Authors: Caroline Dunford
‘I detect that this woman has been around death – two, three, four times!’ That startled me. The deaths associated with the Staplefords were all too public knowledge, but Madam Arcana had counted my own private bereavement in her total. ‘I do know a little of what I speak,’ she said to me with a twinkle. Then she turned to Richenda, ‘You see, the spirits are more comfortable around those who have been nearly involved in the demise of others. They become, if you will, guardians of the gateway.’ Euphemia, the disowned granddaughter of an Earl, is working unhappily as a housekeeper for Bertram Stapleford at his ill advised new property, when the dramatic collapse of the kitchen floor sends her back to where it all began, Stapleford House. A visiting mystic disrupts the Staplefords unleasing old family rumours. Euphemia finds herself playing second fiddle to Bertram's new love, Beatrice Wilton, as she launches a project to investigate the new aslyums. It is not long before Euphemia realizes that not only does Beatrice have her unscrupulous sights set on Bertram, but that her enterprises may be about to put them all in very great danger. A besotted Bertram will not listen, so once more she turns to the handsome Butler, Rory for aid. Then a midnight attacker strikes at the heart of Stapleford Hall and the stakes are suddenly all too high. As usual Euphemia only has her quick wits and that defence of all virtuous young ladies to defend herself, her scream.
A DEATH IN THE ASYLUM
Published by Accent Press Ltd – 2013
Copyright © Caroline Dunford 2013
The right of Caroline Dunford to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
The story contained within this book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers: Accent Press Ltd, The Old School, Upper High St, Bedlinog, Mid Glamorgan, CF46 6RY.
Other titles in the series
Book Club Questions for Discussion
Calamity at White Orchards
Madam Arcana raised her face to the ceiling. Her large purple turban slipped dangerously backwards as she enquired in a loud stage whisper of the plaster above her, ‘Is there anybody there?’
Despite the rather stern instructions I had been given to keep my eyes on the glass at the centre of the table I too looked up. But then very recently I had found ceilings to have become the most unreliable of objects.
White Orchards was not a large house. If Stapleford Hall is modest when compared to what my mother refers to as the “real great houses”, she would doubtless rate Mr Bertram’s new seat as adequate for an orangery and its flora incumbents, but never a dwelling for anyone who counted. This all despite the fact that since her marriage to my late father, the Very Reverend Joshia Martins, she had lived in a vicarage and since his death in a cottage that would have fitted neatly into the ballroom at Stapleford Hall and still left room to waltz around the perimeter. But then my mother still clings to memories of her youth in her father’s – the earl who shall not be named’s – great house. I have never seen my grandfather and now I am in service I doubt he will ever have the honour of meeting me.
Until last week, and the incident with the ceiling, I was a housekeeper at White Orchards. I had come to this position after many an unexpected turn in the previous 14 months. Having thrown myself into service in January 1910 to help provide for mother and my brother, Little Joe, when father left us destitute, fate had washed me up on the shores of Stapleford Hall the same day a murder was committed there. By the time the second murder had occurred – this time of the head of the house – I was entangled in the whole dreadful business and had made a dire enemy of the new Lord Stapleford and formed an almost inappropriate alliance with his younger brother, Bertram, who was quite the best of the family.
Needless to say no one knew of my antecedents. Though I believe I was counted as somewhat of an oddity in a maid. I weathered these first two murders and their unfortunate consequences only for events eight months later to again take a turn towards the macabre.
The housekeeper, Mrs Wilson, had had an accident that I still cannot bear to fully recount. Suffice it to say that it involved the substance that comes from the more unfriendly end of a horse, very wet stairs and her sudden and ill-advised descent of the great staircase. This had led to a sudden promotion as I took on the role of housekeeper for a shooting party in the Highlands.
I hesitate to say it, but again a sudden death greeted me almost upon arrival at the house. This time I clearly was in no way connected or suspected, but world events impinged on my tiny corner of England – or Scotland – and almost caused the arrest of our new, handsome butler, Rory McLeod. He was the son of a greengrocer, vastly ineligible, extremely intelligent and the main reason I accepted the post of housekeeper at White Orchards, when Mr Bertram declared his intention to buy his own house.
But I should have known things would not go smoothly. Mr Bertram is a passionate man and, like most hot-blooded men, he is quick to act. In the light of what was to transpire I believe that the purchase of White Orchards was itself a matter of impulse.
It is true I had challenged him on the morality of living in his brother’s house merely to remain in the running to inherit Stapleford Hall as per the dictates of his father’s bizarre will. I had also upbraided him on spending the blood money of the Staplefords (who are in banking and armaments) when he has a comfortable inheritance from his late godfather. However, when he stormed out in a rage at my impertinent words – and they were impertinent, even if my true social status had been acknowledged – I little suspected that I would set him on a course to buy almost the first house he saw and come running back to beg me to become his housekeeper.
At the time I knew in my heart of hearts it was wrong to accept. Mr Bertram and I – and this I only confess within these pages – are not indifferent to one another. There has never by word or action been anything improper between us, but I have often thought if I had not been a maid then Mr Bertram might have made his feelings plainer – in a respectable manner. Of course, if I were not in service, and my real name acknowledged, he would be beneath my station to notice. I am not unaware of the irony of this situation, although I find no amusement in it.
And then there was Rory. Rory, who had every reason to believe we were on equal standing, who I rescued from wrongful arrest and whose quick thinking helped me untangle the most difficult of puzzles when Mr Bertram had set his face against aiding me. It was made plain to us, albeit individually, by the Staplefords that should Rory and I wish to wed the household would continue to employ us as a married couple, which was a very gracious concession, but that no extended courtship or close friendship was acceptable.
To be honest I think we were both taken aback as much by the sudden surprising morality of the Staplefords as we were with the suggestion that on a mere few weeks’ acquaintance we would wish to wed. We chose to remain side by side in service, but with only a cool acquaintance between us. It was most uncomfortable. Mr Bertram had left and Rory was the sole person with whom I was able to engage my mind and active brain. We were naturally drawn together and I saw it would not do for many reasons, so when Mr Bertram returned I followed him to White Orchards as his housekeeper.
This is all a roundabout way of saying I leapt from the frying pan into the fire.
White Orchards was set with a most handsome facing, clean lined and modern on the fens. Sunrises and sunsets there were more magnificent than I have ever seen. It was surrounded by apple trees and when, in spring 1911, their white blossom flowered it was lovely to see. However a mere few months after our arrival, the floods began. An unexpected rainfall, a failing of some ditch and our basement was soon filled with water. However, I am always happy to rise to a challenge and now with my own small staff we weathered the storm literally and figuratively. We dried out what could be saved and threw out what could not. I was pleased with my adaptability and that I had not been thrown by this disaster.
However, when the event again occurred after just two weeks and then again, it became clear that unexpected rainfall or ditch failures could not be blamed. It was at this point that I enquired of Mr Bertram if he had checked with the local people about the house before purchasing it.
‘I’m not sure I understand what you mean, Euphemia,’ he had said when I presented him with his morning breakfast of eggs and toast.
‘I mean, sir, did you realise the house would be liable to such flooding?’
Mr Bertram shrugged. ‘It is in the fens.’
‘I believe the engineering feat that drained the fens some time ago was and is regarded as something of a marvel,’ I said.
‘There are always teething difficulties when one takes possession of a new property.’ Mr Bertram lifted his newspaper to signal the conversation was at an end.
‘I think this is more than a mere inconvenience, sir. I fear there is a fault with the house that will need correcting.’
‘Nonsense, Euphemia. It is a brand-new house. A marvel of modernity. The plumbing alone is a miracle.’
‘Quite spectacular, sir,’ I agreed. ‘But it is the water outwith the pipes I am referring to. I fear the basement is flooded out again.’
Mr Bertram went pale. ‘But my wines. My shipment. What I ordered laid down.’
‘I’m afraid I didn’t lay the wine down as per your instructions. I was confident that on reflection you would see it was an unwise choice.’
We were speaking to one another more formally than we had been used to at Stapleford Hall and even the wretched hunting lodge in the Highlands, but here, in the middle of nowhere – albeit a very beautiful nowhere – with a small staff we were thrown upon one another more often than either of us had suspected. I continued with caution. ‘I fear we may need to quit the house while repairs are made. The smell from the cellars has risen in some strength to the kitchen and, as summer approaches, I fear it will become more rank. I do not think it can be sanitary.’
Mr Bertram pushed his plate away. ‘So what do you suggest, Euphemia?’ he said almost in our old manner.
‘That we return to Stapleford Hall while repairs are put in process. I think, even if you wished it, in its current state White Orchards would not be saleable.’
‘Damn it, Euphemia. I don’t want to sell the place.’
‘Then you will have to have it fixed, sir.’
Mr Bertram pushed his chair back roughly, scraping a fine layer of wax off the floor Jenny had so lovingly polished. ‘I will not believe it is that bad.’ He stood and faced me angrily. ‘I believe you are regretting your choice to come here and wish to return to work at Stapleford.’
‘If you think that, sir, you must think me a fool,’ I said as calmly as I could. ‘What la-woman in her right mind would exchange the position of housekeeper for that of maid?’
‘Perhaps you now find there are inducements at Stapleford Hall that White Orchards cannot supply.’
‘Such as a dry cellar?’
‘Enough! Show me the cellar. If there is more than an inch of water there I’ll return to my brother’s house tonight.’
‘Certainly, sir.’ I turned to lead the way out. ‘Perhaps you should consider more appropriate footwear?’
Mr Bertram growled under his breath. He clearly did not believe me. We entered the cellar. I allowed him to go first. The dank, odorous water that seeped into the lining of his handmade shoes quickly changed his mind. ‘Why didn’t you tell me it was so bad, Euphemia?’ he cried. ‘This is impossible.’
I thought of responding that this was all of a piece. He had not believed me about the dangers of cracked eggs, the bad cheese from Hadwell Farm, the number of servants we would need and a thousand and one other things. Owning his own home had gone to Mr Bertram’s head and each time I drew his attention to some shortfall he took it as a personal blow to his pride. For his own reasons he was utterly determined to demonstrate his mastery of all he surveyed. The result was, of course, that having lived all his life under his parents’ roof he frequently looked extremely foolish – and then he blamed me.
‘Shall I make the arrangements for leaving?’ I asked. Unlike my master I had learned a great deal as housekeeper and was equal to much more than when we had first met. If anything this appeared to infuriate him further.
‘We can’t take all the servants to Stapleford!’
‘No, of course not,’ I replied. ‘I suggest all the local servants are allowed home – although it will be very difficult to retain their service if they are not paid some kind of allowance.’
‘That will be nothing compared to what this will cost to set right,’ said Mr Bertram bitterly.
I moved on. ‘I could return to my own home, but Merrit joined us from a London household. ‘
‘Richard won’t object to having another footman around as long as I’m paying.’
‘I don’t believe either Sam, the bootboy, or Jenny will have anywhere else to go.’
‘Oh, I’m sure Mrs Deighton can always use an extra pair of hands.’ He frowned heavily. ‘We can’t take our cook!’
‘Of course not, sir. I’m sure she will be happy to have some time to spend with her new grandchild.’
‘Grandchild?’ echoed Mr Bertram blankly.
‘Your tenants, the Hadfields at Mile-End Farm.’
‘Good God, Euphemia, you’re my housekeeper, not my …’ He stopped, turned fiery red and swallowed. ‘I mean, how come you know so much about my people? We’ve barely been here a moment.’
‘It must be my background as a vicar’s daughter, sir,’ I said without thinking.
‘But I thought your father was …’
‘I’d better start seeing to the arrangements,’ I answered and fled.
When we first met the Staplefords had assumed I was the love-child of some recently deceased gentleman because I spoke well and could read. At the time it had been easier to allow them to think this. ‘Damn,’ I said aloud, startling both the kitchen cat and cook in equal measure.
‘It’s not like you to swear, Miss St John,’ said our cook, Mrs Tweedy. ‘Has the master not seen sense yet?’
‘Mr Stapleford agrees the house needs work and we are all to quit this place while it is done. All local servants will be kept on at wages, but allowed to go home. Merrit, Sam and Jenny will accompany Mr Stapleford to Stapleford Hall.’
‘Well, that’s very decent of him,’ said Mrs Tweedy. ‘And I’ll get time to spend with the little ’un. But what about you, my dear?’
I blinked. ‘I really have no idea.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Euphemia,’ said Mr Bertram emerging from the cellar. ‘Of course you’re coming with me.’
He stormed out of the room. I followed. ‘Really, sir, you mustn’t call me by my Christian name in front of the other servants. It gives the wrong impression.’
Mr Bertram turned on his heel to face me. ‘And what impression would that be, Euphemia? Apart from the ridiculousness of addressing one as young as you as Mrs …’
‘Many women are married at 19,’ I countered reasonably.
‘But none of them would have the audacity to constantly contradict their master. You complain of my manners …’
‘I meant simply that it might be taken as improper considering the isolated nature of the estate and you still a bachelor, sir.’
‘Good God! You’re doing it again. Will you not let me finish a sentence?’
I thought of pointing out that he had just finished two, but kept my tongue between my teeth. Mr Bertram heaved a huge sigh. ‘And you’re right again. I’m not fit to run a house on my own. I need a wife. Perhaps I shall find one at Stapleford Hall. Do you think along with all your other abilities to organise and correct my life that you might be able to find me a suitable spouse as well, Euphemia?’
‘I may only be your servant, sir, but that is an unacceptable way to speak to me!’
By this point we were both breathing hard and our annoyance had brought us into close proximity.
‘Euphemia, this has got to stop,’ said Mr Bertram. ‘Our relationship …’
Our eyes met, but whatever Mr Bertram was to say next was cut off by the sudden arrival of eight-year-old Sam hurtling round the corner.
‘Is it true, sir, that you’re taking me to the great Stapleford Hall? Is it? Oh, sir, I’ll polish all them boots better than anyone ever has.’
The moment shattered into a thousand pieces.
‘Stapleford Hall isn’t what most people would call great, Sam, but my elder brother would tan your hide for running around upstairs.’
‘Oh lor’,’ said Sam stricken.
‘It’s a much more formal house,’ I said kindly. ‘But as long as you stay below stairs I’m sure you’ll be fine. Mr McLeod, the butler, is a good man.’
Mr Bertram shot me a look of pure poison and strode off. This time I did not follow him.
It was at this moment of high personal drama that a loud crash echoed through the household. ‘Dear God,’ I cried and ran towards the sound with Sam hot on my heels.
I cannoned into the kitchen barely stopping in time to avoid falling through the large hole in the floor. ‘Mrs Tweedy!’ I cried in horror.
‘I’m here, dear,’ came a faint reply. Then slowly Mrs Tweedy climbed up the cellar steps. She was covered in dust.
‘G-g-ghost!’ squeaked Sam.
‘Lord love you, Sammy boy,’ said Mrs Tweedy in a shaky voice. ‘It’s just dust. I was checking to see what we could save from the waters when the bloody ceiling came down on my head.’
‘Are you injured?’ I asked in horror.
Mrs Tweedy shook her head. ‘Gave me a bit of a fright, I can tell you, but that ceiling ain’t no more than dust and plaster and we’ve been walking over it for months. This whole ruddy place is a death-trap.’
Mr Bertram arrived in time to hear Mrs Tweedy pronounce sentence. The look he gave me clearly suggested that he considered everything my fault. After all I had been the one who had urged him to buy his own home and I suspected in his eyes this made me ultimately responsible.
Less than 48 hours later I had completed our leaving arrangements. Mr Bertram and I were studiously avoiding each other, but there were still occasions when I entered a room too precipitously only to encounter one of his black looks before he exited smartly.
It was thus with a whole riot of mixed emotions tumbling through my head that I found myself approaching Stapleford Hall. This place had been the scene of much suffering and was still owned by a man, who if not evil incarnate, was at least of black heart. But it was also where my good friends Merry the maid, Mrs Deighton the cook and, of course, Rory McLeod lived and worked. My mother would be appalled that I considered those working below stairs infinitely superior to those above, but I believe my father would have understood.
I jumped down from the cart, which had conveyed me from the station, and made my way to the servants’ entrance. As a housekeeper of White Orchards I felt no need to help with the baggage. The door opened before I reached it and two figures came out to greet me. I quailed inwardly. The servants’ entrance at Stapleford was almost as large as our main entrance at White Orchards. I had forgotten how big the house was.
‘Did you not bring any luggage?’ asked Mrs Wilson, her black eyes snapping.
‘I’m glad to see you are recovered, Mrs Wilson. The luggage is on the cart,’ I said. ‘Merrit, Jenny and Sam can bring it over. Although I daresay they would appreciate a little help.’
‘Get it yourself. I’ll not have airs and graces on my staff!’
‘Mrs Wilson,’ I said as diplomatically as I could manage. ‘I am not on your staff. Mr Sta-Mr Bertram has arranged for three of his staff to help out with light duties as long as they do not conflict with our current duties. As a senior member of staff I have no more intention of lifting luggage than you would have.’
‘Current duties! I daresay we can all guess what those might be.’
‘I will be acting as Mr Bertram’s secretary for our duration here,’ I said through gritted teeth. I was so angry I managed not to blush while uttering the lie. What Mr Bertram had actually said as I was leaving the house for the train – he came by motor – was, ‘Help out as you can, Euphemia, but don’t let Wilson shove you back into being a maid. It wouldn’t look good for either of us.’
Mrs Wilson muttered under her breath and turned away. It might have been ‘Pah!’ or even worse, but I closed my ears. I noticed she walked with a slight limp. She doubtless blamed me for her accident and I tried to find a charitable corner in my heart. I was still searching when Rory came up and offered his hand to me.
‘It’s gey good to see you, Euphemia.’
I took his hand in mine and smiled up at him. Those luminous green eyes were as striking as I remembered and his bright blond hair shone despite the grey clouds overhead. ‘It’s good to see you too, Rory,’ I said. ‘How are Merry and the others?’
‘Och, fine. Merry’s been as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs since she heard you were coming. Can’t seem to make up her mind if you’re liable to be friendly or all starched up now you’re a housekeeper.’
‘As if!’ I exclaimed hotly. ‘She is my dearest friend.’
‘Aye, that’s what I told her,’ said Rory smiling. ‘But you know Merry.’ He paused and looked behind me. ‘Who did you bring with you? Tell me you no brought your cook?’
I shook my head. ‘Much as I love Mrs Deighton I wouldn’t have dared,’ I said. ‘Most of our staff were local so we sent them home with wages, till the house is fixed. I’ve got Sam, Jenny and Merrit. Sam’s from the local orphanage, a bit of a scamp, but grateful for the chance he’s been given. He’s bootboy at the moment, but he’s bright and he’ll go places. Jenny’s our kitchen-maid. She’s a good girl and a hard worker. Merrit’s our senior footman. He’d be a butler if the place were larger and a London man, so we brought him down too. He’s very eager to learn from you since when Mr Bertram enlarges his household he’ll be in prime position to become butler.’
‘You’ve no butler! Euphemia, you’ve been running that man’s staff alone?’
‘There’s not that many of them.’
‘That’s not the point. You, a young woman, in the middle of nowhere, running a bachelor’s household. It’s unseemly.’
‘Oh Rory, please. It’s been a long journey and I’m tired. You know full well that female staff under this roof have far more to worry about than any of Mr Bertram’s ever will.’
‘Not while I’m butler!’
‘Maybe not, Rory. But you know Mr Bertram is an honourable gentleman.’
Rory bit his lip. ‘Aye, well. Yer a grown woman and yer life’s your own.’
‘Please let’s not fight. I’ve so looked forward to coming home and seeing you all.’
‘Aye, well, come away in. Merry and Mrs Deighton have laid out a tea in the kitchen for you and your staff. Mrs Wilson’s furious.’
The bright, modern kitchen was full of light and glorious baking smells. Mrs Deighton, cap askew, rushed forward. ‘It’s good to have you back, girl!’ She hugged me hard. ‘But you’re all skin and bones. Where’s your cook – I need to have a word with her.’
‘In Norfolk,’ I said. ‘Merry, is that you hiding back there?’
Merry came forward shyly and I hugged her. ‘I’ve missed you all so much.’
They both beamed at me. ‘Sit down and have a cup of tea,’ said Mrs Deighton, ‘and tell us all about it. Is it true your roof came down?’
‘I’ll see to your staff and the luggage,’ said Rory.
I sipped the very welcome hot brew and settled down to fill in Merry and Mrs Deighton on all the details.
It was considerably later when Rory came back into the kitchen. ‘Mrs D,’ he said, ‘our other guests will be arriving soon and I need Merry to make a last check of the bedrooms.’
‘You have a house party?’ I exclaimed. ‘I’m so sorry. I wouldn’t have taken up so much of your time. Mrs Wilson never said a word.’
‘She’s up with the Master and Miss Richenda. They’ve still not sorted out between them how long and what exactly this house party is,’ said Mrs Deighton darkly.
‘It’s ever so exciting,’ said Merry. ‘Madam Arcana is coming – and Lady Grey.’
‘Is it some kind of fancy dress?’ I asked bemused.
Rory’s grim face broke at that and he laughed out loud. ‘Aye, you might say that. I’m sure Merry can fill you in on the details later. I hate to ask, Euphemia, but with Mrs Wilson closeted upstairs, I could do with a few things checked. Can you come with me?’
‘Of course,’ I said rising. Although I was puzzled as to how I could help. Rory knew his job far better than I did and was more than adequate to the task of compiling the most complex seating plan.
Rory took me into one of the smaller downstairs rooms – one of those sorts of rooms modern architects think look so good on plans, but for which it is difficult to assign a proper use. In the middle of the room the round library table from upstairs had been placed with many seats around the edges. In the very centre of the table was a crystal tumbler and scattered in a semicircle around the table on small cards were the letters A-Z and the words “Yes” and “No”.
‘Oh no!’ I cried.
‘Aye, I’m not too keen on it myself. There’s some things it’s better not to be messing with, but Miss Richenda has ordered it.’
‘Has she lost her mind?’
Rory gave a wry smile. ‘It’s not for me to comment on Miss Richenda’s mental faculties, but if I were of a mind to do so I’d say that Lady Grey had more to do with this than a belief in ghosties.’
‘Lady Grey? Does the house have a ghost? It’s not old enough.’ I frowned. ‘Although it’s seen more than its fair share of death. But I don’t believe in these things, do you?’
Rory shrugged. ‘My father always reckoned his mother had the sight, but I’m inclined to think this is more a parlour game to them upstairs than a serious effort to contact the dead.’
‘What does Lord Stapleford think?’
‘He’s into pleasing Miss Richenda at present. He’s hoping that if she’s happy she’ll look more favourably on his friend’s suit.’
‘Miss Richenda is getting married? But why would she want that? I thought the will said if she has the first child she gains possession of Stapleford Hall. Of course, I could have the details wrong.’
‘Is that right?’ asked Rory a shade more coldly. ‘I’m not as conversant with the affairs of the family as yerself.’
I blushed. ‘Rory, we need to talk. My taking the appointment at White Orchards was a big mistake.’ I saw his face darkened and added quickly, ‘Oh no, nothing like that. It’s just that Mr Bertram has never run a house before and his, er, impulsive nature makes me think he needs a housekeeper with a little more experience than me.’
‘But where would you go?’
‘I don’t know,’ I sighed. ‘I’d like to come back here or rather go back in time to how things were.’
‘Short of Mrs Wilson falling down another lot of stairs, Euphemia, I can’t see that happening.’
‘Neither can I,’ I said sadly.
The door burst open and Miss Richenda sailed in. ‘It’s in here,’ she called over her shoulder. She saw me and stopped short. ‘You,’ she said dramatically.
‘I was just leaving, ma’am,’ I said dropping a small curtsy.
A woman in her middle years and a huge purple turban with scarves trailing around her form like some plump and stunted maypole flowed into the room. ‘But, my dear, you absolutely must not leave. There is an aura about you.’ She turned to Rory. ‘You, on the other hand, must leave at once. You are disturbing the spirits.’
Rory swallowed, nodded slightly and fled. I thought it most unmanly of him.
‘Are you absolutely sure, Madam Arcana? This is a servant of my younger brother who is visiting with us a short while. I don’t think I should trespass on his territory.’ The words were sweet enough but the look she was giving me would have felled a horse.
Madam Arcana came close enough that I could tell she preferred sweet sherry to dry. ‘Ah, but this one has been touched by death.’
‘Marked by death?’ asked Richenda in what I felt was far too hopeful a tone.
Madam Arcana laughed, a deep fruity sound. Although I thought her profession hideous I could not help but warm to her. I noticed for the first time her eyes were a peculiar but attractive shade of violet. Under the padding she had acquired over the years I could see she must once have been a very beautiful woman. ‘No, no, Richenda. You are too fanciful.’
I felt this was a bit much coming from a medium. In the distance the doorbell rang.
‘I detect that this woman has been around death – two, three, four times!’
That startled me. The deaths associated with the Staplefords were all too public knowledge, but she had counted my own private bereavement in her total.
‘I do know a little of what I speak,’ she said to me with a twinkle. Then she turned to Richenda. ‘You see, the spirits are more comfortable around those who have been nearly involved in the demise of others. They become, if you will, guardians of the gateway.’
Richenda opened her eyes wide and, instead of decrying this piffle as I would have done in her place, clasped her hands to her chest and said, ‘Oh, Madam Arcana, is that why I am sensitive? Because of Papa?’
Madam Arcana patted her arm. ‘There, there. I don’t know who told you that, but …’
The door opened to admit a familiar and most unwelcome figure. In his 30s, but already fleshy and wearing a vulgarly sharp suit, Max Tipton bounced into the room. ‘Hel-looo!’ he cried. ‘Darling, you’re looking sublime.’
For a moment I thought he was addressing Madam Arcana, but I could hardly have been more surprised when he grasped Miss Richenda’s large and manly hand and pressed it to his lips. Miss Richenda simpered.
‘Goodness, Baggy, do try not to be too sickening,’ drawled a very well-bred voice. ‘You’ll put us all off our dinners. Tell him, Richie darling. He is just too, too much.’
A willowy female made her way into the room – sashayed is more the correct term. She had white blonde hair and was dressed richly and fashionably that gave everyone to understand she came from more money than any of us would ever see.
‘Hallo, Beatrice,’ said Madam Arcana with a smile. ‘I see you finally got yourself invited to one of my sessions.’
Beatrice flounced over to a chair, looked pointedly at Baggy until he scurried over to pull it out for her and then leisurely sat. ‘I’m here in my professional capacity,’ she said.
‘You’re surely not expecting us to call you Lady Grey?’ said Baggy. ‘I mean, I respect your profession and all that, but you’re not actually titled, are you?’
‘I thought we were all using our professional names tonight. Or was I wrong, Agnes?’ she shot at Madam Arcana.
The dressing gong sounded. Baggy laughed nervously. ‘Saved by the bell, what?’
‘Indeed, I must dress,’ said Beatrice. ‘Where is my room?’ she demanded of me.
‘I’m sorry, miss, I don’t know. I will enquire for you.’
‘Don’t know! What kind of a ramshackle household do you run, Richie?’
Miss Richenda was forced to explain who I was and ended by saying, ‘Madam Arcana has requested she be present at the séance tonight.’
Beatrice shrugged. ‘If she’s one of Bertie’s servants she’s hardly likely to be a plant.’ She turned to give Madam Arcana a toothy smile. ‘I must be on the lookout for anyone else with useful vibes. I’m sensitive myself.’
‘You hide it so well,’ answered Madam Arcana.
At this point I slipped out of the room and went to find someone to install Beatrice in her no doubt woefully inadequate chamber.
I helped as best I could as the household swung into action. After my long journey I was eager for my bed. Being not officially on staff I intended to head upstairs as soon as I thought Merry and Mrs D no longer needed me. I was therefore somewhat disappointed when Rory came to summon me.
‘They want you upstairs at yon spook table,’ he said.
‘There’s no need to look so disapproving,’ I answered. ‘I have no desire to attend.’
‘Quite an argument about it, I heard, but Madam Arcana was insistent.’
‘I’m not on staff.’
‘Mr Bertram has endorsed it,’ said Rory.
‘What! He’s involved in this charade?’
‘The whole family are.’
‘They must be mad,’ I said with feeling, but I followed Rory upstairs. He didn’t even come into the room, but ushered me in and closed the door.
Around the table sat Madam Arcana, Miss Richenda, Beatrice, Lord Stapleford, Mr Bertram, Max Tipton, two ladies I didn’t recognise and Mrs Wilson. My jaw dropped.
‘Opposite me, dear,’ said Madam Arcana.
Mr Bertram and Beatrice shifted their seats to allow me in. They made an unfortunate couple. Mr Bertram looked somewhat sheepish and Beatrice mulish.
‘Now we have our two independent sensitives present we can begin,’ said Madam Arcana. ‘If you will all place the index finger of your left hand on the glass in the centre of the table.’
‘How bally exciting,’ said Baggy.
‘If I can ask for absolute silence? No one must remove their finger from the glass and no one must deliberately move it. I assure you I will know.’
Madam Arcana raised her face to the ceiling. Her large purple turban slipped dangerously backwards as she enquired in a loud stage whisper of the plaster above her, ‘Is there anybody there?’
Under my fingertips the glass jerked and began to move.
Please see my journal
A Death in the Family
for full details
This story is recounted in
A Death in the Highlands
A Spirited Experience
‘Good gad!’ barked Mr Bertram.
My employer’s startled exclamation brought me back to my senses. My father had lamented the foolishness of those using spirit boards, but he had never believed in them. Who should I trust now: the late Rev Joshia Martins or Madam Arcana? The answer was obvious. I lowered my head slightly, so I could appear to be watching the glass while watching the faces of the guests. Indeed no one needed to watch as Beatrice was loudly sounding out the letters. Her face was oddly pale and she was sweating unbecomingly along her top lip. Tiny tendrils of hair curled at her temples. Perhaps a man might have thought it becoming. I found her suspicious.
‘H-A-R-R-I-S! Does that mean anything to anyone?’ asked Beatrice.
Lord Richard shouted with laughter.
‘Is he a relative of one present, who has passed over?’ asked Madam Arcana in a soft but carrying whisper.
‘It’d be nice to think the bug-blasted man was dead,’ said Lord Richard, whose nose I now realised was ruddy with whisky drinking. ‘But I expect he’s off tormenting some other household.’
‘I think, sir, if you have no objection I will retire,’ said Mrs Wilson. ‘With the house at this level of occupation there is much for me to do to ensure yourself and your guests are adequately provided for.’
‘Baggy, was that you?’ asked Richenda and then to my surprise she laughed. ‘You are a naughty boy! But such a scream!’
I looked in astonishment from Richenda to Tipton. Their eyes lingered on each other in a manner that was quite unsuitable so soon after dinner.
‘Really,’ said Madam Arcana. ‘I understood this was to be a serious experiment. I am not some kind of circus act!’ She was actually quivering with indignation. Did she believe this nonsense or was she annoyed at someone playing her at her own game? Mr Bertram met my gaze across the table and I could see he was thinking the same thing.
‘Perhaps …’ he began.
‘Richenda! Control your guests,’ said Beatrice. ‘I too thought this was a proper experiment. And it is so rude to Madam Arcana to cheat.’ She paused. ‘Although I suppose it would make an interesting piece.’
All the participants went white as the ghosts they were trying to summon at this pronouncement.
‘I’ll behave. Word of honour,’ said Baggy. ‘This lark’s all new to me. Just a bit on the nervous side. High spirited, don’cha know?’ He laughed at his own joke and fingered his collar. ‘Haven’t broken it, have I, Madam A? Give it my full attention now. Word of a gentleman.’
I wasn’t sure, but I thought Mr Bertram snorted slightly at this last pronouncement, but he may have been clearing his throat. Mrs Deighton had made her version of French chicken this evening and, much as I applaud her cuisine generally, even I had to admit it was unfortunately sticky.
Madam Arcana, who had half-risen, looked around the table. It might have been my imagination, but it was again Beatrice who appeared to have the most remarkable effect. ‘If Miss Wilton, or should I say Lady Grey, wishes me to continue.’
‘Only too eager,’ said Beatrice sweetly.
‘If you could all concentrate once more on the glass,’ said Madam Arcana.
‘Really, Lord Richard, I don’t believe my presence is necessary,’ said Mrs Wilson.
‘Shut up, Wilson,’ said Lord Stapleford.
Madam Arcana once more raised her eyes to the ceiling, severely endangering her turban. ‘Is there anybody there who wants to speak to anybody here?’
‘Is there anybody there?’
It felt as if we waited an age, but a collective hush had descended and no one appeared to be willing to break it. My left calf cramped, but I didn’t dare move. Somehow as a group we had moved from doubt to expectation. I can only explain it by the lessening of light and encroaching indigestion.
I was going to have to stretch my leg soon or risk suddenly contorting in agony. If only I was taller and didn’t have such short arms. I was at full stretch reaching out to the glass. Perhaps I could ease …
The glass jerked under my finger.
‘W-H-Y-D-I-D-N-T-Y-O-U-W-A-N-T-M-E-M-U-M-M-Y. Why didn’t you want me, Mummy?’ asked Beatrice looking around the table. ‘Has anyone here lost a child?’
‘Not that I know of,’ said Lord Richard.
‘Dickie!’ protested Bertram. ‘There are ladies present.’
‘Damn thing is nothing but a freak show.’
‘If that will be all, Lord Richard,’ said Mrs Wilson.
‘If I have to stay, you have to stay,’ said Lord Richard.
‘Really, Lord Richard, I cannot see how this forms part of my duties.’
‘Hush,’ said Beatrice. ‘The spirit may still be with us. The glass is warm.’
‘By Jove, so it is,’ said Baggy. ‘I think we’ve snagged a live one!’
The glass began slowly to move.
‘M-U-M-M-’ said Beatrice.
Mrs Wilson shot to her feet, sending the glass flying across the table. The light in the room was dim, but to my astonishment I could see she was shaking. ‘This is ungodly!’ she cried. ‘I will have no more of it.’ She stormed out of the room.
‘Good gad!’ said Mr Bertram again. ‘I’ve never seen Mrs W show emotion.’
‘She certainly seemed upset,’ said Beatrice. ‘Did she and Mr Wilson lose a child?’
‘It’s a courtesy title,’ said Richenda. ‘As far as I know she’s never been married, has she, Richard?’
‘Shouldn’t think she’s ever even been kissed,’ answered her brother. ‘Let alone known a man.’
‘Richard!’ protested Bertram. ‘You’re drunk.’
‘That’s debatable,’ said Richenda.
I slipped out of my chair. Not only was my leg very sore, but I had been a servant long enough to know any servant who observes their masters arguing is on a road to trouble. I had reached the door when Madam Arcana caught up with me.
‘If you could point me in the direction of the small parlour?’ she said. ‘I was assured there would be tea waiting for me after the event. I do require some time in solitude to collect myself.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I’ll show you.’
We crossed the black and white tiled hall, our footsteps echoing on the marble until we reached the swirling rug at the centre and both became quiet for a few moments.
‘Ghastly thing,’ said Madam Arcana. ‘Poor Richenda has no taste.’
I smiled slightly. There was no way even someone who loved Miss Richenda could defend her taste.
‘I know you think it’s all a show,’ said Madam Arcana as we entered the parlour. ‘But the spirits are real.’
I smiled and nodded and made to take my leave. Madam Arcana caught me by the arm. It was not a bruising grip, but it was surprisingly strong. ‘I saw you looking. That first time. Not watching the glass.’
‘I-I didn’t move it!’
‘No, of course you didn’t, dear. You clearly disapprove of such things. You have the look of someone brought up in a vicarage, which is why I wonder if the message could be for you.’
‘Message?’ I said. Unruly hairs on the back of my neck were now standing straight up.
‘Harris, the servant – that was one of the men. Heaven knows Lord Stapleford was drunk enough to do it himself, but Mr Tipton also strikes me as a foolish sort of young fellow.’
‘Do you mean the message about the child?’ I asked aghast, focusing on how this might relate to me.
‘No, no. That was false as well,’ said Madam Arcana waving her free hand dismissively. ‘Really if people want to pay me money to watch them move their own glassware around the table it is their own business.’ She released me and headed for the biscuit plate. ‘Although, of course, if that’s all that happens it can tend to give one a bit of a reputation. It’s a pity Lady Grey was here. I was hopeful about that.’
‘Beatrice? But Mr Tipton said it wasn’t a real title.’
Madam Arcana sank down in a billow of scarves. A small smile played across her lips. She knew she had my interest. ‘Beatrice Wilton. She’s one of the Wilton newspaper family. They own them, of course, as opposed to write in ’em. Bea’s the exception. They let her write a little column about gossip – Lady Grey’s Notes. It gets her invited to all the right parties, which is all the Wiltons want, but Bea, if I’m not mistaken, wants a little more. I think,’ she leaned conspiratorially forward and whispered, ‘she might consider herself a writer.’ She sat back, tutting and shaking a head. ‘Very nasty for the family. Of course one knows writers, but no one wants one in the family.’
‘What makes you think she has, er, aspirations?’
‘Long words, dear. She uses long words. In her column and even over dinner. Not the done thing at all.’
‘But surely if she’s writing a gossip column she is a writer,’ I persisted.
Madam Arcana took an enormous bite out of a biscuit and slurped some tea. ‘Not the same thing. Ladies like a little gossip and like to see bits about themselves in the papers. Men, being the dominant gender or so we let them think, write news. It gives them the illusion that they run things. None of the Wilton papers would ever allow a member of the weaker sex to write actual news.’
‘I see,’ I said. Though it must have been plain I didn’t. ‘Anyway, if you have everything you need …’
‘Oh yes, tickety-boo,’ said Madam Arcana. ‘Your Mrs Wilson has made the tea exactly to my instructions. Dry old stick, but she knows her job. Definitely a touch of the good stuff in this.’
I blinked and backed towards the door.
‘Message, ah yes. These things sometimes come through to me. Especially when I’m focusing. Even if my attendees are up to their own tricks. An older man, kindly, vicarly, I’d say if pushed, but not on record …’
‘A vicar?’ I clenched my fists. Of course, if she’d been asking around the servants she might have heard reports I grew up in a vicarage. I’d been foolish enough to tell Rory that although it was at odds with what I had told the Staplefords. A horrible thought struck me – was Madam Arcana trying to blackmail me?
‘Oh, they come through all the time. Terribly annoying. But as I tell them there’s no point preaching. Stands to reason anyone in the room hasn’t heeded the church’s warnings or they wouldn’t be there, so why they should listen to a clergyman just because he’s dead … Though I suppose you’d expect them to have a better handle on how the afterlife works from a professional point of view. But honestly, they never have anything good for a séance. It’s all about lost cats, elderly relatives and church roofs.’
‘I don’t work here,’ I said trying to avert any attempt to winkle family secrets from me. ‘I’m on Mr Bertram’s staff. We were flooded out.’
‘That explains why he was babbling about rising waters,’ said Madam Arcana promptly.
I began to feel rather angry. The woman was definitely trying to trick me. I did my best to copy my mother’s haughtiest expression.
‘I strongly doubt the message was for me.’
‘And if he doesn’t think you’re the image of your mother when you do that,’ said Madam Arcana laughing.
Madam Arcana shook her head. ‘It’s difficult to explain – especially to non-believers. It’s more a sense of a person – an impression – and it tends to stay for a short while before it fades. But no, I wouldn’t say he was here.’
‘In that case,’ I said opening the door.
‘He said to tell you to beware your enemies.’ Madam Arcana shook her head. ‘No, that’s not it. He said: “Beware for your enemies”. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but hopefully you’ll figure it out. He seemed rather agitated about it. And there was a feeling too. Like something very bad was going to happen. But there you go. Spirits are always trying to put the willies up us mortals. I sometimes think it’s the only fun they get.’ She settled back against the cushions and closed her eyes. ‘Probably nothing for you to worry about, dear.’
‘No,’ I said.
Madam Arcana opened one eye. ‘I mean, it’s not like you feel that too, is it?’
I didn’t reply but closed the door quietly behind me. I made my way quickly to my chamber. As I undressed in the dark I found, to my annoyance, I was shaking. The wretched woman had been right. I couldn’t put my finger on it and I certainly didn’t believe it was anything to do with spirits, but from the moment I’d stepped through the portals of Stapleford Hall I had been experiencing a rising sense of dread and right now, as I blew out my candle, and sent my room into pitch blackness, I was so afraid of what was to come that my heart was hammering like a drum.
When I reached my long-awaited bed sleep perversely did not come easily. I must have been dozing when the disturbance came because I found myself halfway down the stairs before I was fully awake. Rory and I arrived in the hall at the same time. I blushed furiously. I had not thought to snatch up my dressing gown the noise had been so terrible and my nightgown was certainly not adequate dress for an innocent nocturnal meeting. ‘Did you hear that?’ I asked, trying to cover my embarrassment. ‘Someone is in terrible trouble.’
Rory’s eyes flickered over my dress and he turned his head away. ‘Euphemia, get back to bed!’ he said.
At this point Mr Bertram appeared, running. He looked from one of us to the other and his face grew dark with anger. ‘What are you doing …?’
He was interrupted by a crash and a cry, similar to the one that had awoken me. ‘It wasn’t a dream,’ I said.
The sounds echoed around us in the large hall. ‘Which way?’ asked Mr Bertram, temporarily forgetting his righteous anger. But Rory had keener ears than either of us and he was already off, running towards the kitchen.
‘Euphemia, stay here,’ barked Mr Bertram and headed after him.
Of course I did no such thing. It was clearly a woman screaming and to be found in whatever dire predicament we all obviously feared without female support to hand was not to be thought of.
I pelted along the corridor. There was another loud cry and then came the sound of fighting. I realised it was coming from Mrs Wilson’s room. But why would anyone … I had no time to complete the thought as a man in black with a scarf wrapped around his head appeared from around the corner. He was running at full tilt. I tried to dodge out of the way, but servants’ passages are always narrow. I had one glimpse of glittering blue eyes, before I was roughly pushed aside. He caught me completely off balance. I staggered on the spot, trying to regain my balance, but my bare feet slipped on the tiles and I went down. My head met the wall and blackness overwhelmed me.