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Perren Place, Pydar Street, Truro Saturday 30th July 1796, 10:30 a.m.
Above us, the storm clouds seemed to be lifting. 'Father, perhaps you shouldn't delay any longer. Maybe you should go while there's this break in the rain?'
Father frowned, buttoning up his travelling coat. It was black like all his clothes, well cut and made of the finest quality, but plain and unadorned – almost too severe. He seemed more nervous than usual, all too aware of Lady Boswell's growing displeasure.
'No, no ... we must wait and see you safely off.' He reread the letter in his hand. 'Lady Clarissa definitely says the carriage would be here for ten o'clock. They must be delayed on account of the rain.'
Lady Boswell shrugged her elegant shoulders. 'Is Angelica's comfort to be considered and not my own? Dear me, perhaps I was mistaken to accept your kind offer ... perhaps I'd have been better hiring my own post-chaise?' She smiled and I watched Father melt. She had it to perfection: the coy rise to her eyebrow, the sudden pout accentuating her high cheek bones. 'Your horses are impatient to be off ... and we've such a long way to go.'
As if in league, the horses lurched against their harness and Father reopened his fob watch. 'Don't wait, Father. Lady Clarissa's coach can't be much longer – you'll probably pass it on the new bridge.' I caught Lady Boswell's sideways glance, her obvious triumph, and an icy hand clutched my heart.
Silas Lilly was certainly a good catch – in his sixties, he had the energy and enthusiasm of a man twenty years his junior. His greying hair was still abundant, his shoulders straight and strong. He might be a little rough around the edges for the politest society, but that was not going to stop her. Wealth was wealth, and she was clearly prepared to overlook the fact that he had been born the son of a foundry worker. Perhaps she was thinking of teaching him her manners: her ability to walk right past people in need, her inability to think of anyone's comfort except her own.
The luggage was piled high on the roof, secured by a heavy tarpaulin. Almost everyone was going – Father's groom, his valet, his clerk.
'Two months is a long time to be away from home,' I whispered.
He had chosen his strongest mares. The stables were now empty, the grooms taking the remaining horses to our farm on the moors. Molly and Grace were to clean the house from top to bottom and I would spend the rest of the summer with Lady Clarissa and Amelia at Trenwyn House. By the end of two months, Father would have negotiated a new smelting house in South Wales, the horses would be rested, the house sparkling, and Lady Clarissa would have secured my engagement to Lord Entworth.
Only Lady Boswell was beyond my control.
We always attracted onlookers when the carriage left, but today the crowd seemed distant and hostile. They stood watching in silence, hunching together with stooped shoulders. Our house was one of the larger properties on Pydar Street; it had thick cob walls and stone mullion windows, heavy crossbeams and a grand wooden staircase. The thatch had long since been replaced by slates, our five brick chimneys dominating the roofline. Seventy years ago, it was considered the best Truro could offer, but the road was now too busy, our lack of privacy causing Father concern.
A year ago, Father would have left among smiles and waves, small boys chasing after the carriage, but this group stood bedraggled and grey-faced, staring at us from beneath the shelter of an overhanging branch. Their clothes seemed to hang off them, filthy rags wound round their feet in place of shoes.
Molly sighed, shifting her stiff hip.
'Can you find them something to eat?' I asked.
She nodded. 'I'll make them some soup from the leftover mutton.'
Father was helping Lady Boswell into the carriage but at least they were leaving.
'I don't like this one little bit,' I whispered.
'Nor me neither – ye know what they say about two people goin' on a journey ...' She shook a crease from her dress. In thirty years, she had never allowed anyone to see her wearing her apron at the front door, always leaving it on a large hook behind the kitchen door. 'They say her first husband was too old to survive the wedding night ... an' her second husband gambled away all the money. They say she's not a penny to her name.'
Lady Boswell's eyes were accentuated by the royal blue of her velvet travelling jacket. Her hair was the colour of corn, her mouth reddened with pigmented beeswax. The coy smile was back, a slight flutter to her eyelashes. Her hand with its frill of Belgian lace lingered on Father's and my uneasiness spiralled.
'He's only taking her to her sister – then he's going up to Bristol,' I said with more hope than conviction.
Molly's mouth tightened. 'If ye ask me, she looks like the cat that's got the cream ...'
'Oh, don't say that.'
Molly was hiding her dislike of Lady Boswell very well, smiling and nodding to Father as he approached, and I knew to do the same.
Father snapped his watch open and shut. 'I really think we ought to leave, Angelica, though I'd rather see you off first ... the roads are awash and I'd like to get through the turnpike before the next shower. But ... well ... give Lady Clarissa my best regards ... and ... and, well, I'm sure she'll be successful.' He lowered his voice. 'The man's enamoured of you. You've bewitched him – he'll have no other.' He nodded and bowed, my stiff and formal father, never bending to kiss me, nor chucking me under the chin, nor pinching my cheek, nor showing me any love; my prosperous father, already treating me like I was the next Lady Entworth. 'You've packed my address in Swansea?'
I nodded. 'I'll write and tell you everything – Amelia says Lady Clarissa wants to teach me how to play cricket!'
The hard lines round his mouth softened for the first time in seven years, four months and three days. He even seemed to smile. 'Ah, cricket! It's a long time since I've played cricket.' He seemed embarrassed by his sudden outburst, glancing quickly at the carriage. 'We'll be off then. Take care, Angelica. Goodbye, Molly – two months of no cookin' will do you the world of good. Almost a holiday!'
She curtseyed stiffly. 'Ye think cleaning's a holiday, do ye, Mr Lilly? I'll be thin as a rake when ye return!'
Our smiles were as false as the silk flowers on Lady Boswell's overlarge hat. Father and Lady Boswell were in the carriage, the others squeezing next to the driver or balancing among the boxes on the back seat, and with the door firmly shut their sudden intimacy was hard to witness.
'What do they say about two people going on a journey?'
Molly's lips tightened. 'They say they come back married.'
'They better not!' I stared at the receding coach. Father had not looked me in the eyes, neither today nor last Sunday when Lady Boswell had taken my place in church, returning the congregation's astonished stares with her particular look of triumph.
Molly slipped her arm through mine. 'We mustn't blame him, my love. Yer father's a full-blooded man, an' she's very beautiful – though no one can ever come close to yer dearest mamma.'
'Father has ...' I could barely say the words. 'Father has stopped his payments to that woman.'
I knew she would sniff with disapproval. 'Has he now! Well, that's a sure sign – pigs will fly if Lady Boswell don't get her way.' Her voice softened. 'But think on it, my love ... if ye're to marry Lord Entworth, ye father will be all alone an' you'd only fret – whether ye like it or not, someone's got to take yer dear mamma's place.'
'No one can take her place.' My desire to cry was almost overwhelming. Father did not know half of what I did – giving alms on his behalf, generous donations to the hospital board. He had no notion I knew all his business and could forge his signature, no idea I knew where to find the keys to his desk. That was how I knew he kept a fancy woman.
In the sun, the houses of Truro would shine like gold, but today the street looked grey, a steady stream of rainwater overflowing the gutter on the other side. The profusion of carts never lessened; the constant tread of mules on their way to and from the mines. If it was not coal or tin weighing them down, it was furze or manure, the mules thinner now, in need of oats. I held my handkerchief to my nose.
Mamma had loved this house, and I loved it too, but Molly was right: the smell from the tannery was getting worse. The huge pits where they washed the fleeces and scraped the hides lay overflowing and stagnant, the smell so bad it made grown men vomit. Some said the water was tainted, that the putrid overflow was contaminating the leat running alongside our garden. Some said it was the cause of the sickness.
Maybe our house had seen better days, but it was right in the centre of town and I loved living so close to St Mary's church. Everything was within walking distance. The assembly rooms were just round the corner, so too, the new library. Best of all, the wharf was so close. I loved the sound of the seagulls, the smell of the ships, the wind blowing salty air up the river. I loved hearing the merchants haggling on the quayside, watching the huge pulleys lift the cargo from out of a hold. I loved the bustle, the smell of pitch and tar and the songs the sailors sang as they scrubbed the decks.
Father's carriage had been blocking the road. Carts were backed up on both sides, the drivers scowling and shouting as they tried to get past. The market would be in full swing; I had watched the boys drive their geese along the street, heard the bleating of the sheep as they passed beneath my window. Pigs were squealing, hens squawking, the market sellers' cries echoing down the street.
Grace stood behind me, all round-eyed and rosy-cheeked. 'Grace, there's obviously been a misunderstanding. Take the luggage back inside. Leave the trunk in the hall but if you wouldn't mind taking the valises and hatboxes back to my room?'
Molly's face turned ashen. 'But, Angelica ...Lady Clarissa's carriage will be here any moment ...' She knew me too well and her hands flew to her bosom. 'Oh, dear Lord ... what have you done?'
'Lady Clarissa isn't sending her coach until tomorrow,' I whispered. 'Kitty Gilmore's in Truro tonight, but I suspect you already know that. I'm sure that's why Father was so insistent I left today. We're going to the theatre tonight, Molly – both of us. You've got a ticket for the front row, and I'm to meet Theo round the back. I've arranged everything. Nothing can stop us.'
* * *
Black clouds were circling the town, letting no light through the small leaded windows. Molly had her hands full, so I lit two candles, quickly returning to the pine table and the well-thumbed script. 'So Tony Lumpkin tricks Mr Marlow into believing Mr Hardcastle's an innkeeper and Miss Hardcastle's the maid. And she goes along with —'
Molly sniffed. 'I don't like it.' Her voice was clipped, her lips tightly pursed. 'Not one little bit.'
'No, wait ... It's good because Mr Marlow finds talking to high-born ladies very difficult.'
'Ye know very well what I mean. I don't like ye lyin' to yer father – nor ye lyin' to Lady Clarissa.' She chopped an onion, thrusting it into the huge pot. Wiping her eyes on the corner of her apron, she shook her head again. 'It's deceitful an' no good will come of it. Ye'll be seen! Honest to God, ye'll be seen, an' ye father will think me part of the plan. Ye know full well Mr Lilly's rules about the theatre. And as fer ye writin' to Kitty Gilmore – that was the first thing yer father forbid!' She reached for another onion, giving it less mercy.
I knew Molly would not hold out for long. 'I really won't be seen – I'm to go round the back and Theo will let me in. You don't need to come; but I won't abandon Mamma's friends like Father has. They're dead to him – just like Mamma is – dead and dispelled from his thoughts.' I fought the lump in my throat. 'Mrs Bohenna's going to be there, so you must come – Mamma's two best friends – Kitty Gilmore and Mary Bohenna. You haven't seen either since Mamma died ...'
'Oh, my love ... ye know I want to see them.'
'Well, there you are. Anyway, even if Father was here, I'd still go. I'd just climb out of the window.'
Molly placed her palms on the scrubbed table. Her eyes caught mine and she took a deep breath. 'I'm not sayin' I'm not comin' ... course I'm comin' ... ye don't think I'd give up a chance like this, do you? It's just the shock ... an' the worry Lady Clarissa will find out.'
Dearest Molly, always my willing accomplice. 'No one will recognize me and no one will ever know. I've planned everything – I've kept back a charity dress and I've stitched a huge veil on that old bonnet. No one will know it's me – nothing can go wrong.'
Sudden footsteps caught our attention and we turned to see young Grace hurtling down the stairs, almost falling into the kitchen. 'Miss Lilly ... quick ... it's Mr Lilly. Not old Mr Lilly ... but Young Mr Lilly ...'
Molly's hand flew to her chest and I slammed the script shut, pushing it beneath an empty basket. 'Edgar? He can't be ... he's in Oxford.'
'Sir Jacob's come as well. They're just gettin' out ...'
'Not Jacob Boswell. Not him as well!' Molly's face mirrored mine. Mother and son – two prongs in the same fork.CHAPTER 2
Iran along the hall, pulling open the front door. Edgar had stepped from the carriage and was looking up at the house, his fine cut-away jacket and embroidered silk waistcoat the height of fashion, but he looked thin, his face deathly pale beneath his unruly black curls.
'Edgar! What are you doing here?'
I ran down the steps, flinging myself into his arms, horrified to feel his shoulder blades through his jacket. His breath smelled of tobacco, I felt a fine tremor in his hands.
'Father not here?' He seemed strangely nervous, looking over my shoulder at the empty doorway.
'You've just missed him – he left this morning. He's gone — On business.' I stopped myself just in time; Father's plan to build a smelter in South Wales was to be kept secret at all cost.
'Well, never mind, we did our best.' He kept hold of my hands, turning me round. 'Let me look at you – goodness, Angelica, you're every inch the lady. Lady Entworth, if I'm to believe the rumours.'
Perhaps he was ill. Perhaps that was why he had come home from Oxford. Jacob Boswell certainly looked well. He had his mother's extravagant taste in clothes, her thick blonde hair and her aristocratic hauteur. He was laughing, smiling down at me, the Boswell blue eyes meant to be working their magic, yet I would not look at him, acknowledging him only with the briefest of nods.
He shouted to the coachman: 'Take the carriage round the back ...' He was so assured, looking up at the house as if his mother had already sold it. 'There's stabling round the back – plenty of room for the coach.'
His assurance startled me. I had not seen him for nearly a year but, at twenty, he had become a commanding figure, a lion where my brother was a mouse. I was two years their senior, this was still my house, and by the way he was behaving he had to understand that. The wheels of the carriage were muddy, the door newly splattered, yet the horses looked lively and there was no sign of luggage. Edgar saw my frown.
He glanced at Jacob. 'We've left our luggage at the inn ... it's by the river. We arrived late last night and thought it best not to disturb you. We've been given very fine rooms and we thought we'd stay there ...' His laugh had changed. A year ago it would have been a proper laugh but now it was a high-pitched giggle and my heart froze. His cheeks looked gaunt, his heavy black brows too dark for his face. He saw Molly and ran up the steps. 'Molly, lovely to see you. How are you?'
I caught her look of horror. 'Goodness ... Edgar Lilly, ye need fattening up. Has Reverend Johns not been feedin' ye? Come here, my love, yer father's not here so we can have a hug.' She clasped him to her bosom. 'What a shame ye missed him ... he'll be that sorry. Come, let's see what I can find ye to eat ...'
Jacob Boswell was about to follow but I held up my hand and his eyes caught mine. 'Angelica ... your anger's misplaced. It's not of my doing.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Cornish Lady"
Copyright © 2019 Nicola Pryce.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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