While Mr Finch was walking the grounds, I found myself alone in the house. Having no desire to seclude myself in the sitting room—which bore more resemblance to the great of hall of a medieval manor than of a modern estate—I called for the staff. I was presented by the Finch's under butler, a startlingly dressed man named Highfold. He wore a fine weskit of brocaded cloth, trimmed with fine yellow thread. I was surprised to see such brilliant gear in the dim gloom of Blackwell. I had supposed, quite wrongly, that the Finches did not have any notion of colour or contrast because of the simple unadorned walls and the grim paintings they hung that featured seaside cliffs and ships of the line in storm-tossed waters.
Highfold bowed to me and muttered some platitude; probably "yes, my lady?" or somesuch meaningless greeting. I told him that I wanted a tour of the house. "I haven't had the chance to see it all yet, and the Finches have been rather too busy to shew it me."
"Mrs Finch is out shooting, mem'oiselle." I don't know where Highfold got his Frenchified airs, but I was to hear him give a false affect many times in the coming months.
I nodded at him. "Yes, yes, and Mr Finch is looking for Mrs Rail. But I want to see the house. Surely you're up to that task?"
The under butler had a pinched face framed by rather ridiculous looking side-chops. His eyes were too close together and had a tendency to water, and his crooked nose made a most poor combination with his one snaggle-tooth to give him the appearance of a mad wanderer of the moor. He ducked his laughable head. "Yes, mem'oiselle," he agreed. "I've been in the Finches service going on five years, I should say I know the grounds very well indeed. Where would the mem'oiselle like to begin?"
I confess, I know it very unladylike to walk a tour with someone as undignified as Edward Highfold, a raggedy looking urchin dressed up in the finery of a fine house, but I was left without amusement and I truly did wish to pace out my surroundings. After all, thought I, I would be spending all autumn and winter at Blackwell Hall. I hoped my health would improve, truly, but even if it did not I had the hope that I would at least be entertained for the time I spent there. That was my chiefest concern: there is nothing worse than whiling away half a year without entertainment. You might as well be dead.
I told Highfold that I would like to begin in the library. The library, after all, is the heart of a home. The rest of the house unfolds from the library like the living leaves of a tree in spring. It is from the library that a house finds its spirit, and the genius of an estate resides there. The Finch library was a magnificent thing, suited to a man of the Law, as I later found Mr Finch had once endeavored to be. It was made of dark wood and opened, in great french windows, out onto the out-of-doors. Subaqueous light filled the room, dulling the glimmer of brass fittings.
The bookshelves filled three walls, and wrapped around the four doorways that lead in and out to the other chambers of the house. The books themselves were bound in earthen tones. Mr Finch favored red-gold lettering on his spines. I wondered who his printer was, or if he had found himself a bookseller of repute to service the Blackwell house. I flitted from shelf to shelf, marveling not so much at the quality of the books (which were dusty and little-used) but at the fine nameplates, the step-ladders, stools, chairs (again, of a very masculine quality), candelabras, his fine writing desk with its pens, inks, and crisp undisturbed white sheets of paper.
The french windows were covered with a scroll of ivy, as though the gardener and groundskeeper didn't know their business. I asked Highfold if the abominable Allan was in charge of keeping the windows clear. "The master doesn't mind if the windows are clear or not, mem'oiselle," was his reply.
Mr Finch grew stranger and stranger by the minute. I was fully intending to continue my impromptu tour of Blackwell when I heard his voice coming from somewhere without. I crept to the windows and told Highfold to make himself scarce. I was fair interested in hearing what was going on, and it was (it is) somewhat improper for a young lady to perch herself in a secret listening cove and spy upon her hosts.
He was in the garden, which was hidden behind the sweep of the house. I could see it from the windows, if I stood on my tip-toes and squinted through the screen of foliage growing against the pane. A distinguished gentleman can be recognized at any distance, and Mr Finch's violent shock of hair was nothing if not distinguished. He stood by a stone fountain, all replete with graven images of dolphins and ships, though the water had, by the looks of it, long ago been silenced and reduced to a murky quagmire, a sort of scum in the bottom of the basin.
"I will not have you—stop that, Joanna—I will not have you making a mess of things, do you understand?"
The object of his speech was invisible to me, and her responses went unheard. I could make out the faintest reply, but its contents were so soft as to be unintelligible. I shifted my position so as to lose sight of Mr Finch (a sorrow) but to gain a view of his companion. It could be none other than the poetess, Mrs Rail.
She was a slender dark woman, with dark hair all piled up atop her head and falling down her shoulders in tendrils. Her eyes were the deep brown colour of trunk liner and her gown was gossamer white. She stood out amongst the ancient and hoary plants as a fairy would. There was a nimbus about her that I still, to this day, cannot account for. Perhaps it was a trick of the light.
"Now, Joanna, your husband is worried about you. No—no, he hasn't. But he will, and you must keep yourself apart from Eric Diver, do you understand? I won't have it, madame, not in my house. Oh, stop it. You'll not fool anyone with your hysterics. I want you to—" Here I watched her level her burning gaze on him and speak a muted accusation. I shrank back from the window. "How dare you, Joanna," he replied in a distant and husky voice.
I crept slowly back. There were things afoot in Blackwell Hall that I had no notion of. Nor had I any desire to pry further, at least not at that moment. My chiefest thought was to extricate myself from the library and find a way to silence Highfold, for it occurred to me that he would likely tell the other servants what I had been up to, and gossip in a household often gets back to its master. Whatever dark secret connected Joanna Rail and Jacob Finch, and I could guess very well what it might be, I had no desire to learn its details. I rather like Mr Finch, and the thought of him learning that I was spying on him and that, indeed, I had something very worthy of the tale to tell, shivered me.
I found Highfold in the kitchen with Mary and Ms Taylor. There is a certain familiarity about country servants that is not true of London. I found Mary and Ms Taylor, rather than being scandalized, quite happy that I joined them. The kitchen of Blackwell Hall was, like its sitting room, something out of a grim Tudor story. It was all in stone, as though there were fear that a fire might spread to the rest of the house. There were three enormous hearths set into the wall, two of which had not seen a fire in at least a generation. It was all over festooned with garlic, sausage, and other country niceties hanging from smoke-blackened rafters.
Mary bid me welcome and sit and gave me a cupful of wine. "You're the Bracken lass," she said with not a hint of deference. "The one what came in so late the day prior. It's good to see you looking so healthy, miss!"
I gave her a polite sort of inclination of my head and raised my cup to her. It was a pleasing sentiment, if not wholly appropriate. But then, when was I known to be wholly appropriate? It was not in my nature, just as it was not in the nature of Blackwell Hall.
"I wonder if you could tell me something of the garden," I said, eyeing Highfold. I wished him to know the reasons for my secrecy without blurting them out to the maid and chef. It would hardly do to have him sworn to silence if the news were to travel all throughout the house on the wings of silver trays and dustpans.
Highfold caught my eye and gave a courteous little half-bow. "Indeed, mem'oiselle. The garden. Quite a private place, being as it is shielded from the countryside and the park by the bulk of the house." I gave him a considerate nod. I prayed he would go on. He did: "It is a place where dark deeds have often been buried, I fear, mem'oiselle. In that, it is very much like the family gardens of yore. Where you might have once found a red rose and wondered if it had not been painted so, the same might be said of this moorland garden. Indeed, Mr Finch keeps it quite well stocked with plants of all the ancient types."
"But surely such talk would never be repeated?" I asked.
He smiled. By now, I fear that Mary and Ms Taylor were no longer amused, being lost amongst our talk. "Of course," he replied. "Such talk is not to be thought of outside the garden. But that does not mean, mem'oiselle, that it does not have power."
And just like that I was once again secure in my person and reputation in the house. I smiled pleasantly and wished Highfold a good afternoon. He was to become my confidant in the days that followed, bound to me by the burden of a common secret. I would learn something of him too, though the time is not yet ripe for me to tell.
I asked Highfold to find a novel from the library so that I would not need to go in again and listen to the dark and mysterious conversation between Mrs Rail and Jacob Finch. He fetched me something to my room, where I gazed from my casement and watched the sun travel across the sky. The dark and twisted trees of the forest moor rubbed their branches together greedily. The garden, ancient and hoary, was spread out below, but I could not now see the figures of Mrs Rail or Mr Finch.
I waited. Surely, I thought, they will shortly return, and someone will be sent to bring me down as company.
The hunting party returned before they did.