Friday, April 6, 2012

A Ghost Story (Part 2)

(continues from part 1)

Time passed. The food and brandy were long gone. Mr. Dickens was not doing an especially good job at keeping me awake. It is certainly possible I nodded off at some point, only to wake with a start at a noise from upstairs. My heart pounded and I listened carefully, wondering if I had indeed heard something or whether it was just part of a waking dream. Thump. There it was again. Thump. And again. This sounded like no spirit I had ever heard of, though admittedly my first-hand knowledge of such was slight. I picked up the lantern and my pistol and cautiously made my way up the stairs, listening for the sound as it repeated in order to locate its source.

I opened the first two bedroom doors but, as before, found nothing unusual. The sound was definitely louder on this floor, however, and that left only the locked room to explore. I sighed and walked back downstairs to retrieve my set of lock picks, walked back to the third floor, and set at the door.

The locks were not particularly complex, as it turned out, and even my modest lock-picking skills were enough to have the door open in under ten minutes. It might have been quicker, had the insistent thumping not unnerved me, wondering what I might find on the other side. I drew my gun, turned the knob, and pushed the door open.

As soon as I entered the room, I put the gun away. I could see the source of the thumping: a potted plant holder, suspended from the ceiling, was swaying to and fro, banging on the wall with each movement. The source of the movement was also clear: a translucent form of a young woman was in motion, creating just enough air movement to keep the plant holder swaying. She was dressed in an evening gown that might have been fashionable a decade or two ago. Her face was hard to make out in the dim light of my lantern, but, from what I could tell, her slender features were horribly distorted in a rictus of pain.

When the ghost saw me, she became still and the plant holder slowly swayed to a stop. “Thank goodness you heard me,” she said in a whisper. “I had nearly given up hope that anyone else would come into the house, much less be able to hear me and open my bedroom door.” My only response was to gape at her.

“Come closer, Miss. I can no longer speak loudly, though it is a wonder I can speak at all. My name was Constance Jefferson, and I have a favor to ask of you.”

“M-miss Rh-rhianon Jameson,” I managed to stammer out, “and I am at your service, Miss Jefferson.”

After my shock had worn off, Constance Jefferson turned out to be a charming young woman - young-appearing woman, at any rate - with a sad story to tell. “My father was a wealthy man, having made his fortune himself in the shipping industry. He had this house built and furnished, sparing no expense, not because he liked the trappings of the wealthy but because he craved the social status that his wealthy neighbors enjoyed. He knew that he would never be quite accepted in their society, but he schemed for some years to have me engaged to an aristocrat whose family would allow me - and, by extension, my father - entry into the highest echelons of society. I realize that sounds a bit harsh, and I do not mean it to be. My father loved me above all else, and he truly believed that such a life was something I would want for myself.” As Constance talked, her voice became stronger and she appeared to be more solid than she had earlier.

“When I was sixteen, I became engaged to the son of Lord Carrington… not engaged, perhaps, but more of an understanding between our two families. At that time, we had never met, not that such a meeting was deemed to be important. I accepted this as an obedient daughter. The following year, however, I met Tom - Thomas Smythe. Tom was apprenticed to our landscaper, and we talked on numerous occasions as he worked on various parts of the property. Brief conversations, to be sure, but we fell in love. I knew Father would have considered him entirely inappropriate for a husband, but I didn’t care about that myself. We kept our relationship to ourselves as long as possible. One day Tom seemed unusually tongue-tied, and I soon discovered why: he intended to propose marriage. He had purchased a small engagement ring and fell to a knee as he asked me to marry him. I think I giggled a bit before saying yes. That was as happy a moment as I had ever known.

“Yet even then I knew the time would have to come when I would have to tell Father the news. He would not react well, I knew. I considered various ways of approaching him, rejected them all, and considered them again. Tom had offered to be with me, to seek Father’s blessing, but I said no, this was something I needed to do on my own. When I finally summoned the courage to tell Father, the conversation went even more poorly than my darkest fears allowed. Suffice to say that Father confined me to my bedroom and installed the locks that you now see on the door. I was a prisoner in this house and, of course, Tom was forever barred from it. I never saw him again.

“Father must have assumed that I would come to my senses, forget Tom, and again agree to marry the Viscount. I never did. Indeed, from that day on my appetite was gone. I became thin, then gaunt. My parents tried to induce me to eat and summoned several physicians, each of whom departed no wiser or happier. Eventually I became too weak to stand and spent the next week in bed, being fed broth and other liquids whenever Mother could force some into me.” Constance looked at me. “I suppose you think me a foolish, lovesick girl, Miss Jameson.”

“I was young and foolish myself once upon a time,” I replied. “I will admit I have never felt the power of love the way you did, Miss Jefferson.”

The ghost sighed. “One of the advantages of the time that has passed is that it has given me the opportunity to think about how I really felt and the choices I made. Indeed, I have had little opportunity to do anything but think. Yet I am also eternally seventeen, so while I have had the perspective of time I have not had the perspective of age.

“On my last day,” she continued, “I rose from my bed and stumbled to the dresser you see here. I had secreted Tom’s engagement ring in a hidden compartment in the dresser - Father would have destroyed the ring had he found it - and wanted to see it again. I fumbled with the latches but, in my weakened condition, I could not open the compartment. My heart gave out at that moment and I died.”

“And yet here you are still,” I commented.

“Yes. I found that I was freed from my body, and yet unable to leave my room even then. I could not touch anything, for I have no corporeal form. Surely, I thought, this cannot be the fate of everyone who dies, or the world would be inundated with ghosts. Yet the years passed and I seemed no closer to discovering the mysteries of what lies beyond than I did on that first day.

“I tried communicating with the living, but I had no voice - or no audible voice, at any rate. I was also quite indistinct, so people who came to the room would sense my presence more than see me. This was enormously frustrating to me.

“My parents moved out of the house, locking the door to my room before they left, and attempted to sell the house. I think one or both of them sensed I was there, even if they could not see or hear me, and knew they could not sell a haunted house. As it turned out, they could not sell the house anyway. Visitors left the house unnerved for reasons they could not explain. Nor can I, for that matter. I tried making myself known to them, but they could not hear me and no one attempted to enter the room so no one could see me. Eventually the house fell into some disrepair and potential buyers became less frequent.

“As the years passed, I discovered that my voice was becoming stronger and I suspected I was becoming more visible. I cannot hear myself, of course, nor see my reflection in the mirror, but the occasional buyer would walk through the house, and the estate agents would unlock the door to this room, and I made myself known to them. I never knew what to say, however, and they fled before I could articulate any thoughts.

“I eventually knew what I wanted to say - what I was staying here to say - but, ironically, by then it was too late. No one came. Not until you.”

“Mr. French, the estate agent, said he had heard reports that the house was haunted,” I said.

“He must have been reporting to himself, then. When he readied the house for sale, I attempted to attract his attention. As much noise as I could make was not enough to induce him to open this door, however.”

“He hired me instead.” I leaned forward. “What was it that you waited all these years to say, Miss Jefferson?”

Her translucent head nodded in the direction of the dresser. “Go to the middle drawer.” I did as she asked. “Take out the drawer and feel behind it. That is a false back. Release the latches on either side of the drawer groove…” I fumbled with the latches and felt the hidden drawer pop open. In it was a single object: an engagement ring.

Constance looked at the ring with greedy eyes. She had the right, as she had been waiting more than three decades to do so. If she had tear ducts, her eyes would have glistened. “Please find Tom and give him that ring. Tell him I never stopped loving him.”

Who was I to refuse a request from a ghost?

In the morning I sent a cable to Mr. Obadiah French that I believed I could resolve the situation to his satisfaction, but that I would need a second night in the house. He hemmed a bit, probably thinking that I was trying to extract more money from him, but agreed to the extra night once I assured him our price was not at issue.

Finding Tom Smythe turned out to be no difficulty at all. He had completed his apprenticeship and eventually owned the business outright. He had a small but well-kept house near the Academy of Industry to which I paid a visit in the early evening. Smythe was a cheerful-looking heavyset man in his 40s. He was about to start dinner with an equally cheerful-looking (and, truth be told, equally heavyset) lady and four energetic children. I apologized for timing of my call and arriving unannounced, and said I would be brief.

I recounted a version of the story - I had been engaged by Mr. French to appraise the interior of the house, found the locked room, and discovered the ring along with a note addressed to Smythe. Well, I could hardly tell him the truth, could I?

“I always wondered…I mean, I knew her Da wouldn’t have approved our marriage. I was young and romantic and rash, and somehow thought I would carry her off. We’d elope and start our lives together, Da or no. But she never showed, never contacted me. If she’d said we were through, I’d’ve accepted that, but it hurt to hear nothing. I were fired from the job right quick, and no one let me inside the house again, so I never knew…” He fingered the ring. “Thank you for returning it. This means a lot to me, Miss.”

I bade him a good evening and returned to the manor. “Miss Jefferson?” I called up the stairs. “It’s Rhianon Jameson.” I heard nothing, so I walked up the two flights of stairs and opened the door to the bedroom. “I found Tom and…” I stopped, because the room was empty.

The next morning, at the sound of the front door opening, I sat up with a start. I had dozed fitfully in the sad room and was still groggy. Mr. Obadiah French hollered a greeting - he sounded a bit apprehensive, as though concerned that during the night I had perhaps become a victim of the ghost.

“Well, Miss Jameson? Did you find the ghost?”

“I can assure you that the ghost will not bother you or any prospective purchaser any longer.”

He looked astonished. “You don't mean to say that there is a ghost in this house.”

“Don't be absurd, Mr. French. There are no such things as ghosts.”

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