The post-chaise made a violent turn, throwing the ladies within against the squabs. Louisa gritted her teeth once more, and for about the hundredth time that day wished with all her heart for her own carriage and her faithful, and very gentle, coachman. The chaise made a final lurch before stopping so abruptly that Marie was thrown almost from the seat.
Peering through grimy, rain-spattered windows, Louisa said, “We appear to have arrived.”
“Dieu merci!” Marie muttered, through the lavender-scented handkerchief held to her mouth.
“Courage, Marie. No more journeys for a very long time.”
Unseen hands turned the outer handle of the chaise door, then rattled it and finally, as if in desperation, heaved it open with a crash. An unknown footman peered in. Hers, Louisa supposed, hired three days before from the agency in Shrewsbury. Well, he looked respectable enough, and he had an umbrella open, so he was not unintelligent.
She stepped down onto a weedy gravel drive, and looked at her new home. “Oh… Palladian. Not bad at all.” The classical lines and symmetry, the pedimented door with its fanlight and the arched windows suggested it was no more than fifty years old. “Not the old ruin I was expecting.”
“C’est très petit,” Marie said under her breath.
“Well, yes, it is small, but it is mine, Marie. Only mine. Not to be shared with anyone else.” Especially Pamela. It would do, she thought. It would suit her purposes.
The house looked well-kept, with not a shutter askew or a tile missing, and nothing else amiss that a dab of paint would not fix. The gardens were another matter. Long, desiccated grass stems had been flattened by winter rain, so that the lawns looked like an abandoned hayfield, and beyond it were an orchard on one side and a collection of overgrown shrubs on the other, dank and dripping in the drizzle.
Several figures stood awaiting her at the top of the steps. A maid in a neat cap and apron, also from the agency. A man in an atrociously unfashionable coat and knee breeches — the attorney, she supposed. Crossley. He had said he would meet her here. And two young ladies in black. No idea who they were.
She ascended the steps unhurriedly, so that the footman and his umbrella could keep pace with her.
“Welcome to Great Maeswood, Mrs Middlehope,” said the older of the two ladies in black, with a neat little curtsy. “I am Miss Saxby, and this is my sister, Miss Agnes Saxby. We bear greetings from our mother, Lady Saxby, who is indisposed today, but hopes to invite you to dine with us very soon. You know Mr Crossley, I think?”
Louisa reassessed the two ladies. She had not taken much notice of whose dower house she was to inhabit, but clearly these two were from the local big house. The elder was above twenty-five, at a guess, with undistinguished features and a dowdy appearance. The younger, about twenty, was dressed with more opulence but less taste, and was perhaps the plainest girl she had ever seen, poor child.
Nodding politely to the attorney, she said, “Thank you for your diligence, Mr Crossley. Good day to you all, and thank you for your welcome. I would invite you in, but I fear I have nothing in the house to offer you.”
“Oh, but there is,” said the younger Miss Saxby brightly. “We brought some supplies for you — tea, coffee, sugar, bread, that sort of thing. Oh, and a cherry cake and a lemon cake.”
“How very kind of you,” Louisa said. “Then I shall be able to offer you tea and cake, but for myself, I think I need brandy after the way the chaise careered through the gates. I brought a bottle with me, and a few other odds and ends, but forgot most of the staples.” And wine, she realised. How was she to manage without wine?
“Yes, but do come in,” Miss Saxby said. “Mr Crossley has all the keys for you, and then may we show you around? Or would you prefer to be left alone? Travelling is so upsetting to the system, is it not? Mama is always quite overset by it, so we will quite understand if you wish to rest and not be bothered by company.”
“Company is never a bother to me,” Louisa said firmly, “especially when it comes bearing cake.”
The entrance hall was small, and with herself and Marie, Mr Crossley and the two Saxby sisters, not to mention the servants and the boxes now being unloaded from the chaise, it felt uncomfortably crowded. It was the work of a few moments to dispatch Marie upstairs to unpack, the maid downstairs to make tea and Mr Crossley off the premises altogether, his work done once he had surrendered both sets of keys.
“Now, Miss Saxby, Miss Agnes, do give me a tour of the house. It should not take long, I think.”
She was quite right. Downstairs there was a parlour, a dining room, a drawing room and a study. Upstairs revealed a large bedroom with a dressing room attached, and two smaller bedrooms. She declined the offer of inspecting either the attics or the basement level, so they returned to the drawing room. Like the rest of the house, it displayed a classical elegance that was very pleasing, and the furnishings, although old-fashioned and a little faded, were of excellent quality. There was a good fire burning, with plenty of the best candles in the sconces, and everything was clean and polished.
While they waited for the manservant to lay out the tea things and the cherry cake, Louisa said, “This is a very pleasant room. I shall call it the saloon, I think. Every house should have a saloon. And a bottle of brandy,” she added, spying it already set out on the sideboard, with glasses at the ready. “That will do me more good than tea, I fancy. I had no idea a hired post-chaise could be so uncomfortable.”
“Will your own carriage be arriving soon?” Miss Saxby said, taking charge of the tea tray, as Louisa poured herself a generous measure of brandy.
Her own carriage! How she would miss it, but she answered gaily, “I shall not need a carriage here, I fancy. I might buy a gig, perhaps. That will do very well.”
Miss Saxby said at once, “We have a gig and pony for sale. No longer required.”
“Cass—” her sister said, with an anxious glance.
“No longer required,” Miss Saxby said firmly.
“That would be most convenient, if we can agree a price,” Louisa said cautiously, detecting undercurrents. “There is no hurry, however. It will be pleasant to drive about in the summer, but it will not be much needed at this time of year. My greatest need is for some more servants — a woman to help with the heavy work and laundry, and a man for the gardens. Have you any suggestions?”
“Mrs Preece’s sister will come for the indoor work. You will find her at the smithy on Glebe Lane,” Miss Saxby said crisply. “She is a good worker, and reliable. She will do plain needlework, as well — sheets, curtains, nightshirts, that sort of thing. The gardener is more difficult. The experienced ones are snapped up as soon as they become available. You would need to advertise in the Chronicle and see if you can attract an under-gardener looking to move up, unless you are prepared to train one up yourself.”
“I should not mind that,” Louisa said. “I enjoy nothing better than grubbing about in the earth, so I shall do a great deal of the work myself, but I shall need a man to do the serious digging and scything.”
“Oh, in that case, the Timpson twins can help out. Mr Timpson from the shop has a vast brood of youngsters for hire. The twins are only thirteen… no, fourteen, but you pay only one and tuppence a day for the two, and excellent value it is, I assure you. If you want another maid, their sister Tilly is about ready to go into service.”
“You are a fount of useful information, Miss Saxby. Just one more question, if you please. Is there an inn nearby where I might obtain a proper meal? For my cook will not be here until next week, and I fear I cannot live on the scraps of food I brought with me and your cherry cake, excellent though it is.”
“Oh, you must not eat at the inn!” Miss Saxby cried. “Beth Brownsmith is the world’s worst cook.” Miss Agnes nodded her head in agreement. “It will do for your servants, but you must dine with us at the Hall. The carriage will collect you at half past five.”
Louisa agonised over the choice of gown. Most of her things would come by the carrier whenever her ladyship condescended to organise it. Well, her own fault, of course, for leaving in such a rush, but as soon as she had received Esther’s letter telling her of the Dower House, she had been wild to be gone, to be alone at last, to be free. Now she found herself in a quandary, invited to dine at the house of Lady Saxby, who could be a marchioness, for all she knew, yet the daughters were in black. Difficult.
She discarded one of her favourite gowns, a deep peach velvet, which seemed too bright a colour for a house of mourning, and the pale green silk was altogether too grand for what she supposed would be a family dinner. Sighing, she allowed Marie to ease her into the dark blue muslin she had worn every evening for a week now.
“Are your quarters satisfactory, Marie?” Louisa said, as the maid laboriously buttoned the back of the gown.
“Pft,” was all the response she got.
Louisa laughed, for Marie complained about everything. “Too small, eh?”
“Je ne peux pas respirer, madame.” I cannot breathe.
“You will survive. We both will.”
“Oui, madame.” But she sounded unconvinced.
The carriage was prompt, and deposited her on the doorstep of Maeswood Hall at twenty minutes to six precisely. It was too dark to see much of the exterior, but inside she could see at once that it had been designed by the same sure hand responsible for the Dower House, albeit on a grander scale. From the marble-floored entrance hall, she was led through an inner hall with an elegant double staircase and thence to the saloon, a splendid room worthy of the name. She immediately revised her own saloon to a mere drawing room.
A woman of middle years rose to greet Louisa as the butler announced her, and despite her age, the remains of great beauty were discernible. She wore her widow’s weeds in a fashionably flimsy style, her hair all drooping loose curls, and a fine muslin scarf dangling from her elbows, as if to emphasise her air of delicate fragility.
“Mrs Middlehope,” she said unsmilingly. “I am Lady Saxby. Welcome.”
“Thank you so much for such unlooked for hospitality,” Louisa said, as she made her curtsy. “But I am so glad to be here. This is a lovely house!”
Lady Saxby’s face at once lit up. “It is beautiful, is it not? This is the finest room, but the library is much admired, too. Do meet my family, Mrs Middlehope. Cass and Agnes you know already, but this is Flora, and here is my youngest, Honora.”
Flora, at least, had benefited from her mother’s looks, for she was the beauty of the family, and just as dainty. Louisa felt like a lumbering giant beside her. Honora was not so handsome, but would have been accounted a pretty girl in other company. How unfortunate to have an outstanding diamond in the family, constantly casting her sisters into the shade.
“These are my sons, Jeffrey Rycroft and Timothy Rycroft,” Lady Saxby continued.
Two young men, a little younger than Louisa herself, who looked gentlemanlike enough, and nothing more. The products of Lady Saxby’s first marriage, presumably, although she could not quite work it out, since the eldest Miss Saxby looked older than the younger Mr Rycroft. She really should have made more enquiries about the local society before coming here, then she would not be floundering quite so badly. It would be helpful to know who, precisely, was being mourned — Lord Saxby, perhaps? Yet it would be indelicate to ask. She would have to be careful what she said, for it would never do to rampage over the feelings of the recently bereaved.
The meal was excellent, and bespoke a cook almost as accomplished as Louisa’s own… no, not her own, Pamela’s own. Her sister-in-law had inherited the long-fought-for man-cook, just as she had inherited the carriage, the coachman, all the footmen, the well-trained gardeners, her excellent butler and the noble rank that should have been Louisa’s. Not that she cared for the title, but she would have loved to keep just a few of the servants. Ah well, repining was pointless.
Not surprisingly, Louisa found herself the main topic of conversation. The questions were diplomatically phrased, but she understood what they wanted to know.
“My husband died just over a year ago. He was the eldest son, but we were never blessed with children, so when my father-in-law died last spring, the younger son inherited. They offered me a permanent home at Roseacre, but once my year of mourning was over, I thought it best to move away from Durham.”
“Ah yes,” Lady Saxby sighed. “That is much for the best. The new mistress will have her own way of doing things, no doubt, and it would be trying for you to see the changes.”
That was not the trying part, but Louisa said nothing of that, merely smiling and praising the sauce with which the woodcocks were served, and sighing over the loss of her man-cook.
After dinner, the ladies retreated to the saloon again. Lady Saxby and Honora retired to a matching pair of chaises longues, ‘to rest a little’, Lady Saxby said, closing her eyes and settling down more comfortably to snooze. Agnes commandeered the pianoforte, leaving Louisa to Flora, flicking idly through the pages of a journal to find the fashion plates, and Cass, the eldest, who politely enquired after her home and family. She was so tempted to say, ‘I have no family’, but that would be too impolite for words. Besides, she was here to forget her losses, after all. So she talked of Roseacre and its multitude of dilapidated and rambling wings, but she could not suppress the sigh of envy as she gazed around the elegantly beautiful saloon.
“Roseacre sounds charming,” Cass said. “There is so much history in an older house. I hope you will not miss it too greatly. Are you pleased with the Dower House?”
“Oh yes! Such a cosy little house. I shall be very content there, I am sure. I do love these modern designs. Such lightness and classical simplicity! Such order and regularity, and no danger of going astray and finding oneself in a previously unsuspected wing of the house. Delightful.”
With a chuckle, Cass said, “Some would say the Hall is too austere, but it has its charms too. Would you like to see the library?”
She would. They left Flora to her journal, and Cass took a candelabrum and led the way back to the hall and then through a richly appointed room decorated in a deep crimson, to a short corridor. Cass had a pronounced limp, more noticeable this evening, but it would not be polite to enquire what had happened to her.
Cass halted. “I will let you enter first, Mrs Middlehope. You will see why.” Then she threw open one of the doors to the library and stood aside for Louisa to enter.
The room was flooded with light. There were deep windows on three sides, and the moon must be full, for it filled the room with a ghostly luminance. And there above the far wall—
Louisa cried out in amazement, for the lunette was filled with colour, a Biblical scene in painted glass that was lit up by the moonlight. “That is astonishing!” she said, as Cass followed her into the room. “How lucky you are to live in a house with such wonders.”
Cass grimaced. “Not for much longer, unfortunately. We live from day to day, as we wait for the lawyers to find the new Lord Saxby, who will promptly turn us out of our home.”
“So it is your father whom you mourn,” Louisa said.
“And my brother, Miles,” she said quietly. “A curricle accident, not two months ago. Papa was killed instantly, and Miles… poor Miles lingered for a fortnight.”
“My dear, how awful for you all. Your poor mama! And the heir… you do not know who it is?”
“Not the slightest idea. Not a near relation, anyway, for all the uncles and cousins we know of are dead now. The lawyers are going back to the third earl, or even earlier, to find a living male descendant. Mama is certain he will be a disgrace to the family name — a coal miner, or a pie seller, or some such. I think myself he is more likely to be an attorney or a clergyman.”
“Yes, very likely,” Louisa said. “But what a shock for him! There he will be, stuck in some rural wasteland far from civilisation, struggling to maintain a wife and seven children on a hundred pounds a year, and one day a man in a black suit and a wig will arrive on his doorstep and inform him that he is Lord Saxby, and a rich man, and insist that he must leave his hovel and move into your lovely house. Poor fellow.”
“You pity him?” Cass said, although she smiled. “We are in worse case, I should have thought.”
“No, because you will know how to go on. You will always have a respectable place in society, not just because of your family name, but because you know how to behave. You will be received everywhere, whereas he will be treated with contempt wherever he goes. If he tries to act the great lord, he will be scorned, and if he takes the meat before the soup or prefers ale to claret, he will be mocked. His own servants will bow and ‘Yes, my lord’ him, and laugh at him behind his back. Poor fellow, indeed.”
“I had not thought of it like that,” Cass said slowly. “Yes, he is much to be pitied, whoever he is. Let us hope he may be found quickly so that he can begin to grow accustomed to his new life, and we can begin to grow accustomed to ours. Is it hard, the change from a house like this with a full complement of servants to something much simpler?”
“I cannot tell you,” Louisa said with a smile. “I left Roseacre not two weeks ago, stayed a few nights with my friend in Shrewsbury and then — here I am! My first day of something simpler.”
“But why here?” Cass said, smiling back in a friendly way. “Great Maeswood is so out of the way, and such a long way from Durham that I cannot imagine what made you choose to settle here.”
“No one knows me,” Louisa said at once. “I am, if you like, a slate wiped clean, and, perhaps more pertinently, I am free at last of other people’s expectations. Consider, Miss Saxby. I spent seventeen years under my father’s very careful control. I was married practically from the schoolroom, and spent twelve years bowing to the wishes of my husband and his father, who avoided company. Then there was a year of mourning. I was not at all discontented with my lot, for my path was laid down for me and I knew no other. But now… I am set free, and with only my own wishes to consider, I intend to go out into the world at last and be sociable and enjoy life.”
“Well,” Cass said, eyebrows raised. “Prepare to be gay to dissipation, Mrs Middlehope. On Tuesdays, Miss Gage holds a card party for select friends, with a small glass of sherry on arrival at eight o’clock, whist until eleven, then a cold supper, with a glass of claret. On Thursdays, Miss Beasley returns the compliment, except that we get ratafia to drink and a hot supper with Tokay. Once a month, one or other of the carriage families holds a dinner. And twice a year — do try not to allow your anticipation to overwhelm you — there is an assembly at the Boar’s Head, where as many as fourteen or fifteen couples of dairymaids and farm labourers tread on each other’s toes. Can you bear the excitement, do you suppose?”
Louisa laughed. “It sounds perfect!”