Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(6)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(6)
Shannon Hale

The carriage ride was short, too short for Charlotte’s liking. It felt so perfectly surreal to be wearing a bonnet and jolting along a country lane—frankly more like a Terry Gilliam movie than a Masterpiece Theatre episode, but all the same, still very interesting. She and Miss Gardenside gasped in unison when the manor house emerged from the greenery.

Charlotte had been to parties in some impressive mansions back home, but they were weak sauce compared with this big, old stone house. A few dozen windows faced front, the glare from the sun making them opaque. Perhaps it was all those blind windows and the mystery of what might wait on the other side, or perhaps it was her mental library of Agatha Christie novels, but Charlotte thought at that moment, This is the sort of house where murders happen.

A line of manservants and maids stood out front. The very thin butler opened the door as the carriage stopped and helped out the passengers.

“Welcome home, Mrs. Wattlesbrook,” he said.

“Thank you, Neville.”

“Yay!” A brightly blonde woman of fifty ran out of the house and down the stairs. “More girls!”

She spread her arms wide, her enormous bosom shaking violently with the exercise. The woman seemed to be coming in for a hug at full speed, and Charlotte took a step back, sure she would be crushed against the side of the carriage. But with a look from Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the woman stopped short.

“May I present Miss Elizabeth Charming, our beloved houseguest,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook, in turn announcing Charlotte and Miss Gardenside.

“How do you do?” said Charlotte with a curtsy and head bow, as she’d practiced at the inn.

“I do properly well, rawther,” Miss Charming said in a stressed and twangy accent of no identifiable origin. “Jolly good to have you here.”

Miss Charming’s well-lipsticked lips quivered as she spoke, and for a moment Charlotte worried that she was suffering a mild stroke.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Miss Charming is of our native England,” Mrs. Wattlesbrook explained.

“Oh …” Charlotte smiled politely. “I can tell from your … accent.” Charlotte hadn’t dared try to sound British herself. The only accent she could do was Brooklyn, and then only when saying words like “quarter” and “daughter.” James had hated it when she did her Brooklyn accent.

Miss Charming beamed. She looked over Miss Gardenside, seemingly without recognizing Alisha beneath the bonnet, and took their arms, leading them up the steps.

“This place is so great!” she whispered, her tone settling into American Southern. “And the guys are delish, but I get lonely for girls between sessions. I can’t wait until—”

She had to stop, because Miss Gardenside had begun to cough. Not a light there’s-a-wee-something-in-my-throat cough, but a harsh, grating, suffocating hack. She bent over, wheezing and battling her lungs, while Charlotte stupidly patted her on the back and offered to fetch water, the universal language for you’re-coughing-and-there’s-nothing-useful-I-can-do.

Mrs. Wattlesbrook rushed inside and returned with a tall, blonde woman in a navy blue dress.

“I’ll take her up to bed,” said the woman.

Miss Gardenside appeared to be shaking her head no, but she couldn’t stop coughing long enough to voice any protest, and her feet shuffled along as the woman walked her inside. Mrs. Wattlesbrook followed.

“Did you guys have popcorn in the carriage?” Miss Charming asked.

“Popcorn? Um, no. Why?”

“I once got a piece of popcorn stuck in my upper respiratory,” Miss Charming whispered. “Had to go to the emergency … apothecary place.”

“I see,” said Charlotte. “No, Miss Gardenside has consumption.”

“Ooh. That sounds contagious.”

As far as Charlotte knew, “consumption” was the archaic term for tuberculosis, which was, in fact, quite contagious.

“But I can’t imagine she would come here, and Mrs. Wattlesbrook would let her, if she really has a deadly, communicable disease. Right?”

Miss Charming shrugged. “I won’t be sharing my toothbrush with her.”

They entered through the front doors and into a grand foyer, where a huge staircase spilled scarlet carpet down to the marble tiles. Dark wood banisters and trim contrasted with bright white walls, giving Charlotte the impression of gashes against pale skin.

Gashes against pale skin? You’re really morbid, her Inner Thoughts said.

Charlotte shrugged internally. She didn’t think she was morbid by habit, but old houses did seem to bring that out in her. Given their many years of history, odds were that bad things had happened inside. Really bad things. Her imagination couldn’t rest for wondering.

Mrs. Wattlesbrook returned and escorted Charlotte upstairs to her chamber. Its walls were painted a sunny yellow, her bed dressed in summery blue. A white-upholstered chair and pale wood table and wardrobe added to the perky atmosphere. Charlotte smiled. Maybe staying in a big old ponderous house wouldn’t be so bad after all. Maybe it wouldn’t tickle her nerves at night and make her shiver and long for home.

“Take a rest if you like,” Mrs. Wattlesbrook said. “We convene in the drawing room before dinner.”

“Thank you.”

Charlotte smiled. Mrs. Wattlesbrook smiled. The maid left. Mrs. Wattlesbrook did not leave.

“Hm?” said Charlotte, expecting something more.

The proprietress stepped forward. “Do you have anything with you from home?”

Charlotte indicated the open trunk. The maid had unpacked her Regency attire into the wardrobe and drawers. All that was left was Charlotte’s toiletries bag.

“If you have any medications,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook, “my staff will keep them in the kitchen at cooler temperatures and serve them to you with your meals.”

“Nope … no, I don’t have any medications.”

“All right then.” Mrs. Wattlesbrook still didn’t leave.

“Was there something else?” asked Charlotte.

Mrs. Wattlesbrook cleared her throat. She looked uncomfortable—the way a boulder looks when it doesn’t like where it’s sitting.

“There are certain … modern accoutrements we don’t allow at Pembrook Park.”

“Yes, I read the papers you sent: no laptops, no cell phones. So I left all that at the inn. But when I registered, I explained that I need to call my children every few days to check in—”

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