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.

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

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“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?”

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“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?”

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“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.

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“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.”

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Oliver stood up and turned around in shock.

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“Well Robbie! Where have you been?

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“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.”

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“No… No!” said Dark Robbie.

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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.

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

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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“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 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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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

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.

<
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.

<
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.

<
“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.

<

“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.”

<
“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.”

<
“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.

<
“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.”

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

<
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.

<
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.

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

<
“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.

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

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

<
“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.”

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

<
“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?”

<
“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.

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

<
“And got a fortune out of it too…”

<
“Shhh! Here she comes.”

<
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.

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

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

<
“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.”

<
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.

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

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

<
“Cheers!”

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

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

<
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.”

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

<

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.

<
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.”

<
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.

<

End of Part I

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