Authors: Nathaniel Burns
The Secret of Willow Castle
A Historical Gothic Novel
Copyright © 2013 by Nathaniel Burns
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
he day the letter came I was woken by the rain. Not by the pattering of rain against my window, but by a fat droplet sneaking through a crack in our rotting roof to land with a tiny splash on my cheek. I opened my eyes to see a second drop gathering its strength above my head.
Unwillingly I threw back my counterpane and got up. Even through my thick bed socks I could feel the early winter chill of the boards under my feet, and when I wrapped my fingers around the metal bedstead it was freezing to the touch. I heaved the narrow bed as far out of the leak’s path as I could, constrained by the narrowness of my tiny room, then fetched the ewer from my dressing table and set it to catch the drips. As the cold began to seep into my bones, I dressed as swiftly as possible and hurried downstairs to seek the comfort of the parlour fire.
“Come away from that fire, Rebecca!” my mother protested as I knelt on the heath, absorbing what warmth I could from the modest blaze.
“But Mama, I’m cold!” I pleaded.
“I won’t have you kneeling on the floor like a peasant,” she replied, implacable as always. “Ladies sit in chairs, not on dirty floors. Now come into the kitchen, breakfast is getting cold.”
Reluctantly I tore myself away from the fire and followed her into the tiny, cramped scullery. The imposing cast iron range was never lit for long enough to warm the room properly, so I shivered as I broke my fast on lukewarm porridge. I wanted to wrap my hands around my teacup and enjoy its warmth, since tea was the one thing that was reliably hot in our house, but I knew Mama would scold me. She believed that only labourers and washerwomen touched teacups anywhere other than the handle.
When we were finished we returned to the parlour, where Mama set me my daily tasks. She would instruct me to write imaginary letters to fictitious duchesses, countesses and Honourable ladies, practising a delicate hand and correct forms of address. She would have me recite or copy out all the French verbs she could remember from her own education. She would hand me samplers to embroider with tiny, neat stitches. Many years earlier, when I had first become aware of our poverty, I had asked Mama why she did not sell my completed samples or at least allow me to help her with the household mending.
“No daughter of mine will be in trade!” she had barked. “Should I teach you to darn so that you can go and scrape a living as a seamstress? Do you look no higher than to marry an ironmonger? Have you forgotten who you are?” I had to reassure her that I had not forgotten that I was a daughter of the Lennox family and that my rightful place was far above our current situation.
It was because of our status as Lennox ladies that Mama had never allowed me to mix with the local children growing up or to attend the little school taught by a pair of elderly sisters along our street. I was brought up to be polite but distant, and to maintain my politeness even when our neighbours sniggered behind our backs and poked fun at Mama’s eccentricity. I would hear them talking as we stood in line at the greengrocer’s or the butcher’s shop, wondering aloud who Mama thought she was. She would never make any reply. She would wait until we got home, then as she untied my bonnet she would simply say to me “We do not belong among these people, Rebecca. Never forget that. You must never think of them as your equals. Yet you must always treat them well, better perhaps than they treat you, because to do so is a sign of good breeding.”
Mama had decided that I should not accompany her to the shops that day. While she usually believed in the value of daily exercise, she forbade me to go out on days when it was too cold for fear that I should catch a chill. I knew from reading and eavesdropping that people seemed to catch chills and recover from them all the time, but Mama was adamant that if I caught one it would kill me, so on particularly cold days she would leave me at home while she wrapped up in every scrap of clothing she possessed and went to purchase food. I was expected to practise dancing instead, getting my exercise by repeating waltz and polka steps in the arms of an imaginary partner. More often than not I would finish those practise sessions with my shins covered in bruises as I collided with footstools and tables in the tiny parlour.
Our usual habit was for me to spend the afternoon reading aloud to Mama while she wrote to distant relations seeking reconciliation with the family, then we would discuss the novel we were reading before I moved on to piano practise. Today, though, our routine was interrupted. I heard her latch key in the lock and rushed over to the door to help her with her basket, but the moment I saw the expression on her face I paused. I had never seen her look so grim. In her hand was a crumpled letter, crushed in a white-knuckle grip.
“Mama, whatever is the matter?” I asked in alarm. For a few long moments she said nothing. She set her basket down and collapsed into her armchair without even taking off her bonnet and overcoat. She looked weak and defeated, her mouth set in a tight line as if she was trying not to cry.
“My eldest brother is dead,” she said shortly. “Your Uncle Samuel succeeds to his title, and he writes to inform me that our annuity will cease on your eighteenth birthday. He is less forgiving than my brother Thomas.” Suddenly she lunged forward and thrust the letter into the fire, snatching up the poker and stirring the coals violently until the paper was reduced to ash. “He said some unforgivable things,” she whispered. I slipped silently from the room and set the kettle boiling for tea. I never knew what to say to comfort my mother, but I could always be certain that she would appreciate tea. She accepted the cup with a wan smile and continued to stare into the fire as she sipped at it. Afraid of upsetting her further, I decided my best course of action was to resume my usual routine. I settled myself at the piano to work on a selection of pieces that I hoped Mama would find soothing, starting with the pensive melancholy of Schubert and gradually lightening the mood until I found myself playing Chopin, a great favourite of my mother’s.
When at last I was forced to abandon my labours by the fading daylight, I lit a stump of candle and went to my room to undress. I threw on my nightgown as rapidly as possible, before the cold could set me shivering, then returned to the parlour to sit by the cosy glow of firelight. It was my mother’s custom to brush my hair, three hundred strokes each night before she plaited it for me to tuck under my nightcap. That night, as I had done every night of my life, I sat on her footstool and rested my head on her knee, closing my eyes and letting myself be lulled by the rhythmic sweeps of the brush and my mother’s voice, telling the same tale she told every night. It was the story of her own life.
“Greycrags Hall, our family seat, was the most beautiful place,” she would say. “No young lady could have grown up in a finer home. Your great-grandmother, Lady Elizabeth Lennox, had had the gardens remodelled in the classical style, and I spent many a happy hour strolling along the yew tree allee and across the lawns. But beyond them lay the wilderness, running all the way to the Crags themselves, which your great-grandfather demanded she leave untouched. He was a superstitious man, he never lost his Highland beliefs no matter how long he spent in more sophisticated company. He called that wilderness ‘the Gudeman’s share’ as if he were still a farmer leaving a portion of his field for the Devil’s use to ensure a fair crop! Such nonsense. He even fenced it with rowan trees, apparently meant to keep the Devil in his place. My brothers, your uncles Thomas and Samuel, used to play in that wilderness, hiding and seeking in the undergrowth. They would tunnel through the bracken all the way to the Crags and hurl pebbles into the river below.
I, on the other hand, was more often to be found indoors. I thought my schoolroom drab and dreary, though it had greater elegance and charm than this house could ever offer. The times I relished were the times I spent in the drawing room with Mama after dinner, when we would sit side by side embroidering the same tapestry or playing duets at the piano. Oh, how I wish I could have instructed you on that piano! The instrument I was able to provide for you here is barely worthy of the name. Your grandmother, my Mama, was the most elegant of ladies, and it is for her that you are named, Rebecca. She was always dressed in the latest fashions, and every three months we would travel to London to visit her modiste. Then shortly after my eighteenth birthday we removed to town for my first Season. It is among my deepest regrets that I could not give you a Season or have you presented – my presentation at court was the happiest day of my life, and every girl should know the joy of her first ball. I was the toast of London in my first season! I received proposal after proposal, though none that I cared to accept.
It was in my third Season that I met your father. He was not one of my well-born suitors, but he was the most marvellous tenor that society had ever heard. Newly arrived from Florence, his voice was setting London ablaze. All my closest friends were flocking to his recitals, so when I was asked to make up a party to Lady Hanbury’s box at Covent Garden I accepted the invitation with a glad heart.
I shall never forget the moment when your father strode out onto the platform, tall and slender as a young oak. You have seen likeness only in the miniature that I carry in my locket, but it does no justice to his looks. He was the most handsome man I had ever seen, with a Roman profile and the thick whiskers that were the height of fashion. I was half in love with him before he even began to sing. He laid a hand on the piano and gazed round at his audience, and in that moment his eyes fixed on mine and I knew I wanted nothing more than to be his. My heart soared with every note as he sang a masterful programme of Italian love songs, each one directed, I felt, to me alone. Perhaps if he had been less remarkable I should not have seen him again, but such was the beauty of his voice that he was in great demand. It seemed he appeared at every salon and soiree that Season. I saw him everywhere and thought of him constantly, but of course it would not have been proper for me to have spoken to him. I resigned myself to an unrequited passion.
Alas, before the winter was out my Papa was thrown from his horse and Mama was called home to attend him. My mother was loath to cut my Season short, so when her friend Lady March offered me an invitation my Mama accepted on my behalf. I was great friends with Lady March’s daughter Amelia, and Mama believed me to be in safe hands. She could not have known, my innocent mother, of the danger in which I was to be left. A lady assumes that everyone deals as honourably as she herself, and Mama was a true lady. Believing Lady March and her daughter to be as well-bred and respectable as they appeared, she was happy to leave me in their care.
Amelia had always been a little wilder than I, so as soon as I confided my passion for Signor Rovello she insisted that I must find a way to communicate with him. I demurred, of course, but she insisted that her own Mama and Papa had eloped and that no-one cared a bit for such things any more. When I discreetly verified this story with Lady March she concurred, filling my head with all sorts of modern notions about love matches and romance. Amelia prevailed upon her mother to engage Signor Rovello to sing at a salon of theirs and induced me to write him a note. I would never have had the nerve to deliver it, but she snatched it from my hand and placed it upon his music stand, inviting him to meet me in the rose garden. What could I do but keep my word and wait for him there? Amelia promised that she would sit nearby so that we would be properly chaperoned, so I could see little harm in it.
It was the first of many meetings. Signor Rovello – Lorenzo, as I came to call him – was as dashing and charming a suitor as any girl could have wished. Even as I spent each day in the company of London’s most eligible young men, all I could think of was my secret lover, the ardent Italian who sang only for me, with whom I snatched moments in dark corners and who was swiftly seducing me into a clandestine affair. My own mother would have put a stop to it at once – nothing escaped her – but Lady March and her daughter were as caught up in the romance as I was. With their encouragement I began to surrender to the thrill of love, until at last Lorenzo proposed. I should have insisted that he speak to my father, but in my youthful folly I let myself be guided by him and agreed to an elopement. I packed my bags, including my handful of jewels, and we fled.
We boarded a coach bound for Scotland and were married as soon as we reached Gretna Green. It was never my intention to be parted from my family for long, so at once we made our way back to Greycrags. As we had journeyed to Scotland I had been convinced that any objections my family could have to my new husband would be at once removed when they saw my happiness, but as we grew closer to home my confidence began to wane. Lorenzo grew colder towards me as soon as we were married, and I began to wonder whether I had been entrapped by a fortune hunter.
Our arrival at Greycrags could not have been less auspicious. As the trap we had hired for the last stage of our journey drew up at the Hall, I noticed many of the rooms had their curtains drawn. The footman who answered the door wore a black armband. The house, I realised, was in mourning – my father had died. I ran into the house, seeking my mother, but our housekeeper intercepted me. She told me that when my father’s condition had taken a turn for the worse, my mother had sent an urgent message to London to summon me home. Lady March, unable to produce me, had no option but to tell my Mama of my flight. She had spared my Papa the news of his daughter’s shame, but both Mama and my dear brothers had vowed never to see me again.