Authors: Irina Shapiro
By Irina Shapiro
© 2015 by Irina Shapiro
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for quotations in printed reviews, without permission in writing from the author.
All characters are fictional. Any resemblances to actual people (except those who are actual historical figures) are purely coincidental
Table of Contents
Just as a hint of lavender stained the pristine blue of the spring sky the soldiers reconvened on the village green, their faces glistening with sweat and their feet sore from hours of walking. The villagers threw them curious looks, but averted their gazes before eye contact could be made, afraid that they would be accused of being complicit. The village was abuzz with talk, but everyone spoke in whispers, their heads bent together as they conveyed the news to one another, shaking their heads and speculating as to what might have happened.
Captain Humphries looked from one tired face to another, and felt a twinge of pity for his men. They’d been on their feet for hours, searching the countryside, turning the manor house upside down, going house to house in the village and intimidating the inhabitants in the vain hope of finding some trace of the missing man, but they turned up nothing.
“It was magic, it was,” a young soldier named Dawson whispered to the man next to him, but to his misfortune the captain overheard.
“There’s no such thing as magic, Dawson,” Captain Humphries barked, although deep down he wasn’t so sure. His father, who was a learned man, always told him that there was a reasonable explanation for most things, but as far as he could see, there was no reasonable explanation for what happened that day.
“There is sir,” Dawson persisted. “I saw a hare turn into a crow once. It flew straight into the air, wings soaring, and circled over my head thrice. I thought I was done for,” the young man confided with a shiver of fear.
“You’re an ignorant fool, Dawson, as is the lot of you. This wasn’t magic; this was a well-planned escape, an affront to His Majesty, and another nail in that traitor’s coffin. Find him!!!!” Humphries roared and watched as his men shuffled off toward their horses. They’d been hoping for a cup of ale and a meal, but instead they’d have to make a pretense of searching for the man when they all knew that he wouldn’t be found.
Humphries walked to the public house, tied up his horse, and took a seat in a shadowy corner, gesturing to the barkeep for a tankard of ale. He was a man who needed to understand the way things worked in order to make sense of the world around him, but what he witnessed that morning defied all reason. The man was there one minute
gone the next. He simply vanished. There was nowhere he could have hidden, no other door he could have slipped through. How was that possible, unless there really was such a thing as magic?
Captain Humphries took a long pull of the cool ale and rubbed the bridge of his nose, his eyes watering with fatigue. What was he to tell his superiors? How was he to explain that four soldiers of His Majesty’s guard allowed one unarmed man to slip through their fingers? Someone would have to take the blame, and that someone was him. For a brief second Humphries wished he could disappear as well, for that was much more preferable to what he’d have to face once he arrived back in London.
Is it possible to change history or prevent something that had already taken place? Those were not questions I would normally ask myself, but had I known that my life was about to change irrevocably, and that in less than a week, I would be questioning everything I’d believed up until that moment
I might have. But, as I rolled down the motorway on a sunny, but frigid March morning I wasn’t pondering philosophical enigmas; all I could think about was the promise of a good night’s rest. I’d always had trouble sleeping in strange places, and the past week had been particularly tiring, since I barely got any sleep at all, more due to personal worries and less to strange beds at out-of-the-way village inns. My job as a location scout for an independent film production company took me to many different locales, but at least this time I got to stay in England, which was a relief.
The new project was an eight-part series based on the life of Charles II, who’d been invited to return to England following the death of Oliver Cromwell and the demise of the Protectorate after the abdication of Cromwell’s son, Richard. After the execution of his father, Charles I, the royal family fled to The Hague where Charles spent the greater part of his youth. He finally returned to England on his thirtieth birthday and was crowned shortly thereafter; beginning a period in British history known as the Restoration.
Personally, I’d always had a soft spot for Charles II. He was the handsome, tolerant, good-time king who wanted to live, love, and be left to rule in peace. It was actually a wonder that he had time to rule, since he had several mistresses and sired a legendary number of bastards, twelve of whom he’d acknowledged as his own. Sadly, his wife, Catherine of Braganza, couldn’t give him a legitimate heir, a tragedy which resonated for decades, spawning rebellion after rebellion either to depose a Catholic king or put a Catholic king back on the throne.
After years of bloody conflict, political strife, and joyless drudgery perpetuated by the Puritans, Charles reopened the theaters, and introduced music and gaiety back to the people, which earned him the title of the
. The Puritan black, white, and gray were replaced by vibrant color, frothy lace, and excessive ornament. The fashions were much like the man who sat the throne -– flamboyant and over-the-top, and for the first time in decades the masses were content.
Shooting the series was going to be great fun, considering the amount of fornication Charles II indulged in, and the undoubted effect this was going to have on the cast and crew. There was usually at least one pregnancy that was the result of a long production, sometimes more, and countless affairs that rarely lasted past the wrap party. Casting had already begun for the various parts, and it was my job to find the right location for our production. It had to be affordable, historically appropriate, weather-cooperative, if such a thing were possible in England, and close enough to a village that would provide lodging. A decent pub large enough to accommodate a thirsty gaggle of actors, directors, cameramen, costumers, set designers, and various assistants who would descend on it after a day of shooting was also an absolute necessity, as was sufficient parking for all the vehicles and equipment, and an amiable landlord who was willing to allow us to overrun his property with minimal amount of meddling and complaints.
I’d already visited three locations in the past week, declaring them all to be unsuitable for various reasons. I’d left Everly Manor for last, hoping that this would be the one. I had to admit that I was secretly predisposed to it since Everly Manor was located in the village of Cranleigh where one of my all-time favorite Doctor Who episodes was filmed. Everly Manor had all the right qualifications in terms of location and setting. The ‘old’ manor house and gardens were from the right era and were open to tourists five days a week. All that remained was checking out the village, agreeing on a fee, drawing up the legal documents, and taking numerous photographs and measurements, which would be required for set design and other preliminary preparations.
Lord Everly wouldn’t hear of my staying at the pub, so I was offered room and board while I worked, assuming that a deal was reached on which both parties agreed. I took the exit off the motorway and headed toward the village of Cranleigh, the peaked roof of Everly House visible in the distance above the stark lacework of bare branches that bisected the sky in their naked splendor. I never enjoyed winter, but I could appreciate the barren beauty of the landscape and the vastness of the sky, which never seemed as encompassing during the summer months as it did on a cold winter’s day; the gray-white expanse of the heavens endless and impenetrable to the weak rays of the sun. I slowed down as a huge tour bus rolled through the gates of the estate and made its way down the lane toward me, several people still taking photos of the receding manor house through the bus windows. The tourists might be a problem, but I was sure Lord Everly took that into account.
I parked my car and gazed up at the ‘new’ manor house which was a fine example of eighteenth-century Palladian architecture. The house was made up of three blocks, the middle one dominated by a grand portico complete with six Corinthian columns and a sweeping staircase. I made my way up the steps to the front door, which flew open as if by magic and Lord Everly himself appeared, beaming from ear to ear as if I was the answer to his every prayer. I was taken aback by the man, having expected him to be older. Lord Everly was in his mid-thirties, with a mane of dark hair, warm brown eyes, and an athletic physique that suggested hours at the gym and lots of outdoor activity, judging by his complexion.
“Miss Ashley, I presume?” he asked as he skipped down the steps and scooped the carrier bag from my hand. “Max Everly. A pleasure to finally meet you. Do come in. We have much to discuss, but first I’m sure you’d like to rest and have some refreshment. I’m afraid mother is a little under the weather, or maybe she’s just sulking because she’s as much against shooting a film here as she was against opening the old house to the public, but needs must, and so here we are.”
I smiled at the man’s effusive charm. I could see that he was slightly nervous beneath the nonchalant exterior, and I wondered why that should be. Maybe things with mother were more difficult than he led me to believe, but as long as the offer was still on the table, I wouldn’t worry about it. That was something he’d have to work out for himself.
“I’m afraid we’re rather short-staffed,” Lord Everly explained as he set my bag down on the black-and-white tiled floor of the foyer. “In its heyday this house boasted a large staff, including a butler, housekeeper, and every type of servant from scullery maid to boot boy, but now we must make do with only a housekeeper and a maid-of-all-work. Women are not as eager to go into service these days as they were before the First World War. They have much better opportunities.”
“It must be very difficult for two people to take care of such a large establishment,” I mused as I looked around the spacious foyer.
“Actually, we only use the East Wing these days, it being just the two of us. The staterooms have been closed for some time, and the West Wing is empty as well, to make things easier for Mrs. Harding to manage.” He shrugged apologetically as a middle-aged woman appeared from a door at the back of the foyer, her face flushed with embarrassment.
“I do beg your pardon, Lord Everly. I didn’t hear the bell. Will this be Miss Ashley then?” she asked, in an effort to diffuse the awkwardness of the lord of the manor having to open the door like a common butler.
“Not to worry, Mrs. Harding, not to worry. Miss Ashley never rang the bell; I saw her from the sitting room window and went out to greet her. Why don’t you show her up to her room?” Lord Everly suggested and turned to me with a smile.
“I’m sure you’d like to rest and freshen up,” he said as if I’d just traveled for days. In fact, I’d been on the road no more than an hour and a half, hardly enough time to get tired. “We can meet in the sitting room for tea then turn our attention to the business at hand.” He gave me a slight bow before disappearing into a room just off to the right, which I thought might be the library judging by the crammed bookcases I’d glimpsed through the door.
My room faced the back of the house and had lovely views of the park. It was decorated in the softest butter yellow which gave the room a sunny appearance despite the gray sky outside. A four-poster bed dominated the space and suddenly looked very inviting.
“You have your own private bath, Miss Ashley,” Mrs. Harding informed me as she set down my bag and glanced around in the manner of a general preparing for battle, casting her eye over the well-dusted surfaces and fluffy bath towels just visible through the door. “Do let me know if you need anything. I’ll bring you some lunch shortly.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Mrs. Harding. I had a late breakfast, so I’m not very hungry. I’d much rather have a bath and a nap, actually.”
“Very well, madam. Shall I run a bath for you? We have some Yardley’s Bath Salts,” she added as if sharing a great secret.
“Thank you, but I can manage.” I hadn’t meant to sound dismissive, not being used to having servants, but Mrs. Harding seemed to take it that way. She gave me a slight nod and retreated, closing the door softly behind her. It felt odd to be treated so deferentially, but I might as well enjoy it while I could, I told myself as I rummaged in my bag for my dressing gown and turned on the taps.
Lord Everly was already downstairs by the time I arrived and went about pouring out the tea like the best of hostesses. He smiled as he urged me to try a piece of Victoria sponge.
“My absolute favorite. No one makes it like Stella; Mrs. Harding, I mean.” He winked at the scandalized housekeeper and put a thick slice on my plate. It was indeed heavenly, and I took a sip of tea and let him talk while I took his measure. Max Everly was well-groomed, expensively dressed, and very charming. His brown eyes sparkled with good humor and he was quick to smile, a trait that I found very appealing in people, especially when the smile actually reached the eyes. Having spent several years around actors whose egos needed to be stroked every hour of the day, and who were usually acting even when not in front of the camera, I was perhaps quick to pick up on certain techniques used for putting people at ease and winning their trust, which Lord Everly was using with or without actually meaning to. Despite his rank and wealth, he spoke to me as if I were his equal, serving me rather than allowing the housekeeper to do it, and talking to me in a manner I could only describe as confidential, as if I were an old friend rather than a woman he met only a few hours ago. Max Everly seemed to be an old hand at winning people over.
“I hope your other locations didn’t suit,” he said with a wicked grin. “Or if they did, Everly House is sure to outdo them. As I mentioned on the telephone, we have two houses: the rambling Georgian manor in which we now sit, and the Tudor-era mansion which is now the museum. The ‘new house,’ as we call it, was built in the late 1700s after my great-great-great-grandfather made a fortune selling gunpowder to the army during the Revolutionary War. He moved the family here and left the old house to crumble. I had it restored and opened it to the public nearly a decade ago.”
I set down my cup and leaned back in the chair, feeling pleasantly full. “You mentioned earlier that your mother objects to the museum…” I let the sentence trail off, hoping he would fill in the rest.
“Yes, she does,” Everly said as he poured himself another cup of tea and took a second slice of cake, silently offering me one as well. I knew I shouldn’t, but I accepted nonetheless and tucked in, enjoying the mouthwatering goodness. The cake was so moist and light that it didn’t make one feel stuffed. It just settled pleasantly, giving a feeling of utter contentment.
“Mother is a proud woman, reared in a different time and with different values. Believe it or not, there are those in her circle who still see any kind of business venture as “trade” and think it “common.” I don’t know where these people think money comes from, other than inheritances and trust funds. The truth is, and I’m not ashamed to admit it although it makes Mummy turn puce with rage, is that a house like this takes a fortune to maintain. There are just the two of us, and we have twenty bedrooms. There’s always a leaking roof, dry rot, termites, or plant fungi -– you name it. I would gladly sell the lot and move to my flat in London, but Mummy won’t hear of it — family seat and all that. She won’t allow herself to die until I produce an heir, so there’s no rest for the wicked.”
I couldn’t help laughing. He was easygoing and amusing that I fervently hoped I’d like his offer and get to work with him for the next few months.
“Can you show me the museum now?” I asked, putting down my empty plate and resolutely refusing another helping of cake.
“I’d rather do it tomorrow if you have no objection. The museum closes to the public at 4 p.m., and then there are still people in the gift shop and the tea room, and I’d like it to be empty when we visit. Since it gets dark so early, we’d need candles, which would make it kind of authentic actually. There’s no electricity, you see. The house is as it was in its heyday. It’s fully furnished, and there are trunks and trunks of clothes which you would be welcome to should you choose Everly. Some of the dresses are rather elaborate, and I had them cleaned and preserved. Some of the more interesting ones are on display downstairs.