Impoverished but proud Vanessa Danforth is forced from her mother’s home by her new stepfather’s treachery in 1860s England. After graduating from stenographer’s school, she accepts a position at the estate of famed world explorer, Harrison Courtland. Made a widower by his wife s tragic death in the Himalayas, Courtland has retreated into his work while Vanni forges friendships with his daughter Katrin and the handsome physician from the neighboring estate. As Vanni encourages Courtland to unearth the ancient ruins at the edge of his property she discovers not only a stunning secret and a hidden treasure, but also her own heart’s desire.
Rose and Vanni had become very good friends, to the point where on the occasions when their days off coincided, they planned trips into London, to shop and spend the days in sweet idleness, seeing different areas of the city and its outskirts each time.
On one occasion, when Rose had traveled by herself to London, she returned, white-faced and trembling.
“What is it, Rose?” Vanni inquired as soon as she could talk to the girl alone. “You look a fright. Was the train trip not to your liking? Are you ill?”
Vanni examined her friend carefully for any signs of illness. Yet, she saw nothing but fear. Not illness. Fear.
At last, when the two women were alone in the dining room, Rose looked around, lowered her voice and whispered, “I saw her, Vanni.”
“Saw whom?” Vanni whispered back, looking around the room to ascertain they were indeed, unheard.
“Mrs. Courtland. I saw Mrs. Courtland. In London. With Dr. Thorne.”
Vanni’s jaw dropped. “Surely you saw someone in her likeness, Rose. Mrs. Courtland has been lost and presumed dead these five long years. You can’t have seen her.”
Vanni simultaneously realized Miss Katrin was a young woman, ready to go off to boarding school in London. She would go with Miss Rose on her next trip to London, with a two-fold purpose: To investigate the school Miss Rose had chosen for her pupil to attend, and to either confirm or deny Rose’s observation of Mrs. Courtland and Dr. Thorne together, emerging from a hotel.
“Surely not,” she exclaimed to Rose as they entered the train station and prepared to disembark. “Mrs. Courtland is most certainly deceased after such a fall in such a remote area. I assure you, when Mr. Courtland dictated to me his notes on that trip, he was most certainly convinced, as were his fellow explorers, that the fall killed his wife. Mercifully, we assume, as she must have hit her head on the rocky stream bed, rather than drowning. It was a quick death, with no suffering on her part.”
Vanni looked squarely into Miss Rose’s eyes, and the tutor’s eyes never wavered.
“It is Mrs. Courtland,” she insisted. “You must see for yourself. I have seen her a second time, and that only convinced me further that the two people I saw dining in the Grand Hotel restaurant were Doctor Thorne and Mrs. Courtland. You’ll see.”
“Very well, Rose. First, we’ll investigate the boarding school you have chosen for our Miss Katrin. Then we shall go to the hotel dining room for luncheon, and hope the elusive Mrs. Courtland shows up to confirm your belief she is alive and well and living in London.”
Rose nodded and upon arrival in London, they hired a hansom cab to deliver them to Miss Ellis’ School for Young Ladies a short distance away. They had pooled their money to ensure they would have the funds to explore London as well as complete their stated purpose…..or purposes, as it were.
The boarding school proved to be acceptable to Miss Rose, and after interviewing Miss Ellis herself, Rose sealed the deal by telling Miss Ellis that a checque signed by Mr. Courtland would arrive in the next week’s post.
That errand completed, Vanni and Rose set off to the Grand Hotel, where they had a dual purpose: enjoying a leisurely luncheon and spotting Dr. Thorne and the Late Mrs. Courtland.
“But what if they see us?” Vanni asked breathlessly, scanning the room’s occupants.
“Oh, this is a very large room, Vanni,” her companion replied. “They are so engrossed with each other, they scarcely take their eyes somewhere other than each other. Besides, we are wearing broad-brimmed hats; we can tilt them down to hide our faces, if they do chance to look this way.”
Vanni shook her head in disbelief. “I’m not liking this part of my adventure in London,” she said in a low voice. “After our luncheon, I suggest we go straightaway back to Cornwall, to our regular duties tomorrow and forget this nonsense.”
“Agreed,” Miss Rose nodded. “It is difficult to enjoy everything London has to offer two young women when they are embarked on a mystery chase.” She laughed.
The waiter took their orders and Vanni allowed herself a glass of red wine, which she found she enjoyed in Courtland Manor’s dining room. She thought back to her first days there, almost five years ago,and sighed. So much has happened since she first met Mr. Harrison Courtland.
Her sigh was not missed by Miss Rose. “What is it, Vanni? Why are you looking so troubled?”
Vanni blushed unwittingly and then she raised her hands to her reddened cheeks.
“Vanni! Do I see a blush on your pretty face? What is it? Are you in love?”
Another sigh from Vanni. “Yes, I believe I am. I am walking on air, happy as a lark and eager to be closer to him. But, Rose, he is my employer! “
Rose laughed and reached out to touch Vanni’s hand. “Oh, Vanni, that is wonderful! Do not be shy about telling me your feelings. Or admitting them to Mr. Courtland, either, when it’s appropriate.”
“How will I know when it’s appropriate?”
“I see the signs. He has never been with any of the former secretaries like this before. Have you not noticed at times he seemed somewhat befuddled, absent-minded, and even shy? Let him make the first declaration, Vanni. You will see. Soon, I think. ”
Vanni searched her memory and realized Rose was correct in her assessment.
“I suppose you are right, Rose. Thank you for telling me. Now, we must eat our delightful lunch before our hunted prey appears in the room.” She laughed.
“Our prey? How droll,” Rose raised her glass in a mock toast. “To us! The detectives!”
At that moment, Vanni glanced toward the entry doors to the restaurant, leading from the lobby. She recognized Jonathan Thorne immediately as he paused to speak to the maitre d’hotel as he patted the arm of the attractive woman who held his arm tightly.
“It’s Thorne,” she whispered to Rose, who immediately tilted her head so her broad brimmed hat shielded her face. She indicated Vanni do the same.
“The woman with Dr. Thorne,” Rose hissed beneath her hat, “is Mrs. Courtland. Look.”
Exasperated with Rose’s statement, Vanni muttered back, keeping her face shielded from the entry way, “You know I never saw the woman. How would I know who she is?” Nonetheless, she dared look at the couple entering the dining room.
Vanni’s breath seemed taken away. The lady was the same image she had seen in the portrait in Courtland Manor; the titian-haired woman with the porcelain skin and her rosy red lips ……..was one and the same as the person now threading her way through the room.
Rose heard Vanni’s sudden intake of breath. “What is it, Vanni? Do you recognize her from the portrait? It is Mrs. Courtland, isn’t it? No doubt whatsoever, Lisanne Courtland has returned from the dead.”
This last statement was said with great finality, and to punctuate her comment, Rose lifted a glass of wine to her lips and drank the remaining wine with gusto.
“I’m convinced, Vanni whispered, “this really was Lisanne Courtland, even though I’ve only seen the portrait hanging on the stairway at Courtland’s.
“And,” she added in a low voice, “I saw her in a carriage with Mr. Firestone, my stepfather, who turned out to be a gambler and a womanizer. One of those women was undoubtedly Mrs. Courtland. Lisanne.”
Rose, to her credit, did not look the least bit startled to hear that bit of information. “I could have thought so,” she said thoughtfully.
“What are we supposed to do now?” Vanni whispered to her companion-turned-accomplice in crime. “Surely we cannot confront them here. Nor can we tell Mr. Courtland when we return tonight. But I have another concern about this….”
Rose nodded at her to continue, while watching Lisanne and Dr. Thorne take their seats at a dining table near the window.
“Katrin will be coming to London soon. What if she sees her mother here? What a shock it would be! How can we prevent Lisanne from seeing her daughter, or vice-versa? We must not allow this to happen. It would surely give the girl a shock.”
Rose pursed her lips. “I agree. We must not let that happen. I could delay Katrin’s admission to the boarding school; I could invent some excuse to keep the girl at home until we can think of a way to confront Mrs. Courtland and get her to tell the truth about how she survived and where she has been these five years. Think of it. Katrin was a child of ten when her mother disappeared. She is now fifteen, and a girl on the verge of adulthood. The woman must be stopped.”
The women lingered at their table for a few moments, each one thinking how best to deal with this most unusual occurrence. Who do you tell when you find out a woman whom everyone thought had died suddenly appears in London, not only alive, but with a traitorous neighbor?
Do we tell her husband? Or do we remain quiet and let this charade play itself out?
But most of all, how can we keep silent after we return to Cornwall with this dreadful secret?
* * * *