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Authors: Kate Riordan

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BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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Taking a last sip of tea, she stood, holding her back as she did so. I saw a flash of pain cross her features, but in an instant her face had resumed its inscrutable expression.

“I've got to get on now, but you finish your tea, and do take some of the bread and butter. Remember, you're eating for two now. I'll come back in half an hour and take you to your room. Ruck has already taken your case up; you shouldn't be lifting anything too heavy. Tomorrow I'll go through the first of the tasks I would like you to do for me while you're here.”

“Oh yes,” I said hurriedly. “I wouldn't expect to stay here and do nothing in return. I'm perfectly well enough to do most things. I'm just a bit more awkward than I used to be.”

“Well, nevertheless, you won't be doing anything strenuous. We have a maid who does the scrubbing and blacking in the kitchen, but there are plenty of other things you can help with.”

With a quick smile, she turned and left. Though I strained to catch them, there were no retreating footsteps to be heard. It was as if she had been immediately swallowed up by the rest of the house.

I took my time over the bread and butter and filled my teacup twice more. It reminded me of all the pots of tea James and I had shared, and the last of them in particular. He hadn't wanted to be seen with me at his office and so had bundled me off to a Lyons tea shop up the road. I had almost managed a wry smile when I saw it, remembering what my mother had said about Lillian Butler in her starched uniform, catching the eye of the man who was now her husband.

James hadn't said much, caught between anger that I had sought him out and anxiety that someone he knew would see us there, which meant he started every time the door opened. He had missed me too, though. I knew that by the way he could hardly meet my eye; I think he knew he would soften if he did.

“I have looked in at the café every night for weeks, but you're never there,” I said in a whisper. “If I hadn't come, would we have ever seen each other again? I don't think so.”

He looked out the window and sighed. “I'm not sure. I thought it was best that we probably didn't. Listen here, Alice, I did this for your sake. I've made my bed with my marriage, but you—you've got everything ahead of you. I would be getting in the way of that.”

I swallowed a bitter laugh at the idea that I had everything ahead of me. How little he understood. That was the first time I found myself hating him, just a little.

“Why did you say you were going to get a divorce, if you weren't? Was it because you knew I wouldn't go to bed with you otherwise?”

“Look, I meant everything I said in the moment. I did care for you, a great deal. I still do. But I think we got rather carried away.” He dropped his voice. “After—well, after that night at the hotel, I sat on the train home, and the farther I got from London, the less I could believe I had done it. I mean, it was lovely. You are lovely, and if I could turn back the clock a decade or so, I would find you and marry you.”

“Ten years ago I was just a child,” I said.

“Well, quite,” he said heavily, pressing his thumb and forefinger to his brow in the way he always did when he was troubled. It had become a familiar gesture, and I had grown to love it. I understood then that I would probably never see it again.

I got to my feet carefully, making sure my coat covered my thickened waist.

“Good-bye then,” I said stiffly. “Thank you for the tea.”

He scrambled to get up, and in doing so knocked over his cup.

“Are you going already?” he said, surprised. “I've—well, I've missed you, Alice.”

I looked at him for a long moment. More than anything I wanted to sit back down and tell him everything, but I knew for certain that he would no longer be looking at me with the first glimmers of renewed interest if I did. I needed for my pride, what little of it remained, to leave it there, with him having wished that I'd stayed. I leant over and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, quite like the dignified wife I would never be to him. He put his fingers to the place where my lips had touched.

I didn't look back as I walked to the door. I knew that he was looking at me, though, for what that was worth.

In the small parlour of Fiercombe Manor my tea had gone cold. I glanced over at the gilt carriage clock on the mantel—no longer trusting my own wristwatch—thinking it would nearly be time for Mrs. Jelphs's return. In fact, barely twenty minutes had crawled by.

Determined not to think any more about James, I went over to the window and perched on the wooden seat beneath it. The old walls were thick, as thick as the seat's depth, and chill to the touch. They would keep the manor warm in winter and cool in summer.

Outside, all seemed quiet through the glass. Almost everything was still, too—everything but the gently bobbing roses and the beech trees at the top of the valley. I could see an upright rank of them, high on the ridge, their branches in jagged silhouette against the sky. They seemed braced against a wind that was unfelt on the valley floor, and even as I watched, hard white clouds massed behind them to cover the blue I had thought would see out the day.

I went to tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear and realised I still had my hat and coat on. Even there alone in the small parlour I blushed, wondering what Mrs. Jelphs must have thought of me. I was not usually so gauche. At the same time, I wondered why she had not said anything, why she had not shown me where I might
hang them or made light of it: “Are you not planning on staying long then, Alice?” Then I remembered that she had also had the tact not to ask me too many uncomfortable questions.

I turned and looked around the rest of the room, hoping to see a book or magazine. Even an old newspaper would have done. There was no reading matter, but something else drew my eye. It was a wooden case that took up most of a small side table placed next to the chair Mrs. Jelphs had sat in.

It was a sewing box, I realised as I lifted the lid, its underside lined with padded satin the colour of forget-me-nots and studded with an assortment of needles and pins. It was costly looking, the bulk of it made from a rich, polished oak but the lid intricately inlaid with three other types of wood: cherrywood, perhaps, ebony, and something the colour of pale brandy. A complicated pattern of diamonds and squares like the parquet floor of a grand ballroom flanked a central panel of dulled brass. On this, tangled amongst the curling tendrils and exotic flowers engraved into its surface, I could make out a florid letter
E
. Edith Jelphs—was it hers? It seemed too ornate, too expensive. It was a lady's sewing box, surely.

I tipped the lid up so it caught more light from the window, and saw something else, half buried in the knots and twists of foliage: words in looping script. It took a moment to realise why I was having such trouble deciphering them: they were in Latin.
Post tenebras, lux
. My schoolgirl Latin told me the first and the last words immediately. The middle one took longer, but in the end I had it:
After darkness, light.
It was a strange sort of inscription; neither romantic nor pious.

I had seen something like it before—belonging to Dora's mother and her mother before her—though that little box of plain oak had not been nearly so grand. It was the padded satin underside of the lid that chimed in my memory. I lifted it again and
ran my fingertips along the braille of the pinheads, my mind's eye seeing Dora and me that day years before, the pair of us crouching over the treasure, heads together.

“There's a secret compartment Mother showed me once,” Dora had said in a whisper; we were not supposed to be in her parents' bedroom going through their private things. “Do you want to see it?”

Her fingers fumbled at a small rounded nub of brass that I would have assumed was part of the lid's hinge, if I had noticed it at all. When she managed to press it in with her thumb, the satin seemed to shift forwards half an inch. Triumphantly, she got her fingers behind it at the top and pulled it away so I could see the narrow recess behind. Inside, her mother kept her wedding certificate and Dora's birth certificate.

Despite the superiority of the box I was looking at now, the small brass button was identical. My finger hovered over it as I glanced guiltily towards the door. Of course it was bad manners to look, but even as I thought it, I was pushing the button. Just as before, it sprang open at the top, this time to reveal a slip of paper, folded once, and something else. I brought out the something else—a dried flower. As careful as I was, a petal fell and disintegrated when I tried to pick it up. Putting the withered bloom back before I could do any more damage, I drew out the piece of paper. It was a short note written in an old-fashioned hand and signed at the end with a single, flamboyant initial.

My dear Edith,

A little note to tell you that I have gone for a walk to my usual place. I know you fret when I go on one of my wanderings to the other side of the valley, but I promise I will be back before anyone else misses me, and for you, I will be particularly careful (no paddling about on the
slippery stones in the stream!). I simply had to go—the morning is so beautiful, the valley laid out before me so invitingly when I looked out the window, that I couldn't wait another minute. Besides—and though I am afraid to set this down in case I tempt fate and it returns—the sickness hasn't come this morning. Perhaps it has gone altogether and I will be able to eat a little breakfast when I am back. Will you beg Mrs. Wentworth to keep a little scrap for me? You know she will do it for you even if she does not wish to do it for her mistress! If she makes a face, tell her that I must keep my strength up, as my husband never tires of reminding us all . . .

And if the first of the wild roses are out I will pick you one, for I know they are your favourites.

E

So there were two E's—Edith and someone who had been her mistress. Perhaps it had been her box once, and she had passed it on to Mrs. Jelphs for her service. That made more sense. One phrase in the note had struck me, and I read it again: “the sickness hasn't come this morning.” Had she been ill, or—I wasn't sure if my own condition was making me see things that weren't there—was it morning sickness, and had she, like me, been expecting a child?

Ever since that awful day of realisation at the lido, I felt as though mothers—expectant or otherwise—were everywhere I turned. Of course I knew they had always been there; it was just that in my predicament they had taken on a new and frightening significance. Now here was another one, or so I suspected. What had she been like, this woman who must have been so different from me in all ways but one; who had had a husband, a cook, and a maid who cared where she was and what she was eating?

As I clicked the satin platform into place, the note tucked safely inside once again, I remembered the entry I'd read in the library the day before, about the renowned beauty who had shared her name with a queen. Perhaps the
E
—both on the lid of the box and in the note—stood for Elizabeth. Someone who had once occupied this valley like I would had once used this box and written that note, had gone for walks and known this house. Possibly—just possibly—she had expected a child here too, as I now did. And just like that, she came to life for me—this Elizabeth I still knew so little about. It wasn't just because I thought I might be about to experience something she had in the same place—it was because she made me feel a little less alone.

I was still thinking about her, my fingertip tracing the box's engraved lid, when something—a pale flash, nothing more substantial—made me look up to the doorway. Mrs. Jelphs had left the door ajar, but I could see nothing through the gap into the passage except the vague lines and shadows of the wood panelling. I replayed the brief glimpse in my head, but it dissolved even as I tried to examine it, like the white-tipped crest of a wave that looks for a moment like the face of someone drowning. I dismissed it and returned to the window seat to wait out the remaining minutes of solitude. It was peaceful enough, though I still found myself occasionally glancing back towards the door.

Mrs. Jelphs reappeared precisely when she had said she would. Now carrying my coat and hat, I followed her meekly down the passage towards the main hallway. I couldn't resist a quick glance over my shoulder as I did, but there was nothing glimmering palely in the murk, only the outline of firmly closed doors stretching away down the manor's length. I was tired, I was expecting a baby; my eyes had obviously been playing tricks on me.

“There are other stairs as well as these,” Mrs. Jelphs said as we climbed the broad treads of the grand staircase. “They're closer to
your room, but I wouldn't use them. They're in the oldest part of the house, and they're steep and far narrower than these. There's not much light there. The yew pylons see to that.”

It was the first time I had heard that description, and I was too shy to ask what she meant by it. I was to find out soon enough anyway, when we arrived at the room that was to be mine. One of its two windows was almost obscured by a single column of yew—there were four altogether—and it reached higher yet than that, almost as high as the steeply pitched roof. If I had opened the old casement and reached out, I could have brushed its dense, dark foliage.

“They haven't been cut for years,” said Mrs. Jelphs. “Ruck is too old to clamber up there, and I'm not sure it's worth the expense of getting anyone else in to see to them. The family think not. Even in my time here they have never been tended as carefully as they were when Sir Charles was here as a small boy. Then the yew parlour was kept as neat as could be, each one no taller than eight foot. It's called a parlour, you see. A yew parlour. I don't know precisely why, but I think it must be because the trees are so dense that when you're in amongst them, it's like being shut up inside.”

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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