Synopsis of The Nocturnal Minstrel by Eleanor Sleath
The novel opens with the Baroness, Gertrude, and her maid, Winifred, hearing music which they imagine to be that of the spirit of the Baroness Gertrude's late husband; this leads to a discussion between the pair about Gertrude's suitor, Sir Reginald. She dislikes his attention and resolves to send him from the castle.
We learn, through the narrator, that the late Baron was a Yorkist who made allegiances with Henry VII and then transgressed to support the pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck. After the Baron's death his lands were made forfeit to the Crown but the King acquiesced to allow Gertrude to retain the lands until the time of her death, due to her family's long support of the Lancastrians. Sir Reginald had begun to pursue Gertrude too soon after the Baron's death and his arrival at the castle coincided with the first hearing of the mysterious music. A reward had been offered to discover the source of the music and when, after some time, no answer was found the music was deemed 'supernatural'.
Winifred's customary great influence over Gertrude is achieving no success in persuading her to succumb to Sir Reginald's advances. The presence of the young Ethalind, an orphan whom Gertrude has taken under her wing, intensifies Winifred's concern over her waning influence and she schemes to dispossess the young girl of Gertrude's favour, until eventually she is a solitary figure who rarely ventures out of her room. A conversation between Ethalind and her comforter Edgar, the son of a vassal of the castle, in which they were criticising Winifred for her harsh treatment of Ethalind, is overheard by Winifred giving her the excuse she needs to dismiss Edgar, and worsen her treatment of Ethalind.
During this time the music in the wood continues and the fear of the inhabitants of the castle heightens to the point where no one will venture into the woods except for Motley the clown, a favourite of Gertrude. He is given a sum of money to go to the woods every night and report what he sees, if anything, to her. Gertrude's distress heightens when she receives a letter from her father informing her he will soon be arriving with another suitor, the Earl of Ormond. The recurrence of the music distresses her further and she dismisses Reginald from the castle, upon which he informs her the Baron's ghost told him he wanted Gertrude to marry Sir Reginald and not Ormond.
Upon his arrival at the castle Gertrude's father learns she does not wish to marry Ormond, nor anyone else. He will not attempt to dissuade Ormond from the idea of marriage, but neither will he force the issue with her. Ormond is similarly respectful of her wishes; although he loves her, he realises she does not feel the same so will not force her.
Meanwhile, Winifred's dislike of Ethalind continues when the young girl claims to have seen the Baron's ghost. As her treatment from Winifred deteriorates further, Ethalind and Edgar are thrown together. He consoles her and the young couple realise their love for each other. Edgar's father, however, wants him to marry someone else. After her harsh treatment of Ethalind, Winifred then claims to see the ghost and she is believed by all. It is presumed that the ghost and the source of the music are one. Gertrude believes the minstrel has been sent to watch over her and, believing she hears the Baron's voice telling her to swear it, she vows never to marry Ormond. When he receives Gertrude's refusal, and explanation, Ormond vows to stay in the room where the ghost has been seen until he too sees it. After several nights the ghost appears and leads him down a hidden alley to an ancient burial ground; he is told to go through a trap door where he will be recompensed. The light goes out and the door locks behind him. On discovery of his disappearance, a search begins for him in the castle and when he is not found they hold a religious ceremony for him.
Winifred's conniving continues when she tells Gertrude the ghost says she must marry Sir Reginald. A sorcerer then appears and informs Gertrude that Ormond is safe and that Edgar and Ethalind will be married in three days. He then tells her she must visit the Baron's chamber at night, blindfolded. Gertrude does as the sorcerer informs her and, once in the chamber, she hears the music of the minstrel upon which she removes her blindfold and finds the Baron alive in front of her. He informs her he had come to remove Sir Reginald from the castle, who was pretending to be the ghost. Presumed dead in battle and fearful of returning to England, the Baron fled to Sicily. He contacted Sir Reginald who informed him that Gertrude was dead. On returning to the castle and seeing that Gertrude was actually alive he concealed himself in order to see how she was behaving as a widow.
Ultimately, the Baron forgives Reginald, who repents and seeks sanctuary in Durham. Winifred's deceitful actions are discovered and she is dismissed. Edgar and Ethalind are married as the sorcerer, who was of course the Baron, foretold. The happy ending is complete when Ormond returns and declares he could not be more happy that the Baron is alive and, more fortunately for the reunited couple, that the King has reversed the forfeit on the Baron's land.