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Dorothy Eden (1912–1982) was the internationally acclaimed author of more than forty bestselling gothic, romantic suspense, and historical novels. Born in New Zealand, where she attended school and worked as a legal secretary, she moved to London in 1954 and continued to write prolifically. Eden’s novels are known for their suspenseful, spellbinding plots, finely drawn characters, authentic historical detail, and often a hint of spookiness. Her novel of pioneer life in Australia, The Vines of Yarrabee, spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list. Her gothic historical novels Ravenscroft, Darkwater, and Winterwood are considered by critics and readers alike to be classics of the genre.
So here she was, in the autumn of 1881, Beatrice Florence Bonnington, aged twenty-four years, being dressed for her wedding.
The three women revolving round her, Mamma, Miss Brown from Ladies' Fashions in Papa's shop, and Hawkins, her maid, all wanted to be responsible for making her a beautiful bride.
The material on which they had to work was not highly promising. Beatrice had no illusions about her looks. She was of short stature and cosily plump. Because she held her head high to make herself taller she gave an impression of arrogance of which she had none at all. She had grey eyes and the rosy complexion of a country girl although she had always lived in the city. Her fair hair was plentiful, but difficult to manage, her smile warm, but she had too serious a nature to smile a great deal.
Now, dressed in the over-elaborate expensive wedding dress which Miss Brown had chosen for her, she looked stiff and composed, giving no outward sign of her turbulent thoughts, her mixture of uneasiness and elation, happiness, apprehension and downright disbelief. For little Beatrice Bonnington who, with her self-confessed desire to be a shopkeeper like her father, and with no looks to speak of, had surely been destined to be an old maid, was marrying the catch of the season.
No one, of course, was deceived about romance, not even the bride herself. She had worked towards this day as single-mindedly and coolly as Papa would have approached an important business transaction.
She had always known about business methods, for, from a tender age, she had been commanded by Papa to visit his grand new shop in the Edgware Road, scarcely a stone's throw from Marble Arch and the hurly burly of Oxford Street. Bonnington's Emporium.
Dressed in a fur-trimmed bonnet, and with a matching fur muff, her head just level with the polished mahogany counters, she remembered following Mamma down the narrow aisles, smugly aware of the respectful bobs from the black-garbed shop assistants. The splendid head floor walker himself led them to their destination, the impressive gilt cage of the cash desk where Papa was to be found surveying his empire.
These excursions had been all the more heady because they gave Beatrice a sense of importance that was lacking in every other part of her life. At home she was expected to trot obediently after her mother's rustling skirts, or to submit meekly to her governess's orders. She was considered to be a plain and rather dull child, and nobody ever bothered to discover what her feelings were.
But in Papa's shop which had grown so impressively from the little haberdashery he had inherited from his father, she was Miss Beatrice, a personage, the Crown Princess—since to Papa's everlasting disappointment there was no Crown Prince.
Apart from the personal satisfaction this adulation gave her, Beatrice was wholly delighted by the shop itself. It was an Aladdin's Cave mesmerising her. The cascades of lace and French ribbons, the enormous ostrich feather fans, the flower-trimmed bonnets like a lush permanently blooming garden, the cut-glass scent bottles, the rows of elegant shiny buttoned boots, the ruffled petticoats and shifts, and the cool gauzy materials of the Indian room, not to mention the rich satins, brocades, and velvets—this was heaven to a child with a lively imagination and a hankering for beauty.
On her promenade with Mamma the pause to speak to Papa was necessarily brief, for he was always much too busy to talk to people whom he could see at home every morning and evening. The day at the shop belonged to that sacred person, the customer.
When he wasn't counting the sovereigns which he tipped out of the little carriers that came whirring along on overhead wires, or looking with keen eyes at his domain, he was in his office surrounded by ledgers and stock books, or making a personal tour of every department, appearing silently behind his counter assistants, listening critically to their salesmanship, enjoying the way they nearly jumped out of their skins when they became aware of his presence. He was an awe-inspiring figure to them. That was how he was so successful, Mamma said. He kept everyone on tenterhooks.
The small Beatrice, no higher than the shop counters, didn't know what tenterhooks were. She only knew that she, personally, wasn't afraid of Papa. He was an imposing figure with his snapping black eyes and black moustache, and he never made a secret of his disappointment that she wasn't a boy, but he could be jolly in the brief times that he put business out of his mind. She loved him because there was no one else in her life to love. Mamma, who changed her dress at least six times a day, and spent an inordinate amount of time at her mirror, was really only a body, dressed in expensive clothes.
By the time that she was ten years old, Beatrice had developed a canny sense about money, perhaps because Mamma spent it like water. When the enlarged Bonnington's proved to be a great success Papa was at last persuaded to build a house in a fashionable part of Hampstead, near the Heath. This new house was quite a change from the small old-fashioned one in which they had previously lived, (in a common street in Kentish Town). Mamma was entitled to put on airs as she watched the dark brown carpets laid and the dark brown curtains hung. This was such a smart and fashionable colour, and so practical, too, considering the constant smoke from coal fires, and those dirty yellow fogs in winter. The heavy oak furniture Mamma had persuaded Papa to buy looked very grand, as did the ornate Victorian silver, candlesticks, chafing dishes, trays, tea-sets. An extra servant had to be engaged to clean it all, and to polish the long mahogany table after a dinner party. Mamma was beginning to fancy herself as a hostess. It was important that people should come to the house, since Beatrice was growing up, and must begin making friends. The first step towards this, of course, was to find her the kind of school where she would make the most suitable friends. After all, they were a prosperous family now. If Papa's ambitions were realised, they would be rich.
So, when she was twelve years old, Beatrice, rescued from the clutches of a succession of patronising governesses, found herself less happy at the snobbish Dame School Mamma eventually found.
She had always been a lonely child, introverted and shy, except with people whom she liked. She had no friends of her own age. Her favourite outings were still those made to Papa's shop in the busy heart of London, where shoppers jostled on the pavements and stared at window displays, and the road, muddy in winter and chokingly dusty in summer, was a tangle of horse buses, carriages, tradesmen's vans, wheelbarrows, and street vendors with their moveable stalls.
She was playing a part, of course, but it was a much happier part than that forced on her at the horrid Dame School where she was supposed to make the right friends and get herself invited to the important houses on the Heath. Not houses that were wealthier than her own, but older, mellowed, part of history and inhabited by gracious cultured people.
Mamma, once a lady's maid (though this was never mentioned nowadays) had acquired, by working in them, a taste for such establishments and was overambitious for her only child.
However, even at the Miss Faulkners' school, Beatrice contrived to go her solitary way, although learning to play the piano, to sing in an agonised gruff voice, to dance the waltz and polka, to identify wild flowers and to paint water colours, to speak French and German and to make polite conversation at a dinner table.
All this, she privately thought, was a complete waste of time, since what she needed was a practical education to fit her for taking over Bonnington's one day. There was nothing she wanted to do more, except marry for love. Since the latter did not seem probable—she was absolutely realistic about herself, and knew that no young man was going to fall passionately in love with a plain girl with a head for figures—she didn't allow herself to dwell too much on the thought. Her mother, of course, insisted relentlessly that there was only one aim for a girl and that was marriage. Papa agreed, but eyed his quiet unspectacular daughter thoughtfully.
Lately she had been making some deuced good suggestions about the shop (opening the Indian room, for instance, so that trousseaux could be provided for the many young women going to India to marry or to seek husbands).
He had come to the conclusion that little Bea had an excellent practical brain, almost a masculine one, and it would be rather wasted on a husband and a purely domestic life. However, the girl's mother was right. She must marry. A woman without a husband was a poor half-thing. Like Miss Brown with her drainpipe figure in Ladies' Fashions.
It was possible, of course, that, once married, Bea might come into the shop. That thought Joshua Bonnington kept secret. Which was a pity for Beatrice. It would have improved her spirits had she known it.
It seemed, as it happened, that Mamma had been laying the right foundations for Beatrice's future, for when she was fifteen she was invited to one of the grandest houses on the Heath. Overton House, a small but beautiful Queen Anne house built by Captain Rufus Overton (who had made a fortune trading in the China seas) and subsequently occupied by his descendants, all of whom had followed distinguished careers in the army and the navy.
Beatrice, on her way home from school, had often stood at the gates of Overton House and looked up the steps to the white doorway, the warm red-brick walls. She had seen the daughter of the house, Caroline Overton, pretty, delicate, insufferably haughty, whisked home by carriage, or escorted on foot by a maid, and had felt like the poor people in the Edgware Road, pressing their noses against Papa's shop windows and vainly longing for what was within. Caroline, although her classmate, scarcely ever deigned to speak to her, since Caroline was a snob of the first water and Beatrice belonged to that unmentionable class, trade.
Beatrice actually didn't care a pinch of snuff about Caroline, but Overton House exercised a fascinated spell over her. It glowed beyond the lime trees, a warm and gentle fire. She had a feeling for beauty and harmonious lines that neither her mother nor her father understood. Their own house, so solid and prosperous, filled her with gloom. Since babyhood she could remember nothing but dark walls, curtains drawn against the sunlight, claustrophobic crowded interiors.
The colour and opulence of certain departments in Bonnington's gave her this same feeling of fulfilment, but there the goods were constantly sold. The treasures of Overton House were permanent. If only she could get inside she thought that she would be bathed in light and beneficence.
It seemed too good to be true when the opportunity actually occurred.
It was Caroline Overton's fifteenth birthday and she had made the request that her whole class at school be asked to her party. It was a well-known fact that Miss Caroline's requests were never refused because she was so delicate.
So twenty girls (among them Beatrice Bonnington, achieving her dream at last) played childish games like Drop the Handkerchief and Follow my Leader in the sunny walled garden, and later had tea in the music room, a long room which ran the length of the house, and was also used as a ballroom. It was light and sunny, with french windows opening on to a stone-flagged terrace. It pleased Beatrice very much. But there were other more beautiful rooms, she had heard, including the yellow drawing room, and the famous mirror room where it was said some notable courtships had taken place.
Beatrice, tongue-tied but with her watchful eyes missing nothing, sat at the tea table being waited on by two maids in immaculately starched caps and aprons, while Caroline at the head of the table, gave orders with her nauseating airs and graces.
Later, Caroline's mother, a small dainty woman with a pretty pink and white face, like painted china, came in to meet her daughter's guests, and apologised for her husband not making an appearance. He was a retired General, a good deal older than his wife, who now suffered indifferent health. His temper was precarious, and Mrs Overton asked anxiously that there might not be too much noise, otherwise Papa would begin thumping with his stick.
Caroline's health had been adversely affected by living in the extreme heat of Delhi and Cawnpore as a child. Nor was her younger brother, the heir to this lovely house, as strong as could have been wished. It really looked as if the first winds of winter could blow the entire Overton family away, like leaves. Beatrice had seen the large vault in the churchyard just across the road from Overton House, which held various Overton remains. All of the family, including those here today, she thought morbidly, would eventually be neatly put away like the bales of goods kept on shelves in the basement at Papa's shop.
The church itself, was full of Overton memorials. The precise white slabs shone out from the spider-grey walls.
Colonel Rufus Edwin Overton, killed in action while storming the Heights of Abraham ... Midshipman Charles Edwin Overton died of wounds received at the Battle of Trafalgar ... William Rufus Overton died of fever in Calcutta in the service of the East India Company ... Lieutenant Colonel Charles Henry Overton cruelly murdered by mutinous Sikhs in Delhi ... Major William Edwin Overton, seized and killed by brigands while travelling in Afghanistan ...
And the women, the wives of these loyal and adventurous men, Caroline Sarah, sorrowing widow of Charles Henry Overton ... Mary Susan, widow of Rufus Edwin Overton and adored mother of ten children ... Elizabeth, dearly loved wife of William Edwin Overton, died in childbirth leaving an only son William Rufus Charles who has erected this memorial to his parents ...
The only son referred to in this memorial was, Beatrice knew, Caroline's father, General Overton, covered in honours for his outstanding services to his Queen and country in the Crimea, Afghanistan, the Punjab, Zululand, and now somewhere upstairs listening testily to the shrieks and giggles of twenty young ladies in their best party dresses.
Like the family vault, this house with its arched and pedimented doorways, its wonderful flying staircase, its smell of beeswax and pot-pourri, was much more solid and permanent than its inmates had ever been. Beatrice responded strongly and intensely to it. Not long ago her father had told her that he was getting rich, rich enough to buy her anything she wanted. But he had been thinking in terms of clothes and jewellery, a new carriage and a pair of greys.
If she had said she wanted none of these things, but only to own a house like Overton House, he would have given his great roar of laughter. Such houses couldn't be bought, even by self-made millionaires. They had to be married into. And it was scarcely within the realms of even her mother's most ambitious dreams that Beatrice should become an Overton wife and bear Overton children (eventually to be tidied away into that solid everlasting vault).
Nevertheless, Beatrice had a stubborn nature. During that birthday tea, where she felt like a nervous little goldfish in polar waters, she toyed with the thought of living in this charming house. That desire might have to remain a fantasy, but at least, while she was here, she was determined to see more of the house.
When tea was over and Caroline asked her guests to come into the garden again, Beatrice deliberately lingered behind. Presently, unnoticed, she slipped away and ran up the lovely flying staircase that curved into a dim passageway overhead.
If she encountered anyone, she would say she was looking for the bathroom.
The stairs were covered with a leaf-green carpet that extended along the landing at the top. It was like walking on a well-cut lawn. Portraits of dead and gone Overtons dressed in all the splendour of military and naval uniforms, hung over the staircase, the walls were papered in a fascinating design of leaves and branches, the same bosky green as the carpet. The sun shining through the window at the far end of the passage was like light filtering into a forest.
All the doors were closed. What rooms did they conceal? The yellow drawing room would be on the ground floor, but one of these closed doors might lead into the mirror room or the china room. Her heart beating rather quickly at her temerity, Beatrice made a wild guess and opened the door on her right.
Excerpted from Speak to Me of Love by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1972 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 19, 2014
Posted November 19, 2014