For one hundred long years, ever since 1714, the ghostly lovers of Mulborough Abbey had been obliged to haunt the scenes of their clandestine affair. This was not from choice, but was due to a rare blunder by St. Peter, who had absentmindedly consigned them to Old Nick. Had not the good saint realized his error--in the 'nick' of time, some might say--they would have been lost forever.
However, things had gone too far for him to rescue the hapless pair completely, and now the fate of Miss Jane Courtenay and Lord Kit Fitzpaine hung in the balance. Being neither redeemed nor doomed, they had to perform a task in order to pass through the portals of heaven. This task was to bring about the successful union of another set of lovers from the Courtenay and Fitzpaine families. There were certain conditions by which the phantoms had to abide, such as always remaining invisible, and not under any circumstance communicating the nature of their undertaking. But if a sincere decision to marry was elicited from the chosen subjects, redemption would be achieved.
St. Peter confidently expected that within a year, two at the most, Jane and Kit, together with Jane's beloved King Charles spaniel, Rowley, who was also caught up in the tangle, would perform the necessary task. There is no doubt that it should have been a simple exercise, but as will unfold, it was proving a labor of Herculean, if not downright impossible, proportions.
The blame for this lay with Old Nick, who was highly annoyed at having two such quality spirits snatched from his grasp. Second-rate individuals the Master of Hades had in plenty, but prime examples were much harder to come by. Making no secret of his disgruntlement, he saw to it that circumstances were very difficult indeed for the beleaguered spirits. His infernal agents were constantly alert to act if there seemed any real likelihood of the mission succeeding, and with a little deft manipulation he made sure that the spaniel, Rowley, was an encumbrance rather than a help. He also restricted the ghosts' haunting ability to times when--as happened in 1714-- the first snow of winter fell on New Year's Day, with the further proviso that the haunting could only endure while it remained on the ground.
Now, snow cannot be relied upon to fall at all in England's moderate climate, let alone on a certain day. Nor, when it does fall, can it be expected to remain for long, certainly not long enough to bring about a successful courtship! Year after year passed without the unfortunate lovers being able to carry out their mission. St. Peter's embarrassment was manifest and Old Nick's mean delight huge.
It seemed this state of affairs might continue indefinitely, but then at the end of 1813 began the coldest winter in memory. The freeze was intense, but snow didn't fall until the early hours of New Year's Day, 1814. It was destined to remain until the middle of February--ample time for the increasingly frustrated ghosts to do what was required in order to pass through the gates of heaven.
The advent of such a winter displeased Old Nick. For a century he had been enjoying himself at St. Peter's expense, and he had no intention of permitting a long period of snow to interfere with this amusement. So he considered the situation a little more carefully. Every year at the festive season, Mulborough Abbey was filled with guests, and he secretly examined Lady Mulborough's invitation list. He soon perceived that although there were half a dozen unattached Fitzpaines, there was only one unmarried Courtenay, a young lady who was betrothed to a man she did not love. Old Nick knew only too well that if Cupid's arrow should strike, loveless betrothals could be abandoned, so he decided that Miss Henrietta Courtenay had to be eliminated from the proceedings. There would have been little sport in doing this himself, so he stirred one of his agents to perform the task for him. This wicked person, who secretly felt immense animosity toward the unfortunate Miss Courtenay, was the perfect weapon. The vendetta against Henrietta started before she left London, and had continued at the abbey. A succession of alarming 'accidents' had already befallen her, but so far she had escaped. However, with weeks of snow to come, more so-called accidents lay ahead, and sooner or later one was bound to succeed.
Mulborough Abbey stood high on the sheer cliffs of a Yorkshire headland, overlooking the fishing town and bay with which it shared its name. Having ceased to be a place of worship during the seventeenth century, it was now the residence of the lords of Mulborough, and in the festive season was always filled with fashionable guests. A New Year's Eve ball was in progress as the first snowflakes began to fall, and no one sensed anything as the invisible specters stepped onto the ballroom staircase.
Kit was a handsome young man of twenty-eight, with quick, light blue eyes, tanned clean-cut features, and long fair hair he tied back with a black ribbon. He wore a full-skirted brick-colored coat and buckled black shoes, with a fine dress sword slung low on his left hip. However, the garb of early eighteenth-century England could not disguise the Norse in him. Back in the mists of time, his ancestors had landed in longboats to pillage Saxon settlements, and the Viking raider still glinted in his eyes when he was aroused.
In twenty-four-year-old Jane he had found his perfect other half. Witty, flirtatious, and impetuous, she was very beautiful, with a petite figure, large lavender eyes, and raven hair that was diligently curled and then combed so that two long dark ringlets were teased forward over her shoulders. There was an ivory fan looped over her wrist and she wore a blue velvet gown, the parted skirt of which was looped back to reveal a primrose satin undergown. A sapphire necklace rested high around her slender throat. She cradled Rowley in her arms. The spaniel was happy to be carried, for to be in Jane's arms was to establish superiority over Kit, of whom he was intensely jealous.
Surveying the glittering scene, Jane and Kit were reminded of their courtship. In 1714, their respective families, the newly wealthy Courtenays and the old established, exceedingly aristocratic Fitzpaines, had for several years in succession spent the festive season at the residence of their mutual friends, Lord and Lady Mulborough, and it was at just such a ball as this that Cupid's arrow had suddenly found its mark. Jane and Kit had known each other for some time, but were betrothed to others when their hearts were pierced with passion. Of the prior attachments, Jane's was the lesser, for she had an arranged match with a profligate lord whose arrogance was matched by his peacock vanity. He had deigned to enter the contract because he had discovered that her unmarried maternal uncle, a nabob in the East India Company, was considering leaving his vast fortune to Jane's father. This did indeed turn out to be the case, which was why future generations of Courtenays were so very wealthy, but Jane's calculating lord was not to share this largesse.
Kit's marital situation, on the other hand, was no small matter because his intended was cousin to Queen Anne herself. To flout such a match was a recipe for social disaster, not just for him, but for his whole family. Therefore, for him to have commenced a clandestine affair at all was exceedingly reprehensible, but to have then eloped to America, thus risking not only a terrible scandal but also their families' exclusion from court, was heinous beyond belief!
They had not been entirely unmindful of the effect their conduct would have upon others, and had left a letter in which they promised to vanish completely into their new life together. They suggested that no offense would be given to anyone if the truth were suppressed, and it was put out instead that Kit had died in a riding accident and that Jane had succumbed to influenza. The relieved families promptly acted upon the suggestion; there were even false tombs in the churchyard on the southern headland above Mulborough to prove the fabrication. But then came the awful news that on St. Valentine's Day, the very day the runaways were supposed to have been buried at the Mulborough parish church of St. Tydfa's, their ship, the Wessex, upon which they'd taken passage all the way from Yorkshire to Boston, Massachusetts, had foundered upon the infamous Goodwin Sands off the coast of Kent, with the loss of all life.
It happened because a French privateer, the Basilic, chanced upon the Wessex in the English Channel, and even though there was an armistice between Great Britain and France, the British vessel was forced to flee. She made for the secure anchorage called the Downs, which lay between the natural breakwater of the Goodwins and the well-guarded Kentish port of Deal. The tide was at its lowest, and miles of golden sands were exposed, but the channel believed by the fleeing Wessex to be navigable, was in fact blocked just beneath the surface by a fresh spur of sand. As she drove hard upon this lurking hazard and broke her back with a rending and splintering of timbers, the only consolation for those on board was that the Basilic could not avoid the same fate. Survivors from both vessels scrambled onto the iron-hard sands, but then the tide turned. Foaming and crashing, it swept in, changing the hard sands to liquid, and within minutes everything had turned to a heaving maelstrom of conflicting currents and waves. No one survived, and two days later the last trace of the wrecked ships disappeared beneath sands which more than earned their terrible nickname, the "Ship Swallower."
The runaways' presence on board was never widely known, and as far as society was concerned, the original story of their deaths remained in force. Between their families, however, Jane and Kit had left a legacy of bitter recrimination. The Courtenays privately blamed Kit, the Fitzpaines hotly accused Jane, and neither family deigned to speak to the other again. They still converged upon Mulborough Abbey at Christmas, though, each side fearing that to withdraw would be seized upon by the other as an admission of defeat. These annual visits to Mulborough became a tradition which successive lords of Mulborough bore with resignation, taking comfort in the fact that at least the families' mutual aversion ensured they kept as far apart as possible. It was a feud that ranked alongside that of the Montagues and Capulets.
Now the invisible wraiths of the two people who'd started it all gazed down at an occasion where, as usual, several of their descendants were among the guests. Jane drew a deep breath. "Well, Kit, my dearest, here we are again, and at least this time the snow will remain for long enough to give us a chance of succeeding," she declared.
"A month and a half should indeed be more than sufficient," he agreed, keeping a wary eye on Rowley, whose jealousy often took the form of biting.
Jane held her pet fondly as she looked down at the ball. A landler was just coming to an end, and as the ladies curtsied, her ghostly eyes widened at their daringly gowns. In her day such revealing fashions would never have been tolerated, except by demireps!
Kit sensed her reaction. "I trust you do not think I approve of such wantonness?"
Her eyebrows twitched. "Sirrah, your predilection for feminine charms is too well known for me to think otherwise."
He smiled. "Only your charms draw me now, my darling," he whispered, drawing her hand to his lips and then quickly releasing it again to avoid the possessive snap of Rowley's jaws. "Dear God, how I wish we didn't have to bring that damned mongrel with us every time!"
"He's not a mongrel; indeed he's very well bred!"
Kit gave the creature a savage look. "That's a matter of opinion," he muttered.
"He's defending my honor," she declared, stroking the dog's head.
"No, he isn't. He's trying to keep you all to himself."
Her glance was teasing. "As you do yourself, sir."
"Maybe so, but I dislike competing for your attention with a mangy canine!"
"He's not mangy either!"
"He's everything dire that a dog can be," Kit replied shortly, deliberately flicking the lace at his cuff so that it flapped in Rowley's face.
"Kit, you can be lamentably childish at times," Jane chided.
"Just make sure you keep a tight hold of him, for I have no desire to have to entice him down from a ceiling as high as this one." Kit glanced up at the lofty hammer beams far above. He and Jane were invisible and inaudible to the living, and were bound by the laws of gravity. Their powers were confined to moving inanimate objects and passing through everything solid. Due to Old Nick's meddling, Rowley was tiresomely different. He could defy gravity by scampering up and down walls, or across ceilings, but he couldn't go through anything. For him every door or window had to be open. He could also be heard by those of the living who were psychic. His whines, barks, and pattering paws could cause considerable consternation, especially when coming from the direction of a ceiling, and keeping him quiet at awkward moments could be very wearying indeed. This, of course, was exactly what the Master of Hades intended.
At that moment a lady and gentleman descended the steps, and as they passed, the lady playfully popped a sugared almond into the gentleman's mouth. Sugared almonds were Rowley's favorite tidbit, and he whined, even though he could no longer eat anything.
The lady heard, and looked around in puzzlement. "Did you hear that?" she asked her companion.
The gentleman eyed her. "At a ball? I hardly think so, sweeting. More likely it was the ancient catgut of that second violin!"
Rowley whined again and was abruptly silenced by a stern tap on the nose.
The lady had heard, however. "Surely you heard that?" she protested.
"I heard nothing at all," the gentleman insisted, raising his voice as the master of ceremonies announced a polonaise, and couples flocked onto the floor. "Come, let's dance!"
As the two guests hurried down to join one of the sets, Jane's disapproving gaze raked the lady from head to toe. "I vow it must be the thing to appear a doxy. She looks fit only for the boards at the Haymarket, or possibly even a Covent Garden bagnio! I am more modest even in my stays!" she declared.
"And very fetching stays they are too," Kit replied.
"Fie on you, sir," Jane chided smilingly.
He smiled too. "Forget the excesses of today's fashions, my dear. We must turn our thoughts to finding two star-crossed lovers from our respective families."
"I'm not exactly optimistic," she replied. "Each time we return, they all seem more entrenched than ever in this wretched feud. Just look at that fellow over there; he's the image of my Uncle Jasper Courtenay, and he's scowling most disagreeably at that lady in green, who just has to be a Fitzpaine!" She pointed to a portly red-faced gentleman of about fifty, who was helping himself from a punch bowl. The lady concerned was about forty-five years old, and thin as a stick, with an expression suggestive of the presence of a bad smell.
Kit raised an eyebrow. "A descendant of Cousin Wilhelmina, if ever I saw one," he murmured.
"I wish we weren't the cause of this disagreeable quarrel."
"Come now, my love, we can't take the blame entirely. Maybe we were the start of it, but by now I'll warrant neither side can recall the original reason for their falling out! Queen Anne never knew the truth, and as for the first King George, well, I doubt if he ever knew we existed. The business with the false tombs was very effective, you know. We really did disappear."
"Once out of sight, one is usually out of mind too, which, I suppose, is what we wanted. Come on, let us circulate and see if any of our reprobate descendants offer us some hope of redemption."
The wraiths descended the staircase. A little knot of guests was gathered at the bottom, and Jane was careful to step around them because of Rowley, but Kit passed right through. One or two people shivered, but no one saw anything at all, nor did the phantoms imagine for a single moment that anyone would. However, on that score they were soon to receive a considerable shock.