The Last Cavalier Chapter 1 — Aunt Alice Again

It was a typically grey, mid winter afternoon in Edwardian London. Icy rain had begun to fall, forming dark shapes on the pavement. Ladies in long skirts opened umbrellas and smartly dressed gentlemen in hats and heavy overcoats hurried from door to door, avoiding the rain and the chill gusts of wind that swirled about the tall red brick houses. Amongst this crowd of Londoners was a small group of children returning from school. George, a sturdy dark haired boy, rushed ahead swinging his satchel and darting in and out of the puddles that had begun to form on Hanwell Street. His elder sister Rose walked behind him staring dreamily ahead, her long black hair bedraggled and damp under her woolly hat. Lagging further behind were two younger children, scarves wound tightly about their necks.

‘I'm going to tell Mother!' threatened little Mabel, as they reached the front steps of number 43.

‘Dare you to’, replied Freddie, poking his sister with a chubby finger, before running ahead to join the others on the front steps.

George hammered fiercely on the door until Sally the rosy-cheeked housemaid appeared from the kitchen, with flour in her hair. ‘What have I told you about all this hammering George? And look at your dress Mabel! Upstairs with all of you and wash yourselves at once!’

George sighed and began the steep climb to the nursery where soap and jugs of warm water were waiting for them as usual. Four white washcloths hung in front of the fireplace. As Rose went over to fetch them, she noticed that there was an envelope on the mantelpiece, propped up against the miniature wooden horse that Freddie had won in a raffle. She reached for the envelope and examined it carefully. The handwriting on the envelope was large and the letters were decorated with elaborate curls and loops. Curiously, it was addressed not to Father or Mother but to “The Children at Number 48 Hanwell St”. ‘That’s us, it must be for us!’ Rose cried, forgetting all about the washcloths and running over to show the others. ‘Look at this, it’s a letter and it’s addressed to us’, she said waving it under George’s nose.

‘For us, but we never get any post except at Christmas’ replied George.

‘Or Birthdays’ Mabel added helpfully, peeping her freckled face between the others. Freddie wiped the soap from his eyes and came over to see what the fuss was about. When Rose opened the letter she could see that it was written in a similar curly style to the writing on the envelope:

My dear children,

Rose began:

I have many happy memories of the magical time you spent at Rose Cottage last summer and I hope the magic the cove shared with us is still in your thoughts. I have also written to your Mother, as I should very much like to see you again. I would be delighted if you could come and spend your Christmas holiday with me at Hardwood House.

Yours affectionately,

Great Aunt Alice

‘Aunt Alice! Cried George joyfully, ‘I wondered if we would ever hear from her again.’

‘Me too’, added Freddie, heading towards the fireplace, where he paused and stared up at the small picture of the Enchanted Cove that hung above it. The painting Aunt Alice had given them a reminder of the adventures they’d shared there last summer.

‘Perhaps she knows the Enchanted Cove has some more magic to share with us.’ Said Mabel, eyes shining with hope. ‘But the letter doesn’t make sense’ replied George, his face screwed into a puzzled expression, ‘Aunt Alice lives at Rose Cottage so why has she invited us to Hardwood House?’

‘There’s only one way to find out!’ said Rose determinedly, “follow me!'

Moments later, four pairs of boots could be heard thundering down the stairs and bursting into the living room; where the children found Mother reading at her chair by the large bay window. Instead of complaining at this disruption, she just laughed and beckoned the children towards her:

‘I can tell from your dramatic entrance the you’ve discovered the letter.’ She smiled, closing her book and laying it on a small table at her side. Everyone nodded in agreement before George began, ‘we don’t understand…where and um what, is Hardwood House?'

Mother leant towards the children, seated cross-legged at her feet and began to explain:

‘Rose Cottage is Great Aunt’s Alice’s summer home. Her real home is Hardwood House, a very ancient house. It has belonged to Alice’s family for centuries, since the time of Queen Elizabeth I.’

George listened intently, visualising knights in armour guarding the doors.

‘Oh how wonderful’, cried Mabel, jumping to her feet, ‘can we go, May we, please. I want to see a real castle like where Sleeping Beauty lived.’

‘It’s a house not a castle,’ snapped George, ‘but can we go Mother? Please?’

To their delight Mother replied that she had already accepted the invitation and that they would arrive at Aunt Alice’s two weeks before Christmas.

As Hardwood House was only a couple of hours away from London, this time the journey would be swift. However the children found it just as exciting to lay out their belongings ready to pack in their small suitcases as it brought back so many memories from their last adventure.

When he opened his case, George felt something hard under the lining. As he eased his hand into a small hole in the fabric something cool and lumpy rubbed against his fingers. He pulled it out carefully and gasped with surprise at what he saw. It was the peachy coloured conch shell King Neptune had presented him with at the Enchanted Cove!

That night in bed, George lay with the cool shell clutched in his hand, wondering if there would be more magic to come and if Aunt Alice knew something about the house. Something that only Rose, Freddie, Mabel and himself were intended to find out?

The next morning the children awoke to an icy chill in their bedrooms, caused by a sharp frost that had crept in over night, forming spiky leaf shaped patterns on the windows. Although tempted to stay under their warm covers, everyone was impatient to see Aunt Alice again, so they dressed rapidly and headed towards the kitchen for a bleary-eyed breakfast of toast and jam. The next hour seemed like an eternity, as Mother and Father hurried about the house making last minute preparations. The children had just begun a half-hearted game of ‘Happy Families’, when a loud clanking and spluttering sound interrupted them. Freddie dropped his cards and rushed over to the window, which was sealed with ice. With a bit of difficulty he pushed up the frozen pane and leaned out to see, causing razor sharp icicle fell to the ground and splinter into tiny pieces.

‘WOW! Oh my goodness­­­­­­­­­­, everyone come and look…it’s a motor car!’ Four excited faces jostled to see out of the window, where immediately below them they could see a large and very shiny blue vehicle, more like a small van than a motorcar. Standing alongside it with his hands clasped behind his back was a tall and important looking gentleman wearing a blue uniform that matched the motorcar. The gold stripes on his cap and jacket shone in the wintery sun.

‘What could he be doing here?’ asked Freddie.

‘It looks like he’s waiting for someone’, Rosie replied, ‘but surely it can’t be for us, can it?’ Just as George was about to call out of the window at the oddly dressed stranger, Mother appeared at the door.

‘Get away from the window George! I’ve got another surprise for you. Aunt Alice has sent her chauffer Edwards to drive you to Hardwood House. She thought you might like to experience a ride in a motorcar. Father and I and Sally will travel by train and meet you there this afternoon.’

So after a quick goodbye, a delighted Rose, George, Freddie and Mabel climbed into the car. The seats were soft, creamy white and smelled of strongly of leather. A tartan rug lay folded up on one seat ready to spread across the small passengers knees to protect them against the cold. ‘I feel like the King’ cried Freddie­­, waving at a passer by. They crawled through London like a giant snail; quite a different route from the train, passing Lord Nelson at Trafalgar Square, huge buildings stained with soot, crowds jostling in the street until and eventually their journey took them out of London towards Harwood House.

After only about two hours, as Mother had said, the motorcar turned off a road through a quiet village into a long and winding gravel drive which disappeared into the distance towards a crumbling gatehouse. The gatehouse was carved with an elaborate HH and guarded by a vicious looking stone eagle with yellow eyes. Beyond it the drive wove between ancient oak trees with branches bent so low that Mabel thought they looked as though they were holding them up, before finally arriving at Hardwood House. Edwards opened the door politely, as though they were a group of important grownups. Then everyone piled out of the car and stood silent for a moment, eyes fixed on the amazing sight in front of them.