There, Mr. Rathbone, sir, are yer right?” the old man asked solicitously.
Henry Rathbone tucked the blanket around his legs where he sat in the pony trap, his luggage beside him. “Yes, thank you, Wiggins,” he replied gratefully. The wind had a knife-edge to it, even here at the railway station in Penrith. Out on the six-mile road through the snow-crusted mountains down to Ullswater, it would get far worse. It was roughly the middle of December, and exactly the middle of the century.
Wiggins climbed up into the driver’s seat and urged the horse forward. It must know its own way by now. It had come here most days when Judah Dreghorn was alive.
But Judah was dead now—and that was Henry’s miserable reason for coming back to this wild and marvelous land he loved. Even the place names woke memories of days tramping up long hills, wiry grass under his feet, sweet wind in his face and views that stretched forever. He could see in his mind’s eye the pale blue waters of Stickle Tarn looking over toward the summit of Pavey Ark; or the snow-streaked hills of Honister Pass. How many times had he and Judah climbed Scafell Pike to the roof of the world, and sat with their backs to the warm stone, eating bread and cheese and drinking rough red wine as if it had been the food of gods?
Then three days ago he had received a letter from Antonia, her words almost illegible on the paper, to say that Judah had died in a stupid accident. It had not even happened on the lake, or in one of the winter storms that raged down the valley with wind and snow, but on the stepping stones of the stream.
He stared around him now as the pony trap left the town and headed along the winding road westward. The raw, passionate beauty of the land suited his mood. It was steep against an unclouded sky, snow glittering so brilliantly it hurt his eyes, blazing white on the crests, shadowed in the valleys, gullied dark where the rocks and trees broke through.
It was ten years since the four Dreghorn brothers had last been at home together. The family’s good fortune in gaining the estate had meant they could all follow their dreams wherever they led. Benjamin had left his church ministry and gone to Palestine to join in the biblical archaeology there. Ephraim had followed his love of botany to South Africa. His letters were full of sketches of marvelous, unique plants, many of them so useful to man.
Nathaniel, the only other one to marry, had gone to America to study the extraordinary geology of that land, exploring features that Europe did not possess. He had even trekked as far west as the rock formations of the desert territories, and the great San Andreas fault in California. It was there that he had died of fever, leaving his widow, Naomi, to return now in his place.
Antonia had written in her letter that they were all coming home for Christmas, but what a bitter and different arrival that would be. Little wonder Antonia had wanted her godfather to be there. She had terrible news to tell, and no other family to help her. Her parents had died young, she had no siblings; she had only her nine-year-old son, Joshua, who was as bereaved as she.
Henry had known her all her life, first as a grave and happy child, eager to learn, forever reading. She had never tired of asking him questions. They had been friends in discovery.
Then as a young woman a slight self-consciousness in her had put a distance between them. She had shared more reluctantly, but he had still been the first to learn of her love for Judah, and with her parents dead, it was he who had given her away at her wedding.
But what could he possibly do for her now?
Henry tucked the blanket closer around himself and stared ahead. Soon he would see the bright shield of Ullswater ahead, and on a day as clear as this, the mountains beyond: Helvellyn to the south, and the Blencathra range to the north. The high tarns would be iced over, blue in the shadows. Some of the wild animals would have their white winter coats; the red deer would have come down to the valleys. Shepherds would be searching for their lost sheep. He smiled. Sheep survived very well under the snow; their warm breath created a hole to breathe through, and the odor of their sweat made them easy enough to find for any dog worth his keep.
The Dreghorn estate was on the sloping land above the lake edge, a couple of miles from the village. It was the largest for miles, containing rich pasture, woods, streams, and tenant farmhouses, and went right down to the lake shore for more than a mile. The manor house was built of Lakeland stone, three stories high with a south-facing façade.
They went through the gates and pulled up in the driveway. Antonia came out of the front door so soon that she must have been waiting for them, watching at the window. She was tall, with smooth, dark hair, and he remembered her having a unique kind of calm beauty that showed the inner peace that day-to-day irritations could not disturb.
Now as she walked swiftly toward him, her wide, black skirts almost touching the gravel, her grief was clearly troubled by anger and fear as well. Her skin was pale, tight-stretched across her bones, and her dark eyes were hollowed around with shadows.
He alighted quickly, going toward her.
“Henry! I’m so glad you’ve come,” she said urgently. “I don’t know what to do, or how I can face this alone.”
He put his arms around her, feeling the stiffness of her shoulders, and kissing her gently on the cheek. “I hope you didn’t doubt I would come, my dear,” he answered. “And do everything that I can for as long as it may help.”
She pulled away and suddenly her eyes filled with tears. She controlled her voice only with the greatest difficulty. “It is so much worse than I wrote. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do to fight it. And I dread telling Benjamin and Ephraim when they arrive. I believe Nathaniel’s widow will come, too. You didn’t know Naomi, did you?”
“No, I did not meet her.” He searched her face, wondering what worse news she could have than Judah’s death. What was it she must fight, but had not told him?
She turned away. “Come inside.” She gulped on the words. “It’s cold out here. Wiggins will bring your things in and put them in your room. Would you like tea, crumpets? It’s a little early, but you’ve come a long way.” She was talking too quickly as she led the way up the steps and in through the high, carved front doors. “The fire’s hot in the drawing room, and Joshua is still in class. He’s brilliant, you know. He’s changed a lot since you were last here.”
Inside, the hall was warmer, but it was not until they were in the withdrawing room with its red-ochre colored walls and the log fire roaring in the grate that the heat relaxed him a little. He was glad to sit in one of the huge chairs and wait for the maid to bring their tea and toasted crumpets with hot butter.
They were halfway through them before he broke the mood. “I think you had better tell me what else it is that troubles you,” he said gently.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then lifted her eyes to meet his. “Ashton Gower is saying that Judah cheated him.” Her voice shook. “He says that this whole estate should rightfully have been his, and Judah had him falsely imprisoned, then stole it from him.”
Henry felt as if he had been struck physically, so stunned was he by her words. Judah Dreghorn had been a judge in the local court in Penrith, and the most honest man Henry had ever known. The idea of his having cheated anyone was absurd.
“That’s ridiculous!” he said quickly. “No one would believe him. You must have your man of affairs warn him that if he repeats such an idiotic and completely false charge, you will sue him.”
The shadow of a smile touched her mouth. “I have already done that. Gower took no notice. He insists that Judah took the estate after charging him falsely and imprisoning him, when he knew he was innocent, all in order to buy the estate cheaply. And of course that was before the Viking site was found.”
He was confused.
“I think you had better tell me the whole story from the beginning. I don’t remember Ashton Gower, and I know nothing about a Viking site. What happened, Antonia?”
She drank the last of her tea, as if giving herself time to compose her thoughts. She did not look at him but into the dancing flames of the fire. Outside it was already growing dark and the winter sunset lit the sky and burned orange and gold through the south windows onto the wall.
“Years ago Ashton Gower’s family owned this estate,” she began. “It belonged originally to the Colgrave family, and the widow who inherited it married Geoffrey Gower, and was Ashton’s mother. It all seemed very straightforward to begin with, until Peter Colgrave, a relative from the other side of the family, raised the question as to whether the deeds were genuine.”
“The deeds to the estate?” Henry asked. “How could they not be? Presumably Gower’s father was the legal owner, on his marriage to the Colgrave widow?”
“It was a question of dates,” she replied. She looked tired, drained of all strength. The story was miserably familiar, even if it was also inexplicable. “To do with Mariah Colgrave’s marriage and the death of her brother-in-law, and the birth of Peter Colgrave.”
“And this Colgrave contested Gower’s right to it?” he asked.
She smiled bleakly. “Actually he said the deeds were forged, and that Ashton Gower had done it in order to inherit it himself. He insisted it went to court, so naturally in time it came before Judah, up in Penrith. The first time he examined the deeds he said they looked perfectly good, but he kept them and looked again more closely. He became suspicious and took them to a very good expert on documents in Kendal. He said they were definitely not genuine. He would testify to that.”
Henry leaned forward. “And did he?” he asked earnestly.
“Oh, yes. Ashton Gower stood trial for forgery, and was found guilty. Judah sentenced him to eleven years’ imprisonment. He has just been released.”
“And the estate?” Although he could guess the answer. Perhaps he should have known, but when he had been here before, there had always been better, happier things to talk of—laughter, good food, and good conversation to share.
She shifted a little in her seat.
“Colgrave inherited it,” she said ruefully. “But he did not wish to live here. He put the estate on the market at a very reasonable price. I think actually he had debts to pay. He lived extravagantly. Judah and his brothers all put in what they could, Judah by far the most, and they bought it. He and I lived here. Joshua was born here.” Her voice choked with emotion and she needed a few moments to regain control.
He waited without speaking.
“I’ve never loved a place as I do this!” she said with sudden fierce passion. “For the first time I feel absolutely at home.” She gave an impatient little gesture of her hand. “Not the house. It’s beautiful, of course, a marvelous house. But I mean the land, the trees, the way the light falls on the water.” She searched his face. “Do you remember the long twilight over the lake in the summer, the evening sky? Or the valleys, grassland so green it rolls like deep velvet into the distance, trees full and lush, billowing like fallen clouds? The woods in spring, or the day we followed Striding Edge up toward Helvellyn?”
He did not interrupt her. To remember the beauty that hurt was part of grief.
She was silent for a moment, and then resumed the story. “Of course it’s worth a great deal financially as well, even before we found the Viking site. There are the farms, and the houses on the shore. It’s easily sufficient to provide for Benjamin, Ephraim, and Nathaniel to follow their own passions.” Her face tightened. “And now that Nathaniel’s dead, for Naomi, of course.”
“What is this Viking site you keep referring to?” he asked.
She smiled. “A shepherd from one of the farms found a silver coin and he brought it to Judah. Judah was always interested in coins, and he knew what it was.” She smiled. “I remember how pleased he was, because it was rather romantic, it was Anglo-Saxon, Alfred the Great, who defeated the Danes, or at least held them at bay, in the late 800s. The coin we found might have been part of the Danelaw tribute, since the rest of it was Viking silver, ornaments, jewelry, and harness. When we found the whole treasure there were Norse Irish brooches, and arm rings, Scandinavian neck rings, Carolingian buckles from France, and coins from all over, even Islamic ones from Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and as far as Afghanistan.” Her wonder stayed for a moment or two longer, then faded as the present intruded again.
“Judah invited professional archaeologists in, of course,” she resumed. “And they dug very carefully. It took them all of one summer, but they uncovered the ruins of a building, and in it the whole hoard of coins and artifacts. Most of the things are in a museum, but lots of people come to see the ones we kept, and naturally they stay in the village. Our lakeside cottages are let nearly all the time.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Christmas Visitor by Anne Perry. Copyright © 2004 by Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.