In which Miss Imogene Chively prays for a sudden rainstorm or a stampede of goats
GRACEBRIDGE MANOR, FOTHERINGHAM, KENT—
EARLY JULY 1817
“Jasper!” Imogene Chively shouted as she jumped to her feet, flinging her sketch into the grass. “Don’t move! Stay. Stay exactly where you are!” Grabbing her skirts ankle-height with one hand and desperately waving the other, she raced across the courtyard of the old castle. “Emily, help!” she shouted over her shoulder without a backward glance.
She couldn’t look away; Imogene’s eyes were glued to those of Jasper. If she looked away, he might try to leap off the crumbling wall. And he couldn’t.… Shouldn’t. It was too high. There was no doubt of an injury—a broken leg or, worse yet, a snapped neck or a blow to the head. “Stay,” she said again but in a softer, crooning tone, almost a prayer.
Having reached the wall, Imogene found Jasper two feet above her reach—even on tip-tip toes. He stared down at her, pleased with all the attention, tail wagging, tongue lolling.
“Oh, Jasper,” Emily Beeswanger said behind her. “You silly dog, what have you done now?” Emily, Imogene’s fast friend for all their eighteen years, was well versed in Jasper’s antics.
The St. John’s water dog continued to wag.
“Can you keep him from jumping, Emily? Yes, hold your hands up like a barrier. Exactly. I will go around behind him.”
“You can’t climb the wall, Imogene. It’s too fragile. It will fall down, taking you with it.”
“Yes, I know. But I need to get higher. I have to encourage him to back up—he doesn’t have room to turn,” she said, looking up at the narrow ledge of the ruins. Frowning, she glanced across the courtyard to where they had lain a coverlet on the grass beside the moat. “Or,” she said, her eyes settling on the basket atop the blanket. “I have a better idea; I know what always encourages obedience.”
“Food,” Emily said knowingly.
“Indeed.” Imogene turned and sauntered back across the cobblestone. She would have preferred to run, but doing so would have fueled Jasper’s excitable nature and encouraged him to leap over Emily’s outstretched arms to join her. She had just reached into the basket when a nearby voice startled her. Spinning around, Imogene locked eyes with a young gentleman standing on the arch of the moat bridge.
Imogene gasped in dismay. Ernest Steeple? Surely not. Her suitor was not due until the next day.
“Can I help?” he asked again when Imogene did not answer.
Gulping, Imogene tried to calm her panicked thoughts. She could feel the burn of embarrassment flaring up her cheeks as soon as she realized that the stranger was not Ernest but Benjamin Steeple, her suitor’s younger brother.
Suddenly the air was filled with a cacophony of barking, whining, and yipping. Imogene turned to see Jasper’s body undulating in serpentine waves as his excitement grew to a fevered pitch. He was staring at the new arrival.
“No!” Imogene shouted as the dog crouched. “Stay!”
Even as she called out, Mr. Steeple moved. In a flash, he was across the courtyard and almost to the wall when Jasper launched himself into the air. Emily jumped up to catch him, but Jasper sailed over her head with ease.
Imogene screamed as time slowed to a crawl. Jasper seemed to fall forever, but in those seconds, Mr. Steeple must have known he would not reach the dog. He flung himself under the dog’s path in a spectacular sprawl, sliding across the ground on his back. The dog landed with a heavy thump on the poor gentleman’s gut, eliciting a sharp gasp as they tumbled together. The tangled mess of dog and man finally came to a rest at the base of the wall.
Naturally, Jasper was the first on his feet. Bouncing with excitement, showing no injury or awareness of his peril, the dog licked Mr. Steeple’s face with abandon. The poor gentleman tried to fend off the affection to no avail; he finally succumbed to the wash and laughed as he struggled to his feet.
Imogene wanted to ask if he was hurt, but her tongue would not cooperate.
“Are you all right?” Emily asked in an easy manner that Imogene wished she could emulate.
“Oh yes, indeed. Just a little dirt here and there,” he said as he swiped pointlessly at the ingrained dirt on the elbows of his well-cut coat. “Nothing that can’t be fixed.”
“That was quite impressive. I’m certain Jasper would have done himself an injury had you not caught him.”
Mr. Steeple laughed again. “I’m not certain I would call that a catch.”
“It was impressive nonetheless.” Emily smiled up at him as he smiled down.
It was a charming tableau: Emily, with her pretty, round face framed by cascades of brown curls peeking out from her bonnet, staring up at the handsome visage of Benjamin Steeple, with the old castle ruins behind them. The smell of flora wafted through the air while cattle lowed in the nearby fields. Yes, indeed, a lovely tableau.
Imogene huffed a sigh. This was dreadful.
Mr. Benjamin’s presence had only one possible meaning—disaster was about to befall them. Mr. Ernest Steeple had arrived early. There would be no meandering through the estate, sketching and chatting with Emily about their London Season. No relaxing at the old castle, chasing butterflies or picking wildflowers today. Guests were about to descend upon Gracebridge Manor en masse.
Imogene sighed again. It was a long-suffering sigh, not that of eager anticipation.
Benjamin Steeple bent to accept Jasper’s continued attention. It was the respite Imogene needed, and it gave her time to take a few deep breaths, release the tension in her shoulders, and lift her cheeks into the semblance of a smile. As the mutual enthusiasm continued for some minutes, Imogene had an opportunity to observe Mr. Benjamin without reserve.
They had met once before, at a soiree in Mayfair. Though her glance of Ernest’s younger brother had been for a short duration—and she had spent the entire length of the conversation staring at his shoes—she had seen the likeness immediately.
There was no doubting that Ernest and Benjamin were brothers, and being so close in age, at twenty and nineteen, it would be difficult for anyone without the knowledge to say who was the elder.
Similar in build, the Steeple boys were tall, loose-limbed, and broad-shouldered. They both had dark brown hair, but Ernest wore his longer, brushed back from a widow’s peak. Ernest’s face was slightly broader; Benjamin’s chin was slightly sharper. And while Ernest had an open smile, Benjamin’s smile was wider, getting wider and wider—as Imogene continued to examine his face without speaking.
Oh Lud! She was staring.
Imogene gulped in discomfort and prayed for some sort of distraction—anything: a sudden rainstorm, a stampede of goats … or a fast friend coming to the rescue.
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Steeple, and a lovely surprise.”
Imogene’s eyes grew wide—horror of horrors, was Emily going to tell him that they had not been expected until the next day? While true, it might cause him embarrassment. Imogene cringed with the thought of mortifying poor Mr. Benjamin. What should she say? How could she prevent this travesty?
However, instead of flushing and looking uncomfortable, Benjamin Steeple executed a well-practiced bow. “Yes, we are a day early, aren’t we? Ernest would not be stopped; he could think of nothing else but to see this part of the country.” He did not turn to look at Imogene, but his eyes flicked in her direction and then quickly back to Emily. “I apologize for the interruption. I did not know that you were here.”
“That is disappointing, Mr. Steeple. I thought it was our company that brought you to the ruin—that you sought us out.”
“Had I known, had Ernest known, we would have been here an hour ago, but alas it was indeed the call of these old stones that sent me down the hill.” He gestured toward Gracebridge, the large sandstone manor visible behind Imogene, and then turned, making a show of looking at the ruin’s tower and south wing, where the sun glinted off the many panes of the mullioned windows. It was the only part of the castle still intact. The adjacent great hall and the floor that had been over it were gone; three arched doorways, and above them six glassless windows, led into the roofless shell, where all but the staircase had suffered from the ravages of time.
“And what do you think, Mr. Steeple? Does the castle live up to your expectations?” Emily turned toward the old hall. Imogene knew her interest to be a pretense. The building had lost its allure to her friend when Emily had learned that there were no ghosts or ghouls within its crumbling walls.
Mr. Benjamin took a deep breath, almost a sigh. “Indeed, yes, indeed. Wasn’t really a castle, though, was it? Not any longer. More of a fortified manor. Elizabethan?” Still staring up at the tower, he turned his body, stepped forward, and almost collided with Imogene. “Oh, I do beg your pardon.”
He glanced down, arms outstretched, preparing to catch her should she take a tumble. With effort and relief, Imogene retained her balance. She nodded her appreciation.
Mr. Benjamin shrugged with well-executed nonchalance, then offered Emily one arm, Imogene the other. “Shall I escort you back to your piazza?” he asked, using his head to indicate the blanket by the moat.
Emily grinned, accepting with alacrity. Imogene, however, was loath to put her arm in the crook of his elbow.… But it would be the height of bad manners to ignore the gentlemanly gesture. She timidly lifted her arm.
The young gentleman hooked her hand and with little fuss tucked it in place as if he took the arm of young ladies every day—which she supposed he did, being that he had been in London for the Season. Oh dear, and now he was walking. Imogene tried to match his pace, saw him look over with a friendly smile, and then, suddenly, their gait was in harmony. The awkwardness of their promenade disappeared, and Imogene sighed in relief—and then worried that he had heard it.
But if he had, Benjamin Steeple showed no sign and merely led them to the blanket by the moat. Jasper trotted happily in their wake. He assisted Emily as she gracefully reclined beside the basket.
“Yes, I believe the old Norman castle was rebuilt in the Elizabethan era.” Emily returned to the question at hand, glancing toward Imogene for a sign.
Imogene nodded, and Emily smiled. “Yes, Elizabethan.” It was a brilliant smile, well executed: spontaneous, friendly, and slightly sassy.
Imogene thought Emily had pulled it off with great aplomb, but when she looked to see how it was received, she noted that Mr. Benjamin was not looking in Emily’s direction. He was still studying the ruin.
With a shake of his head, Mr. Benjamin turned to face them. Silence reigned for eons—perhaps a moment or two—and then Emily and Benjamin Steeple began to speak at the same time.
Laughing at their folly, Emily indicated that Mr. Benjamin should go ahead.
“I apologize again for disturbing you. I will leave you to your…” He glanced at the basket. “To your alfresco meal.”
“Oh no, Mr. Steeple, don’t go. There is no need.” Emily sounded amused. “It is just a spot of tea … without the tea, to see us through until dinner. We have plenty to spare if you would care to join us.”
Mr. Benjamin’s brow folded for the merest second, and then he nodded. “Thank you. So very kind; however, before I do, I might take a wander around this fine building.” He looked over his shoulder almost wistfully.
“Of course.” Imogene surprised Emily by answering before her. Imogene wanted to say more, though—warn him about the decay and less-than-sturdy walls. And it would seem that Emily had forgotten about the danger, for her friend silently gestured toward the castle with a bright smile.
Taking full advantage of the offer, Benjamin Steeple swiveled and quickly crossed the old cobbled courtyard to the crumbling great hall.
“Emily,” Imogene whispered, “warn him—about the hazards.”
With a jerk of realization, Emily called, “Stop, Mr. Steeple, please. The floor is weak in the center and the wall rickety. Best go round the other way. Yes, there is a path that goes around the back.…” Emily snorted a laugh and dropped her voice. “Well, I guess he found it.” Benjamin Steeple had disappeared around the corner of the south wing with a casual wave, Jasper scurrying after him. “Methinks the gentleman likes your … ruins.”
“Not everyone can say that.” Imogene grinned as they turned back to the coverlet. She sat on her side with proper decorum and then pulled the basket close. “Help me spread this out, Emily. We can make a pretty display of it. As usual, Cook has been generous.”
Spreading out the savory tarts, fruit, and sweet squares, Imogene sighed at the loss of their solitude. While it was clear that Mr. Benjamin had not intended to intrude, he had done just that. Manners dictated their behavior from here; he would stay long enough to nibble on the light repast, discuss the weather or the beauty of the countryside, and then he would be off.
With another deep sigh, Imogene realized that her sense of disappointment was not for her lost sketching time, but the loss of a suitor-free day. Ernest Steeple was now waiting up at the house, and she would have to be enchanting and engaging, as dictated by her mother. How was she meant to achieve such lofty traits without … the proper disposition?
“It will be fine,” Emily said as if understanding the source of Imogene’s discomfort.
Imogene shrugged, but it didn’t look as nonchalant as she had wished.
“You’ll have to practice that,” Emily offered.
“I’ll have to practice a great many things.” Imogene sighed, yet again, wishing that her feeling of dread would go away.
“Try not to think on it overly. You’ll only end up tying yourself in knots. Just remember, Ernest Steeple would not be visiting if you had not made an impression. Your most awkward moments are over.”
“I wish that were true. Just as I wish Father had not invited him to spend a seven-night with us. We don’t really know each other—a mere three or four conversations does not indicate a lifelong attachment—Pardon?”
“I think that’s the point, Imogene. Your father invited Mr. Ernest so that you could get to know each other. I wish the idea didn’t make you so uncomfortable.”
“I’ll be tongue-tied or say all the wrong things.”
“Well, then focus on art—a topic so close to your heart you’ll forget to be shy.”
“Yes, but that was how I survived our first four encounters. I can hardly continue in the same vein.”
“Bat your bright blue eyes, then talk of the weather.”
Imogene smiled and shook her head. “Yes, that will win his heart for certain.”
“Do you want his heart?” Emily suddenly looked serious.
Imogene didn’t answer immediately. She mulled over the effects of Ernest’s proximity, and though she quite liked him, she thought that her quickening heart might not indicate attraction, but fear. But was it fear of losing Ernest’s good opinion or fear of disappointing her parents?
“I don’t know,” Imogene said finally.
“Well, whatever you decide, your dearest mama cannot complain. Mr. Ernest Steeple is an excellent prospect. Your Season was not a failure as was mine; I did not take as you have so clearly done.”
Imogene laughed at the absurdity. “You were the belle of many a ball and were not looking for any offer, but the right offer. Mrs. Beeswanger seems quite enamored with the idea of giving you a second Season. My mother … well, she wants me settled and away with no more wasted expense.” She uttered the hurtful words as if they were of no consequence, but Emily knew better.
“They are so very different. Really, I don’t know how our mothers have remained fast friends all these years; they rarely agree.”
“Cousin Clara,” Imogene said, nodding without looking up from her paper. Clara Tabard was not only a cousin of Imogene’s mother but also a great friend of Diane Beeswanger, Emily’s mother. At least, she used to be. A disease of the lungs had carried Cousin Clara away the previous autumn. “She kept the peace. It will be a strange summer without her.”
By the time the tealess tea was spread out, the strawberries moved closer to the peaches and then shifted nearer the apricot squares … and then back again, the tarts moved in line with the fruit … and then back again, Imogene began to wonder why Mr. Benjamin was taking so long to return. She looked over her shoulder. “Where do you think he has gone? The old castle is not that big.”
“Do you want me to go look?” Emily appeared eager.
“Yes, absolutely. After all, he might be lost on this tiny spit of land that has only one way on or off.”
Ignoring the teasing in Imogene’s voice, Emily shifted as if about to rise, and then her face fell. “Oh, there he is. I missed my opportunity.” Emily straightened. “We were despairing of you, Mr. Steeple. Thought you had fallen down the well.”
The young gentleman stopped partway across the courtyard, the warm breeze fluttering his hair. “There’s a well? I didn’t see that. Where?”
“It was a jest, Mr. Steeple. The well was filled in years ago, for safety’s sake.”
“Oh, that is most unfortunate. I find studying the foundations, the base structure of a building of this age, fascinating. It is nothing short of amazing that the Normans had such advanced knowledge of weight-bearing and distribution principles. The Elizabethans used it to great advantage when they built on top.”
Upon reaching the blanket, he joined them on one of the unoccupied corners and continued to extol the virtues of the castle’s architecture. “The tower would be an excellent vantage point to see the great hall in its entirety. There appears to be a door at the top of the stairs leading into the tower. Is it still function—” He stopped midsentence, staring at the sketch Imogene had rescued from the grass. It was propped up on the basket, out of the way.
Imogene felt the flush of heat rise up her cheeks and spread across her face. She hadn’t bothered to hide her drawing of the old castle; she thought it of no interest to anyone—and yet Mr. Benjamin continued to study it with deep interest.
“This is quite … accurate.”
Imogene rolled her shoulders forward and dropped her gaze to the blanket, wishing she could disappear into the ground.
“Impressively accurate,” he continued.
Suddenly it would seem that the Fates had answered Imogene’s call. The earth began to rumble as if it were thinking about splitting open. However, the noise was not coming from beneath her feet; it was coming from the ruin. Startled, Imogene jerked her head to look over her shoulder. As she watched in alarm, the floor to the great hall collapsed into the cellar below in a cascade of stone and dust.
Jumping up, they backed away from the huge cloud of debris until they could go no farther. The moat was at their backs. And then the rumbling stopped—except for the occasional skitter and plop of an errant rock dropping into the newly formed hole visible through the arched doorways.
Imogene waved the dust out of her eyes, coughing in the thick air.
“Oh dear, that is most unfortunate,” Mr. Benjamin said with more tragedy in his tone than his words implied.
Even Emily looked upset.
Imogene shook her head in dismay. As the dust and dirt began to settle, it became apparent that the floor was not all that had been damaged in the collapse. The front wall of the great hall was leaning in at a worrisome angle. “We might lose the entire face as well,” Imogene said in a whisper of melancholy. The castle was her favorite sketching subject. More than half of her artwork featured the castle in some capacity.… And now it … “Well, it’s not gone,” she said with conviction. “The tower still stands, and with bracing, I imagine we can secure the wall.” She looked over to Mr. Benjamin. He seemed to know about these things. “Would you agree?”
“Most certainly. It is still a beautiful structure—worthy of praise and study.”
Imogene nodded and turned back to stare at the mess. “The lower floor will have to be dug out.”
“Yes, but as you can see, the stairs are still intact. Once the debris around is cleared out—Miss Chively? Is something wrong? Why—Miss Chively, stop! The wall might give way. Where are you go—?”
Imogene ran toward the ruined ruins, her heart hammering. She couldn’t breathe, so acute was her fear. “Jasper!” she screamed. “Jasper! Come, Jasper!”
And in the silence, she heard a terrible sound. A whimper. Coming from under the collapsed floor.
Copyright © 2018 by Cynthia Ann Anstey