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Authors: Kate Riordan

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BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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We stood in silence for a few minutes. I wondered what James was doing right at that moment to the northwest, where London seeped into the countryside. I wondered if he'd had dinner yet, cooked and served by his wife. I wondered whether I had crossed his mind at all.

“Go to your room now, Alice. I don't want to look at you. I need to think about this and to speak to your father.”

Little more was said until just over a week later. I spent the intervening days in a state of numbness, scarcely able to think coherently about the baby or what my mother would eventually say. In the end my fate was announced after dinner, in the room with the display cabinet full of ugly china figurines and the gilt-framed print of John Constable's
Hay Wain
above the mantelpiece. I suppose it was the only time the three of us were all together.

“We've made up our minds, your father and I,” she began after we'd eaten in near silence. This was it, I thought. The next part of my life—perhaps all of it—would come down to this conversation.

As my mother began to speak, I glanced over at my father, but he was looking down at the tablecloth. His face looked grey
and thin with worry and shock, skin stretched too tautly over fine bones. She must have told him while I was out at work.

It was always stuffy in the front room. Next door, Mrs. Davies was running a bath for her two young children. I could hear the water sluicing through the pipes in the walls. Unable to sit still, I picked with my nail at the faceted glass of the vinegar bottle until my mother pointedly moved it out of my reach.

“Now listen carefully, my girl,” she said. “I wrote to Edith Jelphs last week. It's all arranged.”

“Edith Jelphs?” My mind cast around to place the name. The memory came to me in a rush: an afternoon so bright that the curtains in my parents' bedroom had been pulled across and were lifting inwards on a soft breeze. My mother, mellowed by the weather, had let me look through her tin box of mementos while she changed the sheets. I remembered being struck for the first time that she wasn't the sort of person who kept anything for its own sake, and wondered why she had saved the contents of the tin.

“She's the girl in the photograph,” I said now.

“What photograph?”

“The one of you as a girl in Painswick.”

Though she seemed utterly at home in London, my mother had in fact grown up in rural Gloucestershire. I had gone there with her myself as a child.

“Trust you to remember that,” she said. “Yes, I'd forgotten I had that. She's housekeeper at Fiercombe, has been for years.”

“Fiercombe?”

“Have you not heard of it? And you with your nose forever stuck in a book? It's an estate not far from Painswick. She went there as a maid when she was young, and never left.”

“What's all this got to do with me, Mother?”

I think I knew then, but I wanted to hear how she said it.

“It's all arranged,” she said again, her face implacable. “You'll go when you start to really show. Edith was very good about it, wrote as soon as she could to say that you might go, and to think we haven't spoken all these years. The family live abroad most of the year, so you won't see them. She told them about your situation, and it looks like someone's taken pity on you. You'll get bed and board in exchange for taking on some light duties, to pay your way. A bit of dusting, mending, that sort of thing.”

I remained silent. My father looked absently out the window. His foot was jiggling under the table; I could feel the movement through the floor. I knew he was desperate for the conversation to be over so he could go back out to his beloved garden and be wrapped in the undemanding cover of dusk.

“And what if I don't want to go?” I said, a childish stubbornness briefly surfacing.

“You'll go all right. You've made your father ill with worry. Look at him.” She stood and reached over the table to grip my chin. “I said, look at him. He's been so proud of you, doing well at the grammar and then getting your job, and this is what you do. No husband of your own, and so you get yourself into trouble with someone else's. Besides, what choice do you have? It's either Fiercombe or a mother and baby home in some godforsaken place. And who's going to pay for that, I'd like to know? No, you'll go to Gloucestershire until it's born.”

She sat back down in her seat and smoothed her housecoat over her lap, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I trust Edith Jelphs. I knew her as a child. This is for the best, and after all we've done for you, Alice, it's the least you can do.”

I glanced over at my father, and he met my eyes briefly before looking away. They were full of sadness, but there was something else there I had never seen. I suppose it was disappointment.

I swallowed down the sob that rose in my throat as he got wearily to his feet and went out, closing the door quietly behind him.

My mother waited until his steps had died away. “Alice, I know you think I'm too hard on you, that I've always been hard on you, but look what you've done—not just to yourself but to me and your father. There's many who would have disowned a daughter for this, but we haven't, so you'll do as we say. It's that, or you'll be destitute.”

I knew she was right.

“You're best off at Fiercombe,” she continued. “I've told Edith Jelphs that you were a newlywed who had only just found out she was expecting when her husband got himself killed. Knocked down by a motorcar on his way to work.”

Despite the roiling anxiety in my stomach, I almost laughed. “You said what?”

“You heard me. She and the family would never have agreed to it if they'd known the truth. I said in my letter that you'd had a dreadful shock and that the doctor had said you must get away from London—for your own health, as well as the baby's. That your nerves might never recover unless you had some peace and quiet in a new place that had none of the old associations.”

She looked satisfied with the story she'd woven for me, and I found myself almost admiring her inventiveness. I would arrive in Gloucestershire as a grieving widow rather than a fallen woman, while she played the role of concerned mother from a distance—someone following doctor's orders for the good of her daughter's fragile health, not to mention her future grandchild's. It was perfect. She had even dug out my grandmother's narrow wedding band.

“Don't you lose that now,” she said as I slipped it on, already feeling like a fraud. I shook my hand, and found the ring fitted as though it had been made for me.

“You'll keep to that story if you know what's good for you,” she continued. “This way, no one will talk behind your back or give you dirty looks for being in your condition and on your own—not like they would here, where they know there was never any husband, knocked over or otherwise. Your father couldn't have borne that sort of talk about you. You won't even have to do much around the house, by the sound of it. Edith said that there was a maid who came in most mornings and that you could ‘recuperate properly' until the baby came.”

“When am I to go?” I felt unbelievably tired.

“Like I said, when you start to show. When you can't work anymore. Another month or so, if you're like I was.”

“I'm not like you, though.”

“You're in no position to speak to me like that, young lady. I don't know if you realise the fix you've got yourself into. If you don't go, there's nowhere for you but the workhouse, and let's see how far your grammar-school education gets you there. Don't think other girls like you haven't ended up there without a penny to their name. Sure as eggs, they have.”

She got up and reached for the cruet set. Her rings clinked against it as she picked it up, along with the butter dish and the teapot.

“Get the door for me, will you?” she said.

M
r. Marshall, to my great surprise, seemed to notice me for the first time when I told him I had to leave my position to look after my ill mother. He wrote me an excellent reference and said my mother was lucky to have such a good daughter. It was more than I deserved or expected. I'm not sure if Miss Cunningham believed my story, but thankfully she chose to remain silent
on the matter. When I thought of all the lies my mother and I had crafted between us—her illness, my dead husband—I felt sick, but what other choice was there? None, as far as I could see.

The weeks leading to the day of my departure felt like an age. One afternoon during my last week at work I felt desperate enough to go and see James at his office, having dug out the address when Miss Cunningham went for lunch. I had the deluded idea that if I told him about the baby, he would make everything all right. In the event, I knew from the moment I saw him that he would be horrified, and left without saying a word about the pregnancy.

I finished work three weeks before I was due to leave; I was beginning to show too much to risk staying there any longer. After that, time dragged unbearably, with nothing to occupy my mind but my memories of James, the enormous mistake I had made, and dread that I was soon to be exiled to a place where I knew no one. Dora came round when she could, but her job at the local department store meant I was alone with my mother most of the time. I hadn't spent so many consecutive hours in her company for years, and the cloud of tight-lipped disapproval that seemed to hover around her turned the house into something like a prison. As if to rub salt in my wounds, I dreamt of James most nights—happy, serene dreams that were shattered on waking: contentment turned to misery. I became adept at crying silently into my pillow so my parents wouldn't hear.

On my last afternoon, I went to the local library to escape the house. I hadn't been there since I was a schoolgirl, when Dora would have been in tow and protesting at the goody-two-shoes worthiness of it. I had always liked the hushed atmosphere, though, and wished I'd visited more often.

It was almost empty by the time I got there, with nothing to be heard but the murmurings of an unseen conversation, the thud of
books being stamped, and the whispering of the trees that crowded at the tall Victorian windows.

I wandered around until I found myself in the history section. Idly scanning the names of kings, queens, and fallen dynasties I hadn't thought of since studying for matriculation, my eye was snagged by a huge tome entitled
England's Manors and Mansion Houses
. I heaved it out and sat down on some steps abandoned by one of the librarians.

It had been printed in 1912, and only taken out half a dozen times since. Turning to the index at the back, I ran quickly through the lists of halls and abbeys and courts until I found it. There was only a single page reference, as if the author felt it should be included but was unable to dredge up much about it. I leafed through the pages, missing the right one twice, until finally there it was: just a couple of paragraphs in relation to another, better-known house in the same part of the county.

Of course the English seat of the Fitzmorris family is not the only estate in the vicinity. Just a few miles to the west in the neighbouring valley, hidden to all but the most prying eyes, is the Fiercombe estate. A place of uncertain origin and mixed fortunes, it has lately shunned attention, withdrawing quietly into the deepest recesses of the silent valley as if to blot out painful memories and to sink, gratefully, into a healing slumber. The trees that cloak and obscure the valley floor so well are a rare remnant of an ancient wood much reduced elsewhere but surviving here even as the people who own it come and go.

The estate's golden era ended as the last century dwindled away. It enjoyed a brief flicker of local fame under the stewardship of the sixth baron, Edward Stanton, and his wife, Elizabeth, a renowned beauty, but those halcyon days turned out to be few
indeed. Today, the springtime rambler is not encouraged to walk the paths that meander down through the trees and bluebells towards a manor house completed when another Elizabeth was on the throne and now all but forgotten.

Elizabeth. That was the first time I saw her name. What did I think, if anything? I'm sure I traced the letters with my finger; perhaps I even whispered it under my breath, the hiss of the second syllable, the sigh of the last. But that was all. My interest in her and the estate's history was fleeting then—a faint glimmer of intrigue that glowed and then dimmed again, though not before it had lodged itself at the back of my mind, ready to be brought out later. There, in the library close to home, close to everything that was familiar, she was not yet able to drown out the clamour of my own thoughts. It was later that she would come alive to me, when I was in the place that had once been hers.

I looked up from the book to see that it had started to rain outside, heavy gouts of it spattering the glass unevenly as the wind flung it about. My eyes went back to the stark black type on the page. Fiercombe. Tomorrow I would be there, amongst those ancient trees. I put my hand to my stomach and felt again the now-familiar jolt of disbelief and fear.

The day I was due to depart London for the west dawned mild and bright, a pink blush colouring the sky. I didn't need to leave for Paddington until after nine, but I woke at five and was unable to get back to sleep, staring instead at the faded roses of my bedroom wallpaper, my insides tightly strung with nerves.

When it was finally time to go, my mother announced that I didn't need both of them to accompany me to the station and that she would stay behind. At the door, she pulled me back inside so none of the neighbours would hear her.

“Mind you don't get yourself into any more trouble,” she said as she squeezed my arm. She was unwilling to show me any other sign of affection, but her face was drawn and her eyes looked puffy. “You don't know how fortunate you are to be going there.”

She bent to straighten the hem of the light summer coat I had bought with the last of my wages, the generous cut almost successful in hiding my altered figure.

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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