Mr. Wainwright came into the saloon, pinching back a smile as he glanced at a letter in his hand. His daughter, Charity, noticed the letter was franked and stifled a sigh of regret. Another visit! Papa could never refuse an invitation to a noble estate. They had just recently returned from Woburn Abbey, the county seat of the Duke of Bedford. Charity had been looking forward to the pleasures of a spring under her own more modest roof in London, with some conversation and activities that did not involve the spirit world.
"Another visit, Papa?" she asked.
"Not just any visit," he replied, his dark eyes gleaming with excitement. At sixty, the air of a young man still lingered about him despite his silver hair. A pair of jet-black eyebrows and a healthy complexion added to the impression. A jacket of the finest material and cut enhanced the elegance of a tall, lean physique. Mr. Wainwright took a keen interest in his appearance. It was his mania for these visits that accounted for it, of course. One could not be hobnobbing with dukes and earls looking like a scarecrow. As the visits kept Papa in curl, Charity refrained from discouraging them.
"Where is it to be this time?" she asked, trying for an air of enthusiasm.
"Guess!" he said playfully. "It will test your psychical powers."
"Not Longleat!" she exclaimed. Psychical powers had nothing to do with this guess. Papa had been angling for an invitation to Longleat forever.
"I had not thought there was any house you would like better than Longleat."
"If there is one, it would have to be Keefer Hall. As Lord Merton takes no interest in the spirit world, I had given up hoping for it."
"And now you have been invited. Why, you are becoming famous, Papa."
The beaming smile that shone forth through his air of feigned modesty was well worth her burst of exaggeration.
"I daresay my reputation is beginning to spread a little. A nuisance, but one has a duty to share his gifts. I thought it would have been my latest article that caught the countess's interest. It is the countess who has invited me, but of course Lord Merton would be aware of it--approve. My treatise on the ghost of Radley Hall was widely circulated and well received. There is nothing like the death of a beautiful young woman to catch folks' interest. It was not the article that did it, however. It seems Lady Montagu put her on to me. My work with the brown monk at Beaulieu convinced Lady Montagu of my peculiar talents. I got the fellow to stick to the ruined cloisters of the old abbey, as that is what Her Ladyship wished."
"Yes, Papa, I remember Beaulieu very well," his daughter replied. "And what is the problem at Keefer Hall? Is it the Cavalier, Knagg, acting up?"
Every field of endeavor has its stars. Diamond lovers have the tragic legend of the Kohinoor at their fingertips. Members of the turf have the Goldolphin Barb, the Byerley Turk, and the Darley Arabian. For those who delve into the spirit world, the stars were Longleat's Green Lady and Knagg, the ghostly Cavalier of Keefer Hall.
"I think not," he said, frowning over the letter. "It seems to be a new ghost, not the famous Cavalier or the singing nun we read so much about. I shall be happy to look into it and settle the ghost down for the countess, if possible." That modest "if possible" was purely a matter of form. When Mr. Wainwright dealt with ghosts, he came out the victor.
He did not claim to be an exorcist or anything of that sort. Merely he was attuned to hauntings. He could walk into a room and tell the owner exactly who or what it was that was banging doors or moaning in the night or peeping out from dark corners to frighten the inhabitants out of their wits. He appeared to have the power to commune with these spirits and discover their complaints. His method was to treat them as if they were still living, to discuss matters rationally with them. After all, they had been people once; their nature did not change because the body had passed on to another level of existence. He always managed to placate the haunting spirits.
Charity had been surprised to discover how often the owner was on good terms with his ghost. Folks usually did not want to be rid of the haunting but merely to discover the who and why of it. Charity did not share her papa's unusual power, had never seen any ghosts. In fact, some secret part of her heart doubted their very existence in spite of some of the strange things she had witnessed when working with her papa. But she never for a moment doubted that he believed in these spirits. His whole life revolved around them. He was a founding member of the Society for the Study of Discarnate Beings. When he was not visiting a house to search for spirits, he was toiling over dusty tomes and tracts, tracing this phenomenon to its ancient roots. He was familiar with the history of all of the famous ghosts of England and was on a first-name basis with many of them.
This vast wealth of knowledge certainly impressed the clients who called on him. "Old Tom is acting up, is he?" he had remarked calmly to Lady John Mulliner as he was shown into her saloon last year.
"Why, how did you know Tom's name? And how did you know he has become so terribly restless?" his hostess had demanded.
Charity had seen her papa reading up on Tom, the ghostly gardener of Englemere, before he left home. Tom had been shot through the heart in 1763 when he was caught trifling with the daughter of the house. Why would Lady John have called for Papa at this particular time if Tom had not been disturbing her?
"I had a feeling in my bones," Papa had said modestly.
At such times Charity felt her papa was a fraud. Yet there had been other occasions when she was forced to consider the possibility that he actually did possess some power. He ofttimes knew things about ghosts that he had never been told of or read about. Subsequent investigations into the records of the house confirmed his theories.
Charity had been with him at St. Martin's Priory when he had walked into the attic and said, "A young woman--unhappy over a love affair. She was locked up in here, but she did not die in this room."
"That is right!" Sir Harold Morton had exclaimed. "By Jove, Wainwright, you did not read that anywhere, for I only discovered it myself last month. Miss Harley was poisoned in her bedchamber. She left a diary hidden under the floorboards here in the attic. It was after I removed it that the walking and moaning began. The chamber is right above our bedroom, you must know. It bothers my wife."
"There were some letters as well," Papa had said.
"Yes! Yes, there was a little packet of six letters. My wife has them put away somewhere. They are quite valuable."
"It is the letters your spirit wishes returned, Sir Harold. They are from her lover. The presence is weak. It must be very old. Late seventeenth century, I think?"
"The letters are dated 1690."
"Put back the letters and the lady will soon depart. I shall ask her to leave the letters. Ghosts do not last forever. Eventually they must be getting on with the work of eternity."
Sir Harold returned the letters and the ghost was heard of no more. The letters were left behind.
"You are sure Lord Merton approves of your visit?" Charity asked. She knew from experience that an inhospitable host could make a visit unpleasant.
"Why would he not? 'A most troublesome affair,' his mama calls it. She urges me to come as soon as possible. Very likely they have discommoded a spirit in some manner. Having renovations done, for instance, will often set a spirit off."
"Where is Keefer Hall, exactly?" Charity asked, wondering if it would be a long trip.
"It is in Hampshire, only sixty miles away. Eastleigh is the closest village, two or three miles this side of Keefer Hall. If we leave tomorrow morning, we can be in Eastleigh in time for dinner at a local inn and arrive at Keefer Hall in the evening to tour the Hall."
His daughter did not mention that as Keefer Hall was so close they might continue on and have dinner there. Papa did not like such a tame opening act for his performance. He would have scowled to hear her use the word performance, but over the years a theatrical quality had crept into his work. He would arrive in his black carriage, which bore the crest of the Society for the Study of Discarnate Beings in a small lozenge on the doors, like a nobleman's crest. The carriage was drawn by four matching black horses.
Mr. Wainwright would be wearing black evening clothes, with a black cape lined in white satin swirling behind him. He used his silver-headed walking stick with all the flair of a magician about to perform some feat of legerdemain. He liked to hear a gasp of disbelief when he pointed the silver knob and announced, "Here! This is where the spirit emanates from. You have an angry ghost, milady. A victim of murder!"
Charity did not have to be told that the optimum hours for ghost hunting were between eleven p.m. and two a.m. She also knew that she must pack proper gowns for evening wear. Her papa did not accept money for his work. He went as a guest, always accompanied by his daughter. Mary wished it so, and one could hardly deny a ghost such a simple request. Mary was Wainwright's late wife. It was her untimely passing ten years before that had set him off on his passion for the supernatural. Unable to bear his grief, he had visited a medium, who had succeeded in calling up Mary's presence, or so he believed.
Within six months he had given up his seat in Parliament and gone into ghost hunting full time.
A year later he had changed his team of bays for the black team and had his tailor fashion the satin-lined cape. As a younger son, Wainwright did not have an estate to hamper him. He had a home in London and a competence that made working for a living unnecessary, so with his special aptitude he had given his life over to this strange hobby.
That evening Charity looked up the Mertons in the Peerage of England, Scotland and Ireland. She discovered that Keefer Hall was owned by the Dechastelaines. Besides the Countess of Merton (nee Lady Anne Carstairs), there was her son John (Earl of Merton) and his younger brother Lewis (Viscount Winton). A little arithmetic told her that the sons were thirty and nineteen years of age, respectively. No wives were mentioned. This being the case, she took considerable pains to pack her best gowns.
"Will I need my riding habit, Papa?" she asked before packing it.
"Not this time, my dear. But you should pack your new evening frock. There will be a party of some sort."
Charity did not question this. Papa seemed to know these things. His knowledge did not come from his hostesses' letters, but from that infinite beyond with which he was in communication. He had other occult powers as well as being a ghost hunter. She left out the riding habit but was happy to hear that she would be attending an assembly or a ball.
As she spent too little time in London to nab a parti there, she had decided to cast her net in whatever waters her papa's work took her to. Although not an Incomparable, Miss Wainwright was by no means an antidote. Her brown hair curled naturally about her heart-shaped face. Her figure was lithe, her nose was straight, her teeth were white, and her eyes were blue. Added to these respectable claims to beauty, she had a gracious manner, smoothed by years of mixing with society. Several promising beaux had been lost due to a hasty dart to quell some new ghost. Papa was too good at his work. He settled the ghost problem before Charity reached a settlement with a young man. They left the next morning for Keefer Hall.
It was while awaiting their arrival that afternoon that Lady Merton admitted to having invited the Wainwrights. She sat in the elegant Blue Saloon with her two sons. Lewis, Viscount Winton, had recently been sent down from Cambridge for having written a lewd translation of some lines from Juvenal's Satires. As it was the third time the university had deemed it necessary to remove his corrupting influence from its halls, he had high hopes that he would not have to return.
The regimen of occasionally having to read a book other than poetry and discuss it with a tutor was anathema to the young viscount. His soul craved romance and found the closest thing to it in aping his idol, Lord Byron.
"What, you have invited that old quack who thinks he talks to ghosts?" Lord Merton exclaimed in disgust.
"He is not a quack, John," Lady Merton replied. "Far from it. Lady Montagu gave an excellent account of his powers."
"Lady Montagu is a scatterbrained, idle lady with nothing better to do than imagine she is seeing ghosts."
"It is as well known as an old ballad that Beaulieu has a brown monk who haunts it. Everyone has seen it."
"I have not seen it, and I have been there a dozen times," Merton replied.
"You never see anything," his mama retaliated.
"By the living jingo," Lord Winton exclaimed, "a ghost hunter! That will be something like. We will get a look at Knagg at last." Then he remembered his role and assumed a sneer as he turned to Merton. "Open up your soul to this opportunity, John. There are more things in heaven and earth than ... than ..." he floundered to a halt. He was not so keen on Shakespeare as on Byron.
"Ass!" Merton said with a blighting stare. "And, for God's sake, get rid of that ludicrous kerchief. You look like a racetrack tout."
There was little resemblance between the mother and her sons. The lady was a petite blonde, a vaporish woman in whom beauty was beginning to dwindle to petulance. The latter were both tall and dark. Lewis was the more handsome. At nineteen, his most outstanding feature was his large and lustrous blue eyes that glowed with dreams of resplendent glory and romance. A glance at the older brother suggested how he would look in another decade, when time had deluded his boyish fancies, had strengthened his jaw and defined his nose to a more manly shape--and, it was hoped, had quelled the riotous excess of his toilette. The blue-and-white-dotted Belcher kerchief at his throat waged an aesthetic battle with a red-and-gold-striped waistcoat. Over the whole was a nip-waisted jacket by Stutz that sported brass buttons as big as saucers. It was only his youth and excellent physique that saved him from looking a perfect quiz.
No one had ever accused Merton of dandyism. If his mama had a complaint, it was that he took too little interest in fashion. He spurned the stylish Brutus do that looked so good on Lewis and wore his short hair brushed back. His jackets, severely tailored with modest brass buttons, were of the best material and impeccably cut, but they did not aspire to the latest heights of fashion. She would have preferred his going off to London for the Season instead of staying at Keefer Hall to tend to his several thousand acres. Lord Merton chose to go to London in the dead of winter, when no one of any account was there, only dull politicians. Lewis would have preferred a Season as well, but since the ghost hunters were coming, he thought perhaps the summer would not be a total loss.
"I daresay the helmet has hit the floor again. Is that what is bothering you?" Merton asked his mama. It was Knagg's bothersome custom to play with the military effects in the Armaments Room.
"Why should that bother me?" she snapped. "That has been going on forever."
"The floor is uneven. I must see to it one of these days. If it is not Knagg, then what on earth has induced you to invite this Wainwright fellow?" Merton asked.
"I have told you three times, John, there is a ghost in my bedchamber. I have not had a good night's sleep for a month."
"What you have, Mama, is a very old house, with floors that squeak and squawk and a chimney that howls when the wind is high."
"It is not that! She comes to the window at night."
"Close your curtains," he said firmly.
"I do close them. She opens them. And she ... she appears from the clothespress as well," Lady Merton said with an air of embarrassment.
Merton suppressed the phrase "mad as a hatter." Mama had been looking peaked of late. That she had recently replaced her dresser with a full-time companion, Miss Monteith, a former upstairs maid, suggested that she was either lonesome or frightened. She had been seeing a good deal of St. John, the vicar, as well. Something was obviously bothering her. Of course she was reaching that age ... If it amused her to have a ghost hunter, there was no real harm in it. He would tip the fellow the clue that he must be rid of the ghost at top speed and give him ten guineas, and that would be the end of it.
"When does he come?" he asked.
"He will be arriving this evening. Around eleven."
"Eleven? That is a demmed uncivil hour to call."
"You need not be here, John. I shall greet Mr. Wainwright and his daughter and make them welcome."
"Good God! Does he travel with his whole family?"
"Only one daughter."
"Daughter?" Lewis asked, his eyes shining.
"Miss Wainwright is his amanuensis," Lady Merton explained. "She keeps notes of his findings."
"And scribbles them up to amuse the public." Merton scowled. All the world would read of his mama's folly.
"Is she pretty?" Lewis asked.
"Lady Montagu said she is a good-natured creature."
The gentlemen exchanged knowing looks. "An antidote," Merton translated. "The ugly ones are always called good-natured."
In theory, any lady who fell an inch short of perfection was of no interest to Lewis. In practice, he was a good deal less demanding. "Pity," he said. "What age, Mama?"
Merton turned a fulminating eye on him. "You are not to carry on with the chit, Lewis. That is all we need, you making an ass of yourself over that charlatan's daughter."
"Demme, John, that is unfair. My interest in all this is purely literary. Look at the thundering success old Coleridge had with his ghostly wedding guest."
"What the devil is he talking about?" Merton asked his mama.
"It is something about a bird, dear, an albatross, I believe, and water, water everywhere, but strangely the sailors are all dying of thirst."
"Ignorant as swans," Lewis scoffed with a condemning look at his family. "It is about sin, and expiation, and ... and shrieving the soul. It is all an allegory, you see. The albatross is a symbol. I wonder if there is an allegory in Knagg. I shall speak to Mr. Wainwright. It seems to me Knagg--"
"Do gag him, for God's sake," Lady Merton said with an appealing look at her elder son.
"Put a damper on it. You are giving Mama the megrims."
"Very well, I shan't bother you mental commoners with poetical things. But it will be jolly good sport hunting ghosts."
Merton rose. "We have work to do, Lewis. An estate of ten thousand acres does not run itself. It is time you learned the ropes. If you cannot profit from a higher education, then you must learn to farm, to be ready to take over your own place when you reach your maturity. I have enough to do with the Hall. In the spring I can use another pair of hands. Take a run over to the east meadow. Wallins is shearing the sheep today. See if he needs any of the fellows to help him. And you might see that the storage barn has been cleaned up to take the new wool. I shall be in my office."
Lewis assumed a pained expression and quoted, " 'Happy the man who ... works his ancestral acres with oxen of his own breeding,' eh, John? I envy you your simple pleasures."
"You omitted the best part of Horace's lines. 'Free from usury.' And as you seem unaware of the fact, I might add it is sheep I breed, not oxen."
"What is the difference? They are all smelly quadrupeds."
"One does not shear oxen."
Lewis was happy enough once he reached the outdoors. So long as he could perform his duties astride his mount, he had no real complaints. Even a poet needed a sound mind in a sound body. How was a fellow to keep a sound body if he was forever bent over a book? He took his gun with him, to hunt a few rabbits before dinner.
Lady Merton sat on alone, worrying. She knew John did not take her fears seriously, but they were genuine fears. Her past was enough to frighten anyone. And now her nemesis had come back to haunt her. She should never have done what she did to Meg. The vicar said this was her chance to undo her sins before she had to meet her maker. That was the way to look at it, as an opportunity to rectify the past.