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Authors: Sue Reid

Langdown Manor

BOOK: Langdown Manor
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For Morag

U
PSTAIRS

The carriage stopped. I had arrived, I thought. I was here, at Langdown Manor, and there was nothing I could do about it. I hadn't wanted to come here, and as I stared out of the carriage window at the plain facade of grey stone, I felt as if the house didn't want me there either.

I'd said the name of the house that was to be my home many times. It was as if I needed to say it to believe in it. Even after I'd waved Father farewell, I couldn't truly believe I was leaving him and the only home I'd ever known. But now I was here I had to. For the hundredth time I wished Father had not sent me to England to live with my mother's sister and her family. Family I had never met – and never wanted to. But Father gave me no choice. He had taken my hands in his and held them tightly. ‘A young lady needs a lady's example,' he had said. ‘Now that your mother has died, there is no one to give you that. You will like it,' he had added, as if to convince himself. He didn't convince me. ‘You have cousins. Your aunt hopes you will be a companion for her eldest daughter.'

So I was to be the companion of a girl I had never met?

‘You are going,' he'd said.

The footman who had met me at the railway station came round to open the door. The swaying of the carriage had made me feel slightly sick, and I stumbled as I stepped down, my feet almost as unsteady on the firm ground as they had been when I'd stepped ashore at Dover. The footman escorted me up the steps to the great front door. While we waited for it to be opened I looked again at the house. I had an uneasy feeling that I was being watched. I wondered how my relations felt about my coming to live with them. Father had said that Aunt had written back to him at once, but he hadn't shown me the letter.

An old man opened the door. ‘I am his lordship's butler,' he said. ‘Welcome to Langdown Manor, miss.' He bowed his head slightly. I couldn't tell what he was thinking. His face might have been carved out of stone.

He stood back and I walked ahead of him into the hall. ‘Wait here, miss,' he said. ‘I will inform her ladyship of your arrival.' He disappeared through one of the many doorways that led off the hall. I wondered what lay behind them. The hall itself was hushed and quiet as if no one ever used it. I had only seen three servants and yet surely a house as big as this must need hundreds to run it. I thrust my gloved hands back into my muff – it was almost as cold inside as it was outside. At one end of the hall was an enormous fireplace, but no fire had been lit in the grate, and there was no sign that there had ever been one. Maybe people in England didn't feel the cold. After only a day in this drab grey country I was already beginning to feel that I would never get used to it. India seemed a million miles away. I gazed upwards. An oak staircase swept upstairs. The wall was lined with portraits. Haughty-looking men and women stared back at me from behind the frames. My ancestors, I thought, then corrected myself. No, these were my uncle's ancestors, not mine. I didn't like the way they were staring at me. They made me feel like an unwelcome intruder. How was I ever going to get used to living in a mansion like this? I had lived in a bungalow. You could almost have fitted the whole of it into this one room. I didn't know what to expect, or even how to behave. Everything was going to be different, from the weather to the food. I knew a little about both now – and I didn't think much of them.

A gust of icy air blew past me into the hall. I looked round to see that the footman had nudged open the door and was manoeuvring my trunk inside. It was the same trunk Mother had brought out to India many years ago, before I was born. All my worldly possessions were inside that trunk – well, all that I'd managed to cram in. My old ayah had said that I should leave some behind, to make sure I'd come back. She hadn't needed to say that. I knew I'd go back one day. I knew I'd hate England. Mother had, and I was like her, everybody said. I'd found the trunk in Mother's room, hidden under the bed, a few days after she had died. I'd never seen it before. The words ‘Penelope Fitzsimmons, Bombay, India' were scrawled in thick black ink on a label that was as mottled as an old person's skin. Mother's name and mine. The clasps were rusty, but to my surprise they'd clicked back easily, as if the trunk had been opened many times. The day after Mother had died I'd opened her wardrobe and buried my head in her gowns to breathe in her smell. But the things in the trunk hadn't smelled like Mother – they'd smelled musty and old, not like Mother at all. I hadn't known what to expect, but it hadn't been this – these yellowing mysterious things. A lacy veil was attached to a plume of three feathers. The feathers flew up into the air when I touched them – like drifting snow, or how I imagine snow. I've never seen it. I'd felt as if I was gazing into a secret world, one Mother had kept locked away in her trunk. I'd never seen Mother wear any of these things, but they must have held some meaning for her for her to have kept them.

Right at the bottom I'd found a thick bundle of yellowing envelopes bound in red ribbon. I'd picked them up curiously, then put them down again. I hadn't wanted to read them – then. I'd shut the lid with a bang. I couldn't think why Mother had kept these things – why would she want to be reminded about a past I felt sure she'd hated? My ayah of course took them out before she packed the trunk for me. I found them discarded in a box. I couldn't bear to think what would happen to them if they were left behind, so I'd slipped what I could fit into the trunk before it was locked.

The butler reappeared out of the gloom. ‘Follow me, miss,' he said. He led me up to a door and knocked. I felt my heart thump. Behind that door were the relations I'd never met. What would they be like? What would they think of me? Had Father told them anything about me? He had told me hardly anything about them.

‘Miss Penelope, your ladyship,' the butler said, announcing me. It made me start to hear him say my name. Few people call me by it. Those who know and love me always call me Polly.

Three heads had turned at my entrance. Three pairs of eyes swept over me. The younger girl smiled, the elder merely stared. What my aunt thought, it was hard to tell. She had the kind of face that was able to conceal what she felt. It wasn't the welcome I'd expected. I was beginning to feel that I had been catapulted into the wrong family –
‘will someone please explain who this girl is and why she is here'
– when my aunt stood up. ‘Forgive me, my dear,' she said. ‘I hadn't expected that you would look so like your mother.' I couldn't tell if this pleased or pained her. ‘But then you will know that, of course,' she added. I shook my head. No, I'd never seen a photograph of Mother at my age. She had never shown me one. So far as I knew she hadn't had one. ‘Come with me,' Aunt said. She led me over to a small table, on which was an array of silver-framed photographs. She picked one up and handed it to me. I felt as if I were looking into a mirror. The same defiant eyes and obstinate chin. (That was how Father described them!)

‘The similarity between you is very striking,' Aunt said. She hesitated. ‘I grieve for your loss,' she said. ‘I was very fond of your mother.' That should have drawn me closer to her, but somehow it didn't. I put the photograph down hastily. It had unnerved me to see how alike we were. I felt sad, too. All that was left of Mother was photographs like this, the few things of hers I had, and my memories.

‘Now you must meet your cousins. Arabella,' Aunt said, beckoning forward the elder of the two girls, who was sitting on one of the spindly chairs that scattered the room. If I was the mirror of my mother, Arabella was like hers, magnified many times over. Her eyes were cold and watchful. I was suddenly reminded of a snake my ayah had found on the veranda outside our bungalow. We had eyed each other warily until Father had removed it. He'd told me it would only injure me if it felt frightened or threatened. In India I had dealt with snakes by keeping my distance. I'd never thought I'd have to live with one.

‘Arabella has been looking forward to having a companion her own age,' Aunt added.

Didn't Aunt have eyes in her head? Couldn't she see how Arabella was looking at me – as if I were a curiosity that had been dug up and should have been left where it was.

Her greeting didn't make me feel any better. ‘Welcome, cousin Penelope,' she said. The words seemed to slide through her lips in spite of herself. ‘What a pretty gown, cousin,' she added. ‘Is it an Indian fashion?'

If I hadn't already guessed what sort of girl she was I'd have known then. It's the sort of thing girls say when they want to put you down. There was nothing wrong with my gown, except that it was too thin. No one seemed to have thought when they packed for me that England was a colder country than India. Aunt didn't appear to have noticed any sarcasm in her daughter's remark. ‘It is indeed. But maybe a trifle thin for our climate. Have you nothing warmer that you can wear?'
A wrap that had once been Mother's
. It was worn and the colours had faded in the sun. I could imagine Arabella's face if I put that on.

‘Then come and sit by the fire,' Aunt said when I was silent. ‘Tomorrow, I will look over your gowns. We may be able to find some of Arabella's that will fit you.' I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to be clad in Arabella's cast-offs. Nor could I imagine myself in pink! I sat down on one of the spindly chairs by the fire. My youngest cousin – who Aunt introduced as Clementine – sat down next to me. Her face, I was relieved to see, was as open and friendly as Arabella's was closed and watchful. There was another cousin, George, who was at university, Aunt told me. And my uncle was in town, but would return in time for dinner. ‘Now we will have tea,' Aunt said. She got up and tugged the bellrope by the door. ‘We were waiting for you, my dear,' she explained. The footman who came answered the bell so promptly I felt sure he'd been listening. He didn't look at me. His face was as expressionless as a sheet of clean paper.

‘You may bring in the tea now, Robert,' Aunt said.

She drew her chair closer to me. There was so much she wanted to ask me, she said, but her questions were oddly impersonal. What had my journey been like? Had the sea been rough? She was sorry that the train had been delayed – but not once did she ask about Father, or my life in India. I felt as if a door was swinging shut. Behind it was my past life. It was as if Aunt felt about India as I felt sure Mother had about England.

The footman brought in the tea, setting down cups and plates on little tables next to us. Clementine liked a lot of milk and sugar in her tea. I took neither.

Clementine stared. ‘Don't you like milk?' she said.

‘Not in tea,' I said.

‘Is that an Indian thing?' she asked curiously.

I was about to answer when Aunt cut in. ‘Even in England, we don't always take milk in our tea. You know that, Clementine,' she said briskly. Even the word India wasn't allowed to sully Aunt's lips.

A silence fell. Anything I wanted to talk about seemed to be forbidden. I tried to hide my yawns – I hadn't had a proper night's sleep since I had left home.

‘Perhaps you would like to rest,' Aunt said, when I'd given up trying. ‘You must be tired. You've had a very long journey. I will send Baxter to you to help you unpack and to attend to you. She is not a trained lady's maid, but very willing. I'm sure you will find her satisfactory. Arabella, perhaps you will show Penelope to her room. I am sure you girls have much to talk about.' She smiled indulgently. Why did grown-ups think that all you had to do was throw girls together for them to make friends? I had more in common with Clementine, who asked if I had ever ridden an elephant and who has promised to take me to the stables.

We walked upstairs in silence. I'm sure we were both wishing that I'd never come.

‘This is your room,' Arabella said, opening a door into a large chamber that overlooked the park. A fire had been lit, but a howling gale blew through this room, too. Pieces of yellowing newspaper were stuck in the gaps between the windows and the frames, but it sounded from their constant rattling as if someone was trying to climb in. I saw a damp patch on the ceiling. Old wallpaper had peeled away like skin in places. I began to see that the grandeur that had so impressed me when I'd arrived at the house was merely a facade. Underneath it, cracks were growing and spreading. Chairs wobbled, paintwork peeled and water poured down from leaky gutters – as if the whole edifice was being propped up when perhaps it should be quietly allowed to crumble. It was as if I was looking in on a dying world, in which people like my relations would soon have no place. But in the meantime appearances were to be kept up, the rot ignored until it was no longer possible to do so.

Arabella loitered about, casting curious glances at my trunk, which had been put down at the foot of my bed – a huge four-poster. Tired red hangings lifted slightly in the gale. What did she think I kept in it? A collection of elephant tusks? My pet snake? I had no intention of opening it until she had gone. I couldn't think why she stayed – we had nothing to say to each other. At last she gave up and left me to dress. Dinner was not till eight. In two hours' time. How long did it take to change a gown? I crawled on to the bed and thought longingly of the cosy bungalow I'd left. How would I stand this cold and draughty place? Misery tugged at me – a nagging ache. Why had Father sent me away to live in this family where I was not wanted? Where I did not belong and never would? Rain had begun to patter against the window. I would
never
get used to this place,
never
. I pulled the hangings shut around me.

BOOK: Langdown Manor
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