Abigail awoke to a dreary morning, which seemed fitting given her
equally dim mood. On her way to breakfast she happened upon Mr.
Phillips. She thought this was fortunate, for if it was him playing she
could make amends quickly. If not, he could likely acquaint her with
whoever it was.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning, miss,” he replied.
“We haven’t been formally introduced.”
“My apologies, miss. I’ve been visiting relatives, and returned late
yesterday evening. I am Mr. Phillips, the footman, at your service.”
A tall man of average build in his late forties, his engaging smile
expressed a kindly disposition.
“Yes, I remember you ushered me the day of my arrival.”
“It’s a pleasure to have you at the Manor.”
“Thank you, Mr. Phillips. Everyone I’ve met has been graciously
accommodating. And I’ve discovered there’s talent here as well. I
adore music, particularly the piano. It’s my understanding you play
“Whoever claimed this was far too kind on my behalf. I began recently
and my play is poor, even for a novice.”
“Perhaps I misunderstood. With continued practice you should
“I’m not overly optimistic, miss. I don’t seem to have any natural
aptitude for it. Any improvement will take a long while.”
“Could someone offer you their assistance; perhaps another staff
member who plays well?”
“Regrettably there isn’t. One of the maids is more accomplished than
I, although slightly at best. We haven’t much time for practice, or
the means to obtain adequate instruction.”
“Such a pity. I do wish you the best of luck.”
“Thank you, miss. Is there anything else you require?”
“Nothing at the moment.”
He bowed to take his leave.
She placed her fingers to her mouth, her brows furrowed in perplexity.
Obviously it wasn’t Mr. Phillips playing last night, or any of the
servants. Darrell must know none of them play well. He’s hiding
someone’s identity again, likely the person he wouldn’t reveal the
other night, but for what conceivable reason?
Doubtful it was appropriate or wise to accuse Darrell of deception, she
suppressed her concern before entering the dining room.
“Good morning, my love,” Darrell said.
His cheerful mood and tender kiss indicated he didn’t harbor any
lingering annoyance. Once he’d pulled out her chair he prepared their
plates, which had become his habit. “Were you able to sleep well after
She assumed he referred to the cessation of the music. “I did, thank
you,” she lied to conceal her qualms.
“You appear subdued this morning. Is anything the matter?”
“Nothing, other than I fear I’ve created trouble for the servants. I
hope you didn’t chastise them harshly.”
“No, no; I merely explained the situation, nothing more.”
Sorely tempted to ask “explained to whom?” she resisted the urge.
“That’s a relief to hear.”
“My dear, I need excuse myself directly after breakfast. I have
several critical business matters I must attend, which may engage me
“Of course,” she said.
“I regret Catherine has not yet become a companion for you. How will
you occupy the hours?”
“I’m not certain. Likely I’ll read for a while. Later on I’ll
take a walk, if the rain holds off.”
“An agreeable enough plan. Luncheon won’t be possible for me; I’ll
have a tray in the study. If I complete my work early, I’ll join you
“That would be lovely.”
In truth, Abigail preferred to have time alone. It was as though she’d
been presented with a puzzle, one that would be difficult to solve with
many of the pieces missing. She was certain her attempt to collect them
would anger Darrell, and any activity to this end must be covert.
Although reluctant to go against his wishes, she believed she couldn’t
help anyone while the mystery persisted. She contemplated how to
proceed, without running the risk of arousing hearsay.
Mary, she thought. She’s already proven to be a trustworthy confidant.
Even so, I don’t know her well enough to reveal my predicament. I
don’t think she would gossip, yet I’ll approach her in a casual way,
just to be sure.
As she prepared for dinner, Abigail posed her questions to Mary in the
context of small talk. “Have you been in service here a long time?”
“No, miss. I came only a few days before you did. I lived nearby, and
was offered the post when it was announced the master had become
“I see. Were you at all familiar with the family prior to your
“Not terribly; mine had no connections here. It was a mutual friend of
Mrs. Williams and my mother who recommended me. Why do you ask, miss?”
“I’d like to learn more about the household where I’m to be
mistress. I’ve discovered so little I feel at a disadvantage.”
“You might seek out Mrs. Williams. She’s been here since before the
master and his sister were born.”
“That’s good to know.”
“There, miss, you’re all ready.”
“Thank you, Mary.”
Abigail wondered about Mrs. Williams. Did she dare speak with someone
close to Darrell? Mrs. Williams had been kind and forthcoming during
their introduction, and she could think of no one else to consult. She
decided with careful wording it would be safe to proceed. To obtain
answers, she believed she had no choice.
In the morning following breakfast, Abigail entered the kitchen in
search of Eleanor. She found her in the middle of frantic activity.
“Abigail, dearest, how are you this morning?”
“Very well, thank you. You on the other hand appear overwhelmed.”
“Indeed we are. We’ve much to do in preparation of Easter.”
“I’d forgotten Easter is approaching. Darrell hasn’t informed me
how the family celebrates holidays. Do they engage in large
“The immediate family celebrates all religious events privately, here
in the house.”
“They don’t attend church, or participate in any functions?”
“No, not since…the accident.”
“I suppose that’s to be expected given their grief. And the
“While some return to their families, many remain. On Easter day we
set out a large feast in both the servants’ hall and the dining room.
Part of the staff has already left, and we’re shorthanded.”
“Goodness, it’s a small wonder you’re busy.”
“Was there something you required this morning, my dear?”
“Nothing of any urgency. Perhaps I could be of assistance to you.”
Eleanor chuckled. “It’s kind of you to offer, but I can’t have you
pitching in with the staff.”
“Truly, I wouldn’t mind; I’d enjoy helping.”
“Darrell would never permit an activity so unseemly on your part.”
“Why should he object if the suggestion is mine?”
“In his eyes it won’t make a difference.”
“Then I’ll leave you to it, if I’ll only be in the way.”
Eleanor smiled, and cupped her cheek. “Such a lovely young lady you
Abigail left the kitchen even more bewildered. From what Darrell
indicated, their year of grieving should have ended. How strange they
still elect to spend their holidays alone. I must discover the reason
their disruption has continued. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait for
things to return to normal before I speak with Eleanor. Normal; that’s
not a word most would use to describe this household.
Holidays, such as Easter, which oftentimes bring families together, did
nothing to alleviate the tension at Rochester Manor. It had in fact
escalated, and temperaments had become raw. Catherine’s animosity was
obviously mounting; at times she seemed on the brink of disclosing the
issue Darrell insisted be held in confidence. He’d come to lose all
patience with his sister. As a result they’d squabbled incessantly.
With the added commotion Abigail’s frustration had reached a peak, to
the point she’d been tempted to consult with Catherine. In the end,
she thought better of it. If Catherine wanted to be rid of her, snooping
behind Darrell’s back would provide her with the perfect opportunity.
Shortly after Easter, Darrell informed Abigail Catherine had been
invited to visit friends who reside in the adjacent county, and expected
her to remain at least a fortnight. Although his sister appeared pleased
to be leaving, Abigail considered it likely he’d had a hand in this
Once Catherine had departed, the condition of the house improved
immensely. Without the continual aggravation Darrell’s disposition
relaxed, giving Abigail pause to risk up heaving the placid conditions.
On the other hand, she thought it probable when his sister returned the
tranquility would as quickly end. Since a temporary solution was hardly
preferable to none, she decided to go forth with her plan to confer with
A week later, her chance arose when Darrell was to be away from the
house until evening on matters of business. Abigail sought out Eleanor
during a quiet time of day. She discovered her alone in the kitchen.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Williams.”
“Abigail, my dear, come right in. Would you care for a cup of tea?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Williams; I’d love one.”
“Now there will be no more of this Mrs. Williams formality. I’m sure
you’re aware Darrell and Catherine call me Eleanor. I want you to do
“Eleanor then, thank you,” she obliged as she sat and was handed her
“You’re welcome. Darrell and Catherine are as a son and daughter to
me. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to attain another daughter.”
“It’s kind of you to say, Eleanor. Speaking of Darrell and
Catherine, I’ve noticed a good deal of tension exists between them.
Oftentimes they’re at odds with one another.”
“Regrettably, this is true.”
“Does their quarrel stem from the tragedy?”
“The tragedy; yes, it does. It’s a dreadful shame, for there was a
time when they were all happy children, and as close to each other as
one can imagine.”
Abigail raised her eyebrows. “All?”
“Did I say all? I meant to say both, of course. I’m afraid my age is
The lapse in Eleanor’s composure gave Abigail the impression she’d
attempted to cover a faux pas, rather than explain a misuse of
“They suffered a horrible misfortune, yet such trials may unite family
members,” Abigail suggested. “In their case, I sense a marked
disagreement pertaining to their ordeal.”
“There is a great deal of controversy.”
“Does it involve the north wing? They seem very troubled in its
“You’re most perceptive; it is the source of their dispute.”
Eleanor began to wring her hands, apparently uncomfortable with the
direction of the conversation.
“I hope you don’t think my intention is to pry,” Abigail said.
“I want to learn more, only so I may attempt to ease the strain
“I understand. I dare say no more, other than I hope you will be able
to help, someday.”
To avoid losing her trust Abigail moved on to new topics. For the time
being she was satisfied with the confirmation of one pertinent point;
the north wing was the root of the problem.
Abigail received word Darrell had returned in time for dinner. She met
him in the dining room, startled to find he was excessively wan.
“Darrell, are you unwell?”
“I am well, dearest, although it’s been a trying day. Problems have
arisen with my latest venture I’d hoped would be resolved by now;
instead they’ve become far worse. I must leave in the morning for
London to rectify them. I hate to abandon you, since it may require days
to hash the mayhem out.”
“While it’s thoughtful of you to consider me, I’ve settled in
comfortably here. You’ve no need for concern on my behalf.”
“My sweet Abigail. I knew you’d be tolerant, yet without
companionship I fear you’ll feel adrift.”
“Being an only child I’m accustomed to entertaining myself. Have my
assurance I’ll be fine, particularly since you’ll return in a few
“This is a relief to hear. I can think of no one else who possesses
your patience and generosity.”
“You possess the same qualities. In light of the patience and
generosity you’ve shown me, how could I offer you less in return?”
He smiled and caressed her hand. “Unless it would press the matter, I
need request another indulgence. I’ll be departing at an early hour,
long before breakfast. I should retire directly after dinner.”
“Don’t consider for a moment I view your measures as any sort of
neglect. You’re overly burdened as it is. You mustn’t add to it with
undue concern about me.”
“Bless you, my dearest Abigail. I love you.”
“As I love you. You’ll grant me a favor by taking good care of your
Dearest Darrell, she thought. I cannot explain, but I’ll have no
difficulty whatever filling my time. Your absence will in fact be most
opportune. I’ll be able to continue with my search, which is precisely
what I intend to do.
Abigail finished her breakfast tray quickly, and then instructed Mary to
hurry with her preparations. This morning, with Darrell gone, she was in
no mood to dilly dally. Likely she had ample time for her pursuit;
nevertheless, she didn’t want to waste a moment of her opportunity.
She bustled down the stairs as though the house was on fire. When she
reached the foyer she stopped short, and stared alternately down the
hallways. Anxious to start; she hadn’t exactly considered whom or what
she sought. She didn’t think Eleanor would divulge much more, and Jake
was not one to chat. To spy seemed her only option.
She roamed without direction, until she happened upon one of the maids
at the entrance of the east wing carrying bed linens and cleaning
implements. It seemed probable the young woman could tell her if someone
had been residing there.
“Hello,” Abigail said.
The girl halted. “I beg your pardon, miss. I didn’t see you were
“It appears you’re to tidy the east wing. Have guests stayed with us
recently, or are we anticipating someone’s arrival?”
“No, miss, I’m attending to my regular duties.”
“Then I suppose Mr. Lewis wants these rooms maintained for unplanned
“We don’t receive many guests. The master insists the rooms his
parents occupied are kept in perfect condition. I tend to them each and
every week without fail.”
Abigail quavered, but managed to maintain her composure. “Oh, of
course…I do recall him mentioning this. You’re headed there now?”
“Yes, miss. If you’ll excuse me I’ll get right to it.”
Abigail reeled as she watched her enter one of the rooms. Scarcely able
to think she bumbled her way to the conservatory, and plopped onto a
“If the north wing isn’t where his parents resided, he lied to me
about the reason it’s forbidden,” she spat aloud.
Whoever or whatever he was hiding, Abigail was convinced the
circumstance was appalling. She was determined to discover the truth. If
she couldn’t before Darrell’s return, she’d confront him with her
She walked purposefully to the north wing. She heard a noise, and was
about to investigate when the passageway doors began to open.
“Oh, my God!” she blurted out. She sped to the adjacent wall to
crouch behind a chair.
Soon she heard the sound of a lock being secured, followed by footsteps.
Whoever it was reached the end of the wing, and turned in her direction.
She found it was Eleanor, who passed by without spotting her.
Once she was out of view Abigail slipped down the corridor. She
positioned her ear against the door; however, detected nothing.
She heard someone’s approach from another part of the house, and
lurched upright. Panic swept through her when she realized the person
was too close and the hallway too long for any chance of escape.
With no furniture or alcove to provide shelter, her only option was to
plaster herself to the wall closest to the direction of the sound. With
each forthcoming step her breathing became increasingly labored. Her
shoulders constricted painfully as she pressed her body ever firmer to
the wall. She shut her eyes in anticipation of what seemed inevitable.
The person neared the entryway. Abigail gathered her nerve to take a
peek. It was Jake, who strode by via the same route as Eleanor. He was
apparently focused upon his destination, and took no notice of her.
When his footsteps could no longer be heard she peeled away from the
wall, faint to the extent she steadied herself to prevent a tumble. On
rocky legs she made her way down the hall, and out the back door.
She collapsed onto a bench, her breath coming in heaves. That was a
close call; too close. If I’m to continue I must be more careful,
although there’s no if about it.
Considering her limited alternatives, she determined the only feasible
course was to keep tabs on the north wing. She crept cautiously there,
and hid behind the same chair she’d used previously. A few servants
walked by; however, an hour later no one else had entered or exited the
north wing. For the time being she relinquished her vigil, but repeated
her surveillance that afternoon and evening, only to be disappointed
with the same result.
The routine continued for several days, though nothing more of
significance had transpired. It seemed she wouldn’t learn anything new
prior to Darrell’s return, until one night when she was again awakened
by the sound of a piano. Abigail was convinced this was the same
masterful performance she’d heard previously. “There’s no
possibility it is Mr. Phillips who’s playing,” she harrumphed.
She tiptoed down the stairs. Unable to pinpoint the sound’s location,
she headed towards the servants’ quarters to confirm her presumption.
When the music became softer she changed direction. Suddenly, she froze
dead in her tracks. She’d arrived at the north wing, aghast to hear
the music was coming from behind the doors.
Excerpted from "The North Wing" by Susan Butler. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Butler. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.