A Weekend At Blenheim: A Novel by J. P. MorrisseyA Weekend At Blenheim: A Novel by J. P. Morrissey

A Weekend At Blenheim: A Novel

byJ. P. Morrissey

Paperback | March 1, 2003

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In this enthralling and atmospheric tale of murder, revenge, and redemption, a young American struggles to make sense of a world he does not understand, where the price of acceptance may be murder.

John Vanbrugh is an outsider in the England of 1905: A determined but unsuccessful American architect, he has moved to London to make a new life for himself and his wife, Margaret. When he receives an unexpected summons to meet the dazzling Duchess of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace, he is skeptical.

The young duchess, Vanbrugh comes to understand, has her reasons. Like him, she is American-born: Consuelo Vanderbilt, one of the richest debutantes in America. Seemingly on impulse, the duchess hires Vanbrugh to renovate her rooms at Blenheim--a plum job Vanbrugh accepts. He and his wife join the weekend party at Blenheim, a group that includes the foul-tempered duke; his young cousin Winston Churchill; the society painter John Singer Sargent; the duchess's mother and American suffragette, Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont; Gladys Deacon, an American friend of the duchess; and the enigmatic Catholic Monsignor Vay de Vaya.

Almost as soon as he begins work at Blenheim, Vanbrugh uncovers a series of unsettling letters that hint at a long-concealed deceit. As he tries to grasp the meaning of this discovery, a sketchbook owned by Sargent is stolen and a young housemaid is found in the courtyard, strangled. It is then that Vanbrugh realizes he is caught in a maze of duplicity and manipulation with no way out. Struggling to uncover the treachery he sees around him, Vanbrugh is forced to reevaluate everything he thought about Blenheim, himself, even the very nature of truth.

Part mystery, part gothic morality tale, A Weekend at Blenheim is a compelling, mesmerizing, deeply satisfying novel.

J. P. Morrissey is an editor and writer who lives outside New York City.
Title:A Weekend At Blenheim: A NovelFormat:PaperbackPublished:March 1, 2003Publisher:St. Martin's PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0312311389

ISBN - 13:9780312311384

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Weekend at Blenheimchapter 1SUMMER 1905I was in a foul temper the afternoon the letter came. London had been hellishly hot the entire month of June--a hazy, oppressive, provoking heat that seemed to enervate the city and everyone in it. It was all but impossible to work, or even to keep drafting paper dry enough to draw upon. Every time I rested my hand on a sheet for longer than a moment, my palm would cling to the paper, dampening it so badly that it was difficult to draw on with either pencil or ink. I was forced to redraw the elevation of a small villa the firm had been commissioned to design three times before I finished a fair copy.At home, life was almost as difficult. My wife, Margaret, was not sleeping well, which made her fretful and churlish. Her pregnancy had not been an easy one, and as she neared the end of its third month, she had become decidedly ill-tempered. The quick, assured woman I married had become testy and impossible to please. Our rooms off Baker Street, which she had thought delightful only a few weeks ago, were now a torture to her. She found them cramped and inhospitable, and complained bitterly that she could hear rats nesting inside the walls--defects I had not detected, vermin I had neither seen nor heard."At least, Van, you can see the river from your office," Margaret complained over a dinner of overcooked chops and soggy carrots--as if glimpsing a dirty river through grimy windows soothed the soul. "The only thing I can see is the milliner's across the street.""The milliner's smells appreciably better than rotting fish," I said as I poked at my food. "And if you find it agreeable to lean over a drafting table while sweat pours down your aching back, by all means come to the office."I realized instantly that I had been too harsh; Margaret pressed her lips together and, holding her stomach, broke into deep, heaving sobs. I sat across from her in resigned silence, waiting for the squall to abate. My strategy for withstanding these outbursts--the only one that I had found to work--was to remain silent for a few minutes and then to surrender unequivocally.Eventually Margaret managed, "What a despicable thing to suggest, Van--to me, to your wife ...""You are right," I agreed, defeated. "I am sorry. It is this damn heat that is making all of us short-tempered."Margaret looked at me in surprise. "I am not short-tempered," she said indignantly through her tears. "I am as calm and as dignified as I can be, under extremely trying circumstances." Her hands fluttered up to indicate the room and then settled back into her lap. "But it has not been easy." She leaned against the chair back and settled into a renewed bout of tears."What about a visit to your father?" I said when it appeared that the worst of her temper had passed. "It must be cooler in Long Hanborough than it is in London." Margaret's father, the Reverend John Barton, was the vicar at Christ Church in Long Hanborough, a village a few miles northwest of Oxford. He was a good-hearted if slightly befuddled cleric who yearned to do good for others. I had met him a year ago when he and Margaret traveled to America, to Boston and New York, to raise money for a children's charity he was involved with. My sister, Ann, who was a member of one of the churches in Boston that welcomed Reverend Barton, introduced us at a small reception, proclaiming, "Reverend Barton, Miss Barton, this is my heathen brother John Vanbrugh. He is an architect.""A struggling one," I amended."Ah, at long last," Mr. Barton said, shaking my hand vigorously. "Delighted, delighted.""So you eschew belief for bas-relief," Margaret said smiling, her eyebrows raised. "How brave you are."Her father chuckled and said, "My dear Margaret, do not poke fun at Mr. Vanbrugh.""It is no trouble, I assure you," I said, grinning at the plump, dark-haired woman before me who was dressed in a dark blue gown of a European cut and matching hat. "I believe in the Almighty, but I suppose it is true that I am more interested in the certainty of this world than what I can hope for in the next.""True faith is the ultimate certainty, Mr. Vanbrugh," she said. "For myself, I cannot imagine anything more certain than the Absolute. Would you agree?"I did not reply, for I had noticed her eyes. They were easily the most remarkable parts of her face. Almond-shaped, they were a deep blue with flecks of gold and were set wide over a prominent nose. The rest of her face was not what one would call handsome: Her mouth was a little too broad, her lips fuller than they should have been, and her complexion tended toward the sallow. But there was a commendable air of intelligence about her that was pleasant enough."Absolutely," I said after a moment.Miss Barton looked abashed as her father laughed. "Touché, Mr. Vanbrugh," he said.The Bartons spent several weeks in New England, traveling to Providence, to Newport, and up the Maine coast as far as Brunswick. During their visit I came to know them well--so well, in fact, that when Mr. Barton sailed for England, I accompanied him and my bride, Mrs. John Vanbrugh, nee Margaret Barton of Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire. I own that our courtship was brief, and that she and I did not transport each other into the sweet garden of transcendent love that the lady novelists write about. But we were compatible enough, each willing to overlook the limitations of the other in the interest of harmony, and we were agreeably disposed toward each other in nearly every way.Mr. Barton was pleased at our engagement--more than I had expected. "You two will do well together, my boy," he said to me one evening at my sister's house after he had drunk too much cider. "Neither one of you expects too much of the other. You are not children, either of you: Margaret, good heavens, is nearly twenty-seven! Imagine--still a maid!" He shook his head in wonder. "It is time for her life to begin."As we left Boston Harbor, on that cold, clear evening in February, I turned back toward America for a final look. I was not sorry to leave the city, although I would miss my sister and her family. But it had long been apparent that some change would have to be made: I had not secured a suitable position at any of the city's architectural firms. Since I was not trained in the classical traditions of the craft and the history of structure and design was not known to me, I was destined to remain a journeyman--a draftsman for hire. For a man of ambition, that was a bitter brew. I knew that I was a man of ability and imagination, and as my courting of Margaret took its course, the idea of going to England with them took root. I flirted briefly with the idea of moving to the Continent, to Paris, but the happy accident of my encounter with the Bartons proved too persuasive. And while there were moments when I regretted not settling in the French capital, I came to appreciate the simple lines of London's buildings and its reassuring domesticity.Despite the dire warnings of my acquaintances in America about the difficulties of establishing myself in a foreign country, my drafting proved well received in London, and thanks to an introduction provided by my new father-in-law, I was offered a position at Burlington and Kent, a small but highly regarded firm in the City. I settled quickly into the position and to my new role as an interested observer of that extraordinary but puzzling race, the English. And to our surprise and delight, Margaret soon learned she was to have a child--news which made my father-in-law glow with happiness. Since then, he had been imploring Margaret to visit him, and even suggested that the baby be born in Long Hanborough.Margaret seemed to consider the idea of traveling: Her sniffling slowed. "What would you do if I went to Long Hanborough?" she asked."I would be fine. Mrs. Meaghan would look after me.""Mrs. Meaghan would drink herself insensible, drop her teeth into your dinner, and then rob you blind on her way out," Margaret said of the woman who came in to do for us. She removed a fresh handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her nose."I am fully capable of taking care of myself," I said. "Even when it comes to Mrs. Meaghan."Margaret laughed and said, "Men. Such children.""We are nothing of the kind," I said in defense of my sex. "Our wives just treat us as if we are."Margaret smiled as she removed a speck of dust from her skirt. "It is so easy to take advantage of you," she said, "you are so willing to be duped by a female."I reached for the Morning Post and made a conspicuous display of reading an account in it of the visit by the king of Portugal to Windsor Castle. "That is too ridiculous even to reply to," I said, "so I will not."Margaret was silent a moment. "I suppose a short visit to Long Hanborough might be all right," she said. "No more than a few days.""Of course not," I said, peering over my newspaper. "No one would expect you to stay longer.""I would be gone just long enough for the city to cool down," Margaret said, more to herself than to me."I am sure the heat will break very soon," I agreed."And Father has sounded increasingly melancholy in his letters," Margaret said. "Poor man. He is growing lonely.""He misses you," I said."He has never lived in that house alone," Margaret said. "He wants company. I think a short visit would be better for all. A week at the most." The decision made, her tears gone, Margaret stood up. "There will be much to do there, I expect. The house will be a sight. The whole place will need a good airing-out, and Mrs. Coggins is far too old to do it properly. The mattresses will have to be turned, the rugs cleaned, and everything will have to be dusted--oh, the dust!""The weather will be much cooler in a week," I said.She laughed and kissed me on the head as she walked by. "My dear, as if anyone could predict the weather."The emotional storm had passed; her sea of tears had calmed. She was composed now, her course set. Margaret went to her writing desk, which snuggled into the corner of the sitting room like a plump cat before the fire. "I will write to Father, to ask him when I should come to him," Margaret said with decision. She glanced at me. "Perhaps I can drive him to distraction, too."This time I had the sagacity to stay silent.  "Is that your real name? John?" Davy, the Burlington and Kent office boy, asked early one morning three days later as he threw a letter onto my drafting table."Mind the ink," I said irritably, shooing the letter to one side. "It is not dry yet."Short, thin, and surpassingly stupid, Davy glanced incuriously at what I was working on, an elevation for a new bank in Bristol. "Nearly," he said."Nearly is not good enough," I said.The boy ignored me. "Why they call you Van then?"His obtuseness was remarkable. "I am called that because the name Victoria was already taken."Davy frowned, mumbled something incomprehensible, and shuffled back to his desk across the room, shooting me occasional dark, puzzled looks.The envelope was small and neat, and made of thick, good-quality paper. It was addressed only to "Mr. John Vanbrugh.""Who delivered this?" I asked."Dunno." Davy shrugged. "Ned brought it up, from downstairs."I opened it. The letterhead read in small, raised letters "Blenheim Palace." Above it was a small ducal coronet.The message was brief.Dear Mr. Vanbrugh,Your father-in-law, Mr. Barton, mentioned you to me, and naturally your name and nationality piqued my interest. I won der if you would mind calling on me at Blenheim soonest?Consuelo Duchess of MarlboroughI chuckled."What's it then?" Davy asked."Someone is having a bit of fun. It is supposed to be a letter from someone important."I had heard of the Duchess of Marlborough, of course. It was almost impossible not to. She was the only daughter of William K. Vanderbilt, the American millionaire, and had come to England a decade ago when she married Charles Spencer-Churchill, the ninth Duke of Marlborough. I had never seen her in person, though I had seen her photograph in the newspapers. She was tall and possessed the arrogant beauty of the rich, which, I surmised, sprang more from a languorous life of idleness than it did from any inner fire. She and her husband, who had been undersecretary for the Colonies in the government, lived idly at Blenheim Palace, a large estate near Long Hanborough. I had never visited the place, but my father-in-law was eager for me to see it. "It is magnificent, my boy, a house fit for God himself." If that were the case, why was the lady of the manor inviting me?The letter was obviously a prank. The Duchess of Marlborough had no more need of me than she did of another million dollars. The two of us existed on different planes; the paths of our lives would never intersect. I was not the kind of architect she would employ: I was not famous, I had not designed any fashionable, overdecorated houses in London or in the countryside. I had not studied in Paris or visited the ruins of Greece and Rome. My name, which I own was a little unusual, was simply what I was called; it held no other meaning for me. The fact that I was an American by birth was more interesting than important. Everything about this letter was so puzzling, in fact, that I was convinced it must be a prank--some nonsense cooked up by a wag. Perhaps Mr. Hodges, one of our surveyors, was the culprit, or Edward Williams, a draftsman I sometimes met for a pint at the Fox and Vixen. Whoever the prankster was, he apparently enjoyed the thought of my presenting myself at the door of Blenheim Palace, panting at the prospect of working for a duchess. The whole thing was so patently ridiculous that I did what any rational man would do in my situation. I tossed the letter away.The elevation was finally dry. As I was readying it for Davy to deliver to the bank's London office, I heard a thin voice on the stairs. "I wonder, is John Vanbrugh up there?"Davy went to the top of the stairs and asked self-importantly, "Who wants to know?""Oh, my boy, is he up there? If he is, please tell him his father-in-law wishes to speak to him."I went to the top of the stairs and saw Mr. Barton peering up at me, his face crinkled in nearsighted concentration. "Ah, there you are," he said in relief. "I was beginning to think that I had come to the wrong office.""What on earth are you doing here?" I asked, walking down the stairs to greet him. "You are supposed to be in Long Hanborough.""And so I was, so I was." Mr. Barton nodded eagerly. "And so I will be." He smiled benignly, his pudgy cheeks ruddy with excitement. Reverend Barton was a short, cheerful man with the same intelligent eyes his daughter inherited. He had a thin, horseshoe-shaped arc of wild white hair, but the crown of his head was as pink as his face. Befitting his role of a clergyman, he dressed in black, but inevitably there was some part of his toilet that was askew: Today he was missing a button on his coat."But Margaret wants to come to you in Long Hanborough," I said. "We were to leave in a few days.""Yes, I know, I know, I have come to escort both of you. To Long Hanborough."Inwardly I groaned: Our rooms were not ready for visitors. "So you will be staying with us?" I asked.Barton looked confused. "Did you not receive the letter this morning?"I shook my head. "I got no letter today."Davy, who had been listening to every word at the top of the stairs, interrupted us. "Yeah, you did. Just now, it was. That letter you tossed.""That was a stunt," I said. Turning to Barton, I explained. "Someone was trying to make me think that the Duchess of Marlborough wanted me to call on her."Barton clutched my forearm, fairly bursting with glee. "But that is why I am here, my boy, she does want to see you," he said with enthusiasm. "I came for you myself.""That cannot be. She has no idea who I am.""Oh, she does, my boy," Barton said. He leaned toward me and lowered his voice. "I told her about you.""You? Why?"Barton grinned and almost danced with excitement. "She has been very generous indeed toward my orphan school project, and after our last meeting she mentioned ... well, I will let her tell all. But let us hurry, we may still be able to make the train.""What? Go now?" I asked, flummoxed at the suggestion."She's a duchess, isn't she," Davy said, as if it were necessary to remind me of the obvious."A duchess is not to be kept waiting," Barton said."But I must speak to Mr. Kent first," I protested."Leave him to me," Davy said. He retrieved the letter from the trash and waved it at me with every indication that he heartily disapproved of my lack of respect toward my betters. "I'll show him this. Pleased as punch, he'll be, one of his own staff meeting the Duchess of Marlborough. He knows what's important, even if others don't.""Come along, Van," Barton urged. "We have a great deal to do."When we arrived home Margaret was packed and waiting; her father had obviously stopped at our rooms first. We arrived at Paddington in good time to make the train to Long Hanborough, and during the journey Margaret divided her time between bombarding her father with questions about why the duchess wanted to see me and upbraiding me for my cavalier attitude toward a peeress's correspondence. My father-in-law refused to answer any question Margaret posed about the duchess, and I kept silent because her chattering relieved me from having to distract her from her condition and how she was feeling.We arrived in Long Hanborough to find that Margaret had been correct in her estimation of Mrs. Coggins: The house was cluttered with papers and books and was dustier than usual, but was otherwise in good order. Margaret would have just enough work to make her feel she was accomplishing something without exhausting her.As I brought in her last parcel, Margaret kissed me. "Now pay attention to everything," she admonished. "I understand she is trans forming the palace."Barton bustled into the hall, his coat still on. "She is, my dear. Slowly but surely." He kissed her lightly on the forehead. "Now, are we ready?""But I was just about to eat something," I said."I am certain the duchess will offer you something," Barton said. "Her hospitality is well known, well known, indeed. So hurry along, there's a good boy."He and I piled back into his carriage and as we rode the few miles from Long Hanborough to Woodstock, I pondered once again the eccentricities of the English. The two Bartons, whose family had lived in Oxfordshire for as long as people could remember, were excited at the prospect that I, who had been born in America, was to meet an English duchess, also born in America. Both the duchess and I had come to England because that was where our spouses lived, and we had found places for ourselves in a culture that was not known to embrace foreigners, particularly Americans. Yet we had been accepted by the English and by all appearances had settled into comfortable respectability.Just before we reached Woodstock, we passed on our left a huge, ornate arch of stone that dwarfed a pair of black iron gates, its spears tipped in brilliant gold. The gates were closed and there was no one about to unlock them. My father-in-law was not in the least bothered by this. He drove his horse through the village confidently, passing the town hall, a stolid, square building of golden stone, an ancient coaching inn crowded with men and horses, a small Gothic church settled snugly on its plot of green, and a string of well-tended houses, their neatly planted window boxes overflowing with summer blossoms. At the end of the road, we veered to the left around a small guesthouse that advertised "Views of Blenheim" and came upon another heavy stone archway, a twin to the one we had passed earlier. A gatekeeper, holding a silver staff with a scarlet tassel hanging from it, stood at firm attention when we passed from the village onto the estate.Instantly the scenery changed. To our right, sheep grazed along the gentle grassy hill that sloped down to a broad, placid lake, as white swans skimmed the surface of the green water. In front of us, towering trees, grouped in dark clusters, obscured a full view of the house. All that I could make out clearly from a distance was a flag flying from a thin pole."There," Barton said, pointing toward the house. "That is Blenheim."He guided the carriage down the drive, and we turned right onto a broader avenue planted on either side with small, sickly trees, which ended before another enormous stone arch, standing bluntly in the middle of the thick-set wall. The arch was covered with garlands of stone while classical figures stood in niches fifteen feet above us, below oddly shaped stone finials, which stood atop the arch itself. The gates themselves consisted of tall metal spears, each painted black and its point tipped with gold. Gold medallions of animal heads, florets, intertwined letters, and a lion holding a flag in one paw, his tail curved merrily, decorated each side.From this prospect, I could not see Blenheim clearly, but I was struck by how impressive it was. Assembled across the crest of a low hill was a startling array of architectural elements: massive wings topped with stone pinnacles thirty feet high which looked poised to shoot into the sky, curving arcades of narrow stone columns, hundreds of blank, black windows, stone roof urns supporting golden orbs that caught the sun. The palace looked monumental, immense--a home for giants.As we drew nearer, I could see that the palace was built of roan-colored stone which over the years had aged and blackened, giving the house a forbidding, even sinister cast. Four thick towers anchored each corner of the main house, with a square arcade of chimneys rising from the center of each one. The central section, all weighty porticos and broken pediments, lurched up out of the house, as if thrust through the roof, a golden orb atop its highest point. The entire effect was of a jumble of stone thrown together in a cataclysm. It was a far cry from the elegant mansions I saw in London: There was none of the comfortable domesticity one saw along Park Lane, or even at the Queen's House at Greenwich. This house put me in mind of the Tower of London. It had the same feel: heavy, warlike, unbreachable. It did not look like a country house but a citadel, the seat of a medieval despot set among the gentle hills of Oxfordshire.Barton directed the carriage toward the arch. As we drew closer to the house, I noticed that it was impossible to discern anything beyond the tall, gaunt windows: They turned a blank cheerless aspect to the world.We passed through the narrow, elaborately decorated entry, whilethree nearly nude female statues looked away, as if embarrassed; above them, three horrified, openmouthed stone faces stared down in dismay. The Marlborough arms were hung prominently from each side of the gate. Though I was no student of heraldry, I knew the coat of arms was impressive. Its shield was divided into quarters, with a fifth smaller shield in the middle of the top half. Two lions, one each in the upper left and lower right quadrants, faced left and stood on their hind legs, holding military flags. Four strong, square buckles, linked up from the bottom left to the upper right, were balanced by two narrower strips of seashells that slashed down from the upper left to the lower right quadrants. The entire shield was protected by two ferocious dragons and a large, two-headed eagle which peered from behind a ducal coronet. At the bottom of the coat of arms was a foreign phrase I was not familiar with: "Fiel Pero Desdichado." The effect of the arch had a disconcerting feel to it, as if it were a portal to something unpleasant."This is the East Gate," Barton said above the clatter of the horse's hoofs on the cobblestones. "Did you read the inscription?""What inscription?""The one above the archway.""No," I admitted."Never mind. The duke added it very recently. We will read it on the way out.""What is the flag?" I asked."The duke's standard," Barton said. "It always flies whenever His Grace is in residence."We drove across a large court cluttered with wagons, ladders, and piles of wood and dirt. It was ringed by a series of stocky archways, behind which long arcades ran into heavy shadows. We did not pause, but passed through another archway with a large clock above it and came finally to a magnificent central court, around three sides of which the palace was arranged. Unlike the cobblestones in the courtyard, much of the central court was grass, though it was in the process of being recobbled with what looked like granite. Neat pyramids of stones, like fires at a military encampment, had been placed at intervals around the court and groups of men were laying them.Barton pulled up to a sweeping set of stairs that led to the main entrance and stopped. "Well, here we are, then," he said brightly.Almost immediately a servant appeared to tend to the horse. Barton handed him the reins and we climbed out of the carriage.As Barton gave instructions to the servant, I took stock of Blenheim from between two decorative cannons, each six feet long, which displayed the same coat of arms I had seen on the gate. Above the enormous front doors, which were taller than three grown men, an intricately carved pediment was supported by six cumbrous pillars. Even up close, Blenheim looked as if it had just been heaved out of the earth.Barton turned to me and began to climb the stairs. "You will, I am sure, find Blenheim magnificent," Barton said. "Visitors usually do.""How do the residents find it?" I asked jokingly.Barton did not reply.As we entered the hall, a soaring cube of limestone, I understood why my father-in-law had used the term "magnificent." The space clearly had been designed to overwhelm. Three tall tiers of arches--some of them windows, some of them doorways, some of them recesses displaying sculpture or statuary--climbed up the walls to the immense oval mural that dominated the ceiling and depicted a Roman soldier kneeling before a woman holding a spear. The expansive floor, decorated in a pattern of white marble alternating with smaller inlays of black, was covered by two faded carpets of an Oriental pattern. At the end of the hall, directly across from the front doors, was another, flatter stone arch, supported on both sides by heavy pillars. An elaborate coat of arms of fleur-de-lis and lions topped by a crown--similar to the one I saw on the gate and cannons was carved into the keystone of the arch; two stone cherubs blowing trumpets and carrying curving branches of leaves proclaimed its uniqueness. Beneath the arch and above a doorway of sumptuous white marble hung three faded flags of gold, white, and red. The room was indeed stately, but the effect was more funereal than triumphant. Despite its cavernous height--surely more than sixty feet--and the windows that lighted it, the hall was dim and airless, like a mausoleum.Two women emerged from one set of shadows, talking earnestly.Both were young, and both wore aprons. The one on the right--a tall, fragile-looking creature with a heart-shaped face, thick, dark hair piled high upon her head, an upturned nose, and a long, elegant neck--was speaking intently to the smaller woman, a housemaid, who was holding a square package wrapped in brown paper and frowning. The taller lady was wearing gardening gloves and held a beautiful array of brightly colored flowers. She placed the flowers on a large marble table near the wall and whispered to the housemaid. The younger girl nodded quickly, and with an abrupt curtsy departed, hurrying up the stairway that was just visible through the outsized arcade on one side of the Great Hall.The woman smiled when she noticed my father-in-law, revealing a small dimple. She removed her gloves as she walked toward us, and extended her thin, elegant hand to my father-in-law. "Mr. Barton, I am so sorry that I was not here to greet you. As you can see, you have caught me impromptu." Her smile was warm and playful.My father-in-law bowed and took her hand gently. "But you are here now, Your Grace. That is pleasure enough for an old man."The lady smiled and turned to me. "But perhaps not enough for a younger one?""I expect that it depends on the pleasure," I said. "And the man."The duchess gazed at me and arched a well-formed eyebrow as my father-in-law said, "Your Grace, may I present to you my son-in-law, John Vanbrugh. john, this is the Duchess of Marlborough."The duchess gazed at me with kind, heavily lidded eyes. "I am always pleased to meet a fellow American," she said, offering me her hand. Her grip was cool and firm, but her skin was soft as the petal of a flower. Her head cocked slightly to one side, as a bird's might to listen to the song of its mate. Her dark brown eyes were large and full of barely concealed mischief, as if she expected a joke at any moment."And I am always surprised to encounter an American duchess," I said, bowing my head. "You are indeed a rarity.""Oh, yes, I am a hothouse flower, locked in a conservatory of stone," the duchess said dryly. "But that is not why I imposed upon your father-in-law to meet you." She checked a tiny watch that waspinned to her blouse beneath her apron. "Would you care for some refreshment? We always have something for guests a little bit before luncheon.""That would be delightful," Barton said, looking at me.She removed her apron, revealing that she was attired in a soft, flowing dress of summer green with a lacy, tight-fitting jacket over it. The dress's collar covered her fantastically long neck, but over it she wore a wide choker of magnificent pearls; I made a mental note to remember these details for Margaret. We followed the duchess across the hall and into the Saloon, a room that was almost as large as the hall itself. It was wider than it was deep, with a narrow, oval dining table at its center, ringed by a tight complement of crimson chairs set on gilded legs. On all four walls a huge mural had been painted, depicting dozens of figures I did not recognize. They peered down at us from a series of balconies between towering pillars as heavy curtains were pulled back to reveal Arcadian scenes. Their stern, stately gazes made me feel as if I were a jester who had failed to amuse them sufficiently.The duchess took no notice of the room. Instead, she walked toward an already open set of doors on the left-hand wall. "I understand that this is your first visit to Blenheim, Mr. Vanbrugh," she said."Yes, Your Grace," I replied."I am sorry that my husband is not here to greet you. He is out on the estate on business. He very much enjoys showing Blenheim to visitors. Particularly visitors who fit in well here, as I am sure you shall." She paused at the doorway. "He is like my mother, you see: always building up and tearing down. Mostly tearing down." For a moment she looked tired. She removed her apron and placed it and her gardening gloves on the weighty serving table next to the door. "I am not as knowledgeable as my husband about the scenery of the palace, Mr. Vanbrugh, but this is my favorite view."She pointed into the next room. Directly across from us, on the opposite wall, was another set of open doors. Through the doorway I could see into the next room, where another set of doors also lay open, leading the eye into the next room and to the next open doorway. The pattern was repeated through four sets of doors until at last, at theouter wall of the very last room, a tall window let in comforting white light. I could not see much of the rooms themselves, but the vista, the parade through them, looked inviting--full of possibility and surprise."Ah, yes," Barton said softly. "Delightful, just delightful.""Winston tells me that this is called an 'enfilade,"' she said."Enfilade?" Barton asked."An enfilade is a progression of rooms, one after the other, with parallel sets of doors," the duchess explained. "If one stands in the right place, one can see clearly to the very end.""If only life were like that," I said.The duchess looked at me speculatively. "Do you want to see into the future, Mr. Vanbrugh?" she asked. "Do you want to know what is going to happen?""No. But sometimes I do feel the need for a little more perspective."The duchess laughed. "Then we must see what we can do to assist you."A WEEKEND AT BLENHEIM. Copyright © 2002 by J. P. Morrissey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Editorial Reviews

"A gripping tale of intrigue." -Iain Pears

"A Weekend at Blenheim is elegant and terrifying. J. P. Morrissey weaves this mysterious tale with passion and precision, conjuring a gothic tale so chilling you won't be able to put it down." -Adriana Trigiani, author of Big Stone Gap and Big Cherry Holler