The end of the year came and went without much notice in Winchester. Only the sun seemed to remark on the new year, choosing to arrive later and later each day. And so Elanore would begin her mornings in the darkness, working by the dim light of the kitchen fire to prepare a warm mix of grains and water for her grandmother’s breakfast.
Her grandmother often did not rise until it was light. As a result, Elanore spent many hours alone with household chores and books from her grandfather’s study.
In these quiet times, she missed hearing the sound of small feet everywhere, the fighting over spoons and bowls, and the constant demands for attention. The young woman’s thoughts dwelled on her siblings and what they might do during the new year festivals down south. She wondered what they would think of this place where sun and blue sky grew scarcer by the hour.
If she had one bit of respite in these lonely hours, it was that occasionally a lion would wander by the door and sit outside. They could not enter the house for they were too big for the door, so they peered inside through a window. She did not speak with the creatures when they did so, for after the first time she tried she came to understand that they carried no messages from their master. Whether they did so due to some instruction they had received or simple boredom, she did not really know. But they seemed content to simply look at her face as she sat there studying or working before they would disappear shortly before dawn.
Once a regular fixture on the road and in the public places, Giles would only be seen passing back and forth on a coach or wagon ostensibly to procure supplies or attend to some other apparent errand. But one morning without any warning he deviated from this habit and drove up to the house in order to inquire after her health.
He was certainly uncomfortable as he sat there in that parlor, idly scratching at the shirt with starched collars that had been apparently forced upon him. His commission to them was to relate a message from his master with apologies for not receiving them already. The ladies were informed that a great deal of family was expected to arrive shortly and much work had to be done in order to make the place hospitable and suitable for such a large retinue of guests. If he knew anything about the lions visiting Elanore, he said nothing. Instead he inquired after Edmund.
To Elanore’s embarrassment she could only stammer that he had not been by in days.
Giles’ expression shifted slightly, his lips twisting into a bit of a grin as he contemplated the grave look on Mrs. Winchester’s face and the girlish blush on Elanore’s cheeks.
“Stopped by the store on my way in to ask about him,” he said experimentally. He chuckled as Elanore flushed further. He drank his tea somewhat noisily before he continued. “Seems he’s out quite a bit with this boarder they have. She always seems to need a driver somewhere.”
Elanore looked down and twisted a handkerchief between her fingers, unwilling to reveal how uncomfortable this statement made her feel. She herself had not seen Edmund for days and worried for him.
Her grandmother rescued her from having to respond. “Oh indeed, his mother did mention that the lady required assistance. Our roads, after all, are quite difficult to navigate. I believe she means to acquire some land hereabouts,” the woman added. “He’s been escorting her to some of these locations.”
“Ah, the mother said something of the same.” Giles leaned back in his chair to consider that information. “His guest is difficult, or so I’ve been told. But a grand lady and a beautiful one, too.” He tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair as he turned his head to address Elanore. “The innkeeper spoke of how quickly she departed for the Ormond home, much to their surprise. The children are low in spirits since she’s gone. I wondered if our young miss was herself aware of the rumors swirling about town. ”
Elanore broke her polite silence to interrupt Giles. “What rumors?”
Giles chuckled again. “You know the townspeople. They have decided he’s switched his attentions from you to the lady herself. A fine, rich woman — one with a million houses by the sea and with a penchant for Edmund’s looks.”
His words vexed her patience greatly. “How mean-spirited,” she responded hotly. “Edmund is not that kind of man and to say that about a stranger is absolutely ridiculous.”
“Elanore,” her grandmother interrupted her. “Arguing with your guest about what he heard accomplishes nothing.”
Her grandmother’s reminder to show some restraint did little. The lady sat forward in her chair, her fists clenched and her voice trembling with anger at the man. “He was just here a few days ago himself!”
“Now calm yourself, Miss Redley,” he waved his hands at her. “Don’t throw that biscuit at me. I can see you intend to commit great violence with it, with your little hand choking it to death. You know I like Edmund quite well enough. He has none of the airs that the hunters do and is always helpful in the shop. So I defended him as much as I could, you know. Told them he was rather sweet on you.”
She dropped the biscuit that had, as Giles correctly had observed, found its way into her hand. But she did not stop trembling in anger. “I do not care what they say about me but to constantly pick on him is unkind. He never speaks ill of anyone. Never turns down a request for help–”
“Now, now, Mr. Giles,” Mrs. Winchester said mildly. “I am sure you meant well, but Elanore is still recovering mind you, and cannot bear too much teasing.”
They both glanced Elanore’s way at that point.
Their guest scratched his head, trying to clumsily change the direction of the conversation. “Miss Redley, people will always say things out of boredom or their own sense of inferiority. You shouldn’t mind it so much.”
Elanore did not see her grandmother shaking her head at that response. “I know what the idlers say about Edmund is not true. He could not be so easily unfaithful!”
Giles whistled under his breath. “So that’s the truth of it then. I thought there might be something that very day he came to greet you. That does complicate things I’m afraid.”
“No, there wasn’t,” she started to say. “Not then but–”
“Mr. Giles,” Mrs. Winchester’s expression turned quite severe as she interrupted her granddaughter. “I am aware that your master has asked for her assistance and has honored us with an offer to his estate. However, I should remind you that in polite society a host or his household does not have the right to probe into a guest’s thoughts and feelings.”
Giles shook his head. “I’m afraid you are mistaken. We are not polite society but a den of wolves — all fiercely loyal to their own family. Many will be very curious about the outsider that my master has allowed inside his home, their home. As such, both of you should be prepared. They will defend my master against anything or anyone who threatens his interests.” He stood, aware that he had greatly outworn his welcome. “Do not go in with a naive belief that your life is not of interest to them.”
Both of the women were startled by his warning. However, it was Elanore who recovered first, following the man to the hallway where he was retrieving his coat and gloves. “Giles. Wait,” she demanded.
He straightened out his scarf before he nodded, waiting as requested.
Elanore took a deep breath, trying to sort through how much could and should be said. “I can’t tell you the understanding that Edmund and I have, for that would not be fair to him to speak of such private things. But,” she confessed quietly, “I know he does love me. And he also knows that I will leave this house for your master’s home in short time. He understands that there is something I must do and will not prevent me from going.”
“He said all this to you, did he?” The man’s expression grew thoughtful.
“Yes,” she straightened up proudly. “Tell your master and his family that I will not have them speaking of Edmund in an unkind manner. If he should cross their paths, I expect he should be treated with respect, as far beneath their station we both may be. And should any of them be curious about the association between the two of us, please tell them there is no need to spy him out at his family’s shop. All of their questions can be directed to me.”
Giles tipped his hat at the young woman in response. With a bit of a smile, he bowed. “Yes ma’am.”
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