Read an Excerpt
'Oh, my dear girl, you look positively frozen! Do come over and join me by the hearth!'
After reducing the contents of the decanter containing a fine Madeira, Miss Ruth Harrington accepted the invitation. Although not inclined to imbibe so early in the day, after her walk into the market town in unusually inclement weather for the time of year, she felt the need of a little something to revive her, and so decided to join Lady Beatrice in her customary before-luncheon tipple.
As she took the chair on the opposite side of the hearth and began to sample the contents of her glass, Ruth couldn't help reflecting, yet again, on the unusual relationship she enjoyed with the middle-aged widow seated opposite.
Seeing them together, anyone might be forgiven for imagining they were in some way related, that she was perhaps a favoured niece, or possibly some distant, much younger cousin. No one would suppose for a moment that she had come to Dunsterford Hall, almost a decade before, to take up the position of humble paid companion. Yet, not once in all the years that she had done her utmost to fulfil the duties for which she had been engaged had she felt like a servant, or, indeed, ever been treated as such.
In truth, her employer behaved to a certain extent like a thoughtful godmother, treating the girl she had rescued from a decidedly uncertain future with a kind consideration that some might have supposed bordered on love. In more recent years, though, Ruth had come to believe Lady Beatrice incapable of feeling that most tender emotion, not even to the smallest degree. Yes, she could be considerate when she chose to a favoured few. But she could also be thoughtless and intractable, thinking only of herself and her own comfort.
But little wonder, Ruth continued to reflect, when one considered her unfortunate marriage to Lord Charles Lindley, a cruel and unfeeling tyrant by any standard. No doubt any capacity she might once have had to give and receive love had long since withered.
'You look very thoughtful, my dear,' Lady Beatrice remarked, after raising her eyes to discover her young companion staring pensively down into the fire. 'I was surprised to discover from Whitton, earlier, that you'd taken your customary walk this morning. It's so uncommonly cold for the start of October. More like midwinter, I should have said.'
Only the fiercest elements had ever dissuaded Ruth from getting away from the Hall for an hour or so. It wasn't that she disliked the place, even though it couldn't be denied that the grey-stone house distinctly lacked any architectural merit to speak of and, worse still, always appeared to be shrouded in an atmosphere of impending doom. At least that was the impression most visitors held when turning into the driveway and catching their first glimpse of the building, surrounded as it was by tall trees that blocked out much of the natural light.
Not that Dunsterford Hall received many visitors, of course, Ruth reminded herself, at least not during the years she had dwelt beneath its slate roof. Its situation on the edge of the moor made it somewhat isolated, of course. Moreover, Lady Beatrice didn't encourage visitors as a rule. Apart from the parson and the doctor, and two or three favoured middle-aged ladies living in the locale, very few people ever called at the house.
And that was precisely why she herself would brave all but the most inclement weather to make an almost daily visit to the small market town situated within a mile or so of the Hall. Apart from her employer, and the servants, of course, she would never see a soul, else!
'You're right. It is unseasonably cold,' Ruth agreed. 'Dan Smethers predicts snow before evening.'
Above the rim of her glass one of Lady Beatrice's brows rose in a decidedly haughty arch. 'And who, pray, is Master Smethers, may I ask?'
Ruth was unequal to suppressing a smile. Without doubt there was a streak of quaint snobbery running through her employer's character, which had a tendency to surface from time to time. 'He's the blacksmith's son, ma'am.'
Lady Beatrice shuddered. 'I do wish, my dear girl, you might lose this propensity of yours for fraternising with tradespersons. It simply isn't the done thing for a young lady of your standing to be seen hobnobbing with those from the lower orders. I shall take leave to inform you that it creates a decidedly odd impression.'
'Ma'am, with respect, I do not think myself above anyone who works hard for a living. In truth, I feel distinctly inferior,' Ruth responded candidly. 'I do little enough for what I receive from you, not to mention enjoying a great many of those privileges reserved for those females much better placed in society,' she added, raising her glass of Madeira as a prime example of precisely what she had meant.
'There is absolutely nothing of which you need feel ashamed about your lineage,' the widow countered. 'Might I remind you that your paternal grandfather was none other than General Sir Mortimer Harrington, and your mother was a Worthing. No hereditary titles, of course, on either side,' she added, the snobbery rearing its head once again. 'Both old and worthy families, none the less. It's a great pity your maternal grandfather had no head for business. He brought his branch of the Worthing family to the brink of ruin with his ill-judged investments. Still, you'd know all about that, I'm sure.'
Shaking her head, Lady Beatrice released her breath in a long sigh. 'During my childhood your mother was one of my dearest friends, simply a lovely girl in both looks and nature. Had she ever been privileged to enjoy a London Season she could have had her pick of all the eligible bachelors and might have achieved a truly splendid alliance.'
Ruth acknowledged the truth of what had been said with a nod of her head. Her mother had, indeed, been quite breathtakingly lovely in her youth; the likeness painted by her own father, which took pride of place in her bedchamber, was testament enough to that.
'I don't recall ever hearing Mama bemoaning the fact that she was denied a Season in town, ma'am. She told me she fell in love with my father on first setting eyes upon him, as he did with her. It was so tragic he died within a year of their marriage. She never so much as looked at another man.'
'She showed sense in that, at least!' Lady Beatrice returned tartly, thereby strengthening Ruth's belief that her employer had scant regard for the male sex as a whole. 'Oh, I don't mean to denigrate your father, my dear,' she continued, appearing slightly shamefaced. 'I hardly knew the man, after all. I met him only twice and must own he was the most handsome fellow I ever clapped eyes on. That said, like most members of his sex, he was utterly selfish and thoroughly feckless. Why, the instant he discovered your mother was with child, he upped and left to go off and enjoy the sights and pleasures of Italy.'
Again she gave vent to a deep sigh. 'I do not deny he was a gifted artistvery gifted, in my humble opinion. Had he lived he might well have been recognised as such, and possibly would have made a real name for himself. And, I suppose, it was a blessing that he did leave your dear mama behind whilst he went abroad to paint, otherwise she might have succumbed to the same contagion that sadly cut short his life. But that doesn't alter the fact that he left your mother virtually destitute. Why, even his own father disowned himcut him off without so much as the proverbial penny, when he refused to engage in what the General considered some useful occupation.'
'True,' Ruth acknowledged. 'But Grandpapa did attempt to make amends after learning of his son's death, even though he had been very much against the marriage in the first place. It wasn't that he disliked Mama. It was simply that he didn't think his son was in a position to support a wife.'
'Well, he wasn't wrong in that! And, to be fair to the General, it was your mother who refused his help. Why, she even flatly refused to come here and live with me when I was eventually in a position to assist you both.'
'Too proud, I suppose,' Ruth suggested, whilst at the same time understanding her mother's reasons for not accepting charity and being determined to support herself and her daughter. 'Besides, as the years passed Mama became very content living at the rectory, caring for Mr Stephens. And he was very good to us in return, as indeed was Grandpapa Harrington. Remember, he did leave me something in his will.'
'A sum that can only be attained upon marriage, or reaching the age of thirty, by which time he possibly considered you would be unlikely ever to find yourself a husband.' Lady Beatrice showed her contempt by waving one hand in a disparaging gesture, before looking thoughtfully across the distance that separated them. 'Well, my dear, I have seen to it that you need never marry. I didn't intend telling you this, at least not for a while, but now the subject has arisen, I think you should know that during my most recent meeting with Pearce, my lawyer, I made fundamental adjustments to my will. Apart from bequests to servants, I named your good self my main beneficiary.'
Ruth was genuinely taken aback to learn this. 'Ma'am, please do not think me ungrateful,' she said, finding her voice at last, 'but you have family. What about your sisters and their children?'
Again Lady Beatrice raised her hand in a dismissive gesture. 'They are comfortably circumstanced. Both my sisters contracted suitable marriages, so their children's futures are assured. Which yours is not. Besides, I have come to think of you as an adopted daughter. The money you receive from me is not a salary, but an allowance. I have never really looked upon you as merely a paid companion.'
'No, I know you haven't.' Ruth could not find it within herself to be angry, or even remotely annoyed. How could she, given the lady's most unexpected generosity? None the less, she couldn't resist adding, 'I shall take leave to tell you, ma'am, that you resorted to very devious means to persuade me to take up residence with you in the first place.'
'Cleverly cunning, I should say,' Lady Beatrice countered, appearing very well pleased with herself. 'I feared you might have inherited your mother's stubborn spirit and would not have agreed to reside here without being gainfully employed. And it must be said,' she added, taking a moment to study her well-kept surroundings, 'the house runs wonderfully smoothly nowadays and has for some few years. I'm well aware the servants all look to you for their orders, for which I'm exceedingly grateful. I've always found trifling domestic concerns quite wearisome. Why, I do not even need to concern myself over menus when we entertain! You see to everything so beautifully.'
Hardly taxing as they entertained so infrequently! Ruth mused, hiding a rueful smile behind the rim of her glass, before the seldom-heard sound of the door knocker being rigorously applied succeeded in capturing her attention. She rose at once to her feet. 'Now, who can that be, I wonder? Do you wish to receive visitors, ma'am?'
'I have little doubt it is the doctor. I shall receive him in here.'
Ruth betrayed her concern in a frown. 'You're not feeling unwell again, I trust?'
The bejewelled hand raising the glass to thin lips checked just for an instant. 'I do not enjoy robust health, Ruth, and haven't for some little time. I made that clear to you from the first,' she at last responded, replacing her glass on the table by her chair. 'If my heart permits, of course, I shall be here to bear you company for a good many years to come. But, who can say? If you would kindly show the doctor in, my dear.'
Ruth obeyed the command, escorting Dr Maddox into the drawing room personally, before taking herself upstairs to her bedchamber, where she discovered her most staunch supporter and ally busily returning newly laundered garments to the wardrobe.
Agatha Whitton turned as she detected the click of the door, her expression revealing anything but the friendly approval she'd always shown to the orphaned girl who had taken up residence in the house nine long years before. 'It's high time, Miss Ruth, you had some new clothes. Why, you've never so much as purchased new ribbon to trim a bonnet since I don't know when!'
As this was no less than the truth, Ruth didn't attempt to argue the point. It wasn't that she couldn't afford material for new dresses, either. Yet, she had always felt that, although not strictly speaking a servant, she ought to dress in accordance with her position in the household. After what she had learned earlier, though
'Yes, you're right, Aggie. We'll go into town this afternoon and visit the haberdashery, if Lady Bea doesn't object.'
'Ha! You'll be lucky, miss! Take a look out of the window!'
Although she had received prior warning, the sight of white flakes fluttering down did take her somewhat by surprise. 'Great heavens! I've never known it come this early, not in all the years I've resided here at the Hall.'
'It's unusual, true enough, but not unknown,' Agatha revealed. 'I remember snow in September when I was a girl.'
Ruth turned away from the window, which offered a commanding view of the moor. She loved to walk out there, admiring the changing seasonal colours across the glorious landscape. There was no denying, though, that it could turn into a bleak, inhospitable place with frightening speed, quite merciless to any unwary traveller.
'I must confess it's a beautiful spot, Aggie. But don't you ever yearn to get away to visit other places in the country?'
'Ah, bless you, miss!' The maid's expression once again betrayed the affection in which she held the younger woman. 'That shows the difference between the likes of you and me. It's in your blood, I suppose. But with me it's different. I never expected to travel anywhere. My family has lived and died here on the edge of the moor for generations past, and most of 'em never journeyed above five miles from the place. If it hadn't been for Mistress's London-born abigail being unable to settle, I'd never have been offered the position of personal maid. You know as well as me, Mistress never travels far herself nowadays. It doesn't worry me none being stuck here all year round. It's all I've ever known, after all. But it's different for you, miss,' she went on, her voice hardening. 'Selfish, I calls it, the way Mistress keeps you tied here, never seeing a soul, hardly. A pretty young woman like yourself ought to have been wedded long afore now.'
'Had Mama been alive I possibly would have been,' Ruth felt obliged to acknowledge, knowing her mother would have somehow ensured that her daughter enjoyed some form of social lifeattending the odd party and local assembly once in a while. Although obliged to earn a living, her mother had always been well respected in the local community. 'Lady Bea, of course, holds rather different views on the subject.'
Ruth wasn't aware she had spoken her last thoughts aloud, until she raised her eyes to discover the uncompromising mask the loyal maid all too often wore when her capacity to understand and sympathise had deserted her entirely.
'Oh, come now, Aggie, be fair!' Ruth urged. 'We might not have been there to witness, firsthand, what occurred, but we both have learned enough to be certain Lady Bea's marriage was anything but blissful. It's hardly surprising she was soured by her experiences, and avoids the company of men whenever possible. The wonder of it all is that she allows even kindly Dr Mad-dox anywhere near her.'
'She does so because she likes to quack herself,' Aggie returned, her compassion evidently very much in abeyance still. 'Between you and me, miss, I think there's a lot less wrong with Mistress than she'd have us all believe!'
Even though she clearly felt more sympathy towards her employer, Ruth was obliged silently to own that Lady Beatrice did call on the services of the good doctor very frequently. Seldom a week went by without seeing his battered gig turning into the driveway. All the same, she refrained from further comment and turned her attention to what was happening beyond the window, hoping that the unseasonable light flurries might remain so and be of short duration.