Chapter 9

Dorellin House was immense; an elegant white building whose innumerable windows flashed and glittered in the rays of the dying light. Off to the east stood a picturesque ruin - the ancient keep, castle of the first Dukes of Wendingstone. However, it was cold, and Porda was glad Lady Carola did not linger to point out aspects of the garden and crumbling, centuries old stone. She led them towards the house as servants in livery emerged and began to unload the cases. A housekeeper appeared; respectable in brown silk, a spotless cap of white lace balanced on her greying curls. She was a blur to Porda through the pain that narrowed his vision and disarranged his thoughts. He wanted only to lie down; to sleep; for the day to end in blessed oblivion. He scarcely recalled the hours that followed, only that he was introduced to a great many people. He thought he would remember the Duke and his immediate family again, but not the scores of others. When at last he was shown up to his room he dismissed the footman immediately and crept to bed. He lay there a while before falling asleep, staring up at a ceiling as pristine and white and grand as the one he'd imagined.                                                 

The Duke of Wendingstone was a tall, well-built man of about forty-five. His hair was very light, almost colourless, and his eyes were similarly a very pale, washed-out blue. Porda couldn't help but feel a little in awe, and this made him angry with himself. It didn't help that he'd been told the Duke's wife was in fact a princess - a niece to the King. She - her Highness Princess Mathilda - was not remotely stately. She was a quiet, timid-seeming woman, with a shiny pink spot of colour on her nose that she dabbed at with a handkerchief. Still, the knowledge he was in a house of royalty made Porda nervous. The Duke's children were similarly grandly titled. There were two sons and one daughter old enough to be in company, and apparently there were more offspring in the nursery and two other boys at school; heirs to the throne all, if the King's line should fail.

One consolation was that Frederick was visibly intimidated. As they sat down to breakfast Porda saw him watching everyone else to see what they did before reaching for a fork or knife, and once he almost upset his glass. The breakfast itself would have fed an army. There were hot and cold meats, six dishes of eggs all cooked and presented in a different way, freshly baked bread with butter and honey from the Duke's own estate and fruit both in season and from the hothouse. Some of the fruits were very strange; pale, yellow-green soft things like large berries and green ones like apples but with a large black stalk. Porda longed to know what they were but to ask was to admit ignorance. He watched surreptitiously as Princess Mathilda cut one open and was surprised to see the flesh was brown and soft. A delicious smell rose out of the cut halves of the fruit. He was about to take one himself when the servants remerged at a signal from the Duke and everyone rose.

Porda couldn't remember much of what had been said the night before, but when the Duke bought up the subject of his collection there was none of the lavish praise and admiration Lady Carola had flattered him with. Rather, the Duke seemed to imply in his tone, if not in words, that he was the one doing Porda the honour by allowing him to inspect the relics.

"Professor," he said, when they gathered after breakfast. "Let me thank you again for allowing Lady Furnival to drag you away from your important work."

"I am most honoured to be asked," Porda said politely. He bowed to the Duke and to his lady. She had taken a seat nearby and was embroidering silk on a hoop. He glared at Frederick. The lad was staring disconsolately into the fire but turned when he felt Porda's eye on him, flushed in embarrassment and then bowed.

"You are most welcome," the Princess said quietly and tonelessly.

"Most welcome," echoed the Duke. "No doubt you'd heard of the collection?"

"Oh yes, certainly," Porda lied. The Duke was nodding.

"Yes, I thought it must be so. Our collection is pre-eminent. I cannot conceive that anyone with even the slightest interest in the Laetic era would not be eager to see it."

"I am sure," Porda said. He was feeling insulted. But perhaps the Duke's pride was such that he would not admit to being truly privileged by the visit of anyone less than the King himself.

"I am sure I am very glad you are to see it," Lady Carola said warmly. She smiled and Porda was mollified. She had been sitting with the Princess, helping her sort her threads, but stood now and came up to fire. "I am convinced you will make it all so clear. Paint a true picture for us of the past."

"I hope I will," Porda said.

"Perhaps add some detail we lack," the Duke said. "Although my own studies have been extensive you understand."

"That's true at least," said his wife. "He spends many hours in his study." It was difficult to tell from her voice or expression whether she thought this was a good thing or a bad thing. But there was something more than complete indifference, Porda thought.

The Duke smiled at her. "My wife tells me I work too hard," he confessed to Porda. "But when I'm with my books I'm utterly unaware of the passing of time. An hour drifts by in seconds."

Porda wished for a seat. There were two chairs near the Princess's sofa but he couldn't use one without being asked. I hope we can sit down soon, he thought, or I'll fall down. Either we sit down or we go and see the collection. Can't he see I have a stick?

"Your Grace, may we see it?" Frederick burst out suddenly. "The collection?"

Porda was shocked. "Your Grace, I apologize for my assistant. His enthusiasm has got the better of him."

"No, no," the Duke said. "It's of no consequence." He looked through Frederick, who seemed to have developed a deep interest in the pattern of the carpet. He stared down at it frowning, his lower lip stuck out petulantly.

"I am sure the young man is only echoing all our thoughts," Lady Carola said. "What better time?"

"Of course," the Duke nodded. "It is the purpose of your visit, after all. Please Professor - will you follow me?"

It was a long way. At first Porda looked around, admiring the luxurious elegance of the Ducal Palace. Each room and hallway was decorated after a theme, immersing them in a past century or a foreign land. There was a hallway where the floor was of white marble, the walls covered by a vast mosaic in blue and green. Here and there in the pattern where squares of coloured glass, and light from cunningly placed windows caused them to glow and scatter turquoise rays. One room was decorated in a Kelvian style; with tapestries and large, brocade cushions and geometric tiles in dark red and black. Even the smallest ornaments had obviously been chosen and placed with care and discrimination and there were objects in each setting that had some significance to the Duke's own family, either given as gifts or bought back as spoils of war. Though he tried to hide it, Frederick grew more astonished at every new sight, his hands clasped as if he was afraid to touch anything for fear of breaking it. Porda was glad to see his sulky expression and world-weary air vanish. He looked much younger like that - little more than a child.

One large room was dedicated solely to the Duke's forebears. Here there were portraits and trophies; the Fourth Duke depicted as a knight triumphant on a battlefield, a red and silver pennant flying on the tip of an impossibly long and heavy lance; the Lady Nerallie, great-grandmother of the present Duke, demure and dainty in a blue silk gown and feathered turban. There was the head of a great boar, killed by the Seventh Duke, a case of medals and other honours, vases and figurines and busts of the Duke's grandfather and great-grandfather.

Porda's knee and hip were sore. He rested by surreptitiously leaning his weight against tables and walls whenever the Duke paused to point out some new spectacle. Anxiety began to eat at him that he would be soon forced to admit to being unable to continue. He'd seen enough of the Duke now to guess that his Grace would have no patience or sympathy. Worse, Porda feared he might take it as a sign that his chosen professor was after all unfit to study his collection. While he thought he could rely on Lady Carola to support him, he was also convinced that her word meant little, in reality, to the Duke. Truly, he didn't think he'd ever met a more self-absorbed, arrogant man. But now another door was opened before him, and he forgave the man, forgot his pain, almost tripped over his stick in amazement.

The collection was extraordinary.


The End

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