“Honey needs it!”
Miss Charlotte Kingsley glanced over from where she had been examining a new dress that was prominently displayed in the window of Madam Hudson’s Fine Gowns. Her friend Annabella Cole gaped past her to where a very odd couple were looking into the window of the milliner’s shop.
The woman was of an average height, young, but rather plump, with a face that might have been considered beautiful if not for the excessive amounts of powder and rouge that covered it. The dress she wore was trimmed with lace and ruffles, and fell all about her in a cascade of rather off-putting pink taffeta. Her hair was pale and curly, and she was studying the shop window with an expression of noticeable petulance. “I simply must have it, Jamison!” she remonstrated to the man standing at her side.
Jamison smiled patronizingly. “I daresay they’ll give it to you for a tidy sum, madam.” The man was tall and thin, was garbed in a black suit, and stood with a slight stoop. He was much older than the woman at his side, old enough even to be her father. What little hair he had was grey, and under one arm he carried a tall hat and a large assortment of brown paper parcels. The two had apparently been shopping for quite some time.
“It’s just so frightfully irritating,” the woman replied, pouting. “Buying things is such an ordeal.” The couple entered the shop, and Charlotte turned back to her friend.
“Bella, who was that?” she asked Miss Cole. Her friend was half a head shorter than she, with curly brown hair and wide blue eyes. Her father was the proprietor of The Guildford Arms, Welterton’s most respectable inn.
“That was Lady Ruth Hulegain!” Annabella said excitedly. “She’s newly arrived from London, and Bridget Anderson told me that she is a proper lady!”
“Where is she staying?” Charlotte asked, curious whether a proper lady would stay at the Guildford Arms.
“Oh, she’s not just visiting!” Annabella said, laughing as though the very idea was absurd. “She’s renting Ravenhart Manor.”
“After all these years?” Charlotte breathed, amazed. Ravenhart Manor was a full five miles from Welterton, and had not been let out since the previous owner, Lord Rutherford, had died under mysterious circumstances. He had been found dead in his garden, and though the physician had attributed his death to a stroke, busy tongues in Welterton had spun a thousand tales concerning his demise. He had been struck dead on the anniversary of his late wife’s death, or been on bad terms with his son and so been poisoned, or had hidden a vast fortune before dying of spite toward anyone who hoped to profit by it. Regardless of the tragedy’s particulars, Ravenhart Manor was presumed haunted by all accounts.
The late Lord Rutherford’s son had inherited the estate, but as he preferred his home closer to London, and was often abroad in Europe, he never stayed at Ravenhart. Some said his guilty conscience kept him away. Others said that guilt or no guilt, the manor was creepy enough to keep everyone away, save for the few village boys who dared each other to climb over the garden wall and peer through the windows. Annabella’s brother had once reported that everything was dark and dusty inside, but that had clearly changed recently. “I suppose proper ladies aren’t afraid of ghosts,” Charlotte said thoughtfully.
“Maybe not, but I am,” Annabella retorted, shivering. “Imagine living in that creepy old mansion…”
“What do you know about her husband?” Charlotte asked her friend as the two girls turned away from the shop and toward the Guildford Arms. “Mr. Jamison?”
“Oh, that’s not her husband,” Miss Cole said quickly. “No, she’s not married. Jamison is her steward.”
“She’s staying for some time then?” Charlotte checked.
“Yes, for the foreseeable future,” Annabella shared, pausing in the entrance of the street that led to her father’s inn. “I doubt she’ll spend much time with us lowly folk…she’s probably much too grand for that!” On that note, she waved goodbye to her friend and hurried down the street, coat flapping behind her.
Charlotte turned towards home, glancing up at the cloudy sky. Winter seemed loath to arrive in Welterton, and despite the icy chill in the air, snow refused to fall. So the old manor is inhabited again, the girl mused absentmindedly. Shivering, she hurried on her way, her breath smoking in the cold air.
Miss Charlotte Kingsley was the youngest daughter of Mr. Kingsley, a gentleman who had once been made rich by the passing of a distant relative. He was far from wealthy now, but still had the means of keeping a small house and the staff to match. “No daughter of mine will be scrubbing floors while I still have breath in my body,” he would declare proudly whenever he felt his dignity was being questioned. He had no sons, and hoped (whenever he chanced to think of such things) that he could see his three daughters happily married before he was cold in the grave. In this, he had been partially successful: his eldest daughter, Priscilla, had recently married a poor (but honest) farmer.
Of the two girls left at home, the elder daughter, Christine, was considered the more beautiful of the two, with long dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and the sort of face that passers-by tended to remember for days afterward. Unfortunately for her father, she didn’t seem particularly interested in marrying, instead being content to spend her hours playing on the family’s piano-forte.
Charlotte was decidedly less accomplished than her older sister, but what she lacked in needlepoint and musicianship she made up for by being impressively well-read. Her features were undeniably agreeable, but she believed that her flaxen hair and hazel eyes caused her to be overlooked when seen beside her sister. There were only so many eligible young men in Welterton, and few of them seemed to notice her at all. It didn’t help Charlotte’s cause that she was determined to truly love the man she married.
Annabella’s prediction about the character of the newly-arrived proper lady turned out to be inaccurate. Lady Ruth Hulegain had not been in the neighborhood a fortnight before she had sent out invitations to all of the respectable families in Welterton. She was hosting a winter’s ball, and cordially requested their presence. “I suppose it might be enjoyable to see inside the manor,” Christine said dismissively. That thought made Charlotte a trifle uneasy, but she quickly voiced her interest in attending.
“So long as you are both going, I see no harm in it,” Mr. Kingsley said, looking up from his book on the Trojan War. “Do let me know if the place is actually haunted,” he said, chuckling. “And of course, give my regards to Lady Hulegain.”
“You’re not coming?” Christine checked, pausing from her practicing.
Her father shook his head. “No, I think not. The rheumatism has been at my bones lately, and that means snow. I think I’ll see if Colonel Brandon wants to join me for a card game and a drink.”
“What about a chaperone?” Charlotte inquired.
“You don’t actually plan on getting yourselves in any mischief, do you?” he replied, glancing at his daughters with a twinkle in his eye. “I happen to know that Mrs. Cole will be attending,” he continued. “She should be all the chaperone either of you require.” Annabella’s mother was renowned throughout the town for her good sense, a quality most out of keeping with her status as an innkeeper’s wife.
“But don’t you want to see Ravenhart yourself?” Charlotte pressed.
“I saw it once, a long time ago,” Mr. Kingsley said, shrugging. “I don’t suppose the building has changed that much.”
“Well, we’ll miss you,” his youngest daughter said, looking back to her book. “I won’t have anyone to talk to.”
Her father laughed, smiling fondly at her. “I daresay you’ll manage tolerably well. Who knows? Perhaps Lady Hulegain is a great reader!”
Charlotte smiled, but she highly doubted that to be the case.
The day of Lady Hulegain’s ball dawned cold and clear. Smoke rose from Welterton as the town awoke and began going about its business. However, there seemed to be a faint undercurrent of excitement in the air, a communal understanding that something unusual was about to occur despite the trappings of normalcy.
Looking out her window about midday, Charlotte watched as the first flakes of winter began to fall from the sky. Smiling, she drummed her fingers on the window ledge as she recalled what her father had said about his rheumatism. Perhaps the ball will be postponed, she thought, somewhat hopefully.
Evening came without any word from Ravenhart however, and so, at precisely four-fifteen, Charlotte and Christine changed into their best dresses, mounted the steps of their father’s carriage, and set out for the mysterious mansion. They joined the steady stream of traffic heading out into the country, their carriage rocking uncertainly as the horses pulled it along the wet, snow-covered roads.
There had been no dances in Welterton for nearly two months, and everyone invited (and quite a few who were not) were determined to attend Lady Hulegain’s ball no matter the cost. Hired cabs, private carriages, and a few young men on horseback all made their way along several miles of uncertain roads before turning down the long driveway of Ravenhart Manor. The tall wrought-iron gates stood wide open, attended by footmen in heavy grey coats. The lamps protruding on either side of the gate blinked brightly in the blinding snow, glaring out like the eyes of some giant from primordial myth. The Kingsley girls’ carriage joined the long line of cabs that were waiting to deposit their occupants on the front steps of the still-unseen manor house.
Charlotte gazed out the window at the frosted grounds of Ravenhart as Christine shivered, frowning. “It’s freezing,” the older girl complained as their carriage inched along.
“It’ll be warmer inside,” Charlotte reminded her sister. “It’s not as if we’re having a picnic.”
Christine rubbed her hands together miserably. “Only you could think of having a picnic in this weather, Lotti.”
Charlotte smiled, then caught her breath as the grand building finally came into view through the carriage windows.
The manor looked rather tired, built of the same grey stone that was common all around Welterton. Despite the light that shone from the windows on the main level, many of the upper windows were dark and lifeless. Dark green ivy, leaves tattered from the wind and snow, clung to the walls, lending the building an air of neglect.
However, despite Charlotte’s dismal first impression, the sounds of music and laughter that drifted from the building carried with them a promise of warmth, food, and enjoyment. The carriage rolled to a stop, and a footman opened the door to assist the two sisters as they emerged into the elements. Snow swirled around them as they made their way up the wide stone steps, stopping briefly in front of the massive oak doors before being waved inside by the doorman. They stopped just inside the mansion, staring around in shock at the grand entrance hall.
The more logical part of Charlotte knew that Ravenhart would have been cleaned, polished, and spruced-up now that it was inhabited, but she had still half-expected to find cobwebs clinging in the corners and dust covering the furniture. However, nothing could have prepared her for what lay before them. The walls had been covered with a bright pink paper, accented with garish golden trim. The chandelier that hung from the ceiling was a gaudy monstrosity that would have been more at home in a room thrice the size of the one it currently occupied. The carpet was thick and luxurious, but happened to be a particularly wrong shade of red, clashing horribly with the pink wallpaper.
“Your coats?” a voice prompted.
Charlotte flinched, and turned to find Jamison standing at her elbow.
“May I take your coats?” he repeated, smoothly extending a hand.
“Yes, thank you,” Christine said graciously. Charlotte was too put-out by the man’s sudden appearance to do anything but smile and silently hand him her coat. Jamison disappeared through a narrow doorway, and the two sisters continued through the hall and into a large parlor filled with people. Many of the guests were familiar, but there were several new faces as well. In addition to the men and women of Welterton, several officers from the next town over were in attendance, as well as a young woman, Miss Eleanor Dewhurst, and her father, who both lived on a nearby estate. A tall gentleman with black hair and a friendly face stood beside the fireplace talking to a man with pale, wispy hair, and teeth that were decidedly too large for his mouth.
Charlotte spotted Annabella waving at her, so she quickly made her way over to her friend. “Isn’t this wonderful, Lottie?” the girl exclaimed. “I’ve never been to such a proper ball in all my life!”
“It is exciting!” Charlotte agreed, though privately she thought that the ball would be a sight more proper if the décor was more fitting. This room, too, was papered in pink, but the chairs and settees had been upholstered in a lime green velvet. The overall effect was far from pleasant.
“Lady Hulegain has been a most gracious host, and several of the gentlemen here are quite handsome,” Annabella told her friend, speaking the last bit in a conspiratorial whisper.
“Who are those two by the fireplace?” Charlotte asked, curious.
Annabella glanced over. “Oh, that’s Lady Hulegain’s cousin and his friend. Shall I introduce you?” Before Charlotte could reply that she needn’t trouble herself, and that the two men seemed to be in serious conversation and ought to be let alone, her friend had already set off across the room. Annabella gestured for her to follow, and Charlotte complied with a sigh. The two friends approached the oblivious gentlemen, who were still in deep conversation.
“…hasn’t had a spell in years,” the toothy man was saying. You worry too much Arthur.”
“It just makes me nervous, is all,” the dark-haired man replied, frowning. “Last time you had to pay off half…”
“I’m not likely to forget it, am I?” the blonde man snapped. “But what would you do? Lock her up? Everyone needs a good time now and again.”
The other man began to reply, then noticed Annabella smiling at him. “My apologies. May I help you Miss Cole?” he asked politely.
“Yes, may I introduce my good friend Miss Charlotte Kingsley? Charlotte, this is Mr. Arthur Richards and Mr. Blaine Hulegain.”
“Delighted, Miss Kingsley,” Mr. Richards said, bowing low.
“Mr. Hulegain is Lady Hulegain’s cousin,” Annabella explained, indicating the blonde man with the large teeth.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” the cousin said before bobbing a short bow.
“A pleasure to meet you both,” Charlotte replied shyly. “Where are you from?”
“Well, Blaine hails from London,” Mr. Richards explained. “But I have a little estate of my own in Derbyshire.”
“Oh please, Arthur,” Mr. Hulegain laughed. “Let’s be frank with these young ladies.” He turned toward Charlotte. “Arthur is very modest. He owns a very fine house and a great deal of property.”
“Modesty is not a terribly great offense,” the girl observed, smiling. “I think we should forgive him this once.”
The two gentlemen laughed good-naturedly. “Indeed we shall, if you insist upon it,” Mr. Hulegain said with a grin.
“Where are you from, Miss Kingsley?” Mr. Richards inquired.
“I grew up near Bath, sir, but my family lives in Welterton now.”
“Capital!” Richards replied. “I have a great-aunt who lives in Bath.” He paused, glancing almost uncertainly at the young woman. “Miss Kingsley, might I be so bold as to claim the first dance?” he eventually said, before adding quickly, “That is, if you are not otherwise engaged.”
“I would be delighted, Mr. Richards,” Charlotte said, smiling. “No, I have no prior engagements.”
“Splendid!” the gentleman exclaimed. “Then I shall look forward to it.”
Charlotte glanced over at Annabella, only to find that her friend had slipped away at some point during the conversation. Before the girl could leave to seek out her friend, Lady Hulegain herself approached. The woman was dressed in a purple gown trimmed with decidedly too much lace, and she smiled widely as she neared the three young people. “Who is this young lady?” she asked in a voice dripping with sugar.
“May I introduce Miss Kingsley?” Mr. Richards announced, gesturing toward Charlotte.
“It’s an honor to meet you ma’am,” the girl said, curtsying neatly.
“Oh, ma’am indeed,” the woman exclaimed haughtily. “I’m not as old as all that. Call me Honey, dear, everyone does.”
Miss Hulegain’s earnest and matronly tone was so out of keeping with her young face that Charlotte almost felt alarmed. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you Lady…Honey.”
“Likewise, dear,” the woman said, smiling fondly. Her eyes flitted to the simple, yet beautiful brooch that Charlotte wore. “What a pretty little trinket,” she said easily.
Charlotte glanced down at it, a little embarrassed to be discussing jewelry in front of the two gentlemen. “Thank you. It was my mother’s,” she explained.
“And where is your mother?” Lady Hulegain asked casually. “She was most welcome to attend!”
“She died when I was still a child,” the girl confessed awkwardly.
“Heavens!” Honey exclaimed. “That’s very dreadful to be sure. Well, I do hope you enjoy yourself dear.” The woman glided off, leaving Charlotte standing self-consciously next to Mr. Hulegain and his friend. The question about her mother had caught her off-guard.
Jamison entered the room and clapped his hands self-importantly. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you please,” he announced. “The dance is beginning.” He bowed, and an excited hubbub filled the room as the guests began to make their way out of the parlor and towards the ballroom.
“Shall we?” Richards asked, offering Charlotte his arm.
“Indeed,” she replied, taking it hesitantly. The two joined the flow of the hurrying crowd, walking down a long corridor before emerging into a grand hall. Chandeliers were suspended high overhead, yet instead of a large fixture like the one in the entrance hall, a handful of small chandeliers were scattered across the ceiling. The walls had been festooned with spruce garlands in anticipation of Christmas, but they had been trimmed with yellow ribbons that refused to match any of the other colors in the room. Charlotte sighed quietly. She was becoming heartily tired of Lady Hulegain’s taste in interior design.
Couples moved to the center of the room as the musicians struck a chord. Christine approached her sister with a gentleman from Welterton in tow. “May we join you?” she asked Charlotte. “The first dance is a quadrille.”
“Of course!” the girl replied. “Mr. Richards, may I introduce my sister Christine?”
“Delighted, Miss Kingsley,” he said, bowing.
“This is Mr. William Hayes,” Christine explained, gesturing to the man beside her.
“A right good party!” he exclaimed loudly, looking around at the spectacle. And on that improper note, the music started and the dance began.
Charlotte found herself grasping for something to say to Mr. Richards. “How do you like living in Derbyshire?” she finally managed to inquire, hoping to clear the awkwardness from the air.
“I find I like it very well indeed!” he replied. “Have you ever been?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t had that pleasure,” she confessed.
“Well you certainly should some day!” he announced. “I daresay you’d find the countryside very agreeable indeed.”
Charlotte danced no fewer than five dances with Mr. Richards, and enjoyed herself immensely. He was a perfect gentleman, and seemed to genuinely enjoy her company. The hours passed, and the dance floor gradually became less crowded as guests settled down for games of whist and loo. At about ten o’clock, Jamison ran into the room with short, choppy steps and commenced a hurried whispered conference with Lady Hulegain. A dance had just finished, and Charlotte glanced up curiously at Mr. Richards. He was watching the quiet discussion closely, his brow furrowed in concern. “Is something wrong?” Charlotte asked gently.
The man started, glancing at her apologetically. “Do forgive me, Miss Kingsley. I’m sure nothing is the matter.” But in a few minutes the news had begun to circulate around the party: the snowfall was deeper than expected, and had been blown into eight-foot-high drifts. The roads were impassable, and it was unlikely that they would be cleared before morning.
Hearing this, Charlotte excused herself and went in search of her sister. She found her at a card table, her usually bright face clouded by concern. “Lotti, have you heard?” Christine inquired as her sister approached.
Charlotte nodded. “I just heard the news.”
“Everyone? Yoo-hoo! Everyone?” Lady Hulegain called, loudly clapping her gloved hands together with a soft thop-thop-thop. The groups of card-players scattered about the room looked up, somewhat irritated at this uncouth interruption. “I have an announcement,” the lady proclaimed. “As you may have heard, the snow is too deep for you to return to your homes. However, rest assured that I shall not turn you out into the storm!” Several of the guests exchanged looks, perhaps wondering if this had actually been a consideration. “That was a joke!” the lady assured them. “As I was saying, you needn’t worry. I have plenty of room, so you must all stay overnight.” Jamison hissed something into her ear, and Lady Hulegain’s face reddened. “I must apologize for the state of some of the rooms,” she announced. “We haven’t had time to redecorate them all.” She smiled daftly, blinking around at her many guests. “The servants shall show you to your rooms.”
“Your Ladyship is all generosity,” Mr. Dewhurst said affably.
“You’re too kind,” she replied, gliding off, her lace rustling.
“I suppose we’ll have to stay, then,” Charlotte muttered, frowning. As much as she had enjoyed herself, even the best of parties can grow tiresome, and the prospect of spending the night in a mansion that was probably haunted wasn’t particularly appealing.
“I just hope father doesn’t worry,” Christine murmured pensively.
“A servant will be sent on horseback to the village to notify your father of the arrangement,” Jamison assured the sisters, appearing at Charlotte’s side and making her flinch. “If you will just follow me, I will show you to your room.”
The two sisters followed the tall steward down brightly lit hallways and through rooms where gaudy colors assaulted their senses. Pausing to pick up a lit candelabra, Jamison opened a door, and led the way down a dingy corridor. The edges of the hardwood floor were covered with dust, and the stooped servant brushed past a cobweb with obvious displeasure. Charlotte frowned, glancing at her sister. Their eyes met, and it was clear that they were thinking the same thing. “We haven’t had time to redecorate them all,” Lady Hulegain had said. But this hallway hadn’t even been cleaned. When they reached their room, however, they found that it had been tidied recently, and while not exactly homey, it was also a far cry from the dirty corridor they had just walked along.
“Your room,” Jamison announced, waving them in with a refined gesture. The girls entered the bedroom, and Charlotte quickly glanced around the room. Her initial impression was confirmed upon closer inspection. The room was clean, but the dark oak panels on the walls gave it a somber atmosphere. A painting of a solemn-looking man rested above the mantle, staring down dolefully at the sisters. Charlotte turned to thank the elderly steward, but Jamison was already gone. The girl frowned, glanced down the empty hallway, then carefully shut the door.
Ravenhart Manor was silent, Lady Hulegain’s many guests peacefully asleep in their beds. Even the servants, having successfully situated all of the visitors in various bedrooms throughout the vast mansion, quietly slipped toward their own quarters for a few hours of sleep. Outside, the snow covered the forests and fields surrounding Ravenhart, a deep white carpet that deadened whatever small sounds the woodland creatures made. The clouds parted, and the moon shone down as the snow gradually stopped falling. The servants slept. The guests slept. The mansion slept. Ravenhart manor slumbered the deep sleep of a long winter’s night.
Yet in the midst of this peaceful repose, a solitary figure stalked, knife in hand and mind bent on destruction.
Charlotte awoke with a start, uncertain of what woke her. Her sister sat up quickly beside her. “Lotti, did you hear that?” she hissed. Charlotte fumbled around in the darkness, finally managing to light a candle. Christine’s eyes shone large and fearful in the feeble candlelight.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Charlotte said, but her pulse was racing. Something didn’t feel right.
“Someone screamed,” Christine said, her voice quavering. “Or at least, I thought so. Maybe I just dreamt it.” She frowned uncertainly. A muted murmur of raised voices suddenly echoed through the walls.
“Help!” a lady screamed.
“Murder!” a man yelled.
Christine turned pale, and Charlotte swallowed hard. “Stay here,” the younger girl ordered. “I’ll go and see what’s the matter.”
“Absolutely not!” Christine snapped. “You’re not leaving me here by myself in this place!”
“Then come with me,” Charlotte said, steeling her nerves. She quickly used her mother’s brooch to pin an old shawl around her shoulders as her sister climbed out of bed. Hoisting her candle, Charlotte yanked open the door and set off toward the sound of the commotion. After passing down a dark and dusty hallway, as well as another that seemed to have crêpe paper lace decorating its walls, the sisters arrived at a chamber crowded with people. The room was brightly lit, and Charlotte couldn’t help but notice the garish opulence that separated this bedroom from the one they had been assigned. “Oh, Lotti, you’re safe. I am glad,” Annabella said, hurrying forward and seizing her friend’s hand.
“What is going on?” Charlotte asked, then gasped as the crowd shifted. Miss Eleanor Dewhurst lay unconscious on the floor, her gown splattered with scarlet blood. Her father knelt beside her, trying to stop the bleeding with a fistful of stained linen.
“Is there a doctor here?” he called, looking up desperately.
“I’m a doctor,” an elderly man announced helpfully, pushing his way through the crowd. He bent over the young woman, hastily conferring with her father in low tones.
Mr. Blaine Hulegain dashed into the room, stopping short and turning an unhealthy shade of yellow as he scanned the scene. “Mr. Dewhurst,” he said in a deadly-calm tone. “Are any of your daughter’s valuables missing?”
“What?” the father asked, looking up at him blankly.
“Think, man!” Mr. Hulegain urged. “Is there anything missing?”
Mr. Dewhurst blinked a few times. “Well, there was her pearl necklace…but no, she would have set that on the nightstand…where is it?” A brief search of the room produced no necklace.
Mr. Hulegain began taking long, shuddering breaths. “Who would do such a thing?” Annabella asked, voicing what everyone had been thinking.
“It could have been anyone,” the elderly doctor pointed out, looking up from his patient. “Even someone in this room right now.” An uncomfortable silence followed this statement.
“But who?” a woman whispered.
“Someone with a very sharp knife,” the physician stated dubiously. “Mr. Dewhurst, if you could please fetch my bag. Five doors to the right, on the other side of the hall. The rest of you, please return to your rooms. You aren’t doing this girl any good by standing around gawking.”
The group filed out obediently, but just as Charlotte was about to leave, Mr. Hulegain caught her by the arm. “Listen to me,” he hissed, face drawn and voice quavering.
Charlotte looked up at him, startled.
“We don’t have much time,” the man said quickly. “I need you to find Mr. Richards. Tell him to arm himself and meet me in the main parlor with all haste.”
“I don’t under…” the girl began, but Mr. Hulegain cut her off.
“We haven’t a moment to lose! Just…trust me Miss Kingsley.” He glanced over at the unconscious girl lying on the ground, the doctor hovering over her like a dark bird of death. Mr. Hulegain looked back at Charlotte. “Please?”
She clutched her candle tighter. “Where is Mr. Richards?”
The man sighed, obviously relieved. “Check the billiards room in the west wing. I know it’s late, but he said he was going to get some practice in tonight. He’s probably there.”
“But Lotti!” Christine protested.
“Bella, can you stay with my sister?” Charlotte asked, turning towards her friend.
“Of course,” the girl reassured her. “Be careful!”
Charlotte nodded, took a deep breath, and set off down the dark hallway.
She moved as quickly as she could, shading the flame of her candle with one hand to prevent it from being blown out as she walked. The feeble light glittered off old picture frames and new trimmings alike, pushing back against the darkness as the girl moved deeper into the mansion. Within ten minutes, she became hopelessly lost, confused by the aimless halls and multitude of chambers. The west wing had been left mostly untouched by its new owner, and much of the furniture was covered with dust-caked sheets that put Charlotte in mind of the ghost that was fabled to roam these halls. Shuddering, she moved further into the labyrinth of rooms and passages. To her surprise, she heard the distant tones of a piano-forte being played. Following her ears, Charlotte gradually began making her way towards the sounds, hoping to find Mr. Richards, or at least someone who could point her in the direction of the billiard room. The girl paused before a set of double doors, the music emanating from somewhere behind them. She pushed one of the doors open, the sudden draft extinguishing her candle and plunging her into darkness. As her eyes adjusted, she found herself looking into a room dimly illuminated by the moonlight that streamed in through large windows. Sheets covered each piece of furniture except a large piano-forte, which rested in pride of place in front of the windows. Sitting rather un-elegantly on the bench was none other than Lady Hulegain herself. The silvery light gilded her pale hair, the occasional wrong notes she played lending a dissonant, unnatural air to the scene.
“Lady Hulegain?” the girl said hesitantly, stepping into the room.
“Charlotte dear, I’ve told you before. You must call me Honey,” the woman chided airily.
“My apologies, Lady Honey,” Charlotte said quickly. “Do you know where I might find Mr. Richards?”
“There’s no hurry, dear. I wanted to speak with you,” she said dreamily.
“What did you want to speak with me about?” the girl asked, slowly drawing closer to the woman at the piano.
“Would you so very much mind giving me your brooch?”
The question took Charlotte by surprise. “My…brooch?” She glanced down at the simple, delicate ornament that pinned her shawl together.
“Yes dear,” Lady Hulegain confirmed. “Your brooch. It’s very pretty. And…” she glanced around, then whispered secretively. “Honey needs it.”
“I don’t understand…” the girl said, truly confused. “You want my brooch?”
“Honey needs it,” the woman repeated, a trace of steel in her tone.
“I’m afraid that…” Charlotte started, but Lady Hulegain shot up abruptly, the piano bench falling backwards with a clatter. She stood straight as a poker, moonlight glowing around her, the lace of her gown matted together with a dull crimson substance.
“Honey needs it,” the woman stated, her voice a snarl. Her hands had been hidden behind the piano, but she raised one of them now, and Charlotte realized that the woman was holding a blood-stained knife. A string of pearls shone ominously around her neck.
“Lady Hulegain…” the girl began, breathless with horror.
“Honey needs it!” the lady cried, and leapt towards Charlotte with a shriek. Fumbling with the door, the girl raced from the room, dropping her candlestick and splattering wax all over her dress.
Charlotte ran faster than she knew she could. She raced down corridors and through parlors, sobs catching at her throat as behind her came the relentless cries of Honey Hulegain.
“Help!” the girl cried as she ran. “Anyone!” A quick glance behind her confirmed that Lady Hulegain was closing the distance between them. Gasping for air, Charlotte Kingsley scampered through cobwebs and past somber paintings until, quite suddenly, she rounded a corner and ran straight into Mr. Arthur Richards.
“Miss Kingsley!” he exclaimed, reaching out to steady her. “What on earth is the matter? You’re covered with wax!” he continued before she could manage to say anything.
“Lady…Lady Hulegain,” she sobbed. As if summoned by Charlotte’s words, Lady Ruth Hulegain appeared from around a corner of the corridor. Catching sight of her quarry, she let out a triumphant scream.
“Honey needs it!” she laughed, racing towards them with her knife raised high.
“Get inside!” Mr. Richards yelped, pulling Charlotte into the nearest room. He slammed the door behind him, and Charlotte found herself in the billiards room.
“Mr. Hulegain sent me,” the girl said, gasping for breath.
“Blaine?” Mr. Richards said absently, holding the door closed as Lady Hulegain launched a furious onslaught against it. “Miss Kingsley, would you be so kind as to hand me a pool cue?”
She grabbed one of the sticks and quickly handed it to the man. “He told you to arm yourself and meet him in the main parlor.”
“Much obliged,” Mr. Richards said graciously. “Well, I suspect Blaine will be coming himself to see what all the commotion is about.” He frowned, listening. “I think she’s gone.”
Charlotte sighed in relief. “Thank you,” she said earnestly. “I don’t think I could have run for much longer.”
“I remain your humble servant,” Mr. Richards said, bowing awkwardly while still managing to hold the door shut.
“HONEY NEEDS IT!” a voice screamed. Charlotte and Arthur whirled around. Lady Hulegain was standing in a doorway on the other side of the room, shoulders heaving and eyes wild. She had found an alternate route.
“Get behind me!” Mr. Richards ordered, moving forward with his pool cue at the ready. Charlotte caught up a second stick for herself, moving away from the crazed woman. The maniacal lady staggered forward, her blood-stained gown rustling like autumn leaves. “That’s far enough,” Mr. Richards warned sternly.
The woman stopped short, the pool table between her and her prey. “But Honey needs it,” she pouted.
“Honey has done quite enough damage for one night,” Richards replied, hefting his pool cue and eyeing the blood that covered Lady Hulegain’s gown. The woman hesitated, then noticed Charlotte standing behind the tall man.
“Honey needs it,” Lady Hulegain whispered savagely. She feinted left, went right, and ducked Richards’ stick only to be brought up short by Charlotte’s pool cue. “How dare you,” the lady snapped, brandishing her blade as the girl kept her at bay with the stick. “That pool cue belongs to me! This whole manor belongs to me!” She surged forward, knocking the stick aside and slashing towards Charlotte with her knife. Dropping his cue, Mr. Richards yanked the woman back and shoved her away from the girl. Lady Hulegain turned on him, her knife cutting deep into his arms as he held them up to defend himself.
“Arthur!” Charlotte exclaimed, tossing him her pool cue. The man caught it, and with one swift movement, brought it down upon Lady Hulegain’s skull. The woman crumpled silently to the ground, the blood-covered knife falling from her limp hand.
Blood running down his wrists, and a splintered pool cue in one hand, Mr. Richards glanced gratefully over at Charlotte. The young woman was hugging herself tightly, shaking with emotion as she stared at the fallen form of Lady Hulegain. “Brave, wonderful girl,” Richards panted in admiration.
Mr. Blaine Hulegain chose that moment to arrive on the scene. He rushed into the room to find his cousin unconscious, his best friend covered in blood, and Miss Charlotte Kingsley crying.
In time, Miss Eleanor Dewhurst recovered from her injuries, but she remained home for several months following her incident. She had always been rather sickly, and her close brush with death left her badly shaken.
Lady Ruth Hulegain had been diagnosed as insane by several local physicians, and sent to a hospital in York. It was revealed by Mr. Hulegain that there had been other occasions of attempted theft, but until the incident at Ravenhart, the cousin believed that he could keep the matter quiet. However, the attempted murder of two girls, one the daughter of a well-known landowner, and the other the daughter of a well-respected man of the town, was not to be hushed up.
Mr. Arthur Richards made a full recovery, and he had a very attentive nurse in Miss Charlotte Kingsley. She visited Ravenhart Manor regularly, though it was exceedingly difficult for her. The mansion couldn’t help but remind her of the terrifying night of Lady Hulegain’s ball, but for Arthur’s sake she visited just the same. Christine and Annabella flatly refused to come with her however, so she was usually accompanied by her father, who found that he rather enjoyed talking with Mr. Blaine Hulegain. Mr. Hulegain had decided to stay at Ravenhart for the time being, and he occasionally enjoyed terrifying the servants by shouting “Blainey needs it!” at the top of his lungs. He had an odd sense of humor.
The months rolled by until spring showed her face at Welterton once more. Trees burst into bloom, birds sang, and Mr. Richards and Miss Kingsley began taking long walks together around the grounds of Ravenhart. “Miss Kingsley, I shan’t stay at Ravenhart much longer,” Richards announced one day as they were walking.
“Oh,” was all Charlotte could think to say. In the back of her mind she had known that this day was inevitable, but she had successfully avoided really thinking about it until now. “You will be leaving for Derbyshire then?” she asked.
Mr. Richards frowned. “Yes, well. I rather thought you might…well, what I’ve been meaning to…” He coughed, looking more out-of-sorts than Charlotte had ever seen him before.
“Mr. Richards, is something the matter?” she asked kindly.
He laughed nervously, not meeting her gaze. “Well no, not at all. But I was hoping…” He trailed off yet again, clearing his throat, then looked directly at Charlotte. “Miss Charlotte Kingsley, would you do me the honor of consenting to be my bride?”
Charlotte gasped, her mouth gaping. “It would be my pleasure,” she whispered, tears starting in her eyes. They were married a few weeks later in the town church, and Mr. Kingsley made the comment that he had never seen a happier couple. The newlyweds removed to Mr. Richards’ house in Derbyshire, where they got along very comfortably indeed.
Eventually, Mr. Hulegain left Ravenhart. The staff departed, the gates were locked, the ivy grew, and the manor once again became the source of idle gossip and speculation. Years passed, and in time, the manor was forgotten. The trees grew taller, the ivy grew thicker, and the locked gates rusted shut. Sparrows built nests in the eaves of Ravenhart, raising their young in the shelter of the tired-looking building. Stone cracked, wood rotted, and the roof of the mansion fell in. Trees sprouted up in the parlor, the ballroom, and the main entrance. Windows shattered and doors fell away as woodland creatures made their homes in the abandoned manor. Ravenhart slowly crumbled apart until nothing remained that might reveal the violence that had taken place there, nor the love that had blossomed within its walls.