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Mistress of Mellyn
By Victoria Holt
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1960 Victoria Holt
All rights reserved.
"There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances," my Aunt Adelaide had said. "One is to marry, and the other to find a post in keeping with her gentility."
As the train carried me through wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taking this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.
I pictured myself as I must appear to my fellow travelers if they bothered to glance my way, which was not very likely: a young woman of medium height, already past her first youth, being twenty-four years old, in a brown merino dress with cream lace collar and little tufts of lace at the cuffs. (Cream being so much more serviceable than white, as Aunt Adelaide told me.) My black cape was unbuttoned at the throat because it was hot in the carriage, and my brown velvet bonnet, tied with brown velvet ribbons under my chin, was of the sort which was so becoming to feminine people like my sister Phillida but, I always felt, sat a little incongruously on heads like mine. My hair was thick with a coppery tinge, parted in the center, brought down at the sides of my too-long face, and made into a cumbersome knot to project behind the bonnet. My eyes were large, in some lights the color of amber, and were my best feature; but they were too bold — so said Aunt Adelaide; which meant that they had learned none of the feminine graces which were so becoming to a woman. My nose was too short, my mouth too wide. In fact, I thought, nothing seemed to fit; and I must resign myself to journeys such as this when I travel to and from the various posts which I shall occupy for the rest of my life, since it is necessary for me to earn a living, and I shall never achieve the first of those alternatives: a husband.
We had passed through the green meadows of Somerset and were now deep in the moorland and wooded hills of Devon. I had been told to take good note of that masterpiece of bridgebuilding, Mr. Brunel's bridge, which spanned the Tamar at Saltash and, after crossing which, I should have left England behind me and have passed into the Duchy of Cornwall.
I was becoming rather ridiculously excited about crossing the bridge. I was not a fanciful woman at this time — perhaps I changed later, but then a stay in a house like Mount Mellyn was enough to make the most practical of people fanciful — so I could not understand why I should feel this extraordinary excitement.
It was absurd, I told myself. Mount Mellyn may be a magnificent mansion; Connan TreMellyn may be as romantic as his name sounds; but that will be no concern of yours. You will be confined to below stairs, or perhaps to the attics above stairs, concerned only with the care of little Alvean.
What strange names these people had! I thought, staring out of the window. There was sun on the moorland but the gray tors in the distance looked oddly menacing. They were like petrified people.
This family to which I was going was Cornish, and the Cornish had a language of their own. Perhaps my own name, Martha Leigh, would sound odd to them. Martha! It always gave me a shock when I heard it. Aunt Adelaide always used it, but at home when my father had been alive he and Phillida never thought of calling me Martha. I was always Marty. I could not help feeling that Marty was a more lovable person than Martha could ever be, and I was sad and a little frightened because I felt that the river Tamar would cut me off completely from Marty for a long time. In my new post I should be Miss Leigh, I supposed; perhaps miss, or more undignified still — Leigh.
One of Aunt Adelaide's numerous friends had heard of "Connan TreMellyn's predicament." He needed the right person to help him out of his difficulties. She must be patient enough to care for his daughter, sufficiently educated to teach her, and genteel enough for the child not to suffer through the proximity of someone who was not quite of her own class. Obviously what Connan TreMellyn needed was an impoverished gentlewoman. Aunt Adelaide decided that I fitted the bill.
When our father, who had been vicar of a country parsonage, had died, Aunt Adelaide had swooped on us and taken us to London. There should be a season, she told us, for twenty-year-old Martha and eighteen-year-old Phillida. Phillida had married at the end of that season; but after four years of living with Aunt Adelaide, I had not. So there came a day when she pointed out the two courses to me.
I glanced out of the window. We were drawing into Plymouth. My fellow passengers had alighted and I sat back in my seat watching the activities on the platform.
As the guard was blowing his whistle and we were about to move on, the door of the carriage opened and a man came in. He looked at me with an apologetic smile as though he were hinting that he hoped I did not mind sharing the compartment with him, but I averted my eyes.
When we had left Plymouth and were approaching the bridge, he said: "You like our bridge, eh?"
I turned and looked at him.
I saw a man, a little under thirty, well dressed, but in the manner of the country gentleman. His tail coat was dark blue, his trousers gray; and his hat was what in London we called a "pot hat" because of its resemblance to that vessel. This hat he had laid on the seat beside him. I thought him somewhat dissipated, with brown eyes that twinkled ironically as though he were fully aware of the warnings I must have received about the inadvisability of entering into conversation with strange men.
I answered: "Yes, indeed. I think it is a very fine piece of workmanship."
He smiled. We had crossed the bridge and entered Cornwall.
His brown eyes surveyed me and I was immediately conscious of my somewhat drab appearance. I thought: He is only interested in me because there is no one else to claim his attention. I remembered then that Phillida had once said I put people off by presuming, when they showed interest, that it was because no one else was available. "See yourself as a makeshift," was Phillida's maxim, "and you'll be one."
"Traveling far?" he asked.
"I believe I have now only a short distance to go. I leave the train at Liskeard."
"Ah, Liskeard." He stretched his legs and turned his gaze from me to the tips of his boots. "You have come from London?" he went on.
"Yes," I answered.
"You'll miss the gaiety of the big city."
"I once lived in the country, so I know what to expect."
"Are you staying in Liskeard?"
I was not sure that I liked this catechism, but I remembered Phillida again: "You're far too gruff, Marty, with the opposite sex. You scare them off."
I decided I could at least be civil, so I answered: "No, not in Liskeard. I'm going to a little village on the coast called Mellyn."
"I see." He was silent for a few moments and once more turned his attention to the tips of his boots.
His next words startled me. "I suppose a sensible young lady like you would not believe in second sight ... and that sort of thing?"
"Why ..." I stammered. "What an extraordinary question!"
"May I look at your palm?"
I hesitated and regarded him suspiciously. Could I offer my hand to a stranger in this way? Aunt Adelaide would suspect that some nefarious advances were about to be made. I thought in this case she might be right. After all, I was a woman, and the only available one.
He smiled. "I assure you that my only desire is to look into the future."
"But I don't believe in such things."
"Let me look anyway." He leaned forward and with a swift movement secured my hand.
He held it lightly, scarcely touching it, contemplating it with his head on one side.
"I see," he said, "that you have come to a turning point in your life. You are moving into a strange new world which is entirely different from anything you have known before. You will have to exercise caution ... the utmost caution."
I smiled cynically. "You see me taking a journey. What would you say if I told you I was visiting relatives and could not possibly be moving into your strange new world?"
"I should say you were not a very truthful young lady." His smile was puckish. I could not help feeling a little liking for him. I thought he was a somewhat irresponsible person, but he was very lighthearted and, being in his company, to some extent made me share that lightheartedness. "No," he went on, "you are traveling to a new life, a new post. There's no mistake about that. Before, you lived a secluded life in the country; then you went to the town."
"I believe I implied that."
"You did not need to imply it. But it is not the past which concerns us on occasions like this, is it? It is the future."
"Well, what of the future?"
"You are going to a strange house, a house full of shadows. You will have to walk warily in that house, Miss ... er ..."
He waited, but I did not supply what he was asking for, and he went on: "You have to earn your living. I see a child there and a man ... Perhaps it is the child's father. They are wrapped in shadows. There is someone else there ... but perhaps she is already dead."
It was the deep sepulchral note in his voice rather than the words he said which momentarily unnerved me.
I snatched my hand away. "What nonsense!" I said.
He ignored me and half closed his eyes. Then he went on: "You will need to watch little Alice, and your duties will extend beyond the care of her. You must most certainly beware of Alice."
I felt a faint tingling which began at the base of my spine and seemed to creep up to my neck. This, I supposed, was what is known as making one's flesh creep.
Little Alice! But her name was not Alice. It was Alvean. It had unnerved me for the moment because it had sounded similar.
Then I felt irritated and a little angry. Did I look the part then? Was it possible that I already carried the mark of the penurious gentlewoman forced to take the only course open to her? A governess!
Was he laughing at me? He lay back against the upholstery of the carriage, his eyes still closed. I looked out of the window as though he and his ridiculous fortune-telling were not of the slightest interest to me.
He opened his eyes then and took out his watch. He studied it gravely, for all the world as though this extraordinary conversation had not taken place between us.
"In four minutes' time," he said briskly, "we shall pull into Liskeard. Allow me to assist you with your bags."
He took them down from the rack. "Miss Martha Leigh," was clearly written on the labels, "Mount Mellyn, Mellyn, Cornwall."
He did not appear to glance at these labels and I felt that he had lost interest in me.
When we came into the station, he alighted and set my bags on the platform. Then he took off the hat which he had set upon his head when he picked up the bags, and with a deep bow he left me.
While I was murmuring my thanks I saw an elderly man coming toward me, calling: "Miss Leigh! Miss Leigh! Be you Miss Leigh then?" And for the moment I forgot about my traveling companion.
I was facing a merry little man with a brown, wrinkled skin and eyes of reddish brown; he wore a corduroy jacket and a sugar-loaf hat which he had pushed to the back of his head and seemed to have forgotten. Ginger hair sprouted from under this, and his brows and mustaches were of the same gingery color.
"Well, miss," he said, "so I picked you out then. Be these your bags? Give them to me. You and me and old Cherry Pie 'ull soon be home."
He took my bags and I walked behind him, but he soon fell into step beside me.
"Is the house far from here?" I asked.
"Old Cherry Pie'll carry us there all in good time," he answered, as he loaded my bags into the trap and I climbed in beside him.
He seemed to be a garrulous man and I could not resist the temptation of trying to discover, before I arrived, something about the people among whom I was going to live.
I said: "This house, Mount Mellyn, sounds as though it's on a hill."
"Well, 'tis built on a cliff top, facing the sea, and the gardens run down to the sea. Mount Mellyn and Mount Widden are like twins. Two houses, standing defiant-like, daring the sea to come and take 'em. But they'm built on firm rock."
"So there are two houses," I said. "We have near neighbors."
"In a manner of speaking. Nansellocks, they who are at Mount Widden, have been there these last two hundred years. They be separated from us by more than a mile, and there's Mellyn Cove in between. The families have always been good neighbors until — "
He stopped and I prompted: "Until ...?"
"You'll hear fast enough," he answered.
I thought it was beneath my dignity to probe into such matters, so I changed the subject. "Do they keep many servants?" I asked.
"There be me and Mrs. Tapperty and my girls, Daisy and Kitty. We live in the rooms over the stables. In the house there's Mrs. Polgrey and Tom Polgrey and young Gilly. Not that you'd call her a servant. But they have her there and she passes for such."
"Gilly!" I said. "That's an unusual name."
"Gillyflower. Reckon Jennifer Polgrey was a bit daft to give her a name like that. No wonder the child's what she is."
"Jennifer? Is that Mrs. Polgrey?"
"Nay! Jennifer was Mrs. Polgrey's girl. Great dark eyes and the littlest waist you ever saw. Kept herself to herself until one day she goes lying in the hay — or maybe the gillyflowers — with someone. Then, before we know where we are, little Gilly's arrived; as for Jennifer — her just walked into the sea one morning. We reckoned there wasn't much doubt who Gilly's father was."
I said nothing and, disappointed by my lack of interest, he went on: "She wasn't the first. We knowed her wouldn't be the last. Geoffry Nansellock left a trail of bastards wherever he went." He laughed and looked sideways at me. "No need for you to look so prim, miss. He can't hurt you. Ghosts can't hurt a young lady, and that's all Master Geoffry Nansellock is now ... nothing more than a ghost."
"So he's dead too. He didn't ... walk into the sea after Jennifer?"
That made Tapperty chuckle. "Not him. He was killed in a train accident. You must have heard of that accident. It was just as the train was running out of Plymouth. It ran off the lines and over a bank. The slaughter was terrible. Mr. Geoff, he were on that train, and up to no good on it either. But that was the end of him."
"Well, I shall not meet him, but I shall meet Gillyflower, I suppose. And is that all the servants?"
"There be odd boys and girls — some for the gardens, some for the stables, some in the house. But it ain't what it was. Things have changed since the mistress died."
"Mr. TreMellyn is a very sad man, I suppose."
Tapperty lifted his shoulders.
"How long is it since she died?" I asked.
"It would be little more than a year, I reckon."
"And he has only just decided that he needs a governess for little Miss Alvean?"
"There have been three governesses so far. You be the fourth. They don't stay, none of them. Miss Bray and Miss Garrett, they said the place was too quiet for them. There was Miss Jansen — a real pretty creature. But she was sent away. She took what didn't belong to her. 'Twas a pity. We all liked her. She seemed to look on it as a privilege to live in Mount Mellyn. Old houses were her hobby, she used to tell us. Well, it seemed she had other hobbies besides, so out she went."
I turned my attention to the countryside. It was late August and, as we passed through lanes with banks on either side, I caught occasional glimpses of fields of corn among which poppies and pimpernels grew; now and then we passed a cottage of gray Cornish stone which looked grim, I thought, and lonely.
I had my first glimpse of the sea through a fold in the hills, and I felt my spirits lifted. It seemed that the nature of the landscape changed. Flowers seemed to grow more plentifully on the banks; I could smell the scent of pine trees; and fuchsias grew by the roadside, their blossoms bigger than any we had ever been able to cultivate in our vicarage garden.
We turned off the road from a steep hill and went down and down nearer the sea. I saw that we were on a cliff road. Before us stretched a scene of breathtaking beauty. The cliff rose steep and straight from the sea on that indented coast; grasses and flowers grew there, and I saw sea pinks and red and white valerian mingling with the heather-rich, deep, purple heather.
Excerpted from Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt. Copyright © 1960 Victoria Holt. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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