As Gabby gathers her thoughts, resting on the bed, there is a quick knock at the door. Without waiting for a reply a young woman in a maid’s uniform opens the door and steps inside, pulling to door to behind her. She bobs a quick curtsy at Gabriella.
“Beg pardon, Ma’am. Lady Jane sent me to see if you might need help getting dressed. I’m her Lady’s Maid. My name’s Sarah. I can help you with your dress, or your hair, whatever you like. It’s just the others are downstairs, wondering if you would be coming down soon.”
I move from the bed to the vanity. “Id love some help Sarah. Please close the door. I must have dozed off for a few minutes too long.” I sit at the vanity infront of the large mirror. “My hair is not too wet, but it appears Ive made a mess of it.” I say with a smile. “Could you please help me with it while I tend to this hideous face?” Gathering my makeup.
Sarah came in quietly and proved to be very efficient and capable, brushing out Gabriella’s long dark hair and arranging it artfully in a fetching manner with many pins and careful tucking.
“You’ve got lovely hair, Miss,” she said and Gabriella could hear her broad West Country accents that would forever mark her as being common stock. Her own voice was trained by years of elocution lessons to hide her Midlands origins.
Continuing to talk as she worked on Gabby’s hair, Sarah asked how she knew Lady Jane, and one bit of conversation leads to another as she tells Gabby a little bit about all the visitors at the Hall this Christmas season:
Major Peter Greggs is Lady Jane’s brother, recently retired from the Indian Army. Gabriella has met him before, many years ago when she and Jane were in school. He’s handsome, very upright and manly as she recalls. “He was wounded, miss, and he walks with a limp, but he’s very dashing and he still dances well enough.”
Mlle. Eloise Shires is a young French woman who Lady Jane knows from London. Apparently she is a clairvoyant and a psychic medium. Lady Jane is planning to have a séance or two at some time during the holiday and everyone below stairs is fascinated by the idea of speaking to the dead. “Do you believe, in spirits, miss? Ghosts and such?”
Dr. Duncan McWhiter is a physician, an old friend of Sir Brian’s, down from London. He works on Harley Street, famous for its specialists. “A brain doctor, they say, miss. He can tell you what’s wrong inside your head just by talking to you.”
Professor Morris Thorn is an older man, an Oxford don who taught Sir Brian when he was at college. He has been invited to visit because of what the other guest has brought. “He’s very absent minded, miss, always late for meals and wanders about in a bit of a fog. But when he gets talking it’s like listening to a school book come to life.”
Mr. Angus McPherson is an explorer and archaeologist (Sarah pronounces it arky-loly-gist). He has just returned from Egypt with something he found there. “There was big boxes, miss, several of them delivered by wagons two days ago. Sir Brian said to put them in the old chapel, and all the gentlemen have been down there for two days, like little boys with a new hoop to play with. They’re ever so excited. Maybe its treasure in them boxes. The Gypsies showed up right after that and they’ve got a nose for gold, don’t they?”
As she brushes my hair, I listen intently to what she tells me about the people coming to the manor for the Holiday and especially about the mysterious boxes delivered two days ago. I cant wait to meet everyone. Ive seen pictures of Janes brother when were were in school together.
“You have a real talent Sarah.” Turning my head from side to side inspecting my hair. “Maybe you could teach me one night when we have some time together? Ive never really been very good at that sort of thing. Maybe that’s why I own too many hats.” I say with a laugh.
“To answer your question, I really dont believe in ghosts. I know that’s hard to believe since I write about spooky things in my books. That’s our little secret okay? If my fans found out, well, my publisher wouldnt be too happy.” I say winking at her through the mirror. “Imagine if Charles Dickens hated Christmas?” I laugh out loud. “Ive always been fascinated with the super natural, I think most people are. But Im kind of a Doubting Thomas. I need to see it with my own eyes to believe.”
I notice she is resting her hands on my shoulders as we talk, finished with her work. When I am done with my makeup, I reach up, take her hand in mind, look her in the eye through the mirror and thank her. “It’s lovely Sarah. Thank you so much.” I get up holding the towel around me with one hand and walk to the bathroom.
“Could you please lay something out for me to wear from my luggage?” I enter the bathroom and the door open a crack so not to appear rude.
“What do you think? Do you believe in ghosts?” I yell to her from inside the bathroom. I put my under clothes on and slide a silk slip over top. I peer back towards the door looking for an anser from her.
Sarah smiled warmly at Gabriella when she held her hand.
“Like I said, Miss, you’ve got lovely hair. It’d be my pleasure to brush it for you any time – as long as Lady Jane don’t need me, that is. And I can show you some of my tricks for keeping it under control as well.
The maid watched the young lady walk across the room in the mirror with a dreamy look and she blushed prettily when she realized that Gabby was looking back at her.
“I won’t tell no-one, Miss. About you not believing in ghosts, that is. It’ll be our secret. I’m not so sure, me-self. There’s so many creepy stories you grow up, you know. Like the old chapel. They say that’s haunted by a lady in white. Come up out of the crypt in the middle of a service she did fifty years ago, and vanished right in front of everyone. More than once they say. Now no one will go there at all.”
As Gabby dropped her towel and drew on her under things, Sarah looked away quickly and opened the wardrobe door to sort through the clothes the visitor had brought with her. She took out a burgundy colored dress with a delicate lace collar and cuffs.
“This dress is beautiful, Miss,” she said, laying it carefully on the bed. “Lady Jane is in blue tonight, and Miss Eloise is in green. So between the three of you, you’ll look like a vase full of fresh flowers if you wear this.”
She quickly helped Gabriella into the dress, careful not to smudge her makeup.
“I’ll come back tonight, Miss, after I’ve finished with Lady Jane to see if you need any help getting ready for bed.”
With that the girl whisked out of the door and was gone, leaving just a faint trace of vanilla in the air, probably from the kitchens rather than any deliberate attempt at perfume.
Dressed and coiffed to the best she could hope to achieve after a day of travel, Gabby descended the stairs and entered the drawing room. The whole house smelled of baking and fresh cut pine boughs, it brought back images of Christmas pasts from her own childhood – though Leatherby Hall was certainly grander than the way she had grown up.
Lady Jane and a strikingly beautiful young woman were sitting by the fire when she entered. They rose to greet her and Jane introduced her to Mlle. Eloise Shires.
“I met her in London,” gushed Jane, “at a séance for Lady Wilberforce. It was an electrifying session. Manifestations in multiple forms. Sounds. Lights. Even touch. Lady Wilberforce spoke directly to her late husband through Eloise, and discovered the whereabouts of a love letter he had written her some weeks before he died. Silly man had hidden it away in his safe, but Eloise found it. Made the old lady so happy, we all cried.”
She led Gabriella to sit with them on a silk-covered sofa by the roaring fire.
“I’ve just been persuading her that she should host a séance for us after dinner.”
The young French woman laughed prettily and reached out easily to touch Jane on the arm as she spoke.
“Madame Leatherby is too kind,” she said in a husky voice. “My small skills are not always up to the task. But for her, I will try tonight.
“Tell me, Mlle. Gabby, how was your travel today?”
The early evening drew in as the ladies chatted. The handsome footman was in attendance, mixing cocktails with a liberal hand and making sure that none of the ladies’ glasses were ever empty. An hour passed quickly in very pleasant conversation, and then came a sonorous ringing on a gong somewhere in another part of the house.
I hit it off smashingly with the two other ladies. Jane is so gracious to introduce me to her friend who Im fascinated with. Her beauty is captivating. Her french accent and her skills as a medium are intriguing to me. I wonder if she might be a fake covering it up with her charm and beauty.
“How fun!” I clap when told about the seance tonight. “You know, Im working on a book about the super natural and this could make a delightful chapter. I am so looking forward to it.”
When ever I can catch a glance at the handsome footman working the room I try. Smiling at him when he fills my drink. “You certainly are everywhere a young lady may need you. Arent you sir?” I whisper to him with a smile holding my glass out as he tops it off.
Meadows stepped into the room even as the last tones of the gong were still echoing in the upper halls.
“Dinner is served, my Lady. Lord Brian and his gentlemen guests will be with you in a moment to escort you through into the dining room.”
Brian came in, full of energy, laughing at some comment from one of his companions. The men looked very handsome in their tail coats and formal attire, except for one who wore a tweed suit that looked rather rumpled and worse for wear. Sir Brian introduced Gabriella to each in turn, and it was easy to place them from the descriptions she had received from Sarah early in the day.
“Miss Gabrilla, may I introduce my tutor from Oxford, Professor Thorn. This is Dr. McWhirter, a Harley Street specialist. I think you may already know Major Greggs, Lady Jane’s brother. And this fellow is McPherson. His luggage has been lost, it seems, and he’s too big to wear anybody else’s clothes, so we’ll have to take him as he is.”
And big he was. Gabby judged him to be two or three inches over six feet tall with wide shoulders and long legs. The reddish tint to his hair and the rumpled clothes gave him a rakish air that seemed very much at odds with the old world formality of the Hall.
When the men join us from outside, I stand to meet everyone smiling and holding out my hand and giving a small curtsy and a smile to each of the men as Im introduced.
“Greggs, would you escort Gabriella in? McWhirter, you give your arm to Mlle. Shires, and I’ll steer mi’Lady. Thorn and McPherson’ll bring up the rear. You don’t get to escort a beauty, Angus until your wardrobe is complete.
“Shall we go in? Meadows is practically doing a jig and I’m sure the soup is cooling off already.”
I take Major Greggs arm and allow him lead me into the dining room. We make small talk on the way. I do make sure I tell Sir Brian how lovely the Leaterby estate is and ask if someone might give me a tour when time permits.
I’m curious about the mysterious boxes in the old chapel and the suppose haunting, but wont ask anything about it at dinner. I hope it will come up in conversation.