Read an Excerpt
December 4th 1814
The inhabitants of Winterbourne St Swithin prided themselves upon their village. It was no mere rural backwater, no sleepy hamlet full of rustics and yeomen whose social hierarchy was topped off by a red-faced squire and whose amenities consisted of the church and a tavern or two.
Theirs, they boasted, was a bustling community straddling the post road to Aylesbury with a glimpse over the meadows to the waters of the new canal ordered by the crazy old Duke of Bridgewater, up in his mansion on the Chiltern crest. There was the Bird in Hand, a large coaching inn, to serve the stage and the mail and the carriages of the gentry going to and from London and Oxford. There was the fine Winterbourne Hall with the Nugents to preside over local society and half a dozen gentry houses in the vicinity to fill the pews of the grey stone church with the living, and the marble monuments with the dead.
And there was even a shop, a superior emporium selling haberdashery and lengths of cloth, the London and Oxford papers a day late and snuff, tea and Hungary water.
The life of the village centred around the church, the Bird in Hand and the Green, the grassy heart of the community with its duck pond, decaying stocks, venerable oak tree and ring of fine houses and half-timbered cottages.
On a raw, damp Thursday morning three respectable housewives made their way around the Green, deep in discussion of new and fascinating intelligence. It seemed there was no doubt that the gentleman who had taken the Old Manor— the one architectural blot upon the village centre—was none other than an earl.
"Or, as it might be, a duke,'Mrs Thorne hazarded hopefully, lifting her skirts to negotiate a puddle. "Whichever, "tis a fine thing for Winterbourne. He'll bring down all his society friends, you mark my words, and he'll be hiring on staff and wanting eggs and milk and bacon."
"If he wanted his society friends, what's he doing in Winterbourne in December?" her bosom enemy Widow Clare enquired tartly. "The nobs are all off visiting, or at their big country houses. What's an earl doing hiring that old barn of a place? Outrunning his creditors, that's what. I tell you, ladies, it'll be cash on the nail for any eggs that household wants to buy from my hens!"
"Oh, and nobody's seen him,'Mrs Johnson squeaked, her eyes popping at the thought of an earl in the village, even one fallen upon hard times. "I've seen his butler, mind—I thought it was his lordship himself for a minute, so grand and starched up he was—talking to poor Bill Willett. "I will trouble you, my man," he said, all frosty-like, "I will trouble you to remember that only the freshest milk and cream is fit for his lordship's table and that cream is fit only for the cat." And have you seen the horses?"
The other ladies nodded. Not only had they seen them arrive three days ago but had been bored to death at dinner by their husbands and sons carrying on about the splendour of his lordship's stable. But, to everyone's chagrin, it seemed that his lordship had driven himself down from London and had managed to arrive at the one moment of the day when not a single curious eye was focused on the Green, but instead was watching the spectacle of the Mail sweeping through.
"He'll have to come out sooner or later," Mrs Thorne prophesied comfortably. "Even if the bailiffs are after him."
She broke off as a gig turned off the main road and was driven at a spanking pace around the far side of the Green. It was a modest but somewhat rakish vehicle—the sort that a sporting curate might favour, perhaps—drawn by a neat Welsh cob.
The ladies stared as best they could from the shelter of bonnets and hoods as the gig turned through the gates of the pretty little house that faced the red brick façade of the Old Manor.
"Well, did you see that?" the Widow demanded unnecessarily. "That was driven by a female!"
"With a groom by her side," Mrs Thorne added. "And she's gone into the Moon House."
"Then the rumours are true,'Mrs Johnson concluded, quite unashamedly craning her neck now. But the vehicle and its occupants had vanished through the gate posts and the house had resumed its air of empty neglect. "Sir Edward did sell it before he died. But who is she?"
Fascinated, the three continued on their way to the end of the Green, but the high wall of the Old Manor defeated their avid stares on one side and the dirt-streaked, empty windows of the opposite house stared blankly back at them from the other.
With infinite slowness, another ivy tendril curled out to cover even deeper the carved crescent moon that crowned the front door of the little house, a single star caught in its horns.
In the muddy yard behind the house, Miss Lattimer accepted the hand her groom held out and hopped neatly down from the gig, quite oblivious to the puddles. Pushing back her veil with a careless hand she stared around her with proprietary interest. "Here we are, Jethro. The Moon House!" It was hard to keep a grin of pure pleasure from her face despite the air of neglect the yard radiated. A home again. Her home and a new start.
The groom, a gangling, solemn-faced youth not much above sixteen, glanced dismissively around and observed, "So we are, Miss Hester. And your hair's coming down at the back again."
"Oh, bother." Hester put up her hands and made an ineffectual attempt to push the brown curls back into their confining net. "Never mind, there's no one here to observe it. Now, Jethro, you see to stabling Hector and have a look at the rooms over the stable. I understand from the agent they are suitable and should have a bed and other furniture but I am certain they'll need a good clean before you sleep there, and certainly a fire... What is it?"
"Hector, Miss Hester?" 'The cob. I thought I had better give him a name and Hector seems appropriate. It is a good name, do you not think?" She regarded the animal hopefully: she had never had to buy a horse before, but she felt confident that she had made a good choice two days ago.
The boy's solemn face grew longer behind its mask of freckles and the occasional pimple. "I could not say, Miss Hester."
Hester smiled suddenly, a flashing smile that gave her an unexpected air of pure mischief. "Now do not practise your butler's voice out here, Jethro! In the house you can buttle as much as you like—when you are not being boot boy, kitchen hand and footman. Out here you are the groom and the gardener—if it ever stops drizzling. We are all going to have to learn to be many things—I, for example, am about to go inside and become the housekeeper."
She reached into the back of the gig and lifted out a small portmanteau, her reticule and an umbrella, adding as she turned away, "And cook too, unless a miracle occurs and Miss Prudhome and Susan arrive in time before dinner."
"I doubt it, Miss Hester," Jethro observed gloomily, beginning to unbuckle the cob's harness and lead it out of the shafts. "I'll bring the hampers in a minute and get the range going."
Hester doubted it too. Her companion suffered so much from motion sickness that the chaise could move only at the slowest speed the postilion could be held to; goodness knew when she, Susan and the light luggage would arrive. Hester would doubtless have to see to dinner tonight as well as making up the beds and fires and chasing the worst of the spiders out.
But these lowering considerations vanished as she drew the large key from her reticule and set open the back door of the Moon House. Hester stepped slowly over the threshold into a dim, chill room, a little knot of anticipation and excitement in her stomach as she relished the moment. The air was still, redolent of dust, of old ashes and, regrettably, of mice. Then, as she stood there letting her eyes adjust to the shadows, it seemed as though a faint zephyr of a warm breeze filled the space whispering of laughter, roses, happiness—and as suddenly was gone.
Hester smiled at her own fancy; it seemed that pure happiness could take tangible form. Oh, yes, this was a happy house—she had known that from just a few minutes' observation over a year ago. She had stood at the gate, staring entranced at the overgrown rose-filled garden, the ivy-hung façade, the felicitous arrangement of doors and windows, the ineffable, indescribable air of charm that hung over the neglected little house. And then she had hurried back over the Green to the Bird in Hand and to John, her friend and protector, who was waiting patiently in the private parlour while she shook the stiffness from her limbs.
He should never have undertaken that journey to Oxford; it marked the sharp deterioration in his condition, which had led to its inevitable end three months ago. They had only been together eighteen months, yet she still ached for his company, for their friendship and intimacy. If he had not protected her, in the face of scandal and family opposition, goodness knows what would have become of her after her father's death.
Hester shook herself briskly. John had known how short a time he had—better to do what he wanted than to purchase a few weeks at the expense of inaction and boredom. That part of her life was over now and she must learn not to brood upon memories and to stand upon her own two feet. She had learned from it and it had left her a legacy in both experience and scandal, as well as just enough money for genteel independence.
She had never been inside the mysteriously named Moon House, never seen it again after that one brief encounter. All her lengthy negotiations had been undertaken by an agent and she had simply placed her trust in his diligence and her own instinct. Now she pushed the door shut behind her and saw she was in the kitchen. Well, that was just as described— equipped with an old range and pine table, some chairs and dressers, the dulled glint of unpolished copper catching the light from the cobwebbed window. The next job for Jethro would be trying to light the range, if the chimney could be persuaded to draw. Hester smiled wryly: she was beginning to suspect they might have to take themselves over to the Bird in Hand for dinner.
Hester dumped the portmanteau and umbrella unceremoniously on the table, pulled off her bonnet with scant regard for the further chaos it wrought with her hair and tossed her pelisse on the chair. A rummage in the portmanteau produced a shawl, which she tied around her shoulders, a voluminous apron, which she struggled into, and a handful of soft rags ideal for dusting or giving spiders the rightabout.
Setting herself to explore, she emerged through a green baize-covered door into an alcove formed by the gracious upwards sweep of the staircase—somewhat marred now by dangling cobwebs. Hester swiped at them, sneezed, rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, transferring a large smudge on to nose-tip and cheek in the process, and stepped out into the hall.
She was unaware of speaking aloud, only conscious of the airy proportions, the elegant staircase, the quality of the cold light filtering through the fanlight over the door, despite the curtain of ivy that hung across it.
The walls were dingy with dust, marked here and there with ghostly oblongs where pictures or mirrors had once hung. The marble floor, chequered in an unusual grey and white, was grimy—but she could see none of the faults. The feeling of welcome and of belonging swept over her again and Hester walked slowly down the hall, then turned to lean back against the deep-cut panels of the front door.
"This is mine," she said aloud, her tone wondering, then more strongly, "Mine."
The blow on the door behind her was so unexpected, so abrupt, it sounded like thunder. With a shriek Hester leapt away and turned gasping to face it. Effortfully she dragged a breath up from the depths and clasped her trembling hands together while she composed herself. Someone had knocked on the door, that was all. If she had not been mooning like an idiot instead of doing some useful dusting or lighting a fire, it would have sounded perfectly normal.
The knocker fell again. Hester scrabbled in her pocket where she had transferred the keys and found the largest. This must be for the front door. She turned it, struggled for a moment with the bolts and finally dragged the door open.