I tried the doors again, in case the handles had become frozen or something. But as soon as my hands touched them a voice behind me spoke.
“I’m afraid his lordship locked them, Miss. And he has the only keys.”
I’d love to say I wasn’t spooked and kept my cool, but… I jumped and whirled around, before catching myself. There before me was a man in his late 40’s I’d guess, and in keeping with the theme of evening, he was dressed in the livery of a 19th century servant. He had a kind face and a gentle, if somewhat sad smile.
“But don’t worry, I’m sure we can find another way out so you can join the others at the chapel,” he continued and pulled out an old pocket watch. “Although, I see we should be quick. You don’t want to be here… I mean missing mass. The chapel is always beautifully done up at this time of year.”
Me being me, I immediately caught that little hesitation and said innocently. “Is it? Well, that sounds wonderful. We can go together. I’m not sure I could find it in the dark by myself.”
“Oh, you’ll find it all right,” the man replied, but a little too quickly. “I have duties to perform before everyone returns.”
“I see,” I nodded and started to follow him through the foyer. “Will you be checking on the little boy upstairs?” I asked, remembering my little friend with the cold.
The man suddenly stopped. Then without turning to look at me he said, “Little boy? Upstairs?”
“Yes, I met him when I was looking for a place to hide while we played Sardines. His name is Reginald.”
This time the man’s shoulders slumped visibly as he bowed his head. “You were in the old playroom,” he murmured, “And he’s still there… I had so hoped…” His words trailed off but I was certain I caught the words “poor boy.”
At the same time I felt a chill race down my spine. I know many people use that phrase to describe an uneasy feeling, but in my case it usually meant I was picking up on the fact that things were not what they seemed. I took a step closer to the man and asked very gently, “What’s wrong with him? He told me he had a cold, but there’s more to it. Isn’t there?”
The man nodded. “I’m afraid so. The poor child has had that cold a very long time.”
Nathan has told me more than once that he believes I have psychic powers and… maybe I do. I’m not sure. I personally believe that I’m just more sensitive to things that others miss. I admit, there was that one time in Germany where we’d come across the site of where a concentration camp had stood, although there was nothing to mark it had ever been there. And I do have dreams every so often, some of which come true or seem to act as a warning, but it’s not like I can control any of this. It just happens. But right now that chill down my spine was telling me that my ‘sensitivity’ was acting up again, and I wanted to know more. “He’s not alive, is he?” I whispered.
My guide nodded sadly. “It happened on Christmas Eve, many years ago. During the reign of Good Queen Victoria.”
“How sick was he?” I asked shaking my head.
“Oh, that isn’t what killed him,” the man told me. “It was his sister. She killed him, in that very room.”
Reginald’s words, “She’s mad at me. Or at least, it seems like she’s always mad at me…” suddenly echoed inside my head. “Why?” I asked, “Did she hate him that much?”
“Oh, no,” my companion replied, shaking his head seriously. “No, they were quite devoted to each other. It was…” again he trailed off.
“Please, Mr….,” I paused and silently cursed myself for not having asked the man his name. This made twice I’d done that in one night.
Luckily, he wasn’t bothered. Instead he gave me a smile and said, “Billings, Miss. Arthur Billings. I’ve served both his lordship and his father before him.”
“A pleasure to meet you Mr. Billings,” I told him and meant it. He seemed so nice. “I’m Lisa, I’m here with my parents and Nathan Steward. Would you please tell me what happened?”
He seemed to think it over, saying, “You’re with Master Nathan? He’s come back, then?” Finally , he nodded. “Come let’s sit, and I’ll tell what I can.” With that he led me back to the Great Hall.
As we walked, I kept thinking, ‘First Reginald, now Mr. Billings… Nathan must be trying to find a way to end the haunting. But why? And what happened with the sister and Nathan?’ I had so many questions. Luckily, I was about to get all the answers, or so I thought.
Mr. Billings guided me to my favorite chair near the great fireplace. After making sure I was comfortable, he moved closer to the fire and began his tale.
“It all started in the summer of the same year that the tragedy happened. Miss Madeleine had met and fallen for a young man she’d met in London. At first everything seemed innocent and proper enough, but then whispers about the young man reached his lordship’s ears. It seems just the year before the fellow had been engaged to another young woman, who shortly after their engagement took ill and passed away.”
“How tragic,” I remarked, watching the storyteller closely. Although his countenance (I picked up this word recently from being here in England) was flat, I could hear the slightest touch of bitterness in his tone. Clearly, there was more behind this part of the story, but I kept quiet as he continued.
“Indeed it was,” Billings nodded solemnly, “Anyway, his lordship began having second thoughts about the relationship which led to a number of disagreements with his daughter. The girl was eager to get engaged, but his lordship refused to supply a dowry until his worries were put to rest. Things continued this way throughout the summer and into the Autumn, when the lord and lady were both killed in a carriage accident. Apparently, the horses became spooked and bolted for reasons that remained a ‘mystery’.”
I felt my eyebrows shoot up at that. “What about the driver? What did he have to say about what happened?”
The narrator smiled. “You have an keen mind,” he told me, then continued. “Unfortunately, the driver was also killed in the crash. Being on the outside of the carriage he suffered many injuries, especially about the head. But there were a couple of things that bothered his lordship’s brother, Sir Peter, who was also a magistrate. Something about the injury did not fit with the rest of the man’s injuries.”
“What were they?” I asked leaning forward.
“Well,” Mr. Billings began, “The man had been thrown from the coach, yet there were bloodstains on the driver’s seat…”
“Which meant he’d been injured before the carriage crashed,” I finished, as my brain went into overdrive. He had mentioned the horses had been spooked, so what could spook a horse? “Someone shot the driver, knowing the sound would spook the horses and there’d be no one to try and reign them in.”
Mr. Billings nodded, “Those were Sir Peter’s very thoughts. Unfortunately, with no witnesses, there was no way to prove what happened. The horses’ could’ve been spooked by wolves or some other predator, and the man could’ve hit his head against a low branch as he tried to regain control of the animals. In the end, the inquest concluded death by misadventure.”
I shook my head. “That’s ridiculous. Clearly, someone wanted the parents out of the way. All you have to do is follow the money and…”
A horrid thought suddenly came to me, and it must have shown on my face for the storyteller added, “Mind you, Miss Madeleine and her brother were here at the manor when the incident occurred. They were both quite devastated when their uncle told them what had happened. It was especially hard for the boy, since he was the male heir, the title of Lord, along with the manor and its lands came to him. However, due to his young age, their uncle took charge of overseeing things until the boy became of age. And before you ask, Sir Peter was quite a wealthy man with cons holdings of his own, so he had no reason to want anything to happen to his brother and sister-in-law.”
Nodding I stared into the flames of the fireplace, as my mind began working through everything I’d just been told. From what I could see, the only other person who might wants the parents out of the way would be Madeleine’s suitor. But with the title and everything going to her brother, how could he gain from their deaths. Suddenly my mind went back to Reginald telling me about his sister arguing with their uncle, and quickly put two and two together. “Let me guess, Madeleine started appealing to her uncle to allow her to get engaged. Which would mean a dowry would have to be supplied for her.”
My host nodded.
Sighing I fell back into the wing-backed chair I was sitting on. “And of course, he refused because his brother had no doubt told him about the rumors involving her young man.”
“Actually, Sir Peter was one of the people who brought those reports it to his brother’s attention,” Billings corrected me.
I blew out a breath. “Wow! And when she found that out, she started appealing to her brother to talk to their uncle override his uncle.”
“She did indeed,” Billings replied. “Unfortunately, with Reginald being so young, he simply told the young lord his father had concerns about the match without going into details. And that was enough for the young lad and he did not press the issue further, thus making his sister even more angry with the boy.” Here the storyteller paused and stared into the fire.
I didn’t say anything at first, because I was starting to compare my own situation to Madeleine’s. I had been in love with Nathan for years, but was always told I had to wait until I was older before he’d consider the idea. Well, I was 20 now, and still he was making me wait. But I was willing to, whereas Madeleine… what had her situation been?As if reading my thoughts, Billings spoke again. “Then as the Christmas season drew near, things came to a head. The suitor began pressing Madeleine to get whatever she could and join him.
Apparently, he had told her that he had debts that were coming due, and if he could not pay them, he might have to accept the advances of another woman with money who was eager to be his bride. Not that he loved the other woman, mind you. But, if his circumstances did not improve soon, he’d be ruined both financially and in the eyes of society. Not wanting such a fate to befall the man she loved, Madeleine decided to find a way to get her mother’s jewelry, which were worth quite a fortune themselves. But to do so, she needed to get him to tell her what had become of them. For when the estate was being discussed after the will had been read, she had not been in the room. So only her uncle and brother might now what had become of them. And she wasn’t about to ask her uncle.”
“So that was why she had started acting nicer to her brother,” I murmured, “She was hoping to get Reginald to tell her where they were, then she and her betrothed would elope on Christmas Eve and begin a new life together.”
“Exactly,” nodded Mr. Billings and then looked over at the grandfather clock against the far wall, which read 9:10. “It’s getting close to time,” he said, changing the subject. “I really should be getting you on your way to the chapel. They’ll be worried about what’s become of you, Miss.”
Instead of getting up, I remained in my seat. Several things had been nagging at me since meeting my host. “Mr. Billings,” I began politely, “Why does his lordship hold mass in the chapel between nine and ten? I’ve heard of midnight mass, or even mass at eleven, but nine seems like a very odd time. And why does he not want anyone to remain in the manor, that he even orders the doors locked?”
The man bowed his head, pulled a chair up in front of me and sat down. “Because at 9:25, something terrible is going to happen. The same thing that has taken place within these walls ever since that terrible Christmas Eve.”
TO BE CONTINUED…