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An Invitation is extended to Miss Isabella Forrest
To attend the celebration of the Season at
Helen was tired and cold. The private chaise she had hired for the last stage of the journey across Bodmin Moor was the most uncomfortable and least weatherproof of all the many and varied coaches in which she had been travelling for the past three days.
She shot her Aunt Bella an anxious glance. For the past half-hour she had kept her eyes fixed tightly shut, but she was not asleep. Helen knew this because every time they bounced over a pothole she emitted a faint moan.
She had never thought of her aunt as old until quite recently. Aunt Bella had always looked the same to her, right from the very first moment they had met. A determined-looking but kind lady, with light brown hair shot through with silver. There was perhaps just a little more silver now than there had been twelve years ago, when she had taken Helen home with her. But in the months since their local bank had gone out of business, and all their money had disappeared into some kind of financial abyss neither of them fully understood, she had definitely aged rapidly.
And now, thought Helen with a pang of disquiet, she looked like a lady of advancing years who had been evicted from her home, endured a journey fraught with innumerable difficulties in the depths of winter, and was facing the humiliation of having to beg a man she detested to provide her daily bread.
The transition from independent, respected woman to pauper had been hard enough for Helen to contend with. But it looked as though it was destroying her aunt.
At that very moment a flare of light outside the coach briefly attracted Helen's attention. They were slowing down to negotiate the turn from the main road onto a driveway, the wrought-iron gates of which stood open.
'Almost there, Aunt Bella,' said Helen. 'See?'
She indicated the two stone pillars through which their driver was negotiating the chaise.
Aunt Bella's eyes flicked open, and she attempted a tremulous smile which was so lacking in conviction it made Helen want to weep.
She averted her head. She did not want to upset her aunt any further by making her think she was going to break down. She had to be strong. Aunt Bella had taken her in when she had discovered nobody else wanted a virtually penniless orphanproduct of a marriage neither her father's nor her mother's family had approved of. Aunt Bella had been there for her, looking after her, all these years. Now it was Helen's turn.
Through the carriage window she could see, one crouching on top of each pillar, a pair of stone lions, mouths open in silent snarls. Since the wind which howled across the moors was making the lanterns swing, the flickering shadows made it look just as though they were licking their lips and preparing to pounce.
She gave an involuntary shiver, then roused herself to push aside such a fanciful notion. She had only imagined the lions looked menacing because she was tired, and anxious about her aunt's health now, as well as already being convinced neither of them was truly welcome at Alvanley Hall. In spite of the Earl of Bridgemere sending that invitation.
He had sent one every year since Helen could remember. And every other year her aunt had tossed the gilt-edged piece of card straight into the fire with a contemptuous snort.
'Spend Christmas with a pack of relations I cannot abide, in that draughty great barracks of a place, when I can really enjoy myself here, in my snug little cottage, amongst my true friends?'
Yet here they were, whilst the cottage and the friends, along with Aunt Bella's independence, had all gone. Swept away in the aftermath of the collapse of the Mid-dleton and Shropshire County Bank, to which all their capital had been entrusted.
Her feeling of being an unwelcome intruder into the Earl of Bridgemere's domain only increased the further along the carriageway they drove. It had its foundation, Helen knew, in her aunt's statement that the Earl was as loath to open up his home to his extended family as she was to attend the annual gathering.
'It is about the only thing we have in common,' she had grumbled as she wrote her acceptance letter. 'A disinclination to go anywhere near any other member of this family. In fact, if it were not for his habit of going to Alvanley to preside over the Christmas festivities for the tenants at the family seat, nobody would know where to locate him from one year's end to the next, so assiduously does he avoid us all. Which is why he issues these invitations, I dare say. We would run him to earth there whether he did so or not. And at least this way he knows how many of us to cater for.'
Though torches had been lit and set at frequent intervals along the winding driveway, ostensibly to help strangers find their way more easily through the rapidly falling winter dusk, the only effect upon Helen was to make her wonder what lurked beyond the pools of light they cast. What was waiting in the depths of the menacing shadows, poised to pounce on anyone foolish enough to stray beyond the boundaries the Earl had set for those he so grudgingly permitted thus far?
It seemed to take an inordinately long time before the carriage drew to a halt in the shelter of a generously proportioned porte-cochere. A footman in black and silver livery came to open the coach door and let down the steps. Her aunt slumped back into her seat. The light streaming from the porch lamps revealed that her face was grey, her eyes dulled with despair.
'Aunt Bella, we have to get out now. We are here!' Helen whispered in an urgent undertone.
'No ' the old lady moaned. 'I cannot do this. I want to go home!' Her eyes filled with tears. She shut them, and shook her head in a gesture of impatience, as though reminding herself she no longer had anywhere to call home.
Their landlord had visited promptly, as soon as the rumours began to spread that Aunt Bella had lost her entire fortune. To remind her that their lease expired in the New Year, and that if she had not the cash to meet the rent she would have to leave.
Leaving her eventually with no alternative but to apply to the Earl of Bridgemerethe head of the familyfor aid.
'That it has come to this,' Aunt Bella had said three days ago, when they had climbed into the mail coach at Bridgenorth. 'To be obliged to go cap in hand to that man of all men! But I have burned my bridges now. I can never go back. Never.'
She had sat ramrod-straight, refusing to look out of the window for miles lest she catch the eye of anyone who knew her. She had faced every challenge such a long journey had entailed with an air of dogged determination.
But it looked as though her redoubtable spirit had finally crumbled to dust.
Helen clambered over her, got out, and leaned back into the coach.
'Come!' she urged gently, putting her arms around her. 'Let me help you out.'
Helen had to practically lift her aunt from the coach. And had to keep her arm about her waist once she had reached solid ground to keep her standing. It was a shock to feel her trembling all over, though whether from exhaustion, fear, or the cold that had pervaded their hired carriage, she could not tell.
A second footman materialised. He was a little older than the first flunkey, and dressed more soberly. Helen assumed he was the head footman, or possibly even the under-butler.
'Welcome to Alvanley Hall, Miss Forrest' he began, in the bland, bored tone of an upper servant who had spent all day parroting the same words.
'Never mind that now!' Helen interrupted. 'My aunt needs assistance, not meaningless platitudes!'
Both footmen goggled at her as though she had sprouted two heads.
She very nearly stamped her foot in irritation.
'Can't you see she can barely stand?' Helen continued. 'Oh, for heaven's sake!' she snapped, when they just continued to stare at her as though in shock. 'Make yourselves useful, can't you? Get her a chair. Or no ' She immediately changed her mind as her aunt gave another convulsive shiver. 'We must get her inside first. Into the warm.'
Her aunt blinked owlishly about her. 'I do not think I shall ever feel warm again,' she observed.
To do him justice, the head footman had very quick reflexes. And very deft, sure hands. He managed to disentangle Helen from her aunt before she lost the fight to keep her from slithering to the ground, and scooped her up into his arms with an insouciance that suggested catching fainting guests was a task he performed every day.
Then he strode into the house without a backward glance, leaving Helen to her own devices.
After tamping down a fresh wave of annoyance she trotted behind him, arriving in the hall just in time to hear him addressing a young housemaid, who had been scurrying across the hall with a pile of linen in her arms.
'What room does Miss Forrest have?'
The maid's eyes grew round at the sight of the unconscious woman in his arms.
'Well, I just finished making up the drum room at the foot of the tower,' she began, 'but '
'Very well. I shall take her up there myself.'
'B.but sir!' stammered the first footman.
The head footman shot him one look, which was so withering it was enough to reduce him to red-faced silence.
'Follow me, Miss ?' He raised one eyebrow, as though expecting her to enlighten him as to her name.
But Helen was in no mood to waste time on introductions.
'Hurry up, do! The sooner we make her comfortable the better!'
He nodded curtly, then demonstrated that he had caught on to the severity of her aunt's condition by striding deeper into the house. He bypassed the rather ostentatious staircase which swept upwards from the main hall, going instead along a corridor to a plainer, more narrow stone staircase, with wooden handrails darkened and glossy with age.
Helen had to trot to keep up with his long-legged stride, and was quite out of breath by the time they came to a heavily studded oak door set into a small gothic arch that led into a perfectly circular room. With its unadorned ceiling, which contrasted starkly with the bright frieze running round the upper portion of the walls, it did indeed feel like being on the inside of a drum.
The footman laid Aunt Bella upon the bed, frowned down at her for a moment or two, then went across and tugged on a bell-pull beside the chimney breast.
'Someone will come and see to Miss Forrest,' he said curtly. 'I really should not be up here.' He stalked to the door, opened it, then turned to her. 'I am sure you know what is best to do for her when she has one of these turns.' He ran his eyes over her dismissively. 'I shall leave her in your.capable hands.'
Helen opened her mouth to protest that this was not a turn but the result of exhaustion, brought on by the sufferings her aunt had endured over the preceding weeks, but the footman had already gone.
How dared he look at her like that? As though she was a dead pigeon the cat had brought in! And as for saying he should not be up here! She tugged the strings of her muff over her head and flung it at the door through which he had just gone.
Pompous toad! For all his quick reflexes, and the strength it must have taken to carry her aunt's dead weight up all these stairs, he was clearly one of those men who thought that showing an ailing female any sort of compassion was beneath his dignity!
Unless he was just hiding a streak of venality beneath that cool, efficient demeanour? She had heard another carriage approaching just as they had been going into the house. It probably contained one of the Earl's titled relatives. He had a score of them, her aunt had warned her as they had lain in bed the night before, neither of them quite able to do more than doze on and off because of the noise the other occupants of the coaching inn were making.
'Each one more pompous than the last,' she had said. 'Lord Bridgemere's two surviving sisters are the worst. Lady Thrapston and Lady Craddock are so starched up it is a wonder either of them can bend enough to sit down.'
Helen had giggled in the darkness, glad her aunt was still able to make a jest in light of all she was going throughand all she still had to face.
But she was beyond the stage of joking about anything now. With agitated fingers Helen untied the strings of her aunt's bonnet, loosened the top buttons of her coat, and pulled off her boots. Aunt Bella's eyes flickered open briefly as she tucked a quilt over her, but she did not really come properly awake.
Helen pulled a ladder-backed chair beside the bed, so that she could hold her hand while she waited for a maid to arrive.
Helen waited. And waited. But the promised help did not come.
She got up, crossed the room, and yanked on the bell-pull again. Then, in spite of the fact that the room was so cold she could see her breath steaming, she untied her own bonnet, shaking out her ebony curls and fluffing them over her ears, and peeled off her gloves before returning to her aunt's bedside to chafe at her hands. Even though a fire was burning in the hearth it was making little impact upon the chill that pervaded this room. Her aunt's hands remained cold, and her face still retained that horribly worrying grey tinge.
After waiting in mounting irritation for what must have been at least twenty minutes, she began to wonder if the bell-pull actually worked. They had not been quartered in the best part of the house. Even trotting behind the footman, with one eye kept firmly on her aunt, she had noticed that the corridors up here were uncarpeted, the wall hangings faded and worn with age.
This was clearly, she decided in mounting annoyance, all that an indigent, untitled lady who was the mere aunt of a cousin of the Earl warranted by way of comfort!
But then her aunt finally opened her eyes.
'Helen?' she croaked.
'Yes, dear, I am here.'
'You had a little faint, I think,' she said, smoothing a straggling greying lock from her aunt's forehead. 'How embarrassing.'
Her aunt might feel mortified, but the pink that now stole to her hollow cheeks came as a great relief to Helen.