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Authors: Mary Downing Hahn

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BOOK: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
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I stared at the old man, horrified. Surely he couldn't be speaking of Sophia. A girl from the village, maybe. A servant. But not the perfect Sophia. “You must be mistaken,” I said. “It was an accident, surely.”

Spratt came back to the present with a jolt. “Lord, I be getting old and addled. Don't know what I were talking about, thinking of somewhat else altogether. Happens when ye get old like me. Things run together—time past, time present. Time future, for all's I know.”

Taking a moment to gather his wits, he touched the brim of his cap and said, “Ye must be Miss Florence.” He smiled at me. “What do a young lady all the way from London think of the country?”

“It's beautiful,” I said, still unnerved by his account of Nero's death. “But it's very quiet.”

“Most city folks comes here for the quiet,” he said.

“I suppose when you're old it must be very calming.”

He laughed as if I amused him. Encouraged, I followed him deeper into the garden. While he pruned shrubbery, I told him about the orphanage and my friends there and how big and noisy London was and how long the coach ride had been. He had little to say, so I talked until I ran out of things to tell him. “I think I'll explore the garden now,” I finally announced.

Spratt laughed. “Me ears do be in need of a rest, miss.” He gave me a clumsy pat on the shoulder, a bit like a trained bear might. “Be careful how ye go. Stay on the path and don't step on nothing. Yer aunt don't like folks in the garden, but I don't see no harm in it.”

I set off with some excitement. Heretofore, my jaunts had been limited to outings in Kew Gardens with the other orphans. We'd never been allowed to put one foot off the path. Hand in hand with our partners, we'd strolled slowly behind Miss Medleycoate. No pausing to watch a squirrel or a bird. No flower picking. No talking or laughing.

Forgetting Spratt's warning, I ran and hopped and skipped, turning down one path and then another. I watched two squirrels chase each other up and down and round a tree. When they saw me, they chattered as if they were scolding me for spying on them.

After about half an hour, I thought I heard someone following me. I looked this way and that but saw no one. The wind sighed in the bare branches of a tall oak. Birds hopped about in the bushes. A rabbit darted across my path and vanished into the shrubbery. Was that what I'd heard? Ordinary outdoor noises?

I walked a little farther. My skin prickled again. Someone was nearby, I was sure of it this time—someone watching me from the hedges and shrubs.

I turned quickly and began running back the way I'd come, but instead of reaching the house, I found myself beside a pool I didn't remember passing. In its center was a fountain topped with a statue of a boy and a girl holding a swan. Tiers of thick icicles dripped from the swan's beak.

An inscription had been carved into the fountain's stone rim. I bent down to make out the time-worn words.

 

Here and There and Everywhere.

 

“Here and there and everywhere,” I whispered. “Here and there and everywhere.”

Certain it was a riddle, I touched each letter, tracing the curves and angles, but I couldn't come up with the answer.

Surrounded by a dense growth of tall yews, the clearing was a forbidding place. Dark clouds blew across the sun, and I shivered, suddenly cold. I was hungry, too. Time to go back to the house, I thought. But where was it?

Four paths led away from the pool, laid out like spokes in a wheel. I looked behind me at the way I'd come, then at the other paths, but I didn't know which one to choose. I'd run this way and that through the garden, paying no mind to directions.

Finally I chose a path at random and began walking quickly, then running. After ten minutes, I found myself at the pool again. Breathless with fright, I chose another path with the same result. Desperate, I tried the last path and once more found myself staring at the fountain. It seemed I couldn't escape from those two stone children and their captive swan.

Suddenly laughter broke out again, loud and shrill, a child's laugh.

I spun around, expecting to see Nellie. I saw no one, but the shrubbery shook as if someone hid there. “You can't scare me,” I cried, more angry now than frightened. “Come out and face me, Nellie!”

The shrubbery rustled. “Hide and seek,” a voice called. “You're it!”

Pushing aside a yew's heavy branches, I ran after the voice. The trees' needles whipped against my face, caught my hair, snagged my coat. I tripped on knotted roots and fell more than once. Sometimes the laughter was ahead of me, sometimes behind, but each time I thought I was close, my tormentor eluded me, laughing all the while.

In tears, I burst out of the yews and saw the house at last. “No more games, Nellie,” I called. “Where are you?”

“Come and find me,” the voice cried from somewhere in the yews. “If you dare!”

“You can't fool me, Nellie! Come out at once!”

Nellie didn't answer. Nor did she appear. The yews swayed softly in the wind, but nothing else moved.

“I'm not leaving until you come out!” I waited on the terrace until my feet hurt from the cold, but Nellie stayed hidden. At last I gave up and ran inside.

Mrs. Dawson looked up from the pot she was stirring. “Miss Florence,” she said. “Where have you been? It's almost time for tea.”

Before I had a chance to answer, she looked at me closely. “Your face is scratched—you're bleeding.”

“It's Nellie's fault,” I said. “I got lost chasing her in the garden, but I never did find her.”

Mrs. Dawson stared at me as if I'd spoken in Chinese. “Nellie's got no time for games. She's been inside working the whole time you've been outside.”

I stared at Mrs. Dawson. “If it wasn't Nellie, who was it?”

“I have no idea what you're talking about.” Mrs. Dawson examined my cuts and scratches. “These need tending to before they get infected.”

Suddenly tired, I sank down in a chair and let Mrs. Dawson wash my face. She worked deftly and gently and took time to comb the tangles from my hair.

“Let me tell you something,” she said. “Neither your uncle nor your aunt wants to hear stories about children you may or may not have seen in the garden.”

“But—”

Mrs. Dawson took my chin in her hand and looked me in the eye. “You heard me, miss. Keep that talk to yourself.”

I watched her cross the room and open the oven door. Out came the smell of fresh-baked bread. “Would you like some?” she asked.

“Oh, yes, please.”

Mrs. Dawson sliced off the end of a loaf, spread it with butter, and handed it to me. “No more stories.”

I bit into the bread, the best I'd ever tasted. “I don't understand—”

“That's just it, miss. You're new to this place. There's much you don't know and even more you don't understand. So listen to them that's been here longer than you, and hush.”

“But—”

“Finish that bread and go find someone else to pester.” Cross now, Mrs. Dawson began chopping onions with a knife that could have cut off my head.

Frustrated and confused, I ate my bread in silence. Someone had teased me in the garden. If Mrs. Dawson was right, it could not have been Nellie.

I hesitated in the doorway. Mrs. Dawson glanced at me. “Well, what is it now?” she asked, still cross.

“Do children from the village ever play in the garden?”

Mrs. Dawson mulled that over. “Of course,” she said. “That's what you heard. One of those naughty rascals was teasing you.” She smiled then, her anger forgotten. “Don't tell anyone you saw them. Miss Crutchfield would order Spratt to chase them away.”

I went to my room, glad the mystery was solved. If I heard the children again, I'd find them this time, and become their friend.

F
ive
 
 

T
HE NEXT DAY, IT RAINED.
T
HE
day after that, it rained again. By the fourth day of unrelenting rain, I was tired of reading, tired of sketching, and tired of myself. I missed the girls at the orphanage and devoted hours to writing to each of them, describing in detail my tedious life at Crutchfield Hall.

I wrote to Miss Beatty, as well, but not to Miss Medleycoate, who would most likely answer with a long letter reprimanding me for being an ungrateful girl who complained when fortune smiled upon her.

It occurred to me that I was indeed ungrateful. Compared to what I'd endured at Miss Medleycoate's establishment, I had nothing to complain of. I had no chores, I had books to read, I never went to bed hungry. A little boredom was nothing to complain about.

Thrusting my letters into the fire, I watched them burn. Later I'd try writing again to my former companions, but feared it might be a difficult task. If I didn't complain, they might think I was bragging. If I complained, they might think I had forgotten what I'd escaped by leaving the orphanage.

I'd finished
Great Expectations
the night before, so I decided to go downstairs and look for something else to read.

After some thought, I selected
Vanity Fair
from the shelves in the sitting room. I'd heard Becky Sharp was a wicked girl, and I thought I'd enjoy reading about someone worse than myself.

On my way to the stairs, I passed my uncle's study. The door was open, and I decided to have a look. His books were dull, having to do with law and history and collections of essays by men such as Carlyle and Macaulay. His papers consisted of deeds and other legal matters, some of them quite old and brittle and written in Latin.

Uncle had a large globe on a stand. I spun it round and round and stopped it with my finger. I pretended to be in the place my finger landed. First I was lost at sea in the Pacific Ocean, a female Robinson Crusoe in search of a desert island. Then it was on to Africa, where I explored jungles and escaped from lions. In America, I traveled in a stagecoach pursued by Indians. At the North Pole, I nearly perished in the cold but was rescued by Eskimos.

Tiring of that, I made up stories about the portraits hanging on the walls—long-nosed ladies with small chins and close-set eyes, red-faced gentlemen with round cheeks and bushy whiskers, handsome young men with curly hair and dimples in their chins, pretty girls with rosy lips and cheeks. I imagined them riding horses and dancing at balls, falling in love, marrying, living to be old or dying tragically young.

I had no idea who the subjects actually were or what had become of them, or even if they were my ancestors or someone else's. All I knew was that they'd been painted long ago.

When I'd run out of stories, I examined the things on my uncle's desk. I nearly cut myself on a fancy letter opener. I spun a revolving stand filled with pipes of many shapes and sizes. I examined the pictures on tobacco tins. And then I spotted an oval photograph of a boy and a girl.

Judging by the style of their clothes, the children could have been photographed yesterday. The girl was about my age and very pretty. Her hair was long and dark and curly like mine, tied back with a ribbon the same way I wore mine. The boy was several years younger, about nine, I guessed. His hair was a mop of dark curls, but his face was rounder than the girl's and his expression sweeter. Sophia and James, I thought. They had to be.

To get a better look, I took the picture to the window. Sophia had my straight nose and oval face, but she had Aunt's narrow-lipped mouth, and the expression on her face was sulky. She stood stiffly, as if she didn't want to be closer than necessary to her brother.

My musing was interrupted by Aunt's voice. “What are you doing in here? You have no business touching the things on your uncle's desk. Put that down!”

I was so startled, I dropped the photograph. The glass in the frame broke with a sharp snap. As I stooped to pick it up, I pricked my finger on a sliver. Horrified, I watched a drop of my blood fall on Sophia's face.

Aunt snatched the picture. “Look what you've done! The photograph is ruined.”

“I'm sorry, Aunt.” As I spoke, I wrapped my handkerchief around my finger to stop the bleeding. “I didn't mean—”

With an angry look, she interrupted me. “Your uncle will be quite upset when he sees this. I will speak to him as soon as he returns from town.” Photograph in hand, my aunt wheeled about to leave the study.

I hurried after her. “Please, Aunt,” I cried. “I'm sorry, truly sorry.”

“Go to your room,” she said. “And do not come down for supper. Nellie will bring your meals.”

“But, Aunt—”

She turned a cold and angry face to me. “Go to your room immediately—or I shall see that you stay there until I find a suitable boarding school for you.”

Left alone in the room, I listened to my aunt's footsteps fade away. I'd wanted to ask her if the girl was Sophia, if the boy was James, but she'd given me no opportunity. As usual, I'd offended her.

BOOK: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
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