Lenora fled deep into the wood, away from the shadow cast by her dearest friend’s joy. Even as she ran, the hood of her cape falling back from her head, she chided herself for being so mean as to resent Elvira’s happiness, but every remembrance of her friend’s delight set her yearning for something to happen—anything!—that would elevate her from her present humdrum existence to the realization of even the smallest of her dreams.
Pausing for breath against the knotty bole of a chestnut tree, she pressed her forehead to the rough wood, her eyes closed tightly. “You are selfish and ridiculous and… and totty-headed to act in this way,” she sternly admonished the tree bark. “Life is not a romance, even if Elvira has achieved her heart’s desire and you have not. You have no need to be jealous—you could not be more happy for her!” she insisted, hitting her gloved palm against the trunk in emphasis. “Marriage is no light matter—and a baby—” Here she found it necessary to swallow down a lump in her throat before continuing resolutely, “A baby is a serious responsibility, for all its plumpness and sweetness and tiny fingers and toes—”
But at this her slender self-control deserted her and she slid to the base of the tree, looking forlornly up into the branches. “Is there to be romance for everyone but me?”
The swaying branches above her murmured sympathetically, but she could take no comfort from them, instead pounding a fist into the soft, mossy ground at her side. “All my adventure in London, and what has come of it? I gained acquaintance enough, but no real admirers. Mr. Barnabus has forgotten all about me, and Lord Montrose was nothing but an imposter.” She shrugged a shoulder. “Though I did hit him over the head, which was properly heroic. But that is neither here nor there, for nothing as exciting could ever occur here, I am persuaded.”
Since Sir Joshua had first told her of Wrenthorpe Grange, describing the manor in thrillingly Gothic terms, Lenora had yearned to visit. Therefore, her first sight of the venerable house—tantalizingly obscured by the thick stand of the Home Wood, and then bursting upon her vision as the carriage emerged into the full light of afternoon—had been slightly disappointing. Sir Joshua had prepared her for lichen-covered stone walls and brooding casements, with undiscovered secrets lurking behind them, but her own eyes had told her that his was a biased description. Though it was blackened in many places, and one wall was entirely hidden by creeping ivy, the stone was of a much brighter hue—almost golden—than she had been led to imagine. And the windows, beside being fully intact, were sparkling clean in the afternoon sunlight, leading her to doubt the possibility of anything, most especially a secret, lurking within. In good faith, however, she had disdained her own judgment, and embarked upon her new life in the full expectation of mounting horrors—for what else could await her in such an ancient place?
But it was not many days before she was made to realize that she had never been so taken in. There was not a locked door nor an unexplained cupboard in the whole of the house, and search as she might, she could find no evidence of hollows behind the paneling, or of any flooring that could reasonably have been placed to hide an oubliette. She had even tried quite faithfully not to watch for ghostly figures vanishing from the corners of her vision, and had been justly rewarded—there were none. She was forced to the depressing conclusion that Wrenthorpe Grange, despite her persistent hopes and Sir Joshua’s assurances, was everything that was proper and comfortable.
Her fingers had been pulling at a clump of moss, and it came away in her hand. “I am doomed to languish in the smooth seas of gentility!” she cried, throwing the clump away from her. But as the words left her mouth, a change came over her mood, as if a beguiling vision had opened before her. The cloud upon her brow eased, and she pushed herself to her feet, vaguely brushing off her dress with a far-away look in her eyes.
“I am cast adrift in unknown waters, friendless, penniless, and without a shore to call my own.” She began to walk dreamily, moving deeper into the wood as she mused. “After untold hardships, my boat runs upon a desolate beach, where breakers crash so violently that the craft is broken asunder, and I am dashed onto the rocks.” She moved onward, winding around trees and stepping over rocks and creepers as she continued, speaking aloud as if the wood were her bosom friend.
“I awaken in the hovel of a kindly hermit, who nurses me to health, before bestowing upon me a humble gift—” Here she paused to look about herself for a token suitable to the hermit’s gift. Spying a burled stick poking up from the underbrush, she pulled it out, wiping the dirt and grass from it with a corner of her cloak and eying it critically. Its proportions, much like a wand, satisfied her, and she held it reverently before her as she continued, “He bestows upon me a humble gift, with the admonition to save it against a time of great need, which circumstance will reveal its magic powers.”
Fortified by this knowledge, Lenora tucked the stick into the pocket of her cloak and strode more purposefully along the path. “Though I wish to repay his kindness, he accepts only a lock of my hair, and directs me into the forest, where he prophesies my destiny awaits. The forest is dark and ancient, full of mysteries and secrets, but my courage shines forth like a beacon, and the Spirit of the Wood guides me on my path.”
She ran a hand along the low-slung branch of a tree, which she imagined was the arm of a faerie creature, and walked on, gazing regally about. “The faerie folk peek out from their hiding places to watch me with mingled hope and awe. I am, surely, the One for whom they have waited! Suddenly, a clearing opens up, and in the center, on a greensward like scattered emeralds, stands a prince, whose proud bearing nevertheless pronounces great suffering, and whose gaze pierces me to the very heart.”
She advanced into the clearing, which was real enough, and stood in the center, her hand outstretched to the invisible prince. “’Your Highness,’ I say, and extend my hand in peaceful greeting, but he falls to one knee before me, bowing over my hand in humble petition. ‘My Queen,’ he cries, ‘I have long awaited thee, and bless the good fortune that has brought you at last to my side.’”
Raising her hand, and with it the gallant—if imaginary—prince, Lenora said, “My lord, I have traveled through untold hardships to find you, and will grant you the boon you seek.”
But the prince uttered a groan. “You have already sacrificed much, my Queen! How dare I ask that you risk more?”
“My prince, not all the sacrifice in the world could—”
The prince moaned again, more loudly, and uttered a most unprincely string of curses.
In utmost astonishment, Lenora jerked from her daydream, her eyes darting right and left. The clearing was, indeed, empty, and the gloom of the trees had thickened the shadows beneath them, so that nothing could be discerned within the shapeless darkness. She had often supposed the woods to be haunted, and another moan, accompanied by the thrash and scrape of movement, caused her to take an involuntary step backward, her skin prickling. But fascination checked her, and as her gaze searched the shadows, a light breeze shivered through the gold-tinged leaves overhead, allowing a sprinkling of sunlight to penetrate the gloom. There, in the underbrush beyond the clearing, was the distinct outline of a man—a real and ordinary man—lying face downward in the dirt.
She blinked at the figure, weighing the prudence of investigating—for he was surely in distress, as the groans attested—against that of running away. Curiosity and concern, and perhaps, as her mother had lamented, intrepidity, convinced her feet to carry her forward, and she made her way to the man’s side. He lay at the base of a low hill, his frieze coat and breeches stained and covered with dead leaves and other debris, as if he had rolled down the hill and into the brush.
“Sir?” she asked, and was mortified at the quaver in her voice. There was no answer, and Lenora, asserting herself, cleared her throat and said in the strong, brave voice worthy of a queen, “Sir, are you hurt?”
Another moan issued from the fallen man, and he tried to lift himself, but after an abortive effort, he again lay still.
“May I be of assistance, sir?” she pursued, taking tentative hold of one of his arms and pulling. This proved utterly ineffectual, as he was larger than she, and dead weight into the bargain, but, undaunted, she tugged insistently at the arm and urged in an encouraging tone, “Sir, if we both try at once, you may be able to rise—”
His arm suddenly swiped out in an arc, ripping itself from her grasp, and the man flung himself into a sitting position, facing her. “Don’t need any assistance, you,” he bellowed in a rough accent, with fumes of strong drink billowing on his breath and into Lenora’s horrified face.
“Good heavens!” she cried, stumbling backward. “You’re drunk!”
Her exclamation gave him pause, and he squinted hard at her, evidently making a discovery. “Ladies present!” he said, his hand going to the kerchief knotted around his neck, and patting down his coat in a cursory self-inspection. “Pleasure, ma’am. No wish to contradict, but only slightly disguised,” he slurred, touching his cap. “Word of a gen’leman.”
“Gentleman!” exclaimed his outraged companion, wide-eyed at this absurd speech. “No self-respecting gentleman looks—or smells—as you do, sir!”
He blinked down at his attire, then surged to his feet, achieving a bow that threatened to topple him onto his head. By dint of windmilling his arms in rather a haphazard fashion, however, he miraculously righted himself, and said, nodding in a conciliatory way to this angry, yet percipient young lady, “True. Not a gen’leman. Soldier.”
“Well,” huffed Lenora, her arms crossed sternly as she surveyed the disreputable personage before her, from his unkempt hair and overgrown beard to his mud bespattered boots. “Any man claiming to be in His Majesty’s service ought to be ashamed to be seen in such a state!”
“Fallen on hard times,” he mumbled sullenly, swiping at his nose with his sleeve. “Old Boney drew in his horns. Wellington gave us marching orders. Had to come here.” He wheeled around and stumbled toward the path. “Nowhere else to go.”
Lenora had heard of the sad lot of noncommissioned soldiers, who were turned out of the army with no pension, and often with no home to return to, after the long years of the Peninsular war. Discomfited, she watched him go, wavering between disgust and compassion for him. After all, how just was it to condemn this poor soul, who had sought refuge from his not insignificant troubles in drink?
His toe suddenly hit a root, pitching him forward onto his knees, and she cast aside her scruples, hurrying forward to help him to his feet. “Sir, take care,” she said, holding tight to his arm as he swayed alarmingly.
He swatted at her hand, as if it were a fly. “Not fitting for a lady to take care of me.”
“Certainly, under normal circumstances,” she persisted, keeping step with him as he started once more down the path. “But you are not yourself, and I feel I should see you safely home.”
He stopped again to gaze blearily into her face. “Thank you kindly, but can’t be done. Raffles is already sailed, and nobody answers my letters.” He plunged onward.
Lenora, standing bemused for a moment at this cryptic utterance, hastened forward to right him as he nearly toppled into the brush, and stumbled alongside him as he wove from side to side along the path. The gloom of the wood deepened, and she glanced up through the burnished leaves at a cloudy sky, wondering how long she had been gone from home, and how much longer this ill-advised adventure would continue.
The third time she found it necessary to haul him to the side, to prevent him from breaking his head open on a low-hanging branch, she inquired in a tense voice, “How far is your home, sir?”
But her inebriated companion merely waved a hand in a vague forward direction and trudged on, obliging her to continue with him. Lenora, fast repenting the compassion that had decided her to accompany a stranger—and a drunkard at that—into the forest, was forming the determination to leave him to his fate and seek her own home, when the trees opened onto the most fantastic vision she had ever beheld.
An undulating field of unmown grass, interspersed with patches of thistle, autumn gentian, and Queen Anne’s lace, fell away from the wood, down a slight decline, and across a wide expanse, where it ended at the sloping and bedraggled walls of a hedge-maze. This was surrounded by a riotous garden of sweet pea and rambling rose, with spikes of hollyhock and delphinium, all tangled in russet-leaved bramble and ivy, with ragged clumps of lavender and geranium clinging about the edges.
But the sight that held Lenora dumbstruck was a fine old Palladian mansion that rose up beyond the gardens in four stories, its rain-blackened Cotswold-stone walls splotched with lichen and overgrown with vines, and its pocked roof line stretching the cracked teeth of chimney pots into the clouded sky. The building extended in a great, brooding block with the blank eyes of several boarded or bricked-in windows staring outward, as if in sightless resignation.
Her drunken companion trundled forward into the high grass, and Lenora, rooted to the spot, breathed, “You live here?”
But he shook his head ponderously. “Not the Big House,” he mumbled. “Only ghosts there. Gatehouse,” he finished succinctly, and swerved abruptly away from the mansion, onto an unseen path.
Lenora’s heart leapt at the mention of ghosts, and she scarcely heard the rest. This could not be real—this could not be happening to her! An actual haunted house, within a walk of her home—she pinched herself to be sure, and the answering pain became a shiver of terrified excitement. Her eyes scanned the Gothic perfection of the mansion—all blackened stone and ivy and despair—and she resolved that she must know everything about this place. What was its history? How had it come to be abandoned? How was it possible that such a place existed at all, within miles of Sir Joshua’s home—and why had he not told her of it?
She broke from her reverie to hasten after her drunken companion, who had weaved his way around the corner of the fantastic house. He must be the grounds keeper, or some such, and would have the answers to her questions. Indeed, she told herself with confidence, he was obligated to satisfy her curiosity, for she had rendered him a signal service in ensuring his safe journey through the wood, without which she was certain he would be lying unconscious after walking smash into a tree, and would very likely have died of it. Yes, he owed her a debt, which she would graciously own paid upon his furnishing her with the facts she sought.
She followed after him through the grass, around the mansion, and finally caught him up on a weed-strewn gravel sweep at the front of the house. Here she was distracted for a long moment by the splendor of four ivy-wrapped pillars flanking the huge double doors at the top of a short flight of wide, cracked steps, but she was at last able to command herself enough to drag her eyes from the mansion and address herself to the grounds keeper.
“Sir, I must ask you—”
He spun to face her, bristling in outrage. “Where’d you come from? Why’re you following me?”
“Following—” cried Lenora, indignant. “I did not follow you! You would have caught your death in the forest had I not attended you here!”
The soldier’s head reared back, his eyebrows, or what she assumed were his eyebrows under all that hair, drawing together over beetle-black eyes. “Why?”
“Why, because you are too inebriated to know—”
“Why did you follow me?” he elucidated, swaying slightly with the effort. “Do you know me? Do I know you?”
“No, you do not, for you are too castaway to walk straight, let alone allow an introduction,” she answered with asperity.
He wagged his head as he regarded her. “Highly improper.”
“I should say so, sir, and imprudent, too—”
“Lady shouldn’t introduce herself to a gentleman. Highly improper.”
Lenora was temporarily stricken dumb by the irony of this truth. “I—I would never press for an introduction. That is not why—Circumstances forced me to—” she stammered, but he reeled away and down the gravel drive. “Sir,” Lenora pursued, upheld by the conviction that he owed her something, “you cannot, in good conscience, continue to treat me in this rude manner—”
He turned on his heel, suddenly coming face-to-face with her—or chin-to-face, as it was. “Why not?” he asked, looking somberly down from his superior height.
Rather awed by this tactic, Lenora took a step backward, marshaling her courage once more from a safer distance. “Because you may very well owe me your life.”
He regarded her stonily for a few more moments, then said, “Only person I owe my life is Lieutenant Talgarth, so you’d best be off.” Abruptly turning again, he shuffled to the door of the cottage.
Lenora scrambled after him, hardly knowing why she did so, except that the notion that he owed her a favor had taken firm root in her mind, and she felt as strongly that she was perfectly justified in asking it of him now, though he was foxed, for she had no way of knowing whether he was not perpetually so, and she did not know when she should have the chance again.
“Sir, I beg you to stop, for only one moment, please, and hear me out.”
To her surprise, he did stop, but he did not look at her, only standing, staring gravely ahead at the door.
“Sir, though you do not seem to clearly recall it, the fact remains that I rendered you a signal service today, and I feel it would be fair for you to repay me in a very small way.”
Only slightly taken aback, Lenora persisted. “It would be only a trifling favor, and should not incommode you in the least—”
He turned on her again, towering menacingly over her. “I said no. I’ve troubles enough without vandals and trespassers wasting my time.”
“I mean no harm,” Lenora insisted, standing her ground. “I wish only to know about the house, sir.”
“No!” he almost shouted, whirling to yank open the door and enter the cottage. “Go away!”
“Sir, I beg you to—” began Lenora, but he closed the door in her face, and before she could protest further, the bolt slammed home.
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