The Mystery at Falconbridge Hall

By: Maggi Andersen

Prologue





A full moon painted the gardens in a chiaroscuro of deep purple and pewter. She hurried along expecting sprites to emerge to dance amongst the trees on such a magical night. Would he be pleased? Her heart beat fast with the anticipation of seeing his handsome face. The lake was liquid silver, smooth and calm.

The folly awaited. She began to quote from her favorite poem. “And by the moon the reaper weary, piling sheaves in uplands airy, listening, whispers, ‘’Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott.’”

A man appeared at the top of the steps. “What have you got there?”

She held up her prize.





Chapter One





Vanessa Ashley planned to arrive at her destination cool and composed, but she felt like a wilting lily. She dabbed her handkerchief at the sweat trickling into her collar as heat gathered beneath her chip-straw bonnet. Clapham High Street Railway Station was a noisy and smelly hub of activity, luckily the residence that was to be her new home lay in the countryside.

A short, bearded man approached her and politely touched his hat. “For Falconbridge Hall, miss?”

“Yes, I’m Miss Ashley. Thank you… Mr.?”

“They just call me Capstick, Miss Ashley. This way.” He led her to a trap. After he’d loaded her trunk and bicycle on board, they seated themselves. He slapped the reins and told the horse to walk on. “You’re the new governess?”

She smiled. “Yes.”

“Another one,” he muttered and shook his head.

Startled, Vanessa stared at him. “How many have there been?”

“The last one didn’t stay long.”

“But why?”

Capstick declined to comment. He just grunted and shook his head.

“Well, I intend to.” Vanessa straightened her shoulders. It was true she had never wished to be a governess. Even though she was still quite young, her wish for children of her own now seemed unlikely, and if this was to be her fate, she intended to make the best of it. A person without funds, indifferent looks, and a lack of grace had no other course open to them.

“Good luck to yer, then.” Capstick grinned at her, revealing a large gap in his front teeth.

With reassuring skill, he negotiated around a horse-drawn tram as they passed the bandstand on the common and then drove down tree-lined avenues. Villas were soon replaced by streets of gracious homes set amid beautiful gardens. The sign, Clapham Park Estate, appeared, followed by larger country houses on acreages.

They passed the last of the houses and were out in the countryside now. Green fields crisscrossed by hedgerows stretched away to a line of forest in the distance. The trap followed the road a mile or so, then came to a high brick wall and a pair of impressive wrought iron gates with Falconbridge Hall emblazoned on them in gold lettering. Capstick drove through, and a house appeared above the trees. Many chimneys rose from the massive slate roof.

Ahead of them, a stocky dark-haired man rode a magnificent bay horse across the lawn and vaulted a hedge. Vanessa had a glimpse of dark, gypsy eyes and a white smile beneath a black moustache. Before they drew level, he turned the animal and rode toward the woods.

“Who was that?” she couldn’t help asking, watching him disappear into the trees.

“The groom, Lovel, exercising the master’s horse.” Capstick shook his head. “The gardeners will not be pleased.”

The gravel drive bordered by lime trees curved around through formal gardens to the front of the house where he left her, disappearing with her trunk and bicycle toward the rear entrance and, she presumed, the coach house and stables.

The sprawling stone house had a tower at one end, its walls partly covered in ivy. It was older and far bigger than those they’d passed on their way from the station. The building had settled into its surroundings, and she had the feeling it had been here for a very long time while the urban sprawl of Clapham edged ever closer.

Conscious that she looked rumpled and untidy, Vanessa smoothed the skirt of her olive green linen dress and straightened the limp white collar with travel-stained cotton gloves. She picked up her bag and stepped up to the paneled door flanked by stout white columns.

Before she could knock, a maid wearing a mobcap and a white apron over her gray floral dress opened the door. “Miss Ashley? Please come in.”

Surprised not to be met by a butler in such an establishment, Vanessa stepped into the wide entrance hall. One of those new inventions, the telephone sat on a table. A fine Persian carpet ran the length of the parquet floor, pale green satin papered the walls, and fringed and tasseled emerald velvet drapes hung from the windows. Potted ferns clustered in corners, and a gracious staircase led upward. Despite fractured light filtering down from a stained-glass window above the stair, the house was so gloomy inside dusk might have fallen.