Authors: Secretsand Lords
Table of Contents
Edie Crossland pulled another bramble from her skirt, then put her bloodied finger to her mouth, looking up with dismay at the gathering clouds. Her feet were sore and she’d had enough of it.
It was not that Edie was unused to walking. Her footprints were sunk into the paving stones of Bloomsbury and Holborn many times over, mixed with millions of others. But the London streets hardly compared with this new terrain. The grass verge of the road was bumpy and thick with weeds, and sometimes it disappeared so that Edie was forced back on to the narrow track that led out of Kingsreach from the station.
She could have been sitting up on the box of a pony and trap sent from the Hall, making this trip in relative comfort, carpet bag stowed safely at her feet. But she had not wanted her first view of Deverell Hall to be contaminated by the inane chatter of some fellow servant. So she had deliberately omitted to send them advance warning of the train she would be on, as she had been asked to do. When questioned, she would shrug and assume the letter was lost in the post. These things happen.
Words she did not particularly care to dwell on, given the context in which she had last heard them. The nagging, dark feelings overcame her again and she stopped for a moment, swallowing the bitter taste that came to her mouth.
As if in answer to a silent prayer for distraction from the misery of a stroll that now felt like a death march, there came a distant roar, like an approaching swarm of bees, from somewhere behind her. It was not thunder, although that looked likely, nor could it be attributed to any of the livestock in the surrounding fields. She was far enough away from the railway now to rule out a train.
It grew louder and louder and all she could do was look over her shoulder, transfixed with a vague fear that seemed to go hand-in-hand with her earlier brooding. Her legs weakened just as a gleaming silver fender appeared at the bend of the road, then the cream-coloured body of a motor car. It zoomed past her, expelling great gaseous clouds that made her splutter in their wake.
Of course, she thought with relief, they must have such things in the countryside too. But she had not seen one near the station or anywhere on the streets of Kingsreach until now. It must be heading for Deverell Hall. But to whom did it belong? Maybe to … But no. That was unlikely.
A fat drop of rain landed on her back. She had not thought to bring an umbrella. Sighing, she lowered her head, with its meagre protection of a cheap straw hat, and began to hurry, cursing the fashion for narrow skirts as she shuffled along.
* * *
A further half an hour passed before Edie’s first glimpse of Deverell Hall, and by then she was so thoroughly drenched and utterly miserable that a fairy palace would scarcely have impressed her.
The turrets were bare outlines against the black sky, every finer detail obscured by the driving rain. Edie perceived a great many windows and a prospect that would normally have delighted her. The road led downwards amidst lush green woodland until the landscape opened up, neatly planned and bordered, and the pale ribbon of driveway brought the eye to the stately entrance of the house. She saw fountains at the head of the drive and a hint of some formal gardens to the left side of the building. It was very much as she’d imagined and yet somehow less real.
‘It’s because of the weather,’ she told herself. ‘I never thought of it in the rain.’ In her imagination, Deverell Hall was impervious to the elements.
The sighting gave additional impetus to her journey, although she was fading with weariness, wetness and hunger now. She dragged her aching feet onwards, under the arching trees, for another half a mile.
As she emerged, another blast of engine noise made her jump to the side of the driveway, just in time to be splashed to the knee by the same cream-coloured car. Its driver, a dark-haired man in an expensive coat, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, did not pause even to look at her as he hurtled onwards and away from the estate.
She half-turned after him to remonstrate, but was surprised to see another car coming in the opposite direction, towards her. This one was less flashy, sleeker and quieter. All the same, it made a harsh coughing sound as it slowed down and came to a halt behind her.
A fair-haired man in a uniform wound down the window and stuck his head out.
‘You the new girl?’ he asked.
She nodded, too wet and cold to speak.
His stunningly blue eyes crinkled sympathetically at the edges.
‘You’re pretty much there, but hop in anyway. I’ll take you the rest of the way in style.’
She hesitated, tightening her slippery grip on her bag handle.
‘Come on,’ he insisted. ‘Don’t stand there like a statue.’ He opened the passenger door.
The first flash of lightning over the roof of Deverell Hall made her mind up for her. She scampered over to the other side of the car and climbed carefully inside and pulled the door shut. ‘I’m going to get the leather all wet.’
The man laughed, a glint in his eye. ‘It’s seen a lot worse.’ He put out a hand skinned in a tan driving glove. ‘Ted Kempe,’ he said. ‘His Lordship’s chauffeur. Delighted to make your acquaintance.’
‘Edie,’ she said, putting her own hand in his larger one, enjoying the warmth of the small squeeze he gave her fingers. ‘Edie … Prior.’ Close one, she thought. She had almost forgotten her new name.
‘That’s right,’ he said, unnerving her for a moment, sounding as if he was in the know about her and her situation. ‘I heard Mrs Munn mention you at breakfast. The new housemaid.’
‘Yes. And quite a house. There must be a legion of us.’
‘You’ve never been here before?’
‘No, I was interviewed up in London.’
‘Oh, a London girl, eh? You didn’t fancy getting a job up there then? Most of us here are local.’
‘I … needed a change of air,’ said Edie, feeling leagues out of her depth. She looked away from the shrewd blue gaze of her new colleague, but only succeeded in looking straight into the reflection of his face in the window. He watched her and, for an uncomfortably long moment, said nothing.
‘We all need those from time to time,’ he said eventually. ‘Well, Edie, you’ll be wanting to get out of those wet things. Better get you to the house.’
The way his look lingered over her after the mention of ‘wet things’ made the back of Edie’s neck prickle.
He was thinking of her peeling down her clinging damp stockings, unbuttoning the water-stained blouse. Her underwear was silk, not suitable for a servant girl, but she had not quite been able to bear the thought of wearing coarser fabrics next to her skin. Not yet
No sooner was that thought in her mind than it was succeeded by other, even more disreputable imaginings. How would it feel to have the chauffeur’s leather-gloved hands on her, disrobing her, moving slowly and smoothly over the curves of her body?
Stop it. Just stop it.
Mercifully, he put his foot on the accelerator and drove, his attention diverted to the road.
‘I don’t know what your last place was like but you’ll find the servants’ hall here a very tight-knit bunch,’ he said. ‘A bit like a secret society. It’s hard to get in, but, when you’re accepted, you become a member of the family.’
‘Oh dear, that sounds rather intimidating. I suppose I shall be sized up. I hope I’m not found wanting.’
He gave her a sideways smirk.
‘Can’t imagine why you would be,’ he said gallantly. ‘Never mind the others, but keep the right side of Mrs Munn. She’s the power behind the Deverell throne. If she doesn’t take to you, you’ll never prosper here.’
‘Gosh, you really aren’t inspiring me with confidence, you know.’
He drew up at the huge front steps, pulled the handbrake and turned to her, frowning in confusion.
‘You sure you aren’t some kind of governess or something? I’ve never heard a parlourmaid talk like you do.’
Edie held her carpet bag tighter. ‘And how’s that?’ she asked with a nervous laugh. She had to watch her little quirks and mannerisms of speech. If possible, she must pare her conversation down to the bare minimum necessary for communication.
‘Ladylike,’ he said. ‘Are all the London slaveys like you?’
‘No, not at all. Well, perhaps some of them.’
He smiled. ‘I might consider moving to London, then.’
Edie’s wet clothes suddenly felt too tight, especially around the chest, and her toes curled inside her boots. He was flirting with her. And he was rather attractive, even if he was only a chauffeur.
‘Oh,’ she said, tongue-tied, looking all around her for extra luggage that did not exist. ‘Well. Thank you for the, for, you know, driving me.’
‘A pleasure,’ he said. ‘No, don’t open the door yourself. You’ll do me out of a job.’
He got out into the rain and ran around the front of the car to the passenger side.
Edie, toting her carpet bag, put her feet out of the door, preparing to stand.
‘Now remember, Miss Prior,’ he said, leaning down and speaking softly, ‘if you ever need a friend in this place, Ted Kempe’s your man. Do you promise you’ll remember it?’
She nodded. ‘I promise.’
‘One more word,’ he said, looking over his shoulder as if he expected a legion of eavesdroppers to have materialised from the sheets of rain all around. ‘Watch Sir Charles. Don’t let him …’ He shook his head. ‘Just watch him, all right? Servants’ entrance is round the back.’
Edie had almost made the ridiculous mistake of walking up the front steps.
‘I’d see you inside, but His Lordship’s ordered the car up to take him into Kingsreach. Good thing he sits in the back – you’ve left the passenger side all wet.’
She shot Ted one last breathless nod and a smile, then ran around the side of the building, looking for the way in.
It took a long time to find, given the vastness of the edifice. Edie looked in at every window on her way round, but saw only empty room after empty room until she arrived at the rear of the house. A kitchen garden lay a few hundred yards off, beyond a low wall. Surely the kitchen must be close to that.
She scrambled along a gravel path, desperate now to be out of the rain. A crash of thunder accompanied her descent into a basement area that belched heat up the stairs she squelched down. In the corner a large door stood invitingly open.
Shelter, at last. She stood with her back to the wall, blinking raindrops out of her eyes. Once they were gone she realised she was not alone in the room. The clatter of steel and crockery that filled the room stopped instantly. Two girls, their faces crimson from their endeavours within the hot room, and neither of them much above fourteen, stood against a huge Belfast sink, staring at her.
‘Are you the new girl?’ one of them asked.
‘Filthy weather,’ she said, hugging herself.
‘Mrs Munn thought you weren’t coming. You never wrote. She’s been cursing your name all morning,’ said the stouter of the two girls.
‘You’d better go and find her,’ added her companion.
‘How shall I do that?’
Both girls shrugged and turned back to their washing up.
Tight-knit, that was what Ted had said. Meaning ‘unfriendly’ apparently.
Here, in this dark scullery, Edie’s splendid plan did not seem so splendid any more. It had seemed so easy when she had huddled with Patrick and his sisters, evening after evening, discussing and fine-tuning. Now that she stood here, in Deverell Hall, it had immediately assumed a new character with an objective that appeared insurmountable. Failure seemed so likely that she thought about leaving then and there.