One (2)

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There were only two miles between the train station and Weatherly House, and the road wove through the quiet countryside like an unravelled ribbon.

Izzy pressed her gloved hands against the car window, and tried to take in the whole scenery: the emerald fields, the hundred-year-old oak trees lining the roadway and the well-trimmed hedges. She couldn't help a smile as the morning sunlight made the landscape strikingly green and the sky an immaculate blue. After eight months abroad, reacquainting herself with the English countryside was a surprisingly enjoyable experience. There was something soothing and timeless about it, something she hadn't realised she had missed until then.

"We're almost there, My Lady," the chauffeur announced, his voice muffled by the window partition.

Indeed the car rounded a turn and passed the estate's iron gates. In the distance, the familiar silhouette of the white Palladian mansion appeared against the clear sky, as immoveable as time.

Izzy had never been fond of those grand country houses, full of creaking noises, hidden corners, creepy shadows and lurking servants. She was glad her parents lived in London and didn't have to run an estate like Weatherly. For all its grandeur, the manor belonged to the past. Its lawn might still be mown every week and its white stones might still gleam in the sunlight, but Izzy couldn't help but notice there were cracks appearing in this perfect picture. There were a few untrimmed bushes amongst the once manicured shrubbery. Moss and dirt crawled up the fountains in need of a good scrub, and the bright paint of the windows was peeling. Inside the house, the furniture had already been old when she was a little girl, with the cleanliness of the carpets and curtains barely concealing the fact that they needed either renewing or repairing. A lot of rooms were never opened or heated, and there were fewer servants around. Before the war, more than thirty servants had worked at Weatherly. Now only a handful remained.

This place, with its ghosts and unused rooms, belonged to a now-gone era. Old English country houses like this one were bound to host spirits, Izzy had read in an American magazine on the occult. And given the family's history, she always half-expected to bump into a wailing apparition when she spent the night. She shivered at the thought. The future lay in brightly-lit cities like London or New York, she was sure of it.

The car made its way around the main lawn and parked in front of the portico. Izzy expected Vita to welcome her, and a pang of disappointment shot through her when the lone figure of the butler – Izzy couldn't remember his name – appeared at the top of the double stone staircase to greet her.

Unlike Izzy, Vita had been educated at home her entire life. Her whole existence revolved around the estate, which she seldom left. There was no reason for her not to be there, and therefore no explanation for her absence at the door. Surely she was as eager as Izzy to see her best friend again.

Uncertainty made Izzy's eyebrows press together, while the butler helped her off the vehicle with a polite welcome.

"Where's Vita?" she asked, her gaze searching the house's façade, as if Vita was behind one of those curtains.

"Inside, My Lady. She's expecting you."

Izzy forced a smile to her lips and walked up the stairs in quick strides, her stance self-assured for the butler's benefit. But her delight at seeing her friend again was now somewhat deflated.

*** 

"Well? Do you like it?"

Izzy's question hung in the air as Vita held the pink chiffon dress in front of her and surveyed her reflection in the stand mirror.

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