it should have been understood that ghosts and medieval phenomena were his territory, and that she had no right to be infringing on it.

Quietly pacing down a darkened corridor with Amanda, he attempted to explain this, but his views met with very little sympathy. “It’s my house,” she pointed out.

“Your grandfather’s, rather!”

Embarrassingly, Neil separated them before he could enlarge on this entirely reasonable retort.

Hildebrand thought: as if we were children! Why, I am no longer a schoolboy, I trust.

“Very true, dear,” said Aunt Hester commiseratingly, proving herself a much more satisfactory companion when he explained the situation to her. “No doubt he is used to managing the soldiers under his command; it must be a difficult habit to set aside.”

“And that’s another thing,” Hildebrand continued. “Amanda seems bent on treating this as a military exercise and not as a scientific exploration into a supernatural event--you know she insisted on taking a weapon with her?”

Hester looked diplomatic. Walking ahead of them, Amanda neatly proved his point by suddenly whipping a short knife out of her skirts and brandishing it fiercely.

“I don’t think ghosts are susceptible to cold steel,” Neil apologised to his wife.

“Ah-HA!” she shouted, lunging into a dark corner.

“I don’t think you’re approaching this with the correct attitude,” Hildebrand said sulkily.

Despite his best efforts, the prevailing mood was neither somber nor appropriately studious but resembled something more like a masquerade. Too much merriment, he thought. We should have prepared for this activity by reading tragic poetry. A passage from Young’s Night-Thoughts, perhaps, or a monologue from Hamlet. Without evincing any such consciousness of the sublime nature of their work that evening, the majority of the group moved on, chatting and laughing and generally enjoying themselves.

“This is serious work,” Hildebrand hissed under his breath, glaring at Amanda. She ignored him, of course.

Not long into their travails, a brief moment of excitement occurred when a sharp scream sounded through the long gallery; hastening with all speed to the spot, the troop of adventurers were disappointed to discover that the ghastly noise had emanated from the under-butler, who had tripped over the cat and fallen down a short flight of stairs.

“Poor Joseph the Second,” Amanda cooed, picking up the recalcitrant animal and apologizing blithely to the unfortunate servant.

Neil frowned. “Perhaps we should have left a light in that stairway,” he admitted with chagrin.

Hildebrand ignored them both. “Are you sure it was the cat?” he asked eagerly. “It was not the sight of an apparition -- a figure in white perhaps, flitting down the gallery, which caused your fall?”

The servant was cautiously getting to his feet. “No, sir,” he said shortly. He rubbed his shoulder and winced slightly.

“I am sorry,” said Amanda kindly. “Fosset, you are excused from any further work this evening. Please do go and look after that shoulder, and I’ll shut up this naughty puss in my rooms.” She exited with the still-yowling animal, blissfully unconscious of its claws or complaints.

What bad luck, thought Hildebrand. For all we know the ghost might have been frightened off in all this commotion. Unless--

“Perhaps the cat itself was startled by the ghost,” he said hopefully. “If it saw, or heard something, and ran at your feet?”

Neil looked sceptical. Hildebrand was undaunted.

“Or a possession!” he enthused. “Brightwell tells of certain supernatural entities that can possess animals; think of the Walpole affair.”

“I think not,” Neil said with annoyingly calm superiority.

“If that animal is possessed by a devil, I will bear witness to it being so these three years or more,” muttered Fossett emphatically. He was quelled, however, by a swift look from Neil and without another word, limped off in the direction of the kitchens.

Neil sighed. “Those cats do get everywhere. I hope Amanda can pen up the little beast for the evening; I don’t fancy another such run-in.”

Hildebrand could only agree and return with him to the other end of the hall. “We should find Aunt Hester,” he suggested. “It is a little ridiculous for the two women of the party to be unaccompanied.”

“Banding together for protection?” Neil asked blandly, walking through the high-arched doorway.

Hildebrand followed him, frowning. “Of course not! But if they do happen to come across the ghost, I don’t trust that either of them will think to produce careful documentation of the event.”

“I see.”

“You don’t believe in this, do you?”

The other man made a gesture to indicate polite derison. “That we may find a ghost? No, I do not believe it. However, if it makes the ladies more comfortable to be seeking a make-believe creature than to fear a flesh-and-blood thief, it is worth indulging them.”

Affronted, and increasingly angry, Hildebrand put his hand on Neil’s elbow, forcing him to stop and turn around. “If that’s what do you believe, then you don’t think much of Amanda, or Hester, for that matter. They’re not going to be afraid of a thief any more than we are, and it is unjust of you to suggest otherwise.”

Neil looked nonplussed. “Well, perhaps--”

“And even if you had never seen a ghost, you should recognize the possibility that they exist -- think how many stories there are, how many people who have sworn to their existence!”

“The same number of people have sworn to the existence of elves and moon-dwellers,” Neil said drily. “It doesn’t make them any more likely to be real.”

Hildebrand put his hands in his packets. He wanted to fidget, gesticulate, but had learned that this generally served to undermine any point he tried to make. “Why not? Consider creatures such as elephants. When English travellers to the Orient first came back and spoke of what they saw, they were ridiculed, disbelieved. Most fourteenth-century people, even educated ones, could not understand what they could not imagine. But they were, and are, real.”

Neil was looking at him with surprise. “This matters to you,” he said slowly.

Hildebrand tried not to raise his voice, to appear too energetic. “I think it is irredeemably arrogant of mankind to believe that we can know and understand everything, when it is filtered through the lens of our too-limited experience. I have studied--”

He coughed and stopped speaking, feeling awkward. He was an educated, well-read man and could hold his own in debate halls from Cambridge to St Andrews; however, standing here with a man who had seen battle and death, he felt unwontedly inadequate. He tried to marshall his thoughts into order.

“You have heard of Mary Anning, I trust?”

Neil evidently considered this, but eventually nodded.

“She found fossils, ammonites, on the Lyme coast near her home. They were the bones of ancient creatures, long lost to history. Did you see the pictures of the fish-lizard whose skeleton was uncovered? This immense, terrible thing, with eyes like saucers and jaws a fathom wide.”

“Yes,” said Captain Kendall cautiously.

“Think what we knew, or guessed at, in ages previous. We imagined dragons, described them in image and song, thought of great sea-creatures with tentacles and mouths, hydras with several heads -- we knew of monsters before we had evidence of their existence, and here, now, we see evidence!”

The captain was silent. Hildebrand thought, however: he is still listening to me.

“So, with ghosts, or whatever else, it does not matter. We are pushing the boundaries of knowledge all the time; we are living in an age of discovery. It matters that we try.”

The other man was still silent, but, Hildebrand thought, he was about to speak, about to say--the double door on the other side of the room was suddenly flung wide and the two women walked in. “So here you all are!” exclaimed Amanda. “Why, we have been searching for you through the third-floor rooms; is that not where we were to meet?”

Hildebrand glowered. He had forgotten, caught up as he had been in his conversation with the captain. But it was just like Amanda to simply start haranguing a man without considering the circumstances which might account for a slight tardiness.

“I have been learning a great deal about the business we are undertaking,” said Neil thoughtfully. “And I believe, instead of searching further for the moment, we ought consider the story of the haunting more thoroughly; it may give us clues as to how to proceed.”

“I know how to proceed,” Amanda broke in officiously. “The Grey Lady has usually been seen or heard of in the Long Gallery, or on the west staircase.”

Hester made an inquisitive sound. “I hadn’t heard that part before,” she admitted. “Perhaps we should hear more details of the story, as Captain Kendal suggests.”

“I think we should listen to Hildebrand,” said Neil mildly. He turned to him. “We only heard a brief part of the story earlier. Would you describe it in more detail, so that we know more clearly what we are looking for?”

No longer attempting to keep a lid on his emotions, Hildebrand grinned broadly at his friend. “Of course!”

“This is my house,” said Amanda sulkily. But then she also closed her mouth and looked at Hildebrand.

He would not disappoint: “The story goes thus: in the 1460s a young and beautiful woman was promised as a nun to the sisterhood, when the Summercourt estate was still a nunnery. While she was taking her vows, the Battle of Northampton brought violent war even to the very walls of the abbey. The war went badly for the Lancastrians, who died in droves within the fields surrounding the house. Eventually the king--Henry VI--was captured and brought to the abbey by a contingent of Yorkist soldiers.”

“And he was escorted from there to Northampton,” interrupted Amanda eagerly, and from there to the Tower of London! But he left behind--”

“As I was saying,” Hildebrand said crossly, “the king left behind one of his men, a loyal soldier who had protected him to the last. Fearing that he would be executed as a loyal subject of the king, he commanded him to hide in the abbey until he could rejoin his compatriots.”

He paused for dramatic effect. This was the truly romantic part of the story and he wanted to make sure he had his listeners’ full attention. Amanda, he noticed, was looking a little bored, but she did know the story very well, so he graciously decided to forgive her.

“He was found by the beautiful young nun, who was, however, loyal to the king, and agreed to keep him secretly in the abbey until he could escape. As she cared for him, during the long weeks when the battleground was searched and the army decamped, the two fell in love. Tragically, however--”

Amanda sighed audibly. “Tragically,” Hildebrand repeated more loudly, “they were found out by the head abbess, a cruel and vicious woman. She denounced him to the Yorkist army and he was taken to the courtyard outside and then! In full view of his lover, the nun, standing helplessly at the window in the Long Gallery, he was hanged.”

“So--it’s his ghost that walks the house?” Neil asked, looking confused.

“No! Well--it might,” Hildebrand admitted. “But it’s not important. The truly sorrowful part of the story is that, some months later, the nun was delivered of a baby. The father, of course, being the soldier.”

“Of course,” said Hester placidly.

“But the baby died! I think it was taken from her by the other nuns and died of neglect, or something else horrid. And so the nun went mad, they say, and wandered the halls at night singing for her lost love and her lost child.”

Everyone was quiet, now.

“And one night, overcome with grief and misery, she threw herself from the head of the west staircase, and was killed. And now her ghost walks the house, singing and lamenting.”

He thought: that was a reasonable recitation, despite the interruptions. Worriedly, he looked at the others to check their reactions and was cheered to see that they all looked appropriately grave. Even Amanda did not look as impatient as he had expected. He cleared his throat and went on. “Therefore, I believe we should concentrate our search on the Long Gallery and the west staircase; perhaps the courtyard as well.”

“I would prefer not to leave the house at night,” Neil said consideringly. “But for the rest -- yes, I agree. Shall we?” He offered his arm elegantly to Hester, who accepted, and they started walking in the direction of the west staircase.

Hildebrand began to walk after them, but was halted by Amanda grasping his arm and tucking it within her own. “You did well with that,” she said musingly, as they started to move. “I think my delivery has more panache, but you have a very nice style.”

He sighed. It was as good as he was going to get.

**************

Hildebrand was talking again. He never seemed to tire of the sound of his own voice, which Amanda considered boringly characteristic of many university-educated men. Somewhat more uncharacteristically, his conversation was usually worth listening to.

Usually, anyway. Right at this moment he was bemoaning the party’s inability to turn into fly-by-night gravediggers and trudge around the grounds of Summercourt Manor, searching for the Grey Lady’s bones.

As if grandfather would let anyone dig up his prize rose garden. Why, he had made such a fuss about the dratted plants that even his dearest granddaughter had quite gotten into his black books on more than one occasion in her childhood for picking the blossoms.

If one of his guests took a spade to the grounds on account of ghosts, Amanda considered, watching Hildebrand critically, he would probably have an apoplexy.

“Can’t be done,” she informed him.

He was brought to an abrupt stop. “Eh? I mean--well, of course we couldn’t dig up the place now. I was just saying that in general it can be considered a useful means of providing evidence for a haunting. The very bones of the victim: all that is left of the body, cast into a shallow grave!”

He was going off on a tear again. Amanda briefly considered leaving him to find Neil, or Hester, who were somewhat less given to histrionics.

“Mm,” she said, un-encouragingly. “We don’t have the first idea where to look, though. I suppose it’s too much to hope that she was buried in the house, perhaps under the floorboards in the west wing, at the foot of the staircase?”

Hildebrand looked struck. “Do you really think so?”

Amanda shrugged. “It was the Middle Ages,” she said confidently. “They did all manner of strange and unnatural things back then.”

He looked disapproving, and she sighed. “Yes, yes, I know, your life’s work as an antiquarian--”

“I wouldn’t call myself--”

“--means that you have a lot of respect for history, and that’s very thoughtful of you, but you must admit that sometimes history is just, well, bizarre.”

He made a complicated, sort of screwed-up face that Amanda interpreted as: I don’t want to admit it, but you are completely and totally right.

She smiled sunnily at him. “If I had grandfather’s leave, I would instantly let you tear up the paving in the west wing to uncover some bones. Wouldn’t it be exciting if they had put her there! Imagine: her blood staining the floor, her body broken to pieces . . .”

“Yes!” he said rapturously. Then he looked embarrassed, and then shy, and then smiled back at her. “I do so like spending time with you, Amanda. I couldn’t talk about these things to any girl, you know.”

Amanda considered that with satisfaction, and then modestly demurred: “No, no, I am sure you know plenty of women who enjoy discussions of bloody historical episodes. All of London is wild at the moment over Sir Walter Scott’s new collection of verse, which has some very exciting pieces. ‘The blood be-smeared night-robe’! The ‘wimple unseemly bedabbled with gore’!”

“‘Bedabbled’ is good,” said Hildebrand ruminatively. “Although I am surprised that many women can like those pieces. One feels that the violent imagery would be too much for their delicate constitutions.”

His companion stared at him. “One feels that, does one?”

He blinked stupidly at her. “Well--yes? Ladies are particularly apt to become faint at the sight or smell of blood; surely a detailed description in verse must be a little overstimulating.”

Amanda thought: my god, but men can be the most unbelievable fools. She looked at him acidly. “Sometimes I wonder: are men wholly ignorant about the female body?”

“Er,” said Hildebrand, colouring.

“Either it’s that,” she went on, “or they’ve convinced themselves that such details as a woman’s monthly blood falls under the same general category as childbearing and motherhood, about which they are generally uncaring.”

He had looked entirely shocked when she first started speaking. Now he looked indignant. A bit like Joseph the Second when he was a kitten, Amanda thought, amused. All ruffled up.

“We are aware of these--things,” he said haltingly. “At least, I don’t speak for all men, but, it’s part of a man’s knowledge of the world.”

“Is it?” she asked sweetly.

“Um, there are books. I’ve seen--diagrams? I’ve read Hildegard of Bingen on the subject, although--”

“Who?”

“A medieval abbess, twelfth century. She, um, thought that, ah, ladies’ blood could cure leprosy, if ingested.”

By this point they had walked through the last of the rooms in the west wing, and turned, quite naturally, to retrace their steps. Neil and Hester were somewhere in the room beyond, their voices a soft murmur in the dimly lighted surroundings.

“As I said,” commented Amanda dryly. “Medieval people were very strange.”

“Not all of them,” muttered her companion.

“So why, given this thorough knowledge of female biology, do men still persist in believing that a woman will faint at the sight of blood?”

He bit his lip, either in vexation or amusement. “You never did,” he said, and his voice was warm, friendly. “Years ago, when we met.”

She frowned. “That isn’t my point. I’m not unusual, or special. I believe most women, if they appear to be delicate around the sight or smell of blood, only do so because they think it’s required. By men,” she added, with a touch of resentment.

“But--”

“Unless you think that women past the age of fourteen are regularly passing out in the privies or in their bedrooms, on top of the chamber pot.”

“Amanda!” he yelped, blushing and darting a look around the otherwise entirely empty room.

“For heaven’s sake,” she said, rolling her eyes. “This is my house, or as good as. I can say what I like.”

“. . . Yes,” he said cautiously. To her secret hilarity, he appeared to dart a glance towards her general midsection before looking away again. “Well. Perhaps I had not considered all the details.”

“And of course any woman who had suffered childbirth would be intimately familiar with blood. You know,” she mused, tucking her arm more closely within his and expertly navigating past the ancient statuary, “‘suffered’ is a good word. I blame that loyal supporter of Henry VI, I honestly do.”

Hildebrand frowned. “For--ah, assaulting her virtue? If they were in love, surely.”

“Yes, yes, the word ‘love’ covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it? I blame him for getting her into that situation when he wasn’t planning on being around to help her out of it.”

“Because he was hanged for treason,” said Hildebrand.

“Not the point!” Amanda insisted. “He was intending to leave anyway, wasn’t he? To rejoin his army and restore his king? And what was she going to do during that time?”

He appeared to think about this. Amanda, who had become unexpectedly disconsolate, did not urge her argument any further. They walked in silence. The clock in the front hall sounded distantly the hour of eleven. She thought: my daughter is sleeping soundly. Even if I go up to the nursery, all I’ll be doing is disturbing Nurse. In the morning, then.

Somewhat uncannily, it was at that moment that Hildebrand cleared his throat uncomfortably and asked: “The actual experience of childbirth . . . ”

“Yes?” she asked encouragingly.

“Is it really that painful?”

She pinched his arm with her free hand and he gave out a most pleasing little yelp. “Don’t ask stupid questions.”

“Fine, but you were just criticising us men for not knowing about these things, so I just thought. It’s just that I don’t actually know any women very well who have had children--”

“Except your mother,” she answered reflectively.

“I can’t ask her!”

“Oh, all right. It was indescribably painful and messy. We had to throw out the bedsheets; they couldn’t be salvaged after I emptied about a gallon of my blood into the bed, and then tore a hole in the topsheet with my fingernails; not to mention other various secretions--”

Hildebrand abruptly covered his ears with his hands, and then waved her to silence, looking horrified. “Never mind! That is, thank you for the information, and I don’t need any more at present.”

She looked at him suspiciously. “Is this research? Are you going to put it into one of your plays?”

“None of that would ever be allowed past the censor, I assure you.”

Arms now detangled, they walked for a few minutes longer in the hushed stillness of the house. Amanda strolled confidently ahead, deftly avoiding obstacles in the gloom. Hildebrand, less familiar with the layout, accidentally stubbed his toe on a chair and gave a high-pitched shriek. Bending, he rubbed his foot with a pained expression. Amanda tried not to smile, and failed.

“We could light the lamps in here,” she suggested sweetly. Then she frowned, thinking. “Although . . . I am not certain that I know where the oil is kept, but we could investigate.”

He grunted but otherwise did not respond. Recovering from his little upset, he moved off towards the library and narrowly missed colliding with the doorframe. Amanda told herself firmly not to laugh or even mention the incident, and then felt virtuous for her forbearance.

Her pious resolution all went for nothing when he caught up with her, looking out of the great windows in the library, and grumpily renewed their earlier argument: “I still don’t think men or women should go around talking about all the details of childbirth and such. Not in polite company, at any rate.”

“I understand social convention,” she replied haughtily. “I wouldn’t tie my garter in public either; I just don’t appreciate the hypocrisy.”

“You’re not understanding me,” protested Hildebrand. “Of course I don’t think of you as weak, or whatever you were saying. Just that the most painful and perhaps degrading experiences of a woman’s life are not fodder for public consumption. The Grey Lady’s story is romantic because it is safely rooted in the past. Such a thing happening now . . . it would be terrible. I wouldn’t like to think people were openly discussing it.”

“No more would I,” Amanda answered, giving him a half-smile. “But when it comes to the various evils which inhabit the world, I would always rather know, than not.”

They shared a companionable glance, and he lightly bumped his shoulder against hers. “Want to search the hallway overlooking the courtyard?”

The night was dark and strange and full of hidden things. “Certainly,” she said.

***************

They walked for hours. It was not, however, in the end, an all-night excursion. While neither Amanda nor Neil felt any tiredness, Hildebrand was very accustomed to sleeping a good eight hours in a night, and Hester had very little energy left by two o’clock.

“Bed, I think,” said Neil authoritatively. He was concerned about Lady Ludlow’s pale cheeks, and thought: I’ll be damned if I give Sir Gareth a reason to chastise me when he returns tomorrow.

“We didn’t see anything,” complained Hildebrand, who thought that he would very much prefer to go to bed and perhaps research the story of the haunting more closely over the next few days, but also that given his position as arbiter of the affair, he could hardly give it up without a protest.

“Perhaps another night,” suggested Amanda brightly, who was ruminating over methods she could use to persuade her grandfather that digging up the west wing stairway, the courtyard and the rose garden would not be wholly disastrous to his peace.

“For my part, I would be glad to go,” said Hester thankfully. She remembered being seventeen, and miserably in love with Gareth Ludlow, and yet incapable of not loving Clarissa, and how happy she had been to wait out the dawn with her on their own unsuccessful ghost-hunt. There are too many years between that girl and that myself, she thought. I think there is a time for these things and a time to let them go by.

Variously frustrated, content and wistful, the assembled party detached from each other on the second-floor landing and headed off to their respective bedrooms.

And in the stark chill of the early morning, when the serving-maids and footmen were safely asleep on their separate floors, and the under-butler and his wife dozed against each other in the warmth of their room, while the kennel-master snored in a chair overlooking the pen and the exhausted new mother of five puppies lay napping at his feet, the sound of music drifted on the still air, and was unheard.