Dr. Sir Jonas Clark Sheppy stood on the balcony of Rusbridge Hall as the sun set and reveled in being master of all he surveyed.
Well, to the river, anyway, he amended. His neighbor’s property began on the other side of the bank. Still, Rusbridge Manor was a pleasant piece of land, complete with tenant farmers working the acres surrounding the demensne. Sheppy had purchased the manor from the Rusbridge family, which had fallen on hard times due to the riotous style of living its last heir had finally fallen victim to.
There was also, he recalled sourly, some question as to how much the master of the manor he really was. Not quite out of sight was the corner of a barn, almost as ancient as the hall itself. Sheppy didn’t think much of the barn and had voiced his thoughts on it to his estate manager, Pocock.
“So y’know, Sir Jonas,” Pocock said, “that barn was built by the 2nd Baron Rusbridge with his own hands and no others when he was just a lad.”
“Those stones are huge,” Sheppy noted.
“Yes, Sir Jonas, they are. The 2nd baron was a strapping young man, so they say. Even in his dotage he would have been a match for ye, no offense, Sir Jonas.”
“None taken,” Sheppy lied.
He had then had a similar conversation with the groundskeeper, Adelberry, who used the barn for his work needs. The few cows on the manor were kept in a newer barn. Both times, Sheppy gained the distinct impression that he was being told by his subordinates that he shouldn’t pull down the old barn.
That wouldn’t do. If he was to ever have the upper hand on his own manor, Sheppy knew, he would have to act soon and dramatically. So he had called an architect out to the manor and discussed in the open air, where all and sundry could hear, the plan of destroying the barn and putting a summerhouse in its place. The architect was to be back in two weeks with a design.
There had been no open grumbling, but Sheppy had noted some marked looks from both the outdoors and indoors staff. Well, that was fine. He didn’t need to be loved by his servants; he needed to be obeyed.
Sheppy closed the French windows on the balcony and seated himself at his desk again to tend to the accounts. The servants had already retired for the night and Sheppy planned to follow suit in an hour or two.
Four hours later, he yawned grandly and took note of the time. He shook his head; he hadn’t stayed up so late in quite some time. He put out the extra candles in the room and took up the little candelabra on his desk to light his way to bed. He closed the study door behind him and took a step to his right, stopping nearly nose to nose with the ghost.
Sheppy knew that it was a ghost because he could see through it. He also recognized the phantom from the portrait hanging in the central hallway of the first lord of the manor, Lord Aberle Rusbridge, 1st Baron Rusbridge. The portrait made the baron appear haughty and overbearing; his apparition looked six kinds of angry and not a little dyspeptic. The ghost opened its mouth and screamed, a one-note opus of indignity.
The doctor would like to have screamed in return, but his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth and would not be budged. Sheppy had to settle for flinging open the study door and slamming it behind him again. With a shaking hand he rapidly relit every candle in the room and dropped into the chair at his desk, staring wildly at the door. He did not adopt a more relaxed posture until sunrise.
Once he heard a general stirring in the hall, he ventured forth, his knotted muscles protesting his every move. He walked slowly, carefully, down the great staircase and to the dining room where it had become his happy habit to take his breakfast. His valet met him there.
“Good morning, Sir Jonas. Was I late this morning? I did not find you in your bedchamber,” Hawley said.
Sheppy gave Hawley a withering look and quietly growled, “Assemble the staff.” Then he sat in his rightful place at the head of the table and waited.
Hawley, being a good judge of character, rounded up the servants as quickly as possible. They stood in line in their order of importance and waited.
Sheppy glared at them briefly from his chair and then pushed back the great piece of lumber and stood. He spoke quietly to them.
“I have been lord of this manor for something over a month now. In that time, I believe we have gotten on pretty well. I kept you all on when I purchased the manor and you have repaid me with good service.” He paused. “With one small exception, about which I am extremely curious: was not a single one of you going to mention to me the ghost?” His voice rose in volume to end in a hoarse shout.
The staff members shrank back as one, except Hawley, who was perhaps made of sterner stuff.
“You saw Lord Rusbridge, Sir Jonas?” Hawley asked politely.
“Yes! Yes, I bloody well saw Lord Rusbridge! And what is much more to the point, Lord Rusbridge saw me and did not care at all for the view!”
“Dear, dear,” Hawley said, shaking his head in commiseration.
“So I ask again: was not one of you going to let slip that Rusbridge Hall is haunted by the first baron of that name?”
There was a quiet shuffling of feet and some pointed looks toward Hawley, including one from the butler, Sammons, who was Hawley’s superior on the household staff.
“Sir Jonas,” Hawley began, “I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive us. We thought-” A cleared throat from somewhere in the line of servants interrupted him. “Very well, then,” he continued, “largely it was I who thought that as you are a well-known man of science, knighted by Her Majesty for the advances you have contributed to human knowledge, you would think a warning about a ghost would suggest to your enlightened mind that you had fallen in amongst the most superstitious and foolish folk in all the land. Therefore, I persuaded the others to keep from you the awareness of the old baron’s occasional jaunts through the hall. I hope I have not greatly done wrong, sir.”
Sheppy looked up and down the line and saw a few quick nods of heads. “Your motive, then, was not to be unkind; I see that now. Very well, you are all dismissed, except for you, Hawley.”
The staff bowed or curtseyed and quickly made tracks. Hawley remained at attention until Sheppy sat down again, at which time he helped to move the chair to the table.
“So, Hawley, now that we have established in common that although I am a man of science I do admit the existence of ghosts and have viewed one closely, tell me about the old baron. Why does he haunt? What are his habits?”
“His Lordship’s movements seem largely confined to the upper story hallway where, I presume, you saw him, Sir Jonas.”
“Yes, just outside my study.”
“Although he has been, on occasion, seen in the great bedchamber.”
“My bedchamber?” the knight shrieked.
“Yes, Sir Jonas.”
“Do you mean to tell me that as I have slept unawares a ghost may have been observing me?”
“It is possible, although he does not often enter the great bedchamber. Only once, perhaps twice, since your arrival, I should surmise, Sir Jonas.”
“If you meant that to mollify me, Hawley, you have missed the mark,” Sheppy said testily. “So get on with it. Why does he haunt his old home? He’s been dead and – well, not gone, obviously – for two hundred years or better.”
“Yes, Sir Jonas, just at two centuries. It has been believed by the Rusbridge family themselves, as well as by my predecessors and others who have been employed here, that Lord Rusbridge has never given up watching over his manor. He took great pride in it and has never been able to let go. He has appeared more frequently at times of disruption at the manor. During the last Baron Rusbridge’s final months, the 1st Baron Rusbridge was seen nightly.”
“And now that his family no longer owns the manor, he may perhaps be said to be particularly piqued,” Sheppy finished.
“Exactly so, Sir Jonas,” Hawley agreed with a little bow.
Sammons reappeared and set Sheppy’s breakfast before him. Hawley, having not been dismissed, remained in place quietly. As Sheppy lowered his head in silent prayer, Sammons flicked a questioning eyebrow at Hawley; Hawley arched his own eyebrows in a shrug, and there the conversation ended. When Sheppy finished thanking God for his meal, he dismissed Sammons and assaulted his egg.
“So what does Rusbridge do when he’s on one of his little patrols?”
“Being a ghost and immaterial, his options are rather limited, Sir Jonas,” Hawley replied. “Mainly he stares at people, which seems to be quite enough. There are, however, reports, especially in recent years, of His Lordship screaming at whomever he meets.”
“I will vouch for those reports,” Sheppy remarked through a mouthful of toast.
Hawley shifted slightly in place. “I am very sorry to hear it, Sir Jonas.”
“Not half so sorry as I was. Go on.”
“The family histories say that Lord Rusbridge was a great screamer in life. Whether he is merely continuing that habit or cannot use words is unknown. Some have said he spoke to them, but this is unconfirmed.”
“It may well be that I shall have the opportunity to learn,” Sheppy said. “I can only surmise that I shall see the baron again.”
“I fear this could, indeed, be the case, Sir Jonas,” Hawley agreed.
Sheppy set his fork down and sighed. “Then I must prepare myself.”
After breakfast, Sir Jonas caught a couple of hours of sleep on a couch in the library, being unwilling to risk napping in his own bed.
He strolled around the grounds before his luncheon, thinking hard. Not only did he have to show his servants, in the matter of the barn, who the new and rightful lord of the manor was, but he also had to show the first lord of the manor. That lord was actually a titled lord and not merely a knight, and though Rusbridge may have been dead for two centuries, Sheppy nonetheless felt it his place to show due deference.
Sheppy continued to marvel that no one had mentioned the ghost. From the moment he set out to purchase Rusbridge Manor, everyone he had spoken to was cheerfully forthcoming about the various cruelties, some fatal and some not, committed over the decades by various Rusbridges. They had spoken in low voices of the young woman who only eight years earlier had been staying at the manor for the summer; one evening she was there, and the next morning she was not. The constabulary had never solved the case.
But not a word about the ghost of the 1st Baron Rusbridge. Sheppy resolved to have some sharp words with a few people in London who could and should have been able to warn him. Although, he admitted, perhaps they, like the servants, thought he would dismiss a ghost story.
Never mind that, he thought. What am I going to do tonight when the baron is strolling through my hallway or standing in my bedchamber?
A single idea came to mind. It was not one Sir Jonas was fond of, but it was the only means by which he knew to proceed.
After his evening meal, Sheppy stretched out again on the library couch for another nap. He expected to be up very late into the night.
At 10 o’clock, with the servants in bed, Sir Jonas climbed the great staircase and went into his study. Sammons had already lit the candles. Sheppy sat at his desk and tried to read some papers, although he succeeded mostly in reading a few paragraphs a dozen times. Occasionally, he checked and rechecked a small implement he had set up on a table.
At long last, the small clock in his study reached midnight. Sheppy stood up and gathered around him all his dignity as an honored scientist and the owner of Rusbridge Manor. He strode manfully to the door and opened it. Not permitting himself to hesitate, he stepped into the hallway and looked to his right.
“Your Lordship,” he said, bowing slightly to the ghost. “Won’t you join me in the study?” And he motioned for the baron to precede him.
The ghost’s mouth had opened, as if to scream. The impeccable manners of the knight threw him off balance, however, and he pursed his lips, curious. Without the courtesy of a nod, he preceded Sheppy into the study.
“We have not been formally introduced, Your Lordship. I am Dr. Sir Jonas Clark Sheppy. I am a medical doctor and a researcher and inventor in the physical sciences, knighted by Her Majesty, Queen Victoria … and the owner of Rusbridge Manor.”
“This is my manor,” the ghost asserted.
“You built it, Your Lordship,” Sheppy agreed, “but you have surely had little need of it for lo these past two hundred years. These edifices and the land that maintains them belong to the living.”
“What do you know of what the dead need or do not need?” Rusbridge asked snidely. “Have you ever been dead?”
“No, Your Lordship. But the preponderance of evidence would strongly indicate that the dead have need only of a burial plot. Thus, after – I must say it, Your Lordship – after the disgraceful dissolution of your family’s fortune and honor by the last Baron Rusbridge, the manor was put up for sale. I purchased it and it is mine by right. It is my hand and my will that rule here now, not yours.”
“And if I still walk this manor’s grounds and hallways and enter the great bedchamber that was mine before it was anyone else’s, then I say that I still have influence here.”
“What influence do you wish, Your Lordship?” Sheppy began to pace. “What about this manor, beautiful as it is, could continue to hold your interest? Is not the afterlife your proper place now? Are not its pleasures -” he paused, thinking of the history of the man who was now a ghost before him – “or its terrors sufficient to hold your attention?”
“The afterlife, as you call it, is a dull place for a man such as me,” the baron growled. “The battles are not the same. There is nothing to build and cherish as there is in mortal life.” He lifted his hands to encompass the world. “This is where I am meant to be. And no piece of paper with your name on it will keep me from my home.”
“But what can you do, Your Lordship? You walk the hallways. You appear in the bedchamber. You scream. You may chat. But what earthly purpose can you still serve? What would you do in my place, Your Lordship, if the shade of a man appeared to you and asserted title and authority over your lands?”
“It is very different,” the ghost replied. “I was a peer of the realm, and my family were noble even before that. You are made a knight for your tinkering. You have never shed blood in war. You have never forced your will on your enemy. You have never raised up a son to lead men into battle after you. You have never forged a noble holding as I did here. You bought it as you would buy a hat from a shopkeeper. Do not dare to compare us.”
“Tinkering,” Sheppy repeated. He took his candelabra and lit a few more candles that Sammons had not. Then he took a box of candles from the desk and set them in holders and lit them.
“What are you doing there?” the baron demanded. “There is light enough to see. Do you fear the dark so?”
“Indeed not, Your Lordship. But I observed – it is what I do, you must understand – that you have kept your distance from the candles that were already lit. I also observe that you have historically appeared only at night. I have never heard of a ghost making an appearance during the daylight hours. Or, at best, in a darkened room during the daytime.”
“What of it?” the specter asked. “You are a fool if you believe I fear your little candles.”
Sheppy studied the ghost as though he were something under a magnifying lens. “No, not afraid. History does not record that you were fearful of anything.”
“As it should not.”
“But in life, you were vulnerable to the sword and lance whether you feared them or not. I hypothesize that you are vulnerable to great quantities of light, whether you fear them or not.” The doctor walked to the far side of the table and pointed to his little device. “This, Your Lordship, is a magnesium lamp. There is a small ribbon of magnesium here which, when ignited, shall produce a significant glare. Observe.”
Sheppy carefully lit the magnesium, taking great care not to burn himself in the process. It caught quickly and its brilliant light thoroughly overpowered all the candles. Sheppy covered his eyes against the blinding light.
The magnesium burned itself out and Sheppy noted with dispassionate pleasure that the ghost had disappeared. It momentarily reappeared in the dark hallway, just beyond the study door. Rusbridge had looked angry the first time Sheppy encountered him, but now he was quaking with rage.
“How dare you? I am Baron Rusbridge, founder and lord of this manor…”
“Founder, yes,” Sheppy interrupted firmly. “Lord no longer. That honor, however I came by it, now belongs to me. The dead have no legal status under the law and I am the master of Rusbridge Manor. I can refine such lamps as this to burn all night in the hallway and in the great bedchamber. A simple mask over my eyes will permit me to sleep. And it will put an end to your nocturnal wanderings about my home.”
Rusbridge stared hatefully at Sheppy, but he dipped his head slightly in acknowledgment of his defeat. “What would you have me do?” the ghost asked.
“I would have you quit Rusbridge Manor and depart to wherever it is you were supposed to go after your mortal death. This hall is a place for the living, and only the living are welcome here.”
The ghost stared at the floor for a moment, then looked at Sheppy with a trace of respect. “Perhaps I was wrong, Sir Knight. Perhaps you do know something of battle, something of imposing your will on your enemy. And perhaps, on your battlefield, you are a great champion.”
“Your Lordship is most kind,” Sheppy replied, bowing.
“I go, then, as the master of the manor dictates. But know this first: I wanted my son’s barn to remain as it is because of my pride in him. Your butler contrived with me to frighten you into keeping it standing so that none would discover the body of the missing girl. When she refused his advances, he killed her and buried her under one of the stalls. Your valet knows this and worked this scheme with him.”
Sheppy’s eyes had grown huge. A ghost he could contend with, but a killer under his roof was another matter.
The ghost turned to leave.
“Your Lordship,” Sheppy called out. Rusbridge stopped and looked back. “As a measure of my respect for you and my gratitude, the barn your son built will remain intact all my days.”
Rusbridge bowed his head in thanks, and then disappeared into the darkness.
Sheppy extinguished a few candles and sat at his desk again. He had to figure out how, in the morning, he would tell the local constable about the body buried in the barn without making reference to Baron Rusbridge. Surely the secondhand testimony of a ghost would be inadmissible in court.