“. . . and to my darling granddaughter Ella, who may remain the sole owner of our home for as long as she wishes, I leave this ring, a gift from my lifelong friend Pearl. Ella, you always know exactly where to look and how to get the bottom of things, so I hope this gift brings you the same combination of security and guidance that Pearl brought to me. My Ella, my seeking soul, when you find yourself in the darkest of places, stand firm by the light and know that your concerns are beneath you”.
“Mr Jacobs, that makes no sense! I mean, I know who Pearl was, although I never met her, and I’ve always adored that ring so I understand why Grandmother would have wanted me to have it but the rest of what you said, it doesn’t mean a thing to me. I don’t understand”.
“Miss Riley, your grandmother lived to be almost one hundred years old and although I always found her to be sharp as a tack in our dealings, it is entirely possible that time got to her towards the end and influenced some of her later, more poetic, alterations to the will. She did specify, however, that the message must be given to you precisely as she had written it, word for word. Perhaps it will become clear to you in time. She certainly seemed to think you would have no trouble figuring it out”.
Ella turned the ring over in her hands and her grandmother’s words over in her head. There was an inscription on the inside of the ring—22 10 26—which she had at first assumed was the date her grandmother and Pearl had met, although after some consideration she remembered being told of their meeting taking place shortly before the beginning of the Second World War. Besides, her grandmother rarely spoke of her life before that time, and when Ella had asked about her early years she had replied only, “My dear, I was a different person. One may live and die many times in their life and some things are better left buried”.
Her grandmother had always been an intriguing woman, secretive about some things but so open about others. She had spoken often of her true love, an American soldier who had been stationed in Scotland during the war and who had left her with the gift of a child growing within her before his untimely death. She had told Ella of the scandal that had followed and then quickly died down when the next interesting thing had happened to capture the attention of the village.
She had explained her silent heartbreak, followed by a gentle understanding, when her daughter had moved away from their quiet world to chase the excitement of the city. She spoke of the tragedy of Ella’s parents’ death in a road accident and her subsequent delight when the child who had survived had come to live with her and thrived in the wide open landscape, wild weather and timeless simplicity of her home.
And of course, she had spoken of Pearl. Pearl had been an adventurer, a great beauty, a charismatic, unconventional and fiercely intelligent woman of independent means. Ella’s grandmother had said that in many ways, she owed Pearl her life. They had kept in touch across the miles and years until Pearl had passed away, shortly before Ella’s birth. In the end, Ella was the only family her grandmother had and the only family she had needed. The feeling was mutual.
A woman of the modern age, Ella sat down at the computer which always looked so out of place next to her grandmother’s collected household objects, and searched for 22 10 26. Finding nothing of note, she tried 22nd October 1926. As interesting as it was to discover that this was the original publication date of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, it didn’t bring her any closer to understanding the cryptic message her grandmother had left for her. Deciding to give up trying for the evening and get on with more practical tasks, she wandered to the outhouse to unload the washing machine. The outhouse had originally contained a toilet back when such things were not located inside the home, but when her grandmother had modernised the house with an indoor bathroom, she had also had electricity and modern plumbing run to the outhouse and installed a washing machine and an electric light there.
Entering the windowless room, Ella stood still and quiet, suddenly hit by a wave of sadness at the memory of her grandmother helping her work through the fear of the dark that she had developed after the death of her parents. She remembered being told, “It can’t hurt you. Just take a moment before you turn the light on. Stand right there with your hand on the switch and remember that at any time you want, you can bring brightness to the darkest of places”.
Was this the darkest of places? Positioning herself next to the light switch, Ella stamped her foot down firmly on the bare floorboards and noticed a slightly hollow sound that she hadn’t picked up on before, probably because she had never been looking for it. She stamped her foot slightly to the left, then to the right, then back to centre, confirming that the hollowness was not consistent throughout the room. Suddenly it made sense–her concerns were beneath her!
She ran back in to the house, grabbed her grandmother’s toolbox filled with tools older than Ella, returned to the outhouse and set about prying up the floorboards over the spot where she had been standing. In the hole in the ground, she found a small metal box with a combination lock and turned the dial—22 10 26—until the box opened. Inside was a pile of letters addressed to Lexie Mackenzie. In any other situation, she wouldn’t have opened a letter that wasn’t addressed to her but her grandmother had meant for her to find these, to read them. Realising the letters were stacked in date order, the most recent on the top, she took the envelope from the bottom of the pile. The name on the letter was Mrs A Coburg and the address was in London. Ella opened it and began to read.
My sweet brave friend,
Please find enclosed the papers for your new house and land, and everything you need to confirm your new identity and begin your life afresh. Do not ask how I made these arrangements or who helped me to do so. This is information you shall never need and it is safer for all involved that you do not have it.
When you leave to travel north, please do so carefully and with a minimum of disruption to your daily life. It is vital that Andrew suspect nothing until you are gone, although we shall both enjoy our shared knowledge of what he will suspect every day after. I have paid plenty of money to some delightfully unsavoury characters who will let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he is not to look for you and that they shall easily find out if he does.
Please write to let me know when you have arrived safely at your destination and I shall immediately arrange to visit so we can plan your final gift to Andrew. Stay strong and remember that your future and your freedom await you. Alexandra Coburg is dead. Long live Lexie Mackenzie!
Gradually, then suddenly,