Charlotte the Poet
The drawing room was filled with light and people talking. Billy, Baudin, and Gordon had drifted in after the fortune telling was over, drawn by the smell of hot chocolate, which Mrs. Nicholson had made as well as tea. Mrs. Nicholson’s hot chocolate and the bright cheeriness of the drawing room did a lot to raise Amanda’s spirits, but she was still puzzled about the “spirit” that she and Francine had seen during the fortune telling. She’d been expecting something to happen, but her chief suspect had been right there, at the table with them. She couldn’t have been over in the corner. It was true that she hadn’t seen the person clearly, but she was sure that there had been someone there, and Francine had seen it, too.
Francine was curled up on the sofa next to Worth, clutching her mug of hot chocolate. Worth had his arm around her and was speaking softly to her. Francine was staring at Charlotte’s portrait again.
Amanda had to admit that it was a captivating portrait. From the first time she’d seen it, she’d been fascinated by the eyes. They were beautiful, but there were hidden depths, too. Cynthia’s eyes were like that, and the same color.
Then, Amanda noticed something else about the portrait, something that hadn’t occurred to her before. It was so obvious, she wondered why she hadn’t seen it earlier, and it confirmed what she’d started to suspect about Cynthia and Charlotte.
Amanda looked at Francine. She was still looking at the painting like she’d seen a ghost. And that was the problem.
“Just remember that I’m on the third floor, the Sparrow Room,” Worth saying to Francine. “If anything frightens you during the night, you can always come to me.”
The offer sounded very familiar to Amanda, and while Worth was probably trying to be chivalrous, she needed to talk to Francine immediately.
“Don’t worry about it,” Francine was telling Worth. “One of my colleagues is in the room next to mine, the Rose Room at the end of the hallway on the second floor. That’s really the haunted room-”
“Francine?” Amanda said, coming up behind them. “Oh, sorry.” She wasn’t sure which of them was startled enough to shake the mug in Francine’s hands and splash chocolate on her.
“Here.” Worth pulled out his handkerchief.
He started to dab at Francine with it, but Francine took the handkerchief from him to finish the job herself. Worth gave her a sheepish look, and Amanda wondered briefly whether the spilled chocolate was really accidental.
“I’m really sorry to interrupt,” Amanda said. “I just need to talk to Francine for a moment.”
“Oh,” Worth said. “Alright. I’m going to go upstairs. You can keep the handkerchief for now. I’ll get it back from you later. Goodnight, Francine.”
Francine glared at Amanda and pointed to the stain on her blouse. “Was that necessary?”
“Sorry, Francine, but I need to talk to you.”
“About what we saw in the library tonight.”
Francine’s expression softened. “What did you see?”
“I saw a shadowy form in the corner of the library.”
“That’s what I saw, too,” Francine admitted. “Amanda, when were you born?”
“When is your birthday?”
“October 29th, just two days ago.”
Lee had given her a beautiful gold bracelet. She couldn’t wear it in front of her mother or the boys without them asking questions, but it was a beautiful present.
“So, you’re a Scorpio, too,” Francine said thoughtfully. “My birthday is today.”
Amanda was surprised. “I didn’t know that. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who was born on Halloween before. Happy birthday!”
“Thank you,” Francine said dryly. “I think it explains something, though.”
Glancing around to make sure that no one else was listening, Francine lowered her voice and said, “How we can both see ghosts.”
Amanda also checked to make sure that no one else was listening. The men were all listening to Mrs. Nicholson, who insisted on regaling them with an account of the most successful fortune telling that she had ever had. They listened with polite disinterest.
“There’s something that you need to know about the ghost, Francine.”
“It’s not real.”
Francine blinked. “We both saw it.”
“Listen, Amanda, I don’t like to talk about this in front of the others. I don’t want them to say that I’m being superstitious. But, I do believe that spirits are real. I have reason to believe that they are.”
Amanda was touched that Francine would admit such a thing to her. It couldn’t have been easy, and Francine wasn’t the type to confide in others much even at the best of times.
“I don’t mean that what we saw in the library wasn’t real,” Amanda clarified. “That was real. I mean that the story about Charlotte that we heard when we first came here isn’t real.”
“What do you mean?” Francine looked uneasily at Charlotte’s portrait again.
“Look at the portrait carefully, Francine. We didn’t look carefully enough the other night. What do you notice about Charlotte?”
“Those eyes are unusual. Kind of unnerving.”
“Don’t look at them. Look at the rest of her. What do you see?”
Francine looked. “She’s wearing a white dress. Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“What kind of a white dress?”
“It could be a wedding dress. She’s not wearing a veil, though. Without that, it’s difficult to tell. Amanda, can you just tell me what you want to tell me?” Francine was getting impatient.
“The original story that we heard was that Charlotte lived during the Civil War, right?”
“So, does that look like a Civil War dress to you?”
Francine’s eyes widened. “No, it’s not. The skirt isn’t full enough. And she’s wearing gigot sleeves! They existed before the Civil War but didn’t come back into vogue until the late 1800s and early 1900s. Those frills on the bodice . . . I think this was painted around the turn of the century.”
Amanda should have known that Francine would be a fountain of fashion trivia.
“I can’t believe I didn’t notice before!” Francine said.
“You were probably staring at the eyes and thinking about the ghost story, just like I was that first night. And, when I talked to Mrs. Ransom earlier, she told me that Cynthia had told her that Charlotte lived during the Revolutionary War.”
“Cynthia has trouble keeping her story straight.”
“You think she made the whole thing up?”
Francine looked troubled. “Then, what did we see?”
“I don’t know. We saw something. I know that. I just don’t know what. All I know is that Charlotte isn’t what she’s supposed to be.”
“Have you read any of her poetry?” A voice behind them startled them both. This time, Francine didn’t spill anything when she turned to see who it was.
It was a pleasant-looking older man. He smiled at them.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear. I love Charlotte’s poems. You’ve read the ones in your rooms?”
“Ode to a Rose?” Amanda asked curiously.
“Ode to a Peony?” Francine asked unenthusiastically.
The old man nodded. “My favorite is Ode to a Heron.”
“I sense a theme,” Francine said.
“She was a beautiful woman who wrote beautiful poems.”
“Excuse me,” Amanda said, “but who are you?”
“Pardon me for not introducing myself. I’m Albert Whiting.”
“Oh, you work in the kitchen,” Amanda said. “That was a nice lunch today.”
“Thank you. I just finished laying the fires in your room, and I came down to see if Wendy needed anything.”
“We’re just finishing up here, I think,” Amanda said. “We’ll probably be going to bed soon.”
“I understand,” Albert said. “I’ll just see if there’s anything she’d like me to do first. Good evening, ladies.”
He started to walk away when Amanda said, “Wait a moment. Could you tell us what years Charlotte was alive?”
Albert rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Let me see . . . I think she was born during the 1870s and died around 1945. I was a young man then, but unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet her.”
“I see,” Francine said, giving Amanda a knowing look.
“Thank you very much,” Amanda said.
“No problem. Good evening, ladies.”
“Cynthia really has trouble keeping her story straight,” Francine said. Then, she frowned. “Do you think that she faked the ghost somehow?”
“The one we saw tonight?” Amanda asked. “I don’t see how. She was sitting with the rest of us when we saw it.”
“If she comes sneaking into my room tonight, trying to scare me, she’s going to regret it,” Francine fumed.
“Are you going to stay in your own room tonight?” Amanda asked.
“Yes,” Francine said. “Last night was kind of a shock, but tonight, I’ll be ready for whatever comes, real or fake. If Cynthia comes, she’ll get what she deserves. And, if she comes around to scare you, call me. I’ll be happy to take care of her for you.”
Amanda smiled. “I’ll remember that.”
Lee had come into the room and was looking around at everyone. Amanda waved to him and he came over to see the two of them. He had a glass in his hand, and they could smell the alcohol on his breath.
“Having a quiet drink somewhere?” Francine asked.
“You could say that,” Lee said. “Mind if I have a word with Amanda?”
“Be my guest. Just watch your drink, or you’ll be wearing it. I’m going up to bed.”
“What did that mean?” Lee asked Amanda.
“Ignore her. Did you learn anything interesting from Romano?”
“Possibly, but I’d like to discuss it with you in private.”
Amanda and Lee went upstairs to his room and talked about what Romano said. Amanda told Lee about the fortune telling and her theory about Cynthia making up Charlotte’s ghost story.
“What Albert told you about Charlotte seems to confirm it,” Lee said. “Why would Cynthia make up a story like that?”
“I think I know,” Amanda said. “I think it explains why she’s been trying so hard to avoid the topic and why she gets so upset whenever someone mentions it. I think she even searched my room earlier, trying to get that history book back.”
“Those notes in the dust jacket were her rough draft for the story. She was afraid we’d see it and find out the truth.”
“How do you know she searched your room?”
“She moved my toiletries case. I left it on top of my suitcase, and she moved it so that she could check inside. Remember, she wanted to take the book from me when we were talking about it in the dining room. When I didn’t give it to her, she came looking for it.”
“I don’t like the sound of this. I think we’d better have a little talk with Cynthia.”
“We can talk to her tomorrow. I think she and her fiance will want some time alone tonight.”
“Good point,” Lee said, eyeing Amanda.
Noticing his look, she said softly, “I suppose I should go to my room now.”
She had told Lee that she wanted to take things slowly and she meant it. He’d been respectful of that, but he made no secret of the fact that he’d welcome a lot more with her. It was now just past midnight by the clock on Lee’s night stand, and they were sitting alone in his room. He’d taken off his tie and undone the first buttons of his shirt to relax while they were talking, and he was looking at her with those beautiful eyes that melted her heart. If she didn’t leave soon, she might not want to leave at all.
“I’ll walk you to your room,” he said.
“It’s just down the hall,” she said teasingly.
“Don’t I know it.” His voice was deep and sent shivers down Amanda’s spine.
“I’m sure I’ll be safe.” Amanda got up from where she was sitting on the edge of his bed.
Lee got up with her and escorted her out. “Just making sure that the ghosts, witches, and goblins don’t get you.”
“It’s past midnight,” Amanda said. “It isn’t Halloween anymore.”
“I’ll still feel better making sure you’re safe.”
Lee’s presence was a welcome warmth in dim, chilly hallway. He was close beside her as she opened the door to her room . . . and stopped dead when she saw what was inside.
“What the-!” Lee said.They saw the mirror first. Blood red letters read, “GET OUT! GET OUT!”