The Mystery at Falconbridge Hall(9)

By: Maggi Andersen

His lordship moved the ladder, climbed up, and took down the book she’d been trying to reach. He held it out to her. “Here. To make amends. I’m sorry I startled you.”

Still thoroughly disconcerted, Vanessa took it from him. “Thank you. It was only for a moment.”

He walked to the table and went through the books she’d selected. “You are interested in reading Darwin?” He raised his head from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. “You aren’t bothered by the religious ramifications of his evolutionary ideas?”

“I cannot offer an opinion. I am yet to read it, my lord.”

He nodded. “When you do, I should like to hear your thoughts. I approve of these, except for this one.” He held up a favorite of her mother’s. “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. I trust you’re not planning to turn Blythe into a suffragette?”

Discomfiture flooded her face with heat. “No. But I’ve long wished to read it.” She wasn’t aware he knew about her mother. She hoped it wouldn’t become a bone of contention between them. Many men did not approve of the women’s suffrage movement.

He gestured to the settee. “Sit down, please, Miss Ashley.”

“I thought you might care to see what I have planned.” She gathered up her notes. “This is a list of subjects I intend to cover and the books I brought with me.”

Sitting in a chair, he took the notes and read them. Without comment, he flicked open the books.

She took a deep breath, knowing she must broach the subject. “My lord, I have to tell you I had not thought of botany. I’ll need some time to prepare.”

“I gathered as much,” he said, without looking up. After several minutes, he closed the books. “These seem appropriate.” He gave a brief smile. “No need to concern yourself. I will teach my daughter botany.”

Then why hadn’t he mentioned it? Did he enjoy making her feel awkward? She bit her lip before a note of outrage escaped. She’d spent hours worrying about botany lessons before falling asleep. She was sure it had caused her disturbed dream. “I should like to learn something of botany, myself.”

“You may attend the lessons if you wish.”

“Thank you.”

“Your choice of reading material surprises me. I too enjoy reading the Classics. Shakespeare most particularly.”

“I am delighted to see you have his complete works here.”

“You have a favorite?”

“Henry V.”

His eyebrows rose. “I was expecting Shakespeare’s more romantic plays, As You Like It or Twelfth Night.”

“They are vastly entertaining, but I like his more powerful dramas.”

“Indeed.” His blue eyes studied her as he rose. “I think we’ve covered everything. What do you plan for Blythe this afternoon?”

“I understand that she has been under a doctor’s care. I thought a walk in the fresh air might be beneficial.”

“An excellent notion. But please refrain from entering the wood.”

“Oh? Poachers, my lord?”

“We’ve had the odd poacher setting traps in the past, but I’m afraid a more serious incident happened some months ago. After a young woman from a nearby village went missing, her body was found in our wood. She had killed herself.”

Vanessa drew in a sharp breath. “How sad.”

“Indeed. I’d prefer Blythe not to know.” He walked to the door.

It shut behind him, leaving Vanessa alone. She was horrified. What would cause a woman to do such a thing?

Chapter Three

Vanessa rose before breakfast and dressed in the divided skirt she’d worn when cycling in Cornwall. She left the quiet house and rode around the estate enjoying the titter of swallows in the trees, past gnarled old apple trees, the grass dotted with fallen fruit after the harvest, and along the lime tree walk. The wind had risen in the night, the air sweetly scented with fallen blossoms covering the ground.

As she followed the gravel drive, she thought about what she had discovered in the early edition of the Penny Press last night. An article critical of Queen Victoria’s son, Edward, the Prince of Wales, described his life of notorious luxury, and how he was known to have had a number of public affairs, most notably with the celebrated beauty and actress, Lillie Langtry, as well as Mrs. Alice Keppel. The prince had pursued society beauty, Clara Montague, daughter of the Hon. Clive Montague, cabinet minister, before she married Viscount Falconbridge of Falconbridge Hall. A grainy picture showed the elegant Clara at the Ascot races, wearing a wide-brimmed hat decorated with feathers and flowers. What a handsome couple Lord and Lady Falconbridge must have made.