Cuckoo Children

 

Chapter Five

It was late, but Lord Metfield had not gone to bed yet. He wanted to see Bernadine -- the one person who could answer all his questions regarding Isabelle and the children, and how they had fared all that time. He knew, or thought he knew, why Isabelle had left him. In her letter, Isabelle had also told him why she had not come back. But she had refrained from telling him what she had done all those years, where she had been, what kind of friends she had had.... there were hundreds of things he wanted to know.

Bernadine came immediately when he sent for her. She still looked very much the same, he thought, although her hair was grey now. There had only been some grey streaks in her hair when he had last seen her.

He greeted her, and offered her a seat. Bernadine sat down, and said, "You haven't changed much."

"Neither have you," Lord Metfield said with a laugh. "You will not notice my changes at first sight, but I am different from what I was. I've grown up, Bernadine."

"I can't blame you for changing," Bernadine said. "What that foolish girl did to you was unpardonable. You did not deserve that."

Lord Metfield had expected anything but that candid disapproval of what Isabelle had done. Bernadine had always been loyal to her, after all.

"But perhaps I did," he said with a sigh, feeling he ought to defend Isabelle. "Perhaps I did."

"No," Bernadine said sharply. "No one should be punished so severely for a word spoken in anger."

"She was not foolish," Lord Metfield said, reflecting what Bernadine had said and finding some truth in it -- just enough truth to provide him with some comfort.

"Not as a rule, no," Bernadine said. "But in that particular matter she was -- more than foolish. I told her so often enough, and she did see my point."

Lord Metfield, who had often seen Bernadine scold his wife, did not doubt that. One did not argue with Bernadine.

"Yet you stayed with her," he said.

"I couldn't let her down, could I?" Bernadine retorted. "The poor stupid girl, pregnant with a pair of twins -- I suspected that long before she did -- in a country she didn't know, even though her parents had been born and raised there. How far would she have got, had it not been for me? How long would she have lasted?"

"I owe you the deepest gratitude for staying with her, Bernadine," Lord Metfield said. "If there is anything I could do in return for this..."

"There isn't." Bernadine said matter-of-factly, and Lord Metfield knew this was true. One could not repay years of devoted service -- not with money, anyway, which was the only thing he could offer.

"She really did not know she was expecting?" he asked, after a short pause. "I have been wondering, ever since I had her letter...that she might have known."

"She had no idea," Bernadine said. "As I said, I suspected it before she did."

"Are you sure?"

"I am sure. She had a shock when I suggested it."

"It is only.... Lord Metfield stopped for a moment, wondering whether he should tell Bernadine or not, but then decided that Bernadine was, most likely, well acquainted with what his quarrel with Isabelle had been about.
"The reason for our last quarrel suggests that she did know, or at least suspect she was pregnant," he said.

"Be assured. She didn't." Bernadine said. "It's just coincidence, my lord."

Was it? Lord Metfield had to be satisfied with never knowing for certain. Their last quarrel had been about money; Isabelle had accused him of wasting it, of behaving as if he were still single, of disregarding that he was no longer answerable only to himself. Lord Metfield, who had always had to answer for every single penny he had spent, had resented the accusation -- especially since the quarrel had started because he had given Isabelle an expensive present.

Single men did not spend their money on presents for ladies -- at least he had never been that sort. He had not expected a diatribe of such dimensions for buying his wife a gift, and his reaction to her scold had been only natural -- disappointment, and anger. In retrospect, he had to admit that a pregnant woman worried about her children's future would have a valid reason to reproach her husband for wasting money that would soon be needed. Yet, why should a pregnant woman -- a penniless woman, too, for her father's savings had not got Isabelle very far -- leave a husband whose income would have provided her and her children with everything they needed? He had had two thousand a year, which was no paltry sum. It would have enabled him to support a family.

"It is late, Bernadine," he finally said, when he noticed Bernadine was stifling a yawn. "I am sorry for keeping you up and about for so long. Good night." He smiled. "We shall talk about Isabelle some more, for there is much I want to know -- but not tonight."

Bernadine seemed grateful to be allowed to go off to bed and find some sleep. Lord Metfield, too, went to his bedchamber, but it was long before he could rest. His children were with him now -- but what he was to do with them, he did not know.


The next morning made things a bit clearer. By the time Laurent and Alice had got up, Lord Metfield had already made some decisions. It was imperative that both his children learned accomplishments that were demanded of young people of their order. Isabelle had not owned any horses, so neither Laurent nor Alice was able to ride, let alone drive. For a young lady and gentleman confined to a country estate, this would not do.

Laurent's tutor would have to spend some days with him to find out whether his knowledge was enough to allow him to go to university yet, or whether he needed some further preparation. That he would attend university was certain, though which one it would be, Lord Metfield did not know yet. Perhaps he would leave the choice to Laurent.

Alice was to make her debut in London the following year, and she would have to learn many things her mother had, most likely, not taught her -- the rules of society were strict for young ladies, and Lord Metfield did not want his daughter to be criticised, pitied, or made fun of. Alice needed to make a hit -- if only to prove that her mother had been as much of a lady as those who had looked down on her.

Such were his plans for his children, but while Laurent was quite happy to go along with his father's plans, Alice was not. She saw her father had a point as far as her equestrian abilities were concerned, and expressed a readiness to learn in that particular field. As far as her accomplishments were concerned, however, she found those her mother had imparted on her quite sufficient. In her opinion, there was no reason for her to expand the -- admittedly -- large list of accomplishments she already had. Matters of precedence, or the correct way to curtsey to royalty, was not at the top of her list of priorities. Lord Metfield decided to humour her for a while, and talk the matter over with Mrs. Trevor. He trusted she would be able to bring her reluctant pupil about.


Alice's first morning at Metfield Hall did not start well, and so it was small wonder that she did not cooperate with her father's wishes by the time she met him at the breakfast table. She had been woken up by a sound in her dressing room, and when she had got out of bed to enquire what was going on, she had found Nell, taking all her dresses from her wardrobe.

"Just what do you think you are doing?" she had asked Nell. The morning was not her favourite time of day, and she did not relish finding people in her room who had not been invited -- especially not if they seemed intent on taking her things.

"Good morning, my lady," Nell had said, curtseying and looking immensely guilty. "Mrs. Trevor said she wanted to have a look at your gowns, ma'am. She said that your father was going to take you to a visit at the Dower House, and wanted you to make a good impression."

"Tell Mrs. Trevor that I have been in the habit of choosing clothes for myself ever since I was five," Alice had said angrily, and, when Nell had hesitated, had added, "Now off you go!"

At breakfast, Alice was able to keep her temper in check as long as her father, Mr. Blake and Laurent were keeping them company, but the moment they had left the breakfast parlour to discuss business and Laurent's academic career, Alice saw no reason to hold back her anger and confronted Mrs. Trevor with what had happened in the morning.

Mrs. Trevor did not deny she had sent Nell to Alice's room to look over her dresses.

"Your father wishes to present you to your grandmother today, Lady Alice, and naturally he wishes you to make a good impression," she said calmly. "All I wanted to do was to discuss your apparel with you -- I did not mean to order you about, merely to offer my advice. One gets only one chance for a first impression, and since the Dowager Countess is none too happy about your arrival, we must take pains to reconcile her to your presence."

"Why do I have to pay her a visit if she does not wish to see me and I have no desire to make her acquaintance?" Alice asked. "Why put us all through this?"

"She is family," Mrs. Trevor pointed out. "One must pay proper respect to one's elders, Lady Alice. I cannot believe your mother did not teach you that."

"My mother," Alice said heatedly, "taught me to respect those who deserved my esteem, no matter whether they were family or not. -- But very well. I will go to see my grandmother today, to oblige my father."

"Good." Mrs. Trevor smiled. "Then let us go upstairs and choose your dress, shall we? By the way, after hearing that your wardrobe consists mainly of mourning clothes, your father has desired me to take you to Weymouth tomorrow, to purchase some -- shall we say, less sober - garments for you."

Alice did not see the point of buying new clothes when she had a set of almost new clothes in her wardrobe, but decided it was not a matter worth arguing about. Going to Weymouth would mean getting away from the house and seeing some of the country she was going to live in, and that prospect made her look forward to shopping for clothes under Mrs. Trevor's aegis with something like equanimity.

It took Alice and Nell about two hours until Mrs. Trevor was pleased with the picture Alice presented, and about an hour more until Alice's curtseys passed muster. Her father's impatience saved Alice from Mrs. Trevor's well-meant directions -- he sent a servant to tell her to hurry, for the horses had already been put-to.

"Oh dear, I had no idea it was so late already," Mrs. Trevor exclaimed and, hurrying downstairs alongside Alice, gave her some pieces of last-minute advice.

Lord Metfield waited in the drawing room, and Laurent was with him -- beaming at Alice as she entered the room. While they got into the carriage, he asked her to walk in the garden with him later.

"What is it?" Alice asked, wondering what Laurent wanted. He did not oblige her with a satisfactory answer.

"No, not yet," he said with a grin. "I'll tell you what it is when we're among ourselves. Just as much -- coming here was the best thing we ever did!"

Alice was unable to agree with her brother on that score, but did not say so. During the short drive from Metfield Hall to the Dower House, nobody said anything. Her father, Alice thought, looked rather despondent and anxious, though she could not imagine why he should be so.

Upon their arrival at the Dower House, they were led to a large drawing room on the ground floor of the building. Alice liked the Dower House better than the vast Hall -- it seemed more home-like. It was furnished tastefully, and when the butler opened the door to the drawing room Alice preferred it to the one where she had spent the previous evening. It was much cosier, she thought, which was strange, for the two ladies waiting for their visitors were anything but welcoming.

From the moment Alice first set eyes on them, she could sense their hatred. Both of them treated the twins with cold civility, and they did not seem overjoyed with Lord Metfield's visit either.

Lady Metfield was sitting in a Bath chair next to the fire, wrapped in blankets and shawls. She allowed her son to kiss her hand without any comment, and listened to his introduction of the twins without giving any sign of emotion.

"So your mother is dead?" she finally asked Alice. "How did it happen?"

Strangely enough, she did seem to take an interest in Alice's description of her mother's fatal illness -- more than that. There was something like eagerness and satisfaction in her grandmother's expression, and Alice wondered just how much Lady Metfield had hated her daughter-in-law. This did not bode well, she thought.

With a piercing look at Laurent, Lady Metfield remarked, "At least, no one can call him a cuckoo's egg. He is the picture of what you were, at his age."

"I quite agree," Lord Metfield said with a faint smile.

"How old is he now?" Lady Metfield seemed to have forgotten that the twins were there. She certainly talked as if she were alone with her son.

"Nineteen," Lord Metfield said.

"Take care," Lady Metfield said viciously. "Another two years and he might run off with an opera girl."

"I hope my son will never have cause to run off, Ma'am," Lord Metfield said calmly, swallowing his mother's insult. Alice decided that her grandmother was a nasty old woman, the kind one better avoided. Not that her aunt was any better.

"I can see you are in mourning," she said sweetly. "For how long will you be wearing your blacks, do you think?"

"For as long as I choose," Alice replied coldly, daring her to say something derogatory about her mother.

"How ... dutiful." Lady Victoria smiled. "I suppose you will go to London in next year's Season, then -- provided someone can be bullied into presenting you." It seemed to be an object with her to point out that she was not going to be that person.

Then Lady Victoria turned to her mother and said, in an audible whisper, "I was wondering, Ma'am -- shall I go and visit Charlotte in London this year? I am afraid I will not be able to show my face there next year."

Alice's father, who seemed immune to insults directed at his person, did not put up with anyone offending his daughter.

"Considering your manners, Vic, I would be very much surprised if you could show your face somewhere," he said acidly. "Mother, I strongly advise you to think twice before letting Victoria go to London when she cannot conduct herself even in her own home."

Lady Victoria gave her brother a furious glare, but did not dare say anything in reply. They stayed for another ten minutes, and then left.

"I am sorry I had to put you through this," Lord Metfield said to his children when they were heading back to Metfield Hall in their carriage. "I knew it would be an ordeal, though I did not imagine it would be as bad as that. Can you forgive me?"

"It was not your fault," Laurent said.

"In a way it was," Lord Metfield said. "My mother hated your mother for being who she was, and me for marrying her. With such foundations, your chances of becoming her favourite grandchildren are rather dim." His smile was not a cheerful one. "At least we have put our ceremonial visit behind us, and I will not force you to call on her again."


The garden of Metfield Hall gave Alice a homelike feeling at last. It was beautiful, and Alice resolved to spend as much time as possible there. The rose garden was wonderful, and Alice wished her mother could have seen it. Had she ever had the chance to live here, she would have loved that spot, Alice thought, and mentioned this to Laurent. He agreed.

"Laurent," Alice suddenly said, "after that visit at our grandmother's -- do you still think coming here was the best thing we ever did?"

"Yes, I do," Laurent said without a moment's hesitation. "Even more so. Can you imagine how lonely our father was until we came, Alice?"

Alice had to admit that it did not look as if her father had many supporters in his family.

"He needs us, Alice, just as much as we need him," Laurent said. "You can't have failed to realise that."

"You may be right," Alice said reluctantly.

"I know I am," Laurent said. Alice thought he sounded a bit arrogant.

"No need for you to give yourself airs," she said teasingly. "You're not my Lord Metfield yet, you know."

"But I'll need to practice," Laurent said with a laugh.

"Whom are you going to use as a model?" Alice asked. "Our father does not look as if he were aware of his consequence."

"He is," Laurent said earnestly. "He only doesn't set much store by it. -- He told me I might go to Edinburgh to study medicine, by the way. That's what I wanted to tell you earlier."

"Edinburgh!" This was good news for Laurent, indeed, but if Alice's geographical knowledge had not deserted her completely, Edinburgh was a long way from Dorset, and she did not like the notion of being left alone in Metfield Hall while her brother went to enjoy a student's life in Scotland.

"You do not sound too happy," Laurent said accusingly. "I think it's splendid -- I was so worried my father would think it beneath him to have a physician for a son."

"Obviously he does not," Alice said with a smile. "I think it is a wonderful opportunity for you, Laurent, only ... I cannot be happy with the thought of you going away, leaving me all alone."

"I did say so to my father today," Laurent admitted. "He suggested I should not go before next year. By that time, he said, you should have settled in -- and besides, he said, you might be married."

"Married? To whom, I'd like to know?" Alice asked indignantly. She had not even thought about marriage yet, but her father had, apparently. "I am much too young to marry," she said.

"You're nineteen," Laurent reminded her. "I should say most girls get married around that age."

"Next you'll say I am on the shelf," Alice said laughingly.

"Certainly not," Laurent said, grinning. "I believe you still have a year or two before dwindling into an old maid. -- Shall we go back to the house?"

Their walk back to the Hall took them a while -- they stopped again and again, admiring the beauty of the park and the spectacular view of the sea. On their arrival, they found the house in uproar and the hall full of trunks and bandboxes. None of the servants seemed to be at leisure to answer their questions, but when Mr. Blake happened to walk past them, Laurent asked him what had happened.

"Some visitors have arrived," Mr. Blake said. "Mr. Daventry -- your Uncle Frederick -- and his family."

"Do we have enough rooms to accommodate them?" Alice asked anxiously. She felt a vague obligation to play hostess in her father's house -- had not Mrs. Trevor indicated such a thing to her the evening before?

"Metfield Hall is large enough to accommodate a whole invasion of Daventrys," Mr. Blake said with a smile. "Do not worry, Lady Alice. Mrs. Griffiths is happy to arrange everything. If you wished to take any part in the preparations, I am sure she'd only resent it, so do not trouble yourself." Alice was sure Mr. Blake was right, but she did not think his casual way of speaking about her family was fitting for her father's secretary.

"Uncle Frederick," Laurent said pensively. "Isn't he...." He stopped, not sure how to express his thoughts. Mr. Blake did not hesitate to finish his sentence for him.

"He is your father's brother," he said. "The gentleman who, but for your existence, would have inherited both title and fortune from your father."

"Then I daresay he will be happy to make my acquaintance," Laurent said grimly. "Though his pleasure can hardly surpass my grandmother's. -- Come, Alice, let's go and welcome our visitors. The sooner we get this done with, the better."

 

 

Chapter Six

Alice was surprised at the amount of authority her brother displayed when he stopped a footman about to carry another trunk upstairs and demanded to know where he could find his father and uncle. Being directed to the library, he took Alice's hand and almost dragged her there.

"We had better be done with the introductions," he said by way of an explanation. "I don't fancy meeting my uncle above half, but if I do have to meet him, it had better be now."

Surprisingly, their uncle greeted them with a well-bred friendliness they had not expected after their grandmother and aunt's behaviour earlier that day. They both underwent close scrutiny, but whether Mr. Frederick Daventry felt aggrieved by their existence or not was difficult to determine. If he harboured any resentment, he did not show it. Instead, he inquired after their well-being without betraying much interest in the matter, and observed that they would see a great deal of each other because he meant to stay at Metfield Hall for a week or two. Her father, Alice noted, did not seem over-enthusiastic upon hearing the news but did not object.

Mr. Daventry had travelled to Metfield Hall accompanied by his wife and his eldest son, whom he wished to introduce to his nephew and niece at dinnertime.

"Your aunt, you must know, is very delicate," Mr. Daventry said, and her father's wink did not escape Alice's notice. She surmised that Mrs. Daventry was not quite as delicate as she would have her husband think.

"Indeed?" she asked politely, catching her father's amused glance. "I hope the journey here has not done her any harm."

"Oh no, she will be fine once she has had some rest," her uncle assured her.

Alice then took her leave of her uncle and went to her room to bathe and dress for dinner - and to find out more about her uncle and his family by asking her maid some questions. Nell was likely to know a great deal, and would share her knowledge more readily than, for example, Mrs. Trevor or Mr. Blake would.


When Alice walked into the drawing-room later, she found her brother in conversation with a boy not much older than fourteen. Laurent turned to her with a smile.

"This is our cousin, Reginald Daventry," he said.

The boy bowed, a bit awkwardly, Alice thought, but that was not surprising in anyone his age. He seemed to be friendly enough, though. Was she, at last, to meet a family member that did not think she and Laurent were intruders?

"I am Reggie to my friends and family," the boy confided with a shy smile. It almost sounded like an offer of friendship, Alice thought. "That is, my parents call me Reginald when they are angry."

Alice and Laurent were soon to see the truth of this statement. Mr. Daventry, upon entering the drawing room and seeing his son engaged in a lively conversation with his cousin Laurent, sharply admonished him not to make a nuisance of himself and to leave his cousin alone. Not even Laurent's intervention on his cousin's behalf seemed to pacify him, and Alice suspected the reprimand had nothing to do with Reginald's being a nuisance, but rather with his talking to them.

Alice's aunt was the last person to join the party in the drawing-room. She was a plump lady in her mid-thirties, dressed in a style that was fashionable but not at all flattering. Alice's eye was not yet practiced in the art of discerning what was fashionable, but even she realised that Mrs. Daventry's taste was expensive rather than elegant.

Mrs. Daventry treated her nephew and niece with ice-cold courtesy, and Alice realised that, like most of their relations, she was not happy with their existence. It was hardly surprising, Alice thought. The fact that Lord Metfield had a son of his own robbed her of the chance to be a countess - apart from the fact that the Earl of Metfield was rich, and by looking at her aunt Alice guessed she would be able to put the money to good use, should she ever get hold of it.

After dinner, the ladies retired to the drawing room, and Alice felt compelled to keep up a polite conversation with Mrs. Daventry until the gentlemen would follow them. Mrs. Daventry did not seem inclined to oblige her, she only uttered monosyllabic replies when directly spoken to, and Alice soon found the task she had set herself more arduous than she had imagined. She had never felt quite at ease when conversing with new acquaintances, which made it especially difficult for her to deal with someone not disposed to be friendly with her. Mrs. Trevor turned out to be an ally to depend on in the venture, but even she was not able to draw Mrs. Daventry out. At last, just as Alice had determined to give up her attempts at conversation and have a go at the pianoforte instead, her aunt decided to speak up after all.

"You grew up in France, I am told," she said.

"In Switzerland, Madame," Alice replied. "But one speaks French in Lausanne."

"And your mother - how did she contrive? How did she make her living?"

"She gave music lessons at a select seminary for young ladies, and taught some ladies in private households -- those who were able to afford it," Alice said.

"I see," Mrs. Daventry said. "So the place was not devoid of polite society."

"Not at all," Alice said. "There were plenty of genteel families in Lausanne, and we were very friendly with some of them."

She saw an expression of disappointment in her aunt's face and wondered what picture her relations had of their life in Lausanne. No doubt they thought they had lived in poverty and squalor. Alice tried to imagine their surprise, had they ever seen Alice's home, or the quiet, middle-class life she had led before her mother had died.

"Strange," Mrs. Daventry said, sounding displeased rather than relieved that her sister-in-law had moved in polite circles. "From what I have heard, young Lady Metfield was not quite the thing. One would expect genteel families to keep their distance to such people -- but then, perhaps they did not know her for what she was."

Alice reddened angrily. What kind of woman did her aunt think her mother had been? A trollop?

"I admit her manners were not like those I have encountered from truly well-bred people," she said icily. She saw and understood Mrs. Trevor's warning look, and rose. "Excuse me, but I find it rather chilly in here," she said stiffly. "I need to get my shawl."

Mrs. Trevor calmly advised her to do so, expressed her hope Lady Alice would not catch a cold, and then offered to entertain their guest until she returned. Alice gave the two older ladies a polite nod and left the drawing room, glad to be able to do so. She could not have stayed in the same room with Mrs. Daventry for a moment longer without trying to strangle her.

In her room, Alice went to look for her mother's shawl. After all the offensive things that had been said about Isabelle Daventry Alice wanted comfort, but she knew she would get none. Her mother's shawl would at least offer an illusion of security. In putting it on and closing her eyes, Alice could still smell her mother's favourite scent and, for a moment, everything would be fine.

Having searched her room as well as the dressing-room to no avail, Alice summoned Nell. The maid, hurrying into Alice's room almost immediately, was surprised to hear that Lady Alice wanted "that old and shabby thing".

"I have put it in the attic, along with some of your old clothes you are not likely to wear any more," she said. "I thought with all those new things, you might not want it any longer, my lady. You have some very pretty shawls."

"So I have, but I happen to be very fond of this one," Alice said wearily. If Nell had removed her mother's shawl, someone would suffer for it. "How came you to think I wanted to be rid of it? I am sure I did not tell you so. Had I really wanted to dispose of it, I would have left it behind in Lausanne and not taken the trouble to ship it to England, don't you think?"

"Certainly, my lady," Nell said, blushing. "I am sorry -- I will go and fetch it immediately, if you do wish to wear it with that gown." Nell eyed Alice's grey silk, which, admittedly, would look strange with her mother's shawl -- the shawl was intended for day wear. But though Alice saw Nell's point, she did not mean to give in. Nell had put away one of her possessions without having had orders to do so -- and it was still she, Alice, who decided what she would wear, and what was fit to be stored in the attic or given to charity.

"Do so," Alice said coldly. "I will wait here."

With a curtsey, Nell went on her quest for Alice's shawl, and Alice moved to the window to look outside. The view of the gardens was beautiful, even now with the sun gone and night setting in. The branches of the trees were swaying in the evening breeze, and suddenly Alice felt a longing for fresh air. She unbolted the window and was just about to open it when a movement in the garden, right below her window, caught her eye. It was a man, Alice thought, dressed in a long dark cloak and an old-fashioned hat. As if he were aware of her watching him, he suddenly stopped and seemed to look up at her. Just at that moment, Nell returned from the attic with Alice's shawl.

"Here you are, my lady," she said. "May I assist you?"

"Yes, please," Alice said. "Say, Nell -- at this time of evening, surely there cannot be any of the gardeners about?"

"Lord, no," Nell said. "What use would there be in trying to do garden work when it's dark?"

"Yet I just saw a man on the lawn, coming towards the house," Alice said. "He is standing over there, can you see him? .... Oh! He is gone now!"

Nell shuddered, hurried to the window and pulled the curtains shut. "You must have seen the Metfield ghost!" she said, in a tone that sounded as if she were offering her condolences at Alice's funeral.

"Nonsense," Alice said. "There is no such thing as ghosts, Nell. Perhaps it was just one of the local lads, trysting with a housemaid."

"Oh no," Nell said indignantly. "None of our girls would do that, my lady; we're a respectable sort, all of us. Mrs. Griffiths would not put up with such goings-on, and any girl caught in such a scheme would be dismissed. Instantly. No one's going to risk that, my lady. Employers such as his lordship are hard to find."

"You have to admit that my theory is more likely than yours, though," Alice said with a laugh. "Whoever it was, it was a real person, not a ghost."

"Did he ... did he look up at you, my lady?" Nell asked, sounding alarmed.

Alice nodded. "I think he did," she said.

"Then it was the ghost," Nell said in a tone of voice that admitted no doubt. "They say he ... they say he is always around when there are changes in the Hall, and they say it is not a good omen if he is seen. He is... he is said to be malevolent, my lady. You had better..."

"Nonsense," Alice said. "If you mean to frighten me, Nell, I can tell you that it will not work. Spare your breath. It may have been someone planning to break into the house, if there must be sinister forces at work, but surely our footmen will be able to deal with such an individual."

"But..."

"No more of this, Nell," Alice said threateningly. "I am not interested in old wives' tales." Nell still looked doubtful, but did not say anything in reply to Alice's remonstrance, and so Alice, pulling her mother's shawl more closely around her shoulders, went back downstairs to face her aunt. By that time, she hoped, the gentlemen would have joined the ladies and she would be able to face her aunt again. Something told Alice that Mrs. Daventry would not dare speak ill of the late Lady Metfield with Lord Metfield sitting by.


It was not the thought of a phantom lurking somewhere in the grounds of Metfield Hall that kept Alice awake that night. She did not give the matter much thought -- and not for a single moment did she believe that she had witnessed a ghostly manifestation. No, the man outside the house had been a servant, or a young man from the village waiting to meet his sweetheart, or a poacher, maybe, though why, if that was the case, he had come so close to Lord Metfield's home she was not able to say. Perhaps it had been a particularly stupid poacher.

What occupied her much more was the way she and Laurent had been received by their relatives. Their reaction had varied from seeming indifference -- in the best case -- to open hostility in the worst. As far as Alice could tell, they thought her mother the worst kind of female imaginable, and were surprised to see that her children were able to conduct themselves with something like good breeding. Perhaps it was true, Alice thought. It might well be that her manners were lacking refinement, but theirs were not much better.

She would talk the matter over with Mrs. Trevor on their shopping-trip the next day, Alice decided, and ask her what she could do to gain the approval of her father's relations -- or, if not their approval, at least their tolerance. She did not need their approval, not really, but she wanted them to stop treating her in that patronising way. Pondering how this end could be achieved, Alice fell asleep, but awoke early the next morning. She looked at the clock on the mantelpiece and realised she could not expect any breakfast yet. To pass the time until breakfast would be served, she decided to go for a walk in the park. After two almost sleepless nights, she felt she could do with the invigorating effect of the cool morning air.

She wandered around the park for about half an hour and then decided to inspect the spot where the mysterious man had stood the evening before to see if she could find any clues regarding his identity. Arriving there, she was surprised to meet Mr. Blake.

"Ghost-hunting, Lady Alice?" he asked with an amused twinkle in his eyes. Alice sighed.

"Is the story all over the house already?"

"You cannot expect your maid to keep silent on such a vital matter as a sighting of the Metfield Ghost," Mr. Blake said with a laugh. "She regaled the servants' hall with an account of what she could see from your window."

"She could see nothing, and it was not a ghost," Alice said crossly.

"Why, Lady Alice, don't you believe in ghosts?"

"I see no reason to do so. I do wonder though how long it will take until the first maid hands in her notice because she does not want to work in a haunted house."

"So far, there have been two," Mr. Blake said, grinning.

"Fine! So I have made another enemy! Mrs. Griffiths will be ready to murder me! Not that she was very fond of me in the first place, but I did think I had the shadow of a chance there," Alice said bitterly. "Why could the silly creature not hold her tongue? All that fuss over nothing!"

"It will comfort you, no doubt, that Nell has promised to stay here to protect you from evil," Mr. Blake said.

"You seem remarkably well-informed, Mr. Blake," Alice said.

"I had the news from Jack, the second footman. He thought the joke was too good to be kept from me."

"It amuses him then?"

"To no end. But, Lady Alice, what did you see from your window?" Mr. Blake asked, suddenly serious.

"I saw a man, standing over there," Alice said and moved to the spot where the figure had stood. She inspected the place, though she did not know what she expected to find there.

"A man? What man?"

"He did not introduce himself," Alice said indignantly. "He wore a cloak, and a tricorne hat. That was all I could see -- I did not see his face. Even if I had, I doubt it would have been to any purpose. I do not know anyone around here."

Mr. Blake nodded. "A man, then. Since you do not believe it was a ghost -- and I tend to agree with you -- what do you think he was up to?"

"I do not know." Alice shrugged. "I thought it might be a young man from the village, coming to see his sweetheart. I suggested as much to Nell, but she was quick to tell me that this was impossible. Then I thought it might be a poacher -- or a housebreaker. Or someone means to frighten us away and thought it was a good idea to make use of the ghost stories connected with this place."

"Good thinking on your part, Lady Alice," Mr. Blake agreed. "I think I will have a word with your father's steward concerning poachers and will try to discover if any houses in the neighbourhood were broken into lately. It will also be a good idea to ask Nell whether any of the maidservants has a follower -- that might be worth knowing. Though I suppose you would be more successful in that endeavour than I would. Nell is more likely to share gossip with you. Shall we go in?"

Alice nodded, and took Mr. Blake's proffered arm. She was beginning to feel hungry, and was looking forward to her breakfast.


Alice was glad to hear that Mrs. Daventry, though Mrs. Trevor had invited her to come to Weymouth with them, had declined the invitation and preferred to visit Lady Metfield and Lady Victoria in the Dower House. Mr. Daventry and Reggie were to accompany her, and Laurent was going to the village with his father to meet the curate who was to teach him. Alice was to be alone with Mrs. Trevor, and glad about it.

"I think we shall have a fine afternoon," Mrs. Trevor remarked when they travelled along the road towards Weymouth. "Weymouth will be in a bustle -- it is a watering place, you must know, Lady Alice. Not as popular as Brighton, of course, but fashionable enough. Many people come here to bathe in the sea."

"Oh! I would like to try that!" Alice exclaimed. "When we were children, we often went swimming in the lake -- Maman taught us. Do you think I might go swimming in Metfield?"

"I do not think so," Mrs. Trevor said. "It would be too dangerous, Lady Alice. I doubt your father would allow it."

Alice sighed. She too feared that her father would not allow it, but she did not see why swimming in the sea could be dangerous, and said so. Mrs. Trevor assured her that it was, and reminded her that the sea was not to be compared to "Alice's lake".

"Did you grow up near the sea, Mrs. Trevor?" Alice asked, after a short pause.

"I did," Mrs. Trevor said. "I was born and raised in Sidmouth. My father was the vicar there. One might say I spent most of my life near the sea. My husband was a sailor, you see -- and our home was in Plymouth."

"Did your husband..." Alice began, but stopped. It was rather inconsiderate to ask a widow how her husband had died.

"No, he did not perish at sea," Mrs. Trevor said. "I suppose this is what you wanted to ask."

"Well, yes," Alice admitted, blushing. "I am sorry, I know it is none of my business, and I would not want to hurt you."

"This is very kind of you, but you did not hurt me at all," Mrs. Trevor said. "It happened a long time ago. He had contracted an illness while he was stationed in Naples."

Feeling guilty for having started a subject that might be painful to Mrs. Trevor, no matter what she said to the contrary, Alice changed the topic and asked her to assist her in becoming what Mrs. Daventry might call "the thing". Mrs. Trevor laughed.

"I am ready to teach you anything you like, Lady Alice," she said. "But I am afraid I cannot promise you to perform any miracles. Mrs. Daventry will never think you quite the thing, but will you be content if most society ladies in London think you are?"

"Perfectly content," Alice said, with a laugh. "Mrs. Daventry will not care to disagree with most society ladies, I suppose."


Alice and Mrs. Trevor spent a pleasant afternoon shopping in Weymouth. Alice realised that Mrs. Trevor was a lady with excellent taste, and in no time learned to depend on her judgement when it came to suitable attire for a young lady.

"It will not do to put you in blacks all the time," Mrs. Trevor said. "You are a young lady, and should be wearing colours. I am not talking about bright colours -- it is too early for those -- but there are some very pretty darker hues that will make perfect half-mourning clothes, and they will make you feel much more cheerful too."

Alice could not help but agree that black was a colour that had its effect on one's frame of mind, and that the shopping did something to restore her cheerfulness to a certain degree. As they walked back to the inn where their carriage was waiting for them, Alice saw a bonnet displayed in a milliner's shop window that quite took her fancy. Mrs. Trevor, upon being applied to for her opinion, saw no harm in buying it, and so they entered the shop with that exact purpose in mind.

A young gentleman was at the counter, negotiating the purchase of a bonnet for his sister, and Alice was disappointed to see that he was about to buy the bonnet she wanted for herself. Her sigh of regret when the milliner took the bonnet from the window and wrapped it into tissue paper did not escape the gentleman's notice, and he turned around.

"I am sorry, ma'am," he said with an apologetic smile. "I hope I did not steal the hat away from under your nose."

"Even if you did, it does not signify, sir," Alice said, forcing herself to smile. "This is life. You were there before me."

He laughed. "And now you are trying to spoil my success by making me feel guilty."

"Why should you feel guilty?" Alice asked. "It is no fault of yours that there is only one bonnet like that one in this shop."

"You surprise me, ma'am. Would you buy the bonnet if you knew that there is an exact duplicate of it somewhere? I doubt it."

Alice laughed. "I admit it would be an uncomfortable thought."

"I am glad to hear that I do have some knowledge of young ladies' ways," he said, smiling. "But if you want me to, ma'am, I shall buy another bonnet for my sister. She did not ask for this particular one, so I am convinced she will be happy with any hat I happen to give her on her birthday."

Alice shook her head. "This is very kind of you, sir, but I am certain I can find another one that will suit me just as well."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely. I am much obliged to you, but no. Your sister shall have this bonnet for her birthday."

"Very well." He smiled, and turned to Mrs. Trevor. "I have not introduced myself yet, ma'am, I am sorry. Thomas Goodwin, at your service." He bowed.

"Are you related to the Goodwins at Ilton Court?" Mrs. Trevor asked.

"I am one of them," Mr. Goodwin said. "My father owns Ilton Court."

"Oh! We are almost neighbours then," Mrs. Trevor said. "This is Lady Alice Daventry, Lord Metfield's daughter, and I am Mrs. Trevor, her companion."

Upon this revelation, the milliner hurried to her storeroom, no doubt to fetch her most expensive creations, and Mr. Goodwin bowed.

"I am honoured to make your acquaintance," he said. "I must say when I heard of Lord Metfield's children coming to live with him, I expected someone much younger. My mother will be pleased to hear that there are some young people at Metfield Hall at last -- especially a young lady of my sister's age."

Alice remembered her relatives' behaviour and took leave to doubt that. Mrs. Goodwin would not wish her daughter to associate with her. But Mr. Goodwin was very kind and pleasant, and she did not want to contradict him. He would find out soon enough, she supposed.

"My mother has been meaning to call at Metfield Hall one of these days," Mr. Goodwin continued, "but she wanted to give you some time to settle in before she did so."

Alice commended Mrs. Goodwin's thoughtfulness, and added that a visit from Mrs. and Miss Goodwin would be most welcome. Then Mr. Goodwin left, taking his purchase with him, but Alice was too taken with his affability to resent it. She turned to the counter and realised that there were plenty of bonnets for her to choose from, and when she left the shop she had not bought one, but three.

 

Chapter Seven

As their carriage reached the main road, Mrs. Trevor perceived dark clouds gathering on the horizon and admitted to feeling slightly apprehensive. Alice, who had only seen one storm during her short stay in England, and that one from the safety of Metfield Hall, tried to calm her companion, but even she hoped they would reach Metfield before the storm broke loose. She did not fancy travelling in inclement weather.

By the time they stopped in front of Metfield Hall, it had begun to rain heavily. Through the carriage window, Alice could see her father and Laurent running towards the house from the stable yard, but they stopped at the front door, no doubt to welcome her and Mrs. Trevor. The wind tugged at their hair and overcoats, and had they not taken off their hats, they'd probably have had to chase them across the yard.

The carriage door was opened, and the steps let down. In alighting from the carriage, Alice happened to look up and froze. Her shriek conveyed a warning to Laurent, who, following her gaze, saw the danger he was in and pushed his father aside, moments before two roof-tiles smashed onto the floor only inches from him. Alice ran to her brother.

"Laurent, are you hurt?" she asked him. Laurent was standing there, considerably shaken, and staring at the broken tiles on the floor. He shook his head.

"I am fine," he said quietly. "Only a bit ... a bit stunned." He turned to his father. "And you, sir? I hope I did not hurt you, but there was no time to ask you to step aside."

Lord Metfield laughed, but it was a nervous laugh, not capable of hiding his alarm. "You did not hurt me," he said. "As for that, I'd rather be bruised than dead. - Let us get inside, who knows what other dangers are lurking out here. - I will send someone up there tomorrow to see whether there are any more loose tiles, and to fix them if there are any. Meanwhile, no one is to use the front door." He turned to the footman who had handed Alice and Mrs. Trevor out of the carriage. "Make sure of that," he said to him.

The footman bowed, and left, no doubt to regale the servants with an account of the accident that had almost befallen his lordship and his heir. That it had happened, only shortly after a sighting of the Metfield Ghost, was certain to interest everyone. Alice was sure that the house would be buzzing with gossip before dinnertime.

Once inside the house, Laurent announced he would go up to his room to change his wet clothes, though Alice suspected he did so to recover from his shock. Mrs. Trevor and Alice followed Lord Metfield into the library, where he offered them a glass of sherry "to calm their nerves".

"Have you had a pleasant afternoon, Alice?" he asked her, handing her a glass.

"It was very pleasant, thank you," Alice said. "Until...well, until now."

"You came home just in time," her father said with a smile. He looked quite unperturbed now, or at least made an effort to appear so. "You may have saved two lives today."

"If it had not been for us," Alice said, "you would not have stopped outside but would have gone in immediately. You might just as well say I almost cost two lives today."

He smiled. "You sound almost like your mother," he said. "She was a bit of a pessimist too." He did not sound disparaging, he had just made a matter-of-fact statement, and Alice knew that he was right. "I prefer my way of seeing the matter, however," he continued. "So should you. -- Now, has your shopping excursion been a success?"

Alice, still pondering his comment on pessimism, did not answer, and so he passed the question on to Mrs. Trevor. She favoured him with a precise description of what they had bought, and Alice noted that he was listening with a great deal of knowledge and interest -- a novelty, in her opinion. None of her male acquaintance had ever taken any interest in female attire. Her father was an extraordinary gentleman, it seemed.

"I have arranged for the bills to be sent to you, as you asked me to," Mrs. Trevor ended her report. "I hope you will not think we have spent too much."

"I doubt I will," Lord Metfield said. "Whatever my daughter needs, she will get. I am not going to grudge her a single thing. But this talk about money reminds me -- Alice will need some pin-money too. Won't you, Alice?"

"Pin-money?" The notion of having money for herself was a completely new one to Alice. "I do not think I need any."

"Of course you do," her father replied with an air of absolute confidence. "I don't suppose you want to ask for my permission every time you want to buy a yard of ribbon, or a book, or any of those little things a young lady might want to have. Besides, I -- and the contents of my pocket book -- may not always be close at hand when you want to make a purchase. How much do you think you will need?"

"I have no idea," Alice said. "I never had any money to myself. When I needed something, I told Maman, and she bought it -- or maybe she didn't, if she could not afford it, which happened quite often."

The expression in her father's face told Alice that he was not comfortable with the reduced circumstances his wife and children had lived in, and did not like her to talk about it. She blushed, and whispered, "I am sorry; I should not have told you this."

"Why not?" her father said with a lightness in his tone that sounded false even to Alice, who did not know him well. "I can well imagine what life must have been like for you. You did not exactly tell me any news."

Not wishing to discuss the topic any further, Alice moved away and walked to one of the windows, to watch the rain and the storm raging outside. With a sigh, her father turned to Mrs. Trevor.

"Do you happen to know how much Lady Fontley's daughters had, ma'am? I cannot for the life of me remember how much my father gave my sisters, and I do not want to ask them. I do remember that whatever sum it was, it was never enough."

"A common affliction among young ladies," Mrs. Trevor said with a smile. "The Miss Fontleys often complained about their father's tight-fistedness, but they could not expect me to commiserate -- their annual allowance was much higher than my salary. As far as I remember, each of them had a hundred pounds a year, but since they were constantly short of money and extremely good at coaxing their Papa into giving them whatever they wanted, I daresay they spent much more than that."

"A hundred pounds?" Astounded, Alice turned away from the window and looked at Mrs. Trevor. "How could I possibly spend so much? How could anyone, I wonder?"

"You'd be surprised if you knew how many people manage to spend much more than that," her father said with an amused smile. "I'd say we shall start off with a hundred and fifty -- I do not fancy being a stingy father, it does not fit the picture I have of myself -- and see how far you get with these."

"A hundred and fifty? This is by far too much!" Alice exclaimed indignantly.

Her father shrugged. "You may save the money you do not need," he said. "Or spend it on charity. But you must admit it is very convenient to have more money than you may require. Much more agreeable than the opposite situation, I'd say."


On her way to her room, Alice walked past Laurent's door, and heard him play the violin. She smiled. Despite having promised his mother not to give up his music, Laurent had not practised ever since they had left Lausanne. That he had taken it up again was a good sign -- it showed he was feeling quite at home in Metfield Hall. On the other hand, he had been shocked by his near-accident. He might simply have taken refuge in an occupation that was familiar to him, to calm his nerves. The thought made Alice stop and want to go into his room to talk to him -- but then she decided against it. It was better to let Laurent deal with this by himself. He was not the person to keep silent if he needed help, and a female relative foisting her assistance on him had been repugnant to him from his earliest childhood days. He had called Alice an interfering nuisance on more than one occasion, and Alice was not inclined to being an interfering nuisance at the moment. Laurent knew where to find her, should he need her, and would not hesitate to do so.

In her room, Alice found Bernadine. She had helped Nell to put away Alice's new clothes, and was now waiting to share an important piece of news with her. Lord Metfield had made her a generous offer.

"I'll finally have a house of my own," she announced proudly when Alice asked her what the news was. It was obvious that the prospect made Bernadine very happy, but it had the opposite effect on Alice.

"You are going to leave us?" she asked, her heart sinking. Though she had never actually thought about this before, she now realised that she had always expected Bernadine to stay with them. The thought of Bernadine going away -- of her childhood friend and surrogate grandmother being out of reach -- frightened her. With Bernadine and Laurent gone, she would be left to the mercy of strangers, and she had already found out that not all of her new acquaintances were pleasant.

"Not exactly leaving you," Bernadine said soothingly. She knew Alice too well to be fooled into believing that she was happy on her account. "Lord Metfield is going to give me a cottage to live in -- halfway between here and the village -- and I hope you will come to see me sometimes once I have moved there."

"Every day, if you want me to," Alice said. She did not manage to hide her relief that Bernadine was not quite out of reach.

Bernadine laughed. "Not every day," she said. "That would be too much to ask for. But I'd be very happy if you'd think of me sometimes and paid me a visit now and then."

"As if I could ever forget you, Bernadine," Alice said, hugging her. "When are you going to leave? Soon?"

"Not so very soon," Bernadine said. "Your father said the place must be put in order first -- I am to live there in the first style of elegance, you know. At least he said so, he said he wanted me to have every comfort money could buy. He is even going to pay a girl to keep house for me. I am growing into quite a fine lady in old age, even employing my own servant! I'll have to take care it does not go to my head."

Alice wondered why her father was doing all this for Bernadine. Something in her expression must have betrayed her thoughts, because Bernadine continued, "He said it was about time someone took care of me instead of me looking after other people, and he said I'd better start being looked after while I could still enjoy it. Your father is a wonderfully kind-hearted man, Alice."

Alice felt guilty for her suspicions -- and her selfishness. Her father was right. Bernadine had spent most of her life looking after other people, without ever regarding her own well-being. For more than forty years she had been much more than a servant, a loyal friend and confidante to Isabelle Daventry and her children. She deserved to enjoy her old age in tolerable comfort, and Alice felt ashamed that the idea of providing her with a comfortable home had never occurred to her.

"I am happy if you are," Alice finally said, hugging Bernadine once more. "Have you told Laurent already?"

"Yes, I have."

"What does he think of it?"

"He likes the idea of me having my own home, where I can bake him my tartes whenever he fancies them," Bernadine said laughingly. "You know him."

"I do. He is an incurable glutton," Alice said, smiling. "But I understand him. I have been missing your tartes, too."

"You shall have one every time you visit me," Bernadine promised, and then took her leave, reminding Alice that she had to dress for dinner and was not likely to be ready in time if she kept chatting with the servants.

"Do not forget you are a fine young lady now," she said.

"Not too fine to talk to you, I hope," Alice said, and Bernadine laughed and left.


Alice had looked forward to dinner with a great deal of apprehension -- she remembered the previous evening only too well and did not care to repeat the experience.

To Alice's surprise, her aunt behaved much better than she had the evening before, even when Lord Metfield was out of earshot. Besides, Mrs. Trevor took care that Alice and her aunt did not spend any more time with each other than was strictly necessary. The moment the ladies retired to the drawing room, she asked Alice to entertain them with some music, and Alice was only too happy to oblige. Glad that she was not expected to make meaningless conversation with someone she detested, Alice hurried to the pianoforte, flicked through the music sheets, chose a Haydn sonata, and began to play. She had put up the music sheets to shield herself from Mrs. Daventry's appraising glances, and not because she needed them. Alice had often played this particular piece when her mother had entertained guests in Lausanne -- guests she had wanted to impress. Having played it so often, Alice knew the piece by heart.

Still, when the gentlemen joined them, Laurent went to her and offered to turn the pages for her. Alice realised that what he really wanted was talk to her, and thanked him for his kind offer.

"Showing off?" Laurent asked, with an amused twinkle in his eyes.

"Certainly," Alice said. "I need to demonstrate we did not grow up like savages."

Laurent laughed. "At war with Aunt Daventry?" he asked.

"Among others," Alice said.

"Our relatives are really none too happy to have us here," Laurent said quietly. "I had not expected it to be quite as bad. They behave as if we were to blame for our being born."

"They certainly do not want us," Alice whispered back.

"Though I suspect they resent your existence less than they resent mine," Laurent said.

"You are the heir," Alice said. "Naturally my uncle does not relish the thought of having an earldom snatched away from him."

"He can have that earldom for all I care," Laurent said. "I don't want it. Though I am glad to have my father. He is a decent sort, you'll have to admit. Did Bernadine tell you about her house?"

"She did."

"What do you think about it?"

"She seems very happy."

"She is very happy," Laurent said. "But I'll miss her."

"So will I," Alice said. She continued playing, and Laurent turned the pages for her. Only when Alice had finished her piano piece, he said, quietly, "Thank you, Alice. You know ... you know for what, don't you? Without you, I'd be ... I'd be dead."

"You're welcome," Alice said with a forced smile. "But that was pure self-interest. I need my brother to look after me. Especially now, with Bernadine gone." She tried to sound cheerful, but somehow did not manage. The idea of losing Laurent was too painful to contemplate, especially now, when almost everyone around her seemed so hostile. But although she did not say so, Laurent seemed to guess her thoughts.

"We'll look after each other," he said, giving her arm an affectionate squeeze, and then went to watch his father and uncle play chess, while Alice was required to play whist with her aunt, Mrs. Trevor and Mr. Blake.


The next morning, Alice was introduced to Metfield Hall by the housekeeper, Mrs. Griffiths. In England, even servants were snobs, she thought. Mrs. Griffiths' attitude could only be called superior, and Alice longed to give her the set-down she deserved. She was not familiar with English ways yet, but she was certain of one thing -- no housekeeper was supposed to look down on the daughter of the house. Mrs. Trevor, who accompanied them on their round, seemed aware of what was going on, but did not interfere. Only when they were back in the morning room and Alice asked her, with a sigh, what she was to do about Mrs. Griffiths, she told her to assert herself.

"You are much too kind to her, Lady Alice," she said. "You act as if you needed to gain her favour! You should make her try to gain yours instead."

"But I want people to like me," Alice protested.

"A vain hope, Lady Alice," Mrs. Trevor said. "As the lady of the house, you will need to step on people's toes now and then -- metaphorically, of course."

Alice laughed. "I did not suppose I should do so literally, Mrs. Trevor. But I do not like the notion of acting like a spoilt brat."

"No one will think you are just because you want your servants to work well and treat you with respect, Lady Alice," Mrs. Trevor said. "Be civil, but do not put up with any nonsense. Make sure to commend them if they have done well, but also make sure to let them know if you are dissatisfied. They are paid a handsome sum to please you -- so make certain they do."

Alice soon had an opportunity to assert herself, as Mrs. Trevor had called it. Mrs. Daventry had just joined them in the morning room, when a footman appeared in the doorway and announced Mrs. Goodwin, Miss Goodwin and Mr. Thomas Goodwin. This was a pleasant surprise -- Alice had looked forward to seeing Mr. Goodwin again, but had not expected to meet him again so soon.

Once the introductions were made and the guests comfortably seated, Alice rang for refreshments. A maid brought tea and cake for the ladies, but when Alice handed some pieces of cake onto the plates she realised that the cake did not look very fresh. She gave the first piece to Mrs. Trevor -- a faux-pas, she knew, for she should have served her visitors first -- and asked her, in a whisper, "Do you think I can give this to my guests?"

Mrs. Trevor, after trying a tiny bit of the cake, shook her head, almost imperceptibly. Alice rang for the maid again, and when she arrived, said coldly, "Please take the cake back to the kitchen with my compliments and inform the cook that there must have been a mistake. I am sure she did not intend to damage her reputation by sending up yesterday's cake."

She turned to her guests with an apologetic smile. "It will only take a minute, I am certain. I am very sorry this had to happen."

The maid reappeared several minutes later, and this time the cake left nothing to be desired. Still, when the Goodwins had left, Alice decided it was time to set a few things right, and summoned Mrs. Griffiths and the cook. It was about time they found out who they were dealing with.

They both arrived in the morning-room, apparently expecting to face an inexperienced young girl whom, between them, they could handle easily. They were to learn their mistake.

"Explain yourselves," Alice said icily, after a few minutes of silence which had made them feel more and more uncomfortable. The cook was the first yield.

"One of the girls sent up the wrong cake," she said. "I was too busy to check it was the right one."

Mrs. Griffiths was made of sterner stuff. "Lady Metfield would not have objected," she said. "She is not fond of the Goodwins."

"And therefore feeds them stale cake when they come to see her? They cannot come to see her very often then," Alice said. "But, Mrs. Griffiths, you will soon notice that some things have changed around here. For one, Lady Metfield is no longer the mistress of Metfield Hall, but has taken up residence in the Dower House. So, unless you wish to join my grandmother there, you will have to do things the way I want them done. Have I made myself clear?"

None of the women answered.

"I expect to be answered when I ask a question," Alice said coldly.

"You have made yourself very clear, my lady," the cook said, her eyes lowered.

"Mrs. Griffiths, do you have any problems in understanding my meaning?"

"None at all, my lady," Mrs. Griffiths said. Her look was poisonous, but she did not dare oppose Alice openly.

"I am glad to hear it," Alice said. "I have a great aversion to misunderstandings. - I do not know what my grandmother's housekeeping was like, but I do know the way my mother used to handle things, and I intend to follow her example. She knew the meaning of the word "hospitality", and she never made any distinction between her guests. Everyone was treated with the same civility, and my mother would have died rather than give her guests stale food. In her house, every visitor received the best we could give. I want things to be the same in Metfield Hall from now on. Mrs. Smith, make sure you are not too busy to check on what is leaving the kitchen when we have guests in the future." She gave the cook a pointed look. "Should there be a reprise of what happened today, I shall hold you responsible."

"I will personally check on everything that leaves the kitchen," the cook said meekly.

"As for you, Mrs. Griffiths, from today on I expect you to report to me personally at ten o'clock every morning. Is there such a thing as a household inventory?"

"There is one," Mrs. Griffiths said, barely suppressing her anger.

"Good. Bring it with you tomorrow, and we shall have a look at it. Apart from that, I want a report on what is going on in the household every day. -- You need not fear that I shall meddle with your duties, Mrs. Griffiths. As long as you treat me with proper respect, I won't interfere. If not ... well, I believe a word or two to his lordship might be in order then. Good day to you."

The two women curtsied and left the room, no doubt impatient to vent their indignation at the cavalier treatment they had received. Alice sat down at the writing table, her hands trembling. How she had managed to rein in her anger, she did not know, but she had, and felt that her mother, could she see her, would be proud of her. There was still a long way to go, Alice knew, but she would assert herself, just as Mrs. Trevor had suggested. She would show everyone that Isabelle Daventry's daughter was fit for the position she was going to take.

 

Chapter Eight

Mrs. Griffiths knew better than to set up Alice's back. At the appointed time she appeared, bringing with her the household inventories and cashbooks, and followed Alice around the house as she checked whether the linen, silver and china listed in the inventory was where it was supposed to be. She did not look into the cashbooks too closely -- she had not yet mastered the peculiarities of English currency, and decided to ask either her father or Mr. Blake to teach her before she ventured doing so. She only remarked that Mrs. Griffiths was, apparently, good at managing her household expenses, which seemed to please the housekeeper. Once Alice had acknowledged Mrs. Griffiths' integrity, the housekeeper began to thaw. Alice made it clear to her that her authority would not be questioned, as long as she showed Alice the respect that was due to her as the new mistress of Metfield Hall, and when Mrs. Griffiths went off to resume her duties Alice felt that some kind of peace had been established between them.

When her tour of Metfield Hall was finished, Alice decided to call on Mrs. Goodwin. Her aunt and uncle had gone to pay a visit at the Dower House and her father and Laurent had gone to the stables to select suitable horses for their first riding lesson, which was to take place the same afternoon. Mrs. Trevor was to be Alice's sole companion.

"Do you think I appear too eager?" Alice asked Mrs. Trevor as they sat in the carriage that took them to Ilton Court. "Should I have waited for a couple of days before calling on the Goodwins?"

"I do not believe Mrs. Goodwin will think ill of you for calling on her so soon. If anything, she will be highly gratified that Lady Alice Daventry shows her such civility," Mrs. Trevor replied.

"I am afraid I am not familiar with the niceties of English courtesy," Alice said. "I would not wish to give offence."

"No one can give offence by wishing to be on good terms with her neighbours," Mrs. Trevor said. "You need not worry."

"It is only that the Goodwins were the only people here who seemed to be happy to make my acquaintance." Alice explained.

"Surely you do not suppose that Lord Metfield was not happy to have you here," Mrs. Trevor said. "I never saw a man more anxious to please anyone than your father was to please you."

"Oh, I believe my father is happy to have us to stay with him, but I think the situation is very awkward nevertheless. As for the rest of my family, I am not foolish enough to believe any of them wants us here." She sighed. "All the more I long for some friends, and I have to say I have developed a liking for the Goodwins."

"All of them, or one Goodwin in particular?" Mrs. Trevor asked with an amused twinkle in her eyes.

"I do not know them well enough to decide which of them I like best," Alice said, blushing slightly. She had understood what Mrs. Trevor was getting at - but her companion was entirely wrong. She had only met Mr. Goodwin twice, and on both occasions they had not conversed much. Although she liked him, her chief object in visiting his mother and sister was getting acquainted with them, not him. She could not help feeling lonely, and wishing she had a friend her own age. Miss Goodwin had given her the impression that she was not averse to becoming friendly with Alice, and Alice, longing for a friend to replace those she had lost due to her relocation to England, was more than willing to give her a chance. That Miss Goodwin had a charming brother was of no consequence for Alice, though she had to confess it did not repulse her either.

There was no fault to be found with Mrs. Goodwin's welcome as they were ushered into the drawing-room at Ilton Court. She received Alice and Mrs. Trevor with a mixture of courtesy and genuine pleasure to see them. Miss Goodwin was with her mother, and though she kept herself in the background at first, she soon took part in the conversation and seemed quite happy to find out more about Alice. She was very interested in Alice's previous life, and Alice told her as much as she could without providing the entire neighbourhood with gossip.

"Did you have many friends in Lausanne?" Miss Goodwin asked.

"I did," Alice said. "My mother was well-liked and respected in town, so we were a popular family." She laughed. "There were two girls who were particular friends of mine - Jacqueline Clairmont and Marie-Claude Duprés. We were in the same school. I am not exactly sure though which of us interested Marie-Claude more - my brother or myself."

Miss Goodwin laughed. "Did you attend school then?"

"I certainly did. Maman said she preferred this to our being educated at home. It was important to her that we should meet other children, children of the "right sort", as she chose to express herself, so she sent us to the best schools in Lausanne."

"What was the right sort of children?" Miss Goodwin asked.

"Well-bred ones," Alice said with a laugh. "I believe every mother wishes her offspring to mix with well-behaved children rather than others, as they seem to be rather inclined to take after bad examples."

"Indeed they are," Mrs. Goodwin remarked. "I have heard there are some good schools for young ladies in the vicinity of Geneva. Did you attend one of those boarding-schools?"

"No, I didn't," Alice said. "My school was attached to a convent in Lausanne and provided lodgings for its pupils, but I only went there for my lessons. It was more popular with the local citizens than with English families who wanted their daughters to be educated in Switzerland."

"A convent school? Are you Catholic, Lady Alice?" Mrs. Goodwin sounded almost scandalized.

"No, I am not, but the nuns did not object and neither did I." Alice laughed.

"You must miss your friends," Miss Goodwin said feelingly.

"Very much," Alice said. "But I hope to hear from them soon."

"No doubt you will," Miss Goodwin said. "In the meantime, I am sure you will make some new ones.

"I hope I will," Alice said.

At that moment the door opened and Mr. Goodwin and his father joined them. Once the introductions were made, the elder Mr. Goodwin took his leave while the younger seated himself next to Alice and his sister and took part in their conversation. The topics varied from books to fashion and, finally, they discussed horse riding. Both Mr. and Miss Goodwin owned to being partial to the sport, and were greatly surprised to hear that Alice had never even tried it.

"How did you get to places if you did not ride?" Miss Goodwin asked.

"I walked," Alice said with a smile.

"And if it was too far to walk?" Miss Goodwin inquired.

"In that case I asked Monsieur Chaillot to take me - or some other friend. Someone was always at my service."

"I daresay there were plenty of young gentlemen only waiting for such a chance," Mrs. Goodwin observed shrewdly.

"None that I knew of," Alice said coolly, thereby frustrating Mrs. Goodwin's clumsy attempt to find out whether she had left any suitors in Switzerland. Mr. Goodwin gave her a smile, and brought the conversation back to the original subject.

"Now that you are in England and have plenty of horses at your disposal, will you try to learn riding?" he asked.

"I will, if only to please my father," Alice said. "In fact, I am going to have my first riding lesson this afternoon. My father is going to teach us."

"Lord Metfield is an excellent horseman," Mr. Goodwin said. "I have yet to see a better one."

"Indeed he is." Miss Goodwin smiled. "I am certain you will be able to join us for an outing before long. That would be delightful, wouldn't it, Thomas?"

"Nothing could please me better." Mr. Goodwin said with a pleasant laugh.

Alice was glad that Mrs. Trevor chose that moment to put an end to their visit. She liked Mr. and Miss Goodwin very much, but she did not know yet how to deal with Mr. Goodwin's half teasing, half flirting ways. She would have to get to know him better first.


After a quick luncheon, Alice changed into her new riding habit and followed Laurent and her father to the stables. There she made the acquaintance of Rogers, the head groom, who assisted her in getting into the saddle. Once on horseback, Alice felt slightly apprehensive - at the moment the horse, a docile-looking mare, was behaving herself, yet Alice feared she would be unseated once the horse moved.

She became even more afraid when Rogers took the horses' bridles and led them to a meadow. The horse was moving slowly, still Alice wished she had not subjected herself to those riding lessons. She hated the thought of providing every inhabitant of Metfield Hall with amusement by making a spectacle of herself. The longer her lesson lasted, the more confident she felt, until Rogers allowed the horses to trot. Alice almost panicked, feeling that she would surely fall down - until she found her father riding next to her. His calm instructions did much to reassure her, and his presence had a soothing effect. Alice had to admit, though, that she felt greatly relieved when they returned to the stables and her father assisted her in getting out of the saddle.

"How did you like your first riding lesson," he wanted to know.

"It was ... frightening," Alice said with a nervous laugh.

"You were doing very well, in spite of being frightened," he said. "Still it does not surprise me that you were afraid. It is very difficult for a grown-up person to put the dangers out of her mind. Children do not think of danger, which is why one should learn to ride a horse at an early age."

"How old were you when you were taught?" Alice asked. There were not many things she knew about her father, she thought, and would do well to try to find out more about him.

"I cannot remember," her father said. "We'll have to ask Rogers, he taught me." Upon enquiry, Rogers said he rather thought his lordship had been three years old when he had made his first attempts at horse-riding.

"You did look like someone who grew up on horseback," Laurent said to his father. "I wish I'd look so elegant on horseback. - When can we have another lesson? Tomorrow?"

"Did you enjoy yourself?" his father asked with a smile. Laurent's eagerness to learn seemed to please him well.

"Very much," Laurent admitted. "So, when can I try again?"

"Not tomorrow," Lord Metfield said. "It is Sunday tomorrow, which is Rogers' day off. But you will be back on horseback on Monday if you want to."

Laurent lamented the fact that Sunday was not a suitable day for riding lessons, but expressed his wish to try his hand at riding again on Monday. Alice was not certain whether she wanted to repeat the experience, and was glad to have a brief respite.


The next trial awaited Alice in the form of divine service on the following day. She had the impression that the entire congregation in Metfield church was staring at them as her father led them to the Daventry family pew. The looks people gave them were curious at best, but Alice encountered a few hostile ones as well. Opinions on the topic of Lord Metfield's children appeared to vary widely.
Her head held up high, Alice took her seat next to her father. The seats next to her remained empty until her aunt and grandmother made their appearance. Lady Victoria hesitated for a moment before sitting down next to Alice, careful to leave some empty space between them. Alice was sure that Lady Victoria's actions had been observed closely and would serve as a conversation topic among the parishioners once the service was over.

Alice felt her aunt's eyes were on her during the entire ceremony, which did not add to her comfort. She was feeling uneasy as it was - most of the hymns were unfamiliar to her, and although her father kindly shared his prayer book with her, Alice had some problems with following the service.

Upon leaving the church, Alice was introduced to the curate and his wife. Mr. Holroyd was to be Laurent's tutor and was already acquainted with his future pupil. He was a young gentleman, very friendly, and both he and his wife treated Alice with becoming courtesy. Of course, Alice thought bitterly, Mr. and Mrs. Holroyd would act like this - ten to one it was her father who had given Mr. Holroyd his post. But the curate's behaviour set an example to the parishioners, and the inhabitants of Metfield village appeared to warm to Alice and Laurent's presence.

Just before they got into their carriage to return to Metfield Hall, the Dowager Countess' coachman informed Lord Metfield that his mother wished to speak to him and his children.

Lady Metfield awaited them sitting in her barouche, with her daughter sitting next to her. She graciously extended her hand for her son and grandchildren to kiss and then announced, in a voice that forbade any contradiction, that she expected them to dine with her on the following day.

"How did you like your first proper Church service?" Lady Victoria asked sweetly once her mother had uttered her invitation.

"I have never attended an improper one, ma'am," Alice countered.

"Have you not? I thought your mother was a Papist, and had brought you up accordingly," Lady Victoria said maliciously.

"You are quite wrong, Vic, and besides it is no business of yours," Alice's father said, forgetting his customary good manners. He turned to Alice and Laurent. "Let us go home," he said and, with a slight bow, took leave of his mother and sister.

"Why is it so important to some people whether we are Catholic or not?" Alice asked her father. She remembered how Mrs. Goodwin had reacted when she had heard about Alice's school.

"Because not too long ago Catholicism would have barred your brother from his inheritance," her father replied. "Which would suit some people perfectly well," he added bitterly.

It did not take an ingenious mind to guess who those people were, Alice thought.

"Why did my grandmother invite us?" Laurent asked. "She did not look too happy to see us when we called on her, and now it seems she cannot wait to see us again."

"She had no audience then," his father said caustically. "Today she invited us to show everyone what a doting mother she is. She must be furious that I have accepted her invitation. I am certain she wanted me to refuse -- in which case she would have made a scene and everyone would have pitied her for having such an unfeeling son."

Back in Metfield Hall, Alice wanted to be alone for a while, so she took a book from her father's library and went into the garden. She found a bench in the rose-garden which looked particularly inviting, and sat down to read. Some time later, she looked up from her book and saw her father's secretary striding purposefully towards her.

"Are you looking for me, Mr. Blake?" she asked. Since their discussion of the true nature of the Metfield Ghost, she had not had an opportunity to address more than a few civil remarks at him, and became aware that she had missed talking to him.

"I am, in fact," Mr. Blake said with a smile. "I hope I am not disturbing you, Lady Alice."

"Not at all," Alice said and invited him to sit down next to her. After a moment's hesitation, he did as she had told him.

"I hope you were not avoiding me," Alice said with a little laugh.

"Why should I?" he asked, giving her a puzzled look.

"I do not know," Alice said. "Because of something I said or did?"

"Your behaviour ever since you arrived here has been almost faultless," he said. "I merely was very busy. So were you, I am told."

"Not so busy, really," Alice said. "Did you get a chance to make an enquiry regarding ... my late-night visitor?" Alice did not want to call the apparition a ghost. It had not been a ghost, she was certain.

"I did speak to some people, but to no avail. According to the gamekeeper, the Metfield estate has never had a poaching problem, there were no houses broken into in the past ten years, and though one of the housemaids is going to marry the blacksmith I do not think your strange visitor was him. There is one more possible explanation, but one I believe to be highly improbable."

"Which is?"

"Smugglers." Mr. Blake said gravely. "Dorset is smuggling country, and many of the ghost stories around here only serve to keep people indoors at night. I never heard of any free-traders operating from Metfield, however. This stretch of coastline is rather dangerous; it does not suit the smugglers' purposes. Even if they'd be willing to risk their lives, I do not think they'd risk their cargoes."

"So you think we can rule out that possibility?" Alice asked.

"I need to inquire in Weymouth before I can be sure, but I'd say so, yes," Mr. Blake said.

"Which leaves?"

"Nothing, I am afraid. Perhaps you saw a ghost after all?" His playful smile told Alice that he was not serious.

"I do not believe in ghosts," Alice said. "Which is almost a miracle, considering I grew up with someone like Julie in our house."

"Julie was your housemaid, if I remember correctly," Mr. Blake said. Alice nodded.

"She was most accomplished in the art of seeing bad omens that kept her from working," she said with a laugh. "Once she told us she never answered if someone called her name, because it might be someone from Beyond, and if she replied to the summons she'd have to die. My mother told her that if she did not react to her summons she'd have to leave. The thought of having to go somewhere else and actually work seemed to frighten her more than death."

Mr. Blake laughed.

"But she kept coming up with the oddest superstitions to avoid doing what she was told. I daresay she made up most of them."

"I do not doubt it," Mr. Blake said. "Why did your mother put up with this?"

"Julie was a hard worker," Alice said. "Despite her odd beliefs. Once she got started, that was. Besides, Maman was good at managing her."

A fresh breeze was coming in from the sea and made Alice feel cold. "I think I had better go in," she said, looking up at the sky and watching the clouds. "It amazes me how quickly the weather can change around here. Do you think there is going to be another storm, Mr. Blake?"

Mr. Blake shook his head. "No, but it may start raining," he said, offering Alice his arm and taking her book. As they walked back to the house, the sound of the wind whistling in the branches of the trees reminded Alice of Laurent's near-accident, and she turned to Mr. Blake, asking him whether the workmen had found any more loose tiles on the roof. Mr. Blake looked rather startled, and did not answer her question immediately.

"Well, did they or did they not?" Alice demanded impatiently.

"No... no, they didn't," Mr. Blake said, hesitantly. "You need not worry, Lady Alice. Such an accident as your brother's is unlikely to repeat itself."

"Only two tiles on the entire roof were loose?" Alice asked disbelievingly. "And those two almost dropped on my brother's head! A strange coincidence, would you not agree, Mr. Blake?"

"It has been known to happen," Mr. Blake said calmly.

Alice nodded. Accidents like her brother's had occurred before, no doubt. But if those tiles had fallen down by pure coincidence, why had Mr. Blake not told her so right away? Why had he looked so alarmed when she had asked him about the roof? What was he trying to keep from her?

She wanted to be alone, to think, to concentrate, and so she went into the drawing-room, sat down at the pianoforte and started to practise, while Mr. Blake went to his room to write some letters.


Robert Blake was not planning to write any letters. His main objective was to speak to Lord Metfield as soon as possible. Luckily, his employer was not busy at the moment and quite ready to listen to him. What Mr. Blake told him did not please him.

"You told my daughter what was found on the roof?" he asked.

"No, I just told her what was not found," Mr. Blake said. "She seems to have drawn her own conclusions."

Lord Metfield swore. "How can I prevail on her to stay if she believes her brother's life to be in danger?"

"I do not think her suspicions go as far as that, my lord," Mr. Blake said.

"Let us hope so," Lord Metfield said. "I wish I could take my children to London, but it is easier to keep an eye on them here." He sighed. "I hope I'll find out who did this before..." He stopped. "You will do what you can to reassure her, won't you Blake?"

"Certainly, sir," Mr. Blake said. "But I will not lie to Lady Alice - I am sure she'd find out if I did."

Lord Metfield laughed. "She is quite perceptive," he said. "I don't know if I should be proud or afraid of her." Then he became serious again. "Laurent suspects nothing, I hope," he said.

"No, he does not," Mr. Blake said. "He never mentioned his accident, at least, and I do not encourage him to do so."

"Good," Lord Metfield said. "You will help me to watch over them, Blake - and I'll invite Drummond to come here too - in case anything should happen."

"Your son will be delighted to meet him," Mr. Blake said blandly.

Lord Metfield sighed. True, Laurent would be delighted to meet Mr. Drummond, but Drummond would be anything but delighted to come here. In his opinion, he could do much more good in his hospital than in Metfield. On the other hand, if those tiles falling from the roof had been an attempt to murder Laurent, a doctor in the house might well be needed, and Lord Metfield could not think of a better one to tend to his son.

He would have to be very careful, Lord Metfield thought -- but he still hoped his suspicions would turn out to be wrong, and those tiles almost dropping on their heads had been an accident and nothing more.

 

©2005, 2006 Copyright held by the author.

 

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