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,
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.
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.
Hardwood House was a tall red brick building, three stories high, with narrow windows filled with tiny panes of glass like jigsaw pieces and a sloping roof covered in chimneys of all shapes and sizes, decorated with intricate patterns. In the middle of the roof was a small tower, turreted like a castle and with a single small window that shone in the blinding light of the winter sun. Most of the front of the building was hidden by enormous creeping ivy, which spread in an emerald green tangle up to the ugly gargoyles perched on the roof, permanently making rude faces at passers by. A flag of St George waved in the chill wind above a small tower at the far right of the house. Crumbling stone steps led to a giant sized oak door, full of knots and warped with age.
George stared at the flag. ‘St George’, that’s a coincidence,’ he whispered as he stood on the top step, before reaching up and tugging the bell pull. After a short wait, the heavy wooden door creaked open. Inside, dressed in a long green dress, her grey hair twisted into plaits at either side of her head, just as he remembered her was Aunt Alice; smiling warmly, her sky blue eyes twinkling with mischief.
‘Come in my dears, hurry everyone get inside’, she called from the doorway, pulling her shawl around her shoulders, ‘you must be frozen!’
The children followed their aunt into a large entrance hall, illuminated by flickering gas lamps and the elaborate iron chandelier suspended high above them from a chain as thick as a rope. A gong stood on an oak stand in the corner, its polished bronze surface reflecting the flickering light of the flames in the fireplace.
The steep, winding staircase, which swept up to the floor above had shiny wooden banisters carved with wooden fruit that looked so real that Mabel imagined that she could reach out and pick an apple or a bunch of grapes. In fact everything in the hall seemed to be made of wood, from the dark panels on the walls: to the ceiling where strange figures looked down from the beams. The table in the hall was also wood and looked as ancient as everything else in the house, its surface knotty and cracked. A shining suit of armour holding a lance stood on guard at the foot of the stairs.
‘Oh Aunt Alice what a wonderful house, why didn’t you tell us you live in a castle?’ said George, his eyes as round as saucers.
‘Hardly a castle’, laughed Alice. ‘But I imagine it does look impressive to you children. I expect you’d like to see your rooms?’ she added, turning towards the stairs. The children climbed the creaking steps after her until they reached a long, narrow corridor on the third floor. Here they found several doors leading to bedrooms labelled with small signs such as the Emerald Bedroom or the Violet Bedroom. Aunt Alice waved a long, thin hand, across the corridor, her bracelets jangling as she did so and said:
‘I thought you might like to choose your own rooms for your stay.’
‘Oh thank you Aunt! Squeaked Mabel. She bounded towards one of the doors and with her head on one side began to decipher the sign.
‘The G — er — an — i — um Bedroom’, ‘Ger — neeum Bedroom.’
‘It’s GERAINIUM!’ shouted an exasperated George, ‘Gerainium Bedroom’.
Eventually Rose and Mabel chose the Turquoise Bedroom, while the boys went for the Dragon Bedroom. Both rooms were furnished with a huge four-post bed surrounded by heavy red velvet curtains, more than big enough for two to share.
The boys were the first to finish unpacking their cases and were eager to explore. Freddie slid across the polished floorboards in his socks towards one of the narrow windows. Seated high on one of the window ledges he had a bird’s eye view of the garden, where the early winter sunset had already begun to form long shadows. ‘George come and see. It looks like a maze!’ he called.
Meanwhile, George was examining one of the faded tapestries hanging on the far wall of the bedroom. A miniature knight in armour was pictured chasing a dragon across rolling green hills. A slight draft in the bedroom caught the tapestry causing the little knight to sway slightly as if alive. As though if George stared hard enough the knight and his horse would gallop out of their embroidered world.
‘I wonder…George said thoughtfully.
‘What?’ Freddie asked.
‘I wonder why Aunt Alice asked us here again?’ said George.
‘Because it’s nearly Christmas’, Freddie suggested helpfully.
‘Well, yes but, I wouldn’t be so sure’, thought George. ‘I have feeling that with Aunt Alice around, anything is possible.’
His thoughts were interrupted by a loud clanging noise from below, closely followed by Rose appearing the doorway; Mabel tagging along with her, clutching her doll.
‘Come on you two, that noise is the dinner gong, it means Aunt Alice wants us downstairs.’
Sure enough, when they reached the bottom of the stairs, there was Aunt Alice waiting to lead them in to the dining room, where the longest table they had ever seen was set for dinner. Alice sat at one end, George at the other ‘as you’re the man of the household’. Rose and Freddie chose their own seats from the row of heavy oak chairs on either side. Little Mabel heaved herself up onto her seat next to Rose, ‘phew,’ she puffed, her chin just above the table, ‘this is like a table for GIANTS!’
Although the dining room was grand, with beautiful wallpaper printed with a leafy design and the same high windows as in the rest of the house, the meal Aunt Alice had laid out was a simple, but wonderful tea of sandwiches and multi-coloured fairy cakes carefully arranged on a silver stand.
During their tea, the children attempted to tell Alice everything that had happened to them since their adventures at the Enchanted Cove. In their excitement, everyone tried to speak at once, resulting in such a jumble of, ‘I went’, ’we were’, ‘he was’, ‘she had’, ‘I got…’ that by the end of the meal the children were quite exhausted and happy to agree with Aunt Alice’s suggestion that ‘we should all go to bed and save some news for tomorrow!’