The inside of the house was much worse than the outside. In addition to the dust hanging thickly in the air, the walls were coated with cobwebs, and the grand staircase, winding upward from the great hall, was missing spindles and stair treads. A chandelier, a giant of a thing, all its candles gone, hung from a thick chain down through the middle of the open staircase.
Doors led from the great hall to rooms both large and small. Juliana glanced inside a few, seeing that some contained furniture covered in dust sheets, others no furniture at all. The grimy windows and waning light made the house darker, and Juliana tripped.
Elliot instantly steadied her. Juliana caught his arm, finding it hard as steel under his coat. “Good heavens, Elliot, what on earth made you purchase this house?”
“Uncle McGregor needed the money,” Elliot said. “I didn’t mind helping him out. I stayed here off and on as a boy. Always had a fondness for the place.” He looked up the staircase. “I had Hamish fix up a bedchamber for us. Shall we go find it?”
Priti darted around them for the staircase, Nandita calling out desperately to her. Elliot stepped into the little girl’s path and swung her onto his shoulder, saying, “Uuup we go.”
The child’s English seemed to be better than Nandita’s. She clapped her hands. “Yes, yes. Up!”
Elliot took the stairs to the next floor, in no way unbalanced by his burden. Juliana followed, watching anxiously, but the stairs were solid. The entire house was very…solid. Nandita came close behind Juliana, and thus they all ascended.
On the first floor, Elliot walked around the gallery and headed down a wide hall. This house had once been very grand, with high, ornamented ceilings and intricate carving on dadoes and cornices. Elliot started opening doors, revealing more furniture under dust sheets like crouching gray humps. The fourth door he opened finally emitted light and warmth.
A fire danced on a brick hearth of an old-fashioned fireplace, the most cheerful thing Juliana had seen since entering the house. A massive bed stood in the middle of the floor, rather than against a wall, the mattress a bit sagging, but at least it was whole, and covered with a clean quilt. The floor had no carpet nor the bed any hangings—nor did the windows have drapes—but compared to the rest of the house, the room was palatial.
Before Juliana could step inside the welcoming room, a door banged open down the hall. Nandita shrieked, and even Priti let out a squeak of alarm.
A stentorian voice roared down the passage at them. “What th’ devil are ye doing in my house? Get out, the lot o’ you. I have a gun, and it’s loaded.”
The small, wiry, elderly man who strode into the hall did indeed have a shotgun in his hands, and he stared down its long barrel at them. He had a white beard and thick sideburns, and from this hairy face blazed dark eyes with plenty of life in them.
“I’ll shoot you, I tell ye. A man’s allowed to defend his own household.”
“Uncle McGregor,” Elliot said in a loud voice. “It’s Elliot. I’ve brought my wife.”
The man lowered the gun but didn’t put it down entirely. “Och, so it is you, lad. Thought it might be burglars. This is herself, then? Little Juliana St. John?” Mr. McGregor came down the hall toward them. A kilt hung on the small man’s bony hips, topped with a loose shirt and a tweed coat that had seen better days. “I knew your granddad, lass. Last time I saw you was at your christening. You yelled the church down. Far too loud for a girl child, but then your mother was a madwoman.”
Juliana choked back the first retort on her lips. He was elderly, she reminded herself, with the bluntness of the old. And he did still have the shotgun. “How are you, Mr. McGregor?” she managed.
“I’m sixty-nine years old, young woman. How do you think I am?” McGregor looked past Juliana to the terrified Nandita hiding behind her. “Ye’ve brought your natives back with ye this time, then?”
“You’ll like them,” Elliot said. “My manservant is a fine cook.”
“Cook, eh?” McGregor kept staring at Nandita, who was trying to shrink into Juliana. “That reminds me, I’m hungry. Where’s that blasted lad with my supper?”
“Hamish has gone back to the station to fetch my manservant and the rest of his family. And our baggage, with any luck.”
“He couldn’t have fed me before he left? My family works this land for six hundred years, and now the laird is foisted off without a crust of bread?”
“I’ll rummage for ye.” Elliot put his hand on the small of Juliana’s back and guided her toward the bedroom.
McGregor’s outraged expression gave way to a sudden laugh. “Can’t wait to be at it, can ye, lad? Lovely bride like that—I don’t blame ye at all, m’boy.” Chuckling, he uncocked the gun and retreated to the room from which he’d sprung. He slammed the door so hard that bits of plaster floated down from the ceiling.
Elliot remained in the hall, Priti still perched on his shoulders. “You rest,” he said to Juliana. “I’ll go down to the kitchen and fix Uncle McGregor some food.”
“I thought you said you’d bought the estate from him,” Juliana said, confused.
“Aye, but the rest of McGregor’s family are dead, and he has nowhere to go. He’d never manage in one of the estate cottages on his own. I told him he had a home here until he chooses otherwise.”
Juliana let out a breath. “I understand, though I wish you had warned me. I thought my heart would stop. I suppose his staff won’t mind looking after us as well?”