Authors: Kate Riordan
“It's Elizabethan, isn't it?” I ventured, half remembering the small footnote I'd found in the library about it. “The period it was completed in, I mean.”
“I don' know about that, miss. Five hundred year or more some of it's stood, that's all I know.”
When I think back to that memory, that first glimpse of Fiercombe Manor and the valley it seemed almost entombed in, I cannot recall any sense of unease. Beyond the mild embarrassment of being in close proximity to a stranger and the almost constant state of anxiety I was in about the baby, I felt almost grateful to be away from London and the chilly disapproval of my mother. I think I even felt a glimmer of something approaching enthusiasm at the thought of exploring the place, of it becoming known to me, its secret corners commonplace, and of seeing it as late spring eased into summer. It seems amazing in light of what happened, but I can't say I felt any foreboding about the valley at all. All the trepidation swirling around inside me was bound up in how convincingly I would be able to lie to Mrs. Jelphs, and what would happen to me after I returned to London, once the baby had been born and taken away, and I had to begin again.
The ground began to level off after a time, and I realised we'd reached the valley floor.
“Not long now,” he said.
We rounded another corner and, quite suddenly, were free of the woods and out into the sunshine. There wasn't a breath of wind so deep in the valley, and I wondered vaguely if I would find it
uncomfortable when I was bigger, and summer had come. It was as I was thinking this, absentmindedly stroking my stomach, as I had taken to doing whenever I wasn't otherwise occupied, that I saw the graveyard and the tiny church in the far corner of it. Though I tried to cover it, the sight made me start.
Ruck nodded towards it. “Only Mrs. Jelphs ever uses the chapel now. There was a time when more came, when people was still here. They rang the bells then.”
“I assumed the nearest village was the one at the top of the valley,” I said. “Stanwick, was it? Is there another one?”
“Fiercombe had its own village of sorts. It weren't just the Stantons, you know. In the last century there was forty or more folk what worked the land or were in the house, or were family to those who did.”
I looked across the graveyard and the stones that punctuated the uneven ground, some of them listing dangerously, others sinking into the earth as though it were quicksand. He was right, of course; they couldn't all have been from one family. In the middle stood a cherry tree, its slender trunk gnarled and twisted but its branches hidden by a profusion of pink blossom. Barely a petal littered the grass beneath, so undisturbed was the air.
“What happened to them all?” I asked.
He paused before answering.
“Fortunes come and go. When the big house went, there wasn't any work to be had. Where they might have gone to Stroud or Painswick fifty year before, there was hardly no wool trade left to take 'em. In a few short years they was gone, as if they had never been here at all. The present family came here as the new century began, but it were never the same. Now there's just a few of us what's left.”
“But where did they all live?” I pressed on. My glimpses of the place had not revealed any signs of a village, even an abandoned one. The valley felt entirely empty to me.
“You'll see if you go for a wander. There's a few cottages left, mostly tumbledown. A couple burned to the ground. Others there's nothing left but the foundations, and the weeds have hidden them well enough. Nettles high as your chest there now.”
We had by now passed the chapel and its lonely graveyard, and I leant forward in expectation of my first proper look at the manor. Up close it was no less golden, the stone not only reflecting the late spring sunlight but apparently exuding a rich glow of its own making. The age of the building and the hard winters it must have endured had softened every edge so that there was not a straight line to be seen. From timber to roof tile to window ledge, all was slightly askew, sloping, buckling, or otherwise returning to the haphazard laws of nature.
We came to a halt at the eastern end of the house. Ruck did not help me, but he did take my case and wait for me while I clambered down awkwardly, clearing his throat and looking the other way in a manner that made me like him more. He led the way through a small but lovely kitchen garden that seemed very well looked after. It was wonderfully fragrant, and even my city-deadened senses told me that mint, rosemary, and sage all grew there. Behind tall ranks of hollyhocks, heavy ivy clung to the garden's walls and snaked up and around towards what I guessed was the intended front of the house. I decided that I would see it for myself, once I'd had a wash and changed my clothes. I lingered for a moment in the garden, despite everything feeling something like anticipation swell in me. Behind the show-off perfume of the flowers, you could smell something subtler: the first intimations of summer.
I looked back up at the valley walls, so steep that they might have been built for the very purpose of concealing my shame from the rest of the world. All this was to be my home for the coming months, and yet I had no idea what those months would bring. I wondered if I would be unhappy and lonely here, or whether Mrs. Jelphs would guess what trouble I had really got myself into back in London and send me back there. A picture of James, as vivid as if he were standing there in the little garden, flashed across my mind, but with all my strength I pushed it away. Taking a shaky breath, I turned to the ancient door and pushed it open, telling myself it was going to be a single summer, that was all; a summer in limbo in the deepest countryside. I could never have imagined all that would happen in those few short months and how, by the end of them, my life would be irrevocably altered forever.
he weather had turned out beautifully for the summer party. Elizabeth had privately believed that it would, knowing that the rain they had woken up to would simply clear the humidity that had infected the valley with an irritable lassitude all week. At noon the rain had ceased altogether, the clouds rolling back like a curtain lifting on a stage.
At half past twelve Edith brought some tea into the morning room, her face pink with excitement and relief.
“Oh, my lady, have you seen it's stopped? If it stays like this the grass will have time to dry out too. We've been praying downstairs, and it looks like He's listened to us.”
Elizabeth smiled at her lady's maid, who still seemed younger than her yearsâat twenty-one, only three years younger than herself.
“Edith, what did I say to you when you brought me my tray this morning?”
The maid smiled sheepishly. “You said it would be fine by the afternoon. And you were right too, almost to the minute. I just couldn't see it stopping.”
Any small relief Elizabeth felt about the evening's celebration going ahead in the garden, as planned, was for other people's sakes. Not only the servants, who hadn't been able to arrange a large occasion for some years, but her husband Edward, who had been as excited as a child about the preparations. Since they had sent out the invitations a month ago, he had come to her almost every day with a fresh list of things that needed buying or making or doing. Usually buyingâshe shuddered to think how much it was all going to cost.
“When will you be wanting to dress, my lady?” said Edith. “The first guests aren't due till seven, but you know Colonel Waters always arrives early when he comes to dinner.”
“What about six o'clock?”
Edith looked scandalised. “It will take more than an hour to dress your hair, never mind the rest of it!”
“Half past five, then. It's not as though you'll be lacing me into my usual corsets.”
She placed a careful hand on the enormous, almost comical mound of her stomach, which was even larger than the swell Isabel had made almost five years earlier. In these last weeks of her condition, the child had moved up to rest against her lungs, making her breathless when she climbed the stairs or walked too fast. It was a strange sensation, akin to nervousness, and it was worse today.
“Has he or she been kicking again this morning?” Edith was following the baby's progress almost as intently as Edward, who was convinced his future heir was inside. Who was apparently convinced that she would not lose this baby.
Elizabeth shook her head. “No, he or she knows I've got quite enough to think about today without that to distract me, and has been wonderfully still for me all morning.”
After a paltry lunchâshe hadn't wanted to put out Mrs. Wentworth, the cook, who was preoccupied with the coming
evening, and she had little appetite anywayâElizabeth wandered outside to look at the gardens. In truth, there was little for her to do today; her part would come later, when the guests had arrived. A jangle of apprehension went through her at the thought. Of the eighty-six invitations sent out, they had not received a single apology or excuse, which was surely unheard of. Elizabeth knew they were all too intrigued not to attend the first major gathering at Stanton House of all the county's families since just before Isabel's birth. Of course there had been polite invitations to tea, hunt meets, and dinner parties for the most trusted and discreet friends, but nothing on such a grand scale.
The gardens looked glorious. The morning's rain was closer to a vapour, and not a single bloom had been bruised. The last of it, fairy jewels of moisture caught between petals and blades of grass, glittered in the sun. Elizabeth closed her eyes and exhaled deeply, letting the tranquillity of the garden slow her racing heart.
“It smells wonderful, doesn't it? We couldn't have asked for better timing with that blasted rain.”
She jolted out of her reverie to see that her husband stood before her, his pale blue eyes bright with anticipation. Under the clean-washed sky she could clearly see the lines around his eyes and between his brows. They looked out of place on his face, whose fine features must have best suited boyhood and were already fading and coarsening. He would be forty in autumn.
“But if it wasn't for the rain, it wouldn't look and smell as it does out here,” she said.
To her surprise he took her face in his hands and kissed her gently on the lips. She could feel the dome of her stomach between them like a barrier. He was rarely so affectionate with her now, and the embrace felt oddly intrusive.
“You're right, of course,” he said. “You even predicted it would stop at noon, and look, it has.”
“I'm glad,” she said as convincingly as she could. “It will be so much nicer to hold the party outside, and on Midsummer's Eve too. Have you been for a walk?”
“Yes. I went to watch them erect the marquee. They were getting grass stains on it, and I kept saying they ought to be careful until Harding made it clear I would be better occupied elsewhere.”
He laughed, and she remembered that she liked him best when he was poking fun at himself. It happened so infrequently these days that she had almost forgotten it.
He pulled one of her curls free from its pins and wound it around his finger.
“Look at it light up in the sunshine,” he said softly. “There are real embers there, in amongst the brown.”
He smiled down at her, and she cursed herself for being unable to meet his eye, to savour this glut of love while it flowed. Instead, she found herself comparing the smile to the way he had looked at her when she had been brought so low in the weeks after their daughter's birth. And the way he had been unable to look at her at all after the miscarriage that followed almost two years later. It had been a boy. What she had never told him was that there had been another miscarriage, tooâa child who had slipped away almost before she had realised he was there. It had been too early to tell, but she felt sure it had been another boy. That was just last year.
To a stranger, she realised, she and Edward must look like a picture of connubial bliss, standing there together in the glorious garden. She looked down as he continued to gaze at her, pretending coyness because she didn't want him to see the bitterness that seeped into her thoughts on the odd occasions when he was tender
with her now. It was easier when they were as friends. It was easier in front of the servants.
She turned to walk towards the house and made herself reach back with her hand so that he would follow.
“I've been as far as old Fiercombe Manor,” he continued, oblivious to any change in her. It always amazed her that he never seemed to guess her thoughts, overhear the surge and babble of them when too many crowded in at once. “The yew trees are quite monstrous now, as high as the roof. They've even dislodged some of the tiles up there. Perhaps the whole lot should go. We could build a guest cottage there. That part of the valley gets the sun for the longest.”
She stopped and turned to him, dread sluicing through her. She was careful to keep her voice low, her tone calm, in a way that wouldn't alarm him. “Really, Edward, no. You can't demolish the manorâit's been there for centuries. Besides, you know Isabel loves it. She and I walk there often. We had a picnic just last week on that side of the Great Mead, close to the summerhouse by the stream. It's idyllic.”
It was true, but what she had chosen not to mention was that she also went there by herself, that the warped beams and soft stone of the old manor, crumbling and rotting in places, had become a sort of sanctuary to her. By the water there, in the manor's weed-sown Tudor garden and in the pretty little summerhouse, she could breathe. It was only when she returned and the uncompromising grey lines of Stanton House came into view that she felt the bands tighten around her chest again.
Edward had walked on and she followed, her size and her breathlessness making her awkward. His face had taken on the expression it always did when she mentioned their daughter. She could never decide precisely what it wasâa fierce blend of impatience, guilt, and love was the closest she had got to untangling it.
She suspected that she inspired the same slightly pained look when someone asked him about herself.