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The Girl in the Gatehouse
By Julie Klassen
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2010 Julie Klassen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeptember 1813
The end of the only life I've known, thought Mariah Aubrey, looking back through the carriage window at the shrinking figures of her mother and sister. Nineteen-year-old Julia stood in the foreground, shoulders heaving as she wept. The sight seared Mariah's heart. Their mother stood behind, hand on Julia's arm, in consolation, in empathy—perhaps even in restraint. And there came their father, down the steps of Attwood Park. He had not come out to bid her farewell. He would not, he insisted, "sanction vice, nor seek to lessen its disgrace." But now he draped one arm around his wife and the other around his younger daughter, turning and shepherding them back inside, back into the only home Mariah had ever known. And might never see again.
Mariah turned back around. Miss Dixon, on the opposite bench, quickly averted her gaze, feigning interest in the fringes of her reticule, as if she had not noticed any tears.
Mariah bit the inside of her lip to control its trembling. She stared out the side window, despite knowing it would make her ill. She barely saw the passing countryside as events of the last month whirled through her mind. She winced, but the life-rending scenes neither altered nor disappeared.
"Long journey ahead, Miss Mariah," Dixon said. "Why not try to sleep? The miles shall pass more quickly."
Mariah forced a smile, nodded, and obediently closed her eyes. She doubted she would sleep, but at least with her eyes closed she would not see the pity on the face of her last ally in the world.
* * *
They traveled for two days, stopping at various coaching inns to change horses, stretch limbs, and take hurried meals. Late in the second day, Mariah fell into exhausted sleep at last, only to be jostled awake when the hired post-chaise careened, sending her slamming into its side.
"What happened?" she asked, righting herself.
Dixon straightened her hat atop blond hair threaded with silver. "I believe the driver swerved to avoid a lamb." She surveyed the pasture beyond the window. "We are definitely in sheep country."
Mariah rubbed her offended shoulder and looked out the windows on either side of the post-chaise. They were following a gentle, sparkling river on one side, and on the other, a rolling meadow dotted with white-faced sheep and nearly grown lambs. The river curved before them, and they crossed it on a stone bridge, passing a pair of red-brick mills on its bank. They entered a village of blond-stone cottages, with an inn, apothecary shop, stonemason's, and steepled parish church clustered around a triangular green.
"Is this Whitmore?" Mariah asked.
"I hope so." Dixon sighed. "My bones have had more than enough of these poorly sprung seats." Her former nanny was barely fifty, but she complained like a much older woman.
They left the small village behind, and only a few minutes later, the carriage made a sharp turn. Mariah looked up in time to see the imposing entrance to an estate—its high wall broken by an open columned gate.
Dixon leaned toward the window, like a potted plant seeking light. "Where is the gatehouse?"
"This must be the main entrance," Mariah said, explaining what she recalled from her aunt's letter. "The gatehouse is at a second entrance no longer in use."
Mariah could still barely grasp that she was now expected to live on her own, with only Miss Dixon as companion. Her father had insisted that even had there been no other young lady in his house to be endangered by Mariah's character, still he would not so insult the neighborhood by continuing to harbor her. How his words had cut, and cut still.
The carriage passed through the gate and followed a drive encircling acres of landscaped grounds—shaped hedges and a rose garden around a reflecting pond. At the apex of the curved drive stood impressive seventeenth-century Windrush Court. The manor house of golden blond stone stood two-and-a-half-stories high with dormer windows jutting from its slate roof. Banks of tall mullioned windows winked from both ground and first floors.
The carriage halted before the manor and lurched as the groom hopped down to lower the step. The front door of the house opened, and from between the columned archway stepped not her aunt but rather an odd figure. A man in his late fifties, in a plain dark suit of clothes, without the livery or regal bearing of either footman or butler. There was something unnatural about the way he held himself, as if one shoulder hitched slightly higher than the other.
The groom opened the carriage door, but the approaching man held up his palm to halt his progress. "Hold, there. One moment." He gave Mariah a stiff bow. "Jeremiah Martin." He lifted his balding head, wreathed in silvery grey hair. "Are you Miss Aubrey?"
"Yes. Is my aunt not expecting me?"
"She is. But I am to direct you to the gatehouse."
"Thank you." Mariah hesitated. "May I quickly greet Mrs. Prin-Hallsey first?"
"No, madam. I am to take you to the gatehouse straightaway."
Her aunt had offered her a place to live but refused to receive her in person? Mariah glanced at Dixon to see how the opinionated woman would react, but Dixon was not looking at her. She was staring at the man, or rather at the hook that protruded where his left hand should be.
"I see." Mariah hoped her disappointment and embarrassment were concealed behind a stiff smile.
The man's blue eyes held hers a moment before flitting away. "I shall climb up and direct the coachman. Big place, Windrush Court."
A moment later, the carriage again lurched to life and rounded the other side of the curved drive.
Mariah glanced back at the house. The curtains on one of the first-floor windows parted and then closed. Then the carriage turned right, away from the manor house, and entered a copse of redwood and horse chestnut trees.
As they bounced along, Mariah swallowed back the hurt that her aunt had not at least greeted her. When the woman had been married to Mariah's uncle, "Aunt Fran" had shown an interest in her, even invited her to visit on several occasions. Though never an overly warm person, her aunt had been kind to Mariah in her youth, which only made this rejection more painful.
Impulsively, Mariah reached over and squeezed her companion's hand. "Thank you for coming with me."
Dixon pressed her hand in return, her blue eyes bright with unshed tears. "And what else would I have done?"
The carriage passed a gardener's cottage, with a wheelbarrow of potted autumn mums before it and a glass hothouse beside it. Then a carpenter's workshop, evidenced by long planks suspended between sawhorses. Over these hunched a thin middle-aged man who paused to tip his hat as they passed.
The trees thickened and the lane narrowed where grass and weeds had been allowed to breach a formerly well-maintained drive. Mariah craned her neck, looking through the trees for a glimpse of the gatehouse.
There it was.
Tall and narrow, built of caramel-colored Cotswold stone. Not so bad, Mariah thought. The gatehouse looked like a miniature two-story castle attached to an arched gate, with a turreted tower on either side of the gate, a story taller than the house itself. From the far turret and the opposite side of the gatehouse, the high wall that enclosed the entire estate curved away and disappeared within the wood.
The carriage halted, and the groom again hopped down and opened the door. This time, Mr. Martin did not protest their exit. In fact, descending from the equipage seemed to consume his full attention.
Mariah stepped down and regarded the large gate with ornamental filigrees atop sturdy iron bars. It had clearly been a major thoroughfare in and out of the estate at some point. Now it wore a thick chain and rusted padlock.
At closer inspection, the gatehouse itself appeared forlorn. The stone walls were cankered, the window glass cloudy, and several panes cracked. The small garden was overgrown and leggy. The adjacent pair of outbuildings—a small stable and woodshed—in a slumping state of disrepair. A rope swing hung from a tree, its wooden seat broken in two.
Mariah glanced at Dixon, but she was once again staring at Mr. Martin. The man paused near them to fish jingling keys from his pocket, and Dixon lifted a scented handkerchief to her nose without subtlety. The man did have a pungent odor. Not of uncleanliness, Mariah surmised, but something else. Whatever it was, Dixon clearly disapproved.
He glanced over at Mariah and said sternly, "That gate is to remain locked, unless in case of fire or other dire emergency."
Curiosity pricked Mariah. "May I ask why?"
He lifted his normal right shoulder so that both were raised in a shrug. "Hasn't been used in years. Not since the road outside the main gate was widened into a turnpike."
His answer did not fully explain the locked gate, but Mariah did not press him.
Mr. Martin unlocked and pushed open the gatehouse door. He handed her the keys, and Mariah eagerly entered her new home.
The cloying odor of musty dampness and stale air met them inside a small kitchen. Dust covered the table and work counter. Dixon lifted an old basket upturned on the sideboard, only to discover a scattering of fennel-seed mouse droppings beneath. Her small nose wrinkled.
Mariah stepped from the kitchen into the drawing room at the front of the gatehouse. Something scurried out of sight as she entered. Dust-cloths shrouded a saggy settee and a wing chair. Water stains marked the wall beneath the front bow window, but at least the roof seemed sound. The moth-eaten draperies deserved to be burned and replaced, but perhaps they could wash and mend them instead. Mariah sighed. So very much to do, and such limited funds with which to do it.
Mr. Martin bade the coachman and groom to haul down their trunks and valises from the carriage boot and roof and carry them inside, but he departed without offering to help. Perhaps he could not, with a hook for a hand. Or perhaps he did not think this strange young woman, this distant relation of his mistress, worth the effort.
Dixon directed the transfer of two crates of foodstuffs and utensils into the dim kitchen, a crate of books and linens into the drawing room, and the trunks abovestairs.
Following the men, Dixon and Mariah climbed the narrow staircase to the first floor up, the banister shaking in their hands. There, they found one bedchamber on either end of a narrow passageway, with a small sitting room between them.
"Which would you like, Dixon?" Mariah asked, relieved to find the rooms habitable.
"You should have the larger, of course." Dixon hesitated at the window of the larger bedchamber, which overlooked the road and wood beyond. Above the treetops appeared the roof of a stark, boxlike building. Three black chimneys jutted from its ramparts, loosing coal smoke in triune columns of sooty grey.
"Not much of a view, I am afraid. If you'd prefer the other room, I don't mind."
"This is fine, Dixon. Thank you. What do you suppose that building is?"
"Don't know. But one strong wind and we'll be sweeping its soot from our floors." She turned. "Well, we had best get busy. This place won't scrub itself."
* * *
For several days, Mariah and Dixon undertook the cleaning and airing of the gatehouse from ceiling to floorboard, from attic to cellar. They had to evict several creatures that had taken up residence in the chimneys and sweep up heaps of droppings. This was the only reason Dixon did not object when Mariah suggested adopting the cat that began shadowing their every move as they went in and out carrying filthy draperies to scald and refuse to burn.
On their fourth day there, Dixon called, "Miss Mariah! There's a carriage coming up the lane."
Mariah's heart lurched. A carriage from within the gated estate. Who could it be? She raced to the kitchen window and looked out at a grand coach pulled by a pair of matched bays. A liveried footman stepped down, opened its door, and offered his hand to the occupant.
There she was. Her aunt, the former Francesca Norris, now Mrs. Prin-Hallsey.
Her hair was different than Mariah remembered—rabbit-fur grey, curled and piled high in an elegant coif, with long corkscrew curls cascading over one shoulder. A wig, certainly. Aunt Norris had never had such thick hair, and what she'd had was reddish brown. Her aunt's face was powdered very light, but her brows and lashes were dark, making her brown eyes large and doelike. She wore a burgundy day dress with threads of silver and a high-necked lace collar. She held her head erect and walked regally toward the door. Mariah hurried to open it, but Dixon stayed her with a firm hand.
"Allow me, miss," she said in her most respectful voice, whipping the cap from Mariah's head. Mariah quickly untied her apron.
Dixon opened the door before Mariah could retreat into the drawing room. She was left standing there as her aunt strode into the humble kitchen as though she owned the place. And, in a sense, Mariah supposed she did.
"Aunt ... That is, Mrs. Prin-Hallsey. How good to see you again." Mariah tossed the apron onto the table and curtsied.
"Of course. Perhaps not ... under such circumstances, but yes, I am happy to see you."
A smile compressed the woman's small, thin mouth. She dipped her head in graceful acknowledgement and followed Mariah into the drawing room.
She ignored Mariah's offer of a chair. "I shan't stay." Her large eyes studied her face. "How old are you now, Mariah? One and twenty?"
"Four and twenty."
The dark brows rose. "Really. Well. I shan't go on about how much older you are since last we met, for I don't wish you to return the favor. I will own you look well."
"Thank you. As do you."
Her aunt nodded. "And how are you settling in?"
"Very well, I think," Mariah said. "I appreciate your offer of lodgings."
Mrs. Prin-Hallsey waved her thanks away. "I am sorry I could not greet you upon your arrival. Hugh ... That is, I was indisposed." She gestured through the open kitchen door to two footmen waiting outside. "I have brought a few things."
The liveried young men stepped inside, the first hefting an ornate square chest.
"This is a chest I brought with me to Windrush Court. It contains only a few personal belongings. I would feel more at ease if it were under your roof for now. My relationship with my late husband's son, Hugh, is difficult at best. You understand."
Mariah didn't understand but simply nodded.
With a delicate gloved hand, Mrs. Prin-Hallsey gestured the second footman forward.
"And here are a few things for you." Her aunt began lifting items from the basket the young man held. "This candle lamp was my grandmother's." She held up a twine-wrapped bundle of candles. "And a dozen tapers to go with it. And here is a tin of coffee and another of tea. Cook sent along a variety of baked goods as well." With a wave of her hand, she directed the footman to hand the basket to Mariah.
"I shall have the chest put in the attic, shall I?" Mrs. Prin-Hallsey said. "The turret has attic space as I remember?"
"Yes," Mariah answered, though the question had clearly been rhetorical. She wondered how her aunt knew about the attic, and couldn't imagine what might have possessed her to venture inside this long-abandoned gatehouse before now.
The young footman bearing the chest started for the stairs.
"Have you anything else you would like my men to carry up to the attic while we are here?"
Mariah thought quickly. "We have two trunks, now all but empty, in the first-floor passage."
"Very well." Mrs. Prin-Hallsey nodded toward the second footman, and he followed the first.
Mariah felt discomfited at strangers making free with what had so quickly become her home. Still, she smiled at Mrs. Prin-Hallsey. "Thank you, Aunt Fran." The old name slipped out before Mariah could think the better of it.
The woman's eyes widened. "That is an address I have not heard in years, nor missed either. You may call me—" she considered—"Aunt Francesca. Or Mrs. Prin-Hallsey, if you prefer."
"Of course. Forgive me." Mariah felt chastised, yet her aunt had not minded the name before. "And thank you again for the gifts."
Once more, the elegant nod of acknowledgement. "Think nothing of it."
A few minutes later, her aunt was gone, her entourage with her.
Mariah took herself back upstairs, glad to see how much space had been freed by the removal of the trunks. She found herself standing at the window, staring at the roof and chimneys visible above the autumn-gold trees.
The floorboard squeaked behind her, announcing Dixon's presence. "I asked one of those footmen about the building across the road."
"Oh?" Mariah glanced at Dixon over her shoulder. "And what did you find out?"
Gaze fixed on the window, her companion said quietly, "That's the parish poorhouse."
Mariah stared at the dark roof once more and shuddered. Poorhouse ... Suddenly the gatehouse did not seem like such a bad fate.
Excerpted from The Girl in the Gatehouse by Julie Klassen Copyright © 2010 by Julie Klassen. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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