Is this the first you’re seeing of my ongoing free fiction My Weekend with Aunt Helena? Then go back to the beginning and read forward! Have you been keeping up but just want a quick refresher on last week? Go back to Chapter 1 Part 2.
Perhaps an hour after we left Taunton—give or take generously on the time, because I’d downed three and a half glasses of champagne and had started feeling a bit sloshy halfway through the third—the driver turned off the main road. Hilariously, what marked the difference between the public road and the private was the sudden lack of jouncing as the wheels turned over level, evenly spread gravel after chewing up dirt and rocks and sinkholes from the June rains for most of the drive.
I saw why the road was maintained so well after a minute: the lane led to a house whose builders would have owned a carriage and four and whose current owner had clearly retained the position of driveway-grader despite the change in type of carriage rolling over the man’s handiwork. My stomach approved the change in motion long before my eyes caught the cause.
I gasped when the house came into view through the windshield. We rolled down a straight lane lined with fresh grass and bounded by tall hedges of verdant green. At the end of the corridor, three stories of red brick and arched windows proudly fronted a tree-covered hillside blanketed in a mosaic of different greens. To either side of the house the velvet chartreuse of cropped grass spread out up gentle inclines, making the house look sheltered without being claustrophobically surrounded by woods.
The building appeared a large rectangle from the front and so quintessentially English manor house that I might have laughed if it wasn’t so beautiful. The roofline ran perpendicular to the drive, the roof pitch shallow, the points and corners sharp and unsoftened by age. Midday sunlight washed out the wide face of the mansion, and the upper windows glittered silver.
“Whose house is this?” I asked my aunt as I leaned forward, as though the extra eighteen inches would actually help me see our destination more clearly.
“This is Anthony’s summer home. He bought it off a bankrupted baronet ten years ago.”
Anthony Markham was my aunt’s ex-husband. He had been caught in an affair with his secretary a year ago and divorced Aunt Helena in the aftermath. It had been the scandal of the year—that is, my aunt’s refusal to look the other way had been. Markham had paid for the transgression with a large chunk of his fortune, and Aunt Helena had paid for her pride with the dubious stigma of being a divorcee. Some social sticklers might avoid her now, but for the most part her social circle had applauded her backbone, or so she had intimated at Christmas, a bare month after the divorce had finalized. Certainly if she could muster twenty guests for a house party now she was not a pariah.
Aunt Helena leaned forward, too, and our hats brushed together as she brought her face next to mine to see what I was seeing. “Just wait until you get inside!” she continued. “He had it thoroughly renovated and modernized for me three years ago—he even added a pool off the back. I believe the expense of the work exceeded the price of the property itself.”
Her words underscored my aunt’s situation in life. Anthony Markham had inherited a fortune from an ironworks cum railroad company founded by his grandfather, and Anthony had expanded it with military contracts during the Great War. For him, the purchase and renovation of an old country manse was a whim to please his gay younger wife. Reading between the lines, I guessed the renovation had been the price of his first affair. The cost of his second had been half his fortune, although evidently not this house.
Then again, since my aunt still had the use of it, perhaps forcing him to retain the property and its upkeep had been mere business savvy on her part…and her ability to finagle the use of it from the man she had left was nothing less than a social triumph.
Everyone derided Aunt Helena for marrying for money, but no one could say that she had not succeeded spectacularly in her efforts to do so. She had received a significant portion of three men’s estates, now, each more wealthy than the last, and while she spent extravagantly, she did not spend foolishly.
From comments she had let drop from time to time, I knew she maintained a close watch on her investments and incomes, and she never spent any of her principle. She did not have to, not even now, which said more than anything just how secure she was financially. The only way for her to be upwardly mobile at this point was to start marrying titles, and Aunt Helena had laughed at the very idea on the one occasion I’d heard the idea come up in conversation. As she told me later that night, when we were alone again, “If you’re trying to marry for money, my dear, the last person you want to marry is an aristocrat. They only know how to spend fortunes, not make them. Unless you find one whose father married a fortune back into the family. Catch him young, and he’ll spend the fortune on you, and that would be acceptable.” But that had been five years ago, the first time I came to see her in England, and perhaps her perspective had changed. One thing Aunt Helena was not was static.
We reached the end of the driveway after two minutes of rumbling steadily closer to the lovely old building. The bricks grew redder as we drew near, from a faded pastel sunset to a saturated ochre.
The driver smoothly navigated the curve before the house and pulled the sedan to a stop at the main entrance. He came around the car and opened Aunt Helena’s door, handing her out like an old-fashioned footman before doing the same for me. I accepted his assistance gratefully; after that much champagne and the long, bumpy drive, wobbly was putting the state of my knees kindly.
Aunt Helena took my arm and led me into the house. The foyer was all white marble and gilt metal and sunlight framed by draped silk. The wide stone stairway split at the first landing to curve up to different wings, while this front room stood open all the way to the roof, where skylights had been installed three stories above.
“You’re on the second floor—third, in American.” She added the reminder with a smile, though I had no forgotten the difference in counting methods.
“Did you have that key engraved especially for me?”
My aunt laughed. “Third room, east side of the hallway. But that was a good guess.”
Despite our discussion of my room, Aunt Helena did not take me right to it but instead led me deeper into the house. We passed fantastically colored modern art and rooms decorated in maroon, lilac, and gold (and those were just the open doorways) until we reached what had to have once been the ballroom and was now a massive dining room with plenty of floor space for dancing. She walked me over its black and white checkerboard floor, which fascinated my champagne-tunnel vision so much I scarcely noticed the rest of the space, and out the back patio doors.
I stopped when we came outside and simply stared for a moment.
We stood on a terrace higher than the ground below the white stone railing, in which was sunk the most beautiful pool I had ever seen. To be fair, I must admit I had not seen more than a handful of pools in my life, since they were such a recent phenomenon and a rarity in the Northeast, where most people simply used the Atlantic for bathing. But I didn’t need to see more pools to know this one was spectacular. It was shaped almost like a heart, or an excessively curved V, with curls of stone intruding into the edges of the pool to create miniature bays in the water. The outside was lined with salmon tiling a foot wide, but the bottom—oh, the bottom of that pool! It was a masterpiece of geometric abstraction, with hints of a dragon and a phoenix and a fish entwined with a sun and swirls of red and yellow and blue. I wanted to swim to the bottom just to touch it, just to see it up close.
Aunt Helena gave me my time to gawk before moving down the small curved staircase that led to the pool and over the corner of the orange-pink tile. She stopped at the first small table of several on the patio and sat, indicating the other chair for me.
“Lunch will be out momentarily, my dear. For now, sit back and enjoy my view.”
The view was almost as magnificent as the pool, with a wooded hill rising in the foreground directly behind the pool if one stood looking out from the house, and grassy slopes rising to either side. Higher hills undulated in the distance, blurred with trees. I sat facing one of those hillocks of grass, and I smiled at the thought of running barefoot up and down it like a child. The adult I had become knew the ground would be dirty, possibly littered unpleasant bovine or equine ordure, and definitely booby-trapped with sharp rocks and sticks and brambles hidden in the taller blades. But from twenty yards off it looked perfectly soft and plush.
I noticed my half-empty glass was still in my hand, though my aunt had left hers behind, I supposed in the car, since I had not seen her set it down anywhere.
“To your view,” I offered and raised it a little.
Aunt Helena grinned. “Drink up, my dear. You haven’t quite forgotten yourself yet.”
Move on to Chapter 2 Part 1