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Authors: Mary Downing Hahn

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BOOK: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
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Behind me, I heard a mocking laugh. “You have the mind of a servant,” Sophia whispered. “Soon you'll be helping that detestable girl with her chores.”

A draft swept out of the room ahead of me and vanished into the shadows.

In the dining room, Uncle sat at the end of the table and Aunt sat at his right. They looked at me but neither smiled. Their faces were solemn. Indeed, Aunt's was grim.

“Sit down, Florence,” Uncle said.

I sank into my chair across from Aunt. It was clear she'd told Uncle about my disobedience. Lowering my head, I toyed with my spoon, moving it to the right and back to the left. I had no appetite for the steaming soup in front of me.

“You know that James needs peace and quiet,” Uncle said. “He must not be upset or disturbed in any way. Yet you entered his room without permission and frightened him.”

“I'm very sorry, Uncle.” My face burned with shame. Unable to meet his eyes, I kept my head down. “I never meant to harm James—I just wanted to meet him. I didn't think—”

“You are a thoughtless, selfish, disobedient girl,” Aunt interrupted. “Excuses cannot change what you did. It is unforgivable.”

“Now, Eugenie—” Uncle began.

“The girl is a troublemaker. I sensed it from the first.” She took a deep breath and added, “If you need to be convinced, listen to what else Florence has done. She went to the attic and removed things from Sophia's trunk.”

To my mortification, Aunt pulled Clara Annette from her lap and brandished the doll as if it were evidence in a criminal trial. “I found this hidden in a drawer in her bureau.”

For a moment, we all stared at the doll as if we expected it to speak.

“The head is broken beyond repair,” Aunt went on, nearly in tears. “It was Sophia's favorite, very expensive. I brought it home from Paris. A Madame Jumeau doll with a little trunk of clothing, made to order to match Sophia's wardrobe. And look at it. Look at it!” She shook the doll in Uncle's face.

Uncle tried to say something, but Aunt wasn't finished. “There's more. When I caught her in James's room, she was wearing Sophia's best dress. Then do you know what she did with it? Thrust it into the coal fire in her bedroom. She could have burned down the house!”

“That was very foolish.” Uncle turned to me, clearly puzzled. “I don't understand your reason for burning the dress.”

“I had to get rid of it,” I wept. “I had to!”

“You see?” Aunt leaned toward her brother. “The girl doesn't have good sense. Who knows what she'll do next?”

Uncle shook his head sadly. “I do not understand,” he repeated. “Your thoughtless act endangered us all.”

“I recommend locking up the kitchen knives,” Aunt said, her lips pursed so tightly, she could barely speak. “Next she might take it into her head to murder us in our beds.”

“Now, now, Eugenie,” Uncle said calmly, “you are on the verge of hysteria.”

“I'm sorry.” I wrung my hands in dread and remorse. “I'm truly, truly sorry, Uncle. If you wish to send me back to Miss Medleycoate, I'll go.”

“Send you back to Miss Medleycoate?” Uncle stared at me. “Whatever gave you such an idea? You're my flesh and blood, Florence. I have no intention of sending you away.”

“Except to boarding school,” Aunt said primly. “We have agreed to that, brother. At Saint Ursula's Academy, Florence will be taught etiquette and deportment. She will cease reading novels and apply her mind to serious moral works.”

Uncle Thomas winced at his sister's rising voice. “Perhaps we should discuss these issues at some other time,” he said, “when we are all calmer. It's obvious that Florence is sorry she behaved thoughtlessly.”


Thoughtlessly.
” Aunt looked heavenward as if seeking patience. “Her behavior is more than
thoughtless,
Thomas. In my opinion, it borders on malice.”

Malice.
I stared at my aunt. If she knew Sophia as well as she thought she did, she'd have a better idea of the difference between malice and thoughtlessness.

“She is clearly jealous of her cousin Sophia,” Aunt went on. “Why else would she destroy her things and upset her brother? Poor, blameless Sophia, struck down in her youth and beauty by a cruel accident. How can anyone be jealous of a dead girl?”

“I am
not
jealous of Sophia,” I said. “She—”

“Sophia was your superior in every way,” Aunt interrupted, before I could tell her the truth about her precious Sophia. “Beauty, intelligence, grace, and rectitude,” she went on. “Perfect manners, too.”

Uncle frowned at his sister. “Sophia had her faults, Eugenie. We are all flawed. You as well as I.”

“Speak for yourself, Thomas!”

Ignoring his sister, Uncle began to carve the roast. “Let us eat while the food is still hot.” So saying, he passed a plate to me. “Please help yourself to potatoes and carrots, my dear.”

Suddenly Aunt leaned across the table and tapped my hand sharply with a bony finger. “Have you begun reading
Pilgrim's Progress?

“No, I have not.” I looked her in the eye as I spoke. “I do not care for it.”

“You do not
care
for it.” She shook her head. “I suppose you do not care for the state of your immortal soul either?”

“Eugenie, please.” Uncle patted his sister's hand. “Allow the child to enjoy her dinner.”

“As you wish, Thomas.” Aunt rose from the table. “Please tell Nellie to bring my dinner to my room.”

In the silence that followed her departure, the air settled around us comfortably.

“I'm sorry, Uncle,” I said. “It seems I can do nothing to please Aunt.”

“Don't blame yourself, Florence. Eugenie is not an easy person to please.” He smiled at me. “Now stop fretting and eat your dinner. You don't want to disappoint Mrs. Dawson.”

Pushing my cold soup aside, I picked at the food on my plate. What little I ate, I did not enjoy.

When Nellie came to clear the table, Uncle and I retreated to the sitting room and settled by the fire to read, he with a thick book of essays by Thomas Carlyle and I with
Vanity Fair.

“Uncle,” I said, “am I really to go to boarding school?”

He looked up from his book, his face rosy in the firelight. “You need a proper education, Florence. You're obviously a highly intelligent girl.”

“Couldn't you teach me here?”

“Me?” He chuckled. “I wouldn't have the slightest idea of where to begin. My mathematics are quite rusty, and my scientific knowledge is limited to the ancient Greeks.”

“Aunt teaches James.”

“Not very well, I fear.” He looked at me closely. “I don't think you'd enjoy her methods.”

“No, probably not.” I snuggled deeper into my chair and watched the fire dance upon the logs, slowly consuming them.

“I've been considering hiring a governess for James,” Uncle continued. “Eugenie is opposed to the idea, but she hasn't the skill to teach the boy more than the rudiments—which he has already mastered, as have you.”

Remembering my cousin's hysterical behavior, I touched my uncle's hand. “Is James well enough to have a governess?”

“Yes, I think it will do him good.” Uncle smiled at me. “She could give lessons to both of you. I can't think of anything better for him. Or for you.”

Suddenly worried, I looked at Uncle anxiously. “Will James want to see me again?”

“I talked to him before dinner. He wants you to know he's sorry for his outburst.”

“I'm relieved to hear that, Uncle. I would enjoy taking lessons with James.” I paused a moment before asking an important question. “But will Aunt agree to my staying here? She seems determined to be rid of me.”

Uncle contemplated the fire as if the words he needed might be found in its flames. “My sister often wants things she doesn't get,” he said softly. “She hasn't had a happy life.”

With an attempt at a cheerful smile, he turned to me. “I prefer to keep you here with James. So here you will stay. Tomorrow I shall begin my search for a suitable governess.”

With that, he reopened his book and I reopened mine. For some time we read in silent harmony. It didn't matter that Sophia joined us. It didn't matter that she crept close and whispered, “Aunt might not get everything she wants, but I do.” It didn't matter that she drew some of the warmth from the fire. With uncle beside me, I felt safe.

Going up to bed after supper was a different matter. Buried under a heap of quilts, I shivered as if I'd never be warm. Although I didn't see or hear her, I knew Sophia could be anywhere, visible or invisible, hiding in dark corners, watching and planning, mocking me, scaring me, a presence following me as closely as my own shadow.

N
ine
 
 

I
N THE MORNING,
I
WENT
down to breakfast feeling more tired than I'd been before I'd gone to bed. Sophia had chased me through dream after dream all night long. She wanted me to do something, she said I had to, and I knew I mustn't obey her. She was wicked, and the thing she wanted done was wicked too. I had to escape, but we were in the garden and she was here and there and everywhere. I couldn't get away from her. Or the thing she wanted me to do.

“You're up early,” Mrs. Dawson said.

Yawning a great yawn, I reached for my teacup. “I had bad dreams.”

“Never tell a dream before breakfast.” Mrs. Dawson handed me a plate of bread, butter, and jam. “It's the surest way to make it come true.”

I shuddered. “That's the last thing I want,” I told Mrs. Dawson.

As I was finishing my oatmeal, I saw Nellie hesitating in the doorway as if she weren't sure of her welcome. I raised my hand and beckoned to her.

Like a mouse, she scurried across the room and slid into a place beside me. “I been thinking, miss,” she whispered, eyeing Mrs. Dawson's broad back. Deciding the cook was intent on her chores, Nellie continued in a voice so low, I could barely hear her. “Maybe it were
her
that made ye speak so mean.” As she spoke, her eyes darted around the room. “Her ain't here now, is her?”

I looked around uneasily. “No, not now.”

“But her can come anytime her wants.” Nellie laid a cold hand on mine. “I been feeling her meself. Like a shadow her be, dark and cold and hateful.”

“Can you see her, Nellie?”

“Almost.” Her body tense, Nellie peered about just as I had, checking dark doorways and corners. “Her scares me something terrible, miss.”

“How long have you known about her, Nellie?”

“Her been comin' upon me slowly.” Flustered, Nellie knocked a spoon off the table and onto the floor.

Surprised by the noise, Mrs. Dawson looked over her shoulder. “Are you finished with your chores, Nellie?”

“No'm. I come to fill me bucket.” With that, Nellie scooted to the sink and pumped water into her scrub bucket. Giving me a small, scared smile, she hurried out of the kitchen.

Left on my own, I took my book to the sitting room and sat down to read. Before long, Sophia waltzed across the room, dipping and turning as if she actually had a partner.

“I don't believe you could dance a waltz,” she said, “as untrained and clumsy as you are.”

It was true. I'd never taken a dancing lesson. Miss Medleycoate had never encouraged any of us to imagine we might someday spin around a ballroom with a handsome suitor.

“I could play the piano with a precocity that amazed both Aunt and Uncle,” Sophia went on. “I sang, too, but I am now sadly out of practice.”

I looked at her with both pity and loathing. Pity because she was most certainly dead and not about to go dancing with anyone. Loathing because she was mean and spiteful and obviously had not benefitted morally from dying.

Pulling the drapes aside, Sophia peered at the snow. “Quick, put on your coat. I have a mind to build a snowman.”

Although I was comfortable where I was, I found myself running to my room. When I returned with my coat, scarf, hat, and mittens, Sophia wrinkled her nose.

“If you were as I am now, you wouldn't need those cumbersome garments,” she said. “You'd never be hot, never be cold, never be hungry or tired or afraid.”

“I'd never be anything,” I murmured.

Although I hadn't meant her to hear me, Sophia gave me a hateful look. “If justice prevails,” she said, “I will soon be as you are.” Under her breath, she added, “And James will be as I am.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but she merely laughed.

“Come along,” she called. “I'm eager to build my snowman.”

Nellie looked up as we ran through the scullery. She opened her mouth to speak but stopped, her face puzzled, then frightened. “Miss,” she cried. “Miss!” But she didn't follow me.

BOOK: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
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