Book: Restless Spirits

Previous: Chapter 13
Next: Chapter 15

Chapter 14

 

“Now that we’re out here freezing our bits off, do you mind telling me why we’re out here freezing our bits off?” Henry asked waspishly.

Vincent suppressed a grin—not very successfully—at the sight of Henry bundled in a thick coat and several layers of scarves, with his hat pulled as far down over his ears as possible. “You look ready for a bit of Arctic exploration. Spearing seals, driving dogs, searching for the Northwest Passage.”

Henry snorted. They trudged through the decrepit garden, behind the grand hall. Their breaths plumed, and the lazy drift of snow turned the shoulders of their coats and the crowns of their hats white. The weeds and overgrown bushes in the garden already bowed beneath the accumulation as if giving winter its proper due.

“You might be from Mohican stock, able to withstand such hardship,” Henry said. “My ancestors hailed from Düsseldorf. I’m the descendant of fat, comfortable brewers and bakers, thank you very much.”

A note of guilt, like a pluck on an untuned violin string, hummed through Vincent. But now wasn’t the time for a confession. “If they were fat and comfortable, why did they come to America?”

“Unfortunately, ‘fat and comfortable’ all too easily becomes ‘drunk and lazy.’” Henry offered him a self-deprecating smile. “But you’re avoiding my question.”

“Not avoiding so much as trying to discern how to answer.” Vincent tipped his head back, letting the soft flakes of snow kiss his face. “I wanted to speak outside because I know we won’t be overheard. Which, yes, sounds almost as paranoid as our dear friend Reyer. For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m right about the writing on the wall and the chandelier.”

“I don’t doubt you are, but...why?” Henry tucked his gloved hands into his armpits for additional warmth. “Why would someone do such a thing?”

“To frighten us away for some reason?” Vincent suggested.

“Again, why?”

The snow creaked softly beneath Vincent’s tread. “I don’t know. There seems no motive—Gladfield wants the house exorcised and is willing to stay here far past the bounds of safety to see it done. Miss Prandle can only benefit from the exorcism as well, as turning Reyhome Castle into a resort hotel will increase the family coffers. Bamforth has nothing to gain or lose, other than Miss Prandle’s safety, I suppose. Still, I imagine he would try other means to woo her before turning to murder.”

Henry glanced at Vincent out of the corner of his eye. “I can think of two other possibilities. How well do you know Miss Devereaux?”

“What, you think she would actually try to kill you to win the contest?” Vincent wanted to laugh, but the seriousness of Henry’s expression arrested him. “No. Trust me on this. I’ve known Lizzie for a long time.”

“Perhaps.” The cold air turned Henry’s cheeks and the tip of his nose bright pink. “But five hundred dollars is a large amount of money. People have killed for a great deal less.”

Vincent sighed. “Even if she was a murderess, it couldn’t have been her. I can sense spirits, remember? She wouldn’t be so foolish as to drop a chandelier on you right in front of me.”

Henry brushed against one of the overgrown bushes. Its laden boughs dumped snow across his shoulders, and he let out a startled curse when some of it went down the back of his collar. Suppressing a laugh, Vincent helped brush the snow from Henry’s coat. “What’s your other possibility?” Vincent asked.

Henry shot him a small smile of thanks as he knocked the last of the snow from his sleeve. But his expression sobered when he said, “We aren’t alone in the house.”

“Ah.” The thought had merit. Vincent began to walk again, and Henry fell in by him, their elbows brushing lightly. “If the secret passages are extensive enough, someone might hide in them undetected. But why? What do they want? What do they have to gain from driving us away?”

Henry shrugged. “I’m only suggesting it as a possibility. I don’t have any real answers. We don’t even know the passages exist.”

“There’s one way to find out, I suppose,” Vincent mused. “Investigate the secret passages ourselves.”

“Of course, how simple.” Henry snorted, his breath turning into a plume of steam. “And how exactly are you going to find them, oh all-seeing medium?”

Vincent came to a halt. “Fifty-three.”

Henry stared at him blankly. “What?”

Vincent grinned. “Which one of us is meant to be the scientist? If there are indeed hidden passages, the easiest way to find them will be to count steps along the outside wall, then count them inside the rooms. If the total disagrees by a large factor, we’ll have an idea where they’re located.”

For a long moment, Henry only blinked at him. Then a slow, rather sultry smile touched his lips. “Well done. I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

~ * ~

On the way back inside, they discussed whether or not to tell anyone else about their speculations. Since in Vincent’s case “anyone else” would mean Miss Devereaux, Henry vetoed the idea. He didn’t say as much aloud to Vincent, of course—if nothing else, the man was loyal. And it was also true Gladfield or Miss Prandle might have some motive of which they were unaware. Keeping silent about their discovery seemed the safest course, since whoever had rigged the chandelier was clearly willing to commit murder to further their own ends.

Fortunately, no one questioned Vincent and Henry’s strange movements within the house as they went from room to room. Vincent paced off the ground floor rooms, and Henry noted his measurements in the same notebook he’d used to record his findings earlier. If anyone happened to look, they would assume the two men to be working on some way of ridding the house of the ghost.

Vincent had a fine mind to match his body. He seemed open to the advantages science could bring, at least. And he was barely a medium anymore—he’d said as much when recounting his mentor’s death. Perhaps...

But friendship with a medium, even a former medium, would only cast doubt upon Henry’s Electro-Séance in the minds of scientific men. The ones he most had to impress. And Vincent was clearly loyal to Miss Devereaux.

Miss Devereaux. Henry pursed his lips in a frown as he scribbled down another set of paces from Vincent. Vincent might be convinced of her innocence, but friendship could blind one. Vincent had admitted their shop was in need, and the first instance of fakery had prompted the automatic writing séance. Perhaps she’d meant to build up the ghost in order to make their triumph over it seem greater.

Of course, she’d refused to conduct a second séance of her own, but it only meant she’d come to understand the ghost was far more dangerous than she’d first thought. And if the situation grew even worse—if Henry, say, died underneath an iron chandelier—Gladfield would surely regret not having listened to her advice in the first place. Even if she didn’t receive the prize money, her reputation would remain intact, or perhaps even be bolstered. Meaning more clients.

“That’s it,” Vincent said. They’d traversed the entirety of the ground floor. “Let’s retreat to the bay window in the drawing room—even if the rest of the room is under observation, it should give us some privacy to work.”

They drew up chairs as close to the window as possible. Icy drafts slipped around panes which no longer fit tightly in the weather-warped frames. On the patio outside, snow had almost filled in the footprints they’d left while traversing the outside of the building.

Henry bent over his notebook, his back to the rest of the room, and began to sketch. Vincent wandered about the room, pretending to be interested in various objects. There was something comforting to Henry about his presence, the soft whisper of the velvet coat, the scuff of his boots against the stone floor.

“So,” Vincent said casually, “how did you come to be Miss Strauss’s guardian?”

No doubt Vincent thought it would be a bit suspicious if they didn’t speak to one another at all. Assuming anyone was watching them at the moment. A man could become paranoid as Reyer, worrying about such things.

“Our fathers were brothers.” Henry checked his notes and continued to sketch. “Uncle William met Jo’s mother, Georgia, while in Pennsylvania on business. She taught mathematics at the School for Negro Girls. After they married, the rest of the family cut off Uncle William entirely. I think I met him once when I was very small, but in truth I have no real memory of him. My grandparents disowned him, and my parents never spoke of him again, except in the occasional hushed whisper.”

“He must have cared for his wife a great deal.” Vincent’s voice held an odd note of wistfulness.

“I’m certain he did.” Henry added up some figures and drew another line on his sketch. “Two years ago, William and Georgia died in a train accident. Jo had no family on her mother’s side, so our Aunt Emma agreed to take her in.”

“Kind of her, to acknowledge such a relationship with a black girl.”

“Kind!” Henry glared up at Vincent, who stood examining a poorly executed landscape on the wall nearby. “One might think so, I suppose.”

Vincent arched a brow. “But one would be wrong, I take it?”

“The woman doesn’t know the meaning of kindness.” Henry all but gouged the next line of the sketch into the paper. “Emma behaved as if there had never been an Emancipation Proclamation, and Jo was her slave instead of her niece. Forcing Jo to work long, hard hours without enough food, making her sleep in the barn with the animals. Letting the hired farmhands behave like fiends, with no thought of protecting her from them.”

Vincent closed his eyes briefly. “How terrible. I’m sorry.”

Henry’s fingers ached, and he became aware he clutched his pencil as tightly as he sometimes wished to clutch Emma’s neck. “I didn’t know any of it, not at first,” he said. “I corresponded with Emma and knew she’d taken in Jo, but nothing more. Still, I was curious about my cousin, so I sent a letter to Jo, introducing myself. A week later, she showed up on my doorstep in Baltimore.”

Vincent chuckled. “That must have been a surprise.”

“Quite.” Henry managed a rueful grin. “I’d thought to spend my life as a quiet, lonely bachelor, and instead found myself with a fourteen-year-old girl to raise.”

“And yet you took her in, despite her race.” Vincent leaned his hip against one of the chairs, his expression curious.

“She had a bruise under one eye, a healing cut on her lip, and was too thin by half,” Henry said. The memory caused bile to sting the back of this throat. “I wouldn’t have turned away a dog in such condition, let alone a girl, no matter her race.”

“She must have been truly courageous, to take such a chance,” Vincent remarked quietly. “She couldn’t have known you wouldn’t slam the door in her face or treat her even less kindly.”

“I know. Or I do now.” Henry sighed. “Having Jo with me has been an education in more ways than one. Most of the family refuses to even speak to me. If I behaved as though she were a maid I’d hired, I suppose they wouldn’t care, but to acknowledge her as our blood...they think I’m shaming us all. I keep trying to get them just to meet her, but they refuse.”

“She’s very lucky to have you.”

Henry shook his head. “Quite the opposite. For all the challenges, Jo has certainly made my life more interesting. I’m fortunate to have her.” He returned his gaze to the sketch. “Jo is why I want to win Gladfield’s prize, you know. To secure a future for her.”

“I know.” The fond note in Vincent’s voice made Henry look up again. “When we first met, I thought you a self-aggrandizing prick. I was wrong.”

Henry shrugged awkwardly. “And I thought you a scheming liar. So we were both wrong. Now come here and tell me what you think.”

Vincent dropped into the chair beside him and leaned over. Their knees brushed, and Henry wished he dared move closer. What if someone had been watching them in the schoolroom when they kissed? Or in the tower?

It was too late to worry about their indiscretions now. “Look,” Henry murmured, keeping his voice low, just in case. “There are three places where the measurements don’t come close to adding up. The good news is, none of them border the guest bedrooms, so at least no one has been spying on us while we sleep.”

Vincent shuddered. “Thank heavens for small favors. Where are the passages, then?”

“One to the west side of the vestibule, bordering the billiard room. Another between the tower and the library. And the last between the butler’s pantry and the dining room.”

“The tower.” Vincent tapped the blank space between tower and vestibule. “You heard steps behind you, but no one was there, and I didn’t sense any spirits near you. What if it was someone walking loudly up a hidden stair?”

“What, trying to spook me?” Henry considered. “They could have slammed the door behind me, then ducked into the secret passage. I think you’re right.”

Vincent offered him a cocky grin. “Of course I am.”

“What now?” Henry sat back. “Do we go to Gladfield?”

“Considering he’s the person most likely to have known about the existence of the passages beforehand, no.” Vincent chewed on his lower lip. “Perhaps...I’m not certain, but perhaps we can find some evidence of whoever is behind this if we explore the passages.”

“Or find ourselves face-to-face with them,” Henry muttered. “Do you think we’ll even be able to find the entrances? They must be well hidden.”

Vincent tapped the crude map. “Let’s try this one, between the billiard room and the vestibule. There must be another in the library or the tower, but I have no desire to shovel through moldy books in an attempt to find a hidden catch.”

“Very well.” Henry folded the paper and tucked it into his pocket. “I’ll fetch a lantern and meet you there.”

~ * ~

Vincent loitered outside the billiard room, listening for approaching footsteps. Bangs and scrapes came from the dining room as Bamforth removed the broken furniture. Lizzie had set herself to drawing wards on all of the bedroom doors, and commandeered all of the salt left in the kitchen. Gladfield and Miss Prandle watched her work, while Miss Strauss labored on the repairs to Henry’s devices. Hopefully, everyone would remain busy enough to stay out of any secret passages while Vincent and Henry explored.

Equally hopefully, they wouldn’t find themselves face-to-face with either an unknown person or Reyer’s enraged ghost. Thus far, the very last of the daylight had kept the spirit at bay, but they would be blundering around in the dark between the walls.

Still, it was a risk they had to take. If someone, either in the company or a hidden stranger, would go so far as to attempt murder, there was no knowing what they might do next. A dangerous ghost on the loose was bad enough, but at least Vincent could sense Reyer’s approach. He didn’t have an ability to tell who among the living might be a threat.

Henry came from the servants’ wing, a lantern in his hand. They slipped into the billiard room, and Vincent shut the door quietly behind them. “With any luck, no one will come searching for us,” he said.

Henry placed the lantern on the mice-gnawed felt of the billiard table. He stepped closer, slipped one hand around Vincent’s neck, and drew him into a kiss.

The gesture surprised Vincent, but he responded without hesitation. The memory of that awful moment, the chandelier falling and himself helpless to do anything, had him wrapping his arms around Henry and pulling him close. The scent of sweat and dust mingled with bay rum, and Vincent breathed deep.

Henry let go of him and took a step back. “I just wanted to do that,” he said with a shaky grin. “I trust you had no objections?”

“None at all.” Vincent cocked his head to the side. “Although I am curious as to what inspired it.”

A light flush tinged Henry’s pale face. “I was only thinking about what we discussed earlier. About misjudging one another. But other than Jo and an old friend, you’re the first person who has shown real appreciation for my inventions. Even though we disagree on points, you don’t hesitate to say if you do think something can be of use, and you call me clever, and you’re kind, and...” His flush deepened. “I wanted to show you I value that. You.”

Vincent’s grin grew wider, and his ribs felt too constrictive around his heart. “I’m glad. It’s nice to be valued for something other than my skill as a medium. Or judged solely on how I look.” He ducked down to kiss Henry again. “As pleasant as it would be continue, however, we’d best search for the hidden door before anyone notices our absence.”

They set themselves to examining the wall. A moth-eaten mount of a deer head hung there alongside a boar. Vincent pulled them away from the wall one at a time, feeling behind them for a hidden catch. There was nothing.

“What about the rack for the cue sticks?” Henry suggested.

Vincent shook his head. “It’s not easily removed by a single person. The first time Reyer dropped it, the unholy racket of falling sticks would have brought half the servants in the house.”

“Not very good for keeping a secret passage secret,” Henry agreed. “Hmm. Hold up a moment.”

Vincent stepped back. Henry studied the wall carefully before rapping on a section. Shaking his head, he went to the next, and this time he smiled. “Hear that? Hollow. Now if I were a hidden catch, where would I be?”

Going to his knees, he ran his hands across the baseboards. There came a soft click, and a section of the paneled wall popped open. “There we are.”

“Brilliant,” Vincent said. He wanted to kiss Henry again, but he restrained himself. As Henry eased open the small doorway, he lit the lantern and brought it over.

“Someone’s been in here recently all right,” Henry said, taking the lantern and shining it inside. “The cobwebs have been cleared away, except for in the corners.”

Vincent peered inside. The secret passage was tiny, nothing more than the narrowest of stairs climbing up. The scent of dust and mice clung to it, but as Henry had said, someone had taken pains to clean away the worst of the grime. “I suppose it would be obvious if our culprit turned up to dinner covered in cobwebs. Assuming it is one of us.”

“Quite.” Henry glanced at him. “Shall we?”

“Lead the way.”

They ducked through the small door and onto the stair. Vincent hesitated before pulling it shut behind them. “Hold up a moment. I don’t want to get stuck in here.” Taking his handkerchief from his pocket, he folded it a few times, then wedged it into the crack between door and wall. “There. Now the door won’t latch behind us, but it won’t be obviously open should anyone glance inside before we return.”

The stairs were well constructed; even after so many years, they hardly let out a creak. No doubt Reyer had realized it would be difficult to remain hidden if other people heard him tromping around in the walls. Vincent’s shoulders brushed one side wall or the other frequently through the narrow passage. The only light came from the lantern held by Henry. His body blocked almost all the illumination, leaving Vincent to stumble blindly behind him.

As they reached the first landing, Henry said, “Look.”

Vincent squeezed in beside him. The yellow flame of the lantern showed another concealed door, this one with a small spy hole located at about eye level. “It should look out into the nursery,” Henry said in a low voice.

Vincent cautiously peered through. The cobweb-festooned room beyond showed little but shadows, the only light that of sunset struggling through falling snow and begrimed windows. “Spying on his little children. What a charming fellow.”

“The passage next to the tower probably has a peephole into Martha Reyer’s bedchamber.” Henry shuddered. “Everything about this house makes me want to take a copper brush to my skin.”

“Agreed.” Vincent stepped away from the door. “Let’s see what’s above us.”

The passage ended on the third floor. Once again, there was a concealed door and spy hole, this time overlooking the guest parlor. “Reyer probably wanted to find out what his guests got up to when they thought he wasn’t around,” Vincent guessed. “Shall we exit here, or do you think it would be better to retrace our steps?”

“Retrace our steps,” Henry said.

They started back down, Henry passing the lantern to Vincent, who was now in the lead. Vincent held it high; the flame flickered and cast wild shadows on the walls. His shadow danced across the boards to his right...then very slowly crept down the wall and onto the second-floor landing in front of him.

Rusted iron slid over his tongue. The quality of the light changed, the flame going from warm yellow to cold blue-white.

The madman’s ghost was in the passage with them.

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Next: Chapter 15