The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford: A Paranormal Regency Romance: Part II

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford

a Paranormal Regency Romance

by Aline deWinter

Part II

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When the guests entered the dining room, they were amazed to see the long table glistening with crystal and silver and glittering with candlelight from candle branches along the table and chandeliers overhead. One side of the room opened onto a large garden conservatory where the budgies soared and flitted around before settling in a grove of silver birches, and a great black shadow of a horse stood gazing at them through the flowers of a bright yellow forsythia.  A fire crackled in the ornate hearth at one end of the room, and doves glowed from perches in the groined ceiling and at the tops of foliate columns. As the Suitors took their places at table, they looked around and noticed a disconcerting lack of mirrors which meant that they had only each other to gaze at to ascertain whether putting food into their mouths, snouts, or jaws, would mar the effect of their masques, or if crumbs in their whiskers would detract from their general attractiveness to Lady Mary.

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Perhaps the test was whether one should participate in the feast at all, perhaps one was meant to go out hunting instead. Perhaps the greater authenticity of bringing back a dead pheasant or a hedgehog in one’s teeth would have been just the thing to win Lady Mary’s heart.

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Suddenly Lady Mary stood up and, dimpling into a bright smile, she said in her low, velvet voice:

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“My good-hearted Ladies and Gentlemen, I cannot express enough my gratitude that you have all taken the trouble to come to my little gathering in such wonderful fancy dress. This table looks quite marvelous! I would be hard pressed whom to award the prize to based on appearances alone when such an inspiring menagerie is placed before me! Remember to hold true to form and I and my servants will take proper notice. The winner shall be told of his prize in utmost secrecy…Tomorrow, I will post the rest of you that a winner was chosen, but I will not give out his name.”

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There was great murmuring among the guests, shocked laughter, tinkling of silver on raised wine glasses, Suitorial moans as red wine spilled on white shirt fronts, and growls of frustration at the awkward difficulties of drinking wine while wearing a masque. Lady Mary smiled and sat down, gently waving her feathered fan, and gestured to a ferret-faced butler to order the waiters to bring in the first course.

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Rusty MacClaren grumbled and pushed his fingers under the neck of his lion’s head to get some air, for it was stuffy in the dining room with all the candles and the fire and the bodies, and hot, steaming food. He heard a scratching sound behind him and, turning about, saw a serving wench dressed as a white cat scribbling notes.

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“Bloody hell,” he mumbled.

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Dark Robbie sniggered and opened his jaws to yawn. “Don’t be rude, Rusty.”

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Oliver smiled cheekily at them, looking quite pleased with himself for choosing a masque that ended at the bridge of his nose. With a hail fellow well met, he popped a piece of mince pie into his mouth and chewed with obvious enjoyment.

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“I suppose you think you look like the Monarch of the Forest itself with your chin whiskers hanging where you throat is supposed to be, don’t you Ollie?” Dark Robbie whispered. “And that ruffly blouse makes you look more like a Morris Dancer than a great rutting stag…”

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“That’s a horse,” said Oliver, quaffing some wine without spilling it. “In the Morris Dance its a hobby horse. Not a stag! And what about you? A wolf dressed as Bonnie Prince Charlie! You should have come as Puss-in-Boots.”

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“That would have suited him,” mumbled Rusty pulling on his neck ruff. “God, this thing itches!”

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Dark Robbie smirked. “Perhaps you’re right. He did make his way into his Lady’s chambers, did old Puss-in-Boots.”

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The guests went silent as the Suitors struggled to aim their forks between furry lips, and jaws, and beaks without spilling, watching with consternation. Rusty groaned, Dark Robbie broke out into a chill sweat, and Oliver spun his rack of antlers around in surprised amusement, narrowly hooking a candle branch with his tines.  Rusty sneered at Old Mr. Symmonds who wore his owl masque perched on top of his head as he nearsightedly wiped the gravy from his plate with a piece of French bread and stuffed it into his mouth.

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Mr. Symmonds winked at the three Suitors. “Wonderful food, isn’t it? I wonder who does ?Lady Mary’s cooking for her. I have never had such a superb roast of beef in all my life.”

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“Thanks for letting us know,” snarled Rusty.

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Oliver burped. “Sorry.”

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Dark Robbie watched Lady Mary rise from the table and go out into the conservatory.

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“She’s speaking to the horse now. I suppose she’ll go off for a ride and leave us all here to wonder what’s next,” he whispered.

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“Good, I’ll take this thing off and eat properly.”

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“The servants shall see you, Rusty. Why don’t you forget it? I’m the only one here who hasn’t ruined the effect…,” Dark Robbie sniffed.

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“Oh, I don’t know about that, Robbie,” Rusty replied.” I would like to know who’s in that horse costume…”

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“Gentlemen,” came the old silvery whisper. “That is a real horse.”

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“You don’t say,” said Robbie.

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Suddenly alarmed about he knew not what, Dark Robbie stood up and excused himself with a short bow.

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The guests looked around to see if anyone else was leaving. Some of them started to stand, then sat down again, only to stand up and look at the others for a sign. No one left the table except Dark Robbie, for three great flaming cakes were being carried in by servants most convincingly attired as hares. Three ladies in striking peacock gowns were carrying in more wine.

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Without the sparkling presence of Lady Mary at the head of the table, the guests grew quiet and restive. Candle flame, pale as amber, cast faint halos over their faces. They ate their cake and drank more wine in silence, barely glancing at each other, for the atmosphere was heavy.  The ferret faced butler drew open a set of tall doors, revealing a full moon rising just above the horizon between the low hills and the clouds. Lady Mary was standing in its beams upon the grass beside a patch of midnight darkness that had the shape of a fine horse. The crystals on the train of her gown shone like dew drops, and her face was as translucent as the moon’s reflection on the surface of a deep pool.

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“Do you hear it?” she called out, her eyes shining as if with tears. “The music has begun to play. Now it is time to dance! Come, all of you, out onto the lawn. Take off your shoes!” she cried kicking her delicate silk slippers off, and pointing her dainty feet.

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“Damned if I can hear any music,” Rusty grimaced. “I’m having strange doubts about Lady Mary’s sanity”

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“Its probably easier to hear outside,” said old Mr. Symmonds. “I think I see a string quartet in the garden.”

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“I’m game,” said Oliver rising. “Who shall I dance with? There isn’t much choice of ladies…What does it matter, man?” he chucked Rusty on the shoulder. “Let’s just have a laugh and forget about Lady Mary’s prize.”

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Rusty sat back and crossed his arms over his brocade chest. “Where’s Robbie gone to? He should be back by now. I’ll just wait for him, I think. Perhaps he’s gone a-hunting. He’s competitive enough.”

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“Have it your way. I think I hear the pipes marching over the hill, and there’s a nicely built lass over there in a hare’s masque I’d like to chat with,” said Oliver pulling his stag’s head lower over his face.

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Rusty waved a vexed hand at Oliver who pranced over the threshold with a Morris-like hop and, but for the height of his antlers, would have been lost among the crowd.

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Leaning back in his chair, Rusty noticed a few half empty wine glasses scattered on the table. Gathering them up, he poured their contents into his own goblet until it was full and, sipping thoughtfully, watched the revels through the open doors. A few grapes lay about on the white table cloth. These he popped into his mouth while tipping his chair back and putting his feet upon the table.

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“Best animal impersonator wins a prize,” he scoffed looking around for more wine.  “She’ll be lucky she doesn’t end up choosing one of her servants. They look the part more than any of us. I wonder if she doesn’t play this game all the time.”

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It suddenly seemed as if hours had passed.  Rusty grew tired of wondering what had become of Dark Robbie and went out onto the lawn. The shoeless guests were running in a ragged circle around Lady Mary and her horse. Strangely, she did not seem to have moved from where she was when she first beckoned them out, though Oliver assured him, she had danced with all the lads — except Rusty, and Dark Robbie of course.  There was definitely music, but Rusty couldn’t see who was playing it. The sad sound of pipes and fiddles just seemed to be streaming over the hills with the moon’s rays that turned the distant hills inky black in contrast to its light.

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He felt a soft tap on his arm and spun about. Lady Mary smiled up at him, holding her yellow fan over her face, coy as lynx.

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“Will you dance with me, Mr. Lion?” she asked, extending her long-gloved hand.

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“Yes, of course,” Rusty stammered, shocked at a welling up of emotion he did not expect. “How lovely you are.”

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“Thank you,” she said with a little curtsy and allowed him to lead her out onto the lawn. “Off with your boots…”

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Awkward and embarrassed, he pulled his boots off, standing on one leg and then the other, and threw them onto the pile of colorful shoes. When he turned around, Rusty was a bit disconcerted to see that Lady Mary and he were to be the only dancers. The others stood in a great ring around them, watching. In their midst, Rusty and Lady Mary waltzed to the most exquisite music he had ever heard. It seemed to carry them, lift them up off the ground somehow, in endless circles of delicious dizziness. When they finished, Rusty let go Lady Mary’s hand and bowed his way back to the edge of the circle. He was sweating with fever and his heart pounded madly. Enchanting as Circe, she took her former place beside the horse that was now shimmering with moonlight, and casting a blue nimbus on the ground.

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“Where is Dark Robbie,” she finally asked. “I hope he hasn’t taken his wolfishness so seriously that has shied away from human company.”

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“He just got up and left, your Ladyship,” wheezed old Mr. Symmonds.

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“Soon it will be too late and he will have forfeited his chance at the prize. But if it is meant to be so — it will be,” she said with a small shrug.

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The guests stood around for a quarter of an hour more. Suddenly, Lady Mary mounted the black horse and, without a word, rode away towards the wood. At that very moment, a thin ribbon of liquid yellow light shone above the hills.

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Confused by her departure, the crowd broke up.  Lady Mary’s animal-headed servants calmly led the utterly astonished and chagrined guests back through the house, and let them out the front door to the courtyard where their coaches and carriages were waiting. At the sight of the servants with their animal heads, every one of the horses whinnied and leapt in their traces as if they had taken fright and were anxious to fly away.

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Pulling off the stifling lion’s masque, Rusty climbed into his carriage with a nod to Oliver, who looked lank and small without his crown of antlers. Oliver waved back and got into a large coach-and-six with some other guests. The horses were in such a hurry to escape, that the coach immediately jerked forward, and quickly vanished down the avenue of trees.

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The grounds of Crawford Priory were now littered with jeweled feathers, animal masques, long gloves, a mink garter, a spotted sash, a long black tail. Trinkets and tinsel that had been dropped, and then crushed under the feet of the guests as they scattered hurriedly away, now glittered in the mud.   In a fit of pique, Rusty MacClaren threw the lion’s masque on the ground with the rest of the tawdry finery, and told his driver to move off.

Photos: Simon Marsden: www.simonmarsden.co.uk

The Company of Wolves

End of Part II

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