Sneak Peek: Forlorn Hope

It was plainly his sister’s fault that Geoffrey had forgot his boots in the woods, since it was she who had dared him to wade across the stream and onto the haunted Chandry estate. He had not even hesitated to remove his boots and take the dare, for if he had, Clara would have thought him a coward. But he was not a coward, as he had showed her well enough, tossing his boots and socks onto the bank and splashing through the stream to stride manfully into Sir Anthony Chandry’s wood. Clara had waited, white-faced and wide-eyed, as Geoffrey had stood in the shadow of the hulking trees, his shoulders thrown back and his head held high to disguise the frantic beating of his heart.

Unfortunately, after barely a minute a loud crack had sounded, followed by a sudden rush of movement in the brush behind him, and all Geoffrey’s bravado had fled. Clara had instantly hared off home, and Geoffrey was not far behind her, leaping the stream in two bounds and forgetting his boots and socks on the bank in a headlong flight to the safety of Gracely Hall. Geoffrey entered the house through the tall French doors that opened onto the sitting room, and discovered that Clara, hen-witted as she was, had blurted out the whole story to their mother, who sat livid with outrage on the sofa.

“Geoffrey!” Mrs. Mantell cried, turning flashing blue eyes upon him. “How dare you step foot in that horrid, nasty place! Never mind these ridiculous rumors of hauntings—depend upon it, that disagreeable Sir Anthony has spread them on purpose to affront the decency of his neighbors! He is an odious, vile man, who doesn’t scruple to have dealings with every sort of low, vulgar person, and you’re never to associate with him, no, nor cross the boundary of the estate again! I shall never forgive your grandfather for having done nothing about this deplorable situation, before leaving your father to inherit, for all he does is wink at it! It is not to be borne! Good heaven, where are your boots?”

His father had just then entered the room, drawn by his lady’s shrill expostulation, and Geoffrey, shamefaced, was obliged to confess before the Colonel that he had left his boots at the stream out of fright. Mrs. Mantell’s irritation was unpleasant enough, but his father’s disgusted mutterings, followed inevitably by his brother Francis’ mockery, set the seal upon Geoffrey’s mortification.

It was with a view to proving himself that Geoffrey set out for the stream the following day. At the bank, he took up his boots, slinging them by the laces over his shoulder, but rather than obey his mother’s injunction to return instantly home, Geoffrey hopped across the stream and into the Chandry wood, intent upon tramping right up to Chandry Manor and touching the haunted house itself.

A hundred yards or so into the wood, the sound of unearthly singing stopped him still. The hairs raised on the back of his neck as he scanned the near vicinity, clutching his forward boot tightly and making a plan to flee at first sight of any ghostly figure. None appeared, but the song floated enticingly to him, from somewhere off to his left. It occurred to him that to confront the phantom singer would be even more brave than to touch a moldy tower wall, and he followed the sound deeper into the wood.

The song seemed to be emanating from the other side of a mass of brush and trees that formed a sort of hedge and, when he put an eye to a gap in the foliage, he discovered that it hid a small clearing, the drooping tree branches forming a low roof and bushes grown up around as walls. It also hid, to Geoffrey’s not inconsiderable disappointment, no ghastly spirit but merely a girl, thin and pale, with large mournful eyes and lank blond hair tied back inexpertly behind her ears with a ribbon, and who sang the haunting melody to herself as she puttered about.

His first inclination was to slink back the way he had come, grateful that Francis would never know of his stupidity, but then the girl shifted, revealing an intricately detailed faerie village in the shrubbery, created with twigs and leaves and twine and clay. Fascinated, Geoffrey crouched down and watched her work for several minutes, amazed at her cleverness, but all at once his muscles seized with cramp and he lost balance. His body pitched forward, crunching against the hedge, and he uttered a surprised cry as the branches scratched his face and tore at his coat. With a thrash, he scrambled up and peered back into the clearing, but the girl had gone.

Curious, he made his way around the bower until he found a large gap through which he could enter the clearing. He sidled in and stopped, falling to his hands and knees to see into each cunningly wrought little house in the girl’s make-believe village. They were each unique, some suspended in the brambles and others reposing on the mossy ground, some with slate-like roofs and others with thatch. The girl had used twine to hold small, straight twigs together in a frame, then clay to bind bark and leaves for floors and walls, and straw or shale for the roofs. They were sparsely furnished as yet, with a few tiny beds and tables and chairs made of the same materials.

But the most astonishing part of the village was its inhabitants. They were tiny people made of twigs and acorns, with grass and leaf clothing, and hats of seed pods. They posed as if at daily tasks amid their dwellings, one bending over a child in bed, another stirring a pot on the hearth. A tiny man sat atop a cart harnessed to a miniature horse, while another mended a one-inch high stone wall surrounding a mossy field wherein tiny sheep made of catkins grazed.

Geoffrey had never seen anything so wonderful in all his life, and beyond his shock and amazement that it existed at all was his disbelief that it could do so here, on the forbidding Chandry estate. If he had not seen the girl with his own eyes, he would have imagined the village to be the work of fae creatures. But seen her he had, and he determined that she must be the rumored daughter of Sir Anthony Chandry, whom none of his fellows had ever seen in the flesh, but whom, contrary to popular opinion, was not kept locked up in a cell in the garret.

Determined to be part of this magical world, Geoffrey set to work on an addition to the village that, he hoped, would recommend him to the girl, and induce her to accept him. It took him some time, with the aid of his penknife and the ball of twine the girl had left behind, but at last he was finished and placed his offering so as to be seen, before retiring from the clearing to go home to dinner.

He returned the next day, and the next, but it was yet another day before the girl came back to the bower, silent and cautious as a deer. She froze when she saw the clumsy twig horse placed beside one of her empty huts, and she stared at it for many moments before bending cautiously to pick it up and take in all its details with her large eyes. Smiling, she replaced the horse and scanned the surrounding bushes as if for another sign of the trespasser, but Geoffrey, suddenly shy, pulled his head back from his peep-hole, holding his breath as her glance swept past.

When he dared to peek again, the girl was crafting a miniature figure with long hair and a leaf dress to ride on the horse. Just as she had finished, a distant gong sounded, and she put down her handiwork with a regretful sigh before making her way out of the clearing and toward Chandry Manor.

Geoffrey wanted no more encouragement. He slipped silently into the clearing and gathered twigs and clay to create a tiny boy with bark trousers. He set the boy next to the little girl on horseback and gazed thoughtfully at them, then wove a little basket and put it in the boy’s arms. Slipping back through the bushes, he ran to the stream bank and searched until he found a lovely white pebble shot through with milky swirls, and took it back to the clearing. He placed it in the basket, considering a moment more, then scratched a message in the dirt by the feet of the boy—“Friends?”

The next day, when he made his way to the hedge-wall and peeked in, the girl was there, busy about the houses. He saw that his boy was still in his place, the basket in his hands, but the strange girl held the white stone, rubbing it between a thumb and forefinger.

Deciding the time was right, he lightly rustled the bushes, inquiring, “May I come in?”

The girl whirled to face the sound of his voice with both her hands up in a warding gesture and her eyes wide with uncertainty.

He said quickly, “I mean no harm. I only want to play.”

She slowly lowered her hands, her large, gray eyes searching the hedge. “Who are you?” she asked, in a gentle voice hardly above a whisper.

He advanced slowly through the opening and sat down cross-legged just inside. “I’m Geoffrey Mantell. Our property is next yours. That way,” he said, pointing back toward the stream.

She smiled faintly, swallowing. “I am Emily Chandry.”

Geoffrey thought she looked as fragile as one of Clara’s porcelain dolls. Cautiously, he pointed to the pebble she still worried in her hand. “Do you like it? I found it in the stream.”

She nodded, coloring faintly. “It’s lovely.” She placed it back into the little basket as he inched forward.

“Your village is so clever. I wanted to try something like it,” he said, gesturing to his horse and boy.

Dropping her eyes, she murmured, “Your horse is wonderful.”

“Not as wonderful as yours,” he said, eying his lopsided animal a little dubiously.

“No, no! It’s grand!” she said, reaching out to touch it. Still averting her eyes, she murmured, “I should like some help in the village.”

Geoffrey grinned, releasing a contented sigh. “I’d be glad to help!”

She looked up, her smile brightening, and her shyness seemed then to be dispelled.

Once he had gained her trust, Geoffrey scarcely saw the timid, frightened Emily again. She accepted him whole-heartedly, and depended on him to both create new additions and watch over the village with her. Her vibrant imagination was a never ending source of amazement to him, as was her tender heart. Whenever he was low, she helped him to recover his spirits, singing in her faerie voice or inventing silly stories with the village people. And if ever Francis or his father had belittled him, she listened patiently to his rantings, soothing his frustration by saying gently, “Please, Geoffrey, you mustn’t mind it so. They do not mean it—or if they do now, someday they will not.”

As everyone knew Sir Anthony to be an odious miser who entertained all sorts of low persons at the Manor, with no apparent regard for his daughter’s delicacy or safety, it was astonishing that Emily should possess so forgiving a nature. One need only look at her old, worn gowns and her unkempt hair to know that her father took little thought for her comfort, and Geoffrey often wondered that such a creative, friendly spirit could reside in so forlorn a figure.

He came to consider her his best friend, and the most interesting person of his acquaintance; however, he dared not reveal his friendship with her. His family, he knew, held the Chandrys as cheap as dirt, and his mother would forbid him from seeing Emily again should she discover where he went nearly every day. Francis would think him touched in the upper works for spending his time with a girl, and even Clara would likely tease him endlessly for playing with dolls.

And if Geoffrey considered speaking of Emily to his friends, he never did so again after one day in town when two of his fellows began talking of the Waif of Chandry Manor.

“I’ve heard its moaning myself, late at night,” said Shelby Frean, the Squire’s son, relishing the rapt attention of the other boys.

“Well, I’ve seen it!” put in Billy Thornton, puffing out his chest. “Pale and skinny thing with huge eyes like a frog’s.”

Shelby waved him away. “No, that’s just the daughter.”

“Sir Anthony don’t have a daughter, clodpole!”

“Of course he does,” said Shelby in an authoritative tone. “She’s the reason Lady Chandry’s dead, and that’s why the old gadger keeps her locked up, because he can’t stand the sight of her, you gudgeon!”

“Well, if she’s locked up, then why’d I see her with my own eyes, eh, cawker?”

“Because she’s made a pact with the Devil, and can move through walls, but only when the moon is at the full, you—”

But the others never heard what name Shelby had concocted for Billy for, in a trice, Geoffrey was on him, pummeling him with his fists and shouting, “Take it back, you snake!” The other boys were no more surprised than Shelby, who only had sense enough to curl up and yell, “Gerroff!” while the others stared slack-jawed. Were it not for Colonel Mantell’s groom, who came striding across the street at that moment to grab up Geoffrey by his coat collar, there may have been very little of the Squire’s son left unbruised by the encounter.

Unceremoniously dumped into the chaise next to his rigidly disapproving mother and morbidly delighted sister, and forced to endure Clara’s sniggering all the way home, Geoffrey thought to beat a hasty retreat to his room upon reaching the Hall.

But in this he was forestalled by his mother, who halted him with the words: “No, no, Geoffrey! You shall not get off that easy. Your father will wish to see you, instantly! What can have possessed you to behave in such an oafish way? I declare, I was stared out of all countenance! All the village high street gaping at us, no doubt wondering what back slum you were brought up in! Oh, I shall never live it down!”

The boy had no choice but to go directly to his father’s domain, a study on the first floor whose walls were adorned with various hunting trophies and a life-sized painting of a more youthful Colonel Mantell in full military regalia, medals glittering upon his manly chest. A single bookshelf was full of manuals on hunting, boxing, riding, and all other forms of outdoor sport, and a fine oak case held an assortment of guns, some antique, others glaringly new.

Geoffrey stood in embarrassed silence, eyes flicking about this shrine to masculinity, until Colonel Mantell raised his eyes from the letter in his hand only long enough to ascertain the identity of his guest. Lowering them again, he said, “Well?”

The boy cleared his throat. “I was in a fight today, sir.”

The Colonel immediately put down his letter, an eyebrow raised at his son. “A fight you say? What sort of fight?”

Geoffrey swallowed and looked at the floor. “An affair of honor, sir. With Shelby Frean.”

“The Squire’s son?” His father stared at him for several interminable seconds, then suddenly threw back his handsome head and laughed out loud. “I knew you had it in you, boy!” he crowed, wagging a finger in his son’s direction as he stood and strode around the desk to stand in front of the utterly surprised boy. “Who was in the right, son?”

Geoffrey gulped. “I believe I was, sir. He—Shelby—said something—I mean, insulted a lady, sir.”

The Colonel’s eyebrows shot up and he whistled low. “Ah, that’s the landscape is it? I should think at ten years of age you’re a little young to notice the females.”

His son flushed scarlet. “She’s not a female! I mean—we’re just friends, sir!”

The Colonel chuckled knowingly. “Well, well, my boy, and who is this lady?”

Geoffrey glared at his toes. “Emily Chandry, sir,” he mumbled.

“What was that? Speak up, boy!”

He threw back his shoulders and looked defiantly into his father’s eyes. “Emily Chandry, sir!”

A slightly pained look crossed his father’s features but was quickly replaced by an indulgent smile. “No matter, son, it’s a good start! She’s not quite a lady, but it’s the thought that counts!” He took his son’s hand and pumped it in both of his, then ruffled the boy’s hair and, with a final chuckle, went back to his letter. Thus dismissed, Geoffrey fled to the refuge of his room to contemplate the perversity of parental priorities.

Subjected thereafter to many grins and knowing looks, and the occasional clap on the shoulder in passing, Geoffrey tried in vain to reconcile his father’s spirited support of his exploit with the conviction in his heart that his defense of Emily had been honorable. But rather than satisfying his desire for his father’s approval, the Colonel’s baffling manner served only to reduce the nobility of the deed to mere posturing, thus tarnishing any satisfaction he could have gained from it, and rendering the thought of repeating the action untenable.

His friends, too, seemed unable to comprehend his actions, and save for Lawrence Simpford, who was too easy-going to think very long on any subject, they regarded him with misgiving for weeks to come. This resolved him never to speak of his friendship with Emily to anyone; however, he would not give up his time with her in the faerie clearing. It was the one place he could be entirely free of the baffling complexities of life, and Emily—though unacceptable to others—was his dearest friend.

It was not to last, however. At the end of the summer, Geoffrey was summoned to his father’s study, and he obeyed with some trepidation. Colonel Mantell glanced up from the newspaper he was reading, adjuring Geoffrey to sit down, then shuffled the pages a bit and muttered over their contents before at last folding the paper and gazing thoughtfully at his son.

“Well, my boy, you’re nearly eleven.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your mother and I are agreed that it is high time we sent you off to school.”

Geoffrey gasped. “But Mother said I am to have a tutor, sir!”

His father harrumphed in disgust. “Tutors are for weaklings, and I’ll not have a weakling for a son! You’re no more sickly than Francis was, whatever your mother wishes to believe, and Miss Gillies, though a fine governess, cannot teach you forever. Besides, the gamekeeper has seen you trespassing on Sir Anthony’s land, and though I couldn’t give that for the old curmudgeon, I won’t stand your mother having the vapors over the business.”

Geoffrey went pale, horrified that he and Emily had been found out, but his father merely pushed himself to his feet and began pacing behind his desk. “This nonsense has driven home to me that you must get away. You showed spirit when you flattened young Frean last May, but with your mother’s continued interference, I’ve no doubt you’ll become a milksop by and by. School has done well by Francis, and it will do well by you.”

Though relieved that his father knew nothing of Emily and the village, Geoffrey had no wish to leave them, and strove to convince his father of the desirability of engaging a tutor and allowing him to stay at home.

But Colonel Mantell turned a severe eye upon him. “That is precisely the kind of claptrap I mean to cure you of, son, and no nincompoop tutor will do it for me. We must cut the apron strings, and the sooner the better. You will go to school, and learn what it means to be a man!”

Geoffrey, surrounded by the fruits of what it meant to be a man, and facing his principal example of what manhood had to offer, believed he could do very well without it, but there really was nothing he could do. Within two weeks, he had been fitted out with new clothes and books, and prepared as much as was possible by Miss Gillies for what challenges awaited him. He deeply regretted being made to leave Emily without warning or explanation, but he was utterly forbidden to wander in the woods, and being unwilling to divulge his secret, had no way to deliver a message.

On the fateful morning, the Colonel bid him goodbye with a buffet on the shoulder, while his mother adjured him not to act in any way unbefitting his station, and with a mournful wave to Clara and Miss Gillies, he mounted into the chaise and set off toward Shrewsbury School in Shropshire.

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