They arrived at Barnhurst Hall, a medieval manor which stood a short distance from the seafront in the West Blatchington area of Hove. It was a dignified house that sat serenely amidst its coastal surroundings, and as Edwin was fond of telling Bridget, had the honour of being mentioned in the Domesday Book.
“It’s got a moat!” Franky exclaimed excitedly as she stuck her head out of the carriage window to gaze in awe at the body of water as they crossed the stone bridge to reach the house.
Their first view of Barnhurst Hall was impressive, even at this late hour. Lamps burned in the windows, illuminating the building, creating a magical, dreamy impression. Tall limestone rubble walls, pitched roofs slated with decorative barge boards and stone ball finials, an embattled roof on the two towers protruding from the magnificent building. Gothic under hood moulds with labels framed every door and window; Venetian windows; mullioned and transomed. A panel above second floor window of the South Tower proudly displayed the Dosett coat of arms. It looked like a castle straight out of a fairy tale.
Franky glanced over her shoulder at Gidge. “You gotta step-up your game with Claremont.”
As their carriage drew up to the house, the Barnhurst Hall residents had evidently heard their approach for Tess came running out of the front entrance, across the veranda, down the steps and onto the driveway towards them. The carriage had barely stopped when Franky bounded out and she and Tess engulfed each other in a fierce hug.
Mrs. Marion Leigh and her son, Shayne, an earnest young man of 17, stood on the veranda, both smiling and waving to their new arrivals. Marion was of average of height, had a wispy build and kind eyes, a round face and held herself with great poise. Shayne resembled his mother in features and lithe frame but had his father’s height. He towered over his mother who looked all the more delicate beside him.
Hamilton disembarked from his spot in the driver’s box and aided Bridget out of the carriage.
“Marion!” Bridget greeted joyfully.
Marion held out her hands as she moved towards Bridget, their fingers grasped firmly and Marion kissed Bridget’s cheek. “It is good to see you,” she said warmly.
Bridget turned to Shayne with surprise, she had not seen him for two years. “Is this Shayne? I can hardly believe it! How you have grown! What a strapping young man you have become.”
He blushed happily.
Hamilton soon joined them. “Mrs. Leigh,” he greeted affectionately.
“Why so formal?!” Marion scolded and embraced him. She drew back and gazed steadfastly at him. “How are you Hamilton? Are you well?”
Hamilton nodded, heart full. He could never quite put into words the extent of his gratitude to the Leigh’s. Dr. Edwin Leigh had been the doctor who had saved his life after his near-fatal accident in the cotton factory. Had been the one to amputate Hamilton’s legs and arm, Marion had been the one to nurse him through his worst days when he could no longer afford the medical fees, and it was Edwin who had read an article by Miss Westfall on artificial limbs which is why he got in touch with her about Hamilton’s case. It was the Leigh’s to whom Hamilton owed his life and his introduction to Miss Westfall.
“I am,” he eventually managed. “And yourself?”
She smiled. “What could I have to complain about when there are such good friends to be met?!”
Franky and Tess finally separated. Filled with excitement at being reunited and lively chatter as they moved towards the others, arms linked.
“Franky, this is Marion,” Tess introduced. “Marion, this is my big sister, Francesca Doyle.”
Marion smiled broadly and shook Franky’s hand. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Tess speaks of you often and in the fondest terms.”
Franky shrugged, a mischievous spark in her eye. “Yeah, I’m pretty great!”
Marion laughed. “I see your humour is similar to that of our Tess.”
Franky tried not to flinch at the casual use of our Tess. She wanted to knock Marion’s block off for the presumptuous claim but she was a guest and so she reigned-in her annoyance. It wouldn’t do to knock her hostess’ teeth out within five minutes of meeting her. Besides, she was weary from their travels and probably being thin-skinned.
Their hostess ushered them into the house. The interior was a little gloomy for Franky’s taste and a little too packed with furniture. Paintings covered every inch of the wall. She’d be hard pressed to tell you what colour the wallpaper was. The furniture was expensively gaudy in the way that only rich peoples was - and for show rather than comfort. Antiques and objet d’art covered every surface. Franky didn’t envy the amount of dusting the maids must have to do.
Their suitcases were carried into the entrance hall by two servants. Hamilton tried not to feel misplaced but being waited on made him feel awkward and indolent. He bit back his discomfort – this weekend he was a guest.
“Where is Edwin?” Bridget asked, seeking him out.
“An unexpected emergency I am afraid. One of his patients has influenza, a dire case. She’s near death. He had so wanted to be here when you arrived but a doctor is never off duty,” she said lightly and was smiling but Franky detected an underlying nervousness and noted the quick, jumpy movements of Marion’s hands.
“I have put you in the Blue Room, Bridget, and you, Miss Doyle, in the adjoining room,” Marion continued. She had a sneaking suspicion of Bridget’s Sapphic persuasion but as they had never discussed it, did her best to accommodate her friend until Miss Westfall felt confident enough to confide the fact of her own accord. “And Hamilton, I have given you your old room in the Harper Suite.”
“Most kind,” Hamilton replied. “I am glad to be returning to it under happier circumstances.” It was the room they had put him in fifteen years since when, delirious with fever and not a penny to his name, Marion had nursed him back to health.
“I can’t wait to show you around,” Tess said excitedly, linking her arm back through Franky’s. “Shayne has helped me make a list of all the things we must do while you are here, haven’t you Shay?”
Shayne nodded enthusiastically. Franky noticed the admiring look Tess bestowed on him and smiled to herself, wondering if ‘Shay’ was the main attraction on Tess’ list and the real reason for her wanting to stay on at Barnhurst Hall rather than return to London.
“Perhaps that should wait until tomorrow,” Mrs. Leigh suggested gently. “I am sure our guests would like to freshen-up after their long journey, have dinner and then rest. Tours can wait until the morrow.”
“Of course,” Tess agreed, clamping-down on her exuberance. She turned to Franky. “I’m going to show you everything! I shall have a time figuring out where to start!”
Franky laughed. “We’ll get round to all of it, not to worry.”
“Dinner is in an hour,” Mrs. Leigh announced as she indicated for the maids to take her guest’s luggage to their rooms. “I hope you enjoy your stay and please, if there is anything you need, just let me know.”
“Thank you Marion,” Bridget said graciously.
“Thank you Mrs. Leigh,” Hamilton chimed.
“Yeah, ta,” Franky added quickly.
Still arm-in-arm with Tess, Franky followed Bridget as she began up the stairs, Hamilton behind them.
The stairs were creaky and as they reached the top of the staircase, which turned sharply to the left, Franky stared at a glass cabinet built into the wall. For inside was a human skull. Franky halted and peered curiously at it.
“That’s Old Dosett,” said Tess.
“You mean it’s a real skull?” Franky exclaimed.
“Yep,” Tess replied.
Franky glanced at Bridget who shrugged.
“Nice class of people you associate with Gidge,” the brunette teased. “And who was Old Dosett?”
“A distant relative of Marion’s. Barnhurst Hall belongs to Marion’s family. Dosett is her maiden name. The house has been in her family for 700 years. She inherited it from a cousin, Chester Dosett, when he died childless.”
“Because of Old Dosett’s curse,” Tess declared eerily.
“There’s a curse?!” Franky cried, turning to her sister.
“Well, more a series of unfortunate incidents,” Hamilton clarified.
“The skull belongs to William Dosett who upset the locals and had a curse put upon him as a result. Soon after the curse was placed he had a spate of bad luck – crops failed, livestock died, his wife was unable to bear children and it drove her to suicide, which led to him drowning his sorrows in a tavern in the village. Legend has it that Dosett overheard a youth say that he had it coming – for his crime - and so Dosett began a brawl. It ended in a duel with the youth, which he lost. He was fatally stabbed and bled to death with the whole village looking on and not one soul moved to help him. After his death, William’s younger brother Maurice inherited the house. After William’s funeral, his grave was desecrated and so Maurice had his brother’s skull brought back to the house. Had it enshrined, for safe keeping. No one can remember what William did to cause the curse but it still stands - no Dosett who lives at Barnhurst Hall shall have a happy end and after 10 generations, the Dosett family line shall come to an end."
Franky let out a low whistle. “Shit. I always thought the sins of the father bein’ visited on the children was deeply unfair but visitin’ it on the next 10 generations is takin’ the piss!” she declared.
“Marion is the last Dosett by birth, the others have all had untimely deaths,” Hamilton added with a sense of foreboding.
Franky wasn’t sure if it was the late hour, the weariness in her bones or the oppressive atmosphere of the house but she felt a cold chill run down her spine. “This day couldn’t get any weirder,” she said facetiously, trying to disguise her own unease.
They continued up the stairs and along a narrow hall. Hamilton was taken to a room on the left while Bridget and Franky were shown their adjoining rooms, opposite.
Their accommodation lived up to its name. It was indeed blue, with matching furniture and extravagant fittings. Dark wood panel moulding bordered the room, hemming her in. Heavy curtains covered the narrow windows and the ceiling was low. Franky couldn’t help the flash of dread that passed through her. There was nothing wrong with the room per se, it was just… a little claustrophobic and glum. Simultaneously chilled and airless. She felt as if a weight had descended upon her the moment she’d stepped into the room.
Hesitantly Franky picked-up her suitcase, which had been left just inside the door by the maid, and opened it on the bed. Tess followed her into her room and sat on the edge of the bed, swinging her feet like she used to when she was over-excited and didn’t know where to place her energy. Franky smiled at the familiarity of it.
She heard a key turn and a lock click. She glanced over her shoulder to see Bridget had opened the door connecting their rooms and was propping it open. They exchanged a furtive smile and then Bridget set about unpacking her own case in her own room.
Tess began gabbling away about her school friends, the latest book she was reading and the needlework she was toiling with as Franky emptied her case.
When Franky crossed to put her under things in a chest of drawers, she caught sight of Gidge as the blonde moved gracefully about her room – carefully placing her work tools on the dresser and arranging the implements by most used, ready for some tinkering. On the journey Bridget had had an idea for an adjustment to the anti-gravity umbrella and was eager to start work on the modification. Franky loved it when Gidge was unaware of Franky’s eyes on her. Franky could watch her for hours. Her natural dignity and absorption in a task, the fierce frown of concentration that adorned her face, the sparkle in her eye as she was struck by inspiration, the absent way she bit her bottom lip, god she was beautiful.
“Franky?!” Tess said impatiently and Franky turned back to her sister, realising her attention had drifted. Tess broke into a grin. “So things are going well with you and Bridget then?” she teased. She had never seen her sister so smitten.
Franky blushed and threw a pillow at Tess, who caught it, clasped it tightly to her chest and giggled.
They sat around the dining table tucking into the first course of watercress soup. Mrs. Leigh was seated at the head of the table, Shayne and Tess to her left. Franky, Bridget and Hamilton to her right. There was an ease in the air but Marion had a distracted manner, as if she was waiting for something.
“Nice skull,” Franky blurted during a lull in the conversation.
Bridget kicked her lover under the table. Franky bit back a yelp and rubbed her shin.
Marion smiled. “Yes, it is a little macabre but bad things have befallen anyone who has tried to remove it.”
Franky deliberately leant her elbows on the table and with satisfaction noted the quirk of Mrs. Leigh’s eyebrow at her lack of table manners. “Such as?”
“The skull has gone missing on several occasions only to return mysteriously. My great-grandfather Leonard Dosett grew afraid of the curse, took the skull from the house and threw it into the sea! On his return to Barnhurst Hall his carriage collided with another and he was killed instantly. When his widow returned from his funeral, Old Dosett’s skull was back in its case at the top of the stairs. The only explanation - a set of watery footprints leading from the front door to the case,” Marion answered. “My great uncle, Joseph Dosett, was the last to attempt its removal from Barnhurst Hall. He said it screamed like a banshee and the whole house shook until it was returned."
“Have you ever tried to get rid of it?” Franky pressed.
Marion gave Franky a wan smile. “Why tempt fate? Besides, the skull is a part of my family’s history. Leave well enough alone is what I say.”
Franky watched Tess and Shayne exchange a smirk and whisper something to each other, clearly having their own private conversation. It rankled her slightly. She was glad Tess was settled and happy here but she didn’t like that it depended solely on her affection for Shayne. What if Marion and Edwin disapproved of the match, what then? What if Shayne weren’t sincere in his affections, what then? Also, she disliked this effected air Tess seemed to have developed. Where was her London brogue? Franky was glad Tess was being given opportunities she could never have dreamed of but she also felt uneasy – as if the Tess she knew was fading… disappearing into this well-spoken, well-mannered conformist she didn’t recognize.
The waiting staff cleared the plates and served the next course: turbot with lobster sauce, oyster cutlets, lark and kidney pudding, haunches of venison, pheasants and wild duck served with the finest champagne. It was a lavish meal and one that surprised Bridget. The Leigh’s were by no means destitute but nor were they wealthy. Edwin made an ample wage but the Leigh’s only lived in such an extravagant house because of Marion’s ancestral connections. It had taken all of their savings to set-up Rothay House, the only local school, leaving her to wonder where this influx of wealth had come from.
As Bridget eyed the bottle of Perrier Jouet’s First Quality, while a maid with large doe eyes replenished her glass, Marion sensed her friend’s surprise. “One of the doctors in Edwin’s practice retired last year and Edwin inherited his wealthier patrons. Besides, tonight is a special occasion, so we wanted to spoil you,” she said by way of explanation, maintaining a light-hearted air, but Bridget noticed the tension in Marion’s frame.
“And spoil us you have,” Hamilton assured. “The food is delicious, the wine superb and the company unmatched.”
This earned him a bright smile from Marion.
“How are repairs coming along to the school roof?” Bridget asked.
Marion was headmistress of the Rothay House and its founder. She had taught languages at several prestigious schools and was a passionate advocate for education for all. She was of the mind that girls should be educated equally to boys and that the poor should also be given equal opportunity to further themselves through education. A contentious standpoint in civilized society, as a result she had sacrificed much to make Rothay House a reality. The school was still in its infancy, having only been opened for two years, when its roof had been damaged during a violent storm several months back.
“Well,” Marian began, “at first we were devastated. We did not have the funds to repair it and it looked as though the school would have to close.”
“My, I had not realised it was that serious,” Bridget confessed, full of concern and full of self-scorn for allowing herself to be so caught-up in her own life that she had not noticed the sufferings of her dear friend.
“Nor I,” Hamilton admitted.
“But a guardian angel came to our aid.” Marion’s voice became higher pitched and her smile strained. “Lady Sonia Steven’s became our benefactress. She paid for all the repairs and was so moved by our cause that she began a scholarship for underprivileged children. Hove is in need of it. Half the families cannot afford to school their children past the age of 10, as the law requires. Most are in full-time work by the age of 11.”
Franky wasn’t in the least surprised. Leaving school at 10 was, in her opinion, a luxury. She’d been working since she was 6. When things had got real bad at home, her Mum had had no choice but to send her out to work. It was that or starve. Franky found work in a mill as her hands were small enough to clear blockages on spinning frames. She worked twelve hours a day with Sunday’s off. The deafening noise of the machines had thundered relentlessly all day long and there was no rest to be had – any slacking off resulted in her wages being docked or worse, being given the old heave-ho. So she worked hard - her Mum needed the money.
“Guess Shakespeare ain’t that important when you got eight mouths to feed and no bread,” she remarked flippantly.
Marion looked at her sharply. “We all need nourishment of the soul as well as the body,” she said assuredly. “One does not negate the other.” Sounding practiced at the argument she continued, “and how better to put food on the table than by getting an education, having broader prospects and thus gaining better employment?”
Franky couldn’t argue with Mrs. Leigh’s logic there but was about to play Devil’s Advocate for her own amusement when she caught Tess glaring at her across the table, annoyed that she was upsetting Marion. Feeling chastened, Franky moved the remainder of her lark and kidney pudding about her plate with her fork and ventured no further comment.
Attempting to defuse the awkward tension, Bridget leaned forward in her seat, a genteel smile on her lips. “I have not heard you mention Lady Stevens before,” she prompted.
Marion shrugged dismissively. “Have I not? How remiss of me, I am sure you shall have the opportunity to meet her during your stay.”
Then Marion glanced beseechingly at Shayne who quickly launched into an anecdote about the fundraising Tea Party they had thrown at the Town Hall for the school roof. Half of Hove had attended and made it a joyful day. Whilst her son regaled them with events of the day, Marion sipped her glass of wine and glanced nervously at the clock on the mantelpiece.
As they moved into the parlour after dinner, Franky leaned in close to Bridget. “Your pal usually so tightly-wound?” she whispered.
Bridget shook her head. “Something is off.”
They joined the others, taking up a seat on the divan nearest the stacked stone fireplace. Tess sat on the ledge of the fireplace, facing her sister and Bridget, and wasted no time in entertaining them with high-jinx stories about her last term at Rothay House, with Shayne chiming in every now and again to confirm or embellish her tales, whilst Marion withdrew into herself.
They passed a leisurely half hour in this manner and then Dr. Edwin Leigh was upon them. A tall man with pleasing features, a proud Roman nose and dark hair that was now streaked white, entered the parlour and moved eagerly towards his guests. “Bridget! Hamilton!” He greeted, shaking Hamilton’s hand happily and kissing Bridget’s cheek, then he turned to Franky. “And this must be the infamous Miss Francesca Doyle I have heard so much about. I do hope it is all true or I shall be sorely disappointed!”
He offered his hand and Franky took it. “So good to meet your acquaintance at last,” he enthused.
“Yours too,” Franky replied sincerely.
He ventured to the drinks cabinet, poured himself a scotch and then moved beside his wife, kissing her cheek fondly.
“How is your patient?” Hamilton asked.
“Oh, he is making a fine recovery. The consumption is abating.”
Hamilton, Franky and Bridget exchanged a puzzled look.
“I thought Marion said it was influenza,” Bridget said gently.
Marion smiled vacantly. “Did I? Oh, Edwin has so many patient’s it is hard to keep track!”
“You must see the lighthouse while you are here,” Shayne interjected, then he and Tess proceeded to tell them of all the trips they had planned for their visitors.
Bridget noticed that during this interaction, Marion and Edwin had slipped from the room. She glanced at Hamilton who had noticed too. She tapped her chin twice and he nodded and gently rose to his feet.
He yawned and then announced. “Do excuse me, I must away to bed. It has been a long day.”
The others bid him goodnight and he left the room.
Hamilton made his way down the long, darkly impinging corridor and stopped when he neared Marion’s private sitting room. The door stood ajar. In a sliver of light he saw Edwin and Marion whispering furiously to each other. He could not make out what they were saying but there was an urgency to their tone and their body language was tense. Dr. Leigh seemed to be appealing to his wife who was incensed and frightened.
The floorboard beneath his left foot creaked and Hamilton darted into the shadows, just in time to avoid being seen by Edwin and Marion who turned sharply in the direction of the intruding noise.
With silent footfalls, Hamilton snuck past the room and up the stairs to his room.
An hour later, having changed into her nightdress, Bridget climbed into bed. Her hair hung loosely about her shoulders and her face was scrubbed clean. A lit candle rested on her bedside table next to a copy of her favourite periodical: The Scientific Review. Bridget always liked to keep abreast of the latest scientific innovations and studies. She was halfway through an article on the latest attractions at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, particularly riveted by the mentions of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, when a gentle knock came at her door and Hamilton entered, wearing a modest robe. She set down her magazine. He closed the door quietly behind him, crossed the room and sat on the end of her bed.
“Well?” Bridget asked.
“Oi! Don’t start without me!” Franky called from her room, the adjoining door still propped open. She came rushing in, dove into bed beside Bridget and pulled the covers up over her legs. She quickly settled. “Go on,” she encouraged Hamilton.
“Something most peculiar is going on,” he said.
“You feel it too?” Bridget asked.
“Most definitely. Things here are not right. The Leigh’s are uneasy somehow.”
Bridget nodded in agreement. “Did you see anything?”
He reported what he had observed in Marion’s private sitting room.
“That is most unlike Marion,” Bridget stated. “She and Edwin never quarrel.”
“Then there’s the business of lyin’ to us,” Franky reminded her companions.
Hamilton nodded. “Yes, the mystery patient.”
“Marion could be telling the truth, in the rush of Edwin’s being called out she could easily have mistaken which patient he went to see.”
“Yes but Marion mixed-up the patient’s sex as well as their disease. I smell a rat,” Franky argued.
“Why lie about that?” Hamilton pondered.
“Panic,” Bridget replied. “Edwin was somewhere that could not be explained.”
“And then there’s the shifty way she acted whenever this hoity-toity Lady Steven’s was mentioned.”
“True,” Bridget concurred.
“Well we’ve got a fortnight to get to the bottom of it,” Franky said. When Bridget glanced questioningly at her, Franky countered, “I’m not leavin’ Tess here if these people can’t be trusted Gidge, she’s the only family I got.”
Bridget reached out and clasped Franky’s hand. “We will get to the bottom of this odd behaviour and if you feel Tess would be better returning home with us, then that is what we shall do,” she said comfortingly.
Franky nodded, silently agreeing.
“I shall retire now, I am rather exhausted,” Hamilton said and stood up.
“Night,” Bridget and Franky chorused and he snuck from the room.
Franky was on her feet immediately and locked the door after him. She removed the key and placed it on the bedside table, then slipped back into Bridget’s bed.
Bridget raised a questioning eyebrow.
“I’m not takin’ any chances Gidge, especially given that someone might take it into their head to investigate the strange noises comin’ from your bedchamber during the night.”
“What strange noises?” Bridget asked, mystified.
Franky pulled Bridget tightly to her and kissed her furiously, eliciting a moan, then drew back, grinning. “The strange noises you’re about to make,” she teased and resumed kissing Bridget passionately.
She pushed the blonde on her back whilst deft hands tugged the hem of Bridget’s nightgown up and caressed the heated flesh she uncovered.