Read Ashenden Online

Authors: Elizabeth Wilhide

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

Ashenden (9 page)

BOOK: Ashenden
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Hannah’s laughter, rich and full-throated, always came as a surprise. Her husband, who was a man of few words and too many, depending on whether or not what was being discussed touched upon his line of business, had always struck Woods as a person who took the virtue of common sense to an extreme, even for a Yorkshireman. Yet he remembered once seeing the pair of them, sitting on the sidelines at some family occasion, overcome by a private joke, wiping their eyes, and had understood that what he was seeing was a good marriage.

Hannah went to look out of the window, commented on the gardens, and asked if he thought anyone would mind if she sat down for a while.

“I don’t see why they should.”

She considered the options, then placed herself at the end of a
settee upholstered in damask, crossed her ankles, and closed her eyes for a moment. A little while later, when he left, she had taken out her son’s letter and was reading it again.

*  *  *

Maria opened a door at the rear of the dining room and found herself surprised by the end of the enfilade. The architecture had played a trick and delivered her, via half a circuit, into this octagonal space.

She was shocked by what she saw. The faceted room, four times the size of her own, was raw, undecorated and unfurnished. The beckoning window she had seen from the hall had no hangings and the glazing bars were rough to the touch. It was as if a piece of music had come to an end, trailed into nothing, and she had been cheated out of a round, harmonious chord. They had money, these people. Why hadn’t they finished their house? Her mind flooded with sympathy for her uncle. It was hard enough to design a house, to conceive every last detail in your head, and then hand it over for other people to live in. To visit, years later, be told where you could and could not go, and find it still incomplete was the worst insult she could imagine.

Her foot disturbed a heap of tools concealed under a canvas, and a nail rolled across the floor. When she bent to pick it up, she felt the familiar pain again and held on to a windowsill until it passed, cold sweat mushrooming on her lip and forehead. She was glad she had cut her hair and lost its dragging weight. It made the nausea that came after the spasms more bearable.

These past months, suffering had crept up on her. It had started as a rumor of discomfort, explained away in the many different ways you explained such things to others and yourself. Then had come a time when it asked her to pay more attention to it. Now she was surprised when she turned a corner and it was not there. She tested the point of the nail, pressing it into the center of her palm.

What put the idea into her head of gouging her initials into the bare plaster she did not know. All she knew was that once it was there, it was irresistible. Perhaps it was the same impulse that made
schoolboys plunge the tips of their penknives into desktops, or lovers score hearts into trees.

M. G. Maria Gilmour. She scraped away with the nail, a dizzy rush in her head. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Plaster trickled down the wall. She dug deeper and deeper, her breath quick and shallow. For some reason, it was important to do it properly, to fashion the characters with proper tails and feet as if they were printed or chiseled in stone. It was important to make them as well as she could.

The moment she finished, she was appalled. The dizziness went, the rush in her head, and in its place came cold horror. She felt as if she had murdered something, smashed a poor creature’s skull with a rock. The letters were under the sill where you would have to bend down to see them, but they might as well have been ten feet tall and picked out in gold. What she had done was brazen, irreversible, and there was nothing, nothing at all, she could do about it.

She put the nail in her pocket, went into the staircase hall, and stood shaking in the white light that was pouring down from the clerestory like some sort of divine admonition. What had possessed her? She fancied she could feel the nail burning through to her skin like a brand.

Her uncle came out of a doorway to her right. “Your sister was looking for you.” He nodded the way he had come, then stopped. “Is anything the matter?”

“No, nothing. I am a little overwhelmed, that is all.”

He grunted and gave her elbow a squeeze. “Truth be told, so am I. It has been many years.”

“Uncle?” He was, she saw with dismay, making his way to the octagon room.

“What is it, my dear?”

She ought at least to warn him. “The room is not finished. It is quite bare.”

“Does that distress you?”

She nodded.

“Better bare than done badly.”

The entire time her uncle spent in the octagon room, her heart
was in her mouth. She moved away from his sight line, dreading the moment when he discovered the damage she had done. A little while later, Hannah appeared, yawning, and told her what Henry had said in his letter, at length.

“Vats of burning oil is what he has in mind.”

“Burning oil?” said Maria, hearing only the drumbeat of her fear.

“His plan to defeat the French,” said her sister. “Robert says he reads too many books and his imagination runs away with him.”

Then her uncle came back into the central hall, smiling. It was agreed they should look at the gardens while it was still light, and Maria felt a wash of relief so sudden it brought tears again to her eyes.

*  *  *

Hannah came down the stairs of the inn, her way lit by the candle that danced shadows on the walls. It was not the worst place they had stayed; it was not the best. The beds were clean, she could say that much, but their room was at the back, overlooking the stable yard, and it was noisy.

She found a serving girl in the passage and told her what she wanted. “Right away.”

“Yes, ma’am. Please to wait in the parlor. I won’t be long.”

It was late and the fire was burning low. Hannah sat herself on one of the high-backed settles and let out a sigh. Her feet hurt and she slipped off her shoes. The candle made a puddle of light on the table in front of her. The parlor smelled of stale ale, tobacco, and pies.

“Hannah.” His voice came out of the darkness.

“Uncle? Is that you? I thought you had gone to bed.”

“Not yet.” He cleared his throat. “You sound tired.”

“I am a little weary.”

“And Maria?”

“She has had a wonderful day.”

“I am pleased.” A pause. “She isn’t well, is she?”

“She will be right as rain in the morning.”

“I’m not blind.”

Hannah stared at the candle. She wondered whether Maria would have had a better life if her uncle had offered her a home after their mother died. It was what she had wanted, but nothing had been said during her stay with him and she was not the sort of person to ask. Maria never asked for anything.

“I think she was surprised that the house was not finished.”

“They have run out of money. The estate is heavily mortgaged, so I hear.”

“Oh,” said Hannah.

“The son is a gambler. They say he has debts all over Europe.”

“What a pity.”

“The house will survive. It’s strong. It has good bones.”

The serving girl came into the parlor with the jug and asked if she should take it up.

“No,” said Hannah, relieving her of it. “Thank you for your trouble.”

“Hannah?” said her uncle. “Is Maria . . . ?”

“Maria wanted to come. It’s all she’s talked about for weeks.”

“You said it would do her good. What’s wrong with her?”

“Dr. Thirwell doesn’t know.”

“Perhaps she should consult another physician.”

“He’s the best in York.”

“We’re near enough London. I could make inquiries. We could delay our return long enough for her to see someone else.”

In the dark, the conversation was naked and unguarded.

“I have already suggested that. She forbids it.”

Hannah took up the candle and saw that her uncle was sitting in front of tiny sketches. For once he looked his age. He raised his eyes and the whites caught in the light.

“She carved her initials under one of the windows in the octagon room. M. G.”

“M. G. could be anyone.”

“Fresh plaster dust on the floor.”

Hannah pressed her lips together and nodded. “I’m glad.”

Upstairs, she found Maria crying into a pillow so no one could hear. “Hush, Muzz. I’m going to give you a little stronger dose tonight.”

Her sister lifted her head. Strands of hair were stuck to her face. “Don’t. I shall be fit for nothing tomorrow.”

“You need it. Perhaps it was a mistake to stay so long in the gardens. But they were pretty, weren’t they?” She measured out the drops. “Drink it up.”

Maria struggled to raise herself against the bolster and took the cup. “I have been thinking about that boy we saw in Leicester. Was it Leicester, or somewhere else? I cannot recall.”

“Which boy, my love?”

“He had curly hair, and a little sister, and they were so destitute, so ragged.”

“I remember. You gave him money. Yes, it was Leicester, I believe.”

“Will it have helped, do you think?”

“It is good to be charitable.”

“That is not what I’m asking.”

“I don’t know. We do what we can, that’s all we can do. Come on, my love, drink it up.”

“Poor Hannah. You haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since we came away.” Maria lifted the cup to her lips, swallowed, and made a face. “I am such a nuisance to you, such a burden.”

“Hush. Don’t talk nonsense. All gone? Good lass.” Hannah took the cup. “Uncle was in the parlor just now.”

“Was he?”

“He’d been drawing. The Fawley lodges, I expect. Turn over and I’ll rub your back.” Through the nightdress, her sister’s skin was hot and her shoulder blades sharp, her spine distinct bumps you could count. How many times had she done the same for her children, she thought, her fingers circling and soothing? When she felt the drug begin to work, she took her hands away. “Let me tuck you up.”

Maria’s eyes were dimming. She murmured something indistinct.

“What did you say?”

Hannah bent down to hear the words breathed into the pillow, but she did not catch them and they vanished into the air.

*  *  *

The next morning Woods rose early and left the inn just as day was beginning to break. The church was a little set apart from the village, down by the river. He let himself in by the lych-gate.

It did not take him long to find Joshua’s grave, with its great impervious slab. Granite, Woods thought, had been a mistake. All around the churchyard, gray headstones slanted out of the ground like so many loose teeth. Time was eating into the names and lichen was blurring the dates, settling the dead into the earth and into the past, which is where the dead must live. By contrast, Joshua’s marker might have been put up yesterday. He bent and ran his fingers over the chiseled inscription as gently as one might brush a child’s cheek.

*  *  *

Hannah slept late and when she woke, Maria was up and already dressed, sitting at the small table by the window, working on a watercolor, silhouetted against the light.

Hannah rubbed her eyes, slipped her legs out from under the covers, and reached for a robe to pull over her nightdress.

“What are you painting?”

“Come and see. I daren’t hold it up, it’s still wet.”

It was a fluid, tremulous sketch, green and alive.

“Do you like it?”

“I do,” said Hannah. “The gardens were so pretty, weren’t they?”

Years later, somewhat faded, the picture was still hanging on the landing of Hannah’s house in York, where she passed it every day and no longer saw it.

   4   
The Portrait: 1837

A
ppearances are deceptive. In the heat of midsummer you might be fooled into thinking that the house faces the future squarely and untroubled. Where sunshine splashes on the stonework and the stonework drinks it up, everything appears permanent, orderly, and solid. Never mind the shut rooms, the curls of peeling wallpaper, the slates missing on the roofs of the pavilions, the broken turret clock of the stable block. Never mind what’s faded and old or what has never been completed for want of care and funds. Moths in the carpets, worm in the wood, silverfish in the books: these temporary intrusions can be tolerated, might one day be defeated and banished. This is what the light promises to make good. And with the light, soft fingers of air playing about the symmetries like music, sudden laughter behind closed doors, or footfalls on the staircase that twines up in the center of the house under the high clerestory windows.

*  *  *

Over the chemise went the corset. “Tighter,” she said, holding her breath as the maid tugged the laces and the boned gores thrust up her breasts and gouged her armpits. Over the corset went the starched linen petticoat. Over the petticoat and corset went the sprigged cotton skirts and the sprigged cotton bodice with its wide stiffened sleeves. Her hair loose over her shoulders, she lowered
herself to the chair in front of her toilet table and waved away the lace cape. The day promised to be hot.

The third week of June, the King was dying and the country had said its prayers. Five days earlier Georgiana More had come down to Ashenden for the summer, accompanied by her maid Benson, her four children, the French governess, a nursemaid, two footmen, and a dog. She had written ahead to advise the housekeeper to make the house ready, or as ready as somewhere that had never been finished and was now falling down could be. The country seat of the Mores, crumbling, derelict, unkempt. To Georgiana, if to no one else, beloved. Ashenden Park had taken possession of her when she had first seen it shrouded in dust sheets early in her marriage, the last of the tenants gone, and unlike a husband or a lover, it had never let her go. Some houses you lived in; others lived in you. Over the years she could have done more to improve it if there had been proper money to spend. Yet she was pleased with what she had accomplished through cutting and contriving. The vivid Indian paper in the octagon room, got entirely by wheedling and which she still had not paid for, was a case in point.

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