Read Ashenden Online

Authors: Elizabeth Wilhide

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

Ashenden (11 page)

BOOK: Ashenden
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“My lady.”

The footman took off his shoes and stockings and waded into the water. After a tussle and a struggle, Frederick was persuaded to release his brother, who slithered onto the bank near Georgiana’s feet, where he lay panting for a while.

“Don’t snivel, Edward,” she said. “Be a man.”

Frederick strode out of the river and picked up his fishing rod.
She called him and he ignored her. He cast his line, reeled it in, and whipped the rod out over the river again with a closed, self-satisfied expression on his face that reminded her of her husband. Her eldest son, who would be the 4th Baronet one day, had her lustrous hair (“nut-brown hair,” Delgado had written in one of his letters) and had always been robust, unlike little George, the youngest, whom they had to keep an eye on. From time to time, and this was one of them, she worried that in other respects Frederick took after his father, who had inherited the title, the London house in Carlton Terrace, and Ashenden at the age of five, among other things bred into his nature, including his own father’s disastrous taste for gambling and a streak of cruelty she believed came from his Teutonic mother. Georgiana was of French descent herself and distrusted Germans.

“May I fish now, Mama?” The fight over, Clara was back. “Might I, do you think?”

“What is that dirty thing?”

“It’s a net. Cook gave it me to catch tiddlers.”

Forgetting that girls ought to be allowed to play at fishing on fine days along with their brothers, Georgiana pulled a rose leaf out of her daughter’s curls and told her she was pink and should go back under the parasol.

“Mama,” said Edward, his face smeared with river mud. “Freddie called me a
damn fool
and a
weakling
.”

“Be a man, Edward. Don’t snivel. And don’t curse.”

“I’m not cursing, Mama, I’m saying what Freddie said. Freddie was cursing.”

George sat shivering on the grass in his damp things.

“Wrap him up, Mademoiselle,” said Georgiana. “I don’t want him catching a chill.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“You must learn to control the children better. That was quite out of hand.”

Then, to a chorus of “Might I fish, Mama?” and “I’m not cursing, Mama, I’m saying what Freddie said. Freddie was cursing,”
and teeth chattering from little George, Georgiana pleaded a headache and went back to the house. Fixed in her mind was a picture of Frederick, casting his line and reeling it in, the king of all he surveyed.

*  *  *

Midafternoon Mrs. Trimble was making calculations, the sort they didn’t teach you in the schoolroom. Whiteleys was three miles away. My lady’s visitor was arriving at some unspecified time before dinner. The champagne had to be chilled before then. Ice melted in the sun. It was a warm afternoon. How late could she leave it before she sent one of the footmen to fetch the ice from Whiteleys in the cart, ice that would begin to melt as soon as it came out of the icehouse, even if the wooden icebox with its inner metal skin was well packed with straw? She would have liked to ask Mr. Hastings his opinion, but Mr. Hastings was out with the haymakers and in any case she would rather have died than have handed him an advantage on a plate.

The housekeeper’s room faced south across the courtyard in the direction of the main house, which shaded it. To its plain furnishings and severe walls she had added a few things of her own, a number of books and ecclesiastical prints that had belonged to her father, who had been a curate in Kent, a length of tatted lace worked by her mother, which hung limp over the bureau, and a faded miniature of a man to whom she had once been briefly married, until he had gone off his head and they had locked him up. These things had been with her at Priestlands, at Gritchling Manor, and at Fordingstone Hall, occupying much the same places in rooms that were much the same. She barely saw them anymore and did not see them now.

What she saw was a vista of problems and difficulties. Blocked drains in the icehouse was only the half of it. It rained into the maids’ rooms above the laundry in the south pavilion and most of the panes in the glasshouses were cracked or broken. Pictures had disappeared upstairs, leaving behind sad tidemarks on the walls,
and the furniture was thinning. The most recent departures, both from the little drawing room, were a japanned commode and the “fly painting,” so called because every new housemaid swished her duster at the fruit thinking the fly was real. Ashenden was a grand house, a beautiful house, but no one could say that it was in the best repair. In certain lights—a low winter sun could be particularly unkind—you might say it was desolate, particularly in rooms where the plastering had not been completed. Any day now the household would need mourning, black crêpe bands, edgings, and trimmings, and how that would be managed, failing the discovery of some funerary goods stashed in a cupboard that hadn’t been opened in half a century, she did not know. The account book, lying in front of her, told her that they couldn’t rely on credit from the haberdashers of any town in the immediate vicinity. Dye, she thought, making a mental note.

Her previous employer, Mr. Wilmott, had told her what to expect when she had given notice. “Why do you want to go and work for the Mores? He is a brute and her behavior is a scandal. They have no money. It has all been gambled away. You will not like it there.”

Mrs. Trimble had no answer for him. She could not explain the restlessness that drove her from one position to another any more than she could explain it to herself. It was simply that work steadied her for a while, then her husband’s face reappeared at night more and more often, which was when she knew it was time to move on.

Mr. Wilmott had an excellent memory for someone his age and spent the next half hour recounting the declining fortunes of the owners of Ashenden, down to the last card played and lost, while she stood with her hands folded in front of her. “You give excellent service, Mrs. Trimble,” he had said, clutching the edge of the rug that lay over the bony peaks of his knees. “And I shall of course give you a good character. However, I believe you are making a grave mistake. The house was only half finished to start with and now it is falling down round their ears. You will not like it there at all.”

Her previous employer had been wrong in one important respect.
She had gone to Ashenden with no particular expectations beyond a change of scene. What she had not bargained for was finding a place where she felt she belonged the instant she arrived. Charlotte Trimble rested her hands on her writing table. Ashenden was precarious. But it was alive and she needed its emergencies and its precariousness as much as it needed her. They kept everything else at bay.

Her room was next to the scullery and kitchen on the ground floor of the north pavilion. She pinched her nose, got up from her seat, and went out to give orders. Whomever my lady was expecting, it was not her husband. That called for an element of management, but also a degree of thanks.

“Rose,” she said to the nursery maid. “Is the children’s tea ready?”

“Taking it up now, ma’am,” said Rose, fetching a tray.

“James?”

“Here, ma’am.” James was a simple soul who had never mastered the footman’s art of melting from view whenever a job needed doing. Thomas, younger and not long in service, had been a much faster learner and might at present be anywhere.

“Take the trap and fetch some ice from Whiteleys, as much as they can spare. The bigger the blocks the better. Chippings won’t do in this heat. Promise them whatever they want in return that we can reasonably give. You know where the icebox is.”

“Ma’am.”

“Plenty of straw.”

“Ma’am.”

“Off you go.”

James headed towards the archway that led to the stables.

“James?”

“Ma’am?”

“Any news of the King?”

“No, ma’am. I expect we’ll hear the bells.”

In the steamy kitchen Cook was getting on with her preparations and waved at her with floury hands. Little Benson appeared and asked if she might have a drop of hot water for my lady’s bath.

“Be my guest,” said Cook, her cap soaked with sweat.

“Thomas should carry up the cans for you,” said Mrs. Trimble. “He hasn’t done a hand’s turn all day so far as I can tell.”

Benson said no matter, she could manage herself. She poured out hot water from the big kettle on its trivet over the fire, wiped the damp hair off her forehead, and went into the yard to fill the can from the pump.

“Plucky wee mite,” said Cook, kneading dough with her knuckles. “You’d never think she had the strength to look at her.”

“Her head’s full of nonsense,” said Mrs. Trimble, knowing full well who had put it there. “Have you all that you need, Cook?”

“Bless you, ma’am, all I need now is some notion when they will be sitting down to eat. You give us a nod when the company arrives, if you will. It don’t do to cut the ’sparagus too soon, the flavor goes out of that quick.”

Mrs. Trimble came out of the kitchen into the glare of the courtyard. In a house such as Ashenden, there were always a hundred things that could be done at any moment, especially when the family had just arrived. Despite the maids and footmen who had come down from London, they were understaffed by any standards. There was no butler, so Hastings would put on his rusty black frock coat this evening and pour the champagne. Rose, the nursery maid, would help out later in the kitchen. Most of the care of the children fell to Mademoiselle in any case, who pretended her birthplace was Toulouse when it was really Tunbridge Wells. As for Thomas, Mrs. Trimble briefly considered hunting him out and setting him some arduous and unpleasant task, and then decided she would see to the flowers first.

*  *  *

Georgiana lay in the bath in her dressing room while the maid combed and plucked her way through her hair. Over the tub’s curled copper rim she could see across the bright park.

“Have you found any more?”

“No, my lady, not a one.”

“Are you certain?”

“No more gray hairs, my lady. Just the five, I swear to God.”

Five gray hairs. For pity’s sake. She trailed her fingers in the water and closed her eyes.

It had been another summer evening, a year ago, when she had introduced Delgado to the Lord Chancellor. Delgado had been as nervous as a cat; he’d changed his waistcoat three times, then settled on the most unsuitable. Before the great man had arrived, she had soothed and reassured him, all the while knowing that if the evening was as successful as she hoped, she was writing herself out of his future.

The evening had been a triumph. Delgado had charmed and impressed—my God, the man had a silver tongue—and by the time the carriages had rolled away down the drive, he had secured the patronage of one of the most powerful politicians in the country. He had not been able to disguise how delighted he was, which she had taken as a form of gratitude, none other being on offer. Looking back, those were their last happy days. Afterwards the whispers began and there were hints of a
ménage à trois,
which was ridiculous—everyone knew she had no appetite for men as old as the Lord Chancellor. Then Delgado had started to distance himself, to talk over her head, and soon after she had ended it.

Her husband had never seen Delgado as a threat; most of the time he had been abroad and not seen him at all. Otherwise, he had been amused by him, as most people were. Perhaps he felt the kinship of risk: betting on the tables and betting on mining shares were not a world apart. Two years ago she and Delgado, her husband, and Mrs. Gibson, one of Delgado’s former mistresses, had made a foursome at the seaside, which she supposed was a
ménage à quatre.
She remembered standing on the front, the tide out, thinking she ought to be happier about the arrangement than she was, while high-stepping birds plunged their thin tapered bills into the sand’s slick curls.

She opened her eyes. “Where are the children?”

“They’re having their tea. I saw Rose taking up the tray earlier.”

A sucking, sloshing noise and Georgiana stood in the tub. “Tell Mademoiselle to bring them down before bedtime.” Other mothers might have washed their hands of their duties for the day, but she was not like other mothers. She always made a point of saying good night to her children.

Benson stood on tiptoes to hold out the bath sheet, turning her head away.

“Benson.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“It could have been a little warmer.”

“Begging your pardon, my lady.”

“Never mind. You may leave me now. I should like to rest for a while.”

Benson dried her and wrapped her in her robe. “Yes, my lady.”

Georgiana went into her bedroom, leaving damp footprints on the floor, and closed the door. Then she unlocked her traveling writing desk and took out Delgado’s letters.

*  *  *

Rose carried the tray down to the kitchen.

“Didn’t they like my lovely food?” said Cook, sifting through the remains. “Shame to see this go to waste.” She scooped out a coddled egg with a dirty teaspoon, heaped it on a crust, and popped it in her mouth.

Rose said, “Oh no, Miss Clara and Master Georgie are greedy little pigs, they are.”

“So it was other two turning up their noses, was it?”

“They wasn’t there.” Rose’s face was as round as a moon.

“Off wandering, I expect,” said Cook, “the rascals,” and thought no more of it until Mademoiselle came below stairs an hour later, wringing her hands, saying she could not find the boys anywhere, and Thomas appeared, for the first time that afternoon, with news.

“Are you sure?” said Cook.

“I got eyes in my head. That fowling piece was there this morning and it ain’t there now.”

“Oh, my Lord,” said Mademoiselle, her vowels going English, her face going white. When she told them what had happened in the river, Rose threw her apron over her head and began to wail.

“You’d best find Mrs. Trimble,” said Cook.

Mrs. Trimble was in the hall, sucking her thumb where a rose thorn had pricked it, when Thomas came to tell her that Frederick and Edward were missing, and so was a gun from the gun room.

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