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Authors: Mary Downing Hahn

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BOOK: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
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Like Sophia, he bore little resemblance to the child in the photograph. His round cheeks were gone, leaving his face narrow and solemn. His skin was pale, and the hair tumbling over his eyes was long and curly. Even from this distance, I could see he was thin and frail. Sickly.

Cautiously I took a few steps forward, unsure whether I should approach him or tiptoe out of his room. What I was doing seemed intrusive, rather as if I'd entered a sanctuary without permission.

I must have made a sound, for suddenly he turned and saw me. His reaction horrified me.

“No,” he screamed, “you can't cross my threshold. It's forbidden! Get out! Get out!” He was on his knees now, hurling a book at me. Then another and another.

The heavy volumes hit the wall over my head, and I ducked this way and that to avoid being struck. He was definitely stronger than he looked.

When he ran out of books to throw, James fell back against his pillow, shrieking and crying. “Don't come near me!”

I ran to him and seized his hands. “Don't be afraid. I'm Florence, your cousin. Hasn't Uncle told you about me?”

“You can't trick me,” James cried. “I know who you are—I know what you want!”

“No, no, James, please listen. I'm Florence Crutchfield. My father was your father's brother. I'm an orphan, just as you are. We're both wards of our uncle, Thomas Crutchfield.”

Gradually, James's struggles lessened, and I released his hands. Although he still trembled, he breathed more naturally and his body began to relax.

He studied my face. “You're not Sophia,” he whispered, “but you're wearing her dress and your hair is like hers. When I saw you in the shadows by the door, I was certain . . .”

He lay back against the pillows, his face as white as the sheets tumbled about him. “You frightened me.”

“I'm so very, very sorry. I didn't mean to, but Sophia—”

“Do you see her too?” he interrupted, his eyes wide with surprise. “I thought I was the only one.”

“She made me wear her dress, she fixed my hair, she sent me here . . .” I clenched my fists in vexation. “Please forgive me, James. She, she . . .”

I looked warily around the room. Was Sophia hiding in the corner by the wardrobe? Was she watching from behind the curtains?

James looked at me. “You're afraid of her too.”

“She terrifies me. She could be here, she could be there, she could be anywhere.”

James took my hands in his small ones. “Not here. We're safe in my room,” he said. “She can't cross the threshold.”

“Everywhere I go, she goes. The house, the garden. I can't get away from her.” I shuddered and continued to search the corners for signs of Sophia.

James shook his head. “Spratt made a charm and hid it over my door. As long as it's there, she can't come in.”

“Spratt made a charm?” I stared at my cousin, thinking I'd misunderstood him. “What sort of a charm?”

“Since you come from London,” James said, “I doubt you believe in potions and charms and such, but Spratt's mother was a healer. And so was her mother and her mother before her and so on, back and back in time. She taught Spratt all she knew, including the making of charms to ward off evil.”

Not sure what I believed, I looked at him, huddled under blankets and propped up on pillows, trusting in a charm to protect him from his own sister. His dead sister.

I moved nearer to him, fearful of the shadows around us. “What can Sophia actually do to harm you? We
see
her, we
hear
her, but she doesn't have a real body.”

Fixing me with the same blue eyes we all had, James sat up straight and leaned closer to me. “Sophia doesn't need to be flesh and blood. Haven't you felt the cold touch of her hand? Hasn't she influenced you?” He paused and added, “Was it your idea to come to my room? Did you want to do it, or did she make you?”

My silence answered for me.

James lay back against his pillow, but he kept his eyes on me. “My sister has no body. She's never hungry. She's never tired. She's never sick. She's free to concentrate all her energy on one thing and one thing only. It's all she wants, and she's determined to have it.”

He closed his eyes for a moment as if talking about Sophia's strength had exhausted his own. The room was so silent, the very air seemed to hold its breath.

“What does she want?” I whispered.

James looked at me then, his face as pale as the pillow. “She wants me to die.” His voice was flat and dull, his eyes almost as lifeless as Sophia's.

“She can't hate you that much. It's unnatural, it's wicked, it's—”

“You don't understand.” James's voice rose until he was almost shouting. “It's my fault she's dead. I killed her. I didn't mean to, but I did. And now she wants to kill me.”

“How could you have killed her?” I asked. “You're younger and smaller than she is. You—”

“I don't want to talk any more,” James cried. “I'm tired and need to rest—you've overexcited me. Go away!”

Confused by the change in his behavior, I reached out to comfort him, but he swung at me, striking me with his fists, not caring whether he hurt me or not. “Go away, I tell you,” he shrieked. “Go away!”

Afraid of making him truly ill, I shrank back from the bed. At that moment, the door opened and Aunt entered the room.

At the sight of me, her face lit with joy. Holding out her arms to embrace me, she cried, “You've come back to me! I knew you would. I've saved all your things. I've waited and prayed for your return.”

When I recoiled from her touch, Aunt realized her mistake. Immediately her happiness turned to rage. Seizing my shoulders, she shook me so hard, my head bobbled on my neck like a rag doll's. “Where did you get that dress? It's Sophia's, not yours. You have no right to help yourself to her things.”

James cowered in his bed, his anger at me forgotten. “Stop, Aunt—you're upsetting me. Do you want me to die too?”

Pushing me aside, Aunt ran to him. “My poor lamb. What has Florence done to you?”

She reached for his hands, but he pushed her away. “Leave me alone! Florence has done nothing to me.”

Aunt drew back, rigid with anger. “How dare you speak to me like that! After all I've done for you! Have you no gratitude?”

“Can't you ever leave me alone?” James cried. “I hate you! You wish I'd died instead of her. I heard you say so when you thought I was sleeping.”

Unable to bear any more, I ran out of the room. The things I'd imagined in my days at Miss Medleycoate's mocked me. Sisters and brothers were jealous and hateful; they didn't love one another as I'd thought. Aunt was mean and spiteful. Sophia had despised her little brother. James claimed he'd killed his own sister.

After locking myself in my room, I stripped off the blue silk dress, ripping a sleeve in my haste. Buttons popped off and rolled across the floor. Without pausing to think about what I was doing, I stuffed Sophia's dress into the fire.

It smoldered for a moment and then burst into flame. Fire shot up the chimney. Seizing a poker, I did my best to keep it contained. As unhappy as I was, I had no desire to burn Crutchfield Hall to the ground.

With relief, I watched the fire subside. The smoke made my eyes water, and the room reeked of burnt silk. Wearing only a thin slip, I ran to the window and let in a torrent of cold fresh air.

As the casement swung outward, I saw that the constant rain had turned to snow. Trees and shrubbery, roofs and walkways, everything blended together in a sparkling white. Sharp lines disappeared, square shapes softened, hills and flat land merged.

If I'd been in a happier frame of mind, I might have thrilled to the snow's beauty. I'd certainly never witnessed its like in London's crowded, dirty streets.

But today I stared at the snow without really seeing it, too angry and scared by the morning's twists and turns to appreciate it. I'd reached a point so low that I almost wished to return to Miss Medleycoate's establishment. Perhaps the food was worse and the beds less warm and comfortable, but no ghosts roamed the orphanage's halls. I had Miss Beatty to comfort me and friends to laugh and talk with. I was often sad but never lonely or frightened. Here I was all three.

E
ight
 
 

F
INALLY THE COLD DROVE ME
to close the window and put on my own dress, rough and brown and scratchy against my skin. Afraid to stay in my room alone, I took my book and ran down to the sitting room and made myself comfortable in the big leather chair by the wood fire, much warmer than my coal fire.

I was so deeply immersed in
Vanity Fair
that I didn't notice Sophia until she exhaled her cold breath on my cheek. Startled, I dropped my book. “Go away,” I begged. “I've had enough of you.”

“But I haven't had enough of you, dear Florence.” She perched on the arm of the chair and studied me with her dull eyes. “I see you've changed your clothes. Did you not like my dress?”

“I hate your dress!” I told her. “When James saw me wearing it, he thought I was you.”

“Much more flattering to you than to me. Even dead, I'm far prettier than you are.” She laughed her spooky little laugh and ran her bony fingers through her tufts of hair. Looking at me closely, she touched my nose. “Consider that bump in your nose: it's especially unattractive and bound to get worse as you age.”

She jumped off the chair and did a few turns about the room, as graceful as a sylph in a ballet. Perhaps more so, for a living ballerina could not have floated as lightly as Sophia did.

“I must say, I enjoyed hearing Aunt's response to the sight of you in my dress,” she said. “Poor old thing to mistake you for me—her eyesight must be failing.”

She twirled around the room again, her ragged skirt floating around her. “I still have Aunt wrapped around my little finger, but she positively
detests
you.”

“Why don't you haunt her and leave me alone?” I asked. “She'd be happy to see you.”

“Aunt is a boring old bat. She was useful when I was alive, but now . . .” Sophia shrugged. “I have no need of pretty things or sweets. Indeed, it's a relief not to make a pretense of loving her. Why should I continue the charade by appearing to her?”

“You are the most wicked creature I've ever met,” I whispered. Despite my own feelings toward Aunt, I was glad she hadn't known Sophia's true nature.

Sophia smiled as if I'd complimented her. Twirling back to the chair, she settled next to me, numbing me with cold. “Poor James is so afraid of me,” she giggled. “Did he scream and cry and throw a tantrum at the sight of you?”

I tried to move away from her, but she kept me close to her. “He told me you want him to die,” I said.

Sophia twirled a strand of hair around her finger and curled it into a ringlet. “I was cheated,” she said. “James was meant to die, not me.”

“How can you believe such a thing?” I asked. “No one knows who is meant to die and who is meant to live.”

Clenching her fists in anger, Sophia jumped to her feet. “It's not fair! It's not fair! It's not fair!” she screamed like a small child. “Why should he be allowed to make me miserable even after I'm dead? Didn't he make me miserable enough while I was alive?”

Frightened by her anger, I cowered in the chair. “I cannot believe James ever caused you pain,” I whispered.

“He was
born,
wasn't he? Isn't that enough?” Giving me a look of pure hatred, Sophia ran from the sitting room. Behind her, the fire died down, nearly extinguished by the draft of cold air she created.

As soon as she was gone, the flames on the hearth leapt up, snapping and crackling, but it took a long time for them to warm the icy air.

When I was certain I was alone, I drew my knees to my chest and curled up in the chair like a cat. I tried to lose myself in my novel, but instead of reading Thackeray's words, I heard Sophia's voice in my head, taunting me. What did she want with me? Could I really resist her? Or was James right about her being too strong for me to fight?

Just before the clock struck seven, Nellie appeared in the doorway. “Miss,” she said almost fearfully, “I come to say dinner be ready and they be a-waiting on ye.”

“Nellie.” I ran to her side and took her arm. To my dismay, she flinched as if she expected me to hit her. “Oh, Nellie, I am so sorry I spoke harshly to you. I don't know where those words came from. Please accept my apologies.”

Nellie studied my face, her eyes troubled. “Ye scairt me, miss. I thought I'd done summat wrong to make ye so mad.”

“No, you did nothing wrong.” I gave her a quick hug. “I promise never to speak to you like that again.”

Nellie nodded and darted out of the room as if I'd embarrassed her.

BOOK: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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