Quantock Hall, late November 1848
“Say hullo to everyone for me!” Kate called. “God’s speed!”
Kate stood outside of Quantock Hall and watched her father and step-mother depart in their grand coach and four, paintwork gleaming in the sunlight, the horses matching bays. She might have accompanied them on this sad journey, to attend the funeral of Viscount Melbourne (an elderly family friend and former Prime Minister), but it was decided Kate should remain home, as there would likely be journalists attending, and should she utter an indiscretion, or simply be seen smiling at the wrong man, her name might appear in the scandal sheets. Such a circumstance would be extremely awkward, with her presentation at court planned for spring, and her secret engagement to Earl Grosvenor.
Kate sprang to life, her muscles tight against shivers of cold and excitement. Today! This could be the day to finally learn about our ghost! She spun on her heel and stared directly at Wade, the youngest footman of the household staff, who waited in an alcove of the front entrance. He moved rapidly to open the door then froze, peering sidelong at Kate with a quirked eyebrow.
“What is it, my lady?” Wade asked. “Is something wrong?”
“No…” Kate’s mind whirled. “Everything is fine.” It’s a bright clear morning. This could be perfect! “The Gypsy encampment, in the woods beyond Triscombe Stone, do you know it?”
“I know… of it,” Wade replied quietly, turning from the door. “Why?”
“You’re aware of the baskets of shoes and stockings in the old hallway? Just inside the east entrance?” Kate gestured towards the medieval wing of the manor.
“Hmm? Oh, yes, my lady, I have seen them.”
“I’ve been gathering those items for the necessitous children. Here’s what you shall do. Run up to Wills Neck. If the sky is clear in all directions, then go to the encampment and ask for Grandma and Grandpa Agafya. Tell them today would be ideal to collect the baskets. I have spoken with Grandma Agafya on this matter.”
“Shouldn’t the shoes and stockings be delivered to the church house? The Gypsies could get them there?”
“Ah…” He’s right. That would be expected. And he’s probably wondering why I’m asking him to do this the moment my parents rolled down the drive. “No, that won’t do. I gave my word to Grandma Agafya. Yes, she…” How do I word this?
“No. No more questions, Wade.” Take command. Act my station. “You have the message? And the name?”
“Agafya. Got it, my lady. I must put on a hat and spatterdashes, then be on my way.”
“Report to me upon return.” Kate did her best to sound assertive, then faltered. “And you’ll run thither and hither? No tarrying in Crowcombe? There’s a shilling in it for you.”
“Very good!” Tall and thin as a rail, Wade stood to attention and with a broad sweep of his right arm saluted. “I’ll run like the wind!” He threw open the door and bolted inside.
Kate, left standing alone on the walk, couldn’t help but blink in surprise. Is a shilling worth so much? She entered the front hall, followed by Ebony, her black retriever, and closed the door. Would a shilling pay for even a single item of my toilette or wardrobe? Perhaps a linen handkerchief? Warming herself for a moment by the hall fire, careful to keep her skirting from brushing against the hearth fender, Kate made some quick decisions. Yes, I must find Pixie! Hurrying to the back hall, she caught Wade bounding down the steep narrow stairs. Ebony barked playfully.
“My lady?” He bounced to attention with a sharp inhale.
“You’re leaving by the back way?”
“Or course, my lady.”
“Stop in the kitchen and send Pixie to me in the front hall.”
Wade saluted again and jogged around a corner, Ebony chasing, while Kate returned to the warm fireside. Pixie strode in a moment later, wearing her usual wide-eyed vacuous expression, her hands bundled in a wet apron.
“You were busy scrubbing pots?” Kate asked needlessly as the scullery maid approached.
“Yes, my lady.” She performed an awkward curtsey.
“As the sun sets today, I would like Mistress Maddie to be here.”
Pixie swivelled her head and peered around the front hall. “By the fire?” she asked.
“No no. Not actually in this room. Tell her, she should come to the east entrance – I’ll meet her there. When you find time today, please tell her so.”
“I will, my lady.”
“Very good.” Kate nodded. “Thank you. Off you go.” She watched Pixie disappear then headed for the parlour. To my studies. Miss Nestor has much for me to work through before my morning ride.
* * *
Kate rose from the piano and donned a gaily coloured cashmere shawl over her exquisite deep red taffeta house gown, then hurried to the medieval wing of the manor. Her governess had dozed off while Kate practised, and Isabel was tending to lady-maid chores upstairs. The sun will be setting soon – I must be ready! Wade had confirmed that the Agafyas would arrive shortly before sunset. Kate prepared by opening doors to let the fading daylight into the corridor. Each room to the north stood empty, the servants busy elsewhere. To the south, the small parlour and library, both rooms of Earl Beaufort’s domain, were quiet; logs smouldering in the latter hearth to keep damp out of the books. Kate smiled to herself while unlocking the east door and then hauling the baskets of footwear outside. Everything is going perfect! She placed the baskets at the edge of the side walkway and gravel to facilitate easy loading onto the Agafya’s wagon. I hope Maddie is here soon. Passing back into the corridor, Kate entered the library and stood within the old manor entrance, watching for arrivals. After only a moment she spotted Maddie and Pixie marching through the front garden. The wise woman wore her usual peasant’s shirt and skirt, an old blanket for a cloak, her wild fiery hair piled like an osprey’s nest. Kate winced at the groaning hinges as she pulled open the blackened oak iron-bound door.
“How be thee?” Maddie said as she swept past Kate into the library, Pixie jogging in tow. “Vhat thee need me for?” She kicked off her wooden shoes and stood barefoot by the fire, taking up the poker and rolling the logs into a pleasing blaze.
Kate briefly thought about sending Pixie to the kitchen, but forgot as she was so excited to talk with Maddie. She explained her intentions, then added, “And I would like you to advise me as to how much their efforts are worth. I want to pay them a fair wage.”
“Hrmmm…” Maddie nodded knowingly with squinted eyes. “I–”
“It’s them!” Kate declared, hearing the jangle of traces and spying a wagon through a window. She ran into the corridor and out the east entrance, waving. Stop there! Don’t go to the front door! Kate didn’t want Smythe the butler or a footman to get involved. The fewer people who knew about her scheme, the less likely she would ever have to explain to her parents. Regaining her composure, she strode to the baskets as Grandpa Agafya brought the wagon to a halt.
“Good afternoon,” Kate said, watching Grandpa Agafya climb down from the driver’s bench carrying a nosebag for the horse. “It’s getting dark. Perhaps we could load the baskets after you have come inside?”
“Yesh, yesh, ma lady,” the old man replied, removing his fez and bowing.
“Allo! Allo!” Grandma Agafya came from the back of the wagon, bent over, smiling, propped up by her knobby walking stick. “Allo!” She nodded at Maddie and Pixie, who stood on the east terrace.
“God be vith ye,” Maddie greeted the Agafyas.
Grandma Agafya limped up to Kate and grasped her hand, grinning toothlessly, eyes twinkling. “My dear, where we find your dead?”
“This way!” Kate trembled. “There’s a corridor where doors sometimes open or close, and footsteps are heard. People have felt being hit by something, too.”
Kate helped Grandma Agafya along the corridor, pointing out one particularly uneven flagstone lest the infirm lady stumble. Maddie and Pixie moved silently ahead to the other end of the darkening passage. Grandpa Agafya entered with an elaborate lantern, yellowed glass behind intricate filigree metalwork and hanging decorations. Leaving the door open halfway, he tiptoed the length of the hall, peering into the rooms, then took a position near the centre. He lowered the lantern and cast a handful of something into the top, then held it high. A sweet smelling smoke similar to church incense rose and curled along the ceiling. The space grew muted in amber tones.
“To protect.” Grandpa Agafya murmured. “It guard us,”
“From what?” Pixie asked, standing at the far door where the corridor dog-legged into the new half of the manor.
“Shush now,” Maddie whispered from the dark of the gun room. “Vatch an’ learn.”
Grandma Agafya stood very still, her eyes closed, head down. After perhaps a minute, she reached out slowly with her free hand. “The dead…” she softly wheezed. “A dead, from long long ago…”
Everyone stood frozen. Kate held her breath and listened intently for any small sound. Was that footsteps? A horse outside?
“It wanders…” Grandma Agafya continued. “Wanders through the rooms. A man. It is–”
“Oh, him.” Pixie interrupted. “The little man with the long cloak and round hat?”
Kate spun and stared at the child in shock. What?! “You’ve seen the ghost?”
“How does he appear?”
“Like a white shadow – with layers.” Pixie replied plainly. “He… waivers a bit.”
Kate turned back to Grandma Agafya, who stood with her mouth hanging open, eyes-wide. Kate then glanced at Grandpa Agafya and noted a similar dumbfounded expression.
“Sometimes he carries a book, or an apple,” Pixie continued. “He doesn’t have feet,”
“No feet?!” Kate choked. “How grotesque! Does he limp along on stumps?”
“He glides. His feet might be in the floor. He goes through walls, too.”
“The floor once lay lower?” Maddie stepped into the halo of smokey light, head cocked. “An’ valls put up in the great hall of a lodge?”
“Are you able to speak with him?” Kate asked Grandma Agafya, edging closer.
“A moment,” Grandma Agafya sighed. Closing her eyes, she raised a hand, then swayed slowly side-to-side. “Allooo,” she warbled. “Are you here?”
Kate felt hot and breathless. The smoke tickled her nose. I mustn’t sneeze! It will disturb all! A tinkling came from somewhere. What was that? The lantern? Yes, Grandpa Agafya moved.
“He is a churchman,” Grandma Agafya gasped. “He live… in time of war. He…”
Kate flinched and almost yelped when she spied a shadow move beyond Grandma Agafya, but immediately realised someone had passed by outside the east entrance. Who was that? Mr. Ferris? Would he be gardening in the gloaming?
“This man die here,” Grandma Agafya continued, “but buried far away.”
“His name?” Kate asked ever so softly.
“He does not speak to me,” Grandma Agafya said. “I read him. I try. What is your name?”
Kate saw a figure pass by the door again and, this time, discerned stealth in the movement. A tall man, wearing a board-brimmed hat. Who is that? The grey of dusk would soon turn into the black of night. Perhaps I should send Pixie for a footman…
“Quel est ton nom?” Grandma Agafya wheezed, sounding weak.
He speaks French? Kate found this exciting. We are Plantagenets from Anjou – about six hundred years ago. Grandma Agafya wouldn’t know this! Her muscles tightened as Kate heard an otherworldly groan come from deep within the hall timbers, then the spell was shattered upon recognising it as the hinges of the old manor entrance. Someone is trying to steal inside! Kate dashed into the library, the fire casting an orange glow. By her father’s desk stood a tall slender man, hooked nose, tremendous black moustache, silvery buttons on his cropped jacket and the outside seams of his tight trousers flashing in the firelight. No! Not him! Everything is ruined! For a heartbeat, Kate thought she saw an expression of chagrin pass across the man’s face, then he swept off his hat and bowed, long dark curly hair cascading forward and back upon his shoulders.
“My lady,” he purred and smiled, large white teeth gleaming. “What a pleasure to see you.”
“Mr. Sasha!” Kate spat. She pulled her shawl tight around her neck and shoulders, wishing she hadn’t chosen such a pretty gown. “You sneak! What are you doing in my house?”
“I’m concerned for my grandparents,” Sasha said, performing a slow theatrical shrug and spread hands.
“Nonsense! You are a common thief.” Kate knew her father kept the estate ledgers and funds in his desk. “Get out!”
“Are you here alone, my lady, without protection?” He folded his hands together and sauntered towards her. “I’m reminded of that special moment we shared – you remember?”
“We did not!” Kate felt icy water splash through her, yet perspiration instantly formed beneath her clothes.
“She not be alone,” Maddie declared firmly and strode into the room, barging between Kate and Sasha. She slapped her bare feet on the floor and stood proudly, fists on hips.
Sasha crossed his arms and stood ramrod straight, at least a foot taller than Maddie. “Ah, mistress, I’ve seen you at our camp a few times now.” He grinned down at her. “You are a woman who needs taming.”
“Thee be th’ man?” Maddie asked, reaching up and twirling one end of Sasha’s long moustache.
“Indeed!” Sasha exhaled heavily. “But this evening, it is this young lady who requires my attentions.” He glared at Kate with a sneering smile.
Kate started to protest. Maddie grabbed and pulled Sasha’s moustache with one hand, and with the other delivered a sharp poke in an eye. Sasha howled and backed away, drawing a long dagger from his sash, savage expression and sinewy strength fearsome in the shadows and orange light.
“Stop,” Pixie said. She walked calmly into the room and pointed a shotgun at Sasha’s crotch. “It’s time to go.”
“Would you shoot me, little one?” Sasha asked, a hand over his injured eye.
“I don’t know,” Pixie replied. “I would curse you. Spirits would hunt you forever.”
“What?!” Sasha snarled.
The Agafyas shuffled to the library threshold wearing frowns. They said something to Sasha in what Kate thought might be a Turkish dialect. A brief heated exchange followed. Sasha gave Pixie a hard one-eyed stare, then stormed out of the library with a burst of exasperation and loud squeal of hinges, disappearing into the dark. Maddie’s red lips curled into a wicked little smile, her freckled complexion flushed.
“Very sorry, ma lady,” Grandpa Agafya said, head down, following Sasha outside. “I take the baskets. Thank you.” He pulled the door shut, cutting off the wafts of cold air.
For a couple breaths, the ladies stood in a circle, silently examining faces. Kate didn’t know what to say. She took the shotgun from Pixie and saw that it wasn’t loaded. Grandma Agafya shook her head and leaned heavily on her stick.
“Mr. Sasha followed you?” Kate asked, setting the shotgun by the window seat. “I think perhaps I heard his horse, a while after you arrived.”
“Sorry, my dear,” Grandma Agafya mewled, sounding utterly exhausted. She limped to the doorway. “He is a Beaufort, your phantom. Priest, lived during wars, long ago, in times of armour and sword and fire.” She then hobbled out into the night, Maddie helping her with the heavy door.
Moments later the wagon creaked into movement, the horse neighing once, wheels crunching the gravel as they turned and headed back along the lane.
Kate could no longer contain her curiosity. She crouched in front of Pixie and tried to peer into her soul. “You see the ghost?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Have you seen others?”
“Not here, my lady.” Pixie shook her head. “Lots in London.”
“In our London house?!”
“No. Along the river. In the markets and streets.”
“You… you’re not frightened by these ghosts?”
“They’re just shadows, my lady. Those who were once. They can’t see us.”
“And what of this talk of curses?” Kate rose back to her full height. “You were going to curse Mr. Sasha with haunting spirits? To hunt him the rest of his life?”
“Oh, that” Pixie said flatly. “I can’t do that, but he believes, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Ha ha!” Maddie laughed. “Vill thee ‘ark at she! Ha haa!”
“Cook will be looking for me,” Pixie said. “May I go?”
“Yes, of course.” Kate gave the scullion a pat on the shoulder. “Thank you for your help today.”
After Pixie scurried off, Kate stood beside Maddie on the hearth stone. They laughed.
“That was splendid,” Kate declared. “Sasha shan’t forget that poke in the eye!”
“Ha haa!” Maddie’s shoulders shook with glee. “Tee hee hee!”
“I’ll have to send something to the Agafyas. They came all the way here, and I think they were honest in their efforts. Surely they were unknowing of Sasha’s burglary attempt.”
“Arr. Half a crown?” Maddie placed a log on the fire.
“Would that be fair?”
“Pixie is much more shrewd than she appears.”
“We be every spare moment together. She vants nothin’ but t’ learn.”
“The gun froze that odious man in his tracks, but it was simply a quick-witted deception – a sham!”
“The curse of a haunting truly terrified him. The Agafyas probably warned him about Pixie seeing the ghost, without any fear, so her threat seemed genuine.”
“And it was a sham, too!” Kate shook her head in disbelief. “She’s quite clever.”
“Time I be hoff.” Maddie slipped on her shoes. “Good night to thee.”
They exchanged a hug, then Maddie marched across the gravel and vanished into the front garden. Kate closed and secured the door, then did the same to the east entrance, wondering about Pixie’s revelations of ‘white shadows’ from the past. She returned to the library and lit some candles, then sat at her father’s desk and wrote down what she’d learned about the ghost of Quantock Hall. I’ll have to take a moment with Pixie and draw a picture of the ghost based on her description. Kate outlined a little man wearing a long robe and round hat of medieval style. Father must move Pixie out of the kitchen. The girl is wasted as a scullery maid. She sketched in flagstones, cutting the figure off at the ankles. Where would she be best employed? Whatever, she deserves a shilling for her help today, and I will ensure she has more time to learn from Maddie!
Note: The value of a shilling in the late 1840s compared to 2020 is a little tricky. A common labourer in 1850 made about £12 per annum, roughly four shillings and eight pence a week, with only Sundays off. This was enough to live on with frugal purchases of plain food, shelter, and clothing. Servants were paid less, as they were provided with meals, lodgings, and uniforms. A shilling could last, or be thrown away on a single purchase, and compares to somewhere between £20 and £40 now. Based on that calculation, a common labourer today would have to manage on perhaps £90 to £180 a week; however, those labourers would not have the modern expenses of electricity, phone service, transportation, insurance, &c. Servants could have made handkerchiefs out of linen being discarded by their employers, or purchased plain cotton for a few pence. Kate’s handkerchiefs may have cost more than a shilling each, depending on where they were purchased, the quality of the fabric, lace edging, and the decorative embroidery and monogram.