1928 We picked the governess up at the Orchis Bay train station in the late afternoon.
Earlier that day, I had visited the belvedere. Alone in the stillness, depression encompassed me, its black gloom enfolding me in a shroud of anxiety and loneliness. I moaned aloud, surrendering to grief which exploded into a keening of despair. I longed for tears to wash away the pain and for sobs to free the tightness in my chest, but neither would come.
Gabrielle found me there and took me downstairs to Suzanne, who fussed over me and suggested that I accompany Luc and Uncle Liam to the city that afternoon.
“Luc is dropping off your uncle at the train and picking Mrs. Borden up at the same time.”
“Okay,” I replied without enthusiasm. But later, in the back seat of the shiny, well-tended Studebaker, I was soothed by the serenity of the rolling countryside. Fields sped by, colour-coordinated rectangles of straw beige, dark brown, and faded greens. Clouds laid slate bands of shadow across the road, creating a set in which strips of shadow-box scenery alternated with patches given a third dimension by the sun. In the sunlit places, the trees were brushed with bronze, their leafless branches feathery against the pale sky.
Aunt Riona would write a poem about this, I smiled, before remembering that my aunt would never write poetry again. I heard Riona’s name mentioned and began to listen to the conversation taking place in the front seat.
“I almost feel guilty going to a convention so soon after the funerals,” Uncle Liam was saying.
“It’s a business trip,” Luc pointed out.
“Yes,” Liam reassured himself, “and my practice is all I have left now.”
“You’ve got Jonathan, Uncle Liam,” I said.
“Yes, honey, and I’ve got you,” he agreed sombrely.
Uncle Liam, Luc, and I waited on the station platform for the train from Toronto. My uncle barely had time to welcome the governess before boarding the same train for its return trip to the city. Luc and I waved Uncle Liam off before escorting the governess to the car. On the return trip, I sat in the front seat beside Luc. Alexis Borden sat in the back.
“I didn’t know Jonathan had a sister,” she said.
“Oh, then you must be Mr. Laprairie’s daughter.”
“I’m Jonathan’s cousin,” I acknowledged aloofly.
“Maybe you should introduce yourself to Mrs. Borden,” suggested Luc.
I shot him a look of annoyance. Then added after what I considered a suitable delay, “My name is Claire Lynch.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Claire. And I’d like you to call me Alexis.”
The caretaker and the governess exchanged conventional comments on the weather in Toronto and the Bruce Peninsula, allowing me to retreat into my own thoughts. I stared ahead at the road winding darkly through the greying evening. Halfway home, a wind came up and snow began to fall. I welcomed the hypnotic effect of the white flakes being driven against the windshield through the converging headlight beams. Lazily I wondered if the governess would be impressed with Stone Gate.
Later, as we slowed down at the wrought iron fence and turned in at the stone portals, I wanted to turn around and see the expression on her face. I had always loved being part of Stone Gate, especially while Eamon and Riona were alive. The main house was a large stone rectangular building with a tiled roof. In the centre of the roof stood an Italianate arcaded belvedere, now blurry through the falling snow.
At ground level, a welcoming light lit the arched entranceway. Luc let Alexis off there before parking the car in the garage and collecting her luggage from the trunk.
The governess clutched her red plaid scarf against the whipping wind and plodded towards the lighted door.
The doorbell was answered by Suzanne, a plump, smiling woman with greying hair. At her side, a large black schnauzer growled in menacing contrast.
“Quiet, Juno. Go lie down,” ordered Suzanne, and then turned her smile on the governess.
“You must be Mrs. Borden.”
“Yes, I am. You’re Mme Laprairie?”
“Oh, I am so glad to see you. Come inside now. And call me Suzanne.”
I took advantage of this moment to slip around to the side door so that I would not have to involve myself with the confusion of arrival. I went upstairs the back way, using what we then called the servants’ stairs. These led to the north wing where Suzanne, Luc, and Gabrielle lived. I knocked on Gabrielle’s door and entered when she answered.
“The governess is downstairs with Suzanne,” I announced.
“What’s she like?”
“Okay, I guess. She’s got short brown hair and she’s not as tall as you. Come on down and see for yourself.”
Gabrielle followed me down the stairs. We found Alexis in the front sitting room where Suzanne had left her while she prepared tea. The governess was looking around admiringly at the decor of the room. She wriggled her toes into the luxurious depth of the Persian carpet. Riona, with her exquisite taste, had chosen the carpet and complemented its rich tones with the pale green, pink, and cream colours on the walls, chairs, and loveseat. Seeing someone admiring the house always stirred pride in me, even though I knew it was not really mine. I sometimes wondered if Gabrielle felt the same way. She was not even family like me, but this had always been her home.
“Hello, I’m Gabrielle.”
“I’m Alexis,” smiled the governess, rising to take Gabrielle’s hand.
When Suzanne entered with tea, I helped myself to a muffin, and announced that I was going home. “Mother will be waiting for me,” I said. “And tomorrow is a school day.”
Crossing the yard, I looked up at Jonathan’s room and could see his pale form sitting at the window. I waved at him and blew him a kiss. I saw his hand return my greeting. My cousin seldom went to sleep before midnight, and spent hours watching the waters of the bay or its winter ice. Tonight he would be fascinated by the first snowfall of the season. The wind gave me a sudden push and seemed to breathe my name against my face. I shivered and hurried to the cottage.
1929 Alexis could not believe it. She was in the belvedere at last. One evening in early March, we had climbed the stairs together and found ourselves in a different world. Riona’s domain.
“Here we are. The governess and her official chaperone.” She smiled, but I detected resentment, or, at the very least, annoyance in her tone. Liam had granted her conditional access to Riona’s notes. The condition was me.
“I don’t want you to be a pushy Miss-Know-It-All, Claire,” my uncle had explained. “But Riona’s unpublished writings are very precious to me. Someday I’ll have them catalogued and possibly published in some form or other, but until then, I would prefer they not be touched at all. I’ve explained all this to Alexis. I told her that she is allowed there only in the company of a family member. Since Seanna and I are both busy, you are the most available.”
I was ecstatic that Liam had chosen me for this singular honour. Although my availability was the only asset he mentioned, apparently I was also considered trustworthy and responsible. And I was family. Pride in my membership at Stone Gate had never burned more keenly.
Alexis and I looked around in respectful awe. Everything was as Riona had left it. Her large oak desk was in the northeast corner of the small room, facing the bay. On it was a typewriter, desk lamp, clock, notebook, pencils, an empty tea cup, and several pages of research notes in Gabrielle’s round handwriting. A vase of dried flowers sat on the windowsill. Behind the desk was an oak swivel chair accented with rich brown leather fixed to its back and arms with bumpy brass studs.
In the southeast corner stood Jonathan’s smaller wooden desk with attached seat. It had an armrest joining the desk top to the chair back, and a pullout drawer beneath its seat.
Between the desks, a two-drawer filing cabinet came level to the base of the window ledge.
The stairs emerged at the southwest corner of the belvedere, and a solid oak railing guarded the exposed eastern edge of the opening. Against the railing sat a gaily painted toy box with a hinged lid.
Standing there, we could both feel why Riona loved this place. Windows on all sides provided a panoramic view of the bay, the beaches, the rocks, the wooded hills. Here was a private retreat where a writer could enjoy both peace and serene beauty.
We began to explore the contents of the furniture tentatively, almost fearfully. It seemed almost sacrilegious to touch her things. Jonathan’s desk drawer was empty, but in the toy box there were cars, trucks, tops, and stuffed animals and dolls.
“The filing cabinet is locked. Hopefully, the key is in the desk.” Alexis began to open the drawers in Riona’s desk. I watched jealously.
I won’t let her desecrate anything of yours, Riona, I vowed mentally.
I felt this thought in my head rather than heard a voice, so I was able to dismiss it as my imagination.
The top desk drawers contained assorted odds and ends. Pens, pencils, erasers, scissors, elastic bands, paper, a stapler, staples, a paper punch. Two labelled keys. One for the desk, and one for the filing cabinet. The bottom desk drawers had been equipped with special locks, which Alexis unlocked with the “desk” key from the top drawer. In the bottom left drawer were typed manuscript pages filed by chapter, and other files containing clippings and notes. In the right bottom drawer were paper and crayons.
“Do you feel like someone is watching us?” asked Alexis suddenly.
“No. Why?” I said cautiously.
“This place is spooking me. Well, let’s see what’s in the filing cabinet and that’ll be enough for tonight.”
The upper filing cabinet drawer contained files with labels such as “Scenery,” “Travel,” “Aging,” “Mythology,” “Canadian Pioneer Women,” “Plants.”
“Seems to be research material.”
“Probably. That was Gabrielle’s main job.”
The lower drawer was devoted entirely to teaching methods and Jonathan. Alexis reached eagerly for a file labelled “Reading.”
“Are you sure you should touch that?” I asked defensively.
“How else can I acquire the information I need?”
Let her have it, Claire.
This time I was certain that someone was communicating with me. “Riona?” I asked silently. My senses picked up an answering confirmation.
“You’re right, Alexis. I’m sorry. Uncle Liam said you can read anything you want pertaining to Jonathan.”
“Claire, this place is giving me the creeps.” She shivered. “Do you suppose Liam would mind if we carried the filing cabinet down to my room?”
“Well, I don’t know,” I protested.
That would be a good idea.
“Let’s get Luc to help us carry it,” I said suddenly.
“I think you’re spooked too,” said Alexis, looking at me suspiciously.
Genre: literary, mystery, family saga