Chapter Two–An Encounter with a Charming Stranger

Anna Darvin dipped her brush into a pool of cadmium red, dabbed a few roses onto some loosely set up bushes, and frowned, looking up to compare her painting against the view of the Archeological Society gardens.  There was a quality of light to the blooms that she was missing.  She considered adding a touch of ochre.

“How do you feel?  Are you tired?  I could get you more tea,” Djaren offered.

“I’m not ill any longer.”  Anna made a good-natured bad face at Djaren’s concerned one.  “I’m only thinking.  You needn’t hover.”

The fever had been awful, and Anna wanted to forget it.  Everyone had gone about smiling at her, but then talking in hushed whispers, and speaking in worried voices to the grim-faced doctors who came for weeks.  Anna had been no end weary and frustrated by it all, especially the knowledge that she was missing what could have been a glorious holiday in the capital city of Germhacht, with all its famous art museums and sculpture gardens.  The thought that she might not get to see the paintings of Veriscinthe DeAngelli had been worse than the fear of losing all her hair.  She hadn’t lost her hair, though, and despite all the grim whispers and talk of writing her parents to leave the archeological dig and come to Germhacht, she had gotten through everything perfectly.  She jabbed some ochre about with her palette knife.

“Well, you’re still as pale as an Arienish lady,” Djaren informed her.  “It looks all wrong.  And it’s your first day outside after everything.  You should be careful.”  He picked up the mirror she’d been using for better light and pointed it at her.  Anna’s own reflection glared briefly back at her, and then laughed.  The girl in the mirror was not the usual tanned and grinning Anna Darvin, of the Standing Rocks clan of northern Shandor, but an aristocratically pale and bright-eyed young lady of fourteen in a new be-ribboned frock, with spots of pink on her cheeks and her black hair done up neatly in curls instead of flying about all unruly.  She looked a bit like one of the portraits in the hotel salon.  She batted away the mirror and the stranger in it.

Anna in the mirror

“I’m sitting quietly.  You’re the one hopping up and down.  Put my mirror back at once just as it was.  It was lighting my canvas.”

“I’m sorry,” Djaren said, carefully setting the mirror back.  “I am, it’s just . . . you’ve never been sick before.  It scared us.”

“I know.  Stop bouncing the chair.”

“Sorry.”  He was, too.  Djaren Blackfeather was a slim, apologetic bundle of hyperactive energy with green eyes and spectacles.  Anna had long ago despaired of ever trying to capture his likeness in paint.  He never sat still except while reading.  Djaren was about her own age, more or less, but he really didn’t look it.  Both the Blackfeather children were a good deal smaller than their contemporaries.  It made Djaren’s anxious look rather sweeter than it might have been.

“I would like some tea, I think, Djaren.  Thank you.”

He grinned.  “I’ll go at once, and I’ll hurry back.  Do you want lemon?  I’ll get you lemon too.  And cream.  And cakes.”  He dashed off along the balcony, and Anna found herself able to concentrate on her work again.

She had fixed the roses and started into some details on the windows of the conservatory in the middle ground when she sensed that someone was near.

Anna looked up, ready to send Djaren on some other errand, when she found that her visitor wasn’t Djaren at all, but a tall and good-looking young man in a fashionable longcoat, with very blue eyes and an intent, serious expression.

“Pray don’t let me intrude,” he said at once, when she turned.  “I didn’t mean to interrupt your work.  You’re quite good.”  His voice was low, with a charming Arienish accent.

“Oh.”  For a moment, Anna was lost for words.  Dashing young noblemen didn’t often compliment her work.  Dust-covered workmen and fetching boys sometimes admired her sketches at the dig site, but this was rather different.

“I’m sorry to have disturbed you.  I should not have spoken to you, unintroduced.  I quite forgot myself looking at your painting.”

“No, it’s no trouble.”  Anna found her voice, and smiled at the young man.  He was seventeen, maybe, with good bones in his face, and lovely shading.  The shadows cast by the hair around his deep-set eyes made for some nice, intense darks.  Cobalt blue and a touch of burnt umber, Anna decided.  “I was about to set it aside.”

“Don’t let me interrupt you, please.”

She set her brushes in their porcelain cup of thinner.  “I can’t do much until I’ve more Ellesmere yellow, in any case,” she pointed out, truthfully.

“I could send someone for that.”  The young man seemed a little unsure.  His long fingers fidgeted with a pair of gloves.

“Don’t think of it,” Anna said, smiling.  “I’ve someone coming back who can fetch it.”

“Of course.”  The young man blushed a little.  “I should take my leave.   I’ve some books to collect from the library.”

“Are you a scholar?”

“Yes, oh, I’m terribly sorry, I have yet to introduce myself.  It’s–.”

“Varden!” a boy’s voice cried happily.  A small boy careened around a corner of the balcony and stopped just short of rushing into them.  He stood blinking up at Anna with one hand full of somewhat crushed flowers. “Oh.”  The little boy smiled a little desperately and presented the flowers to Anna.

“Morly,” the older boy moaned.

“I am pleased to meet you both.” Anna nodded to each of them.  “Are you brothers?”

“Yes.  I’m Morly.  I’m eight,” the little boy announced.  “You’re pretty.”

“We should be going,” Varden said, looking a little pained.

“Yes, you should.”  Djaren’s voice, oddly stiff, came from behind them.

“Blackfeather.”  Varden turned, his face going hard.

Anna felt the urge to strangle Djaren.  He circled the chair and easel, spectacles crooked, gripping an over-full tea tray.  “Chauncellor, the lady is trying to paint.  Do you mind?”

“Is this who fetches your paints?” Varden asked.  “You could do much better.”

“Go away.”  Djaren frowned.  “We were having a pleasant day before you appeared.”

“I’m sure you were having a pleasant time, at least,” Varden said.  “Come along, Morly, we’ve people to see.  I must beg my leave, Lady–”

“Anna,” Anna said.

“Now leave,” Djaren said.

“Perhaps I will have the pleasure of crossing your path again, Lady Anna, in one of the galleries.”  Varden bowed to Anna.

Anna smiled, and Djaren glowered.

Varden took his brother’s arm gently and led him away.  Morly waved as he was propelled out the door.

Djaren set down the tea tray stiffly, and Anna tossed the flowers down on it.  “Why ever were you so rude to them, Djaren?”

Me rude?”  Djaren stared at her.  “That was Varden Chauncellor.  He’s a Chauncellor.  They’re born rude.”

“The little one certainly wasn’t.”

“Just wait.  Marlton Chauncellor is one of the most despicable of Father’s rivals.  He had an entire temple stolen from the ruins of Etruenai, and he keeps it in his garden.  He deals with thieves and corrupt officials, and he’s sold more treasures than ever he’s donated.”

“That wasn’t Marlton Chauncellor.  That was Varden.”

“He’s just as bad.”

“How?”

“Well, he doesn’t think much of Shandorians, or Father, or Uncle Eabrey, or any of their research.”

“Isn’t most of their real research secret anyway?” Anna asked.

“That isn’t the point.  He wouldn’t speak to you twice if he knew who you were, and that you worked as a simple documentation artist for Father.”

Anna frowned.  “You think that.”

“I know that.”

“I believe I’m quite ready to go in now,” Anna said stiffly.

“What did I say?” Djaren asked.

*  *  *  *  *

Ellea Blackfeather walked beside Jon Gardner and his bigger brother, her hand held in her mother’s.  The walk from the train station to the hotel was not far, but Mother had sent the luggage on with porters so that they could take the stroll slowly and see the sights.  Ellea had already seen the sights, so she watched the Gardner boys see them, which was more interesting.

Jon was taller than last year, his blond hair was a little longer, and he still had very nice blue eyes that looked at everything like he saw stars and mysteries and treasures.  Tam looked at things and people as if they might try to fall on him or take his last piece of luggage away.  Tam was taller too, and awkward about it.  He would be grown-up sized in a few more years, and a big grown-up, too.

“Who needs buildings all that tall?  You can’t even see them all, piled up like that,” Tam mumbled quietly.  “And with naked folk all over them, that can’t be right,” Tam blushed, passing a cornice overhung with nymphs and roses.

Jon turned, blinked, and then looked off at the horizon again.  “Is there a fire there?  Look at all the smoke.”

Uncle Eabrey, catching up to them after fetching a stack of waiting papers, spoke a little breathlessly. “Those are smoke towers, from the factories.”

Mother paused, letting Uncle Eabrey catch his breath.  “What are factories?” Jon asked.

“Places where they make the same thing hundreds of times and very fast.  I think they are ugly,” Ellea said.  They had toured one once, while Anna was sick.  It was one tour Ellea could honestly tell Anna she would not have missed one bit.

“Djaren was fascinated with all the machinery,” Mother said.  “He was all about seeing where they made papers next.”

“More big machines, for printing.”  Ellea sniffed.  “Dull.”

“Not to Djaren.  He dirtied up the carpets with ink, trying to build a model printing machine to show Anna.”

“Is she really better now?” Tam asked for the fifth time.  “Can she have cakes?  We brought cakes for her.  From Merigvon.”  The oddly shaped parcel he was clutching defensively made more sense to Ellea now.

“Anna is recovering very well, and I am sure she will like the cakes,” Mother said, guiding them on to the hotel.  “I expect she and Djaren will be arriving by carriage quite soon.  We can have the cakes waiting on a nice platter.”

“Are there cakes for me too?” Ellea asked.  She looked at Jon.  He had no parcel.

Jon looked at Tam.  “Aren’t the cakes for everyone?”

“They’re for Anna,” Tam said, a little indignant.

“Perhaps she’ll share,” Mother said.  “And we’ve luncheon waiting as well, so you, little bird,” she smiled at Ellea, “won’t go hungry.  Hurry along.”

The steps to the hotel, just ahead, were crowded with brightly dressed strangers.  One woman darted forward, her purple hat glittering with little silver stars and white plumes.  Her voice sang out high and annoyingly shrill.  “Lady Blackfeather!  We had just come to call on you and your husband the Doctor!”

Mother winced, her fingers flexing briefly over Ellea’s.  Only Ellea heard the whispered, “Bloody hell.”

The flock of bright people, all feathers and bangles, followed after their shrill spokeswoman in a flutter and had surrounded them in a moment.

Pumphrites

“Dear Lady Blackfeather,” the shrill woman gushed, “we’ve had the most difficult time making an appointment with you!”  She smelled heavily of perfume and incense. Large crystal earrings swayed on either side of the woman’s face, twice the size of her considerable nose and much the same shape.  Ellea watched them, fascinated.  “We’ve been ever so eager to meet with you!” the woman said.  Feathered hats bobbed, and a few men’s hats also waved, all around them.

“Yes, um,” Mother said, attempting to push politely through the sudden crowd.

“We’re here on behalf of that great unrecognized scholar, Mister Pumphrey, you know.”  The woman stayed close beside Mother, following her every step, with a bright smile.

“Mmm.” Mother looked hopelessly for a way through the crowd.  Tam had to hold his parcel up above his head so it would not get jostled.  He made an unhappy face.

Uncle Eabrey seemed puzzled.  “A relation of the inventor of the Pumphrey Ever-last Wonder Gumboot?”  There was a large advertisement for the things on the back of one of the newspapers he was clutching.

“Ah!” The woman’s eyes transferred to Uncle Eabrey.  “Mister Pumphrey is that same wealthy industrialist, yes.  But since making his fortune, he has turned his attentions to the most noble of academic and philanthropic pursuits.”  She beamed at Mother.  “Mister Pumphrey is a great scholar now, you know, and will be giving a lecture all about his discoveries on archeology and mysticism.  You simply must come.  Others might not acknowledge Mister Pumphrey’s brilliance, and might try to discredit his theories about spiritualism and the guiding deities, but we are so sure you and your husband will attend.  It will be ever so enlightening.”

Mother’s eyes narrowed.  “Pardon me?”

“Well, of course we heard what a simply awful time Dr. Blackfeather had getting into the Archeological Society, if you will pardon me for mentioning, what with all his terribly obscure research, but now he’s a member, we thought he might feel for dear Mister Pumphrey and his sad troubles.”

A man in a maroon suit stooped to smile rather sickeningly at Jon and ask him his name.  A lady in loads of lace inquired whether Uncle Eabrey had ever read Mister Pumphrey’s works.  Mother took Jon’s hand in her other one and attempted to politely but forcefully propel them all through the crowd.  The shrill woman kept pace with them, still chattering.  “Mister Pumphrey’s brilliance is being simply ignored, as your husband’s was.  It really is his time, you know.  The guiding deities have ordained it.”

“A Professor, really!  You look so very young.  Except for your eyes.  You must be an old soul.  Have you felt that?” the lacy lady was saying to Uncle Eabrey.  He threw a look of desperation over to Mother.

With a mumbled “Excuse me,” Tam stepped in front of the lacy lady, being very careful of his cakes, and managed to clear them all a path to the hotel doors by looking large and clumsy with a big, precarious parcel.  The shrill woman followed them right up the steps, still speaking.  “We know you’re not as close minded as some others in the Society.  If you were seen giving your support to Mister Pumphrey, well, his inevitable induction into that academic body would come about expeditiously.  He is really such a great man.  And quite generous, to his supporters.”  The woman glanced pointedly at Uncle Eabrey’s patched jacket elbows.  “He is quite the boon to suffering academics.”

“Well,” Mother forced a smile, and blocked the open hotel door with her parasol.  “We shall bear the lecture in mind.  However, as I mentioned before in the botanical gardens, and the salon, and at fountain square, my husband is unable to attend lectures at this time.  We’ve had a serious illness in the household, and Doctor Blackfeather is currently indisposed to company.”

Ellea smiled at the ground.  Not a word a lie.  But all the words did not make a truth either.  Where Father was, no one but Mother knew.  Ellea had her guesses.  And Father was never much of one for visitors.  They made him very dull, and short, and he had to hide his nice burning green eyes.  Visitors were inconvenient.  Especially this kind.

“Is the Doctor unwell?  Oh dear.  Has he tried a dose of poppy?”

“That works so well for my headaches,” another brightly dressed person chirped.  Jon darted in through the door, and Tam after him.

“I know it must be such a dreadful time for him, with the bans on digging at Narmos,” the shrill woman piped up again, her eyes less vacant now, and more calculating.  “Have you heard anything about your request?  I thought not.  So terrible.  What an awful little country, turning away scholars like that.  When Mister Pumphrey is admitted to the Society, he’ll make sure honest researchers aren’t banned from their places of research.  Ah well, we shall call on the guiding spirits for Doctor Blackfeather’s swift recovery.”

Mother pushed Ellea and Uncle Eabrey inside the hotel, after the Gardners.  “Pray don’t,” she said to the crowd, with just a touch of genuine worry, “You don’t know who they are.”  Some hidden memory in Mother’s mind set off a little shiver in Ellea’s, though she wasn’t trying to listen in.  Mother was very firm about mental privacy.

Mother closed the doors on the glittering crowd, and sighed, turning to face everyone else. “Well.”

“Excuse me, madam,” the doorman said.  He’d evidently been hiding inside. “Will you be having any other guests today?”

“No, indeed no, Franz. Thank you.” Mother said.  She bundled everyone through the grand foyer and to the broad stairs.  The Gardner boys stared at the marble pillars, the tall glass-paned windows, and the view of the garden grounds beyond.

“What’s that little house with only half walls?” Jon asked.

“That’s a gazebo,” Ellea explained.

“Well, what’s it good for?” Tam asked.

“Having tea and parties and violin ensembles in the shade, and other dull things.”

“What’s wrong with trees?” Tam wanted to know.

“Whoever were those very perfumed people?”  Uncle Eabrey asked, as they walked up the stairs.

“Sad rich people who want divine direction from tea leaves,” Ellea answered, blinking up at her uncle.  She was feeling benevolently informative today.

“I don’t want you near them, Ellea,” Mother warned, leading the way down a hall to their rooms.  “If any real supernatural thing ever intruded on their world they would all run screaming.”  She opened the door to their suite and the Gardner boys gawked all over again at the room, white and window filled, with urns of wild roses, and crimson curtains.  The carpet was thick and green, and happily resisted ink stains.

“Anna’s room is there, my own and Ellea’s there, here is where you will be, Eabrey, in the blue room, and you boys will have a room here.  You will have to share with Djaren.  I’ve told him to clear away his things to make space.”  Mother opened the door to the green-walled room and sighed.  Precisely one third of it was covered in precarious towers of books, model buildings made of paper, blocks and paste, reams of paper, bits of new rubbish, and under it all, a bed.

“And Corin?” Uncle Eabrey asked.

“Father isn’t here,” Ellea said.  “It’s a secret.”

“Oh.”  Uncle Eabrey looked at Mother.  “Has he gone . . .”

“Yes.  With all our prayers.”  Mother sighed. “I hope he returns soon.”

“They won’t let us dig at Narmos, is that what the lady said?” Jon asked, looking stricken.

“No archeologist from outside Narmos may walk, ride, or take a train into Narmos at this time,” Mother said.

“What about flying?” Jon asked, softly.

Mother smiled and put a finger to her lips.  “We are staying put in Germhacht, where we are going to have a lovely holiday.”

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One Response to Chapter Two–An Encounter with a Charming Stranger

  1. Glenn says:

    Ha !
    Open mouth, insert foot.

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