Authors: Victoria Holt
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Parricide, #Contemporary, #Edinburgh (Scotland), #Stepmothers
SNARE OF THE SERPENTS
in the House
I HAD NEVER SEEN ANYONE look less like a governess. I was watching from a window when she arrived. She stood for a moment looking up at the house and I saw her face clearly. Her reddish hair—Titian, I think it was called—was visible under a black hat with a green feather. That air of genteel poverty which her predecessor, Lilias Milne, had had in common with most of her kind was completely lacking. There was a flamboyant quality about this woman. She looked as if she were about to join some theatrical group instead of coming to teach the daughter of one of Edinburgh’s most respected citizens.
Moreover Hamish Vosper, son of the coachman, had been ordered to take the carriage to the station to meet her. It was too long ago for me to remember the arrival of Lilias Milne, but I was sure she had not been brought here by the family carriage. Hamish helped her out of the vehicle as though she
were an important guest; then he collected her baggage—of which there was a considerable amount—and brought her to the front door.
At that point I went down to the hall. Mrs. Kirkwell, the housekeeper, was already there.
“It’s the new governess,” she said to me.
The governess was standing in the hall. She had very green eyes, their colour no doubt accentuated by the green feather in her hat and the silk scarf at her throat; but what made her face so startling were the dark brows and eyelashes which contrasted vividly with the colour of her hair; she had a short rather pert nose with a long upper lip which gave her a playful kittenish look. The full red lips made another contrast; they revealed slightly prominent teeth which suggested an eagerness, a greediness for what—I was only just sixteen—I was not quite sure.
She was looking straight at me and I felt I was being closely scrutinised.
“You must be Davina,” she said.
“Yes, I am,” I answered.
The green eyes were speculative. “We’re going to get along,” she said, in a coy voice which did not quite match the look she gave me.
I knew she was not Scottish.
My father had spoken of her only briefly. He had said: “There will be a new governess. I myself engaged her so I am sure she will give satisfaction.”
I had been dismayed. I did not want another governess. I should be seventeen soon and I thought it was time I finished with governesses. Moreover I was still very upset by what had happened to Lilias Milne. She had been with me for eight years and we had become good friends. I could not believe that she was guilty of what they had accused her.
Mrs. Kirkwell was saying: “Perhaps you’d like to show Miss … er …”
“Grey,” said the governess. “Zillah Grey.”
Zillah! What a strange name for a governess! And why did
she tell us? Why not say just Miss Grey? It had been a long time before I discovered that Miss Milne was Lilias.
I took her to her room and she stood beside me looking round, studying it intently as a few moments before she had studied me.
“Very nice,” she said. She turned her luminous eyes on me. “I think I am going to be very happy here.”
which had led up to the arrival of Miss Zillah Grey had been dramatic and the fact that they had burst so unexpectedly into our peaceful existence made them more so.
It began that morning when I went into my mother’s bedroom and found her dead. After that, a sinister influence began to creep into the house—vaguely, insidiously at first until it culminated in the tragedy which threatened to ruin my life.
I had risen that morning as usual and was coming down to breakfast when I met Kitty McLeod, our parlourmaid, on the stairs.
“I cannot get an answer from Mrs. Glentyre,” she said. “I’ve knocked two or three times. I dinna like to go in without her saying so.”
“I’ll come with you,” I said.
We went up the stairs to the master bedroom which for the last year or so my mother had occupied alone, for she had not been in good health and my father sometimes was away on business until late and, not wanting to disturb her, he occupied the room next to hers. There were even nights when he could not get home at all.
I knocked. There was no answer so I went into the room. It was a very pleasant one. There was a large double bed with highly polished brass knobs and flounces which matched the curtains. It had tall windows from which one could look out onto the grey stone, dignified houses on the other side of the wide street.
I went to the bed and there lay my mother—white and very still—with a look of tranquility on her face.
I knew that she was dead.
I turned to Kitty who was standing beside me and said: “Get Mr. Kirkwell at once.”
Kirkwell the butler was there almost immediately with Mrs. Kirkwell beside him.
“We’ll send for the doctor,” he said.
We were shocked and stunned, but we could only wait for the arrival of the doctor.
When he came he told us that she had died in her sleep. “It was very peaceful,” he said, “and not unexpected.”
We could not send for my father because we did not know where he was. We believed he was on a business trip to Glasgow, but that was too vague. He returned later that day.
I had never seen such horror in any face as I saw in his when he heard the news. Strangely enough I had just a fleeting fancy that I detected a look of guilt.
It would be because he had not been at home when it happened, of course. But could he blame himself for that?
HEN THE CHANGE
I had lived the sixteen years of my life in an orderly fashion and could never have suspected that it would change so drastically. I learned that peace, security, happiness, when we have them, are taken for granted and we do not value them highly enough until we have lost them.
Looking back, there is so much to remember: a roomy comfortable house where warm fires appeared as soon as the cold winds of autumn reminded us that winter was on the way. I had no need to fear the cold. I enjoyed the stimulation of going out walking in warm gaiters, coat tipped with fur at the neck and sleeves, woollen muffler, gloves and a fur muff for added protection. There was the knowledge that I was a member of one of the most highly respected families in Edinburgh.
My father was head of a bank in Princes Street, and I always felt a glow of pride when I walked past it. When I was very young I thought that all the money which went into the bank was his. It was a wonderful thing to be a Glentyre—member of such an illustrious family. My father was David Ross Glentyre and I have been named Davina which was the nearest they
could get to David. If I had been a boy, which I supposed they would have preferred, I should have been called David. But there was never a boy; my mother had been too delicate to risk a second childbirth.
Such memories there were for me in that house which had become one of mourning.
Until a year or so before her death my mother and I had often ridden out in the carriage to the shops or to visit friends. Much homage was shown to her in all the big shops. Men in black coats came hurrying forward rubbing their hands in unctuous delight because she had deigned to visit them. “When would you like this sent, Mrs. Glentyre? Of course, of course, we can get it to the house today. And Miss Davina … quite the young lady now.” It was all very gratifying.
We would visit friends—people as comfortably situated as ourselves, living in similar houses. We would take tea, bannocks and Dundee cake and I would sit and listen docilely to the accounts of the trials and triumphs of our neighbours; and sometimes there would be hints—although only hints because of my presence, with pursed lips seeming to hold back words which threatened to escape and so sully my ears—that there were fascinating details to come at a more suitable time.
How I loved driving along the Royal Mile from the castle on the rock to that most delightful of all palaces, Holyrood House. Once I had been inside the palace. I had stood in the room where Rizzio had been murdered at the feet of Queen Mary; I had shivered and dreamed of it for months afterwards. It was all so frighteningly wonderful.
Every Sunday I went to church with my mother and with my father if he was not away. In that case my mother and I went alone and after the service we would pause outside the church to chat with friends before we got into the carriage which Vosper, the coachman, would have waiting for us. Then we would drive through the streets with their Sunday quietness to the house and Sunday lunch.
That would have been a solemn occasion but for my mother; she laughed a good deal and could be a trifle irreverent about the sermon; when she talked about people she had a way of
imitating them so accurately that it was as though they themselves were speaking. She did this affectionately rather than maliciously; and we were very amused. Even my father allowed his lips to twitch and Kirkwell would put his hand discreetly to his lips to hide a smile; Kitty would smirk and my father would look with mild reproach at my mother who only laughed.
My father was a very solemn man, very religious and anxious that everyone in the house should be the same. He conducted prayers every morning in the library when he was at home, and all must attend, except my mother. She had been told by the doctor that she needed rest, so she did not rise until ten o’clock.
After church Sunday lunches would be going on in all those tall granite houses. Most of them would have the requisite number of servants, similar to ours. We had Mr. and Mrs. Kirkwell, Kitty, Bess and the tweeny. Then there were the Vospers. They did not live in the house but had their own quarters in the mews where the horses and carriage were kept. There were Mr. and Mrs. Vosper and Hamish their son. Hamish was about twenty. He helped his father and if old Vosper was not able to drive the carriage, Hamish did.
There was something about Hamish which puzzled me. He was very dark-haired with eyes which were almost black. Mrs. Kirkwell said: “There’s more than a touch of insolence about young Hamish. He seems to have a notion he’s a cut above the rest of us.”
He certainly swaggered. He was tallish and broad; he towered above his father and Mr. Kirkwell, and had a habit of lifting one eyebrow and the side of his mouth at the same time as he surveyed people. It made him appear supercilious, as though he were looking down on us because he knew so much more than we did.