The Villa of Death: New Excerpt

The Villa of Death by Joanna ChallisIn Joanna Challis’ latest Daphne du Maurier mystery, young Daphne struggles to write her first novel…and solve a murder. 

It’s the summer of 1927, and Daphne has traveled to Thornleigh Manor to attend the wedding of her good friend, Ellen, who is set to marry her beau, Teddy. Having met in the midst of the chaos and calamity of wartime, the lovers were brutally separated years before by family objections, but have since reunited.

But when Teddy is found murdered just after the wedding, and Ellen is accused of the crime, Daphne and the dashing Major Browning must uncover the truth before all is lost.

 

Chapter 1

Cannon Hall, Hampstead, London
Home of the du Mauriers

“Daphne, come away from that window at once. You haven’t answered Lady Gersham.”

Pulling at the curtain edge, I set my mouth into the acceptable and pleasing afternoon-tea smile: vacant and supercilious. “Dear Lady Gersham, I haven’t fully considered the notion. I imagine rolling one’s clothes into packed carry cases is the best way to travel.”

“Daphne’s clothes are always crumpled.” Grinning, Jeanne cut Lady Gersham another piece of seed cake. “She packs in a hurry.”

“It is ill-advised to pack in haste,” observed Lady Gersham. “Perhaps you ought to get her nose out of a book, Muriel.”

Lifting a brow, my mother’s smile, for once, exuded a little patience for my social shortcomings. “Oh, but crumpled clothes or not she has managed to secure the interest of a certain gentleman.”

Lady Gersham sat up. “Oh?”

“A certain gentleman of impeccable quality.”

“Oh?”

“A man of property and breeding.”

“Oh, yes?”

Feeling my face grow hot, I glared at my mother. Surely, she’d not say his name. Surely, she’d not embarrass me in front of one of London’s most notorious gossips.

Sir Marcus Oxley.”

“Oooh.”

Lady Gersham bestowed her aura of approval on me.

“I thought you were going to say Major Browning,” Jeanne blurted out to my mortification.

“Younger sisters never get the current favorite quite right,” my mother assured Lady Gersham. “Daphne, take Jeanne to her room and see that she finishes her sums. I have something particular to say to Lady Gersham.”

Thus dismissed, I did indeed take Jeanne upstairs but with the intention to box her ears. “How dare you? You promised you’d not say a word.”

Jeanne, bearing the trademark of a younger sister, had developed the unsavory habit of eavesdropping on Angela and me. “You’ve broken your oath.” Halting, I crossed my arms. “And if you can’t keep a secret, then you’re not coming to Ellen’s on Friday. There’s no room for silly little girls.”

Lowering an instantly glum face, Jeanne sank onto her bed and wept. “Sorry, Daph, I didn’t mean to . . . I want to go to Ellen’s. I’ve never been to a bridal shower . . . oh, Daphne, please, please let me go.”

“No.” Slamming the door, I retreated to my room. It was a fortunate thing she hadn’t overheard Roderick Trevalyan’s name, too. Angela and I alone shared the secrets of Somner House but for one careless mention of Major Frederick Arthur Montague Browning.

“Was he at Somner, too?” Jeanne hunted me out later that day. “Mama doesn’t know.”

“And nor shall she,” I had replied. To guarantee her silence, I relayed a little of my private affairs and agog with the news, Jeanne gave me her solemn promise.

“Daphne!”

I expected my mother’s summons the moment Lady Gersham departed.

“Yes, Mother?”

“Why did Jeanne mention the major? Have you received more word from him?”

I turned away. I didn’t want my mother to detect the truth in my face. Faces had a way of betraying one and mothers possessed the uncanny knack of unlocking such secrets. “Mother,” I sighed, “Sir Marcus is a friend of mine, not a beau. I wish you would cease spreading rumors about us. He won’t find it amusing.” In fact, Sir Marcus would find it amusing but my mother needn’t know it.

“Well, the way you two whisper in corners would suggest otherwise.”

“We’re just friends.”

“I was a friend of your father’s before we married.”

Oh no. The marriage subject again. “Mama, I told you. I’m not getting married anytime soon and to make it seem as if I were to Lady Gersham of all people!”

“I am merely advertising your marketability,” came the swift retort. “Really, Daphne, do you intend to become an old spinster? For you will be one if you continue on this way. Gentlemen need encouragement and I despair you’ve got too sharp a tongue. It didn’t help Elizabeth Bennett with Mr. Darcy, did it?”

“I beg to differ. Her sharp tongue secured his interest early on and later he praised her for her mind, more than her ‘fine eyes.’ ”

My mother’s eyes rounded. “Oh, then you have an understanding with the major as I suspected. When shall he be calling again? Your father was sorry to have missed him last time.”

I drew away to the window. The affair she referred to had occurred the Wednesday before. Without any warning, he called upon us. Heart pounding, for I was not properly dressed and my hair looked horrid, I crept down the stairs to see him smilingly entertaining my mother and sisters in the tearoom. Angela caught my gaze. She wondered, as I did, what this call meant since our last meeting at Somner House.

I had to wait. Upon his departure, he raised my hand to his lips and murmured, “Au revoir. Until we meet again.”

“When should we expect him again?”

I wanted to know the same thing. “I don’t know, Mama. I do know he is invited to Ellen’s wedding.”

“Ah, weddings.” My mother grinned. “A perfect location for a blossoming romance. Your father has given his full approval. Though,” she paused to reflect, “we are not yet fully aware of the major’s circumstances. Your father wants the best for his Daphne . . . that is why I think you shouldn’t rule out Sir Marcus as a candidate. What a splendid catch!”

Poor Sir Marcus. “Hunted like a fox.”

“Well,” my mother’s lips pursed together, “foxes should expect such and let’s hope some of this wedding season will inspire you or your sister, for otherwise I shall feel like Mrs. Bennett and lament I have three daughters, all unwed and what does your father do about it? Nothing! Nothing at all.”

 

The gloomy pathway beckoned. She paid no attention to its dilapidated state, neither seeing nor hearing the windstorm brewing around her. Such was her state of mind as she progressed toward her destination, knowing this was the last time—

“Daphne! The car is waiting.”

Sighing, I scribbled down the last sentence. They could wait.

The world could wait.

This sentence could not.

“Oh, dear.” Running up the stairs, Jeanne pushed open my door. “You’re not even dressed!”

“I am mostly dressed,” I corrected, sweeping up notebook and pen to put a few final items in my bag. Mentally reviewing my list, I was satisfied I had everything I needed and followed Jeanne downstairs.

Angela was already in the car, waiting. She, too, had curlers in her hair and we prayed no one saw us on our way to Ellen’s house.

“How fun this will be.” Clapping her hands, Jeanne exuded the younger- sister excitement of a first grown-up party. “I can’t wait to tell Bethany; she’s always going on about her rich German cousins yet she’s never been invited to a bride’s party.”

“Nobody likes a braggart,” Angela warned. “And whatever you do, don’t monopolize the ladies with your questions. You’re there to sit and learn and if you’re good, we’ll let you have some champagne, won’t we, Daphne?”

Busy staring out the window, I agreed. I didn’t know what I’d agreed to for Angela’s babble faded against London at night. Still early, dusky embers bathed the streets, catching the lights on the passing motorcars. The city had its glow and its attractions but my heart longed for Cornwall and the wild, open rural country, and the sea, the sea . . .

“Daphne, you didn’t forget to bring Ellen’s present, did you?”

I gave my sister a woebegone look. “We’ve been writing to each other for how many years now? I’m not likely to forget, am I?”

“One never knows with you,” Angela teased. “Did you finish the chapter?”

“No,” I lamented as I’d much prefer to stay at my desk and work on my book. Wrong of me, but apart from Ellen, what business did I have going to a bridal shower? I abhorred these kinds of parties for they invariably attracted giggly females chatting of men and marriage.

Since the war, the men and marriage subject became my mother’s favorite as we came of age. Among certain acquaintances, it turned into a competition, mothers airing their daughters’ successes a great part of it. I didn’t want to disappoint my mother but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to get married. I regarded the idea of enduring love with cynicism, perhaps because I had yet to experience what Elizabeth Bennett felt: “I am convinced only the greatest love would induce me to matrimony.”

Such deliberations accompanied me through the gate to Ellen’s smart London house. Well, to be accurate, the house belonged to her rich fiancé. Walking up to the door, I admired the crisp hedges and the neat row of flowering pots. Of course, it was nothing compared with Thornleigh.

“What’s Ellen’s fiancé’s name again?” Jeanne whispered.

“Teddy Grimshaw, but don’t you call him Teddy. He’s Mr. Grimshaw to you.”

“Oh, that’s right. He’s old, isn’t he?”

“It’s a matter of perspective,” I murmured back. “Did you think Colonel Brandon too old for Marianne in Sense and Sensibility?”

Jeanne reflected. “I suppose not because he was a good man and Willoughby was the devil. A handsome devil, mind.”

“Handsome devils do not make good husbands,” Angela advised, tearing off her gloves. “And though Mr. Grimshaw is sixteen years Ellen’s senior, he’s not ancient. Didn’t you see the picture of him in the paper? He’s very good looking.”

“He has gray temples,” Jeanne pointed out.

“He’s very rich,” Angela also pointed out. “And if Ellen minds his gray temples, she can boot-black them out.”

We all laughed at this, glancing at each other guiltily when Ellen came down the stairs.

“There you are, darlings! Fashionably late as the term goes.”

Sweeping to us in a purple satin peignoir and smelling of expensive perfume, Ellen Hamilton looked every inch the society bride. With her honey-blond hair bouncing on her shoulders and dancing lights in her green eyes, she presented a very different picture since the last time I’d seen her.

Upon seeing me, the sparkle left her eyes for the sincere graveness I knew so well. “Oh, Daphne, I’m so glad you’re here. There’s so much to do—I never thought a wedding could be so complex.”

“It’s a society wedding,” I reminded. “Were you happy with the name cards?”

“They’re perfect! Honestly, I don’t know how I’d manage without you and Megan to help me. It’s sad my mother never lived to see this day. She would have relished every little detail.”

Wistful, her face returned to bridal jubilation as we entered the room full of girls.

At twenty-eight, Ellen Hamilton exuded a confi dence none of us possessed. Perhaps her experiences during the war and afterward had taught her self-reliance in the face of poverty, heartache, and oppression. I’d shared so much with her through our letters, yet I still felt gauche and inexperienced in her company.

“No, Daphne,” she drew me aside later. “You mustn’t envy what I’ve been through. Yes, I’ve learned much from it and it is fit for a novel,” she smiled faintly, “but don’t envy me. You have your whole life ahead of you and innocence is something you don’t want to part with too early.”

“I am not innocent.”

She sighed, her perceptive green eyes knowing better.

“Have you any word of your stepdaughter-to-be?”

“Well, Rosalie is coming to the wedding. Teddy’s gone to meet her at the station. Oh Daphne, I’m dreading it . . . dreading it all.”

“The wedding or his daughter’s arrival?”

“Both. You know how much she hates me.”

“Pressed by her mother,” I reminded. “Surely she’s excited to have a little sister? I can’t imagine growing up without my sisters . . . I suspect only children are very lonely.”

“And spoilt,” Ellen added. “Unfortunately, Rosalie is more concerned with losing her inheritance than gaining a sister.”

“Again spurred on by the mother?”

“Oh, Daphne, you know all of my history but not many others do. If word were to leak out, it would ruin me.”

“It won’t leak out and it won’t ruin you,” I assured her. “The daughter or her mother would be fools to try something like it.”

“I think they will try. They can’t stand Teddy to be happy again. Oh, I wished they’d just stayed in Boston!”

I pressed her hand. “Now, where’s little Charlotte?”

“Not so little now. She turned eight last month.”

“Eight! I remember when she was born . . .”

“Yes, so do I.” Ellen smiled. “She’s with Nanny Brickley at the moment and she loved those books you sent her. We read them every night. Hansel and Gretel is her favorite and reminds me of the summers we spent together in the woods at Thornleigh.”

I was glad she noted the connection for I had thought the same when I looked at the illustrations.

“And, my darling, have you seen the major since your last letter? You must keep me up to date, you know, for otherwise how can I look out for you? Is he a good man or is he a cad? He seems very popular with women; I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

“As is your Teddy.”

Ellen reflected before returning with a fond smile. “Yes, I suppose you are right. He is the darling of his family. You should see how his sisters dote on him.”

“Have they all arrived for the wedding?”

“Mostly, yet I am anxious to get to Thornleigh first.”

“To prepare for the invasion.”

“Exactly so.” Grinning, Ellen asked what I thought of the new painting of Charlotte on the wall. “Teddy commissioned Rudolf Heinemann to do it. See how she’s smiling? That’s her smile for Daddy. He so adores her. He always wanted more children but he never thought it would happen.”

“Nor did you,” I gently reminded with a laugh. “I remember your horrified letter in which you confessed to me your mortal sin.”

“It was a good thing I kept it hidden from Mama,” Ellen reflected. “News of the pregnancy would have killed her. Scandal of the century.”

I laughed. “Well, for a time.”

“One would have thought after the war people would be more accepting and forgiving. But some things they never forget. They hold onto it and it festers until it becomes poison . . . that’s why I dread if . . .”

“Nothing will happen. Years have passed since then.”

“Dear, wise Daphne! I am so relieved you are here. Adding the crystals to the dresses was a great idea.”

“You’ll be a radiant bride, the most radiant of the season.”

A sudden pallor crept into her face. “Please don’t say such things. You know how I hate being the center of attention. I just want the wedding over and done with so we can begin our lives at Thornleigh.”

“But does Teddy agree? He has his business in America.”

“Yes, he does,” she sighed, “so we’ve reached a compromise. Half year there and half year here so Charlotte gets the best of both worlds.”

“You’re brave to take on the ‘Boston Brahmins’ again.” I smiled.

“It will be a challenge, but then my whole life has been a challenge. I suppose, in a way, I am used to it.”

“You’ll triumph, I am sure,” I proclaimed. “And I want to see many pictures of you in the paper defeating the Boston Brahmins. Agreed?”

“I’ll do my best.” Ellen laughed.

 

Chapter 2

I did well to hide my disappointment from the wedding party.

On the morning of our departure, my mother telephoned, saying, “Major Browning has not called. Do you wish to leave a message if he does?” I said no, with more vehemence than I intended. Why hadn’t he kept his promise? Why hadn’t he called?

“Daphne? Are you all right?”

Ellen found me slamming down the telephone.

“What’s the matter? It’s him, isn’t it? The major?”

“Y-yes. He promised he’d call.”

“He will,” Ellen soothed. “From what you write of him, he sounds like a man of integrity.”

Her words failed to placate me. Biting my lower lip, I hunted through the usual excuses. Perhaps he’d been summoned away without any notice? Summoned to a secret assignment where he planned to write at the first opportunity? “He did accept your wedding invitation, didn’t he?”

“Why, yes.” Ellen sounded surprised. “He said he’d be delighted to attend and would come with the Rutland party.”

I blinked. “The earl of Rutland? He’s coming to your wedding?”

“Indeed, he is.” Ellen’s self-satisfied smile grew wider. “They were great friends of my parents, if you recall. They came to my mother’s funeral so I thought why not invite them to my wedding? I daresay

the papers will be abuzz with it. I only let them know this morning.”

“Dear Ellen.” I laughed along with her. “You’re a great success.”

Her smile vanished. “Don’t think too highly of me, Daphne. Sometimes I feel compelled to do these things I don’t want to do.”

“You mean playing the social game? Returning fire with fi re?”

“Yes . . . and more.” The shadow left her face and the bright sparkle in her eyes returned. “We’re to train it then as Harry has organized cars to take us to Thornleigh.”

“Harry. How is he?”

“Oh, well. He’s Harry, isn’t he? Always looks on the bright side of life. To be sure, I couldn’t have managed without him all these years.”

“He’s been a good friend,” I said softly. “What does Teddy think of him?”

“He’s happy for Harry to stay as estate manager. Who better than Harry? And we have so much work to do. You’ll be amazed when you see Thornleigh.”

“Thank you for sending me a copy of the renovation plans. You know how much I adore old houses.”

“And your input is crucial.” Ellen squeezed my hand. “I want Thornleigh restored to its former glory, like in the painting.”

I remembered the sixteenth-century painting gracing the main hall at Ellen’s family home.

“It’s a huge enterprise,” Ellen went on, “but Teddy loves the house too and being a man, likes to ‘fix’ things. We plan to be abroad for the winter when a lot of the major renovations will take place. Repairing the roof and restoring the west wing, et cetera.”

“So you’ll travel back to Boston sometime after the wedding?”

“Yes. It’s Teddy’s mother. She’s too ill to travel and she hasn’t seen Charlotte.”

“But you’d prefer to stay at Thornleigh,” I finished for her with a tease. “I’d hate to leave, too, but think of the changes when you return! And winters are miserable here.”

“You’re right and you cheer me up immensely. Now, I suppose we have dallied long enough. I think that’s the last of the packing by the door. Can you be a darling and take down my wedding dress? I don’t trust anyone else with it.”

I was happy to comply. It kept my mind from thinking about him, Major Browning. The missing major who failed to honor his promises.

Arriving at Victoria Station, I did allow myself to search for his face among the crowds. As he hadn’t called at the house, surely he could have troubled himself to see me off at the station? Or at least send a note?

I thought my apprehension had gone unnoticed by our party.

“You’re in love with him, aren’t you?” Ellen pulled my arm.

“I’m not sure I know what love is.” I swallowed, watching my step lest I fall over and give in to misery.

“Then there’s two of us.” Grasping my gloved hand in her own, Ellen propelled us toward Nanny Brickley. “Charlotte has brought Teddy and me back together, I know that for a fact.”

I almost tripped in shock. “Don’t you love Teddy?”

“Of course I do, but sometimes I wonder if Charlotte hadn’t come along, would this wedding be happening? It seems like a dream, after all we’ve been through, and I suppose I’m afraid to believe it lest it evaporate before my eyes.”

“It is happening,” I assured her as we reached our designated carriage.

“Teddy made all the arrangements,” Ellen said, handing our tickets to the attendant. “He wanted us to travel ‘in style.’ ”

Once on the train, Ellen paused, looking the epitome of the elegant sophisticated bride in her dove-gray suit and fine pearls. “I may look the part but I am not one for the center stage. I like dark corners like you and would much prefer to travel second class than first.”

She whispered this so the others didn’t hear, the others being too overwhelmed by the opulence of our carriage to care. Like a palace on wheels, the beautifully appointed Pullman carriage assigned to us (thanks to Mr. Teddy Grimshaw, millionaire) abounded in unprecedented luxury.

Resisting the urge to jump on the burgundy upholstered couch, I admired the elaborate royal interior. From the brass handles to the drapes on the wide scenic windows, every little detail had been considered and incorporated to ensure a comfortable journey.

Drawing to the window, I scaled the length of the platform, oblivious to my train companions cooing expressions of “oh, this is glorious,” “what style,” and “this trip must have cost a fortune.”

Yes, a small fortune, I thought, remembering the face of a beggar I’d seen recently on the streets. My peevishness intensified as hope faded from my eyes. There was no sight of Major Browning, no glimpse of the face I wished to see above all emerging out of the station mist.

“Are you expecting someone?”

The soft American voice caught me off guard. Peeling my gaze away from the window, I watched Nanny Brickley putting away her hand-box. In my experience, Americans were very direct while we English remained inherently coy about our private affairs.

“A gentleman, I gather?”

“A friend,” I was quick to reply.

Alicia Brickley smiled to herself.

I didn’t like the calculation in her doe-brown eyes. As a poor relative of Teddy Grimshaw, he’d seen that she had a place in his household. Formerly a secretary and now a nanny to his newfound child.

“She’s Teddy’s niece; the poor cousin,” Ellen once explained.

“Has she any experience?”

“Four younger sisters and two half-brothers. Who can go against that?”

Nobody, evidently, and Alicia Brickley intended to keep her exalted post. She was treated more like a member of the family, and little Charlotte loved her and that was all that mattered.

I consulted my wristwatch. five minutes to go. Had he called at the house? Had he received my message?

“All aboard!”

My heart sank as the whistle blew. Frowning at the window, I promised myself to vilify Frederick Arthur Montague Browning in a future novel.

 

Preferring to read a book or play with little Charlotte over mixing with my lively companions, I buried my disappointment.

I had to do so. I was here as chief bridesmaid and I had a job to do.

“It’ll be the most beautiful wedding of the season,” declared Megan Kellaway. As number-two bridesmaid, Megan was optimistic, infectious, and engaging, a personality I loved perhaps because it was alien to my own. “Thornleigh at dusk! How unusual . . . I can’t wait to read the write-up in the papers.”

“As much as meeting all the available men?” Angela teased and Megan grinned.

“Well,” said she, “I don’t want to be a spinster.”

As the daughter of Sir Roger Kellaway, Esquire, Megan had her choice amongst the season’s offerings.

“Maybe one of the American relatives?” Eyes dancing, Megan asked Ellen again for the names of those gentlemen attending the wedding.

“I like the sound of the nephew,” Megan pronounced afterward. “Jack Grimshaw . . . hmm; can I see myself living in America?”

“Poor man.” Jeanne grinned. “Hunted like a fox.”

“Are you sure you want all of us sharing part of your honeymoon with you?” The third bridesmaid, Mrs. Clarissa Fenwick, crossed her long legs on the lush upholstery. “After all, darling Ellen, you and Teddy have been too long and too cruelly parted.”

With Charlotte on her lap, Ellen’s face radiated that of a contented mother. With her bouncing blond curls and mischievous little face, Charlotte had no idea of the scandalous drama her entry into the world had caused. “It doesn’t bother us at all, does it, princess?”

“I heard the Spencers turned their nose up at the invitation,” Angela commented. “Better for you, I say! I can’t stand that pretentious Bertha.”

“And Mama says don’t be upset about the West-Mortons,” Jeanne put in. “They are not at all ‘the thing’ anymore.”

“I don’t care a fig about any of them,” Ellen retorted, roused to the conversation when Charlotte wriggled off her lap to go to Nanny Brickley. “The past is done with and those who judge me for it I’d rather not know at all.”

“Hear, hear.” Tapping the sideboard, Megan called for champagne.

I had no complaints about the train. The new S-class sleeping cars painted blue with gold lettering and lining and accompanied by its exquisite wooden marquetry and brass fittings radiated the essence of grandeur and wealth.

Grandeur and comfort didn’t always come automatically together but this train outdid itself. From the sleeping quarters to the dining car and lounge, every tiny comfort had been addressed. It made me think whimsically of the Titanic and its tragic voyage. I prayed we experienced no such catastrophe again.

“Doom and gloom is Daphne,” Jeanne said, her eyes lighting up at the prospect of pink champagne. “Wherever we travel, she regales us with the worst stories. Last year, she frightened Mama out of her wits!”

I smiled.

It was true.

“Oh do humor us with a story, Daphne,” Megan insisted.

“But we should wait ’til after dinner,” Clarissa advised.

“Yes, after dinner,” Angela seconded.

 

The elaborate preparations to attire oneself for the dining car amused me. Clarissa curled her hair, Angela absconded with our mother’s hand mirror, Megan changed her dress five times, and Jeanne begged me to wear some lipstick.

Since I had the merest pink lipstick in my possession, I obliged her while Angela scowled in the corner. She didn’t like to see Jeanne growing up too fast. She liked to think of her as our baby sister.

Tinkling crystal greeted us as we entered the long carriage and the designated dining car.

“Wise of Teddy to prebook a table,” Megan whispered in my ear. “Oh, my goodness, is that Lionel Adams over there? I’m going to die!”

“Please don’t obstruct the aisleway then.” Angela winked her amusement, smiling at the famous actor. “Papa knows him, I think.”

“Papa knows everyone in the business,” Jeanne affirmed, stopping by Lionel’s table to ask for his autograph.

“I can’t believe she’s doing that.” Rolling her eyes, Angela shared Clarissa’s mortifi cation.

“Oh, let her be.” Ellen shepherded us away. “We were all her age once.”

Until now I hadn’t realized how much one grows up from fifteen to twenty- five. I imagined the jump from thirty to forty would yield further mysteries as to one’s true character.

“We are all shaped by circumstance,” Clarissa said, reminding all of us we were here for Ellen’s wedding and not to gape at the plethora of notables on the train. “When I first met my Charles, I despised him. I thought him a great rogue and very vain.”

“And now?” Megan teased.

Clarissa’s face softened. “And now I think he’s adorable . . . and so good to me.”

Putting all thoughts of men aside, I tried to drink in the atmosphere from the gleaming silverware on our table to the various faces, voices, and food selections under the lulling hymn of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

For tonight’s dinner I’d chosen a dress Lady Kate Trevalyan had so generously bequeathed to me when I was a guest at Somner House. Silver gray, its soft satin folds reminded me of a dove’s belly. Drop-waisted, it suited me well and the black lace overlay with its mock sleeves added glamor. To my hair I slipped on the headband bearing one silver star and a black feather. I believed I looked rather fine and much older than my twenty or so years.

“That dress is a bit old for you,” Clarissa, the eldest of us all at twenty-nine, observed as we ordered from the menu.

“It belonged to Lady Trevalyan,” I replied. “And she is reputed to have the best of taste.”

“I hear she is to marry Sir Percival Clements. A splendid match.”

“You mean he’s splendidly rich,” Angela snapped. “He’s old enough to be her grandfather.”

“Father perhaps,” Ellen soothed, laughing. “Now ladies, I do believe we’re attracting certain attention from that quarter.”

Following her sweeping lashes to a table of four gentlemen diagonal to us, I daresay we made a fine impression. Honey-haired Ellen’s quiet grace contrasted to Megan’s exuberance as much as her raven hair and mischievous dark eyes. On the other hand, we du Maurier girls were often called “attractive” though not endowed with any great beauty. I considered my nose too retroussé, Angela’s chin too determined, and Jeanne a shadowy version of our mother.

“They look French to me.” Megan sighed. “Oh, what I’d give to be romanced by one of them!”

“French men don’t make good husbands,” Clarissa informed her. “I have it on good authority from my cousin, who is married to one of them.”

There was a slight superciliousness to her tone and I braced against it. Clarissa had come from a rich family and had married into an equally rich family. They had money but no title or exalted connections. She appeared the kind of person to make up for this lack by being haughty and using condescension to elevate herself.

As our meals arrived, a couple entered the carriage on the far end. I blanched, my face turning a maggoty white. I could feel the blood draining from it as I looked on, sickened at the sight of yes, him—Major Browning accompanying a dark-haired lady and assisting her to her seat, attentively arranging her sparkling shawl and grinning fondly down at her.

“Daphne, what is wrong?”

Squeezing my hand under the table, Ellen’s eyes radiated sympathy.

“It’s him, isn’t it?”

Words stuck in my throat. I could only stare, astonished, hurt, and angry. Who was she? She wasn’t his sister, I knew that much. And were those her parents seated opposite them?

Angela made a scene by openly glaring at him. She turned back to me, countless questions in her eyes.

“Who is he?” a startled Clarissa and Megan breathed.

“Daphne’s boyfriend,” Jeanne answered. “Ouch! Don’t kick me under the table, Ange; it’s true!”

“Jeanne, shhh.” I didn’t want to believe it, nor did I wish to acknowledge his presence. Searching for an escape, I figured I could leave the table and stealthily make my way back to our carriage. I could do all this without being noticed.

I had to collect my thoughts. My stomach burned. I felt like one disembowelled and weak. Sickening betrayal haunted my steps as I fled, and I paid no attention to the curious whispers.

Once in our quarters, I caught my breath, sagging against the wooden panelled door. I wanted to beat my fists and wail. Curses left my mouth as angry tears spilled down my face.

“It’s his fiancée, Lady Lara Fane,” Angela brought the devastating news. “They are going to Cornwall for the wedding but they’re not staying at Thornleigh. He seemed embarrassed to see me and kept looking behind me to see if you were there.”

Please don’t say you told him I was on the train.”

“Of course he knows you’re on the train. He’s not an imbecile. He asked after you in a strange way.”

I waited for her to enlighten me. I didn’t know if I wanted to hear any more.

“He said: ‘Are all your family travelling with you?’ to which I replied: ‘All but my parents who are coming a week later.’ Then he introduced his fiancée and her parents. I nodded my head coolly and left.”

I was thankful Clarissa hadn’t witnessed this interchange fi rsthand. Angela said nobody else could fit in the aisle and as it was, she barely shared five minutes with them. She added the major looked decidedly ill at ease. “How dare he toy with my sister! I’ve a mind to box his ears and I will.”

“He’s not worth it,” I whispered. Now I understood why he’d not bothered to call at the house or send a note. He was too busy with his fiancée, somebody he should have mentioned. Was he engaged to her when we shared that kiss at Somner together? Was he?

I glared out of the window.

Suddenly, the world had turned very bleak. I vowed never to trust another human soul for as long as I lived. I vowed never to surrender my heart again. Never.

Angela sat beside me, a silent companion. Neither of us spoke and she kept the others away from me. I needed to be alone . . . to think.

The wedding and Thornleigh awaited and I prayed the busy frivolities drove all remembrance of the major firmly from my mind.

 

Chapter 3

“Don’t torture yourself,” Ellen advised. “Consider it a good thing they are not bound for Thornleigh. Oh, I’ve got a mind to cancel his invitation. All their invitations! I had no idea Lara was engaged. Funny they didn’t mention it.”

Funny he didn’t mention it.

“He has ill-used my friend and is no friend of mine. I’ll poison his cup if I have the chance!”

I smiled at Ellen’s loyalty as we climbed into the waiting motorcars. Angela stood as sentry to ensure we did not run into his party, complete with fiancée. Clutching my handbag, I prayed to be saved that humiliation.

Gulping back painful tears, I fixed my gaze on the passing green countryside. For the first time in my life, Cornwall in the summertime failed to cheer me. The whole window became a blur of mixed colors, shapeless and moving. A bubbling tightness constricted my throat and I put my hand there to conceal it from the others. Oh why, oh why had I begged Ellen to invite him to the wedding? And how dare he accept knowing he had a fi ancée and knowing I was Ellen’s maid of honor?

No, I would not cry. Not now.

I am sure I never sat on a longer journey. The minutes seemed like torturous hours and the humming of the sleek Rolls-Royce sounded like swarming bees in my ears. I wanted to block it all out. I wanted to block life out. I wanted to run away.

But I could not.

Duty beckoned and my friendship with Ellen took precedence.

If he had even an inkling of sensibility, he’d have denied the invitation. But no, he didn’t. And here was I dreaming of romantic assignations in the gardens of Thornleigh, in the great galley of Thornleigh, in the library at Thornleigh . . . in the woods surrounding Thornleigh. How the very reminder tasted bitter.

How should I conduct myself? Smile at his fiancée and pretend there was nothing between us? Scratch his eyes out in front of his fiancée? Scream at him like a fishwife in front of everyone?

My internal guide said to remain silent. To adopt a facade and ignore the situation. Treat him as nothing more than a slight acquaintance.

The great gates of Thornleigh arrested me, as they always did, with their weathered rusty exterior.

“Teddy wants to get new gates,” Ellen sighed, “but I can’t. The gates may be old but they are part of Thornleigh.”

“Yes, I agree. It would be a crime to remove them; they are so full of character.”

Entwined on the gates glistened the Hamilton coat of arms, given to Ellen’s ancestor five centuries ago. A knight of fortune, Sir Winston saved his king’s life and thus won for himself a bride and a castle. Since that day, the Hamiltons had occupied this land. I wished I could boast such a family history. My most infamous connection extended to my great-great-great grandmother Mary Anne who became mistress of Prince Frederick, the duke of York.

Chestnut and lime trees formed a handsome avenue up the house. Sir John Hamilton saw them planted during the Restoration and it was he and his architect friend who designed the Thornleigh standing today.

“Mama, I can’t wait to ride my new pony!”

Smiling indulgently, Ellen ruffled her daughter’s hair. “Daphne’s a great rider. I’m sure she’ll take you out this afternoon.”

“Yes, I will,” I promised Charlotte. Since it had been some time since I’d been on the back of a horse, I looked forward to it, too.

Beyond the trees, Thornleigh stood ancient and proud. Light rain drizzled down the crenulated turrets and the huge Jacobean wing with its endless mullioned windows and pretty gables. Red and green ivy flourished up the three turrets surviving from the original castle and, I was happy to note, had begun creeping across the limestone mansion.

“Think, Daphne, what it will look like in another fifty years.” Stepping out of the car, Ellen twirled in the rain. “When we’re old ladies, we can sit in that tearoom overlooking the gardens.”

I followed her gaze to the far corner of the house.

“Who has need of a drawing room today? We’ve made it into a tearoom and it’s cozy and bright. Our plan is to transform Thornleigh into an English-Italian villa. You’ll love it.”

I had no doubt I would. I loved all old houses, but Thornleigh remained a particular favorite. Perhaps because I’d come here as a girl, because I’d wandered alone in the woods, because I’d met my pen-friend Ellen here and because I based all my girlhood fantasies around the romantic grounds encompassing the old house.

“Had Xavier lived, you could have been mistress of Thornleigh,” Ellen teased as we made our way up to the house and into the delightful tearoom.

I smiled, an image of the handsome Xavier coming to mind in uniform, on leave from the war. Although I was so much younger, scarcely a child, he’d treated me like a lady and I thought of him as a hero. If he had lived, I calculated quickly, he’d be thirty-three now, a perfect age for a man a girl in her twenties like me might marry.

Ellen suggested we take tea before retiring to our rooms. I still could not believe how much had changed. From the new Queen Anne staircase to the fully restored state rooms, Thornleigh was well on its way to returning to its former glory.

“We plan to do one room at a time,” Ellen said to me on our way up to the third floor. “Teddy is a great planner. He’s pushing the builder all the time.”

“I guess money helps.” Angela grinned, pausing to admire a painting on the stairway wall. “Is that a Monet?”

“Yes.” Ellen seemed embarrassed. “It was an engagement present. I did think of locking it away, but it’s insured and Teddy says it should be on display. We put it in the library first but I think it looks better here in the hall.”

She moved on, and Angela and I shared a wide- eyed look. This was how millionaires spent their money, obviously.

“It can’t have been bestowed on a better person,” I said to my sisters later. “And how kind of Ellen to give us the best room over all the American relatives!”

“You are her maid of honor,” Angela reminded. “And we do have to share this suite with our parents. No late-night sneaking out.”

Elated, I skipped about, refamiliarizing myself with the “Queen’s Room.” Called so for Queen Charlotte herself stayed at Thornleigh while passing through the country, it bore the bed the queen slept in, a massive four-poster carved in oak, a King Louis XVI sitting room, a maid’s chamber where we three girls unpacked our luggage, and a separate Regency-style reception room. The old furniture had been tastefully restored and some replaced, and new blue velvet drapes framed the large window. I slipped outside that window onto the private balcony and gazed out at the woods.

I wanted a moment alone. To grieve, to be angry, to dream of what I’d say to Mister Major Browning when he showed up with his fiancée. Lady Lara Fane! The name made my blood boil.

Perhaps I should say nothing at all. Treat him with cool indifference, to pretend he meant nothing to me. Oh, how I wished Sir Marcus was here! I missed his merry humor. Instead, I had to face the vultures—the haute ton of English society and their American counterparts, the Bostonians.

I dreaded it. And as maid of honor, I wouldn’t exactly be inconspicuous, would I? At the best of times, I had little self-confidence and had no wish to be ogled at by all and sundry. I cheered myself that I only had to walk the aisle, smile, and support Ellen.

 

If only it were that simple, I thought at the dinner table the next evening surrounded by a host of Bostonians. Two of Teddy’s sisters, Mrs. Bertha Pringle and Mrs. May Fairchild, sat there staunch-faced and proud, their children Dean, Amy, and Sophie talking to their cousin Jack and Teddy’s daughter, Rosalie. A party of seven, and they did not mix easily with the English, though Megan endeavored to do her vivacious best to fill the void.

Glimpsing Ellen’s face across the table, I saw how uneasy she’d become, even shy. Teddy’s daughter Rosalie flaunted herself shamelessly while deliberately ignoring her stepmother-to-be. The Americans liked to dance and Angela joined them while I preferred to remain at the table. The men were good looking and loud, the women lively and overdressed. I gathered that the Americans considered us English as staid as old biscuits.

After discussing several neutral subjects with the two aunts, I ran out of things to say. Teddy stepped in then, handsome, boyish, and kind, directing his broad grin to me.

“Daphne here is the daughter of Sir Gerald du Maurier. She comes from a long line of English crust as does my Ellen here.”

“Oh,” they chorused, lifting their brows, and there was a sudden interest in anything I had to say from that moment on. Mrs. May Fairchild eyed me peculiarly as though trying to ascertain whether or not I possessed a sizable dowry. As the mother of Dean and Sophie, I gathered she planned to wed either of them into our English “crust.”

The next day hastened my opinion of my fellow guests when upon returning from my ride with Charlotte, Amy asked me outright if my sisters and I had any money to our name.

We were standing in the stable courtyard, and the gentle breeze rustled Amy’s corn- colored hair about her face. She was prettier than her cousin Sophie, I decided, and more forward, too.

“Aunt May is determined Dean marries well. She wants a rich English wife for him.”

Perhaps too forward.

“So are you . . . ?”

“Rich? No. Well, my father is. As for dowries, I guess you’ll have to ask him when he arrives.”

Her face fell. “Sir Gerald’s coming here?”

“Of course he is. And the earl of Rutland, too, if you are name hunting. In fact, I do have a list of all the attendees if you’d like to peruse it. I can even add a column on the side with their status in life and the amount of their fortune.”

She stared at me, her brown eyes thrilled at the prospect before she registered my cynicism.

“You English are far too proud. I meant no insult.”

She stormed off, and I let out a little laugh. The confrontation lifted my spirits and I spent the afternoon with Megan making last- minute preparations. The rest of the guests arrived that afternoon, my parents among them, and the hour for the wedding dawned.

“I’m terribly nervous,” Ellen confessed as we dressed in her chamber on the far side of the house.

“I’m not nervous, Mummy,” Charlotte said, twirling in front of the mirror. “I like my daddy. Why didn’t you tell him about me? You said my daddy was dead!”

Half in her dress, Ellen reached out to hold her daughter’s hand. “Charlotte, we’ve been through this before. I told you why.”

“I asked Rosalie if she burned the letters and she said she never saw the letters.”

“She’s lying,” Ellen sighed, exasperated. “She was afraid you and I would take her daddy away from her. But hopefully she’s grown up enough now and is happy she has a little sister.”

Nodding, Charlotte absorbed all this information with unusual solemnity.

“I had thought to make Rosalie a bridesmaid, too,” Ellen said, “but I couldn’t risk her sabotaging anything. Perhaps it’s wrong of me, but somebody destroyed all those letters I sent and I know in my heart it was Rosalie.”

“Has Teddy confronted her about it?” I asked.

“Yes, but she won’t confess. If not her, who else could it be? It was only she and her father living at that address and I can’t imagine one of the servants would have tampered with the mail. Although, on further reflection, they could have at Rosalie’s mother’s bidding. Oh, it’s a mess and I’m done with it. It doesn’t matter now, does it, darling? We’re reunited as a family, even if it is eight years later.”

“Don’t cry, Mummy.” Charlotte threw her arms around Ellen’s neck. “We can be happy now.”

“Yes, darling,” Ellen glanced through her tears at me, “we can be happy now.”

 

Nauseous, I examined the long line before me. The aisle seemed to stretch for miles. Wanting to enjoy the silken tents erected over the prettiest part of the Thornleigh grounds, the candlelight, the shining silver Wedgewood, the chink of crystal glasses, the lulling beauty of the violinists playing Mozart, I took a deep breath and straightened the folds of my dress. Glossy pink satin in a classic cut with touches of white, Ellen insisted we have our hair dressed low under a wreath of flowers.

Standing there in her shining white beaded gown, her curled hair pinned upward using diamond star- clips, Ellen looked like a princess out of a fairy-tale book. I said so and she laughed, scooping my hand as Charlotte, Clarissa, and Megan left us to begin the wedding march.

Swallowing deeply, I prayed my high heels did not give way. My pride demanded I walk with dignity, my head held high and my smile sanguine. I was determined not to feel awkward or humiliated knowing Major Browning was in the audience, Lady Lara poised on his arm. I was a du Maurier, and du Mauriers never succumbed to weakness. Never in the public eye, and I would sooner die than cry.

Blessedly, the wedding ceremony passed sooner than I expected. The romantic atmosphere did nothing for my mood so, at the earliest opportunity, I retreated.

“What excuse do you have for retiring so early?”

The low, amused voice hailed from the shadows near the door to the house.

“Aching feet and a headache,” I retorted, “and it’s a condition worsened by meeting with a disloyal lecher such as yourself. If you will move out of my way, Major, I have much to do.”

His arm waylaid me. “Ah, so you are going to your room because of me.”

“Because of you?” I scoffed. “Really, Major, you have too-high an opinion of yourself and your charms. When is the wedding, by the way? I suppose you brought your fiancée here to steal tips for your own forthcoming nuptials. I congratulate you both.”

“You have the wrong picture, Daphne.”

Since he would not let me pass, I stood my ground and crossed my arms. “According to you, I always have the wrong picture. I can’t even hope to climb up to whatever exalted limb you imagine yourself perched upon. And that’s exactly it. It’s imaginary. Your overestimation of your intelligence is as misguided as it is laughable. And as for your integrity, well, you have none, sir. Now, please move or I will remove the high heel from my foot and shove it in your face.”

He laughed, curse him. And laughed harder when I sought to remove my shoe.

“Daphne, Daphne, it’s not what you think . . . let me explain.”

“There’s nothing to explain,” I hissed. “You had better attend to Lady Lara, sir. I am sure she is looking for you.”

“Daphne, you don’t understand. Yes, she’s my fiancée,” his savage whisper swept past my face. “But only publicly. I had intended to let you know—”

“That would have been nice.”

“—but the details are delicate. I didn’t want to speak to you until I was officially at liberty to do so.”

“Speak what?” I demanded. “We are only friends, Major. Not even; acquaintances.”

“We are more than friends.”

“No, we are not. What you have done is unforgivable.” I put up my hand. “No, don’t speak. Don’t breathe another word.”

On seeing my father, I rushed to his side. In his concern for me, he did not see the major standing there ashen-faced, but my mother did. She remained silent all the way to our room until I was safely tucked into bed.

“My poor girl, what a shock for you . . .”

She’d known about the major’s letters. She had hoped, like I. She had waited for an announcement or omission of some kind and when no omission arrived, naturally commenced her matchmaking venture.

“I don’t know what to say.”

I drew my knees up to my chin. “There’s nothing to say. Yes, he’s engaged and she’s Lady Lara Fane, daughter of the earl of Rutland. She’s beautiful, too; did you see?”

Sighing, my mother sat on the edge of my bed. Her furrowed brow deepened. “He’s treated you abominably. I will have your father say a word to him.”

“Oh, no, don’t! Promise me you won’t. That would be too humiliating.”

“What did he say to you at the door?”

“I don’t know. I was too angry to listen and I don’t care. The sooner they leave the better. They’re not staying here the night, are they?”

“I don’t think so. Shall I go and find out?”

“Yes, do,” I enthused. “I can’t stand it if they are. Ellen would have told me, wouldn’t she?”

“Brides have a lot on their minds, my dearest.”

She left me and I went to sit on my parents’ bed. I had planned to lie there and wait for her return but I couldn’t help myself. Turning off the light, I headed out to the balcony. I don’t know why. Did I want to torture myself watching the festivities below? Watching the major waltz with his beautiful fiancée in the warm summer evening? See the newspaper man snap their photograph?

Drawn to my senses, I turned to go in when I heard a commotion below. People were running around frantically and shouting. Jeanne came to tell me the news. “Quick, come quick! Something terrible has happened.” “W-what?” “You better come down. Quickly!” I felt suddenly cold and sick. “Something’s happened to Ellen?”

“No, to Teddy. He’s dead.”


Joanna Challis lives in Queensland, Australia, in a colonial house with wrap-around verandahs and an English garden. She is surrounded by family, old paintings, anything fleur-de-lys, and books.

Comments

  1. Saundra Peck

    I love the images of the period details, and a good mystery too! Looks like a good read.

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