Phoebe and her mother moved to the cottage in the Cotswold Hills of England with the understanding that they might not stay long. The cottage, after all, is on the property of Gardiner Hall; if anyone moves into the hall, Phoebe and Mam have to leave. How surprising when it's old Mr. Gardiner himself who has hired men to clean up the place
Soon, Gardiner moves in, along with his amnesiac son, his widowed daughter, and her blind son, Robbie. When Phoebe meets Robbie, she knows it means she may have to leave her happy cottage, but her mother brightens the day by gifting Phoebe with a beautiful and mysterious locket. What is the truth behind the locket, and who's hiding a big secret in Gardiner Hall?
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By Wanda McMahan
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2011 Wanda McMahan
All rights reserved.
"Someone's moving into Gardiner Hall," Phoebe said.
Mam looked up from the bubbling jam pot, face all pink, short hair plastered against her head in damp ringlets.
Phoebe stared at the misty spectacle of steam rolling up and around the stove with Mam's head floating in the midst of it like a genie without a body.
"There are mowing machines in the garden, and a man is pruning the lilac bushes. And someone," Phoebe went on, "is swinging a scythe." She reached for a fat strawberry, suddenly uneasy that she had given away her secret! What would she say if Mam asked her how ...
"How do you know all that?" Mam stirred the jam, looking at her with a raised eyebrow. "Have you been climbing that tree again, young miss?"
Phoebe shook her head, touching her left arm and wincing at the painful memory.
The oak tree grew close to the stone wall. It had been a bit of a do to get into the lower branches, pulling herself higher and higher until she could see the grand stretch of garden on the other side. A broken arm was too dear a price to pay, it turned out, because she saw only tangles of vines along the wall, tall scraggly bushes with crooked unpruned arms reaching out in all directions, and a winding intrigue of weed-covered paths. Far away the manor house squatted in a mass of giant sycamores, like a crouching monster, its dark windows staring at her menacingly.
Some kind of small animal, perhaps a rabbit, had jumped from under nearby vines, and Phoebe gasped in fright before tumbling downward.
Mam came running, picked her up, and together they stared at the left arm, flopped over so queerly at the wrist. Phoebe began wailing vigorously, and Mam, her face white and chin quivering, kept shouting for Old Daniel, until he appeared, looking a bit put out with having to leave his pruning.
"Oh, my! Lass, you've fixed that one right proper," he murmured, peering at the crooked wrist, shaking his head mournfully. It seemed a strange thing to say, because to Phoebe, something felt very unfixed!
Phoebe remembered the rough ride to surgery in Old Daniel's gardening lorry, his mower and tools making such a clatter that people along the way looked up, astonished at the clamor. And she remembered the long six weeks in the cast. She would never, she promised, climb the tree again, and the memory of pain and a churning stomach made it a promise easily kept.
Any curiosity she felt about the adjoining manor and grounds, and she did feel some, was satisfied in another way; that loose stone in the garden wall, under the honeysuckle, slipped out with just a wee pull.
Twice she watched the land agent, Ambrose Stinchcomb, walk the grounds with people who stepped along the weedy paths gingerly, the ladies lifting skirts distastefully, and sitting for just a moment in the gazebo.
"Just looky-loos," Myrtle Stinchcomb confided to Mam later at tea, "not really interested in buying. Just," she lowered her voice to a raspy whisper, "curious about the manor and the goings-on over there!"
The last bit of cucumber sandwich disappeared between her lips, and a napkin was pressed daintily to the corners of her mouth. She accepted another at once, and Phoebe watched fascinated as the tea goodies, piled high on the tray, dwindled to a solitary scone. Mam didn't seem to notice, but kept pouring tea, listening, and smiling politely.
The Stinchcombs were the first friends Mam and Phoebe made when they moved from East Bristol to Chestershire. Mr. Stinchcomb let the cottage to Mam with the understanding that since it was part of Gardiner Hall property she could not expect to stay when the manor sold.
The thatched cottage had been used by the manor seamstress who was married to one of the groomsmen. It would, of course, be needed again by a new owner who would set to sprucing up the grounds and hiring household staff. Gavin Gardiner, the present owner, because of family troubles, had lost all desire to live at Gardiner Hall, and indeed, had left no orders to his previous manager to even keep up the place while awaiting sale.
Phoebe and Mam settled comfortably in the cozy stone cottage outside the wall, with Old Daniel, the Scot, hired to keep the vegetable garden free of weeds, and the small orchard trim and tidy.
They had been relieved when the old fellow knocked on the door soon after they moved in, asking if any help was needed about the place. Mam had worried about the mowing and pruning chores. She had her heart set on a nice garden, but doubted she could handle all the work even with Phoebe's help. So Old Daniel was welcomed gladly, becoming an important part of their lives.
Each morning Phoebe listened for the sound of his lorry rattling down the lane. Old Daniel almost always had a peppermint or a sweet from his missus' oven in his pocket. When Phoebe asked him about a sled for winter fun, he smiled broadly and nodded, "Aye, lass, I'll put ye in my scoop and give ye a merry ride down the lane!"
Just now as Phoebe had played under the oak, noises came across the wall: voices, a snip-snipping, the clickety-clickety rattle of something with moving parts, and the swish-swishing of a cutting blade.
Reaching through the honeysuckle she pulled the stone out of the wall and peeked through-holding her breath-even though surely no one could hear the slight scraping as the peep place opened. By moving her head back and forth from one side of the hole to the other, she could see the two mowing machines pushed by workmen she didn't recognize. But greengrocer Wakefield's son, Simon, was pruning bushes. And a village handyman, Thad Meriwether, wielded a scythe.
What does it mean, Phoebe wondered. Who has bought Gardiner Hall? Will they want our cottage for service people? Where will we go, Mam and me? There was nothing else to let when we came. Has Mr. Stinchcomb told Mam we must leave soon?
Phoebe pushed the stone back into place and made for the cottage with questions buzzing in her head like the bees around the hollyhocks. She could tell now by the frown puckering between Mam's brows that she knew nothing about what was happening.
Phoebe watched as the jam pot was carried to the table where the clean, hot jars waited to be filled. Mam ladled the jam into them carefully, wiped the rims, and set the pot under the pump.
"I'll ring up Ambrose Stinchcomb and see if Gardiner Hall is sold or just being tidied," she said. But at that very moment a familiar voice trilled cheerily from the front stoop.
"La la la 1a! Too busy for company? Do I smell something delicious?" It was Myrtle Stinchcomb bustling in from the parlor, patting her face with a flowery handkerchief, and waving it back and forth to stir a breeze.
She spied the jars of cooling jam. "Yes, I do! What beauties!" She clucked approvingly. "Won't that taste marvelous on biscuits!"
Phoebe could not keep her eyes from rolling heavenward in silent protest of Mrs. Stinchcomb's teatime appetite. But Mam pulled out a chair for their chattering guest, who sank down heavily, reaching over to pat Phoebe affectionately on the head.
"Has Ambrose called about Gardiner Hall?" She looked from Mam to Phoebe expectantly. "No? Well," she settled comfortably and rushed on.
"They'll be here in a fortnight. Going to get the grounds ready. The manager, Adam Mathers, is to see to staff, and open the manor. There will be so much to do, you know. All the furniture covered with dust shrouds. Rooms and rooms to be cleaned. Drapes, ovens, and the library! You can't imagine," she lowered her voice confidentially, "how many books are on those shelves! Floor to ceiling, mind you! They just closed it up and left, you know. Went to- I don't know where- to see doctors about the son and grandson. Well, now, that was a sad thing. He married against their wishes, you know. Out of his class! Those things," she wagged her head sagely, "rarely work out."
Phoebe wondered when the woman would tell them what was going to happen to them! She could see Mam was anxious, too. She kept looking at Mrs. Stinchcomb, and was sort of wringing her hands.
"Who bought it?" Mam asked softly.
Myrtle Stinchcomb stared at her blankly.
"Gardiner Hall," Mam said. "You were saying someone bought Gardiner Hall and would be here in a fortnight."
Mrs. Stinchcomb looked shocked. "No. Not at all! No. Gardiner Hall didn't sell. Adam Mathers called Ambrose to take it off the market. The family is coming back! Every last one of them from- oh, I don't know where- and oh..here now..oh my!"
Phoebe and Myrtle Stinchcomb stared as Mam stood up, groped to steady herself against the table, and then slumped to the floor in a dead faint.
"It's the heat! This kitchen- too small for cooking jam on such a warm day! No air in here at all!" Mrs. Stinchcomb had Phoebe running back and forth wetting the flowery handkerchief under the pump and wiping Mam's pale face.
Mam's eyes fluttered open. She looked up at Phoebe and Mrs. Stinchcomb staring down at her wide-eyed. Myrtle Stinchcomb continued patting with the wet hanky whi1e speaking soothingly.
"There now. You'll be fine. No, not yet," she gently pushed Mam back when she struggled to sit up. "Rest a bit more, Millie. Then we'll sit up a spell before you stand. Phoebe, one more time under the pump." She handed the kerchief to Phoebe who was away and back again so fast with the dripping cloth that Mrs. Stinchcomb tittered nervously.
"My sakes, child, you'll be stretched out here beside your mam if you don't slow down!"
Phoebe, on her knees, smoothed Mam's hair with one hand and patted her shoulder with the other. She felt easier when Mam smiled, reaching up her own hand to touch Phoebe's cheek.
There is something familiar about this, Phoebe was thinking. She remembered a time long ago. A banging on a door..Mam opening the door..someone in the shadows shouting in loud excitement. And Mam lying on the floor with people splashing water on her face.
Do I really remember, Phoebe wondered, or has Mam told me about Dada's accident so many times that I think I remember? The Dada she had never really known- for it all happened more than seven years ago when she was just over two years old. Mam had told her about how her gentle-hearted Dada, a fine teacher, was knocked to the street by a coach whose driver hadn't even stopped to find out if he were dead or alive. Mam had gone to the hospital daily for a long line, but it was finally over. Mam had found work in a pastry shop, and Phoebe did remember the times they had tea parties with a sweet or sugar dolly from the shop.
It was on an evening last February that Mam had taken Dada's fine leather bag from the shelf. Phoebe watched as she pulled a smaller pouch from it, loosened the drawstring and turned out a horde of gold sovereigns that seemed to cover the table top. Phoebe had gasped as the coins whirled around, some on their edges, turning, twirling, until they all clattered to a glittering rest.
"I've quit at the shop, Phoebe. I'm going to take Dada's savings to the market for exchange, and all of it with what I've saved these seven years will keep us until I work again. We're going away. To a new place," she said.
"Where? Going where?" Phoebe stared across the shining coins at Mam' s determined face. Phoebe knew no other place. There were no grandparents, aunts, uncles. No one! No other place in the world except these two cramped rooms over the cobbler on Briar Street in East Bristol. No other people except the cobbler and his wife who tended Phoebe while Mam was away at the pastry shop.
Mam told her they were going to a nice village- Chestershire-in the Cotswolds. They would rent a cottage, have a garden, Phoebe could play outside in the sunshine, and wouldn't that be just wonderful? Phoebe supposed so.
After packing, sweeping the flat clean, leaving a message with the cobbler of their destination, they took a coach to Burnstall Fell. A farmer carried their boxes, valises, and the two passengers on to Chestershire. He stopped right at the land agent's office next to the apothecary and agreed to wait while Mam inquired.
Taking Phoebe by the hand, Mam entered Ambrose Stinchcomb's business showing no sign of uncertainty or misgivings. It seemed to Phoebe that her mam acted for all the world as the Queen, Herself, as she stated her business to the man behind the desk.
Phoebe liked Ambrose Stinchcomb right off. He was a short, chubby man with a ruddy, cheery face, and twinkling blue eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles. When he talked, he removed his spectacles and swung them in vigorous circles by an ear piece. The thought of how fast and in what direction they would fly if he let go, fascinated Phoebe.
There were no vacant dwellings in Chestershire, he said regretfully, but there was this cottage on Gardiner Hall land, part of the manor property for sale, and if she liked it, he could ring up the old gentleman's manager, and inquire if it could be rented until something else became available.
"Or," he added apologetically, "until the manor sold and the cottage along with it. In that case.." his voice dwindled away, but the meaning was clear.
Mam didn't hesitate, but said she would take it unseen and be glad to make do, and to please ring.
It was all settled so quickly. The call made, Mam with Phoebe back in the farmer's lorry, and using the directions given by Ambrose Stinchcomb, they were on their way. Down a winding tree-lined road, past cottages, a stone church, garden spots that must be lovely in spring, and finally they drove along the high stone wall surrounding Gardiner Hall. The lorry stopped in front of the cottage, and the three of them sat looking at the neat sturdy house.
"You and the young one will like this fine, Missus," the farmer said. "I'll carry your things inside and be on my way, or the woman will have the constable called out," he joked.
Mam paid him and thanked him gratefully. She and Phoebe hurried down from the lorry and up the path to the front door. Mam used the key Mr. Stinchcomb had given her, and the farmer set their belongings inside. He tipped his hat and was gone, leaving them alone in their new home.
They walked through silently, awed by the sunny parlor with plump pillows on a couch which showed only a hint of a sag, the kitchen with a pump over a stone trough, a large shelf-lined pantry, and an open hearth.
"Nice," Phoebe was moved to say, remembering water carried from the yard pump on Briar Street.
"Yes, it's nice," Mam agreed, and Phoebe could tell she was pleased.
The bedroom had a bed with a feather-ticking mattress, and when Mam opened the big cupboard on one end of the room and they discovered a small bed that pulled down, Phoebe clapped her hands in delight.
When Mam unpinned her hat and put it on the dresser, all at once Phoebe felt a burst of joy she couldn't put into words. This darling cottage was home! No matter the possibility of having to move later ... for now, they were home!
They walked through the rooms again, looking out windows and finally, opening the kitchen door to the outside. There was the big oak. That would be the very place Phoebe could play.
"What's over the wall, Mam?" Phoebe asked curiously.
"Gardiner Hall grounds. No one lives there now," she said, sounding a bit sad. "But perhaps, someday a family will live there again." Phoebe felt sad, herself, considering when that happened she and Mam would lose this little home she already loved.
Within the week they met Myrtle Stinchcomb while shopping at the greengrocers. She accepted an invitation to tea, and became a regular visitor. Myrtle delighted on passing on gossip tidbits, being especially eloquent about the family who owned Gardiner Hall. Phoebe couldn't help but listen enthralled to the tale about the young man who left the manor to attend Cambridge. He up and married a girl he met in a book shop. She was a clerk!
Imagine! A fine young man heir to wealth and property. The father, Gavin Gardiner, disowned the lad. Forbade his ever returning home. The poor mother, whispered the servants around, saw him one time afterwards, and was severely reprimanded by the master. She died, poor lady, broken-hearted by the estrangement.
Excerpted from PHOEBE'S LOCKET by Wanda McMahan. Copyright © 2011 Wanda McMahan. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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