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Episode 60

A Mutual Passion

The sky was turning a blush color in the east as they finished filling the holes. Her father, of course, was entirely oblivious to the attitude of the servants who viewed them as usurpers. He was far too involved in his studies and all-consuming interests. He was fully absorbed in one of his ventures when Arabella joined him in the conservancy after she’d dressed and breakfasted.

Lord Huntoun, the sixth Earl of Huntoun, Archibald Paget-Thorpe, stood at a long table examining rows of what appeared to be oddly shaped stones. The conservancy, a high-ceilinged wing off the rear of the manor house, was walled and roofed in panes of glass set in lead framing. It was an expansive greenhouse that was home to the previous lord’s collection of tropical flora and was, when she and her father arrived, a kind of indoor jungle. That was, until her father had all the plants and pots and hangings cleared out to make room for his own particular passion. This change was, of course, further cause for condemnation from the servants.

Now, in the middle of the barn-like enclosure, resting on the slate-tile floor, stood the skeletal structure of some antediluvian monster held upright on its feet by a scaffolding of piping and timbers devised by her father. A barrel-like torso lay atop stubby legs that ended in claws. A chain of vertebrae that ended with a tapered tail stretched out ten or more feet behind. The neck ended abruptly above the clavicle plates. The bones atop the table that now consumed her father’s interest would, as he hoped, form the remainder of the neck of the beast. Its head, a hollow-eyed skull with massive jaws lined with rows of flattened molars each the size of a lime, sat atop a plinth. It seemed to be regarding its own remains with what Arabella imagined was a wistful expression.

“Have you eaten at all today, Father?” Arabella said, setting down a tray with tea and honeyed biscuits on the only bare spot remaining among the rows of dusty stones.

“I had a late supper, Pansy,” he mumbled as he held up a fossilized neck bone to examine it over the pince nez perched on his narrow nose. Only he called her Pansy, a name given to her by her mother even before she was born.

“Supper? That was yesterday!” she said.

“I sent Geoffrey off to bring me something from the larder.”

“I was just in the kitchen and I didn’t see him there.” And she was glad of that but didn’t say so.

Geoffrey Pike was a student at Cambridge College who had met her father when the two attended a series of lectures on paleontology at the Geographic Society. Father invited the young gentleman to join them at Verey’s for dinner in an awkward attempt to introduce his daughter to a member of male society.

Arabella wasn’t sure which was keener, Geoffrey’s interest in old bones or in her. It was probably more accurate to assume that his passion for all things cretaceous probably grew a good deal sharper once introduced to Lady Huntoun. Since that evening, he’d become a frequent visitor to the estate, eagerly welcomed by her father and barely tolerated by Arabella. Father thought of him as a potential suitor. Arabella saw him only as an opportunistic pestilence.

“Please eat something,” she said and plucked the clump of vertebrae from her father’s hand. “This relic has waited millions of years. It will wait a few minutes more.”

He removed his glasses and smiled at her. Though in his fiftieth year with hair turning to iron gray, Lord Huntoun still had the bearing of a military man. Years spent leading a native regiment over the mountains of the Punjab on horseback and on foot had left him darkened by the sun and hard as oak. A tinge of ague in his knees in damp weather were the only signs of wear to the old soldier. It was in those ranges and deep in the shadowed passes that he first came across what would become his overwhelming fancy; the pursuit of evidence of extinct saurians.

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“What would I do without you?” he said, accepting a cup of tea she had poured for him.

“Starve,” she said with a smile. “Haven’t the servants looked in on you at all?”

“Braxton was by sometime after dawn. Poked his head in. I don’t recall what he wanted.”

Braxton was her father’s personal valet. He was the servant charged with dressing her father and, consequently, left with little to occupy him as the earl sometimes wore the same shirt and trousers for days at a time. This enforced idleness left Braxton with more leisure time to stoke his resentment at having an excess of leisure time.

“And you say Geoffrey went to find you something to eat? When was this?”

“Might have been hours ago. You say you didn’t see him?”

“Not a sign. He’s probably busy pestering the downstairs maids.”

“Pestering them about what?” her father said around a mouthful of biscuit.

“Oh, father,” she sighed. “He’s a young man and they’re young girls.”

You’re a young girl. I thought he was enamored of you, Pansy.”

“He certainly is, Father. Only I have no such feelings for him. And so, gadfly that he is, he’s off chasing chambermaids.”

“What will come of that? I thought of him as a young man concerned with maintaining the dignity of his class.”

“I think he’s willing to leave class, as well as dignity, behind when it comes to his desires.”

“Pansy!” Her father’s cheeks blazed.

“What fresh outrage has she uttered now, m’lord?” Geoffrey Pike said as he strode into the conservancy carrying a pair of cold capons and a plate of sliced fruit on a silver serving tray.

“I was only telling Father of your more egalitarian attitude toward the serving class,” Arabella said with wincing smile.

“Put rather more rudely than that, I imagine,” Geoffrey said, balancing the tray atop a wooden stool. He was a handsome young man a year or two older and a head taller than Arabella. He was broad shouldered and narrow waisted from years of daily riding. Arabella thought him almost pretty and imagined that he spent far more time before the mirror each day than she ever did. His auburn hair always perfectly combed, and mustache trimmed just so.

“And how is dear little Elspeth? Or was it Clarice this morning?” she said sweetly.

“I was seeing to my horse!” Geoffrey’s face turned crimson.

“As I said,” her smile broadened. “You went riding.”

Geoffrey blanched at this. Her father paid no attention, having already returned to studying his collection of bones.

“I was at the stable seeing after Champion and entered into a conversation with one of the grooms,” Geoffrey insisted.

“And you failed to take a brush to your jacket upon returning to the house,” she said and plucked a strand of pale red hair from his lapel. She leaned in close so only he could hear her.

“So, it was Elspeth,” she whispered and was pleased to see a new flush of color rise up the back of his neck.

She left them to them to re-assembling their eons-dead pet.

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