Authors: M. C. Beaton
Go call a coach, and let the man be call’d,
And let the man who calls it be the caller;
And to his calling let him nothing call,
But Coach, Coach, Coach! O for a Coach, Ye Gods!
Hannah Pym stood by the drawing-room window of Thornton Hall and waited for the stage-coach to go by.
Thornton Hall was a large square building, rather like a huge doll’s house, with a drive that led down to the Kensington Road. There were no formal gardens or trees at the front, only lawns cropped short by sheep, with the arrow-straight drive running down to tall wrought-iron gates flanked by stone gateposts topped with stone eagles.
It was six o’clock on a winter’s morning and a low moon was shining. During the night, the wind had
blown a light fall of snow into scalloped shapes across the lawns.
Hannah tugged open one of the long windows which led out on to a shelf of a balcony guarded by a wrought-iron railing. She walked out, and listened.
Then she heard it, the thud of hooves, and hung on to the rail and peered down the drive.
‘Here she comes,’ she whispered.
And bowling along the Kensington Road came the stage-coach, the Flying Machine, pulled by six powerful horses. She felt that breathless excitement which the sight of the stage-coach always gave her and lifted her hand and waved. The groom raised the yard of tin and blew a merry salute. The passengers on the roof were clutching their hats. How loud the horses’ hooves were on the hard ground. What speed! And then the stage-coach was gone, taking life and adventure away into the darkness and leaving behind the bleak winter scene.
Hannah gave a little sigh and stepped inside and closed the window behind her.
Time was, she thought, when she had been too busy and happy to need the excitement of watching the stage-coach go by. That was when the mistress, Mrs Clarence, had been in residence: pretty, frivolous Mrs Clarence, filling the house with parties and friends and flowers and colour and light. But Mrs Clarence had run off with a footman just after Hannah had achieved her life’s ambition and been made housekeeper.
Then a sort of darkness had fallen, for Mr Clarence had gone into a gloomy decline. Half the rooms were
locked up, half the servants were dismissed and poor Hannah felt she was presiding at a perpetual funeral. That was when she began to wait for the stage-coach to go by, needing the sight of all that motion and life to raise her spirits. And then at last, she found she was supervising the arrangements for a real funeral. Mr Clarence had died just after Christmas.
In that year of 1800, the stage-coaches were advertised as Flying Machines. To Hannah they stood for everything that was missing from her now dark and bleak life: adventure, other worlds, hope, life and laughter.
But she could remember happy times before Mrs Clarence had run away, oh, so long ago, when life had been busy and exciting. At the age of twelve, she had left her parents’ home in Hammersmith and entered into service in Thornton Hall, the Clarences’ residence. She had worked hard to become a kitchen maid, then a between-stairs maid, then chambermaid, then housemaid, then chief housemaid, and had finally been exalted to the position of housekeeper. There had been servants’ parties, she remembered, especially at Christmas, when Mrs Clarence and her husband would descend to the servants’ hall and Mrs Clarence would dance with the menservants and Mr Clarence with the maids.
Hannah left the drawing-room and went down to the kitchens and made tea. She had always risen early, being one of those rare people who need very little sleep. She liked being up before the other servants to enjoy a little bit of peace and quiet on her own.
She was worried. She was forty-five, a great age, nearly old. It would be hard to find another position as housekeeper. In making the arrangements for the funeral and coping with the Clarence relatives who had descended like vultures, she had not had time to seek another post. She had only a little money saved. ‘And that,’ said Hannah Pym aloud, ‘is your own fault.’ Hannah could not help interfering in other people’s lives. There had been money given to servant girls to help them get out of trouble, somewhere to go and stay until the babies were born. There had been money given to a footman to go to university and make a new start, for he had been a bright, sensitive lad, hopeless as a footman. There had been money – Hannah winced – given to that under-butler who had proposed marriage to her. He had said he would go and purchase a cottage with her savings and had never come back. But now she was older and wiser and could often see through people and, besides, there was no use regretting the past.
The relatives, who had mercifully left for a few days after the funeral, were ready to descend again for the reading of the will. Sir George Clarence, Mr Clarence’s brother, would be there this time, thought Hannah, and there would be someone to take charge. Sir George had been abroad in the diplomatic service for a long time and had returned to England only recently. She remembered him vaguely as being a rather austere and cold man. She felt sure Mr Clarence would not have remembered her in his will, although she was the last of the old servants. Since
Mrs Clarence had left, the house had become too gloomy to attract regular staff, and a bewildering variety of maids and footmen had come and gone. It had been years since there had been a butler, that job having been added to Hannah’s by the seemingly uncaring Mr Clarence.
The morning was busy with preparations for the reading of the will. A cold collation was to be served to the relatives in the dining-room about two o’clock. At four, they would adjourn to the library, where Mr Entwhistle of Entwhistle, Barker & Timms would read the will.
For a short while it was heart-breakingly like old times, with fires in the rooms and bustle and hurry. Hannah in her black gown and with her keys at her waist went here and there, running her fingers over ledges to make sure there was not a trace of dust, plumping up cushions, checking coal scuttles to make sure they were full, filling cans with hot water, arranging flowers, and giving a final polish to the brass and steel of fenders. Then, with the one remaining footman and two housemaids beside her, she waited in the hall for the arrival of the relatives.
First came Mrs Jessop, the late Mr Clarence’s sister, a small, fussy woman with her thin and whining husband and their three children, all boys in their teens, and spoilt, in Hannah’s opinion, beyond repair. Then there was a fluttering of cousins, spinster ladies, gossiping and complaining about the cold. Then Mr Clarence’s other brother, Peter, a fat, jolly man with a ferocious laugh and a weakness for practical jokes, his
wife, Freda, fat also, but languid and a professional invalid, and their seven children of various ages.
And then arrived Sir George Clarence. He was a tall, spare man in his fifties with white hair, a hawklike face, and piercing blue eyes. He was impeccably dressed in a blue swallowtail coat and darker blue knee-breeches with striped stockings and buckled shoes, the splendour of which was revealed when the footman relieved him of his many-caped greatcoat.
‘How are you, Miss Pym?’ he asked, and Hannah flushed with pleasure because he had remembered her name. She had never adopted the courtesy title of ‘Mrs’, like most housekeepers and cooks, and he had remembered that too.
She supervised the serving of the cold collation. Bedrooms had been prepared, although no one but Sir George was staying the night, because she knew the guests would like somewhere to retire.
Then when the ladies had gone through to the drawing-room and the men were left to their wine, she went down to the hall to greet the lawyer, Mr Entwhistle.
‘Bitterly cold, ‘he said, rubbing his hands. ‘There is more snow coming, I can feel it.’
‘I have put a tray in the morning-room, sir,’ said Hannah. ‘I thought you might care for some refreshment before the reading of the will.’
‘Most kind of you, most kind. But business first, I think. Miss Pym, the housekeeper, is it not?’
‘Then you had better be present at the reading of the will. Lead the way, if you please.’
Hannah escorted him to the library before summoning the relatives. Her first elation was quickly dying down. Mr Entwhistle was a kindly old gentleman in a bagwig. His invitation to her to be present at the reading of the will was merely a courtesy. Why, poor Mr Clarence had barely noticed her existence in his final years.
Miss Pym bustled about, ordering the staff to find chairs for all the relatives and lighting lamps and candelabra, for the library was a dark room, the serried ranks of calf-bound books seeming to absorb what light there was.
She then took up a position by the door.
Mr Entwhistle took out spectacles from his spectacle case and polished them with maddening slowness. Hannah could feel the tension rising in the room. Only Sir George, sitting over by the window, appeared indifferent to the contents of the will. But then he would know the contents. Mr Clarence had told her a long time ago that he had appointed Sir George as his executor.
At last, Mr Entwhistle began. Thornton Hall, its grounds and all its contents were to be left to his dear brother, Sir George Clarence. There was a heightening rather than a lessening of tension as if everyone was privately asking, ‘The money. What about the money?’
They were soon put out of their misery. The bulk of Mr Clarence’s considerable fortune had been divided equally among his two brothers and one sister and then there were handsome legacies to every
single one of the other relatives. Smiles all round, then a few sentimental tears shed by the spinster cousins – ‘So kind, so very, very kind of him to remember us all.’
‘Now to the servants,’ said Mr Entwhistle. Now the tension was in Hannah. ‘To any servant in my employ for the period of over four years at my death I leave two hundred pounds each.’
Hannah felt quite limp with relief. That would keep her for long enough and more to find a job. There were not many servants who had lasted the four-year period, she reflected. The house had been so gloomy that servants came and went, not many of them staying long. But there was the coachman and the outside man, and one of the scullery maids, and the remaining footman. Then she heard her own name.
‘To my faithful housekeeper, Miss Hannah Pym, I leave the sum of five thousand pounds to be hers entirely and to do with as she wishes.’
There were little rustles of irritation which gradually grew louder as Mr Entwhistle took off his glasses, polished them again, and put them carefully away in a leather case. Five thousand pounds! ‘Too much for a servant!’ said one of the cousins. ‘She’ll only drink it,’ hissed another. But Hannah stood by the door in a happy daze. She would never need to work again. Automatically, she walked down the stairs to the morning-room to see that everything was laid out for Mr Entwhistle. Finally, she stood at the door to help the departing relatives on with their cloaks and mantles. Not one of them tipped her, considering she had more money than was good for her.
Hannah then returned to the library to see if Sir George required anything and was told he did not. She bustled about the bedrooms with the maids, seeing that the mess left by the relatives had been cleared up. The bedchambers had been meant to be used only as places in which to freshen up, but they had all managed to make a horrendous mess just the same, the children having created a great deal of the havoc. Then downstairs to see the lawyer on his way. She longed to ask him how soon she could have the money but found she had not the courage. Her initial excitement was fading fast. She had a vague idea that wills could take forever, some slow legal process whereby the money was finally disgorged reluctantly when the recipients were nigh dead.
Hannah glanced at the watch she wore pinned to her bosom. Nearly six o’clock. Time for the stage-coach to go by.
Sir George went quietly into the drawing-room and stood watching the housekeeper as she stood by the window, one hand raised to hold back the curtain. The window was open and he heard the thud of horses’ hooves and the blast of a horn. The housekeeper waved and then turned slowly round, her eyes full of dreams. She started slightly at the sight of him and turned back and closed the window.
‘Are you expecting some friend or relative to arrive by stage-coach?’ asked Sir George.
‘No, sir,’ said Hannah over her shoulder as she swung the heavy shutters across the window. ‘I like to see the coach go by.’
She then began to move about the room, lighting the lamps, poking the fire and throwing a log on it. He came and sat down in a chair by the fire. ‘Sit down, Miss Pym,’ he said.
Hannah looked at him in surprise. ‘I do not think it would be right,’ she said.
‘You are now an heiress,’ said Sir George, looking amused. ‘Pray, take a chair.’
Hannah sat down gingerly on the very edge of a chair, facing him. He studied her for a few moments.
She was a thin woman with thick sandy hair under a starched cap. She had a sallow face with a crooked nose, slightly bent, and a long, humorous mouth. Her eyes were extraordinary, very large and bright, of many colours, it seemed, at times gold, at times blue, at times green. She had hunting shoulders although she did not know how to ride a horse, very square, and long thin arms and surprisingly elegant hands. Her ankles were very well turned. Hannah had automatically raised her skirt a little as she sat down. Her ankles and feet were her one vanity and she spent too much money on shoes.