There was nothing between five and seven o’clock and where the seven should have been was the number 960 with numbers going up counter-clockwise to 1040. Maybe they didn’t even have the same hours of the day here. Did they mark time as a back and forth, instead of around and around? Symbols of storm, rain, clouds and sun were painted along the inside of the numbers. The big black hand was pointing to the rain clouds and the smaller silver hand pointed to the clouds. Both her father and Marcella had said it would rain the following day. Perhaps it wasn’t a clock, but some kind of weather machine. It wasn’t even ticking.
Standing very still, she could sense that the house was not altogether empty. Muffled sounds of movement came from behind the closed doors. There was such an echo in the checkerboard tiled hall that her breath almost sounded magnified. She felt chilled and shut out.
She went back downstairs to the kitchen and knocked shyly on the door frame. “Come in, come in,” said Marcella who was tasting the soup from a wooden ladle.
“Can I help with supper? There’s nothing to do upstairs. I looked around, but all the doors were closed and I didn’t want to interrupt.”
Marcella squinted, sizing her up. “All right. You can prepare the asparagus.” She set down the ladle and handed Rosalyn the bucket of asparagus across the table.
“May I have a knife?”
“To cut off the ends?” Rosalyn said, suddenly unsure.
“Oh, just snap them off.” She grabbed a spear and bent the end sharply until about an inch snapped off with a crack.
“All right.” Rosalyn found herself enjoying the slight suspense, bending, bending the stalk and the satisfying crack when the woody end snapped off. She would have to try this method at home—if she ever got back.
Marcella was grating cheese across the table and Rosalyn asked, “If it’s not a secret, can you tell me what happened to the brother?”
Without looking up, Marcella sighed, her shoulders drooped and she shook her head sadly. Rosalyn assumed this meant no, she couldn’t tell. She was about to apologize for prying, when Marcella began to speak.
“Three years ago, just one week before Ben and Miss Nora were to be married, he announced at dinner, just as I was setting the dessert down in the serving hall myself—it was a chocolate soufflé and I didn’t trust anyone else with it—that he at last had what he thought was the evidence to get rid of the Marquis for good, and though he would have to go away for a few days, he was confident he would be back in plenty of time for the wedding. I can still see him sitting at the head of the table beaming with hope and confidence, his curly brown hair a-quiver with excitement. Miss Nora was just as excited as he was and said she knew he’d do it. Even Herself looked pleased for once, but I recall she said, ‘Just be careful. He’s a sly fox.’
Rosalyn asked, “Who’s the Marquis?” Get rid of, she thought? Was he some kind of paid assassin?
Marcella snorted, “The most charming of all knaves. At the time, he was trying to persuade the king to invest in a mining venture in another country, I forget which, and promising him riches untold. That’s all I overheard. But I can tell you, that man was and is and always will be a scoundrel and why the king can’t see it, I’ll never know. When the Marquis came here as a boy—he’s a distant cousin of the family—there was never a day that didn’t end with one or other of the children in a rage at him, but he could charm his way out of anything.
“I remember Ben had found a frog at the bottom fo the garden and had made it a little house with a screen roof and a muddy little pool and some grasses—a clever, handy child he always was—but one morning he comes down to see his pet and the screen’s been ripped off and the frog, poor thing, has had its legs torn off. I still feel sick at the thought of it. Well, the children blamed Edward, but with his big, green, innocent eyes he said it must have been the cat—and he said there was some grey fur caught on one of the nails. That cat was Gaétane’s, you know, and she hotly denied he could have done such a cruel thing, but the grown-ups decided to believe Edward. Afterward, I overhead him saying to his cousins, ‘See? You’ll never pin anything on me. I’m too clever.’
“That was just the kind of thing he was forever doing—pitting Ben against Gaétane with her cat, but he was such a handsome child, always beautifully dressed, with manners for all the grown-ups to admire, didn’t like to get his hands dirty. And for all that he left a trail of destruction behind him whenever he came here. Folks don’t change. I always say, The child is the father of the man.” She banged the spoon against the rim of the pot fiercely.
“But what happened to Ben?”
“Oh yes. Early next morning it was going to be a bright sunny day and he headed out in a boat and never returned. Neither he nor the boat have been found.”
“I’m sorry,” said Rosalyn. “And you think the cousin kidnapped him or something?”
“I hope to goodness not. I cannot imagine the cruelties that wicked child is now capable of with all the power and influence and money he has as a man.”
“You said things went from bad to worse after that?”
“First there was the embarassment of having to postpone and then, in the end, call off the wedding, and send back wedding gifts and write letters to all the hundreds of guests who had been inconvenienced. When, after a week, they started trying to get official help, they came across strange obstacles. The local police station, usually a friendly lot, especially to us at the Manor, were cagey and were taking their precious time getting a search organized. They called the women in for questioning and the superintendent himself spent over an hour with Gaétane shut up in the library. I could hear her shouting, but all in vain. When she showed him out, apparently he said, ‘There’s a lot we didn’t know, but that confirms it.’ Leclair, the majordomo, left the Manor very soon after and one by one the other servants gave their flimsy excuses and left.
“For a year or so, I could still persuade some of the tenants to lend me their daughters for a bit of help with washing and cleaning, but for nearly two years now I’ve been on my own. I says to Miss Nora, ‘My dear Miss, it is getting to be a bit much for old me. Could you have a word with Herself and see if she would be willing to close up the other bedrooms and reduce the number of items that need dusting? It is either cooking or cleaning at this point, I says, but I can’t keep upwith both.’
“ ‘Why certainly,’ she says, and from then on, she’s been helping a little bit. I do so hate to see a lady reduced to setting her own table, but she insists she doesn’t mind.
“Reduced,” sighed Marcella, “reduced to a staff of one. Reduced from seven courses to three and meat only once a week. At least Herself can fish and shoot birds, otherwise we’d have more lentils and cabbage stew than we could stomach.”
“What are we having tonight?” asked Rosalyn, “It smells amazing.”
“Soup, trout and new potatoes, with asparagus, and I’m not saying what’s for dessert—you’ll have to eat all your vegetables first.”
Described like that, Rosalyn didn’t think the meal sounded very appealing after all. She hoped the fish would taste like it smelled.
Marcella lifted the lid off a tall narrow pot and plume of steam rose from it. She gathered the trimmed asparagus in a bunch with both hands and gently slid them upright into the boiling water. “Now, upstairs you go, right away. Dinner will be served in a second and it wouldn’t do to have our guest, even such a helpful young guest, come up the back stairs with the meal.” She chuckled at such a ludicrous thought.
“We’re not eating here?”
“Heavens! No, the dining room is the second door on the right at the top of the stairs.”
Reluctantly, Rosalyn left the steam and warmth of the kitchen and made her way back down the cold hall which was getting nearly dark. At the second door on the right, Rosalyn took hold of the carved brass handle and slowly pushed open the door, staying half-hidden behind it. Heavy wine-red curtains drawn across the tall windows made the room as dim as the hallway . A glow of candlelight illuminated the far end of a long dining table.
“Oh! Ow!” said a voice. “You startled me!” A fair-haired woman was blowing on her finger and pinching the end of a charred wooden match.