The FitzOsbornes in Exile
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I write this sitting at an exquisite little Louis the Fifteenth secretaire in the White Drawing Room, using a gold fountain pen borrowed from the King of Montmaray and a bottle of ink provided by one of the footmen. Fortunately, the paper is just a sixpenny exercise book that I bought in the village this morning--otherwise I'd be too intimidated to write a word.
It's interesting, though, how quickly one becomes accustomed to small luxuries--having an invisible maid whisk away one's clothes in the night and return them freshly laundered and mended the next morning, for instance. Of course, if she hadn't, I wouldn't have had a stitch to wear today, other than the flannel pajamas my brother, Toby, lent me. But Aunt Charlotte did order us some things from London, and they're supposed to be delivered soon. Is it too dreadful of me to rejoice in the prospect of brand-new clothes--for once not handed down by older relatives? When the reason I no longer have any possessions is so tragic? Probably. But as I can't do anything about the tragedy, I will continue to be quietly thrilled about the clothes.
Anyway. Here I sit, scribbling away in my journal on this first full day of my new life (writing in Kernetin, of course, our secret code, in case any grown-ups get hold of my book). I awoke at dawn, jolted out of a nightmare--or perhaps just a memory--in which I was running for my life as the world collapsed around me. Staring up at the canopied bed and silk-paneled walls, it took me a moment to work out where I was. But then I remembered. Aunt Charlotte's house! Milford Park! England! I scrambled out of bed and rushed over to the window, but all I could see was a dense white mist, as though the house were swaddled in cotton wool each night and the servants hadn't got round to unwrapping it yet. This didn't help at all with the uneasy, dislocated feeling left over from my nightmare. I then decided to go and see Veronica--merely to check that she was all right, of course.
Her room, two doors down from mine, is more austere, decorated with bleak-looking landscapes and a cheerless charcoal study of Nelson's final moments at the Battle of Trafalgar. There is a vast marble fireplace, but all it contained early this morning was a mound of ashes. I was shivering in the doorway, peering at Veronica's half-drawn bed hangings, and wondering whether I'd wake her if I moved any closer, when a sepulchral voice announced,
"She's not dead. She's still breathing."
I whirled about, hand at my throat.
"Henry!" I gasped. "Don't creep up on me like that!"
My little sister stood by my elbow, looking deceptively demure in a cardigan and pleated skirt. "I checked," Henry went on in her inexorable way. "Her chest was going up and down."
"Well, of course Veronica's not dead," I snapped, but I felt ashamed of myself at once. Poor Henry, stuck here for the past few days not knowing what had happened to us, the grown-ups rushing about in a panic and no one explaining anything to her. And then our dramatic arrival yesterday, Veronica being half carried out of the motorcar, her arm wrapped in bloodstained bandages. No wonder Henry was feeling anxious. "Now don't disturb her," I whispered, in what I hoped was a soothing manner. "Come back to my room and let me get dressed, then we can . . ."
But I wasn't sure what was expected of us. Were we supposed to gather in that immense dining room downstairs, or wait for breakfast trays to be sent up, or what? I had a hasty wash in the pink-and-white bathroom between my room and Veronica's (admiring yet again the fluffiness of the towels and the frothiness of the soap), then pulled on my old skirt and jersey. Meanwhile, Henry occupied herself opening and closing every drawer in my room, running her fingers over the wall panels, and fiddling with the window latch.
"Your room's bigger than mine," she declared as I searched in vain for a hairbrush. "And Veronica's is bigger than yours. But Toby's is absolutely enormous! It's got three windows and its own bathroom and a dressing room!"
"Well, he does have the highest rank of all of us," I pointed out, repressing a sigh. I could already tell that life here was going to be far more formal than at Montmaray. I hoped there wouldn't be too many mysterious forks and spoons at breakfast, before I'd had a chance to revise my dining etiquette. "I don't suppose you know where everyone has breakfast?" I asked, grimacing at my bird's nest hair in the looking glass.
"In the breakfast room, of course," said Henry. "At eight o'clock. But hurry up, I've got something to show you first." Then she bounded out of the room and down the corridor.
As my hair was a lost cause, and I was keen to start learning my way around the house, I hurried after her, towards the wide gallery that surrounded the Grand Staircase. There were a lot of heavily varnished gold-framed portraits here, as well as glass cabinets and statues on pedestals and Chinese vases large enough for a person to hide inside, all of which gleamed richly in the dim light. Past the staircase, Henry explained, were Toby's rooms and Aunt Charlotte's suite. Upstairs, apparently, were still more bedrooms, and above that were the servants' quarters.
But we went downstairs, leaving a trail of shoe-shaped indentations in the thick red carpet. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to glance over my shoulder and find a silent housemaid following us with a carpet sweeper. Everything was immaculate, and the scent of potpourri and lemon furniture polish hung heavily in the air. At the bottom of the staircase was about an acre of marble floor, with fluted columns running along either side, and massive brass doors leading off the hall to a myriad of drawing rooms. But Henry tugged me into an oak-paneled corridor behind the staircase. We plunged down a narrow flight of steps and into a room that made me feel instantly at home. There were macintoshes and straw hats in various states of disrepair dangling from pegs near the door, stacks of yellow newspaper tied up with string, walking sticks and wicker baskets and old brooms, and, best of all, a pile of blankets upon which lay a big black dog. He jumped up when we came in and flung himself at Henry.
"Darling Carlos!" said Henry, hugging him. "Did you miss me? Mean Aunt Charlotte, making you sleep down here! Never mind, I'll sneak you up to my room tonight."
But I didn't think our dog had minded the arrangements too much. He'd been curled up next to the boiler, and someone had already served him a hearty breakfast, judging by the bowl encrusted with gravy and the enormous bone he'd been gnawing. He demanded a pat from me, then went over to stick his nose inside the Wellington boots Henry was trying to tug on. I'd thought that Carlos was the thing Henry had wanted me to see, but apparently "it" was "just down the drive."
The mist had lifted, I noticed, replaced with a gentle rain that fell without sound upon the gravel path. However, this obligingly stopped before we'd walked ten yards.
"Even the weather's polite here," said Henry, giving the sky a contemptuous glance.
I gathered Aunt Charlotte had already Had Words with Henry about her manners.
"At Montmaray, it'd be bucketing down," Henry went on wistfully, "and there'd be a howling gale. Probably a thunderstorm as well."
"They'll have thunderstorms here, too," I assured her. "You've only been here five days."
"Is that all?" she exclaimed. "It feels like weeks and weeks! Gosh, I hope Veronica gets better soon so we can all go home."
I stopped so abruptly that Carlos ran into the back of my legs. "Oh, Henry," I said.
"What?" she said, turning.
"We . . . we can't go home."
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The FitzOsbornes in Exile by Michelle CooperCopyright © 2011 by Michelle Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Listening Library (Audio), a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.