Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Matfen Affair, or the bridesmaid and the ghost

"an interesting mix of characters, from Leigh’s older, headstrong sister to the too-young-and-spoilt bride, from the rather delicious Robert to the stiff-collared Bernard."


Clutching my candle, I headed into the darkness beyond the sharp turn that led to the older part of the house. In daytime, with others nearby, it had seemed romantic, but alone and in near darkness, climbing that narrow spiral stair was like stepping back two centuries. In several places my elbow grazed rough stone. My poor little candle flame flickered wildly in the upper corridor and its light glinted and rebounded from metal shields, axes and pieces of old armour that decorated the walls.
The hairs on my arms rose as I approached the door to my bedchamber. I glanced back the way I had come and thought it was a pity that wood panelling had not been used to cover the bare stone as it would have made the corridor so much warmer. Close at hand, someone sighed.
I whirled round with such speed I almost extinguished my candle.
The corridor was empty. I held the candle high, but saw only the dull gleam of ancient armour. The silence was such that it was hard to believe any other person lived in the house, let alone walked the corridor with me. I took a firm grip of my candle, turned to the bedchamber door, grasped the sneck and entered.
A fire burned in the hearth, and the bright, cheerful glow was a welcome surprise. Relief rushed through me as I closed the door. The maids had lit candles, turned down the bed and laid two white nightgowns on the side nearest the fire. Heaping blessings on their heads, I hurried across the room and crouched before the fire. Heat soaked into me and gradually I forgot the sigh of sound in the corridor.
Lacking the nerve to ask Amelia to leave the company downstairs in order to help me undress, I struggled to undo the ties of my evening gown, but managed without too many contortions. Amelia loved parties and gatherings and it would have been unkind to insist that she should leave because I was tired. The bed was wide, so there was a good chance that I would not slide into my sister while asleep. If I did, I would surely earn an elbow in the ribs.
As I snuggled down beneath the covers Elspeth and Maud’s advice about standing up to Amelia wandered into my mind. How odd that Robert should have spoken of the same subject but two days ago. I really ought to have taken a stand against her before now. If I did not do something soon, the pattern would be set for the rest of our lives. Comforting myself with the knowledge that I was cleverer than my sister was no longer enough. I had made a beginning today and must keep it up even though she was the more articulate and seemed able to think and speak at the same time, which often flummoxed me. My answers were good, but had a habit of coming a day later than I actually needed them.
My nose grew cold, so I drew the covers higher and hugged myself beneath them. The fire blazed well, and threw a bobbing, grotesque shadow of the chandelier onto the ceiling. If I had the courage to claim the side of the bed next to the fire, I might grow warmer. The idea appealed to me but for the fact that Amelia would almost certainly demand that side when she arrived. Until I was more practised in opposing her, I did not wish to provoke an argument over which side of the bed I should have.
My nose was icy cold, yet a few minutes earlier I had stood before the cheerful blaze and felt comfortably warm while I fastened the pearl buttons at the throat of my nightgown. I could not get warm in spite of the heaped blankets. A small sound captured my attention and I froze into stillness, for the sound had been very like the sigh I had heard outside the bedroom door.
Rolling my head on the pillow, I checked around me. My senses quickened. Flickering firelight did not penetrate the darker corners of the pretty room, but there was enough light to see what little furniture there was: a small dressing table with a washbowl and linen towel between the two windows and a vast wardrobe stood in the far corner, a chest of drawers next to it. Breathing shallowly, clutching the sheet to my nose, my gaze roved the room in an endless sequence, seeking anything different or strange in my surroundings.