By J.L. Vampa
The wheels of Madeleine Thornton’s carriage crunched on gravel as it pulled to a stop outside Wychwood Manor, Wiltshire, precisely three minutes shy of her predicted arrival time.
The young woman straightened her hat and opened the carriage door to the soft sunlight and smell of rose blossoms wafting from the manor gardens. She bid the jittery carriage driver adieu, still wondering at his confusion when she’d stated the address. She began making her way to the lavish front entrance until she realized she’d left her bag behind. Madeleine ran, rather unrefined, to catch the coach. Breathless, she skidded to a stop, dirt billowing behind her, and retrieved her luggage.
On her way to the door, Miss Thornton gave herself a brief moment to take in the lavish estate, before double and triple checking her pocket for the newspaper clipping she’d carefully torn out before making the journey from Bath to Wiltshire. Unsure of quite how loudly one should knock upon the door of a great manor, Madeleine tested the weight of the brass knocker—quite resembling a ghastly gargoyle—and settled on giving it a rather generous rap.
No sooner had she smoothed her skirts and tucked stray wisps of hair back into place, did a gloomy man open the door.
“What do you want?” He hardly had room between his brows for how tightly he scowled.
Madeleine certainly expected a more sincere greeting from the butler of a stately manor, but gave it no more thought.
“Good morrow, kind sir. I do wish to speak to the master of your estate, Mr. Collin Beckett.”
“On what business?” he growled.
“I come in response to the advert.”
“Advert? What advert?”
Madeleine fished in her pocket. “The one in The Herald,” she handed over the scrap of paper. “Master of Wychwood Manor seeks housekeeper,” she recited as the man looked over the advert with disdain.
He hmmph’d and handed her back the paper, stepping aside to let Miss Thornton into the dimly lit space. He closed the door behind her, leaving her luggage on the stoop.
“Oh, are you not going to fetch my luggage, sir?”
The man looked at her, rather bored, and shouted, “Holmes!” startling the young lady near to fainting.
A graying, yet sturdily built man bustled around the corner, halting when he saw Madeleine. His eyes widened ever so slightly, and his mouth twitched into a nervous grimace. “Now why have you gone and opened the door for guests, hm? You have a man to do that very thing for you, Master Beckett.”
Madeleine let out a tiny gasp.
“Tamp down, Holmes. I’m quite capable of opening my own door.” The master of Wychwood Manor stalked off without farewells.
Holmes cleared his throat. “What a pleasure it is to have you at Wychwood Manor, m’lady. The name is Holmes, as you’ve gathered, I’m sure. Pay Master Beckett no mind. If you’re already acquainted with him, you know his temperament. If not, you soon shall learn.” He smoothed his uniform. “Now then, do tell me your name and what brings you to Wychwood.”
The young lady dipped a delicate curtsy. “Madeleine Thornton, Mister Holmes. I’ve come in response to the advert in the paper.” When Holmes’ cocked his head to the side, Madeleine continued, curious why no one seemed to know about the advertisement for the care of their own home. “The one seeking a housekeeper for Wychwood, sir.”
“Ah, yes. That one.” His gaze did not meet her eyes. “Right. Well, I daresay since you’ve not been thrown out of doors by Master Beckett, you’ve got the position. Shall I retrieve your bags?”
Miss Thornton smiled, feeling much more at ease. “I’ve only the one,” she pointed to the door, “Master Beckett left it on the porch.”
“I’d prefer to beg you now to excuse all his future behavior, than continually ask it, as I would otherwise tirelessly be doing.” Holmes retrieved her bag and led the way down a hallway, a rather dark and ominous one for mid-morning. “Come along, I’ll show you to your room.”
The butler fiddled with his many keys before locating the correct one and depositing Madeleine and her bag within the room.
“I’ll send Miss Lewis in to show you around and retrieve anything you might need. Feel free to roam about today. I will inform Mrs. Reed, our cook, of your arrival and we shall meet together over breakfast tomorrow to discuss your duties here. Supper will be served at 5 o’clock sharp. Don’t be late. Master Beckett is revolted by tardiness.” Holmes made to shut the door.
“Thank you. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Holmes. I think I should be very happy here.”
Holmes looked the girl over, a shred of pity glazing his features. “The pleasure is all mine, Miss Thornton.”
Alone in her rooms, Madeleine marveled at the midnight garden scene papering the walls and tucked her belongings into the armoire, its wood etched with black roses.
Holmes rounded the corner of the kitchen to low, furious words.
“You throw her out then, Collin. I won’t do it.”
“It’s Master Beckett, Marla. Address me properly, for heaven’s sake, and you’re the one who’s gone and placed an advertisement in the paper without my consent!” Beckett was trembling with rage, pointing an accusing finger at his cook, “We’ve done perfectly well without a housekeeper all this time.”
Marla Reed pushed her master’s hand out of her face, “I was there the moment you were born, I nursed you as my own, and I won’t be calling you master until you act like a proper one.” Mrs. Reed flung a hand toward the way Holmes had come in. “That girl is our only chance and you know it.” She shoved a cup of tea into Beckett’s chest, nearly sloshing it all over his coat. “Take her the tea.” It was most assuredly not a suggestion.
Beckett looked at Holmes, pleading, but the butler clasped his hands behind his back and shook his head. “I’d do as Mrs. Reed says, Master Beckett. Miss Thornton is in the rose room.”
“An insufferable, worthless lot you all are,” Beckett muttered, stomping toward the staircase.
When Madeleine failed to answer his knocks—to his great relief—Beckett decided the best way to avoid his new housekeeper and the rest of his staff, was to hide himself away in the library. Upon entry, though, he found the young woman gazing in awe at his collection of books.
He meant to leave before she noticed his arrival, but he let out an involuntary growl. Then a voluntary one at his own insolence.
“Oh,” her lovely voice tinkled, “Master Beckett. I’m not certain I properly introduced myself.” She glided over to stand before him. “I am Madeleine Thornton, your new housekeeper of Wychwood Manor, it appears.”
Beckett scowled. “What are you doing in here, then?”
“Mr. Holmes advised that I to get to know the property today. Miss Lewis showed me the library before rushing off to somewhere she was needed. I have to admit that I find this a magnificent place to be abandoned while I await her return.” She looked about the vast room, shelves lined with countless books and a roaring fire in the hearth. The naked windows let in the daylight, revealing a grand view of the Wychwood Gardens.
Beckett grunted, “Don’t touch anything,” and turned to leave.
“But how shall I read the books if I’m not to touch them?”
Beckett turned back, the essence of thunderous clouds shrouding him. “You’re here to manage my staff, not read, Miss Thornton,” he ground out through gritted teeth.
Her honey eyes narrowed on him for an instant before she dropped into a curtsy. “Of course, Master Beckett. Apologies.”
Beckett sighed and slammed the tea he’d forgotten he was holding onto a side table, chipping the teacup. “For you.”
Just before he escaped through the library door, he turned back. “You can read the books. On your down time. Just… just be careful with them.” He left her alone with her thoughts and the incomparable scent of the written word.
Madeleine Thornton managed the day-to-day happenings and staff of Wychwood Manor with grace and ease. They all grew to care for her swiftly and without restraint. The days passed uneventfully for some time, Beckett’s presence rare indeed, until one evening Madeleine heard a hushed exchange outside her door and peered through a crack at the scene beyond.
“Mr. Holmes, it’s all for naught if he won’t leave his blasted tower,” Mrs. Reed exclaimed under her breath. “He’s removed an entire shelf of books and taken them up to his rooms himself. He’s taking all his meals in his chambers and hasn’t spoken to the girl since her arrival.”
“Give it time, Mrs. Reed.”
“We’ve not time to give! It’s almost here…”
Heavy footsteps sounded in the hall, coming from the library.
Holmes held up his candlestick, illuminating the space.
“Good gracious, Collin. You’ve nearly given us a fright, lurking about in the dark like that!” Mrs. Reed chastised him.
“You are the ones lurking in hallways after hours. I’ve retrieved the book of my choosing, now if you’ll excuse me…”
“Ask her for a walk tomorrow, Collin. A walk in the gardens. Fresh air will do you some good and…”
Beckett went rigid. “I have no interest in fresh air, Marla! Or,” he glanced at Miss Thornton’s closed door, nearly catching Madeleine spying, and lowered his voice, “or her.”
He stalked away in the dark, up to his tower.
The following morning, Mr. Beckett paced, wearing down the wood floor in front of his balcony window overlooking the foggy gardens. He stomped over to the secret compartment of his desk, pulled out a locket, and sat down in his armchair, dispirited. He unfastened the locket to peer at the dried primrose petals within. Beckett steeled himself and shifted his gaze to the other side of the locket—to the thumbnail drawing of his mother. He swallowed the lump in his throat, placed the locket back in its hiding place, and went to find Miss Thornton.
Madeleine had been up since well before dawn. A stable boy had fallen ill and she and Mrs. Reed had taken turns caring for the boy as well as picking up where his duties left off. Though she had little knowledge of the wealthy, it occurred to Madeleine that Master Beckett had a rather short staff for such a large estate. She mentioned as much to Mrs. Reed once and received only a half answer.
“Collin isn’t all too fond of people,” she’d said.
“You speak of him as a friend, Mrs. Reed.” Not entirely an observation, but a question.
“Oh, dear Miss Thornton, I raised Master Beckett when his mother fell ill. He was just a young pup, wild and free. The light of his mother’s eye, God rest her soul. Such a tenderhearted boy, Collin was, but the worse his mother’s ailment became, the worse his temperament for it. Her death sealed the casket of his good humor, I’m afraid.”
Madeleine was covered in ash from cleaning out the kitchen hearth while Mrs. Reed tended to the stable boy, and was attempting to light the fire when the master of Wychwood found her.
Mr. Beckett cleared his throat, startling Madeleine, and she knocked her head against the cast iron pot above her tiny flame.
“Heavens, Master Beckett!” She gathered her skirts and stood. “You’ve the most silent gait imaginable for such a towering man. Always giving people a fright.” If she wasn’t mistaken, Madeleine could have sworn she saw a twinkling in the master’s eye. “Do you find your devious ways amusing, Master Beckett?
Indeed, the master of Wychwood Manor gave a wry smirk—the first semblance of a smile she’d seen him issue. “Let me have a look at your head, Miss Thornton. A goose egg is already forming.”
Madeleine approached cautiously.
“Heavens, Miss Thornton, I won’t bite.”
“Pardon me for thinking that is only half true, Master Beckett.”
Beckett let out a sharp laugh, “Ah, she has a sense of humor!” He beckoned her forward, the entire encounter continually surprising her.
Madeleine smiled and inched forward. Mr. Beckett touched gentle fingers to her forehead, where the injury had occurred. She almost recoiled.
“Your fingers are like ice, sir! Are you ill? You really must warm them up by the fire!” she implored.
Beckett drew his hand back and shoved it in his pocket. “It’s a bit drafty in this old house, that’s all.”
Madeleine turned and stoked the growing flames, eager to do anything but look at her employer. “What are you doing down here in the dungeons, Master Beckett?”
Beckett smiled again, but she didn’t see it. “The dungeons, hm? Is it really so ghastly being employed here that you all refer to the kitchen as a dungeon?”
“It’s only a dungeon because I know not what I’m doing in a kitchen and it’s so dark and stuffy all the time. It’s a wonder we don’t all lose our sanity.” She set her fire poker down and turned to face him.
“Take a walk with me.” He looked at her, truly, in her eyes for the first time and held her gaze until she fidgeted.
“Now? Sir, I have much to do… the stable boy is ill and…”
“I’m almost certain I can gain the approval of your employer, Miss Thornton.”
It was Madeleine’s turn to give a wicked grin. “I’m almost certain approval around here is issued by Mrs. Reed, sir, not you.”
Beckett tipped his head back and laughed heartily, to Madeleine’s great delight. “I’m more than certain you’re right about that. Come,” he held out his arm for her to take, “they’ll hardly know you’re gone for one half hour. I’d like to show you the primrose garden.”
And thus their friendship began. It became the tradition of Mr. Collin Beckett and Miss Madeleine Thornton to walk arm in arm through the gardens in the golden hour of dawn and chatter about books in the twilight hour of evening, all summer long. As the weeks passed, the staff at Wychwood Manor grew a fragile hope, daring to dream that their Master’s gentle kindness and joy of life would return.
When the balmy air of summer drifted off in the northern winds and leaves began to turn shades of cinnamon and wine, the spirit of Wychwood Manor changed with the season.
“Mr. Holmes,” Mrs. Reed whispered anxiously, “he’s yet to give her the locket. All Hallow’s Eve is drawing near.”
“Master Beckett is changing, Mrs. Reed, and he will give Miss Thornton the locket, of this I’m certain. Now, drink your cider and simmer down. We’ve nothing to worry about.”
But the approaching Eve brought anxiousness to Beckett and his ill temper began to return.
The sun had barely risen, its warm glow hardly combating the cold of the garden as Beckett and Madeleine walked among the dahlias and primrose toward the foggy pumpkin patch. Mr. Beckett hadn’t taken her arm in his for a few days, but he’d offered his coat this morning. Conversation had been short as of late, just a comfortable silence, really, until today. Miss Thornton did not wish to press Mr. Beckett, but she greatly missed conversing with him, and uttered the only thing she could think of before she considered its invasiveness.
“Might I ask you a question, Mr. Beckett?”
The lines of his jaw were set again, and the line between his brows had returned. “I suppose.”
“Neither you nor Holmes seemed to know anything about the advertisement in the paper for my position last spring. Why is that?”
Beckett’s step faltered, but he covered it. “You know as well as I that Mrs. Reed does what she wishes.”
“Quite true. Though, I also heard a disagreement between you and Mrs. Reed in the hall outside my rooms when I first arrived.” Mr. Beckett stopped. “I couldn’t make out all the words exactly, but you sounded quite ill at ease with my being here…”
Mr. Beckett whirled on her. “How dare you eavesdrop on me in my own home!” he shouted. She didn’t flinch, or look away from him, but stood taller and looked him square in his chestnut eyes—only making him more furious that she didn’t fear him. “You are employed here. I am your employer. This is all none of your concern!”
Madeleine squared her shoulders and willed back her hot, angry tears. “You’ve no reason to be so harsh with me, Mr. Beckett.”
His voice was low and vicious. “What do you know of me and what reasons I have?”
A tear escaped Madeleine’s will. “You’re absolutely right, Master Beckett.” The soft tone of her voice shattered his heart. “You befriended me weeks ago. You’ve spent hours upon hours in communion with me and I had begun to think I did know you, Collin Beckett, but you are right. It appears I do not know who you are at all.”
“You want to know who I am, Miss Thornton? I am a beast,” he roared, “a brute! A monster! A ghoul! Are you satisfied?”
Madeleine looked at him with indignant eyes and walked away.
Beckett growled when she’d gone from sight, drew the locket from his trousers, and threw it into a bush.
Madeleine sniffed and threw the last of her belongings in her carpetbag.
Mrs. Reed heard the back door slam shut and a commotion as Mr. Beckett flew in and stalked up to his tower with all the grace of a raging bull.
“What the devil has happened?” Mrs. Reed called after him, receiving no answer.
She went to follow him and caught sight of Madeleine out the window, halfway down the long drive, her bag in tow.
Mrs. Reed threw down the rag in her hand and raced to catch up with the young lady, her apron flapping in the autumn wind.
“Miss Thornton!” she called. “Miss Thornton, wait!”
Madeleine finally heard her and stopped with impatience.
“Goodness me, but you’re a swift girl,” Mrs. Reed huffed. “Where are you going with that bag?”
“I’m leaving,” Madeleine declared.
“Oh, Miss Thornton, you can’t mean that.”
“I do! That man is a tyrant and I won’t be treated in such a manner! I don’t need this position, you know. I could find any position better and any employer better suited!”
“Collin is a difficult man, I’ll admit as much, but he cares for you—he does. Please, you must stay.”
“You’re mistaken, Mrs. Reed. I must go.” Madeleine turned to continue on her way.
“You don’t even have a coach! What do you plan to do, walk back to Bath?”
“I’ll find my way! Now leave me be!” she cried.
“Please, Miss Thornton…Madeleine... please. You’re our only hope.” Mrs. Reed begged.
Madeleine looked her over curiously. “What do you mean, your only hope?”
Mrs. Reed wrung her hands. “Collin Beckett... he’s... well, he’s not well.”
“Not well? Whatever do you mean?”
Mrs. Reed wiped at her apron, looking near to having a fit. “It won’t make any sense. You must just trust me. Please, Madeleine, stay.”
“Pardon my saying so, Mrs. Reed, but I have no reason to simply trust you in this intrusion into my personal affairs. You must explain or I will leave this very instant.”
Mrs. Reed stamped her foot. “Oh, you foolish, obstinate girl! Mr. Beckett is under a curse.”
Madeleine balked, then laughed, humorless. “A curse? As in bewitched? By a sorceress? What madness do you speak of, woman? I am not so easily manipulated.”
“I speak the truth, girl! After Lady Beckett died, Collin was but a young man and he hired a new stewardess to help him with the manor, but he became so ill-tempered and difficult... I daresay she was mistreated. Not physically, of course not, but Collin did not return the affection she showed him. Inappropriate as it was, she cared deeply for him and he denied her in a rather unseemly way and threw her out of doors. Personally, I would have thrown her out myself had he not beat me to it. But never mind that, the woman came back. ‘To end things civilly,’ she said. But she was not what she appeared to be. Once within Wychwood’s walls again, she cast a spell and she cursed the whole lot of us.”
“He’s doomed to a terrible fate if he does not find love and give her a locket by All Hallow’s Eve, that is all that matters.”
Madeleine grew very still, weighing all that she’d been told.
“What a horrific joke you play on me, Mrs. Reed,” she told her, though she saw no sign of falsehood in the old cook.
Mrs. Reed opened her mouth, tears in her eyes...
“She tells the truth, Madeleine,” a deep voice sounded from behind them.
Madeleine looked up and took in Mr. Beckett’s eyes, hardly noticing Mrs. Reed's departure.
“She’s not told you the whole truth, though. My fate is worse than doomed. Even if I find love, I must be loved in return.” Madeleine opened her mouth, but Collin rushed on. “It doesn’t matter, in the end, for I cannot escape my fate and I cannot draw into it someone I love. I could not, would not, do that to you. For, I do love you, Madeleine. Surely you must see that. But I cannot bring this terrible doom upon you.”
Madeleine stepped toward him. “Does not love break all curses? I, too, love you, Collin Beckett. Is that not enough?”
Beckett swept Miss Thornton into his arms and kissed her tenderly, his lips icy. When he pulled back, his breath was like cool velvet on her skin. “No, my dearest Madeleine, it is not enough.”
He pulled away and tears filled her eyes. “But Mrs. Reed said...”
“Love breaks the curse, yes. But I don’t know what the broken curse means for me. Or you. It could surrender you to the same fate as I.”
Madeleine took his hands in hers. “What fate is that? At least we would be together.”
He sighed, shadowed misery weighing down upon him, and pulled away. “Madeleine, there is more. I am not alive.”
Fear sparked in her eyes and she took a step back.
“I am a ghost, my dearest...” He reached out for her hands once more, but she avoided his grasp. “Please, please don’t be frightened of me...”
But Madeleine ran. Through the estate and into the garden. She could not bring herself to leave, but she could not reconcile what he’d told her. She hid within the pumpkins and crows, willing herself to stay afraid. The entire situation was preposterous, and logic told her to continue to flee; to remain fearful and leave. But she couldn’t. Once her initial shock wore off, she couldn’t bring herself to fear Collin Beckett; to fear what may happen to them both if she stayed. She feared more what would happen to them both if she did not stay.
Deep in her contemplation, Madeleine almost missed the sun glinting off something silver in the bushes next to her.
She took it gently in her trembling hands and rose to her feet. She ran back to the manor, calling for Beckett the entire way. She found him by the edge of the lake and he turned to her cries of his name. He rose and ran toward her, catching her as she leapt into his arms.
He kissed her deeply and buried his nose in her hair. She held onto him for a long moment, then pulled back and showed him what rested in her hand. He shuddered as she placed it around her neck.
“I care not what you are, Collin Beckett. You are mine and I am yours. In this life and in all that follow. If I lose my breath and become a phantom, I care not, for I have only gained a life lived with you, however ghostly.
The lovers watched in awe as Madeleine Thornton opened the locket and the decrepit primrose petals bloomed to life.