The Would-be Witch – Rita Boucher

Beyond a few puddles of moonlight from the windows, there was precious little illumination to guide Adam on his stealthy passage through the silent halls of Brand Manor. Fortunately, the ten-year-old knew every betraying board and squeaky hinge that stood between him and his objective. At the echoes of footsteps and voices, the boy slid into a shadowed niche, holding his breath until his father and Mr. Riggsworth had passed. The alcove had once held one of his Mama’s favorite statues, but now the pedestal was empty and the winged marble fairy was gone, like so many of the pretty things that she had loved. He waited until the oak door at the end of the corridor closed with a thump. Adam smiled to himself as he heard the rasp of a bar sliding into place. No doubt that was Mr. Riggsworth’s decision. Papa’s medium was doing his best to make certain that Adam was kept from the library, despite his father’s solemn vow to allow his son’s presence at tonight’s attempt to raise Mama’s spirit. Mr. Riggsworth and the last bottle of their best brandy had finally persuaded Papa that a child would disturb the séance. Mr. Riggsworth had even issued ominous warnings about the horrors that the spirits visited upon uninvited guests and little boys in particular before taking the added precaution of locking Adam in his room, “for your own safety, lad.” Fortunately, his father’s mystic was unaware that bolts and keys were futile gestures.

With the staff quarters long-empty well before his arrival the previous week, Mr. Riggsworth had no inkling that the ancient manor contained a labyrinth of secret tunnels which had been incorporated into a series of servants’ corridors. The ancillary means of access had once allowed the maids and footmen to go about their tasks invisible to their betters and Adam knew every twist and turn of that dark maze. The passage from his room led to the end of the gallery and a concealed stairway that led below. Since his protests at being excluded had gotten him sent to his room without supper, Adam paused to forage in the empty kitchen. It would not do to have a rumbling belly giving him away. With the remnants of a loaf and some cheese in hand, Adam climbed another narrow set of steps leading to the service passageway. Munching the last bite of bread, he swept away the cobwebs before pressing an ear to the sliding panel in an alcove to the rear of the library. “The time is nigh!” Mr. Riggsworth rumbled loudly.

“I will place the tribute of silver on the table. Your wife was familiar with these items, Milord?” “Indeed,” his father’s reply was muffled. “Ch . cherished it, she did. Grandmother’s y’know.” Great-Grandmama’s tea service, most likely, Adam decided. The elaborate set was one of the last items of Mama’s that they still possessed, but he reckoned that it would be well worth it if they could finally speak to her. “I will now invoke my spirit guide, Milord.” The medium declared and he began to speak in some mystical-sounding tongue before declaring, “Prepare yourself to embrace the darkness.” The sliver of candlelight disappeared from the gap beneath the woodwork.

Adam gave a prayer of thanks when Mr. Riggsworth’s intonations became a booming chant that covered the slight scrape of the hidden panel sliding open on its track. The boy snaked into the rear of the pitch dark room and hid beneath the desk, hoping that he would not sneeze at the dust. “Call her, Milord,” Mr. Riggsworth commanded. “Helen . my l…love, can you hear me?” Papa called. Now that Adam could hear more clearly, his Papa’s halting, slurred speech made it apparent that he was even deeper in his cups now than he had been at dinner. Is Papa frightened, too? Adam wondered. Suddenly, the boy felt the knife edge of terror.

What if Mr. Riggsworth was right? What if the spirits became angry? But this was not just any spirit, the boy reminded himself. This was his Mama. Surely she would recognize the son she had loved so dearly. “Helen Chapbrook, Helen Chapbrook! Helen Chapbrook!” Mr. Riggsworth intoned, his demand rising to a thundering crescendo.” I call you in the name of the angel Salphiel. Hear us and come hither.” There was a sudden chill in the room and the drapery fluttered. Adam held his breath as a thin reedy voice began an ethereal whisper.

“Who . summons . me?” “Helen?” Papa began to weep. “Helen is it really you at last?” “Robert? Be. loved?” She didn’t sound at all like Mama. Or maybe? Maybe he was forgetting what Mama sounded like? Silent tears slid down his cheeks. “Helen . dearest, I have nothing without you!” Papa declared with a cry of anguish. The words echoed in Adam’s head as he tried to creep closer to the voice. I have nothing.

I have nothing. “By God! H. Helen, the s . sign?” The draught had created a gap in the draperies, allowing a shard of moonlight to cut the darkness. Adam saw a pair of shoes in the shadows, the outline of a feminine form. “Rob, . I . misssss you,” the ghost hissed. “Mama!” With a cry, Adam leapt up and hurtled toward the limned figure. There was an unholy screech and a thud as he tangled in the draperies.

The heavy fabric fell to the floor, sending clouds of dust motes dancing in the full moonlight. An apparition, robed in black, rose and moved menacingly towards him. He cowered, almost paralyzed, until the ghost grasped for him. Adam scuttled away as the apparition tripped and hit the floor with a shriek, a dark cowl sliding back to reveal the face of the daily maid-of-all-work his father had recently hired. “You are not my Mama!” Adam screamed scrambling out of her reach as terror gave way to indignation. “Milord, I assure you I have no idea who this woman is,” Mr. Riggsworth babbled. “It’s a cheat, Papa!” Adam ran to the table to grab his father’s hand. “It’s not Mama at all.” Lord Brand’s forehead thudded against the table and his sole response was a prodigious snore.

“Stupid slut,” Mr. Riggsworth raged as Adam desperately tried to shake his father awake. “How much of the stuff did you put in the wine?” “No more’n what I was supposed to, to give him the visions, like you said,” the erstwhile specter protested, her upper-crust accents disappearing entirely “how was I to know his nibs would be draining the bottle dry?” “Well, it would seem to be a lucky thing for us he did,” Mr. Riggsworth said, advancing on Adam with a malicious grin. “I told you, lad. Terrible things happen to boys who trifle with the spirits. Looks to be that your poor father may be losing his son and heir in addition to his wife. A pity.” Adam slowly backed away from the table as he assessed his options. He had to get out, but Riggsworth blocked the path to the alcove.

“The boy must’ve sneaked in after me,” the woman speculated, gesturing toward the door to the garden as she moved to block it. “But he ain’t gettin’ out this way.” Her declaration sparked a plan. Adam made a feint for the barred oak door. As he had hoped, Mr. Riggsworth quickly advanced to intercept him at the exit, leaving a clear route to the entrance hidden in the shadows. “Might as well give it up, boyo!” The medium taunted. Adam ran for the passageway, sliding it shut behind him. The echo of fists pounding futilely upon the panel pursued him until he reached the deserted kitchen and fled out into the freezing drizzle of a December night. A tenant farmer found Adam two days later, half out of his mind with fever and fear, babbling of his mother and ghosts, hiding among the animals for warmth.

By the time he had recovered sufficiently to give a more coherent narrative of the night’s events, Mr. Riggsworth and his accomplice were long gone. Adam’s father refused to believe that he had been so utterly taken in, especially when he nurtured the distinct memory of his dead wife miraculously appearing to him in a vision from the beyond. Lord Brand cursed the son whose interference was responsible for banishing her back to the spirit world. Adam remained locked in his room until the doctor pronounced him fit to travel. The boy was packed off to begin his education at Eton. Chapter 1 T he morning sun gilded London, painting brick and stone with a warm glow. Windows winked in the first sparks of day and even the dull Thames was temporarily a reflected ribbon of light. “I vow, it almost looks beautiful,” Miranda Wilton said, azure eyes sweeping the horizon beyond the carriage window. “Look, Mama, there are the houses of Parliament.

Is it not fine, the way the rays strike the glass? One can almost fancy them huge diamonds.” “There are no diamonds in Parliament, not since Pitt the Younger departed that pile of stone,” Lady Wodesby said sleepily, peering out from under the wide brim of her hat. The pert nose that resembled her daughter’s wrinkled in disgust. “By Hecate! Is that the Thames I smell? ‘Tis hard to credit that this is the same river that runs past The Wode.” “Like a huge chamber pot,” Miranda goaded deliberately, carefully watching her mother’s expression. “And then they wonder why the catch of fish has dropped of late. Were I a finned creature I would be swimming for Oxford with every ounce of strength in my tailbone,” Lady Wodesby murmured, still half asleep. “The state of the Thames is but minor compared with the crime and the noise that occur on its shores,” her daughter added, trying to keep from smiling as she echoed her mother’s customary diatribe about London. Usually Mama would have been able to read any change of Miranda’s expression easily, but in her state of near-exhaustion, Mama was not nearly as wary. With a bit of luck, she might be led into some revelation about this capricious excursion to a city she loathed.

“Tis a marvel that anything or anyone would choose to visit” “Much less live here,” her mother agreed, her lids drooping. “Were it not for Bond Street and Monsieur Doucet’s Herb Emporium, there is not a . ” Miranda let her amused expression loose as her mother’s eyes widened with the realization that there was a hook hidden in her daughter’s seemingly innocent baiting. Knowing that she was nearly caught out, the older woman shoved the arms of Morpheus aside. “Why do you not continue, Mama?” Miranda asked sweetly, leaning back in her seat. “I believe you were about to say, ‘there is not a person or place that is worth the trouble to harness the horse or the price of the tolls.’ That is your customary line, I believe, whenever you are forced to go to Town.” Silence was the only answer, but there was something wary in her mother’s eyes. A silky swath of Miranda’s strawberry blonde hair came unpinned, momentarily obscuring her vision, but by the time she had smoothed it away, that fleeting expression was gone. Still, she refused to give it up.

“Sometimes, I suspect you would rather be burnt at the stake than have to endure an evening of idle chit-chat, much less an excursion into Polite Society.” “Here, turn around,” Lady Wodesby ordered, moving to sit beside her daughter. Deftly, she pulled Miranda’s loose pins and began to repair her daughter’s coiffure. “It would not do to arrive in Town looking like a ragamuffin.” Miranda stifled a sigh. With her mother at her back there was no hope of catching her out by reading her expression. The time had come for plain speaking. “With Macadam’s roads, London is but half a day from The Wode, yet I can count on one hand the number of times you have visited Town since Papa’s passing. You have gone to a great deal of trouble to retain this reclusive life of ours, declining every overture or invitation- until tonight. I find myself wondering why?” “Lady Enderby is a dear friend,” Lady Wodesby said, struggling valiantly against the tide of conversation.

Miranda arched a sandy brow in abject doubt. “Are we speaking of the woman you once styled as ‘Hester the Hopeless?’?” “I was remiss if I did so,” Lady Wodesby said weakly, brushing the last of Miranda’s loosened knot firmly into line with her fingers before coiling it with a skillful twist and fixing it in place. “And will deny it if you dare to repeat it” “I believe you once said that if Hester’s thoughts were pounds and pence, she would not have enough in her purse to visit Vauxhall.” Miranda turned to face her mother. No one else would have seen the signs of agitation. Miranda knew she had hooked on to the truth. Relentlessly she reeled her mother in. “It was during my Season, if I recall. ‘No more wit than a woodcock’ were the words you used to describe her.” “Your recall is extremely selective,” Lady Wodesby replied, rallying a lame attack.

“Lady Enderby and I were quite close in our schoolroom days. She is a perfectly affable woman and she knows everyone worth knowing.” “So now we get to the meat of the matter.” Miranda pressed on, fixing her mother with a determined stare. “I have no inkling of what you are trying to imply,” Lady Wodesby said, as she returned to her seat, and pointedly turning her attention out the window. “Really, Mama!” Miranda said, taking an exasperated breath. “You know my meaning full well. Ever since that letter from Aunt Titania last month, you have been brooding about-” “I do not brood.” Lady Wodesby remonstrated sharply. “Did she have a foretelling?” Miranda dared at last to ask the question that had been troubling her.

“Did she see something for Damien’s future?” The older woman shook her head, the shadow in her eyes clearing for a moment “No, my sweet, you need not fear for your brother. Your aunt’s vision shows nothing of import and Damien is quite charmed. He is as safe as any man in Wellington’s army may be. I only wish that he would take up his duties as England’s Chief Mage instead of racketing around the Peninsula.” “Mama, please do not say that you are considering asking Lord Enderby to use his influence with the Regent, so that Damien might be less in harm’s way,” Miranda suggested. “You know full well that Damien would not thank me for meddling with his Fate, much as I might want to.” The two women sighed in accord, their thoughts racing along with the clatter of the carriage wheels as they considered the potential danger that Lord Wodesby faced as Wellington’s Magician. “If it is not Damien, then what is vexing you?” Miranda asked, as they crossed the bridge. “What did Aunt Titania say?” Lady Wodesby hesitated. Miranda wondered if she would choose truth or prevarication.

Although Miranda lacked the familial talents, she had learned to read the myriad signs that allowed her to detect a lie no sooner than it was uttered. Her mother sighed deeply. Truth then. “Your aunt was Dreaming of the Future, as she occasionally does this time of year,” Lady Wodesby began hesitantly. “There were typical signs and omens, nothing terribly specific, of course. Cousin Delia will be delivered of a healthy boy when her time comes. There is good fortune in store for Uncle Seth; I suspect his investments on the Exchange will bear fruit. Unfortunately, as you know foretellings are rather vague when it comes to people of the Blood. But Tania did see an image of you . ” her voice trailed off.

“What did she see?” Miranda asked. “A bride . Titania saw a bride,” Lady Wodesby said, her voice barely above a hopeful whisper.

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