The Curse of Lady Clarabelle – Fanny Finch

Clara jumped and spun around, convinced she heard footsteps behind her. The candle flickered with the movement, guttering with her gasped breath. But when she saw no one there, she sighed at her own jittery nerves and carried on walking. The halls of the castle were cold and bare, the gray stone walls undressed and stark, the floor hard and uncovered. Clara shivered in the chill. The castle had a continuous gloom, the hallways so dark that a candle was required, regardless of the time of day. “There is no one there,” she chided herself under her breath. “Stop this nonsense.” Her blue cotton gown kicked out as she marched forward with a determination and confidence she didn’t feel. Her slippered feet were silent on the hard stone floor, and her long, dark hair had been twisted up into a knot at the back of her head. Lady Clarabelle Fulton—or Clara, as she preferred to be called—was on the cusp of womanhood at nineteen years of age. The daughter of the Duke of Calverton, she was a tall young lady, her figure slim but shapely enough, and she liked to dress simply and practically. Unruly curls tumbled around her face, the dark a pleasant contrast to her perfect porcelain skin. Her green eyes shone with a simple and unassuming intelligence, but they told a tale of a life lived in a cocoon of fear and overprotection. She jumped again, this time letting out a squeak of fear, and she spun around and glared into the darkness.

“Who is there?” she asked, but, of course, she received no reply. She closed her eyes and sighed before turning back to continue on her way. It had been happening more and more of late. It seemed that wherever she went in the castle, she felt eyes upon her, and she heard noises behind her, even when she knew she was quite alone. Again, she shook her head, cursing herself for her foolishness. It is an echo and the creaking of an old castle, nothing more. But no matter how many times she told herself that, she could not shake the feelings of dread and fear. Clara led an isolated life, often alone or with only the servants for company. Her mother, longago dead after a difficult childbirth, had never been part of her life, and so Clara had grown up with her father alone. In his terror of losing her, too, her father wrapped Clara tightly in a blanket of armor, and he rarely let her out of his sight.

She turned the corner of the hallway and started down the next, glancing quickly behind her again. She would feel better once she reached the kitchen. The castle, at the top of a mountain and away from all civilization, felt more like a prison than a home to Clara. She rarely left it, and when she did, she was closely guarded. The hallways were warrenlike, leading off each other in all directions, making it disconcerting and easy to lose oneself. It was a cold place and always dark, with towers that stretched high into the sky, and it had a strange feeling of despair to it which Clara always put down to the hole her mother left when she departed this world for the next. She often wondered whether the castle would be an altogether different place if her mother had lived. Brighter, perhaps. More colorful. Clara pushed open the heavy door to the kitchen and smiled brightly, feeling instantly better when she saw the friendly, familiar faces and the natural light that poured in from the open door to the gardens.

“Good afternoon,” she said. “Ah, young Lady Clara,” Mrs. Betty Miller, the cook, said, turning to face her and wiping her hands on an already dirty muslin apron. “And how are you doing today?” “I am alright,” Clara said with a shrug. As she passed the large and well-used table in the middle of the room, she picked up a slice of carrot and bit into it with a crunch. She went to the high stool at the far edge of the room—her favorite spot—and she looked around at the busy servants. “What is for dinner this evening?” she asked. “A nice game pie,” Mrs. Miller said, leaning heavily against the table and smiling at Clara. Her rump was as round as her bosom and her beige dress hung from her frame.

Her skin sagged around her face, but it had the effect of making her look more endearing, if anything. She had a matronly air about her, and Clara loved her dearly. “Our Ralph caught a pheasant in the gardens this morning. Biggest one you are ever likely to see,” Ellen said eagerly. The scullery maid’s cheeks were ruddy and bright, her sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and her dirty brown hair poking out from under her cotton bonnet. “Goodness,” Clara said, nodding over to Ralph. “That is quite something!” “Was quite a chase,” he said with a chuckle. “Should ’ave seen me, running after it like a mad thing. Mrs. Miller says there is enough to go around though, so we are all in for a treat tonight.

” “I can just imagine it,” Clara said, laughing as she pictured Ralph chasing the terrified bird. Young Ralph Brooks sat in the large Windsor chair in the corner of the room—a place he seemed to be more often than in the garden where he belonged—and he nodded. He had become tanned and well-built, and despite his youth, his chin had grown bristly over time. Before he could say any more, Adam, the stable hand, came bustling through the open door full of energy. “’Ere,” he said, walking straight up to the table and pinching a slice of carrot, just as Clara had done. “You will never guess what I ’eard.” “What is that?” Ellen asked. “You been snooping in other people’s business again?” “The Master sent me into town to fetch him some books he ordered from the old fella on the high street.” “You call that news?” Ralph said with a snort of derision. “No,” Adam said, turning to look at him with wide-eyed annoyance.

“Maybe if you would listen, you would hear what I have got to say.” “All right, boys,” Mrs. Miller said. She had returned to her place at the stove, stirring the big pot of gravy. “Enough of that, please.” “Sorry, Mrs. Miller,” Adam said. “Anyhow, when I was there, I overheard Browning—you know, the Wentings’ butler—talking to some young chap. Apparently, their cook has run off with the footman and a bag full of the Lady’s jewels! Can you believe that?” “I would believe anything of the Wentings’ cook,” Mrs. Miller said.

“Never did like her. Too much of a busybody, so she was.” “Busybody all right,” Ralph said. “And a rich one now, by all accounts.” “Nah, the Duke of Wenting will not let that pass without punishment,” Ellen said. “I’ve ’eard he is a right one to work for. Bit of a slave driver, so I hear.” Clara listened intently. Despite their differences in status, she loved to spend time in the kitchen, and she had done so ever since she was a young girl. There seemed to be an air of jollity and gossip in the kitchen, something bright and happy that the rest of the castle was missing.

She enjoyed most of all when all the servants chattered together, quick banter between them and tales of intrigue and scandal from other houses Clara had never had the good fortune to visit. Where other young ladies read novels, Clara listened to the servants’ stories. Her father did not approve, of course. He called it “cavorting with the staff,” but he let her do it all the same. She suspected he felt guilty for his strict ways and that she had no friends to speak of. The kitchen was one of the few places she felt she belonged—and was welcomed. “Do you ever wonder what they say about us in other kitchens?” she asked all of a sudden, and all the servants turned to her in surprise. Gossips rarely considered themselves gossip-worthy. There was a long silence, but then Clara laughed, and they laughed with her. “I do not doubt that they tell their own tales often enough,” Ralph said.

“Nonsense,” Mrs. Miller said, creasing her brow. “Ain’t nothing to discuss about us. You ever ’eard of a scandal in this house?” She looked at each of them in turn, eyeing them carefully and daring them to reply. Mrs. Miller was fiercely proud of the Calverton household, and she would not hear a bad word said about them. Ellen shrugged and mumbled her reply. “S’pose not,” she said. “Well, there was that business with Lady Emilia,” Adam began, but Mrs. Miller shot him such a deathly look that he immediately closed his mouth and said no more.

“Lady Emilia?” Clara asked. “Was that not Father’s sister?” “Your aunt,” Mrs. Miller said with a firm nod. “A lovely young lady she was, too.” “What happened to her?” “Terrible business, all that was,” Ralph said, although he was far too young to have witnessed it firsthand. “What was?” Clara urged. She had ideas of what had happened, but no one would ever tell her exactly. “Nothing you need to worry about, little ’un,” Mrs. Miller said, turning away from Clara. “I am hardly little anymore, Betty,” Clara said, although it was a moniker that seemed to have stuck.

“And surely I deserve to know my own family history. She died, did she not?” “Under tragic circumstances, so I am told,” Ralph said. “Ghostly, some say,” Adam added. “I ’eard she had some sort of curse on her,” Ellen said, flour puffing into the air as she rolled out the pastry. “A curse?” Clara asked. “Enough,” Mrs. Miller roared. She turned back to face them, a big wooden spoon held in the air as though in warning. “I am the only one ’ere who is old enough to remember any of it, and I am telling you there is no great story to tell. Now, we will have no more of that superstitious talk in my kitchen! Is that understood?” The servants all lowered their eyes and busied themselves—Ellen with the pastry, Ralph with the peak of his cap—but Clara watched, intrigued by Mrs.

Miller’s response. Despite her protestations, even Mrs. Miller had a glimmer of uncertainty in her eyes. Clara leant back until she touched the wall and let her thoughts wash over her. She had heard the name many times, of course, and she knew that there was something odd about her aunt’s death. But ghostly? Cursed? In that room, full of bubbling laughter and a natural light that did not seem to penetrate any other part of the castle, it seemed so far-fetched. And yet, she knew, when she walked the corridors back to her room, she would feel it again. The unease, the uncertainty, the eyes that followed her. In other parts of the castle, she could easily believe in ghost stories. She had felt her skin prickle with the presence of something, her hair had risen at the back of her neck.

Strange happenings had occurred. Things had turned up in places where she was certain she had not left them. Yes, believing in ghost stories in such a castle would be easy enough. She shivered. “Are you cold, Lady Clara? You are shaking,” Ellen said, looking up over her brow but still pushing the rolling pin through the pastry. “No, I just . ”

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