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Authors: Kate Riordan

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BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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What had Isabel said, when she was speaking as the battered little peg doll?
The magician will come
. Of course he wasn't a magician—Elizabeth couldn't fathom where Isabel had got that from. Perhaps it was his black stovepipe hat, or the large leather bag he carried, as polished as his shoes and as waxed as his thin moustache. She could still remember the scratch of its hairs on the skin of her palm as she turned away from him. She could also remember with horrible clarity his cool, vaguely damp hands: the skin as soft as hers but the bones underneath capable of gripping like iron vises. She hadn't written about that in her diary, either.

[5] ALICE

I
woke late the following morning, having slept far better than I expected after the episode with the broken lamp. My diary lay open by my side, my writing cramped and smudged, the lists of names sloping drunkenly. I had fallen asleep sitting up, and I rubbed my neck where it had lain awkwardly. In the pale gold morning light the room was far less forbidding—even the monstrous wardrobe seemed to have retreated and shrunk, the bulk that had squatted so menacingly in the shadows of the previous evening now revealed as mere furniture once again. I had obviously dreamt most of it, the unfamiliarity of a new setting manifesting itself in vivid dreams.

Feeling a little foolish, I went over to the casement and flung open the window. It moved easily, and the air outside had already softened, with no trace of dawn's damp coolness left. There would be no clouding over today. I knew that the midday sun would be hot and almost fierce, the late afternoon languorous and sticky. I dressed quickly, putting on a loose cotton blouse and a comfortable skirt that sat neatly over my small bump. Or so I hoped; my reflection in the wardrobe's mirror looked decent enough. The skirt almost concealed my thickened middle, the physical change I liked least.

With a rush I remembered the candle and glanced back at the bedside table so fast that I cricked my stiff neck. Even through the hot pain of it I felt a chill creep through the rest of my body. The candle remained tall, hardly more used than when I last remembered checking its progress. I couldn't remember blowing it out; it must have been extinguished by a draught. I smiled ruefully at myself in the mirror as I brushed my hair. I could almost hear my mother's voice:
Alice always did have the most over-active imagination, and she certainly doesn't get it from me.

I went down to the Red Room for breakfast, but it was deserted, with no sign that Mrs. Jelphs and I had spent the previous evening there. Only a slight darkening on the walls where the flames of the candles leapt was any indication that the room had been used at all. I headed for the kitchen and found it warm and full of clean smells. A round-faced girl of about sixteen or seventeen straightened up from scrubbing the flagstones and smiled at me.

“Hello,” she said, her small round eyes bright as brown glass buttons. “I wondered when you were going to come down.”

“Is it very late?” I said, smiling sheepishly. “I didn't sleep too well, or I'd have been up earlier.”

She smiled back warmly. “Oh no, I just meant that I wanted to meet you. Anyway, it's only just gone half past eight.”

“I suppose you've been up since the crack of dawn,” I said.

“Near enough,” the girl replied. “I don't mind it so much now it's almost summer though. It's harder in the winter, when it's so dark. Now, do you want some tea? I was just about to put the kettle on for myself. I'll tell you what, I'll do you some eggs if you like. Seeing as it's your first day. How do you like them? I do good scrambled. I put a bit of butter in for flavour.”

She smiled again, cheeks red from her exertions with the scrubbing brush.

I wasn't usually hungry in the mornings, especially since the pregnancy, but I realised then that I was ravenous. Perhaps it was the country air.

“I'd love some scrambled, thank you, though I don't think you should do it for me.”

“Don't be daft. It's either that or scrubbing the floor. Besides, this way you'll know where everything is for when you get your own tomorrow.” She smiled broadly at me and then went over to the bread bin. “Do you want a slice of toast? I usually have one with a cup of tea in half an hour, but I fancy it now. Mrs. Jelphs won't mind. Go on, you sit down.”

I hadn't noticed it before, but there was a small table pushed against the wall, its leaves lowered so it took up as little space as possible. The legs were ornate with wooden scrollwork, and I thought it must have found its way here from a grander room. I sat at one end, facing my new friend.

“What's your name? I'm afraid Mrs. Jelphs didn't tell me yesterday.”

The girl laughed. “Oh, she wouldn't think to! I come in the mornings mostly, to keep the house clean and swept. I'm needed at home in the afternoons. I help my ma 'round the house, and I take in a bit of sewing too. We live up in Stanwick. I still haven't said who I am, have I? My name's Nan.”

I put out my hand, but she wouldn't shake it until she had wiped hers off on her apron.

“I'm Alice,” I said. “I'll be here until—” I stopped and coloured. “I'll be here for the rest of the summer.”

Nan nodded. “I'm glad. It'll be nice to have someone young here, and you can tell me all about London. I've always wanted to go and see all the sights, not just the castles and what have you. All those cafés and picture palaces and grand restaurants. I've never
set foot outside of Gloucestershire. Oh!” She clapped her hand over her mouth. “I'm sorry. Listen to me going on like that about London, when you've come here to get away from the terrible time you've had.”

I smiled weakly, trying not to think about London's cafés and their inevitable associations in my mind. “Please, you mustn't worry.”

She nodded, embarrassed, and turned back to the bread. Taking up a knife, she cut two thick slices, and after a minute or two her smile was back.

“My ma said she saw Ruck off to fetch you in the carriage yesterday. She was walking to the post office when she saw him. He won't drive a motorcar, says they'd never get up the hills here if there was even a spot of rain.” She laughed, showing gappy white teeth. “I did feel sorry for you having him turning up in that sorry old carriage.”

“It was a bit of a surprise,” I said, smiling but mortified that my arrival had probably been widely telegraphed in the village.

“So when are you due, then?” she said as she expertly beat eggs and milk in a bowl with a fork.

I blushed again at her directness. Noticing it, she was contrite once more.

“I'm always saying the wrong thing, I am. I should mind my own business. It's just that . . . well, it's just that I love babies. I had a little brother who come along late. He wasn't expected—my ma thought she was too old to have any more, but he died after a week.”

“I'm so sorry.”

“It was two summers ago. I loved him, even though he was with us for no time at all. He had these tiny, perfect fingernails—that's what I remember most. At the bottom of each one was a little curved . . . I don't know what it's called.”

“Like a new moon,” I said.

She looked at me and smiled. “Yes, just like that.”

“This baby is not due for a few months yet. It was arranged that I should come here to have it because my mother came from a place near here. She knew Mrs. Jelphs as a girl.”

I didn't trust myself to say much more.

“So you're going to bring the baby up on your own, when it comes?” Nan's eyes were wide and full of sympathy.

“Well, of course my mother will help,” I said quickly, though the reality—the orphanage—would be quite different. With a lurch of my stomach, I realised that my lies felt as remote to me as the truth.

“Well, I think that's really brave. I do,” said Nan solemnly. She turned to stir the egg mixture over the heat. “I'm sure you'll do a grand job of it.”

Just then Mrs. Jelphs came in through the door leading to the kitchen garden.

“I hope you're not chattering on to Alice now,” she said, looking between us.

“No, Mrs. Jelphs. I'm just doing some eggs and toast for her, as it's her first day. She would have been up earlier but she didn't sleep too well.”

Mrs. Jelphs looked over at me anxiously. “I'm sorry to hear you didn't sleep. It's important that you get your rest for the baby. You mustn't overexert yourself, or . . .” She paused and began again. “Was the bed not comfortable? I know the mattresses in the manor should really be replaced—some of them date from well before my days in the valley.”

“Oh no,” I said, relieved that she had lost all of her sharpness from the previous evening. “It wasn't that. I was just restless. It's getting used to a new place, I suppose, and I'm not used to the
quiet of the countryside. I must take after my father—he's a Londoner through and through, and when he came to this part of the world, he couldn't sleep either.”

Mrs. Jelphs and Nan exchanged a look.

“I hope you weren't disturbed by my padding about,” I said, desperate not to have the housekeeper think I was a nuisance. “I think anyone sleeping near me would have had a pretty fitful night's sleep themselves. I even broke a lightbulb, being clumsy.”

Mrs. Jelphs shook her head. “I didn't hear anything. Of course I sleep at the other end of the house, and the walls are very thick. The way the manor was built, over many years, means that it's peculiarly laid out inside. It's not a very large house, as these things go, but sometimes, even now, I have to remind myself which corridor leads to the staircase and which takes you off on a wild-goose chase past rooms that are closed up now.”

I felt the hairs rise on my arms as I picked up the cup of tea Nan had made me, imagining those abandoned rooms and their dust sheets and cobwebs, the air lying dormant and heavy, undisturbed for years. And then my mind moved backwards to the time before, when the rooms were lived in, the windows flung open and the floorboards creaking under the weight of people now long gone—the husband in front of a fire, the cook in her kitchen, and Elizabeth . . .

Nan bustling over brought me back to the present. In front of me she set down a plate of fluffy yellow eggs and thickly sliced toast.

“There you are,” she said brightly. “Tuck into that. It'll set you up for the day.”

I picked up my fork, but a hazy image of what I'd been thinking about before lingered on in my mind.

“Do you mind sleeping here alone?” I said to Mrs. Jelphs. “I'm not sure . . . well, I've only ever lived in my parents' house, and that
was built less than thirty years ago. It's just that I've never stayed in a place like this, where so many people have lived out their lives before.”

Mrs. Jelphs looked perplexed. “I thought you were living with your husband before?”

I swallowed a mouthful of eggs without chewing them in my haste to correct my mistake.

“Oh yes, I did, but that wasn't for very long, and that was in quite a new house too. It's just that it feels a little like a dream to me now.”

“I'm sorry, of course it must. Such a dreadful thing.”

She shook her head sorrowfully, and I cast my eyes down to my plate.

“But in answer to your question, my dear, no, I don't mind it. It's true that some houses—houses like this one—have an atmosphere about them; they seem to hold the past in their walls somehow. But that is not something I have ever found frightening. On the contrary, I like to keep the past close to me.” Her face took on its faraway look.

“Besides,” she said, coming back to herself after a pause, “I am not entirely alone in the valley at night. Ruck has a cottage much farther down Fiery Lane, on the edge of Ruin Wood.”

I thought of him walking across the meadow with his dog.

“Now,” said Mrs. Jelphs with a brightness that wasn't reflected in her eyes, “I'll leave you to get on with your breakfast. When you're ready I'll show you around. I'll be in the garden.” She brought a large iron key out of her pocket. “We can start with the chapel. It's very beautiful, and not many get to see it. I thought you might like to go there, if you ever feel as though you need to. It's a very peaceful place.”

When she'd gone, I talked to Nan about this and that while I ate—what she thought of the village she'd lived in all her life, her
older sisters and cousins, her uncle who was a gardener on another estate a couple of valleys away. She came and sat opposite me at the table, a mug of tea between her hands.

Now that I had eaten something, and my disturbed night had receded from my thoughts, I realised I'd regained something of the previous day's anticipation. I had underestimated what a palpable relief it would be to escape my mother's tight-lipped disapproval—I suppose I'd got used to living in its shadow during the weeks before I left. I pictured the kitchen at home, which never got the sun. Here the contrast seemed symbolic: the sun slanting in from the kitchen garden as distinct shafts of gold.

“It's nice what you were saying before, to Mrs. Jelphs,” said Nan, interrupting my thoughts. “About all the people living out their lives here. I never thought of it like that.”

“I just think that you can feel the past in some places. It feels like it's just out of reach, and that if you listen hard enough . . .”

“You don't mean ghosts, do you?” Nan's eyes were wide.

I laughed. “No, not ghosts. I don't believe in them. No, it's something a bit quieter than that.”

She looked relieved. “Oh, good. If I ever hear a ghost story, I'm jumping out of my skin for weeks afterwards. I don't believe in them either, but then it gets dark and I'm not so sure. Shall I tell you a story about this place?”

I hoped that it would feature Elizabeth Stanton, whose image had remained tantalisingly blurred. Her hair, which Mrs. Jelphs had mentioned, was the only thing I could see clearly: her long, dark river of hair. I nodded eagerly at Nan, who leant forward, eyes sparkling.

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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