Darkness breeds when the sun is at its zenith, but is witchcraft abroad again on the longest day in Letho?
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You can read the first part of A Dark Night at Midsummer here!
To Charles Murray of Letho,
At Mr. Blair’s
Sunday, June 22nd., 1817.
Thank you for your letter of 3rd. inst. in which you were kind enough to enquire after Mrs. Robbins and the family. The boys are growing stronger each day, by the Lord’s grace, I thank you. The Reverend Mr. and Mrs. Helliwell have asked to send their regards and Mrs. Helliwell particularly enquires after Miss Augusta. I hope I may be allowed to send our deepest respects to Mr. and Miss Blair and our hopes that you and Miss Augusta are well and enjoying the Sussex countryside.
I regret that I must also write to you concerning some happenings at the house and about the place over the last two weeks, which have been both distressing and inconvenient, and the cause of some sudden changes amongst the staff. It is difficult to know quite how to explain the circumstances to you: please forgive me if I stumble over an account with which I do not feel quite comfortable, and in which most of my information does not derive from my own personal experience. Mrs. Robbins, however, assures me that it is an account that will at least make you aware of the vital points of the matter, and with that I fear that I, and therefore, sir, you, will have to be content, at least for now …
Lizzie Fenwick, working in the serried garden of her little cottage on the edge of Letho village, heard a light footstep in the lane and put a hand to the sturdy stick she had left propped against the wall next to her. It was not that she feared anyone – or very few – but she had no particular wish for it to be generally known that she no longer needed the stick to walk. It suited her to be thought a little vulnerable, though her broken leg had now healed almost completely, and she had grown used to having the stick with her for support, in public, for poking into odd hedges and ditches, and for emphasis should she wish to make a point in a quarrel with her son-in-law. Now she arranged herself around the stick and brushed some of the dry earth from her long skirts, and waited to see who would appear on the lane that passed the cottage.
‘Mrs. Fenwick! I was hoping to catch you at home.’ The voice was Fife, but somewhat cultured from being in service away in the city for years. Mrs. Dean was neat and dark haired, a busy little woman, with the brisk efficiency one would hope for in the housekeeper for Mr. Murray at Letho House. A round bonnet kept the late afternoon sun off her pale forehead, and she wore respectable black with a good pair of gloves. The heat of the day meant she had no need for a shawl, but she had nevertheless arranged a light cotton one around her shoulders as a mark of her age and station. Her eyes were bright and observant and had Mrs. Fenwick’s full appearance from grey linen cap to earthy boots taken and catalogued in a moment, before moving on to the packed garden and the watering can dripping on the path.
‘Oh, but I’m interrupting you! Everything needs watering just now, doesn’t it? What weather!’
‘I’ve just finished, Mrs. Dean. May I offer you a cup of tea indoors?’
Mrs. Dean glanced up at the sky, then across at a plain wooden bench under an apple tree pebbled with tiny apples.
‘Would it be too much trouble to ask just to sit outside? It’s so hot.’
‘Of course, ma’am. Some ale, then? It’s been kept cool.’
‘That would be perfect.’ Mrs. Dean pushed open the little garden gate, and with assurance made her way to the bench. Lizzie Fenwick held the knop of her stick firmly as she stepped across to the cottage door, certain nevertheless that Mrs. Dean knew very well that she no longer needed it. She glanced at the housekeeper from the corner of her eye as she passed her, wondering what she was there for. The two women met occasionally these days, certainly, and on friendly enough terms, but Mrs. Dean had never come to her cottage before. All they had in common … well, they did have something in common, a shared experience. Lizzie Fenwick shivered. She hoped that Mrs. Dean was not there about that.
She managed the two cups of ale on an old tray in one hand, and Mrs. Dean kindly took them from her while she settled herself beside her guest on the bench. There was a moment’s silence as they drew their first appreciative draughts in concert, and contemplated the garden for a moment: lavender, roses, rosemary and sage formed the bulk of the beds, purple and white flowers against soft and deep greens. Tibbs the cat stretched and rolled in a dusty patch of earth, dulling his fine stripes, pink nose twitching with pleasure. The butterflies and bees were busy, the scents heady in the sunshine. It did not seem like a day to rush, a day for serious conversations. It felt like a day to relax and dream.
‘Mrs. Fenwick,’ Mrs. Dean’s precise voice broke across any hope of dreams, ‘we have a problem at Letho House, and I hoped you might be able to help me to solve it. Or that I might help you to solve it, if you would be so kind.’
‘A problem I could solve, ma’am? At Letho House?’ Lizzie considered, raking through local gossip she might have heard recently. ‘None of the lasses is in the family way, are they?’
Mrs. Dean smiled.
‘Not at present, I believe. Or not that I have been told, anyway.’
Lizzie sighed a little. Midwifery she could manage, very happily: she only occasionally helped a woman who was in dire need of being rid of a bairn, but she had a hand in most of the births about the village. Well, if it was not to be midwifery … her other principal skill was not as joyful a task, usually. She frowned.
‘Has someone died, then, ma’am? Do you need me to come and lay them out?’
‘No, no one has died. Well, not recently – not yet,’ said Mrs. Dean, her lips a little tighter over this odd statement. Lizzie felt a deep sense of foreboding, like a heavy cloud across that hot sun. She took another sip of ale, and said nothing, as if by that denial she could fend off whatever disaster was on the horizon, whatever Mrs. Dean had to say. Mrs. Dean was silent, too, though whether she hoped Lizzie would speak or whether she was collecting her own thoughts, finding the right words, was hard to tell. She sipped at her cup, and sipped again, staring at the herbs in front of her, then took a deep breath.
‘You’ll remember what happened, up at the house, and I suppose around the village, too, last autumn,’ she began tentatively. Lizzie saw that she could not avoid a glance down at Lizzie’s stick, and leg. ‘Of course you will. I think we thought at the time that that was that, that the business was finished that night, didn’t we?’ She did not wait for an answer. ‘But as time goes on I’m more and more certain that we didn’t do the job properly. Or I didn’t,’ she finished, with a little apologetic smile.
‘What makes you think that, ma’am?’ Lizzie asked, already wishing that she had not. Her throat was dry. Mrs. Dean straightened her shoulders.
‘It’s the feel of the place, if nothing else. It was never an easy place, not down in the cellars – were you ever in there?’
‘Once, long ago,’ Lizzie said shortly.
‘The staff won’t go there, not even Mr. Robbins now, and when Mr. Murray last went down – during the whole business last autumn – he and young Walter Fenwick saw something. A kind of ghost, they said, the ghost of an old woman.’
‘Oh, aye?’ Lizzie was non-committal. She was not looking at Mrs. Dean: she seemed to be gazing across at the white butterflies on a rosemary bush, but she could feel every nerve in her body wound tight like a badly spun thread.
‘And a few of us have seen something similar, about the place.’ Mrs. Dean glanced round at Lizzie, then away again. ‘I think it’s Grissell Gairdener.’
‘The witch that died in the cellar back in the old days?’ Mrs. Dean explained. ‘I think whatever we did last autumn roused her, and now she’s not going back.’ She waited again for Lizzie to speak, but Lizzie was not sure she had anything to say. What had happened that dark evening last autumn, and in the days leading up to it, were not happy memories for her: she had hoped to put them to the back of her mind for good. Mrs. Dean could never need her help, not hers, with anything of that kind, and Lizzie was fairly sure she had no wish to become involved again.
‘Did Widow Maggot ever say anything about that mirror?’ Mrs. Dean asked, almost casually. Lizzie, taken by surprise, looked round at her. The westering sun made Mrs. Dean’s face a shadow under her bonnet. Maybe this would be the way to get out of it. If she could put Mrs. Dean off altogether, that would be best.
‘The mirror? Do you still have it?’ She made her voice as ominous as possible: it was not difficult, for she was genuinely afraid.
‘I have the mirror, and the bowl, and the box. Kept separately, though,’ Mrs. Dean added quickly. ‘What do you know about them?’
‘Widow Maggot told me once that they had belonged to Grissell Gairdener, all three of them. And she told me they were dangerous, and that no one should meddle with them.’
‘No one at all? What did she have them for?’
‘She kept them safe to try to stop other people meddling with them. As far as she was concerned, they should never be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.’ Lizzie struggled to find the right words to frighten Mrs. Dean off. ‘You’re right to keep them separate, but you should bury them somewhere. The kirkyard, maybe: somewhere safe. Maybe across three kirkyards. And they should be broken. There’s no one,’ she said with heavy emphasis, ‘no one round here as strong as Widow Maggot was: no one around here could keep them safe the way she did.’
There was a thoughtful pause. Mrs. Dean smoothed her skirts with one gloved hand, and licked her lips nervously.
‘I wish,’ she said, ‘that I had asked you earlier, Mrs. Fenwick.’
‘Why? What has happened?’
‘Well, I thought - you know the mirror cracked across, that night.’
‘I thought that that had stopped – whatever it was that escaped from the mirror – I thought it was stopping it going back. And of course we wanted it to go back and be trapped again. So I had it mended.’
Whatever it was that escaped from the mirror … Lizzie had a memory of that, a memory that fed her worst dreams. There had been claws, and teeth, and hot, nasty breath. She found she was shaking, but all she could say was,
‘Yes. And then I realised that the cracked mirror might have been the only way to hold it in. And now it’s in the house, and the ghost is appearing, and the staff are – they’re frightened, Mrs. Fenwick, to be honest.’ She turned to Lizzie, sideways on the bench, eyes pleading. Her own voice trembled. ‘Midsummer is approaching, and the family are away, safe in England. This has to be the right time, the perfect opportunity. Please, will you help me? You know yourself what can happen when their influence spreads. We need to be rid of the ghost and the thing in the mirror, before they do any more harm.’