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Castle of the Wolf
By Sandra Schwab
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Sandra Schwab
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWater poured from the skies and shrouded the world in gray. Raindrops drummed on the fold-back roof of the old gig, wormed their way through the ancient material and dripped onto the hats of the three passengers. Wetness glinted on the back of the shaggy mare and dye ran down her sides, leaving black oily puddles on the muddy country lane. Huddled in one corner of the gig, her brother's elbow digging into her side as he handled the reins, Miss Celia Fussell wiped another errant raindrop off her cheek. Her sister-in-law's high-pitched complaints grated on her nerves.
"... could have decked the village in some more noir, if you ask me." Dorinda had to speak quite loudly in order to be heard over the rain. "My dear Hailstone, will you look at that?"
Cissy grimaced. So quickly her sister-in-law had internalized the transition from Mr. Fussell to Hailstone. So quickly, so effortlessly....
"My dear Hailstone, I believe your poor sister is crying," the nagging voice continued. "Are you crying, me chère? Did I not tell you you had better stay at home? Such énervement is surely too much for your constitution. Now, of course, it is too late. But me dieu, what shall the people think?"Dorinda wrung her hands in artificial agitation.
What indeed? Cissy ground her teeth. Puffed-up pea-goose! Upon Dorinda's insistence, the funeral had been postponed so they could send for crêpe, hat bands, and ostrich feathers from London. A hearse had to be built, the little gig painted black and the horses dyed. Dyed. Just so the funeral would be pompous enough for the Baron Hailstone.
Cissy's hands clenched into fists.
As if her father had ever been pompous. A shy, bookish man, he had forever preferred the library to the world outside. A pompous funeral with ostrich feathers and mutes and shield bearers was the last thing he would have wanted.
"Hailstone, did I not tell you that your sister should stay at home? A funeral is no place for a woman. I, of course, have to be there. As the nouveau baroness I have to inspire new confidence and hope in toutes les braves gens."
Another raindrop trickled down Cissy's neck. "Be so kind and drive on, George," she forced out between gritted teeth. "I assure you, I am perfectly fine."
For a moment her brother turned his round, red-cheeked face and soulful brown eyes to her. "If you say so, Cis."
Forever the lost-puppy look. Inwardly, Cissy sighed. "Do not worry." She patted his arm and wondered, not for the first time, what in all the world George saw in his wife. A thin, pale creature with a thin, sharp nose and affected airs, Dorinda Miller, the Widow Miller's only daughter-but else of dubious parentage-had snatched the baron's son three years ago, soon after she had returned home from a convent in France. Allegedly from a convent in France. Her French was a disaster, her blond bouncing corkscrew curls the result of her skill with the curling tongs and probably with bleach, too. But, of course, George, sweet, apple-cheeked George, never saw beyond the carefully constructed façade.
Irritated, Cissy wiped her finger over the tip of her nose, while her sister-in-law's whining voice droned on and on, all the long, long way from the manor house to the village church. The squelching wheels of the gig ploughed on through the mud, and the splash of the horse's hooves sprayed dirt on shoes and clothes. Slowly, steadily, the rain flattened the bundle of ostrich feathers between the mare's ears into an unruly second mane.
The wind picked up and made Cissy shiver, a harsh reminder that the golden days of summer were long gone-in more ways than one. She had to close her eyes for a moment as the pain threatened to overwhelm her. Never again would she find refuge from the world in her father's arms. Never again would she press her face against his soft housecoat and inhale the reassuring scent of mild tobacco and dusty old books that clung to its folds, while his heart beat strongly and steadily under her ear. Never again would her father pat her cheek in his absent-minded manner and leave traces of black ink on her skin.
Cissy slowly inhaled and let her breath go in a heavy sigh.
Never, never again.
And what would become of her now? The new baron's spinster sister, a maiden aunt for his future children. She imagined a lifetime under one roof with Dorinda Miller, and a shudder tore through her.
"Cis?" Her brother's worried voice cut through her bleak reverie. "Are you really all right?"
"Did I not tell you, Hailstone," Dorinda repeated, "that your soeur had better stay at home?" Her black veil fluttered in the wind as she leaned forward to cast Cissy a disparaging look.
Abiding like the rain, the woman's whining continued, and even in church it carried on, in whispers and muttered complaints. Trying to shut her out, Cissy stared straight ahead at her father's coffin, which disappeared under black velvet.
Sent for from London, too.
It did not help that she could feel the disapproval radiating from the villagers. Disapproval not because the old baron's funeral had been turned into a farce-no, they had even admired the stupid ostrich feathers, which the rain had transformed into broken, spiky things; had admired the rough-hewn hearse, the blotchy oily and black horses, the tiny old gig that stood in as mourning carriage. As if the attempt at a fashionable funeral somehow raised the importance of the village itself. But what the people, the men, disapproved of was the presence of two women at the funeral. Cissy could not help noticing the frowns, the deploring looks.
All at once, tears welled up in her eyes. She had so hoped they would understand her need to honor her father this last time. Instead, even the vicar shot her dark looks, his face stern and forbidding.
Later, when at last the coffin was lowered into the earth, they all stared at her as if they expected her to break down, to rave and rant against fate, which had stopped her father's heart. Instead, she stood alone under her old umbrella, her eyes burning, and did not utter a sound. Dorinda, meanwhile, sniffed from time to time and prettily wiped her eyes behind her elegant black veil. She had snuggled up to George under his umbrella, the image of sad, sincerely desolate heirs.
To Cissy this sight seemed a vision of her future: standing alone and always apart from the new baron and baroness, forever condemned to a life as Miss Celia Fussell. She had no illusions in that respect. If her father had only been able to afford one London season for his daughter, then the new Baroness Hailstone would hardly agree to waste money on another stay in town. Besides, how could she ever hope to pass muster next to the young, fresh debutantes whose foreheads had never been touched by sorrow and whose mothers spent a fortune on their daughters' dresses and shawls and gloves and reticules? No, Cissy had no illusions: at twenty-seven, stranded in the north of England and thus far from any fashionable town or city, with no prospects of marriage, she was firmly on the shelf. When her father had still been alive, it had not seemed to matter. She had acted as his secretary and librarian; he had taught her Latin and Greek, French and German, and the beautiful languages of the Middle Ages so she could read all his favorite books to him. While he had not been able to afford real travels, he had taken her on the most wonderful journeys of the mind, had shown her the wild beauty of the old North, the mysteries of the Forest of Broceliande, the marvels of King Arthur's court. Most of all, she remembered her father sitting in his worn armchair, puffing his pipe like a merry, oversized dwarf.
Cissy squeezed her eyes shut. "Cwædon flæt he wære wyruld-cyninga, manna mildust ond mon-ðwærust, leodum liðost ...," she whispered. They said that he was of all the world's kings the gentlest of men and the most gracious, the kindest to his people.... Tears seeped from under her closed eyelids and rolled in a searing path down her cheek.
After the funeral, they drove back to the manor, retracing the deep grooves in the mud where the heavy hearse had crushed the wet earth down. And still rain fell, a fine gossamer of water and coldness, rendering the world gray and dreary. It seemed appropriate that even the land should be in mourning for the old baron.
Cissy shivered and huddled deeper into her old pelisse. Once it had been maroon-colored, and with a pang of remorse Cissy remembered its loveliness, how special she had felt when she had worn it during her only season in London. Almost like a princess. And now it was black, black, deepest black, and had lost all hint of its former beauty.
How ridiculous to mourn such a small thing, the color of a pelisse, Cissy thought. But she knew that so much more than the color of a bit of clothing, she mourned the feeling of being cherished. Never, never again. She sighed.
"What was that? Was that a cough?" Immediately, Dorinda's high voice took on a quailing quality. "Miss Celia Fussell, did you tousser? I have told you that you should better stay at home, and now look what has happened! Une toux! And you know how frail my constitution is! Oh, me dieu, me dieu." Agitated, Dorinda fanned herself with her gloved hands. "I already feel dreadfully faint. I-"
Cissy could have happily strangled her. "I assure you, I did not cough."
"Well ..." Her sister-in-law sniffed-a sound of injured dignity. "There is no reason to be so clipped, Miss Celia. One cannot be too careful of one's health, especially if one has such a fragile constitution as I."
At that, Cissy barely managed to suppress a snort. Indeed. You've got a constitution like an ox. From the corners of her eyes she watched Dorinda primly folding her hands in her lap.
"En outre," the despised voice continued, "it would do you good to start showing some more consideration for those who kindly let you stay under their roof."
Cissy's hands clenched and tightly gripped the folds of her pelisse. She had to bite down hard on her lip to prevent any scathing reply from slipping out.
"Dorrie," her brother protested weakly.
"No, no, Hailstone." Dorinda patted his arm, then slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. "It is well past time that your soeur acts up to her new situation in life." Her voice had a satisfied ring, like a cat's after it had licked up all the cream.
Oh, yes, the Right Honorable Lady Hailstone. How she relished the situation! Cissy turned her head and stared unseeingly at the rain veiled landscape.
The first day of her future life in hell had just begun.
The study, though warmed by a merry fire, seemed full of chills. The large, dark desk was curiously empty, while the thick ledgers stood lined up on the shelves like leather-clad soldiers. No whiff of pipe smoke lingered in the air, and the deep leather chairs, stiff with disuse, were cold and forbidding. The late Baron Hailstone had abandoned this room years ago and had created himself a den in the library instead-a room which always smelled of ink and old paper, where the books stood crookedly side by side like old friends and whispered to each other of old deeds of dare, of stories long forgotten and of ages past. It was a room where you snuggled up in front of the fire, where you sat down with a cup of hot tea when rain beat at the windows and a storm howled around the house.
Now rain was beating against the windows of the study, too, yet Cissy felt cold, so cold inside out, as if she were never going to be warm again. She tried to concentrate as Mr. Weatherby, the family solicitor, read out the last will in his thin, reedy voice. The wrinkles quivered down his throat, and his wire-rimmed spectacles had slipped down to the tip of his nose. He spoke slowly and with difficulty, as if he felt grief, too. And perhaps he did. Her father had always been fond of little Mr. Weatherby. "A good man, that. A loyal man," he used to say.
"'... to my son and heir, the Honorable George Alexander Fussell.'"
So the house and everything went to George; no surprise there. The surprise was that her father had twice entailed the estate, meager as its incomings were. Perhaps he had wanted to curb the tendency of his son's wife to live above their means; perhaps he had hoped for a more sensible generation of Fussells in the future.
Cissy watched how Dorinda's lips became thin and how displeasure contorted her face. Even more displeasure came when Mr. Weatherby read on and made it known that the late Baron Hailstone had bequested most of his books to his friends: people who, like him, pursued the study of mythology or the Middle Ages. Friends whom Cissy had never met, yet whom she had got to know through the letters she had read to her father in the last few years. It would be painful to empty the library and pack up all the books, which had been like a second family to Cissy. Yet she was grateful that they would be given into good hands, that they would be treasured and read with pleasure. Dorinda might have banished them to the attic so she could fill the shelves with fashionable novels and poetry instead, none of which she would ever pick up anyway.
Mr. Weatherby went on reading, listing pensions for the old servants and tenants. "'... And lastly ...'" For the first time, there was a break in the old lawyer's even presentation of his late client's wishes. Mr. Weatherby cleared his throat and stared hard at the piece of paper before him. "'And lastly, to my only daughter, Miss Celia Fussell, I bequeath the estate of Wolfenbach under the conditions as explained in the letter enclosed. Should she fail to meet these conditions within a period of four months, the estate shall fall to the Altertumsverein Kirchwalden. With this I commend my soul to God. May He forgive my sins and give me His guidance so that after this life I fail not to enter His eternal kingdom. Signed, George Fussell, Lord Hailstone. Fifteenth September, 1825.'"
"A double entail?" Dorinda gave an artful little laugh, which did little to hide the scorn underneath. "How very curieux."
A worried frown creasing his smooth forehead, George leaned forward. "Surely there must be a mistake? I have never heard of this Wolfenbach before." He turned to his sister. "Have you heard of it, Cis? Surely you cannot want a place we have never heard of?"
Cissy blinked again, while Dorinda managed a shrill giggle that had even the stout Mr. Weatherby wincing. "Wolfenbach? As in the novel? So it must be a joke, I assume? A very étrange homme, your father, Hailstone, full of peculiar jokes like the double entail, pour exemple, n'est-ce pas?"
Mr. Weatherby adjusted his glasses. "I assure you, milord, milady, Miss Fussell, that Wolfenbach does indeed exist, and that I here have the papers, drawn up in Miss Fussell's name, to prove it. Miss Fussell?" He cleared his throat and lowered his head so he could peer over the rims of his spectacles at Cissy. "Would you like me to read out the accompanying letter?"
"But ... but ..." George spread his arms wide, a picture of genuine puzzlement. "Where exactly is this place? Surely our father would not want my sister to own a place we have never heard of?"
"Exactement." Possessively, Dorinda settled her hand on George's arm. "If there is another estate, it is only right and proper that it should go to dear Hailstone."
Mr. Weatherby looked on the couple and sighed, as if the continuous interruptions in the proceedings finally began to annoy him. "Wolfenbach is situated, quite nicely as I have been assured, in the Great Duchy of Baden. In the Black Forest, to be more precise. The letter, Miss Fussell?"
Yet Dorinda was not yet finished. "The Noire Forêt?" She shuddered delicately and quite suddenly seemed to have lost interest in acquiring the property after all. "What an odious place! I have heard it is barely civilized. Whatever did your père think of, my dear Hailstone, to purchase a house somewhere like that in the first place?"
Mr. Weatherby gave her a bland smile. "Then you should consider yourself lucky, milady, that the castle has been deeded to your sister-in-law. Miss Fussell?" His kind, watery eyes turned to Cissy once more.
Who would have thought that her father owned a castle in Baden? He had friends there, for sure, living somewhere near Freiburg, where, as he had told her, small, manmade streams ran through the streets and filled the town with their faint babbling. Each year her father had received a carefully wrapped and boxed bottle of kirsch from the Black Forest. On the cold days of autumn and winter, he had liked to put a glass of kirsch in his cocoa-"to warm his old bones," as he said. Yet her father had not been that old, or so it had seemed to her. Surely not old enough to die....
Excerpted from Castle of the Wolf by Sandra Schwab Copyright © 2007 by Sandra Schwab. Excerpted by permission.
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