"There is a letter for his lordship, sir," Holden, Lord Metfield's butler, told Robert Blake. Mr. Blake was his lordship's secretary -- being intent on making his way in the world despite the disadvantage of being the younger son of a younger son, he had entered the Earl of Metfield's service two years previously, in the hope of establishing himself in the world of politics.
"At this time?" Mr. Blake wondered. "It is nearly ten o'clock in the evening!"
"It was sent round by messenger," Holden said. "From Mr. Wantage."
Messrs Wantage and Woods were lawyers, and Lord Metfield's legal advisors. If they deemed it necessary to send a message to his lordship at this time of evening, the matter had to be important. Robert Blake held out his hand.
"Give the letter to me, Holden," he said. "I will stay up until his lordship returns and make sure he reads it immediately when he gets home." Lord Metfield was known to take many things lightly. A business letter was just one of the things that did not matter much to him. In fact, there were only two things Lord Metfield was deadly serious about.
His works of charity were one. Years ago he had determined that what people in the poor quarters of London really needed was proper health care, and he had begun to establish hospitals for the poor. In order to get qualified doctors to work in those hospitals, he sponsored talented but penniless young men who wanted to take up the medical profession. In return for his support, they had to work in his hospitals for five years, and for further five years they had to offer free medical treatment to the poor. Although this hobbyhorse cost him a great deal of money, he suffered no opposition on that subject. He would give up anything rather than that.
The second matter Lord Metfield was serious about was his wife. After a violent argument she had left his house years ago, and had not been heard of ever again. Still, Lord Metfield had never given up looking for her. Even now, he spent a large amount of money on the search for his wife, and was still quite determined that he would find her some day. In the meantime, nearly twenty years had gone by, and Robert Blake was quite certain that Lady Metfield would never be found. But unfailing optimism bordering on stubbornness was one of his lordship's chief characteristics. All those years, he had expected his wife to return to him, and he had never, no matter what the circumstances were, uttered a word of reproach against her. No one knew just what had happened to cause the rift between the spouses, but it was evident that Lord Metfield blamed himself. It was equally evident that he still loved his wife, and that he was faithful to her.
Some people thought this was stupidity. Others said it was stubbornness, mere inability to admit a mistake. Lord Metfield's marriage twenty years before had been a scandal -- he had married a singer, no doubt a respectable girl, but highly unsuitable nevertheless, and his parents had opposed the match and cast him off. In some people's opinion, the young woman's flight a couple of months later had been his well-deserved punishment.
Considering the circumstances, no one would have blamed the Earl of Metfield if he had sued for a divorce -- Lord Metfield needed to remarry, some people thought, and he needed an heir. But anyone who pointed this out to him was merely told that the Honourable Frederick Daventry -- Lord Metfield's younger brother -- and his brother's numerous offspring would be quite happy to step into his shoes. Succession was not an issue that bothered him. Marriage, Lord Metfield said, was a lifelong commitment, and he would stand by it. Unless there was evidence that his wife had died, he would not stop looking for her and, if he found her, he would do everything in his power to make her come back to him.
This was one of the most tedious meetings he had ever been to, Lord Metfield thought. He had been reluctant to attend in the first place -- he knew Mr. Harriman would prose on forever and ever. No one really listened, and time passed slowly. No one was happier than Lord Metfield when, finally, the meeting was adjourned. The Reverend Mr. Harriman's suggestions concerning the religious instruction of the infirm had been listened to -- or rather not listened to -- and would be ignored, as usual.
It was Lord Metfield's private conviction that one did not go to a hospital for spiritual edification, but medical treatment. If one wanted to be instructed in matters of faith, one went to church. There was a time for everything. So, although he said that the idea was certainly worth thinking about, he knew that he would not allow Bible readings in the hospital wards. He might, as a concession to Mr. Harriman (who, after all, encouraged his wealthy parishioners to fund the hospital) set up one room in the hospital as a chapel, and have regular services conducted there. On the other hand, one room set aside for such a purpose would mean less room for patients. Lord Metfield sighed. He would soon have to purchase another building to open up another hospital. There were so many people in need...
One of his considerations when he had founded his first hospital had been that somewhere there was his wife in need of help, and he sincerely hoped that she would get the assistance she needed. That she could very well be in trouble had been evident to him -- she had not taken anything with her when she had left, apart from her father's savings he had left her upon his death. Nothing he had ever given her -- apart from her wedding ring - had been taken along, and Lord Metfield knew that his father-in-law's savings could not have got her very far.
This was why, at first, he had expected to hear from her soon. He had been mistaken. Most likely she was somewhere in France, and during the war years it had been difficult for an Englishman to trace anyone there. Once the war had been over, he had travelled to France to search for his wife -- but this was worse than looking for a needle in a haystack. Worse than looking for a needle in ten haystacks.
"I wonder, my lord, if you gave the matter of that hospital in Manchester some thought," Mr. Drummond, head surgeon of the hospital, asked him and interrupted his musings.
"Honestly, I did not, not yet," Lord Metfield said with a smile. "At the moment it seems to me that we will have to open another hospital in London instead."
"Don't I know it," Drummond said with a sigh. "I have to turn away dozens of people every day -- there is just no room for them."
"So whom do you turn away then?" Lord Metfield asked.
"We keep the desperate cases," Drummond said. "Those who'd die without immediate help. We treat the others, but send them home afterwards. Most of them come back, though."
Lord Metfield could readily believe that. Living conditions in London's slums were anything but healthy. It was most unfortunate that he could not do anything about these.
"There is no limit to the number of people in need," Mr. Drummond said sadly.
"Unfortunately, there is a limit even to my fortune," Lord Metfield said. "If I can raise the money, we will open another ward somewhere in London."
"Manchester will have to wait then." Mr. Drummond said.
"I am afraid so." Lord Metfield said grimly. "Unless I can win some wealthy dowagers for the idea."
Mr. Drummond smiled. "In that case I need not fear for Manchester, my lord," he said. "I have yet to see the dowager that can withstand your smile."
Lord Metfield laughed. "Remind me to introduce you to my mother next time she is in town," he said. "She is the one dowager who can."
It was past midnight when Lord Metfield finally returned to his house in Brook Street. He let himself in -- none of his servants had to sit wait up all night waiting for his return. Even his valet had strictest orders to go to sleep if his lordship was not home by midnight. If Avery thought this remarkable, he did not show it. Lord Metfield was an agreeable master, even-tempered and easy to please. One had to be a fool to hazard such a situation because his lordship, like everyone else, had a few eccentricities, and Avery was no fool.
Therefore, Lord Metfield was surprised to find that there was still light in the library, and assuming that someone had forgotten to extinguish the candles he went there to correct this omission. He was even more surprised to find his secretary waiting for him, reading a book.
Robert Blake got up from the chair as he entered the room, and asked him whether he had had a pleasant evening.
"It was as pleasant as only a hospital council meeting can be," Lord Metfield said with a smile. "Yet I suspect, Blake, that you did not stay up to hear about the sanitary conditions in London's slums."
"No, my lord," Blake said, smiling. "I stayed up because an urgent letter from Mr. Wantage arrived at ten o'clock, and I wanted to make sure you read it."
"Being well enough acquainted with me to know that I would not if you did not press me to," Lord Metfield said with a laugh. "Where is the letter?"
"Here," Blake said and handed the missive to him. Lord Metfield broke the seal. The letter contained one note from Mr. Wantage, apologising for the delay in the delivery of the message -- some useless young clerk had received the other two missives but had forgotten to pass them on to Lord Metfield. This explained the late arrival of the letter, Lord Metfield thought. The other letter was addressed to him in a handwriting he did not recognise -- but the direction was written in French. Could it be that, after all those years, it contained news of Isabelle? With trembling hands, Lord Metfield opened the letter. It was from a solicitor in Lausanne, informing him that his wife, Isabelle Daventry, had placed the enclosed letter in his hands to be sent to her husband upon her death. So Isabelle was dead. The news had the same effect on him as if someone had struck a heavy blow in the pit of his stomach. Weakly, he sat down in the chair Blake had left vacant, staring into the empty space before him.
"My lord?" Blake said anxiously. "Are you quite well, my lord? Can I do anything for you?"
"I think," Lord Metfield said with great effort, "I think I need a drink. Can you get me some brandy?"
While Blake hurried off to get a glass of brandy for his employer, Lord Metfield re-read the message from the Swiss lawyer. There was no way of misunderstanding it. Isabelle Daventry had left the enclosed letter in a lawyer's hands, to be delivered to her husband upon her death. What had happened, Lord Metfield wondered. Isabelle was not old. She had been twenty-two when they had married, one year older than he had been. That made her forty-two. Why did a woman die at that age?
"Your brandy, my lord," Blake said next to him, handing him a glass. Lord Metfield emptied it in one draught.
"Bad news, my lord?" Blake asked. "You looked as if you had seen a ghost."
"The worst news," Lord Metfield said quietly. "My wife is dead." All his hopes had been dashed to pieces in the one moment it had taken him to read those words. Upon her death.
"I am very sorry, my lord," Blake said. Lord Metfield looked at the young man -- he doubted Blake was aware of what this message meant to him. From now on, his life would be without meaning. The only real purpose in his life, so far, had been to find Isabelle and convince her that he still loved her and wanted her to return to him -- not to force her to come back, but to make her come back because she wanted to. Yet, why this sense of loss? Why now? She had left him twenty years before, but he had never felt he had truly lost her. Now that he knew there was no chance for him to ever see her again, grief finally set in.
Lausanne. She had lived in Lausanne. Lord Metfield cursed his own stupidity. He had been looking for her all over France, and had forgotten that French was also spoken in Switzerland. The thought that she might not be living in France had never even occurred to him. Just how stupid could one get?
"Is there anything else I can do for you, my lord?" Blake asked.
"No, thank you, Blake," Lord Metfield said with a sigh. "Go to sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day."
"Good night, my lord," Blake said and, after another anxious glance at his absent-minded employer, he left the library.
Lord Metfield looked at the unopened letter in his hands. Isabelle's letter. What was it about? Did she ask for forgiveness? He had forgiven her long ago, accepting that their break-up had actually been his fault, not hers. The words he had uttered in that fatal quarrel still rang in his head. "Stop fussing! I can't stand it! Stop telling me what I ought to do and what I oughtn't! It makes me wish I'd never married you!" He had acted like the spoilt boy he had been in those days -- saying hurtful things he had not really meant. But Isabelle had taken them seriously -- and while he had gone out to vent his anger in one late-night drinking spree with his friends, she had relieved him of her presence. When he had come back home the following morning, he had found her gone. If he had only had the chance to see her once again, to tell her that he had not meant to hurt her so much ... and that he had certainly not wanted her to leave. That chance was gone. Lord Metfield opened Isabelle's letter to see what she had to say.
You will think it strange that I address you like this, after all those years and after all I have done to you. You may also wonder why I write to you now, after so much time has passed.
When you read this, I will be dead. It sounds melodramatic, does it not? I never thought I would write something so trivial -- but then there is nothing trivial about death. I shall leave this letter with my lawyer, M. Chaillot, and ask him to post it as soon as I have died. It will not be long until this happens; I know that for a fact. My doctor confirmed it today -- my illness is of a sort that will lead to my demise within the next six months. I am glad he was so honest with me -- that way I can settle my affairs and take leave of my nearest and dearest -- and believe me, Christopher, you are one of them. I left you because you were tired of me, not because I had stopped loving you. I should never have married you -- the circumstances of our marriage made you miserable, and I should have seen it coming. Seeing things that way, our misery those past twenty years was my fault. Forgive me for making you unhappy, Christopher, it was not my intention. You were one of the few people who gave me their love -- and there will always be a special place for you in my heart.
Lord Metfield had to stop reading for a moment. There were tears in his eyes, and he was not ashamed of them. If one could not cry for a lost love, what was there to cry for? When he had composed himself sufficiently to go on reading, he picked up the letter again.
There is one legacy I will have to leave you, one favour I have to ask. The news will no doubt come as a surprise, and may even shock you -- when I left you twenty years ago, I was with child.
Lord Metfield gasped. This, he admitted, he had not expected.
I did not know it then, so please absolve me of deliberately separating your children from you. I did no such thing. When I found out that I was carrying your child, I was already in France and, to be honest, without the means of turning back. Besides, it was my lamentable pride that held me back. Was I to crawl back to you and beg for your protection, me, the unwanted wife? I was certain you would welcome me back, even if you did not want me, but I did not want to feel the humiliation of being endured for the children's sake. So I kept silent, and instead decided to bring up the child on my own. To protect my reputation, I pretended to be a widow, and took up residence in Grenoble, where your children were born, six months after I had left you and two months before their time.
Twins. He had fathered twins. Lord Metfield got up and got himself another drink before he went on reading. Somehow he felt he was in for another shock.
They are a delightful pair, a boy and a girl, and I feel I have every reason to be proud of them. By now they are nearly nineteen years of age. Laurent is a most affectionate boy with a sunny temper, quick wit and remarkable talent. He is a handsome young man, very much like his father used to be when I knew him -- though I daresay you have not changed much.
Alice reminds me strongly of what I was at her age. She is pretty, but not remarkable, and her brother does not leave her behind in terms of intelligence. Unfortunately, she has inherited my pride and quick temper. I do hope she will be able to curb it before it leads her to misery.
You can imagine that the thought of leaving those two to the world entirely unprotected (for I do not count on Bernadine, who has been growing old of late) fills me with dismay. This is my legacy for you -- I am asking you to take care of the children when I am gone. I know this will be a difficult task -- they may have trouble accepting you in the beginning, after all they grew up believing their father to be dead. On the other hand, their existence may rouse painful memories in you. All I can do is ask forgiveness for myself, and trust that you will do the right thing. You once told me you would never let me down -- I hope you still stand by that promise.
Farewell, Christopher. I have never stopped loving you.
Slowly, Lord Metfield got up from his chair and walked over to the window, staring out into the night without really seeing anything. He did not know which piece of news had been more painful -- that he had finally lost the only woman he had ever loved, or that the same woman had been capable of keeping a vital piece of information from him.
She had brought up the children by herself, no doubt in poverty. She had pretended to be a widow rather than ask for her husband's assistance. Why? What had he done to deserve that? Surely she could not have taken those unguarded words of his that seriously?
By acting the way she had done, she had robbed her children - his children -- of the opportunity to grow up in carefree surroundings, with no wishes unfulfilled, every single one of their needs being met. She had robbed them of their rightful place in this world, and it would be up to him to establish them in the place where they really belonged.
Lord Metfield extinguished the candles in the library and went to his bedchamber. The next day would be even busier than he had anticipated. He had to prepare for a journey to Switzerland.
Alice Daventry awoke with a start. She got up, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and went to her mother's room, which was next to her own. Only when she perceived the empty bed in that room, she realised that her mother was gone -- that she had not called for her daughter's assistance, as she had done so often during the last months of her life.
It was already light outside, though it was early in the morning -- not yet six o'clock. Alice decided to go back to her room to wash and get dressed. There was no point in trying to go back to sleep. By the time she'd have managed to drop off again, she would have to get up anyway.
Alice went downstairs to the kitchen where Julie, their maid-of-all-work, was busy making breakfast.
mademoiselle," Julie said with a smile as Alice sat down at the kitchen
table, cutting herself a slice of bread and reaching for the butter.
"Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, but not enough," Alice said with a faint smile. "I dreamed of my mother again."
"That's a bad sign," Julie said darkly. "If you keep dreaming of the dead, they mean to do something to you."
"Nonsense," Alice said sharply. "This is my mother we are talking about. Why should she want to harm me?"
"Perhaps she has some unfinished business?" Julie asked.
"Julie, don't take it personally, but I have no taste for your superstitions," Alice said sharply, silently cursing herself for having mentioned her dream to someone who was known to be excessively superstitious. "My mother was a good, respectable woman. I see no reason why her soul should not have gone to Heaven the instant she died. She has never harmed anyone in all her life, so why should she start doing so now?"
Luckily, Julie did not say anything in reply to that but turned to her work again. Alice silently ate her breakfast, cleared the table afterwards and went into the garden to pick fresh flowers for her mother's grave. She visited it every day to light a candle and water the flowers. Alice had planted her mother's favourite flowers on the grave - forget-me-nots and lilies of the valley. But as spring slowly turned to summer, Alice had to think of something new. Nothing looked more depressing than a grave with dead flowers on it.
The first thing Alice noticed as she arrived at her mother's grave was that there was a fresh candle, and someone had placed a wreath of roses on it. Alice smiled. In all likelihood, M. Chaillot had paid her mother a visit. He had always been very fond of Isabelle Daventry, and till the end Alice had hoped he would, one day, become her new father. It was not for want of trying that a marriage between M. Chaillot and her mother had never taken place -- Alice was certain that he had proposed more than once. But for some reason or other her mother had declined his proposals of marriage. It was a pity. M. Chaillot would have been able to offer them a very comfortable life. He was a renowned lawyer and had a considerable income. He had even volunteered to pay for Laurent's studies -- her brother's greatest wish had been to become a physician, and M. Chaillot had friends at the famous medical school in Montpellier. Her mother's death had put an end to all these plans, however. Laurent would have to find some other kind of employment for himself, just as Alice would.
Thankfully, their mother had taught them to play several musical instruments, and Alice was a passable singer too. She intended to find a post in one of those seminaries for young ladies that were thriving all around Lake Geneva. She was young, true, but very accomplished, and her mother had had a reputation for being an excellent music teacher, so Alice was certain she would get a situation somewhere. As for Laurent, M. Chaillot had still offered to pay for his medical training, but Laurent had declined. He had never quite liked the scheme of allowing a stranger to finance his schooling, and now that his mother was dead he did not want to leave his sister all by herself. M. Chaillot had not insisted, and therefore they had no idea what Laurent was going to do. They would have to find something soon however -- their mother's savings would not support them for much longer.
It was about eight o'clock when Alice returned home. As she put her basket onto the kitchen table and started to unbutton her pelisse, Bernadine came in and told her that M. Chaillot and a young gentleman had arrived some time before and wished to see her.
"Me?" Alice asked. "Who is the young gentleman, do you know?"
Bernadine said that she had no idea who the young man was, but that he was in all likelihood an Englishman. "Though his French is quite good," she added as an afterthought. Alice smiled. Knowing Bernadine as she did, this was a compliment of no mean order.
"How do I look?" she asked Bernadine, hanging her pelisse and bonnet on a hook next to the kitchen door.
"Like a hoyden," Bernadine said. "What have you done to your dress?"
Alice looked down and realised that it was full of stains. "I was at the graveyard," she said. "Tidying Maman's grave."
"Then put on something decent before you go to see your visitors," Bernadine said reprovingly. "I'll ask Laurent to entertain them while you get ready."
"Thank you, Bernadine," Alice said and, kissing the old woman's cheek in passing, went upstairs to her room.
While getting dressed, Alice wondered who the second visitor was. What did he want of her? Then enlightenment dawned. Most likely he was looking for a governess for his sister -- or maybe his daughter. Young did not necessarily mean unmarried, after all. Perhaps M. Chaillot had taken him here to meet her. The dear gentleman, Alice thought fondly as she went down the stairs towards their parlour. He could not have taken better care of them if he had been their father.
Laurent was with the visitors already, making polite conversation. He gave his sister a smile as she entered the room, and vacated his chair to let her sit down. Alice noticed that M. Chaillot looked unnaturally grave. His eyes, which normally had a humorous twinkle in them, were troubled today.
While M. Chaillot introduced his companion to her -- a certain Mr. Robert Blake -- Alice tried to assess the gentleman. He was young, probably in his mid-twenties or not much older. The clothes he wore were neat, though, as far as she could judge, not in the height of fashion. He bore no resemblance to the rich young gentlemen, the members of the English Haut Ton one sometimes came across in Geneva. His countenance was pleasant enough, but one could not call him handsome, precisely. Still, Alice liked his eyes. They were blue -- and, even more important, they were friendly.
"So, what brings you here, Monsieur Chaillot?" Alice asked her friend once the introductions were made.
M. Chaillot sighed. "We had better get this done with immediately, don't you agree, Mr. Blake?" he said.
"Why, this almost sounds as if you had bad news for us," Alice said light-heartedly.
"I do not think the news is bad," Mr. Blake said. "Though it may be rather...unexpected, I guess."
Bernadine had been right. His French was rather good.
"I come as an emissary from your relatives in England," Mr. Blake continued. After a slight pause, he added, "From your father, to be precise."
"My father!" Alice exclaimed, startled.
"I beg your pardon, monsieur," Laurent interjected, "but there must be some kind of mistake. My father has been dead these twenty years." He cast a pleading look at M. Chaillot, who avoided his gaze.
"This is what your mother has told you, I am informed," Mr. Blake said. "But the fact is that Lord Metfield is very much alive."
"Lord Metfield?" Alice shook her head. "There must be a mistake. My father's name was Christopher Daventry."
"Your father's name still is Christopher Daventry, my lady," Mr. Blake said with a faint smile. "But he has inherited his father's title. He is the Earl of Metfield."
"I cannot believe it," Alice said. She got up from her seat and went to the window, looking out without seeing anything. It was Laurent who voiced her thoughts.
"Why would my mother lie to us about such an important matter?" he asked.
"She may have wanted to protect you," Mr. Blake said. "She knew no one looks too kindly upon a woman who has deserted her husband, no matter for what reason. The contempt people might have felt for her would have reflected on her children as well. It was better to assume widowhood."
"But ... she could have told us the truth," Alice said. "She could have trusted us!"
"Could she?" M. Chaillot asked. "I am sure that you, Alice, would have been the first to blurt out the truth at the slightest provocation."
With a rueful smile, Alice said, "Well, yes, I suppose I would."
"If it is any comfort to you," M. Chaillot said, "she did not tell me either. She placed a letter to your father in my hands, but only told me it was to one of your English relatives, to be sent in case of her death."
"Poor Monsieur Chaillot!" Alice exclaimed, holding her hands out to him. "The news must have come quite as a shock!"
"I admit it did," M. Chaillot said with a wooden expression. "But it explained a great deal."
Alice nodded. Now she knew why her mother had never married M. Chaillot. She had already been married. Alice thought of all the stories she had heard about her father. There had never been a bad word about him. Her mother had never uttered a word of reproach against him. In their eyes, their father had been a paragon of virtue, carried off in his prime, without having had the chance to see his children. It had been a lie. How many of her mother's stories had been untrue? What kind of man was her father? He had to be a horrid person -- his wife had run away from him and had kept herself hidden for almost twenty years. There had to be a good reason for that.
Laurent turned to Mr. Blake. "What does my father want from us?" he asked.
"He wants you to come to live with him," Mr. Blake said. "A very natural wish, if you ask me."
"Very natural, indeed," Alice said caustically. "And so early, don't you think? Where was he those twenty years past? He did rather well without us, didn't he?"
"Lady Alice, you are being unjust," Mr. Blake said, giving her an earnest, almost reproachful look. "The news has come as a shock, but you may be certain that had your father known where you were, he would have taken steps much earlier. Unfortunately he had no idea where your mother was -- and as to your existence, the first time he heard about that was a couple of weeks ago when he received your mother's letter."
"Fine," Alice said heatedly. "So where is he now? Why did he send you instead of coming to see us? He does not seem very eager to meet his children."
"Again, you do him wrong, Lady Alice," Mr. Blake said. "I understand why you would get the impression that your father does not care for you, but that notion is wrong. He wanted to come -- in fact, the journey had been arranged already -- but he had to give up his plans at the last minute because your grandmother fell ill. She was very poorly, and it was feared..." He broke off. "Perhaps I should leave it to your father to defend himself," he said. "He may be more successful in explaining his motives."
"I am sure he had good reasons to stay where he was," Laurent said, giving his sister a warning look. "So we are to go to England?"
"As soon as possible," Mr. Blake said. "Your father wishes you to take the place that has been yours ever since you were born."
"I am not going," Alice said.
"You would do well to reconsider, Alice," M. Chaillot said. "You are a minor. Your father has every right to decide as to your whereabouts."
"He never chose to exercise that right," Alice snapped.
"Wrong, Alice. He never got the chance to exercise that right," M. Chaillot said. "From a legal point of view, Madame Daventry was the offender. She removed you from your father's influence. Do you know what this is called?"
"Flight," Alice said grimly.
"This is absurd," Alice exclaimed. "We were not even born!"
"Still, I am afraid the law is on your father's side," M. Chaillot said gravely.
"The law," Alice said derisively. "We are not criminals, monsieur!"
"No one accuses you of anything, Lady Alice," Mr. Blake said. "I suggest you talk things over with your brother, and we shall meet again tomorrow to see what decision you have made."
At the Dower House in Metfield, the Earl decided that it was time to acquaint his relatives -- or at least those who were staying there to attend to the Dowager Countess' sickbed -- with the fact that he had finally had news of his wife. The Dowager was still bed-ridden, and to shock her with the news of her grandchildren would not do anything to improve her condition, Lord Metfield thought. But there was his brother Frederick, who should be informed that he was no longer the heir to the earldom. And there were his two sisters, who too had a right to know what was going on.
They were all sitting in Lady Metfield's dining room, with Lady Victoria Daventry presiding over the table. Lady Victoria had never married -- she blamed her brother for having ruined her chances with his imprudent marriage -- and lived with her mother at the Dower House in Metfield, which was only a couple of hundred yards from Metfield Hall.
Her sister, Lady Charlotte Hoby, had married, but most of her friends had agreed that her match was not a brilliant one. Neither of the sisters was on good terms with their eldest brother, and he had given up trying to mend matters years ago.
The ladies were about to withdraw from the dining room when Lord Metfield suddenly asked them to stay for another few minutes.
"I have an announcement to make," he said.
"You sound almost serious," Lady Victoria said coldly. "What is it? Have you spent all your fortune on the scum in London's streets? Are we to be turned out of our home?"
"Not quite, Vic," Lord Metfield said earnestly. It was no secret that neither his mother nor his sister commended his works of charity. "It is only -- I am going to set up house at the Hall again."
Perhaps it would become easier for them to bear if he fed them the truth in small, more palatable bits.
"Is London no longer to your taste?" Lady Charlotte asked him cautiously. She had no objection to her brother's retiring to the country. As long as he was in town, she had to watch her step. His leaving town was most welcome.
"I am not going to live there alone," Lord Metfield continued.
"Are you finally going to get that divorce?" Mr. Daventry asked. The surprise was not a pleasant one -- his brother was still young enough to remarry and produce an heir. Still, there was nothing he could do about that, he supposed.
"There is no need for a divorce," Lord Metfield said calmly. "Isabelle is dead."
"Well, I cannot say I am sorry for it!" Lady Victoria looked away when she realised her brother's ice-cold gaze resting on her. "After what that woman has done to us, I am sure it serves her right!"
"I am glad to find that my family has such a forgiving disposition," Lord Metfield said acidly.
"So you are going to remarry?" Lady Charlotte asked. "Very prudent, no doubt -- though Frederick will be disappointed. Won't you, Frederick?" She shot her brother a significant glance.
"I do not know what I am going to do," Lord Metfield said. "The possibility of another marriage is there, of course, though I cannot think of a candidate just yet -- I won't go for a girl just out of the schoolroom, you may depend on it. But it's early days yet." He smiled. "My children are going to stay at the Hall with me."
Mr. Daventry almost choked on his wine. "Did you say children?" he asked, after having regained his breath.
"Yes. Isabelle was with child when she left me," Lord Metfield said.
"Twins?" Lady Charlotte asked.
"Twins. A boy and a girl," Lord Metfield said. "Nineteen years of age."
"Are you sure they are yours?" Mr. Daventry blurted out, regretting his rashness when he noticed the look in his brother's eyes.
"I have no doubt," Lord Metfield said, in the calm but dangerous tone that his brother knew only too well.
"You cannot blame Frederick for his suspicion," Lady Charlotte said indignantly, trying to avert disaster. "With that kind of woman, one never knows. She might as well place a pair of cuckoo's eggs in her husband's nest --it is a well-lined one, after all."
"I have yet to meet a better woman than Isabelle," Lord Metfield said threateningly. "I will not have you speak of her like this, Charlotte. Consider yourself warned."
"Does Mama know?" Lady Victoria suddenly asked.
"Not yet," Lord Metfield said. "I did not think it was the right moment to tell her. I shall bring the children to meet her when she feels better."
"Not content with driving your father into an early grave, are you?" Lady Victoria asked. She rose, and together the sisters left the dining room to the gentlemen.
"You are sure those children are yours?" Mr. Daventry asked his brother when the door had been closed behind them.
"Absolutely," Lord Metfield said. "You may rest assured -- they are no cuckoo children. They were born six months after my wife left me."
"What has that got to say about it?" Mr. Daventry asked.
"Frederick, my warning applies to you as well. I will not have it. Isabelle never gave me the least reason to suppose that she was unfaithful."
"Mother will take it hard," Mr. Daventry said, after a short pause. "You know how she disliked your wife. The thought that Isabelle Girard's son will be the heir to Metfield will hurt her exceedingly."
"And you?" Lord Metfield asked. "This unexpected circumstance quite ruins your prospects."
Mr. Daventry shrugged. "I will manage," he said. "I never really counted on that inheritance."
Things had gone smoothly; Lord Metfield thought when he followed his brother to the drawing-room. Too smoothly for his taste. But perhaps the big uproar was still to come. It was not surprising that his family hesitated to acknowledge his children. But they would have to follow suit if he acknowledged them. No doubt regarding their parentage had ever entered his mind -- and despite his brother's insinuations, he was convinced that those children were his. Cuckoo children! Lord Metfield almost gave a derisive laugh but stopped himself in time. They had never known Isabelle the way he had. To them, she had always been an opera girl, a bit of muslin, a scheming female trying to get her hands on a title and fortune -- and when she had found out that at least the fortune was denied her, she had left. But Lord Metfield knew better. It was only a matter of time until his family would finally recognise the truth.
Alice spent an entire day discussing their prospects with her brother. She did not want to go to England -- leaving the place that had been her home for such a long time did not appeal to her. She felt no desire to meet her unknown father, who in her imagination had to be an ogre. Her mother would not have left him, she thought, had he been a considerate husband. There was nothing to look forward to, should she go to live with him.
On the other hand, Laurent pointed out, their father was an earl, and no doubt he was wealthy.
"Only think," he said to his sister, his eyes shining with delight, "he might send me to university after all! He can certainly afford it!"
"Do you think he'll allow you to study medicine?" Alice asked, doubtingly. "Is it genteel enough for an earl's son, do you think?"
"It is worth a try at least," Laurent said. "Give him a chance, Alice. You don't know what happened between Maman and him. Let him explain matters to you. If we do not like it there, we can still go back once we come of age!"
"That's still two years to go," Alice said gloomily. "Two years can be a long time if one is feeling miserable."
"Alice," Laurent suddenly said, "Maman wanted us to stay with him."
"Who says so?" Alice protested.
"She sent him a letter," Laurent said. "Do you think she would have done so, had she not wanted him to take care of us? He did not know we existed -- you heard that Mr. Blake say so. No one would have been the wiser if she had just kept quiet. But she didn't. She wanted him to look after us -- so she must have trusted him after all."
Alice refrained from saying that, between leaving her children to the world alone and unprotected and sending them to live with their affluent though uncaring father, the latter had probably been the lesser evil in her mother's opinion. Laurent's argument had not convinced her.
It was Bernadine who decided matters. She came into Alice's room in the evening, and sat down on her bed.
"Have you decided yet?" she asked quietly.
"No," Alice said. "Laurent wants to go, I don't."
"You should go," Bernadine said. "Your father has suffered enough, I think."
"You knew him, didn't you?" Alice suddenly said. Why had she not thought of this earlier? She could have asked Bernadine all along.
"Do you know why my mother left him?" Alice asked.
"I know they had a quarrel," Bernadine said. "I know that your mother left him in consequence of that, and I also know that she often wanted to return to him, but her pride forbade that. Your father is a good man, Alice. What happened was not his fault. It was your mother's. What she did was wrong. I stayed with her because I knew she needed someone to stand by her, but that doesn't mean I agreed with what she did."
Alice sighed. "Will you come with us if we go to England?" she asked Bernadine.
"Have I ever let you down?" Bernadine asked with a smile. "Of course I'll come with you."
"So be it, then," Alice said with a sigh. "Let us go to England. I do hope I won't live to regret it."
As promised, Mr. Blake returned the following morning, and once being told that Alice and Laurent were going to live with their father in England after all, he set to work. Alice could not help but marvel at his energy and the way he took charge of everything concerning their removal - there was almost nothing left for them to do apart from packing their belongings.
The disposal of the house was not a problem. It had not belonged to their mother; she had leased it. Their landlord was only too happy to hear that they would move out. He had had serious misgivings regarding their ability to pay the rent, and though that problem seemed to be solved now - he had heard that the twins' relatives were quite affluent - he did not say no to the possibility of letting the house again, at the same rate, for a second time this year. He felt he could do well with an extra source of income, especially since he would have to refurbish the house before letting it to another tenant.
Alice gave her mother's clothes to Julie, except a few garments that she did not want to part from for sentimental reasons. She kept the shawl that her mother had often worn - Mrs. Daventry's favourite perfume was still clinging to it. Another thing Alice kept was her mother's wedding dress. Perhaps, she thought with a smile, she might be allowed to wear it at her own wedding, one day, if Lord Metfield did not think it was beneath him to let his daughter marry in an old gown that had belonged to her mother.
There were some arguments about which items they were to take with them. Mr. Blake was quite adamant that most of the things that had been in their house should be sold. It was more expensive, he said, to have everything transported to England than to buy new things once one had arrived there.
"I am not going to leave these here," Alice protested, pointing at her music-sheets.
"Why not?" Mr. Blake said. "Do you think there are no music-sheets to be had in England?"
"Most of them are copies my mother made," Alice said. "She spent hours writing them - do you really think I could throw them away? Certainly not!"
With a sigh, Mr. Blake told her to take the music sheets with her if she felt like it. For a girl who had grown up in reduced circumstances, Lady Alice was remarkably domineering, he thought. She could not have been any bossier, had she spent all her life as his lordship's overindulged daughter in Metfield Hall. It would be interesting to watch how the easygoing Lord Metfield would deal with that imperious daughter of his.
Laurent was easier to handle, Mr. Blake found out. Unlike his sister, he had resigned himself to the situation and was ready to make the best of it. He was looking forward to meeting his father and was willing to give him a chance. Laurent Daventry was an intelligent, amiable boy, and soon he and Mr. Blake had become fast friends. Laurent would not give his father much trouble.
The twins spent their last evening in Lausanne with M. Chaillot. He had invited them to dine with him before they started their journey to England the next morning. Their entire baggage was already at the inn where they would spend their night - their house was empty and no longer welcoming. It was not a very lively evening. Both M. Chaillot and the young Daventrys felt their separation looming over them, and it fell to Mr. Blake to keep the conversation going.
When they left M. Chaillot's house, their old friend embraced both Alice and Laurent and told them that, should they ever wish it, they could call his house their home.
"I hate to see you go," he said quietly, so that Mr. Blake could not hear him. "Burning every bridge behind you, too. I hope you will let me know how you are ... over there."
Alice promised to keep M. Chaillot informed, and then took her leave, careful not to aggravate M. Chaillot even further by showing the misery she was feeling.
It was only a short walk from M. Chaillot's home to the inn, and Alice was glad that Mr. Blake and Laurent were so absorbed in their conversation that they did not notice her tears. How Laurent could be so indifferent to their change of situation she did not know, but it broke her heart to leave everything she had known behind, and for what? A father she had never known, and a home that was no home to her because she had never seen it. A family that, judging by what she had heard from Mr. Blake, was none too happy about their existence. Was this something to look forward to?
Only when they reached the inn, Alice realised that Mr. Blake, apparently, had noticed she was crying. He handed her a handkerchief and said, "Saying farewell is always difficult, Lady Alice. You need not be ashamed of your tears."
"I am not ashamed," she said testily, annoyed that she had been found out. She dried her tears and gave the handkerchief back to Mr. Blake. For someone so businesslike, she thought, it was remarkable that he should notice her emotional state. Until now, she had thought he only cared about getting his job done - and it was not a part of his job to notice - or care about - how either she or Laurent felt.
For a moment, it looked as if Mr. Blake wanted to make some reply, but whatever it was he had wanted to say, he seemed to have thought better of it. He took his handkerchief and held the door open for Alice, wishing her a good night as she went upstairs to her room.
The next morning, after a miserable and almost sleepless night, they were off.
Lord Metfield was not idle. He prepared Metfield Hall for the reception of his children, and since his sisters as well as his other female relatives had refused to cooperate, he tried to find a respectable lady to become his daughter's companion. He did not think Alice needed a governess - he knew Isabelle had probably taught her children herself, and she had been most accomplished - but she did need someone to show her the kind of deportment one expected of Lady Alice Daventry.
Blake had sent an advertisement to one of the major agencies in town, but Lord Metfield had taken it on himself to interview the candidates for the post. So far, six ladies had been rejected, for various reasons. Three of them had been too old - Lord Metfield felt that Alice needed someone she could become friends with, and ladies in their fifties were no likely confidantes for a girl of nineteen, whatever their qualities might be.
One had shown him excellent references which, upon inquiry, had turned out to be false. One had been a silly creature, and her weak mind was likely to be overborne by Alice's strong character. Blake's letters from Switzerland had forewarned Lord Metfield that Lady Alice would need someone whose intelligence she could respect, a lady who had a will strong enough to tackle her overbearing character without oppressing the girl. That had been the objection he had had to the last candidate. The lady seemed to have a will of iron, and after five minutes in her company, Lord Metfield had been convinced that she would reduce Alice to a nervous wreck in a matter of days. He had to set his hopes on the last applicant.
Mrs. Trevor arrived in perfect time for her interview. Lord Metfield gave her a surreptitious look-over while she introduced herself, and was amused to see that the lady seemed to subject him to some kind of inspection too.
Mrs. Trevor was in her mid-thirties, and though the first bloom of her youth was over she was still a fine-looking woman. Her clothes were neat and elegant, yet she did not look as if she had made any extra efforts to impress him. She had style, Lord Metfield thought - the perfect advisor for a young girl when it came to the art of dressing tastefully.
After a short interview, he was certain he had found the right woman. Mrs. Trevor was thirty-five years old - old enough to be respected by Alice and young enough to be able to sympathise with a nineteen-year-old girl in Alice's situation. She was from a respectable family - both her father and her eldest brother were clergymen - and had been married to a sailor who had died of malaria ten years previously. After her husband's death, Mrs. Trevor had acted as a governess for Lady Fontley's three daughters, and Lady Fontley had supplied her with a letter of recommendation, praising her to the skies.
Her intelligence and manners left nothing to be desired, Lord Metfield thought, and after a short discussion he also realised that her general knowledge was remarkable. In short, she was just the kind of woman he wanted his daughter to associate with.
She had no objection to staying in a widower's household to look after his daughter, and she agreed with Lord Metfield that Lady Alice was, most likely, more in need of a friend than a governess. The salary Lord Metfield offered her was more than sufficient, more than she had expected, and she hoped she would be able to prove that she earned every single penny of it.
After having paid a call on Lady Fontley and ascertaining that her glowing report of Mrs. Trevor had not been another attempt at fooling him, Lord Metfield let Mrs. Trevor know that she had been engaged, and that the twins were expected to arrive at Metfield Hall in mid-July. Another problem had been taken care of.
Once he had promoted one of the housemaids to the post of Lady Alice's personal maid, and had asked the local curate to prepare Mr. Laurent Daventry for his university education, Lord Metfield was able to look forward to the first meeting with his offspring with something like complacency. Metfield Hall was ready to receive the Earl's children.
The first part of their journey was uneventful, though it was exceedingly strenuous. They started early each morning, and travelled almost until nightfall every day, stopping for the night in the best posting-houses but never quite managing to get enough sleep. This was why Alice became rather short-tempered and, for the slightest reasons, started arguments with either her brother or Bernadine. For some reason, she did not manage to quarrel with Mr. Blake - he simply ignored her provocations, and always treated her with the utmost civility, acting as if nothing at all had happened to upset him. It was infuriating, Alice thought. How did one start a quarrel with such a man?
They boarded a ship in Marseille and were bound for Southampton, and almost from the first moment she had gone aboard the ship, Alice began to feel sick. Alice, who had never been seriously ill in all her life, almost despaired. She lay in her cabin with her eyes closed, and whenever she tried to open them, another bout of nausea overcame her. Bernadine was with her all the time, and tried everything in her power to make Alice feel better. Her efforts were mostly without effect, and there were moments when Alice hoped she might die.
Fed up with staying in her cabin all the time, Alice finally decided to spend some time on deck. She stepped onto the deck and looked around her, almost blinded by the sun after having spent so much time in her dark cabin. Mr. Blake, who had been talking to Laurent a few steps away from her, came to her assistance immediately, his eyes anxiously scanning Alice's face.
"How are you feeling, Lady Alice?" he asked, taking her arm to support her. "Better?"
"Not really," Alice said with a weak smile. "Why does that awful country have to be an island?"
"This is one of the few things for which I cannot be blamed ," Mr. Blake said dryly. Alice gave him a searching look.
"I have given you a great deal of trouble, haven't I?" she said ruefully. "It is only - I do not like my situation above half, and though I know it is not your fault..."
"You like to take your anger out on me," Mr. Blake said with a grin. "I suspected as much."
"I must seem like a terrible sort of person to you," Alice said.
"Oh no," he assured her. "Not terrible."
"But not very pleasant either."
He smiled, but said nothing in answer to that. As another bout of dizziness overcame her, Alice almost swooned. Mr. Blake got hold of her and said, "Better keep your eyes on the horizon, Lady Alice. Or do you want to go back to your cabin?"
"Good God, no!" Alice said. "Bernadine will only tell me off for trying to get out of bed. But I needed some fresh air!"
"I can quite understand that," Mr. Blake said. "Perhaps it will do you good, who can tell?"
"Would you mind very much if I threw myself overboard?" Alice suddenly asked, feeling rather sick again.
"That bad, is it?" Mr. Blake asked, sounding concerned. "Shall I bribe the Captain to set us ashore in Cadiz?"
"And travel all the way across Spain and France to Calais, only to get aboard another ship?" Alice asked. "I appreciate that you wish to spare me, sir, but I am sure I will get better soon if I stick to my diet of tea and ginger biscuits." She smiled. "No doubt my father will be pleased to hear that though I did not manage to come to see him, I died trying."
Mr. Blake laughed. "I hope it won't come to that, Lady Alice. But here is your brother - I shall leave you with him. Will you do me a favour? Don‘t commit suicide just yet."
He went off, no doubt to see the Captain and negotiate the possibility of their going ashore in Cadiz, and Alice spent half an hour with Laurent, who was enthusiastic about their sea journey and told her about the friends he had made among the passengers and crew, and the things he had seen and done. At least one of them, Alice thought, was enjoying himself. If only they were in England already.
Even though her symptoms of seasickness abated after a couple of days, Alice did not get used to living on board a ship, and no one could have been more relieved than she when, finally, they disembarked in Southampton. Alice was still weak and had lost a great deal of weight during her sea-journey. That fact, in combination with her mourning-attire, made Alice look frightful, as she well knew.
"How far is it to my father's home?" Alice asked when they sat down to dinner in Southampton. She was glad that the thought of food did not make her feel nauseous, as it had done while she had been at sea.
"Metfield Hall is in Dorset, near Weymouth," Mr. Blake said. "We will travel there in easy stages, Lady Alice. You will spend the night under your father's roof before long - we will arrive there the day after tomorrow."
"Is it possible to get there in one day?" Alice asked. She had had enough of travelling.
"Possible, but not recommendable," Mr. Blake said. "I'd like you to arrive in Metfield in good health."
"Ah yes," Alice said dryly. "Who'd want me to lose my good looks?"
Laurent laughed. "The way you look at the moment," he said, gasping for breath, "I hope my father won't mistake you for his mother!"
"Thank you, Laurent," Alice said, colouring angrily. "That was just the kind of encouragement I needed."
"I do not think Lord Metfield will mistake Lady Alice for her grandmother," Mr. Blake said quietly. "The Dowager Countess is unlikely to come to see him."
"What?" Laurent looked greatly surprised. "Why?"
"Lady Metfield is an invalid," Mr. Blake said. "She hardly ever leaves the Dower House, least of all to visit her son. She despises him."
"She despises my father?" Alice asked. She had suspected that the family would not welcome them with open arms, but that her father was an outcast too was a piece of news.
"Yes. She never forgave him for marrying your mother, Lady Alice," Mr. Blake said. "It is only fair that I tell you as much - your father will be very happy to have you with him, but not many family members will share his enthusiasm."
Alice sighed. "Don't you look forward to living here?" she asked her brother, who only gave her a grin in reply.
They arrived in Metfield Hall in the late afternoon, which according to Mr. Blake was very lucky. Black clouds were gathering and giving the house a sinister look, and gusts of wind were coming in from the sea. They were in for a stormy night, apparently.
"Your father's house," Mr. Blake said when the Hall came into view, and Alice was amazed to see what passed as a house in these parts.
"Pray, what do palaces look like in this country if you call this a house?" she asked. Metfield Hall was grander than she had imagined, and considering that her father was an earl, she had expected something rather impressive.
Laurent looked out of the carriage window and gave an astonished whistle. "How many people live in there?" he asked. "It looks as if it could house an entire village and we'd still have room to spare!"
Metfield Hall was indeed enormous. It was situated on a hill, overlooking the sea. Its most distinctive feature were four slender towers, which had been built for ornamental purposes, apparently, for they did not look as if they were of use to anyone. The windows were huge - and there were a great deal of them, Alice noted. She heartily pitied the maids who had to clean them - she was no stranger to window-cleaning and hated that kind of work.
About half a mile from the house, the lane divided. Mr. Blake pointed at the lane to their left and told them that this was the way to the Dower House, where their grandmother and aunt lived.
"You will pay a call on them before long, I daresay," he said. "Even though your father is not on the best of terms with his family, he does like to deal with them in the proper way."
This did not bode well, Alice thought. She did not want to be on speaking terms with a woman who had hated her mother. Visits at her grandmother's place were something Alice could do without.
As the carriage drew up in the courtyard of Metfield Hall, the place looked even more intimidating. A footman opened the carriage door, the steps were let down and Mr. Blake got out of the carriage first, greeting the footman with an air of familiarity that showed that he was not a stranger to this place. Alice alighted from the carriage and looked around her.
"How do you like your new home, Lady Alice?" Mr. Blake asked her.
"To say the truth, it is downright frightening," Alice said. "How am I supposed to find my way around in this place?"
"It is easier than you imagine," Mr. Blake said with a smile.
"If Julie were with us, she would lose no time in telling us that there must be a resident ghost in this place," Laurent said with a laugh. "And you know what? Looking at it, I'd be tempted to believe it."
"That's because there is one," Mr. Blake said with something like a mischievous grin. "That is, there are some stories, but Lord Metfield says they are all nonsense. He says the sightings coincide with the amount of strong drink consumed at the local pub."
Alice was tempted to laugh. She had one thing in common with her father, apparently. She, too, was disinclined to believe in the supernatural.
They entered an entrance hall, which was as imposing as the front of the house.
Two maids were waiting to take their coats and hats, and then the butler took them to the far end of the hall. His lordship, he informed them, was awaiting them in the library. At the library door, Mr. Blake took leave of them.
"I am sure your father wishes to be alone with you," he said earnestly. "We will meet again at dinner."
"But you cannot let us down now," Alice protested before she could stop herself.
"Let you down?" Mr. Blake asked. "I am not going to let you down, Lady Alice. But I am sure Lord Metfield does not want his secretary around when he meets his children for the first time. This is a family matter, Lady Alice, and I am not family."
He gave her an encouraging smile, gave Laurent a friendly pat on his shoulder, and then walked up the stairs at the end of the hall. The butler opened the door in front of them and, taking a deep breath, Alice took her brother's hand and went into the library to meet her father.
The man waiting for them in the library did not at all look like the picture of her father Alice had formed in her mind. For one, Lord Metfield looked too young to have a pair of nineteen-year-old twins. For a moment, Alice suspected that their father had evaded them again, and that this man was either another hireling or a friend of the family. Then Alice realised that the man coming towards them with an uncertain smile hovering on his face was their father. His likeness to Laurent was too striking to be coincidental.
"Welcome home," he said, taking Alice and Laurent's hands. "Let me take a look at you."
For a few moments, none of them spoke. They just stood there, assessing each other. Then Lord Metfield let out an uncomfortable laugh.
"This is awkward, isn't it?" he said with a disarming smile. "I feared it would be like this - which is why I did not come to meet you outside, in front of everybody. Something in me wanted to put off our first encounter for as long as possible. I haven't got the least clue how to deal with this situation, and there is no one who could advise me. All my friends have met their children within minutes after they were born - not almost twenty years later." He paused, giving them an anxious look. "Can one of you say something and set me at ease?" he asked, almost pleadingly.
When neither Alice nor Laurent showed any sign of granting his request, he sighed.
"Did you understand what I was saying?" he asked, switching to French without the least difficulty. "I was told you spoke English, but I should have considered that you may not have had an opportunity to practice the language very often."
He was trying hard, Alice had to acknowledge that, and he seemed to be a pleasant man. Still, her mother had left him and kept herself hidden. Something had to be wrong with him. Alice watched him warily, while Laurent finally took pity on him.
"We understood you well enough, sir," he said, in English. "It was only ... there did not seem to be an awful lot to say."
"You are right, of course," their father said, giving his son an irresistible smile. Alice had once asked her mother what had made her fall in love with "Papa", and her mother had, without hesitation, blamed his smile. Now Alice realised what she had been talking about. Lord Metfield had the most charming smile Alice had ever seen.
"I suppose I am talking too much," he continued. "Perhaps I should have taken you in my arms instead, only I felt you might object to such treatment from a stranger - for this is what I am to you. Sad, isn't it?"
He led them to a sofa, asked them to sit down and offered them some refreshment, which they accepted gratefully.
"How was your journey?" he asked when the twins had had some tea and cake. It was apparent that he sought refuge in some polite conversation and had decided not to touch any painful topics - for now.
"Fine, thank you," Laurent said. "Though Alice did not particularly enjoy our sea voyage," he added with a grin.
"Got sea-sick?" Her father gave Alice a worried look. "Or were you merely frightened?"
"I was sea-sick," Alice said, thawing a bit. "Very much so. - I do not take fright easily, sir."
"No, I did not think you would," her father said. "You do not appear to be that kind. As to sea-sickness, it is a terrible affliction. I suffer from it whenever I board a ship."
"Have you often been at sea?" Laurent asked his father.
"Very often," Lord Metfield answered. "I went to France several times, so my sea-journeys were rather short. But I suffered every time." He turned to Alice. "You are feeling better now, aren't you?" he said. "If you still feel under the weather, let me know, and I will send for the doctor."
"That is very kind," Alice said, "but not at all necessary, I assure you. Bernadine is very good at looking after me."
"Ah yes, Bernadine!" Lord Metfield smiled. "How is the dear old girl? She was my greatest supporter when I was courting your mother."
"Bernadine is very well, I think," Alice said. "I should have realised that you know her - she has been working for my mother's family for more than forty years."
"I will have to go and see her later," her father said. "I am sure there is a great deal she wants to tell me. There are some plans I have for her, too."
"Which are?" Laurent asked.
"Well I believe that, at her age, she must be thinking of retiring."
"Far from it," Alice said. "She said she would not leave us." And, she added quietly, she would not allow her father to get rid of the only person they were familiar with - the only person they could trust implicitly.
"I never had the intention of sending her away," her father said. A thunder announced that the storm that had been brewing when they had arrived had finally broken loose.
"I am glad you got here in time," he said, going to the window and looking out. "It looks like a nasty storm - I'd hate to be travelling in such weather. I got rather worried when I saw the clouds and you were not here yet."
He sounded sincere enough, Alice thought.
"Mrs. Griffiths is going to take you to your rooms now," he announced, after a short pause. "You will wish to get ready for dinner, and I want to see Bernadine. You will meet Mrs. Trevor at dinner, Alice. She is going to be your companion."
"What is wrong with Bernadine being my companion?" Alice asked, flaring up.
"Nothing," her father said, unperturbed by her behaviour. "But you will need a chaperon if you want to be accepted in society - a gentlewoman to bear you company. I like and respect Bernadine, but you'll have to admit that she does not pass for a lady."
He had a point, Alice had to admit, but she did not like the notion of having a paid companion. She'd keep a close watch on that Mrs. Trevor, Alice decided. Who knew what that woman was up to?
Lord Metfield rang a bell and soon the summons was answered by a lady in her fifties, dressed in a sober gown and a neat cap. She was introduced as Mrs. Griffiths, the housekeeper. Alice detected a hint of hostility in her manner, and wondered why this was so. Surely they had not done anything to deserve the housekeeper's disapproval? They had not even met her yet!
Their father expressed his hope that they would find their rooms to their liking, and told them they would meet again at dinner.
Mrs. Griffiths took them upstairs. They followed her along a dark and seemingly endless passage - Mrs. Griffiths referred to it as the "Long Gallery" - until Mrs. Griffiths opened a door to their right.
"Mr. Daventry's room," she said stiffly. "I hope you will find it to your taste, sir."
"I am sure I will," Laurent said. Through the open door they could see a well-dressed gentleman, slightly older than their father, unpacking Laurent's trunks. Mrs. Griffiths introduced him as Mr. Avery, his lordship's valet. Once Laurent had been left to Mr. Avery's care, Mrs. Griffiths took Alice further along the corridor and finally opened the last door on the right.
"Your apartment, my lady," she said. "It used to be Lady Victoria's."
"Indeed?" Alice said. "I hope she did not have to give it up for my sake." Who was Lady Victoria anyway?
"No, my lady," Mrs. Griffiths said. "Lady Victoria moved to the Dower House with Lady Metfield when the late Earl died." Her tone indicated that Lady Victoria had been driven from her home for Alice's sake, and that she, Mrs. Griffiths, did not approve of such measures.
She held the door open for Alice to enter. They found a harassed-looking maid unpacking Alice's trunks and Bernadine, ordering the girl about and enjoying herself immensely by the look of it.
"This is Nell," Mrs. Griffiths said. "She is going to be your personal maid."
Nell curtseyed, and welcomed Alice at Metfield Hall. She was the first servant in this house, Alice thought, who seemed pleased to make her acquaintance. But perhaps that was only because Lady Alice's arrival provided her with a well-paid and prestigious position in Lord Metfield's household. Time would tell if Nell's attentiveness had sprung from avarice or real kindness.
Alice assured Mrs. Griffiths that she would let her know if she needed anything, and the housekeeper left her room, no doubt with the intention to regale the servants with a first-hand account of Lady Alice and Mr. Daventry's arrival, dwelling on how difficult they would find it to fit in.
Nell gave Alice a shy smile. "I took the liberty to have a hot bath prepared for you, my lady. I thought you might want to relax a little after your long journey."
"Excellent," Alice said. "This is just the thing I wanted."
"Will you wear the grey silk dress for dinner, my lady, or the black one?" Nell asked.
"Whichever," Alice said with a shrug. "I do not care."
"The grey one," Bernadine said. "She looks much prettier in the grey one."
Alice gave Bernadine a fierce look. Who cared which dress she wore? There was no one among the people in the house she wanted to impress.
"The grey one, then," Nell said.
"The black one," Alice said, looking at Bernadine furiously. She was not five any more -- Bernadine had no right to tell her what to wear. Bernadine only shrugged.
"My lady wishes to wear the black one," she said. "So if you get it ready for her, I will assist her with her bath."
"I have not needed anyone's help in my bath ever since I was four," Alice protested.
"You will need it today,"' Bernadine said firmly and pushed Alice through a door into a small dressing room, where a tub of water was awaiting her.
While Alice was taking her bath, Bernadine gave her a lecture that she knew she would not forget in a hurry.
"Don't you remember how those ill-bred English heiresses in Mme. Vincent's seminary used to upset you? And now you are behaving like the worst of them! I hope you kept a civil tongue in your head when you were with your father! A fine picture he'll have of your upbringing! And who'll be blamed? Me. He could never find fault with your mother, and I guess that hasn't changed much. Now get out of that bath and get ready and behave yourself, or I'll skin you, see if I don't!"
Despite herself, Alice had to grin. She found herself strongly reminded of her childhood days when she and Laurent had been caught in some mischief or other. She knew Bernadine would never hurt her - and yet she had to admit that she had been right. Alice's behaviour had been deplorable. Nell was not to blame for the situation she had found herself in - yet Alice had taken her frustration out on her. It was inexcusable.
So, when Nell came into the dressing room with Alice's dress, she tried to be friendlier with her to make up for her previous behaviour. She commended the girl on her skill with her hair, and even allowed herself to be persuaded to wear a shawl that lightened the sobriety of her gown. It would not do to insult the only servant who had, so far, been kind to her.
When they were finished with getting dressed, the butler took Laurent and Alice to a large drawing room. This room alone, Alice thought, would have taken up an entire floor of their house in Lausanne. Their new home was grand - but she had yet to find a cosy spot. Alice did not really feel comfortable here.
She was glad to see a familiar face - Mr. Blake rose from his seat and wished her a good evening as she came into the room. Laurent's face lit up as he saw his father's secretary, and went to him immediately, enthusing about the house in general and his room in particular.
Mr. Blake listened with an amused smile, and finally turned to Alice to ask her what she thought of her new home.
"I have not seen much of it yet," Alice said cautiously. "But I think it will take some getting used to."
"It does," Mr. Blake admitted. "I still think Lord Metfield should have received you in London first - his town house is smaller, not quite as intimidating. Not that it is my business, really," he added hastily when the door opened and his employer came in.
"Been abusing me in my absence, Blake?" he asked pleasantly, with a humorous twinkle in his eyes.
"With the possibility of you coming into the room any moment, my lord?" Mr. Blake asked, smiling. "Had I wanted to abuse you in front of your children, my lord, I would have had plenty of opportunity to do so during our journey."
With some relief Alice noticed that her father only laughed. He seemed to be on easy terms with his secretary.
"I wanted to spare them an encounter with London society before they were ready," he said conversationally, and turned to Alice. "I cannot imagine my neighbours giving you a respite. Their curiosity would make them forget their manners."
"Not at all," Mr. Blake said. "Visits of condolence are an important ritual, my lord. Did you not receive any?"
"I am glad to say I did not." Lord Metfield had suddenly become earnest. "I could not have faced them, to say the truth. Condolences, when I knew they were quite happy that my inconvenient wife was dead? Their relief must have been great indeed when they heard they'd never be called upon to receive the Countess of Metfield."
"How will they receive us?" Laurent wanted to know. Considering what had been said about their mother, Alice wondered about that, too.
"You will be society's darling," their father said with a grin. "You are my heir, and many a mother wishes her daughter to become a countess."
"And Alice?" Laurent asked.
"That depends on Alice," was the curt reply. Alice quite understood. The fact that Laurent was the heir to a title and -- by the look of it -- a large fortune made him acceptable for society, despite his mother's lowly origins. But there was no reason for people to accept Alice. She would have to try harder. Alice was not sure if she wanted to bother.
The door opened, and a lady came in. This had to be her companion, Alice thought and gave her a critical look-over. She was an elegant creature, though her dress was fitting her station. She was good-looking, too, and Alice speculated what criteria her father had applied when he had made the decision about her employment.
"Am I late?" the lady asked. Alice wondered whether she had been the last one to arrive on purpose, so that her arrival would not pass unnoticed.
"Absolutely punctual," Lord Metfield said. "Alice, come here. I would like to present Mrs. Trevor to you."
Alice was not sure how they would get along. One could not really tell yet - Mrs. Trevor's manners were pleasant enough, but she gave nothing away.
After dinner, Mrs. Trevor took Alice back to the drawing room.
"Let us make use of the opportunity and get to know each other, Lady Alice," she said.
Alice nodded. She was all for getting things straight right from the beginning.
"You do not talk much, do you, Lady Alice?" Mrs. Trevor sat down on the sofa and gave Alice an expectant look.
"Not when I am not well acquainted with people," Alice admitted. "I am often at a loss when it comes to finding a suitable topic."
"Tell me a few things about you," Mrs. Trevor said. "Lord Metfield told me your mother was very musical. Did you learn to play an instrument?"
"Several," Alice said. "Maman was very strict about it. I learned to play the pianoforte and the harp, and my brother plays the piano and the violin. This was especially important to my mother, because my grandfather was a famous violinist. She wanted Laurent to follow in his footsteps."
"She wanted your brother to become a violinist?"
"Not a professional one," Alice said. "But she wanted him to play Grandpapa's violin. A violin dies when it is not played, Mrs. Trevor, and Grandpapa's instrument is a valuable one. A Stradivarius, if this has any meaning to you."
"Not really, I am afraid," Mrs. Trevor said with an apologetic smile. "I have never applied myself to the topic of famous violins. - Does your brother's skill on the instrument come close to your grandfather's then?"
"I have never heard Grandpapa play," Alice said sadly. She wished she had. "He died before I was born. But Maman said Laurent would never be as good a player as he was, because he does not practice enough. He is rather good though, in my opinion -- good enough to be allowed to play Grandpapa's violin."
"Shall we hear you play tonight?" Mrs. Trevor asked.
"Why not?" Alice asked. "But I hope you will forgive me if the performance is not what you had expected, ma'am. I have not practiced for a while."
"I am sure your performance will be superior nevertheless," Mrs. Trevor said. "The improvement of your skills on the pianoforte will be none of my duties, I suppose."
"Most likely not," Alice agreed, wondering whether she sounded patronising.
"Did you attend a school, Lady Alice, or were you taught at home?"
"Both," Alice said. "I went to a school in Lausanne, but my mother also taught me at home, feeling that the accomplishments I acquired in school were not sufficient. She said the schooling I received was an insult to my intelligence."
Mrs. Trevor laughed. "Apparently, Lady Metfield was not one to hold back her opinion," she said. "Do you read, Lady Alice?"
"I do, though not overly much," Alice said. "We did not have many books, though we were allowed to take books from M. Chaillot's study whenever we liked."
"M. Chaillot was a neighbour?"
"A good friend," Alice said. "I miss him very much."
"What kind of books do you like to read then?" Mrs. Trevor asked. "Poetry? Novels? Histories? Or drama?"
"I am acquainted with both Shakespeare and Moliere," Alice said. "M. Chaillot also had the works of Rousseau and Voltaire, which I have read but I cannot claim to have understood everything." She laughed. "I am not very well-read in English literature, mainly because it was difficult to get one's hands on English books where we lived. I hope to catch up on my English reading now."
"If you need any recommendations," Mrs. Trevor said, "I will be glad to be of assistance."
"Thank you, Mrs. Trevor," Alice said.
"It seems Lord Metfield was right when he said that you were an accomplished young lady," Mrs. Trevor said. "Then all that is left for me to teach you is how to manage a household the size of Metfield Hall."
"I do know a thing or two about housekeeping, Mrs. Trevor," Alice said coldly. She had kept her mother's house, once it had become clear that her mother was no longer able to do so.
"But there are differences between your mother's home in Lausanne and a house like Metfield Hall." Mrs. Trevor said. "You will find out soon."
The gentlemen chose that moment to make their appearance, and so Alice bit back her retort.
As the tea tray was brought in, her father asked Alice to do the honours as a hostess, and so she filled the tea-cups and handed them to the gentlemen under Mrs. Trevor's watchful eyes. She could not help feeling that this was some sort of test she had to pass - but when Mrs. Trevor gave her a satisfied smile Alice felt that she had done well.
Alice was back in her room and getting ready for bed when there was a knock at the door and her brother came in. He cast an appreciative look at the furnishings, and waited for Nell to leave.
"So, what do you think?" he asked, once they were alone. "I quite like our father, don't you?"
"It is much too early to decide yet."
Laurent sighed. "Alice, give him a chance," he said.
"I am only cautious," Alice said.
"No, you're not," Laurent said. "You've decided to dislike him long before you actually met him. This has nothing to do with caution, Alice. Prejudice, more like."
"Once he has proved his trustworthiness, I'll trust him," Alice said.
Laurent shook his head at Alice's stubbornness. "Just what will he have to do to prove himself?" he asked. "He got us here, he offers us all this!" With a movement of his hands, he indicated Alice's entire room.
"But he must have done something terrible to make Maman leave him," Alice insisted.
"Do you know what happened between them?" Laurent asked.
"I don't need to," Alice said.
"Yes you do." Laurent gave her an annoyed look. "Don't you dare judge or absolve either of them before you know all the facts. - Good night, Alice."
He left the room, and Alice lay down on her bed, trying to go to sleep. The sound of the wind and the raindrops on the windowpanes kept her awake for a while, and Laurent's words did not help either.
She did not yet trust her father - unlike Laurent, she had never had too trusting a nature. Why should she treat her father any differently than she treated other people? If he really was worthy of her regard, he would prove himself before long. If not ... well, M. Chaillot had offered her a home. She'd go back to Lausanne and stay with him.
©2005 Copyright held by the author.