Authors: Robert Neill
Tags: #historical fiction
‘See what you’ve done.’ The tone was right, but there was dancing mischief in her eyes. ‘It’s my best gown, and look at it!’
‘Well, it’s done now, so---‘
‘I’m not going to have it done any more. If you’re going to pull it about like this I shall take it off.’
‘Do. I’ll help you.’
‘No, you won’t.’ She twisted quickly away, jumping to her feet as he tried to catch her. ‘Just wait a minute--wait.’
A pout of her tongue seemed to push the word at him, and then he saw her laughing as she turned about with one hand on her shoulder and the torn dress falling from the other to show the white of her back. She ran lightly across the room to the other door, smooth cream panels and a gilded handle, and flung it open. She disappeared round the edge of it, perhaps to where the fireplace was, but she left it wide open and the room was lighted, with candles ready burning. He came to his feet, moving a little closer, and he could see a tall window with the curtains of gold brocade, and the bed on the wall that faced him, a bed set ready with quilt turned back to show the lace of pillows. From somewhere out of sight he heard her laugh, and then her earlier voice, the childish one.
‘You’re not to come in. I’m doing things you shouldn’t see.’
‘It seems a habit of yours.’
‘No, it isn’t. I’m taking this dress off. I won’t have it torn any more. Now then----’
She came running into view, standing in the doorway, up on her toes while her dancing eyes looked into his, and for a moment he was speechless, almost up on his own toes too. Certainly she had taken the dress off, but she had taken everything else off with it, and she was as naked as she was unconcerned. She stood quite still, poised on her toes, seemingly pleased with all of it, with herself, her body, and her looks. Then suddenly she pouted at him again, turned quickly round, and went scrambling into the bed, twisting like a playful kitten. She sank her head into the pillows and then peered at him above the sheets.
‘You can blow out the candles in there,’ she said.
He hardly trusted his breath, and he snuffed them with his fingers before he went to join her.
The yard of the Angel, behind St. Clement’s, seemed a different world the next morning. The chariot was standing on the cobbles, gleaming in the sun while it waited for the horses, and Grant, who was feeling uneasy now about this visit to the country, tried to give his attention to it. It had been built, he remembered, for Lord Barford, and it might therefore reflect his tastes. It was beautifully made, solid and dignified, built like a coach on a heavy perch, differing only in being shorter, seating two instead of four, and in having no box for a coachman. This was for the open road, not the town. It would be driven by a postillion, astride the near-side wheeler, and the absence of a coachman’s legs would give the occupants a view ahead through the heavy plate-glass window in the front. They would sit in comfort, too, and Grant peered in, noting the soft brown leather of the seat, the silk head-lining, the two silver lamps, the recesses for pistols, and the locker for cake and brandy. It was certainly for a nobleman, and it would have suited Hildersham--and Anice with him.
That thought came suddenly, and he tried to push it back. He looked at the chariot again, seeing the mahogany doors with the silver handles and plate-glass windows, the deep maroon of the side-panels, the black wheels with the yellow lines and silver hubs, and he began to make a guess at Lord Barford; a man, surely, of wealth and taste, a quiet conservative taste, a man who liked comfort and perhaps prestige as well. He would drive the chariot to his own horses, which might be a team of four. The pole had the hook for the leaders.
‘Pretty good, isn’t it?’ said Wickham.
He was standing by the chariot, wrapped in a long travelling cloak above his brown frock, and he had been watching a servant stow the bags between the big front springs. Now he stepped quickly back as the horses were brought up, ready harnessed, and the traces hooked to the swingletrees. The postboy checked them carefully and then touched his hat.
They took their places, soft and comfortable, and wrapped their cloaks round their knees. The postboy mounted the near-side horse, the servant jumped into the rumble, and then the horses pawed, the iron tyres ground on the cobbles, and the chariot went slowly from the yard. They turned west, for Pall Mall and St. James’s Street, and Wickham stretched back and opened his cloak. He seemed in good spirits, this warm September morning.
‘Have a good night?’ he asked cheerfully.
‘So did I--after a fashion.’ He laughed softly, as if he were remembering. ‘I’d an appointment with a charmer I’d met the other day. We were to meet at Bond’s Hotel, and when I got there I found two of the Rifle Corps. Quite a reunion. They’d two sparkling little creatures with them, or course, so we all joined forces. Hmm!’
‘Wine flowing freely?’
‘Everything flowing freely. I don’t remember the details, though. I got a little mixed. Well . . .’ He glanced over his shoulder as they turned into Piccadilly. ‘That’s that, and there goes St. James’s Street. I wonder when I’ll see it again. I must say I like this chariot. It follows well.’
‘Doesn’t yaw at all.’
a bit short this morning. Mind on something else, I suppose.’
He fell silent, as if his own thoughts had drifted off, and Grant’s were with Anice again. He did not know where he was, or what he should do. He knew he wanted her, and she was going to Paris. He had not been able to move her from it, and she had seemed to think it was nothing. He could not understand her.
They were at the turnpike now, and then in Knightsbridge, running along the boundary of the Park, and that brought her to his mind again. A phaeton was turning in, as a curricle might have done. But not today. She was going to Paris, and he to the country. Yet last night she had been more than willing. She had been eager, and it had not seemed to be part of her profession, as she called it. She had not asked for anything, and he knew she would have flamed at him if he had offered it. Yet he had not the experience and skills of some who must be after her, and he did not think he had the attractions either. It was another point he did not understand.
At Hammersmith they pulled suddenly to the side of the road, all but off it, as the Exeter mail came storming up, perhaps a little late, and sweating the horses for the last few miles. It went roaring past, maroon and black turned grey with dust, guard blaring his horn to assert right of way, and the incident seemed to rouse Wickham from his thoughts. He glanced back at the receding mail-coach with its three ‘outsides’ clinging to their seats.
‘What a way to travel!’ he remarked. ‘That’s how I came up, and there’s no comfort anywhere. It’s what you pay for speed, I suppose.’
‘It’s probably better inside.’
inside. Apart from that, you get nothing to eat.’
‘But the thing stops?’
‘For fifteen minutes, and the inns know all about it. They bring you your dinner at the thirteenth minute, and the soup’s scalding hot.’
‘Oh, I see. We’ll do it better today, I hope.’
‘We certainly will. What’s your notion of dinner-time, by the way?’
‘I don’t know. I was surprised to find it six o’clock in London.’
‘So was I. It used to be half past four. At home we dine at half past three, and Barford has it at four. I should call that late enough for anyone.’
‘It’s long enough to last from breakfast.’
‘Of course it is. But have you noticed that these London people are putting another meal into the day now? I don’t mean the cake and sherry. That’s reasonable, but some of them are putting a regular meal in. Luncheon, they call it. Soups and chicken and all sorts of things. Well, let’s stop for dinner about three, shall we? Ah, this looks like the stage.’
They were ten miles out and turning off the road to an inn whose range of stables marked it as a posting house. The chariot rolled into the yard, the postboy hallooing, and the waiting ostlers were at the horses’ heads before they had even stopped. Within a minute another pair were brought out, ready harnessed, and another postboy with them, and Grant sat watching while Wickham went inside to pay the bill, two horses and a postboy for the ten-mile stage. Each ten miles, more or less, on their journey, the process would be repeated. It was expensive, as Wickham remarked, but Barford could afford it. He could call it the delivery charge for his fine new chariot.
‘We’ll go direct to Barford tomorrow,’ he added as they went swaying down the road again. ‘He’ll expect his chariot, and we can’t send it to him empty, with a postboy. We’ll have to deliver it properly. Besides, Mary may be there.’
‘Yes. She’s been staying with him while I was away. Well, we might get to Salisbury tonight, and if so . . .’ He paused to consider it. ‘That should bring us to the Manor about three o’clock. Time for Barford’s dinner if we want it, and then we could walk home across the park.’
That seemed to end the matter, and the sounds of travel came pleasantly into mind again to fill the silence, clop of hooves, jingle of harness, crunch of tyres on the dusty road. It was soporific, a gentle lazy rhythm, and Grant sat back, finding music in it, letting his eyes range down the road ahead, white in the sun between the green of fields. It was a better road than he had known as a boy. Things had improved. All England had improved, and this was a richer countryside than he had known, and one more lovely. There were no wild commons here. All was enclosed, trim green hedges bounding the fields that were stubble now, thick and close from the harvest, or pasture, lush with clover and lucerne, with the sheep and the grazing cows; and in all were the trees, oak and elm and ash and beech, trees by the road, trees in the fields, dotted in clumps or set as a prospect before a house, ranging to a blue horizon, soft in the English haze. There were the houses, the farms and scattered cottages, all trim and clean and painted, each with its garden, and its pigs and hens and geese. There were villages and orchards, white-painted beehives and geese among the grass, and the buildings that served the road, here a smithy, there an alehouse with its tables under the trees. The people matched their country, the smocked and hatted labourers, the gleaners in the stubble, a smith at his anvil, all were strong and healthy, clean and brightly dressed. It was beauty everywhere, and prosperity, as if England had come to wealth in war.
Clop and jingle, crunch of wheels. Ten miles an hour down the Exeter road. This was the way to see it, behind the horses, with the jogging postboy as a splash of colour against the green; broad white hat of beaver, yellow jacket with silver buttons, breeches of clean white corduroy. Grant saw it all, and was in a mood to like it. He was lazily content, drowsy from the steady sound and a night that had not been restful, and this was a change from the sea, from the eternal wind and sky. It was a change from London too, and Hyde Park and . . .
He tried to change the thought, but it would not quite change. The westerly wind would suit the Dover packet, and she would be in France tonight, with . . . Again he stopped, and then he made the thought change. He was better here. He could
have stayed in London, and she was entitled to her choice. There was much to be said for the country--but not, perhaps, everything. He could accept John Wickham and be glad of him, but there would be others in the country, a sister and Lord Barford; and one who would
be in the country. He was less sure now that he had been last night at dinner. Something had happened since.
They arrived as Wickham had foretold. They were at Salisbury that night, and they had four hours more of the road the next morning. Then they turned away, taking now to the country lanes, and it was a quarter past three when they came to tall iron gates, set back from the road in an arch of stone with a gilded crest above. Then there was a gravelled drive between an avenue of beech trees, and at the end of it, as a nicely calculated vista, was the house, dignified and imposing, and apparently modern. It had a classical front, a portico with Doric columns and a frieze and cornice, all as was proper for a nobleman’s home. The house behind all this could, of course, have been older.
‘Oh, that was Barford,’ said Wickham airily. ‘He rebuilt the place when he got his money. It was a bit more than putting a new front on, though. He pretty well gutted the inside. I suppose he had to, if he wanted decent rooms.’
‘It was old-fashioned?’
thought so. Of course, the Barfords have been here for centuries, and they certainly had a Tudor house here--one of those timbered black-and-whites. But it got knocked about in the civil wars, which didn’t do it any good, so when the Barfords came home again they rebuilt. Sixteen-sixty, of course, so by the turn of the century I suppose it really
old-fashioned. I can just remember it--low ceilings, and little rooms. Didn’t go with a peerage at all.’
‘And your own family? Have they been here---‘
‘Oh no. Only since--when was it?--1750. Sixty-five years. That was my grandfather. He was a friend of the Barford of the day--this man’s father. They were in the regiment together. He sold out, and then he had a scandal and more or less had to run for it.’ Wickham chuckled happily. ‘So he came here, with another man’s wife and the village witch. She came too.’
‘With your grandfather?’
‘Yes. I must tell you about it some day. At the moment, though, I’m more interested in Barford’s dinner. He has some uncommonly good port, I may tell you.’
They had crossed the park, and they were emerging from the green shade of the trees into the blaze of sunshine on a broad sweep of gravel that fronted the house. They swung in a wide semicircle as a liveried footman came solemnly down the steps, and from somewhere at the side of the house a groom came running to take the horses’ heads.
‘Here’s Barford,’ said Wickham.
Another man, tall and thin, in white pantaloons and a green tail-coat, had come from the house as the chariot came to a halt by the steps. Wickham spoke with his hand on the chariot door.