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Authors: Kate Riordan

Fiercombe Manor (11 page)

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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“We have never advertised the gardens,” Mrs. Jelphs said after a pause. “Any interest in Fiercombe tends to be limited to those who know a great deal about the kind of restoration work that was done here at the turn of the century, and those who wish to see our formal garden. It's one of the earliest of its kind in England. But you've seen the yew pylons. While we do our best, it's hardly a showpiece. And the few Arts and Crafts types who still come, hoping that the house and chapel might be open to visitors, are turned away disappointed.”

“So a sunny day in August sees, what, fifty people come by?”

Mrs. Jelphs laughed thinly. “Oh no, my dear. We would be amazed to see fifty in a whole summer. Those that do come are all old, like me, and they come because they remember hearing
about the place in childhood. Today's youngsters aren't interested in gardens.”

I felt a spark of interest light again.

“What would they have heard? What was it like when you first came here?”

Mrs. Jelphs didn't answer but looked down into her bowl, where half her pears lay untouched in a dribble of cream. When she looked up and smiled, it didn't reach her eyes.

“Why don't you finish my pears?” she said. “I hope you won't stand on ceremony.”

I nodded and held my bowl out. She spooned her remains into it and then poured the rest of the cream over them.

It was obvious that she had changed the subject, and I wondered why. Not wanting the conversation to entirely dry up, I plunged in with a question I might not have asked so directly otherwise.

“I found a lovely old sewing box in the little room we had tea in this afternoon. Is it yours?”

She took so long to answer that I began to fear that she had seen me reading the note after all.

“It's mine now,” she said eventually. She didn't look up but folded and then refolded her napkin, smoothing the linen out with hands that weren't quite steady.

“It's just that I thought the
E
might stand for Elizabeth, rather than your name.”

Her head snapped up at that, before she could stop herself.

“What do you know of any Elizabeth?” Her voice was quite changed—cold, but holding something else too. I realised it was fear.

“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to . . . Well, it was nothing, really—just something I read in a library book.”

“Saying what? Even books in libraries can be economical with the truth.” She hadn't raised her voice, but her tone was like iron.

“Really, it was just a note . . . a footnote,” I stammered, anxious that I had offended her and that I would give away the fact that I'd read more than just a dry old library book. “It said that she was a renowned beauty.”

Mrs. Jelphs's face changed as I watched it. It was hard to read—not only because I had just met her and because the dim light cast strange shadows, but because so many emotions flitted across it in quick succession.

“Well, that at least is true.” She seemed to be speaking to herself more than to me, the words barely audible. “I rarely talk of it. The past, that is. Talking cannot bring it back. Perhaps people would be surprised, looking at me here”—she gestured at the candelabras and ornate china—“but I've no love of old things just for the sake of them. If I could choose to, I'd have a nice new kitchen, with clean lino on the floor and a gas oven. Hot running water out of new pipes. Heating in my bedroom for the winter mornings.” She looked down at her hands. “Everything in the valley was new once, when I first came here. We had the best of everything then.”

I didn't dare speak or move, not even to nod my head in encouragement. If I did, I knew she would stop. I didn't think she was aware any longer that I was there.

“The cook, Mrs. Wentworth, liked things done the old way, but she was bought every sort of newfangled implement and machine, whether she wanted to use them or not. Of course I was hardly in the kitchens myself, except if there was a party, when we all had to wait on the guests. I was a lady's maid. In Cheltenham I was first a kitchen maid and then a tweeny with some duties upstairs. I was very good at my lessons when I was young and dreamt about being a schoolteacher, but we were too poor for me to stay on. So I went into service.

“In those days it was fashionable to have a lady's maid who was fairly accomplished, who knew the fashions from Paris and how to dress hair in the latest styles. Not many would have taken on a simple village girl with only a few years' experience of upstairs work—and it didn't make me very popular with the rest of the staff, not at first.

“But I was good at it. I was an excellent seamstress, and I found I had a knack for dressing hair too. She had beautiful hair. Conker-brown, but conkers when they're freshly fallen, before they dull. It was so thick, so heavy, that I had to use a hundred pins to keep it up when she dressed for dinner. I always thought it was a shame she couldn't wear it down as a girl would, running like a river down her back.”

Mrs. Jelphs fell silent then, staring into the candlelight.

“Are there any pictures of her, of Elizabeth?” I said softly, knowing I risked breaking the spell. “Any photographs?”

“Not anymore, no.” Her voice was curt again.

There was a long silence, and my spoon scraped loudly on the china as I ate the last of the pears. Mrs. Jelphs was quite still in the chair opposite mine, her thoughts held fast by days long gone. I thought about how I'd run my finger over the flowing script of the
E
on the sewing box. Perhaps the last person to have done that was Elizabeth herself, an infinitesimal trace of her still there.

“Will you tell me about her?” I spoke as softly as before, but I still made the housekeeper flinch.

She remained silent for so long that I thought she wouldn't speak at all. Her eyes, now fixed on mine, grew blank and so fathomless that I had to look away. Perhaps it was the antiquated lighting, but when I looked back up she seemed to have aged a decade. I was about to apologise for prying when she finally spoke, her voice measured and almost without expression.

“I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me,” she said. “I'm feeling rather tired. I'm not as young as I was, and it's really time I cleared away. I've got things to be getting on with before bed.”

I nodded and looked down into my lap, oddly ashamed that I'd questioned her at all, and worried that I'd ruined things between us already.

She stood and clattered the dessert bowls on top of each other. I offered to help but was politely rebuffed. Left in the silence of the Red Room, the tapers hissing and flickering in the draught from the open door, I thought about what she had said—or rather what she hadn't—about her first mistress at Fiercombe. It was obvious that the present Lady Stanton had done little to supplant her predecessor in Mrs. Jelphs's affections. In the housekeeper's heart, she remained the young lady's maid who had waited on Elizabeth Stanton.

Elizabeth. Her name was already capable of sending a frisson through me, though I had never heard it spoken aloud before that evening. One thing I was certain of: something had happened to her, something out of the ordinary. A scandal, perhaps. She had taken a lover in the village, or she had run away from her life in the valley, boarding a liner to a new life in America. Or perhaps she had died young, tragically young. Perhaps it wasn't pregnancy she had alluded to in her note at all; perhaps she had been ill after all. I wondered about tuberculosis: all those consumptive women who'd gone uncomplainingly to their graves in the Victorian novels I'd read—delicately coughing into handkerchiefs spotted with blood and watching their flesh melt from their bones.

So had she been struck down by consumption, was that it? Or was it something more dramatic? Could she have been killed in a terrible accident—a fire in her bedroom or a carriage overturned by horses that had taken fright? My mind ran on until it got to
murder, a vision of strong hands around a narrow neck putting me on edge in the gloomy room.

“Would you like some tea?” Mrs. Jelphs had returned, and her voice made me jump.

I would dearly have loved some, but I shook my head, not wanting to put her out any more. Shame flooded me again, as if she had heard my sensational speculation.

I wished her good night and climbed the stairs to my room. There was scarcely any light in the hallway, and the stained oak swallowed most of what little there was. As I passed the alchemist's portrait I kept my eyes down, yet in my peripheral vision I could still see his pale ruff and hands, disembodied and suspended in the gloom.

I don't remember falling asleep that first night. I had thought it would be difficult in a strange place, but I must have fallen headlong into it, more tired than I realised. The baby was still, and that probably had a great deal to do with it. When I did come to, sometime in the smallest hours of the night, I was immediately wide awake, my body alert like an animal's, my mouth dry. My eyes scanned the gloom, but the darkness was complete, the heavy curtains absorbing any glimmer of moonlight outside.

The air was heavy, thick and chill, and an image of cold cream in a glass jar came into my mind. I put my hand out for the bedside lamp, pushing it through the dense atmosphere and feeling my skin cool as I did. My fingers fumbled for the light switch, torn between getting it turned on and being afraid of . . . I don't know. Making contact with something lurking there in the dark, I suppose. What might be there, I didn't want to think about.

It seemed to take an age to grasp the switch, my eyes scanning for movement all the time, and when I did, I managed to pull the whole thing over, the crash horrifying after the smothering silence.
The lamp had rolled off the table, so I untangled myself from the layers of sheets and blankets and put my feet to the floor before I could think too much about it. Even before I tried it, I knew the bulb would be broken. Pointlessly I held it up to my ear and shook it, hearing the tiny vibration of the coiled filament inside, tinging mournfully, uselessly, inside the thin glass.

Then something—I can only describe it as a sort of charge in the air—made me look up. I stood still, my ears straining. A creak, just discernible, made me turn towards the door. Where I hadn't been able to see anything, even make out the shapes of the furniture, I could now see its faint outline. It was old and warped, leaving a gap of a good few inches between its bottom edge and the bare floorboards, a void that now shone as a bar of dim light that seemed to roll and alter even as I watched it.

I instinctively held my breath. There were no more creaks, but in the lull I realised the sound of breathing hadn't stopped. In and out, soft and steady, far slower than the beating of my heart, it went on while I still held my own breath, my chest tight with it. Clutching the broken lamp, I stood for what felt like an unbearable time, my eyes fixed on the wavering, undulating light seeping under the door. The breathing had grown softer, but it was still there, just out of time with my own, which I couldn't hold anymore. I didn't think I could move until I suddenly did, putting the lamp down on the bed and then moving slowly towards the door and the light. I watched my hand, just visible in the strange glow, reach out as though not of my own volition for the door handle, which turned easily.

The corridor was empty and completely dark in both directions. I made myself tiptoe out into it a few steps, my heart thumping painfully in my chest. It was utterly silent, and for a fleeting second I wished for the city's comforting hum, the
explainable creaks of near neighbours. There was nothing to see or hear, but I thought I could detect the faintest trace of some scent on the air, only just discernible. I thought it might be vaguely floral, a trail of something more delicate than the wood, polish, and dust of the house. But when I inhaled again, it had gone, if it had ever been there at all. I ran my hand along the wall to find a light switch, my fingers fumbling but finding only the dark oak panelling's tongue and groove.

I remembered a candlestick I had seen then, tucked away at the back of the wardrobe's shelf above the hanging rail. I closed the bedroom door as silently as I could and made my way over to that great slab of mahogany, instinctively creeping as carefully as a cat. I told myself I mustn't wake up Mrs. Jelphs, whose room was sure to be close by. In truth, I felt as though I had to be quiet, not so I didn't wake someone from sleep, but so I didn't further alert something else to my presence.

I reached up to where I had seen the candlestick, the smooth metal feeling unnaturally cold as my hand closed around it. Just as I realised I had no matches, the base of the stick knocked against something small and light, and I knew by the cardboard rasp and the muffled rattle of its contents that someone had thoughtfully stowed a box of them.

It took a few tries before a match took properly. My hands were shaking, and the matchbox felt slightly pulpy with damp. The candle's wick lit quickly, sending eerie shadows darting around the room and making the curtains and tapestries look as though they were moving. As I watched, they seemed to settle, as though an invisible hand had stilled them.

I carried the candlestick over to the bedside table, my hand cupped to protect the precious flame. Even so, the melting wax that pooled around the wick was disturbed and hissed in protest.
I stopped, and the flame wavered before lengthening again. When I'd put it safely down, I clambered back into bed and looked around, wondering which item of furniture was light enough to move in front of the door. There was nothing I would be able to shift easily, especially the wardrobe, with its mirror I didn't want to look in. Even the dresser on its rusty castors would make a dreadful racket being dragged across the boards. It was a childish impulse I felt a little ashamed of, so I pulled the blankets over my cold legs and leant against the wooden back of the bed.

It was then that I remembered something from my childhood that I hadn't thought of in years—a week in a damp old house on the south coast that belonged to a great-aunt of my father's. We had gone there because she was dying. The room I was sleeping in was high up in the eaves of the house, furnished with two narrow beds and painted a dismal, watery shade of green. Badly painted, too, so you could see the rough strokes of a cheap brush dragged in different directions. One night I had woken disoriented from a nightmare, all the more confused because the dream was set in the same room. In it I was compelled to turn over and look at the bed across from mine, and though it was empty, the still-clean sheets were moving, rhythmically swelling and deflating by an invisible force—phantom lungs. I could hear the breathing then too.

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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