Home > A Cold Legacy (The Madman's Daughter #3)(8)

A Cold Legacy (The Madman's Daughter #3)(8)
Author: Megan Shepherd

“No, thank heavens. The vagrants slept in the lambing barn while they were here. I had Carlyle burn it as a precaution, though in these parts, at this time of year, it’s too cold for diseases to spread easily in a house like this. We keep it well cleaned.”

Her knowledge of biology impressed me, but no more so than Valentina’s ability to read. It was rare for servants to be so highly educated, especially in such rural parts.

We entered the kitchen, a cavernous room with a roaring fire and a pair of geese roasting on the spit. My stomach lurched with hunger. A thin girl attended to the roast, chewing her nail as she regarded us with round eyes. Mrs. McKenna opened a tin and handed Lucy, Montgomery, and me each a crusty scone.

“That’ll tide you over till supper. Let’s get you settled now, and tomorrow I’ll show you the manor and grounds, if the storm lets up. There are times it gets so bad the levees fail and the road to Quick floods for days. We can be completely cut off. Our own little island, of sorts.” She handed me the candelabra from the table. “Take this. The electricity will likely go out if the wind continues. Follow Valentina—she’ll show you to your rooms. I’ll make sure my girls take care of your sickly friend. A fever, is that right?” She shook her head in sympathy. “How awful. We shall put him in a room with a fireplace to keep him warm.”

“That would be lovely—” Lucy began.

“No,” Montgomery interrupted. “No fire. No sharp objects either. And make sure the room has a strong lock. We’ll attend to him ourselves, not your girls.”

Mrs. McKenna’s eyebrows raised, and she exchanged a look with Valentina, but like any good servant, she didn’t probe. “No fire, then. And an extra lock on the door.” She held the candelabra out to me. “Might I see that letter of introduction?”

I handed it to her, and she reread Elizabeth’s letter, then looked up with a startled expression. Her gaze shifted between Montgomery and me.

“Engaged?” she asked.

Behind her, the thin little girl at the goose spit gasped.

“Yes,” I stuttered, worried. “Is . . . is it a problem?” With their high-collared dresses and sleeves down to their wrists, they might be religious types who wouldn’t approve of Montgomery and me traveling together unwed.

“No, no, little mouse,” Mrs. McKenna said. She glanced at the thin girl at the spit, who now wore a bright smile that seemed out of place in the gloomy manor. “It’s only that, with the exception of old Carlyle, you’ve walked into a house of women. We haven’t had much occasion to celebrate things like engagements, not in a long time. The girls would so adore helping to arrange a wedding. Perhaps in the spring, after thaw, or midsummer when the heather is in bloom. It’ll cheer them up so, especially after a harsh winter.”

I smiled. “We’d love their help. And spring sounds perfect.” The warm scone in my stomach, Montgomery at my side, girls tittering over wedding plans: it was starting to feel more like a home, and I told myself that the unsettled feeling I’d had when I first arrived was just nerves from the road.

I squeezed Montgomery’s hand, but the troubled look he gave me said he wasn’t nearly as reassured as I was.

“THERE ARE THREE FLOORS, not including the basement,” Valentina said as she led us up the stairs, with Balthazar trailing behind carrying our three carpetbags over one shoulder. Two of the littlest servant girls walked alongside him with fresh linens in their arms, staring up at him. One had a limp that made her walk nearly as slowly as he did. Far from frightened, they seemed utterly transfixed by him.

“That doesn’t include the towers,” Valentina continued. “There’s one in the southern wing and one in the north. The north tower is the biggest. It’s where the mistress’s observatory is. I’m the only one with a key to it, on account of the delicate equipment. She’s taught me how to use most of the telescopes and refractors and star charts. In turn, I’m teaching the older girls. Education is often overlooked in female children; I’m determined to make sure the girls here have good heads on their shoulders.” She cast me a cold gaze. “Between McKenna and me, we manage quite well during Elizabeth’s absences. Though we’re all anxious for her return, of course.”

The stairs creaked as we made our way to the second floor, which Valentina explained was mostly comprised of guest bedrooms and a sitting room they used for breakfast. The regular servants’ rooms were on the third floor, and she and McKenna each had one of the larger corner rooms. Carlyle slept in an apartment above the barn.

She passed me a set of keys with her gloved hand. “One for your bedroom, and one for that of your ill friend. You’re welcome in any portion of the house that isn’t locked. Those are the observatory and the mistress’s private chambers.”

“And my dog?”

“Carlyle put him in the barn. There are plenty of rats for him to catch.”

Lucy gaped. “He’s supposed to eat rats?”

Valentina appraised Lucy’s fine city clothes with a withering look. “I didn’t realize he was canine royalty. Would he care for a feather bed and silver bowl, perhaps?”

Lucy drew in a sharp breath. I could practically see smoke coming from her ears. I doubt she’d ever been spoken to so boldly, maid or not. I wrapped my arm around hers and held her back. “Rats will be fine,” I said.

Valentina smiled thinly and continued up the stairs.

We reached the landing, where a long hallway stretched into darkness broken only by flickering electric lights. Heavy curtains flanked the windows, with old portraits hanging between them.

“The Ballentyne family,” Valentina said, motioning to the portraits. “That one is the mistress’s great-grandfather. And that woman is her great-aunt.”

“But I thought the Franken—I mean, the von Stein family—owned the manor,” I said.

“Victor Frankenstein, you mean? You needn’t be so secretive, Miss Moreau. Elizabeth trusts us completely; she’s told us all about her family’s history. The Ballentynes were the original owners of the manor. Lord Ballentyne built it in 1663. He was something of an eccentric. Went mad, they say.”

Montgomery stopped to give Balthazar time to catch up to us. The two little girls were hanging by his side, hiding smiles behind their hands. The one with the limp skipped ahead to Valentina and tugged on her skirt. Valentina bent down to hear the girl’s whisper.

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