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Authors: Joan Smith

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Friends and Lovers

BOOK: Friends and Lovers
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FRIENDS AND LOVERS
Joan Smith
About the Author
Publishing Information

 

Chapter 1

 

We made our big mistake in letting Mr. Everett look at our box stairs. He fancies himself something of a gentleman cum architect, you see. He is neither one nor the other, I promise you. He is a retired merchant, who had a garish mansion built to his own design just outside of Heading, when he gave up his building-supply company in London two years ago.

Mr. Everett has masses of money, which he wishes to share, along with his name, with some undemanding gentlewoman. He is a lively soul, as common as dirt, whom I would be happy to have for a friend, if only he would not insist on being more than a friend.

Lately, he has begun assuming some of the privileges of a lover. He drops in on us with regularity three times a week, though Oakdene, his home, is some six miles away. On his last visit, Mama made the dreadful error of saying she disliked our box stairs. We always discuss some aspect of building with Mr. Everett. He hasn’t an idea of conversation beyond lumber and hardware.

“They are so dark, you know,” she mentioned, “and the ceiling; too low for safety.
I
do not bump my head to be sure [Mama is barely five feet high], and Wendy has trained herself to duck, but any chance visitor is sure to give himself a knock. Quite dangerous, really.”

“My stairhead at Oakdene gives a tall man a clearance of six feet,” he answered. “I raised the ceiling beams two feet higher than Skanner had them in our design. It cost me something in the neighborhood of a thousand pounds, to do it throughout the house, but I did not want anything meager about Oakdene.” He usually gives a more precise price, in pounds and pence, for his undertakings and possessions.

“Ours gives a short woman a clearance of an inch,” I replied. You can only match Everett by claiming an under-abundance. There is no point vying in square acres of floor space, miles of garden, quality of materials, or anything else.

“May I have a look at it for you, Mrs. Harris?” he asked, already on his feet and strutting toward the staircase. He is tall, rather awkward in motion. It sounds absurd, but I don’t believe his knees work. At least they do not bend when he walks. He struts about with his legs perfectly stiff.

Outside of this awkward gait, he is not unhandsome in appearance for a man in his forties. He has dark hair, just silvering at the temples, jolly brown eyes, an unexceptionable nose, and large teeth. His wardrobe follows the extravagant taste of his mansion—high shirt points, wide shoulders, nipped waist, bright waistcoats, everything brand new and in the highest kick of fashion.

Mama tossed me a helpless, defeated look behind his retreating back, then arose to follow him into the hall, while I taggled behind. He stood on the bottom stair, craning his neck up, then down and all around. He could not resist tapping the paneling of the outer wall and saying, “Spruce,” in a derogatory way. “Stained to resemble dark oak, but these walls are spruce.”

We accepted this chastisement mutely. We knew from past conversations his love of oak. “May I?” he asked next as he ran up the stairs and back down again, carefully laying his shoulders and head back to avoid banging his forehead on the oak, or possibly stained spruce, beam, that has been banging tall gentlemen’s heads for over two hundred years.

"It is your second-story floor that is too low,” he told us after he had descended. "That is to say, your first-story ceiling is too low. What you want is another foot or two of elevation.”

“Short of tearing the house apart, we are not likely to get it,” I pointed out, taking a step back to the sitting room. No steps followed me. He remained in place, staring up at the mischievous beam, approximately fifteen inches in diameter, that acts as a lintel across the ceiling of the stairhead.

“I don’t see why that beam could not be cut away six inches,” Mama said hopefully. “Surely such a huge thing is not necessary, only to hold the walls apart.”

He smiled on her kindly but could not suppress a chuckle at her naiveté. Our innocence in architectural matters was a source of continuing amusement to him. We were treated to a lengthy and very obscure treatise on building, in which weight-bearing members, pounds per square inch of weight carried, the inefficiency of lintels versus Roman arches, and the general decrepitude of our lumber each made up a part.

“So you see there is no way you could cut your beam in half,” he terminated, giving it a tap with his knuckles.

"It does not
sound
hollow, does it?” Mama asked.

“Not hollow. I did not say hollow, ma’am, but riddled with dry rot,” he corrected.
“Practically
hollow, where the termites have feasted on it any time these last centuries. You would have the ceiling tumbling down on your head, unless you reinforced the supporting walls with a pair of columns, with perhaps a hammer beam atop... You really haven’t room for a set of columns,” he added sadly. “I have all sorts of columns and pilasters at Oakdene.”

Mama accepted his dictum. “I daresay nothing can be done about the box around the stairs either,” she said.

It was really the box panels that annoyed her most. A box stairs is a dark thing, its side wall cutting off all light from below. There is a portion just past the turn in the stairs where the beam occurs that is pitch black, even at high noon. Mama and I have often discussed the desirability of removing the panel and putting in a pretty railing and spindles to replace it. I cannot think it would be a huge job either, but it was never done. We are only tenants at the cottage. The owner is a fiend for leaving it exactly as it is. “A gem of Elizabethan architecture” is his manner of describing it in the guide books to famous estates.

“Now, that is a different matter entirely,” he assured us. “These spruce veneers could be ripped out in the twinkling of a bedpost. Not more than half an inch thick,” he added, tapping them. “You would want to finish off the end of the steps that would be exposed, slip in a few rods, hammer a railing on top, and there you are. Nothing to it.”

“I am happy to hear it,” Mama said, nodding her satisfaction.

“Now
may we return to the sitting room and our tea?” I asked impatiently. The improvement of the stairs is only a topic for conversation with us. We knew perfectly well nothing would ever be done.

Everett strutted forward to accompany me, leaving Mama behind to stare in a bemused way at the spruce veneers.

“So, when do you want me to do it?” was his next speech. Mama entered as he made it. He turned his question to her. “I was just asking your daughter when it would be convenient for me to come and fix up that dark stair-corner for you.”

“Oh, we have not decided for sure!” she exclaimed, aghast at this decisive way of going on.

“What is to decide? You said it has annoyed you forever. I could have my men do it in a day. Skanner still comes out from town once a week, and I have three carpenters finishing up my attics. A very pretty carved cherry trim is going around the wainscotting. I do not think the
attics
merit oak.”

Even a carved cherry trim in an attic may strike you as unnecessary. It will not be out of place at Oakdene. Every inch of wood in the house is carved, most of it painted and gilded on top of that. The elaborate parquet floors did escape carving. They were designed by an Italian artist, not in plain triangles or rectangles, but to form peacocks, unicorns, and other handsome animals, much larger than life, one to a room. They caused considerable excitement in the neighborhood before he succumbed to the lure of Persian carpets to cover them.

“You forget the cottage does not belong to us, Mr. Everett,” I said. “We only have it on lease from Lord Menrod.”

“Why, he is your brother-in-law, is he not? What objection could he have, so long as he is not asked to bear the expense?” He held up his callused hand, palm toward us, to signal we were not to object to his next speech, nor to interrupt him.

“I mean to do it as a present, pay for the whole. I can get lumber at wholesale prices, and have three carpenters sitting on their thumbs half the day. They might as well be working. They cost me enough. Three pounds a week. No, I tell a lie. One of them is learning the trade. I get him for less.”

“We could not consider it,” I said at once.

“Menrod is not our brother-in-law, either,” Mama added. “He is only a connection. My elder daughter married his younger brother, but there was never any closeness between our families. Lord Peter and Hettie went out to India right after they were married, you see, which is why we never had anything to do with Menrod. Well, he is not often in residence in any case. He was traveling for two years, all over the continent. He has another estate he goes to in winter, and is in London for the Season. We are not close enough that we like to ask him about it.”

“I’ll
ask him,” Everett said, pushing on to overcome every obstacle. “I don’t suppose the fellow is a fool. He will be happy enough to have his house fixed up at no expense to himself.”

“We cannot accept your offer. Thank you very much, Mr. Everett,” I said firmly. “Menrod is very fussy about the cottage, because of its being an authentic Elizabethan home.”

“Very kind of you,” Mama added, “but impossible.”

There was no trusting the face he wore. I feared he would land a load of lumber at our door the next morning, so warned him against it before he left.

“I would not do it without Menrod’s permission,” he agreed. Knowing Menrod was not home, I felt easier.

The lumber did not arrive for four days. On a Saturday in March it came, accompanied by Mr. Everett, to oversee its placement. Skanner came in with him, to test the inadequacy of our beam first, then to look at the box stairs. “Tamarack,” Skanner said, squeezing the huge and offensive beam. Bits fell off in his hands. “It is here to stay.”

“Even with all the dry rot?” Mama asked hopefully.

“Tamarack is as strong as steel,” he informed us. “You would think to look at it you could pull it apart with your bare hands. You would wear out your chisel before you made any headway with it. Screwdriver,” he said to a boy who had come with them to carry Mr. Skanner’s tools.

He stuck it under the quarter-round molding of the box panel and pried hard. The molding came off, scattering a few bits of splinters on the floor. Next he applied the screwdriver to the panel itself. It too was very obliging in the matter of leaving its ancient home. They encountered all manner of obstacle after the first simple steps.

“They knew how to build in the old days,” Skanner said, pointing the screwdriver at an ugly mess of raw lumber ends, rough hewn, that formed the edge of the steps. They were supported by whole tree trunks underneath. Elephants could have used those steps without breaking them.

“What we’ll do is just put a half panel up to the tops of the steps, with a facing to hold the spindles, and the bannister on top.”

“Mr. Everett, we cannot do this without Menrod’s permission,” I said. “Please, hammer back on the panel.”

The callused hand came up to silence me. “I have been in touch with Lord Menrod. Wrote to him in London,” he assured me.

“He approved?”

“He had no objection. Why should he?”

“He objected very strenuously to our changing the thatched roof.”

“That is on the outside, where everyone sees it. He does not care about the inside, but only wants you to be comfortable,” Mr. Everett explained.

This did not sound like Menrod. “It would be nice, dear,” Mama said.

There was a whispered colloquy behind the men’s backs, as we quickly agreed we could spare a few pounds of our allowance to pay for the expense of it. When they had finished deciding the manner of doing the job, I told Mr. Everett we would insist on paying for it.

He smiled, revealing his big square teeth. “Of course, Miss Harris, if you insist,” he said, so docilely that I knew he had no intention of taking the money when the time came.

“How much will it cost?” I asked.

“For you, two pennies,” he said, laughing.

“Mr. Skanner—how much will this job cost?” I asked.

“Ten guineas should cover it,” he replied.

It does not sound an overwhelming sum, but to two ladies living on the interest of a rector’s capital, it was considerable. Of course we got our house for an old song, because of our connection with Menrod. My late father had been in charge of three of his lordship’s livings, with curates under him in two of them. It is a practice much disparaged nowadays, but every career has its upward route, and if a clergyman has not the ability or desire to rise up through the echelon of Dean to Bishop, and so on, then he will usually widen his activities and increase his income by swallowing up a few livings in the near neighborhood.

We had some small capital, whose interest allowed us to maintain the dignity of our own carriage and a few servants. With the house thrown in so cheaply, we hobbled along pretty well, and would even manage to pay the ten guineas for the improved staircase ourselves. Everett must not be allowed to do it; he would think he had got a lien on my body if he paid.

BOOK: Friends and Lovers
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