Curtain Raiser: Announcing Forthcoming Release on Amazon: 01 MAY, 2014

CHAPTER 1

Families operate by values; not by logic or reasoning.

Lady Solace Busybody

 

On this significant morning, Lady Charlene Francesca Cunningham was running away.

“Again Charlie?” Asked Jack, her elder brother with a resigned air. “But you ran away just a fortnight ago.”

Lady Charlene sniffed. Prosaic, pragmatic twelve year old Jack was no fun for an elder brother. One he lacked imagination, a faculty Charlie had been over endowed with and two, their wicked step mother had not sent him to bed the night before a whole hour early with just one helping of roly poly pudding for dessert.

“She is our grandmother, not our wicked stepmother.” Protested Jack.

Then added. “You always go to bed an hour earlier.”

And. “We always get one serving.”

Finally. “I let you eat mine.”

Charlie rested her case.

Jack lacked pathos in his soul.

 

Another person who Charlie had written off was her second cousin viscount Cunningham. Lord Matthew Vincent Cunningham might have been ten years old yet he had been impressed early with knowledge of his lofty station in life. He tried to emulate his daunting father Vane, duke of Rawlings, just as he vainly tried to steer Charlie by his moral compass. But as is widely acknowledged, it is easier for the righteous to be corrupted than for the corrupted to straighten their outlook on life. Since his last painful interview with his father in Vane’s study, Matt had washed his hands off Charlie.

 

Therefore Matt did not bat an eyelid at the girl perched at an impressive height on a majestic white oak tree. Wavy chestnut hair cascaded down slim shoulders. Barefoot legs encased in black breeches dangled on either side of the sturdy branch she straddled. As far as Matt was concerned the farther away she was from him, the happier he was. But others of the company gasped with round eyed wonder.

 

Lord Trace and Lady Charlotte were peculiar parents. They did not object to their daughter running away so long as she kept someone in the family informed where she was running to and did not leave the fenced perimeter of their estate.

 

“Who is she?” Luke, as nine year old viscount Hastings had requested to be addressed, inquired.

“His sister,” Matt immediately pointed culpability to Jack.

“Annoying brat,” muttered the irked brother.

“What is she doing on that tree,” asked Brandon, Luke’s seven year old brother awestruck.

“She has run away from home,” muttered Jack coloring. “Now until papa comes she will sit there making an exhibition of herself, silly goose.”

“Wish I could climb that high,” Devon, six years old and youngest of the Hastings brothers sighed.

 

“I wager I could get her down within the hour,” Luke said suddenly.

“A pound says you cannot,” Matt, his business instincts kicking in, retorted.

People knowledge and product knowledge, his father taught, were key ingredients to any successful business enterprise. He knew Charlie’s stubborn nature.

Luke looked at Jack who wagered his savings too. The Hastings siblings however, had learnt from bitter experience and refused to pitch in their money.

 

“Ahoy there milady,” Luke shouted to Charlie. In her hand was an apple she industriously munched upon while eying the activities on ground zero with avid interest.

“Ahoy yourself,” Charlie answered gaily.

“Are you frightened of snakes?” Luke asked matter of fact.

“What?” Charlie was not sure if she had heard him correctly.

“Snakes. Slimy, long slithering green reptiles with forked tongues…”

“Why do you ask?” Charlie asked fully alert. She had not misunderstood. He had said snake. She glanced around at the branches and the trembling leaves unnerved her.

“Just to enquire if you need help or can you kill a snake on your own?”

 

Charlie almost fell off the tree in her haste.

Jack and Matt watched Luke their jaws dropping open. Luke extended his hand to help Charlie down and bowed to her courteously when she finally stood on terra firma again.

“I hate snakes,” Charlie huffed from her exertions, a little surprised by Luke’s courtly gesture.

“I thought so,” he nodded gravely while his brothers snickered.

“Nasty, repellent things,” Charlie was feeling rather emotional after her near encounter with death and she was always loquacious when she felt emotional. She looked suspiciously at the giggling Hastings brothers. “Why are they laughing?”

 

Luke looked at his brothers. “Perhaps, they found your rapid descent from the tree amusing. There is no accounting for personal tastes when it comes to a sense of humor, milady.”

Charlie glowered furiously at the Hastings brothers. Jack and the Cunningham brothers could only stare goggle eyed at the nine year old who talked like he was ninety.

“Do you think a snake bite humorous?” She demanded hands on her hips. “Don’t you know people can die of a snake bite?”

This only made the boys laugh harder.

 

“Ah I see why the misunderstanding, milady. My brothers are not insensitive. Death of a creature as fair as you would be a tragedy indeed, but there is no snake.”

“Wha-wa-what?” Charlie had never imagined meeting a person more verbose than herself.

“There is no snake.” Luke repeated gravely.

“Then why did you tell me there was a snake on this tree?” She demanded aggravated.

He shook his head. “I told you no such thing. That would be a lie; a fabrication and I assure you most improper conduct. Ah!” He smiled.

“I asked a general question to satisfy my curiosity. Did you interpret it to mean there was an actual snake? I was merely gauging your probable reaction in a hypothetical situation.”

 

“Take the money,” Matt thrust his hand in his pocket. “For just this dumbfounded expression on her face you have earned it.”

Jack, her traitorous brother concurred with his cousin.

Drat it! They were all her cousins. Even that son of Demosthenes who walked away with the money stuffed in his pocket, whistling merrily.

 

Charlie was no novice when it came to extracting her revenge.

In her book of justice one law reigned. Tit for tat. Luke had made her look bad; she owed him an embarrassment of colossal proportions.

Lady Francesca, her grandmother gave Charlie a suspicious look when the latter retired for bed that night without a murmur of protest. Usually Charlie gave her histrionic best at bed time. Then Lady Francesca shrugged to herself as she rationalized that with such high spirited company to play; maybe said granddaughter was indeed tired.

 

Charlie garnered an interesting fact of life that night. In bed when one wished to truly stay awake; one slept. She awakened in the night. It took her long moments to recall what the string tied around her finger was to remind her of.

She grinned to herself when she remembered. Stealing into Luke’s bedroom- it was a small room but the rat had it all to himself- she tiptoed to his bed. She had to lift the bedcovers to locate the water bottle but she finally found it. A quick jab of the iron nail in the rubber bottle and her work was done.

 

Luke grimly studied each face in the nursery for the miscreant.

Not only had his sleep been disturbed. The maid clearly disbelieved his theory of the water bottle leaking till he filled it with water from his washstand and proved the leak.

That too had not completely restored his lost self-respect.

“He is a smart ‘un. I will grant you that,” Luke overheard the maid whisper to the boy who polished their boots.

 

Charlie’s ear to ear grin screamed her guilt, and the malicious look in her eyes.

The culprit.

“Do you know,” she opened her big gray eyes wide, “last night…”

“You are the one who poked my water bottle and wet the bed,” accused Luke angrily.

Even three year old Lady Valerie Arbela Cunningham seemed to be watching him with avid interest.

“Oh my,” Charlie gasped. “Do you still wet your bed?”

 

“Charlie,” Luke caught up with her in the garden where she was playing catch with her younger cousins.

She watched him narrow eyed. “Lady Charlene to you.”

“Charlie I have been thinking,” Luke fell in step beside her. “We are here for just two more days. It is not right for us to fight. I confess I started this and I am the one who says let bygones be bygones.”

Charlie studied his face. He looked earnest.

“I don’t trust you,” Charlie thought to declare it outright.

“Look why don’t you sit down here,” he propelled her down on the grass by his hands on her shoulders, “and tell me what you think?”

 

She sat. On fire ants. Within minutes they were everywhere in her clothes.

Her nurse had to give Charlie a bath which was preceded and succeeded by the inevitable scolding.

… Impetuous child. Does not look to see where she is going. Where she is sitting. What she is doing. All words fall on deaf ears…

“Charlie,” the inevitable question. “Are you listening?”

It was war.

 

The next morning it cost Charlie a precious shilling to bribe the kitchen maid and procure the laxative cook kept locked in the medicinal cupboard. But the satisfaction it provided in seeing Luke in a tearing hurry to get to the privy was well worth the effort.

Unfortunately when the mothers began an investigation in earnest the lily livered maid ratted on Charlie. She was summoned to Luke’s bedroom by an irate Charlotte.

“Look at him Charlie,” her mother was furious. “Do you know how worried we all are?”

Charlie who had not seen Luke all day acknowledged he looked wan and sickly.

“I can understand frogs in the cistern or rubber snakes in bed sheets but this has exceeded all limits of my tolerance…”

“She is not solely to blame,” Luke’s weak voice protested, “I started it.”

“What did I tell you Charlotte,” asked Mercedes, duchess of Hastings, triumphant. “I know my son.”

 

Charlie looked at Luke. He was standing by the window in the nursery arms crossed on his chest looking gloomily at the boys playing cricket in the garden. Occasional shouts of laughter would drift up through the nursery window. It was a capital day to spend outdoors except for the two being punished. The mothers had decreed till they did not settle their personal differences they would not be sent outdoors to play.

 

She arose from the chair she had been sitting on industriously carving her initials with a pocketknife on a wood desk.

“I say,” she began.

He resolutely kept his back to her pretending he had not heard.

“Thanks for being a brick,” she tried again.

He turned to look at her skeptical.

“I mean you did not have to say you started it…”

“I did not start it,” he frowned interrupting.

“So the wager was just my imagination?” She asked angrily.

“I did not hurt you. I did not even win a penny from you. You were just incidental to the wager. Instead of you it could have been a cat or a dog…”

She socked him on the jaw. Her knuckles hurt but it was all in a good cause.

He grabbed her by the shoulder. Since he was taller than her, he could and he shook her. “Be thankful I do not hit girls or…”
Jack was not without his uses. She had adequate sparring practice with him. Matt too had long lost his inhibitions about hitting girls. Luke was the last but once provoked he could give back as good as he got. They were rolling on the floor tearing each other’s hair out when they heard footsteps.

 

By the time nurse opened the nursery door they were both sitting on chairs pretending to be occupied in staring at space.

“Obstinate children,” nurse scolded. “Why won’t you both apologize to each other and go out to play?”

“He is a boy and elder to me, he should apologize first.”

“Ladies first, haven’t you heard, then gentlemen?”

Gentleman, bah!”

Lady, hah!”

“This is my house, he should apologize.”

“I am the guest, host should apologize.”

“You started it first.”

“You did.”

“Says who?”

“Say I.”

“Who are you?”

“I am viscount Hastings, the future duke. As I am your senior in rank you should apologize first.”

Charlie opened her mouth and closed it. She had no idea of rank or title. But this she had sensed. Matt and Luke were treated different from all of them.

As if they were special- privileged.

It galled Charlie that she did not have a comeback for Luke.

The nurse too did not have a clue how to negotiate a truce. She sighed exasperated and left the room shutting the door behind her.

 

Lady Francesca Hamilton, standing in the corridor overheard the exchange. She decided it was time to speak to her daughter Charlotte for the children’s sake. Francesca would not accept her grandchildren growing up thinking they were inferior to someone else because of a rank or a title.

 

Charlie watched the nurse leave with a sinking heart. She did not want to resume the fight. Luke had tugged her hair rather painfully. But she did not want to chicken out either.

She squared her shoulders and turned to see him grimace as he gingerly touched his head.

Their eyes met. They both smiled then burst out laughing.

 

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