The Kingdom - Clare B Dunkle - Hollow Kingdom 01 - The Hollow Kingdom
Clare B Dunkle - Hollow Kingdom 01 - The Hollow Kingdom читать книгу онлайн
The Lodge was a very ordinary square house designed to provide four spacious rooms on each floor with a hallway down the middle. The front door faced the straight hall and staircase, which began about ten feet inside it. Kate, standing on the rug, could see right through to the back door, which stood open to let in the breeze. On her left was a parlor, on her right, a dining room, open to each other by the full width of the entry. Their walls began only at the staircase.
Houses take on the character of their inhabitants. Kate’s initial impression was of tranquility and tidiness. Gauzy white curtains fluttered at the large glass windows, and soft, plump chairs and sofas gathered in the rooms. Tones of green, white, and blue predominated in the upholstery, and the walls were a soft gray-green. The cushioned chairs and quiet hues spoke of peace. The crystal-clear windows and perfect spotlessness spoke of industry.
Kate and Emily trailed through the house after their great-aunts and saw everything there was to see, from the kitchen by the back door to the upstairs bedrooms. Prim and Celia had the two bedrooms on the left side of the upstairs hall, and the girls were given ones on the right.
Kate’s room faced the front. “We did think this would be pretty for a young lady like you,” said Aunt Celia. “It has Grandmother’s furniture, and Prim and I could just imagine you combing your lovely hair before the glass at her dressing table.”
Emily had the back bedroom. “You’ll never believe how many storms we have here, dear,” cautioned Aunt Prim. “Such wild country! If you wake in the night, my room is right across the hall. No need to dodge around the stairs when you’re in a fright.”
The next several days saw the girls settle in and become a part of the rhythm of life at Hallow Hill. Some demands were placed on them, but they were free to roam their new surroundings for hours every day. It must be admitted that the two older women found their new charges quite exhausting. Whenever the girls burst out the door with a picnic hamper to go off on a long ramble, it is hard to say who of the four felt most relieved.
It took the girls a week to find the druids’ circle that their cousin had spoken of. They discovered it after supper one evening, quite close behind the Lodge. The forest path they were following began climbing a steep slope. As they looked upward, they saw an evenly planted row of ancient oaks set in thick green turf. In the gaps between they could see a further row of trees, but so massive were the specimens in this double ring that they could not see past the two rows together. The enormous trunks, wider than the girls could span with their arms, formed a perfect barrier, protecting whatever lay beyond from careless eyes.
Hand in hand, the girls approached this awesome barricade and slipped between the giant sentinels. The tops of these hoary trees, so close together for so many ages, had grown into one dense, continuous ring. No sunlight pierced it to fall on the intruders beneath, and yet the green turf continued underfoot, right up to the great trunks.
Inside the ring, the broad crown of the hill was almost flat. They could not see beyond the trees either to the distant hills or to the woods outside. They were in a huge room walled by living plants. Above them, past the tangled branches of the oaks, stretched a perfect circle of darkening twilight sky about seventy feet across. The lush turf formed a dense, soft carpet underneath, and small white field lilies sprang above it on long, thin stalks, like tiny stars scattered across a dark green sky.
Speechless, Kate and Emily stood and looked around. This was a silent place. No birds sang in the branches of the great trees, and Emily found no bugs crawling in the grass beneath. Slowly they wandered to the very middle of the twilit circle and dropped down onto the inviting turf.
“Do you think the druids built this place?” asked Emily.
“No.” Kate knew that this was no ruined monument to a dead religion. The circle was alive and aware. It exerted a magical force that welcomed and comforted her, as if good people had arranged a place for her security and care.
“But if the druids didn’t make it, who did?”
“I don’t know, Em,” Kate said thoughtfully. “Perhaps our ancestors did. I feel so much more at home here than I do up at the Hall. And just imagine how the stars must look from here! Let’s stay a little while longer and watch them come out.”
As night fell on the tree circle, the stars shone in the round ceiling of sky over their heads. Kate gazed, enchanted, at the brilliant lights hanging above her. She had always had a deep love of the stars. She sometimes felt that if it hadn’t been for them, she never could have stood the loss of her parents. As long as she had the stars, she would never be alone. Even when she wasn’t looking at them, she could feel their gentle radiance in her mind. They had never seemed as beautiful as they did tonight. One by one they emerged until the ebony sky was full, and the glittering net shimmered over their heads.
“We’d better go back,” warned Emily, thinking about what her worried aunts would say. They crossed to the enormous trees, now black in their own deep shadows, and slipped between them to find the forest path again. It took some time before they hit upon it in the meager, dappled starlight. As they walked slowly homeward in the darkness, Kate tried to remember the beauty of the stars, but a vague presence intruded on her thoughts. She began to peer into the shadows. She couldn’t hear or see anyone, but she was sure someone was there. Kate rambled in the late twilight as often as she was allowed, and she had never been afraid before, but now she held her sister’s hand tightly.
“What’s wrong with you?” demanded Emily. “You’re pinching me. We’re not lost, you know. I can find the way home.”
Kate stared desperately back into the forest. “Em, something’s watching us!” she whispered.
“Oh?” asked Emily, very interested. “What? Where?” She turned around and peered unsuccessfully into the deep gloom.
“I don’t know,” murmured her sister. “It followed us down the path. I can’t see it, but it can see us. Can’t you feel it?”
“No,” replied Emily with a shrug. “It’s probably just a fox. Come on, Kate, we’ll get in trouble.” And she towed her preoccupied sister across the Lodge lawn. At the door, Kate stopped and looked back. The heavy shadows under every tree seemed full of menace. Once she was in the house, the feeling left her, but it came back a little later as they talked in the parlor. The great-aunts never drew the heavy curtains. Kate stared suspiciously at one gauze-covered window after another. She even rose and looked out into the dark night, but there was nothing there that her eyes could see. After a few minutes of this restlessness, her great-aunts began to watch her in some surprise. Embarrassed, she excused herself and went up to bed.
Nighttime became an ordeal for Kate after this. Sometimes she would be free of the feeling until bedtime, when she would begin to pace and fret under the conviction that something was watching her. She, who had always loved the stars, began to avoid looking out the windows after dark. Even in her bedroom on the second floor, she would wake in the night, uneasy. She would lie as still as she could under the covers, peering around the room at the darkness, and she began to have exhausting nightmares. When Kate tried to explain her feeling to her great-aunts, they laughed at first and then looked puzzled. Hallow Hill was so remote that no one ever came or went across its grounds. The aunts never even locked the doors.
Prim watched Kate with concern and decided that both girls needed more to do. They had been through a great deal, and they had too much time to dwell on it. She had already talked to the girls about the sorts of lessons they had learned and had found Kate to be shockingly overeducated. Kate’s father, seeing in his daughter a real intellectual enthusiasm, had taught most of her lessons himself. Both father and daughter were fired with a love of literature, and they had spent hours reading and discussing books together. Aunt Prim was appalled.
“I think it’s sweet that she spent so much time with her father,” said Celia.
“Well, that’s where her case of nerves has come from,” declared Prim. “All that book reading, all that flowery poetry. It’s enough to make any girl flighty and high-strung. Why, she’s old enough to have a family of her own by now, and she’s never been out in society. If you ask me, Celia, these girls have been neglected. No man knows how to raise proper ladies.”
Prim began teaching the girls practical skills, such as how to plan meals, keep household accounts, and manage servants. Over time, she and Celia observed with satisfaction that Kate was settling down. It is true that Kate slept more soundly at night because she was busier during the day, but she continued to be haunted by the powerful feeling that something was watching her. She couldn’t avoid it or ignore it, so she just kept her worry a secret from her aunts. She could tell that it did nothing but upset them.
As high summer came, Aunt Prim took Kate to pay a call on her guardian. The call, she discovered, concerned her deeply. Prim wanted Hugh Roberts to take Kate into town for the winter season. It was time, she said, for the girl to be out in society. So much had to be arranged first. Kate’s guardian would have to fulfill his responsibilities.
Hugh Roberts didn’t take the call at all well. He had no patience with fashions and parties. He didn’t see any good reason why the important pursuits of the mature should be set aside to allow the young a chance to make fools of themselves. He paced up and down the room as he and Prim argued. At one point he turned angrily on Kate herself.
“Are you tired of country life already?” he demanded. “You can’t wait to go off skipping and gossiping with a whole bevy of brainless belles?” Kate wasn’t in the least tired of country life, though she did find the thought of society parties a bit thrilling. She didn’t say this to her angry guardian, but maybe he saw it in her face. If so, it did nothing to improve his temper.
After the unpleasant interview, Aunt Prim hurried off to speak to Mrs. Bigelow, the housekeeper, leaving Kate to wander the Hall alone. This activity never failed to fill Kate with uneasiness. The Hall might belong to her, but it never seemed to want her. She was nothing but an intruder here.
Kate did what she often did when she was at the Hall and had time to herself. She went to the huge fireplace in the upstairs parlor to study the picture that hung above it. Two girls, both around thirteen years old, stood hand in hand before a forest landscape and looked out at her. One, black-haired and green-eyed, had a red rose tucked into the waist of her old-fashioned dress. She met Kate’s gaze as if she were about to tell a funny secret, and she looked as if she were trying not to giggle. The other, pale and blond, gazed down at Kate with solemn dark blue eyes. She did not smile. Perhaps she had learned already those lessons in life that make smiling difficult. Kate stared back at the blond girl thoughtfully. She felt, as she always did, that there was something familiar about her.
“She looks very like you, don’t you think?”
Hugh Roberts stood a few feet behind Kate. He met her surprised glance a little sheepishly, but he walked up beside her to study the picture, hands behind his back. “I mean the one on the left, the blond girl, Elizabeth. The resemblance is quite startling. I’ve thought so ever since you came here.”
He paused, but Kate said nothing. She was staring at the picture. Of course! How had she not seen it before?
“Adele is the girl on the right, Dentwood Roberts’s child. Her father and my great-grandfather were brothers. I am the last of an old and proud family, Miss Winslow.”
Kate turned to him, thoroughly puzzled. He caught her confused look and nodded.
“Oh, yes, Elizabeth on the left is indeed your great-grandmother, but Elizabeth is related to no one in the family. For all we know, she might have fallen from the moon.
“The story goes that one spring night old Roberts went walking with his daughter. Adele was about three then. Her mother had died soon after she was born, and old Roberts doted on his only child. They paused at the druids’ circle. Have you been there? A lovely spot at twilight. There Roberts sat while his little daughter ran about picking flowers. He listened to her happy prattle. He fell to dreaming and thinking of his dead wife for a few minutes. And when he rose to call his daughter to him—what do you think he saw, Miss Winslow? Not just his Adele. Now there were two little girls playing in the moonlight.”
Kate felt her hair prickle and goose bumps rise on her arms. She couldn’t say a word.
“And that’s where Elizabeth came from,” said Hugh Roberts with a shrug. “No one knows who she really was. No one even knew her name. She appeared just like a fairy child in the old tales, like the changeling that she was.” Bitterness crept into his voice. “Because the two girls did not both survive, Miss Winslow. When they were about sixteen, Adele died suddenly. No one knows how. But old Roberts took Elizabeth and left Hallow Hill that very night, and neither of them ever came back.
“Dentwood Roberts had adopted Elizabeth. Now she was all he had. When she died in childbirth, he took her son to raise. He left everything he had to that son when he died: Hallow Hill and all it contained. It went to a man who had never seen it, who could never appreciate it—who never even visited it once. My family, Dentwood Roberts’s brother’s family, has leased the house ever since. Elizabeth’s son was your grandfather, and Hallow Hill now belongs to you. Oh, we call each other cousins, Miss Winslow,” he said blandly. “But you’re no relation, really.
“I wonder how the founders of this house would feel if they could learn about this strange turn of events,” he mused, “that their own flesh and blood would have to pay rent just to live in their own home. Pay rent to strangers, who didn’t even care about the land. Yes,” he added smugly, rubbing his hands, “I’m the last of a proud line.”
I’m unwanted, thought Kate in a rush of despair. Unwanted, with no family left. And my land belongs to me almost through fraud. It’s worse than having nothing at all. She couldn’t say a word. She turned and left the room as quickly as she could, hurrying down the stairs. Hugh Roberts watched her disorganized retreat, and his smile widened. Then he walked back to his study, whistling cheerfully.
The change in Kate was obvious to all, but no one understood it. Prim and Celia were sure Kate’s restless unhappiness was due to disappointment. Prim assured her that Hugh would give in to their arguments and take her into town, but Kate no longer wanted to go. In the aftermath of her guardian’s horrible disclosure, society parties had gone quite out of her head.
Kate couldn’t bear for her little sister to find out that they weren’t really family, so she said nothing about what she had learned, and she tried to keep up a cheerful appearance. But keeping a secret from loved ones is a heavy burden, and now she was keeping two secrets. Her nightmares were wearing her out, and her worried sister’s constant questions were upsetting her. Prim noticed the pale cheeks and the dark shadows under her niece’s eyes. Lips tight, she called the doctor, but neither he nor Prim could find anything wrong. Between them, they dosed Kate with a variety of strong and well-meaning remedies that did no good at all.