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Authors: Lucinda Riley

Tags: #Historical, #Contemporary, #Romance

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BOOK: The Orchid House
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The maid jumped. ‘Sorry, m’um, I was just thinking how beautiful you was. I’ve never seen a girl as beautiful as you. You look like one of them actresses from the flicks.’

Olivia was rather taken aback. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘It’s awfully kind of you to say so, but I’m quite sure I don’t.’

‘Well, I think you do,’ confirmed Elsie. ‘And, m’um, you must forgive me if I don’t get things quite right for you, it’s the first time I’ve been a lady’s maid, you see.’ Elsie heaved Olivia’s case on to the bed and unlocked it. ‘Now, if you can tell me what you’ll be wanting to wear for afternoon tea, I can lay it out for you. And then I’ll take your dress for dinner down with me for a press and a freshen.’ Elsie looked at Olivia enquiringly.

Olivia pointed to her new pink dress with the Peter Pan collar and large white buttons placed in a row down the front of it. ‘That for now, and then the blue brocade for later.’

‘Right you are, m’um.’ Elsie nodded, unfolding the dresses carefully and laying them out on the bed. ‘I’m sure that blue’ll look beautiful with your complexion. Shall I hang the rest of your clothes in your wardrobe for you?’

‘You’re very kind, thank you, Elsie.’

Olivia sat uncomfortably on the tapestry-covered stool at the end of the bed as Elsie bustled around the room. She had hardly been aware of her staff in India; just accepted their position as servants. But she was unnerved by this girl, who was probably about the same age as herself, and English.

Her father had complained vigorously when they had arrived back at their old Surrey home about how difficult it was to find staff these days. There were far fewer girls going into service, he said, preferring to take jobs as secretaries in offices and in the new department stores that were opening up all over the country.

‘Girls don’t want to
serve
any more,’ he had muttered.

Although, from their visits to the country estates of her parents’ friends, Olivia had observed that female emancipation was far further ahead in the big cities.

‘Right, m’um, I’ll just be nipping downstairs to give your evening dress a press and then I’ll be back up after tea to draw you a bath and light a fire. Is there anything else I can get you?’

‘No thank you, Elsie,’ she smiled. ‘And by the way, please call me Olivia.’

‘Thank you, m’um – I mean, Miss Olivia,’ Elsie said and she scurried to the door and closed it behind her.

That evening, before dinner, Elsie proved to be a rather fine hairdresser. ‘Would you let me put it up for you, miss?’ she said, brushing Olivia’s thick golden waves. ‘I think it’ll suit you, make you look sophisticated, like Greta Garbo. I’ve practised on my sister before, so I know how to do it.’

Olivia sat on a stool in front of the mirror and nodded. ‘All right, Elsie, I trust you.’ After all, she thought to herself, she could always take it down.

‘I love doing hair, wanted to train proper-like, but the nearest salon’s fifteen miles away and I haven’t got no transport. There’s only one omnibus a day that leaves from the Gate Lodge at eleven o’clock. That’s no good for me now, is it?’ Elsie confided as her expert hands brushed and curled and pinned Olivia’s hair up into a sophisticated pile.

‘Would you not think of moving into the city?’ questioned Olivia.

Elsie looked horrified. ‘What! And leave my ma with all my brothers and sisters? She needs my help and the money I bring in. There.’ Elsie stepped back to admire her handiwork. ‘What do you think?’

‘Thank you, Elsie,’ Olivia smiled. ‘You’ve done it very well indeed.’

‘Don’t thank me, Miss Olivia, it was a privilege. Now, can I help you with your corset?’

‘You’re a darling, Elsie,’ Olivia said shyly. ‘To be frank about it, I’ve no idea how it goes on. I’ve never worn one in my life and I’m bound to get into an awful muddle with it.’

Elsie picked it up off the bed and studied it. ‘This is the new “wasp waist” corset,’ she said admiringly. ‘I seen them in
Woman’s Weekly.
It gives you a perfect hour-glass figure, so they say. Right, I think I knows how it goes on. We’ll do it together, Miss Olivia, don’t you worry,’ she comforted.

With the corset on and Olivia utterly convinced there was no room for an olive, let alone a four-course dinner, Elsie slipped the new midnight-blue brocade dress over her head and fastened it at the back.

Olivia smoothed down the skirt, which frothed out below her newly nipped-in waist, and gazed at her reflection in the mirror.

The hair, the corset and the dress had achieved a transformation. It was no longer a young girl who stared back at her from the mirror, it was a woman.

‘Ooh, Miss Olivia, you look so beautiful. That colour matches your eyes perfectly. You’ll be turning a few heads tonight and that’s for sure. Hope you get to sit next to Master Harry, his Lordship’s son; all us girls are in love with him,’ Elsie admitted. ‘He’s so handsome.’

‘Knowing my luck, I shan’t. I’ll almost certainly get the old Major with the paunch that I met downstairs during afternoon tea.’ Olivia smiled and raised her eyebrows and the two girls shared a moment of understanding that crossed their social barriers.

‘Well, for your sake, I hope not, Miss Olivia. Enjoy yourself.’

Olivia turned at the open door. ‘Thank you, Elsie, you’ve been awfully kind. I’ll report back later.’ She winked and left the room.

Olivia was not the only member of the household who was dreading dinner that night. The Honourable Harry Crawford had already decided that when he took over Wharton Park from his father, there would be no more shooting parties. The whole sensation of killing a defenceless, living thing made him sick to the stomach.

Struggling to put his own cufflinks in – his man had been sent to assist the elderly Major with dressing – Harry straightened his bow tie in the mirror. And wondered how many other human beings felt they had been born into the wrong life. In his, ‘duty’ was everything. And, although the many who served him at home and in his future regiment might look on with envy, Harry thought he would swap with any of them in an instant.

He knew no one was really interested in how he felt; his life had been mapped out for him long before he had even been conceived. He was a mere vessel of continuity, and the situation could not be altered.

At least the two years of hell at Sandhurst were over. He was on two weeks’ leave before joining the 5th Battalion Royal Norfolks – his father’s old regiment – for his first posting as an officer. Having attained the very highest rank, Lord Christopher Crawford was now working at Whitehall in an advisory capacity to the Government.

There were rumblings of war … the thought made Harry break out in a cold sweat. Chamberlain was doing his damndest and all were hoping for a peaceful resolution, but given that his father was privy to the actual facts, rather than the gossip on the streets, Harry knew this was unlikely to be the case. His father had said there would be war within the year and Harry believed him.

Harry was not a coward. He had no problem with the thought of giving his life for his country. However, the gung-ho attitude of his fellow officers, who were relishing the thought of giving the Krauts a jolly good thrashing – a thoughtless euphemism for death and destruction on a grand scale – was not an emotion he shared. He kept his pacifist views to himself – they didn’t go down awfully well in the Officers’ Mess. But often, he would lie awake in his narrow bed at night, wondering whether, if faced with a Kraut on the end of a long gun, he would actually be able to pull his trigger to save his own skin.

He knew there were plenty of others who thought like him. The problem was, they didn’t have a high-profile, high-ranking general as their father, or a history of two hundred and fifty years of family heroism behind them.

Harry had acknowledged a long time ago that his father’s genes had obviously given him a miss. He resembled his mother, Adrienne, far more in personality – gentle and artistic – but also in the way that he was prone to sudden, abrupt fits of depression, when the world turned black and he struggled to see the point of living. His mother called these moments her
petit mal
, and would retire to bed until she had shaken it off. As an officer in the Army, Harry did not have that option. His lack of prowess with all things military had remained undiscussed with his father. In fact, their conversation was limited to a cheery ‘Good morning’ or a ‘Day seems fine enough’ and an occasional ‘Get Sable to pour me a scotch, will you, old chap?’

His father could have been any one of the commanding officers he had dealt with at Sandhurst. His mother knew, of course, how Harry felt about his life and his future, but he understood she was powerless to help. So they did not discuss it.

Yet, at least she had managed to provide the one thing that gave him solace, and for this he was eternally grateful: when Harry was six, and against his father’s wishes, Adrienne had employed a piano teacher to tutor him in the basics of the instrument. And it was there, sitting with his fingers on the ivory keys, that Harry had acquired some sort of meaning to his life. He had since become a very, very good pianist. Partly because, both at school and at home, it was possible to hide either in the music block or the drawing room and keep himself busy and out of harm’s way.

His music tutor at Eton, seeing his talent, had suggested he audition for the Royal College of Music. His father refused to countenance it. The boy was going to Sandhurst. Playing the piano was for dilettantes and not a career for the future Lord Crawford.

And that had been that.

Harry had continued to practise as much as he could, although his playing at Sandhurst was limited to entertaining the Mess with modern pieces by Coward or Cole Porter, and Chopin was not on the agenda.

When the bouts of blackness hit him, Harry sometimes hoped for reincarnation, to be in a world where he could utilise his talent and his passion. Perhaps, he sighed, if he bought it in the war to come, he would be one step nearer his goal.

10

As Olivia entered the drawing room, she had the new and not unpleasant feeling of her arrival being noted approvingly. Lord Crawford was the first over to her.

‘Olivia, isn’t it? My, my, how that Indian sun nurtures buds into full bloom. Snifter?’ he said.

‘Thanks awfully,’ she replied as she took a gin from the tray proffered by the hovering butler.

‘Rather glad you’re my neighbour at table tonight, my dear,’ Lord Crawford commented, throwing a discreet nod in the butler’s direction. He answered with an equally discreet nod back. Even if Olivia hadn’t been beside him for dinner, she was now.

‘So, how are you finding Blighty?’ he asked.

‘It’s thrilling to see the country I’ve heard so much about for myself,’ Olivia lied smoothly.

‘My dear, I’m delighted that you should take the time to visit us in our rural Norfolk backwater. You’re doing the Season, so your papa tells me?’

‘Yes.’ Olivia nodded.

‘Jolly good show,’ Christopher chuckled. ‘One of the best times of my life. Now, let me introduce you to my wife. She was indisposed this afternoon, but seems to have recovered for this evening.’ He guided her over to a slim, elegant woman. ‘Adrienne, do meet Olivia Drew-Norris, whom I’m sure is going to break many chaps’ hearts this Season, just like you did years ago.’

Adrienne, Lady Crawford, turned towards Olivia. She extended her delicate white hand and, in a parody of the male handshake, their fingers touched.


Enchantée
,’ said Adrienne, smiling at her approvingly. ‘You are indeed a heart-breaker.’

‘It’s awfully kind of you to say so, Lady Crawford.’ Olivia was beginning to feel like a prize heifer being paraded around a showground, waiting to be judged. She hoped this wasn’t a pre-cursor of the Season to come.

‘Please, you must call me Adrienne. I am sure we will be great friends,
n’est-ce pas
?’

Lord Crawford looked down fondly at his wife. ‘Good show, good show. I’ll leave Olivia in your capable hands, my dear. Perhaps you can give her a few tips.’ He strode off to welcome two new arrivals.

Olivia took the moment to enjoy Adrienne’s own beauty. Although mature, in her early forties at least, Adrienne had the body of a slim young girl. And a beautifully sculpted face, with high, chiselled cheekbones, underneath a flawless, ivory skin. Her quintessential femininity reminded Olivia more of a delicate Indian Maharani, rather than the usual female English aristocrat, built as they were to withstand the harshness of the British weather, with wide hips to engender the brood of children they needed to continue the family line.

Adrienne was so elegant, so fragile, Olivia felt she would be more suited to a salon in Paris than a draughty English country house. And, indeed, her mother had told her that Adrienne was French. Judging by the way she wore what was a very simple black cocktail dress, adorned only with a string of creamy pearls, she had the effortless
chic
of her native land.

‘So, Olivia, you are back in this dreadful country, with its filthy weather and its lack of natural sunlight,
n’est-ce pas
?’

Adrienne stated this as a matter of fact and Olivia was taken aback by her bluntness. ‘I am certainly finding the change is taking rather a lot of getting used to,’ she answered as diplomatically as she could.

Adrienne’s tiny hand rested on hers. ‘
Ma chérie
, I too was brought up in a place full of warmth and light. When I left our château in the South of France to come here to England, I did not think I could bear it. You are the same. I can read how much you miss India in your eyes.’

‘I do,’ she whispered.

‘Well, I can only promise you it will get easier.’ Adrienne gave an elegant shrug. ‘Now, I must introduce you to my son, Harry. He is of your age and will keep you company whilst I play the hostess
parfaite
.
Pardon
,
chérie
, I will go find him and bring him to you.’

As she watched her hostess glide across the room, Olivia felt disarmed by Adrienne’s empathetic assessment. She was used, on such occasions, to only making ‘small talk’, never delving below the surface to discover more. Any form of inner thoughts – or worse, emotions – was frowned upon by British society. That much she
had
learnt from the Club in Poona. Her conversation with Adrienne, albeit short, had comforted her. And she allowed herself a secret smile.

BOOK: The Orchid House
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