The Mystery at Falconbridge Hall(10)

By: Maggi Andersen

Vanessa rode back to the shed that housed her bicycle, planning to change before breakfast. She startled two female servants walking up the path. They stopped to stare as she rode past, whispering together. She reluctantly returned to the house, hating to be watched and criticized. She’d never before come under such scrutiny. This world was so formal and so different to the carefree life she’d lived. In Cornwall she sometimes went out without shoes!

When she entered the kitchen, talk abruptly ceased only to begin again when she left the room. Let them talk. They’d soon tire of it when there was nothing of interest to say. She straightened her shoulders and refused to let it upset her. A governess was a difficult position, wedged betwixt the family and the staff. She hoped in time she would come to be accepted and make friends here.

By the third day, Vanessa and Blythe had settled into a routine. Lessons in the morning, lunch followed by a walk in the gardens, the afternoons taken up with Blythe’s music lesson with a visiting teacher and reading or an art lesson with Vanessa.

When Lord Falconbridge gave notice of a botany lesson at three o’clock, Vanessa attended.

He put on his glasses, stood at the blackboard, and picked up a stick of chalk. “I must confess I know more about Amazonian vegetation than Britain’s flora and fauna.” He turned to the board. “Now we’ll begin with….”

An hour passed, and the lesson altered focus with Blythe’s insistent questions about his upcoming expedition. He described the supplies they needed to take with them—bedding, tents, mosquito nets and medicines—and the mules and the native bearers they’d acquire before entering the Amazon. Once Blythe had run out of questions, he began to talk about the butterflies, animals and bird life that inhabited the jungle.

Vanessa was fascinated. No wonder his lordship was eager to return.

“Do they really have snakes that big?” Blythe’s eyes were like saucers.

His lordship appeared to be enjoying himself just as much as his daughter. “They are called boa constrictors. They squeeze their prey to death and swallow them whole.”

Blythe gave a wild squeal. “Tell me about the leopards again.”

“All right. But next time the lesson must be about flora rather than fauna,” he said, with a sheepish glance at Vanessa.

She looked down with a smile. It could not be described as botany, but he had spiked the child’s interest and drawn her out of herself. Vanessa only wished her lessons had the same result. Blythe usually said little, completing her sums, and spelling without complaint.

Increasingly, Vanessa had felt there was something wrong. The child was unnaturally glum even though there were no black-draped mirrors or signs of mourning in the house. Surely, losing her mother some time ago would no longer lie at the heart of this sadness. Her father clearly doted on her.

At lunch the next day, Blythe looked heavy-eyed. She yawned several times.

“Didn’t you sleep well last night?” Vanessa asked.

Blythe shook her head. “It was too hot.”

“Yes, it was. Surely the weather must change soon.”

“Soon we shall have autumn winds then winter frosts and snow, I suppose.” Blythe toyed with her plate of custard.

“I like the autumn. The leaves turn beautiful colors like ochre, crimson, and amber.”

Blythe’s mouth pulled down. “I hate that.”

“Hate is a very strong emotion.”

“My mother left us in autumn. I remember because I was pressing leaves in a book.”

“Oh, my dear!” She reached across and patted Blythe’s hand. She was unsure if she meant her mother had gone away or she had died. Lady Falconbridge wasn’t spoken of, and Vanessa had yet to learn the circumstances of her death.

“Mother waved to me from the carriage, but she never came home again. Her portrait is in the upper corridor, wearing a green dress. She was very beautiful.”

“I must go and see it.”

“She died in Paris. That’s in France.”

The child’s flat, unemotional tone disconcerted Vanessa.

“How sad. I am sorry.”

“I didn’t see much of her,” Blythe said, a catch in her voice. “She was always very busy.”

“I expect she had a lot of responsibilities,” Vanessa said.

Blythe wiped the tears clinging to her lashes. “I didn’t mind her going out all the time. She made Father unhappy when she was here.” Her little face crumpled. “And I don’t think she loved me.”

Concerned, Vanessa moved her chair closer and placed an arm around Blythe’s shoulders. “Of course, she did. How could she not love you, silly?” She gave her a squeeze.