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Authors: Freda Lightfoot

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BOOK: Angels at War
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When Sunday came, Jack accompanied Livia on the omnibus to Windermere, grumbling as they had to walk the last mile or so from the bus stop. Coots and tufted ducks splashed among the reeds, and there was the scent of pinewood and larch in the air as they walked through the woodlands along the edge of the lake. At any other time Livia might have enjoyed this pleasant stroll, but she was acutely aware of Jack’s edginess beside her, which was affecting her own nerves. They skirted a large horse chestnut where the path followed the curve of the lake, then both stopped in their tracks as, half-hidden by the trees, they caught their first sight of a beautiful Jacobean manor house. It was built with a central hall and a projecting wing at each end, tall graceful
chimneys, and a row of mullioned windows looking out onto the courtyard.

Livia heard Jack utter a shocked oath beneath his breath, and she could hardly blame him. The house was stunning.

‘Goodness, I knew Grayson was wealthy, but even I wasn’t prepared for this.’

The lawns swept down to the shimmering lake, and a small jetty jutted out into the tranquil water where a beautiful steam launch was moored. It conjured up images of summer picnics, of gentlemen in peaked caps and ladies with parasols taking tea on some remote island.

Grayson appeared on the steps, and came striding forward to greet them. ‘I thought I saw you coming,’ he called, thrusting out a friendly hand to Jack who reluctantly shook it. ‘Did you have any problems with your journey?’

Jack frowned. ‘Long walk from the bus stop.’

‘Indeed it is,’ Grayson agreed, laughing. ‘Don’t worry, I can give you a lift home in the motor, if you like.’

‘We don’t need charity,’ Jack protested.

‘Not at all. It would be my pleasure, having obliged you to travel so far.’

With the niceties dealt with, Grayson ushered the pair of them into a spacious, panelled hall, from which led an impressive wide staircase graced with beautiful newel posts, typically
Jacobean. Their coats and hats were taken by a maid who bobbed them a curtsey. Livia was beginning to feel most peculiar, as if she had stepped back in time to Angel House where her father had ruled supreme, with servants to wait upon their every whim. How very different life was for her now living in that confined loft on Fellside. Even so, it wasn’t the grandeur she missed so much as the company of her sisters.

‘Come into the library. Mother is eagerly waiting to meet you both, and offer you some refreshments.’

Jack was fidgeting with his collar, unaccustomed to the stiffness of it, and looking increasingly uncomfortable. Livia, too, felt an unexpected attack of nerves, managing little more than a tremulous smile as they entered.

Her first impression was of a room that was somewhat dark and cold, with no bright fire or rosy lamps to cheer it on this chilly autumn day as there would have been at Angel House, and no sign of the promised refreshments. A fact which Grayson noticed at once.

‘Mother, didn’t Sally bring coffee, as I instructed her to? Our guests will need warming.’

Nor did the woman who stood by the window look as if she was eagerly waiting for anyone. She was tall with long dark hair swept up into an impressive chignon. As she slowly turned to greet
them, Livia noticed she had pale, translucent skin and piercing blue eyes, a wide mouth and a strong determined chin. No doubt a beauty in her day, and a handsome woman still.

‘I told the girl refreshments were unnecessary since your guests were rather later than expected and we would be going in to luncheon shortly.’

Grayson frowned, obviously irritated. ‘Perhaps you’re right. Did you have her pour sherry instead then?’

‘I wasn’t sure if it would be suitable.’

‘Whyever not? Never mind, I’ll get it myself,’ and he marched over to the drinks cabinet, looking somewhat cross.

‘I apologise for our lateness, Mrs Grayson,’ Livia hastily put in, startled by this small unpleasant exchange between mother and son. ‘It was rather a longer walk from the bus terminal than we’d bargained for.’

Imelda Grayson didn’t trouble to respond or even welcome them to her home. She swept across the room and made herself comfortable in a tall winged chair, watching as her son handed out the sherry. ‘Do please push your shoulders back, Matthew dear. How many times do I have to tell you not to slouch? Really, working in a shop is so bad for your posture.’

Grayson’s eyebrows flickered with annoyance even as he laughed off the reprimand. ‘Mother,
why don’t you sit back and relax,’ he gently admonished her as he handed her a glass. ‘Livia, Mr Flint – or may I call you Jack? Do please be seated.’ He motioned them to a
chaise-longue
where they both obediently perched uncomfortably on the edge. Livia had a vision of his mother reclining upon it of an afternoon before taking tea with her lady friends, who would probably never dare to be late.

The blue eyes homed in upon her. ‘I believe you are a shop girl? That must be most trying.’

Livia laughed. ‘It is certainly tiring.’

‘I explained to you, Mother, that Livia actually owns the store, and is currently learning the business.’

Imelda Grayson paused as she was about to sip her dry sherry, as if this was news to her. ‘I remember no such thing and my memory is impeccable. How very noble of you, child. But why would you wish to work, when you don’t have to?’

Livia did not much care to be addressed so dismissively, but, catching a grimace of apology from Grayson, she smiled and met the older woman’s shrewd gaze with a steady one of her own. ‘I work because I have to. I’m sure your son also explained that my father was virtually bankrupt when he died.’

‘How very unfortunate for you.’

‘Unfortunate for many people, not least the staff who work in the family department store.’ She’d met women like this before, paragons who thought themselves above anything so menial as working for a living and decried those who did. Livia recognised the gleam of triumph in the sharp blue eyes, as if she’d scored some point.

Mrs Grayson now turned her icy glare upon Jack. ‘And your husband? Do you work at the store too, young man?’

‘I’m not her husband,’ Jack bluntly told her, twirling his now empty sherry glass between fingers made rough with physical labour. ‘Although we live as such and would be if I had my way. And no, I’m not a shop assistant. I work as a labourer on the new houses being built on Windermere Road in Kendal.’

The expression on the woman’s face was something to behold as she digested this shocking information. Livia found great difficulty in not laughing out loud, and could have hugged Jack for his temerity.

Fortunately the moment was saved by the sudden entrance of the maid who announced that luncheon was served.

 

If coping with their less than gracious hostess over sherry had been difficult, it was as nothing compared with the stilted conversation during
luncheon. Livia did her best to keep up a flow of small talk, being well trained in the art by her own late mother, and used to keeping her father’s volatile temper at bay, but it was hard going.

Nothing seemed to please the woman, not the roast lamb, which Livia thought delicious, nor the way it was served by her harassed staff. She seemed entirely self-obsessed and relentlessly sharp-tongued, seeking any opportunity to put down servants, guests, and her own son with equal measure. If she wasn’t instructing Livia on a better way to use her napkin, she was scolding the maid for taking too long to bring in the soup tureen.

‘I really can’t imagine what Matthew is thinking of working in a shop. I wanted him to follow his father into the bank, but he never listens to a word I say. I come from a long line of professional men who were either in law or banking. It is a dreadful thing when one’s only son proves to be a disappointment. Going into trade is quite beyond the pale in my opinion. Of course, such notions of respectability will not trouble you, Miss Angel, since you are so very Bohemian.’

Livia could feel Jack bridle beside her. ‘Is that meant to be some sort of insult, because if it is—’

She quickly put a hand on his arm. ‘I’m sure it wasn’t meant that way, Jack, in fact I view it
as rather a compliment. I see nothing wrong in a free union between a man and a woman which celebrates their independence of spirit. I believe many unhappy wives shackled by social convention into a marriage not of their choosing would endorse that view too.’

‘You do not believe in duty to family then,
Miss
Angel?’

‘I know that some parents have a way of demanding duty for their own purposes, with little concern for the happiness and rights of their offspring. My own father was such a man.’

‘Perhaps he believed he knew what was best for you.’

‘If so, then he was wrong.’

‘You clearly care little for family responsibility, or morality either.’

‘Here, steady on. It’s our business whether or not we marry,’ Jack butted in, deeply offended and thinking he should have a say too, since the subject directly concerned him.

‘Jack is quite right. That’s enough, Mother,’ Grayson gently but firmly chided her. ‘I’m aware of your fondness for expressing yourself in a forthright fashion, but we must take care to consider our guests’ feelings.’

Mrs Grayson gave a loud sniff, not troubling to favour him with a reply or apology.

Livia said, ‘We didn’t set out to offend some
pre-ordained moral code. If people don’t care for the choices we’ve made, that’s their problem, not ours. And it isn’t a new idea. George Eliot and the Victorian feminist Elizabeth Wolstenholme both believed in free love and libertarian thinking, although they were both ostracised socially as a result.’

She half glanced across at Matthew Grayson, thinking perhaps she’d said too much, but he returned her anxious gaze with an encouraging smile, seemingly enjoying the fact she was brave enough to stand up to his mother. Why had she thought those grey-green eyes to be cold? They were really quite the opposite, warm and inviting. Perhaps the excellent wine with the luncheon had slightly gone to her head, but Livia took a breath and continued.

‘Were it not for the good of the cause, Emmeline Pankhurst would not have married either, for the same reasons. She believes it is far more important to fight for the rights of women in every degree, and not simply freedom in marriage. Are you interested in women’s suffrage, Mrs Grayson? Do you not think Mrs Pankhurst a fine woman with a clear-principled vision?’

‘She is a self-seeking opportunist looking to her own advantage by encouraging women to disobey their husbands.’

‘I do not see how suffering constant arrest and
hunger strikes can possibly be to her advantage.’

‘She enjoys the glory of her own notoriety.’

Livia gritted her teeth even as she continued to make her point calmly and rationally. ‘I believe she is a compelling speaker, most articulate and charming. I hope to hear her myself soon when she comes to Manchester. Following the recent election when it became evident that women’s suffrage was again not mentioned in the King’s speech, a huge deputation accompanied her to Parliament to protest, only for great numbers to be arrested as a result. What way is that to treat women?’

‘I believe there are far more important issues for the government to concern itself with than paying heed to a party of lunatic militants.’

Livia felt her cheeks start to burn. ‘I cannot agree. I believe granting women the vote will allow other benefits to follow, such as resolving childhood poverty, and rights in marriage and employment.’

Mrs Grayson lifted one graceful hand to call the maid to clear away the plates, her own dinner scarcely touched. ‘You sound to me the kind of gel who leaps upon the latest craze rather as a child might a new toy. Free love, libertarian politics, votes for women, I never heard such nonsense. Young women these days are far too self-centred. They should devote themselves to
their husbands as a good wife should, and think themselves fortunate.’

‘Assuming he is a good husband and deserves such devotion,’ Livia rejoined. And as the maid removed her plate, she couldn’t resist adding, ‘Of course, many wives and mothers are obliged to work to make ends meet, and are not so fortunate as to have servants to help them with the housekeeping and child-minding.’

The maid almost dropped the pile of dirty dishes and Grayson half choked on his wine, although whether with laughter or fury, Livia wasn’t quite sure. Jack thumped his fist on the table and exploded with laughter. ‘She’s got you there, missus. What do you say to that?’

Grayson got quickly to his feet. ‘Perhaps we could take coffee in my office, Livia, so that we might begin our discussions. Or would you prefer to walk by the lake?’

‘I cannot think,’ his mother interrupted in ice cold tones before Livia had time to respond, ‘why you bother to ask the opinion of some militant little shop girl with no morals to help you decide what to do with that dreadful mausoleum. I should think your best option would be to sell it off to whatever fool is willing to pay good money for it. Which would at least allow you to concentrate on more suitable ventures, and improve the company you keep.’

A small silence followed in which not even her own son seemed able to find the right words to counter such viciousness. At length, Livia said, ‘a walk by the lake would be most pleasant, don’t you think so, Jack?’

Jack was finishing off his second glass of a rather fine brandy and blinked at her. ‘You go, love, I’ll keep her ladyship company.’ He winked at his hostess. ‘Perhaps we could have a good debate on the exploitation of the working classes, or home rule in Ireland?’

Imelda Grayson was on her feet in a second. ‘I fear I must retire to my room for a lie down, this has all been rather tiring.’

 

‘That went well,’ Livia commented with
self-mocking
humour. ‘Perhaps you’d like me to leave now.’

Grayson chuckled, taking her arm to help her navigate a large tree root as they descended to the path by the lake. Livia could hardly breathe, acutely aware of his touch, of his fingers lingering rather longer than necessary at her wrist. What was happening to her? A mallard flew out of the reeds, batting its wings in startled surprise at their approach, and skimmed across the water till it finally stopped, all flustered and cross. Livia found she had some sympathy with its state.

BOOK: Angels at War
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