Chapter 5 - Lakeside!
Anthea peered out of the coach window into the soft twilight gloom. The vehicle had just turned off the main road – the change in road noise rousing her from a restless sleep – and she blinked trying to clear the dreams from her eyes. Ahead was a glow of lights. A house, Anthea decided. Had they finally arrived?
Beside her, Lily stirred and yawned. “Where are we?”
“I think we are on the road to Lakeside,” Anthea said.
Even as she said it, they passed through a large stone archway, the iron gates standing open. The coach crunched along a gravel driveway, rows of trees on either side creating an impressive approach to the grand house set at the end. Every window seemed to blaze with light, the front steps and portico lit by flaming torches.
The driver pulled up the horses with a sharp call, the coach drawing to a stop in front of the sweeping steps. Sudden quiet filled the cabin.
“Oh my,” Lily breathed, staring up at the colonnaded frontage of the house. The main building was flanked by two wings and beyond that were silhouettes of stables and outbuildings. “It is so big.”
Noise erupted. The crunch of feet running on gravel, orders for trunks to be delivered, horses to be driven out back. The coach door opened. A footman, in rich red livery, stepped back, waiting for them to alight.
Anthea hesitated. Somewhere in that house was Commander Hayden. She shook off her trepidation and, gathering her reticule, rose stiffly from her seat. Every bone felt bruised and tight from the jolting journey. She gratefully took the footman’s offered hand – he had a reassuringly strong grip, and a handsome face – and stepped down from the carriage. Lily followed, almost on top of Anthea’s heels. Grooms and footmen were already at work unloading the luggage from the roof and tending the horses.
A man and a woman stood at the double doorway at the top of the stone steps, their dark clothes plain but well fitted. Butler and housekeeper, Anthea guessed. She glanced back at Lily who was still gaping up at the house.
“A rather nice little cottage, isn’t it?” she said softly and winked. She had already witnessed the luxurious lifestyle of Lord and Lady Rydges at the ball in their London Townhouse three years ago. The size of their country estate was no surprise, at all.
Lily smiled nervously. Anthea touched her sister’s shoulder then, forcing some smooth elegance into her stiff body, climbed the stairs. Lily followed, still staying close.
As they approached the couple, the man bowed.
“Good evening Miss Stanwell,” he said to Anthea. Then another bow to Lily. “Miss Stanwell. Welcome to Lakeside. I am Phillips, butler to Lord Rydges. This is Mrs Harcourt, housekeeper.” The woman beside him bobbed a curtsey. “Mrs Harcourt will take you to your rooms to refresh yourselves. The dinner call will be in an hour. Lord and Lady Rydges will be pleased to receive you in the drawing room at that time.”
“Thank you,” Anthea said.
Delivered and duly despatched, she thought as she and Lily followed the angular Mrs Harcourt into the house. A massive marble staircase and two chandeliers dominated the entrance hallway. Anthea looked up past the shimmering crystal into the domed ceiling. It was so high that the candlelight did not penetrate its dark upper reaches.
They were led up the grand stairs and then to the right and up another, smaller staircase. Portraits and landscapes in gilt frames covered the walls. They trod in silence along a passageway – hung with more portraits – and then turned left into another, narrow corridor. Mrs Harcourt stopped in front of a thick wooden doorway.
“We are in the South Wing. This is your room, Miss Stanwell.” She opened the door then stepped back.
Even with her knowledge of the Rydges’ lifestyle, Anthea had to stifle a gasp as she entered. The generous groupings of candles in four wall sconces and a large candelabra made every corner of the elegant chamber visible. It was easily twice the size of the room that Anthea and Lily shared at home. A large bed with a silk velvet canopy took up most of the far wall, her trunk already set at the end of it. A fireplace – blaze already burning in the grate – was set under a graceful marble mantel. The furniture was dark and highly polished: a large clothes press along one wall, a small writing table with a chair and writing box, and near the window, a dressing table stood beside a handsomely carved wash-basin stand. A young maid was pouring hot water into the porcelain basin, her lip caught between her teeth in concentration. She quickly finished, put down the silver ewer and curtsied.
“This is Sally,” Mrs Harcourt said, coming up behind Anthea. “She will be looking after your needs during your stay. I have placed some wine and biscuits on the table for your refreshment.” An inclination of her head pointed to the provision. She smiled, the warmth of it surprising Anthea. “Pray, don’t try and find your own way to the drawing room. Just ring.” Another inclination of head directed Anthea to a bell-pull at the side of the bed. “A footman will come and show you the way.”
“Thank you,” Anthea murmured.
Mrs Harcourt turned to Lily, who was hovering at the doorway. “Miss Stanwell, your room is opposite. Let me show you.”
With a curtsey to Anthea she joined Lily, closing the door behind her and leaving Anthea to absorb her new surroundings.
Such luxury. Anthea knew that their place in the guest hierarchy had to be low, and that their accommodation would reflect that status. It was how it was done in the big houses. Yet, the room was so richly furnished, and she had a maid to herself. What were the rooms of the two heiresses like? Palaces, with an army of attendants?
“Shall I take your things, Miss?” Sally asked shyly, coming forward.
How strange it was to be attended by a maid, Anthea thought a little while later as she sat in front of the dressing table mirror with Sally at work behind her, carefully arranging her hair in the Grecian style. Sally had already unpacked her clothes and neatly stowed them in the clothes press, poured wine and brought biscuits to her hand, helped her dress in her refurbished evening gown, and was now rebraiding and curling her hair. Anthea smiled at the girl’s reflection, catching her eye.
“I am sorry for trying to unpack before. I am not used to having an abigail,” she said.
“Oh, I am not an abigail, Miss. Not yet,” Sally said, deftly threading a cream riband through the loose pile of curls at Anthea’s crown. “One day I hope to be. I am a senior housemaid, but Mrs Harcourt is letting me train with Miss Reynolds, my lady’s abigail.”
“Well, you are doing a very good job,” Anthea said.
Sally beamed. “Thank you.”
Anthea turned her scrutiny back on to the reflection of her own face. Had she changed much in three years? Perhaps her bones had become a little more pronounced – the roundness of her seventeen-year-old self matured into a woman’s face. And a few freckles across her nose – the result of an occasional abandonment of bonnet on her morning walks. Otherwise, Commander Hayden would probably see no difference. She pressed her hands together, trying to ignore the tightness in her chest.
Before long, a knock on the door sounded and Lily entered the room with her hair newly braided into a becoming knot, and wearing her own refurbished evening gown. In the coach, they had passed the time planning how to manage their small wardrobes during their stay, and had decided to wear their older evening gowns as often as possible, in an effort to keep their newer gowns for the big ball.
“Are you ready?” Lily asked. “I’ve called for the footman.”
Anthea cast a glance at Sally who, with one last pat to a misbehaving curl in her masterpiece, nodded.
Anthea rose from her chair. “Yes, I am ready,” she said. Perhaps if she said it firmly enough, it would chase away her fear.
Behind her, Sally hovered with the new evening shawl that mother had insisted she buy. A lovely Norwich silk in shades of green. “Let me arrange this for you, Miss.”
The shawl was duly settled across Anthea’s back, its ends elegantly draped over the crook of her elbows. Her fan was pressed into one gloved hand and her reticule threaded on to other wrist. Sally then stepped back and gave a small nod of final approval.
Another knock on the door. A new footman entered and bowed. He was rather handsome, like the other one, Anthea thought. Were they all hired for their looks?
“We would like to go to the drawing room, please,” Anthea said.
I am ready, she silently chanted. I am ready.
Although she tried, Anthea could not make a mental map of the way to the drawing room. Part of it was the complicated twists and turns of the passageways, but it was also Lily’s excited chatter pulling her away from noting landmarks.
“A maid each!” Lily whispered. “And a fire in our rooms. I don’t think my hair has ever look better. Or yours. You do look marvellous, Anthea.”
“You too,” Anthea whispered.
They were back in the grand entrance hall. Ahead she saw Phillips outside a closed double door. He bowed to Anthea and Lily as they approached, dismissing their guide with a wave.
“Good evening,” he said. “The Earl and Countess, and their guests await you.”
Anthea nodded, but she could hardly breathe. Behind those doors was Commander Hayden.
“Anthea, you are going to break your fan,” Lily whispered.
Anthea looked down. Her grip around the delicate sticks was so tight that they were bending. She loosened her hold.
Phillips opened the doors.
“Miss Stanwell and Miss Lily Stanwell,” he announced.
They followed him in. Anthea’s gaze fell first on the straight-backed figure of Lord Rydges standing at the fireplace. Beside him, another man. Not Hayden. She scanned the room. Three young ladies sat on a sofa along the wall. Beside them, Lady Rydges in an armchair.
Where was Hayden?
Lord Rydges came forward. Middle age had not made much impression upon his person; his dark hair was only streaked with a little grey, and his figure held the lean athleticism of the keen horseman. His face had a few more lines from nose to mouth than Anthea remembered, but there was still the same charm and warmth as before.
“How lovely to see you again, Miss Stanwell.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Anthea said.
She curtsied, Lily quickly following suit. Anthea could sense another person standing near the window alcove, out of her line of sight. It had to be Hayden, but she could not turn from her host.
“You and your sister are most welcome at Lakeside,” Lord Rydges said. “Miss Stanwell, you of course remember Lady Rydges.”
The Lady indicated nodded to Anthea. Unlike her husband, age was not treading kindly upon her features. She was still slender, but her face had developed a sagging gauntness that had engraved perpetual peevishness into its lines and contours. She was dressed in the height of fashion in a burnt orange silk gown overlaid with gold net, and she waved a beautiful ivory fan at her face with an erratic beat that reminded Anthea of an annoyed cat’s tail.
“Madam,” Anthea murmured. The girls curtsied again.
Anthea angled her face towards the window. It was definitely a man who stood there, but he was in the shadow of the alcove and too far back for clear sight.
Lord Rydges gestured to the closest of the three ladies on the sofa. “May I present my daughter, the Lady Charlotte Leavenhall.”
Good manners turned Anthea back to face Lady Charlotte. The daughter of the house was made more upon her father’s mold than her mother’s; she had his athletic build and, if the dwarfing of her companions was any indication, his impressive height. Her droll smile matched the intelligence in her eyes. Anthea liked her immediately.
“And beside Lady Charlotte is Lady Davinia Rambold, and then Miss Cecily Tait.”
These ladies were obviously on their best behaviour. They both sat forward, hands clasped primly in their laps. Lady Davinia was fashionably plump, with the creamy complexion, dark hair and imbecilic expression that were the current vogue amongst the portraitists of the Royal Academy. No, Anthea admonished herself that was unfair. She did not know Lady Davinia – perhaps she was just bored. Miss Cecily Tait, on the other hand, was all attention. Her sharp glance raked over the Stanwell sisters, full lips pursed, head tilted as if called on to make a judgement. Talons, Anthea thought, and this time she did not feel the need for self-admonishment.
Courteous nods were exchanged.
“Mr Edgecombe here,” Lord Rydges said, indicating the young man beside him, “will soon be taking the vicarage on my estate.”
Ah, poor Mr Pitwater, Anthea thought. All hopes of the well-endowed living soon to be dashed. She eyed the estate’s new vicar. Mr Edgecombe had a pleasant face – sad eyes but a mouth inclined upwards – and a suitably serious demeanour. Although, Anthea noticed, he was wearing a rather flamboyant waistcoat beneath his sober black evening jacket. Perhaps Mr Edgecombe had hidden depths. He bowed to the Stanwell ladies, receiving their curtsies with a genuine smile.
“And of course, Miss Stanwell, you remember Commander Hayden,” Lord Rydges said, his gaze directed behind her at the man standing by the window.
Finally, Anthea turned. Breath suspended. Heart beat loud in her ears.
Commander Hayden stepped forward, out of the shadows. Anthea saw the man of her memory shift into the man before her. Changed, so changed. Her eyes met his, and it felt as if the world was held still in one awful, crystallized moment.
Next Time: Early Troubles and Late Arrivals
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© Alison Goodman 2012.
Alison Goodman holds the Intellectual Property rights to the Trust and Tribulation serial, but acknowledges the right of 2012 JAFA season ticket holders to make use of the characters and situations in the serial to fulfil the conditions of the competition.
Please also note that the use of brand names in the serial has been used in the spirit of fun and is not meant, in any way, as product placement. The author has, alas, not been offered any terrific freebies to use these names.