Authors: Maggie MacKeever
Tags: #Regency Romance
“Cade’s ghost?” Barbary echoed. “You jest!”
Dulcie treated her to a nice display of excellent white teeth. “You haven’t heard the local gossip. It is one of the many disadvantages of going about with one’s nose stuck in the air. But I daresay Mr. Crossthwaite will wish you to keep to yourself until he determines whether there is any validity to your claim on the estate. Interesting, that you waited so long to contact your husband’s family.”
“She hesitated because of Connor, of course!” Amanda explained quickly, lest a boxing match take place in her own drawing-room. Or Barbary’s drawing-room. Or whoever owned the dratted place now. “Barbary must have known Connor wouldn’t let her near Sir Wesley. She would have seen the announcement of Sir Wesley’s passing in the newspapers, and then Connor’s, and so here she is.”
“How clever,” murmured Dulcie, without the slightest hint of admiration in her voice. “Especially since the newspapers made no mention of the Halliday solicitor. Yet she managed to search him out.”
Temper flared in Barbary’s eyes. “I only want what’s fair. As would anyone forced to live in genteel poverty for several years.”
Lady Bligh, who had never in her life wanted for anything, picked up her cup. “I daresay that in your situation I might have acted similarly.”
Amanda reflected that, during her own experience with straitened circumstances, she had never owned a garment fashioned of such fine material as Barbary Halliday’s ugly dress. “It doesn’t surprise me that anyone should have wanted to avoid Connor. I wish I might have done so myself! Nor am I surprised that Gypsy Joe shot him — at least everyone
the murderer was Gypsy Joe. Nobody seems to remember that Connor was nearly caught in one of his own man-traps. Are we also to blame Gypsy Joe for that?”
“Ah, yes,” said Dulcie. “The mysteriously moving traps. But it wasn’t Connor who normally frequented Lady Margaret’s Garden. You would have realized the implication of that already, were you not such a skitterwit.”
was meant to be the victim?” Amanda turned pale.
“It doesn’t seem unlikely.” Her hostess having failed to offer her further refreshment, Lady Bligh reached for the teapot. “On the other hand, our unfriendly spirit might have anticipated that Connor would investigate the mysterious occurrences centering around the place. But I’m forgetting that Mrs. Halliday knows nothing of all this. Allow me to explain.” She did so. Barbary listened with every evidence of fascination, while Amanda’s distress grew apace.
“I wish you had not reminded me,” she cried, at the close of the Baroness’s account. “Ghosts and curses and fountains that start up of their own accord, and ‘MURDER’ written in the sand— It’s too much to bear!”
“There is invariably a rational explanation for every seemingly inexplicable phenomenon,” Lady Bligh responded repressively, as she poured tea for Barbary and then herself. “Providing one takes the trouble to seek it out. For example, your frequent excursions to Lady Margaret’s Garden could be interpreted as a morbid fascination with the spot where Sir Wesley met his death.”
Amanda’s pretty face crumpled. “It wasn’t like that. I mean, I
of him, but not in that way. Lady Margaret’s Garden is such a peaceful private sort of place.”
“Private?” Dulcie echoed. “Have you forgotten mantraps and ghosts?”
“I doubt Cade is your ghost,” Barbary interjected. “He was so used up by drink and dissipation that he would lack the energy.”
Amanda stared at her. “That is an odd way to speak of the man you married. You must have had some fondness for him, once.”
“Must I?” said Barbary. “Did you?”
Amanda looked bewildered. “How could I? Oh, you mean Sir Wesley. He was a good man. And, to say the truth,
I was in danger of dwindling into a fubsy-faced old maid. You can’t really think that misplaced mantrap might have been meant for me, Lady Bligh? At least now no one need further fear those horrid things. I’ve ordered them removed.”
“You may expect the park to be filled with poachers, then,” the Baroness informed her. “But that’s none of my affair. I doubt that there’ll be further ghostly manifestations. The purpose of that little charade has been played out.”
“You think so?” Amanda inquired hopefully.
purpose?” Barbary asked.
Lady Bligh set down her teacup, which again was empty. “One good thing has come of all this. Janthina has been restored to her rightful place. As for Giuseppe, Bow Street believes that he arranged to meet with Connor, and lay in wait to murder him. Certainly Connor rode out to meet someone that day.
think it unlikely Giuseppe could have arranged matters better if he had wished
to be charged with the crime, which I doubt he did. There are several other perplexing points, among them the fact that the dueling pistol found by Connor’s body once belonged to Cade.”
Barbary frowned. “So Miss Fellowes said. I fear I can be of little help. As I told Mr. Crossthwaite, Cade did once possess a pair of dueling pistols, and I suppose he could have brought them with him from Greenwood, but I truly do not know. He sold them long ago, when he needed money. Cade always needed money, despite the allowance Connor made him.”
“Allowance?” echoed Amanda. “I thought—”
“So did everyone else, it seems,” Barbary replied. “The fact remains that Cade received a handsome allowance from his twin.”
This hardly accorded with the general opinion of Connor’s character. Amanda wrinkled her brow. “Maybe Connor had a guilty conscience,” she suggested.
Barbary rose. “Connor had no reason to feel guilty, so far as Cade was concerned. And now, you must excuse me. I am weary and would rest.”
“Pray do not let us detain you.” Lady Bligh also stood. “Naturally one would not feel quite one’s self after enduring such an ordeal.” Her expression as sour as if she’d bit into spoiled fruit, Mrs. Halliday left the room.
The Baroness turned her shrewd gaze on Amanda. “You look burnt to the socket, child.”
“If so, it should surprise no one,” retorted that young woman. “What with mysterious heiresses, and missing murderers, and all the other recent trying events, I think sometimes I shall succumb to a fever of the brain.” She cast Dulcie a sideways glance. “Will you tell me, how is Ned?”
“How do you think?” Lady Bligh pulled on her gloves. “You can hardly expect him to be encouraged that you go about embracing other men.”
“I do?” Amanda stared. “Oh, you mean Lord Dorset? Tell me Ned didn’t see us together! That wasn’t what it seemed.”
“Was it not? Then you have made a rare mull of matters indeed.”
Gloomily, Amanda watched the Baroness prepare for her departure. “I vow there is
on the Hallidays, and by default it has fallen upon me! I don’t know why it should, because I merely married into the family. It doesn’t seem at all fair that I should be plagued by misfortune when I haven’t a drop of Halliday blood. I almost hope Janthina
alive, so that
she can inherit the curse along with everything else!”
The following day dawned cold and overcast, and did not improve. Lady Bligh decreed that Lady Dorset should remain abed, and to ensure that this directive was carried out, enlisted the assistance of Jael. To make sure that the pair of them remained closeted in Livvy’s bedchamber, she issued certain orders to her own abigail.
Having disposed of the ladies, the Baroness sent young Austen to inspect the Castle dungeons and the medieval instruments of torture housed there. She then repaired to the solar, where she settled on a wooden pew, took up her knitting, and proceeded to look frail. Within moments Lord Dorset and the Honourable Hubert arrived at an unprecedented truce, and set out to execute various commissions on their ailing aunt’s behalf.
Sir John eyed his hostess. “What devilment are you up to now?”
“You wound me, John, you truly do.” Dulcie performed an intricate maneuver with knitting needles and scarlet wool. “There would be no need for devilment, were Bow Street not sublimely incapable of managing its own affairs.”
As so often happened in the presence of his hostess, Sir John experienced a strong impulse. Since this particular impulse concerned her knitting needles, he left her side, only to next encounter Ned, who was currently brooding upon the sacking of Cuidad Rodrigo. The town had been taken by columns of troopers who promptly mutated into a horde of drunken looters, Ned informed his unappreciative audience, shooting at doors and windows and any stray person who got in their way. The following morning, the valiant victors had presented themselves to their commander festooned in silk gowns, hung about with strings of stolen Spanish shoes, laden with hams and loaves of bread.
When Ned moved on to a description of Badajoz, where every door had been battered in, old men shot, women raped and children bayoneted, Sir John discovered in himself a need for fresh air. He donned his coat and hat and set out in search of Crump, on whom he meant to vent his irritation, for no particular reason save that the Runner wouldn’t dare retaliate in kind.
Sir John decided to walk to the village. Gibbon advised him of a short-cut through the forest, and brought forth a map. Coat collar drawn up around his ears, hands shoved in his pockets, Sir John set out down the lane.
His thoughts were not good company. Too many days had passed since Connor Halliday’s corpse was found, days during which Bow Street had learned only that a great many people could
have killed the man. Or so it seemed. Was it merely his suspicious nature that made him question the convenient timing of Barbary Halliday’s arrival? He could not help but see her as a carrion crow, come to pick at the corpse. Had she secretly arrived sooner, in order to speed Connor’s exit from the stage?
Or was he grasping at straws, because he didn’t want to think that Dulcie was set on protecting some member of her household? Several of Dulcie’s houseguests might be capable of murder, if not all of them, himself included.
Sir John disliked indecision. He wanted to be presented with the murder weapon, the shoe-throwing horse, and the missing tinker, all at once.
Unfair, he told himself, to expect miracles of Crump. They weren’t in London, where information could be purchased as easily as roasted chestnuts on any corner of any street.
Speaking of street corners, there were none in sight. Sir John paused, pulled out Gibbon’s map, and peered at it through the softly falling snowflakes. There should be a pile of rocks, a blasted tree— He saw nothing of the sort.
Sir John crumpled the paper in his hand. Unless he was very much mistaken, he’d been sent off in pursuit of a wild goose. Gibbon might have given him this confusing map, but it would have been at his mistress’s command.
Or would it? Dulcie hardly intended him to freeze to death in her damned forest. However, some other person might. Someone who didn’t want the questions surrounding Connor Halliday’s death resolved.
If so, they had underestimated their quarry. Sir John was not so easily thrown off the scent. He might stumble through unfamiliar territory without benefit of compass, he might also trip and fall flat on his face. But the sun still rose in the east, and set in the west; Greenwood Castle lay behind him and the village lay ahead, if not over this hill, then surely the next.
There were, as it turned out, several hills involved before the village loomed into view. By the time Sir John arrived at the Four Nuns, he was mad as several nests of hornets and chilled to the bone.
The taproom was deserted. No errant Runner lounged at the hearth, toasting his toes by a cozy fire, sipping a mug of ale. Sir John surveyed the enormous granite fireplace, flagged floor and beamed ceiling. As he drew nearer to the Patent Warm-Air Stove, he heard a faint familiar voice.
“Hell and the devil confound it,” snarled Sir John. The occupants of the private parlor looked up as he strode into the room. Lady Bligh was dressed to brave the elements in a wine-colored ermine trimmed cloak, an ermine shako with orange beads and tassels, a white silk dress and stout half-boots. With her were her butler and a tall, stooped gentleman.
“There you are!” the Baroness said cheerfully. “Had you a pleasant stroll? We’d begun to fear that you’d lost your way. You may be interested to learn that Mr. Crossthwaite refuses to acquaint us with the details of Cade Halliday’s death.”
The solicitor glanced at the open door, as if contemplating a dash for freedom. Sweat beaded his brow. Gibbon, too, looked as if he wished himself elsewhere.
Sir John wished him elsewhere also. Preferably, the Fleet. “Blast it, Dulcie! I’ll not have you interfering in official matters, do you hear?”
“ ‘Hear’?” echoed the Baroness. “I am hardly so ancient that I have overnight grown deaf. Before you subject me to another of your rake-downs, my dear, permit me to point out that you are in need of all the ‘interference’ you can get.”
Much as he would have liked to, Sir John could not argue with this statement. Gibbon cast him a sympathetic glance.
Dulcie returned her attention to the Halliday solicitor. “To continue, Mr. Crossthwaite: do you or do you not mean to substantiate Barbary’s claim?
you verify her credentials, what will she gain? You may not be aware, John, that there is no tangible evidence that Cade Halliday
dead. Interesting, is it not? Were Cade with us, he would be a strong contender for the villain of this piece; who better to play the part of a man’s ghost than the man himself? Ah, I see you have overlooked that minor detail.”
“I’ve overlooked nothing.” If his character was unimpeachable, Bow Street’s Chief Magistrate was not above an occasional fib. “Speak up, Crossthwaite! Have you some suspicion that Cade Halliday may be alive?”
“I can’t say one way or another.” The solicitor pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his brow. “Never in all my practice of the law have I encountered a situation such as this. There seems little real doubt Cade Halliday perished in that accident, but the bodies of the two men who went out in the boat with him were recovered, whereas his was not.”