Read Ashenden Online

Authors: Elizabeth Wilhide

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Cultural Heritage, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary, #Historical Fiction

Ashenden (10 page)

BOOK: Ashenden

“You have made a palace on a shoestring,” had been Delgado’s verdict. Delgado, her former lover, a penniless young scribbler with dark, oiled ringlets, an exotic parentage, and an ambition to avoid bankruptcy long enough to get into politics, knew better than most how to manage on very little. Disastrous speculations in South American mining shares had brought him to the brink of ruin, and apparently whole days passed when he dared not go out for fear of being nabbed by his creditors. She did not doubt the story; in fact she had lent him money on the strength of it.

She had adored Delgado, his fine slender hands and compellingly ugly face, and counted their three years together as the happiest of her life. Even now, after she had extricated herself from the affair by the simple expedient of taking someone else into her bed, he often wandered uninvited into her mind. Her desertion had made him miserable, so she had heard; he would get over it. Soon enough he would find someone else, a rich widow perhaps. Delgado
liked older women. She thought she had probably cured him of his preference for those who were married.

The little dog, Blanche, was worrying a slipper, tumbling over it, shaking it, growling, and generally revealing a base terrier ancestry.

“Do I turn her out, my lady?” Benson asked the looking glass.

“No, let her stay. She’s trying her best to amuse us. Aren’t you,
ma petite chérie

She reached down, the dog nipped her, and she swatted her on her white whiskery nose. Immediately she regretted it, for to love a dog means to anticipate loss and the suffering that comes with it. The short lives of dogs couple love with death.

A hundred strokes of the hairbrush. The bone comb scoring the parting, the maid’s fingers deft with pins, looping up the glossy brown coils so that they kissed her cheeks. Georgiana turned her head to one side and the other.

“My lady is so beautiful,” said Benson, admiring her handiwork.

By candlelight, possibly. Daylight had no respect for her now. By daylight she was becoming
une rose fatiguée.
At sixteen, she had been unable to imagine thirty. At twenty, thirty-five. She was thirty-seven.

“If I may suggest?” The maid touched a dark bloom on her neck beneath her earlobe. “A touch of powder here.”

The mirror held their amusement. “Oh! I hadn’t noticed. Yes, we had better cover that up.”

“It wasn’t near so dark yesterday.” Benson puffed powder over the love bite. “Will that be all, my lady?”

Georgiana stared through the window of her dressing room over the bright park. Sometimes she worried about the blankness of her mind. “What time is it?”

“Near noon.”

“Where are the children?”

“The boys have gone down to the river with James. Miss Clara wanted to go with them but Mademoiselle wouldn’t let her.”

“Poor Clara. We females deserve better in life, don’t you think?”

Benson said that she was happy with her situation.

Georgiana envied her. “Any news of the King?”

“No, my lady.”

No news meant no mourning; more to the point, no summons from her husband ordering her back to town.

“Then I shall want the oyster silk later. I am expecting company.”

Their eyes met again in the looking glass, complicit.

*  *  *

The letter had arrived, the one she had been waiting for. How quickly you recognized handwriting, she thought, the pen strokes that formed her name sending a spark leaping inside her. Along with the spark, a shiver of risk, born out of the suspicion that this time she might be going too far. The note—it was no more than a line—said he would be arriving on Wednesday. Wednesday was today.

When Benson had gone downstairs, removing the dregs of her breakfast chocolate, Georgiana unlocked the traveling writing desk that stood on her toilet table and opened it. The desk had been a gift from her father on her eighteenth birthday, and the Langville crest was inlaid on top. Inside, tied up with black ribbon, were all the letters Delgado had ever written her. She drew out the packet. So many words. The endearments, the poetic raptures, she had by heart, but there were other passages she did not understand even now, references to books she had never read, quotations in languages she did not know, the playful wit of a mind that needed another to spar with it. At the beginning, it had not mattered that he was much cleverer than she was. He had been her dearest heart, her petted boy, starved of the loving attention it was in her nature to bestow. Towards the end they both knew must come, he had started to make her feel stupid. What was worse, he had started to enjoy it.

Folded into a visiting card was a black curl whose smell of pomade was faint and fading. She sniffed it and stared at it for a while, remembering the occasion when she had snipped it off with her silver embroidery scissors, then she put everything back in the desk, locked it, and returned it to her bedroom. The note signed “D. M.”, which had arrived that morning, she left in plain view. No one could make anything of it, after all.

Wednesday was today and today was half over. Georgiana left her apartments and made her way across the hall to the loggia, the dog scampering ahead barking at nothing. Then she stepped into the light. It was a bright cloudless day, the sky a big blue bowl. In front of her was the familiar view, the land sloping away beyond the stables and then ascending in a gentle rise. “Queen of all she surveys,” she could hear Delgado saying. The sun was almost directly overhead, shrinking the shadows cast by the stands of trees to small dark islands on the undulating green turf. A bubble of pleasure rose inside her. Here she was always herself. Her husband did not share her love of Ashenden; he preferred town, or abroad. Long ago, she had accustomed herself to the fact that her marriage was an odd sort of reel where partners seldom met and never by choice. It had not taken her long to learn that this was preferable to the alternative. One should not be frightened of one’s husband, yet it was surprising how many women were, and how many bore the marks of brutality and scars on their hearts. Those love tokens could not be covered with powder. In a corner of the loggia Blanche squatted and piddled on the stone floor, the wet trickling away down the stairs.

A cough. “My lady?”

She turned. “Mrs. Trimble. What a beautiful morning.”

“Yes, it has been. If it keeps fair this afternoon, they will be certain to get the hay in.” The housekeeper was a dry, spare person of extreme competence who had never got the hang of subordination. For that, Georgiana envied her too. “Benson informs me you are expecting company. Have you instructions for Cook?”

“A light meal, I think, in this weather.”

“I’m told the strawberries are ripening.”

“Strawberries, yes. And I should like champagne. Do please ensure that it’s chilled. There’s nothing worse than warm fizz.”

If she was expecting a murmur of agreement, none came.


“There will be two of us. We shall dine in the drawing room.”

“As my lady wishes.” The housekeeper made a gesture that was neither a curtsy nor a bow but somewhere in between.

“Mrs. Trimble?”

“What is it, my lady?”

“Tell Mademoiselle she is to take Clara down to the river. It is too fine a day for her to be indoors. If someone will find her a net, she can play at fishing along with her brothers.”

Georgiana delighted in her children and kept them closer than most mothers of her acquaintance. The summer would do them good, the older boys in particular, who were now at school and who needed to run a little wild in the holidays. She was a great believer in the free spirit, she had told Delgado. Ah, a devotee of Rousseau, he had said, but that had been another occasion when she had not known what he was talking about.

*  *  *

“Two to dine. Champagne and strawberries,” said Mrs. Trimble, coming briskly into the servants’ hall. “Otherwise, Cook, my lady leaves it up to you.”

“Makes it simple.”

The servants’ hall, on the lower story, had a subterranean quality and was poorly lit. It never warmed up, not even in the height of summer. The table where they ate their meals was strewn with copper jelly molds drying on linen glass cloths.

“Jane,” said Mrs. Trimble, addressing a housemaid, “take a mop to the loggia.”

“The lodger, ma’am?”

The dog’s made a mess on the stairs again. Then see to it that the blue bedroom is aired and made up for my lady’s guest.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Does something amuse you, Thomas?”

Thomas, a local boy whose real name was Jed Jenks, had had his eyes opened by a few seasons of London life and now wore his hair in a fashion that gave the village something to talk about.

“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but why bother? We all know that bed won’t be slept in.”

pardon, sir, but there are standards to uphold. No visitor to this house will ever lack proper accommodation. Keep your comments to yourself in future.”

While it might have been Mrs. Trimble’s custom to volunteer information to her superiors which was not required and had not been requested, about haymaking, for example, that did not mean she tolerated it in her staff.

“She’s got a love bite on her neck the size of a plum.” He winked at Jane, who let out a shriek of laughter.

“That’s enough!” Those two wanted watching.

Chilled champagne meant ice. Mrs. Trimble pinched the bridge of her nose, a gesture that was much imitated behind her back by some of the younger servants. How was she going to lay her hands on ice? The drains of the icehouse had been blocked for six months and she doubted what was down there amounted to more than slush.

“Where is Mr. Hastings?”

“He was out in the courtyard earlier,” said Thomas.

“Thank you, Thomas. Glad to hear you are useful for something.”

“No trouble, I’m sure.”

Mrs. Trimble went out into the courtyard that separated the main house from the north pavilion. “Mr. Hastings?” The second time she called, he came into view, accompanied by the lurcher, Jess.

The steward was a slouch-backed man, with long furrows in his cheeks and a receding chin. He’d had been at Ashenden since he was a boy, in the days of the 1st Baronet, when the house was new and his parents were in service here, his mother housekeeper and his father steward before him. He gave everyone to understand that times had been much better then. All indications were he had been disappointed in life, which was true, and the lack of a Mrs. Hastings was one of those disappointments. Not for want of trying, she had gathered. A fortnight after she had arrived at the house, he had asked her to marry him, a proposal made with all the bluntness of a horse trader or a farmer at a corn exchange. Naturally she had refused; the man was singularly unappealing. Besides which, unlike most housekeepers,
whose “Mrs.” was a courtesy title, hers reflected a legal status. Mr. Hastings was not to know, nor did she enlighten him.

“What is it, Mrs. Trimble?” Hastings stood in the cobbled yard, feet apart, as if he were braced on the rolling deck of a ship. Beside him, the lurcher flopped over, panting in the heat.

“My lady wants

“Does she?”

“She is expecting company.”

“That will be the writer, no doubt.”

“I have no idea whom she’s expecting. I need ice. What do you suggest?”

Hastings rubbed his face. “If it’s ice that’s wanted, I suggest they find the money to repair the icehouse, ma’am.”

“Failing that?”

He tugged at the hat he wore summer and winter, lowering it over his eyes. “Failing that, we send someone over to Whiteleys and fetch some.”

“There’s an icehouse at Whiteleys?”

“There is.”

“I didn’t know.”

“No reason why you should.”

This statement was designed to impress upon Mrs. Trimble the fact that she was a relative newcomer to the estate and surrounding area and that Mr. Hastings was the old hand who could be relied upon for local knowledge. As such it was successful and put the housekeeper into a bad mood for the remainder of the afternoon, during which time Jane the housemaid bore the brunt of it and was in consequence sharp with the bootboy. Much later, the bootboy punched his thin pillow, said to himself how unfair it all was, and fell asleep dreaming of running away and joining the navy.

*  *  *

In the early afternoon Georgiana drifted down to the riverbank, forgetting the children would be there. The grounds at Ashenden had been laid out with a precision that was now blurred by neglect.
She knew nothing of gardening and descended the terraces with an abstract impression of abundance that failed to distinguish weeds from desirable plants, passing through clumps of little white flowers, big white flowers, and the scarlet stains of poppies, the murmuring hum of bees, a wayward creamy rambling rose with a deep musk scent, greenery drooping in the heat, and an infestation of something thorny that snagged her skirts.

The dog yapped. The cries of the children came up to greet her. They were all in the river, except Clara.

Georgiana’s two older boys, Frederick and Edward, were fighting again and it was clear that Edward, as usual, was coming off worse, spluttering and throwing feeble punches while his brother tried to hold his head under the brown, churning water. “Drown and see if I care!” Frederick was saying. “Damn little fool. Weakling!” For a moment Georgiana thought about turning around and going back to the house. Too late: Clara had seen her.

Clara got up and ran across to her, her dress streaked with grass stains, and asked her to please, please stop Freddie being so awful.

“Go back under the parasol, my love. You are becoming quite pink.”

The youngest, George, who had been paddling in the shallows, scrambled onto the bank, seeking the safety of dry land. By now, Mademoiselle had got to her feet and was calling and waving her arms in a helpless and agitated manner, while the footman stood around with his mouth open and did nothing.


“My lady?”

“What are you thinking? Stop them at once!”

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