Hailey was finally going to have the confrontation with Aunt Alicia that she dreaded. Alicia beckoned Hailey to follow her down a dark corridor to the small turret sitting room where her mother used to knit.
They sat in stiff wingback leather chairs facing each other.
“This is quite a large house, Child—it was far too big for your mother and required much upkeep in the past few years. Are you prepared to take it on?”
The thought hadn’t occurred to Hailey.
“Oh for goodness sake, just don’t sit gawking like a deer in headlights. Don’t tell me the thought never crossed your mind.”
“It never did,” she managed to sputter.
“See that picture on the wall of Castle Blairquhan?”
Hailey nodded mutely
“That was a McAdam estate. We have always owned great properties. Your mother left a will and no doubt will bequeath this manse to you. What I want to know is what you intend to do with it.”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
“Tsk, tsk,” her aunt shook her head, causing a ripple effect in the loose folds of her jowls. “Do you know that I lay awake nights ruing this day? You’re a mere ingénue, kept as an outsider from the family struggles by your mother. I always figured she’d die before me and leave me to clean up the mess.”
“I don’t know what mess you’re talking about, auntie.”
“Of course you don’t—it’s to be expected I suppose—your mother gallivanting down to Sarasota each year, leaving me with the oversight of things. I’ve always been the responsible one, which qualifies me I guess for the role of glorified stable hand—leave it all to Alicia—Hrmp! Why do I always end up saddled with the garbage detail?”
“Auntie, I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about this,” Alicia fumed, stabbing a pudgy finger at the spine of a huge tome on a nearby shelf. Hailey saw she was pointing to the McAdam crest.
“Do you see this motto? ‘Steady.’ Now to whom do you think this term applies? —Certainly not to your mother and definitely not to you. It can only apply to one person. –Me.”
“No one’s disputing that you’re the matriarch of the family, auntie, especially now that Mother is gone.”
“Really? Then why do you insist on crossing me when I am only trying to preserve that heritage?”
She looked warily around the room and then beckoned Hailey to draw her chair closer. Hailey did so and leaned in toward her aunt’s heavily lined face.
“The walls have ears,” Alicia hissed. “Now, listen carefully Child—I’m going to confide something to you that I must insist you keep to yourself. I don’t want outsiders exploiting this information or creating a scandal.”
Hailey nodded earnestly.
“The McAdam’s are not the tight knit family that outsiders see. The Ripley side was disloyal to the Crown—they’re nothing but a seditious, rabble-rousing gang of ruffians—ought to be hung, the lot of them—the tartars!”
Alicia’s face was contorted with rage. “The McAdam’s have always been loyal to the Crown—one of your ancestors saved James the First from being gored by a stag—shot it with an arrow. We have always supported the monarchy and the Ripley’s have a fine record of being insubordinate oafs.”
“But what does this have to do with Mother or me?”
“Your mother had proof of the Ripley involvement in the Gunpowder plot and their less than glorious history of treachery. She guarded those documents closely and used them to keep the Ripleys in check. Did you know they felt entitled to an equal share in the family fortune, including this house? Preposterous! Our fortunes were the direct result of fidelity to King and Country—the Ripleys had no share in that—quite the contrary. There was talk of a lawsuit and a bogus claim to half the estate.”
A glimmer of understanding began to dawn on Hailey. “So, that’s why you wanted access to Mother’s records.”
“Precisely,” Alicia beamed, looking quite pleased.
Hailey frowned and bit her lip. “But I still don’t understand auntie—why not wait until the reading of the will? Surely Mother will indicate her wishes about the documents and will probably ensure that they fall into the right hands.”
“Unless your mother was suborned.” Alicia’s dark eyes were intense.
“Suborned? Are you saying that someone tricked Mother or influenced her to betray the family?”
Alicia tilted her head to the side and gave a knowing look. “These are deep waters, Child. You have no idea the kind of people you’re dealing with.”
“Why didn’t Mother tell me about this?”
“Perhaps she was trying to protect you.”
Hailey grew exasperated. “Protect me from what? If the Ripley’s have no real claim, then what’s the problem and why the haste to resolve this before hearing the will?”
Alicia merely shook her head and remained silent.
“Why do I feel completely in the dark about this auntie, as if I’m a stranger in my own family?”
“I cannot guess at your mother’s motives, Hailey. I’m merely trying to spare you the unpleasantness of what you may discover if skeletons in the family closet are revealed.”
Hailey stood and began to pace the floor. “Well, I say throw open the musty rooms and let in some fresh air. I don’t give a damn about blotches on the family escutcheon. I’m tired of being an outsider in my own family.”
“Knowledge does not always mean power,” Alicia rasped.
“Perhaps not,” Hailey conceded, “but ignorance of the truth also does not protect me—on the contrary, it makes me feel vulnerable and estranged from my own roots. I have a right to know despite how unpleasant the consequences may be.”
Alicia glowered at Hailey.
“You may regret opening a veritable Pandora’s box that should remain closed.”
“I’ll take that chance, auntie. I doubt that it can add many more nightmares to my already troubled mind—who knows? —It may even lay to rest a few ghosts.”
The old woman got up stiffly from her chair. “Perhaps you may learn more than you care to know, Child. You are fragile and your track record suggests you can’t bear much reality. Time will tell if your decision was wise or merely headstrong and impertinent. I hope for your sake that it’s the former and not the latter.”
She shuffled out of the room leaving Hailey feeling apprehensive. A peal of thunder rolled overhead and black raindrops began to splatter the windows.
There’s a ghost in the house.
The thought came unbidden to Hailey and caused her to shiver.
The leaded windows turned blue as lightning lit up the dripping garden outside. She glanced furtively about the room that had grown suddenly dark and sinister.
Even the rubber plants seemed part of a conspiracy marshalled against her. She hurried out and back down the darkened corridor toward the reception area.
© 2017, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.