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

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford

A Paranormal Regency Romance

by Aline deWinter

Epilogue

The round moon was riding through the clouds above Edinburgh Castle the night they saw Dark Robbie.

<

Rusty and Oliver had  run into each other at the Lawn Market and stopped into the Hole in the Wall for a rest. It had been a chill and blustery day and, as the amber glow of the pub wrapped its warmth around them, they saw two wing chairs beside the fire being vacated by two old men and their two black dogs.

<
“Well,” said Rusty rubbing his big hands together as Oliver took a seat. “What’ll you have?”

<
“A dram of brandy and a mince pie,” said Oliver feeling in the pocket of his coat for his purse.

<
“Ah, forget it,” said Rusty. “It’s on me this time. I’ll give you the opportunity to catch me up later.”

<
As Rusty went to the bar, he heard a loud bang! A bluster of wind had slapped the door back against the wall, and it now creaked back and forth like a broken wing along the edge of yawning black rectangle of night. He shivered.

<
“Those old gents should mind the door,” Rusty said to barman nervously drumming his fingers on the smooth wood of the counter. “Two brandies please and…uh…two mince pies.”

<
Rusty looked over at Oliver who was smoking cozily with his feet towards the fire. He wondered why he felt so on edge. The full moon — that’s all it is. He suddenly wondered what happened to Dark Robbie, but as the month had gone on with no word, he often wondered about that. It was clear that whatever prize Lady Mary was offering at her strange party had gone to Dark Robbie. After placing his shillings on the bar, Rusty went and sat down beside the fire, and stared at Oliver who simply grinned and exhaled an O of smoke.

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“Do you know,” Oliver said still grinning. “That on that very wall at the back of this pub was where they burned witches?”

<
“I knew that,” said Rusty leaning back in his chair and scowling.

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“Well, did you know one of those witches had a surname of Crawford?” Oliver looked sly-eyed at Rusty.

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“What are you getting at?”

<
“Just a thought.”

<
The drinks and pies were set on the table.

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“So, were you snooping in the public records, Oliver?”

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“I was told about it. Isn’t it strange that we haven’t had a word since that little gathering of Lady Mary’s? It’s as if it never happened at all.”

<
“I wonder where Robbie is. The winner! What the devil did he win?”

<
The door banged again and this time the wind whistled in with the sound voices from the street.

<
He was there.

<
Rusty looked up from devouring his pie and saw him standing behind Oliver’s chair, looking haggard and very drunk.

<
“Huh! Well speaking of the Devil himself! Oliver! Dark Robbie’s here!” Rusty cried standing up to shake Dark Robbie’s hand and tapping Oliver on the shoulder at the same time. “Good to see you, lad.”

<
Oliver stood up and turned around in shock.

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“Well Robbie! Where have you been?

<
“Here,” said Dark Robbie, barely audible. “I’ve been here. I saw you coming in…”

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“Well, well, well, “ said Oliver. “So, your not at at Crawford Priory after all.”

<
“No… No!” said Dark Robbie.

<
Dark Robbie began to shrink away but Oliver grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the fire while Rusty drew another chair in, smiling with all sorts of questions in his eyes.

<
“Well, Robbie, where have you been?” Rusty asked putting a little cheer into his voice.

<
Oliver sat in the next chair leaning toward his brooding friend eagerly.

<
Sitting between them, Rusty thought Dark Robbie had a cowering look, glancing from one to the other of his companions as if he was being pinned down by two demons with four gleaming red eyes. Rusty slapped his friend on the back reassuringly and smiled encouragingly, pained at the great change in the once dashing and confident Dark Robbie..

<
“You won the prize didn’t you?” said Oliver. “You sly old dog. She always fancied you.”

<
Rusty gently tapped Dark Robbie’s hand.

<
“What’s been going on? She said she’d send word to everyone but I never heard a thing after.”

<
Dark Robbie stared sullenly at the fire. Finally he said, “Yes, well, I did win didn’t I…but…it wasn’t what you think.”

<
“I feared as much,” said Rusty beckoning Oliver to go to the bar. “You wouldn’t come back looking so rough if you were inviting us to the wedding.”

<
Dark Robbie flinched at the words and glanced around furtively.  He seemed to be sniffing the air. Rusty suddenly noticed the smell of the pub: burning wood, alcohol, salt. tobacco, coal and sweat. Oliver returned with three drams of brandy and set them down on the table in front of Dark Robbie. The glasses glowed like three gold lamps with the firelight shining through them.

<
“Robbie’s come to deliver a message from Lady Mary,” Rusty said to Oliver.

<
“You don’t say,” said Oliver sitting down, picking up his pipe and feeling in his pocket for his tobacco pouch. “What is it, if I might ask? I rather fancied that maid of hers.” he winked.

<
Dark Robbie shivered and held his hands before his face, examining them. What is wrong with him? Rusty wondered. Everything felt weird and strange tonight.

<
“Did you see the moon tonight?” Dark Robbie asked.

<

Rusty frowned and looked at Oliver and Oliver shrugged and look back.

<
“It’s been raining the last few nights in case you haven’t noticed,” said Oliver.

<
“But you know,” said Rusty. “That when the moon is full, the sky is always clear. Planning a trip by night are you, Robbie?”

<
“Yes,” said Dark Robbie. “I must return to Crawford Priory. Its part of the…prize!”

<
The two friends leaned back in their chairs simultaneously, and drank their brandy, waiting for more information. Oliver emptied his glass and stood up.

<
“I’ll take your order, Sir,” he said winking at Rusty. “And yours, Dark Robbie.”

<
Rusty watched Oliver go to the bar, and then turned back to the fire with a churning feeling in his gut.

<
The door opened and shut, banging hard against the wall and letting in the smell of damp air and puddles and dirty pavement. Dark Robbie’s face went suddenly white as he stared at whoever had come inside. Rusty spun around in his chair to look. The door was open upon the night, and the black rectangle of the open door seemed to waver and ripple. He thought he saw an old man in a long black coat with a mane of silver hair,  but then it was just a sooty kind of light superimposed over the doorway. Something crawled up Rusty’s spine.

<
He turned to speak to Dark Robbie and ask him what he saw, but in that moment, he heard scrabbling sounds. Something like a large dog leapt past him and Dark Robbie’s chair was empty.

<
“What?” Rusty cried looking back at the door. There was Dark Robbie tipping his hat to him and disappearing into the night.


The moon was bright above the turrets of Edinburgh Castle. The smell of the pavement, the damp, and the cold night air were all he could think of as he followed the old man down the winding back alleys of the city.

<
A coach was waiting for them, a black coach drawn by a white mare that gleamed in the moonlight like an apparition, and another horse so black it was almost invisible in the darkness. On the Driver’s box was a tall, gaunt figure with slant green eyes, that smiled down at them sly and wicked, and rubbing his hairy hands together like a miser before a pile of gold.

The End

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

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford, a Paranormal Regency Romance: Part III

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford

a Paranormal Regency Romance

by Aline deWinter

Part III

Dark Robbie didn’t leave the table for the reason most people would have thought. Curiously disturbed, he went up into the wood to sit beside a well spring and watch the moon. There was a small, ivy smothered graveyard in the wood populated by Lady Mary’s ancestors, including the dark tomb of her father. On either side of the door were tall candles with fluttering flames and alabaster vases filled with lilies. He wondered if they were put there by cats. Tired from lack of food and near suffocation, Dark Robbie pulled his masque off, fell back in the grass, and dozed.

<

When he woke, the moon was bright and high, remote and inaccessible as a Byzantine Princess. Through his half opened eyes, Dark Robbie saw lavender waving in the tall grass and honeysuckle tangled ivy encircling the trees.  A stone’s throw away, a hare was nibbling clover.  Something was moving nearby, steps in the grass, and a long shadow rippled through the trees.

<

“Bah! Its just the wind,” Dark Robbie muttered to himself

<

He was lying on a bank of dizzyingly fragrant may-thorn that made him want to sneeze. When he sat up to let it go, he noticed some dark shapes moving through the trees not ten paces away.

<

“What?” he whispered to himself, stifling his sneeze, and following the shapes with his eyes. “Its that blasted horse! And Lady Mary astride…”

<

He shook his head as if to knock sense back into it, for he had the unsettling impression that her Ladyship was stark naked, but that being impossible, he wasn’t sure.

<

When they were out of sight, Dark Robbie stood up and looked around. The moon was bright as a spyglass in a sky riddled with stars.  He stepped over the grass, flattening it under his booted feet and found, lying under a bush, an elegant dress of storm colored silk.

<

“Tah!” he cried as if he had stumbled upon evidence of a crime, “She’s…she’s…I’ve got to see this!”

<

Dark Robbie hurried back to the well spring to fetch his wolf masque and put it back on, reckoning it would make it more difficult for Lady Mary to notice him. Thus attired, he stole stealthily through the glen.

<

It wasn’t long before Dark Robbie reached a circular clearing of smooth grass surrounded by trees and a rocky terrace. In the midst was Lady Mary and the horse. She was lying face down along the horse’s muscular back, her face turned away from Robbie. Her long, fine hair hung freely down her bare back, frizzy as may-blossom. The horse had his eyes closed and rocked slightly on his heels as she caressed him.

<

“Oh, my love, the time is so short. I can hardly bear it,” he heard her whisper in the horse’s ear.

<

The horse snorted softly and pawed the ground with its hoof. Then he slowly kneeled, so Lady Mary could dismount. This she did gracefully, entwining her fingers in his black mane, and sighing with pleasure as she slipped down the side of his body. When her feet hit the ground, she groaned as if in pain and clung to the horse’s mane with feverish desperation.

<

“Aw,” sighed Dark Robbie. “She’s mad.”

<

He wiped tears out of eyes that he didn’t remember shedding, and when he looked up — Lady Mary was gone! The great black charger stood with its head up sniffing the air and began kicking up its heels in a kind of dance. Suddenly a beautiful white mare appeared behind him. She was dappled like the moon and her fine mane floated on the air, and around her head, like a cloud, enhancing the longing expression in her storm colored eyes. The two horses licked and nipped each other, gamboled and played, dashing this way and that, whinnying, and kicking up their heels with such pure joy that Dark Robbie had no wonder that he cried and longed to cry again. As darkness fell, they grew still, so still that Dark Robbie held his breath, and could not move.

<

Above the round clearing the starry constellation of Pegasus appeared, following Andromeda to the edge of the world. The two horses coupled then. Dark Robbie watched them, fascinated, compelled by some primitive attraction he could not shake. They whinnied and cried, rocking back and forth, until she let out an almost human scream and they broke apart.  After that she shivered, and fell to her knees. The black stallion licked her face and soon followed her to the ground. Spent, they lay upon the dark earth, their round sides heaving with their breaths.

<

Dark Robbie thought he must have blacked out, for when he opened his eyes, the moon was floating in the ragged tops of the trees, and shining into the clearing illuminating two shadowy human forms, standing still, like spirits from the Otherworld. He shivered as if he had been dowsed with cold water, and instinctively leapt to his feet, breaking several branches and twigs. They snapped loudly.

<

“What is that, my Lord?”

<

It was the woman who spoke in the voice of Lady Mary.  It was she who stood on the arm of a slim, dark man with long, smooth hair as black as midnight. Dark Robbie had to blink several times to be sure he saw right, for around their heads, like circlets of stars, were two diadems.

<

“What are they? Faeries?” he wondered with a shiver of dread.

<

“I smell wolf,” said the dark man.

<

“Yes, I see him gazing at us through the branches of the trees. I wonder what he has seen…”

<

“What shall we do with him?” the dark man said stepping toward the thicket where Dark Robbie was with his heart pounding and sweat pouring down the back of his neck.

<

“Perhaps I shall reward him, for his shape-shifting is nearly as good as yours,” Lady Mary replied.

<

At that they both laughed, the sound of it echoing into the night.

<

Dark Robbie felt faint, sure that his reward was to be dragged into Faerie and end his days in the madhouse on earth.

<

Lady Mary wrapped her arms around the dark man’s neck, stroking his long silky mane as she gazed intently at Dark Robbie. As they fell to the ground to couple again, Dark Robbie fell into a frenzy of lust and, howling like a lunatic, spilled his seed upon the earth.

<

Spent, Dark Robbie lay very still in the thicket and watched the moon, and then the stars, fall below the hills while sky paled to silver grey. He heard them moving about, heard the whinny of horses, and sat up to peer into the clearing. The white horse was lying on the near side of the black, pale as the dawn. Then he thought it was not a horse at all, but a long, white rock, or then, patch of snow that was dissolving to a pool of bright water. Suddenly, Lady Mary stood there, looking towards the low hills on the horizon. The black horse stood up soon after. They nuzzled each other and she whispered in his ear, causing it to flicker. Then slowly he knelt down so Lady Mary could mount him, naked and shining but for her long brown hair. As the first streak of dawn spilled over the low hills, they sauntered back towards the Priory.

<

Dark Robbie followed them, no longer worried about being seen, and still wearing his wolf masque as if he had so entered into the animal, he had forgotten who he was.  In the gloaming he saw various creatures, half animal, half human, coming out of the house to greet Lady Mary and the black horse as they crossed the abandoned garden.  The creatures swarmed around their Mistress and her Charger, hurrying them back into the house as the first rays of the sun brightened the far hills and turned the dewy grass into a sheet of molten gold.

<

Dark Robbie gave chase. As he crossed the patch of grass beside the wellspring, he saw that the door to Lord Crawford’s tomb stood open, breathing forth its ghost. His ears pricking with alarm, Dark Robbie came to a heap of discarded shoes, dark with damp in the middle of the lawn, and crouched there, sniffing them, intoxicated with the rich smells of feet and old leather. As the Lady Mary disappeared into the house, he was reveling in them.

<

Then, for a brief moment. his hackles rose. A man was standing over him, wearing a long black coat, with a mane of silver hair, looking down at him. Dark Robbie felt himself cower as the man placed his hand over Dark Robbie’s head and everything went black.

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

End of Part III

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

<

<

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.

<
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.

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

<
“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.”

<
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.

<
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.

<
“Bloody hell,” he mumbled.

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

<
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.

<
“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…”

<
“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.”

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

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

<
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.

<
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.”

<
“Thanks for letting us know,” snarled Rusty.

<
Oliver burped. “Sorry.”

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

<
“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.

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

>
“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.

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

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

<
“You don’t say,” said Robbie.

<

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

<

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.

<
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.

<
“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.

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

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

<
“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.”

<
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.”

<
“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.

<
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.

<

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.

<
“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.”

<
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.

<
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.

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

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

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

<
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.

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

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

<
“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.

<
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.

<
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.

<

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.

<
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

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

A Word from the Author:

I had a much shorter version of this story at www.themysteriousdomain.com, but I was never happy with the ending. I was trying to keep the story under 5,000 words — so it would be a genuine short story — but in the end I not only had to put more detail into it to make it better. I had to add another 5,000 words to have an ending that worked. Characters will do that to you sometimes. They know better than the author how its supposed to go.

So I deleted the story from My Mysterious Domain, rewrote it, and am offering it here in parts.

The story was inspired by this photograph of Crawford Priory, an extravagant Scottish ruin, by the excellent Simon Marsden. ( See more of is amazing photography and beyond at :  www.simonmarsden.co.uk ) It was on a calender that included the story of Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford, who in her life never married, and was known to be a great lover of animals who were her friends and constant companions.

I don’t know how Lady Crawford would feel about my fictitious portrayal of her, but I think she might understand how this brooding image and her alleged haunting of the place with her animals might lead the imagination down some strange passages.

This is told in five installments. I also plan to podcast it. I hope you like this rather old style spooky story.

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford

A Paranormal Regency Romance

Part I

by Aline deWinter

Fife, Scotland

1815

It was to be Lady Mary’s first appearance for many months.

<
After the death of her father, she had retired into the gloom of her high Gothic mansion as if Society had ceased to exist. She did not call upon anyone, and no one called upon her for, though young and extremely charming, she was known not to need people and had a way of gently, but effectively, putting them off. Then, out of the blue, she sent out lilac-scented invitations for a Ball to be held at her home on May Eve. It was to be a Masquerade, set to begin in the long twilight, and continue with feasting and dancing until dawn. Lady Mary invited everyone who had known her father when he was alive, and all those who had shown an interest in her. She hinted that whoever wore the most convincing animal masque would win a secret prize! It was hoped, and surmised, that the prize was to be Lady Mary’s hand in marriage, for, now on her own and lonely, she must surely have decided that it was time to choose a husband and settle down.

<
On the evening of the Ball, the twilight was exceedingly long and luminous, a glow, like reflected firelight, throwing the low hills into dark relief at the horizon.  As the guests leapt from their coaches, they were welcomed by bright torches along the walkway and up the stairs to the open doors of the house. The ground floor windows blazed with light, while overhead, a sombre crown of pinnacles and turrets rose against the sky like the peaks of a dark forest. A flock of rooks circled around them cawing on their way to the woods.

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Posing about in their finest, most extravagant costumes, several hopeful Suitors cut a swathe in the candle lit drawing room. Their animal heads had them looking, rather disturbingly,  like devils in fancy dress. The other ladies and gentlemen, friends of Lady Mary’s late father,  held small half-masks, attached to sticks, in their hands, ready to hold them up at the first sight of their mysterious Hostess.

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The great clock in the hall chimed the hour. Impatient for a sight of Lady Mary newly emerging from her dark cocoon of grief,  the guests gathered in a knot at the bottom of the stairs with bated breath. Their anticipation was increased when a tribe of be-ribboned Burmese cats suddenly flowed down the stairs carrying flowers in their mouths. They were followed, from above, by a whizzing flock of multi-colored budgies that perched in the chandeliers, and at the tops of the potted orange trees, or clung upside down to the vines that were trellised along the tops of the walls. When opening their beaks to sing, they dropped round, red berries onto the heads of the Suitors. The crowd laughed uneasily.

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“Oh, ho, ho,” chuckled Rusty MacClaren, blinking as he picked a squashed berry out of his lion’s eye. “We’re in for a fine time already…” He flicked his fingers anxiously through his mane in case some berries got stuck in it too.

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“I’ll say,” said Oliver Brodie, swinging his stag’s head  around to look through the tall windows off to the side, his attention drawn by a commotion outside in the yard. “That’s strange. It appears Lady Mary has just returned from a ride.”

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“It can’t be her,” said Rusty. “She’s supposed to be upstairs getting herself ready. You know how long it takes a woman to dress for a Ball.”

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“Well, that big black charger of hers is still prancing about like he’s trying to follow her into the house. I just heard her running in at the back door,” said Oliver as a distant door slammed.

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“Guess we’ll see, won’t we, lads,” said Dark Robbie, the wolf, shaking some berries out of the cuffs of his Restoration sleeves. “She’s a wild one.”

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“What do you mean by that?” Mr. Symmonds’s old, soft voice floated across the room.

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Suddenly, the room darkened as if a cloud passed over it.  The very air was charged with the mystery. The guests shuffled about, restless, and the house grew quiet as a gathering storm, waiting for thunder to roll. The guests went very still, looking at each other quizzically, and then, on meeting each others eyes, looking away again, and then around at the ceiling at the bright budgies perched above, their empty beaks sunken into their puff-feathered, pastel breasts, and at the floor where the cats lolled about, getting snagged in their ribbon streamers, and preening, oblivious to the danger of shifting human feet, as if the guests were no more than trees in the wood.

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Finally, the of barking of dogs, and the howling of Irish wolfhounds echoed from the top of the house, announcing that Lady Mary must be leaving her lofty bedchamber.  The guests milled around so that the row of Suitors stood at the fore, while the ladies and remaining gents chose the best vantage points for a view of the stairs, and held up their masks. They glanced around at each other grimly through their eyeholes. A red fox sauntered down the stairs, brushing against the Suitors and eyeing them suspiciously before it leapt, with flash of its white-tipped tail, through the open French casement, and out into the garden.

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Dark Robbie took a gentle swipe at it with his riding crop, hitting his neighbor on the leg instead.

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“Imagine, a woman who keeps wild animals in the house! I’ll wager the whole top of the house is really a forest…where she sleeps naked under a canopy of trees…her hair tangled with leaves, and her little foxes licking her face…and doves settling on her shoulders and arms,” Dark Robbie said quietly as a flock of white birds flew over.

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“Forget it Robbie. She’ll have none of you, you popinjay! Lady Mary has taste. She’ll choose me.”

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“Yes, Oliver. That’s all she needs…a pile of debts and a sot for a father-in-law.”

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“Now, lads, what’s the fuss…,” the soft voice of old Mr. Symmonds silted over their high words. “You know as well as anyone that this is a mere formality. Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford has never been known to accept anyone to her hand.”

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“Yes,” retorted Rusty. “Even her dear father couldn’t marry her off to save his soul from the Devil.”

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“I’ll wager he did sell his soul to the Devil,” said Oliver somberly, pointing around at the room. “Where else did he get the money to buy this?”

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“I can’t wait to just see her. I heard she was running about the graveyard with her hair disheveled and her bodice undone like Ophelia in the mad scene…with her hounds circling around her like witches imps,” said Dark Robbie grinning sarcastically at the fluttering budgies. A diminutive orange fell down and hit him on the nose.

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“Please, gentlemen. The poor girl has been tragically bereft of her only living relative…”

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“And got a fortune out of it too…”

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“Shhh! Here she comes.”

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It was the three wolfhounds they saw first, their aquiline heads curving around the bannisters, their long legs getting tangled up with each other as they tried peering at those assembled below them on the Oriental carpet. Their leads were so long that they were at the middle of the stairs before Lady Mary appeared. Her light brown hair floated around her head like a frothy cloud made higher with a jeweled black plume. A dark blue-gray gown of rustling silk, embroidered with crystal beads, drifted in translucent layers about her figure like a storm. She smiled at her guests, lowering her dark eyelashes as if she had been caught having naughty thoughts. The creamy beauty of her skin was heightened by the flame of high color in her cheeks. She looked as if she were always blushing, but it wasn’t with modesty, rather with a noticeable undercurrent of seething passion.

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“How can that woman stay alone?” Rusty growled.

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“What makes you so sure she’s alone?” whispered Dark Robbie.

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“Hush lads. Don’t speak of the Lady like that. She’s an outdoor girl. Healthy,” Mr. Symmonds sighed, lifting his owl’s mask up for air. “Vital.”

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She strode between the rows of Gallants smiling like a Grecian Queen and leading a goat wearing a may crown. They were followed by a Shetland collie who kept running around everyone and barking at them as if they were sheep, more cats, some hares walking on their hind legs, and three peacocks. There was a purple brocade settee in an alcove in front of a glassed-in aviary where Lady Mary sat, gesturing with a bright yellow feathered fan to her guests that they should also be seated on the various upholstered chairs. Beside her was an urn filled with the long stemmed gladiolas and lilies that the cats had carried in, the last being gingerly but elegantly positioned among the rest by a shining mahogany Burmese. As the guests sat down, they marveled at it.

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Rusty MacClaren proposed a toast, and they all stood up again.

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“To Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford…welcome back to the world,” he cried raising his third glass of whisky.

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“Cheers!”

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Mr. Symmonds’s voice whispered above the laughter, “You look very lovely, Lady Mary. I hope we shall all see more of you now.”

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“Agreed!” cried several of the gentlemen, lifting their glasses high.

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Dark Robbie bowed and reached for her hand. She held it out to him. He nuzzled it with his wolf’s snout. “Lovely to have you back, my Lady.”

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Lady Mary’s grey eyes flashed. “Thank you, Robbie,” she whispered.

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Then, glancing over her assembled guests, she announced, “I want to thank you all for coming to my little soire in honor of Lord Crawford, my father, who passed beyond the veil just two and half years ago. I am sure he would be made very happy if he could see how many of you have come to pay your respects as well as to welcome me back into Society again. Father was a retiring character, but as you all know, his good works were many, his generous giving has mede a difference to many lives. Now, shall we all repair to the dining room? Cook has prepared a wonderful feast. It is my gift to you. Come my loves…” she said to her pets who were gathered around her skirts like orphaned children.
A deer suddenly bounded up to the tall windows and looked in, its ears pricked up, as if, being late, it feared missing out.

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Oh, come now, Violet,” Lady Mary said opening the casement to allow the deer inside.  “You know I haven’t forgotten you. Everyone, follow me.”

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She led her guests down a corridor, and through a series of magnificent though dusty rooms, towards the back of the house. They were accompanied by nine cats, two dogs, five hares, a goat, with a monkey in its back, a deer, three peacocks, and a colorful cacophony of budgies.

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End of Part I

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