The Master of Michaelmas Hall – Vanessa Brooks

The vessel groaned, rolling and pitching from side to side, protesting at the strain it was under, forced to ride out the rough seas of the English Channel. Angele was unable to suppress her own moan of complaint—the turbulent crossing had her stomach roiling. Small hands lovingly patted her fair hair back from her forehead. “Maman, tu est malade?” “Speak in English please, cherie. Fear not, I am simply feeling unwell due to the ship’s motion.” “How much longer before we arrive in England, Maman?” “Very shortly, I believe. A porter will attend to our luggage after we arrive. I am sorry to have brought you on such a long voyage and at this time of year, but it was unavoidable with my homeland in such a state of degeneration.” “Tante Marie said it would have been quicker for us to cross the Channel from Calais, Maman.” “I know, Christopher, but it would have been unsafe for us to travel through France right now, which is why we were forced to sail from the Netherlands.” “When will the terror end, Maman?” “I have no idea, cherie, perhaps when the madness that grips my people ceases, but fear not, for we shall be safe en Angleterre.” “You said to speak in English, Maman!” Angele repressed a smile at her son’s indignation. “So I did. Come now, help me up. I must prepare for our arrival.

Please hand me my veil.” Her son screwed up his little face as she held out her hand for the thick, black garment. “Honestly, Maman, you should not wear that horrid old thing. It makes you look like a witch!” Angele shook her head with a long, drawn-out sigh at this familiar complaint. “Christopher, you are used to my face, but others are shocked when they see the scar. I think it best that I wear the veil, ma petit,” she chided gently. Grudgingly, he hopped off the cot and fetched it for her, the hated black gauze which protected her from the condemning eyes of others. His complaints about the freezing temperatures they’d experienced since their arrival in what was to him a very strange land, soon dissipated as a beautiful manor house came into view. Christopher gazed in awe at the large mansion. He’d thought his uncle’s villa in Italy was big, but this house with its many faceted windows was enormous.

Finally the carriage halted at the bottom of a flight of stone steps. “Is that my Aunt Mary, Maman?” he asked in excitement, pointing at a tall lady pushing past the liveried footmen and rushing down to greet them. His mother froze at his side, and belatedly he recalled her plan to pretend she was his aunt—because Maman was fixated by her scarred face, and she did not want anyone in England to know she still lived. “I am sorry, I- I forgot,” he whispered to her anxiously. She squeezed his shoulder gently, reassuringly. “It is of no matter, ma petit chou. Mais oui, this lovely lady is indeed your Aunt Mary. She is your father’s sister.” Aunt Mary looked extremely flustered. Did I hear you say Maman?” she asked him in surprise, “as in, your mother?” He nodded.

“Pshaw! Can it be…Is that you hidden under those hideous widow’s weeds, Angele? Surely not!” Since his mother appeared to be pinned to the spot, Christopher answered in the affirmative. “No…Can it really and truly be you?” His aunt stood still staring at his mother, her eyes wide. He saw his mother give a small nod and his aunt surged forward and caught his mother up in a huge bear hug. Strangely, he noticed his aunt weeping. After a few moments she turned to him, surreptitiously she wiped her eyes. “So young man, you must be my nephew, Christopher.” He bowed low to his Aunt. “Mais oui, I am Christopher Gabriel St. Nicholas. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Tante.

” “Believe me, the pleasure is all mine, child. Welcome to Churchton, dearest boy,” she cried, and spun about to face Angele, her hands outstretched. “I cannot tell you how overjoyed I was to receive the letter about the existence of this handsome little fellow, but to find that you are alive, Angele… My dear, but this is quite…extraordinary…I find myself quite overcome. Your son is adorable, Angele. Dear Lord, I cannot quite believe you are here. We must talk but first I shall call for Miss Pudding, our nanny, to take Christopher up to the nursery to meet Rudy and Holly. Then you must explain everything that has occurred over the last five years, in detail, and properly. I want to know how you escaped and where you have been. Why did you not let me know that you still lived…No, do not answer that, at least not yet. Soon we can talk and then you can explain and leave out…Not the smallest detail!” She swivelled back to Christopher.

“Your cousins are most anxious to make your acquaintance, young man,” she gabbled, casting a warm smile at him. “This is all most unexpected but so utterly thrilling.” She stopped, stood still, and stared at him. “By gad, but you are the very image of my brother!” Christopher gazed back at her solemnly, concluding his aunt to be a very excitable lady. He noted she was pretty, but in his opinion, not nearly as lovely as his Maman, who was fair-haired, her curls a spun mixture of silver and gold. Her eyes were a deep blue, like cerulean Italian skies. Petite, like an angel, her name Angele, suited her perfectly. Whereas his Aunt Mary was a tall woman with hair the colour of a fox’s russet coat. She had eyes like soft toffee. Yes, Christopher conceded, she was extremely pretty, but his mother surpassed pretty—she was beautiful.

Except for that nasty scar that ran from her forehead down across her left cheek, but he was almost oblivious to the disfigurement, which to his adoring eyes, did not detract one iota from her beauty. Christopher’s eyes darted hither and thither—there was so much to absorb as Mary ushered them into the house, leading them through the huge entrance hall, along wide passages, and finally into a large salon. Inside, he gazed about him in awe of the opulent surroundings. A few moments passed while the ladies held a brief but stifled conversation, which Christopher was certain they curtailed due to his presence. Then came a sharp rat-a-tat at the door, and a softly rounded woman, presumably Miss Pudding, a woman well-named in his opinion, entered the room. She curtsied first to his aunt and then to his mother. Turning to him, she smiled and held out her hand. He glanced up at his mother; she gave a nod of encouragement. Reluctantly, he placed his small hand into the nanny’s, allowing himself to be led away. The jolly-looking servant guided him into the unknown bowels of the house.

He had never been inside a structure so big before. Christopher knew he must be brave for Maman. She had discussed this journey with him long before they’d undertaken their adventure. She had explained that the outcome could possibly alter his life for the better. Christopher was unsure about this, because as far as he was concerned, his life in Italy was perfect already. He had not enjoyed the adventure at all so far, and if he was unhappy in England, he determined that he would tell Maman to take him back home to her cousin’s villa near Rome, where they had both been content. As he was led through the huge, chilly house, Christopher decided he did not like this cold, strange country his mother had brought him to. He was uneasy about being separated from her by an unknown woman. Being rushed along so many draughty passages and up so many stairs, he panicked. However would he find his way back to her side? He stopped, pulling his hand free from the woman’s.

She halted, frowning thoughtfully. “Now then, Master Christopher, don’t you be a silly boy. Come along with me and meet your cousins. They are waiting to greet you. I have ordered hot milk and iced buns for your nursery tea. I expect you are hungry after your arduous journey. Wouldn’t you like something to eat?” He nodded but remained stationary. “Perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me all about sailing across the ocean on a big boat? I should like to know what the sea looks like,” she encouraged. Christopher regarded her solemnly for a moment, unsure of her sincerity. Finally convinced by her candour, he returned her friendly smile.

“Have you never seen the ocean?” he asked. She shook her head. “No, I never have.” “Well, it is an enormous amount of water with big waves; the boat rocked about an awful lot. My Maman was very scared.” He puffed out his small chest. “I reassured her so that she felt better.” “My goodness, what a brave lad you are,” Miss Pudding praised and gently urged him forward so that they resumed their progress along the passageway. Christopher brightened at her show of interest. He explained how uncomfortable their accommodation had been aboard the ship.

He went into great detail about the head area of the vessel where the crew went to the lavatory. Engrossed in his lurid descriptions he glanced across at Miss Pudding, to see how she was enjoying his tale and noticed how pinched and pale she’d become. “Are you feeling unwell?” he asked. “Not at all…Tell me, what is your favourite type of cake?” she asked in a sudden change in conversation. He looked her in surprise, perhaps she wasn’t sick at all, but was hungry? Christopher came to the conclusion that English females were extremely difficult to understand. “I simply cannot understand why you will not tell Gabriel that you are alive. He would be overjoyed. It is utterly cruel of you not to tell him, Angele. Have you any idea how desperate and distraught he has been since your death was reported?” “So miserable that he is about to marry again?” she retorted bitterly. Mary clicked her tongue crossly.

“Ah now, to be fair, it has been five long years since he believed you to have passed. He has the succession to think of, after all.” “Oh come now, he is an earl, Mary, not a king!” she snapped. “Besides, that is the very reason I have undertaken the arduous journey and returned. Christopher should not lose out on his birthright should they produce more children.” Mary snorted. “Have you forgotten that he cannot marry? Certainly not now that I find his first wife is still alive.” Angele walked to the nearest couch and dropped onto it. Wringing her hands, she stared at her sister-in-law, aghast. “I had not thought that you would feel the need to inform him.

” Mary flung up her hands, gasping with exasperation. “Do not be a dolt! Your husband is my brother. I love him and will not see him commit bigamy—not even for the love that I bear you, my dear. I am ringing for tea. I don’t know about you but I am in dire need of fortification.” “Mary, hear me, we must not fall out over this. I am sure we can resolve the situation to everyone’s satisfaction, but right now, I simply have no idea how to proceed.” “Perhaps Robin might come up with a satisfactory plan?” “Mais non! Robin must not know about my return! You know as well as I that he will tell Gabriel.” Mary spun about and seated herself beside Angele. “Not share such momentous news with my husband? Are you quite sane? It will be more than my hide is worth if he finds out that I have kept something of this magnitude from him.

You are his sister-in-law returned from the dead!” “Je t’implore! Understand, Mary, that I have no wish to cause St. Nicholas any further pain. I simply want him to know that he has a son and heir. He must not be saddled with me, not as I am now. It’s best he continues to think of me as dead.” Mary’s eyes misted over. She stretched out a hand and placed it on Angele’s knee. “It is so very good to see you again, my dear. I wept such tears of joy when I received the letter explaining that Christopher was alive and coming to England in order to claim his birthright, but to find that you, too, are alive… Well, words cannot express my joy. Please, dearest, explain to me the necessity for these ugly widow’s weeds?” “Mais oui, if you insist.

” Angele spoke in low tones, telling only the pertinent facts of her unhappy sojourn in Paris five years previous. When she’d finished her tale of woe, Mary hugged her. “Dearest please trust me, and show me your damaged face,” she asked hesitantly. Angele lowered her head and sat quiet for a few moments. Slowly she did as her sister-in-law requested, and raised the concealing cloth she wore to protect herself from prying eyes and ridicule. The familiar knot of shame formed as her sister-in-law’s face blanched at the sight of her scarred face. Lifting her hand, Mary halted, and raised her brow for permission, which Angele gave with a curt nod. Mary traced a gentle fingertip along the deep groove of scarred tissue that ran diagonally across Angele’s once beautiful face. “Does your eye hurt, can you still see clearly from it?” she asked in a hushed tone. “It merely droops due to the inflicted wound.

I can see quite clearly, thank you.” Carefully, she drew down her veil, once again obscuring her face. “I am sorry, my dear, but I honestly do not think that my brother would care one whit about your disfigurement. He loved you so, Angele, loves you still. His mourning was quite terrible to witness.” Angele fixed her gaze on Mary’s face with a frown; she attempted to determine whether or not Mary was telling her the truth. Detecting only sincerity, she leaned towards her sister-in-law, and the two women, once so close, embraced, remaining clasped in one another’s arms for a few moments, drawing comfort, one from the other, each silent, caught up in the depth of their emotion. Mary was first to draw away. Sniffing, she pulled forth a scrap of lace that purported to be a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “It is so wonderful to see you,” she reiterated fiercely.

“It is good to see you, too, Mary. I’ve missed your companionship, you and Robin both. We four had so much fun together, did we not?” she reminded her softly. Angele smiled sadly as she recalled the giddy, frivolous fun they’d had in the whirl of the London season during the summer before she had gone to France. She hastily shut down lest she remember more about that year. “Tell me about my Gabriel. How is he?” Her voice held a tinge of longing which she knew the astute Mary would detect. “He is well, physically. Although I feared for his sanity after the dreadful news arrived from Paris that you and your family had been murdered in the uprising. I was so sorry to hear about your parents and your dear sister.

You must know that St. Nicholas blamed himself for leaving you there alone, without his protection…” “But I was not alone, I was with my family. How could he have known that the people would rise up at that precise moment to begin the terror?” Angele interrupted. Mary shrugged. “You know my brother. He saw only that he had abandoned you and that was the consequence of your death. The remorse ate him up. It is only this past year that he has hardened, determined to do his duty to secure an heir.” “This woman he has met, do you like her? Does he, does he…love her?” Angele held her breath waiting for the reply. “Noelle is but a child of eighteen, although…” She shrugged.

“Although?” “I rather think she has a look of you about her. She is a pretty girl of a pale complexion, flaxen-haired and blue-eyed, but she does not possess your special kind of fey beauty. Oh, I am so sorry…” Mary faltered. Angele stretched out her hand to pat her sister-in-law’s reassuringly. The mention of her former beauty having seen the scars obviously made Mary uncomfortable. “I understand your meaning. Pray continue.” “I don’t know her well. I would say Noelle is shy since she has very little to say for herself, and no, before you ask, I do not believe it to be a love match, at least as far as St. Nicholas is concerned.

” Angele nodded, grateful for Mary’s honesty. “It is an odd time of year for a wedding. Has Gabriel pre-empted the vows perhaps?” “No, no, I can see why you might conclude that, but the chit’s name gives the clue. She was born in December and wished for her wedding day to fall in the month of her birthday, which is on the twenty-ninth. Do you think that we were ever that mawkish when young?” Mary asked with a sigh. “I believe mawkish to be the wrong word. Try romantic instead,” she suggested. “And, yes, once upon a time we were both young and full of romantic expectation. Life soon knocks such foolish dreams from our heads.” “Angele, how can you be so unaffected by all of this? I beg of you to tell Gabriel that you are alive.

I can see no other way for this deception to end well otherwise,” Mary pleaded. She was staggered that her usually astute sister-in-law should think her unaffected. Before she could form a reply, there came another knock at the closed door. This time the interruption was Mary’s butler. Entering, he was followed by a footman bearing a heavy tray of tea. All private conversation ceased.

.

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