The Mystery at Falconbridge Hall(7)

By: Maggi Andersen

Vanessa sighed and sat down at the desk. She took up a pen and began to prepare the lessons. When satisfied with the list, she placed it inside the desk drawer. When she tried to close it, the drawer stuck. She pulled it out and peered inside. At the back was a scrunched-up piece of paper. Smoothing it out on the desk, she discovered it to be a detailed drawing of a butterfly, its wings colored crimson, just like the one in his lordship’s study. It would appear the previous governess had drawn it. So finely detailed, it gave clue to her expert knowledge of butterflies. Her skills must have pleased his lordship. She replaced it and closed the drawer. What would cause such a competent governess to leave Falconbridge Hall so suddenly?

Chapter Two

She stumbled along the shore as the mist swirled around her, blocking everything from view. Waves thundered onto the shingle, and she could taste the salty sea on her tongue. She should enjoy it, being home again, but all of a sudden, she flailed in the dark water, fighting her way to the surface. She came up gasping and tried to strike out for the body floating out of reach. Her father’s panicked, grasping hands drew her down with him.

Vanessa woke sweating, gasping for air, her heart thudding. She struggled to prop herself up onto her elbows. Attempting to calm herself, she searched for familiar objects, but the room seemed strange. The frail tendrils of the dream clung to her, fading as she realized where she was. The pretty quilt folded at the end of the white iron-railed bed, the patterned curtains stirring at the open window. Her new room. She drew in a deep breath and her heartbeat slowed.

Sweaty and hot, she threw off her sheet, thinking of the weeks and months surrounding her father’s illness and death. His had followed soon on her mother’s, both succumbing to influenza, leaving her destitute.

Vanessa was deep in mourning when her uncle, the new earl, had come to offer her a home with him as a companion for her aunt. She had never met her grandfather, the Earl of Gresham. Her father was his second son, cut off after he married her mother and took up painting as a profession. Her uncle was a stranger to her and only doing his duty. She’d refused him. She preferred to make her own living even if it meant working as a servant. He had then made enquiries on her behalf and had found her this position.

Vanessa had no idea what time it was. Leaving the bed, she went to the open window. The quiet gardens lay under a net of silver gauze. A breeze carried the scents of wisteria and white roses that grew on the trellis below. Falconbridge offered a different kind of charm. Nature tamed by the hand of man. Unlike the wild force of the sea. After that disturbing dream, she was glad of it. The soft air cooled her, and her breathing calmed. Hopeful of sleep, she returned to bed.

A bell was ringing. She’d overslept on her first day! Vanessa leaped out of bed. Dragging on her dressing gown she ran to the bathroom for a hasty wash, glad she’d tackled the old geyser and taken a bath before bed. After hurriedly dressing, she rushed from her room, doing up the buttons on her cuffs.

Vanessa hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. She had no idea where to go. A tray had been sent up to her room the night before.

Mrs. Royce appeared out of a doorway.

“Good morning, Mrs. Royce. I just wondered where—”

“I’ll take you to the breakfast room.” Mrs. Royce cast an approving glance over Vanessa’s navy dress with its spotless white lace collar and cuffs, simply adorned with her mother’s gold watch on a chain. “You will feel better for a good night’s rest I expect.”

“Yes, I…” Vanessa hurried behind Mrs. Royce. She’d begun to understand the housekeeper neither expected a reply, nor desired it. She cleared her throat. “Mrs. Royce,” she said, addressing the housekeeper’s narrow black bombazine-clad back, “where might my bicycle be kept?”

“Capstick placed your two-wheeled machine in one of the outbuildings. He’ll show you where.” She clucked her tongue. “I do hope those modern fashions don’t take on here. They will encourage loose morals.”

“From my own experience, I’ve found no reason for you to worry, Mrs. Royce.” Vanessa realized they had not taken the steps down to the servant’s quarters.

“It’s been the practice here with no mistress in the house for the governess to dine with the family, although his lordship often takes his meals in his study.” The housekeeper shrugged her thin shoulders in disapproval of this arrangement as she stood at the breakfast room door. “Cook likes everyone to be prompt.”

Vanessa glanced through the doorway at the long mahogany table and sideboard where a maid added hot water to the teapot. A row of French windows opened onto the terrace, the view partly obscured by green damask curtains. When she looked back, Mrs. Royce had gone.