The Ghost and Lady Alice

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Alice and the long-deceased Eighth Duke of Haversham met quite accidentally one night as she gazed at his portrait and called upon someone to save her from her miserable life as a servant in the home of the cruel Tenth Duke. While trying to find a rich husband for her, they fall in love.
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Overview

Alice and the long-deceased Eighth Duke of Haversham met quite accidentally one night as she gazed at his portrait and called upon someone to save her from her miserable life as a servant in the home of the cruel Tenth Duke. While trying to find a rich husband for her, they fall in love.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780449216989
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/27/1988
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback

Meet the Author

Marion Chesney, the widely acclaimed author of historical romances, also writes the popular Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth mystery series under the name M. C. Beaton. This is the fourth book in her Edwardian murder mystery series. Born in Scotland, she currently divides her time between the English Cotswolds and Paris.

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Read an Excerpt

ONE

Wadham Hall stood high among the Sussex downs, a magnificent example of Elizabethan architecture. Its structure was a rectangular block with six towers. It was surrounded by walled courtyards and gardens, turrets and gatehouses. Since it had been built in an age when glass was a status symbol, it was more glass than brick, its mullioned windows blazing in the sun.

All this magnificence was the property of the Tenth Duke of Haversham. He entertained in a lavish style and his house parties were legendary. His guests considered themselves honored to be invited. The Hall was beautifully run with every luxury and comfort, as an army of servants flitted silently to and fro, catering unobtrusively to every need.

The upper servants did not consider their life very hard although they worked long hours. At least they were housed and fed.

But the lower order of servants lived in a state which was little more than slavery. Their wages were practically nonexistent, there was no escape for them for there was little other work to be had in the surrounding countryside, their living quarters were disgraceful, and they cringed under the all-powerful tyranny of the Groom of the Chambers, Mr. Bessant.

But there is a lot to be said for having never known anything better, and certainly that was so in the case of Alice Lovesey, the little scullery maid.

At least, not that she could remember.

She could certainly remember the hard, calloused feel of the hand that had pulled her toward the servants' wing of Wadham Hall, but could remember nothing more about the person who had brought her there. She remembered it had been a cold evening, probablyautumn, and that the many windows of the Hall had burned in the setting sun like a sheet of flame, and she had cried aloud with terror and had been cuffed into silence.

Alice guessed she must have been about twelve years old at the time. What had been her life before that day was a complete blank. The awesome personage who had conducted her to the Hall had said something about "found wandering." Her name was Alice Lovesey because they had found that information on a label pinned to her ragged clothes. Her feet had been cut and bleeding as if she had been walking for a long time. No one knew of a Lovesey family anywhere in the neighborhood. The girl was not of gentle birth for she had a country burr. And so that was that. She was hired as scullery maid and tied body and soul to the lower regions of Wadham Hall. Alice found one day that she could read and write and that seemed to her a marvelous thing, but she did not mention this fact to the other servants since she had discovered that to do anything that brought one to the notice of the others, usually resulted in blows and torments and extra work.

For it is a sad fact that a bad master hires bad servants. The Duke was callous, cruel, thoughtless and arrogant, and so the upper servants were hired in his image and brutalized the lower servants in their image, and so all the unhappiness went down the chain of command and fell on the shoulders of the very bottom layer who had no one to be nasty to but each other.

Despite the drudgery, Alice had grown and survived and had been at the Hall for seven long years. It is possible that she might have been quite a beauty if she ever had the leisure to clean herself but, as it was, she appeared to the others as a dirty, insignificant creature who never spoke.

One day when the Duke and Duchess of Haversham had an even larger house party than usual, tempers in the kitchen were running high. The guests had arrived two weeks ago and seemed destined to stay forever. For two weeks the servants had been run ragged, carrying slops, carrying hot water, carrying meals for what seemed like twenty-four hours a day since some of the guests stayed up all night, while the others rose early to hunt or shoot.

Then horror of horrors! One of the guests had found a cobweb in his chamber pot and had complained of it to the Duke. The Duke had sent for the Groom of the Chambers and had given him a tongue-lashing. The Groom of the Chambers had in turn insulted the butler, who had berated the housekeeper, who had screamed at the head footman, who had cursed the other footmen, and so on, until the Cook had given Alice a public whipping in the middle of the kitchen, for someone had to take the blame.

Just when the beating was over, it was announced the guests would depart at the end of the week. Anger subsided, tempers cooled and Alice crawled off to her pots and pans, white-faced and trembling, feeling so hurt in body and soul that she wondered if she would live and, at the same time, praying she might die.

Further good news was announced. His Grace and his guests were driving out that evening to visit a neighbor and would not be expected back until late the next day. The servants would be able to go early to bed.

Alice bent over her work, dimly hearing the joyful cries in the kitchen and hating every single servant in the Hall, and hating the Duke with all her little heart. It was new for Alice to hate. So far she had accepted the drudgery of her life as part of her place in the divine plan. But that beating had been the final straw. She hated the Duke because he was completely indifferent to the plight of any lesser being in the social order. She hated the Groom of the Chambers--she hated them all.

For the first time in her life, she wanted to escape. For the first time in her life, she thought rebelliously that she was meant for better than this.

But as usual she said nothing, working steadily, working late until the "goodnights" sounded from the kitchen, working over the pots by the light of one smelly tallow candle until she heard all the voices die away.

Her bed now waited for her--if you could call it a bed. It was nothing more than an evil-smelling straw pallet which was kept rolled up in a corner of the scullery. She was expected to sleep neatly and quietly in the corner of the scullery and to awaken, as if by magic, at four in the morning no matter how tired she was.

Alice had never seen any other part of the house but the kitchen. She had never been further away from the house than to the pump in the backyard. She was not even allowed to go to church with the other servants because she was expected to stay behind with two other drudges and prepare their Sunday dinner.

She was so tired and sore and angry that she felt quite light-headed, and perhaps that is what gave her the courage to creep across the blackness of the kitchen and slowly mount the stairs to the upper region.

Now the Hall was said to be haunted by the ghost of the Eighth Duke who had broken his neck in a hunting accident around the year 1751. The next Duke, the Ninth, had been as much a tyrant as the present one and he had died of an apoplexy in 1789 and nothing in his life had become him like the leaving it. He had no direct heir and so the dukedom and the title and all, had gone to a distant relative, now the present Duke, who was supposed to bear a marked likeness to the Eighth, being handsome in a haughty and arrogant way.

But there, evidently, the resemblance ceased. For the Eighth Duke had been a wastrel and rakehell, but had had a reputation for having been kind and generous to his servants. He had also been a tremendous ladies' man. The present Duke was married to a chilly, high-nosed wife who suited him very well. He was nasty to his servants, but had never seen the inside of a gambling hell or got up to any of the wild antics of his ancestor.

There had been stories in the kitchen that the Eighth Duke still walked the empty corridors of the Hall at night, but Alice somehow was not afraid of meeting a ghost. The horrors of the present world were terrifying enough without starting to be frightened of some poor spirit who probably did not exist anyway.

She timidly pushed open the door of the great hall and stood looking about her in awe. Mellow gold stone seemed to stretch for miles in front of her, lit by the light of one oil lamp placed on a carved oak chest. Tapestries hung silently against the walls, their figures of huntsmen and hounds seeming almost alive in the dim, golden light. A great, carved flight of stone stairs led up from the great hall to the state rooms on the second floor.

Alice felt no fear. It was as if she had passed beyond that state into a kind of limbo where nothing in the outside world could touch her. Her bare feet making no sound on the stone flags, she moved lightly across the hall and mounted the stairs.

Very gently she pushed open the door of the banqueting hall and slipped inside. The huge room was brightly lit by shafts of moonlight streaming in the windows. The walls were decorated with a moulded and painted plaster frieze showing Diana and the animals of the forest. The figures had many bright painted eyes which seemed to follow the progress of the little scullery maid across the room.

Unlike the other rooms of the Hall, this one had only one portrait. It was hung between the windows. Alice pulled out a great carved chair at the end of the banqueting table and looked down the hall to the portrait.

But the portrait was in the shadow between the two windows. Still, with that feeling of unreality, she lit a branch of candles and carried it over to the portrait, reading the brass plate underneath first.

"Gervase, Eighth Duke of Haversham," she read aloud. She raised the candelabra and looked up at the picture.

He was certainly somewhat like Alice's present master with his high-nosed handsome face. But where the present Duke's face was cold and his eyes pale, this man's eyes held a mocking glint and his mouth was curved in a smile. He was dressed in the clothes of the period in which he had lived, gold brocade coat with lace foaming at his throat and wrists, silk knee breeches and powdered wig. He had his hand on his sword hilt, and behind him, the artist had faithfully painted the magnificence of Wadham Hall.

Suddenly Alice realized what she was doing and where she was. She would be thrashed within an inch of her life if they found her here. The candelabra shook in her hand and she looked from the portrait to it in dawning horror. It was made of solid gold. Perhaps they would accuse her of stealing and she would surely be hanged.

She turned to flee but something made her turn slowly round and look back up at the picture. It was a kind face, she decided.

"Oh, I wish you was here now, sir," said Alice. "I wish to God you was!"

With a little sigh, she turned away from the portrait and walked back toward the banqueting table to replace the candelabra.

Gervase, Eighth Duke of Haversham, was seated in the high-carved chair at the head of the banqueting table. There was an expression of stunned surprise on his handsome face. Alice stood hypnotized, one part of her mind wondering why she felt no fear.

The Duke stretched out an elegant leg encased in a clocked stocking and ending in a diamond-buckled shoe with a high red heel and studied it carefully. Then he tossed back the lace at his wrist and pinched himself with long, delicate white fingers. Then he shrugged and felt in the capacious pocket of his coat, pulled out a snuffbox, looked at it with surprised delight, took a pinch of snuff and sighed with pleasure.

"Stap me vitals," said the Duke in a light, amused voice. "It's I, in the flesh. Back again. Odd's Fish!"

Alice approached timidly. "Are you a ghost?" she said in a croaky voice.

The Duke stared down the banqueting hall at the ragged girl, holding the branch of candles.

"I suppose I must be. Come hither, child."

Alice moved slowly toward him. She must be dreaming or perhaps the present Duke was playing some mad joke. But as she neared him she saw his eyes were a very dark vivid blue, so this could not be her master. "I'm dreaming," thought Alice, "so there is nothing to be afraid of." And certainly the whole thing seemed unreal. The staring figures on the frieze on the wall, the elegant gentleman in his antique clothes who was watching her with indulgent amusement.

Alice slowly replaced the candelabra on the table and stood next to him. "Who are you?" asked the Duke.

"Scullery maid an please Your Grace," whispered Alice.

"I' faith, but you are extremely dirty and ragged even for a scullery maid."

Alice blushed. "T'ain't my fault," she said and then, rallying, "At least I'm alive."

"Meaning I am not," said the Duke, pinching himself again. "I feel alive. Hold my hand!"

Alice stared down at the white hand with its weight of glittering rings. Perhaps he would pull her down into hell. Her own grubby little hand trembling, she put it into the Duke's. His hand was warm and alive.

"What was it like ... in the grave?" she whispered.

"I don't know," he said testily. "All I can remember is that cursed horse balking at a stone wall. Up and over I went and hit a great rock. I seem to remember floating out of my body and looking down at myself and thinking I looked cursed ridiculous. That's all."

"You can't be a ghost," said Alice. "Them's transparent and carries chains."

"And moan and walk through walls," he said cheerfully. "I wonder if I can walk through a wall?"

He got to his feet and tittupped on his high heels across the floor--and walked slap bang into the wall and rebounded.

"Dear me," he said rubbing his forehead. "I really am alive. I'll tell you another thing. I'm cursed hungry. Go get me some food."

"I durst not," said Alice. "What if they ketch un and I says I'm fetching for a ghost, they'll send me to the madhouse."

"You're whimpering," said the ghost callously. "Never could abide whimperers. Sit down and don't stand there with your mouth open."

Alice did as she was bid, staring in fascination at his white face and sparkling eyes. He had a small black patch near his mouth and his jewels winked wickedly in the light.

"Did you ... er ... summon me?" he asked.

"I s'pose I did," said Alice. "I mean, Duke's that hard and I had a beating from Cook and folks have said as how you was kind to your servants, so I wished you were back."

"And here I am," he said cheerfully, "in the ghostly flesh so to speak."

"Folks do say," said Alice cautiously, "that you've been seen around afore."

"Do they now?" he said. "Then they're wrong. I think I would have remembered that, you know."

"Are you going to disappear again?" asked Alice.

"I don't know," said the Duke crossly. "What a lot of questions you do ask." He then proceeded to ask some of his own. Who was the present Duke? What was he like? Married? Children? And Alice answered as best she could.

"Don't you want to know about how hard life is for us here?" ventured Alice.

"No, not in the slightest," said the Duke. "There is nothing more boring than a whining, ungrateful servant. Go to sleep. Go off to bed, there's a good girl and leave me to cogitate."

"What's that?"

"Think."

"Oh!" Alice got up reluctantly. He made no move to detain her. She turned at the door and looked rather wistfully back at him. "I did fetch you back," she said softly.

"And that gives you a claim on my time, you grubby fairy? Very well, my kitchen elf. I shall meet you here, every evening at this time."

Alice bobbed a curtsy and slipped as quietly from the room as she had entered. She was suddenly so tired that the stairs seemed to rise up to meet her. Wearily she stumbled back to the kitchen, pulled her mattress from its corner and fell immediately asleep.

The next day Alice was sure it had all been a dream but, dream or not, she could not forget that the phantom of her dream had called her dirty. When all the other servants were at their evening meal, she slipped out to the pump at the back, and, stripping off, scrubbed herself until she felt raw, and soaped her hair, gasping at the bite of cold water as she rinsed it.

When she was finally allowed to escape to her "bed" that night, she lay down with a feeling of anticipation. She expected to be wafted back to that dream banqueting hall where the dream Duke would be waiting for her. But nothing happened. Only exhausted sleep and the waking in the chill dawn to a feeling of loss.

As the day wore on, she saw several of the men gazing at the freshly washed, midnight cloud of black hair which now tumbled down her back and, feeling uneasy, she found a piece of string and tied it up on top of her head in a severe knot. "If only my ghost had really existed," thought Alice, afraid of these new lecherous looks and particularly afraid of the Groom of the Chambers whose shoe-button eyes had fastened greedily on her budding bosom as she had bent over to lift a pail of water.

But by evening, exciting gossip had filtered down from the upper chambers and it seemed as if the servants' hall was in a fever of excitement. The Duchess had threatened to divorce the Duke. The ladies of the house party had all been throwing the Duke amorous glances, and it had come out in one splendid row that the Duke had managed to pleasure all four of the younger married ones during the watches of the night.

Alice, huddled in the scullery over the pots, suddenly thought she knew who was responsible for this seduction of the married ladies of the party. She felt sure it was the wicked ghost masquerading as the present Duke. But it had been a dream. Hadn't it? She resolved to go to the banqueting hall, just one more time, and if he was there, she would give him a piece of her mind.

The butler was in a furious temper because two bottles of his best claret and one bottle of French brandy were found to be missing. Also, a fine raised pie had been stolen from the larder. One accused the other and eventually the blame fell on the small knife boy who was sorely beaten. Since he had laughed maliciously when Alice had received her beating, she found it hard to have any sympathy for him.

The house party was due to leave in the morning to make the long journey to London, and so the servants were being allowed to go to bed early. Alice was just finishing her work when a shadow fell across the pots. She turned around and found herself staring up at the cadaverous face of the Groom of the Chambers.

He moistened his lips and stared down at her and his hand slid around her waist.

"Alice! Alice! Where is that good-for-nothing!" cried the angry voice of the Cook, and Alice, with a sob of relief, made her escape.

She could hardly wait for the servants to go to bed, sitting hiding in the shadows so that no one would notice her. At last they were all abed and the great house was quiet.

Alice slipped quietly upstairs, through the great hall and up the stone stairs. Sending up a little prayer, she pushed open the door of the banqueting hall.

Empty.

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