By Leslie Underhorn
(with assist from Harry the Human)
Elizabeth Hortense exited the carriage, stepping onto the small platform placed below her foot by a liveried servant. She was almost dizzy with delight at her freedom after the eight hour journey. Once on the ground, she got her first look at Twinby Manor.
"Oh, Auntie, look at the size of it!"
Behind her lumbered Aunt Pauline, bedevilled by pains after the ordeal of travel.
"I imagine it's tough to clean."
Aunt Pauline and Elizabeth gazed at the two hundred year old manor, still in the hands of the original family: the Masterlies.
Servants collected the luggage and escorted the two ladies up the path. As the house loomed, Elizabeth felt a cold dread at its gothic implications. A sign hidden in the shrubbery until needed read, "Buy tickets here." She had heard the family fortune was in decline.
In the vast foyer, the women looked over the vaulted ceiling, and at the dim oil paintings along the broad staircase: stern old men, no doubt the family patriarchs.
A servant approached Elizabeth and announced, "His Lordship will see you now."
As Aunt Pauline moved to accompany her niece, the servant said gently, "Excuse me, Mrs. Denby, his Lordship wishes to converse privately with Miss Hortense at this time. Nelson will assist you to your room and make you comfortable."
Nelson hopped to and escorted the somewhat flustered Aunt Pauline up the stairs. To her chagrin and puzzlement, Elizabeth felt her heart suddenly race. She could not remember a time when someone of importance wanted to talk to her only.
"Follow me please," said the first servant,"his Lordship is in the library."
Elizabeth compliantly followed the servant, marvelling at how far she'd come from her modest roots in Duluth, Minnesota. Her family were in the meat-packing business, with few pretensions to refinement, let alone nobility. Then one day, six months ago, the postman delivered a letter from the law firm of Parsons & Mackenzie Ltd. informing the family that, due to a distant connection- on the Hortense side- Elizabeth was heir to a fortune in jewelry from one of the Masterly scions who had died at age 94, Ebenezer Masterly. Ebenezer had bequeathed Twinby Manor to his nephew, the current Lord Masterly, and directed that the jewels go to the nearest female relation. A two year search revealed that Elizabeth was that person.
The servant stood beside a tall open door out of which came the strange smell, not just of books, but of old books...books that people now dead wrote...about a world now gone.
Elizabeth shook her head briefly to remove whatever spell had been cast upon her. The servant stood motionless and she gathered that she was to enter the library alone.
She stepped inside and her eyes immediately rose up the fifteen foot high bookshelves, crammed with tomes that reeked of empire. Elizabeth's world was more immediate, more practical. She had received good grades in school and now studied accounting at the local community college, hoping to join her father's company with, perhaps, Fred, her boyfriend, who was working on a degree in agriculture.
She liked a neat and tidy world, but over these books she perceived a haze of dust, obscuring whatever jewels lay within.
Then as her eyes headed down she saw the broad, tall back of a man, seated at his escritoire, seemingly intent on his work.
Elizabeth waited, wondering if she was supposed to announce herself. In fact she was a bit impatient, what with the dust and lack of clarity. Some moments passed, and then, without turning around to look at her, still finishing his letter, the man spoke:
"Good afternoon, Miss Hortense. Please pardon this informal introduction- I need only finish this matter and I will give you my full attention."
"Well, I'm sure you needn't bother...." Elizabeth began, wondering why she was not permitted to rest in her room before meeting this rude fellow.
Before she could complete her thought the man cast down his pen and stood, revealing his six-foot-three, trim frame, and as he turned around and beheld the five-foot-two Elizabeth, his face, stern and relentless, for a moment formed a smile and took on a pleasant glow, augmented by golden locks of curly hair cascading down his forehead and around his ears.
Elizabeth's anger of the moment before seemed to evaporate as she grappled with a new set of emotions, and one overriding question: How would she deal with this man?
"Forgive me, Miss Hortense, I am Lord Masterly, heir to all you see, except of course the jewels you have come to collect."
"Very pleased to meet you, Lord Masterly," she responded crisply, determined to put this man, with his strange airs, into a more docile frame of mind. "And now if you don't mind, I would like to be shown to my room so that I may freshen up."
Lord Masterly looked appraisingly at Elizabeth before nodding and, she thought, smiling slightly. Not for the last time she was piqued by his superior affectations.