Icap 2 the hidden gall.., p.1

ICAP 2 - The Hidden Gallery, page 1

 

ICAP 2 - The Hidden Gallery
 


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ICAP 2 - The Hidden Gallery


  The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place

  Book 2: The Hidden Gallery

  By Maryrose Wood

  Illustrated by Jon Klassen

  For my two incorrigible siblings, Thomas and James.

  We were not raised in a forest, but we did

  live among the Woods.

  —M.W.

  Contents

  The First Chapter

  The Second Chapter

  The Third Chapter

  The Fourth Chapter

  The Fifth Chapter

  The Sixth Chapter

  The Seventh Chapter

  The Eighth Chapter

  The Ninth Chapter

  The Tenth Chapter

  The Eleventh Chapter

  The Twelfth Chapter

  The Thirteenth Chapter

  The Fourteenth Chapter

  The Fifteenth Chapter

  The Sixteenth Chapter

  The Seventeenth and Final Chapter

  Epilogue

  About the Author

  Praise

  Other Books by Maryrose Wood

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  After an hour’s aimless wandering she knew that she and the Incorrigibles were lost…

  THE FIRST CHAPTER

  A fit of pique encounters

  a bit of pluck.

  “BUT THE WORKMEN SWORE THE repairs to the house would be finished by now!” The blushing pink circles that typically adorned the cheeks of Lady Constance Ashton were now as scarlet as two ripe nectarines. “I fail to see how three mere children, no matter how Incorrigible, could do so much damage. Just thinking about it makes me feel perilously close to having a tantrum!”

  “It appears that Lady Constance is in high dudgeon,” Miss Penelope Lumley thought to herself, as she stood just outside the doorway of the lady’s private parlor. “Perhaps I ought to come back another time.”

  As you may know, “dudgeon” is a word that describes feeling cross, and to be in high dudgeon means feeling very cross indeed. (Do not be one of those careless speakers who says “dudgeon” when they mean “dungeon.” Being locked in a dungeon might well cause a person to be in high dudgeon, but that is the only real connection between the two.)

  “Dudgeon” is the sort of old-fashioned term one rarely hears nowadays, but the condition it describes remains all too familiar. Only an exceedingly fortunate, patient, and sweet-tempered person can go through life without ever feeling in high dudgeon, and that was just as true in Miss Penelope Lumley’s day as it is in our own.

  To be sure, most people would consider Lady Constance Ashton exceedingly fortunate: In addition to being young and pretty, she was married to the vastly wealthy Lord Fredrick Ashton and was thus the mistress of a great house full of servants (including the head housekeeper, Mrs. Clarke, who was the unlucky person now being scolded about the house repairs). But no careful observer was likely to accuse Lady Constance Ashton of being patient and sweet tempered.

  Penelope certainly would not. On the contrary, she found Lady Constance’s frequent tirades rather wearying. Penelope was only fifteen, yet even she could see such behavior was ridiculous, and Lady Constance was a married woman of nearly twenty! And this habit of blaming the three Incorrigible children for all sorts of things that were simply not their fault—at least, not entirely—was vexing, to say the least.

  Besides, Penelope had been standing at the door of Lady Constance’s dressing room for a quarter of an hour waiting to get a word in, and her feet were beginning to ache. If she were not able to make her request soon and get back to the nursery for a cozy read-aloud in a comfortable chair with her three attentive pupils gathered ’round, she might be in real danger of slipping into high dudgeon herself.

  “I’m sure the workmen are doing their best, my lady.” Mrs. Clarke was a sturdy sort of woman, stout in both build and character, and yet there was a wobble of fear in her voice as she answered her mistress. “Do keep in mind, it is a very old house, and when you fix one thing, something else is likely to fall apart as a result. Why, who was to know that hanging new drapes in the parlor would cause all the plaster around the windows to crumble into dust? Or that sanding the scratches out of the floorboards would show them to be full of termites? Or that scrubbing the wine stains from the antique carpets would cause such dreadful holes to open up? Or—”

  “Excuses, excuses, excuses!” Lady Constance shrieked. “Next you will tell me the house is cursed! Oh, my head! Bring me a cold compress, please, I am quite at my wit’s end—and some tea—and a chocolate, quick! Make it a whole box!”

  “As you wish, my lady.” Mrs. Clarke backed out of the room with remarkable speed. Indeed, she had huffed and puffed her way to the end of the hall at a full trot before Penelope even had a chance to catch her eye and offer a look of sympathy.

  Lady Constance clutched the edge of her vanity, panting with distress. It was not an ideal opportunity to beg a favor, but “She who waits for the perfect moment to act will never make a turn at a busy intersection,” as a very wise woman named Agatha Swanburne once remarked, so Penelope forged ahead.

  “Pardon me, Lady Constance,” she said, in the same soothing voice she used to calm the Incorrigibles when they were in the presence of a small, tasty rodent, or during a full moon, or when they had gotten worked up over a particularly thrilling bit of poetry (Penelope’s three pupils were not, strictly speaking, ordinary children, but more on that later). “May I have your permission to speak? I have a small request to make, and it requires a timely response.”

  “A timely response, you say? A timely response? That is precisely what I cannot seem to get! Since Christmas Day my home has been all but uninhabitable, and all I ask for is a timely response! When will the repairs be finished? When will the workmen be gone? When will the hammering and clattering be over? The noise—the dust—the smell of turpentine—”

  If you have ever ridden on a tire swing after turning the rope ’round and ’round until it was twisted from top to bottom, you will have some idea of the wild, spinning, escalating whirl of Lady Constance’s distress. “And Lord Fredrick is so blasé about the whole thing! ‘All in good time,’ he says, in that indifferent way of his, but of course he is at his club more often than not, so nothing that goes on at Ashton Place troubles him; why should it?”

  “I am in receipt of a letter,” Penelope pressed on, for she had no desire to hear about Lady Ashton’s marital woes, or anyone else’s for that matter. “It is from Miss Charlotte Mortimer, my former headmistress at school.”

  Suddenly worn out from complaining, Lady Constance slumped in her chair. “School?” she mumbled. “What school? Ah, you mean that Swanbird place; what of it?”

  Actually the school was named after its founder, the aforementioned Agatha Swanburne, but in the interest of time Penelope let the error pass. “Miss Mortimer will be visiting London soon, and wishes to know if I might meet her there for a brief visit. I have not seen her in some months—ever since I was hired as a governess here at Ashton Place, in fact—so it would be a great pleasure to call on her. I would bring the children with me, so they would be no trouble to the household during my absence. And, of course, you may deduct the time from my pay, if you wish.”

  Penelope added this last bit about docking her salary because she knew it was the type of argument that Lady Constance found persuasive, but privately she thought it would be rather unfair for the lady to take her up on it. Whether they were in London, Budapest, or Timbuktu, she was still the children’s governess, after all. And just think of all the educational things they might do in a big city like London! There would be libraries everywhere, and theaters and
museums, parks and palaces—why, it was like something out of a book!

  In fact, it was all out of books, for Penelope had never been to London. However, she had read a great deal about it: a noisy, odorous, fogbound city where gaslight made the nighttime bright as day, yet the air was so thick with coal soot that the daytime was dim as dusk, and where poor orphans were likely to have terrifying encounters with escaped convicts, but were just as likely to inherit large fortunes willed to them by long-lost relatives they never knew they had. Surely such a paradoxical place would be well worth a visit.

  And to see Miss Mortimer! That would be best of all. Penelope felt she might even grow misty eyed to be reunited with her much-loved and much-missed teacher and friend. It was possible Miss Mortimer would shed tears of joy as well, for among all the many penniless, intelligent girls at the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Penelope had always been a favorite of hers.

  The thought of her kind but stern headmistress made Penelope stand up a little straighter herself. “Lady Constance, I would like to post a reply to Miss Mortimer at once, since she will need time to arrange our travel and lodgings. May I have your permission to make the trip?”

  Lady Constance’s head was buried in her hands. Her muffled voice emerged through her fingers, one strained syllable at a time.

  “London…lodgings…lodgings in London…Lumley…London…brilliant!” She lifted her head. Her circular, doll-like eyes shone with a strange, mad glee. “Miss Lumley, you have provided the perfect solution to my dilemma!”

  “Does that mean we may go?” Penelope readied herself to curtsy and bolt from the room in search of pen and paper, for it was coming on two o’clock; the serving man who brought the mail to town left at half past, and she was determined to get a letter out to Miss Mortimer that day if at all possible.

  “It means, Miss Lumley, that we shall all go!” Lady Constance flew to her feet and chasséd giddily around the room like a tipsy ballerina. “I will have Lord Fredrick lease us a suitable house in London. Nothing elaborate—the finest house in Kensington will do, furnished with all modern comforts and a few priceless antiquities, of course—and we shall live in town and enjoy ourselves like civilized people until this wretched place is inhabitable again.”

  Her pale hands flew up to cover her mouth. “Whoops! I know I should not say Ashton Place is wretched, for that is disrespectful to Fredrick, not to mention his poor ancestors, all of whom died such gruesome deaths—but you know what I mean.”

  “I am not sure that I do.” Penelope could not tell whether Lady Constance’s sudden notion of relocating the entire household was excellent news or the worst possible turn of events. “Do I understand you correctly, my lady? You mean that you and Lord Ashton and the children and I, all of us, will go to London? And stay in a house that Lord Ashton will arrange?”

  Lady Constance was no longer listening. “Naturally, I shall bring a dozen or so servants from Ashton Place with us. Any halfway respectable house will no doubt come with a staff, but one can never have too much help, and I like to have familiar faces around me. Although I daresay I will not be at home much, once my presence in the city is known! I have many, many friends in London. So does Fredrick, though I find most of them tedious, especially that awful Baroness Hoover—something about her makes my skin positively crawl—but enough of that! I must write and let everyone know we are coming. It will be an endless round of luncheons and teas and parties. And shopping, of course!”

  She tossed her head until her butter yellow ringlets bounced like springs. “Really, it will be so marvelous to be in town. I may decide not to care if those awful workmen ever finish fixing the house at all. And it is all thanks to those dreadful Incorrigible children!”

  Penelope dipped her head to hide her embarrassment. Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia Incorrigible were her pupils. That is what Lord Fredrick had named them; what their original names were no one knew, since they had been found wandering naked and howling in the forest. To all appearances, the trio of barking, nipping, squirrel-chasing imps had been raised by wolves, and this was why they were not, strictly speaking, ordinary children.

  Alas, the memory of how the three Incorrigibles had behaved—or, to be accurate, failed to behave—at Lady Constance’s holiday ball was all too fresh in Penelope’s mind.

  “Indeed, my lady,” she said meekly. “If you will excuse me now, I shall write Miss Mortimer at once and tell her the happy news.”

  But, much as a soufflé comes piping hot out of the oven taut and round as a birthday balloon but shrivels disappointingly as soon as the cool air hits it, her own mere mention of those “awful workmen” had already caused Lady Constance’s enthusiasm to collapse into a fresh fit of pique.

  “Awful, clumsy, incompetent workmen! I shall have them all fired,” she fumed. “Even better, I shall have them arrested for disturbing the peace. They are a disturbance to the peace of my home. Miss Lumley, you must ring for a constable, quickly!”

  Now, recall that Penelope was quite anxious to make the afternoon post. She was also reluctant to have people arrested for no good reason. Therefore, she now proceeded to do something quite rare and brave—something you yourself may find it necessary to do someday, if you have not already had cause to try it out. In short, she stood up to a person of authority in high dudgeon.

  “Respectfully, Lady Constance, I will do no such thing.” Penelope spoke in her best kind but stern voice, just as Miss Mortimer would have done. “It is a very inconvenient situation, to be sure. But the workmen have been trying their best, and surely that is all one can ask of them.”

  Lady Constance turned and faced Penelope, hands on hips. Her dress was a cream-colored parfait of flounces and bows, but her expression, so gay and animated a moment before, was now furious and tight-lipped. She looked like an ill-tempered wedding cake with feet.

  “I have noticed, Miss Lumley, that you are inclined to be optimistic.” At the word “optimistic,” Lady Constance crinkled her nose in the manner of a person detecting a bad smell. “It is a most unfortunate habit, and I sincerely wish you would stop.”

  “I will do my best,” Penelope said with a curtsy. As she made her exit from Lady Constance’s chamber, in the privacy of her own thoughts she added, “Yet to think I might actually stop would be foolishly optimistic on my lady’s part!”

  It was quite true. Optimism, and persistence, and the knack for getting impossible tasks well in hand, despite false starts and mishaps—a useful mix of traits best summed up by the word “pluck”—had been at the very heart of Penelope’s education at the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. It was nearly a year since she had graduated from that worthy institution, but by now pluck was part of the young governess’s nature, and that was unlikely to change anytime soon.

  For, no matter where fate, happenstance, or wanderlust might carry her, Penelope was a Swanburne girl, through and through.

  THE SECOND CHAPTER

  The children carry things

  a bit too far.

  WHEN LADY CONSTANCE SAID THAT the condition of Ashton Place was “all thanks to those dreadful Incorrigible children,” she was referring to the events of the previous Christmas, only a few months prior. That is when Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia, after being asked to perform a tableau vivant for the guests at Lady Constance’s elegant holiday ball, managed to make an absolute wreck of the house while in hot pursuit of a runaway squirrel. The whole time they were dressed in their new party clothes, which were also, unfortunately, ruined.

  How a squirrel ended up smack dab in the middle of the dance floor was unknown. Mrs. Clarke thought the dim-witted rodent may have simply snuck in through an open window, but Penelope suspected foul play, for there had been some strange goings-on at the ball that seemed purposely designed to work the Incorrigibles into a frenzy: a series of entertainments based on the theme of wolves, for example (which, Penelope discovered afterward, had been commissioned by someone who bore the initial A).
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  But the fateful appearance of that mayhem-inducing squirrel was the topper. The children had chased the pint-sized troublemaker all the way upstairs, only to discover faint, mysterious howling sounds emerging from a secret attic room, the door to which had been camouflaged beneath some rather tasteless wallpaper.

  Penelope puzzled over these mysteries daily, and had even paid a surreptitious visit or two to the attic while the children were otherwise engaged. There she heard nothing unusual, although she was by now quite familiar with the strange, dark forest scene that was painted on the wall.

  The mural itself had been damaged in spots by all the wallpapering done over it, so she was not able to make out the artist’s signature. However, after consulting some dusty books of art history she found in Lord Fredrick’s library, she concluded that it was a third-rate example of the Ominous Landscape school of painting, which had never quite caught on with critics or the general public and had been quickly superseded by other, less depressing styles.

  That this particular Ominous Landscape featured the terrifying figure of a wolf, yellow eyed and with fangs that dripped blood, was one more disturbing mystery to add to the pile. It was all rather unsettling to think about; in short, it would be a relief to get away from Ashton Place for a while—and to London! What a marvelous adventure that would be!

  Back in the nursery, Penelope gathered the children ’round and told them of Lady Constance’s plan. She fully expected their excitement to match her own, for who would not feel a thrill to visit London, home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, capital city of the nation, seat of the empire, and (one might argue) the cultural and economic crossroads of the world?

 
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