The Mystery at Falconbridge Hall(3)

By: Maggi Andersen

The mahogany desktop was completely covered with pens and papers, a microscope, a probe of some kind, a set of long-handled tweezers, a large magnifying glass and a small hand-held one, tomes stacked one on top of the other in danger of toppling, and the butterfly in its glass prison, its beautiful wings pinned down, never to soar again. Caught by its beauty and premature death, Keats’s poem Ode to a Grecian Urn, rushed into her head. “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought… As doth eternity.”

The viscount swiveled, and his eyebrows shot up. “Pardon?”

Vanessa jumped to her feet as heat flooded her cheeks. She’d said the words aloud. She must have had too much sun. “Keats, my lord.”

“Are you a devotee of the Romantics?”

“Not especially.” Annoyed with herself and, irrationally, with him for pursuing it, she said, “Forgive me, it was a random thought.”

He folded his arms and studied her. “You are given to spouting random philosophical thoughts?”

She tugged at her damp collar. “Not as a rule. I’m a little tired, and it’s been so hot.”

Hastening to change the subject, she stepped over to the wall covered in framed butterflies of all sizes and colors. One particular specimen caught her eye. “Exquisite.”

She felt his presence disturbingly close behind her. “Which?”

She pointed. “This one, with patches of crimson and deep blue on its wings.”

“You have a good eye. That’s a Nymphalidae from Peru. Do you know much about butterflies?” She looked at him, finding his blue eyes had brightened.

“Very little, I’m afraid,” she said, afraid her contribution to this discussion would prove disappointing. “We get many orange ones with black spots in Cornwall.”

“Dark green Fritillary.” The interested light in his eyes faded.

“That can’t be. They’re orange,” she said.

“That is their name, dark green Fritillary.”

“Why would they call it dark green when…?” Her voice died away at his poorly disguised impatience.

“That species is common and of little interest.” He studied her. “Unless you took notice of some interesting aspect of their habitats?”

“No, not precisely, my lord… uh, they seemed to gather in trees and grasses….” She nipped at her lip with her teeth as he nodded and turned away. Would a governess be required to know much about butterflies or botany? Beyond Cornwall, her knowledge of flora and fauna was barely worthy of comment.

A woman entered the room, her neat figure garbed in black bombazine, with a lacy cap over her brown hair and a watch pinned to her breast. A chatelaine with a bunch of keys hung from her belt. Vanessa thought her to be in her early forties. Her pointed nose and sharp eyes made her appear as if she would miss very little.

“Ah. Mrs. Royce, this is the new governess, Miss Ashley. Please give her a tour of the day nursery and school room and introduce my daughter to her before you take her to her quarters.”

“Yes, milord.”

“Miss Ashley.” His lordship nodded. “I shall see you here again at ten o’clock tomorrow. We’ll discuss your plans for teaching my daughter. I’m extremely keen that she becomes proficient in mathematics, the French language, and botany.”

“Botany, my lord?” Vanessa’s fears were realized. Completely unprepared, she looked around wildly at the books lining his shelves. Might she have time to bone up on it? She read some knowledge of her discomfort in his eyes and lifted her chin. “Surely English and history are equally important?”

“That goes without saying.” He turned back to his desk. “Tomorrow at ten.”

Summarily dismissed, Vanessa followed the housekeeper along the corridor. Did she catch a satisfied gleam in his eye before he turned away? Her mind filled with questions. Was it going to be difficult to work for him? Might it be why governesses did not stay long here?

Mrs. Royce glanced at Vanessa’s wrinkled gown and scuffed shoes. “You’ll be suffering from the heat, I expect. We’ve had the devil of a summer.” Without waiting for a reply, she opened the day nursery door as a young maid jumped up. She dropped her sewing as she bobbed.

“This is the nursery maid. Agnes.”

Vanessa greeted the maid as Mrs. Royce approached the child who hadn’t acknowledged their presence. “Miss Blythe, this is Miss Ashley, your new governess.”

Blythe looked up from where she knelt beside a doll’s house with the distant expression of someone woken suddenly. A rag doll with a china face lay in a tumbled heap beside her.