Though Mabel Fate had looked thunderous when Stella asked where her room was to be a room had been found and, looking around herself now, Stella had to admit that it was quite nicely furnished. Which, she thought, it should be considering that Mabel had decided to charge her rent for it.
“If you’re a paying guest,” she’d said, “then there are proprieties that you should observe, and being a well-brought-up and college-educated girl I am sure you know all about such things. They would have been taught in the same classes where you were told to write letters in this modern age, and probably taught to curtsey and patronise. But if I allowed you to stay here as a family member you would probably feel compelled to interfere in the lives of the people around you, and since my family are successful I have no desire to have you meddle.”
“Where are my cousins, Great-Grandmama?” Stella had asked, her tone as sweet as honey and as dangerous as a agitated wasp. “I was most certainly hoping to meet them all at last!”
Mabel Fate had looked at her for several seconds before answering, and then the answer sounded guarded, as though perhaps the news imparted was being carefully edited before delivery. “Seb is home for three days,” she said. “He will arrive at the station within the hour and I have sent Rupert to collect him in the Bugatti. The Rolls is a little ostentatious, and the Bentley is being polished. Seb is currently appearing at the Old Vic and his career as an actor, while not perhaps of Hollywood proportions is better than you might expect from a typical twenty-year-old. Rupert is now returned from university with a basic degree in agriculture, a special project in the application of organic fertilisers to ancient soils, and a Masters degree is animal midwifery and husbandry. He wishes to take over the running of the farm, and his father is thoroughly delighted by the idea. Dolphin–“
“Dolphin?” said Stella, aware that she was interrupting but still unable to believe that she had a cousin called Dolphin. Mabel seemed too sensible for that.
“The priest that year was regrettably hard-of-hearing,” sighed Mabel. “Dolphin is overweight and underintelligent and I would despair of the child except that when I allowed her to attend the Debutantes Ball, against my better judgement, she came away with three proposals of marriage and some rather personal body jewellery that I instructed her to return by post rather than in person. It seems that much of the landed gentry round here believe that a woman who looks like livestock is likely to be good with it. I have endeavoured to teach the poor child to write poetry several times, but it seems like I have raised a farmer’s wife and that’s to be the end of it.”
“I have written poetry,” said Stella.
“I don’t doubt it. Benny you have met already, and I discern in your letter a belief that he might be your maternal grandfather. I should tell you now that I find that unlikely, but only because I believe he is your maternal grand-uncle. You are clearly a child of the Wooden Post, and I will do everything I can to help you learn that sooner rather than later.”
“Is there an inheritance that goes with that?”
“Splinters, my dear child. Splinters.”
That had ended that conversation, and now Stella looked around the room that she was paying to stay in. The bed was solid with a firm but yielding mattress, and when she pulled back the sheets she discovered memory foam. The pillows were feather but appeared new and soft, and the blankets were embroidered with homilies. Or rather she had assumed they were homilies until she tried reading them.
The most dangerous word is bathtime.
Young devils may carry your knickers away.
Humility and Indigestion are often confused.
She pondered the last one for a minute or so before deciding that while it might be true, it was scarcely helpful.
There was a bedside table with two drawers and she wasn’t entirely surprised to find a Gideon’s Bible in the top one. She was slightly more surprised to find it bulging with bookmarks, and when she opened to one at random it seemed like a full third of the page had been underlined with pencil or highlighted in a soft lemon ink. She put the book away and closed the drawer with haste and crossed to the window. It looked out over a nice green field with a wooden shed at one end and she immediately felt closer to the land. This was surely what the countryside was all about. Perhaps she might have a nice time here after all!
There was a robust tap at her door, in fact it was almost a thundering rather than a tap, so she leaned against the windowsill and faced the door, and called out in a light and cheerful voice, “Come in!” The door opened and a middle-aged woman in a peach tracksuit that matched her lipstick stood in the doorway. She held out a piece of paper, and when Stella approached to take it she saw that it was a printout of an email.
“Your parents are dead, miss,” said the woman flatly. “Both of ‘em.”