The Legend Of Wychwood Manor – Episode 1

Characters from the serial, standing in front of Wychwood Manor.

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After the recent passing of her father, eighteen-year-old Belle is left an orphan, and is sent to live at Wychwood, a grand yet eerie manor in Devon.

Outside was as depressing a prospect as eighteen-year-old Belle Fortescue had ever seen.

The sky was tinged violet and dark storm clouds massed above a dreary landscape of muddy fields stretching as far as she could see.

Papa, why aren’t you here, she thought sadly.

If you were alive, we would still be happy together and I would not be packed up and sent to live at Wychwood in Devon with an uncle I know full well cares nothing for me.

Wychwood, a grand manor, would be a big change from Belle’s former home, a trim little villa in Bayswater where her father had kept open house for his East India Company cronies to talk about his beloved India.

Belle had lived in India until she was five, but her childhood memories were hazy, a confusion of agile monkeys, screeching parakeets, heavily scented frangipani blossom and her ayah’s soft lullabies.

Much more real was the oft-repeated story of how Papa, Captain Piers Fortescue of the 5th Gurkha Rifles, had swept beautiful Adeline Colborne, daughter of a wealthy tea-planter, off her feet in a whirlwind romance and married her just two months later.

Sadly, Adeline’s health had deteriorated so Piers brought his little family back to England, hoping to see his wife bloom again, but she slipped away.

With a heavy heart, Piers became a pen-pusher at East India House in Leadenhall Street.

England lacked the vibrancy he yearned for and he would always regard George III as more grocer than King, but he would bear any sacrifice for his daughter – he could not lose her, too.

Belle’s reverie was broken when the coach hit a rut, almost throwing her into the arms of her maid.

Thin, wiry and just turned seventeen, Lil was never one to hold back.

“Call this a road?” she said, shaking her head in disgust as she rearranged her skirts for the umpteenth time.

Her scowl made her opinion of the countryside so abundantly plain that Belle would have laughed if she hadn’t felt so guilty, knowing it was all her fault.

Only Lil’s love and loyalty to her mistress could have wrenched Lil away from her beloved London with its noise and bustle which fitted her like a second skin.

A jagged flash lit up the countryside, throwing the gnarled silhouette of a gigantic oak into stark relief. Belle gasped and caught Lil’s arm.

“Did you see that?”

They both stared at the motionless figure standing beneath the tree, enveloped in a black cloak that billowed and swirled in the wind’s gusts.

“What on earth is she doing out in such weather?” Belle said. She rapped on the carriage roof.

The carriage lurched to a stop and the coachman poked his head in through the door.

“What’s the matter?” he asked grumpily.

“Didn’t you see that poor woman?” Belle said. “We must offer her a lift.”

“Woman?” The coachman looked puzzled, but there was something else in his eyes, too. Something that looked like fear.

“You must be mistaken, miss. You’ll find precious few men braving this weather, let alone a woman.”

“But we saw her,” Belle insisted. “Look for yourself. She’s standing under that big oak in the field.”

The coachman stared into the pouring rain.

“Nobody there,” he said.  “It must have been a trick of the light, miss.

“We’d best be getting on if we want to arrive in time for dinner.”

Belle and Lil exchanged a puzzled look. Why did his hand shake so much as he closed the carriage door?

Daylight was fading when they finally drew up at Wychwood.

“You never told me it was like this,” Lil said, her mouth dropping open.

“I didn’t know,” Belle replied, feeling faint as she looked up at row after row of tall windows ablaze with light.

“Here comes Master Gerard,” the coachman said, helping them out.

Belle stiffened.

All she knew of her uncle came from a meeting she’d overheard between him and Papa, and he had not made a favourable impression on her.

It had been back in the spring when her father had been unusually insistent that she went for a walk.

“You need fresh air, my darling. You cannot spend all your time in the sickroom.”

Belle had obeyed, but it was obvious when she returned why her father had wanted her out of the house, for the sound of raised voices greeted her.

“But she has no-one else, Gerard.” It was her father.

“You are her blood kin. I beg you to do this for the sake of the love we once bore each other.”

“Once, Piers, once,” an unknown voice returned. “It withered with the pain you caused me over the years.

“I can never forget that your foolishness killed our mother.”

The angry words gave Belle a clue to the speaker. It could only be her father’s elder brother, whom she had never seen.

She wrestled with her conscience, knowing she shouldn’t eavesdrop, but her curiosity was too strong.

Her father’s voice was pleading.

“You must know I’m not long for this world. I trust you will believe me when I say I never meant to do you harm, but even if you can’t forgive me, you can have no quarrel with Belle.

“You’re her only relative, Gerard – surely that must count for something?”

There was silence for a moment and then the second voice spoke again.

“Very well, but tell her to keep out of my way. I’ll have no meddling at Wychwood.”

Belle heard footsteps approaching the door and panic swept over her.

To be continued…

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