First published in 1944, Magdalen King-Hall's Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton is a historical novel set in late-seventeenth-century England. It tells the story of Barbara Skelton, a well-born young woman trapped in a loveless marriage, who finds escape from the tedium of her life by leading a double life as a highway robber. Rich in historical detail and high on melodrama, the novel follows Barbara's infamous career of robbery, adultery and murder, without painting her entirely as a monster. Indeed, the novel's status as a bestseller owes much to King-Hall's sympathetic depiction of the frustrations of domestic life for an ambitious, intelligent woman with no means of self-expression.
|Publisher:||University of Hertfordshire Press|
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About the Author
Rowland Hughes is a Principal Lecturer in English Literature and American Studies at the University of Hertfordshire. He has previously published work on American Literature, and on British and American film. Magdalen King-Hall (1904 – 1971) was an English novelist, journalist and children's fiction writer.
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Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton
By Magdalen King-Hall
University of Hertfordshire PressCopyright © 2016 Rowland Hughes
All rights reserved.
LADY SKELTON AT HOME
'The thin habit of spirits.'
It was beautiful weather that day, August 1911, for Lady Skelton's garden fête at Maryiot Cells in aid of the Umweulu Mission Fund. This was almost to be expected. Lady Skelton was so efficient. One might fancifully imagine that she had ordered the fine day from the Clerk of the Weather at the same time that she had ordered the ices, the marquee and the band.
Few people, in staid fact, came in contact with Lady Skelton without paying her some tribute of intimidation or respect. Her more flippant neighbours had nicknamed her 'Boadicea' and there was something reminiscent of the warrior queen about her monumental but comely person, her imposing nose and firmly modelled chin, and her head of hair which, in her late thirties, was still blonde and abundant, though a trifle faded. But one imagines that Boadicea lacked Lady Skelton's formidable graciousness; the Iceni were probably more fractious than the villagers of Maiden Worthy, the Romans less amenable than Lady Skelton's county neighbours. There was no need for Maud Skelton to career about in a chariot with wildly streaming hair. She had only to smile, to suggest, to command. She got her own way every time.
How fortunate for the Umweulu Mission and the young African convert whose education was the special charge of the parish of Maiden Worthy, that Lady Skelton had decided to take their affairs in hand.
There had been signs of late that the interest of the parishioners in their African protégé was flagging. This was not altogether surprising, as they had been subscribing to his upbringing for some forty years. Presumably he had grown up by now and entered into his labours, other dusky young converts taking his place; but this had never been clearly explained to his benefactors, with the result that he (or rather they) had in the minds of the parishioners assumed the guise of an African Peter Pan, who would have to be sustained to the end of the ages by annual bazaars and parish teas.
The old rector, Mr Chambers, had very wisely cast his worries, spiritual and financial, on this score at Lady Skelton's feet, and she had promised her assistance, a promise of which this garden fête was the fulfilment.
Lady Skelton never did things by halves – she was not built that way – and this fête was one that would be remembered for some time in the neighbourhood. The locals – hot and respectful in their Sunday best – were to be admitted to the park, the yew glades and the kitchen garden for the sum of one shilling. There was to be lemonade, ginger beer and bath buns for their refreshment; for their entertainment, a Punch and Judy show, the band, skittles, bowls, a fortune teller's tent (with the rector's sister Miss Chambers disguised as a gipsy) and a regatta on the river.
The 'county', before driving up the long beech avenue in their carriages and pony traps, or snorting up it in their motor cars, would pay the entrance fee too. There was a kind of piquant absurdity in handing their shillings to old Hatch the lodge keeper, who had so often touched his hat to them when they had arrived for house parties and shoots.
'Good day, me lady. Good day, Sir Thomas.'
'Fine day for her ladyship's fête, Hatch.'
'Yes, indeed, sir.'
But, once arrived at the house, they could have a chat with Arthur and Maud, smoke one of Arthur's excellent cigars, or be taken up to Maud's bedroom to titivate (according to sex), and generally collect themselves before emerging into the hot August sunshine to listen to the Bishop's opening speech.
For them, and for the lesser lights of the county – old, rather mad Miss Moffat, who dressed like a scarecrow and yet maintained an unmistakable air of withered gentility, genial Doctor Wilson and his wife and three bouncing daughters, Colonel and Mrs McRoberts, old Mrs Horley, the late rector's widow, and the like – there was tea and ices and sugared cakes in the marquee, and the run of the rose garden and the picture gallery. Lady Skelton had secured for her fête the presence of two distinguished though very different visitors, the Bishop of Chiltern and Lady Ansborough, Lord Ansborough's young and lovely bride. The Bishop could be relied upon to give a suavely sacerdotal air to any gathering, while Lady Ansborough, however much one might disapprove of her fantastic hats, hobble skirts and general air of frivolity, would certainly give it the stamp of fashion. Thus everything seemed propitious, set on the smooth and successful course that Lady Skelton's projects invariably took. The first intimation that anything out of the usual might disturb events occurred at midday, before the guests had arrived or the fête itself had begun.
Lady Skelton's three children, Gwendolen, Joyce and Hugh, in charge of their governess Miss Parsons, had been dispatched by their mother on one of those errands with which the children of county families are only too familiar.
First they were to go to the farm with a message to the dairy maid that Mrs Wheeler, the cook, would require three more pints of cream. Then, circling round the demesne, they were to call in at the Rectory and remind old Mr Chambers, who was notoriously absent-minded, and at the moment was submerged reams deep in his treatise of Ancient English Chalices, that the fête was to be opened by the Bishop at 2.30 sharp today. Up the beech avenue and home in time for luncheon. Such was the programme outlined for the Skelton children by their indefatigable mother, and which they accepted with dutiful resignation. After all, there was always the chance that Mr Chambers, who was fond of children in an abstracted way, would regale them with petit beurre biscuits or ginger-snaps.
The little party set off across the lawn which sloped down to the smoothly flowing and murmurous river, crossed the narrow stone bridge (Hugh pausing as usual to throw a stone into the water) and straggled along one of the yew glades. Gwendolen and Joyce – thin, lanky children of twelve and ten years old, in their white broderie anglaise frocks, their long legs in black stockings, their long straight hair well brushed under their straw hats trimmed with wreaths of summer flowers. Hugh, aged five and a half, his sturdy little figure in a white piqué suit with a lace collar, a large straw hat set well back on his head, framing his round, obstinate face and kitten-eyes. Miss Parsons, who wore a grey flannel coat and skirt and a straw boater, carried a basket for the cream. Her red tie was fastened with a brooch in the form of a dog's head, and her pince-nez snapped back in a very fascinating way into its case which was pinned on to her bosom. The yew walks, or rides – for they were wide enough to justify the larger name – were a notable feature of the demesne. Six in number and each about a quarter of a mile in length, they converged on to a clearing adorned with a carved urn on a pedestal, the significance of which, if it had any beyond that of mere decoration, was the subject of various local legends but was, in fact, not known to this generation of Skeltons. The high walls of clipped yew were backed by closely growing beech and ash trees, so that even on the brightest day these sylvan paths had a feeling of almost aqueous coolness and remoteness.
The yew glade, facing the bridge, into which the Skelton children and their governess entered, was certainly quite startlingly cool and dim after the August midday glare. Overhead the light filtered uncertainly through the branches; the grass was mossy and damp underfoot.
This much may be conceded, but by no stretch of the imagination could the yew glade have been described as cold on such a very hot day. When, therefore, Hugh began complaining of the cold as soon as they had entered the glade, Miss Parsons, who knew that her youngest charge had an excellent circulation, replied with a kindly but firm, 'Nonsense, dear. It's very pleasant to get out of the sun for a while.'
Hugh's sisters jeered, 'If you're cold, why not run, Podge?' As was to be expected their gibe had the effect of slowing down their young brother's pace almost to a standstill.
Though he could move with lightning speed when engaged on his own errands, Hugh had brought dawdling to a fine art. Adjurations of 'Come on Hugh!' 'Walk up dear.' 'Hurry up slowcoach!' invariably punctuated these schoolroom walks.
It was no surprise, then, to Miss Parsons or the girls to find, on turning round, when they reached the juncture of the glades where the carved urn stood in sunlight, that Hugh was still some way down the shady green tunnel from which they had just emerged. There was nothing odd in this, but there was something odd in his behaviour. Instead of ambling along with his usual bland and determined slowness, he was stopping constantly to turn and stare back down the yew glade, then breaking into a quick jog that seemed to betoken some unusual excitement. When he had reached the end of the glade, he gave one quick look over his shoulder, galloped towards Miss Parsons, his hat falling off as he came, threw his arm round her petersham belt and pressed his chubby face against her stomach.
Hugh was an undemonstrative child as a rule. Miss Parsons, though secretly a little flattered, was surprised.
'Why Hughie, whatever is the matter?'
Hugh, his face flushed, replied shortly, 'Nuffin.'
'Well, then, pick up your hat and come along, or we shall never get all our little jobs done before luncheon.'
It was not till they had left the clearing and had again entered the sombre walls of yew that Hugh announced:
'Somebody's coming after us.'
Miss Parsons glanced back. 'No dear, I don't see anyone.'
'I did,' said Hugh. 'I kept seeing somebody.'
'What sort of a person? A man or a woman?' asked Joyce.
'I don't know,' said Hugh. 'Like both, I fink.'
'Well, there is no one in sight,' said Miss Parsons briskly, peering dubiously across the dazzle of the clearing to the dimness of the glade by which they had come. 'So I expect you were day-dreaming, dear.'
'No, I saw somebody,' Hugh said stoutly. 'It was there and then it wasn't there. It was coming this way. I fink it's still coming.'
Miss Parsons felt a curious sensation in the region of her spine, as though someone had lightly run an icicle down it.
She was, of course, aware of Maryiot Cells' dubious reputation. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew, and most people were eager to tell. But Lady Skelton did not encourage speculation or tittle-tattle on the subject. Paranormal activity had no place in Lady Skelton's well-regulated life. She had made the interior of Maryiot Cells almost cheerful with chintzes and hot-house flowers and signed photographs of royalty in silver frames.
Unaccountable noises were firmly attributed to mice and hot-water pipes. Nervous young maidservants were severely snubbed by their seniors when they tried to recount creepy experiences. One or two who would not be silenced (such as the Irish scullery maid who insisted that she heard 'a smart foot-step travelling through the house') were given a month's wages and dismissed. Yes, it must be admitted that Lady Skelton had the supernatural well in hand.
Miss Parsons knew that it would be as much as her post was worth to speak of such things to her charges. She saw that the two girls were staring at their little brother with eyes widened by curiosity. Questions that had better remain unasked trembled on their parted lips.
Miss Parsons said resolutely, and with a touch of severity, 'Now dear, no more of that. You must not say things that are not true, even in fun.'
This was unfair, and Miss Parsons knew it. Hugh, who accepted the aspersion on his probity with the extraordinary resignation of childhood, was a singularly truthful and rather unimaginative child. But the situation had to be reined in somehow.
Miss Parsons added cheerily, 'Let's see which of us can reach the end of the glade first. Walking as fast as we like, but no running.'
No, it would never do to run. That would be too suggestive of panic, of flight from the indescribable something that Hugh's infant eyes had discerned moving along in the shades behind them.
Placing a hand behind Hugh's lace collar, she propelled him vigorously forward. It would never do if he turned round and began staring again. Miss Parsons had not realised before quite how still and dim it was in these yew glades. Six of them. Too many, too long, and too old. It occurred to her that there was something slightly morbid in an enthusiasm for topiary-work indulged in to excess. It was quite a relief to emerge again into the hot sunshine. It greeted them like a friendly tap on the face.
Miss Parsons felt Hugh's forehead. It was cool. She thought, 'Perhaps a little dose at bedtime.'
* * *
It was as gratifying to Lady Skelton, as it would have been bewildering to the young African at Umweulu, for whose benefit this fête at Maryiot Cells had been organised, to see the substantial crowd that had assembled on the lawn to listen to the Bishop's opening speech.
The setting was ideal – the sombre but picturesque background of the old house itself with its bayed windows, its turrets and its tall multitudinous chimneys; the brightly filled flower beds on the terrace, shaped in crescents and stars like floral jewels; the shady, well-kept lawn sloping down at the side and back of the house to the glossy, softly singing river; the old stone bridge and, across the bridge, the yew glades.
On the lawn to the side of the house, just below the terrace, a small platform had been erected, draped in red bunting and a rather puzzling collection of national flags, for the accommodation of the Bishop and his wife, the rector Mr Chambers, Sir Arthur and Lady Skelton, Lady Ansborough and a few other notables. A tumbler and a carafe of water on the table suggested that some test of endurance on the part of both the speaker and the audience might be looked for.
There were several rows of chairs in front of the platform for those who, without being immediately concerned in the opening ceremony, were too important or too elderly to stand. The rest of the audience, county, country town and village, clustered round the platform and flowed out across the lawn.
On all sides there were parasols, large hats with flowers and feathers, white spotted veils, top hats, grey homburg hats, straw boaters and white panamas, black Sunday suits, girls in muslin frocks, boys in knickerbockers, and old ladies defying the heat in feather boas.
The buzzing voice of the crowd, its aimless, fluid movement, was stilled in sudden expectancy as Lady Skelton sailed on to the platform in full heliotrope rig, followed by the Bishop of Chiltern and the other guests.
With a surprising air of decision the rector, vague old Mr Chambers, stepped forward and, imposing silence with a raised hand, invoked a blessing on the proceedings, the Bishop listening with bent head and closed eyes and the air of paying due tribute to spiritual etiquette.
Mr Chambers's moment was soon over. Lady Skelton swam to the fore and, surveying friends, acquaintances, tenants and strangers with a gracious smile, proceeded to address them in the masterful tones of one who had spoken at countless bazaars, parish teas and committee meetings.
It was so delightful, she said, to see so many happy faces here today, and to feel that so many friends, known and unknown, had rallied loyally round her to make this fête a real success. They all knew that the Umweulu Mission was Maiden Worthy's own special mission. It was very wonderful to feel that for forty years the good, dear people of Maiden Worthy parish (she paused) . ... Nor must she forget the kind parishioners of Little Worthy who, in conjunction with their big sister parish, also contributed towards the Umweulu Fund. Well, it was very wonderful and inspiring to feel that for forty years they had been supporting this splendid work and helping to maintain and educate a young African lad of the Umweulu tribe. How they all wished that they could be transported to Umweulu and see for themselves the good work going on amid the dense African jungle with its lions and crocodiles and other marvels of nature. She was sure that then they would realise what a really worthwhile work it was. As it was they must be content with Maryiot Cells, and the very warm welcome – not quite tropical, but very warm for all that! (Laughter) – which she and Sir Arthur extended to them one and all. Now she knew that they had not come here to listen to her (polite murmurs of dissent from those on and around the platform) so she would, without further ado, invite his Grace, the Lord Bishop of Chiltern, to address them.
The applause which greeted the close of her speech drowned a savage growl from Colonel McRoberts, 'Confounded nonsense, in my opinion, all this business of trying to turn niggers into Christians. All that happens is that they drink your whisky and steal your best pair of riding boots like that rascal of a Ujojo boy that I had out in Kulanga in '82.'
Excerpted from Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall. Copyright © 2016 Rowland Hughes. Excerpted by permission of University of Hertfordshire Press.
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Table of Contents
Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton,
Part I THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY,
1 Lady Skelton at Home,
2 The Reticence of Miss Isabella Skelton,
3 Lady Sophia Met Her Match,
Part II THE STORY OF BARBARA SKELTON,
1 The Wedding,
2 Midday at Maryiot Cells,
3 Midnight on Watling Street,
4 First Kill,
5 The Lady and the Steward,
6 At the Sign of the Golden Glove,
7 Dark Designments,
8 The Knot is Broken,
9 The Heavy Hill,
10 Summer's Date,
11 Lovers' Meeting,
12 Cover Her Face ,