Authors: Felicity Young
‘Conditions like this are a fact of life for someone of Edith’s station. All the same, the workhouse must be informed and standards improved.’ Mrs Hutton touched her own hair, severely drawn back from her ears. ‘I will have to tell Lady Fitzgibbon. She is on the Workhouse Board of Guardians and will take particular interest in this,’ she said.
Mrs Hutton affixed an icy smile to her handsome, haughty face. ‘Meanwhile, if I might offer my services to both the Misses McCleland? I am an experienced hairdresser and important guests are expected for dinner. I am sure you would not wish to let down your gracious hosts.’
‘Oh, yes, thank you. That would be wonderful!’ Florence gushed before Dody could get a word in.
Dody retreated to the bathroom and sat with Annie while Florence was being attended to. Dody had always thought Annie’s fingers were like hay rakes, but if Florence’s stifled yelps were anything to go by, Mrs Hutton’s must be even worse. Dody swallowed and waited for her turn.
The dining room reflected the house itself: a mixture of Classical and Gothic styles, dominated by a heavy oaken dresser at one end of the room and a stained-glass window depicting the family crest at the other. The dresser would have blended into the dark oak panelling around it, if not for the dancing reflection of lights on the pewter plates propped upon its shelves. All around were signs of an ancient family lineage: shields and swords on the walls, heraldic crests and thick-oiled family portraits.
Tristram had confided in the sisters, however, with no small amount of shame, that Sir Desmond, his uncle by marriage, came from new money — Sir Desmond’s father having been knighted in recognition of the profitability of his iron foundries. The family crest, and even some of the portraits, had been purchased from the previous owner of Fitzgibbon Hall, along with acres of the local countryside. The family’s chief source of income now was farming; the Fitzgibbons were landed gentry, but only just.
A luxurious, red-berried creeper twisted around the several pairs of silver candelabra illuminating the massive dining table. Bowls of imported fruit formed a decorative line down its centre, and highly polished silver cutlery gleamed in the flickering light. Dody counted twenty guests, with at least half staying over for the Saturday-to-Monday. At the head of the table, Dody and Florence sat squeezed on either side of the plump Sir Desmond, his cherubic features and full head of ash-grey curls an odd contrast to his unfashionably small, clipped moustache.
Tristram sat on Florence’s left. On the opposite side of the table, on Dody’s right, sat Father Ignatius Flood, a long-necked gentleman wearing a Roman collar and more speckles of dandruff on his shoulders than hairs on his head. At the other end, Lady Fitzgibbon was surrounded by a group of mixed age, sex and marital status, whose names Dody had already forgotten. Most were attractive, well dressed and flirtatious. She hadn’t yet worked out who had designs on whom, but she had no doubt that a system of codes had already been established — shoes, or a tray of food left outside a bedroom, or a ribbon carelessly draped over a door handle — to signify who was available.
Thus far she had not had much time to get to know Lady Airlie Fitzgibbon. The mistress of the house struck her as a quiet, unassuming soul, quite the opposite of her husband. Still, Dody supposed, she must have some backbone if she was a workhouse guardian, one of the few positions of civil responsibility open to women. She had also founded a needlework school for disadvantaged girls in Uckfield, the nearest village of any consequence, and tutored them herself in fine embroidery. Dody watched as she attempted to join in the social banter around her, the exertion leaving her looking strained, her skin almost translucent in the candlelight. Dody wondered how the delicate, ethereal creature coped with the unsavoury aspects of workhouse guardianship, or, worse still, a successful Saturday-to-Monday house party.
Lady Fitzgibbon’s father, Tristram’s grandfather, ninety if he was a day, sat on her right. ‘Aye-Aye’ lived in a comfortable house on the estate that had once belonged to the estate agent. Every now and then he would pick up an ear trumpet from the floor next to him, place it in situ and call out ‘Aye?’ in a shrill, loud voice that made the other guests cringe.
He said little; there was a childlike quality about him and some dribbling, and he required frequent assistance from Lady Fitzgibbon, who had requested that the staff serve him before the other guests so he could retire early. It did not take long for Dody to realise that the old man was not only going deaf, but was also almost completely blind.
Perhaps he was aware of the strain his wife was under, or perhaps he was always this attentive, but whatever his reasons, Sir Desmond frequently excused himself from his place to personally offer Lady Fitzgibbon wine or to talk softly to her, as if soothing a nervous child, or a foal.
On one such occasion, when their host had left his seat to fetch his wife’s shawl, Father Flood took up conversation with Dody. He blew his nose loudly into a handkerchief the size of a tea towel and informed her that his cold had almost forced him to cancel his attendance, but the curiosity of meeting Sir Desmond’s fascinating collection of house guests had won out. Was Dody aware that tomorrow’s hunt would be riding across seminary lands?
‘Surely you saw the seminary building when you were excavating the river bed with Mr Slater?’ he said with a soft Irish lilt. ‘Our lands adjoin.’
Dody had. It was a bland, many-windowed, red-brick building located about a mile from where they had been digging.
Sir Desmond returned to his place and broke in before Dody could answer the priest. ‘And what do you think of the Piltdown discovery, Miss, er, Doctor McCleland?’ he asked. ‘Exciting, what?’
The liveried footman helped Dody to leek and potato soup. She nodded her thanks and replied, ‘It seems to be quite a controversial discovery, Sir Desmond. I look forward to hearing how it is received at the Geographical Society at the end of the month.’
‘Yes, I have heard some doubt about its authenticity — mainly from foreigners, I might add. They can’t stomach the fact that the first Englishman may be older than anything previously found in Europe — that an Englishman was the first European, if you will. The discovery is the epitome of everything that is great about this country of ours.’
At this, a big black labrador sauntered into the room, rested its head on Sir Desmond’s lap and looked up at him with adoring amber eyes. Sir Desmond affectionately scratched the dog’s ears. ‘What say you, eh, Mr Cole?’
Mr Cole must have been the ‘ghostly’ black shape Dody had seen bounding across the carriageway earlier that evening. She smiled to herself. This Gothic house must be getting to me, she thought; of course there is a rational explanation for everything.
‘If I may interrupt, Sir Desmond,’ Mr Hugh Montague, sitting diagonally opposite Tristram, said with a silken smirk, ‘I read that this first Englishman of ours seems to be less evolved than we are, meaning that he might be of nonwhite origin.’
‘Well, Hugh,’ Sir Desmond drained the last drop of wine from his goblet and signalled the footman for more, ‘we all had to start somewhere.’
‘I warrant there are several paupers in the village who could well be associated with the chap in this find.’ Montague chuckled. ‘They say people often revert to the form of an ancient ancestor, that pauperism is hereditary … Have you seen the fellow who begs on the corner of the High Street near the pump? Not a tooth in his head — probably our bone man’s cousin.’
know about that sort of thing, wouldn’t you, Hugh?’
All the men at their end of the table, barring Tristram, joined in with Sir Desmond’s guffaws as if sharing an in-house joke.
‘I’ve heard some say that the Piltdown creature is not a man at all.’ Mr Montague added to the hilarity between wheezing gasps of breath, his words seeming at odds with his handsome, mature countenance. A man who spoke and behaved thus should have the appearance of an oaf, Dody thought, pondering Nature’s deception.
‘They say that it is a woman,’ Sir Desmond proclaimed. ‘That a woman is the missing link between men and monkeys!’
Florence stiffened. Dody braced herself.
Tristram drew a controlled breath. ‘Gentlemen, please. Spare the ladies and save the ribald conversation for the billiard room.’
Sir Desmond wiped a dribble of soup from his chin. ‘Of course, Tristram. Please do accept our apologies, ladies.’
Florence shot Montague and Sir Desmond a look that could have frozen water, and Dody was left to fill the ensuing silence. ‘Mr Slater, do tell us what you know about the Piltdown remains.’
Tristram glanced at the men around him and relaxed his posture, flicking both sisters a hesitant smile. ‘The skull fragments were found in a gravel pit on the Barkham Manor lands near Piltdown hamlet, about three miles from Sir Desmond’s, in a dried-up river bed shared by both properties,’ he explained. ‘They were discovered a couple of years ago by a labourer digging for gravel there, and he gave them to Charles Dawson, the archaeologist. Over time, more skull remnants were found by Dawson at the gravel pit, along with a jawbone, a tool made from a prehistoric elephant tusk and some fossilised remains of animal teeth. The items in the pit made him conclude that the remains must be thousands of years old, from the Pleistocene era, probably.’
‘And your opinion?’
‘Frankly, I have my doubts, Doctor McCleland. Dawson is a glory seeker. Some of his previous finds have been of dubious authenticity.’
‘But I believe the anatomist Professor Arthur Keith is working on a skull reconstruction to present to the Royal Society,’ Dody said. ‘Surely he must have faith in the find.’
‘Indeed he must, Doctor McCleland. Unfortunately, few are privy to exactly what is to be presented. I haven’t seen the bones myself, let alone the reconstruction, so I suppose I am hardly one to pass judgement on their age. I question the lack of scrutiny, however.’
‘Of course they’re authentic,’ Sir Desmond said, puffing out his broad chest. ‘And earlier in the drawing room, you mentioned that you might have stumbled upon something equally ancient on
‘Yes, Uncle. I’m hoping Doctor McCleland will enlighten me when she examines the bones tomorrow morning.’
‘What, you are not joining the hunt, Doctor?’
‘I’m afraid not, Sir Desmond.’
‘Damn shame.’ He indicated Dody’s hand, the one holding the heavy soup spoon. ‘You look to have good hands. A good seat too — no doubt about that.’
He ground his knee into Dody’s under the table. The cramped seating arrangements made it impossible for her to shrink away without rubbing against Father Flood’s knee. She gritted her teeth and concentrated on her soup.
After the soup came the fish course, a whole poached salmon with a lemon glaze, followed by pheasant and game chips, the pheasant bagged by Sir Desmond himself weeks previously. For main course they dined on rolled lamb — Mr Cole receiving more than his fair share of tit-bits from his master — with capers and vegetables, all accompanied by enough French wine to sink a dreadnought. The conversation circled from the pending hunt to the price of grain, wool and tariffs, to political tensions in Europe and then back to Tristram’s discovery.
The men returned to their exchange about the atavistic tendencies of paupers and the inferiority of non-European races. Unable to take it any longer, Florence excused herself before the champagne jelly was served, citing a headache. Dody, slapping Sir Desmond’s hand from her upper thigh, was about to follow when Tristram rose from his chair and suggested Florence might like to take some air in the garden. Best to leave them on their own, Dody thought, reluctantly dropping back into her seat, wishing she’d had the foresight to cry headache first.
To distance herself from the disagreeable company of Sir Desmond and Mr Montague, she asked Father Flood to remind her of the names of the guests at the other end of the table. He ran through the list as if he were dictating
, excessively aware, she thought, for a man who had opted for a life of poverty, of every guest’s financial and social station.
‘None of them Catholic, unfortunately,’ he concluded, ‘and the seminary in such dire need of a new refectory roof.’ At his self-deprecatory wink, she responded with her first genuine smile of the evening.
‘Doctor McCleland?’ The question forced her to turn from the priest and face Mr Montague. ‘If Tristram’s bones are not ancient, what then?’
Sir Desmond shifted in his chair and tugged at his bursting waistcoat. ‘Don’t be absurd, Hugh,’ he muttered. ‘What else could they be?’
‘If that is the case, Mr Montague, I will have to inform the local constabulary.’ Dody smiled sweetly at both men and rammed her knee into Sir Desmond’s. Hard.
Florence and Tristram sat on a garden bench with their backs to the Hall, sheltered from the wind by a thick privet hedge. He held up a lantern and shone it around the leafy nook. ‘There,’ he said, breath billowing like a magician’s smokescreen. ‘Did you see it?’
‘See what?’ Florence asked as her eyes strained towards the light’s perimeter.
‘Don’t ask questions, just look.’ He lifted the lantern towards a leafless bough swaying in the breeze. ‘Did you not see her? Sitting there on the branch, little white legs hanging down, wings glistening in the moonlight?’
Florence punched his shoulder. ‘Tease.’ Tristram’s doing his best to cheer me up after the disastrous dinner, she thought, touched.
‘I am teasing indeed, and I apologise; I couldn’t help it.’ He chuckled. ‘When I was a boy, Aunt Airlie swore that fairies inhabited this nook. We used to play hunt-the-fairy-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden, in this very spot. Needless to say she always found one first, and by the time I had worked out where she was pointing, the fiendish little thing had vanished.’
Florence thought the game sounded charming, and told him so. She slipped off the bench and grabbed the lantern, shining it into niches and hollows. ‘I see. This flat rock here,’ she pointed to a garden paving stone, ‘is where they have their dances and balls.’ She turned to a crisp leaf filled with water. ‘And this is their swimming bath, and rising behind it is their many-tiered library — the rose trellis. The rose flowers, when in bloom, serve as comfortable reading chairs.’