-1"How is he, doctor?"
"Still sleeping, but I fear he is fading fast. He won't be with us for much longer."
I lay on the settee in the parlor with my face on the crook of my arm, where I'd been for the past hour. Mrs. Hastings and Dr. Morris didn't know that I could hear their soft voices from the hall, and I stayed silent to keep it that way. Of course Mrs. Hastings had been trying to keep my grandfather's condition from me. 'Only a bit of a cold,' she'd said. And, though I'd known all along that it wasn't true, I'd tried desperately to believe her. I closed my eyes in an attempt to hold back my tears now as I listened to the Lady's tear-choked breathing.
"Oh, Doctor." There was a muffled sniffle, as if she were holding a handkerchief to her nose, and then I heard her feet begin to pace the floor slowly. "How am I to tell Miss Liesel?"
Still speaking in hushed tones, as was Mrs. Hastings, Dr. Morris said: "Perhaps it would have been best to keep her informed from the beginning. Mr. Metcalf is nearly seventy-six, after all. And his heart never was very strong."
"Yes, of course," sighed Mrs. Hastings. "But Miss Liesel is always such a cheerful child, and so naïve as to the tragedies of life, it should have broken my heart to tell her the truth. That is not to say that she is any stranger to tragedy, but she was so young when her parents passed away that I don't believe she has any recollection of it at all."
Despite my closed lids, I could feel warm tears rolling down the side of my face onto my arm, and so I opened my eyes and gazed into the fire that burned in the hearth. The orange flames cast a flickering glow over everything in the otherwise-dark parlor, creating an effect which I now found almost frightening.
"Do you want me to tell her?"
"No, no," Mrs. Hastings assured, "I'll do it. I'll tell her tomorrow at breakfast."
I could hear the doctor picking up his bag of medical instruments. "A notary should be called for to settle the matters of his estate," he said, "and to decide what should be done with the girl. She has no other living relatives?"
"None that I am aware of. I doubt anyone will take her in these parts, what with her questionable propriety. But perhaps Mr. Metcalf has friends on the coast where he stays in his Summerhouse."
I wiped at the now freely-flowing tears on my face and swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat while the doctor and Mrs. Hastings moved into the sitting room downstairs for tea while they spoke. I remained in the parlor for a few moments in silence, watching the flickering light of the fire create gruesome shadows on the walls. And then I rose and tiptoed into the hall, where I listened for a moment to be sure that Mrs. Hastings and Dr. Morris were not coming, before I opened the door of my grandfather's bedroom and crept in.
The air in the room was heavy with the smell of old age and sticky-sweet medicine. The only sound was the hollow tick-tock of the clock on the wall, below which stood the bed. And there, under a taut, white sheet, lay my grandfather. His shoulder-length, wispy, snow-white hair clung to his face and throat like the long, slender fingers of death, waiting anxiously to pull him away from me forever. His skin was sallow and drooping like the curtains over an empty stage. His long, Roman nose that he had so often tapped me on the head with now stood out like a wilting flower on his face. In a period of less than four days he had gone from an impressive, distinguished gentleman to a pile of yellow flesh and crumbling bone in his room. On the left breast of his night gown were embroidered in red the letters "H.M." for Hezekiah Metcalf, but he did not look like the Hezekiah Metcalf I had known all of my life. For a moment I wondered if a stranger had crawled in through the window and donned my grandfather's clothes.
And then he awoke. He opened his eyes, and when I saw those brown, Metcalf eyes looking into mine, I knew that it was, indeed, my grandfather. He managed a weak smile at me. "Liesel," he sighed.
I was grateful for the dim light in the room so that he could not see that I'd been crying. I sat in the chair beside his bed. For a few moments I tried to speak, but couldn't for the lump in my throat. I swallowed it down and tried not to think of my dear, old friend's trembling hands or the way that he wheezed for air. "Grandpapa," I managed to choke out.
With what little strength he had, he reached for my hand and I squeezed his lightly. "I am glad you are here," he said. "I've been thinking of you as I lay here dreaming." His brow furrowed in concern. "Oh, Liesel, my child. What is to become of you when I am gone?" He closed his eyes painfully and didn't open them as he continued. "I had always hoped that you would be married when my time came, but as it is you are yet young with not even a beau to give me assurance of your protection. Who will care for you when I am no more?"
My mind was spinning. Never had we spoken of marriage, nor wondered where I would go if grandfather were to leave me. It had never before occurred to me that I could ever leave this big house on the outskirts of London, or ever cease to visit Grandfather's summer house on the coast. Even as I sat there in that stuffy room that night, I don't think I fully understood that I could not remain here.
"You are to inherit all that I posses," Grandfather went on. "And I fear that greedy eyes will lust after your wealth and youthful innocence."
"But I don't want any wealth," I said childishly. "I just want things to go on the way they always have."
"My precious girl," the old gentleman said and patted my hand. "You must be brave. You are sixteen now; it is time to become a lady. Perhaps Mrs. Hastings will take you in and help you into society."
I thought of Mrs. Hasting next door and all of her dear children. A better family could not be found in the wide world, but the thought of such a change to my life made it difficult to breathe. It was all so unreal, like an eerie, bad dream. I grasped my old friend's wizened hand. "Please, Grandpapa; please don't speak this way. You'll be alright." Even as I spoke the words I knew how flimsy they sounded.
Grandfather went on as if he hadn't heard me. "You are the last of the Metcalf family- the end of a great bloodline. You must enter society and let the Metcalf name die in honor…." He thought wearily to himself and then shook his head. "Mrs. Hastings is a fine woman, but she can not teach all the ways of a lady of your birth. If only…." His eyes opened and he stared at the ceiling as an idea came to him. "But of course," he murmured to himself. A light came into his eyes and a shadow of a smile twitched his lip. "The Lathams!"
My eyes widened and for a moment I forgot to breathe. "The Lathams?" I asked.
"Yes, that's it! Who better to take care of you then the covenant family?" His eyes fell on me and he grasped my hand with a greater urgency. "Liesel, you must go- go to Latham Manor. They will take care of you and teach you the ways of society. Lord Latham is a good and a kind man, and he has a daughter, you know."
"But," I said, "I do not know the Lathams." Latham Manor was high in the Northern hills of England! Suddenly the thought of living with the Hastings next door did not seem so strange.
"They have been almost kin to the Metcalf family for generations. It would bring me great comfort to know that you were with them."
The world seemed to be spinning too fast. I could not keep up with so many things happening at once. Grandpapa was dying, I would have to leave my home and everything I knew so well…. Only yesterday I had been a playful child, climbing trees in the apple orchard. But now I felt old and weary and crushed. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Suddenly Grandfather began a violet coughing fit that shook the entire bed and turned his face purple. I jumped to my feet in panic and trembled, wondering what I could possibly do to help him. "I'll get the doctor," I told him as I turned to run from the room for help.
"No," the old gentleman said, trying to sit up to stop me. "No, I'm- I'm alright." He coughed a few times more and then calmed and lay back on his pillow.
I hesitated, but when I saw that he really was breathing again I sat down on the edge of my seat. "Are you sure you're alright?"
"It doesn't matter," Grandfather said, "I will die soon anyway. But now I must speak." He nudged his head in the direction of his writing desk in the corner. "Top drawer on the left," he said.
I went to the desk and opened the desired drawer. "What is it you want?" I asked him as I ran my fingers over the stationary that lay there.
"There should be a key there."
There was a key. A very old, heavy key on a chain. I recognized it, of course, as the key that Grandfather had warn about his neck for as long as I could remember. I picked it up now and returned to the bed to hand it to him.
Instead of taking the key, Grandfather closed my fist around it. "Keep it," he said. "It is a family heirloom- the symbol of the Metcalf name. You must wear it proudly now, as I have done. Let the Metcalf name die with honor and dignity. Our ancestors were Lords and Knights, and now you, the last Metcalf, will be a Lady of distinction. Put it on, Leasel."
Obediently, I did as I was told and wore the key like a necklace. The chain was so long that the key fell nearly to my waist. I turned it over in my hands, loathe to wear it because it belonged on Grandfather and not me. "What does it unlock?" I asked.
"Nothing anymore. It is now our signet."
I looked at the clover-shaped end of the silver key where a curly 'M' was engraved. It was, indeed, the same signet that Grandfather had always used to press the sealing wax of his letters.
"Now," Grandfather said, "if you would be so kind as to fetch me my stationary. I must write to Lord Donovan Latham."
I shall forever remember that night, as I watched my grandfather write the letter that sealed my fate. I expected any moment to awake, but I didn't. And when he finished the letter, Grandfather had me ring the bell for his servant, who came and whisked the little envelope away. Then, with his hands on his chest and his eyes closed peacefully, Hezekiah Metcalf again fell asleep.