Read Ashenden Online

Authors: Elizabeth Wilhide

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

Ashenden (8 page)

BOOK: Ashenden
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When they came up the drive and the house appeared, they fell silent. Then Maria said it was beautiful, Hannah said she had no idea it was so large, and Maria replied it was not large, it was exactly the right size. The driver had already jumped down, turned out an ostler from the stable block, and was setting the steps under the door.

“Give you a hand, sir.”

“I can get down well enough,” he said. “Help the ladies.”

He found that he needed a little time and walked along the frontage towards the north pavilion, which housed the kitchen. In his head he counted his paces, measuring out the yards, the way he had done before the land had been surveyed, when the old manor had still been standing.

The girls—he had to remind himself they were grown women, and in Hannah’s case with a family of her own—were waiting for him, sharing a parasol. No one would ever take them for sisters. Hannah was fair, placid, and getting a little stout. Maria, small and dark, was quick and sensitive. She had never married.

“This wonderful color,” she said, as he joined them, “what is it?”

“Bath stone.” He touched his hand to the wall and ran his fingertips along it. “It’s warm. It holds the light. You used to get a similar
quality from the quarry at Headington. Headington stone built Oxford, but the best of the quarry has been worked out long since. This was more costly.” He frowned at the memory. “We had to bring it up the river by barge.”

They went through the central archway at the lower level. Woods rang the bell. He was glad that he had taken the precaution of arranging the visit to coincide with a time when his former patron, More, would be away.

After a time, the door was answered by the housekeeper, a capable-looking young woman with dark eyes and a receding chin. A small boy with the same dark eyes and receding chin was hiding in her skirts.

“You will be Mr. Woods.” The housekeeper smiled. “And these ladies must be your nieces. Welcome to Ashenden. I must say, you couldn’t have picked a better day for your visit. Isn’t it grand to see the sun?”

“Mrs. Hastings, I should like to show my nieces the loggia first. Would it be possible to admit us above?” He explained to Maria, “You’ll have a better impression of how the apartments are arranged if we go in by the principal entrance.”

The housekeeper, shooing the boy away, said that it was just what she would have advised herself. “Have you been here before?” she asked Maria. “No? Well, a pleasure awaits you. I shall go and unbolt the doors.”

Woods led the way back through the vestibule to a pair of stone staircases rising to either side.

“Which one do we go up?” said Hannah.

“Does it matter?” said Maria.

They went up the left-hand side and soon Maria was well in front. The stairs were enclosed, narrow, and plain. They could have been climbing up a curved tunnel or a shaft cut from solid rock.

Woods was thinking about arrival. What he had never attempted to explain to his patrons, and what he could barely describe to himself, was his conviction that a house conveyed richness through experience. Any fool could dream up a grand front, sit it on a hill, or
move earth around until it appeared to command its surroundings. That was all very well if you were in the business of selling engravings. To make a house come to life was a different matter altogether. Arrival was the beginning of that process. Arrival began the moment you first saw a house and ended when you crossed the threshold and entered the first apartments. It was a question of sequence.

Up ahead he heard Maria exclaim. He turned to Hannah, who was perspiring and a little out of breath.

“She has been looking forward to this visit so much,” she said.

He nodded. Sometimes he worried that he made his preference for Maria’s company too obvious.

*  *  *

On the way up the stairs, Maria had the kind of anticipation she felt turning the pages of a book, without knowing exactly what she was expecting to happen next. As soon as she came out onto the loggia, it was as if someone had given her a pair of wings. The roof soared two full stories overhead on Ionic columns, the warm stone glowed in the late spring sunlight, and the landscape fell away in front of her, rising in the distance to a gentle hill.

Footsteps and the swish of skirts announced the arrival of the others.

“Are you trying to fly?” said Hannah, with a laugh.

Maria dropped her arms to her sides and spun round. Her eyes were brilliant. “It is wonderful. Do you not think so?”

“It is very fine.”

Maria lived in a world of sensation, where other people’s feelings streamed through the pores of her skin and mingled with her own, which then streamed back in the other direction. At that moment, she was aware that her sister, who was all goodness and patience, was worried that she would pay for her excitement later and that her uncle, who had gone over to the balustrade to look at the view, was struggling not to show how much it moved him to see the house again, and that the housekeeper, standing on the other side of the door in the shadows, was waiting. She was aware of the
heartbeats of every deer in the park and every breath of air rustling the leaves of the limes, chestnuts, and beeches that grew there.

“It took seven years to move the earth for that hill,” said her uncle, clearing his throat. “When I was last here, none of the planting had been done.”

They went indoors. There Maria had a new feeling, which overpowered her to the extent that she barely heard the housekeeper telling them where they could go and where they could not. She saw now that what she had experienced on the loggia was only a preparation.

She stood in the center of the hall and the whole house made itself known to her. If she stretched out her fingertips, she felt she could touch every part of it. To left and right, rooms aligned with each other behind closed paneled doors. Directly ahead, through a series of unfolding spaces, she could see a window all the way across on the opposite side. Held within the poised symmetries, she felt tears come to her eyes.

Hannah asked a question about the doors and was told they were Spanish mahogany. Then the housekeeper said to ring the handbell next door if they needed her. Her uncle made slight, unnecessary adjustments to his clothing, took out his pocketbook, and handed over a number of coins.

“Thank you, sir. Most kind and generous of you.”

“Not at all.” Her uncle said, “Many years ago, there was a Hastings who was steward here.”

“Yes, sir,” said Mrs. Hastings. “He is still the steward here and he is my husband.” She pocketed the coins and bobbed her head.

After Mrs. Hastings had gone, they stopped being a party of visitors and became three separate people. Her uncle weighed the room in his eyes, ran his fingers across the ribbed contours of a pilaster, and gave a bronze Indian deity writhing on a console table his full disapproval. Hannah strolled across the floor.

“Happy, Muzz?” she said, slipping an arm through hers.

“This house is perfect.”

Hannah gazed up at the ceiling. “The decorations are pretty.”

Maria fought an impulse to point out to her sister the difference between decoration and architecture. Fingers of light beckoned through the window on the opposite side of the house, an open invitation. The enfilade tugged at her. So did her better nature.

“What did Henry say in his letter? You must tell me all his news.”

“Later,” said her sister, releasing her with a pat. “Go and explore. Don’t worry about me. I shall dawdle along in my usual fashion.”

Afterwards, Maria would remember the afternoon as a series of shining fragments overlaid on a mental map. She had studied copies of the plans and thought she understood them. The musical succession of volumes took her by surprise. You could, she discovered, breathe light, just as you could breathe air.

She went through the open door in front of her, where the housekeeper had gone, and found herself in another soaring space. At the heart of the house a great staircase rose up and up, its shallow stone flights cantilevered from the wall, the balustrade wrought-iron filigree. Light slanted down from a ribbon of clerestory windows and there were glimpses of vaults and galleries above. Here was the lunar partner of the robust sun-warmed loggia, all coolness, smoothness, and delicate plasterwork wreaths.

Hannah drifted out of the hall and went over to admire a flower arrangement at the base of the staircase. Maria had been meaning to go onwards, towards the beckoning window she had seen when she first crossed the threshold, but a glimpse of a room to the left presented her with the opportunity to delay the pleasure.

She left Hannah behind and came into what was the formal dining room. A screen of columns separated a sideboard from a long, bare mahogany table, creating another little loggia, an open ante-chamber where liveried footmen would stand. Overhead, the ceiling was complicated geometry, lunettes and medallions painted in grisaille.

Soon after her mother had died, when it was becoming clear she was going to have to live with Hannah, who was then newly married, she had spent a fortnight staying with her uncle while the family home was let and its contents dispersed. He was working
on the design of another great house then; he was always working and often sketched his way through dinner. She could not remember him talking much about her mother, although her absence had filled every silence that had fallen between them. Instead he had talked about architecture and shown her books.
A Book of Ceilings
was one of them. Her uncle took most of his ceiling designs from its hand-tinted plates, and she recognized the cherubs peeking through acanthus fronds in the central medallion from one of them. It was like meeting an old friend.

Aside from the table and sideboard, the room was empty, awaiting entertainment. There was a dead butterfly in the grate of the fireplace and a fly buzzing against the window at the far end, trying to find its way out. She stood at the window for a while, looking out over the gardens at the rear of the house, which sloped down to the river. That soft green, which asked to be painted onto white paper, was so different from the green she knew.

From the beginning Hannah had done everything to make her welcome. Sometimes Maria thought it would have been easier if her sister had openly resented her or had acknowledged that she would rather have had her early married life to herself. They had set aside two rooms at the back of the second floor for Maria’s use, a bedroom and a small adjoining parlor that faced west into the setting sun, where she had put her mother’s desk and a bookcase. Mr. Milford, Hannah’s husband, whom she found difficult to call Robert, had stood in the doorway, thrusting his hands in and out of his pockets, and explained that they had wanted her to have somewhere private to ask friends to tea and work at her drawings. “We want you to consider this your home,” he had said. In those first months, a succession of men with damp palms, sudden laughs, and droning conversation had appeared downstairs at the dinner table, produced from some inexhaustible supply of widowers and bachelors in the North Riding. Perhaps it was hard-hearted and ungrateful of her, but she could not bring herself to marry one of them. Then the children began to arrive, bringing noise and small calamities, and no more single men were invited to dinner. Instead
settled couples came; Maria ate more often in her room and slowly became an aunt, which she had never imagined as the principal role of her life.

Tomorrow they would be at Fawley and then they would be halfway through their journey. She had been looking forward to this week so much and for so long, her expectations had altered the way time worked and made it slip away too fast. It was the opposite for Hannah, she thought, the minutes dragging the farther they traveled away from home and her family.

The fly flew in straight lines, turned at sharp angles, hit the glass repeatedly. She reached up and pulled down the sash, but it could not seem to find its way out.

*  *  *

At that moment Woods was in a warm, south-facing room with a white marble chimneypiece and a pale pink-and-green ceiling (Richardson,
A Book of Ceilings,
Plate IV). You never knew how people would use a house. From its furnishings, the room was clearly where the family chose to live and eat when they did not have visitors, which is what he had intended, although he would have preferred that they had surrounded themselves with fewer belongings. Not for the first time, he wondered why people paid for architecture and then did their best to obscure it. A housemaid, who was dusting a collection of porcelain set out on a japanned commode, blushed, curtsied, and withdrew.

“There you are, Uncle.” Hannah poked her head round the doorway. “Well, this is comfortable, I must say.”

“Where is Maria?”

“I thought she was with you.” She came into the room and stood examining a Dutch still-life painting, her hands folded in front of her. “Very lifelike. You could eat those pears, couldn’t you? But I don’t care for that fly.”

“The fly represents death and decay. It is supposed to be a reminder of our mortality.”

Hannah put her head to one side. “Still, I think it would be a
prettier picture without it.” She moved away down the room, her skirts murmuring behind her. What caught her attention next were half a dozen ivory elephants, descending in size, penned in a glass-fronted cabinet. She looked at them for a long time. “Do you remember when Henry was little,” she said, “and we took him to see the giraffe?”

“I do.”

They had brought the beast up from London and taken it through the Shambles. The crowd had been terrified, but not as terrified as the giraffe, which had shivered and trembled on its long spindly legs, its great eyes pools of dumb sorrow, silver mucus trailing from its nostrils. It had died on the return journey.

“Afterwards Maria painted one of the nursery walls with all the animals going into the Ark, two by two. Henry called the giraffes Mr. Henry and Mrs. Henry. When the children were older, she asked them if they would like something else instead, but they refused to let her paint over it.” She smiled and shook her head. “It has become quite shabby and faded. Robert wants to put up an Indian paper now the boys are all at school and buy a pianoforte. He thinks we should have musical evenings. Apparently everyone has musical evenings. The trouble is, we’re not musical.”

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