The Mystery at Falconbridge Hall(4)

By: Maggi Andersen

Slender brows frowned at the intrusion, reminding Vanessa of her father. She climbed to her feet.

“Please to meet you, Miss Blythe.” Vanessa smiled and stretched out her hand. “I’ve so looked forward to this moment.”

“How do you do?” Blythe said politely. She slipped her small hand into Vanessa’s and, after the merest touch, withdrew it. She had inherited her father’s black hair and blue eyes, and his height; at ten, Blythe almost reached Mrs. Royce’s shoulder.

“It’s almost time for afternoon tea,” Mrs. Royce said. “I’ll take you to your room, Miss Ashley.”

The housekeeper shut the nursery door and led Vanessa down the corridor.

Her new charge seemed unnaturally subdued for a ten-year-old. Vanessa wondered if she spent too much time shut up in the day nursery with the maid. She planned to change that immediately. A child should be outside in the fresh air in the cooler part of the day. Vanessa had spied a lovely shady folly through the trees, like some ancient relic from the past. She hurried to catch Mrs. Royce, who was walking briskly along the corridor.

They climbed up a narrow stairway.

“How many on the staff here?” Vanessa asked to break what she felt was an awkward silence.

“Twenty house staff. Dorcas is the head maid. The butler is away at present.”

“No footman?”

Mrs. Royce firmed her lips. “No.” She stopped and threw open a door. “This is the schoolroom.”

It was a good-sized attic room with comfortable chairs, a table, a child’s desk, and a slate blackboard on a stand. “Excellent,” Vanessa said with satisfaction.

At the end of the corridor was Vanessa’s bedroom, the sloping walls covered in a daisy-patterned paper and hung with pressed flowers in frames. The white-painted iron bed had a floral coverlet, and a writing desk stood beside it. An upholstered chair was placed near the fireplace. The shelf above the mantel was perfect for Vanessa to put the things she’d brought with her. A rug covered the floorboards. The small room looked cheerful and snug. Surprised at her good fortune, Vanessa said, “How nice. I shall feel very much at home here.” The curtains were closed, and the room stuffy. She crossed to the window and drew them back, looking down over verdant lawns and trees to the picturesque folly. Its circular roof was supported by decorative round columns, and it overlooked an ornamental lake.

“I do hope so.” Mrs. Royce firmed her lips. “Blythe needs stability.”

Had she lacked it thus far? Unsure how to reply, Vanessa found she wasn’t required to, for Mrs. Royce, who appeared to be a woman of few words, already stood at the door. She gestured. “We have all the modern conveniences here. There’s a lavatory and bathroom for your use on this floor. Tea will be brought to your room at four. From tomorrow, you are to take it in the schoolroom with Miss Blythe.”

As soon as the door closed behind the housekeeper, Vanessa rushed to open the window. A sultry breeze wafted in, but she relished the light and the fresh air.

In the bathroom, the bathtub had a wide mahogany surround. Hot and cold water issued forth from a noisy gas geyser. Delighted, Vanessa resisted the urge to bathe and made do with washing her hands. She looked in the mirror and cringed at the dark smudge on her nose. Her eyes went large with alarm.

What must the viscount have thought of her! She scrubbed her face with a washcloth until it glowed and sponged her hot neck with cool water.

Her trunk had arrived while she was in the bathroom. Glad to have discarded her mourning clothes, she changed into a gray skirt and white blouse, cinching in her waist with a belt. Once her hair was tidy, she dabbed on a little lily of the valley scent, adding some to her handkerchief.

She removed her precious possessions from the trunk, arranging her pearl-handled brush and comb set on the dresser, beside her mother’s miniature, wrought by her father’s hand with love in each stroke of his brush. Gazing at it brought tears to her eyes. Annoyed with herself, she dabbed at them with her handkerchief then bent over the trunk to take out her father’s books on art and her mother’s history books, along with her own. She arranged them on the shelf, adding the pretty shells she’d gathered from the Cornish shore.

Having unpacked her few gowns and underthings, she sank onto the bed, suddenly exhausted. It was still hard to believe her comfortable life by the sea was gone. That it had come to this, a servant in another man’s house. Her parents would not have approved, but what choice did she have? Her mother was an educated woman with an interest in politics. She had joined with many like-minded people in her fight for women’s rights. A respected member of society, she’d been sought by politicians and reformers alike. Women had crowded into their parlor for meetings. Her father felt less passion for her mother’s causes. He would cast them an indulgent smile before disappearing into his studio to paint.