"One of the supreme writers of gothic romance, a compelling storyteller whose gripping novels have thrilled millions."RT Book Reviews
She's torn between two men.
One man is her destiny.
The other is her demise.
According to legend, a girl will see her future husband at the time of the hunter's moon. But when the handsome stranger revealed to Cordelia Grant disappears after an all-too-brief encounter, she has to wonder: Was he merely an apparition...or something more?
The memory of her mysterious gentleman continues to haunt Cordelia when Sir Jason Verringer comes calling. It's rumored the dashing land baron murdered his wife and mistress. But Cordelia knows, better than anyone, not to believe in society gossip. And there's no denying that Jason is dangerously compelling. Her future hinges on one choice.
About the Author
Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert, better known to readers as Victoria Holt, Philippa Carr, and Jean Plaidy, was one of the world's most beloved and enduring authors. Her career spanned five decades and she continued to write historical fiction and romantic suspense until her death in 1993.
Read an Excerpt
The Forest Fantasy
I was nineteen when what I came to think of as the Forest Fantasy occurred. Looking back it used to seem mystic, like something which happened in a dream. Indeed there were many times when I almost convinced myself that it had not happened outside my imagination. Yet from an early age I had been a realist, a practical person, not given overmuch to dreaming; but at that time I was inexperienced, not really out of the schoolroom and only in the last stages of my prolonged girlhood.
It happened one late October afternoon in woods in Switzerland not far from the German border. I was in my last year at one of the most exclusive schools in Europe to which Aunt Patty had decided I must go to "finish me off" as she put it.
"Two years should do it," she said. "It's not so much what it does for you, but what people believe it to have done. If parents know that one of us went through the polishing process at Schaffenbrucken they will be determined to send their girls to us."
Aunt Patty was the proprietress of a school for girls, and the plan was that when I was ready I should join in the enterprise. Consequently I must have the very best of qualifications to fit me for the task and the additional polish was intended to make me irresistible bait for those parents who wanted their daughters to share in the reflected glow which came from that glory which was Schaffenbrucken.
"Snobbery," said Aunt Patty. "Sheer unadulterated snobbery. But who are we to complain if it helps to keep Patience Grant's exclusive Academy for Young Ladies a profitable concern?"
Aunt Patty was rather like a barrel to look at, being short and very plump. "I like my food," she used to say, "so why shouldn't I enjoy it. I believe it to be the bounden duty of everyone on Earth to enjoy the good things which the Lord has bestowed on us and when roast beef and chocolate pudding were invented they were made to be eaten."
The food was very good at Patience Grant's Academy for Young Ladies-very different I believed from that which was served in many similar establishments.
Aunt Patty was unmarried "for the simple reason," she would say, "that nobody ever asked me. Whether I should have accepted is another matter, but as the problem never presented itself neither I nor anyone else need be concerned with it."
She enlarged on the subject to me. "I was the perennial wallflower of the ball. Mind you, I could climb a tree in those days before I was so incommoded by avoirdupois, and if any boy dared pull my pigtails he had to move fast to avoid battle, from which, my dear Cordelia, I invariably emerged the victor."
I could believe it, and I often thought how stupid men were because none of them had had the good sense to ask Aunt Patty to marry him. She would have made an excellent wife; as it was she made me an excellent mother.
My parents were missionaries in Africa. They were dedicated-saints, they were called; but like so many saints they were so concerned with bringing good into the world at large that they did not seem to care so very much for the problems of their small daughter. I can only vaguely remember them-for I was only seven years old when I was sent home to England-looking at me sometimes, faces shining with zeal and virtue, as though they were not quite sure who I was. I wondered later how in their lives of good deeds they had ever found the time or inclination to beget me.
However-it must have been to their immense relief-it was decided that life in the African jungle was no place for a child. I should be sent home, and to whom should I be sent but to my father's sister Patience.
I was taken home by someone from the mission who was traveling back for a short stay. The long journey seems very vague to me but what I shall always remember was the rotund figure of Aunt Patty waiting for me when I disembarked. Her hat caught my attention first of all for it was a glorious affair with a blue feather perched on the top. Aunt Patty had a weakness for hats which almost rivaled that of food. Sometimes she even wore them indoors. And there she was-her eyes magnified behind pebble glasses, her face like a full moon shining with soap and water and joie de vivre under that magnificent hat with the feather wobbling as she took me to her enormous lavender-scented bosom.
"Well, here you are," she said. "Alan's girl...come home."
And in those first moments she convinced me that I had.
It must have been about two years after my arrival when my father died of dysentery, and my mother a few weeks later of the same disease.
Aunt Patty showed me the paragraphs in the religious papers. "They gave their lives in God's service," it was said.
I am afraid I did not grieve very much. I had forgotten their existence and only remembered them very rarely. I was completely absorbed in the life of Grantley Manor, the old Elizabethan house which Aunt Patty had bought with what she called her patrimony two years before I was born.
We had great conversations-she and I. She never seemed to hold anything back. Afterwards I often reflected that most people seem to have secrets in their lives. It was never like that with Aunt Patty. Words flowed from her and there was never any restraint.
"When I was away at school," she said, "I had lots of fun but never enough to eat. They watered down the broth. Soup, they called it on Monday. That wasn't bad. A little weaker on Tuesday, getting so feeble on Wednesday that I used to wonder how much longer it could totter on before it was revealed as plain H2O. The bread always seemed stale. I think that school made me into the gourmand I am for I vowed when I left it I would indulge and indulge. If I had a school, I said to myself, it should be different. Then when I came into money I said, ‘Why not?' ‘It's a gamble,' said old Lucas. He was the solicitor. ‘What of it?' I said. ‘I like a gamble.' And the more he was against it the more I was for it. I am a little like that. Tell me ‘No, you can't' and as sure as I'm sitting here I'll soon be saying, ‘Oh yes you can.' So I found the Manor...going cheap with things having to be done to it. Just the place for a school. I called it Grantley Manor. Grant, you see. A little bit of the old snobbery creeping in. Miss Grant of Grantley. Well, you would think she had been living there all through the centuries, wouldn't you? And you wouldn't ask; you'd just think it. Good for the girls that is. I planned to make Grantley's Academy into the most exclusive establishment in the country, like that place Schaffenbrucken in Switzerland."
That was the first time I had heard of Schaffenbrucken.
She explained to me. "It is all very carefully thought out. Schaffenbrucken selects its pupils with care so that it is not easy to get in. ‘I'm afraid we have no room for your Amelia, Madame Smith. Try again next term. Who knows you might be lucky. We are full up now and have a waiting list.' A waiting list! That is the most magic phrase in the vocabulary of a school proprietress. It is what we all hope to achieve...people fighting to thrust their daughters into your school, not as the case usually is with your trying to wheedle them into doing so."
"Schaffenbrucken is expensive," she said on another occasion, "but I think it is worth every penny. You can learn French and German from the people who speak it as it should be spoken because it's their own language; you can learn how to dance and curtsey and walk round a room with a book balanced on your head. Yes, you say. You can learn that at thousands of schools. True, but you won't be seen as you will be if you have the Schaffenbrucken glow on you."
Her conversation was always punctuated by laughter.
"So it is a little Schaffenbrucken bloom for you, my dear," she said. "Then you will come back here and when we let it be known where you have been, mothers will be fighting to send their daughters to us. ‘Miss Cordelia Grant is in charge of deportment. She was at Schaffenbrucken, you know.' Oh, my dear, we shall be telling them we have a waiting list of young ladies clamoring to be coached in the social niceties by Miss Cordelia Grant of Schaffenbrucken fame."
It had always been accepted that I, when "finished," should join Aunt Patty in her school.
"One day," she said, "it will be yours, Cordelia."
I knew she meant when she died and I could not imagine a world without her. She was the center of my life with her shining face, her spurts of laughter, her racy conversation, her excessive appetite and her hats.
And when I was seventeen she said it was time I went to Schaffenbrucken.
Once again I was put in charge of travelers-this time three ladies who were going to Switzerland. At Basle I should be met by someone from the school who would conduct me the rest of the way. The journey was interesting and I recalled the long voyage home from Africa. This was very different. I was older now; I knew where I was going; and I lacked that fearful apprehension of a very small girl on a journey to the unknown.
The ladies who conducted me across Europe were determined to look after me and it was with some relief, I imagined, that they handed me over to Fräulein Mainz who taught German at Schaffenbrucken. She was a middle-aged woman, rather colorless, who was glad to hear that I had learned a little German. She told me my accent was atrocious but that would be rectified; and she refused to speak anything but her native tongue for the rest of the journey.
She talked about the glories of Schaffenbrucken and how fortunate I was to be chosen to join this very selective group of young ladies. It was the old Schaffenbrucken story and I thought Fräulein Mainz the most humorless person I had ever met. I suppose I was comparing her with Aunt Patty.
Schaffenbrucken itself was not impressive. The setting was, though. We were a mile or so from the town and surrounded by woods and mountains. Madame de Guérin, French-Swiss, was a middle-aged lady of quiet authority with what I can only call a "presence." I could see how important she was to the Schaffenbrucken legend. She did not have a great deal to do with us girls. We were left to the care of the mistresses. There was dancing, drama, French, German, and what they called social awareness. We were meant to emerge from Schaffenbrucken fit to enter into the highest society.
I soon settled into the life and found the girls interesting. They were of various nationalities and naturally I became friendly with the English. Two girls shared a room and it was always arranged that nationalities should be mixed. I had a German girl for my first year and a French one for the second. It was a good idea for it did help us to perfect our languages.
Discipline was not strict. We were not exactly children. Girls usually came between sixteen and seventeen and stayed until nineteen or twenty. We were not there to be fundamentally educated but each of us must be formed into a femme comme il faut, as Madame de Guérin said. It was more important to dance well and converse gracefully than to have a knowledge of literature and mathematics. Most of the girls would go straight from Schaffenbrucken to their debut into society. There were one or two of them like myself who were destined for something different. Most of them were pleasant and looked upon their stay at Schaffenbrucken as an essential part of their upbringing-ephemeral but to be enjoyed as much as possible while it lasted.
Although life in the various classrooms was easy-going there was a certain strict surveillance kept on us and I was sure that if any girl came near to being involved in a scandal she would be sent packing at once, for there would always be some ambitious parent eager to put a daughter into the vacant place.
I went home for Christmas and summer holidays and Aunt Patty and I would have a hilarious time discussing Schaffenbrucken.
"We must do that," Aunt Patty would say. "I tell you that when you come home from Schaffenbrucken we'll have the finest finishing school in the country. We'll make Daisy Hetherington green with envy."
That was the first time I heard Daisy Hetherington's name. I asked idly who she was and received the information that she had a school in Devonshire which was almost as good as Daisy thought it was, and that was saying a good deal.
I wished I'd asked more later. But naturally then it did not occur to me that it might be important.
I came to what was to be my last term at Schaffenbrucken. It was late October-wonderful weather for the time of year. We got a lot of sun at Schaffenbrucken and that made the summer seem to last a long time. It would be so hot in the day and suddenly, as soon as the sun disappeared, one would realize what time of the year it was. Then we would huddle round the common room fire and talk.
My best friends at that time were Monique Delorme, who shared my room, and an English girl, Lydia Markham, and her room-mate Frieda Schmidt. The four of us were always together. We talked constantly and used to make excursions into the town together. Sometimes we would walk and if the wagonette was going into town, a few of us would go in that. We took walks in the woods, which were allowed in parties of six-or at least four. There was a certain amount of freedom and we did not feel in the least restricted.
Lydia said that being at Schaffenbrucken was like being in a railway station waiting for the train that would carry you to a place where you would be a properly grown-up person. I knew what she meant. This was merely a stopping place in our lives-a stepping-stone to some other place.
We talked about ourselves. Monique was the daughter of a noble house and would be whisked almost immediately into a suitable marriage. Frieda's father had made his fortune out of pottery and was a businessman of many interests. Lydia belonged to a banking family. I was a little older and as I should be leaving at Christmas felt very much the senior.
We noticed Elsa almost as soon as she joined the establishment. She was a small pretty girl with fair curly hair and blue eyes; she was vivacious and had a certain elfin look. She was unlike any of the other servants and she was engaged on short notice because one of the maids had eloped with a man from the town and Madame de Guérin must have thought she would give Elsa a trial until the end of the term.
I was sure that if Madame de Guérin had really known Elsa she would not have allowed her to stay even until the end of the term. She was not at all respectful and did not seem to be in the least in awe of Schaffenbrucken or anyone in it. She had an air of camaraderie which implied that she was one of us. Some of the girls resented it: my own intimate quartet was rather amused by it; perhaps that was why she was always turning up in our rooms.
She would come in sometimes when the four of us were together and somehow sidle herself into the conversation.
She liked to hear about our homes and asked a good many questions. "Oh, I'd like to go to England," she said. "Or France...or Germany..." She would lure us to talk and she looked so pleased to hear about our backgrounds that we couldn't help going along with her.
She herself had come down in the world, she said. She was not really a serving maid. Oh no! She had thought she was set for a comfortable future. Her father had been, well...not exactly rich, but not wanting anything. She was to have been launched into society. "Not like you young ladies, of course, but in a more modest way. Then my father died. Hey Presto!" She waved her arms and raised her eyes to the ceiling. "That was the end of little Elsa's glory. No money. Elsa on her own. There was nothing for me to do but work. And what could I do? What had I been trained for?"
"Not as a housemaid," said Monique with good French logic.
At which we all laughed, including Elsa.
We couldn't help liking her and we used to encourage her to come and talk to us. She was amusing and very knowledgeable about the legends of the German forests where she said she had spent her early childhood before her father brought her to England where she had lived for a while before coming to Switzerland.
"I like to think of all those trolls hiding underground," she said. "Used to make my flesh creep. There were nice stories too about knights in armor coming along and carrying off maidens to Valhalla...or somewhere."
"That was where they went when they died," I reminded her.
"Well, to some nice place where there was feasting and banquets."
She took to joining us most afternoons.
"What would Madame de Guérin say if she knew?" asked Lydia.
"We'd probably be expelled," added Monique.
"What luck for all those on the waiting list. Four at one go."
Elsa would sit on the edge of a chair laughing at us.
"Tell me about your father's château" she would say to Monique.
And Monique told her about the formality of her home and how she was more or less betrothed to Henri de la Creseuse who owned the estate adjoining her father's.
Then Frieda told of her stern father who would certainly find a baron at least for her to marry. Lydia spoke of her two brothers who would be bankers like her father.
"Tell me about Cordelia," said Elsa.
"Cordelia is the luckiest of the lot," cried Lydia. "She has the most wonderful aunt who lets her do just what she likes. I love to hear about Aunt Patty. I am sure she'll never try to make Cordelia marry some baron or old man because he has a title and money. Cordelia will marry just whom she pleases."
"And she'll be rich in her own right. She'll have that lovely old Manor House. It'll all be yours one day, Cordelia, and you won't have to marry someone to get it."
"I shan't want it because it means Aunt Patty would have to die first."
"But it will all be yours one day. You'll be rich and independent."
Elsa wanted to know about Grantley Manor and I gave a glowing description. I wondered if I exaggerated a little, stressing the splendors of Grantley. I certainly did not in describing the eccentric charm of Aunt Patty. No one could really do her justice. But how happy I was talking of her and how the others envied me, coming as they did from sterner and more conventional homes.
"I reckon," said Elsa one day, "you'll all be married very soon."
"Heaven forbid," said Lydia. "I want to enjoy myself first."
"Have you ever been to Pilcher's Peak?" asked Elsa.
"I've heard of it," said Frieda.
"It's only two miles from here."
"Is it worth seeing?" I asked.
"Oh yes. It's in the forest; a strange rock. There's a story about it. I always liked those stories."
"If you go there on certain times you can see your future lover...or husband."
Monique said: "I've no particular desire to see Henri de la Creseuse just now. Time enough when I leave."
"Ah," said Elsa, "but it may be the fates have decided he is not meant for you."
"And the man who is will appear at this place? What is this Pilcher's Peak?"
"I'll tell you the story. Years and years ago they used to take lovers caught in adultery to Pilcher's Peak, make them climb to the top and then throw them down. They always took them there on the night of the full moon. So many died that their blood made the ground fertile and the trees grew round the Peak and made the forest."
"And this is the place we ought to visit?"
"Cordelia is in her last term. She won't have many opportunities, and she ought to see it while she can. Tomorrow night it will be full moon and it's the Hunter's Moon too. That's a good time."
"Hunter's Moon?" echoed Monique.
"The one that follows the Harvest Moon. It is one of the best and it is the time of the hunting season. It comes in October."
"Is it really October?" asked Frieda. "It seems so warm."
"It was cold last night," said Lydia, shivering in memory.
"In the day it is lovely," I said. "We ought to make the most of it. It's odd to think I shall not be coming back."
"Shall you mind?" asked Monique.
"I shall miss you all."
"And you will be with that wonderful aunt," said Frieda enviously.
"And you'll be rich," said Elsa, "and independent too, for you will own that school and the wonderful old Manor House."
"No, no. Not for years. I'd have it when Aunt Patty dies and I'd never want that."
Elsa nodded. "Well," she said, "if you don't want to go to Pilcher's Peak I'll tell some of the others."
"Why don't we go?" said Lydia. "Is it tomorrow...the full moon?"
"We could take the wagonette."
"We could say we wanted to see some of the wild flowers in the forest."
"Do you think we should be permitted? Wild flowers are scarcely a topic for the drawing rooms of the elite. And what wild flowers are there at this time of the year?"
"We could think of something else," said Lydia.
Nobody could, however, and the harder we thought the more enticing a trip to Pilcher's Peak became.
"I know," said Elsa at length, "you are going into the town to select a pair of gloves for Cordelia's aunt. She was so impressed by those Cordelia came home with and of course they can't make such gloves...so chic, so right...anywhere but in Switzerland. That will seem very plausible to Madame. Then the wagonette instead of going into the town turns off and goes into the forest. It is only two miles. You could ask for extended time as you wish to call into the patisserie for a cup of coffee and one of those cream gâteau which can only be found in Switzerland. I am sure permission would be granted, and that will give you time to go to the forest and sit under the lovers' oak tree."
"What perfidy!" I cried. "What if Madame de Guérin knew that you were corrupting us? You'd be turned out to wander in the snowy mountains."
Elsa put the palms of her hands together as though in prayer. "I beg you do not betray me. It is only a joke. I wish to put a little romance into your lives."
I laughed with the others. "Well, why shouldn't we go? Tell us what we do, Elsa."
"You sit under the oak. You can't fail to see it. It's there below the Peak. You just sit there and talk together...just naturally, you know. Then if you are lucky, your future husband will appear."
"One between four of us!" cried Monique.
"Perhaps more...who can say? But if one comes that is enough to show you there is something in our legend, eh?"
"It's ridiculous," said Frieda.
"It will be somewhere to go," added Monique.
"Our last little outing before winter comes," said Lydia.
"Who knows? It may start tomorrow."
"Then too late for Cordelia," Lydia reminded us. "Oh, Cordelia, do persuade Aunt Patty to let you stay another year."
"Two is really enough to put the polish on. I must be positively gleaming already."
We laughed awhile and we decided that on the following afternoon we would go to Pilcher's Peak.
It was a clear afternoon when we set out. The sun made it as warm as spring and we were in high spirits as the wagonette turned off from the road to the town and took us up to the forest. The air was clear and crisp and the snow sparkled on the distant mountaintops. I could smell the pungency of the pines which made up most of the forest, but there were among the evergreens some oaks, and it was one of these which we had to look for.
We asked the driver about Pilcher's Peak and he told us we couldn't miss it. He'd show us when we turned the bend. We would see it then rising high above the ravine.
The scenery was superb. In the distance we saw mountain slopes, some of them wooded near the valleys, the vegetation growing more sparse farther up.
"I wonder which of us will see him?" whispered Lydia.
"None," responded Frieda.
Monique laughed. "It won't be me because I am already bespoke."
We all laughed.
"I think Elsa makes up half the things she says," I added.
"Do you believe that about her coming down in the world?"
"I don't know," I said thoughtfully. "There is something about Elsa. She's different. It could be true. On the other hand she might have made it up."
"Like the visions of Pilcher's Peak," said Frieda. "She's going to laugh at us when we get back."
The sounds of the horses' hoofs was soothing as we rocked happily to and fro. I should miss these outings when I left. But it would be wonderful of course to be home with Aunt Patty.
"There's the Peak," said the wagoner, pointing with his whip.
We all looked. It was impressive from this spot. It looked like a wrinkled old face...brown, creased and malevolent.
"I wonder if it's meant to be Pilcher?" said Monique. "And who was Pilcher anyway?"
"We'll have to ask Elsa," I said. "She seems to be a mine of information on such matters."
We were in the forest now. The wagon drew up and our driver said: "I'll wait here. Now you young ladies take that path. It leads straight up to the base of the rock. There's a big oak tree at the bottom called Pilcher's Oak."
"That's what we want," said Monique.
"Less than half a mile." He looked at his watch. "I'll be ready to take you back say in an hour and a half. Orders is that you're not to be late."
"Thank you," we said and we set off over the uneven ground toward the great rock.
"There must have been a violent volcanic eruption here," I commented. "So Pilcher's was formed and much, much later the oak tree grew. Seeds dropped by a bird, I daresay. Most of them are pines round here. Don't they smell delicious."
We had almost reached the oak growing close to the rock. "This must be it," said Lydia, throwing herself down and stretching out on the grass. "This smell makes me feel sleepy."
"That lovely redolent odor," I said, sniffing eagerly. "Yes, there is something soporific about it."
"What now we're here?" asked Frieda.
"Sit down...and wait and see."
"I think it's foolish," said Frieda.
"Well, it's an outing. Somewhere to go. Let's pretend we are shopping for gloves for my Aunt Patty. I do want to get her some before I leave."
"Stop talking about leaving," said Lydia. "I don't like it."
"Yes," I said, "I certainly feel like that too."
I stretched myself out on the grass and the others did the same. We lay there, propping up our heads with our hands and gazing up through the branches of the oak tree.
"I wonder what it was like when they threw people over," I went on. "Just imagine being taken up to the top, knowing you were going to be thrown over...or perhaps asked to jump. Perhaps some fell on this spot."
"You make me feel creepy," said Lydia.
"I suggest," put in Frieda, "that we go back to the wagonette and go into the town after all."
"Those little cakes with the colored cream are delicious," said Monique.
"Would there be time?" asked Frieda.
"No," said Lydia.
"Be quiet," I commanded. "Give it a chance."
We were all silent and just then he came through the trees.
He was tall and very fair. I noticed his eyes immediately. They were piercing blue, and there was something unusual about them; they seemed as though they were looking beyond us into places which we could not see...or perhaps I imagined that afterwards. His clothes were dark and that accentuated his fairness. They were elegantly cut but not exactly in the height of fashion. His coat had a velvet collar and silver buttons, and his hat was black, tall and shiny.
We were all silent as he approached-awestruck, I suppose, devoid for the moment of our Schaffenbrucken polish.
"Good afternoon," he said in English. He bowed. Then he went on: "I heard your laughter and I had an irresistible urge to see you."
Still we said nothing and he went on: "Tell me, you are from the school, are you not?"
I said: "Yes, we are."
"On an excursion to Pilcher's Peak?"
"We were resting before we went back," I told him, as the others seemed to remain tongue-tied.
"It's an interesting spot," he went on. "Do you object to my talking to you for a moment?"
"Of course not." We all spoke together. So the others had recovered from their shock.
He sat down a little distance from us and surveyed his long legs.
"You are English," he said, looking at me.
"Yes...I and Miss Markham. This is Mademoiselle Delorme and Fräulein Schmidt."
"A cosmopolitan group," he commented. "Yours is the school for the young ladies of Europe. Am I right?"
"Yes, that is it."
"Tell me why did you take this excursion to Pilcher's Peak today? Is it not rather a summer outing?"
"We thought we'd like to see it," I said, "and I probably shan't have an opportunity again. I'm leaving at the end of the year."
He raised his eyebrows. "Is that so? And the other young ladies?"
"We shall have another year, I expect," said Monique.
"And then you return to France?"
"You are all so young...so merry," he said. "It was very pleasant to hear your laughter. I was drawn toward it. I felt for a moment that I must join you. I must share your spontaneity."
"We didn't realize that we were so alluring," I said, and everybody laughed.
He looked about him. "What a pleasant afternoon! There is a stillness in the air, do you feel it?"
"Yes, I think I do," said Lydia.
He looked up at the sky. "Indian summer," he said quietly. "You will all go to your various homes for Christmas, will you not?"
"It is one of the holidays we all go home for. That and the summer. Easter, Whitsun and the rest, well..."
"The journey is too far," he finished for me. "And your families will welcome you," he went on. "They will have balls and banquets for you and you will all marry and live happy ever after, which is the fate which should await all beautiful young ladies."
"And doesn't always...or often," said Monique.
"We have a cynic here. Tell me"-his eyes were on me-"do you believe that?"
"I think life is what you make it." I was quoting Aunt Patty. "What is intolerable to some is comfort to others. It is the way in which one looks upon it."
"They certainly teach you something at that school."
"That's what my aunt always says."
"You have no parents." It was a statement rather than a question.
"No, they died in Africa. My aunt has always looked after me."
"She's a marvelous person," said Monique. "She runs a school. She's just about as different from Madame de Guérin as anyone could be. Cordelia is the lucky one. She's going to work with her aunt and share the school, which will be hers one day. Can you imagine Cordelia as a headmistress!"
He was smiling directly at me. "I can imagine Cordelia's being anything she wishes to be. So she is a lady of substance, is she?"
"If you ask me she is the luckiest of the lot of us," said Monique.
He continued to look at me steadily. "Yes," he said, "I think Cordelia can be very lucky indeed."
"Why do you say ‘can be'?" asked Frieda.
"Because it will depend on her herself. Is she cautious? Does she hesitate or does she grasp opportunities when they are presented to her?"
The girls looked at each other and at me.
"I'd say she would," said Monique.
"Time will tell," he replied.
He had a strange delivery, which was a little archaic. Perhaps that was because he was speaking English, which might not have been his native tongue, although he was very fluent. I fancied I caught a trace of a German accent.
"We always have to wait for time to tell us," said Frieda rather pettishly.
"What do you wish then, young lady? To take a glimpse into the future?"
"That would be fun," said Monique. "There was a fortune-teller in the town. Madame de Guérin put that out of bounds...but I believe some of them went."
"It can be very absorbing," he said.
"You mean...to look into the future?" That was Monique and he leaned forward and took her hand. She gave a little squeal. "Oh...can you tell the future then?"
"Tell the future? Who can tell the future? Though sometimes there are visions..."
We were all subdued now. I felt my heart beating wildly. There was something very extraordinary about this encounter.
"You, Mademoiselle," he said, gazing at Monique, "you will laugh through life. You will go back to your family château." He dropped her hand and closed his eyes. "It is in the heart of the country. There are vineyards surrounding it. The pepper pot towers reach to the sky. Your father is a man who makes arrangements worthy of his family. He is a proud man. Will you marry as he wishes, Mademoiselle?"
Monique looked a little shaken.
"I suppose I shall marry Henri...I quite like him really."
"And your father would never allow it to be otherwise. And you, Fräulein, are you as docile as your friend?"
"It's hard to say," said Frieda in her matter of fact way. "I sometimes think I shall do what I please and then when I'm home...it's different."
He smiled at her. "You do not deceive yourself and that is a great asset in life. You will always know which way you are going and why-although it is not always the path which you would choose."
Then he turned to Lydia. "Ah, Miss," he said, "what is your fortune?"
"Heaven knows," said Lydia. "I imagine my father will be more concerned with my brothers. They're a good bit older than I and they always think boys are more important."
"You will have a good life," he said.
Lydia laughed. "It's almost as though you are telling our fortunes."
"Your fortunes are for you to make," he replied. "I only have certain...what shall I say...sensitivities."
"It's Cordelia's turn," said Monique.
"Cordelia's turn?" he said.
"You haven't told her anything yet...about what's going to happen."
"I have said," he replied mildly, "that that will depend on Cordelia."
"But haven't you anything to tell her?"
"No," he said. "Cordelia will know...when the time comes."
There was a deep silence. I was very much aware of the quietness of the forest and looming over us the grotesque formation of rock, which one's imagination could easily twist into menacing shapes.
It was Monique who spoke. "It's rather uncanny here," she said and shivered.
Suddenly a sound broke the silence. It was the rather melodious call of the wagoner. His voice seemed to hit the mountain and echo through the forest.
"We should have started back ten minutes ago," said Frieda. "We'll have to hurry."
We all jumped to our feet.
"Goodbye," we said to the stranger.
Then we started down the path. After a few seconds I looked back. He had disappeared.
We were late back but nothing was said and no one asked to see the gloves which we were supposed to have bought in the town.
Elsa came to our room after supper. It was that half hour before prayers which was followed by our retiring for the night.
"Well," she said, "did you see anything?" Her eyes glistened with curiosity.
"There was...something," admitted Frieda.
"Well, a man," added Monique.
"The more I think of him," added Lydia, "the more strange he seemed."
"Do tell," cried Elsa. "Do tell."
"Well, we were sitting there..."
"Lying there," said Frieda who liked details to be exact.
"Stretched out under the tree," went on Lydia impatiently, "when he was suddenly there."
"You mean he appeared?"
"You could call it that."
"What was he like?"
"Go on. Go on..."
We were all silent trying to remember exactly what he had looked like.
"What's the matter with you all?" demanded Elsa.
"Well, it was rather strange when you come to think about it," said Monique. "Did it strike you that he seemed to know something about us all? He described the château with the vines and towers."
Frieda said: "Many châteaux in France have their vineyards and almost all have pepper pot towers."
"Yes," said Monique. "And yet..."
"I think he was most interested in Cordelia," announced Lydia.
"Why should you think that?" I demanded. "He didn't tell me anything."
"It was the way he looked at you."
"You're not telling me anything," complained Elsa. "I sent you there, don't forget. I've a right to know."
"I'll tell you what happened," said Frieda. "We were silly enough to go to the forest when we might have gone into the town and had some of those delicious cream cakes...and because we'd been so silly we tried to make something happen. All that did was that a man came up, said he liked to hear us laugh and talk for a while."
"Trust Frieda to get it all neatly tied up," said Lydia. "But I can't help thinking that there was more to it than that."
"I reckon he's a future husband for one of you," said Elsa. "That's how the story goes."
"If you believe that why didn't you go and meet yours?" I asked.
"How could I get away? I'm watched. They'd suspect me of shirking my duties."
"Rest assured," said Frieda, "that those suspicions will soon be confirmed."
Elsa laughed with us.
She at least was delighted with the excursion.
All through November we were making plans to go home. For me it was a time tinged with sadness. I was going to hate saying goodbye to them all; but on the other hand I was looking forward to going home. Monique, Frieda and Lydia all said we must keep in touch. Lydia lived in London but her family had a country house in Essex where she spent most of her holidays, so we should not be so very far away from each other.
For a few days after that encounter in the forest we talked a great deal about what we called our Pilcher's Peak adventure. We had very quickly transformed it into an uncanny experience and we endowed the stranger with all sorts of peculiarities. He had had piercing eyes which shone with an unearthly light, according to Monique. She exaggerated what he had told her and was beginning to believe he had given her an accurate and minute description of her father's château. Lydia said he had sent shivers down her spine and she was sure he had not been human.
"Nonsense," said Frieda, "he was taking a walk in the woods when he felt like a little conversation with a group of giggling girls."
I wasn't sure what I thought, and although I was aware that the encounter was being considerably embellished it had made a deep impression on me.
Term ended at the end of the first week in December. As most of us had to travel long distances Madame de Guérin always liked us to get on our way before the snows came too heavily and made the roads impassable.
There were seven English girls who would be traveling on the same route. Fräulein Mainz saw us all onto the train and when we reached Calais it had been arranged for one of the travel agents to see us onto the boat. At Dover our families would be waiting for us.
I had made the journey several times before, but this was to be the last time, and that made it different.
We had a compartment to ourselves and as we had done the journey before it was only the younger ones who exclaimed at the grandeur of the mountain scenery and remained at the windows while we traveled through the majestic Swiss countryside. The older ones had grown blasé-myself and Lydia among them.
The journey seemed endless; we talked; we read; we played games and we dozed.
Most of them were half asleep and I was gazing idly before me when I saw a man. He was passing along the corridor. He looked in at our compartment as he went. I gasped. He appeared to glance at me but I was not sure that he recognized me. He was gone in a matter of seconds.
I turned to Lydia who was seated next to me, asleep. I jumped up and made my way along the corridor. There was no sign of him.
I went back to my seat and nudged Lydia.
"I...I saw him," I said.
"The man...the man in the forest..."
"You're dreaming," said Lydia.
"No. I was sure. He was gone in a flash."
"Why didn't you speak to him?"
"He was gone too quickly. I went after him but he had disappeared."
"You were dreaming," said Lydia and closed her eyes.
I was very shaken. Could it have been an apparition? It was over so quickly. He had been there...and then he was gone. He must have moved along that corridor very quickly. Had it really been the man himself or had I dreamed it?
Perhaps Lydia was right.
I looked out for him during the rest of the journey to Calais but he was not there.
The train had been delayed because of the snowdrifts and we were eight hours late reaching Calais. It meant that we had to take the night ferry and it must have been about two o'clock in the morning when we embarked.
Lydia was not feeling well; she was cold, she said, and felt a little sick. She had found a spot below where she could wrap herself up and lie down.
I felt the need for fresh air and said I would go on deck. I was given a rug and found a chair. True it was cold but I felt snug beneath my rug and I was sure Lydia would have been wiser to have come up with me rather than stay in the airless part of the ship.
There was a faint crescent moon and myriads of stars were visible in the clear night sky. I could hear the voices of the crew not far off and I enjoyed the rocking of the ship, gentle as yet, but there was no wind and I did not anticipate a rough crossing.
I was thinking of the future. It would always be fun with Aunt Patty. I could imagine long cozy evenings by her sitting room fire while she drank hot chocolate and nibbled macaroons for which she had a special fancy. We would laugh over the day's events. There would always be something to laugh about. Oh, I was looking forward to it.
I closed my eyes. I was rather sleepy. The journey had been tiring and there had been a great deal of fuss getting into the ship. I must not sleep deeply for I should have to find my way back to Lydia before the ship docked.
I was aware of a faint movement at my side. I opened my eyes. A chair had been moved silently and now, with its occupant, it was beside me.
"Do you mind if I sit with you?"
My heart started to beat furiously. The same voice. The same air of being not quite of this world. It was the man of the forest.
I was too startled to speak for a moment.
He said: "I will be quiet if you wish to sleep."
"Oh no...no. It is...isn't it?"
"We met before," he said.
"You...you were on the train?"
"Yes, I was on the train."
"I saw you pass the window."
"Are you going to England?"
It was a foolish question. Where else could he be going since he was on the Channel steamer?
"Yes," he said. "I trust I shall see you while I am there."
"Oh yes. That would be pleasant. You must call on us. It's Grantley Manor, Canterton, Sussex. Not far from Lewes. It's quite easy to find."
"I'll remember that," he said. "You will see me."
"Are you going home?"
"Yes," he answered.
I waited but he did not tell me where. There was about him an aloofness, something which warned me not to ask questions.
"You will be looking forward to your meeting with your aunt."
"She seems a very indulgent lady."
"Indulgent? Yes, I suppose so. She is warmhearted and loving and I don't think she ever felt any malice toward anyone. She has wit and says amusing things but she is never hurtful...unless anyone hurts her or hers, then she would respond with gusto. She is a wonderful human being."
"Your devotion to her is apparent."
"She was a mother to me when I needed one."
"A rare person clearly."
There was a short silence and then he said: "Tell me about yourself."
"You don't want to talk very much about yourself," I commented.
"That will come. Now it is your turn."
It was like a command and I found myself talking of my early life, remembering things which I thought until this moment I had forgotten. I remembered incidents from Africa, the hours in the mission hall which had seemed endless, the singing of hymns, prayers, always prayers, little black babies playing in the dust, the multi-colored beads which jangled at their necks and waists, strange insects which looked like sticks and seemed as sinister as the snakes which slithered through the grass and of which one had to be very careful.
But mostly I talked about Aunt Patty and the Manor and the school itself and how much I was looking forward to being a part of it.
"You are fully qualified," he said.
"Oh yes, Aunt Patty saw to that. I have studied a number of subjects and then of course I went to Schaffenbrucken to be finished off, as Aunt Patty puts it."
"A very expensive school. Aunt Patty must be a rich woman to be able to send her niece there."
"I think she looked upon it as a good investment."
"Tell me about the Manor," he said.
So I talked, describing it room by room and the grounds which surrounded it. There were twenty acres. "We have a paddock and stables and playing fields, you see."
"It sounds commodious."
"It has a high reputation. Aunt Patty is always trying to increase it."
"I like your Aunt Patty."
"No one could help doing that."
"Loyal Miss Cordelia."
He lay back and closed his eyes. I thought it was an intimation that he did not want to talk for a while. So I did the same.
The rocking of the boat was soothing, and as I was really very tired and it was the middle of the night, I went into a light doze. I awoke suddenly to the sounds of activity about me. I could just catch a glimpse of the coastline ahead.
I turned to look at my companion. There was no one there. His chair and his rug were gone.
I stood up and looked about me. There were not many people on deck, and certainly no sign of him.
I went down to find Lydia.
Aunt Patty was at the docks waiting to greet me, looking rounder than I remembered and her hat was splendid-ruchings of blue ribbon and a bow as wide as herself.
I was clasped to her fondly and was able to introduce Lydia who couldn't resist saying: "She is just as you said she was."
"Been telling tales about me in school, eh?" said Aunt Patty.
"All she told us was lovely," said Lydia. "She made us all want to come to your school."
I was hastily introduced to the woman who had come for Lydia. I gathered she was a sort of housekeeper, and I again rejoiced in Aunt Patty, who had come herself to meet me.
Aunt Patty and I settled into the train, talking all the time.
I did look round for the stranger but he was nowhere to be seen. There were so many people about and it would have been something of a miracle if I had been able to see him. I wondered where he was going.
At the Canterton station, which was little more than a halt, we were met by the fly and whisked home in a very short time. I was moved as always by the first sight of Grantley Manor after an absence. Red-bricked, lattice-windowed, it looked gracious rather than grand, but most of all it looked like home.
"Dear old place," I said.
"So you feel like that about it, do you?"
"But of course. I remember the first time I saw it...but by then I knew everything was going to be all right because I had met you."
"Bless you, child. But believe me, bricks and mortar don't make a home. You'll find a home where you find the people who make a home for you."
"As you did, dear Aunt Patty. The girls love hearing about you...the macaroons and the hats and everything. They always call you Aunt Patty as though you are theirs too. I feel I want to say, ‘Here, stop it. She's mine.'"
It was lovely to step into the hall, to smell the beeswax and turpentine which always clung about the furniture mingling with the smell of cooking which came from the other side of the screens.
"It's a queer time to arrive. It's just past noon. Do you feel tired?"
"Not really. Only excited to be here."
"You'll be tired later. Best to have a rest this afternoon. Then I want to talk to you."
"Of course. This is the great occasion. I have said goodbye to Schaffenbrucken."
"I'm glad you went there, Cordelia. It will be a blessing."
"It will bring them streaming in."
She gave a little cough and said: "You'll miss all the girls though, won't you, and the mountains and everything."
"I missed you most of all, Aunt Patty."
"Go on with you," she said, but she was deeply moved.
If I had not been a little bemused by the man whom I called the Stranger, I might have noticed there was a change in Aunt Patty. It was hardly perceptible, but then I knew her so well. I might have asked myself if she was a trifle less exuberant than usual.
I did get a hint though from Violet Barker-Aunt Patty's housekeeper, companion and devoted friend who had been with Aunt Patty when I first arrived all those years ago. She was rather angular and lean-the complete opposite of Aunt Patty. They suited each other perfectly. Violet had nothing to do with the teaching of pupils but she did manage the household with expertise and was a very important part of the establishment.
Violet looked at me so cautiously that I thought Aunt Patty must have talked so earnestly of Schaffenbrucken polish that Violet was trying to discern it.
Then she said quite suddenly: "It's the roof. It would have to be done within the next two years they say. And that's not all. The west wall wants propping up. It's been a wet winter so far. It's given your aunt concern. Did she say?"
"No. Well, I have just got home."
Violet nodded and pressed her lips tightly together. I might have guessed that something was very wrong.
It was after dinner at about half-past eight when Aunt Patty and I were in her sitting room with Violet when she told me.
I gasped and couldn't believe I was hearing correctly when she said, "Cordelia. I've sold the Manor."
"Aunt Patty! What do you mean?"
"I should have warned you. Led up to it. Things have not been too flourishing for the last three years."
"Oh, Aunt Patty."
"Dear child, don't look so tragic. I am sure it is going to be all for the best. I'm sorry I have to confront you with a fait accompli. But there was no help for it, was there, Vi? We talked it over and over and this offer came along. You see there's the roof and the west wall. The house needs a fortune spent on it. Times haven't been so good for some years. I've had some bad debts."
I guessed that. I knew of at least three pupils whose parents hardly ever paid the fees. "Bright girls all of them," Aunt Patty used to say. "A credit to the school." Times were hard. No watered-down soup for Grantley. I had often wondered how she managed at the fees she charged but as she had never mentioned the matter to me I had supposed that all was well.
"What are we going to do?" I asked.
Aunt Patty burst into laughter. "We are going to cast aside our troubles and enjoy life. That's right, eh, Violet?"
"So you say, Patty."
"Yes," said Aunt Patty. "The fact of the matter is, dear, that I have been thinking for some time that I should retire and I should have done it long ago but for..." She looked at me and I said: "But for me. You were keeping it for me."
"I thought it would be a future for you. I thought I'd retire and just be an adviser when I was wanted or something like that. It was the idea behind Schaffenbrucken."
"And you sent me to that expensive school when you were already in financial difficulties."
"I was looking ahead. The trouble is things have gone a bit too far. There would have been the enormous expenditure on repairs. It would have been crippling. Well, not exactly but it would have made the alternative impossible. So...the opportunity came and I decided to sell."
"Will it be a school?"
"No. Some millionaire who wants to restore the place and be a lord of the manor."
"Aunt Patty, what about us?"
"All arranged, dear. Most satisfactorily. We have an enchanting house in Moldenbury...near Nottingham. It's a lovely village right in the heart of the country. It's not as big as Grantley of course and I can only take Mary Ann with me. I hope the rest of the staff will stay on to serve the new owners of Grantley. The parents have all had their notices. We are closing down at the end of the Spring term. It is all settled."
"And this house-where is it? Moldenbury?"
"We are negotiating for it. It will pass into our hands shortly. Everything is arranged to our mutual satisfaction. We shall have enough to live on in a simple way perhaps but adequate for our needs and we shall give ourselves up to life in the country, following all sorts of pursuits which we never had time for before. We shall adjust happily, as I keep telling Violet."
I glanced at Violet. She was not quite as optimistic as my aunt, but optimism was not one of Violet's qualities.
"Dear Aunt Patty," I said. "You should have told me before. You shouldn't have let me go on at that place. It must have been ridiculously costly."
"Having put my hand to the plough I was not going to spoil the ship for a ha 'p 'orth of tar, and if a job is worth doing it is worth doing properly. I can't think of any more maxims but I am sure they abound to support me. I have done the right thing by you, Cordelia. Schaffenbrucken will never be wasted. I'll tell you more later on. I'll show you the books and how things are going. Also I've got to talk to you about our new home. We'll go and see it one day before the start of next term. You'll love it. It's the dearest little village and I have already made the acquaintance of the rector who seems a very charming gentleman with a wife who is overflowing with welcome for us. I think we are going to find it amusing."
"And different," said Violet somberly.
"Change is always stimulating," said Aunt Patty. "I think we have been moving along in the same groove for too long. A new life, Cordelia. A challenge. We shall be working for the good of our new village...fetes, bazaars, committees, feuds. I can see we are going to have an interesting time."
She believed it. That was the wonderful thing about Aunt Patty. She saw everything as amusing, exciting and challenging and she had always been able to convince me, if she was not managing to do the same with Violet. But then Aunt Patty and I always said that Violet enjoyed adversity.
I went to bed rather bemused. There were hundreds of questions to be asked. The future was a little hazy at the moment.
During the next day I learned more from Aunt Patty. The school had been, as she said, ticking over, for some little time. Perhaps her fees were not high enough; she had, she was told by her financial advisers, overspent on food and fuel, and the amount of those costly items was out of proportion to receipts.
"I didn't want to make it into a Dothegirls Hall such as Mr. Dickens wrote about in his wonderful book. I didn't want that at all. I wanted my school to be...just as I wanted it, and if it can't be that, then I'd rather there was no school. So that is how it is going to be, Cordelia. I can't say I'm sorry myself. I wanted to pass it on to you, but there is no point in passing on a concern which would have tottered into bankruptcy. No, cut your losses, said I. And that is what I am doing. In our new home we'll all have a rest for a while and we'll plan what we are going to do next."
She made it all sound like a new and exciting adventure on which we were embarking and I caught her enthusiasm.
In the afternoon when classes were in progress I went for a walk. I left about two o'clock intending to be back before it was dark, which would be soon after four. School would be breaking up in the next week or so and after that only one more term. There would be the bustle of departure; the mistresses would be arranging journeys for the girls, seeing them to trains, just as it had been at Schaffenbrucken. I supposed many of the teachers were anxious, wondering about their new posts and certain that they would not find many employers as easy-going as Aunt Patty had been.
I detected an air of melancholy over the house. Both pupils and mistresses had appreciated the atmosphere of Grantley Manor.
Without Aunt Patty at my side to stress how wonderful everything was going to be, I too felt the depression. I tried to imagine what my future would be. I couldn't just live all my life in a country village even though Aunt Patty would be with me. Somehow I did not think Aunt Patty believed I could either. I had caught her almost speculative gaze on me, rather secretive as though she had something up her sleeve which she was going to produce to the wonderment of all who perceived it.
I always enjoyed my first walk after returning to Grantley. I usually went into the little town of Canterton, looked into the shops and stopped for a chat with the people I knew. It was always a pleasure. Today it seemed different. I did not feel the same urge to talk to people. I wondered how much they knew about Aunt Patty's move and I couldn't really talk about something of which I knew so little as yet.
I passed the woods and noticed that there were plenty of berries on the holly this year. The girls would be picking it very soon now for the last week of term would be given over to Christmas jollity. They had already decorated the Christmas tree in the common room and put the presents they had bought for each other under it. Then there would be a concert and carol singing in the chapel. The last time...What a sad phrase that was.
A pale winter sun momentarily showed itself between the clouds. There was a chill in the air but it was mildish for the time of year.
There were not many people about. I had not met anyone since I had left the Manor. I glanced toward the wood and wondered whether the girls would find much mistletoe this year. They usually had to hunt for it, which made it seem precious, and made a great show of fixing it in those places where they could be caught and kissed-if there were any males about who might be tempted to do so.
I hesitated by the woods. Then as I was deciding that I would skirt them and go as far as the town without actually going in, I heard a footstep behind me. I felt a rush of emotion and told myself afterwards that I knew who it was going to be before I turned around.
"Why?" I cried. "You...here?"
"Yes," he said with a smile. "You told me you lived in Canterton so I thought I would have a look at it."
"Are you...staying here?"
"Briefly," he replied.
"On your way to-"
"Somewhere else. I thought I would call to see you while I was here, but before doing so I was hoping to meet you so that I could ask if it would be correct for me to call. I passed the Manor. It is a fine old place."
"You should have come in."
"First of all I wanted to find out whether your aunt would receive me."
"But of course she would be delighted to receive you."
"After all," he went on, "we have not been formally introduced."
"We have met four times, if you count the time on the train."
"Yes," he said slowly, "I feel we are old friends. Your welcome home was very warm I gather."
"Aunt Patty is such a darling."
"She is clearly devoted to you."
"So it was the happiest of homecomings?"
"Not?" he asked.
I was silent for a few seconds and he looked at me with some concern. Then he said: "Shall we walk through the forest? I think it rather beautiful at this time of year. The trees without their leaves are so beautiful, don't you think? Look at the pattern that one makes against the sky."
"Yes, I have always thought so. More beautiful in winter even than in summer. This is hardly what you call a forest. It's more of a wood...just clumps of trees which don't extend for more than a quarter of a mile."
"Nevertheless let us walk among the beautiful trees and you can tell me why your homecoming was not as usual."
Still I hesitated and he looked at me with a slight reproachful air. "You can trust me," he said. "I will keep your secrets. Come, tell me what worries you."
"It was all so different from what I expected. Aunt Patty had not given a hint."
"That everything was not...as it should be. She...she has sold Grantley Manor."
"Sold that beautiful house! What of the flourishing establishment?"
"Apparently it did not flourish. I was astounded. I suppose one takes these things for granted. There was no reason why I shouldn't. Aunt Patty had never as much as hinted that we were becoming poorer."
There seemed to be a sudden chill in the forest.
He had stopped in his walk and looked at me tenderly. "My poor child," he said.
"Oh, it isn't so bad. We're not going to starve. Aunt Patty thinks it is all to the good. But then everything that happens seems to her all to the good."
"Tell me about it...if you wish to."
"I don't know why I am talking to you like this...except that you seem so interested. You just seem to appear, first in the forest, then on the ship and now...You are rather mysterious, you know."
He laughed. "That makes it all the easier for you to talk to me."
"Yes, I suppose it does. I was going to avoid going into the town because I didn't want to talk to people there who have known us for years."
"Well, tell me instead."
So I told him that Aunt Patty had had to sell the Manor because it was too expensive to keep up, and that we were going to a small house in another part of the country.
"What shall you do?"
"I don't know...We have this little house somewhere in the Midlands, I believe. I really haven't heard much about it yet. Aunt Patty makes it seem...not so bad, but I can see that Violet-that's her very special friend who lives with us-is very disturbed."
"I can imagine so. What a terrible blow for you! My deepest sympathy. You seemed so merry when I saw you with your friends in the forest, and I fancied they were all a little envious of you."
We walked across the stunted grass and the wintry sun glinted through the bare branches of the trees. The smell of damp earth and foliage was in the air and I couldn't help feeling that something significant would happen because he was with me.
I said: "We have talked about me. Tell me about yourself."
"You won't find that very interesting."
"Oh, but I shall. You have such a way of...appearing. It is quite intriguing really. The way you came upon us in the forest..."
"I was taking a walk."
"It seemed so strange that you should be there, and then in the train and on the boat...and now here."
"I am here because I saw it was on my route and I thought I would drop in to see you."
"On your route to where?"
"To my home."
"So you live in England."
"I have a place in Switzerland. I suppose I would say my home is in England."
"And you are on your way to it now. Why, I don't even know your name."
"Was it never mentioned?"
"No. In the forest..."
"I was just a passer-by then, wasn't I? It would not have been comme il faut to exchange cards."
"Then on the boat...you were just there."
"You were rather sleepy, I think."
"Let's end the mystery. What is your name?"
He hesitated and I fancied that he did not want to tell me. There must surely be some reason why. He certainly was an enigma.
Then he said suddenly: "It is Edward Compton."
"Oh...then you are English. I wondered whether you were entirely. Where is your home?"
He said: "It is Compton Manor."
"Oh...is it far from here?"
"Yes. In Suffolk. In a little village you will never have heard of."
"No. I have never heard of it. Is it far from Bury St. Edmunds?"
"Well...that would be the nearest town."
"And you are on your way there now?"
"Yes, when I leave here."
"Are you staying in Canterton for a while then?"
"I thought I would..."
"For how long?"
He looked at me intently and said: "That depends..."
I felt myself flush a little. It depended on me, he was implying. The girls had said that I was the one in whom he was interested, and I had instinctively known this from our first meeting in the forest.
"You must be staying at the Three Feathers. It is small but has a good reputation for being comfortable. I hope you will find it so."
"I am comfortable," he said.
"You must come to meet Aunt Patty."
"That would be my pleasure."
"I should be getting back now. It grows dark early."
"I'll walk with you to the Manor."
We left the wood and took to the road. The Manor was before us. It looked beautiful in the already fading light.
"I can see you admire it," I said.
"It is sad that you have to let it go," he answered.
"I haven't really got used to the idea, but as Aunt Patty says it isn't bricks and mortar that make a home. We shouldn't be happy there worrying all the time because we couldn't afford it, and she says that renovations would have to be done soon or it would be falling about our heads."
I stopped and smiled at him.
"I'll leave you here, unless you would like to come in with me now."
"N...no. I think it better not. Next time perhaps."
"Tomorrow. You might call for tea. Four o'clock. Aunt Patty makes rather a ritual of tea. She does of all meals. Come just before four."
"Thank you," he said.
Then he took my hand and bowed.
I ran into the house without looking back. I was excited. There was something about him which was so intriguing. At last I knew his name. Edward Compton of Compton Manor. I imagined it...redbrick, essentially Tudor rather like our own Manor. No wonder he was interested in Grantley and genuinely shocked because we were having to sell. He would understand what it meant parting with a fine old house which had been one's home for a long time.
Tomorrow I would see him again. I would write to all the girls and tell them about this exciting meeting. There hadn't been time on the boat to tell Lydia that I had seen him again there. I doubt whether she would have listened much. We had been so intent on disembarking and meeting those who had come to fetch us.
Perhaps in time there might be more to tell her. I was very fascinated by the mysterious stranger.
When I returned to the house Aunt Patty was in a state of excitement.
"I have just had confirmation from Daisy Hetherington, who is coming to see us. She is arriving at the end of the week on her way to her brother's for Christmas. She will stay a couple of nights."
I had heard her mention Daisy Hetherington many times and always in tones of great respect. Daisy Hetherington owned one of the most exclusive schools in England. Aunt Patty couldn't stop talking about her.
"Aunt Patty," I cut in, "the most extraordinary thing has happened. There was a man whom I met at Schaffenbrucken and he happens to be in Canterton. I've asked him to tea tomorrow. That will be all right, won't it?"
"But of course dear. A man, you say?" She clearly had her mind on Daisy Hetherington. "That will be nice," she continued absently. "I've told them to get the tapestry room ready for Daisy. I really think it is the nicest room in the house."
"It certainly has lovely views...but they all have."
"She'll want to hear all about the move. She always likes to know everything that's going on in the scholastic world. Perhaps that is why she is so successful."
"Aunt Patty, you sound just the tiniest bit envious, which is unlike you."
"Not me, my dear. I wouldn't change places with Daisy Hetherington for Colby Abbey Academy itself. No, I'm content. Glad to give up. It was time. There is only one regret and that is you. I'll confess I wanted to hand on a fine and flourishing business to you..." Her eyes began to twinkle. "But you never know what is waiting to turn up. Cordelia, I think it will be a little quiet for you in that country village of ours. You've been to Schaffenbrucken and you're fully qualified. You see, Daisy Hetherington's Colby Abbey Academy for Young Ladies-to give it its full title-has a reputation which we never had. Colby is synonymous with Schaffenbrucken...or almost. I was just wondering..."
"Aunt Patty, did you ask Daisy Hetherington to stay here or did she ask to come?"
"Well, I know how she hates staying at inns. I said it was scarcely out of her way and she might as well stay here for a couple of nights. I have a few pieces she might find useful. There's that roll-top desk and some of the girls' desks too and books. She was quite interested and she would like to meet you. I have told her so much about you."
I knew her well. I could see those rather mischievous lights in her eyes when she was planning something.
"Are you asking her to find a place for me in her school?"
"Well, not exactly asking her. And in any case it would be for you to decide. It is something you will have to think about carefully, Cordelia. How will you like country life? I mean village life centered round the church. It is all right for old birds like Violet and me but for a young girl who has been educated with a view to using that education...Well, as I said it will be for you to decide. If Daisy likes you...I know she will like your qualifications. Daisy is a good woman...a little stern...a little aloof and very, very dignified...in fact the opposite of your old Aunt P., but a shrewd businesswoman, one who knows where she is going. You'll see for yourself. If she took you in, after a while you might have a very good position there. I was thinking of a partnership. Money? Well, I'm not destitute and I'll be comfortable enough with what I have and what I'll get for Grantley. It's a very good price. Colby Abbey breaks up for Christmas a week before we do...so I've asked her here. It's not a bad idea that she should come when the girls are breaking up for Christmas. Then she won't be able to criticize our methods of teaching which I am sure she would. You'll admire her. She possesses those qualities which I lack."
"I shall certainly not admire her for that."
"Oh, you will. I wasn't the right type to run a successful school, Cordelia. Let's face it. None of the girls is in the least in awe of me."
"They love you."
"There are times when respect is more important. I can see my mistakes...looking back. Nothing very clever about that, I suppose. But at least I'll admit to them and there is a certain wisdom in that. My plan is this, Cordelia. You have a choice...that is, if Daisy goes along with us, which I intend she shall. If she offers you a post in her school, and if in five or six years' time you have wormed your way in and poor Daisy isn't getting younger and I have a little capital on the side...see what I mean? That is why Daisy's visit is so important. And here you are, fresh from Schaffenbrucken. I happen to know she hasn't anyone there with that special brand of polish on them. If she likes you-and I can't see how she could fail to-there's a chance. And, Cordelia my dear, I want you to think very hard about taking it. It was the one thing which made all this acceptable to me and I can see that if it works as I plan, everything that has happened is going to be a blessing in disguise."
"Aunt Patty, you are an old schemer. Just suppose she liked me and agreed to take me...I shouldn't be with you."
"My love, that little house will be waiting for you. School holidays will be our red-letter days. Dear old Vi will give an extra polish to the brass-she has a fetish about that brass of hers-I shall be in a whirl of excitement. Just imagine the rejoicing in the house, ‘Cordelia is coming home.' This time next year I can see it all so clearly. We'll all go to the carol service in the church. The rector is such a nice man. In fact it is a very friendly place."
"Oh, Aunt Patty," I said, "I was so looking forward to being with you. After all, in three years I have seen very little of you."
"You will see more of me when you are in Devon. Not just Christmas and summer. There is a station about three miles from the house and we'll have the little dog cart. I'll come to meet you. Oh, I am so looking forward to it. And if you were at a school like Colby Abbey, where believe me the nobility send their daughters, you'd be getting into the right genre...if you know what I mean. We had a knight or two, but let me tell you, Daisy Hetherington has earls' daughters and the odd duke's."
We were laughing as it was always so easy to do with Aunt Patty. She had the unique gift of making any situation amusing and tolerable.
My thoughts were in disorder. I had wanted to teach; in fact I had felt I had a special vocation for it; it was what I had been brought up to expect for years, but I did feel this situation was too much for me to take in all at once: the removal from Grantley; the prospect of a new home with Aunt Patty and Violet, and then to be presented with the possibility of a career in my chosen profession with a hope of my own school at the end of it! But in the forefront of my thoughts was Edward Compton, the man who had a habit of appearing mysteriously in my life and was at last taking on what I thought of as a natural image.
Before he had been like a fantasy, nameless, and I could not fit him into a home. Now I knew. He was Edward Compton of Compton Manor and he was coming to tea with us tomorrow afternoon. Sitting with Aunt Patty and Violet he would shed that aura of make-believe, and I wanted him to do that.
He excited me. He was so handsome with those beautifully chiseled features and that exciting look of another age, which had fallen from him a little in the wood. When he had said his name-with the slightest hesitation so that it had seemed as though he was reluctant to give it-he had become like a normal human being. I wondered why he had been a little reluctant to tell me. Perhaps he knew that coming upon us in the forest and again on me on deck he had created an aura of mystery and he wanted to cling to it.
I laughed. I was looking forward to seeing him more than I would care to admit to Aunt Patty; and he dominated my thoughts even to the extent of the coming of Daisy Hetherington and the effect this might have on my future.
My disappointment was so bitter next day when Edward Compton did not appear that I realized how deeply I had allowed my feelings to become involved.
Aunt Patty and Violet were ready and waiting for him. I had expected he would arrive a little before four o'clock as tea was served at that hour, but when at four thirty he had not appeared, Aunt Patty said we should start without him. And this we did.
I was listening all the time for his arrival and gave rather absent-minded answers to Aunt Patty and Violet who talked continuously about Daisy Hetherington's visit.
"Perhaps," said Aunt Patty, "he was called away suddenly."
"He could have sent a message," said Violet.
"Perhaps he did and it went to the wrong place."
"Who could mistake Grantley Manor?"
"All sorts of things could happen," said Aunt Patty. "He could have had an accident in the road coming here."
"Shouldn't we have heard?" I asked.
"Not necessarily," replied Aunt Patty.
"Perhaps he changed his mind about coming," suggested Violet.
"He asked for the invitation," I said. "It was only yesterday."
"Men!" said Violet, speaking from vast ignorance. "They can act very funny at times. It could be anything...You never know with men."
"There'll be an explanation," said Aunt Patty, spreading her meringue with strawberry jam and giving herself up to the ecstatic enjoyment of it. "I tell you what," she said when she had finished it, "we could send Jim to the Three Feathers. They'd know if there had been an accident."
Jim was the stableman who looked after the carriage and our horses.
"Do you think it looks as though we're too interested?" asked Violet.
"My dear, Vi, we are interested."
"Yes, but him being a man..."
"Men have mishaps as well as women, Violet, and it seems a funny thing to me that he didn't come when he said he would."
They talked a little about Edward Compton and I explained how, with a party of girls, we had met him in the forest and afterwards by a strange coincidence he had been on the Channel boat. Then he happened to be here.
"Oh, I reckon he was called away suddenly," said Aunt Patty. "He left a message to be delivered but you know what they are at the Three Feathers. Pleasant...but they can be forgetful. Do you remember, Vi, when one of the parents wanted to stay for a night and we booked her in and Mrs. White forgot to make a note of it. We had to put her up at the school."
"I remember that well," said Violet. "And she liked it so much she stayed an extra day and night and wanted to come again."
"So you see," said Aunt Patty and went on to talk of the preparations for Daisy Hetherington's visit.
It was an hour later when Jim returned from the Three Feathers. No Mr. Compton had been staying there. All they had at the moment was two elderly ladies.
That seemed very strange. Hadn't he said he was staying at the Three Feathers...or had I imagined that he must be?
I was not sure. When he had told me his name I had begun to feel that mysterious air retreating. Now it was back again.
There was something odd about this stranger from the forest.
There was no message from Edward Compton and I went to bed mystified and disappointed, for he had, after all, expressed a wish to call. I was sure something unexpected had happened.
I spent a disturbed night of jumbled dreams in which he figured mixed up with Daisy Hetherington. In one near nightmare I dreamed that I was at Colby Abbey Academy, which was some great menacing Gothic castle, and I was searching for Edward Compton. When I found him he was a monster-half man, half woman, himself and Daisy Hetherington; and I was trying to escape.
I sat up in bed breathless and I guessed I had been shouting in my sleep.
I lay still trying to quieten my mind.
Such a lot seemed to have happened in a short time that it was small wonder I had disturbed dreams. As for Edward Compton, if he had decided he did not want to visit us and had not the courtesy to let us know, so much for him. But I did not believe that was the case. What had been so striking about him had been that air of almost old-world chivalry.
It was all rather mysterious. I should probably find the solution soon. Perhaps a message would be on its way to me now.
When I went down breakfast was over and the girls were on their way to their various classes. Lessons were always a little perfunctory at such a time with break-up so near and the Christmas spirit everywhere.
During the morning I went into the town. Miss Stoker, the owner of the little linen drapers shop, was in the street inspecting her display of doilies and tablecloths laid out with branches of holly here and there designed to catch Christmas shoppers.
She greeted me with pleasure and said how upset she was because we were leaving. "The place won't be the same without the school," she said. "It's been here so long. Mind you, when we heard it was to be a school...that was years ago...there was some of us that wasn't too pleased. But then Miss Grant...she was a great favorite...and all the girls. It did you good to see them coming into the town. I tell you it won't be the same."
"We shall miss you all," I said.
"Times change, I always say. Nothing stands still for long."
"Not many people in the town just now," I said.
"No. Well, who'd be here at this time of the year?"
"You'd notice strangers, wouldn't you?"
I looked at her expectantly. Miss Stoker had the reputation of knowing everything that went on in the town.
"The Misses Brewer are at the Feathers again. They were here last year. They like to break the journey on the way to visit their cousins where they go for Christmas every year. They know they can trust the Feathers. And they're glad of them there. Not much custom about in winter. Tom Carew was saying to me that there's a tidy trade for spring, summer and autumn but the winter it's as dead as a doornail."
"And so the Misses Brewer are the only guests just now."
"Yes...and lucky to have them."
That was double confirmation. If anyone else was staying there, Miss Stoker would know.
All the same, when I escaped from her I went into the Three Feathers and wished the Carews the compliments of the season. They made me welcome and insisted that I drink a glass of cider.
"We were struck all of a heap when we heard Miss Grant had sold the Manor," said Mrs. Carew. "Real shock, wasn't it, Tom?"
Tom said: "My word yes. All shook up and no mistake."
"It had to be," I replied and they sighed.
I asked how business was.
"Stumbling on," said Tom. "We've got two guests...the Misses Brewer. They've been here before."
"Yes, I heard from Miss Stoker. And they are the only two?"
"Yes, the only two."
I couldn't be more sure than that.
"Your Jim seemed to think we might have a friend of yours..."
"We just thought he might be coming here. A Mr. Compton."
"Perhaps he'll come later on. We could give him a really nice room if he was to."
I came out of the Three Feathers very disconsolate. I wandered through the town and then I remembered the Nag's Head. It was scarcely an hotel, rather a small inn, but they did have a room or two which they let now and then.
I went into the Nag's Head and saw Joe Brackett whom I knew slightly. He welcomed me and said how sorry he was that I was leaving. I came straight to the point and asked him if a Mr. Compton had taken a room with him.
He shook his head. "Not here, Miss Grant. Perhaps at the Feathers..."
"No," I said, "he didn't stay there either."
"Are you sure he's staying in this town? I can't think where else he could be unless it's Mrs. Shovell's. She lets a room now and then...just bed and breakfast. But she's laid up this last week...one of her turns."
I said goodbye and made my way back to the Manor. Perhaps there would be a message, I thought.
But there was no message.
In the afternoon I helped the girls decorate the common room and late that afternoon Daisy Hetherington arrived.
I was definitely impressed by Daisy Hetherington. She was a spare, angular woman, very tall. She must have been five feet ten inches in her stockinged feet. I myself was tall but I felt almost dwarfed beside her. She had very clear ice-blue eyes and white hair, elegantly dressed. Her pallor and classic features gave her a look of having been carved out of stone. There was something stony about her, but there was an air of nobility. She would be a model headmistress, I knew at once, because she would inspire immediate awe and a great deal of respect. She would demand the best and those about her would give it because they knew she would accept nothing less. She would give perfection and want it in return.
The only thing which did not fit was her name. Daisy suggested a modest little flower hidden among the grass. She should have had a queenly name: Elizabeth, Alexandra, Eleanor or Victoria.
No one could have been less like Aunt Patty who seemed to become more rotund, more easy-going, and more frivolously lovable in her presence.
Aunt Patty had sent one of the maids to my room to tell me that Miss Hetherington had arrived and they were in the sitting room before going in to dinner. Would I join them there?
I remember I was wearing a blue velvet dress with a white jabot at the neck. I had dressed my thick straight chestnut-tinged hair high on my head to give me further height, and I hoped, dignity. I felt that, in the presence of Miss Hetherington, I should need all the self-esteem I could muster. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was not by any means good-looking. My light brown eyes were a little too far apart; my mouth too wide; my forehead too high to be fashionable; my nose, as Monique used to say, was "enquiring," which meant it had a slight tilt at the tip which added a touch of humor to an otherwise rather serious face. I had wondered why Edward Compton had appeared to be more interested in me when Monique was very pretty and Lydia quite attractive. Frieda was a little severe but she had a directness which was appealing. I shared the freshness of youth but I certainly was not the most attractive of the four. It seemed odd that Edward Compton should have selected me. Unless, of course, our meetings had not been by chance. The one in the forest was and so was the one on the boat, but he had taken the trouble to come to Canterton and that must have been to see me. Then why had he made the arrangement to come to tea and then failed to do so?
There was only one explanation. We had met in the forest and he had forgotten all about the meeting until he saw me on the boat. He was passing through and had stopped off at Canterton. Then he remembered I lived there. We met by chance and perhaps I had forced him to accept the invitation, by making it so that it would be impolite to refuse. In any case he had thought better of coming and had slipped quietly away.
I must stop thinking of him. It was far more important to make a good impression on Daisy Hetherington.
I went down.
Aunt Patty was looking delighted. She sprang up and coming to me put her arm through mine.
"Here's Cordelia. Daisy, this is my niece, Cordelia Grant. Cordelia, Miss Hetherington, who owns one of the finest scholastic establishments in the country."
She took my hand in hers, which was surprisingly warm. I had expected it to be cold...as stone.
"I am delighted to meet you," I said.
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance," she replied. "Your aunt has been telling me so much about you."
"Come and sit down," said Aunt Patty. "Dinner will be served in about ten minutes. Isn't it fun to have Miss Hetherington with us!"
She was smiling at me, almost winking. Fun seemed a strange word to use in connection with Miss Hetherington-except that, with Aunt Patty, all life fitted into that category.
I sat down, very much aware of the piercing blue eyes on me searchingly and I felt every detail of my appearance was being noted and that everything said would be weighed up and used in evidence for or against me.
"As you know, Cordelia has just returned from Schaffenbrucken," said Aunt Patty.
"Yes, so I understand."
"Two years she was there. Few people stay longer."
"Two or three years is the usual span," said Daisy. "It must have been a most exhilarating experience."
I said that it was.
"You must tell Miss Hetherington about it," said Aunt Patty.
She was sitting in her chair smiling and nodding. Her pride in me was a little embarrassing, and I felt I must do my best to deserve it.
So I talked of Schaffenbrucken-the daily pattern, the classes, the social activities...everything I could think of about the school until Violet coughed timidly and said we should go in to dinner.
Over the fish, Daisy Hetherington brought up the subject round which she had been skirting until this moment.
"My dear Patience," she said, "I hope you are doing the wise thing in giving up."
"No doubt of it," said Aunt Patty cheerfully. "My lawyers and the bank all think it's right...and they are rarely wrong."
"So it is as bad as that!"
"As good as that," retorted Aunt Patty. "There comes a time when a woman wants to break away. The time for me is now. We want a peaceful life...all of us, and that is what we are going to get. Violet has been working far too hard. She's going to keep bees, aren't you, Violet?"
"I always had a feeling for bees," said Violet, "ever since my cousin Jeremy was all but stung to death when he got in the way of the queen bee."
Aunt Patty burst out laughing. "She had a grudge against her cousin Jeremy."
"No such thing, Patty. It served him right though. He was always interfering. My mother used to say ‘Let a bee be and he'll let you be.'"
"Beekeeping may be an interesting hobby," put in Daisy, "but if you are looking for profit..."
"All we are looking for is some lovely honey," said Aunt Patty. "It is delicious in the comb."
I knew Aunt Patty. She was deliberately making the conversation frivolously light; she was most anxious that Daisy Hetherington should not guess what a serious purpose she had.
"We are all looking forward to the simple life," she went on. "Violet, Cordelia and I."
Daisy Hetherington had turned her eyes on me. I could almost feel them probing into my mind. "Shall you not find it rather restricting, Miss Grant? At your age, after your education, and your sojourn at Schaffenbrucken...it seems rather a waste."
"Schaffenbrucken is never a waste," put in Aunt Patty. "It stays with you all your life. I always regret I never went, don't you, Daisy?"
"I consider it to be the ideal finish to an education," said Daisy. "That...and other establishments like it."
"For instance Colby Abbey Academy for Young Ladies," said Aunt Patty rather mischievously. "Oh, a great reputation! But in our hearts we know that nothing...simply nothing...compares with Schaffenbrucken."
"All the more reason why your niece should not stultify in the country."
"It is for Cordelia to choose what she will do. She was really brought up to teach, weren't you, Cordelia?"
I said yes, that was so.
Daisy turned to me. "You have a vocation, I daresay."
"I like the idea of being with young people. I always thought that was how it would be."
"Of course, of course," said Daisy. "I should like to look round a little while I'm here, Patience."
"But of course. This is the last week, you know. It is all Christmas festivities. Not so much of the school curriculum now as Christmas jollities, and as it will be the last Christmas..."
"What are your girls going to do when you close...end of next term isn't it?"
"I daresay some of the parents will consider Colby Abbey if I let them know you are a friend of mine. They like connections. Many parents were very interested to hear that Cordelia was at Schaffenbrucken. They thought, of course, she was going to teach here."
"Yes, yes," said Daisy, and even she could not hide the speculation in her eyes.
I was being considered and strangely enough I was intrigued by it. In a way I was attracted by Daisy Hetherington. She challenged me. I knew that she was a woman whom I could admire. She would be hard; I could not imagine her ever being governed by sentiment, but she would be just and appreciative of good work-indeed, I could not imagine her tolerating any other sort.
I thought of long days in the country...doing nothing in particular; listening to Violet on beekeeping, partaking in village fetes, holding stalls at bazaars, sharing jokes with Aunt Patty...and what else? Going on like that until I married. Whom would I marry? The vicar's son if he had one. But vicars almost always seemed to have daughters. The doctor's son? No. In spite of the fact that I should have a home with Aunt Patty, I wanted something more. Aunt Patty herself was the first to understand this. We should not want to spoil our precious relationship by boredom. She thought I should go out into the world and had made it clear to me that she saw through Daisy Hetherington a way to start about it.
Daisy told us about Colby Abbey Academy for Young Ladies and as she talked she seemed to lose her granite look; a faint color came into her cheeks; her blue eyes softened; it was clear that the very center of her life was the school.
"We have the most unusual setting. The school is part of the old Abbey. It gives us such a rare atmosphere. I think settings are so important. Parents are quite impressed when they see the school for the first time."
"I thought it was a little spooky when I saw it," said Aunt Patty. "Violet had nightmares in that room you put her in."
"It was due to the cheese I'd eaten for supper," said Violet. "Cheese does that to me."
"People can imagine anything anywhere," said Daisy, closing the subject. She turned to me. "As I was saying, a most interesting setting. So much of the old Abbey was destroyed during the Dissolution but quite a large part remains...the refectory buildings and the chapter house. In the sixteenth century the house we now occupy was restored by one of the Verringers, and they built the Hall at the same time using some of the stones from the Abbey. It's the home of the Verringer family who own the Abbey and most of the land for miles round. They are very rich and influential landowners. I have two of the girls with me...so convenient for them and good for the school at the same time. I should not expect Jason Verringer to send them anywhere else. Yes, a most unusual setting."
"It sounds very interesting," I said. "I suppose the ruins of the Abbey are all around you."
"Yes. People come to see them, they are written about, and that brings the school to people's notice. I should like to buy the place but Jason Verringer wouldn't allow that. Naturally, I suppose. The Abbey lands have been in the family since Henry the Eighth gave them to them when the Abbey was partially destroyed."
"I'm glad I was able to own Grantley," said Aunt Patty.
"How fortunate that you were!" retorted Daisy tersely. "It has stood you in good stead when the school failed."
"Oh, I wouldn't say failed," said Aunt Patty. "It is just that we have decided to part company."
"Oh I know...on the advice of your lawyer and banker. Very wise, I am sure. But sad. Yet perhaps for you the quiet country life will have its charm."
"I intend that it shall," said Aunt Patty. "We all do, don't we Cordelia...Violet? Vi dear, you're dreaming. You can hear those bees buzzing, I'm sure. I can see you with one of those things they wear over their heads to prevent them getting stung, going out to tell the bees all the local gossip. Did you know, Daisy, that you have to tell the bees...or it's unlucky or even worse. They don't like it. They fly away in high dudgeon and they may be so incensed that they plant a few stings first. Did you know they leave their stings behind in the flesh when they sting and it kills them. What a lesson to us all. Never give way to anger."
Daisy said to me: "I am sure that after your training and your session at Schaffenbrucken you will feel you want to use your qualifications."
"Yes," I replied. "I think I might feel that."
Then she went on talking almost directly to me of Colby Abbey Academy, of the number of teachers she had, of the subjects which were taught, how she was concentrating on older girls. "Most of ours leave at seventeen. Some have actually gone on to Schaffenbrucken or some place on the Continent. Why do people always think they have to go abroad to learn the social graces? Surely we in this country are the best exponents of them in the world. I want to make people realize that and I have been thinking of adding some extra training for older girls...say eighteen or nineteen...dancing, conversation...debates."
"Oh yes, we had that sort of thing at Schaffenbrucken."
She nodded. "We already have a dancing master and a singing master. Some of the girls have excellent voices. Mademoiselle Dupont and Fräulein Kutcher teach French and German and are very adequate. One must have the natives of the respective countries."
I listened attentively. She had inspired me with a desire to see the Abbey school.
It seemed disloyal to Aunt Patty to want to get away from home, but I really did believe I should not want to be there all the time and coming home for the holidays would be wonderful. I could almost hear the humming of Violet's bees and see Aunt Patty wearing an enormous hat sitting under one of the trees at a white table on which were laid out cakes, meringues and strawberry jam. Pleasant...homely...comfortable, but I could not stop thinking of that Abbey with the ghostly ruins nearby and the mansion, the home of the all-powerful Verringers about three miles away.
I was still thinking of it when I retired and I had not been in my room more than five minutes when Aunt Patty came in. She threw herself in the armchair puffing slightly with exertion and merriment.
"I think she's hooked," she said. "I think she is going to make an offer. She always makes quick decisions. Prides herself on it. I could see that Schaffenbrucken was turning the scales."
"I was rather intrigued."
"I could see it. She'll make you an offer. I think you ought to take it. If you don't like it and she tries to ride roughshod over you, you can walk out at once. But she won't. Give her a fair day's work and she'll look after you. I know her well. But as I say, if anything should go wrong, Vi and I will be waiting for you. You know that."
"You always made things very easy for me," I said emotionally. "I'll never forget arriving at the dock and seeing you there in that hat with the blue feather."
Aunt Patty wiped her eyes. There were sentimental tears but tears of laughter too. "Oh, that hat. I still have it somewhere. I reckon the feather's a bit mangy. I could put a new feather on it. Why not?"
"Oh, Aunt Patty," I said, "if Daisy Hetherington does offer me a post...and I take it...it isn't because I don't want to be with you."
"Of course it's not. You've got to have a life of your own and it's not for the young to bury themselves with the old. Vi and I have our interests. Your life is just beginning. It's right for you to step out into the world, and as I said, play your cards rightly and one of these days...who knows? She doesn't own that place, you see. Just a lease on it, I suppose. She must have got that from those Verringers she's always talking about. She's comfortable enough there. I'd like you to go in with Daisy. I have a great respect for her really. At the best it could lead to big things and at the least it could be valuable experience."
We embraced. She tiptoed out looking happily conspiratorial; and I went to bed and slept well after my previous night's distorted dreams.
The next day I had a long talk with Daisy Hetherington and the outcome was that if I would care to join her school at the beginning of the spring term she would be pleased to have me. I should work out a curriculum similar to that which had been followed at Schaffenbrucken and in addition to taking debating and conversation classes I should exercise the girls in deportment and teach them English.
It seemed an interesting project and as she had already whetted my curiosity with descriptions of the school which was part of an abbey, I was very inclined to accept.
However, as I was concerned about Aunt Patty and I knew she was urging me to go for my own good rather than her pleasure, I did hesitate.
"I must have your reply immediately after Christmas," said Daisy, and it was left at that.
Aunt Patty was delighted. "The right approach," she said. "Not too eager. Well, Daisy will depart immediately after the carol concert. She is staying for that just for the pleasure of telling us how much more accomplished are the carol singers of Colby Abbey Academy for Young Ladies."
In due course Daisy left with gracious thanks for our hospitality and with the command that my reply must be with her before the first of January.
Then it was time for the girls to leave. We said sad farewells and many of them were regretful because it was the last Christmas at Grantley Manor.
Christmas was much as it had always been. There was the traditional goose and Christmas pudding and many of our neighbors joined us during the two days. The local fiddler came in and we danced in the hall. But everyone was aware that it was the last time and that must mean a certain amount of sadness.
I was glad when it was over, and then I had to make my decision, which I suppose I had already done. I wrote to Daisy Hetherington accepting her offer and telling her that I should be prepared to start at the beginning of the spring term.
There was packing to do and the new house to visit. It was pleasant-quite charming in fact, but of course rather insignificant compared with the Manor.
I had heard nothing from Edward Compton. I was surprised and hurt for I had expected some explanation. It seemed so extraordinary. Sometimes I began to think I had imagined the whole thing. When I looked back I realized that apart from the encounter with the other three girls, I had been alone when I saw him-on the train, on the boat, and in the woods. I could in some moments convince myself that I had imagined those meetings. After all there was something about him which was different from other people.
I realized then that I knew little of men. A lot of girls would have been far more experienced long ago. I suppose it was due to being at school so long. Young men had just not come into my life. Monique had met her Henri whom she knew she was going to marry. Frieda might not have met any more men than I had. Lydia had brothers and they had friends whom they sometimes brought home. She talked of them when she came back after holidays at home. But I had lived in a society dominated by women. There was, of course, the vicar's new curate. He was in his twenties and shy; there was the doctor's son who was at Cambridge. Neither was very romantic. That was it. Edward Compton was definitely romantic. He had stirred new interests in me. Perhaps because he had showed rather clearly that he liked me...preferred me. One must be gratified to be so preferred among three far from unattractive girls.
Yes, I was bitterly disappointed. It had begun so romantically...and then to peter out!
Perhaps that was one of the reasons why I was reaching out for adventure. I wanted to take a challenge, to start in new territory.
I certainly should when I went to the Colby Abbey Academy.
When Aunt Patty had shown me the new house at Moldenbury I had expressed a greater enthusiasm than I had really felt just to please her. We had explored the rather large garden and decided where Aunt Patty should have her summerhouse and Violet her bees, which should be my room and how it should be furnished.
On the way home we had to wait at the London terminal for catching the train to Canterton and while I was there I saw a notice which mentioned trains to Bury St. Edmunds.
I think the idea started to grow in my mind then.
I knew I was going to do it, although I was not quite sure how I should act when I got there.
Perhaps I shouldn't seek him out. Perhaps I just wanted to assure myself that he had really existed and that I had not been dreaming and imagined the whole adventure.
The farther I grew from the affair the more mystic it seemed. He was unlike anyone I had ever known before. He was very good-looking, with those sculptured features-rather like Daisy Hetherington's, but there was no doubt in my mind that she was a real person! Seeing him in the forest with my three friends had been real enough, but had I begun to imagine certain things about him? It was probably due to Elsa's talk about the mysticism of the forest legends that sometimes in my thoughts made him seem part of them. Could I have imagined that I saw him in the train, on the boat and here in Canterton? Had I imagined the whole thing? No. It was ridiculous. I was no dreamer. I was a very practical young woman. It was a little alarming to think that one could imagine certain happenings so that one was not completely convinced that they had actually happened.
I wanted to shake myself. That was why when I saw that notice about Bury St. Edmunds I had the idea of going on a voyage of discovery. I had mentioned Bury St. Edmunds-as the only town I knew in Suffolk-and he had said yes...his home was near there.
Croston. That was the name he had mentioned. The little town near Bury St. Edmunds. Suppose I went there and found Compton Manor. I should not call of course. I could hardly do that. But I should convince myself that he was a rather ill-mannered young man and I was a sensible young woman who did not go off into flights of fancy and then wonder whether they were real or not.
Then the opportunity presented itself.
It was mid-term. The negotiations for the house were completed. Aunt Patty would leave Grantley at the beginning of April. I should then be on my way to Colby Abbey school.
A great deal of activity was in progress. Aunt Patty enjoyed this. There was so much furniture and effects to be disposed of and she was having certain alterations made to the new house so that there was continual coming and going. Violet was harassed and said she didn't know whether she was on her head or her heels, but Aunt Patty flourished.
She had to go to Moldenbury to see the architect and decided that while she was in London, where it was necessary to change trains, she would stay a few days and make some purchases and see about the sale of the school equipment which remained at Grantley; then she would go on to Moldenbury. It was decided that I should accompany her.
When we were in London I said I should like to stay a little longer as I had some shopping to do for myself and it was arranged that I should stay at Smith's, the small and comfortable family hotel which Aunt Patty always used when she came to London and where they knew her well, while she went on to Moldenbury. When she came back to London we could return to Grantley together.
Thus I found myself alone and I knew that if ever I was going to make that tour of investigation I must do so now.
I left early in the morning and as the train carried me to Bury St. Edmunds I asked myself whether I was being impulsive in what I was doing. What if I came face to face with him? What would be my excuse for seeking him out? He had come to Canterton, hadn't he? Yes, but this was different. He had shown quite clearly that he did not want to continue the acquaintance...friendship...or whatever it was. It was not very good manners to seek him out therefore.
No. But I had no intention of calling at Compton Manor if I found it. I would go into a nearby inn and ask discreet questions. If the people of Suffolk were as fond of a gossip as those of Sussex, I might find out what I wanted to know, which was, I assured myself, merely to find out whether there had ever been a man called Edward Compton, so that I could rid myself of this absurd notion that I had been suffering from some sort of hallucination.
It was a bright cold morning-rather bracing-and as the train carried me along I grew more and more excited. We were in on good time and I was elated when, asking how I could find my way to Croston, I was told there was a branch line with a service every three hours, and if I hurried I could just catch the next train.
I did so and congratulated myself as we puffed along through the pleasant but flat countryside.
Croston was nothing more than a halt. I saw a man who might have been a railway official and I approached him. He was oldish with a gray beard and rheumy eyes. He looked at me with curiosity, and it struck me that he did not see many strangers.
"Is Compton Manor near here?" I asked.
He looked at me oddly and then nodded. Again my spirits rose.
"What do you want with the Manor?" he asked me.
"I...er...wanted to go that way."
"Oh, I see." He scratched his head. "Take the footpath. It'll take you into Croston. Then through the street and bear to the right."
It was working out very easily.
Croston was one short street of a few thatched cottages, a village shop, a church and an inn. I bore to the right and walked on.
I had not gone very far when I saw an old signpost. Half of it was broken away. I looked at it closely. "Compton Manor," I read.
But which way? It must be up the lane for the only other way was where I had come from. I started up the lane and turning a bend I saw a mansion.
Then I gasped in horror. This could not be the place. And yet there was the signpost...
I approached. It was nothing more than a shell. The stone walls were blackened. I went through an opening in those scorched walls and noticed that there were weeds growing among the grass where once there had been rooms. Then the fire was not recent.
This could not be Compton Manor. It must be farther on.
I left the blackened ruin behind me and found the road. There was nothing before me but open fields, and because of the flatness of the land, I could see for miles ahead and there was certainly no house there.
I sat down on the grass verge. I was baffled. Seeking to solve the mystery, I had plunged farther into it.
There was nothing to do but retrace my steps to the station. There would be about two hours to wait for the next train to Bury St. Edmunds.
Slowly I walked into the town. My journey had been fruitless. I came to the church. It was very ancient-Norman I guessed. There were very few people about. I had been rather silly to come.
I went into the church. It had a beautiful stained-glass window-rather impressive for such a small church. I approached the altar. Than I was looking at the brass plaque engraved on which were the words "In memory of Sir Gervaise Compton, Baronet of Compton Manor." I looked about me and saw that there were other memorials to the Compton family.
While I stood there I heard a step behind me. A man was coming into the church carrying a pile of hassocks.
"Good morning," he said, "or rather afternoon."
"Good afternoon," I replied.
"Taking a look at our church?"
"Yes. It's very interesting."
"Not many visitors come. Though it is one of the oldest in the country."
"I thought it must be."
"Are you interested in architecture, Madam?"
"I know very little about it."
He looked disappointed and I guessed he had wanted to give me a lecture on Norman versus Gothic. He must be a church warden or verger or something connected with the church.
I said: "I have been looking at that burned-out house along the road. Could that be Compton Manor?"
"Oh yes, Madam. That was Compton."
"When was the fire?"
"Oh, it must have been nigh on twenty years ago."
"Twenty years ago!"
"Terrible tragedy. It started in the kitchens. The shell of the place is left. I wonder they don't rebuild or something. The walls are still sturdy. They were built to last a thousand years. There's been talk about it but nobody ever does anything."
"And the Compton family?"
"It was the end of them...they died in the fire. A boy and a girl. Tragic it was. People still talk of it. Then there was Sir Edward and Lady Compton. They died too. In fact the whole family was wiped out. It was a big tragedy for this place for the Comptons were Croston at that time. It's never been the same since. No big family to take the girls into service and take care of the interests of the village..."
I was scarcely listening. I was saying to myself: How could he have been Edward Compton of Compton Manor? They are all dead.
"They recovered most of the bodies. They're all buried in the churchyard here...in the special Compton grounds. My father remembers the funeral. He often talked of it. ‘Croston's day of mourning' he called it. Are you interested in the family, Madam?"
"Well, I saw the house...and it is a terribly sad story."
"Yes. They were Croston all right. Look round this church. You see they've left signs everywhere. That's their pew in the front there. No one's used it since. I'll show you the graves if you'd like to step out."
I followed him to the graves. I was shivering slightly.
He said: "Chill wind springing up. We get some rough winds here. It can be pretty biting when they blow from the east."
He wended his way through the tombstones and we came to a secluded corner. We were in a well-tended patch where several rose trees and laurels had been planted. It must look very pretty in summer.
Then he said: "That's Sir Edward. You can see the date. Yes, it was just over twenty years. All these graves...victims of the fire. That's Lady Compton and that's little Edward and Edwina his sister. Poor little mites. They never had a life. It makes you wonder, doesn't it. He was two years old and Edwina was five. They come into the world and then are taken away. It makes you wonder...If they could look down and see what might have been..."
"It's very kind of you to show me," I said.
"A pleasure. We don't get many interested. But I could see you were."
"Yes," I said, "and thank you very much."
I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think. This was the last thing I had expected to find.
I was glad of the long journey back during which I could ponder on what I had seen and try to grasp what it could possibly mean; but when I reached London I was no nearer solving the mystery.
Could it really be that the man I had seen was a specter...a ghost from the past?
That theory would explain many things. Yet I could not accept it. One thing was certain-there was no Edward Compton of Compton Manor. There had not been for more than twenty years!
Then who was the strange man who had made such an impression on me, who had looked at me-yes, I would confess it now-with admiration, and with something which indicated to me that we could have a closer relationship and that was what he was hoping for.
How could I have imagined the whole conception? He had been in the forest. Was it possible that in that forest which Lydia always said was a little spooky-the same word which Aunt Patty had used about the Abbey school-strange things could happen?
I must forget the incident. I could not allow it to go on occupying my thoughts. It was one of life's strange experiences. They did happen from time to time. I had read of them and there was no explanation.
I was sure I should be wise to try to put the entire matter out of my mind.
That was impossible. When I shut my eyes I could see that tombstone. Sir Edward Compton...and that of the little boy, another Edward.
It was mysterious...rather frightening.
Oh yes. I must certainly try to put it out of my mind.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you like Victoria Holt's other books, then you will enjoy reading this. I thought the ending had a nice twist and came together nicely. Decent mystery to it, where you could call it 100% halfway through the book. I hate when that happens. Overall, a good read.
This is one of my favorite books. I have read it at least 15 times. If you have not read, Victoria Holt you are missing out. I superb story teller. My Mom read these and introduced to me when I was about 12. And I have been reading them for over and over for over 10 years now.
I love Victoria Holt's books. I read this book years ago. It is definitely worth re-reading and keeping on your shelf.
I really liked this book. About half way through was able to figure out the mystery part of the lot, but I kept reading because I was enjoying it so much.
Okay. Usually the victoria holt books start out slow but this one seems especially so. Not sure what i think so far
Victoria Holt is one of my favorite authors. She constructs her stories well and her characters come to life. One of the best things about this author is you don't have to worry about explicit violence, sex or language! If you like mysteries, you'll like Victoria Holt!
I liked it. Years ago I was a fan of hers, and have read most of her books. I had not read this one.
Did not understand heroine's obsession with the cruel and arrogant male main character. Struggled to accept some of the plot.