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Authors: Mary Downing Hahn

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BOOK: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
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Worse yet, she'd threatened to send me to boarding school. Despite my aunt's unkindness, I did not want to leave Crutchfield Hall. Boarding school might be no better than Miss Medleycoate's establishment.

Evening was coming on fast. In the silence, the room grew colder and darker. A draft stirred the air around me, and for a moment I felt something like the touch of a cold hand on my cheek. Certain that I was being watched, I moved closer to the fire.

 

When Nellie brought my supper, I was still huddled by the hearth, brooding on Aunt's conduct toward me.

“I'm sorry Miss Crutchfield were so angry with you,” Nellie said. “She have a wicked temper. I sees it meself when I do wrong.”

“It's not just her temper, Nellie. She hates me.”

Nellie fidgeted with her apron. She seemed to want to tell me something but wasn't sure she should. Finally she said, “Ye mustn't ever tell Dawson this, but her says it's account of Miss Sophia that yer aunt hates ye so. Yer aunt thinks Mr. Crutchfield brung ye here to take Miss Sophia's place. And her don't want ye, her wants Miss Sophia. Nobody else. Just her.”

“But Nellie, how can that be? Sophia is dead. Aunt can't bring her back.”

“Dawson says Miss Crutchfield be daft.” Nellie tapped the side of her head.

I didn't know what to say. I was so accustomed to Miss Medleycoate's behavior, I'd assumed Aunt was of a similar disposition. Mean spirited and cross, but not crazy.

“It's on account of Miss Sophia that there be so few servants,” Nellie went on. “Folk from the village are scared to work here. Some even say Crutchfield Hall be haunted.” Here Nellie's eyes widened, and her voice dropped. “Do ye ever feel someone a-watching ye?”

“Sometimes.” The room was quiet, hushed.

“They say it be Miss Sophia,” Nellie whispered. “They say her won't lie quiet in her grave.”

Suddenly Nellie hid her head under her apron like a child hiding under the blankets. “Oh, lord, I be a-scaring meself,” she cried. “I can't bear thinking on spirits, miss. It's only the wicked what comes back. The good stays in the ground and waits for the Lord's call on Judgment Day.”

Equally scared, I patted Nellie's shaking shoulders. I'd never given much thought to ghosts before. Just getting through each day at the orphanage had taken all my energy. But now, in this dark house, with time to spare, the spirit world seemed very real. Maybe even dangerous.

At last, Nellie emerged from her apron, her face blotchy with tears. “Oh, miss, I pray there be no ghosts here.” With that, she jumped up and headed for the door. “Dawson must be a-wondering where I'm at. There be work to do afore I goes to bed.”

No longer hungry for my supper, I went upstairs to my room. There I undressed quickly and climbed into bed. With the covers snug around me, I felt warmer and safer. I planned to read
Vanity Fair
until I was too sleepy to make sense of the story, and then I'd go to sleep.

Just as I'd gotten comfortable, I heard a knock on my door. It was Uncle, come to say good night.

“I hear my sister was quite cross with you this afternoon,” he said.

“Yes.” I bit my thumbnail and looked at him sadly. “I'm very sorry I broke the glass on the frame, Uncle. I hope I didn't ruin the photograph.”

“Don't worry, Florence. The picture is fine. All it needs is a new piece of glass.” He reached for my hand and looked at my finger. “Did you wash the cut?”

“Yes, Uncle. It was just a nick.”

He hesitated, taking a moment to smooth my blankets and adjust the lamp's wick, before he crossed the room to the fireplace. “The picture was taken almost a year ago, shortly before Sophia died.”

I sat up straight and stared at Uncle. “How did she die?”

He stirred the fire with a poker. The blue flames leapt a little higher and made shadows dance on the wall. “Sophia had a bad fall,” he said in a low voice. “She and James were playing together when it happened.”

Giving the fire another poke, Uncle said, “Sometimes I fear the boy wants nothing more than to die himself. It's as if he believes his death will atone for hers.”

We sat together and watched the fire. The wind tugged and pried at the windows, making the curtains sway.

After a while, Uncle got to his feet. As he leaned down to kiss me good night, I found the nerve to ask him one last question. “What was Sophia like?”

“Sophia.” Uncle spoke her name as if it were a long, soft sigh, a winter wind in the treetops, a drift of snow, a wash of water over stones. “It's hard to say what Sophia was like. She was a difficult child, quick to anger and long to sulk. She was quiet and secretive, not always truthful, and often unkind to James.”

I looked at Uncle, puzzled. “But Aunt adored her.”

“Yes, she spoiled her with pretty dresses and dolls. Never scolded her, never found fault, never made her behave. Unfortunately, Sophia did not return her aunt's affection. Indeed, she took advantage of my sister.”

I seized Uncle's hand. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“No, indeed.” He chuckled. “Why do you ask?”

“People in the village think Crutchfield Hall is haunted. Did you know that?”

Uncle laughed. “The villagers are a superstitious lot. Pay their stories no heed, Florence.” He looked at me closely. “You're not frightened, are you?”

“Sometimes I think Sophia is still here,” I said quietly. “I feel her following me, watching me, listening to me. Wherever I go, she's nearby.”

Uncle looked at me earnestly, his kind face filled with concern. “Oh, my dear, foolish child, that's quite impossible. When we die, we leave this world and do not return. Be a sensible girl.” He handed me
Vanity Fair.
“Read your Thackeray. You'll find no ghosts in his stories, just ordinary people like you and me and a thousand others going about the world as we must.”

Uncle sat with me for a while, trying to calm me. I was too imaginative, I was too sensitive, I was alone too much, he said. Because I wanted to please him, I did my best to dismiss my fears as silly and childish.

After he left, I listened to his footsteps until I heard them no more. Let Uncle believe what he liked, but I knew Sophia was here in this house. I hadn't imagined the laughter and the voice in the garden, or that cold hand on my cheek. Sophia was watching me, and I didn't know if I should fear her or try to befriend her.

S
ix
 
 

T
HE NEXT DAY
I
WOKE ONCE
more to the sound of rain driven hard against my window. I dressed and went down to breakfast, deliberately arriving too late to join Aunt or Uncle. I was not in a happy mood. I'd slept poorly, waking from one bad dream after another. Sophia traipsed through each one, taunting me, chasing me, frightening me. Sometimes she looked like a living girl, but in the worst dreams, her face was a skull and her bony hands stretched toward me like claws.

When I'd eaten all I could, which wasn't very much, I wandered through the house aimlessly, drifting from room to room, lonely, sad, and scared. Uncle had gone to Lewes on business, and Aunt had gone with him. James was shut up in his room, too sick to be a companion. Nellie was hard at work somewhere in the house, and Mrs. Dawson was busy in the kitchen. Neither had time for me.

But I wasn't alone. No matter where I was, no matter whether it was day or night, Sophia hovered in the shadows, watching and listening, daring me to find her.

I climbed the stairs to the second floor, but instead of going to my room, I went to James's room and stood at his door. All was quiet within. What did he do all day? How long could books interest him if he did nothing but read? I was tempted to turn the knob and confront him.

But I didn't do it. Aunt would find out. She'd already threatened to send me away to boarding school. If I flagrantly disobeyed her, she'd make sure I went as soon as possible.

I backed away from James's room. What else was there to do? I was tired of reading, tired of drawing, tired of being trapped inside by the rain and the wind.

At the bottom of the stairs to the third floor, I paused. Aunt had told me there was nothing up there but empty rooms where the servants used to live. Maybe she was right, but exploring those rooms would give me something new to do.

At the top, I was confronted by a narrow hall lined with closed doors. I opened one after another. Except for dust, spider webs, and more dust, the small rooms were all empty. Curtainless windows looked out on bare fields under dark clouds and pouring rain.

I found a dead bird in one room, most likely trapped inside last summer. I touched its brittle feathers lightly, then drew back. Its dark, dull eyes frightened me.

At the end of the hall, I stopped in front of the last closed door. I struggled to turn the knob, but it wouldn't move. To get a better grip, I wrapped my skirt around the knob and used all my strength. At last it yielded, and I shoved the door open. In front of me, a narrow flight of stairs led up to the dark attic.

Over my head, the wind rumbled. Rain beat against the roof. I heard creaking sounds and rustlings. I thought of Jane Eyre's climb to the tower where Mr. Rochester kept his insane wife. Things worse than a dead bird could be up there.

As I hesitated, I heard the cleaning woman's voice on the floor below. I'd forgotten it was her day to come. My fear of being discovered was greater than my fear of the attic's secrets. As quietly as possible, I closed the door behind me, plunging myself into a cold darkness given voice by the wind and the rain.

Cautiously, I climbed the creaking steps, listening for odd sounds and watching for signs of danger.

Dim light leaked in through a row of small windows under the eaves. Gradually furniture emerged from the shadows—bureaus, chairs, mirrors, boxes and chests, heaps of old, mildewed books. I opened drawers and cabinets crammed with faded silks, ancient linens, and yellowing documents written in Latin. I peered into boxes and found tarnished silverware, chipped bowls, cracked plates, and dainty cups without handles.

In hope of finding something more interesting, I looked around and spied a large trunk. Lifting its curved lid, I was amazed to find myself staring into the faces of half a dozen dolls. They had long curly hair and rosy cheeks. Their hands and feet were delicate. Their dresses were silk. They looked brand new, untouched, sleeping as if nothing would ever wake them.

Gently, I lifted one out. Her hair was dark and curly, and her eyes were the same blue as her dress. Her lips were parted in a smile revealing tiny white teeth and the tip of a pink tongue. She wore white stockings and button-top shoes.

In the orphanage, we used to daydream about dolls like these. We saw them in shops when we went out for walks with Miss Beatty. While she waited patiently, we pressed our noses against the window and chose our favorites, the ones we'd buy if we were rich. I always called mine Clara Annette, a beautiful name, I thought.

This doll, I thought, would be my Clara Annette. I had no idea who she belonged to or why she was in the attic. I did not care. I'd found her and I planned to keep her. In the daytime, I'd hide her in my wardrobe under the spare blankets and quilts. In the nighttime, she'd sleep with me.

Laying Clara Annette gently on a nearby chair, I moved the other dolls aside to see what else was in the trunk. Wrapped in tissue paper were dresses and slips, nightgowns and robes, coats and hats, shoes and stockings and underwear. I held up a blue silk dress and stared at myself in an age specked mirror. It had been made for a girl about my size. Like the doll's dress, the dress matched my eyes.

As I turned this way and that, admiring my reflection, I felt a familiar shiver run up my spine. Clasping the dress to my chest, I stared about me. “Is that you, Sophia?” I whispered to the shadows.

Rain pounded on the roof and gales of winter wind moaned in the eaves. But no one answered.

“Why do you hide from me?” I called.

I heard a rustling sound, followed by a giggle. “It's a game,” Sophia whispered. “I found you—now you must find me.”

Dropping the dress, I ran toward Sophia's voice. “Where are you?”

“Here, there, everywhere,” she whispered, repeating the fountain's riddle. “Here, there, everywhere.”

I whirled in circles, trying to locate her, but I couldn't. She truly was here, there, and everywhere. Suddenly frightened, I said, “Go away. Leave me alone.”

“Don't you want me to be your friend?” She came closer, so close I could feel her cold breath on my cheek. “Aren't you lonely, Florence?”

“How can you be my friend? I can't see you, I don't know where you are.”

“You're afraid of me,” Sophia said scornfully.

“Yes,” I cried, “yes, I am. I'm afraid of you! You, you—”

“Why don't you say it?” Sophia mocked me. “I'm dead. That's why you're afraid.”

BOOK: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
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