One year ago, if you told Iris Morgan that one day she would walk into a castle on the arm of its heir, she would not have believed you.
One year ago, she’d been the dowdy daughter of the lower middle class, with no ambitions beyond a stenographer’s paycheque and a hot cup of tea. She’d never even been outside of London: her entire world was enclosed by soot-stained edifices and fog, hard pavements and endless bustle.
One year ago, Roger Linwood strode like a conquering hero into the offices of Hammond & Oakes Engineering. He was brilliant and handsome, with an unplaceable touch of the exotic in his dark, devilish eyes--as far out of her reach as a prince from a scullery maid. He soon disabused her of that notion. Nothing was out of her reach. Under his influence, she reinvented herself as the sort of urbane sophisticate she’d always admired, and now, here she was.
It had been an ongoing struggle to hide her fascination with the countryside. Of course, Roger expected her to receive it all with the aloof disdain of the terminally unimpressed, but it was all new to her, and she secretly drank it in with greedy eyes: the houseless horizons, the open sky, and the clean, cold air of Spring as it whipped over the windshield and threatened to send her fashionable cloche hat tumbling over the wide expanses of heather.
Linwood Hall had been a mediaeval fortress of some sort, once upon a time, or so Roger said. Iris thought immediately of the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace, but the real thing was different again. Whereas the Tower had been used and maintained throughout the centuries, Linwood Hall had already fallen into ruin by the time the first Linwood came into possession of the land on which it stood, back in the reign of James I. Of the outer towers, only one remained. Roger pointed it out as they rolled into the courtyard, and Iris saw a squat stone structure perched on the very edge of a cliff, barely twenty-five feet high on this side but with a fifty-foot drop on the other.
“Father used the one floor as his study,” Roger said, “and there’s a sort of pump room underneath that sends hot water to the rest of the house.”
The house itself had been built up from the remains of the castle keep, and it took Iris a moment to realise that it was ugly. Nature had not taken care to ruin the original structure with an eye to the picturesque, and the ensuing generations of Linwood inhabitants had not taken care to rebuild with an eye to harmony. The resulting mess of mediaeval stone and Georgian brick might have been of interest to a student tracing the architectural history of England from the Plantagenets to the present, but that was one more hat than even Iris cared to pack.
Pausing with a suitcase in either hand, Roger gave a happy sigh and said, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“It’s like something out of a novel,” Iris replied, thinking of Frankenstein’s monster.
Roger laughed and hefted the suitcases. There was little in which he revelled more than the exercise of his strength. Jogging up to the great front doors, he said, “Father would have called that sentimental nonsense, but I don’t care. I think I’m allowed to be sentimental in one thing, at least, and that’s the house of my ancestors.”
He had to put the suitcases down to fish out the key to the front door. Iris had been under the impression that the doors of grand houses like Linwood Hall were opened by butlers, and the luggage of their guests managed by footmen, but Roger assured her that such was not the case at Linwood Hall. At least, not anymore.
“The War changed things,” Roger said. “We didn’t take on a new butler after old Brewster died, and none of the footmen came back. We’ve still got Cook, and a few maids to clean for us, but for the most part we shift for ourselves. I hope you’ll be able to manage without a lady’s maid.”
“I’ll survive somehow.” Iris had never had a lady’s maid in her life, and she’d been wondering what she’d do if Roger’s family forced one on her.
“That’s it settled, then.” Roger threw open the door and ushered Iris in with a bow. “Welcome to Linwood Hall.”
The great hall was very nearly the size of the house where Iris had grown up, including the ground floor shop, and it was everything she’d imagined it would be. The coffered ceiling was lost somewhere in the night sky, and oak panelling cloaked the walls from the floor to the upstairs gallery before giving way to bare stone and plaster. On one side, a grand staircase swept up to the gallery, and on the other, armchairs clustered around a blazing fire in a fireplace large enough to roast a whole boar. Heedless of historical accuracy, Iris’s imagination supplied hanging pennants, Ivanhoe, Edward III retrieving the Countess of Salisbury’s garter, and armoured knights crossing swords in duels of honour.
The clash of swords was not her imagination.
Two white-clad figures, their faces hidden behind wire-mesh masks, darted across the flagstoned floor. Fencing foils flashed between them as they lunged and thrust at each other. Rather than maintain the strict back-and-forth of the standard fencing piste, they circled around each other, making use of the whole floor space available.
It was hardly what Iris expected, given the occasion for Roger’s return to the family seat, but Roger’s own actions back at the old village church were hardly any less cavalier. For his part, he seemed quite amused. He settled against one stone column to wait, and Iris affected a similar attitude against another. It wasn’t long before the touch of a foil against one duelist’s shoulder brought the entire exhibition to an end. The two stepped back, the furor of activity retracting suddenly into the stillness of a respectful salute, and then the victor spun on his heel to approach their spectators. He whipped off his mask, and Iris was surprised to see vaguely Asiatic features smiling back at her.
“Alan!” Roger cried, coming forward to clap the man on the shoulder. “I thought you were in Panama!”
“I’d just got into London: there’s an exhibition of my work at the British museum. Clearly you haven’t been paying attention.”
Iris was familiar with the half-Chinese children whose families populated Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields back in London. Alan Linwood, she realised, was of much the same type, and in him were combined the best of all worlds. He was as tall as Roger, with a solid heft to his shoulders, and there was a refined delicacy to his facial bone structure that reminded her of images of the Archangel Michael she’d seen in Renaissance art: the feminine head set on the masculine body, an ethereal beauty married to the power of earth. But his eyes were so dark, she couldn’t be sure if his smile actually reached them or not.
Those were the eyes of a dead man, she found herself thinking; and they were focused on her.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” he said.
“Excuse me,” said Roger. “Iris, allow me to introduce my brother, Dr. Alan Linwood. Alan, Miss Iris Morgan.”
Alan’s smile broadened, and still his eyes remained unfathomable. “So you’re what’s keeping Roger busy these days. The lucky dog.”
Iris forced herself to smile and offer her hand. She was being ridiculous, of course. Alan was nothing but charming.
The other duellist was approaching now, and Roger cleared his throat to make the introduction: “Iris, this is--Caroline! What have you done with your hair?”
Behind the mask was not another man, but a woman with laughing blue eyes and jet black hair cut into a severe bob. If Alan Linwood was an archangel, then his sister Caroline was an Amazon. She was nearly as tall as her brothers, a fact that left Iris feeling tiny and insignificant, and she walked with a self-assurance that put princes to shame. Her fencing tunic blazed like noonday sun on alpine snow.
She said, “Unless you’re planning on becoming a hairdresser, Roger, my hair is none of your business--only black does look better in photographs.” Turning to Iris, she pulled off her gauntlet to shake hands, and her grip was as firm as her stride had led Iris to expect. “Roger said your name’s Iris? I wish I’d known Roger had someone special in his life, but he never tells me anything. I’m only the annoying baby sister, after all.”
“It’s not as if you write,” Roger retorted.
“I was quite impressed by the fencing,” Iris said quickly, thankfully finding her voice before this could turn into a family spat. “You were very good. Both of you.”
“Oh yes.” Caroline raised her foil and inspected its unbuttoned tip. “One must keep in practice. I’ve heard a rumour that they’ll let women fence at the next Olympics, and I plan on being there. Unfortunately, Alan’s the only person I know who puts up much of a challenge, and he’s usually lost in a jungle somewhere.”
Iris shot a glance at Roger, who murmured, “Fencing was never my forté.”
“You should get back into it,” Alan said, “or you’ll be a fat little dumpling again before the year is out.” He accompanied the remark with a playful jab at Roger’s midsection, which Roger beat away with some annoyance. The verbal jab had clearly got to him.
“How’s Mother?” Roger asked, changing the subject.
Immediately, the siblings sobered.
“Taking it badly,” Alan replied at last. He turned and made his way to the armchairs around the fire. Iris trailed along behind the others to join him, and he said, “Mother wouldn’t say more than one sentence to me when I arrived. Just a stammering ‘So glad you came,’ and then she ran off to her room and bolted the door as though I were about to come after her begging for money.”
“Oh, Mother.” Caroline leaned against the side of the fireplace and slid a silver cigarette case down from the mantel. “That’s much the same reaction I got. I’d just rushed over from Paris, not a wink of sleep, and if Alan hadn’t been here to catch me, I think I’d have just collapsed in a heap right on the doorstep.”
Iris couldn’t imagine Caroline Linwood collapsing under any circumstances.
Caroline opened the cigarette case and held it out to Roger. “I notice you’re the last to arrive despite living closest at hand. What’s your excuse?”
“It wasn’t as though anyone needed my tuppence’ worth setting up the funeral. Or did they?” He lit his cigarette, then held the lighter out to Alan.
“Everything was already set up by the time I arrived,” said Alan, helping himself both to Caroline’s cigarettes and Roger’s lighter. “I fancy Mother must have held herself together just long enough to get Father into a casket, and then let herself go as soon as she knew at least one of us would be about to manage things.”
The cigarette case swung around to Iris now. She hesitated, then took one. Roger raised a brow, but quietly held out the lighter for her. Almost immediately, thick, acrid tobacco fumes began to coil down her throat, and it was all she could do to keep from choking. Roger patted her on the back, and Alan pretended not to notice.
Caroline, however, gave Iris a long, speculative look as she easily lit up one cigarette herself. A smoke ring blossomed into the air, and she remarked, “An innocent lamb dressed up as a modern vixen! What’s Roger done to you?”
“Not in mixed company, darling,” Iris replied, cutting in quickly.
That made the men laugh, and Caroline, amused, said, “Not bad for a good girl. I was beginning to wonder if you’d lost your tongue.”
Iris took a second puff, and found it easier than her first. She could probably get used to this. She’d have to if she wanted to keep up.
“Mother.” Roger had got to his feet, his gaze fixed on the gallery above.
A figure was looking down on them from there, entirely swathed in black. Black gauze floated around a white face with pale grey eyes, bloodless lips, and snow-white hair. Lady Linwood was a snowflake caught on black paper: fragile and trapped, as negative as her children were positive. She gave Iris the impression of a creature existing only halfway in this world.
Roger moved closer. “Mother,” he repeated. “I came as quickly as I could. This is Iris--”
Lady Linwood said nothing. She clapped her hand to her mouth, spun around, and ran. Somewhere in the distance, a door slammed, and the sound of it reverberated through the cavernous great hall.
Roger waited for the echoes to die away, then turned to his siblings with brows raised. “Gone quite to pieces! I see what you mean.”
“She’s got worse,” Caroline said, shaking her head. “I’d better take on the hostessing duties at the funeral tomorrow. Mother’s in no fit state to receive anyone.”
“All things considered, I can’t say I blame her.” Alan turned and looked hard at Roger. “I’ve already told Caroline, but there’s something you should know. There’s a police chief inspector who’ll be calling tomorrow. He wants to speak to all of us after the funeral.”
“What? Whatever for?”
“We weren’t told the whole truth about Father’s death when we were summoned for the funeral. It seems he was murdered. Quite brutally.”
“Brains bashed in with some blunt instrument,” Caroline added, blowing another smoke ring.
But Iris noticed that, despite the apparent nonchalance, neither Caroline nor Alan seemed anxious to meet Roger’s eye.