Authors: Jane Ashford
Tags: #Romance, #Regency, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
Copyright © 2013 by Jane LeCompte
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Charlotte Rutherford Wylde closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensation of the brush moving rhythmically through her long hair. Lucy had been her maid since she was eleven years old and was well aware that her mistress’s lacerated feelings needed soothing. The whole household was aware, no doubt, but only Lucy cared. The rest of the servants had a hundred subtle, unprovable ways of intensifying the laceration. It had become a kind of sport for them, Charlotte believed, growing more daring as the months passed without reprimand, denied with a practiced blankness that made her doubly a fool.
Lucy stopped brushing and began to braid Charlotte’s hair for the night. Charlotte opened her eyes and faced up to the dressing table mirror. Candlelight gleamed on the creamy lace of her nightdress, just visible under the heavy dressing gown that protected her from drafts. Her bedchamber was cold despite the fire on this bitter March night. Every room in this tall, narrow London house was cold. Cold in so many different ways.
She ought to be changed utterly by these months, Charlotte thought. But the mirror showed her hair of the same coppery gold, eyes the same hazel—though without any hint of the sparkle that had once been called alluring. Her familiar oval face, straight nose, and full lips had been judged pretty a scant year, and a lifetime, ago. She was perhaps too thin, now that each meal was an ordeal. There were dark smudges under her eyes, and they looked hopelessly back at her like those of a trapped animal. She remembered suddenly a squirrel she had found one long-ago winter—frozen during a terrible cold snap that had turned the countryside hard and bitter. It had lain on its side in the snow, its legs poised as if running from icy death.
“There you are, Miss Charlotte.” Lucy put a comforting hand on her shoulder. When they were alone, she always used the old familiar form of address. It was a futile but comforting pretense. “Can I get you anything…?”
“No, thank you, Lucy.” Charlotte tried to put a world of gratitude into her tone as she repeated, “Thank you.”
“You should get into bed. I warmed the sheets.”
“I will. In a moment. You go on to bed yourself.”
“Are you sure I can’t…?”
“I’m all right.”
Neither of them believed it. Lucy pressed her lips together on some reply, then sketched a curtsy and turned to go. Slender, yet solid as a rock, her familiar figure was such a comfort that Charlotte almost called her back. But Lucy deserved her sleep. She shouldn’t be deprived just because Charlotte expected none.
The door opened and closed. The candles guttered and steadied. Charlotte sat on, rehearsing thoughts and plans she had already gone over a hundred times. There must be something she could do, some approach she could discover to make things—if not right, at least better. Not hopeless, not unendurable.
Her father—her dear, scattered, and now departed father—had done his best. She had to believe that. Tears came as she thought of him; when he died six months ago, he’d no longer remembered who she was. The brutal erosion of his mind, his most prized possession, had been complete.
It had happened so quickly. Yes, he’d always been distracted, so deep in his scholarly work that practicalities escaped him. But in his library, reading and writing, corresponding with other historians, he’d never lost or mistaken the smallest detail. Until two years ago, when the insidious slide began—unnoticed, dismissed, denied until undeniable. Then he had set all his fading faculties on getting her “safely” married. That one idea had obsessed and sustained him as all else slipped away. Perforce, he’d looked among his own few friends and acquaintances for a groom. Why, why had he chosen Henry Wylde?
In her grief and fear, Charlotte had put up no protest. She’d even been excited by the thought of moving from her isolated country home to the city, with all its diversions and amusements. And so, at age eighteen, she’d been married to a man almost thirty years older. Had she imagined it would be some sort of eccentric fairy tale? How silly and ignorant had she been? She couldn’t remember now.
It wasn’t all stupidity; unequal matches need not be disastrous. She had observed a few older husbands who treated their young wives with every appearance of delight and appreciation. Not quite so much older, perhaps. But… from the day after the wedding, Henry had treated her like a troublesome pupil foisted upon his household for the express purpose of irritating him. He criticized everything she did. Just this morning, at breakfast, he had accused her of forgetting his precise instructions on how to brew his tea. She had
forgotten, not one single fussy step; she had carefully counted out the minutes in her head—easily done because Henry allowed no conversation at breakfast. He always brought a book. She was sure she had timed it exactly right, and still he railed at her for ten minutes, in front of the housemaid. She had ended up with the knot in her stomach and lump in her throat that were her constant companions now. The food lost all appeal.
If her husband did talk to her, it was most often about Tiberius or Hadrian or some other ancient. He spent his money—quite a lot of money, she suspected, and most of it hers—and all his affection on his collections. The lower floor of the house was like a museum, filled with cases of Roman coins and artifacts, shelves of books about Rome. For Henry, these things were important, and she, emphatically, was not.
After nearly a year of marriage, Charlotte still felt like a schoolgirl. It might have been different if there were a chance of children, but her husband seemed wholly uninterested in the process of getting them. And by this time, the thought of any physical contact with him repelled Charlotte so completely that she didn’t know what she would do if he suddenly changed his mind.
She stared into the mirror, watching the golden candle flames dance, feeling the drafts caress the back of her neck, seeing her life stretch out for decades in this intolerable way. It had become quite clear that it would drive her mad. And so, she had made her plan. Henry avoided her during the day, and she could not speak to him at meals, with the prying eyes of servants all around them. After dinner, he went to his club and stayed until she had gone to bed. So she would not go to bed. She would stay up and confront him, no matter how late. She would insist on changes.
She had tried waiting warm under the bedclothes but had failed to stay awake for two nights. Last night, she’d fallen asleep in the armchair and missed her opportunity. Tonight, she would sit up straight on the dressing table stool with no possibility of slumber. She rose and set the door ajar, ignoring the increased draft this created. She could see the head of the stairs from here; he could not get by her. She would thrash it out tonight, no matter what insults he flung at her. The memory of that cold, dispassionate voice reciting her seemingly endless list of faults made her shiver, but she would not give up.
The candles fluttered and burned down faster. Charlotte waited, jerking upright whenever she started to nod off. Once, she nearly fell off the backless stool. But she endured, hour after hour, into the deeps of the night. She replaced the stubs of the candles. She added coals to the fire, piled on another heavy shawl against the chill. She rubbed her hands together to warm them, gritted her teeth, and held on until light showed in the crevices of the draperies and birds began to twitter outside. Another day had dawned, and Henry Wylde had not come home. Her husband had spent the night elsewhere.
Pulling her shawls closer, Charlotte contemplated this stupefying fact. The man she saw as made of ice had a secret life? He kept a mistress? He drank himself into insensibility and collapsed at his club? He haunted the gaming hells with feverish wagers? Impossible to picture any of these things. But she had never waited up so long before. She had no idea what he did with his nights.
Chilled to the bone, she rose, shut the bedroom door, and crawled into her cold bed. She needed to get warm; she needed to decide if she could use this new information to change the bitter circumstances of her life. Perhaps Henry was not completely without feelings, as she had thought. Her eyelids drooped. Perhaps there was hope.
Lucy Bowman tested the temperature of a flatiron she’d set heating on the hearth. It hissed obligingly. Satisfied, she carried it to a small cloth-draped table in the corner of the kitchen and applied it to the frill of a cambric gown. She was good at fine ironing, and she liked being good at things. She also liked—these days—doing her work in the hours when most of the staff was elsewhere. This early, the cook and scullery maid had just begun to prepare breakfast. Barely out of bed, and sullen with it, they didn’t speak. Not that there ever was much conversation in this house—and none of it the easy back-and-forth of the servants’ hall in Hampshire.
The Rutherford manor had been a very heaven compared to this place. Everyone below stairs got along; they’d gone together to church fetes and dances and formed up a kind of family. For certain, the old housekeeper had been a second mother to her. When Lucy’d arrived, sent into service at twelve to save her parents a mouth to feed, Mrs. Beckham had welcomed her and looked after her. She’d been the first person ever to tell Lucy that she was smart and capable and had a chance to make something of herself. Thinking of her, and of that household, comforted and hurt at the same time.
Lucy eased the iron around an embroidered placket, enjoying the crisp scent of starched cloth rising in the steam. She’d made a place for herself in Hampshire, starting in the laundry and working her way up, learning all she could as fast as she could, with kindly training. She’d been so proud to be chosen as Miss Charlotte’s lady’s maid eight years ago. Mrs. Beckham had told her straight out, in front of the others, how well she’d done, called her an example for the younger staff. It had warmed her right down to her toes to see them smiling at her, glad for her advancement.
And now it was all gone. The house sold, the people she’d known retired or scattered to other positions, and none of them much for letters. Well, she wasn’t either, as far as that went. But she couldn’t even pretend she’d be back in that house, in the country, one day.
Not that she’d ever leave Miss Charlotte alone in this terrible place. Lucy put her head down and maneuvered the iron around a double frill.
Mr. Hines tromped in, heavy-eyed and growling for tea. A head on him, no doubt, from swilling his way through another evening. Cook’s husband, who called himself the butler, was really just a man of all work. Lucy had seen a proper butler, and that he was not. What he was was a raw-boned, tight-mouthed package of sheer meanness. Lucy stayed well out of his way. It was no wonder Cook was short-tempered, shackled to a bear like him. As for the young women on the staff who might have been her friends, both the scullery maid and the housemaid were slow-witted and spiritless. If you tried to talk to them—which she didn’t, not anymore—they mostly stared like they didn’t understand plain English. And if that wasn’t enough, the valet Holcombe took every chance to put a sneaky hand where it didn’t belong. Him, she outright despised. Every word he said to her was obviously supposed to mean something different. The ones she understood were disgusting. She’d spent some of her own wages on a bolt for her bedroom door because of him. Couldn’t ask Miss Charlotte for the money because she didn’t need another worry, did she?
The iron had cooled. She exchanged it for another that had been heating near the coals and deftly pressed the scalloped sleeve of a morning dress. The rising warmth on her face was welcome, though the kitchen was the most tolerable room in this cold house. She had to pile on blankets until she felt like a clothes press to sleep warm.
The scullery maid brushed past her on the way to the pantry. “Mort o’ trouble for a gown no one’ll see,” she said.
Lucy ignored her. Any remark the staff made to her was carping, about her work or her mistress, though they’d eased up on that when they saw they weren’t going to cause any trouble. But they baited and humiliated Miss Charlotte something terrible. It still shocked Lucy after all this time. She couldn’t quite give up expecting
—she refused to name the master of this house—to step in and stop them. But he was a pure devil; he seemed to enjoy it. Lucy liked to understand a problem and find a solution for it if she any way could, but there was nothing to be done about this pure disaster of a marriage.
Holcombe surged into the kitchen. He’d be after early morning tea for
and nothing in the world more important, in his book. Lucy turned her back and concentrated on her ironing. “Have you seen Mr. Henry?” he asked. “Hines?”
“Why would I?” was the sullen reply from the man sitting at the kitchen table.
Holcombe stood frowning for a moment, then hurried out—without any tea. Which was strange, and interesting. Lucy eyed the others. They showed no signs of curiosity. As far as she’d been able to tell over the months, they didn’t have any.
The scent of porridge wafted from the hearth, and Lucy’s stomach growled. Mrs. Hines could make a decent porridge, at least. She wasn’t good at much else. On the other hand,
ordered such bland dishes that it was hardly worth any bother.
Holcombe popped back in. “Hines, come with me,” he said. The cook’s husband grumbled but pushed up from his chair and obeyed. This was one of the things that showed Hines wasn’t a real butler. He snapped to when the valet spoke in that particular tone and did as he was told. The two men left the kitchen, and they didn’t come back.
Something was up, Lucy thought.
next to worshipped his routines, threw a fit if any little detail was altered. Despite months of grinding frustration, she felt a shred of hope. Any difference had to be for the better, didn’t it? She took her finished ironing and headed upstairs to see what she could see before waking her mistress.
When Lucy pulled back the curtains, Charlotte swam slowly up from her belated sleep. Her memory sputtered and cleared. She sat up. “You should have told me, Lucy.”