Forgive me please for the long pause in our correspondence, though I am sure you understand the necessity for caution in these last few months. It seems to me I ought to have trusted you from the offset and never doubted for a moment that your motives were as pure and well aligned with our heritage and my own priorities as ever. As it is, having watched the old year fade in confusion and darkness, only to greet the new, alive once more with sight of the first pale buds of spring, I am certain that the year 1886, and indeed my future entire, will be a happy one.
Events did not perhaps, unfold as you originally planned them, but I feel the outcome will please you. I am grateful, grateful both to you and to that force of Nature Herself whom you introduced to my world at my loneliest hour. I speak of course, of Captain William Charity…
Elsie almost dropped her pestle at the housekeeper’s shrill call, but managed instead to bundle the offending item and its mortar back into the open cupboard by her side. To be caught amongst the outhouses of the stables of an afternoon would cause her to fall foul of her father’s temper should it be reported by the servants, but if she was witnessed participating in what he coldly termed her ‘pagan practices,’ she would find herself firmly restricted to the house. She nudged a basket of freshly picked herbs from the gardens under the table with a foot and went to brace herself in the doorway in time to collide with Mrs Pence.
‘There you are,’ the stout woman tried to peer behind her charge, ‘And what have you been doing, young lady? I smell lavender!’
‘I picked some flowers earlier,’ Elsie said, arms folded as the Housekeeper’s monstrous bosom tried to push past her, but the young mistress of the house was not for moving.
‘Hmm,’ Pence said. ‘I warned your mother that that garden was an unnecessary indulgence. Lord above only knows what you are growing in there. Lavender will be the least of it!’
‘Is there something you wanted?’ she nonchalantly rubbed a green stain at her cuff.
‘Your father needs you back inside and cleaned up neat before dinner, there’s a visitor and you’re to dress for the occasion.’
‘Who is it?’ Elsie’s confidence wavered, ‘Oh no… It’s not…?’
‘Not his Lordship no, though that time will soon come I think,’ the housekeeper replied smugly, ‘There was some correspondence this morning about which your dear papa was quite thrilled, he will wish to show you!’
‘Let’s hope it isn’t what you suspect,’ Elsie said already feeling the tug of an unwanted future beyond the homely farm estate.
‘Oh, but it will be! His crest was stamped upon the back in wax!’
‘Wonderful,’ Elsie said dryly. ‘Still, it could be a missive imparting very little of any import, I’ve seen father excited over the most boring things. It could be nothing at all. Perhaps his Lordship writes to offer him help with his latest ambitions in the House and it has nothing to do with me.’
‘Come, come, he was quite enamoured of you on his last trip.’
Elsie repressed a shudder. His Lordship was sixty-five if he was a day, and hardly well preserved. The memory of his moist and pudgy hand on hers made her skin crawl.
‘Perhaps he has something to offer both of you,’ Pence said happily, away in her own world of fantasy now, ‘What a marvel that would be. Your father is such a fine politician, and if he is to become foreign secretary, it would only be right to see you attached to the very best society had to offer.’
‘You mean the richest. It does not always equate with best.’
‘Such a sour tongue. Don’t be ungrateful. I can see that if it is he who writes for your hand, then it is not soon enough. You are becoming bitter with age, you’re not a child anymore, not even a girl, but a grown woman advancing in her years.’
‘I’m hardly ancient, Pence.’
‘You aren’t young either. And it will only get worse. No-one shall want you soon. Passing your days out here alone, in the sun, spoiling your complexion, wrecking your clothes, forgetting your lessons and your ettiquette. You ought to have been married at eighteen, like your mama, instead you ruined yourself with…’
‘With what?’ Elsie arched a brow, ‘How exactly am I ruined? Because I am a free spirit, because I prefer the sun to dreary candlelight? Plants and animals to sewing, and the reading of inoffensive novels and other suitably dull and feminine past times? Out here I feel connected to something, in there I might as well be an ornament, my true skills wasted. At least here I can be of use.’
Pence tried once more to glance behind her to see exactly what she was doing that was so important. ‘You know,’ the Housekeeper said darkly. ‘People do talk. Twenty-six, they say. Twenty-six and spending her time in the fields with the beasts, picking poppies and mushrooms and mixing up nasty potions. A hundred years ago you would burn for what you do! Burn as a heretic. It is about time your father took the matter in hand and towed you into line at last. Don’t you roll your eyes at me! Now stop dithering and come inside…’
Elsie stepped off the shallow step to the outhouse and pulled the door to behind her. The poultice she had been working on for her best mare’s injured foal would have to wait. She smiled pleasantly at Pence as she locked up and pocketed the key in her skirts. With the shutters closed the old woman would have to break in should she want to know exactly what Elsie was doing in there, and the way it frustrated the Housekeeper was a source of secret delight. Less delightful was the chivvying Elsie was receiving now, along the path to the back of the house and on into the kitchen. It had been the same since she had been a little girl and oh how long ago that had been now. She wanted to bat the meddling woman’s hands away from her person and storm from the courtyard. To where, she had no idea, but anywhere more interesting than dinner with her father, an unknown and probably dreary guest, and a love letter from a creepy old man.
‘Your hands are filthy,’ Pence was saying, marching her through the servants’ corridors and out into the hall, ‘Covered in muck. If our gentleman caller should see he would not think you a lady at all…’
‘Why should I care what he thinks?’ Elsie said tiredly, noting a single canvas bag abandoned by the passage to the butler’s pantry. Clearly not his Lordship then, the old rogue travelled with a year’s worth of provisions for his ample stature.
‘Your father will expect you to entertain on the piano, and what if our guest was to offer to turn the page? He would spy those grass stains in an instant and your nails, quite horrifying. I will bring you bicarbonate and you will soak them straight away.’ Pence urged her past the high doors to the reception rooms and towards the bottom stair leading to her chambers. ‘Hurry now, up you go! I’ve laid out the burgundy and I’ve had Philips and the girls heating water for a bath. We won’t have time to sort your hair properly but…’
An explosion of male laughter erupted from the drawing room and the doors swung open. Elsie’s father, the Rt Hon Rupert Fitzjames emerged with a gentleman of around forty in well-shaped grey frock coat and highly polished boots. Elsie did not recognise him, but within the room, standing by the fire she spotted her mother, waiting patiently in her allotted place like a doll.
‘Ah, Eleanor!’ her father said proudly. Pence nudged her elbow, mouthed ‘hands.’ For the sake of avoiding further argument before a total stranger Elsie tucked them behind her but made sure to do so with a level of bad grace. ‘My daughter,’ Fitzjames explained, ‘Eleanor, this is Captain William Charity, he will be our guest for a night,’ his face twitched slightly, ‘At the behest of your mama.’
The man turned to her and smiled, a sight so dazzling it seemed quite out of place in the dim old hallway. The light from the stained glass on the landing caught his eyes and sparkled. Elsie felt something in her chest lurch.
‘Just passing through, I’m an old friend of your mother’s,’ Charity said confidentially with a little wink. ‘And one who is most grateful to the lady of the house for the favour after all these years,’ he called back into the room with a bow, ‘Why I was just a boy the last time she took me in. And you! ‘ he beamed, ‘You are of course, Elsie,’ he added meaningfully, ‘The other lady of the house and just as beautiful if I may add. Splendid to meet you.’
He waited, fingers outstretched to take hers, all amiable charm and slightly disarming confidence. Pence glared at her in warning, then her father did too. Elsie watched Charity catch the looks with a curious purse of his mouth. Oh, for heaven’s sake, he would think them all mad if she merely stood there gawping.
‘A pleasure, Captain,’ Elsie said and gave him her hand. Charity stooped and kissed her knuckles, his large hazel eyes flicking up to meet hers as his touch left her skin. His tongue flicked quickly over his lower lip, which he drew through his teeth slightly to savour.
‘Picking flowers?’ he asked with a knowing look.
‘Yes, there is a garden, mainly herbs, but some flowers…’ but his attention had wandered. She felt his curious gaze in her hair.
‘I think one has strayed,’ he suggested quietly, ‘May I?’ He pulled her to him gently and let his eyes roam through her soft blonde hair, his hand suspended over the top of her head for a moment before he carefully extracted a small tangle of curly moss from one lock. Charity held it between thumb and forefinger and raised an elegant eyebrow mischievously.
‘Don’t young ladies usually prefer daisies?’ he asked in hushed tones.
‘Come away, Eleanor, the gentlemen will have things to attend to, they don’t want to hear about your roses and lilies,’ Pence said.
‘Smelt like lavender to me,’ Charity argued, bending to her hands again, ‘And,’ he inhaled the scent again slowly, his dark lashes lingering closed as he tried to place it, ‘echinacea I believe?’
‘Why yes!’ Elsie said with a laugh. ‘How on earth do you know that?’
‘A potent combination with that moss I should think! Are you treating a wound?’ he asked straightening up and smiling, the whites of his teeth partially hidden by his lower lip and his eyes creasing prettily.
‘As a matter of fact, I am, it’s a poultice.’
‘Oh… well you must tell me more that could be terribly useful…’ he started, his gaze positively twinkling.
‘Eleanor!’ Pence cut in.
Charity looked between them. ‘Ah… But I can see you are needed elsewhere,’ he conceded politely. Perhaps we can continue this conversation later, over dinner?’
‘That would be…’
‘There are far more important things to be discussed, Captain!’ Elsie’s father interjected, ‘An announcement to be made no less. Oh yes! Eleanor run along and ready yourself, there is much to talk about and…’ his reddened face failed in its attempt to portray reassurance and ended in a spasm, ‘to celebrate.’
He pulled a folded missive from his jacket pocket, the broken red seal of his Lordship plainly visible on the back. He tapped his nose with the edge of the paper. God, it was true then. The ghastly man had asked permission for marriage. Elsie stood mutely for a moment, her mouth open and the weight of the knowledge hitting her stomach like lead. Her gawkish shock clear on her face, she noticed Captain Charity looking graciously at the floor to spare her blushes, his arms folded behind his back.
Pence tugged at her sleeve. ‘Come.’
‘Of course,’ Elsie said flatly, ‘Excuse me gentlemen.’
Charity inclined his head and as she retreated up the stairs Elsie could hear her father below bawling for the under butler currently occupied with pouring her bath.
‘Philips! Philips, come and assist this gentleman with his bags… is this all you have man? Good Lord, did you arrive here on foot? No carriage?’
‘Horseback…. But please, allow me, don’t bother your man,’ the Captain said, ‘I tend to travel light and it is just for the night.’
‘Nonsense, I won’t have any guest of ours hauling their own luggage, Philips!’
How very different from his Lordship’s demanding entourage. Elsie supposed she should be grateful he had not turned up out of the blue to offer his hand himself. Charity seemed pleasant enough and much more interesting than she had expected but now the rare gift of entertaining company at the estate was thoroughly marred by the damn letter her father kept waving about.
She kept climbing and the voices faded to be replaced with Pence issuing instructions to the maids gathered in Elsie’s room. On the bed the burgundy dress the Housekeeper had selected for her earlier, the heavy bustle and severe corset the woman favoured, the lady’s maid Polly lacing it nimbly so that it would all but crush her mistress and prevent any pleasure in dinner at all. This was not how Elsie had intended to spend her evening. The door shut behind her and the room was a flurry of irritating activity and instruction.
Elsie approached the dressing table, her fingers touching the diamonds laid out on velvet to accessorise her dress. Father truly was trying to impress the import of the moment upon her. His Lordship was not even in the building, too ancient and gammy to make the journey no doubt, but his proposal must be discussed by the family in all their finery, no doubt in part to show off their connection to their unexpected guest.
Poor man, what torture it would be for a worldly chap like Charity to watch her father pontificate on society at large. Elsie wondered why the Captain had chosen now to stay under their roof for but one night. The estate was rather out of the way for such a brief jaunt and he had made no mention of his intentions as most guests did. She would have liked to ask but she was certain the topics for discussion would not include Charity’s movements.
That was however the least of her concerns. Lord she was not even sure she could pretend to be polite about the whole marriage business all the way through dinner and beyond, when every fibre of her being told her run away, right now. Feeling nauseated she held the glittering stones briefly to her throat, cold weight against her skin, before balling them in her hand and flicking open her jewellery box. No, she would not wear them!
‘Eleanor! Put those back immediately, they were your grandmother’s and your father wishes you to show them this evening.’
‘My father wishes rather a lot for one evening, Pence, he has already decided my future, must he decide what I wear to receive the news of it too?’ Elsie dropped the jewels in the box and pulled out a silver chain, on which an old amulet was suspended, ringed with carved flame, a round scarlet crystal at its centre.
Pence froze, eyes wide. ‘Oh no, now you know he will not want to see that Heathen artefact!’
‘It is an heirloom. Also my grandmother’s, and her grandmother’s before her…’
‘On her side!’ Elsie dodged the woman’s thick hands as she tried to grab it away.
‘It’s perfect, when you think of it, what it symbolises…’
‘Eleanor! Don’t let me hear you speak such nonsense! Put that down!’
Elsie snapped the chain into place around her neck and its crystal winked like a demon’s eye in the candlelight.
‘I’m wearing the Red Sun,’ she said. ‘You would have me thrown to the wolves, Pence, to the mercy of men who proffer me like property, who trade and bargain with my life, perhaps this will offer some protection. Perhaps my ancestors will take umbrage.’
‘Cursed girl!’ Pence exclaimed, the tell-tale wetness of superstitious fear in her eyes.
‘I thought you didn’t believe in curses,’ Elsie said, eying her through the looking glass.