The Mystery at Falconbridge Hall(8)

By: Maggi Andersen

She walked into the room. “Good morning.”

A soft blonde curl escaped from the maid’s cap as she turned. “Good morning, miss. I’m Dorcas, miss.”

Vanessa smiled, recognizing the accent. “Myttin da, Dorcas. You hail from Cornwall?”

The maid grinned. “I was born there. I miss the sea.”

“One does, doesn’t one?” Vanessa said. “Have you been at the Hall very long?”

“Three years it be now.”

“You like it here?”

“The master is away a lot, and it’s quiet then.” The girl shrugged. “Although lately…” Dorcas cast a swift glance at the door.

“Lately?” Vanessa prompted.

“You’ll be wanting toast.” Dorcas hurried out.

Plate in hand, Vanessa wandered along the row of silver chafing dishes containing scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, kedgeree, and devilled kidneys. Hungry, she filled her plate. She was drinking a cup of tea when Blythe appeared. Her young charge wore a white pinafore over a blue and white dress with a dropped waist. She was fast outgrowing it, for the skirt was above her knees.

“My, how pretty you look in blue, Miss Blythe,” Vanessa couldn’t help saying. The child’s skin was the color and texture of a peach. She would surely grow up to be a beauty.

“Blue is my favorite color.” Blythe tugged at her skirt.

“Vanessa put down her cup. Let’s see.” She bent to examine the hem. “If it’s a favorite, it can be let down. You might get another season’s wear out of it.”

“Oh? I would like that.”

“Do you fancy some scrambled eggs? They are delicious.”

“No, thank you.” Selecting a roll Blythe sat at the table.

“We’ll begin English studies later this morning. After I’ve seen your father.” Vanessa forked the last of her egg into her mouth, savoring the buttery flavor.

Blythe screwed up her nose. “Miss Lillicrop was fond of poetry. She read it a lot.”

“Yes, poetry will be part of your studies. We shall begin with English, however.” Vanessa wondered if Miss Lillicrop had taught botany. She must have a fine grasp of entomology to draw butterflies in such exquisite detail.

Mrs. Royce entered the room. “Your father insists you eat eggs, Miss Blythe. And be sure to drink your milk.” She motioned to the maid. “Serve Miss Blythe some eggs.”

Blythe’s mouth pulled down at the corners. “I don’t like eggs.”

“Come now, you know you haven’t been well,” Mrs. Royce said. “The doctor insists on an egg a day.”

Having finished her breakfast, Vanessa put down her napkin and smiled reassuringly at Blythe. “We’ll begin in the schoolroom at eleven,” she said, pushing her chair back. “During the afternoon, we’ll read a new story, and then you can take me on an exploration of the gardens.”

As she left the room, Mrs. Royce said, “Please eat some egg, Miss Blythe. If you don’t, I’ll have to inform your father.”

Vanessa remembered passing the library on her first day. She located it without difficulty, pleased to find it empty. It had been designed for masculine comfort and there was a lingering smell of cigars and pipe smoke. Bookshelves covered all available wall space. A tan leather chesterfield and a pair of chairs were grouped together before the hearth. The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The London Daily News, The London Standard, and the Penny Press were neatly stacked on the wide desk by the window.

A variety of magazines were placed in a rack beside the sofa. Vanessa sorted through The Gentleman’s Magazine, Punch, The Strand, and the London Sunday Journal. She selected Punch and the Penny Press to take back to her room.

She roamed the shelves searching for suitable books and found several on botany, including an impressive tome by Lord Falconbridge on Lepidoptera. She placed them on a mahogany table, along with the books and the notes she’d fetched from her room. Searching further, she spied Plato’s Symposium and climbed the ladder. It was just out of reach. Not wishing to climb down, she leaned across. Her fingers touched the binding, and she leaned farther. She almost had it.

“You read Ancient Greek, Miss Ashley?” Lord Falconbridge’s voice came from behind her.

Vanessa jumped, and her foot slipped off the rung. She lost her balance and fell into a pair of strong arms.

He set her on her feet.

Lord Falconbridge had held her for barely a few minutes, but the sensation of a hard, male body and musky smell lingered. Her heart beat madly. She huffed a wisp of hair from her eyes, sure her face was crimson. “Not with any degree of expertise, my lord,” she managed to say.