Lottie didn’t know when she first sensed the ghost’s presence in the music room at her aunt and uncle’s hotel. It must have been long before she saw her.
Of course, neither Lottie nor Magda believed in ghosts . Great Aunt Pauline did, but she went to a spiritualist church and generally had crazy ideas.
Lottie had always thought that ghosts must be bores, obsessed for centuries with some wrong done to them or that they had done to someone else. Then there was the ham acting, with their dragging about chains, or patrolling down corridors groaning, head under one arm like a fashion accessory.
There was the pure silliness of that stereotypical White Lady of Somewhere Hall who appeared at the stroke of midnight with the bodice of her gown soaked with blood where she’d been stabbed in the heart by her wicked husband who’d discovered her ‘in the arms of her lover’.
“En flagrante,” Magda had suggested. She had to explain the meaning to Lottie, who’d wrinkled her nose at the idea, supposing she’d got that term from those Charlotte Cray historical romances she’d got Lottie reading.
They’d agreed that a bloodstained white dress could be adopted by the ghost, to disguise that she’d been stark naked at the time she was caught.
On this dark late October afternoon, with the wind rising over the bay outside, Lottie repeated “En flagrante,” absently as, having finished those set exercises, she tinkled on the keyboard. For all the ghostly atmosphere – that sense that someone was watching her – Lottie still liked to sit here on the piano stool, doing a bit of half hearted practice. It got her off helping her aunt and Magda and the staff with the endless cooking and housework .
The hotel brochure might boast of ‘the experienced and friendly staff’ who helped Aunt Amanda run the hotel, but when she invited Magda and Lottie over‘for a break’ they ended up helping out every day.
Lottie could hear voices talking, quick footsteps and doors opening and closing in the kitchen quarters where the evening meal was being prepared. When her hour was up, they’d be yelling up at her to come down and find some extra plates, to dash out into the storm to pick some herbs from the herb garden, or to stir the sauce. Although Lottie had just turned sixteen, her aunt still tended to treat her as if she was an eager twelve- year- old.
From here, with the land between the front of the hotel and the cliff edge out of sight, you had the illusion that you were hovering between a sky and sea, azure on summer days, chill grey in winter. The waves below were flattened by distance, the yachts and boats the size of toys, while the clouds above the swooping gulls seemed within touching distance.
Lottie got up to move over to the great Regency windows. Now the remains of the meadow and the view of the bay with the rival hotels came into view, and down below the beach. On a wet and a windy autumn day like today, there were only a couple of people braving the weather. A youngish looking couple walked their dog and some old school fisherman sat obliviously on an upturned rowing boat, doing something to a net. He seemed oddly ageless.
A female voice said suddenly, “’En flagrante?’ Well, really! It scarcely becomes a schoolroom miss to be so precociously knowledgeable.” That voice would have been attractive had it not sounded so irritable.
Lottie jumped, but said at once, “It’s just my imagination.”
“I am so weary of hearing that,” the voice went on, speaking in the clearest of elocution mistress like voices. “The most unimaginative people claim that is what my voice must be. A vulgar, affluent travelling salesman said it, a while since. This the most unimaginative person you could meet, with a dreadful hail fellow well meet air. How it was I was visible to him, I cannot imagine..”
Lottie gawped. She thought about running, but decided against it. After all, she had known for a long time now that this room was haunted.
At first, the ghost had moved things. She would put down something, say her book of piano exercises, on the left of one of the side tables, turn about, and find that it had been moved over to the right. Sometimes a door would softly open and close. Lottie had rationalised that as changes in air pressure when a door being opened or shut somewhere else in the house. She had told herself that the pacing footsteps she so often heard in this part of the house were echoes. Still, there was that unaccountable scent of roses throughout the year.
After a while, the ghostly presence had started to sigh heavily now and then. Doggedly, Lottie told herself that was the wind.
Now, her voice wobbled as she tried to sound casual. “A travelling salesman? That must have been ages ago. They’ve died out.” She added helpfully, “I know one of my great-uncles was one.” She realised that she was gabbling irrelevantly.
She was staring about for the source of the voice, which remained hidden. Why was this? She’d heard somewhere of ghostly voices speaking with no sign of a body.
“Are you a ghost?” Realising that to the formal manners of a former age her question might sound what Aunt Amanda would call ‘brusque,’ she added, “Please.”
The voice made a noise which sounded like ‘Pshaw!’ and she felt a stir of chilly air at her elbow. “I prefer the term ‘spirit’. I suppose that is what I am.” The precise voice with the over-the-top received pronunciation sounded strained and impatient.
“Are you stuck here?” Lottie had never understood why anybody would choose to be a ghost. It sounded a boring existence to her. That was assuming an element of choice must come into it. She vaguely recalled Great-Aunt Pauline talking about spirits getting stuck between two worlds. She hadn’t taken much notice about how that came about.
The spirit said, “Do you mean by that, am I earthbound? Well, I suppose I am. I have been trying for a long while to unburden myself. I want people to know the truth about the scoundrel I married, but no-one will listen.”
“Oh.” Lottie was proud of her adult tact in keeping to herself her disappointment that marital squabbles seemed to dominate a female spectre’s afterlife. She knew too well how Aunt Amanda felt about Uncle Simon’s main contribution towards running the hotel being his socialising with the customers in the bar.
“Like the White Lady…” she realised something. “When did you die?”
She voice sounded offended. “My soul was separated from my body in 1809.”
“Six years before the Battle of Waterloo. ” Lottie felt proud of her grasp of history. “Have you been hanging about ever since then?”
She was still trying to catch sight of the ghost, who seemed to be moving about the room. She thought she saw a vague stir, like a slightly denser shadow, near the table with the antique violin case on it which was kept locked, the violin in it having a damaged bridge.
“Really, you have the most indelicate way of speaking for a young lady. And yet, you do not appear to be wholly insensitive, or you would be unable to realise my presence at all…Yes, since leaving that life I have been trying to summon people’s attention. Unfortunately, after the last heir was killed in some war with the Germans, the house stood empty for years.”
“Do you mean World War One?” wondered Lottie. “There was a worse war than that afterwards, the one my travelling salesman great- uncle was killed in.”
The voice sounded bored. “How unfortunate… Anyway, to return to my purpose: I want you to hear my story.”
Lottie generally liked hearing stories – as long as they weren’t dirty ones told by chortling boys at school –but realised how much she didn’t want to hear one from a ghost.
‘This shouldn’t be happening,” whined the rational part of her mind.
Downstairs, brisk footsteps sounded, and a voice called something, only to be cut off by a door slamming. Lottie suddenly realised how chill the room now felt and how much she wished that she was back in everyday, prosaic reality.
She glanced longingly at the music room door four metres away, thinking of making a dash for it. Absurdly, it was her upbringing – that upbringing that scorned the idea of ghosts – which stopped her from cutting off one of her elders in mid speech. After all, though the voice was that of a young woman, her ghost must be well over two hundred – far older than any of the old ladies here who demanded respect on account of their age.
Besides, if she gabbled some excuse and started to run, this ghost might turn nasty. It was hardly being good natured as it was. It might seize her with icy fingers, or perhaps cause the door to lock so that Lottie was trapped her with it. The very thought of that made her legs feel weak.
She mumbled, “It would be best if you talked to my uncle or aunt.” This was what she had always said to guests who asked her do things like turn up the heating, her aunt being oblivious to the icy draughts that found their way through the period windows in winter.
Lottie immediately saw how incongruous that idea was. Her aunt would be too busy thinking about the accounts or in planning next weeks’ menu to give a thought to spectral voices, while her uncle’s senses were usually blunted by a few whiskies by late afternoon.
The disembodied voice – now nearer to the window – sounded even more irritable. “You surely see the absurdity of my attempting to talk to either.”
Lottie – astonished at her own courage – fell back on a get out that she hadn’t demeaned herself by using in years. “But they are adults.”
She was disgusted by her whinging tone, but to her surprise, the ghostly voice softened, becoming almost coaxing. “It is indeed, unfair that you should be burdened with this at so young an age. Regrettably, I have little choice. I must relieve my mind by speaking out while I have the chance, or am I to be trapped here for ever?”
The question seemed to be rhetorical, thought it sent a nasty thrill through Lottie, who had a sudden dread that she might somehow become trapped likewise. No, she refused to believe that. For one thing, she wasn’t dead, or anyway, had shown no sign of dying when she was doing her piano practise a few minutes earlier.
Still, she saw that for now there was no escape. Shivering in the chill air, she tried to return to her blasé approach, which had been easier when it wasn’t so cold. “I suppose I have to listen like the wedding guest in that daft poem about the Ancient Mariner we did at school. At least if my aunt moans about my not doing my piano practice, I’ll have an original excuse: ‘A ghost stopped me.’”
The only response the spectre made to that was a chilly silence, though perhaps that was the temperature in the room. Seeing a throw draped over the sofa across the room, Lottie stumbled on shaking legs to seize it and drape it about herself. “Ah, that’s better.”
The voice followed her across the room as it scolded. This was so unpleasant that Lottie sat down quickly on the couch, resolving not to get up again.
“Kindly refrain from fidgeting about in that tiresome way.” It didn’t seem to occur to the ghost that it had been doing exactly that itself ever since it had made its presence known. Lottie thought that it was like other adults in that.
“OK, I won’t move again,” promised Lottie. In fact, she was far from sure that she could stand hearing the ghost out. From here on the sofa, she could see the prosaic car park round to the side of the house, and a couple of guests getting out of their car. The sight was both comforting and an unnerving reminder of how cut off from normality she was here.
“Though my family came from trade, I was given the best of educations,” began the voice. “I was also thought quite a beauty, and given my enviable dowry, I had dozens of suitors.”
Suddenly, Lottie remembered that the small portrait of ‘a Mrs. Georgiana Westleigh’ that hung among the larger ones in the front hallway might well be one of this ghost. If so, the face that it depicted, plump, with a button mouth and vacant, round eyes, had always struck her as insipid.
She remembered descriptions of ‘the season’ in those Charlotte Cray novels. “Ah. Were you presented at court?”
“No, my parents did not have quite such grand connections, being in trade. But I did very well without attending the most exclusive events. It was at a rather fine ball that I first met Mr. Westleigh.”
“He was just the sort of dashing young man who would appeal to an impressionable girl just out of the schoolroom. He was wild enough, but not so bad that he didn’t seem redeemable, and always lead the fashion among his set. His wavy dark hair was styled in careful disorder. He was always full of high spirits and lively talk, ever the life of the party.”
“This, together with his considerable fortune, made him much sought out socially and a great success with the young ladies, but until he met me, he was in no hurry to settle down . I had a considerable dowry, but despite his wildness, he could certainly have married someone regarded as a far greater catch. However, he set his heart on me.”
“He was besotted from the first, and paid passionate court to me, pursuing me determinedly, and indifferent to the taunts of his friends that they had never thought to see the day when he fell in love. I was equally besotted, though of course, I did not show it. He a young man of the world, seven years older than me, and everything that I was looking for in a suitor. He was handsome, dashing and wild, something of a gamester, a fine shot and sportsman with a taste for pugilism, a lively wit and a two bottle a day man.”
“Two bottles of what?” Lottie cut in. Her uncle was thought to drink too much whisky, and he insisted that he never drank more than half a bottle a day.
“Why, fine wines, of course,” the voice replied irritably.
“You are not heeding properly to my story, and I have little enough time in which to relate it.”
Lottie pulled a face. She thought that her question had shown what her teachers called ‘intelligent interest’ , while a ghost that was bossy and snappy was somehow not playing by the rules.
She interrupted again, “Doing all that stuff, and being half off his face from all that wine, I wonder he had the time to chase after you.”
“Off his face?” The ghost seemed confused before resuming n a gloating tone, “Of course, he had time to chase after me. He was besotted, as I said, and I was as bad, though I hid it as best I could.
“I feared my parents would oppose my marrying a man with so wild a reputation, but my stepmother said, ‘Marriage will like enough steady him’. She encouraged the match, and it never occurred to my guileless self that she was eager to marry me off, so that my comparatively plain stepsisters might have a chance in attracting suitable husbands.”
The spirit breathed heavily as it went on,”My father said, ‘A young man has to sow his wild oats’. Westleigh’s own father, who’d been a city merchant, had died two years before. His mother doted on her son and could never refuse anything that he asked. Accordingly, she put up no opposition to the match, particularly when she found out about my fortune.”
This time, the voice came from further down the room to the right. Lottie could now definitely see a shadow moving about. Now and then, she caught the bright glimpse of the upper of an embroidered slipper, a flash of the moving white hem of a dress. Increasingly, she could hear the ghost’s soft footfalls and the swish of her gown or petticoats.
In other words, the spirit was materialising. Perhaps Lottie ought to make a dash for it, at that. The idea came and went in a moment. Now she wanted to hear the end of the story, which was obviously going to end badly. Her fear seemed to retreat into the distance. The objective side of her mind saw that this must be caused by some sort of trance, but for some reason that didn’t seem to matter, either.
Besides, now she remembered how Great Aunt Pauline said that ghosts were generally powerless to do people any harm beyond giving them a fright. What damaged people during an encounter with one was their own panic, in hurling themselves from windows, tripping and falling down the stairs, or in having heart attacks.
The voice moved again as the ghost resumed her pacing. “Edward Westleigh said that now that he had met me, he was a changed man, and would put aside his riotous ways, and I had no better sense than to believe him.”
Here, the spirit gave what one of those Charlotte Cray historical romances Lottie had read had called ‘a mirthless laugh’. This was unnerving in a ghost. Then she resumed pacing and talking.
“A friend of mine – a better friend than I then credited – tried to warn me against marrying Mr. Westleigh in haste. You see, he insisted on my marrying him as soon as was decently possible. At the time, I thought it was passion that drove him. I later realised that he was anxious to secure me before I learned enough about his former conduct to break off the engagement.”
“Well, I suppose he must have been dead keen on you, then,” Lottie said kindly, though with an effort, for talking about love with real people was still embarrassing to her, though she had enjoyed love stories in films and books.
Still, a ghost wasn’t exactly a real person.
“Oh yes, Edward Westleigh was besotted, in his own selfish way. Then, he wanted to be reformed without any effort on his part, you understand, and thought that I would be the perfect young woman for that task. I suppose my angelic appearance convinced him as much as anything.”
Lottie thought again of the portrait. Georgiana Westleigh had indeed looked angelic, she supposed – if one thought of celestial beings as looking insipid– with those great eyes, pearly complexion suitably tinged with pink and those dark gold curls spilling over her shoulders. She was a bit too well covered to fit modern notions of the ethereal, of course, but that era didn’t admire athletic figures inwomen.
She would have liked to tell the spirit that she couldn’t imagine why this Edward Westleigh had made the mistake of considering her angelic, given her snappy temper and overbearing ways. Still, perhaps she had only got like that through being married to him.
Perhaps she had got even more bad tempered from trying for so long to communicate with people who ignored her. That was surely enough to sour anybody’s temper. For all that, Lottie found it hard to sympathise with this spirit. She should have moved on to higher things, as Great Aunt Pauline said decent people did, rather than hanging about for a couple of centuries, trying to get people to hear all about how wicked her husband had been.
As if guessing her thoughts, the ghost showed sudden and surprising objectivity by adding , “Perhaps it is easy to seem sweet tempered when you are courted and admired from morning to night.”
Lottie realised that that she hadn’t heard any of the busy sounds of dinner on the go from downstairs for some minutes. It was as if a thick fog of timelessness encased the room. That was eerie. Lottie was still fearful of getting trapped in it.
Summoning up Great -Aunt Pauline’s reassuring words, she couldn’t believe that she would, though that was just the sort of inexplicable and downright unfair thing that happened to people in horror films.
“I’ve seen the miniature of you in the library downstairs,” Lottie said, proud of her own tact in not giving her own opinion of it. “Is there one of Mr. Westleigh?”
“There was one, but very likely it has gone missing.” The ghost’s tone was indifferent. “In any case, I do not see the house as you do, except in flashes. Thank goodness for that, as I dislike seeing it turned into a commonplace hotel.”
Lottie pulled a face at this rude description of Aunt Amanda’s ‘exclusive period residential hotel’, but said nothing as the spirit went on.
“To resume my story after your latest interruption. – I weakened under my betrothed’s constant, tender urging, and we were married within three months.”
“Uh-huh,” said Lottie.
“At the wedding breakfast, I overheard his closest friend, one of the worst of his circle of wild young bucks, who had stood best man, remarking on a bet which his friends had amongst themselves as to how long he would take to relapse into his old ways. He himself said a year. It seemed, some of the other members of the group put their money on six months.”
The shadow – it was a distinct one now – gave another mirthless laugh. That sent a shiver down Lottie’s spine.
“At first, we were charmed by each other. Edward Westleigh was the most beguiling man in the world – when it suited his convenience. He was so occupied in delighting and impressing me, and in showing me off to his acquaintance, and buying me trinkets, and revelling in the novel ty of those quiet evenings spent at home, and settling me in the rented Town house and the country estate in Bedfordshire, that the days flew by, turning into weeks and months.
“Still he continued to assure me that he was so in thrall to his domestic angel that he felt not the slightest temptation to return to his old haunts in the company of that pack of hellhounds.
“For my own part, I had no great difficulty in living happily with a handsome, dashing, witty man who showered me with attentions and compliments .
“In the event, it was eighteen months before he returned to his old way of life.” The ghost paused dramatically, and Lottie, sensing that it was looking at her, pulled a solemn face.
“ Our son and heir had just turned six months when he began to return to his former ways. Firstly, he drifted back to drinking and the gaming tables. From that followed his return to his old, riotous behaviour and soon after that the philandering. I relate this with due consideration for your age. I will only say that he conceived a fascination with the most tawdry of actresses, who was something of a toper herself.”
The ghost paused. Lottie supposed that it wanted sympathy. “Not good,” she murmured.
The spectre resumed, “The rumours soon enough reached me – we were staying in the rented Town house at that time – and I remonstrated with him. He blustered, lied, and refused to discuss it. I lost my temper, and threw a costly vase at him. Regrettably, it missed and broke a window, smashing on the road below at the feet of a passing street vendor. He swore coarsely, while Westleigh was over come with laughter.”
Lottie managed to keep her face straight.
“Over the next couple of days, the scoundrel attempted to win me over to accepting his liaison. He said that I was his domestic goddess, while any this other woman was only a passing fancy – as would be the ones in the future whom he was too much a creature of the earth to resist. Becoming sententious, he urged that I should view his lapses as only part of a man’s nature, and strive to win back his wandering fancy with tender embraces and ready forgiveness.”
Lottie wondered what ‘sententious’ meant. It sounded annoying, anyway.
“On that occasion, he did win me over,” Georgiana Westleigh’s spirit went on. “That liaison was short lived. Yet Mr. Westleigh made no attempt to curb his heavy drinking, betting and other excesses. He made it clear that he expected me somehow to wean him from them.”
“At first, I tried. I reproached him, gently, as that seemed the approach most likely to win him over, distasteful it was to my pride. He agreed with whatever I said, promised to reform and went on exactly as before.
“Soon, he took up with an opera girl. Again I remonstrated with him. Again, he refused to discuss the matter, except to say that I must use my sweet influence to win him back. I tried this for some months, while he went on with his excesses. Then I reproached him a good deal less gently. He retorted that if I had any sense, I would not scold like harridan, but continue to lure him back with angelic kindness. He also added that he had been beguiled by my sweet nature when we met, but now, he found I was turning into a sourpuss. We quarrelled. This led to a longer coolness between us.”
“I was too proud to unburden myself to his doting mother, who had some influence with him. She would certainly have quoted the conventional wisdom that if I was incapable of making our home so comfortable that Mr. Westleigh had no desire to stray away from it, then I had nobody but myself to blame. That was easy enough for her to say, when Mr. Westleigh’s late father’s chief passion had been for the Stock Exchange.”
“Reluctantly, I confided in my father and stepmother. they insisted that they had warned me against marrying so rakish a man in haste.”
There was a sharp tapping noise, as if the spirit had stamped her foot. Thentje voice went on in deliberately measured tones, “I saw that if my husband chose to behave unreasonably, I was powerless to do anything about it, being my his possession. Too late I understood why so much emphasis was placed on a woman’s choosing a man of good moral character to marry. Only a wife who could prove that she was savagely beaten stood a chance of getting a separation. One who left her husband was regarded with contempt, much like a soldier who has deserted his post. Most chose to stay and endure it. It was seen as part of her Christian duty. Sensible wives looked the other way over adultery, drunkenness and every sort of neglect .
“At about this time, Mr. Westleigh suddenly discovered that living in Town was bad for our baby’s health, and that he needed sea air. Accordingly, he ordered me to bring him here to this distant Welsh property belonging to the family. I was happy enough to escape his company, though I would miss my friends in Town. In the couple of years since we had married, I had frankly become disillusioned with him.”
Lottie wasn’t entirely surprised.
“Llandudno was then a cut- off community, hardly more than a village, with very little in the way of social diversions, particularly in the autumn and winter. The population was small, and local society even smaller. I lived with a small staff in this sizeable house, in which most of the rooms were shut up. I was sure I had no idea how to spend my empty hours, and I could not see any of my friends or relatives wishing to stay for any length of time in so out of the way a place.”
She ghostly voice grumbled, “ No doubt, had I been the earthly angel whom Mr. Westleigh still half believed me to be – but more on that later – I would have devoted my life to good works. I did have a generous allowance, as my father had at least insisted on that as part of my marriage settlement, and I did give generously to the unfortunate when approached,” the ghostly voice sounded defensive here, as if she had been reproached on that subject. “Still, I had no real independence, the greater part of my fortune having gone over to Mr. Westleigh.
I struck up an acquaintance with a respectable widow, a Mrs. Price. She had fallen on hard times, and was happy to become my companion. She had been a governess before her marriage, and was fluent in French, having lived in that country for some years before the outbreak of that shocking revolution. French had been one of my favourite subjects when I was in the schoolroom, and with her encouragement I returned to it.
“Sometimes I would play and sing a few pieces after dinner – those few pieces which had been so lavishly praised by my London admirers not so long ago . Mrs. Price commented on my talent for the piano, and when I confided to her how I had always meant to improve my play, she recommended to me a young male cousin who taught music. I engaged him for some lessons.”
The spirit paused.
“Uh-huh,” Lottie said again.
The shadow turned on her an irritable look. “I found him not only highly respectful and encouraging, but rather charming for a hireling. I soon became eager to polish those musical skills I had given up on my marriage.”
Lottie saw what was coming through an indefinable change of the spirit’s tone when she mentioned this music master. She wriggled in distaste at the coming confession of unfaithfulness, though she would never have thought of herself as a romantic.
“I suppose this musician fell for you, too. ” She couldn’t bring herself to use the term ‘fell in love’: that was just too sentimental.
As she spoke, Lottie caught a momentary glimpse of the ghost’s form at her most solid yet, flowing robe streaming about her, face semi- transparent, oddly colourless and looking offended either at Lottie’s suggestion or her way of putting things.
“Your candour is to the point,” the spirit returned coldly. Here, as so often during this talk, Lottie thought how having read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in English at school was proving as invaluable in following the spirit’s speech. So were those Charlotte Cray novels. Lottie translated that the ghost was saying again that she was too blunt. She supposed someone from Mrs. Westleigh’s own circle would have talked about the music tutor’s ‘high regard’ or some such phrase.
“Of course, he was not presumptuous enough to speak out.” The spirit resumed her pacing. “Yet, of course, a female always knows. His whole attitude was one of languishing devotion.”
Lottie felt a pang of envy. She could not imagine any of the males she knew, of whatever age, suffering from ‘languishing devotion’. Perhaps a complete nerd might, but the boys she knew were too busy playing the latest online game or working out the gym, while lots of them exchanged pornography on their mobiles. She didn’t see how they could change enough to go from that to romantic longings even in ten years.
“I suppose he gave you lessons in here?” Lottie glanced about in alarm as the curtains shifted in the rising wind. However, there was nothing more to be seen.
“Yes, and of all the rooms, this is the one that is least changed, with none of the hideous appurtenances of your own age. It is easier to make my presence felt here. But people on the earthly plane always react disagreeably.”
The ghost paced again. “One stout matron a while ago, dozing in a chair, was undismayed. However, she pestered me with tedious questions about her dear late Henry, and whether I had any message from him. Others ask in shaking voices if I have come to warn them of their approaching deaths. I cannot imagine why they think that I would be interested in their tedious lives. People are really very selfish.”
Lottie kept her tone solemn. “What will happen, now that you have found someone who will listen?”
“You hardly make the best of listeners yourself, with these constant interruptions,” Mrs. Westleigh’s spirit returned.
The sheer ingratitude of this provoked Lottie into muttering, “Well, I’m all you’ve got.’
The spirit either did not hear, or pretended not to. She went on, “The music and French lessons made a pleasant diversion from my lonely existence. Oh, yes, I know! No doubt I should have made the best of things, and while I waited for my errant husband to decide that our son had taken in enough sea air, or to tire of his latest mistress, cultivated such dull society as there was locally, invited my step sisters to stay, and devoted most of my time to our son. But really, that was asking too much of a social butterfly of twenty.”
Lottie, having no opinion on the matter, and so could make no reply. The ghost resumed her tale. “Yes, that is what my renegade husband doubtless expected me to do. Doubtless it was what I ought to have done, but I really did not feel equal to it. Instead I devoted myself to my French and music, and in walking by the storm tossed sea, fretting over my hard lot.
“My so-called friends wrote now and then from Town, eager to keep me informed of Mr. Westleigh’s drunken sprees, brawls, losses at the gaming tables and infidelities. Mr. Westleigh himself wrote now and then in a careless scrawl, chiefly to ask after the baby. He also rebuked me for failing to charm him from his life of debauchery in the time that we had been married and demanded why I was incapable of writing a letter which could lure him from the arms of the women of the Town. I finally became so provoked that I had not the patience to write in return at all.”
There was another noise like the muffled stamping of a foot.
Lottie started as another gust of wind set the curtains rattling. Some gulls darted across the sky, their calls drowned out by the noise of the rising wind and sea.
The pacing began again. “However, I found increasing solace in the music room. Mr. Jones’ attitude of doting reverence was a balm to my bruised feelings. Of course, he was never presumptuous enough to declare his own. His looks gave him away. I began to see, that though not my social equal, he had a certain charm. While he lacked the flashy good looks of Edward Westleigh, he was rather good looking. It pleased me to have a hopeless, languishing admirer. ”
Lottie wondered at Mrs. Westleigh’s luck in meeting these besotted good-looking men. In her own experience, there was one who might be called good looking for every nine that weren’t .
The spirit went on, “He had an excellent profile, with the straightest of noses, and a thick mane of dark hair that fell over his forehead in rather an engaging manner. I did enjoy looking at it as he played.
“Of course, everything was entirely proper. Mr. Jones’ cousin, Mrs. Price, acted as our chaperone throughout, sitting in that antechamber and knitting. Her respectability was above question. Indeed, she was quite devout, attending church twice every Sunday, where her bonnet was always the best starched. I went with her once or twice. I had little solace. I found the vicar’s affected voice distracting.”
There was a pause. Lottie realised that the ghost had said nothing about spiritual matters, although she had always heard that people in that age had been very religious. Perhaps the fact that according to most established religions, ghosts weren’t meant to exist might have something to do with it.
The room darkened and rising wind moaned louder. Lottie was sure that this had nothing to do with the ghost, given the storm had been building all afternoon. Still, she wished that the gusts wouldn’t make that wailing noise. She shivered, and bundling some more of the throw about her, suggested, “I suppose Mr. Westleigh came to hear of it, and objected.”
The ghostly figure resumed pacing and speaking. “One day, after I had been in Llandudno for some months, he suddenly appeared at the house.
“On hearing from the footmen that I was having a music lesson, he strode into the room without warning. Mrs. Price had dozed off over her book of sermons. I had just managed to play a piece that I had always found tricky, and Mr. Jones and I were so absorbed in our music that we heard nothing of my husband’s arrival. When I finished, we were so delighted by my achievement that we exchanged smiles. Then, in his enthusiasm, Mr. Jones seized my hand and bowed over it, kissing it passionately. Unluckily, at that very moment, Mr. Westleigh strode in.”
Like any good story teller, the spirit paused here. Lottie said, “Oh, dear.”
“There followed a hideous scene which was greatly enjoyed by the staff in the hall below. ” Mrs. Westleigh’s spirit’s went on, speaking flatly. “Mr. Westleigh seized the slighter man by his collar, roaring threats and abuse at us both. It was dreadfully humiliating. He must have been audible a mile away. Mr. Jones somehow managed to struggle from his grasp, and opening the window, leaped out onto the roofs, while Mr. Westleigh threw his violin out after him, suggesting at the top of his voice that he come back for the thrashing he deserved, as he was too low a fellow for Mr. Westleigh to demand from him the satisfaction of a gentleman. ”
Lottie knew from Jane Austen and Charlotte Cray that meant that Mr. Westleigh couldn’t challenge him to a duel.
“Did he fall to his death?” she wondered breathlessly, as the spectre paused again.
“No,” the ghost’s tone was almost regretful. “He fractured his ankle in jumping down from the kitchen quarters. He hobbled away, leaving me to face the wrath of Mr. Westleigh. His female cousin showed more courage; she at least joined me in trying to soothe my errant spouse, who accused me of sordid adultery in the crudest terms, shouting into my face, and seemingly about to slap me.”
Lottie felt a stab of alarm as the ghost was suddenly more visible. Now she could make out its blurred form in the distinctive, high-waisted gown of the time, and much of the face, the small mouth and round eyes she remembered from the portrait downstairs, the ldistinctive hairstyle gathered up into a knot on top and falling down in curls about that elegant neck.
Learning the meaning of ‘lips feeling numb’ – apart from after a visit to a dentist –Lottie got out, “He didn’t kill you, did he?”
“Well, no, but he as good as killed me, if only indirectly, ” the ghost returned grudgingly. She sighed gustily, though Lottie assumed that it was the rising wind that stirred the curtains.
“On that day, I was betrayed by the second man whom I had begun to believe, truly honoured me as I deserved. I had come to view Mr. Jones as the true gentleman that Mr. Westleigh, the nominal gentleman, was not.” She snorted. “The wretch made no effort to contact me again. Through some relative who worked in the law, he tried to sue Mr. Westleigh for damages for his injury and his broken violin. He even demanded payment for the last weeks’ lessons. “
Lottie gazed at the violin case, wondering if this was the violin in question, but knowing that she would be rebuked if she asked.
“All this showed such a venal streak that I was wholly disillusioned. I heard that shortly afterwards, he married a wealthy, older widow whose daughter he had been tutoring, and moved from the area.”
“Did Mr. Westleigh pay up?” wondered Lottie.
It seemed that again she had offended the ghost, who drew back . “He insisted that he had only arrived in time to prevent the fellow from making an outright attempt on his wife,” she said. “ However, he did indeed, as you crudely put it ‘pay up’. His own actions had caused much talk, he did not wish there to be any more than there already was.”
There was another pause. Lottie risked interrupting again. “Did he believe you about the music master? Not as if he would be in any position to complain if there’d been anything in it.”
She was proud of putting things so delicately. She thought that Mr. Jones must have been a bit of a creep. Mr. Westleigh sounded like the sort of wicked rake of olden times that Magda and others swooned over in historical romances, but who would be a pain in the behind in reality, with that belief in the good old double standard of sexual morality, and his ridiculous demands that his wife must save him from himself.
The spirit said reproachfully, “I understand that there is a good deal more freedom given to the sexes in your age. I catch glimpses of you, lounging in that outrageous clothing, and doubtless your precocity and assurance are another part of it. To answer to your latest forward question, Mr. Westleigh would not listen to my protestations of innocence, and was unmoved by the good character of my companion Mrs. Price. He told me that I had fallen from my pedestal, and now he could see that I was no better than the rest of my sex. He insisted that I had destroyed his faith in human nature, and he had now no reason not to go to the devil at speed. He said had travelled up to North Wales, not only to delight me with his company, but to urge me to save him from himself. He returned to that theme incessantly over the next few weeks.”
The spirit stalked about again, with the swish of her garments – very likely silk petticoats – loud in Lottie’s ears despite the noise of the growing storm outside.
“Of course, he brutally berated Mrs. Price, turning her out and having her baggage thrown outside the gates. From that time forwards, Mr. Westleigh ensured that I was a glorified prisoner. He hired a new companion for me – clearly his informant – and I was not allowed out without her. She was supposedly expert in teaching music and French, but knew little about either. Mr. Westleigh stayed some weeks. Before he left, he ensured that I was again to be a mother.”
Lottie grimaced. She hoped that Mrs. Westleigh’s ghost kept her earlier promise and spared her the details about that; the term ‘nom-consensual’ sprang to mind.
It seemed that she would. Accompanied by a violent rattling of the window panes, the spirit went on. “He left behind another guard and spy in the form of a manservant. These the two hirelings kept a constant guard upon me. I led a lonely, isolated and miserable existence, cut off from all society. After our second son was born, I suffered from sleeplessness.”
Lottie, who had always heard that sleeplessness and new babies went together, was proud of her own tact in not saying so. Surely Mrs. Westleigh must have had nursemaids, and no doubt her infants lived in the old nursery over the kitchen quarters, well out of earshot of the grand rooms in the front.
“The doctors spoke of an imbalance of the humours, but I would call it rather, bitterness of spirit. Mr. Westleigh continued to insist that even if I told the truth, and nothing more than that hand kissing had taken place, my encouraging that low fellow was bad enough to disgust him with me.”
The ghost halted in front of Lottie. “However, I saw little enough of him, for he stayed mostly down in London, leaving me here. I got into the habit of taking doses of Laudanum to help me to sleep, and then I became unable to sleep without it. One night, a year later, I accidentally took two doses. My body was discovered the next morning.”
Lottie muttered, “Oh dear. And you left babies behind.”
The ghost gestured impatiently. “They were well enough. They preferred their nursemaids, anyway, and their villain of a father, on the occasions when they saw him. After my death, Mr. Westleigh sent them to live with their paternal grandmother, and I gather they were very happy with her.”
Lottie was dismayed by this indifference. “Was Mr. Westleigh sorry about how he’d acted?”
“At my funeral – which obviously, I attended myself – he wept bitterly, declaring his heart was dead. I also noted that Mr. Jones stood outside the churchyard wall, shrouded in a heavy cloak. I was able to see through his disguise, being no longer of the flesh.”
There was a long pause. If this was the end to the ghost’s story, it seemed inconclusive to Lottie. Suddenly anxious that Mrs. Westleigh would disappear before she properly finished her tale, she spoke up again. “Haven’t you seen him in the next world?”
She thought it rather awful if they had never made up. She must be getting used to speaking to a ghost, as it never struck her as odd to ask that question.
The spirit said haughtily, “We cannot reveal details of the next world to mortals.” As Lottie pulled a face, she added in rather a small voice, “Besides, I am earthbound…”
Suddenly, Lottie was sorry for her. “But surely, you don’t have to be earthbound, now that you’ve told someone your story?”
The spirit said gloomily, “I had thought unburdening myself would ease my mind and lessen my resentment. It has not.”
“Great -Aunt Pauline!” Lottie suddenly exclaimed.
The ghost actually turned her head anxiously, as if thinking one of Lottie’s relatives had come through the door.
“You could speak to her,” Lottie urged.
“If she is anything like your Aunt Amanda, I most certainly could not.”
“Nothing like,” Lottie assured her. “She belongs to a spiritualist church, and I’m sure she can help. After all, you don’t want to hang about here for another two hundred years, or until this building slips into the sea.”
“Two hundred years?” For the first time, Lottie felt she had the spirit’s full attention. “I had no idea it had been so long. For me, there is no time as such.”
“Yes, it’s the twenty-first century now. Fancy me being the first person you’ve been able to talk to in all that time. I wonder, why me?”
If Lottie had vaguely been expecting a compliment, the spirit had no interest in any special abilities that she might possess. “I could not say. From my own dismal experience some people seem to sense my presence, but most cannot. ..You speak of a ‘spiritualist church’, whatever that might be. Surely you do not expect me to attend some vulgar service for disembodied spirits who have not been able to pass on?”
Now, as abruptly as the sounds when some electronic device was switched on, Lottie could hear the sounds from the rest of the house. The murmur of voices from the bar on the ground floor surged up as someone opened the door.
Now she learnt the meaning of sighing with relief, suspecting that this ghostly interlude was almost at an end.
“No, Great-Aunt Pauline’s visiting in a couple of weeks. She’s been meaning to, ever since she came back from living abroad. I can tell her what you’ve said.” In a flash of inspiration she added, “She always sides with women, so she’ll be no fan of this Mr. Westleigh- that is – she’ll have a dim view of him.”
“I hope she will not be able to see whatever he is about, for you may be sure that it is something low…Do you know, to add insult to injury – he remarried only a year after my tragic death. He actually succeeded in drawing in another foolish young heiress who thought him wonderful.”
Suddenly, Aunt Amanda effortlessly projected her voice up three flights of stairs. “Lottie! I don’t hear any piano playing, and you’re needed!”
The spirit’s form wobbled. Before it vanished, Lottie caught a glimpse of her, as solidly present as a living woman.
She wore a sheer, flowing white gown gathered under her full breasts, her dark blonde hair in that distinctive style gleamed with golden lights. This was definitely the plump faced, button mouthed woman in the portrait. Her round eyes were of the clearest blue, and if Lottie thought that she wore rogue, her skin was as delicately fair as in her image.She looked sullen rather than tragic, and even more so as she winced at Aunt Amanda’s voice.
Then she startled Lotttie by saying musingly, “I may consent to speak to this relative of yours, if only to escape from the distressing glimpses I have of this house turned into a common hotel.”
“Good,” Lottie said heartily.
“ Farewell, Miss Lottie. I hope when you come to marry, you choose more wisely than I.“
Lottie thought that would hardly be difficult – not as if she intended to get married .She smiled politely. “Great-Aunt Pauline always says, ‘After all, everybody makes mistakes in life: the thing is to learn from them for the next.’”
Before it vanished, Mrs. Westleigh’s spirit even added as an afterthought, “Thank you.”