As we approach our destination, the landscape around the highway becomes wilder until it resembles the windswept moorlands described in Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Small herds of cattle dot the hillsides, which are alternately covered in heather or hayfields. Large stone buildings crop up in the distance from time to time; some that look like castles, and some that look like ruins. They look impressively ancient against the landscape, and I crane my head to watch them pass. Even Professor Potsdam has lapsed into silence, though her knitting needles continue to click.
It's both strange and nostalgic to survey the scenery that surrounds us as we drive north. I've spent so much time pretending to be Jane Eyre wandering around the countryside, and watched so many British period films and BBC productions with my mother (who shares my enthusiasm for the genre) that it all seems very familiar, even though I've never seen it in person. After a long stretch of empty countryside, we turn into a paved drive that leads for miles into a group of hills with little rocky outcroppings.
I don't see the house until we're almost on top of it. It's huge, built of buff-colored stone, with a crenellated roof, like a castle. Unlike a castle it doesn't have any towers-it doesn't look more than three stories high at its tallest point-but it's sprawling. Big chunks of building make up the main section of the house, and two wings extend behind. It looks as though the house had started as one smallish main section, but had been expanded piece by piece until it reached its now mammoth proportions.
"Well, there you have it, Yeavering Hall. Like it?" asks Professor Grabiner, with a tone that suggests he couldn't care less what I think of the house.
"It's impressive. Did you grow up here?" I ask, trying to imitate his nonchalant manner.
"Between here and London, until I went to school at sixteen," he says.
I look back at the approaching house. It seems a pretty lonely place to grow up without any family, even with trips to London. Professor Grabiner doesn't volunteer any more information, and I don't ask any more questions as we round the drive to the front of the house and stop before the front door. As soon as we stop, I get out of the car, relieved to stretch my legs and stand in the warm August sun.
"You ought to let Mr. Davies do that," Professor Grabiner says, rounding the back of the car and nodding at the door.
"I'm an independent American woman; I can open my own doors," I say, in a mock-haughty voice.
"Well. If you would?" he says, offering me his arm. I take it, and we walk together to the door, Professor Potsdam trotting close behind.
The door is opened by a tall woman in a suit, who glances at Professor Grabiner briefly and says "Welcome, sir, he's expecting you in his study."
"Thank you, Mrs. Barton," says Professor Grabiner, and walks into the house.
The foyer is large and very striking. A huge double staircase leads to an upstairs hall, the walls decorated with jewel-colored tapestries. I look quickly back at the woman who answered the door. "Housekeeper?" I whisper to Professor Grabiner.
"Butler," he answers, with a faint smile.
"Is a she, yes."
I had no idea there could be female butlers, and the thought makes me strangely elated. I grin as Professor Grabiner steers me deeper into the house. We stop at one large, ornate door at which Professor Grabiner knocks. It's opened by a thin blond man with wire rimmed glasses who nods at us and holds the door open as we pass through.
"Ah, Hieronymous, right on time," says a baritone voice from inside the room.
The room is dim, but as my eyes adjust to the yellow light from the desk lamp, Aloysius Grabiner-Lord Montague-comes into view.
Looking at him, it's clear that he and Professor Grabiner are father and son. Both are tall, rail thin, and share the same hooded eyes and hawk nose. Lord Montague, however, looks as though he has lost weight in a very short time, as folds of skin hang from his chin and neck over the collar of his shirt. His hair, too, is grey instead of black, and clipped short. But the biggest difference is their expressions-while Professor Grabiner remains stone faced, Lord Montague lights up with a huge, genuine smile. He stands and crosses to the front of the desk at which he'd been sitting.
"Eliza, may I present my father, Lord Montague?" says Professor Grabiner, with just a hint of acidity to his voice.
I extend my hand and nod my head slightly. "How do you do?"
Lord Montague shakes my hand, his grip warm and firm. "Eliza my dear, how do you do. I'm delighted." His voice has the same deep, resonant sound that Professor Grabiner's does, but has a gravelly quality to it.
It's a salutation not a question, don't answer, I remind myself, so I just stay silent and smile back at my father-in-law.
"And you know Petunia Potsdam, of course," continues Professor Grabiner.
Lord Montague moves from me to Professor Potsdam, taking her hand just as warmly. "Yes, of course, such a pleasure to see you again, Petunia," he says. She murmurs something, sounding oddly subdued for her usual buoyant personality. I take the opportunity to glance at Profesor Grabiner, who nods at me, slightly. Apparently, I've passed this test.
"You must be exhausted from your drive," Lord Montague says, turning back to face me. "I've asked for tea to be sent up to your rooms so you won't have to bother with the rest of my guests just now, and then you can dress for dinner in peace."
I see Professor Grabiner's expression fall at the mention of dressing for dinner-this means the formal dinner he was dreading, I guess.
"Petunia, I've put you in the Rose Room, I remember how much you like pink," says Lord Montague, and Professor Potsdam giggles at him flirtatiously. "And Hieronymous and Eliza will be in the Impossible Room."
Professor Grabiner's expression changes from despondent to alarmed. "That's really not customary-" he starts, but his father interrupts him.
"Don't be so prudish, Hieronymous, I know you haven't seen each other in months, I thought I'd give you some time alone." He smiles at me, and it's a struggle to keep my face expressionless. I have no idea whether I've succeeded.
"Well run along, I won't keep you," says Lord Montague, "we have plenty of time to get acquainted this evening. Cocktails at six. Mr. Lewis, just a few more things before we finish?"
This last sentence is directed at the thin blond man with the glasses who had opened the door for us. Clearly we've been dismissed, and I follow Professor Potsdam out the door to find Mrs. Barton waiting for us in the hall. "If you'll follow me, please," she says, and I do, a bit too shocked for anything but obedience.
"I have to insist-" starts Professor Grabiner testily, but Lord Montague interrupts him. "Now now, you're tired and we'll have plenty to discuss at dinner, so run along and dress, and I'll see you at six." He effectively pushes Professor Grabiner out the door, and shuts it behind him. I've never seen Professor Grabiner get railroaded like that by anyone, except maybe Professor Potsdam.
The four of us ascend the huge foyer staircase and pass into a hall hung with artwork and portraits. I try to look at the ones we pass, but Mrs. Barton keeps an efficient pace, and I have to rush to avoid falling behind. We turn and turn again, until Mrs. Barton stops abruptly and opens a door to show a sunny room decorated entirely in pink. Professor Grabiner and I wait outside while Professor Potsdam is shown in. I venture another glance at him, but his expression is back to impassive.
After Professor Potsdam is happily installed in her room, Mrs. Barton leads Professor Grabiner and me down the hall and up a small winding staircase to a third floor hallway. When she opens a door to show us in, I gasp.
The room is beautiful. Although it contains a set of massive dark wood furniture, including a four-poster that dominates half of the space, the room manages to feel airy thanks to the row of hinged latticed windows that line the opposite wall, letting in the afternoon sun. The paper, bedclothes and bed-curtains are a delicate ivory, embossed with a repeating geometric pattern. A small settee and table, laid with a tea set, is flanked by a wardrobe on one side and a secretary desk on the other. But the main draw of the room is the view of the rolling hills and moorland that stretches out before the house to the distant, misty horizon. I cross straight to the windows, open one, and drink in the scenery, entranced.
I'm vaguely aware of Professor Grabiner speaking to Mrs. Barton behind me, but I don't turn around until I hear the door close. It's just Professor Grabiner in the room with me now, leaning against the far wall. He raises his eyebrows, and I laugh, suddenly self-conscious.
"It's really incredible," I say. "I've never seen anything like it, except in films, and I know half of those are just a studio set, so..." I trail off, lamely. "I didn't think there were any houses like this left."
"Very few that are still private residences," he replies, "and fewer still that remain fully staffed, even on a temporary basis. Most of the aristocratic families in England lost their ability to keep country houses in the last century due to rising land taxes and the war-well, wars, I should say, but I think that they will eventually be considered a single thirty-one year sociopolitical conflict." He stops musing and focuses on my confounded expression, then moves on. "At any rate, my family... well, suffice to say we weathered those particular setbacks. Though there doesn't seem to be much of a point, as there are only two of us left. Ah-" his mouth twitches. "Well, now there are three. Tea?"
"Thanks," I say, even though I feel as though I've had enough tea in one day to last me a month. I sit on the settee and pour out two cups. He doesn't take his, but starts to look around, examining the furnishings and opening the doors that stand on either end of the room. One of them appears to open into a glossy, well-appointed bathroom. The other, which is located on the wall to which I have my back, opens into a room large enough for him to step into, though I don't get up to see what it is. Instead I pour some milk into my cup and watch the patterns as the white swirls into the brown.
He emerges after a minute. "Dressing room," he remarks.
Right. Dressing for dinner. "So it's a formal dinner, like you said?"
"So it would seem." The question doesn't seem to lighten his mood any, so I change the subject.
"Why the grand exploration, wasn't this your room?"
"Hardly. Most of this-" he waves his hand at the furniture, "is over two hundred years old, d'you think he'd let a child loose around that? I had a set of rooms in the attics."
He was shut up in the attics? It's Jane Eyre after all, I think, but he suddenly takes on a nasty expression and snaps "And I had a nanny and a small army of tutors, all of whom I bullied mercilessly, so you can take your dewy-eyed sympathy and-" he cuts off, and we stare at each other for a minute. Then he turns abruptly and leaves the room.
I put down my cup very slowly, listening it to it rattle as it hits the saucer on the table, then rest my head in my hands. Things had been going so well in the car; I thought we had gotten over the stilted, awkward conversation and random outbursts. I start wondering what I'd done to offend him, but stop myself. Of course I haven't done anything wrong, and it's stupid to think so. It's probably just a reaction to being back in this house with his father. Even so, I'm beginning to get a little tired of his changeable mood. In fact, I'm tired generally, despite all my attempts at over-caffeination. I take off my shoes and ease myself onto the settee, which is low and hard but comfortable enough despite all that. Just a few minutes, I think, as the carved panels of the ceiling swim in and out of focus.
The next thing I know, I'm being shaken awake. Professor Potsdam's face hovers over me, her loose hair swinging into mine.
"What a time to fall asleep," she chides, "It's only half an hour until we have to be downstairs! Get up, poppet, come on, now."
I sit up, feeling stiff and groggy. I can't have been asleep for much more than an hour; I feel like I could sleep for another thousand years. The sun is streaming through the windows, a blinding shade of gold-they must face full west.
"Better wash up while I take care of your dress," says Professor Potsdam, stopping just short of pulling me up by the arms.
I enter the bathroom and peel off the suit that seems to be sticking to my skin in the sunlit summer heat. I turn on the cold water in the sink until it feels icy, then scrub my face and splash water onto my neck and arms. It's not perfect, but does make me feel a bit more alert. There's a pair of bathrobes hanging on hooks on one of the walls, so I put one on and step back out into the room.
Professor Potsdam is fiddling with the hem of what I think might once have been my black suit dress. She turns at my approach with a huge pink-lipsticked grin. Now that I'm not so fuddled, I see that she looks stunning, in long, shimmering pink gown that's cut surprisingly low to show off an intricate gold necklace. She gestures to the dress that's hanging from the door of the wardrobe, and my heart drops with despair. It's a plain white silk sheath with a high, draped neckline. The only thing I can see when I look at it is a vision of me upsetting a full tray of salad in aspic-or worse-all over the white tablecloth and my white dress.
"Don't you think it should be, um, black?" I ask.
"No, no, no, dear, you're a bride, you have to wear white!" she says.
"Put it on," she says, sounding much less cheerful. I take the dress off of the wardrobe door, hanger and all, and go into the dressing room. My suitcase is there, propped open on a small chest of drawers. There's another suitcase next to it, also open. It's dark brown leather and expensive looking, but also battered and scuffed, as though it's been roughly used for years. Despite the decrepit appearance of the bag outside, it seems to be packed neatly, with a cloth covering all of its contents but for an inch between the end of the cloth and the rim of the case. Much different from my cheap little bag, which apparently got jumbled in the trip so that most of the clothes inside are rumpled together. It's a little embarrassing, and I hang my dress on a nearby hook to smooth down my clothes, thanking whatever is out there that none of my underwear had been on top.
As I'm turning back to where I hung my dress, something in Professor Grabiner's case catches my eye-something shiny and a little familiar showing in the gap between the case leather and the cloth cover. I pause for a moment, remembering how embarrassed I'd just felt at the thought of Professor Grabiner seeing the contents of my own suitcase, but curiosity quickly gets the better of me. With one finger, I push the cloth slightly back, and recognize the object at once. After all, it technically belongs to me.
It's a small box, made of multiple chips of colored wood, with hinges on one side and a set of complicated little latches on the other. It had been sent to school back in March, addressed to "Mrs. Grabiner," along with a letter from Lord Montague congratulating me on the marriage. It was obvious that he had completely misconstrued the circumstances-he assumed that I had captured his son's heart. He'd said that he enclosed a seal or key or something to a cottage, telling me to use it for the honeymoon, but the contents of the box hadn't looked like any key I had ever seen. It held a set of small, jewel-like objects-a crystal disk, some beads, a gold... thingy, I can't remember the rest. What I do remember is how furious Professor Grabiner had been when he walked into the mail room and found me with the open box. He'd snapped that obviously there had been a mistake, and had snatched the letter, the box, and its contents away, as though he had caught a child too young to know any better playing with something dangerous. It had been humiliating.
I smooth the cover back over the box, deciding that on the whole it's better to just leave the thing alone than risk another fit of temper. A knock on the door makes me jump, and I whirl around, worried that I've been caught going through Professor Grabiner's things. But the door is still shut, and I heave a sigh of relief.
"Aren't you finished yet, Eliza?" asks Professor Potsdam from the other side of the door, sounding like my mother did whenever she took me shopping and I had taken too long in the dressing room.
"Just a minute!" I say, snatching my dress off its hanger and pulling it on. I get the zipper up the back, but the tiny clasp at the top is fiddly-I can't hook it.
"Eliza!" Professor Potsdam calls again.
"Oh-just a sec, I can't get the hook." I exit the dressing room and let Professor Potsdam give me an appraising look as she crosses behind me and hooks the clasp.
"Put your arms up, dear, let me see." She circles me again, and does one of her magical adjustments around the armholes. "There, perfect." She squeals now, sounding less like my mother and more like one of my classmates. "You look beautiful, kitten!"
I have no idea how to react to being called a kitten, but I try to remember my manners this time. "Thank you, Professor, it's a lovely dress. And you look very nice, too," I add a little lamely. It's an understatement; I feel plain in the knee-length shift next to her in her bright gown.
She seems to sense the cause of my unease. "Don't worry, simpler is better when you're young, you know."
I put on a little makeup in the bathroom-I don't have much, just mascara, powder and lip gloss, but if Professor Potsdam is right about simpler being better, that should be enough. She fluffs my hair, but otherwise leaves me to my own devices.
I'm just putting on a pair of precarious looking shoes when there's a knock at the hallway door. "Hieronymous, is that you?" Professor Potsdam says.
"May I come in?" he asks.
"Yes, dear, we're decent!" she trills in a voice that sets my teeth on edge.
He enters, looking very elegant in a tuxed-dinner jacket, dinner jacket-like a villain in a 1960's spy movie. For a moment I wonder about the suitcase that's still in my dressing room, but perhaps he just transfigured his suit. He looks me up and down once. "I suppose it'll do," he says with an offhanded shrug. I glare at him but he seems not to notice. "Shall we get down there? The sooner we go, the sooner we can get this over with." He offers me his arm again, but I don't take it; I just follow Professor Potsdam into the hall and down the stairs, letting him trail behind.
As we walk, I try to remember the crash course in etiquette that I'd had in the car. Mostly what I can remember is to eat with my fork in my left hand, and to say "how do you do" instead of "nice to meet you," or something like that. It all seems arbitrary-if you're polite and kind, who really cares what you say when you greet someone, or whether you eat with your fork in your right or left hand? It seems like just a way for the people who know the rules to discern-and shun-those who don't. Ruminating on this only gets me more irritated.
We're crossing the second floor hallway toward the main staircase, when Professor Grabiner catches up to walk beside me. "Keep your shoulders down," he says, "you look nervous. He can smell fear, you know."
"You're not helping," I hiss, but I press my shoulders down anyway. I try to walk faster, but he catches my arm to keep me in pace with him.
"Do you mind?" he says. "I'm trying to keep up appearances."
I'd like to tell him where he can stick his appearances, but we're nearing the main staircase, and I have to admit it wouldn't really do to have a fight as we're going down to dinner. After all, I'm supposed to be here to help.
"Oh, all right," I say, and take his arm just as we start to descend. Mrs. Barton is below, and when we're in the downstairs foyer, she says "Just this way please," and leads us to a large set of double doors.
Behind the doors is a large, well-lit room full of sofas, chairs, little tables, and-to my horror-people. Lord Montague is closest to the door, talking to one of the staff next to a table lined with sparkling little glasses, and he turns when we enter.
"Ah!" he says, "There she is. Isn't she lovely." He flashes a huge smile and holds both of his hands out to me.
Shoulders down, deep breath, now get this over with.
I put on a smile that I hope looks halfway genuine, slip my arm out of Professor Grabiner's, and take his father's hands in mine.