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Authors: Elisabeth Kidd

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The LadyShip

BOOK: The LadyShip
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THE LADYSHIP

 

Elisabeth Kidd

 

Chapter 1

 

Miss Elinor Bennett’s
days began early, and each was much like the one before. Nevertheless, she had no com
plaint. The life of the landlady of a posting inn on the Bath
Road was anything but dull and, Miss Bennett being young
and female, The LadyShip enjoyed a prosperity that was the
envy of larger but more orthodox hostelries.

This was not to say that the sole attraction of The LadyShip
was its unconventional mistress. To the contrary, it
was distinguished by a number of small comforts that
added up to an admirable whole. The inn’s few bedrooms,
though small, were remarkably clean and comfortable. The
kitchen boasted of an exceptional goose-liver pie and the
taproom of an ambrosial ale, the source of which was local
but untraceable by the most determined interrogator. Sev
eral private parlours were equipped with well-stocked
writing-desks for the benefit of those with urgent business to transact, and a stable of messenger boys (recruited from
the neighbouring villages) stood ready to convey any pri
vate letter anywhere within a half-day’s ride from New
bury. An elegantly appointed dining-room was available for large parties, and a snug coffee room, with a number of fine Morland prints on the walls and a supply of chess and back
gammon boards in the cupboards, was open to any guest at
any hour.

Not to be endured at The LadyShip was the bustle and
noise of a common coaching inn, where muffled passen
gers under the tyranny of the guard’s timepiece rushed into
the dining-room to gulp down a morsel of breakfast and a
scalding cup of coffee while the horses were changed with the tight efficiency of a house catering to hundreds of such
travellers in a day. At The LadyShip, the discriminating trav
eller enjoyed at his leisure the amenities of the establish
ment while pursuing his journey in a private chaise and
the most commodious manner possible, even if—as occa
sionally occurred—he were in a tearing hurry on business
that Miss Bennett’s staff was far too discreet to enquire into.

Nevertheless, there was no doubt that the first thing to
catch a traveller’s attention—and, if he were male, his
fancy—was the sight of the landlady’s youthful but authori
tative figure standing on her doorstep to welcome a guest
and to oversee the activities of her staff. She was well above
average height, but built along boyish rather than Juno
esque lines (a circumstance Miss Bennett herself considered
a mixed blessing). Clad in a plain blue or green kerseymere
gown, often with a scarcely more decorative apron tied
around her waist or an old woollen shawl thrown over her
slim shoulders, she nevertheless held herself with a dignity
that commanded both respect and admiration. From the massive Creighton, the smithy, down to the most incon
spicuous stable-boy, Miss Bennett’s employees were ever
ready to serve her; and if a newcomer to this company
made the mistake of viewing the young mistress as anything less than a lady, he was soon put to rights by his se
niors, who advised him to look sharp or he would find him
self seeking employment elsewhere.

Miss Bennett further discouraged any impression she
might have given of helpless femininity by maintaining a
resolute demeanour and concealing as best she could her native charms. In this she was not entirely successful, al
though she wore her glossy chestnut hair pulled back into a
severe knot and she did not trouble to cover her capable-looking hands with gloves or to protect her naturally fine complexion by the application of strawberry lotion. Her full mouth was set in purposeful lines from the habit of
three years—since she had taken over the management of
the inn on the death of her father—and the necessity of ap
pearing firmly in command of her business.

The business was, to be precise, not Elinor’s but that of
her brother, Edward, who was serving with the army of oc
cupation in France. Since the great victory at Waterloo the
summer before, she had looked forward to Ned’s return—not,
as might be supposed, to relieve her of her tasks,
which she did not find burdensome, but to free her atten
tion for her younger sister, Lucinda, who, at sixteen, was
just released from the most genteel educational establish
ment her sister could find for her in Bath and was ready—
at least in Elinor’s fond estimation—to be presented to an even more genteel society outside the classroom,
thereby to raise her above the status of mere innkeeper’s
daughter.

However, until her brother’s return, all the plans Elinor had so carefully laid for her sister’s future must remain in
abeyance. For the nonce, business continued much as
usual. Elinor had risen at dawn and, as was her habit as soon
as she had dressed, she glanced out of her window to take the
measure of the new day—a crisp morning in late October.
A brief rain during the night had settled the dust brought in
yesterday from the highway and had given the grey-painted
stables a new-washed look. The leaves were well gone from
the trees surrounding the spacious cobbled yard of The LadyShip
, but it was not yet plainly winter. Elinor liked
winter; she found a nip in the air exhilarating.

Below her
window to one side stood a farm tumbril being unloaded
by a sturdy lad who threw his sacks of potatoes easily over
his shoulder to haul them into the kitchen. To her right,
across the yard, an ostler was harnessing a new horse to the
breaking-in cart under the watchful eye of Nash, the head
groom.

The coffee room below, Elinor discovered when she had
descended into this chamber by way of the curving stair
case that led to it, had already been in use that morning by
some traveller making an early start. A bright fire burnt in
the grate, and the waiter—a dapper individual with black
hair parted in the middle and slanted black eyebrows that
gave him a puckish look—was laying a fresh white cloth on
one of the round mahogany tables. He looked up when Eli
nor came in and bade her a good day.

“Good morning to you, Evans. Getting off to an early
start, are we?”

“In my opinion, madam,” Evans said, raising his brows
just enough so that they formed a straight line across his
forehead, “the young gentleman did not get to bed last
night at all. He breakfasted on coffee and
oysters.”

“Did he pay his bill?” Elinor asked, smothering a laugh.

Evans confirmed that he had, in accents suggestive of a
pre-dawn struggle to convince the “young gentleman” of his obligation to meet this reckoning. Elinor commended
Evans for his handling of a delicate situation and went on
her way through the dining-room into the adjoining tap
room and thence down the central hall to the lobby, which
fronted the High Street. All was in order there, as it was in
the kitchen (already redolent of meat pies and fresh-baked
bread) on the lower level.

This spacious apartment was the pride of The LadyShip— and of its chatelaine, Mrs Nash, the stout, silent, but kindly-
eyed wife of the head groom. Highly polished platters and
cooking vessels lined the shelves covering one entire wall,
and from the ceiling were suspended a number of hams,
tongues, and flitches of bacon. A tall oak cupboard held a
set of blue Staffordshireware, and beside the fire stood two
matching high-back settles, upon which off-duty staff
members liked to take their ease or a tankard of home
brewed at the end of a long day. These were unoccupied at
present, but at the large deal table along the opposite wall
sat Teddy, the young boots, apparently mounting guard
over Flora, a red-cheeked little kitchen-maid, who was
shelling walnuts into a china bowl.

Bidding these youngest members of her staff a friendly
good-morning, Elinor then returned by way of the staff stairs to the taproom and thence through the yard door,
where she stood for a moment surveying her domain with
the satisfaction of one who has seen a modest enterprise
blossom into a full-blown success. She smiled at Mr Creigh
ton, who gave her a gruff but deferential good-day, and at
the farm boy who, having delivered his potatoes, was now
on his way home; he blushed, tipped his cap awkwardly, and slapped his surprised old mare across the shanks with
the reins.

Elinor then crossed the yard to the stables, where she found her head groom readying four horses for a private
carriage that was expected momentarily. Two postilions in
The LadyShip’s green-and-grey livery and the outrider from
the carriage in question lounged about watching this operation, but when Miss Bennett appeared—as she was wont to do just when she was least expected, the senior boy later in
formed their visitor—the postilions doffed their broad-
brimmed green hats, and the outrider left off whistling
“The Huntsman’s Chorus” to give her an unpracticed bow.
At the sound of this movement, Nash, an open-faced coun
tryman of middle age, turned to greet her and, on her enquiry, to say that he anticipated a busy morning.

Business, for the moment at least, was slack, if expectant. The air was still. The inn sign, decorated with the prow of a
sailing ship on which was carved an aristocratic lady in a
coronet, was silent on its hinges. Elinor returned to the inn
and seated herself at her desk to look over the accounts. It
was no more than a few minutes, however, before the
sound of hooves could be heard to the east, and she was
obliged to step into the yard to greet the carriage Nash had
been preparing for. Its occupants—a stout, red-faced trades
man and his wife, with their three over-dressed daugh
ters—consumed two helpings each of hot chocolate and
rolls while their horses were being changed. Then, close on their departing dust, came a sporty gold-and-white phaeton
driven by a young sprig under the tutelage of an experi
enced former mail-coachman well known to the local inns.

This aspiring whip was followed during the course of the
morning by a family party consisting mainly of small and very grubby children; a pair of elderly bucks in the sort of
hired post-chaise referred to for its colour as a “yellow
bounder”; a young man on foot who offered to paint a
more artistic sign for Miss Bennett’s eminently deserving
establishment and who was only with difficulty persuaded
that she liked her sea-going lady; and a very fat gentleman
in a park phaeton who ate all Mrs Nash’s jam tarts and then
complained about the price.

Shortly after noon, however, a
much more welcome gentleman drove through the arched
entranceway in an elegant curricle drawn by a fine pair of matched bays and brought his vehicle smartly to a halt in
front of the stable doors.

Elinor, who had observed this arrival from the window
of the dining-room, tore off her apron, smoothed down her
hair, and emerged into the yard to greet the newcomer
with a smile and an outwardly composed countenance.

“Welcome, Mr Allingham! We have not had the honour of
your company for some weeks, I believe.”

Marcus Allingham descended from his curricle and handed
the reins to the ostler, who led the still-frisky bays into the
stables. Mr Allingham had been driving himself in apparent
disregard—except for a multi-caped driving coat thrown
over his shoulders and a black beaver hat, which he imme
diately removed to Miss Bennett—of the chill in the air. Be
neath the coat he was neatly but conservatively attired, and his light brown hair was cut in the short Bedford crop, giv
ing him a rather aesthetic appearance despite the considera
ble breadth of his shoulders.

BOOK: The LadyShip
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