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FROM THE TWELVE CLUES OF CHRISTMAS, BY RHYS BOWEN
As we set off through the country lanes the sun was sinking in a red ball behind the hills. Rooks were cawing as they flew home to their trees. On a great sweep of upland moor I saw a line of Dartmoor ponies silhouetted against the sunset.
We came around a bend and there it was, Tiddleton-Under-Lovey, nestled under a snow capped tor. Was that rocky crag the Lovey, I wondered. It didn’t look very loving to me. Or was it perhaps the noisy little stream that passed under the humpback bridge as we approached the first houses? On one side of the village street was a small row of shops and a pub called the Hag and Hounds—complete with swinging pub sign depicting a witch on a broomstick with baying dogs below her. On the other side was a pond on which glided several graceful swans, and a village green. Behind this were some thatched cottages and the square tower of a church. Smoke curled up from chimneys and hung in the cold air. A farmer passed, riding a huge carthorse, the clip clop of its hooves echoing crisply in the evening air.
“Stone me, miss, it looks just like a ruddy picture postcard, don’t it?” Queenie said, summing up my thoughts.
I wondered which of the cottages was to be occupied by my mother and Noel Coward. I wondered if my grandfather had consented to come and my heart leaped with hope. Christmas at an elegant house party and my loved ones nearby. What more could I want. Darkness fell abruptly as we drove between a pair of tall gateposts, topped with stone lions, and up a gravel drive, Lights shone out of a solid unadorned gray stone house, its severe façade half covered in ivy. This then was Gorzley Hall. It didn’t exactly look like the site of an elegant house party—more Bennett residence than Pemberley, but who was I to judge by appearances?
We drew up at the front entrance and he chauffeur came around to open the door for me.
“My maid will help you with the bags,” I said, indicating to Queenie that she should stay, even though she was looking apprehensive, then I went up to the front door. It was a massive studded affair obviously designed to keep out past invaders. I rapped on the knocker and the door swung open. I waited for someone to come then stepped gingerly into a slate floored hallway.
“Hello?” I called.
On one side a staircase ascended to a gallery and I spied a pair of legs in old trousers up on a ladder. He was a stocky chap with shaggy gray hair, wearing a fisherman’s jersey and old flannels and he was wrestling with a long garland of holly and ivy.
“Excuse me,” I called out.
He spun around in surprise and I saw that it wasn’t a man at all but a big boned woman with cropped hair. “Who are you?” she demanded, peering down at me.
My arrival wasn’t exactly going as I had expected. “I’m Georgiana Rannoch,” I said. “If you could please go and tell Lady Hawse-Gorzley that I have arrived. She is expecting me.”
“I am Lady Hawse-Gorzley,” she said. “Been so dashed busy that I completely forgot you were coming today. Come up and grab the other end of this, will you? Damned thing won’t stay put. It looked so simple in Country Life.”
I put down my train case and did as she requested. Together we secured the garland and she came down the ladder. “Sorry about that,” she said, wiping her hands on her old slacks. “I don’t want you to think we’re always this disorganized. Had a hell of a day here. Police tramping all over the place, not letting the servants get on with their work. That’s why we’re so behind. Must have the decorations up, y’know. First guests arriving day after tomorrow. ”