The year 364, the eighth month. (The year 1883 Barley by the Old
"Are you sure we're headed in the right direction?" asked Clifford.
Barrett looked up from the newspaper. He had been reading accounts of a rumbling volcano on a faraway island, of a tornado that flattened a city in one of the Midwest nations, and of an overseas house that had been jolted by an earthquake, with the result that its gas pipes had broken and the entire family inside had fried in a ball of flame. All of these disasters were described in lurid detail by the reporters. Barrett set the newspaper aside. He had enough lurid activities at work. Instead, he concentrated his attention on the argument between Clifford and D.
" . . . out in the middle of nowhere," Clifford was saying.
"Well, where else could we be going?" D. sounded cross, the way he always did when he was worried. "This is the Norfolk and Yclau Beach Railway. The train must go to Yclau Beach."
"Perhaps it travelled onto the wrong track." Clifford turned his head to stare out the window at the pine forest they were passing through. "Your father's railroad has only just opened, hasn't it?"
"Cliff, he has been a railroadman for thirty years! He's not going to lose a train."
"Maybe we should ask the others." Clifford's voice was doubtful as he turned his gaze toward their fellow passengers.
Barrett couldn't blame him for his hesitance. Judging from the clothing and the conversations, the cream of Yclau's society was packed into this carriage. Barrett would swear that the man across the aisle from him was a duke.
Barrett swung his wicker armchair around to stare again at the scenery outside. The sun had only just risen an hour before; it was difficult to see where they were headed, with the sun directly in their eyes. They had passed nothing since they left Norfolk except farms, though. This hardly lived up to the description that D.'s mother had offered in her invitation, of an "opulent setting."
Glancing back at his travelling companions, Barrett saw that D. was on the point of blowing up. Barrett decided to intervene; he hated arguments. Squinting against the sun, he made out something at the horizon. "Station?" he suggested.
D. and Clifford turned their chairs to look, with a swiftness which suggested that they too were regretting the argument. Barrett leaned forward in his seat. Certainly something lay ahead, though it was hard to see through the pine forest. The object grew more visible as the train clattered over a short bridge spanning what appeared to be a lake. Then the train was past the trees, and he could see clearly their destination.
The building was too big to be a station; it looked more like one of the sixteenth-century manor-houses that dotted the Yclau countryside, every one of them surrounded by fields with servants hard at work. This building was new, though. As the track turned sharply north to allow the train to draw up in front of the building, Barrett caught sight of something blue, to the east of them. The ocean.
"See now, I told you." Relief was clear in D.'s voice. "We've arrived."
Passengers were already gathering up their belongings, gentlemen picking up the bags for the ladies, since no servants accompanied them on this trip. There were no children either in the single passenger car; Barrett guessed that the planned activities were considered too mature for young ladies and gentlemen.
He wondered whether the activities would be too mature for himself.
As the train came to a halt, D. scanned the area in front of the building in an anxious manner. "I don't see Mother."
"Oh, my goodness!" Clifford cried. "Who are those lovely ladies?"
"Where, where?" D., who had as much appreciation for a fine figure as Clifford did, leaned against Clifford, eager to see out the window.
"There!" said Clifford, pointing.
The trio standing next to the track were certainly eye-catching. The oldest young woman looked about a decade younger than Barrett, perhaps Clifford's age. The young woman beside her looked to be four years younger, about twenty-two. The youngest looked barely into adulthood. The oldest was the tallest, the middle one was of middle height, and the youngest was the shortest. They were all three wearing identical dresses with startlingly fashionable bustles protruding from their backsides. They stared expectantly up at the train, with white handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses to protect themselves against the thick smoke of the engine.
"Oh, them." D. lost interest, turning to take hold of his overnight bag. "They're not ladies. They're my sisters."
The girls were trying to hold down their skirts and hats in the light wind as Barrett and the others climbed down from the train. The morning sun in the cloudless sky was dazzling; their cream-colored frocks contrasted beautifully against the red brick of the building behind them.
Belying his earlier show of indifference, D. quickly dropped his bag and opened his arms wide. With cries of pleasure, all three girls crowded in to kiss him. By the time the four of them released one another, they all looked a bit mussed.
"You've grown a mile!" D. told them appreciatively. "Oh, sweet blood – is that really you, Drusilla?" He stared at the youngest girl.
The oldest girl laughed. The middle girl said, "She was wearing her hair down when you last saw her."
Drusilla promptly whacked the middle girl on the arm. "I've had my debut, if you please. I'm a grown woman." Then, with the eagerness of a child: "Are these your friends?"
Barrett braced himself.
D. turned his attention back to the men beside him. As he did so, Barrett noticed a crease upon D's brow. He was obviously worrying about how to introduce them. Barrett didn't envy him that task.
Opting for formality, D. said, "Mistresses, it is my pleasure to introduce Mr. Clifford Crofford and Mr. Barrett Boyd of Her Majesty's guard in the royal prison of the Eternal Dungeon."
So introductions in the Queendom of Yclau were made in reverse order of rank? Barrett took note of that. He was still relearning etiquette.
"And these," said D. with elaborate politeness, "are my sisters: the Shy One, the Practical One, and the Flighty One."
"D.!" The Shy One, the eldest sister, blushed right down to her breasts.
"You beast!" said Drusilla, who looked ready to throw something.
The middle girl, the Practical One, merely rolled her eyes. "Idiot. As though they aren't going to have a hard enough time remembering our names. This is Dorothea." She pointed to her elder sister. "And I'm Decima."
"I'm Drusilla," added the Flighty One. "Aren't our names awful? Papa had such demonic fun naming us: he gave all of us girls' names that begin with D and end with A, even—"
Decima, moving with admirable quickness, clapped her hand over her younger sister's mouth. Drusilla's eyes widened as she realized what she had been about to reveal. An awkward silence ensued.
"It's all right," said D. in a weary voice. "They already know my name. Where are the parents?"
"Busy, where else?" Decima said, releasing her sister. "Papa is in the office, I think. I don't know where Mama is."
"Supervising the preparation of tonight's dinner." Drusilla tucked her hand under her brother's arm in an obvious attempt at an apology. "We escaped being put to work for tonight's festivities by volunteering to serve as escorts for three high-ranked guests. Aren't we noble?" She grinned.
"If it's to your satisfaction, of course." Decima was eyeing Clifford, quite obviously satisfied with what she saw.
Which left Barrett with a clear social duty. He escaped it by taking Clifford's bag to add to his own.
Dorothea promptly looked away. "Oh, there ought to be servants here to carry your bags. Let me find one for you."
"I'll come too." With obvious reluctance, but apparently too well-bred to impose herself where she might not be wanted, Decima stepped back. "Drusilla, are you coming?"
Drusilla shook her head. "I want to hear all about D.'s nine years in the dungeon. Is it dreadful there?" she asked him cheerfully.
They moved forward, Barrett holding the two bags, Clifford scooping up D.'s bag, and D. absorbed in conversation with his youngest sister. The other male passengers were handing bags to servants as the female passengers admired the beauty of the building. It stood four stories high, capped by a copper roof that complemented the brick. The flag of the queendom flew upon what looked like a turret, though it was clear that this was the back of the building, not the front. A generously wide entrance stood several steps up from the platform. As the train behind them backed away, Barret glanced behind in an automatic manner. He was relieved to see that the train merely took advantage of the Y track to turn itself round before returning to the building entrance. Barrett could not shake off the feeling that he would need a quick exit from this situation.
After a time, Barrett became aware that Clifford was looking with concern at him. Tracing back in his mind what had happened before, Barrett winced. "Sorry," he said in a low voice.
"There's nothing to apologize for, my love." Clifford came close enough that he could give Barrett a discreet squeeze of the arm. "We both knew this wouldn't be easy. Just remember: When all else fails, ask questions. People adore answering questions. You can hold a lengthy conversation with someone just by asking questions whenever they pause their speech."
Barrett nodded, though his stomach was churning. He had prepared himself, all the way down, for the moment in which he would be forced to greet D.'s father. He had not prepared himself for speaking to three chattering girls.
Though the eldest, Dorothea, had been quiet so far, he was bound to concede. Perhaps talking with her would not be so difficult.
". . . thought it was going to be named Yclau Beach Hotel." Pausing at the foot of the steps, D. pointed at the words over the entrance: Princess Anne Hotel. "Why did he change the name?"
Drusilla tossed her head. "He's trying to draw important people to stay at the hotel. He was hoping that, if he named our hotel after the heir, she would visit here."
D. released his sister in order to smack his forehead. "Not again! Will he never learn? I suppose she refused to come."
"Well, yes and no," replied Dorothea. She had reappeared with a servant by her side, who silently relieved Barrett of his burdens. Nearby, another servant was taking the bag from Clifford's hand. The other passengers had already made their way into the hotel.
D. looked immediately wary. "Yes and no?"
Drusilla grinned, skipping a bit, as though she were still a young girl. "The story that Papa is telling everyone is that Princess Anne sent representatives in her place."
"Three representatives," added Decima.
"No!" Giving way to his tempestuous temper, D. bellowed the word to the sky. "No, no, no, bloody no!"
Dorothea, turning away from giving the servants low-voiced instructions, put her hand on her brother's arm. "D., it's all right," she said softly. "He's not going to ask you to give a speech. You can just be yourself."
"You could think of it as his way of showing you off." Decima was obviously as concerned as her sister at avoiding an explosion.
Drusilla said quickly, "He's glad you're coming to visit. I heard him say so."
D. sighed. Clifford offered his own contribution at peacemaking by saying, "At least we're dressed properly."
D., Clifford, and Barrett glanced down at their uniforms. After a great deal of discussion between Clifford and D., the three of them had decided to wear their uniforms on their visit to D.'s family. There would be a Grand Dress Ball that night, they had been given to understand, and none of them owned the sort of civilian evening wear that was appropriate for a ball. Despite the high ranks they received by virtue of being guards in the royal dungeon, they were afforded very little opportunity for high socializing in their work.
Drusilla tugged at D.'s hand. "Come! Let's go introduce your friends to Papa. Then we can do something fun."
Having prepared himself for the worst – some primitive, rustic notion of hostelry – Barrett was pleasantly surprised to discover that the newly opened hotel was actually quite stylish, in a country fashion.
Ladies and gentlemen milled around the main hall, the women waving fans against the late-summer heat, the men tipping servants who were taking their bags through a doorway next to an office counter on the left side of the room. To the right, some of the couples were making their way out the door toward a pavilion to the south of the hotel, which Barrett had glimpsed from the train as they arrived. In the corner of the room came the chatter of a telegraph, while a woman sat placidly beside the telegraph man, sorting mail.
Barrett and the others walked forward into the light streaming from a room directly ahead, which seemed to be some sort of sunroom, for men and women there were sitting in lounging chairs, being served drinks by the servants. At a whisper from D., his three sisters went to sit on a padded circular seat surrounding a wooden strut holding up the ceiling. D. walked past them and slumped against a column supporting the hood over a large fireplace.
Which left Clifford and Barrett alone, abandoned. Barrett looked at Clifford, raising his eyebrows. Clifford looked just as bewildered as Barrett felt, but he turned his head, searching. "That must be our host," he said, pointing to a dapper gentleman with a pointed beard, who was greeting some of the guests.
As they came closer, they saw that the man was dressed, not in an ordinary railroadman's uniform, as Barrett had initially thought, but in a military railroadman's uniform. Emblazoned across the man's shoulder was the insignia of the Royal Yclau Engineers.
As a group of guests turned away, the man caught sight of Barrett and Clifford. He smiled. His appearance was very neat; there seemed scarcely a hair out of place on his grey head. He said, "Welcome, gentlemen. I'm Colonel Cornelius Urman, proprietor of the Princess Anne Hotel."
His voice had a faintly enquiring tone to it. Correctly interpreting that tone, Clifford offered his arm, saying, "How do you do, sir? I'm Clifford Crofford, and my companion is Barrett Boyd."
The colonel was evidently skilled at hiding his confusion, for he merely looked amiable in the moment before his face lit up with recognition. "Of course, of course!" he cried, clasping Clifford's arm and giving him a vigorous armshake. "What a great honor it is to have Her Majesty's guards staying with us. I trust that you enjoyed your journey from Norfolk?"
"The ride was quite pleasant, sir," Clifford replied. "We very much enjoyed the views of the countryside."
Barrett managed to keep a straight face. Colonel Urman said, with the low voice of modesty, "Well, it's a only a narrow-gauge railroad, of course, but we have plans for expansion – great plans. We've recently built a seawall on the beach, as you'll see; it keeps the sand from drifting into the hotel. We plan to cap the wall with a boardwalk, so that our guests may experience the magnificent view that this setting affords of the ocean. Our engineers have constructed a most marvellous flue that conveys seawater to the nearby lake, so as to prevent mosquitoes from arising there. We are in the midst of installing electric lights in the hotel, run by our own generator. As for our grand ballroom . . . But it would be easier to show you. Would you care to receive a small tour?"
Clifford hesitated, looking at Barrett. Barrett guessed that Clifford's thoughts matched his own.
Clifford was courageous enough to voice those thoughts. "That's very kind of you, sir. Perhaps you would like to have your son join us?"
"My son?" For a moment, Barrett would have sworn, the colonel's gaze turned blank. Then his face shone. "Of course, of course! Is he here now? I had assumed that he went ahead to your rooms to supervise the unpacking of your luggage."
They led him to the fireplace. D. was smoking a cigarette. Barrett already knew that, since smoking was forbidden in the Eternal Dungeon, D. never touched tobacco except in moments of great stress. Although he must have sensed the approach of the party – he was a guard, trained to track prisoners' movements – D. did not look up until his father greeted him with a cry of welcome and an out-thrust arm. Then D. tossed the cigarette into the empty fireplace, accepted his father's armshake, and said, "Thank you, sir. It is exceedingly kind of you to take the trouble to welcome me personally to your new home."
Barrett stared. D. Urman had a reputation in the Eternal Dungeon – one might say a notoriety – for speaking rough. It was not merely that the younger guard tended to lapse into the commoners' dialect he had picked up from classmates in school. He was also rough in manner, a startling contrast to Clifford's gentle, genteel manner of conversation.
Now D. sounded as though he had been taking lessons in elocution. His father appeared not to notice the change. The colonel said, "I was just about to give your friends a tour of the hotel. Perhaps you would care to accompany us? I don't know how much your sisters have told you about it, in their letters. . . ."
There was much to see on the tour. A billiard room, a tennis court, bowling alleys, elevators, and a ballroom where an orchestra was rehearsing. By the end of the tour, Barrett had begun to reassess his estimate of the Urman family's rank in society.
". . . and we're planning to provide jousting next year," Colonel Urman concluded as they returned to the main hall, now empty except for the telegraph man and the postmistress. "Of course, many of our ladies prefer quieter entertainments. We consider ourselves blessed indeed to have such a refreshing rural setting, with pine trees shading strollers. We hope to set up stables later, for the sake of guests who wish to go horseback riding. And if either of you gentlemen care to hunt, I may say that we have very fine waterfowl on the lake."
Clifford, whose eyes were shining, burst out, "It's a magnificent hotel, Colonel Urman!"
"Thank you, thank you." For the first time, D.'s father stared down, nudging the pine floor with his boot. "It has been my most precious dream, since the time I was a young boy, to own a hotel by the seaside. Like my father, I went into railroad work, first serving in the portion of the Royal Engineer Corps that built railroads to facilitate troop movement, and then becoming an employee of the Yclau Midland Railway. For many years, it seemed as though my dream was just that: a boy's dream, to be set aside. But when a friend invited me to this beach as a guest of his hunting club, I knew, from the moment I first saw the beach, that this was the place for my hotel. I poured all of my savings into making that dream come true."
Barrett glanced over at D., wondering what he thought of this news that his inheritance had been depleted. D. was staring at the wooden pigeonholes behind the office counter, apparently oblivious to his father's words.
Clifford said tentatively, "It must have taken a great deal of money, sir."
"Far more than I possessed," the colonel acknowledged, paying no more attention to his son than his son was paying to him. "Fortunately, some of the high-ranked men I'd come to know on the Yclau Midland Railway were willing to form a company with me, since they could see the potential of a seaside resort. We bought up the land here, ran a railroad track from here to the city, and built this hotel, which I now run."
"It must be wonderful to see your dream come true, sir." Clifford's voice was soft; he was adept at offering sympathy to men who desired it.
Barrett glanced at D. again. D. Urman was staring at the carvings over the doorways, the rug on the steps leading up to the pavilion, the lounging chairs littered around the hall . . . At everything except his father.
The colonel cleared his throat, his gaze returning to Barrett and Clifford. "But I must not keep you fine gentlemen from settling in. . . . Ah, here is my wife, who will want to greet you."
Softly gliding up to join them, Mistress Cordelia Urman welcomed Barrett and Clifford with quiet warmth and then turned to her son. "My dear, how wonderful it is to see you again after all these years."
For the first time, D. appeared affected. He accepted her outreached hands and held them awkwardly, saying, "Mother." His voice broke on the word.
Mistress Cordelia looked over his shoulder. "Oh, my, one of the servants has need of me. I'm still helping our lady guests settle in, you know. I'll see you at luncheon, I trust?" She had left them before D. had a chance to reply.
The colonel was checking his pocket-watch. "I fear I have other duties as well. Do let me or one of the servants know if you need anything. I want your stay here to be as enjoyable as possible. It was good to see you again, Daniella."
There was a small, awful silence. Then D. said, in a voice as cold as storm winds, "I would greatly appreciate it, sir, if you would not use that name in my presence."
"Eh?" Under any other circumstances, Colonel Urman's look of incomprehension would have been comical. After a moment, he appeared to realize what he had said. "Oh! No . . . no, of course not. Gentlemen?" He saluted Clifford and Barrett, an acknowledgement of their service to the Queen. Clifford automatically saluted back. Barrett did not.
As the colonel hustled away, Clifford took D.'s arm, saying softly, "You never told me, D. – why did he give you a girl's name?"
D. shrugged. He was visibly withdrawing like a snail into its shell; his face had taken on its familiar look of sullenness. "Something about a great-aunt and her will. It doesn't matter. Let's go find the girls and get away from this place, so that we can enjoy ourselves." He stomped away, looking not the least bit joyful.