Achin Court, Nexing Cross, Nexinghamshire
5 September 1015
My dearest cousin Armand,
We remain at Achin Court, as expected, for the ball is still a week away; and to my great joy I have been able to spend much of the time roaming about Nexinghamshire with Maximilian. We have revisited his childhood haunts: the apple orchards, the hill tops, the quiet place by the river. We have done a certain amount of riding out, and a certain amount of walking, but for the most part we have been driving in a low curricle that belongs to Maximilian’s older brother Octavian. I have made more morning visits and gone to more afternoon teas than I can well recollect!
I was somewhat taken aback by this rapid social pace, for I had understood that the purpose of the ball was to introduce me to all and sundry in this part of Nexinghamshire, that is to say, to all of the Archer’s friends and relations. But Maximilian corrected me while we were out driving one afternoon.
“Not at all,” he told me. “The purpose of throwing a ball is to make merry and enjoy one’s self among friends. My father was quite clear that you must feel yourself among friends on the night; and that means that you must have the chance to make them ahead of time.”
“You must excuse me for misunderstanding,” I told him as we spun down the country road. “Matters are quite otherwise in Yorke, and I fear that I have not spent long enough in the country to remove my city polish. I hope I do not shine too brightly, and embarrass you before your friends.”
I kept my tone dry but cocked an arch eyebrow when he glanced over at me.
“Never that,” he said. “No, do not strive to shed your polish on my account. For my part I should be glad for you to outshine them all.” He negotiated a tight corner, driving to the inch, and then eased the horses into a straight. “But at least there are no Grimsbys among our acquaintance.”
“For that, the Good Lord has made me truly thankful,” I said with no dryness at all.
We came to a spot where the road ran along the edge of a bluff over the river, and Maximilian pulled up on a stretch of grass.
“We mustn’t leave the horses standing for long, but let us take a moment,” he said, turning in the seat to face me.
“My father is only seeking your happiness and favor,” he said. “He is a gregarious man, and cannot imagine anything better than being in company. But truly, we need not make quite so many visits if you do not like it.”
“It is fatiguing,” I said. “Especially when I should much prefer to spend the time only with you.
“But I must not be greedy. Your father and mother have been all that is welcoming, and I should not wish to repay them by offending their friends—who, I must agree, have no Grimsbys among them! And my time in the country has quite opened my eyes. The Myrtlewoods, for example, with whom we had tea yesterday: in Yorke I should have thought them tedious in the extreme. Now they remind me of dear Lieutenant Pertwee—not an intellectual man but no fool, and a man one can rely on. There is a solidity to them that many of my Yorke acquaintance seem to lack.”
I paused as a thought struck me.
“Do you know, Maximilian—in Yorke, I think, we never had neighbors as such. We had family—my cousin Armand, and his parents, you know—and we had friends, and we had a wide acquaintance, but we never had neighbors, not neighbors like I have discovered them to be here in the country: folk with whom you have a bond, and on whom you can rely simply because they are there. Even the Grimsbys, motivated by spite as they were, would not have denied me in need, I think.”
“It is quite true,” he said. “The bonds of propinquity are stronger here in the country, for our circle is constrained; and of course all of the local families are kin to one degree or another. But I should not recommend to you all of our acquaintance, maintain it though we must.”
“Just most of it?”
“Very well; I am fatigued but content.”
“As it happens,” he said as we resumed our drive, “I have observed your fatigue; and so this afternoon you may be at your ease.”
“Oh—are we not visiting anyone?”
“We are, a fellow named John Gamble; but as he is my oldest friend, you need not stand on any ceremony. I assure you, he will not.” He pursed his lips. “I do not say that he will be restful, precisely; but still you might find him so, for he has quite enough energy for two. Also, his sister is visiting, and I believe you will like her very much.”
“By all means!”
After but a few more minutes, Maximilian turned into a lane which led us to a farmyard set amid apple trees. The farmhouse was typical of many of the houses we had visited, in its size and situation: on rising ground, large, with a view down to the river. But though the orchard looked well tended, the grounds just around the house itself seemed less so. There was an air of shabbiness about the house itself that was quite at odds with the others I had seen. And one of the apple trees closest to the house bore the unmistakeable sign of scorch marks!
“I should warn you,” said Maximilian, noting my expression as he helped me down from the curricle, “that John is a trifle unconventional. His sister, Mrs. Sloane-Price, is slightly less so.”
I must say, dear Armand, that though willing to be pleased I had commenced to feel more than a little apprehensive.
The front door burst open as we approached, revealing a tall glowering figure in trousers and shirt sleeves. “D—, who is it now?”
“Maximilian and his intended, dearest,” came a voice from inside. “I did tell you they were coming to tea.”
But the glower had already vanished, to be replaced by a broad and joyous smile.
“Max!” cried the figure, who now stood revealed as Mr. Gamble. “And you must be Miss Montjoy! I had quite forgotten you were coming. I am so glad to see you! Come in, do come in!”
“Amelia, this is my friend John Gamble,” said Maximilian. “John, this is Miss Montjoy.” And as we stepped inside, into a hall both dusty and cluttered with oddments, he continued, “And this is his sister, Mrs. Sloane-Price. It is good to see you, ma’am.”
“Oh, Max, how many times must I tell you to call me Cathy, as you did when we were small,” she said. “And so must you, Miss Montjoy!”
“And so you must call me Amelia,” I said, for you know I could say nothing less under the circumstances, Armand.
Mrs. Sloane-Price—Cathy—was a striking figure, every inch as tall as her brother, with a face that was strong, rather than pretty, and with a fine welcoming smile. She was not dressed for company any more than her brother was, for she was wearing a simple house-frock with an apron, and both the sleeves and apron bore the signs of stains, old and new, and yes, more scorch marks.
I glanced cautiously at her brother; his sleeves and shirt-front bore the same.
“Yes, yes,” said Cathy, “we are all quite harum-scarum here at The Attic; surely Max warned you?”
The warmth of her tone eased my mind enough that I was able to say, “He did, but he gave me no particulars.”
“Shame on you, Max,” she said, leading us through the hall and into a parlor that was tidy enough, if the seat cushions were worn. John followed along behind, grinning widely.
“I have every faith in Miss Montjoy’s ability to take matters in stride,” Maximilian said. “Even when the matters involve the likes of you!”
“To be sure, but why should she have to?” she replied. She tugged at a bell-pull on the wall, and then waved us into our seats.
A maid came, and was duly sent for tea; and then John said to me, “Max has not told you of our experiments, I collect.”
“I could hardly do them justice,” said Maximilian. “But Amelia, now that we are here and John is in a position to defend himself, I may say that this scalawag has been my boon companion from an early age, and is the one with whom I first began to learn the secrets of wizardry.”
“We were a fine pair,” said John, “huddling over your great-uncle’s books and engaging in this and that. How your father thrashed us when we set fire to the nursery!”
I fear my eyes must have protruded in a most unladylike way, for Cathy came to my rescue. “I remember that day very well,” she said. “Scamps the pair of them; and John could not sit down for a week.”
“But I should not like you to think poorly of my father,” said Maximilian. “After that we were given leave to experiment in a disused barn, well away from the house. Wizardry does run in the family, after all.”
“Think poorly of him! On the contrary,” I said, excitement beginning to quicken in my bones. “So, that poor apple tree beside the lane—”
“I am afraid so,” said John. “It is amazing how far a spell can travel if it gets out of hand. Fortunately, we only had to replace a single window-pane.”
“I should think you would be glad not to have to replace your entire house!”
“Oh, not to worry, not to worry. Flame-wards, you know. A nuisance to maintain, but we are not lacking in all caution.”
“You are still pursuing your goal of combining wizardry with alchemy, I presume,” said Maximilian.
“Quite so, quite so,” said John. “That’s what befell the apple tree. Though the flames were a bit of a surprise, as we were trying to freeze a bushel of apples.”
“But surely apples do not take well to freezing?” I said.
“We are working on ways to preserve food,” said Cathy. “We believe that if we can freeze something quickly enough, we can preserve it from damage. Apples are simply convenient.” She sighed. “The goal remains elusive, however. It seems that in chilling the apples we release a great deal of heat.”
“Transforms must balance,” said Maximilian. “You should know that by now, John. I don’t suppose heat is all that different from magical force.”
“Well, yes,” he said, taking his third tea cake. “But I confess I expected it to warm up the room slightly, not go shooting off into the distance to wake up the neighbors.”
Conversation flowed on for some hours, so late that we stayed to dinner; and I must say, Armand, that the afternoon and evening were as restful for me as Maximilian had hoped, shabby furniture, scorch marks, and all. Perhaps we should be looking for a home in Nexinghamshire after all!
Your intrigued and inquisitive cousin,