Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for one of my favourite books of 2020! A historical and enchanting story await the reader. With a wonderful cast of characters, including Arthur Conan Doyle and the fancy Lady Sarah. Zinnie is worlds apart from these fascinating characters but she has much to offer them. Please read on for a guest post and snippet of the book from Sharon Gosling. Prepare to meet one of the most original cast members!
One of my favourite scenes in The House of Hidden Wonders is when Zinnie first visits Montague House and meets Lady Sarah. I don’t really know why it occurred to me to have a tortoise wandering around her living room, but it did – and it became a moment in the book that I really love. Believe it or not, Algernon is actually based on a real tortoise. When I was very small some friends of my parents had a tortoise called Algernon. My brother and I used to go and visit him – his favourite thing to eat was frozen peas! Sometimes we’d help them put him into hibernation for the winter. When I told my mum that I’d put Algernon into my latest book, she told me that he’s actually still alive. Algernon is now nearly 90 – a venerable old man. And he still loves peas! – Sharon Gosling
CHAPTER FIVE – ALGERNON
Everything in Montague House screamed expense. A glittering crystal chandelier hung above her head. Carved gold lilies wound round the banisters edging the huge staircase that led up to the first floor. In fact, there was gold everywhere, encircling mirrors and gilding the candelabra standing upon the gleaming dark wood cabinets. In places it was shot through with a piercing turquoise-blue and a deep purple, colours that shone from the heavy drapes gathered beside the windows and the fat cushions on elegant seats that looked as if no one ever sat in them. It was like being enveloped by a peacock’s tail feathers.
There were curious flashes of strangeness too. The walls were peppered with carved wooden masks, feathered headdresses and pieces of huge jewellery in frames. Three curved gold daggers were displayed on a small corner table. The hat stand seemed to have spears resting in it instead of umbrellas and there was some kind of brightly coloured bird perched atop it. A second later, Zinnie was startled as the bird, which she’d assumed to be stuffed, proved to be very much alive. It gave a single unholy squawk and opened its scarlet wings, soaring up the staircase and out of sight.
“This way,” said the butler, with a touch of impatience.
Zinnie followed him into another beautiful room, where the mistress of the house was waiting. Lady Sarah Montague turned out to be an extremely tall woman with a strong, smiling face and thick blond hair. She was sitting in a high-backed armchair beside the fire, but stood up as Zinnie was shown in. The dress she wore was embroidered with hundreds of tiny colourful flowers and probably cost more money than Zinnie would ever see in her life.
“Well now, you must be Zinnie,” said Lady Sarah, before the butler could open his mouth. “I know absolutely nothing about you, but Arthur says he needs you to be here and so here you must be. Perkins, send up some tea, would you? And send up Dorcas too – Zinnie will need to meet her.”
“Come, sit,” said Lady Sarah, as the butler bowed and left.
Zinnie looked down at the grubbiness of her tattered trousers and then at the white seat of the chair Lady Sarah had indicated.
“My dear, please don’t trouble yourself,” said Lady Sarah, seeing her hesitate. “You should see the kinds of messes I’ve brought back with me to this house time and time again and it has always survived. Furniture is really quite resilient, you know, as long as you don’t take a match to it. And trust me, on occasion, I’ve even done that when it’s been necessary.”
Zinnie wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, and couldn’t even begin to work out whether it were true, but she did as she was told and perched on the chair. Her eye was then caught by something on the floor. At first she thought it was an odd-shaped rock, but then it moved and she was shocked to see that it had a stone-coloured head and four stumpy legs. She jumped and gripped the arms of the chair.
“Oh!” said Lady Sarah, leaning down to scoop up the strange creature. It immediately retracted its head and legs so that it looked even more like a stone. “You’ve found Algernon! He’s a tortoise. I brought him back with me from China – someone wanted to make soup out of him for me, but I wouldn’t allow it. He does have an enclosure – but he prefers to roam round the house, looking for lettuce and surprising my guests. Isn’t he such a peculiar, beautiful thing?”
The door behind them opened before Zinnie could think of a response and a maid came in with a silver tray loaded with a teapot and cups.
“Ah, Anne,” said Lady Sarah, as the girl set the tray down. “Take Algernon, would you, and get cook to let him have some peas? He does love peas.”
The maid gingerly took the tortoise in both hands and bobbed a slightly awkward curtsey before she left again.
“Now,” said Lady Sarah, “I hear that Arthur needs you to be one of my maids in attendance at the seance tonight, is that right? Am I permitted to know why?”
Zinnie blinked in surprise. “He hasn’t told you?”
“Not a thing. I just got a note to say you were coming and what he needs you to do.”
“And you just … did it?”
“Oh, dear Arthur,” said Lady Sarah fondly. “I can never refuse that boy anything. Bless him, he thinks he’s going to be a doctor, but he’s obviously destined to be an author. He tells the best stories of anyone I know. Whatever he’s up to, I’m all for it.”
“He … wants me there to listen,” Zinnie said. “In case there’s anything said that might mean something to me that means nothing to anyone else.”
“I see,” said Lady Sarah, nodding, as she began to pour the tea. “Well, actually, I don’t see at all, but there you go. Perhaps it will all become clear in due course. I trust Arthur and Arthur apparently trusts you, and that’s good enough for me.”