Authors: Fenella J Miller
A Mistrees for Stansted Hall
Fenella J Miller
Cover Design Jane Dixon-Smith
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Miss Shaw & The Doctor.
Emma paused to call her son who was poking a stick into an interesting hole. ‘Jack, please keep up. It would not do to be tardy on the first day of my new employment.’
She could only see his nankeen breeches poking out as for some reason, he'd stuck his head in the lush, green hedge. Her daughter, Mary, ran to extricate her little brother. The child bent down and peered through the hole. She shot backwards screaming in horror.
‘Mama, there's a carriage coming. It will mow us down when it turns the corner.’
Emma dropped her precious valise in the dirt, snatched up Jack and grabbed Mary's hand. She had spied a five barred gate no more than twenty yards ahead, they would be safe from harm there. The noise of the approaching carriage filled the lane. Two huge horses were approaching at a gallop, there was no time to reach the gate. She caught a glimpse of a dark visaged man holding the reins and his coachman clutching the box beside him in desperation.
With a despairing cry she threw herself and her offspring into the hedge. The carriage thundered past and was gone around the next bend at a foolhardy pace. The birds resumed their summer song and her heart stopped hammering. Slowly she stepped out of the bushes.
‘Jack, sweetheart, are you unharmed?’ The little boy wriggled to be put down and, without a backward glance, ran off to fetch the stick he'd been forced to abandon. ‘Mary, my love, what about you?’
‘My dress is mired, and there are twigs in my boots, but otherwise I have come to no harm.’ The little girl giggled. ‘I think that you fared worst, Mama. Your bonnet is over one eye and you have a bird's nest stuck to your gown.’
Emma laughed with her. However bleak the circumstances her children never failed to raise her spirits. She straightened her bonnet and removed the debris from the broken nest. ‘It is fortunate, my love, that the nest was not occupied. Think of the poor fledglings!’
She returned to pick up her belongings, thanking the good Lord that the carriage wheels had not crushed her few remaining possessions. Jack, bored with his game, skipped up to her. She blinked back unwanted tears. He was so like his poor departed papa, his sunny smile, floppy brown locks and big blue eyes never failed to remind her of what she had lost at Waterloo.
Pinning on a happy smile she reached out and ruffled his hair. ‘We must hurry, children, in my letter to Mr Bucknall I said we would be at Stansted Manor by noon. I do not wish to make a bad impression.’
Mary gazed up, the face so like her own, unnaturally serious for a child of scarcely ten years. ‘That carriage was going too fast, Mama. Surely the driver must have known the lane was narrow here.’
‘You are quite correct, my dear, but as we all survived the encounter let us say no more about it. Now, let us march like your papa, you two can lead the way and I shall follow as best I can.’
The sound of a distant church clock striking mid-day meant they would not be much past the appointed hour. Already she could see the house; she hoped the inside was less neglected then the weed infested drive. She was to be housekeeper here, she prayed it would turn out to be a safer haven than her previous position.
She shuddered as she recalled that final morning. When John had left her destitute, what remained of her savings used to pay off his gambling debts, she had immediately set about finding herself a position in a big household. She had run her father's house efficiently for several years after the untimely death of her mother, so a housekeeping position would be ideal. She had answered an advertisement in The Times to be the under housekeeper in a substantial establishment in Hertfordshire. She would be housed in a suite of rooms on the ground floor and there had been no objection to her taking her children.
Everything had gone swimmingly for the first few weeks, then the eldest son had returned from his grand tour and everything changed. He had waylaid her at every opportunity making her life a misery. When she had, in desperation, taken her problem to her immediate superior she had thought the matter closed. However, the following day she had been dismissed without references.
With only a few pounds between herself and destitution she had scoured the newspapers until she found the advertisement for this position. The remuneration was generous, her employer had raised no objections to the children and she had thanked God for providing her with a home in the nick of time. He had even included the funds for her coach fare.
She checked her skirts were as clean as they could be in the circumstances, that her children were tidy, and walked briskly around the house to find the servants' entrance. She was obliged to pass the stables.
‘Mama,’ Jack tugged at her gown, ‘that's the carriage that went past so fast.’
It certainly was, she would never forget the navy blue and gold paintwork that had almost taken off her nose. Her heart sunk to her boots. It could be none other than Mr Bucknall who had been driving. Had she gone from the frying pan to the fire?
Rupert glared out of his study window as the woman and her two children approached the house. She was far younger than he'd expected, and far comelier too. In her letter of application she had stated clearly that she had been married for more than a decade before being widowed last year, that she had kept house for her father for several years before that. How could this be the same person? By right she should be of middle age, not this lovely young woman who was approaching. She was above average height, of slender shape and upright bearing. It was the sight of her glorious corn coloured hair, clearly visible underneath the most hideous bonnet he'd ever set eyes on, that he could not take his eyes from.
He raised his ruined right-hand to touch the scars that marred his face, and swore. He turned, flinging his half full glass of brandy into the empty hearth. Had he not dismissed all but the most ancient of the female servants to avoid their pitying eyes? He had only appointed this Mrs Reed as housekeeper in desperation. The ancient crones that had charge of his house were ruining his health. They could cook no better than they could clean.
Foster, the butler, was only with him because he was too decrepit to find employment elsewhere. The rest had left long since. He still employed a coachman, groom and two stable hands to take care of his horses. His mouth twisted, his cattle fared better than he did. Apart from them there were two outside men who took care of the house cows and other animals and also tended the vegetable garden.
Angrily he tugged the bell strap. It was just possible Foster would hear and come at his bidding, he needed another decanter of brandy and a fresh glass to drink it in. He would not see this woman, he would get Foster to give her a month's wages and sent her packing.
Mary's shocked exclamation drew her attention forwards. Her eyes widened. From the front of the house had looked intact, from the back she saw the devastation. Originally the building had been L-shaped, now the structure that had pointed west was little more than blackened beams pointing starkly into the summer sky. There had been the most dreadful fire several years since, as now copious wildflowers and grass grew amongst the ruins. Why had Mr Bucknall not rebuilt?
First she'd discovered he drove like a madman with no regard of anyone but himself and then this. If she had an alternative she would turn on her heel and trudge the four miles back to the nearby village. Even from the outside she could see the house had an abandoned air, the many windows grime covered, the paint peeling on the frames. From what she had learnt at the coaching inn where she had alighted earlier that day, Mr Bucknall was a wealthy man. He had made his fortune in foreign parts, had returned with a beautiful young wife and bought this huge mansion.
No one had warned her that the house had been damaged by fire, or that for all his wealth, Mr Bucknall had let his home fall into disrepair. She recalled something that had struck her as odd at the time and was now explained. The innkeeper's wife had said no one local wished to work at Stansted Manor, that is why he had advertised in a national paper.
Her mind jerked back to the present. She must not stand here gawping when her two children were cowering in her skirts waiting for her to tell them there was nothing to fear. ‘Come along, we must make ourselves known. One thing is certain, my loves, we shall have plenty to do to here.’
Mary slipped a small, thin hand into hers. ‘I shall help you, Mama, I can take care of Jack and do other tasks as well.’
Jack kicked his sister. ‘Don't need you, I'm a big boy, I can look after myself.’
Forgetting she was supposed to be making a good impression, Mary launched herself at her brother and grabbed two handfuls of his hair. This had become a regular occurrence since they had returned from Belgium last year. Before that they had both been of the sweetest disposition, Mary an adoring big sister and Jack the most obliging of little boys.
‘Enough of that, you both promised me to behave. Do you want us to be sent packing before we have even arrived?’ Her voice was harsh, she hated to speak so unkindly but desperation drove her to behave in a way of which she was heartily ashamed.
Both children stilled and muttered their apologies. Subdued and miserable they trailed behind her to the kitchen door. She knocked and waited to be admitted. She knocked again. When no one came she decided to take matters into her own hands. She could not stand dawdling outside indefinitely, she was already a quarter of an hour past the time she should have presented herself.
The door was ajar, she stepped into total chaos. Soiled dishes were scattered on the central table, what could only have been mouse droppings amongst them. The smell of dirt and decaying food was enough to make one gag.
Jack pushed past her. ‘I hate it here. It's smelly and horrible. Let's go away at once, Mama.’
‘Please, don't make us stay in this dreadful place, I don't like it either. It's scary as well as smelly.’
Emma agreed with both of them. How could she take her precious children into somewhere as appalling as this? No wonder no one from the village would remain here if this was how things were. If they set off directly they might well reach the village in time to catch the evening mail coach back to London. What they would do when they reached the metropolis she had no idea, but anything must be better than this.
As she prepared to leave the kitchen door smashed open and the tallest man she’d ever seen stepped in. His bulk all but filled the doorway, his unkempt black hair flew around his face and his piercing grey eyes pinned her to the floor. She recognised him as the heedless driver.
‘Mrs Reed, you are late. I do not tolerate unpunctuality.’ He tossed a leather bag on to the table. ‘I have given you a month's wages for your trouble in coming here. You are dismissed.’
A moment before she had been determined to leave, now she was equally determined to stay. This objectionable man could not treat her and her children so casually. ‘Mr Bucknall, I should have been here on time if you had not almost killed the three of us by your dangerous driving.’ She tossed her head, righteous indignation fuelling her temper. ‘If you think I am going to march my children back to the village you have another think coming. They are tired and hungry, as am I. I refuse to leave until tomorrow.’
His mouth snapped shut. She could almost hear him grinding his teeth. What could have possessed her to speak so forthrightly to a gentleman already incandescent with anger at her tardiness. She must apologise, it was not her place to speak out, she was constantly forgetting she was no longer a lady of means, but a member of the lower orders.
Jack emerged from his hiding place in her skirts and trotted forward to stand gazing up at the giant. ‘Did you get your burns from the fire, sir? Was it very painful? I once put my hand in a flame and I cried for ages.’
Good heavens! Until that moment she had not noticed the scars that ravaged Mr Bucknall's right cheek. What she
seen was a powerful, angry man … and a very attractive one too. She ran forward to drag her inquisitive child away before he could be harmed. Too late. Mr Bucknall bent his knee and scooped the boy up.
‘Has your mother not told you it is wrong to comment on another's afflictions?’
Jack reached out and ran his fingers across the scars unbothered by this abrupt question. ‘I hope it doesn't hurt any more. My finger's all better. Look, I have a scar like yours.’ He waved his index finger under Mr Bucknall's nose.
She held her breath, how would he react to this innocent enquiry? To her astonishment the captured the waving digit and examined it closely. ‘Yes, I see it. Now, young man, if your Mama is determined to stay, you had best run along and assist her.’
He dropped the boy to the filthy flags and returned his frosty glare to her. ‘I am not accustomed to being gainsaid, madam, especially by a menial. However, I find that I like your son, he has a refreshing candour. I give my permission for you to remain. But it shall be for one night, I want you gone first thing tomorrow morning.’
He nodded and vanished back into his own domain. Emma clutched the table, her knees suddenly weak. It was Mary who said what she was thinking. ‘You are a naughty little boy, Jack, that horrible man might have beaten you for your impudence. You did not think of that, now did you?’