Authors: Jacqueline Harvey
‘Hello Lavender.’ Clementine gave the tiny pig a scratch on the top of her head. ‘Sorry, but Mummy says you have to stay up here tonight. We’ve got to eat dinner with the guests in the dining room and I’m scared about seeing the man from the sitting room,’ she explained to the pig, who had scrambled into her lap and was enjoying a rub on her grey belly. ‘I think Aunt Violet’s going to tell on me.’
Lavender grunted and closed her eyes.
‘I told Uncle Digby what happened and he said that perhaps we should just wait and see. But I don’t know what we’re waiting for and I already know what we’ll see. That man is as bald as Aunt Violet’s cat. I haven’t told you about him, have I? He’s very strange,’ said Clementine, looking at Lavender’s pink tummy. ‘I suppose you don’t really have much hair either,’ she observed, ‘but you’re a pig and you’re not meant to have hair. Cats are.’
Clementine placed Lavender back on the floor and checked the water bowl and litter box, which was over in the corner of the room behind a screen. Then she took her green striped dress from the wardrobe and changed.
‘Be good, Lavender, and I’ll bring you some vegetables.’ Clementine pulled on her cardigan and sat down to buckle her pink shoes.
Lavender grunted and waddled over to her basket.
‘I’ll see you after dinner.’ Clementine quickly ran a brush through her hair and found a green hairclip to pin back the sweep of blonde hair that covered her eyes. ‘There.’
he guests were gathered in the dining room by the time Clementine arrived. Her mother was chatting away while Uncle Digby offered champagne. Aunt Violet hadn’t yet appeared.
‘Clementine, come and meet everyone,’ her mother instructed. There were two couples and a single lady staying in the house. ‘This is Mr and Mrs O’Connell.’ Clarissa nodded at a man wearing a smart sports coat and his wife, who wore a lovely tangerine-coloured silk shirt with white pants. ‘This is my daughter, Clementine Rose,’ Clarissa told them.
‘Hello there, Clementine Rose,’ the man said. ‘Aren’t you a lucky girl to live in a lovely big house like this?’
‘Hello,’ Clementine smiled. ‘Yes, but I wish it didn’t have so many holes in the roof.’
Mr and Mrs O’Connell exchanged quizzical looks.
‘Come along, darling, and meet our other guests.’ Clarissa guided Clementine away. She introduced her to a younger woman with long dark hair. ‘This is Miss Herring. She’s writing a book, Clementine, isn’t that exciting?’
‘Hello,’ Clementine said. ‘Does it have lots of pictures? I can’t read yet but I’m going to big school soon and then I’ll be able to.’
‘No, I’m afraid that it doesn’t have any pictures at all,’ Miss Herring replied. ‘It’s about business.’
Clementine wrinkled her nose. ‘It sounds a bit... boring,’ she whispered.
‘Clementine, I’m sure Miss Herring’s book is wonderful,’ her mother rebuked.
Miss Herring smiled thinly.
‘Now, Clementine, I want you to meet Mr and Mrs Sparks.’ Clarissa took Clemmie’s hand and led her to the other side of the room.
Clementine gulped. The man and woman appeared to be having an argument, except that it was all whispers and his face looked red and cross.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Floyd, I’ve told you a thousand times that no one stole your wretched hairpiece and if they did, I’d have to find them and thank them for getting rid of the ridiculous thing anyway,’ the woman said, rolling her eyes.
‘Is everything all right?’ Clarissa asked.
‘Yes, my dear. Floyd’s lost his toupee and he thinks someone must have stolen it while he was having a nap this afternoon. I can’t imagine for one second who would want to steal it – it was quite revolting and I’ve been telling him for years that he looks much better without it,’ Mrs Sparks explained.
Clementine stood beside her mother, wondering if she should say anything.
‘And who do we have here?’ asked Mrs Sparks, as she looked at Clementine.
‘This is my daughter, Clementine Rose,’ Clarissa said.
‘Hello dear, it’s a pleasure to meet you and I must say I love your dress,’ said Mrs Sparks. She smiled at Clemmie, then dug her elbow into her husband’s ribs.
‘Oh hello,’ the man said. ‘You look like a smart girl. You didn’t happen to see my hair anywhere this afternoon, did you?’
Clementine was just about to tell him what happened when Mrs Sparks interrupted them.
‘Oh, Floyd Sparks, stop talking about that ridiculous rug. Clementine, dear, I hope the jolly thing ended up in the fire. He looks so much more handsome without it. It was orange, too. Can you believe a man of his age, wearing something so ridiculous? He hasn’t had orange hair in years anyway. Jolly thing looked like a dead ginger cat on top of his head. Now tell me, Clementine, how old are you?’
‘I’m five,’ the child replied, trying not to smile. She was imagining a ginger cat sitting on top of Mr Sparks’s head.
‘How wonderful to be five,’ Mrs Sparks enthused. ‘You must tell me, what do five-year-olds like to get up to these days? I bet you must have lots of fun roaming about this big house of yours.’
‘My friends are coming tomorrow to stay for the night,’ Clementine said. ‘And I’m going to ask Mummy if we can have a camp-out.’
‘Oh my dear, that sounds wonderful,’ Mrs Sparks nodded.
Lady Clarissa didn’t comment. She was watching the door. ‘Excuse me, Mr and Mrs Sparks, I see Aunt Violet has arrived,’ she said. She made her way to the door where Violet was surveying the scene.
have a rather strange group of friends, Clarissa,’ the woman hissed.
‘Come along, Aunt Violet, I’ve put you at the end of the table near Clementine and me.’ Clarissa guided the woman into the room.
‘I like your dress, Aunt Violet,’ Clementine told the old woman. The print had circles in all different shades of green. Clementine liked the way it swirled around.
‘Yes, it’s lovely, isn’t it?’ said Violet. She looked at the child and couldn’t help thinking her own selection of clothing was rather sweet too – although she wasn’t about to tell her.
Digby Pertwhistle re-entered the room and asked that the guests be seated. He then walked around the table placing the napkins into each of the diner’s laps.
‘Aunt Violet, I’d like to introduce you to Edward and Sandra O’Connell,’ said Clarissa, nodding towards the couple sitting opposite her aunt.
‘Charmed, I’m sure,’ Violet sneered.
‘Hello,’ the couple replied in unison.
‘And this is Becca Herring,’ Clarissa introduced the young woman, then turned to the couple at the end of the table. ‘And Zelda and Floyd Sparks. This is my aunt, Violet Appleby.’
Violet frowned but said, ‘Hello.’ She looked the couple up and down. ‘I saw you earlier this afternoon, Mr Sparks, but there’s something different about you now.’
‘He’s lost his hair,’ Zelda Sparks offered. ‘And he looks all the better for it.’
‘I see. And where did you lose your hair exactly?’ Violet asked.
‘Well, I was having a nap in the sitting room and then when I woke up it was gone,’ Floyd explained.
Violet turned and stared at Clementine. ‘Really? A nap in the sitting room, this afternoon?’
‘Never mind, Mr Sparks,’ Violet said. ‘I’ve always thought a man looks much better if he just lets nature take its course. And there is nothing quite as ridiculous as a man of a certain age trying to be something he’s not.’
Floyd nodded sheepishly.
‘Yes, Miss Appleby, I couldn’t agree more,’ Zelda Sparks replied. ‘Now, tell me, do you live in this magnificent residence too?’
‘No, Aunt Violet’s just visiting,’ Clementine said, smiling at her great-aunt.
‘Oh look, here’s the entree,’ Lady Clarissa said hastily. She was wishing she’d served Aunt Violet dinner in the kitchen with the family. ‘Tonight we have mushroom soup with sourdough bread.’
There was a murmur of approval around the table. Violet placed her spoon into the thick brown liquid and drew it to her lips. She was pleasantly surprised by the taste.
‘How’s Pharaoh?’ Clementine asked her great-aunt.
The old woman looked down her nose at Clemmie. ‘What?’
‘Your cat? Is he feeling well?’ Clementine said.
‘How would I know?’ Violet retorted. ‘He can’t speak, you know.’
‘Lavender can’t speak either but I always know how she’s feeling. When she’s happy she runs around a lot and when she’s sad she sits in her basket and rests her head on the side and she won’t come when I call her. But that’s only happened a couple of times. Once when Mrs Mogg’s cat Claws scratched her on the nose, and one day when I had to leave her at home to have my “look-see” day at school,’ Clementine explained.
Violet rolled her eyes at the child and turned to speak with Becca Herring.
Clementine stared at Aunt Violet’s back and wrinkled her nose.
Digby cleared away the soup bowls and returned with the main course. He set the steaming plates down in front of each guest.
‘Ooh, this looks lovely, Lady Clarissa,’ exclaimed Floyd Sparks. His mood seemed to have improved vastly.
Clarissa smiled at her guest.
Clementine pushed her fork into the baked potato on her plate and swirled it in the thick gravy.
‘Clemmie, remember your manners, please,’ her mother tutted.
Clementine frowned. She hadn’t forgotten her manners. She just wanted some gravy on her potato.
As the meal progressed, Violet couldn’t help but wonder about her niece’s friends. They didn’t seem to know Clarissa very well at all.
‘What a wonderful roast,’ said Mr O’Connell as he finished the last bite of his lamb and placed his knife and fork together on the plate. ‘We’ll definitely be telling our friends about Penberthy House.’
Clarissa smiled thinly. ‘Thank you, Mr O’Connell.’
‘Why would you be telling your friends?’ Violet asked.
‘Well, your niece is quite the loveliest hostess and the wife and I haven’t stayed in as nice a place as this for a long time. Although that bathroom upstairs could do with a bit of updating and I have noticed the wallpaper’s falling down in a couple of spots.’
Violet glanced around the table. All of a sudden she realised exactly what was going on.
‘Clarissa, I’d like a word. In private,’ she said through clenched teeth.
Clarissa did her best to put the woman off. ‘But Aunt Violet, we’re about to have dessert.’
‘And it’s going to be yum, yum, yummy,’ Clementine sang. ‘Mrs Mogg made chocolate mousse and I love chocolate mousse.’
The rest of the group laughed.
‘We won’t be long.’ Violet stood up and waited for Clarissa to do the same. The younger woman led the older one out of the dining room, along the hallway and into the library.
The library at Penberthy House held a magnificent collection of over ten thousand dusty, leather-bound books, some dating back hundreds of years. There was a fireplace and shelves from the floor to the ceiling, with a spiral staircase leading up to a balcony that ran around the top half of the room. A magnificent mahogany desk sat in the centre of the floor and there were old floral couches to sit on too, although most of them needed new springs and the covers were getting tatty.
Clarissa hoped that was far enough away that the guests wouldn’t hear their conversation.
Violet closed the door and turned to her niece, blocking the way out. ‘Clarissa, those people in there are not your friends.’
‘No, Aunt Violet, they’re not,’ Clarissa replied.
‘Well, what are they doing here?’ the old woman demanded.
‘They’re staying for the weekend,’ said Clarissa. She took a deep breath. ‘So that I can keep Penberthy House.’
‘So, all of those people are paying you to stay here?’ Violet snapped.
‘Yes, Aunt Violet. I’ve been running the house as a country hotel for years,’ Clarissa replied. ‘The repairs won’t pay for themselves.’
‘What happened to all that money your father left you?’ Violet asked. ‘He’d turn in his grave knowing you were renting the place to strangers.’
‘There was only ever a little money, Aunt Violet, despite what you always thought. Father was a generous man and he had given away most of the family fortune. In fact, he gave a good deal of it to you. I’m sure that he never realised just how much it costs to look after this place,’ Clarissa explained.
‘You’re telling me that Penberthy House is falling down because you can’t afford to do any better?’ Violet asked.
‘Yes, there’s no pot of gold,’ Clarissa said firmly. ‘And if you don’t like what I’m doing then you can leave.’
‘How dare you? I’m family. And I’ll go when, and if, I’m ready,’ Violet huffed. Her eyes darted around the room. ‘What have you changed in here?’ she demanded, still scanning the length and breadth of the library.
‘Digby removed that horrid old cabinet that used to sit in front of the shelves at the end of the row, that’s all.’
Violet walked towards the bookshelf. She drew in a sharp breath as if a memory had just surfaced. ‘Did he find anything behind it?’ she asked.