Secrets of Nanreath Hall
This incredible debut historical novel—in the tradition of Beatriz Williams and Jennifer Robson—tells the fascinating story of a young mother who flees her home on the rocky cliffs of Cornwall and the daughter who finds her way back, seeking answers
Cornwall,1940. Back in England after the harrowing evacuation at Dunkirk, WWII Red Cross nurse Anna Trenowyth finds herself unexpectedly assigned to Nanreath Hall—her dead mother’s childhood home. All Anna has left of her mother, Lady Katherine Trenowyth, are vague memories that tease her with clues she can’t unravel. Anna knows this could be the chance for her to finally become acquainted with the family she’s never known—and to learn the truth about her past.
Cornwall, 1913. In the luxury of pre-WWI England, Lady Katherine Trenowyth is expected to do nothing more than make a smart marriage. When Simon Halliday, a bohemian painter, enters her world, Katherine begins to question the future that was so carefully laid out for her. Her choices soon lead her away from the stability of her home and family toward a wild existence of life, art, and love.
As Anna is drawn into her newfound family’s lives and their tangled loyalties, she must decide if the secrets of the past are too dangerous to unearth…and if the family she’s discovered is one she can keep.
“Compelling and heartwarming….The story pulls us into the universal struggle of all women to find their places in their worlds. I was deeply moved.”
~Karen Harper, NYT bestselling author of The Royal Nanny
“Kept me turning pages…the vivid writing combined with such an intriguing story make Alix Rickloff an exciting voice in historical fiction.”
~Renee Rosen, bestselling author of White Collar Girl
“Alix Rickloff's debut is a delight - beautifully written with fascinating characters, rich historical detail and an intriguing family mystery that keeps the pages turning.”
~NYT bestselling author Hazel Gaynor
“An emotional and fascinating journey…as much fun as a Downton Abbey episode.”
~RT Book Reviews
“Touchingly real…difficult to put down…”
~Historical Novel Society
“Rickloff has done a spectacular job bringing her tale to life.”
“I am dying.”
Prue puts down her sewing and eyes me through her cheaters, but in no other way does she reveal the shock she must be feeling at my news.
“Cancer, so Mr. Porter tells me,” I blunder on before she can gather herself to speak. “He suggests I put my affairs in order while my strength remains, but what’s there to organize? The last payment I received for modeling was just enough to pay the doctor’s consultation fee. By the time Andre returns from Biarritz or San Remo or wherever he’s gone in search of lucrative commissions, I won’t be in any position to pose for him or anyone else.”
We are taking advantage of a mild winter’s afternoon to take the air in Prue’s small back garden. Laundry flaps on the line, and in the corner by Graham’s potting shed, the garden has been turned in preparation for planting cabbages and cauliflower. My journal lays open in my lap where I have tried to capture the poignant intimacy of the scene, but my mind won’t focus. Memories laced with regret and grief lie too close to the surface for me to concentrate on my work.
I chose my moment carefully. Graham is at the pub, leaving Prue and I alone in the little house on Queens Crescent. I know I can no longer hide my illness from her. She is far too observant and has already noticed my lack of appetite and how quickly I grow tired from the least strenuous of activities. It’s just as well. I need her counsel and her quiet commonsense. She’ll not burden me with useless sympathy. That isn’t her way. For good or ill, life must be faced head-on. She has taught me that if nothing else.
“There’s Anna,” she says simply as if reading my thoughts. “You must make arrangements for her.”
Anna. My daughter. My dearest treasure.
I sent her to school this morning in a crisply starched pinafore, her wild red hair tamed into two slick braids. She made me leave her at the corner, too old at six to be seen holding hands with her mother. But at the last moment, she threw her chubby arms around my neck and kissed me on my nose. I wanted to crush her close and never let her go. It took every ounce of strength I possessed to release her. Too many times have I watched silently as those I loved walked away. As she marched proudly, back straight and head high, down the sidewalk, I clamped my jaw shut to keep myself from calling her back.
“Of course, but I don’t want her to know, Prue. Not about the cancer. Promise you won’t say anything.” My throat aches, and I shiver with unexpected cold. My fingers knot, and I’m surprised to see how knobby my knuckles have become, the veins running blue under the translucent skin of my wrists.
“Are you certain that’s wise?”
I force myself to relax my hands so they lay flat on the pages of the journal, but I can’t make myself leaf back through the pages. Not yet. “I’ve weighted her with enough burdens, don’t you think? I won’t add to her load.”
Prue pours out two cups of tea, adding four heaping spoonfuls of sugar to mine, just the way I like it. The sweet syrupy heat coats my throat and warms my stomach. I take a deep breath and the ghosts of the past recede, though they never completely leave me. Now, I am glad of their company.
“You should write to your family,” Prue urges, her own tea prepared with only a thin slice of lemon. Her expression is grave, though I can see she is already looking ahead to what must be done, checklists mentally ticked off in her head. “Tell them what you’ve told me. Ask them for help. If not for your sake, for Anna’s. She’s a Trenowyth, no matter what side of the blanket she was born on.”
Next door, crazy old Mrs. Vaisvilaf begins playing the piano. Some of the neighbors dislike the noise, but I enjoy her concert-worthy performances of Haydn and Mozart as she relives her youth on a St. Petersburg stage. Perhaps because I know how she feels when the past becomes more real than the present. “You make it sound so simple. You forget, that in their eyes Lady Katherine is already dead and has been for years.”
Despite my protest, Prue’s suggestion makes perfect sense. Anna is a Trenowyth. I’ve made her one through my own arrogance. And I wish I had the courage or, perhaps, the shamelessness to write and beg my family’s aid.
I imagine Anna moving from room to room at Nanreath Hall, her shoes scuffing the same crooked floors, her fingers trailing along the carved oaken banister as she is led downstairs for her daily obligatory visit with the grownups, staring out the same nursery window toward the glittering gray green sea and listening to its purr as she lays in the narrow iron bedstead with Nanny snoring a comforting room away.
But I know even as I imagine it, that it is a dream with no hope of coming true. Nanreath is lost to me. There is no going back.
I close my journal and run my hand over the tooled calfskin cover, worn smooth over years of use. It is warm to the touch as if the souls of the people and places within might be conjured with a word and a breath. “It’s funny, but I’m not frightened of dying. I’m more terrified that when Anna understands who and what she is I won’t be here to explain. That she’ll despise me.”
“And why would she do that?”
“Bastards are rarely treated gently.” I hate the taste of the word. Prue winces too, and she catches back a little breath. “Sometimes I regret not feigning a marriage,” I continue. “It would have been easy enough after the war. There were so many widows, who would question one more? I know you thought I was mad not to.”
“I didn’t want you hurt any more than you already were. You were so fragile, so lost. I didn’t see the honor in wearing your shame like a badge.”
“Perhaps not.” I give a little shrug. Now that the confession has been made, I find I am weary, my strength deserting me. “But I’d lied to myself for so long that when I finally realized the truth I couldn’t lie any more. Not even for Anna’s sake.”
“She won’t despise you.” Prue reaches across to take my hand, squeezing it gently in a wordless note of comfort. “Graham and I will make sure of that.”
Her motherly gaze behind her glasses holds the reassurance I seek even if I don’t ask outright. I could not have wished for better friend or a better guardian for Anna when the time comes. But not even Prue knows the whole story.
There is no one left alive who does.
The sun chooses that moment to break free of the clouds and spear the sea of belching chimneypots, falling warm and golden upon my face. Spent, I close my eyes, and, though I am in London where my life is ending, I see the glittering expanse of ocean stretching on forever and feel the June sun burn my cheeks as a briny wind tosses my hair into my face. Mrs. Vinter’s house sits at the bottom of the lane where riotous beds of camellias and jasmine and verbena frame a pink front door and Nellie Melba on the gramophone floats through an open window to war with the cry of gulls.
It is Cornwall the summer before the Great War, and though I am already twenty and, to my mind, quite grown up, my life is just about to begin.
‘This is London.’ American newscaster Edward R. Murrow’s nightly send off repeated itself in Anna Trenowyth’s head as she emerged from the Aldersgate tube station into the dusty yellow glare of a late summer afternoon.
This certainly was not the London she knew. In the weeks since German bombers had begun concentrating their nightly raids on the capital, the city had taken on a surreal feeling as if the entire population clenched its fists and held its breath. Even the air seemed charged and heavy, coating the back of her throat with a taste of grit and cinders.
Damaged roads had been roped off, so that just navigating the short distance between the station and Graham and Prue’s house became a game of snakes and ladders, with every move forward requiring three moves back. Homeless queued in front of a burned out department store where volunteers handed out blankets and coffee. A group of boys rooted near a rubble-filled crater, hooting and whistling over bits of shrapnel and twisted metal. A family hustled heads-down toward a bus, carrying a few bits of scarred luggage.
She’d been warned what to expect. She’d listened to the news reports from her hospital bed in Surrey, fingers clenched white in her lap, stomach tight and tense. Whitechapel, Clerkenwell, Holborn; the names familiar and dear. Places she could picture when she closed her eyes. Her city. Her home. But not even Mr. Murrow’s impressions of devastation had been enough to prepare her for the harsh reality.
“Pardon, miss. Street’s closed off. Unexploded bomb.” A policeman barred her way, twirling his whistle round his finger, rolling back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Bomb disposal’s on its way, but you’ll have to go round.” He eyed her dark blue gabardine Red Cross VAD uniform and the valise she carried, the weight of it dragging against her bad shoulder. “Home for a bit?”
She smiled. “A week’s leave. My family lives just north of here. I thought I’d surprise them.”
His frown deepened. He caught his whistle in a closed hand. “A good daughter, you are, miss. I hope you find them well.”
Anna nodded her thanks and began the roundabout track that would take her east then back north. At this rate, it would be dinnertime before she dragged herself into the small front parlor in Queen’s Crescent. It was Friday so Graham would be at the pub for his weekly pint of bitter and a jaw with the lads. Prue would be in her chair by the radio listening to Vera Lynn or the comedy of Band Waggon, chewing nervously at the end of her spectacles.
Anna hadn’t seen either of them since July when they’d visited her in hospital. She’d tried talking them out of the difficult trip from London to Surrey, but Prue had insisted, and Anna hadn’t the stamina to argue. It took all her energy just to scribble a few hackneyed lines on a postcard each week. There was no way she could make them understand her desire to be left alone without sounding cold and unfeeling. And she’d not hurt Graham or Prue even if it meant gritting her teeth through their hovering attentiveness.
Just as she’d expected, it had been an awkward reunion. They’d not known what to say as she lay plastered like a mummy, her face gaunt and marked by the constant nightmares that left her sick. She’d had too much to say and no words to speak of the horrible images seared upon her heart. By the time they left, she’d felt nothing but guilty relief and an overwhelming urge to be sick.
Then she’d received her new orders, and she’d had to speak to them. They were the only ones who might understand her emotional tug of war. She’d foregone a letter, choosing instead to ring them up with the news, spilling her confusion and doubts over the wires. Graham had listened to her calmly before handing the phone to Prue who urged her to come home for a long-delayed visit. They needed to talk with her—about her mother.
Anna had hung up the receiver with shaking hands and arranged for leave to travel up to London. Now, a week later, she was finally home, though home seemed sadly changed.
She shifted the heavy weight of her valise off her shoulder to relieve the growing ache of stiff muscles as a trickle of sweat ran down her spine. The day was warm, and it had been months since she’d walked so far. But she’d not the fare for a cab even if one could be found. Besides, she couldn’t very well complain at being passed over for a posting due to her injuries and then wilt at a bit of effort. There would be effort and more if she returned to the front.
No, not if…when. When she returned to the front. There was no if about it. She had not become a VAD to sit safely in Blighty making tea and playing cards while others risked their lives.
She passed the church and the greengrocer’s, rounded the corner, her steps hastening as shattered glass crunched under her boots. Her hands slid clammy on the leather strap of her bag and her damp skin itched beneath the heavy wool of her uniform.
Buildings leaned drunkenly on their foundations, their windows blown out, doors knocked from hinges. A jagged gap like a missing tooth was all that was left of the green grocer. The pub looked comfortingly unscathed until she approached, then she noticed a tumbled slide of bricks and shingles where the roof had collapsed. A gleam of brass railing poked up through fallen plaster and splintered beams. A pint glass stood half-filled on a table in a corner. A dart stuck dead-center in the dartboard still hanging on the back wall.
Ten paces. Twenty. The damage greater, the houses tumbled and spilled like a child’s toppled building blocks. Smoke hung low like a morning fog across the Thames. A few firemen replaced their hoses upon a truck. A policeman unrolled a coil of rope across the pavement where a set of marble steps led to…nothing.
Anna’s chest tightened. Her throat closed around a hard painful knot. Pain lanced down her leg, buckling her ankle. The awkward weight of the valise knocked her to her knees. Dirt bit into her skin, scraped her hands raw. She retched, but there was nothing in her stomach except the weak tea she’d drunk this morning on the train. Still, she felt her insides shriveling, darkness crowding the edges of her vision.
It couldn’t be. There was some mistake. She was having another nightmare. She would open her eyes to see curtains at the windows and geraniums on the stoop. Graham and Prue standing on the steps to meet her.
“Here now, miss. Are you all right? You took a nasty spill on these cobbles.”
One of the firemen.
Anna opened her eyes, her memories as ephemeral as the smoke blowing east toward Shoreditch. She swallowed down her horror, clamped her mouth over the sobs threatening to overwhelm her. “The people who lived here…do you know what shelter they might have been taken to?”
The firemen exchanged awkward glances before one shouldered the burden for all and faced her, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, miss. Ten died in this block alone. Seven more around the corner.”
He need say no more. There would be no welcoming embrace. No comforting advice. And no revelations about her mother. She stared disbelieving at the wreckage.
“Have you a place to go?” the firemen asked in a deep smoke-harshened voice. “Someone you can stay with?”
“No,” Anna said, finally looking away. “No one at all.”