Wards and Warnings (Part 4)

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‘Wait!’ I called, running after the gardener.

She didn’t even turn. She was humming to herself, actually humming as she rounded a corner with the express purpose of leaving us completely in the dark. And she was quick about it too – I had to run to catch up with her, trying to get her to stop. ‘You can’t just ask all of that and then walk off!’

She kept walking.

‘It’s not fair!’

She didn’t even look.

William was hurrying behind me, but rather than helping, he kept looking at me like he wanted us to leave. Before the gardener could round another corner and get away entirely, I darted in front of her to block her way.

‘Tell us what you know!’

Finally, she paused, and under the shadow of her hat, her lips curled into a smile. ‘Determined, are we?’

‘We ought to know, if it had something to do with Dad’s death,’ I answered.

‘Very well then. I’ll tell you what I can tell you, but not here, and not now. These roses have ears and they’re all terrible gossips. Besides, they’ll be looking for you for dinner–’

And just as she said it, the manor bells rang out for six, and somewhere, far away, the Housekeeper’s voice called our names.

‘Well, if you’re not going to tell us now, then when?’

The gardener looked toward the sky, at the scattered clouds and sinking sun. ‘Tomorrow…’ she said, savouring the word. ‘Tomorrow, we can talk. Meet me at the entrance to the maze an hour before noon.’

‘I guess we’ll see you tomorrow then, Miss… er…’ She hadn’t even told us her name, I realized, though she knew ours well enough.

‘Beatrice, child,’ she said. ‘Beatrice LeNoir.’ And with a tip of her hat, she disappeared into the hedges.

Of course she’d left without showing us the way out, and we couldn’t even backtrack, not unless we wanted to step through another hedge. The Housekeeper’s voice sounded from beyond the high hedges:

‘Where are you, you useless brats!’

William pointed up, to where the very tip of Ravenscourt’s highest tower just managed to peek above the roses, and using that as a landmark, and the Old Toad’s voice as a guide, we began trying to find our way out of the maze. It was like playing a game of Marco Polo: every time we came to a crossroads, or a turn where we couldn’t see the tower, we stopped, and listened, and sure enough:

‘I know you came out here, you worthless–’

At last, we stumbled out of the maze, right at the entrance where she’d been yelling the whole time. ‘Where were you?’ she demanded, grabbing us by the arms, before noticing the scratches left by the thorns. ‘And what have you done to your clothes!’

‘We got lost in the maze, ma’am,’ which of course was perfectly honest.

‘Well, that maze has made you nearly twenty minutes late for dinner,’ said the Housekeeper, and her face curdled into a smile. I doubted that a smile from the Housekeeper could mean anything good. ‘And seeing as how it would take at least another hour to make you even half-way presentable, I rather think that going to bed without supper would be a good–’

A soft cough sounded from the path.

We all turned to where Mother had appeared on the path, prim and proper as ever, though for once, her pointed frown wasn’t directed at me or William, which was a relief. She glared directly at the Housekeeper, who let us go immediately, and bobbed her head at Mother – just low enough to avoid being completely disrespectful.

‘Mrs. Thompson,’ said Mother.

‘Please, Mrs. Crowe. Ellen will suffice.’

‘Ellen, then,’ said Mother, giving the Housekeeper the small, tight smile that she usually reserved for beggars and door-to-door salesmen. ‘Edward told me he had entrusted the care of my children to your capable hands. I’m sorry we haven’t had the chance to speak before now. Have they been much trouble?’

‘Nothing worse than I’ve had to handle before,’ croaked the Housekeeper shortly.

‘Good,’ said Mother. Her voice had taken on a dangerous tone that I knew well. It was the tone she’d used when the catechism teacher had told her I was looking up Curses to use on the other girls – though really, all I’d been trying to do was find an Illusion or Charm to make them not quite so horrifically annoying. It was the same tone she’d used when she’d caught Dad sneaking carnivorous plants into the house, or when William–

Well, William probably thought it was her normal voice.

‘Because I would hate to tell Edward his trust was ill-founded,’ continued Mother. ‘In any case, I’d rather their punishments were discussed with me, rather than handed out at whim.’

The Housekeeper’s face had gone positively sour. ‘Of course, Mrs. Crowe,’ she said, bowing her head, though she still couldn’t hide the malice in her lidded eyes.

‘Now,’ said Mother. ‘I’ll see them to dinner – I rather think you have things to clean and organize tonight?’ And without waiting for a response, she turned back toward the house, waving for us to follow. The Housekeeper couldn’t do anything but glare as we walked away. I had to fight the urge to stick my tongue out at her.

But then we were inside, and when Mother closed the door behind us, her lips were still pressed into that tight frown. ‘Would you care to explain to me what you were doing that you managed to do that to your clothes? Never mind the fact that the Housekeeper had to drag you in for dinner!’

‘We were just exploring,’ I said. Surely she could’ve understood that? ‘We’ve been trapped in this stuffy old house for nearly a week!’

‘We got lost in the rose maze,’ added William.

It didn’t help. ‘I guess it doesn’t really matter,’ said Mother with a sigh. ‘But Abigail, William, dears, there are rules here. You’re guests. I can’t have you running wild the way you have been–’

‘We weren’t running wild–’ I said, as William protested, ‘We weren’t breaking any rules–’ but Mother held up her hand.

‘I don’t want to hear it,’ she said. ‘If you insist on spurning your uncle’s orders, there really won’t be anything I can do about it. This is his house after all.’ She sighed again, and looked up at the ceiling, as if searching for guidance. ‘I rather think a lack of dinner would actually be a good lesson. So just… just go to your rooms. And try not to get into any more trouble? Please?’

I couldn’t imagine how she could be serious about the whole thing, but she was, and she completely ignored any further arguments. And so, there was nothing for us to do but go back to our rooms, Mother peering after us, as if to make sure we didn’t set the house on fire right then and there just to spite her.

‘She’s one to talk,’ said William sullenly when we’d finally left her behind.

And there was really nothing I could say to that. Lunch had been ages ago, and an unpleasant feeling had settled into my stomach – though it had very little to do with hunger. ‘That gardener,’ I said at last, ‘Beatrice… what do you think she meant about Father being disowned?’

William paused, frowning in thought. ‘Well, it would make sense, wouldn’t it?’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, the fact that Dad never talked about Uncle Edward – and also that we never knew about all this–’ he gestured to the whole wide house: the cobwebbed ceiling and faded carpets and peeling, ancient walls, and the great doors of the library standing closed in front of us. ‘I feel like we should’ve known,’ he said. ‘But you know what is interesting? She said something about places like this attracting ghosts. Do you think that’s true?’

I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. ‘I don’t know, why?’

‘I just… well, there’s an entire section in the library about Wards and Restings and magic and stuff, and I was wondering… if Dad’s spirit wasn’t rested… well, then…’

‘What could’ve happened to it?’ I said, voicing the question that I hadn’t dared to ask since the Resting. The library doors with their carvings of intertwined trees and mysterious words glared down at us. ‘I don’t think it would hurt to try to find out. And since we’ve got nothing else to do tonight…’

William grinned. ‘I was hoping you’d say that.’

To be continued…

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In any case, until next time — Farewell from the Ladies at Ravenscourt.