Bride of a Distant Isle CHAPTER ONE
NEAR MILFORD ON SEA, HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND
I had no warning before evil befell me.
Edward had abruptly recalled me to Highcliffe, but why now? It was not as if we’d often holidayed together, or enjoyed one another’s companionship. In fact, over the course of our adult years I’d been home infrequently and we’d been mostly separated, at school, years before that. Grandfather was long dead, as were Edward’s parents. Pretense could be done away with. Perhaps he’d had a sudden, inexplicable longing for family now we two were all that remained.
The day after I arrived, I walked from the house, which was now crumbling, across the green lawn, now thinning, toward the Edge of the World, to gather my thoughts. I’d forgotten how the sea around Highcliffe relentlessly pounds the land, undermining it so fiercely that the earth quickens, churns, and slips; the breakers smother all sound, throwing off thickly salted mist that clouds vision like a cataract. For this reason, I had no signal that someone was approaching. Instead, I suddenly felt his breath curdling in my ear.
The whispering started.
“It was many and many a year ago,” came the murmur, “in a kingdom by the sea, that a maiden there lived whom you may know by the name of Annabel Lee; and this maiden she lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.”
“Mr. Morgan,” I acknowledged, then hard-swallowed my bile and turned round to see his face. I knew by the familiar warped timbre of his voice that it was my cousin Edward’s childhood friend and current associate. Their fathers had been friends, too, and their dubious dealings together extended back to that time. “I am taking my leave of you, returning to the house.”
“Take your leave? No, indeed. I’ve long prepared to read Mr. Poe’s poem aloud to you, Annabel. I purchased the book at great expense. Surely you’ll give me the respect of listening attentively to the complete recitation.”
“Please do not call me by my Christian name.” I turned to face him. “It’s forward.” He wore finely spun black trousers and highly polished boots, but his girth was poorly restrained by a red silk waistcoat. Nearby stood a young woman, her face flat-planed and impassive.
“My sister,” Mr. Morgan said at my glance. “Mrs. Wemberly. A widow.” The gaps between Morgan’s teeth had been charming as a child but now reminded me of the widening cracks in his soul, like a cobblestone path long left unattended, mortar washing away, extending the spaces as the years passed.
He placed himself between me and the worn walking trail, most often used by the sheep. I looked for a way around him, but there was none to be had without risking a fall. By the look of Widow Wemberly, she must have been a child bride. “I do not recall you having a sister.”
“My father had many children.” He grinned. “Not all of them born, as they say, on the proper side of the blanket. I do not hold that against a person, especially a beautiful woman, though many others have and undeniably still do.” He held my gaze. “Surely that is something you well understand, Miss Ashton. I’ve always kept you in my greatest admiration and esteem.”
I flushed deeply, and he delighted in my discomfort. He closed the costly gilt-edged book from which he’d read and handed it toward me. “A gift. You can read it as we travel to London.”
“Thank you.” I twisted the cameo ring on my first finger, as I often did when discomfited. “You will accompany us?”
He nodded. “Perhaps it would be better put to say that you’ll finally be coming with me.” He suddenly seemed to tire of the effort required for false cheer and let his face take its natural course, falling into expressive displeasure: mouth turned down, skin dropping in folds round ruddy jowls that remained half hidden by unruly, hedge-like side-whiskers.
“Good day, Mr. Morgan, Mrs. Wemberly.” I moved past them, walking toward the house.
Once in my room, I unwrapped myself from my light outer garments, using a corner of my shawl to scour the film of his words from my ear. I sat by the fireplace in my small room, though a fire had not been lit against the morning chill—to economize. I tentatively opened the volume and scanned a passage of Mr. Poe’s poem.
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.
I closed the book and then closed my eyes to banish my growing apprehension. Perhaps, he’d said, it would be better put to say that you’ll finally be coming with me.
An hour later I made my way down to the kitchens. As a rule, the family did not venture below stairs, but I was different, not truly holding the same status as Edward and the others. Instead, I was caught between two worlds: born highly enough to be a lady, but with circumstances that dictated my lower position. It was an awkward and uncertain place to hold.
“Miss Annabel, how happy we are to see you!” Cook, a largish matron, crushed me into her substantial bosom, which smelt of flour and the eye-watering pinch of bargain-priced violet perfume. I melted into her for a moment until Chef came. He made a small bow before turning to shout an order at a scullery maid. Chef still conducted himself with vigor, but his step had slowed.
None of them had been employed here in many years; most, I believed, had retired from service. I knew the reason they’d all returned to Highcliffe for one last season: to honor the memory of my late grandfather, whom they’d faithfully served for many years before Edward’s father had taken over. Edward, living in London, had leased the country house to others for years, hoping his finances would turn around. They had not.
Now, Highcliffe was to be sold. The old house was being packed. The rooms were ghostly, furniture packed or covered with parchment-colored dust sheets like loosely draped shroud cloths. Only current living areas were to be left untouched, for now.
Chef bowed politely, and then led me into the stillroom, a place I’d often visited and had even hidden in when I was a young child. It had been a refuge for me, a quiet corner away from Edward’s taunting.
“You’ll need the bonbons, non? For the long journey?” Chef handed a small box to me, neatly wrapped in ribbon, and I opened it.
Perfectly square-cut fruit jellies shimmered in a dust of sugar, releasing the perfume of blackberry summer. Candied orange peels rested like a bundle of kindling against one side of the box while puffy pink pastilles, lips pursed to kiss, rested on the other.
“I shall need les bonbons for any journey, long or short, or even for simply indulging while visiting home. Thank you very much. I’m afraid I’ve boasted of them so often that my friends at school have asked me to stop speaking of them. When I return to teach, I shall keep quiet about this gift lest I incite further hostilities.”
The room grew silent; unexpectedly, Chef looked with concern toward Mrs. Watts, temporary housekeeper, whose face grew sad. The others scurried away, none of them meeting my eye. Why the sudden change in their demeanor?
I stealthily returned up the back stairs to the second floor, the air dead and stale as it often is in houses long abandoned. I passed a new hall boy as I did. He, perhaps ten years younger than my four and twenty, nodded in surprise but didn’t speak, which was to be expected as I should rightly have taken the main staircase. I nodded and smiled in return.
Strangely, the door to my small room was open, and although Maud had not yet arrived, the room looked to have been readied. My small trunk was neatly packed with the few belongings I had brought with me from Winchester. My vanity was prepared: a porcelain salver of water for washing, a silver powder jar of lemon chalk powder. Horses sweat, men perspire, but women merely glow, I recalled.
Clementine’s lady’s maid, older than most, with a face pungent as ripe cheese, soon arrived and we nodded to one another. “Well, then, Miss Annabel, if you’re ready, I’ll just help you into your dress, do your hair, and then I must return to Mrs. Everedge and her trunks.”
“Of course, Maud, and I do appreciate your assistance.” I was painfully aware that the few minutes granted me with Maud were a generosity Edward’s wife, Clementine, spared as I would, of course, have no lady’s maid of my own. I did not need one. I, and the other teachers at the Rogers Day School for Young Ladies, looked after ourselves.
Maud laced me tightly, prettily but firmly, as Chef might truss a chicken prepared to impress and then be served, and I sat down again, balancing on the edge of the dressing chair in front of the mirror.
She reached around me, and the longish necklace in her hands dropped in front of my dress while she clasped it from behind. I could see it in the mirror. I did not recognize it.
“This is new?”
“Surely you would be better put to answer that than I,” she said. “’Tis yours, after all.”
“I am quite sure it is not mine.” I looked down. The chain was of finely polished gold, heavy and of the brightest quality. Dangling from the loop at the end of it was a silver fish with a gold ring in its mouth. “I would remember something so unique. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Nor I. It was in with your other jewelry, miss.” She held up the trinket box, and yes, I recognized everything else within it. Her voice lowered and was edged with a suspicious tone. “Perhaps you simply forgot, though it would be difficult to forget something as valuable and unusual as this.”
I owned very few pieces of fine jewelry and would not have forgotten this, or any, one. Maud looked at me, still, an uneasy expression stealing across her face. I recognized that look; I had seen it many times before and was well practiced at discerning its implication. Your mother was mad and died in an asylum. Are you quite sane yourself? An off comment, a tired day, an unusual observation—any of these would have been casually overlooked in another woman. But not in me. Never in me.
I pushed away the panic that particular implication always aroused and applied my most soothing voice, also well practiced, like a warm, gentle hand on a goose-fleshed arm. “I’ll bring it up with Clementine.”
Maud exhaled and her face relaxed. She finished with me and returned to Clementine, with whom I hoped she would not share the strange necklace appearance. I stared at it again, both in my hand and in the mirror’s reflection. From where had it come? I was certain it had not been there earlier in the day—nor ever. Had it been misplaced?
An unwelcome thought: had Mr. Morgan somehow acquired it and brought it with him this very afternoon, another odd gift? I grew light-headed with the thought and wished I were back in my small, safe room in Winchester.
I fingered the chain and then the fish. Touching it made me discomfited and wistful; it dredged up something murky and painful and anxious that I could not clearly place.
Stop being childish, Annabel. I pushed the feelings away and hoped whatever had been stirred up would soon settle once more to the bottom, allowing the emotional clarity and control I so carefully kept to return.
I walked down the hallway, where Clementine was finishing her travel preparations with Mrs. Watts.
“Yes?” Clementine asked impatiently.
“This necklace.” I held it out. “Did you place it in my room?”
A strange look crept across her face. “Why . . . no. It’s not yours?”
I did not know what to answer. “I thought it might have been misplaced.”
She shook her head.
“It may just be that I don’t remember it,” I offered. “I do not wear much jewelry when I am teaching,” I finished honestly, if perhaps a bit feebly.
She nodded. “You do not remember your own jewelry? You have so much, then? Or is your memory so unreliable for a woman your age? Of course, I do not know where you could have obtained the resources to purchase such an item. It looks quite valuable.”
I said nothing. The hallway remained silent and still but the implication that the necklace had been stolen was nearly palpable, though unspoken.
“Yes, I must have forgotten it,” I said, taking control of the conversation. “I’ll continue my preparations and leave you to yours.”
They each nodded slowly, but did not return to their conversation till I’d turned my back and retreated down the hallway. I heard Clementine’s hushed, concerned voice whisper, “Her mother.”
I certainly could not remove the necklace now without calling attention to our awkward conversation and all that it might imply. I would wear it for a week and then put it away.