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

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford

A Paranormal Regency Romance

by Aline deWinter

Part IV

“Ah, Dark Robbie, I’m sorry you have won. I would it had been anyone but you.”

<
The voice of Lady Mary brought him back from a dream of running after someone through the crack between dawn and sunrise.

<
Something dark pulled away.  Suddenly released from he knew not what, Dark Robbie’s eyes flew open.  He beheld a hazy image of Lady Mary standing in a shaft of early sunlight in a flowing green dressing gown, her wavy hair streaming over shoulders like rays of light.

<
“Come, Dark Robbie,” she said. “You must come with me.”

<
A wash of pale sunlight illuminated Lady Mary, and as she grew clearer, a sudden chill alerted  Dark Robbie  to the fact that he was naked. He quickly sat up and wrapped his arms around his legs, glancing sheepishly up at her, hoping she hadn’t seen anything. Glancing around, he saw no trace of his clothes. A vague and frightening sensation that he had been covered with fur rose up in his mind, so that he stroked his pale, slightly hairy forearm unsure of why he wasn’t still wearing it.  A shiver ran through him.  How had he come to wake up naked on the dew spangled hillside, not remembering a thing?

<
Ah! I must have been drunk and Rusty and Oliver took the piss…But he didn’t think he’d drunk that much. He frowned down at the ground.

<
“Here,” said Lady Mary.

<

An article of clothing was draped over him. It was a loose robe of black silk with thin silver stripes.

<
Still curled up, Dark Robbie turned away from the Lady, and pulled the dressing gown on. It was soft and voluminous, insulating him from the chill. Standing up, stiff from a night on the hard earth, Dark Robbie tied the sash around his waist with a smirk, and nodded his thanks to Lady Mary. She was looking away, an  anxious, serious furrow between her wide, fair eyes.

<
“This must have belonged to your father,” Dark Robbie said as he sniffed one of the sleeves. “It smells of tobacco still.”

<
“Robbie, I must explain something to you. Please, come into the house.”

<
“Of course,” Dark Robbie said.

<
Shaking the cobwebs from his mind, he watched Lady Mary walk to the house. The hem of her robe dragged a little on the grass behind her.  The image of a white mare flashing between the shadows of the trees and moonlight danced before his mind’s eye. He stretched, and turned to gaze around at the rolling hills, sooty against the golden morning sky. Why did he have the sensation of running over those hills, and then…into them?

<
Lady Mary was waiting for him at the door to the house, looking back over her shoulder like a horse.  He hurried to meet her. She led him into a cozy morning room where tea and scones were set out on a tray beside the hearth. A low fire crackled, flames tonguing the air.

<
“So!” he said leaning back into the wing chair and gazing frankly at her. “I’ve won, have I? Now what?”

<
Lady Mary’s beautiful face had a mystified cast as she gazed at Dark Robbie. A kind of pity stole over it. She hesitated to speak, and gestured towards the tea, and then sat back in her chair with her hand over her mouth as if to prevent herself speaking.

<
It can’t be good, Dark Robbie thought, trying to remember something of the night before.

<
“Robbie, I hope you will — but — well — let me begin at the beginning and, when I am through telling you this tale, I hope you will forgive me. “

<
“Go on then.” Dark Robbie said. He sipped some tea, trying stay calm, and then broke off a bit of scone. It smelled wonderful and tasted of cardboard.

<
“ As you know, my mother died when I was born. What nobody knows is that, before me, there was baby boy who died at three months old. Family history says that my father became very angry at God, blaming Him for the death of his son. He stopped going to church, locked himself in his library, and barely spoke to anyone, even shunned my mother. I was told by an uncle who came to my father’s funeral, that he put all of his thought and energy into getting as much money as he could,  far more money than anyone else. He was obsessed with planning and building a fine, extravagant house of his own design  in a place as far away from Scottish Society as possible.  Well, he did it… as you can see., “ Lady Mary said waving her hand around unhappily.

<
“Indeed,” said Dark Robbie glowering to himself.

<
“After he achieved his dream, he and my mother reconciled. She soon fell pregnant with me, and nine months later — she was gone! I was there in her place. As a small child I was frightened of him. His eyes were black as pieces of coal and just as hard and just as brittle. As I got older, he had made his great fortune, and shifted  all of his obsessive power on me. He utterly doted on me. I wanted for nothing.  But, when I came into young womanhood, he was very jealous of my suitors. To the point of madness some would say.”

<
‘At the time when he built this strange house in this isolated spot, so close to the Faery Hills,  the word in the village was that my father was dabbling in Magic. That he made his fortune by wager with the Devil. They were not far off. Indeed, he filled hours, studying old books with strange Latin titles, full of symbols, and queer poetic images. My nanny always hovered over me as a consequence. I think she felt the need to protect me somehow. Father never discussed his feelings, but his constant brooding and anger cast a  dark sort of shadow around him, and he wore it like a cloak. As I grew old enough to understand things, he confessed to me, in a moment torment, that our great wealth had come at a very high price.”

<
Lady Mary paused and drank her tea quickly. Dark Robbie waited. Though the story was a bit hard to believe, he wasn’t surprised.

<
She looked at Dark Robbie steadily, as if daring him to doubt her. “He had bargained for all of this with the soul of my mother, and lost.”

<
“What?”

<
“My father, in his great pride, thought he could trick the Devil and win. With all his learning, he was still so foolish.”

<
“Lady Mary, the Devil has no power over us. It’s blasphemy to say so….”

<
‘Oh yes he does. The years passed.  By the time I was fifteen, I had had  a few suitors. There was one lad in particular, called Johnny, that I dearly loved, and he loved me. Of course, my father was jealous and flew into rages when he knew that Johnny was coming by to see me.  It was during one of his fits he told  me, in no uncertain terms, that the Devil wanted me next. In fact, he went on, I was meant for the Devil at birth… My mother found out and insisted on taking my place! Oh…” Lady Mary  covered her face with her hands and wept. ” After that, I wondered about my poor little brother’s death. Was it natural, or not?”

<
“Crikey! Surly, it can’t be true. He was just ranting is all. Trying to control you,” Dark Robbie said. He leaned over and pulled Lady Mary’s hands away from her face. “It’s nonsense.”

<
Lady Mary wiped the tears from her face and went on, “ No Robbie. It was the truth.  I knew it. You can imagine how I felt. I had lost my mother at birth, and in that moment, I was forced to disown my father. He went on to tell me that  the Devil was coming to claim his due…and he always wants the best, the greatest sacrifice.”

<
‘I’ll offer you as a tithe to Hell,” he shouted, “if you don’t give up that lad.”

<
“No!” Dark Robbie cried. His stomach was churning. “What kind of father is that?”

<
“A very, very bitter one, Dark Robbie.”

<
Lady Mary’s face darkened. She looked down at her hands twisting in her lap. “Indeed. I wasn’t about to stop seeing Johnny, even though I knew a man, like my father,  who would give his family  to the Devil —  consign them to Hell — would stop at nothing. While my father was raging, Johnny arrived at the door and began ringing the bells. Papa went utterly silent — I’ll never forget his eyes flashing and black as night. He just turned away and went upstairs to his rooms.”

<
‘That night was the last I saw of my beloved Johnny. All during our visit, my father had been upstairs in his room at the top of the house, working Magic. He had offered Johnny to the Devil in my place.”

<
Dark Robbie  fell back in his chair astonished.

<
Lady Mary went on, “Of course, he didn’t let me know what he had been up to in so many words. But when a fortnight passed, with no word from Johnny at all, I realized my father must have done something — something unspeakably evil. Without a word passing between us, I knew. I couldn’t even look at him after that.”

<
‘After months of silence — I didn’t speak to him at all  for the better part of a year —  he began to realize how terribly he had hurt me. Almost overnight,  he became bent and haggard with remorse. He really seemed to know how much I suffered. Even in my pain, I felt that my father could not be an entirely evil man. Some goodness must have been in him for my plight to have affected him so. Though he threatened me, he did love me. Still, I had to shock him into setting thinhs right.”

<
‘One evening, I was feeling terribly desperate with grief. I was just staring out at the hills. They were black with impending storm, and the last of the sunset shone in a line of brilliance between the horizon and the heavy dark clouds. I felt that, if I could go there, to that bright place, that somehow I could pass through it into another world. Even if it was Hell beckoning, at least I would be with Johnny. After all, I was the one the Devil really wanted, wasn’t I? Suddenly feeling quite mad, I ran out and across the meadow, and as I  began to climb the nearest hill, the rain came down in a torrent. A sheet of lightening crossed my path, and I fainted to the ground. Luckily for me, a shepherd had seen me running into the storm and brought me home.  I soon became sick with pneumonia, and it was as I lay in bed, delirious, calling for Johnny, that my father decided he had to do something, or lose me forever.”

<
Lady Mary’s eyes darkened and she stared into the distance as she spoke.

<
‘So, my father conjured the Devil again. I heard him in his study, for I had nothing to distract me and the laudenum had sharpened my wits.. I saw the smoke of incense flowing out from under the door. He was begging the Devil to  spare me — pleading with him to let me have Johnny back,  for he couldn’t bear to lose me.  Then I heard a terrible sound. It was like a black wind blowing through the trees and all of the branches creaking and  agitating the air. The Devil told my father that he had found Johnny very useful, for he was young, handsome, and strong.  He liked Johnny so much that he enchanted him into the form of a big black horse to draw his carriage out of Hell and across the earth on the nights of the dark moon.”

<
‘“Is there no way that my daughter might be able to visit the lad even if she must go to him in the Your Majesty’s house?” I heard my father shout over the wind. “ She will surely die if she cannot see Johnny Ross at least once in a while.”

<
“Visit him in Hell?” said Dark Robbie. Despite his disbelief in such things, his mind went back to the night before when he dimly recalled running after a coach and horses through the stormy woods.

<
“So the wily Devil made another pact with my father… It was a night of the full moon and I remember, as in a dream, passing into the low hills and, once inside, I was turned into a white mare. A strange-looking man, whose appearance fluttered between handsome and ugly, was approaching me with a halter.  Before I knew it, I was hitched up to a large, pale, silver coach with a black interior.  He laughed and said that for the three nights of the full moon, I would leave my father’s house and come to a door in the low hills. Once inside, in the realm of shadows, I would become a white mare and  draw his coach across the earth.  And inside the coach. looking bewildered, and ever so sad, was Johnny, whole and human and warm again, yet totally unable to reach out to me, nor I to him.”

<
Lady Mary stopped and drank some tea. Dark Robbie couldn’t speak for sheer amazement and bafflement.

<
“That was the Devil’s revenge, “ Lady Mary went on. “ He let us see each other, but only in his terms. On the night of the dark moon, I rode in the coach while Johnny, in the shape of a black horse, pulled  a black coach over the earth under the Devil’s whip. It went on like this for many months, back and forth, horse and passenger, with the turning of the moon. Between times, I was home with my father who had become a mere shadow of himself.’

<
“But, the Devil’s trickery did not stop my father — he conjured him again. He begged the Devil to let Johnny and I be together in our human forms, for the pain of the current arrangement was unhinging my mind and he was afraid I would go mad. Indeed, I felt as if I was in a constant dream, that the only time I lived was when I was a mare in Hell pulling Johnny, or playing passenger while he pulled me.’

<
“Another bargain was struck. It was like this:  we could meet in our human skins., but only between dawn and the moment the first rays of the sun touched the rim of the hills. then, in that second, Johnny must become a horse again, and go back to Hell, and I become a girl again, going home to my father. But I was still held to the Devil’s bargain, and the on the nights of the full moon,  I must turn into the white mare and pull the coach over the land.”

<
Lady Mary sighed and wrung her hands.

<
“ And in exchange for allowing us our brief moments together, the Devil demanded my father surrender his very own soul to be collected in seven years time.”

<
“So, that’s where he is, is it?” said Dark Robbie. “What’s that got to do with me and this dinner party you held last night?”

<
“Oh, it wasn’t last night, Robbie. It was thee nights ago,” said Lady Mary. Looking wistful and sad, she stood up and held her hands over the fire as if she had taken a sudden chill.

<
“What?”

<
She turned to look at Dark Robbie as she spoke, still standing before the fire.

<
“After my father died, my arrangement with Johnny and the Devil continued.”

<
Dark Robbie smirked, “So is that why you were acting the recluse? You were meeting your lover in the shape of a horse all that time, and running in and out of Hell!” A bitter laugh followed that he could not suppress. “And here we all were vying for your hand in marriage. And you’re mad! So why the invitation — what is this — prize?”

<
Lady Mary turned back again to face the fire. A tremor went through Dark Robbie. She wouldn’t look at him.

<
I must really be in the shit, he thought, his skepticism hanging by a thread.

<
“I’m getting to that…As you might imagine, without my father around to control things, the magic began to weaken. Gradually the time Johnny and I had together between dawn and sunrise got even narrower, until we spent more time together in harness than as ourselves. You see, what the Devil truly wanted was both of our souls, and I did not have my father’s magical powers, nor his bargaining skills. There was nothing else to bargain with anyway. So over the course of the year, our time together grew shorter, and shorter. Soon it was a mere half hour that we had together, and  even that was dwindling away…

<
“On the nights of the full moon, as I performed my duty to the Devil, Johnny would  be riding in the back of the coach, looking like his own dear self, the man I loved, but  utterly out of reach. It was  heartbreaking to know that everything was reverting back to how it was before, and would no doubt get even worse. The pain of longing was unbearable. When I finished pulling the coach, Johnny would become a horse again and bring me home on his back. We had our  brief time together, changing back and forth from horse to human, over and over.. as you saw… I could hear the Devil laughing at us all the while! The struggle was becoming unbearable. I had to do something or go mad.”

<
“And what did you have to do?” Dark Robbie asked narrowing his eyes.

<
Lady Mary finally turned to look at him, her face flushed, her eyelids fluttering.

<
“To — to find another sacrifice. A willing sacrifice. To bring my father back long enough to strike another bargain. To, to maintain another bargain so that Johnny and I could have our human lives again — for as long as possible.”

<
“What?” Dark Robbie rose to his feet. “If you weren’t a woman I’d strike you dead! Willing? To do what? How? Am I sacrificed to the Devil then?”

<
“Your acceptance of the invitation was a sign of willingness. Robbie — it’s only for the nights of the full moon. Not all of the time.”

<
“Nights? Nights? And what do I do on all of those nights? Was I in Hell for those last three nights — and days? What was I doing?”

<
“You became what you were at the party. A wolf.”

<
“I became a wolf…And what did that do for your daddy?”

<
“While your spirit goes forth as a wolf….he steps into your body. For the last three nights he has used your corporeal form to ground his spirit in matter and work his magic with the Devil. Because of the power of your physical body, combined with his  ability to materialize and command the spirits, he succeeded in striking a new wager.”

<
“And where was I?” Dark Robbie kept is voice low and measured, otherwise he swore he would have leaped on Lady Mary and tore her to bits. “I can’t remember a thing.”

<
“You joined the Devil’s wolf pack and followed him, storming over the earth. My father was very amused at your choice of costume. It was so suitable, as was Oliver Brodie’s. But he was glad you won since you are the stronger character and the Devil always wants the best.”

<
“Well thanks for the compliment. Now that I’m a wolf, why should I not tear out your throat?”

<
Lady Mary began to tremble, faced the fire and held her hands over it. Then she sat down again with her head in her hands.
“It’s not so bad. Twice a year, at May time and All Souls Night, you go out on the Wild Hunt, and on the rest of the full moon nights, you become a wolf and stay close to my father, as a guardian of sorts — a companion. As part of the magic, he created a glamor, so that he would look like himself, so as not to confuse you…”

<
“Considerate of him…”

<
“Yes. And I still — still have to — become the white mare, but now I  pull the Devil’s coach out of Hell at the full moon with Johnny at my side.  Then we  are free on the nights of the dark moon, and May Eve, and  All Souls’ Eve — to spend time together, human time, loving time. Afterwards, Johnny goes back to the Underworld and I go back to Crawford Priory and wait.  Now, on the dark moon,  my father pulls the coach instead of Johnny, as a pale gray dappled horse”

<
“How neat and tidy. So for all that — I mean is that all you get? Three days a month? I have been consigned to Hell so you can get those three mingy days with your lover? And what am I doing in the meantime?”

<
“You are with my father when he works his full moon magic to keep everything in balance as it were.”

<
“And what about the rest of the month?”

<
“Well, you’re free to go. Though, if you want to stay here, you are welcome. You have never been one for hard work, Dark Robbie. Living here, you can be as idle as you please.”

<
“Ha! Nice offer, Mary. You must think I’m as daft as the Devil.  I’m getting out of here, and you’re going to have to call  His Majesty, the Prince of Darkness, to make me come back.”

<
Dark Robbie stood up and pulled on the belt of the dressing gown. “Where are my clothes?”

<
“Well, we didn’t think you want to go about in your fancy dress. There are suits of my father’s in the wardrobe upstairs. But, Robbie, you can’t escape. No matter where you are, when the moon is full, you will turn into a wolf, and no matter where you are, two seasons a year, you will follow the Devil on his Ride.”

<
“But your old man won’t be able to have me.”

<
“He’ll find you wherever you are. Spirits know no place or time. You are bound together with magic. It is better if you stay with us. For out in the world, your transformation may cause alarm were anyone to see it.

<
“I want out.”

<

“I’m afraid that’s impossible. I’m sorry Dark Robbie. It is too late now.”

Ginasa

Top photo: Simon Marsden: www.simonmarsden.co.uk

End of Part IV

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge