Authors: Felicity Pulman
She was about to start her search in the TV room when she remembered that Sylvia had said that the servants had lived in the back part of the house. It was unlikely that anything of significance would have been hidden here, nor would they have left anything behind when the settlement was disbanded to make way for the Pitcairn Islanders. Best to start with the rooms at the front, where the commandants and their families had lived, she decided.
She walked back into the main part of the house and stood still in the grand entrance hall as she tried to remember where the bedrooms were located. On the right of the ghostly passage, that was it. She turned into it and a breath of cold air swirled around her. Once inside the guest bedroom at the end, she began to snoop about, opening cupboards and tapping on the wooden panels in the hope of hearing a hollow sound that would mean there was a secret hidey-hole behind them. She felt like a trespasser and told herself she’d been reading too many crime stories. If there was anything to find, it was well hidden or it would have been discovered years before. Most of the stuff in the long cupboards looked like junk — ornate lamps, ugly ornaments, old appliances and other bits and pieces.
She poked about a little more, but soon realised there was nothing of interest to be seen; everything was too modern.
She walked across the passage and opened a door. It was Mr Armstrong’s study, and she remembered that Sylvia had
given her permission to be in here. Her attention was caught by a row of carved wooden cupboards that made up the length of one wall. Her pulse quickened. They looked very old, certainly old enough to contain secrets!
With some difficulty, she wrenched open the door in the middle. Inside was a narrow space housing a desk. Allie eagerly opened its drawers, but they were disappointingly empty. She probed further, hoping to locate a secret compartment of some sort, but there was nothing.
The other cupboard doors were stuck tight. Growing impatient, she ran into the kitchen, slid a long, sharp knife from the carving block and came back with it.
Hurry, hurry, hurry
pulsed through her brain. She was shaking with nerves as she slid the knife into the crack and jerked it upwards, hoping to dislodge the latch. She was terrified that the Armstrongs might return and catch her. She had no credible explanation for snooping about except for a growing belief that there were secrets to be found and that she was close to them. She had to finish her search before they came home.
There was a sharp snap and the cupboard door swung open, only to reveal a second slab of wood. It was a false cupboard. She felt a crushing sense of disappointment. The carved façade looked so old, she was sure the cupboard was part of the original house. But she couldn’t go on breaking into all the cupboards along the wall, especially if the others were also façades.
She walked out of the room and noticed a wooden door set into the wall next to the study door. Curious, she opened it
and found herself looking down a flight of stairs. She groped in her pocket for her torch, flashed it on, and followed its beam downwards — into a cellar lined with empty shelves. She looked about for likely hiding places, but the walls seemed solid. A door was set into a side wall and she guessed it led outside. She wondered if the cellar had been a bolt hole for the commandants’ families during the riots.
She climbed the stairs and carefully shut the door behind her. She realised now that the cupboards in the study were built over the passage that led down to the cellar. Some of them must connect to the long cupboards in the bedroom opposite, where the old junk was stored. Just as well I didn’t force all the doors, she thought.
She turned away from the staircase, pondering where to try next. She heard a low, wailing cry and her heart jumped. A ghost bird? Or the children?
She flew outside and across the courtyard. She checked on Micaela first, making sure that she was sleeping peacefully before going to the baby. They were both sound asleep.
She looked about, wondering whether to conduct a swift search of the nursery. She moved silently, opening drawers and knocking softly on the panelling, but found nothing. She went back to check Micaela’s room, but again drew a blank. With a sigh, she crossed the courtyard once more, telling herself she was being ridiculous. She should go and watch TV. Or finish her homework. Do something useful. But curiosity drove her on, along the passage and down the
hall until she came once more to the corridor that Sylvia had joked about.
This time Allie searched the study more thoroughly, looking for secret drawers in the desk or any other hidey-hole. She was desperate to find something — anything — that would prove to everyone that Noah’s ancestor had deserved everything he got, and that John Bennett was only doing his duty. But if there were any secrets locked away, she couldn’t find them. She was ready to give up when she became aware of the sound of muffled weeping. A girl was crying as if her heart would break. Allie stopped dead and listened intently. She knew that the sound wasn’t coming from the children’s rooms.
Moving soundlessly, feeling desperately afraid, she let her ears guide her to its source. A young woman was standing beside the closed door of the small room near the administrator’s study. Her outline rippled with light and shadows, but there was the definite impression of a pale face and golden hair, and a long dark blue dress with a lacy collar. Allie stopped, rigid with shock.
‘Who are you?’ Allie quavered. ‘What are you doing here?’
The figure moved slightly. Allie gripped her hands together, willing herself to keep calm. What if the ghost meant to harm her? And yet she seemed so frail, and so sad.
Allie stepped forwards. The woman turned to look at her, then, in the next instant, she vanished through the closed door behind her. Allie blinked and stared at the place where the ghost had been.
She swallowed hard over her dry throat as she tried to recall what Sylvia had told her about the layout of the house. She’d mentioned there was a bathroom and toilet next to the study, and beside that?
The small room next to it was probably used as a bedroom
. Wiping her sweaty palms down her jeans, Allie turned the handle and flung open the door, half-expecting to find the woman waiting inside. She clicked on the light. To her great relief, the room was empty. A solid wooden bed was set against one wall; a cupboard against the other. A window looked out onto a small enclosed courtyard. Below it was an old-fashioned bureau, and Allie at once opened the drawers to feel for secret levers. But the drawers were empty, and so was the cupboard. It was a huge, heavy thing and smelled faintly of mothballs and lavender. Allie knocked and pressed all over it, but found nothing.
She turned her attention to the bed. It looked quite modern, but even so she gave it a thorough search and then felt about in the small space underneath its solid wooden base. Nothing. Disappointed, she sat down on the bright spread that covered the mattress and pondered what to do next. Why had the ghost come in here? She was surprised to realise that she wasn’t afraid any longer. She felt only compassion for the unhappy spirit.
She could hear nothing now except the faint whisper and suck of the sea. With a hiss of frustration, she wondered where she should search next. She’d looked everywhere around this room — except under the bed! She jumped up and gave the bed a shove. It didn’t budge. She kneeled down to look underneath,
but the gap was too small to see anything. She stood up. After a moment’s thought, she squeezed herself into the space between the bedhead and the wall, gripped the headboard and tried swinging the bed sideways. It shifted slightly. Yes! Allie heaved again. And again. She realised that the carpet didn’t cover the whole room and there were floorboards under the bed. Gradually more and more of them were exposed as she tugged and pulled until the bed stood almost at right angles to the wall. Allie looked down at the line of wooden boards. They were rough and rather splintery. She knew they must be original, but they didn’t have the same high polish of the floorboards in other rooms. These looked as though they’d been in hiding all these years. Not under this bed, but perhaps under a different carpet or some other piece of furniture?
Allie pulled her torch out of her pocket and kneeled down for a closer look. Her pulse quickened as she noticed fine lines cut across two of the boards, the whole forming a square. The joins were almost invisible. She dropped the torch and tried to shift one of the boards. But it wouldn’t move. She slid her nails into the thin groove and tried to jerk the board upwards. But it was stuck fast. Muttering under her breath, she looked about for something to use as a lever. The knife! She’d left it lying on the administrator’s desk in the study. She quickly fetched it, relieved that she’d remembered it before the Armstrongs came home.
She slid the blade between the floorboards and levered it upwards. The two boards came loose with a creak and a groan, exposing a hole underneath. Allie thrust her hand inside
and groped about. The hole was empty. After all this effort, to find nothing at all! She switched on her torch and shone it into the dark space in case she’d missed something. But there was nothing to see. She could have cried with disappointment.
Why had the woman appeared in front of her if there was nothing for her to find here?
Not ready to give up yet, she lay down beside the hole so that she could put her whole arm inside. The empty space extended right under the floorboards. Instinctively she bunched her fingers into a fist. What if rats or something else were nesting down here? It took all her courage to open her hand and continue to feel around.
Her fingers touched something solid where before there had been only empty space. Her heart knocked against her ribs as she felt around the object, trying to work out what it was. Cautiously, she manoeuvred it upwards and out. It was something wrapped in linen and tied with string. Allie thought it might be a book.
She was tempted to rip open the fabric and examine it, but a glance at her watch showed her that it was already past ten. Tense with alarm, she slotted the floorboards back into place and began to shove the bed back into position. She heard the sound of a car coming closer and then the engine died. Allie remembered the cupboard door she’d prised open. There was no time now to check on any damage she might have done. She just hoped no-one would notice if there was. She had no idea what she could say in her defence if she was asked for an explanation.
She was sweating now, with fear and the strain of heaving the bed back into place. She picked up the package and shoved it under her shirt, hoping the loose fit would hide its bulge. She was almost back at the TV room when she remembered the knife. She raced back for it and snatched it up.
She heard the sound of voices. She was heading for the kitchen when the front door opened. She swung around, knife in hand, to confront the startled administrator and his wife.
‘Alice? What on earth do you think you’re doing?’ Mr Armstrong stepped in front of his wife to protect her.
Allie gaped at him, at a loss. How could she explain?
‘I …’ she began, lowering the knife so at least she didn’t look so threatening. Inspiration struck, and she drew in a breath. ‘I thought I heard a noise outside. I was worried about the girls so I thought I’d better go and investigate. That’s why I grabbed a knife.’ She gave a weak grin. ‘Sorry. I guess I’m used to living in a big city.’
‘It was probably just birds rustling on the roof,’ Sylvia said. ‘I’m sorry they gave you a fright.’ She took the knife from Allie and handed it to her husband, who set off towards the kitchen with it.
‘Things are pretty quiet here, you’ll find,’ Sylvia continued. ‘It’s reassuring to know you’re so ready to protect the children, but you shouldn’t do anything to put yourself at risk.’
Allie nodded, sending up a silent thank you that she’d got away with it.
She fetched her backpack and slung it onto her shoulder. ‘The children have been asleep all night,’ she said. ‘They were no trouble at all.’
‘Just a moment.’ Mr Armstrong had returned. He pulled out his wallet and gave Allie some notes. ‘Thanks for your time,’ he said.
Allie wondered if she’d be called on to babysit again in view of what had happened. But they were all smiles as they said goodnight.
As soon as Allie let herself into the house, her mother bobbed her head around the bedroom door. ‘How did it go tonight?’
‘Fine. Everything was fine. Go back to bed.’
Allie was dying to investigate the package; she didn’t want to waste time reassuring her parents that all had gone well. Apart from the knife incident. And maybe a broken cupboard. She pushed the thoughts aside and smiled at her mother. ‘Sleep tight,’ she said.
As soon as she was inside her bedroom, with the door closed, she pulled the package out from under her shirt and cut the string. She carefully unwrapped the linen covering and found she was holding a leather-bound book. When she opened it, there was a name written inside in fancy looped writing:
Allie was startled to see her own name. She stared at the page and a wave of misery washed over her, such sadness, such grief, that she placed her hand on her heart for comfort.
Who was Alice Bennett? Someone connected to John Bennett, obviously. His wife? His daughter?
She skimmed through a few pages, looking for clues. It seemed to be some sort of diary. She would have to ask her father. But Allie had come to the conclusion that her dad didn’t know much about his ancestor. All he had to go on were copies of a few reports along with some letters by Bennett to the Lieutenant Governor in Hobart, mostly designed to justify his actions on Norfolk Island. There was also a copy of a letter he’d written to his sister in England bragging about the fantastic job he was doing taming the troublesome convicts.
With a bit of luck, this diary would hold the key to what had really happened here. A brief picture of herself in history class, waving the diary around in front of the teacher and her classmates, came into Allie’s mind. She smiled. She was really looking forward to proving just how wrong they all were.