Today, I’m pleased to be one of the blogs featuring on the blog blitz for A Tale of Two Sisters by Merryn Allingham, an emotional historical drama which was published by Canelo on 21st March 2019. I’m particularly thrilled to be able to share an extract with you that I’m sure will whet your appetite for the book.
Separated by time and distance, two sisters seek answers for all they’ve lost
When Alice Verinder’s beloved sister Lydia goes missing, Alice boards the Orient Express bound for Topkapi Palace in Constantinople, determined to find her.
Lydia was governess to the Sultan’s young children and though her letters spoke of exotic delights and welcoming hosts, the reception Alice receives is decidedly cold and answers unforthcoming.
Now, as Alice digs deeper into the secrets of a land foreign to her she has only Englishman Harry Frome to help her. But as their search uncovers unforeseen dangers and exposes an unexpected ardour, is Alice ready for the truths they’ll uncover?
London, February 1907
Another day and no letter. Alice snatched up the pile of envelopes from the console table and shuffled through them, one by one. She had been so certain that today she would hear, but there was nothing. Still not a word from Lydia. What was happening to her sister that she could find no time to write? A note only, that’s all she asked, some reassuring lines to say all was well, all was happy in a palace several thousand miles away. It surely wasn’t too much to expect, after all the trouble her sister had caused, unless… but Lydia should be safe. As governess to two small girls, there could be nothing that would stop her writing.
For minutes, Alice stood motionless. Her eyes were fixed on the dark oak of the front door, but it was not its fine mouldings she saw, nor the decorative glass splashing colour across an otherwise gloomy space. It was Lydia’s face. She had dreamt of her sister last night, but didn’t she always? This had been different, though. Last night she had been with Lydia again; she had searched and she had found her. Old resentments had dissolved to nothing and instead she had thrown her arms around the girl and hugged her slight frame, never to let go. Lydia’s stubbornness, her irresponsibility, were forgotten. She had found her dear sister and that was all that mattered. The waking disappointment had been almost too much to bear. And now these letters. Or rather, no letter. Another day of pretending that nothing was amiss, of putting on a reassuring smile. She would need time before she faced her parents again.
She was at the bottom of the stairs on her way to her bedroom when she heard her name called.
‘Alice.’ Her mother’s voice held the suggestion of a quaver, but fretfulness was uppermost.
She felt a tremor of impatience, instantly suppressed. She must not blame her mother for the constant need of attention. Edith Verinder had never coped well with life and, since Charlie’s death, what little fortitude she’d possessed had faded without a fight.
‘Alice!’ The fretfulness had become peremptory. ‘When will your aunt be here?’
‘I’m not sure,’ she answered, retracing her steps into the sitting room. ‘Very soon, I would think.’
Her mother was sitting by the window wearily resplendent in a wing chair, a thick wool shawl around her shoulders, a blanket at her feet. Alice automatically retrieved the blanket and laid it across the bony knees.
‘You will bring Cicely to me, won’t you, when she arrives?’
‘Of course, Mama, I’ll bring her immediately. I’m not certain when the York train gets in but there’s always such a crush at King’s Cross. I expect Aunt Cissie has had to queue for a hansom.’
Her mother gave a long sigh as though she, too, were queuing for the hansom. ‘Make sure that Dora has the tea things ready – and the best china, mind.’
‘And don’t put out too many madeleines.’ She hadn’t noticed her father hunched into a matching chair at the other side of the room. He spoke without taking his eyes from his newspaper. ’Your aunt has rather too healthy an appetite.’
‘I’ll tell Cook,’ she said a trifle distractedly, halfway back to the door.
There were a hundred jobs waiting to be done and Cicely’s room had still to be made up. Her aunt enjoyed the freedom of wealthy widowhood, travelling when and where she chose from her home in the shadow of the Minster, but why she had decided to visit London at such short notice, Alice had no idea. It was another burden on a household already besieged.
‘And Alice,’ her mother called after her. ‘Fetch Lydia’s letters from your room. Cissie will want to read news of her niece.’
She felt her chest tighten. She had letters, certainly, a tidy sheaf of them, but if she were to show them to her aunt, Cicely was quick-witted enough to notice that the last message from Lydia was dated months ago. So far Alice had managed to keep this knowledge from her parents by dint of reading the letters aloud, selecting passages from here and there, and pretending the news had arrived only that morning. Before the letters stopped entirely, they had become less frequent and less informative, but she had still kept up the pretence. She couldn’t allow them to know that Lydia had seemingly vanished without a clue to her whereabouts. Not in their weakened state.
She gave swift instructions to Cook to fetch down the bone china from a top shelf and made a strict count of the number of madeleines to appear on the tea trolley before she climbed the stairs to the guest bedroom. Dora was already there and giving the satin counterpane a final smooth when Alice put her head around the door.
‘What else needs doing?’ she asked the maid.
‘Just the flowers, miss. Dibbens delivered the narcissi an hour ago and they’re soaking in the kitchen, but they need a bit of arranging. I’ll run down and get them.’
‘Bless you. My legs have turned to jelly.’
‘And no wonder. You’ve been up and down these stairs all morning, fetching and carrying.’
Dora sniffed loudly, but she allowed the moment to pass. Alice knew the maid’s opinion of her mother’s illness. Domestic servants did not have the luxury of nerves. But Dora was wrong. Her mother had always been fragile. It was her husband who had given Edith stability and, when he’d fallen ill so shortly after Charlie’s death, the spirit had gone from her completely.
She arranged the narcissi as best she could in a favourite Murano vase and was making her way downstairs again when the thud of the door knocker echoed through the empty hall. Aunt Cissie. King’s Cross could not have been that busy. Her aunt’s arrival would at least bring cheer to the house. When the telegram had first arrived, Alice had thought of confiding her worries, but realised almost immediately that Cissie was likely to go straight to her sister with Lydia’s tale. The two women were closer than twins. And if her father learned that his younger daughter was missing, possibly in danger, it could prove fatal. His heart attack had left him vulnerable to a final blow, which would be enough to seal her mother’s fate, too. No, she couldn’t tell. She must keep up the pretence that Lydia was alive and well and enjoying teaching in a foreign land. And believe, believe, that her sister would write soon – from wherever she was.
Alice had written to Topkapi – the Sultan seemed to own a bewildering array of palaces – but Topkapi was the address Lydia had written on each of her letters. The official who responded had been adamant that her sister was no longer with them. There remained at the palace only a few of Lydia’s personal possessions that he would be happy to send: two pens, several photographs, a few watercolours and a book. His letter had been brief and its curt disapproval had shone through the uneven English. Sultan Selim was most displeased. His daughters’ governess had left without warning and no one had an idea where she was. Alice could not quite believe that. If it were true, it would be completely out of character. Lydia might be impulsive, thoughtless even, but Alice was certain she would never simply disappear without telling her family.
‘Darling, how are you?’
Cicely’s substantial figure filled the hall. The cabbie bundled in behind her, puffing heavily from dragging several large pieces of luggage up the front steps. Alice wondered just how long her aunt was intending to stay. The older woman held her at arms’ length and gave her a prolonged stare.
‘Not too well, by the look of it,’ she said, answering her own question. ‘You’re not just pale, my dear. You look positively sickly. What ails you?’
‘Really nothing, Aunt,’ she protested. ‘I have two invalids to look after. I’m not able to leave the house for long and this winter seems to have gone on forever.’
‘Well, now I’m here, I shall make sure you do get out. Put some pink back into those cheeks. I’ll sit with Edie and keep her amused. It won’t be difficult.’
Cicely was right. She knew just how to handle her sister. Her brother-in-law, too, if it came to that. It might give Alice more time to think, space in which to decide just what to do, or even if there was anything she could do. In the meantime, she must find a way to keep her aunt occupied this evening and as far from Lydia’s letters as possible.
‘And how is Theo?’ Her aunt had divested herself of a voluminous coat, several bright scarves and a large felt hat.
‘Papa is doing well, I think.’
‘That’s good to hear. It was a bad business about Charlie. A foolish young man, I’m afraid, but still a very bad business.’
Alice stiffened. A sharp sense of loss battled against her aunt’s seeming indifference. She wanted to leap to her young brother’s defence, but she knew Cissie was right – Charlie had been foolish. Attempting to scale Balliol’s medieval walls in the dead of night, after drinking heavily, was foolhardy in the extreme. He had paid a dreadful price for it, and so had they all. Even Lydia. But foolish or not, Charlie had been a loved brother. A sunny, carefree individual who had breezed noisily through every day of his short life with a smile on his face. He had brought joy to the staid house in Pimlico. So she said nothing and instead led her aunt into the sitting room.
‘Aunt Cissie is here, Mama,’ she announced as cheerfully as she could.
Merryn Allingham was born into an army family and spent her childhood moving around the UK and abroad. Unsurprisingly it gave her itchy feet and in her twenties she escaped from an unloved secretarial career to work as cabin crew and see the world.
Merryn still loves to travel and visit new places, especially those with an interesting history, but the arrival of marriage, children and cats meant a more settled life in the south of England, where she has lived ever since. It also gave her the opportunity to go back to ‘school’ and eventually teach at university.
She has written seven historical novels, all mysteries with a helping of suspense and a dash of romance – sometimes set in exotic locations and often against a background of stirring world events.
With thanks to Ellie Pilcher at Canelo for organising the blog blitz.