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"You must know, my dear Miss Tremere, that I am more than pleased with your care and guidance of the children, and I do not for a moment wish you to think that Ihold you to blame for the lowness of their spirits."
Lady Eastwick drew the shawl closer about her shoulders and a momentary sadness lined her attractive face. "We all feel a great loss at Katey's death, of course, but that is months ago and I cannot help but worry at the others," continued melancholy. It is time they put aside their grief and went on with their lives."
The young woman who sat opposite her nodded composedly as she tied a knot in her embroidery thread. "Yes, I've felt much the same, Lady Eastwick. At first I wished to see them express their grief openly, but enough time has passed that the wound should be healing now. I think perhaps they were awaiting Lord Eastwick's letter, you know."
Her companion shifted the candle away from her so that the suspicion of moisture in her eyes would not be noticed. When she spoke, there was a faint quaver to her voice. "Poor Eastwick.To learn of his youngest child's death in a letter! And he was so very fond of her--as he is of all of them, of course. We have lost two others, but he was here then, and they were infants, not surviving the first few weeks of life. It's not the same with a child of three. And dear Eastwick in America with hardly an acquaintance to condole with him! At least I had you, and Edward and Thomas and Charlotte and Eleanor and John and Amy to share my heartbreak."
She stared unseeing at the windows, their panes of glass reflecting the dimly lit room against the black of the summer evening without, and sighed. "I don't have to tell youwhat a comfort you have been to me, Miss Tremere. Edward has tried to stand in his father's stead but ..."
"There has been a great deal of responsibility for one his age," Miss Tremere remarked matter-of-factly as she set a stitch. The firelight caught the contours of her face as she bent over her work, glowing on the high forehead and the wide brown eyes. A serene face it was which neither proclaimed nor denied the four and twenty years she had acquired but a face in which both beauty and character were expressed most forcefully. The full mouth wore a half smile now, and there was a twinkle in the eyes. "He has found it difficult to juggle the roles of loving brother and acting head of family. Although he was as distressed as anyone else at Katey's death, he wanted to appear a tower of strength, and has, I fear, left his sisters and brothers entirely out of charity with him."
"Humph! It perplexes me to understand how he's turned out so stuffy. Lord knows there isn't a stodgy bone in his father's body, nor in any of the rest of the family, except ... Well, that's no matter. Thank God Eastwick will be home in the autumn for Edward's coming of age. I do miss him dreadfully, though I fully realize the importance of his work. Do you really believe all the children have been awaiting his letter?"
"I think it unsettled them, knowing that Lord Eastwick wasn't here to share their sorrow. Now they've heard from him, and have his own expressions of loss, they will be more ready to leave the past behind. On the other hand, they had acquired some distance from that dreadful time, and now it is made fresh again for them. What they need is a distraction, an absorbing, continuing project to stimulate their interest. We've taken picnic lunches and visited various historic and beauty spots in the neighborhood, but I cannot feel our expeditions have been altogether successful. During the last week I've been developing an idea. You may think it a bit farfetched."
A log fell in the grate and Miss Tremere rose to poke it farther back. The night was not cool enough to require adding any more wood since the ladies ordinarily retired before eleven. As it was, they were sitting later than usual to discuss this matter of importance to them both. Lady Eastwick surveyed her companion with interest.
"Farfetched? My dear Miss Tremere, I am quite sure any scheme you could promote would be most welcome. I have the utmost faith in your ingenuity."
The governess remained standing by the mantel, the poker pointed to the inscription thereon. "Every fireplace at Charton Court has this same inscription on the mantel, and over the years I've heard the children speculate on what it has to do with the family "mystery," as they call it. Correct me if I've misunderstood, but I believe the essence of the story to be that some long-gone Heythrop ancestor had in his keeping a treasure of sorts, either family or national, which was symbolized by this inscription. Now, I realize that through the years also every generation of Heythrops has made a search with absolutely no success. Nonetheless, I propose a search of our own, aided perhaps by a few--ah, shall we say manufactured--clues. I could weave the plot into our history lessons as well as our literary forays. It would be necessary, I feel, to provide some sort of reward at the end of our venture--an old flagon or altar plate, for instance, to be discovered at the conclusion. I feel sure that with a little planning we could make quite a summer's worth of entertainment out of it."
"A treasure hunt?" Lady Eastwick asked faintly.
"Precisely. Now I do see the drawback, which is that we would be hoodwinking the children somewhat, leading them to believe that they were on the trail of the real mystery, as we would start from that point. But I think it would be absolutely necessary at the start to gain their enthusiasm by beginning with something which already holds a fascination for them. I would make it clear as we progressed that we might be straying from our original purpose, but I don't think they would care by that time. Once the spirit is captured, the momentum will roll them along, and if the prize is a bit of a disappointment, well, there will still be a prize."
Lady Eastwick sat contemplating the proposal for some time, weighing its advantages and disadvantages, liking it better the more she thought about it. There was, in the end, only one consideration which made her hesitate. "Edward won't like it."
"No, Lord Heythrop wouldn't approve, to be sure." Miss Tremere smiled her calm, reassuring smile. "I propose we don't include him in our plans."
Her employer gave a quickly stifled laugh. "But he's bound to hear of it."
"From the children, yes. And if he should complain to you of their frivolity (and mine) in such a pursuit, I trust you could convince him of the benefits of such a diversion." Miss Tremere pursed her lips thoughtfully. "But only in extreme necessity would I divulge the whole to him. He takes his family and his heritage most seriously. He might feel that we were making light of his very traditions if he saw them distorted into a ... treasure hunt."
"I fear you're right," Lady Eastwick mused, absently toying with a little gold locket which contained her husband's likeness in miniature. "And yet I don't think Eastwick would disapprove. In fact, I think he would congratulate you on a most propitious scheme. It will make a great deal of work for you."
The wide brown eyes danced. "I shall thoroughly enjoy it. And consider it a challenge to see how long we can keep your first-born from guessing the truth.
"John and Thomas are still too much the schoolboys to be more than intrigued by a mystery of any sort, I gather, and the girls confessed to me when first I came here three years ago that they intended to find the treasure themselves, just to prove that all the men (I shan't tell you what adjective they used) who had searched for it previously had been outwitted by the first females to grace your family for generations. I dare say they would prefer it if Thomas and John were still at school, but for our purposes it is better that they're here on their summer holidays."
"Decidedly. I have hated to think of them away at Eton when they were feeling so wretched, and at such a time I can't believe the girls will mind sharing the adventure. Now, what is to be my part in this?"
Miss Tremere picked up a leather-bound journal in which she kept a variety of useful notations, a record she had started, she realized, when she was Charlotte's age. Her careful copy of the inscription from the fireplace was there, separated from her lesson plans for the girls' schooling by a leather bookmark she had been given long ago. As always she touched the leather reminiscently. It had been given to her by Marcus Williams, Viscount Steyne, some six years previously on the occasion of her eighteenth birthday. The journal, too, contained numerous entries from those days, though she rarely referred to them now.
There had been a time when she read those passages with provoking frequency. No more. Miss Tremere had, of necessity, set aside her girlish dreams of romance, and found her life as governess to the Heythrop girls eminently comfortable. Fantasy was for children--and for adults determined to spark their young imaginations in a worthy cause, she reminded herself with a faint smile. She no longer dwelled on what might have been. The present, the future were what she had to work with. Miss Tremere looked up from the journal and addressed her companion.
"There are two things you could do for me if you would, Lady Eastwick. Most important is the treasure itself. As I see how the hunt progresses and determine on a location for the "find," I will have to have something to put there. I doubt it need be particularly valuable, so long as it is sufficiently old."
"My sister is in London this summer. Surely she can find something there for us which will serve our purpose. You have only to let me know what it is you wish. And the other?"
Theodosia closed the journal. "I will need to know as much of the "legend" as you can recall."
"I fear I'm sadly lacking in curiosity, Miss Tremere, and haven't paid a great deal of attention to it. When I came here as a bride Eastwick told me of how he had searched as a child; they all had. And of course I can remember him sitting with our children, passing on the tale. Nothing ever had Thomas so wide-eyed, I promise you, or Edward so animated. I can't imagine how Edward has become so prosaic! But that is aside from the point. Eastwick did once show me an old document which purported to tell the whole story, but it's a little difficult to read, being faded and in a rather cramped hand. Now where was that kept, I wonder? Certainly not in Eastwick's bedchamber."
Miss Tremere waited patiently while her employer searched her mind for a recollection of the circumstances. Lady Eastwick was at her most attractive when puzzling over some elusive detail. Her fragility was belied by the large family she had produced, and her whimsicality by the way she unerringly set about solving any dilemma on the most practical of footings. If she had taken to wearing caps, it was because of her position, and not because her glossy black hair had any trace of gray. The delicate features were now adorably puckered with her efforts--quirked brows and a lip caught between fine white teeth.
"I remember he was showing me a survey map of our area, a very old one. Edward had ridden off and come home very late that day. He must have been only twelve then, and we were considerably alarmed. Apparently he had taken a fall some distance off and the horse had strayed. Fortunately the beast didn't take it into his head to return to the stables! It was after we had gotten Edward to bed that Eastwick showed me a map--not the one I just mentioned, but a more recent one. Edward must have been beyond Monksilver! That's why Eastwick showed me the map, you see--to try to determine where it was the boy had gotten himself to! And, really, it is difficult to believe but he had gone through Heddon Oak and Stogumber and right through Monksilver up to Bird's Hill! Imagine!"
Miss Tremere murmured a suitable exclamation of astonishment and awaited further developments.
"Now I remember. We were in the archive room. That's where Eastwick keeps all the old maps and outdated family papers and such. After he had shown me the newer map, he remembered the old one and thought it might be of interest to me. I can't think why! I have no sense of direction at all, and he had to go over Edward's probable route very carefully for me even to follow what he was saying. But there, he's very patient with me, and he knows it's highly unlikely I shall ever have to guide myself with a map. I was fascinated, however, by a great series of markings on the old map and he explained that they were from a search for the treasure--oh, eons ago. And then he showed me the document containing the story of the family mystery. So that's where it will be--in the archive room."
"Excellent!" Miss Tremere congratulated her, with only the very slightest twitching of her lips. "Shall we look for it now, or are you ready for your bed?"
"It won't take a moment. I can clearly see where he put it now, in my mind's eyes, you know. It's such a large house, and I dare say quite unmodern in some respects, but I have a fondness for it just the same. Even the archive room, which is depressingly full of dusty old documents and crumbling papers. But you get used to a house, don't you, and feel very comfortable with it. We'll need our candles to go into the East Wing."
Despite the additions of various generations of Heythrops to Charton Court, it maintained a distinctly Tudor atmosphere which might have been daunting to a visitor, but Lady Eastwick and Miss Tremere were familiar with the rambling old pile; at least as familiar as one can be with an almost unending succession of rooms and odd nooks and crannies. Not that Charton Court provided no possibilities for exploration: far from it. A medieval manor house had been largely, but not entirely, torn down to make way for the present house, which consisted of four wings around the internal courtyard and the big hall. A successor to this ambitious builder had added a chapel, an entrance porch and towers at the four angles, as well as bay windows, and no succeeding generation had escaped the desire to improve and extend, though they did so with a rare sensitivity to its original character. No modern convenience was bypassed (there were a total of fourteen water closets) and chimneys were rebuilt as they began to cause problems, but withal the house exuded an almost palpable air of antiquity and romance.
The idea of a treasure hunt would probably not have occurred to Miss Tremere had she not daily found herself in a suite of rooms such as she did. Her bedchamber contained an enormous four-poster bed, richly carved by a talented artisan of the late fifteenth century, and on each of the walls were tapestries depicting medieval hunting scenes, while above, the ceiling plasterwork incorporated the monograms of several long-dead monarchs. The Tudor closet which attached to this room, and where she had her desk, had a leaded glass, Gothic window and a cantilevered beamed ceiling. There was also, most fascinating of all, in addition to the mammoth oak portal leading into the room, a minute door which only a child could enter upright--and which led straight into ... a blank wall. Such occurrences were not rare at Charton Court, but they were provocative.
Their candles threw grotesque shapes on the walls and flickered in the draughty corridor as they passed door after door toward the far end of the wing. When Lady Eastwick eventually paused, she drew a ring of keys from her reticule, and though it could not have been recently that she visited the room, immediately chose the one which clicked in the well-oiled lock. "Eastwick keeps all the rooms which are not in use locked. We never locked anything where I grew up in Cumberland, but then strangers were more noticeable there." She moved at once toward an old oak chest, setting her candle down on the shelf beside it. "The bottom drawer, I think. Yes, here is the map and ... no, that's not it. Ah, I have it. You will want both maps, I suppose."
The document she produced was wrapped in a leather tube and proved even more fragile than she had suggested. The parchment was yellowed and had a tendency to crumble at the edges when extracted from its case. Miss Tremere gingerly spread it out on the slanted surface of a walnut writing desk, holding her candle so as to get the best light and yet not allow any hot wax to drip on the sheet. "Hmm, I think I shall be able to decipher it in daylight. I'd not care to ruin my eyes working at it by candlelight! And if I'm successful, I shall make a copy, as exact as I am able, so that future generations will not need to depend on the original, which is likely to disintegrate one of these days. Now, as to the map, did you think that it showed the search made by the writer of the document?"
Lady Eastwick considered this point with her customary quaint distortion of face. "I can't be sure. It doesn't look as old, does it?"
"No, and one would think a map would be a great deal more worn than the document. No matter. Perhaps there will be a clue as to date on one or both of them. I mustn't keep you from bed, Lady Eastwick. Is it all right for me to take them to my room?"
"Oh, certainly. I intended you should. You wouldn't want to have to come to the archive room to do your deciphering; it's far too musty here."
Miss Tremere had rolled up the parchment document and slipped it carefully into the leather tube when the door was flung open with a resulting crash, and Lord Heythrop stood there in him dressing gown, armed with a poker. His countenance rapidly disintegrated from towering rage to astonishment to a painful sheepishness. "I couldn't imagine who would be in the archive room at this hour of the night," he blurted, unsuccessfully attempting to hide the poker behind his back. Avoiding Miss Tremere's calm gaze, he spoke rather sternly to his mother. "It's gone eleven, Mama, and you should be in bed."
With an expressive glance at her companion, Lady Eastwick replied gently "I was just showing Miss Tremere some maps and old papers, Edward. She is going to take them to her room."
His frown was a study in baffled indecision. "Do you think Papa would approve of their being removed from here?"
"I'm sure he would." She took his arm, careful to choose the one not holding the poker, and urged him toward the door. "You shall see me to my room, dear, after we've locked the door."
While Lady Eastwick made a great show of not being able to find the right key, Miss Tremere slipped away down the corridor, as she felt sure her employer intended her to do. Obviously Lord Heythrop had every intention of pursuing his inquiries into such an unprecedented action on his mother's part, and Lady Eastwick was in a better position than the governess to deflect his curiosity. Guided by her thorough knowledge of the layout of the house, Miss Tremere glided swiftly and silently through the corridors and up the main staircase to the first floor, where her suite was located in the West Wing, being closest to the nursery and schoolroom on the floor above. A fire burned low on the hearth and she smothered a yawn as she placed her newly acquired materials on the nightstand.
The maid she shared with the girls had left her nightdress on the bed and set the warming pan by the fire. Really, she thought, as she released her long brown hair from the pins which held it atop her head, there could be nothing more pleasant than being a member of the Heythrop household, practically treated as one of the family and having something useful to do in addition. Well, almost nothing as pleasant. One could have been mistress of one's own household ...
Her thoughts were drawn up abruptly and she stood by the fire to remove her beige round dress, its plainness alleviated by a plaiting of peach-colored satin ribbon which the girls had urged her to buy in the village. As she slipped the flannel nightdress over her head, curiosity about the documents drew her over to the stand and she could not resist beginning to read the account of the treasure. Puzzled, she thumbed through the sheets, a small frown gathering on her forehead. A hesitant knock at her door startled her.
"Who is it?"
There was a slight pause. "Edward."
"Just a moment, please." Miss Tremere hastily donned a dressing gown which was folded over a ladder-back chair near the wash-hand stand, but she did not retrieve her candle to take with her to the door.
Lord Heythrop stood rather awkwardly in the hall, as though he had thought better of his mission but could find no way now to retreat. He had disposed of the poker but the candle he carried threw its meager light on her released tresses and night clothing. "I beg your pardon! I never thought you'd have ... That is, it's been only a few minutes ... I won't disturb you."
"If it is a matter of importance ..."
"No, no, nothing which cannot wait until the morning, I assure you." In an effort to regain his composure, Lord Heythrop tugged at his cravat, managing only to ruin the lay of its folds. Desperately he assumed the stiff stance which his brothers and sisters had come to know so well since their father's departure for America, and said in a toneless voice "My family keeps rather voluminous records of previous generations in the archive room. As a rule there is nothing particularly personal or private about these papers, but you can understand that having a complete set of records--as complete as it is--proved invaluable to each succeeding generation of Heythrops. There are records of births and deaths, old account books, family Bibles, any number of things. Therefore it has always been the practice at Charton Court never to remove anything from that room, on the slight chance that an item might be mislaid. I'm sure you can understand the efficacy of such a policy."
When she said nothing further, he cleared his throat. "The fact of the matter is, Miss Tremere, that my mother should not have allowed anything to leave the room. I don't blame you! You could not have been aware of that unwritten rule. Perhaps my mother is not aware of it. But I am entrusted with the safekeeping of all that is in Charton Court in my father's absence, and I should be remiss in my duties if I permitted such a breach of security."
"Yes I do see that," Theodosia mused, regarding him gravely. "And I feel that I should perhaps just tell you that the papers I brought to my room are not complete."
Startled, he asked "What do you mean?"
"I took away the ninth earl's account of the treasure and it states most definitely that there is attached a letter from the first earl which is supposed to provide a clue as to the location and meaning of the mystery. There is nothing whatsoever attached to his account!"
Poor Edward was struck dumb. A dozen thoughts ran through his mind, not the least of them being the question of why Miss Tremere should have taken such papers from the archive room, but what he at length blurted was: "You must be mistaken."
"I assure you I am not. The ninth earl's account is apparently complete, though I have not finished reading it. Lady Eastwick also had me take an old map and a more current one to study. They seem quite in order. What is missing is the first earl's letter."
"That's impossible," he stated bluntly, his brows lowering with annoyance. "I myself have read the first earl's letter. Father showed it to me years ago. It was a poem of sorts, which no one in the family had been able to unravel as an explanation of where the treasure was."
Miss Tremere silently walked to the stand, picked up the papers and brought them to him. "As you can see, it is not here, Lord Heythrop."
Edward went through the papers three times. His chagrin, his frustration, found outlet in a not entirely illogical way. Belligerent, he demanded, "Tell me, Miss Tremere, why were you reading these papers about the treasure in the first place?"