A few minutes later I stood with my hand on the knob of the French doors and paused to look back toward the beach. I couldn't see anything past where the green sodden gardens met blue sky, but I knew in my heart that Joseph had met a violent death and Luke's words came back to me: "Maybe Hugo wasn't so crazy after all." Someone had killed Joseph, someone within that very house no doubt. Luke had also said not to eat or drink anything unless others did. Could he be thinking of the tea? It certainly had a strange effect on me. Random thoughts kept racing through my brain.
Just then the door pulled open out of my loose grasp. I jumped, giving a slight shriek, and the comforting arm of Paul encircled me. "It's okay. Just me, but you look like you've seen a ghost. Was it inside or out?"
Don't tell anyone, Luke had said. Why did I trust him? That was one thing I couldn't answer just then, but I knew I did. "I stepped out for a breath of fresh air and to admire the scenery. You just startled me." Always tell the truth, I thought, it's so much more easily believed.
"I’m sorry. Let’s step back into the house and you can have a bite of breakfast with me. Will you?"
"Just coffee for me. I'm not quite myself this morning."
"Sure. Jet lag. You see, I hang on your every word," he said as he led me to a chair just inside the French doors and pulled it out for me. "So, mi-lady, you will please allow me to fetch your coffee from the buffet," he added with a deep bow at the waist.
I started to say "Thanks" but he was already headed for the buffet, which had been set up on a large antique buffet cabinet located against the opposite wall from where I sat. In an effort to come back to the reality of the here and now and leave thoughts of the lifeless body on the beach, I began, "You can answer a question I've been building up to ever since I arrived. Just why does everybody talk and behave like they were in a real English manor house halfway around the world?"
"Noticed, did you?" he handed me the coffee.
"Well, yes. Even the servants, most of whom are Hispanic, act like they stepped out of Jolly Old England. I mean, really, a full-fledged ladies maid these days? I was buttoning my own blouses and tying my own shoes before I was fully potty-trained."
He turned to shine his pearly smile on me and I felt sorry that I hadn't told him of his father's tragic death. "Family tradition, and I am delighted to hear that your grandmother neglected to educate you in at least one aspect of your family tree. Perhaps she wished to forget, but not Grandfather and certainly not Hugo." When he turned around from the buffet, his plate was piled high with potato pancakes oozing with maple syrup, scrambled eggs and sausage, and for good measure, three biscuits spread thick with butter and jelly.
He sat opposite me staying near the food, I assumed, for seconds. His story began, halted only by an occasional bite. I was fascinated not only by the tale but by the grace with which he could eat and talk. "A couple hundred years ago, our not-so-illustrious ancestor young Cedric Hightower was disgraced by scandal. It had something to do with the king's own mistress. Lord Ceddy was quite a lady's man."
"Runs in the family, doesn't it?"
Paul chuckled through a mouthful of pancakes and sausage. "Thank you, cousin. Anyway, he had to flee for his life. No nobleman dared help him and he couldn't return to his estates, so he stowed away on the first ship scheduled to leave from the nearest harbor. Eventually, far out to sea, he was discovered and put to honest work for his passage. Ah, but Sir Cedric was a leader, not a common toiler, so he began to subvert the merchant captain's authority over the crew and before he was finished had the crew and ship converted to piracy. For a few years they sailed the Seven Seas wreaking havoc on none other than the king's own ships. A bounty was offered, sizable enough for our Lord to take it seriously, so he set sail for the New World with all his booty on board to start a new life. A storm of immense proportions overtook the ship and all but drove her into a watery grave. Instead they were blown off course and eventually made port in South America.
"So far south of his goal, he decided to head for the West Indies to turn his ill-gotten gain into honest trade. After a safe passage around the Horn, Cedric thought he had it made, but this plan too was fated for failure. All along the western South American coast, one devastating storm after another lashed away at the ship. Half the men were washed overboard and what was left of the others were sick with scurvy or starving. No safe port could be found in which to land. The crew was on the verge of mutiny when the weather cleared and they dropped anchor just off an island, which we can only assume was the Galapagos. When the superstitious sailors caught sight of those iguanas, giant tortoises and immense spiders, they were struck with fear, said that the gigantic wildlife were devils and the voyage was cursed; and they may have been right. Setting sail, short of provisions, and a surly crew to deal with, Sir Cedric made a daring decision. He would continue north, gradually and quietly disposing of any dissidents. This action would stretch their provisions and make a much safer journey.
"With only a skeleton crew, he eventually limped into land, in fact, somewhere along this coastline. The bulk of his fortune was hidden, reserving only enough to start over. But by the time he reached the British West Indies, news of the bounty on his head had preceded him. He and his crew were turned over to the local magistrate for trial, which judgment was swift and the verdict was carried out promptly. What stolen treasure he had kept on board was sent home to the king on the very next ship. Since his personal belongings held no interest to his majesty, they were returned to Cedric's family at the same time their lands were confiscated as restitution to the realm."
"That's horrible! What happened to them?"
"Well, Cedric's mother died suddenly, a heart attack I suppose, but his younger brother James, and his wife decided to follow Cedric's example and head for the New World, more precisely, the Colonies. He was an enterprising young man and made a fortune in no time in legitimate shipping. James knew that war would break out soon with England and had no desire to bear arms against his own countrymen, so he sent an emissary to the king, pleading for his lands in return for support. But the king had a long memory and didn't care for any support by the name Hightower so he hung the messenger in response.
"James was greatly grieved over this action, and while he had no desire to serve such a king, he still couldn't bring himself to join the war. He was loyal to England and vowed to return one day. Then he remembered a private log among Cedric's belongings and realized that its contents might lead to a vast fortune. Surely the king would accept him and return their estate if that fortune were returned. Seeing that neutrality was impossible among the colonists and he couldn't bear to leave his family, James set about dissolving his assets and fitting a ship, the largest he could find. Fitting her with a crew, however, seemed to be a problem. That is, until word spread of his feelings and his intention. Men of all classes, with their families, filtered in from all over the colonies to join the expedition.
"James plotted a safe course, stopping frequently as he worked his way south. After all, he was in no hurry. The war would last a long time. Unlike his brother's voyage, it was an uneventful journey, fraught only by the danger that a child would stray and fall overboard. Following a strange map and Cedric's log, they eventually came here and carved out this small empire. James never could find the king's gold and died still in its pursuit. But he always remained loyal to England.”
"So that's why all the tradition. But most of these servants are Hispanic, not English."
"Yes. Well, over the last hundred years or so, many of the descendants of that original band chose to seek their own fortunes in the new land and left. Those that remained inter-married with the Spanish and Indian natives of the coast. The servants here are their sons and daughters many times removed."
"I see. That explains the difference I noticed in my maid, Maricela, and her fairer sister Esmeralda."
"My, my! Aren't you settling right in! On a first name basis already, huh? No matter," he said as he rose to get us more coffee and himself a sweet roll. "Perhaps you'll stay after the reading of the will for a very long visit."
"Your assumption is that your father will inherit everything." How could I talk as though Joseph would walk through that door any second?
"Of course. He is the senior member of the family and that's the way it has always been. But don't worry. I'm sure you'll be provided for adequately." There was that arrogant Hightower, all consumed with money male I had caught a glimpse of the night before.
Just then we heard the distant wail of sirens.