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Authors: Mary Downing Hahn

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BOOK: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
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Outside, Sophia darted across the snow and disappeared into the garden. She left no tracks, but I found her easily enough, waiting for me by the fountain. The stone children and their captive swan wore hats and coats of snow, and the words on the rim were hidden.

“This has always been my favorite place.” Sophia brushed the snow off the fountain's rim and read the inscription. “Here and there and everywhere—it's a riddle,” she said. “Do you know the answer?”

I shook my head, and she smiled. “Just as I thought. You're not nearly as clever as I am.”

Leaning close to me, she chilled my cheek with her wintry breath. “Uncle says the answer is time, though he thinks it could also be the wind. But
I
know the true answer.”

Sophia's eyes held mine. I couldn't turn away. “It's
Death,
” she whispered. “Death is here and there and everywhere.”

Sophia looked at the house, its dark stone almost black against the whiteness, its roof and tall chimneys blending into the sky. “You cannot escape death,” she said softly. “You'll find out for yourself someday. Perhaps when you least expect it, he will come for you.”

I drew away from her, burrowing my face into the warmth of my scarf. It was true. There was no escaping something you couldn't see, even if you knew where to look.

“I've scared you, haven't I?” Sophia's laugh was as brittle as the sound of ice breaking. “Start rolling a ball for the snowman. I want it to be as tall as the chimney tops.”

She kept me working until my toes and fingers were numb from cold. Slowly the snowman took shape. Three balls of snow balanced one atop the other, not nearly as tall as the chimney tops, but lofty enough to see eye to eye with the stone children on their pedestal.

Sophia studied the snowman. “He needs a carrot for his nose and lumps of coal for his eyes and mouth. Run to the kitchen and come right back. Promise.”

Obediently I darted through the snow and into the warmth of the kitchen. Stuffing a handful of coal into my pocket, I grabbed a carrot from the table.

“Here,” Mrs. Dawson said. “Where are you going with that carrot? I just pared it for tonight's stew.”

“It's for the snowman we're building in the garden.”

“‘We'?” Mrs. Dawson looked at me in surprise. “You and who else? If Nellie is out there playing, you tell her to get herself inside. She has work to do.”

A bit rattled by my slip, I shook my head. Mrs. Dawson would not want to hear about Sophia, waiting impatiently for me. “I'm building it. Just me. I don't know why I said ‘we.'”

Mrs. Dawson held out an unpeeled carrot and I returned the one she'd pared. “Your lips are blue with cold, child. Stay inside a bit and warm up. The snowman can wait for his nose.”

“No, I promised I'd be right back.”

“Promised who?”

Without answering, I slipped out the door and ran to the garden. I didn't dare keep Sophia waiting.

“You took your time,” Sophia said.

She watched me add the snowman's eyes, mouth, and nose. “No, no,” she said crossly. “He mustn't smile.”

Snatching the lumps of coal, Sophia rearranged them and stood back, with a grin. She'd transformed my creation. With frowning brows and a grim, downturned mouth, he stared at me. He was fearsome, almost as frightening as Sophia herself.

“Perfect.” She smiled and stepped back to admire her creature. “It will give everyone a start to see him standing here exactly where I built mine.”

Suddenly she tensed as a cat does when it hears something no one else does. “Hide,” she cried. “He's coming!”

Frightened, I followed Sophia into the yew trees around the fountain and huddled under the snowy branches. “Who's coming?” I whispered.

There was no answer. Sophia had vanished.

“Who be here?” Spratt called. “Come out and show yerself.”

With some embarrassment, I crawled out from the yew tree. In doing so, I brushed against a branch that then dumped its load of snow on my head.

“Well, it be hard to say which be the girl and which be the snowman,” Spratt said with a chuckle.

I brushed the snow off. My nose felt like the carrot in the snowman's face, frozen hard as diamonds.

While I stamped my feet to warm them, Spratt studied the snowman. “This be a right good job,” he said, “but there's summat familiar about him.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Could it be ye had some help a-building it?”

When I didn't answer immediately, he went on, “I sees onliest one set of footprints. I reckon they be yers.
Her
don't leave no footprints.”

“Sophia,” I whispered. “
She
made his face.”

“Hush, don't be saying her name. That's like inviting her to come.” Spratt leaned on the shovel he'd been using to clear snow from the garden walk, and peered into my eyes. “Ye see her, do ye?”

I nodded. “First I felt her, then I heard her, and now I see her. She comes to my room, she follows me upstairs and down. No matter where I go, I can't escape her.”

Spratt sighed and shook his head. “It be a shame for a child to be so wicked as that 'un. Wish I knowed a way to make her lie peaceful in her grave like most folk do.”

“You gave James a charm to protect him. Can you make one for me?” My voice rose. “She wants him dead—she wants me dead too. She hates me. I tell you, she hates me!”

“No, no. Her just be toying with ye. It's always been her way to taunt and tease and hurt.” He paused and stared at the snowman, its tall shape white against the darkening sky. “It be Master James her wants to harm, not ye. But we won't let her get to him, will we? We'll keep a close watch, ye and me.”

My teeth chattered so hard that I couldn't speak. Sophia was the cat and James and I were the mice. When she was tired of playing with us, she'd bite off our heads and eat us.

“Poor lass, ye be just about froze.” Spratt took my hand. “Let me take ye back to the house. Be dark soon. Mr. Crutchfield will be a-looking for ye.”

In the dusky light of a winter afternoon, the land rolled away toward the distant hills, its whiteness shading into a bluish gray. The snow creaked under our feet, but ahead, the hall's windows glowed with warmth. Hot tea would be waiting by the fire in the sitting room, along with bread and butter and jam.

Behind us, Sophia hid in the snow-laden garden, watching me, smiling that spiteful smile. She would come inside when she wished, but she'd drink no tea, she'd eat no bread and jam. All the fires in the house could not warm her bones. Alone, she'd twirl through the house like a cold draft, thinking of nothing but ways to make James pay for her death.

T
en
 
 

A
LL NIGHT LONG, THE WIND
blew and Sophia pursued me into my dreams as she had the night before. Awake or asleep, I could not escape her.

Exhausted, I dragged myself down to breakfast and sank into my seat at the kitchen table.

Mrs. Dawson looked at me sharply. “Bad dreams again?”

I nodded and she clucked her tongue. “Poor child. You'll be needing a good dose of my special tonic.”

Nellie slid in beside me. “Don't take none of that,” she said. “It be poison for certain.”

“Hmm,” Mrs. Dawson said. “Looks like you could use some yourself, Nellie dear.”

“It's me dreams,” Nellie said. “Lately they be a-wearing me out.”

She looked out the window at the snow-blanketed garden. “It were on account of that snowman you made, miss. I seen it afore I went to bed, a-standing in the garden, looking like the devil hisself. Why'd ye make him so big and scarifying?”

Mrs. Dawson joined Nellie at the window. “It's strange, but Sophia built a snowman just like that on the day before she died. She told James the snowman would come to life at night and steal him from his bed. He'd bury James deep in the snow. No one would ever see him again. She terrified the poor—”

“Stop, mistress, stop!” Nellie cowered at the table, her hands pressed to her ears. “That be just what I dreamed, only it were me the snowman took.”

Wide awake now, I stared at Nellie and then turned to Mrs. Dawson. “I dreamed the same thing,” I whispered. “The snowman dragged me to the churchyard and laid me in a grave and heaped snow over me.”

By now, Nellie had her apron over her head and was sobbing. “Yes, yes, he took me to the churchyard too, and he buried me under the snow, and I couldn't dig me way out or move or cry for help. I wanted to come home so bad.”

Mrs. Dawson's face lost its ruddy color. “The day Sophia was buried it snowed again. They'd no sooner shoveled the dirt onto her grave than the snow covered her. I couldn't help thinking how cold she must be.” Her hands shook, and tea slopped over the rim of her cup.

She moved closer to the fire. “Poor child.” Mrs. Dawson crossed herself. “Poor, cold child.” She glanced at a calendar hanging on the wall and crossed herself again. “It was on this very day she died. Twelve months ago, a whole year now.”

As she spoke, I felt Sophia creep up behind me. Her cold breath lifted the hair on my neck. No one saw her, not even me, but she was there in the kitchen, making the fire on the hearth flicker and flare.

Mrs. Dawson shivered. “There's a draft in here today, worse than usual. Makes my old bones ache.”

“Sophia were a wicked 'un,” Nellie whispered.

The air quivered, and a heavy stoneware pitcher fell from a shelf. Just missing Nellie's head, it shattered harmlessly on the stone floor.

“See what happens when you speak ill of the dead?” Mrs. Dawson bent to clean up the shards of china. “Show me a perfect child, Nellie, before you criticize Sophia.”

For a moment, Nellie sat still and stared at Mrs. Dawson and the broken pitcher. Then she and I looked at each other. We both knew the pitcher had not fallen by accident.

Mrs. Dawson dumped the remains of the pitcher into the trash bin. “You have work to do, Nellie. Master wants his boots polished, and the floors need sweeping and the fires must be tended.”

Nellie ran off, glad to leave the kitchen where Sophia lingered unseen. “If I was you,” Mrs. Dawson said to me, “I'd busy myself with needlework or knitting, maybe even read the Bible and say some prayers. Remember, Satan casts his nets far and wide. And you aren't as smart as you think you are.”

Behind me, Sophia chilled my neck with her breath again. Mrs. Dawson drew her shawl more tightly around her shoulders and rose to put more wood on the fire. “I've never known this kitchen to be so cold.”

I excused myself to fetch a wrap, but as soon as I left the kitchen, Sophia stepped in front of me. “I have a mind to show you something.”

Even though I struggled to resist her, Sophia seized my hand and dragged me outside. Snow had begun to fall again, and a strong wind made a din in the treetops. I tried to hang back, but my cousin dragged me away from the house. “Where are we going?” I cried. “I need my coat, my hat.”

Sophia did not answer. Clad only in her thin silk dress, she struck out across the snow, pulling me with her. From time to time, the wind lifted her off her feet and threatened to carry her away, but it never succeeded. Somehow she stayed on, or close to, the ground. Perhaps my weight held her down—I did not know, could not tell.

Faster she ran and faster still, dragging me behind her. The wind bit my face, and sprays of flying snow blinded me. “Please,” I cried, “go slower. I cannot keep up with you.”

With a laugh, Sophia glanced over her shoulder, her face stark white. “The living are not as light on their feet as the dead.”

On we went, across fields, up hills and down, skirting a pond, ducking under tree limbs heavy with snow. Using the last of my strength, I followed Sophia to a hilltop where the wind blew so savagely, I thought it might carry us across the sea to America. Just be low us lay a small huddle of houses, a couple of shops, an inn, and a church. The scene reminded me of a Christmas village I'd seen once in a shop window.

“Lower Bolton,” Sophia said.

I said nothing, but I was cheered by the thought that living people were nearby. Fires and hot tea and warm food. Comfort. If only I could escape Sophia and seek a kindly person to help me.

Tightening her grip on my wrist, Sophia glided downhill toward the village, slowed only by my stumbling gait. When we reached the churchyard, I was prepared to collapse and freeze to death in a snowbank.

Sophia smirked. “That's the price you pay for dragging your cumbersome body everywhere you go.”

Too weary to speak, I followed her through the gate. We wound our way through a city of tombstones, some taller than I was, some in danger of falling, some already fallen. The inscriptions on many were too weathered to read, and the stones were black against the white snow. It was a desolate place on a winter day.

BOOK: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
2.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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