The door opened almost immediately and the butler ushered them into the living room. Lady Penfield looked up from her conversation and cried, ‘Sister! Welcome! Do sit down.’
Mrs. Talbot curtsied and went to the place her sister had indicated before nodding to her two children to go join their cousins. Natalie and Richard went to where their cousins, Carlos, Cyrus and Anastasia, in order of birth sat, talking amongst themselves. Anastasia leapt out of her seat with joy to see her cousin Natalie and Carlos got up to greet Richard. Cyrus just sat there, watching them with stony eyes.
Richard offered Cyrus a hand to shake but Cyrus simply got out from his seat and walked towards where a group of people were laughing and swigging beer. In the centre, couples were swirling around the floor to the music that was floating from where the band played their instruments.
‘Still the same?’ Natalie asked Anastasia.
‘Yes,’ answered Anastasia, worriedly looking to where Cyrus stood. ‘It’s only because Elise agreed to marry Carlos and not him. But I’m sure he’ll understand.’
‘Understand?’ snorted Natalie in a most unladylike fashion. ‘That man has as much understanding in him as a goat.’
Ting, ting, ting.
Carlos was hitting the rim of his glass with a fork. ‘I would like to say,’ he began, blushing furiously. ‘That this party was called in honour of Elise, my fiancée. We shall be getting married on the weekend.’
There was a loud cheering from every person in the room; except Cyrus. ‘So,’ Carlos continued, ‘let us proceed to dinner. Please follow me everyone.’ And everyone flowed out of the room like water.
Soon everyone was sitting down at the table, in an alternating pattern gender-wise. At the head sat Carlos and at the foot sat Elise, who was wearing a sparkling gown that had a large bustle and an even flashier bonnet with feathers so high, they brushed the ceiling.
And then dinner began. Dish after dish, course after course was brought in. Steaming soup, soft bread rolls, slithery oysters, roast chicken, glistening jellies and wobbly blancmanges were deposited at the table and whisked off nearly as quickly to make room for more.
Anastasia, who was sitting next to Richard, cheerily helped herself to food while chatting to him and to Natalie who sat across the table to her. Cyrus, who sat with Natalie, glumly picked at his food while staring at Elise who was eating daintily.
Idly, Cyrus shifted his gaze to Richard and his jaw dropped. ‘Preposterous!’ he cried. ‘How dare you?’ Slowly, all eyes turned Cyrus’ way to see what the matter was with him. ‘That boy,’ he said, pointing to Richard, ‘eats with the wrong cutlery!’
All around the table people gasped. Richard dropped his oyster and his fork and looked around guiltily. ‘That,’ Cyrus went on, ‘is as terrible as eating cereal out of a soup plate.’
People all around nodded grimly, clearly on Cyrus’ side. Then Natalie butted in, ‘Where did you get the idea of eating cereal out of a soup plate?’
Cyrus went red. ‘Out of experience, that’s where,’ snorted Carlos. At once, everyone on the table burst out laughing and Cyrus stood up smartly, trying to preserve whatever dignity he had left, and then marched up the stairs, presumably to his chamber.
Quiet fell over the table like an invisible veil of death. ‘So,’ began Carlos, in attempt to break the silence, ‘where’s Mr. Talbot, Richard?’
‘Dad was held up in England with some important work,’ muttered Richard, his head bowed for he was still ashamed to have been the cause of all this mess.
Anyway, that seemed to have got the crowd going once again. ‘Where’s Lord Penfield?’ Natalie asked her cousin.
‘He’s on a voyage to the remote lands of North Africa where he shall seek diamonds,’ replied Anastasia.
‘Ah, I see,’ said Natalie and then went back into silence.
Before they knew it, dinner was over. All the guests began to leave. Soon, all the cousins – save Cyrus – were chatting in a corner. ‘So Carlos,’ began Richard. ‘How are your driving tests going?’
‘Not exactly good,’ sighed Carlos. ‘I’m fine till we reach Cliffs of Curroon. There the horses rear and buck and sometimes the carriage nearly overturns. I don’t know why. Some say that the cliffs are haunted by a spirit of a highway horseman on a black horse but of course, that’s all rubbish. It’s like something out of that book Sleepy Hollow. Also, the only black horse found around here belongs to Cyrus. He’s called Breezy because he runs like the wind.’
Natalie giggled, ‘Cyrus chose that name? No way. That’s too nice and cuddly for Cyrus to have chosen.’
Anastasia smirked, ‘Yes, he chose it.’
‘Children, I don’t know if you remember but Carlos has driving practice now and Anastasia has to attend another ballroom session on how to enter a conversation politely,’ came a voice from behind them all.
They all jumped, startled. Lady Penfield had walked up behind them so quietly that no one had heard. Talk about entering a conversation!
‘But Mama,’ protested Carlos while his sister meekly got up. ‘My driving class is not for another two hours! Why do I have…?’
‘Don’t argue Carlos darling, you know how long it takes too change into your riding gear. Off you go now!’ she exclaimed, taking Anastasia by the arm and leading her off.
Carlos looked at his cousins apologetically and followed his mother out of the room. Richard saw his own mother alone at the other end of the room and went to keep her company. Natalie followed.
Mrs. Talbot smiled at her children. ‘Hello darlings,’ she said. ‘Everything alright? Richard okay after what that Cyrus said to you?’
‘Speaking of Cyrus,’ said Natalie, not giving her younger brother a chance to say anything. ‘I don’t see how two siblings with an age difference of five years could want to marry the same woman. I worry for Carlos’ safety.’
‘Natalie!’ scolded her mother.
‘Oh Mama,’ laughed Richard. ‘Don’t you get a joke when you hear one?’ And he went on laughing till he saw Natalie’s stony face and realised it wasn’t a joke after all.
‘I know Cyrus has a bad temper and if he really wanted to, he could fling Carlos of a cliff…’ Natalie trailed off. ‘Ooh no. Please say Cyrus is in his room right now. I just saw Carlos leaving!’
She got up and hurried to the grand staircase, tugging her many skirts after her, without bothering to explain what had come to her mind. Richard looked at his mother and shrugged and they continued talking about something else.
Meanwhile, Natalie was outside Cyrus’ room. She took a deep breath and knocked on the door. ‘Cyrus?’ she said. ‘Are you in there?’
The door was flung open and Natalie nearly screamed. Cyrus towered over her. ‘What do you want?’ he asked menacingly.
‘N… Nothing. Just wanted to apologise after dinner and…’ Natalie blurted out the first nonsense that came to her brain.
‘Words mean nothing to me. If you’re really sorry, go clean Breezy for me.’ And with that, he slammed the door.
Natalie gritted her teeth. ‘If anyone needs classes on how to talk politely, it’s Cyrus.’ She walked down the staircase, fanning herself after her fright, for she had not been expecting to see Cyrus in his room.
She was just crossing the passage to get to the living room where she had left her mother and brother, when the front door burst open. For the second time in half a millisecond, Natalie nearly jumped out of her skin.
‘Carlos!’ she cried. ‘What is the matter with you?’ She had meant it to be an angry statement but it had come out of her mouth in a kindly fashion for Carlos really looked shaken.
‘It’s Elise,’ he croaked. ‘I was on the cliffs when I saw her carriage overturned on the road. I pulled up to see if anyone was hurt. All her servants were dead,’ He was almost weeping now. ‘And she was too! Elise!’ Now he went down on his knees and really did start weeping.
‘What? That’s terrible!’
Natalie turned around to see Cyrus standing on the staircase behind her.
‘Oh brother! Come and let us weep together.’ Cyrus led a woebegone Carlos away to the kitchen.
‘Huh?’ thought Natalie. ‘That’s not the Cyrus I know. He should’ve smirked, or laughed or mocked Carlos. Anything! But not helped Carlos in this time of sorrow. Oh well,’ she shrugged to herself. ‘Maybe Cyrus really did love her.’
She trudged into the living room to break the news to her family but when she reached there, she saw that they had heard already from their stricken faces. Natalie smiled sadly and then Anastasia and her mother entered the room, both looking very pleased with themselves. Looked like Anastasia had had a good lesson.
Suddenly, something popped up in Natalie’s mind. She excused herself and, leaving her mother and brother to do the explaining about Elise, headed for the kitchen. Carlos and Cyrus were there, both weeping, the fat cook waved her rolling pin at them and told them that crying would do nothing. In vain, of course.
Natalie slipped down the kitchen stairs and into the servants quarters unnoticed. She needed a favour from one of them. She was very popular with her aunt’s servants as she always gave them a hand when no one was looking and most of all; her room was always clean so her chamber maid Leanne never had to do any cleaning up.
‘Hi Leanne,’ she said. Her maid looked up and smiled. ‘Do you know where Michael is?’
‘He’s probably grooming the horses in the stable, madam. Why do you ask?’
‘That is my business only. But what I will tell you is that, Carlos shall benefit from it. Goodbye.’
Carlos was also very popular with the staff as he never ordered them about but always asked politely. The cook liked him especially as he had a healthy appetite and always complemented her on her cooking.
Natalie hurried out of the house and into the back gardens, to the stables. ‘Michael?’ she called softly. ‘Are you in there? I need your help with something.’
‘Yes, milady,’ said Michael, nearly tripping out of the stables in his haste. He was old and had wispy grey hair sticking out around his straw hat. His clothes were filthy and in one hand he held a brush that was caked with mud.
‘Can you take me to Curroon Cliff now? It’s for Carlos.’
‘Ah, two of my favourite people. How can I refuse?’ he laughed huskily. ‘I’ll just get these two saddled and attached to the carriage. You wait here.’
‘Should I finish the one you were cleaning while I wait?’
‘Aye, you sure can. Put that overall on and then go brush down Breezy.’
‘Breezy?’ asked Natalie, confused. ‘Isn’t that Cyrus’ horse? Why is he dirty? Did Carlos use him?’
‘Yes, he’s Cyrus’ horse, but Carlos didn’t use him. Shudder to think what would happen if he did,’ said Michael and shuddered.
‘But why is he dirty?’ Natalie repeated.
‘Cyrus just went for a ride an hour or so ago. Jumped out of his window, as always, strode over to me and then saddled Breezy and rode off somewhere. Carlos followed soon after with his two. Gone to meet that Corinne of his, Carlos had…’
‘Corinne?’ asked Natalie, confused. ‘I thought he’d gone driving?’
‘He told me that he went to meet his lady. Pretty one she is. And from what I hear, more generous than that Elise of Cyrus’. Are you done? I am so let’s go!’
Natalie looked up, trying to digest all this information. Where was Michael getting all this fake gossip from? She got into the carriage, hoping that the wind in her face would clear her mind. At least she had cleaned Breezy so her conscience was clear of being mean to Cyrus.
Soon they were at the scene. It was exactly as Carlos had explained. Natalie jumped off the carriage, her mouth open in horror. Michael exclaimed, ‘Young woman, this is not a scene for your eyes. Come here and let us go back!’
‘No. Look!’ For on the side of Elise’s carriage were hoof-marks. ‘A horse was involved. And it struck the side many times by the looks of it.’
‘Milady, we should go,’ Michael said, turning the carriage around and clicking to the horses.
When they were home and Michael had promised not to breath a word of what they had seen, Natalie went to find Anastasia. She found her alone in her room, sewing. ‘Anastasia,’ she began, closing the door behind you. ‘I need you to do something for me.’
‘Okay,’ said Anastasia, alarmed at Natalie’s tone.
The next day, Natalie sat uncomfortably at the piano and played some scales to calm her nerves. She had played up at supper last night and had seen Cyrus eyeing her suspiciously. Would it be enough for him to challenge her so that she could expose him? She hoped so.
Everyone was out. It was Saturday and even the servants had the day to themselves. Carlos and Richard had gone hunting in the fields behind the house. Her aunt and mother were at a theatre watching Romeo and Juliet and Anastasia had popped out according to the plan to get something. That left Natalie and Cyrus at home.
She carried on playing and jumped when something thin and cold touched her bare shoulder. ‘Cyrus,’ she said, slowly. She lifted the sword with her thumb and turned around to face her cousin, smiling. ‘I am for you sir!’ She quoted from a scene in Romeo and Juliet where Tybalt accepted Mercutio’s challenge to fight.
‘Ah Natalie,’ replied Cyrus, grinning at his cousin’s bravery (or folly). ‘You are my favourite cousin. I shall not enjoy killing you. But I have to avenge Elise’s death!’
Natalie pulled a sword from under her skirts while Cyrus drew his own. ‘Avenge Elise’s death? There are many problems with that. Firstly, it should be Carlos that should avenge her death and secondly, you’re the killer. You were the highway horseman that scared Carlos’ horses to fail him and then your Breezy jumped on Elise’s carriage multiple times and killed everyone in it. I saw the hoof marks!’
They were gently air-jabbing each other by now, but Cyrus stopped with a frown when he heard what his cousin had to say, ‘I was the highway horseman but I didn’t kill Elise. Why would I? If anyone killed her it was you!’
‘Me!’ gasped Natalie. ‘Why would you think that?’
Cyrus’ hand dropped to his side. ‘Remember how I used to play with you when you were young? You were jealous that now I gave Elise the attention and killed her!’
‘What proof do you have?’ demanded Natalie, feeling slightly softer towards her cousin after what he had said but remembering that they were enemies. ‘You killed Elise because if you couldn’t have her, no one could.’
‘But I’m telling you I didn’t!’ said Cyrus, his eyes sincere. ‘And if you didn’t and I’m saying I didn’t, who did?’
‘I wasn’t in the equation for even a second. The evidence clearly points to you. Carlos failed his tests because the horses sensed your presence at the cliffs and you were never in when he had his tests. Yesterday you rushed to the cliffs, killed them, rushed back and came downstairs when Carlos started weeping. And you told Michael that Carlos was courting with some Corrine to make him look bad. Actually I think he thought that you were getting married to Elise.’
‘I didn’t say anything like that…’
‘Hi guys,’ Carlos walked in lazily and dropped the drink he was holding. ‘Where you two about to kill each other?’
‘He killed Elise!’ cried Natalie.
Carlos looked unsurprised. ‘Did he? Well, it’s a good thing the police are outside.’
Cyrus looked at his brother. ‘You believe her?’ he asked in surrender. ‘You always wanted to make me unhappy.’
Then he walked outside and into the hands of the police. Anastasia looked at him, puzzled. ‘Is this why you wanted me to call the police?’
‘Yes,’ said Natalie. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Ha, Corrine would be proud of you Natalie,’ said Carlos, clapping Natalie on the back.
‘Corrine?’ asked one of the police. ‘I thought the woman’s name was Elise?’
‘Yeah,’ said Natalie suddenly. ‘You weren’t here when I said Corrine’s name to Cyrus!’
‘No, I… I…’
‘Carlos! Where’s Richard? He went out with you didn’t he?’
That was Anastasia. Natalie realised that her brother was missing too. ‘He’s in his room,’ said Carlos. ‘I called off the hunt.’
‘But you still went. I saw you from my bedroom. There was someone in front of you, beckoning for you to hurry up. I thought it was Richard but couldn’t be sure in the sun,’ said Cyrus.
‘Maybe it was your Corinne? If you were with Corinne for over a week, then you really didn’t love Elise,’ Natalie snarled.
‘No,’ said Carlos, seeing the game was up. ‘I just wanted to make Cyrus unhappy. Elise said we would get married and I couldn’t get out of it. So I caught up with her yesterday and got my horses to overturn the carriage and kill her.’
‘And you saw all this?’ Natalie asked Cyrus.
‘No. I was trying to explain when Carlos walked in. I was spying on Elise when Carlos drew up. It always hurt to see them together so I rode home.’
The policeman took the handcuffs off Cyrus and went up to Carlos, ‘Boy, you are in so much trouble.’
‘Natalie, don’t you have some apologising to do?’ piped up Anastasia.
Natalie turned towards a grinning Cyrus, ‘I’ve already cleaned Breezy…’