Claire trailed her right hand along the damp tunnel wall, afraid to miss the next turn in the dark. The winnowing candle in her left hand barely illuminated the confining trail.
Two right turns, and then the second left, Vitus had said. She remembered how he’d repeated the instructions, waiting sternly for her to nod her acknowledgement. As if he knew her life depended upon escaping the underground maze.
When first she came to Raven Heights Manor, she believed the mansion on its cragged perch above the sea to be as forbidding as its name. Now, trapped in the earth beneath its solid weight, she no longer held the heavy stones to blame. As her right hand brushed across an open space, she stopped and turned to face the opening. Both arms stretched straight as a sleepwalker’s, she waved the candle as she groped the air to determine whether it was a false turn into a dead end of stone.
Finding no rock wall to block her path, her feet shuffled slowly forward, her fingers stretched ahead. The junction was true to the specific directions she’d been given, yet she hesitated, looking over her shoulder. She disliked leaving the main tunnel behind.
But the faint light she carried was enough to give a slight illumination to this branch. Or, perhaps her eyes were becoming better accustomed to the dimness. Placing her hand again on the wall to her right, she continued forward, the ground now sloping upwards ever so slightly. One more right turn, she said to herself, and then the second left.
She could hear her father’s voice from years ago, challenging her with the riddle of the two men: one of these men always tells the truth. One of these men always lies. Do you know which is which, Claire? he would ask.
Vitus had told her the path she must follow through the tunnels. Which man was Vitus— The liar or the truth-teller? She no longer knew.
North Coast, Cornwall, England
“You’re not to speak in your uncle’s presence unless he asks you a direct question. Is that clear?”
Claire watched the countryside blur by the window of the coach, answering without turning her head. “Yes, ma’am,” she mumbled.
“And for goodness sake, if and when he should deign to speak to you, do not mumble so.”
The young lady, not quite sixteen years of age, did not bother to mumble a reply. She hoped the rumbling of the carriage hid the rumbling of her stomach. She hadn’t been able to eat the previous night, nor sleep, and had barely touched the soft goat cheese and crusty bread on the sideboard this morning, before her uncle’s carriage had arrived. Her neglecting to eat would be another excuse for Mrs. Cunliffe to scold.
Perhaps it was best she had not eaten, as Mrs. Cunliffe’s potent ambergris perfume mixed with the hot air in the stuffy carriage. Claire sniffed surreptitiously at her own sleeve, wondering if the nauseating odor permeated her own body like a stain that would never wash out. She slanted her eyes to the side, to sneak a peek at her guardian.
Mrs. Cunliffe had returned her gaze to the window at her side, her lips pursed as she determined whether this countryside near the coast met her approval. The woman’s dark, heavy taffeta skirts swished noisily as the coach swayed. Claire was grateful her own traveling outfit was a simple light-colored muslin dress suitable for a young lady. She remained comfortable in the sunlit coach, rather than wallowing in yards of dark purple, which brought an unseemly sheen to Mrs. Cunliffe’s face, and in particular her upper lip.
Claire noted the slowing of the rhythmic harness jangles. Just in time, she put her hand on the carriage wall to steady herself as they took a turn too sharply. Her companion slid across the opposite banquette, bumping the window sash with her traveling bonnet, which now tipped ludicrously low upon her forehead, nearly covering her eyes. The older woman screeched her indignation. If she hadn’t been leaning and blinded by plumes, she would surely have banged her cane on the roof, admonishing the driver.
The narrow entry tunnel they now funneled through must have caught their driver unawares. The high-ceilinged tunnel exited through an open gate into a wide avenue aimed straight as an arrow shaft at a massive stone structure.
Claire leaned forward, pressing her face against the carriage window, straining for a better glimpse of the towering walls in the distance.
This, then, was Raven Heights Manor: rising from a sea of cobbled stones at the end of the long drive. Claire shuddered involuntarily, her stomach capsized in its wake. Shrinking back from the window, she glanced over to see if Mrs. Cunliffe witnessed her fear. But her escort was busy rearranging the crushed plumes of her bonnet.
Their heels echoed across the stone floor in the entry hall, and continued loudly as they followed the crisply uniformed maid into the first parlor on the right. Heavy wine-colored damasks draped the windows and sturdy armchairs graced the room, formally lined up in two facing rows with a walnut table in their center. The richly-hued Aubusson carpet beneath the furniture added to the darkness of the interior, except for the relief of a few light roses scattered along its burgundy border. The armchairs were tapestried with the same light roses among light green twining leaves.
Claire’s companion immediately plunked her ample frame in a central chair, with a long-suffering sigh. Intimidated by the formal arrangement, Claire sat tentatively on the forward edge of the chair closest to the door.
“Tea, mum?” asked the parlor maid.
“Yes. With extra cream.” The young servant turned to leave. “And extra sugar,” ordered Mrs. Cunliffe.
Claire assumed she needn’t respond, as the maid departed straightaway.
Almost as soon as the heavy door closed, it opened again. Dwarfed by the tall door, a small woman in grey bombazine came briskly forward. “I am Mrs. Dawson.”
Claire rose instantly, but Mrs. Cunliffe’s eyelids narrowed as she watched Mrs. Dawson come forward. She apparently assumed the woman to be another staff member, as she did not bother to budge her large hips from the deep-cushioned armchair.
“And you must be Claire—” Mrs. Dawson approached Claire directly, taking both Claire’s hands in hers, “—of course. I can see you have your uncle’s hazel eyes and the same lovely arched brows.” Mrs. Dawson’s gentle voice was welcoming, and she finally released Claire’s hands. “Have you been offered tea?”
“Yes, ma’am, the maid—”
“I beg your pardon,” said Mrs. Cunliffe in frosty tones, making it obvious she never begged, and pardon would not be on her list of needs, should she ever choose to do so.
Claire and Mrs. Dawson both stepped apart and turned to the seated woman.
“I am Mrs. Cunliffe, of Whiteworth’s Boarding School. I have been authorized to escort Miss Temple to Raven Heights Manor. And you are?”
“Oh, did I not say? I am Mrs. Dawson.”
Claire noticed the serene Mrs. Dawson did not elaborate, simply folded her hands upon her skirt, tilting her head to study the frowning Mrs. Cunliffe.
Mrs. Cunliffe’s eyes briskly raked the smaller woman from the tip of her grey head to her sensible shoes. “I should like to speak to Sir Rudyard. Please inform him at once that his niece and I have arrived.”
“Would that I could! However, Sir Rudyard is not in residence.”
“Then I shall take tea, and I shall await his return.” She turned her bored gaze to the door, already having dismissed Mrs. Dawson.
“Of course. Though, that may be a lot of tea,” said Mrs. Dawson with a slight smile. “We do not anticipate his return anytime soon. Perhaps as much as a month or two.”
“But—” Mrs. Cunliffe’s stare returned, her mouth wide open. She closed it, then sputtered, “But he sent an urgent request to the school, asking that his niece be delivered immediately. Here. To Raven Heights Manor. Why would he do that, if he planned on being away?”
“When he returns, that is the first thing we shall ask him! Shall we send the answer to you at the school? Or perhaps that will not be necessary, if you plan to await his return.” Mrs. Dawson spoke in a voice so sweet it should not have surprised Claire to see nearby butterflies flutter in through the arched windows. She wondered if the tiny, grey-haired woman was being facetious, or whether she was a bit slow-witted.
Mrs. Cunliffe’s annoyance was punctuated with disbelief. “He wrote, giving us the impression he had only recently learned of the existence of his estranged brother’s child. He was most adamant that we should send Miss Temple to him without delay. He sent the carriage for us.”
“Yes, yes, he made that clear to us as well. It is his explicit wish that his niece should be brought here.”
“But surely you realize I cannot leave her here, if he is not in residence.” It was not stated as a question.
Claire watched the two women, as the words volleyed between them. In spite of her instant dislike of the ancient manor house, the thought of returning to the school rolled a stone of defeat to the pit of her stomach.
“She shall be well looked after until he returns.” Mrs. Dawson’s voice remained serene and confident.
“ Who is in charge during his absence?” demanded her escort.
“That would be I.”
“And you are?” Mrs. Cunliffe raised a pudgy arm, her open palm facing the older woman. “And please, do not again tell me you are Mrs. Dawson,” she added in obvious exasperation.
“I am Sir Rudyard’s second cousin. Will that do?” Mrs. Dawson squared her shoulders, raised her head pridefully. “Or would you prefer to take the child back with you, and explain to Sir Rudyard why his niece was … detained?” She did not pause for an answer. “By your command. Upon the sole authority of Mrs. Cunliffe, Headmistress of Whiteworth’s Boarding School.” Her eyebrows lifted, seeking contradiction. “Do I have that correct?”
Mrs. Cunliffe—overworked staff member, never headmistress— did not answer right away. She looked speculatively at Claire.
“Sir Rudyard does not tolerate having his wishes thwarted,” prodded Mrs. Dawson. “He shall not be happy if he returns to find she is not here.”
This did not make Claire any less nervous, hearing her guardian was an intolerant man, perhaps a short-tempered man as well. She was beginning to appreciate Mrs. Cunliffe’s suggestion that they return to the school together.
Before Claire could mumble her agreement, however, her escort arose abruptly and moved toward the door, not inviting the young lady to accompany her.
Without turning, she called out, “Good day, madam. Goodbye, Miss Temple.”
The heavy door closed behind her.
“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. Dawson, under her breath, “that was a close miscalculation on my part.” She turned her large blue eyes upon Claire. “I should not have said I was Sir Rudyard’s cousin. Did you see how she hesitated? I should have insisted I was his sister.”
“Are you? His sister?” asked Claire with curiosity.
“Heavens, no.” This was accompanied by a tiny tinkling laugh. “I am more akin to housekeeper.”
Claire considered this, wondering once more if the woman were a bit daft. “And if Mrs. Cunliffe had said ‘no’?”
“Easily rectified, dear. I would have brought Sir Rudyard’s brother Myles in to confront her.”
“Ah. Then I have another uncle to meet – Uncle Myles?” This made Claire doubly apprehensive.
“I am afraid not.” Mrs. Dawson patted her hand sympathetically. “No, Myles is long dead. I’m sorry, as he would have loved meeting you. Reggie, our butler, however, is a marvelous actor! He was always impersonating Myles when Myles was alive. But we needn’t let your uncle – the live one, that is – know that, need we, dear?”
Claire did not need to answer, as tea arrived at that moment. With extra cream and extra sugar.