Lavender Close: Chapter 11

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Chapter 11

 

“Do you not think it is time to tell me the truth?” Lord Sandridge asked.

My heart beat painfully in my bosom. I ached to share the burden with someone else, but secrecy was a habit of long standing. Bitter experience and my enforced profession since my parents’ death had taught me that wisdom. We four were alive today, I had won our security, because of it.

Unless this stemmed from that work? I had been getting closer; had my enemy sensed it and devised this way to foil me and save herself? She, the Masked Medium, of all people, would know my vulnerability and where to attack.

Zachary.

And somehow, Zachary had found out at least part of my secret. What had he said? ‘You show people they don’t really have ghosts and you explain what’s making their houses seem haunted’?

And by whom.

I had made it my life’s work to find the Masked Medium and bring her to justice. On her trail, I had come across others like her, wicked scamsters who defrauded vulnerable people with their clever tricks and conjuring.

How quickly this unexpected life had come upon me. I had been called out of class at Miss Stringfellow’s Academy in Bath and sent to wait upon the headmistress. The interview had been short and to the point. My school fees for the quarter were in arrears, and I was needed at home immediately. A place had been bespoke for me on the next stagecoach north to Chester. No, she had no other news for me.

I arrived home after two days and a night sitting upright, near frozen, only to find a shell of my family remaining. Mother was two weeks dead, by her own hand, it was whispered. Father had died four days before my return, of grief and shame, according to those same whisperers. Zachary was sick near to death, out of his head and raving. And the bailiffs were encamped outside the gates with an order for our removal.

Juno and Athena had seen the coming of our family’s trouble but been unable to do anything to avert it. They had carried on alone with only Mrs. Naylor to help. They had buried both our parents and when I reached them, they were shocked, hollow-eyed, barely able to speak as they watched beside Zachary’s bed, waiting for him, too, to die.

As we waited, I questioned them, unable to understand. What had happened? Mother—a suicide? She would never have left her children, her husband. And Father? He had been so strong, not just in his person, but in his mind, his character. Surely even his grief over the loss of our mother would not have overwhelmed his care for his children. And bankruptcy? How could that be? We Pilkingtons had never been rich, but our family had been secure and comfortable. How could everything have been turned upside down so quickly?

‘It started when Zachary fell ill,’ Athena began. ‘First the high fever, then just as he began to recover, the fainting spells, the periods of…’ Athena had begun to weep. ‘Periods when he just wasn’t himself.’

‘No, it started when Mother began looking everywhere, anywhere, for a cure for Zachary,’ Juno said.

‘That’s when She came,’ Athena said.

Juno nodded, her face set and hard. ‘When Mother brought the medium into the house, that was when the end started.’

‘The Masked Medium.’ The woman who had promised she could cure Zachary, my mother’s youngest child, my father’s only son.

She swore to heal him—for a price.

I had scarcely believed my ears. A medium? Some fortuneteller from the fair, an actress, a gypsy—how could a tawdry mountebank deceive my intelligent, sophisticated, church-going parents?

‘You weren’t here, Paris,’ the girls told me. ‘You didn’t see, didn’t hear. She knew things, private things about us, things no one else could know. She said the spirits told her, just as they had told her things about some of the most prominent county families. And some of the treatments they told our parents to try did seem to make a difference in Zachary, at least for a little while. Father was still skeptical until the day Grandfather Pilkington appeared to the Medium. He brought Daniel with him.’

Even today the pain of hearing that name was piercing. What it must have done to my parents, to hear the name of their firstborn who had died after only three days—well, the results were plain enough.

‘Grandfather and Daniel said the Hall was haunted by an unquiet spirit. They had tried to protect us, but they had grown exhausted by the effort and needed help from the world of the living.’ Juno’s eyes had flashed as she told the tale.

That help had taken the form, at first, of donations to the church. But soon the spirits needed special help, through ever increasing donations to a little known sect. Father had called on his banker in Chester until his ready funds were exhausted. Mother and Father were glad to do it: Zachary had rallied.

When the fever returned and Zachary did not know my parents for near a week, they sent for the Masked Medium again. This time a jeweled talisman was prescribed. It would help the Masked Medium focus her powers for the guardian spirits to use to battle the unquiet ghost and heal Zachary completely. Did not the Pilkington family have any jewels that could be used? Perhaps a ring, or a necklace…?

Juno had turned her back to us, unable to finish for the rage and pity that wracked her with silent sobs. Athena, white faced but calm, had been the one to confirm what I already guessed.

‘Queen Anne’s Collar,’ the fabulous ruby and diamond necklace bestowed on a Pilkington ancestress who had served the queen well. Every Pilkington bride since then had worn it on her wedding day. ‘Yes,’ the Masked Medium had assured my parents, surely the dozens of diamonds and rubies would have the power to finally make Zachary well. Father had come close to foundering his best horses, racing to the bankers and back to place the Collar in the Masked Medium’s hands.

And then the lights had gone out for the last time. When the lamps were relit, the Masked Medium was gone, as was Queen Anne’s Collar. The heirloom my father had already pledged to his creditors to satisfy the spirits’ ever increasing demands.

And nurse was calling out for Mother to come to Master Zachary for she feared this fit would be his last…

Right now the evil was very real, very present, reaching out to me across time and distance, an icy finger trailing along my spine.

How had Zachary found out? I had tried so hard to so careful. Or had I been living in a fool’s paradise?

And what of Juno and Athena? Did they know or suspect my mission to find the Masked Medium, expose her and bring her to justice?

I had been certain that only ignorance could protect my siblings. If they knew nothing, they could not be threats to my enemy. At least, that had been my theory. Had I placed them in even more danger by not giving them the knowledge to protect themselves?

I believed the Masked Medium had murdered before. She might very well murder again to stop me.

“What is it? What is wrong?”

I wrenched myself from my inner vision of horror to find Lord Sandridge shaking me by the shoulders.

“Tell me how I can help.” His face was creased in stark lines of concern.

Any more mistakes could mean their lives. The Masked Medium had had confederates, some of them seeming well bred and plausible. I could not afford to trust anyone.

My lips felt dry and stiff as I formed an answer. “N-nothing. There is nothing you can do.”

Something that might have been disappointment flickered in the depth of his grey eyes before he turned away.

I had to bite my lip to keep from calling him back. Something about Lord Sandridge felt—trustworthy.

I was so frightened. And so alone.

Perhaps it was myself I should be trusting least of all.

Read Chapter 12–Coming next Friday!

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