Property of a Lady
Author:Sarah Rayne

Property of a Lady by Sarah Rayne

 

 

 

 

ONE

 

 

 

 

Maryland. October 20—

 

Michael,

 

Is there any possible chance you could sneak a day or two away from Oxford and take a look at a house for me? We just had this amazing letter straight out of the blue, from some English lawyers I never heard of, saying Liz has inherited a house from a great-aunt or tenth cousin or something who she never knew existed!

 

It’s like the start of a Victorian English novel, isn’t it – the long-lost heiress from overseas coming back to the ancestral home. Bleak House or one of those huge tomes you teach to your adoring female students who hang on to your every word, only you never notice it. Except I don’t think we’ll be coming to the ancestral home until at least the end of the year, and I shouldn’t think there’s likely to be much of the ‘ancestral home’ about it. It’ll most likely be an ordinary house in a village, and from the sound of it pretty derelict as well, because the lawyer says it’s been empty for years. Apparently they didn’t know they held the deeds to the place until some ninety-year-old partner in the firm died four years ago and they went through his files! They’ve been trying to find a descendant of the original owners ever since.

 

Anyway, the house is in a place called Marston Lacy (???!!!) in Shropshire. I looked it up on one of the Internet maps, and it’s the tiniest speck of a place you ever saw, just about where England crosses over into Wales. Why do they say Salop on some maps, by the way?

 

I want to sell the place without even seeing it – the lawyer over there could do it – but Liz is wild to keep it if we can. She has this crazy idea of discovering her English ancestors, (since she never knew she had any English ancestors until this week, that strikes me as pretty off the wall, but there you go, that’s Liz). She says why don’t we restore it and use it for vacations or even rent it. Either way it will be an investment for when Ellie’s grown up and at college or getting married or taking a trip round the world, or whatever kids will be doing in about fifteen years’ time. I guess Liz has a point; real estate values bounce up and down according to the season, but when you come down to it, land is still the best investment. Land doesn’t get up and walk away.

 

So we’ve agreed on a compromise. And since I value your common sense and intelligence highly (ha!), you get to be the compromise. Could you possibly go over to this Marston Lacy any time soon, and look at this house for us? The address is Charect House, which sounds pretty grand, although I’ve no more idea of what a charect is than fly to the moon.

 

Typing this email, I’m imagining you in that dim English study with all the books and the untidiness, and Wilberforce snoozing in a patch of sunlight from the quad.

 

Anyhow, what we’d really like is a few photos so we know what the place looks like, and some idea of how many rooms there are. Also whether it really is Bleak House or somewhere for ordinary people.

 

Till soon,

 

Jack.

 

It was typical of Jack to send an email of this kind, and it was typical of him to think it would be easy for Michael to travel to the unknown Shropshire house. Americans always had the impression that England was tiny enough to make darting from one end of the country to the other a matter of a couple of hours.

 

Michael folded the letter into his wallet so it would not get lost, because important letters had an extraordinary habit of going astray if he left them on his desk. Shropshire might be manageable at the weekend. He could probably stay overnight, although he would have to be back on Sunday night. This term was quite a lively one; a gratifying number of students were taking his course on the metaphysical poets – it was true that more than half of them were females, but that was pure chance.

 

He got up to look up the exact meaning of charect, switching on the desk lamp to see better, because his study was in a small rather obscure corner of Oriel College, as befitted a junior don. The windows overlooked a tiny quadrangle which most people forgot was there, but which in summer was harlequined with green and gold from the reflections of trees in upper-storey windows. Just now it had the faint cotton-wool mistiness of autumn, with scatterings of bronze leaves on the stones. Michael liked his study, and he liked the view, although at the moment it was slightly obscured by Wilberforce, who had gone to sleep on the window sill.

 

Here it was: charect. An obsolete word for a charm: a spell set down in writing – literally in characters – to ward off evil.

 

He thought he would tell Jack and Liz this, and then he thought perhaps he would not. It begged the question as to why the house had been given such a name. What evil had to be warded off?

 

Maryland, October 20—

 

Michael,

 

That’s great news that you think you can get to Marston Lacy this weekend. I’ve emailed the lawyers, authorizing them to hand the keys to you. They suggest you book into the Black Boar for Saturday night, and they’ll get the keys to you.

 

We haven’t mentioned this to any of the family here – Liz’s cousins would go wild with curiosity and excitement, and some of them would demand why it’s Liz who’s inheriting the place and not them. We’d never have any peace. And her godmother would want to pay for all the work, which we wouldn’t allow, and even then she’d end up taking over the entire project. You met Liz’s godmother at our wedding, didn’t you? If you remember her (and everyone who meets her always does), you’ll know what I mean.