Authors: Victoria Holt
Copyright Â© 1970 by Victoria Holt
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Originally published in 1970 in the United States of America by Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York.
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When my Aunt Charlotte died suddenly many people believed that I had killed her and that if it had not been for Nurse Loman's evidence at the inquest, the verdict would have been one of murder by some person or persons unknown; there would have been a probing into the dark secrets of the Queen's House, and the truth would have come out.
“That niece of hers obviously had the motive,” it was said.
The “motive” was Aunt Charlotte's possessions which on her death became mine. But how different everything was from what it appeared to be!
Chantel Loman, who had become my friend during the months she lived with us at the Queen's House, laughed at the gossips.
“People must have drama. If it isn't there they invent it. Sudden death is manna from Heaven. Of course they talk. Take no notice of them. I don't.”
She did not have the same need to do so, I pointed out to her.
She laughed at me. “You're always so logical!” she said. “Why, Anna, I do believe that if those wicked old gossips had had their wish and you had stood in the dock you would have got the better of the judge as well as the jury and counsel for the prosecution. You can look after yourself.”
If only it were true! But Chantel did not know of those sleepless nights when I lay in my bed making plans, trying to work out how I could dispose of everything and start a new life in a new place and so free myself from this haunting nightmare. But in the morning it would be different. Practical considerations forced themselves on me. I
not go away; it was not financially possible. Little did the gossips know the true state of affairs. Moreover I was not going to be a coward and run away. As long as one was innocent what did it matter what the world thought of one?
A foolish paradox, I told myself immediately, and an untrue one. The innocent frequently suffer when they are suspected of guilt, and it is necessary not only to
innocent but to prove that one is.
But I could not run away; so I put on what Chantel called my mask and turned a face of cold indifference to the world. No one was going to know how deeply I cared about the slander.
I tried to see everything objectively. In fact I could not have endured those months if I had not looked upon what happened as an unpleasant fantasy like a drama being played out on a stage, the chief characters being the victim and the suspectâAunt Charlotte and myselfâand in the minor roles, Nurse Chantel Loman, Dr. Elgin, Mrs. Morton the cook-housekeeper, Ellen the maid, and Mrs. Buckle who came in to dust the cluttered rooms. I was trying to convince myself that it had not really happened and one morning I should wake up to find it was nothing but a nightmare.
So I was not logical but foolish and even Chantel did not know how vulnerable. I dared not look back and I dared not look forward. Yet when I saw my reflection in the mirror I was aware of the changes in my face. I was twenty-seven and looked it; before, I had appeared young for my age. I imagined myself at thirty-sevenâ¦forty-sevenâ¦still living in the Queen's House, getting older and older, haunted by the ghost of Aunt Charlotte; and the gossip would go on, never to be entirely forgotten and those not yet born would one day say: “That's old Miss Brett. There was some scandal long ago. I never heard quite what. I believe she murdered someone.”
It must not come to that. There were days when I promised myself I would escape, but the old stubbornness returned. I was a soldier's daughter. How many times had my father said to me: “Never turn your back on trouble. Always stand and face it.”
That was what I was trying to do when once more Chantel came to my rescue.
But the story begins before that.
When I was born my father was a Captain in the Indian Army; he was Aunt Charlotte's brother; there was a great deal of the soldier in her. People are unpredictable. They appear to conform to patterns. Often you can say he or she is such and such a type, but people are rarely types, or not completely so. They conform up to a point and then they diverge wildly. So it was with both my father and Aunt Charlotte. Father was dedicated to his profession. The Army was more important than anything in the world; in fact little else existed for him. My mother often said that he would have run the household like a military camp if she had let him and treated us all as though we were his “men.” He quoted Queen's Regulations at breakfast, she said mockingly; and he would grin sheepishly at her for
was his divergence. They had met when he was on his way home on leave from India. She told me about it in what I called her butterfly way. She never kept to the point and she would stray off so that one had to guide her back to the original theme if one were interested in it. Sometimes it was more intriguing to let her run on.
But I was interested to hear about my parents' meeting so I kept her to it.
“Moonlit nights on deck, darling. You've no idea how romanticâ¦ Dark skies and the stars like jewelsâ¦and the music and the dancing. The foreign ports and those fantastic bazaars. This heavenly braceletâ¦ Oh the day we bought thatâ¦”
She would have to be led back. Yes, she had been dancing with the First Officer and she had noticed the tall soldier, so aloof, and she had made a bet that she would make him dance with her. Of course she had and they were married two months later in England.
“Your Aunt Charlotte was furious. Did she think the poor man was a eunuch?”
Her conversation was light and frothyâracy even. She fascinated me as she must have fascinated my father. I was far more like him, I feared, than like her.
In those early days I lived with them though I was more often in the company of my ayah than in theirs. There are vague memories of heat and brilliantly colored flowers, of dark-skinned people washing their clothes in the river. I remember riding in an open carriage with my ayah past the cemetery on the hill where I was told the bodies of the dead were left out in the open that they might become part of the earth and air again. I remember the wicked-looking vultures high up in the trees. They made me shiver.
There came the time when I must return to England and I traveled back with my parents, and myself experienced those tropical nights at sea when the stars seemed to have been placed like jewels on dark blue velvet as though to show off their brilliance. I heard the music and saw the dancing; and for me everything was dominated by my mother, the most beautiful being in the world, with her long draperies, her dark hair piled high on her head, and her incessant, inconsequential chatter.
“Darling, it will only be for a short time. You have to be educated, and we have to go back to India. But you'll stay with Auntie Charlotte.” It was typical that she should call her Auntie. Aunt Charlotte was always Aunt to me. “She'll love you darling, because you're named after herâwell, partly. They wanted Charlotte for you, but I wasn't going to have my darling daughter called that. It would remind me of
â¦” She caught herself up sharply, remembering she was trying to put Aunt Charlotte in a good light. “People always like those who have their names. âBut not Charlotte,' I said, âThat's
severeâ¦' So you were Anna Charlotte to be known as Anna and so avoid having two Charlottes in the family. Oh, where was I? Your Auntie Charlotteâ¦ Yes, darling, you have to go to school, my precious, but there are holidays. You can't come all the way out to India in the holidays, can you? So Auntie Charlotte will have you at the Queen's House. Now doesn't that sound grand? Queen Elizabeth slept there, I believe. That's where it gets its name. And thenâ¦in no timeâ¦my goodness how time flies, you'll be finished with school and you'll come out to us. I can't wait, my darling, for the day. What fun I shall have launching my daughter.” Again that attractive grimace which I believe is called a
. “It will be my compensation for getting old.”
She could make anything sound attractive by the way she spoke of it. She could dismiss years with a flick of the hand. She made me see not school and Aunt Charlotte but the days ahead when the ugly duckling I was would be transformed into the swan, looking exactly like my mother.
I was eight years old when I saw the Queen's House for the first time. The cab which had brought us from the station took us through streets very different from those of Bombay. The people looked sedate, the houses imperious. Here and there was a touch of green in the gardens, such green as I had not seen in India, deep and cool; there was a light drizzle in the air. We caught a glimpse of the river for the town of Langmouth was situated on the estuary of the River Lang and it was for this reason that it had become the busy port it was. Scraps of my mother's chatter lived on in my mind. “What a big ship! Look darling. I suppose that belongs to those peopleâ¦what's their name, darling?âthose rich and powerful people who own half Langmouth and half of England for that matter?” And my father's voice: “You mean the Creditons, my dear. They do in fact own a very prosperous shipping line but you exaggerate when you say they own half Langmouth, although it is true that Langmouth owes a certain part of its growing prosperity to them.”
The Creditons! The name stayed with me.
“They would have a name like that,” said my mother. “The creditable Creditons.”
My father's lips twitched as they did for my mother; it meant he wanted to laugh but felt it was undignified for a Major to do so. He had gained his majority since my birth and extra dignity with it. He was unapproachable, stern, honorable; and I was as proud of him as I was of my mother.
And so we came to the Queen's House. The carriage drew up before a high red brick wall in which was a wrought-iron gate. It was an exciting moment because standing there looking up at that ancient wall one had no idea what one would find on the other side. And when the gate was opened and we went through it and it shut behind us, the feeling came to me that I had stepped into another age. I had shut out Victorian Langmouth, made prosperous by the industrious Creditons, and had stepped back three hundred years in time.
The garden ran down to the river. It was well kept, though not elaborate and not large eitherâI should say perhaps three quarters of an acre at most. There were two lawns divided by a path of crazy paving, and on the lawns were shrubs which would doubtless flower in spring or summer; at that time of year they were draped with spiders' webs on which globules of moisture glistened. There was a mass of Michaelmas daisiesâlike lovely mauve stars, I thought themâand reddish and gold-colored chrysanthemums. The fresh smell of damp earth, grass, and green foliage and the faint scent of the flowers was so different from the heavy frangipani perfume of the blooms which grew in such profusion in the hot steamy Indian air.
A path led to the house, which was of three storiesâwider than it was tall; it was of the same red brick as the wall. There was an iron-studded door and beside it a heavy iron bell. The windows were latticed, and I believed that I was aware of a certain air of menace, but that may have been because I knew that I was to be left here in the charge of Aunt Charlotte while my parents went away to their gay and colorful life. That was the truth. There was no warning. I did not believe in such things.
Even my mother though was a little subdued on that occasion; but Aunt Charlotte had the power to subdue anyone.
My fatherâwho was not nearly such a martinet as he liked to pretendâmay have been aware of my fear; it may have occurred to him that I was very young to be left to the mercy of school, Aunt Charlotte and the Queen's House. But it was no unusual fate. It was happening to young people all the time. It was, as he told me before he left me, a worthwhile experience because it taught one to be self-reliant, to face up to life, to stand on one's own feet; he had a stock of clichÃ©s to meet occasions like this.
He tried to warn me. “This is reckoned to be a very interesting house,” he told me. “You'll find your Aunt Charlotte an interesting woman. She runs this businessâ¦she's clever at it. She buys and sells valuable old furniture. She'll tell you all about it. That's why she's got this interesting old house. She keeps the furniture she buys here and people come here to see it. She couldn't keep it all in her shop. And of course this sort of business is not ordinary business, so it is quite proper for Aunt Charlotte to do this. It is not as though she were selling butter or sugar over a counter.”
I was puzzled by these social differences but too overawed by my new experiences to bother with such trifles.
He pulled the rope, the old bell clanged and after a wait of some minutes the door was opened by Ellen who dropped a flustered curtsy and bade us come in.
We stepped into a dark hall; odd shapes loomed up all about us and I saw that it was not so much furnished as full of furniture. There were several grandfather clocks and some elaborate ones in ormolu; their ticking was very audible in the silence. The ticking of clocks was something I would always associate with the Queen's House. I noticed two Chinese cabinets, some chairs and several small tables, a bookcase and desk. They were simply put there, not arranged.
Ellen had run off and a woman was coming toward us. I thought at first she was Aunt Charlotte. I should have known that her neat white cap and black bombazine dress indicated the housekeeper.
“Ah, Mrs. Morton,” said my father who knew her well. “Here we are with my daughter.”
“Madam is in her sitting room,” said Mrs. Morton. “I will inform her that you have arrived.”
“Pray do,” said my father.
My mother looked at me. “Isn't it fascinating?” she whispered, half fearfully, which told me she didn't think so but wanted me to. “All these priceless, precious things! Just look at that escritoire! I'll bet it belonged to the King of the Barbarines.”
“Beth,” murmured my father in indulgent reproof.