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Authors: Kate Riordan

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BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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“I suppose my little brother would never forgive me if I knocked the old house down either,” said Edward more thoughtfully. “He's forever eulogising its craftsmanship when he's here—the wall hangings, the chapel, and even the Tudor garden where those wretched yews are planted. All of you are hopelessly sentimental.”

He inspected his hands, which were one of his best features, strong and smooth-skinned. They were one of the things she had first noticed about him. He flexed them, and the tiny golden hairs on their backs caught the sun. Such a lot of power is held there, she thought. Power to raze an ancient house. Power to do with your wife as you see fit.

“No, he wouldn't forgive you, and rightly so,” she said lightly. “It was built over hundreds of years by your ancestors. You were born there, and so was your father. Can't you feel any . . . protectiveness or loyalty towards it, now it's a poor, neglected thing?”

Her voice shook a little, but he didn't seem to notice. Instead a look of genuine incomprehension crossed his face. He sighed with impatience.

“It's shabby and cramped, built piecemeal with no logic or uniformity of style. I designed for you and Isabel a far superior house. Stanton House has forty rooms to Fiercombe Manor's twenty. It's built with the finest granite I could find. An earthquake wouldn't bring it down.”

She swallowed the words that rose unbidden in her throat.
You didn't build it for Isabel and me. You built it for you. You and your son. The son I still haven't given you after six years of marriage.

They started up the steps from the sunken garden that had been laid out and planted at great expense six years earlier—the appropriate finishing touch to the grand house that had been completed
just a year before she had come to the valley as a new bride. The garden was beautiful, there was no question of that, but like the house, it seemed incongruous in its Gloucestershire setting—which of course it was, being copied from a famous garden overlooking Lake Garda in Italy. Edward had visibly blanched when he received the bill for the work, but when she asked to see it, he told her it was none of her concern; it was his estate and his inheritance, to do with as he pleased. She had chosen not to remind him of the money she had brought with her to the marriage, the sum settled on her by a childless uncle who had always favoured her. After all, he would only have responded that her money was best looked after by her husband, just as she herself was.

Edward was too busy thinking about the evening ahead to say more. The pitifully forlorn manor house had dropped cleanly out of his thoughts. When she turned to look at his profile, she could almost see his brain turning, half of it cataloguing what still needed to be done while the other half played out scenes of how it would be when it was, when the music had started up and the guests were assembled and approving.

She wondered if he remembered the last comparable event they had held here in Fiercombe Valley. How could he not? Of course, it hadn't been significant in itself. In those days, the early, still hopeful days of their marriage, they had hosted many parties and balls. It was the events that followed that had retrospectively gilded that last one: an enchanted night that felt as if everything was to come. In fact, it had turned out to be something of an ending—at least for her.

A cry intruded into both their thoughts. Isabel had spotted her mother's hat from the terrace and was flying across the lawn where the marquee had now gone up. When she noticed her father, she stopped and coloured. Father and daughter were always awkward
and diffident around each other, and Elizabeth didn't know how to mend it, or even where precisely the roots of this discord lay.

As usual, she covered the unease with chatter and fuss, straightening the sailor hat that Isabel hated wearing and refastening her hair ribbon. She had inherited Edward's hair, slippery and silky, the colour of sun-bleached wheat, so different from Elizabeth's own dark, abundant waves, which seemed to double in thickness whenever the rain threatened. She was glad of this; she hoped it meant her daughter was like her father in ways deeper than the merely physical, that she would share his pragmatic grasp of the world, his unflinching conviction in everything he did.

The three of them crossed the lawn together, and Elizabeth wondered how they looked to the various indoor servants and undergardeners who were securing the marquee, placing tables, and putting up a miniature gazebo for the string quartet that was due at four. She knew she was considered a beauty, with her mass of dark hair and large eyes of peridot green, flecked with the same gold as the old manor's stones. And Edward was still handsome, though this was conveyed as much by the confidence that emanated from him as by his actual features.

Isabel had inherited not just her father's hair but also his eyes of light blue. Indeed, there was very little of Elizabeth to discern in her. The servants apparently agreed; she once went downstairs to tell Mrs. Wentworth that Edward would be staying on at his London club for another few days and overheard one of the kitchen maids say to someone unidentified (she hoped and did not think it could have been Edith), “There is nothing of the mother in that girl at all. But perhaps that's a blessing. Better to lose out on those big green eyes than be saddled with the rest of it.”

Elizabeth knew, though, with a flicker of fear whenever she allowed herself to think of it, that Isabel was like herself as a girl.
Her child already knew that each thing had its shadow, even at midday. She saw the world aslant, and in that she was her mother's daughter.

Last spring Edward had taken Isabel to see the lambing at the farm on the far side of the estate, close to Ruin Wood. Elizabeth had seen that he was frustrated when they returned after only half an hour, and so she had kissed a white-faced Isabel and told her she could go and help in the kitchen, always a coveted treat.

“Did something happen?” she asked when she and Edward were alone.

“It was the damnedest thing,” he replied, shaking his head. “She wasn't interested in the lambs, not even the older ones who'd been cleaned up and were running around as pretty as clouds. She kept asking about the ewes, saying it must hurt them dreadfully and why do we make them do it. I had to take her out, the men might have heard her.”

Edward had gone to London the next day, as he always did when something difficult occurred. He had never experienced anything complicated before his marriage, having enjoyed a simple childhood in the valley with parents who were captivated by their eldest son. His younger brother, too, idolized Edward, just as Elizabeth had when she first met him. It was hard to believe that was little more than six years ago.

Elizabeth had been born in Bristol, the only child of a moderately wealthy merchant and his wife. The uncle who left her a settlement had been the real success of the family, though the three of them were content enough in their tall, narrow house that teetered on the edge of the Avon Gorge. Sometimes she yearned for the ribbon of water that had glinted far below her window there. It was probably why she felt most like herself by the stream close to the old manor. Her gentle parents were both dead now, a fact
she couldn't yet comprehend, though her father had been gone for two years, her mother for four. She preferred to think of them as though they were still there, some thirty miles to the southwest.

It was her uncle who had made the introduction to Edward, at least indirectly. Before his death he had lived in some style in a house near Cirencester, and Elizabeth and her parents were regular guests there. At one gathering, a Christmas ball, Edward—back in the county permanently after the completion of the great house that he had set about building soon after his father's death—was also a guest.

In retrospect, though she knew he had fallen deeply in love with her, she understood that it had also been the perfect moment for Edward to find a wife. He had already enjoyed a great deal of freedom in London by the time his father died, two years before Elizabeth met him. His inheritance of the Fiercombe estate and the enforced responsibility that came with it coincided with his growing certainty that the bachelor lifestyle, though still alluring in its way, would eventually bore him, even self-indulgence turning to monotony given time. While he would never entirely forgo the glitter of the capital, its thrust and energy, its clubs and diversions, he was increasingly drawn to an image of himself as a gentleman of substance, no longer the callow carouser throwing his father's money at a last game of hazard.

He envisioned his London friends coming to stay and leaving impressed and envious at what he had achieved: a model wife and children, irreproachable servants, and a fashionable house. He tackled the latter first, immediately appointing an architect to build an entirely new house of much grander proportions in a different part of the valley—what had become Stanton House. His intentions were good, if a little shallow; he wished to rouse that provincial corner of Gloucestershire from its slumbers and introduce it to
the latest styles in design and architecture. He was seduced by the notion of using impregnable granite to shelter the family he would create around him. He was thirty-three to Elizabeth's eighteen when they met, but a very young thirty-three. The old manor he had grown up in—returned to after his father's funeral on a bleak November day—had seemed gloomy and impractical in contrast to the new house forming in his mind.

Elizabeth understood what had driven his desire for the new in place of the old, but from her first day in the valley she had felt an aversion to Stanton House. Of course she hid that from her new husband, and had continued to hide it ever since. Though her life before her marriage seemed like a thousand years ago, she remembered the day of her arrival as a new bride with startling clarity. She hadn't visited Fiercombe before the marriage; Edward had wanted the place to be a surprise, a gift to his new wife.

The weather was pleasant enough in Bristol on the morning after their autumn wedding. A little overcast, perhaps, but nothing like the heavy skies and torrential rain that enveloped them as they travelled north into deepest Gloucestershire. The rain coursed down the windows of the carriage, which grew steadily more opaque with their expelled breath. Eventually they left the principal roads and passed through the village of Stanwick, its waterlogged green deserted, and then turned down what Edward informed her was Fiery Lane.

The new carriage's springs creaked in protest at the punishing gradient of the weaving path that took them down into the valley. After a few minutes of being thrown around, the wheels jarring against loose stones or sliding abruptly into flooded ruts in the earth road, Elizabeth began to feel queasy. She reached up to wipe off some of the condensation on the window, using a corner of the travelling rug that Edward had tucked securely around her legs
earlier. It made little difference: she was able to make out nothing but the indistinct outlines of tree trunks and, above, the gnarled fingers of leafless branches reaching out to one another.

“We'll soon be there, my darling,” Edward said, a slight edge to his voice. He was angry about the rain; Elizabeth already understood him well enough to know that. Edward was a man who wanted things to be perfect, or at least to conform to his own, often uncompromising ideals. He had envisaged his new wife's first glimpse of her new home as a crisp scene of sunshine and dazzling frost, not under lowering clouds and through sheeting rain. In so many ways he was still the hale and handsome little boy whose sense of entitlement had been instilled in him by his doting, less charismatic parents; the child who had on his fifth birthday, or so family lore went, raged at the sky for remaining stubbornly grey.

“I hope this infernal weather won't last,” he continued irritably. “You can't begin to appreciate the house's position and true effect, not when it's sunk in mist. It was designed so that the valley walls would frame it, you see: a natural backdrop.”

Elizabeth smiled at her new husband encouragingly, although she had heard the words before. With a visible effort, he smiled back.

As the ground levelled off, she suddenly spied a glimpse of warm colour amongst all the grey and dun.

“What is that place, Edward?” She twisted around in her seat to see it better: a house of pale yellow stone surrounded by dark green thickets of holly and yew that stood like sentinels, planted to protect and conceal something mysterious. It reminded her of a fairy tale she'd loved as a girl. “It is just like an enchanted place, where a princess might have slept for a hundred years,” she cried, delighted.

Edward smiled indulgently, as he still did then at her more charming flights of fancy. “It's just the old manor—Fiercombe Manor,” he chided her. “I have told you about it many times. As you well know, I lived there most of my life.”

“Of course you told me about it. You just didn't tell me how lovely it was.”

“I'm not sure I've ever thought of it as lovely, perhaps that's why,” he said dismissively.

Soon after they passed it, the path swung around in a wide arc to the right, and Elizabeth was able to see the manor properly, from its best angle: the three asymmetrical gables and the box hedges that marked out a small formal garden at their feet.

“I've never seen anything like it,” she said. “It's—”

“It's a pleasant spot for a picnic and no more,” Edward interrupted, a plaintive note creeping into his voice. “Do try to save some excitement for Stanton House, won't you?”

After a few minutes the carriage slowed as its wheels met the resistance of the freshly raked gravel drive. Edward's new house appeared quite suddenly out of the misty shroud of rain then, like the stern of an enormous ship: a great grey galleon anchored in the choppy waters of the carriage sweep. The numerous windows, reflecting the densely wooded slopes of the valley darkly, looked like empty eye sockets. Elizabeth shivered slightly and, glancing down into her lap, saw that she was clutching the wool of the travelling rug so tightly that her knuckles shone white.

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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