Rumors - Page 15

‘Here I am. I went exploring.’ Somehow her voice sounded normal, if a little over-bright.

‘Oh, I expect you found the Water Castle. Castello d’Aqua, Mr Soane calls it. He had it built to supply the boiler when the plunge bath was put in, but it hasn’t been working very well.’ Lizzie chattered on as she led the way across the garden and out of the gate into the park. ‘Papa said the pressure was too low and the steward should call a plumber, but Mr Harker said he’d see if he could free up the valve, or something. I expect having a bath this morning reminded him.’

That must have been what he was doing in the bushes, not lying in wait for passing females to insult. Apparently he could manage to do that with no prior warning whatsoever.

They let themselves out of the iron garden gates and Lizzie led the way across the park that lay between the house and the hill surmounted by the folly tower. A small group of deer lifted their heads and watched them warily.

‘What a delightful park.’ Isobel kept her side of the conversation going while she forced her somewhat-shaky legs to keep up with Lizzie’s exuberant pace.

Harker had leapt to the most indecent conclusion about her motives—her desires, even. He had not let her get more than a word out, he had taken advantage of her in the most appalling way.

She had stood up to him last night—was this then to be her punishment? To be taken for a lightskirt? Or was this insult simply retaliation for her refusal to meekly treat him as wonderful? That made him no better than those wretched bucks who had invaded her bedroom and she realised that that was disappointing. Somehow, infuriating though he was, she had expected more of him.

She had responded to him, she thought, incurably honest, as she trudged in Lizzie’s exuberant wake through a gate and across a narrow brick bridge crossing a deep stock ditch. Had he realised? Of course he had—he was experienced, skilful and had slept with more women than she had owned pairs of silk stockings. So now she could add humiliation to the sensations that would course through her when she next saw Mr Harker and he, no doubt, would use it to torment her mercilessly for as long as the game amused him.

She toyed with the idea of telling Cousin Elizabeth, then realised that she did not come out of the incident well herself, not unless she was prepared to colour the encounter so she appeared a shrinking violet and he a ravisher.

‘See—is it not splendid?’ Lizzie gestured to the tower and ragged length of curtain wall that crowned the far hill. ‘But I think Papa should have Mr Soane build an entire castle. Or Mr Harker could do it. He is younger so perhaps he is more romantic. It would not be an extravagance, for all the gamekeepers and under-keepers could live in it, which would be a saving in cottages.’

‘Do you not think the keepers might find it uncomfortable?’ Isobel enquired as they took the winding sheep path down towards the sheet of water. She resisted the temptation to remark that, in her opinion, Mr Harker was as romantic as a ravaging Viking horde.

‘That had not occurred to me. You are very practical, Cousin Isobel.’ Practicality did not seem to appeal much to Lizzie. She frowned, but her brow cleared as the lake opened out in a shallow valley before them. A long narrow ribbon of water ran away to their right. Ahead and to the left was a smaller, wider lake.

‘When Mr Repton was here to do the landscaping he said we should have a ship’s mast on the bank of the lower lake.’

‘A rowing boat or a skiff, you mean?’

‘No, a proper big ship’s mast so the tops of the sails would be seen from the house and it would look as though there was an ocean here.’ Lizzie skipped down the somewhat muddy path. ‘Papa said it was an extravagant folly. But I think it would be magnificent! I liked Mr Repton, but Papa says he has expensive ideas, so Mr Sloan and Mr Harker have come instead. You see, there is a bridge here.’

As they got closer Isobel could see that the valley had been dammed and that the smaller lake was perhaps fifteen feet above the lower one, with a bridge spanning the point where the overflow ran from one to the other.

Lizzie gestured expansively. ‘Mr Repton said we need a new bridge in the Chinese style.’ She ran ahead and leaned over the rail to look into the depths below.

Isobel dragged her mind away from trying to decide whether she ought to tell Cousin Elizabeth about Mr Harker’s kiss, however badly it made her appear. ‘That does look a trifle rickety. Do be careful. Lizzie!’

As she spoke the rail gave a crack, splintered and gave way. Lizzie clung for a moment, then, with a piercing shriek, tumbled into the water and vanished under the surface.