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Authors: Kate Riordan

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BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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“What do you think of it?” Edward said close to her ear, making her start. “You are to be mistress of all this.” He gestured towards the great house.

She faltered, knowing that she couldn't possibly tell the truth: that she thought Stanton House squatted menacingly at the end of its drive; that it seemed to glower at her. Instead she told herself
that it was merely the effect of the inclement weather and, with some effort, turned to her new husband with a bright smile. He looked back at her with such hope and expectation that she understood why his parents had found him so irresistible as a boy.

“Goodness, Edward. What a house you have built,” she said. “I'm sorry if I seem a little stunned, but I am. I didn't expect it to be so very . . . grand.”

He absorbed her words as she looked on apprehensively. Eventually, tentatively, he began to smile, and because she loved him, because she wanted to please him more than anyone then, she reached out to clasp his hand.

“It's a wonderful, elegant house, and I can't wait to come to know it,” she said firmly, and was rewarded by Edward's widening smile and the genuine pride and pleasure that lit blue eyes the colour of forget-me-nots.

Six years on, as the house was polished, swept, and garlanded for a great occasion, little had changed. She was now firmly in the habit of tiptoeing around her husband, of dressing up unpalatable truths in flattery or avoiding them altogether. When he fled the valley in a temper, she never alluded to it on his return. When Isabel clung and cried, she hid her from him. When he knocked on her bedroom door after a period of physical estrangement, she was careful to avoid both the teary relief and the cold resentment she truly felt, and instead went to him as she had at the beginning, with the best impression she could muster of simple passion.

But he also deceives himself, Elizabeth thought as the three of them—husband, wife, and daughter—stepped inside Stanton House's cavernous hallway. Not only had he never realised how much the local people resented this misguided indulgence of a house, but he had never realised how much she had come to view it as a prison.

[3] ALICE

B
y the time I pushed open the door leading from the kitchen garden into the manor, Ruck had gone through with my case and was nowhere to be seen. There was no entrance hall; I was standing in a room that, after the brightness of the day, seemed dark and low-ceilinged. The enormous hearth at the far end was quite black with what must have been centuries' worth of accumulated soot. I walked over and had put out a finger to touch it when a figure appeared in the darkened doorway to my left, making me jump. As my eyes adjusted fully to the gloom, I saw that it was not Ruck but a woman in her fifties, dressed in black except for her starched white collar. She stepped forward then and took my hands, though she didn't smile. Her skin felt powdery and soft, like a pair of kid gloves.

“Mrs. Jelphs?” I stammered.

She nodded. “We're glad to have you here at Fiercombe, though I'm sorry it's under such tragic circumstances, Mrs. . . . I don't think your mother mentioned your married name.”

I stared at her for a long moment, until I realised that she was referring to my fictitiously deceased husband. My mind cast about desperately for a plausible surname, but all I could think of was Elton.

“Oh no. I mean, thank you. And please, call me Alice.”

“Yes, of course, if that's easier for you. I suppose those kinds of motoring accidents have grown quite common in a great city like London, but I'm sure that hasn't made it any less dreadful.”

“No.” I looked at my feet. I felt horribly dishonest lying to someone who seemed kind. I wondered what had happened to her husband, and felt dreadful at the thought that she might have been genuinely widowed herself.

“We won't talk of it if it upsets you. I can't pretend to understand exactly how you must feel, because I never married—it seems that housekeepers are always referred to as ‘Mrs.,'” she said softly, as though she had read my mind. I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.

“Well, I hope that you will find some peace here. I think it was a very sensible idea of the doctor's, to prescribe a new setting for you after all that's happened. I'm so glad your mother remembered me and thought I might be able to help. She said that you must earn your keep, but in truth, with the family so rarely here, there is not a great deal to do. What you need is quiet; a place for your mind to heal itself while your body is busy growing your child.” She smiled for the first time.

I nodded, not quite trusting myself to speak. It seemed that Mrs. Jelphs believed my story implicitly.

“Is she keeping well, your mother? Of course she is Mrs. Eveleigh now, but I still think of her in my mind as the girl I knew from the village where we grew up, when she was still Maggie Litten. It's been so many years. A whole lifetime ago.”

“Yes, she is quite well, thank you. She sends her regards to you, of course.”

“You'll be wanting some tea,” she said, and turned to the hearth, her movements deft and economic as she worked.

She had about her a scent of lavender and talcum that reminded me unexpectedly of my mother's mother. My Gloucestershire grandmother. At this thought I felt tears prickle alarmingly behind my eyes and inhaled audibly so I didn't cry. She turned at the sound and saw my face almost crumple, I felt sure of it, but she didn't say anything, merely crossing the room to a sideboard, where a tray had already been laid with cups and saucers and slices of bread and butter. I had been so afraid that she would be hard, like my mother, but she wasn't; only contained.

When the tea leaves had been measured and spooned into the pot and the steaming water poured over them, she picked up the tray and led the way through the doorway she had surprised me at before. The corridor was narrow and had no windows, which accounted for the lack of light. Under my feet, which I could hardly see, I felt the floor fall away slightly, only to rise and almost trip me. It seemed that the manor's resistance to straight lines and perpendicular angles extended inside, lending the oak floor a drunken camber.

When we had passed half a dozen closed doors in the same dark wood that rippled beneath me, the passage widened and eventually opened out into a large hall. This was the formal entrance to the house; I supposed the kitchen garden led to the service, and servants', entrance. After the confinement of the corridor, the hall felt enormous and chilly. It soared to the full height of the building and contained a staircase that was intimidating rather than elegant, its newel post as tall as a man and the carved balusters deeply stained but unpolished.

Mrs. Jelphs paused with her tray and nodded towards the wide turn in the staircase, above which hung a huge gilt-framed oil.

“That's the third baronet,” she said. “He was said to be an alchemist, or at least that's what was believed locally. The current
baronet is not a direct descendant of his. That's often the way with these families. It only takes a childless marriage, or a premature death”—she paused here, I assumed out of respect for my loss—“and the line dies out.”

I hesitated at the foot of the stairs, peering up at the painting, while Mrs. Jelphs made off down another dim passage. Decades, probably centuries, of grime had turned the background of the portrait to mud, so that the long-dead baronet's pale hands seemed to loom out of the folds of his dark cloak and the canvas itself, while his shadowy face floated grotesquely above the white froth of a lace ruff. There was something about the picture I didn't like, some echo of the man in it that made my skin crawl, and I knew that I would always rush past it, never looking up to meet those hooded eyes. Turning away from it, I hurried to catch Mrs. Jelphs, her long, old-fashioned skirt whisking around the corner out of sight.

The little room she had chosen for us was the room I came to feel most at ease in during that first summer at Fiercombe. The mullioned windows were wide for the room's size, and some gardener, or perhaps Mrs. Jelphs herself, had made sure the ivy that grew on the walls outside was kept trained back, to allow in as much light as possible. Dust-pink tea roses and the odd stray festoon of honeysuckle peeped in regardless, and on clear days, such as that first afternoon, their shadows danced with the sunbeams on the pale, unpapered walls.

Mrs. Jelphs gestured for me to sit down. She herself sat with her back to the window, the sunlight no doubt warm on her. Now that I could see her properly, I found I could recognise something of the girl in the photograph I had once seen.

“These are a few of the girls I grew up with,” my mother said that day in her bedroom. We were sitting on her and my father's
bed, the tin of old letters and photographs between us on the eiderdown. “Mary Woodward. Sarah . . . someone, I can't think now. Rosie Hewer. And Edith Jelphs. We would have been fifteen, though perhaps Edith and Rosie were only fourteen. I was one of the older ones. That was the last summer I spent at home before I went up to London.”

The picture had been taken by a travelling photographer, which explained why the girls' expressions seemed shy or, in my mother's case, guarded. Other than her, Edith Jelphs was the most composed of the five, her face quite closed. They were positioned to the left in the picture, the photographer apparently keen to capture Painswick's famous churchyard in the background. Though slightly blurred, the dark, sculpted yew trees stood out in stark contrast to the girls' pale dresses and pinafores.

I looked as closely as I dared at the same woman, now some forty years older. Her skin had not sagged but thinned in the intervening years, its surface delicately creased like the tissue paper you'd find wrapped around an old wedding dress. Her eyes when she looked up to hand me my tea were still sharp, and of a blue so dark they would look black in artificial light.

My mother had rarely talked at length about her childhood, or the people she had known. She would open up briefly, like the day she got out the tin, but then the shutters would come down and she wouldn't be pressed.

“Enough of that nonsense,” I remember her saying as she bustled over to the wardrobe to replace the tin. “There's no point dwelling on what's passed. Those days are long gone.”

In the small, sunlit parlour at Fiercombe, Mrs. Jelphs looked at me over her teacup.

“Your mother didn't say much in her letters about your plans once the baby's arrived,” she said.

I swallowed a sip of tea while my mind raced. I needed to answer convincingly now, so that I wouldn't need to be asked again.

“After the birth I will go back to London,” I said slowly.

Mrs. Jelphs nodded encouragingly.

“I'll move back into my parents' house, and my mother will help me bring up the baby. When it's old enough to be left, I will try to get a job like my old one. I don't know if she said, but my father is a groundsman—for a couple of local schools and the cricket club—and it doesn't bring in as much money as it used to.”

Once I started, I found that the lies came quite easily.

“My husband's house—our house—has been let to someone else. It was only small, but I couldn't possibly have afforded to live there on my own, and now that . . .” I gulped down some tea, feeling quite disgusted at myself but knowing it was necessary.

“You need not talk about it any longer,” Mrs. Jelphs said gently. “It must be very difficult for you. Please don't worry yourself about having the baby here, however. Nearer the time I will look out some things you can use—a crib and so forth. There's a good midwife in the village—in Stanwick, I mean. I thought perhaps you might like to meet her in the next few weeks. She doesn't stand for any nonsense, I've heard, but has been delivering babies for thirty years or more. You'll be in good hands when your time comes.”

I nodded meekly, whispered a thank-you, and did my best to blot out a sudden and vivid recollection of the abortionist's grubby kitchen.

“So how long have you been here, Mrs. Jelphs?” I said eventually.

She took a careful sip before answering.

“I came here as a maid when I was eighteen. Before that I worked in two other houses, both of them in Cheltenham.”

“It must have made quite a change,” I said. “Being in a town and then coming here. It's so quiet.”

She would have shrugged if she had not been such a correct sort of person.

“You grow accustomed to it,” she said, looking down into her cup. “Besides, it wasn't as quiet then as it is now. There were a decent number of staff here then, working in the grounds as well as in the house.”

“Ruck said something about the people going away, and that there was no wool trade left for them.”

She looked up sharply at that.

“That began much earlier,” she said finally. “This house—the old manor—like many of the surrounding towns, was gradually extended as the local wool trade became richer. That easy wealth declined very quickly when the great mills of the north were built. For a time this valley was kept quite insulated from the poverty everywhere else about, as more and more money was poured in by the current baronet's older brother, Sir Edward. There seemed to be no end to the spending that went on in the valley then, but—” She stopped, her cup suspended in midair, and I tried to remember if Edward was the baronet mentioned in the library book.

“Well, anyone's luck can change. Things come to an end. As you can see for yourself, this is hardly the great estate it once was. Far from it. But Sir Charles, who inherited it as the new century began, would never sell the place. He grew up here and, unlike his elder brother, remained fond of this old manor house. I think he would live here still, if it wasn't for Lady Stanton. She prefers to be abroad, and that's perfectly understandable. I am kept on throughout the year to make sure that the place is kept clean and aired, and to open up the house properly on the odd occasions when the family need to come back on estate business.”

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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