Authors: M.C. Beaton
The author warns readers not on any account to try any of the cosmetic recipes in this book.
Love that comes too late,
Like a remorseful pardon slowly carried.
Miss Hannah Pym was in love.
She had fancied herself in love a long time ago when she had still been a servant, rather than the gentlewoman of independent means she was now. But this, she realized, was actually love at last. The real thing.
Not the flowery hopeful love of sweet sixteen, but middle-aged love, hopeless love, yearning bordered with black despair.
Hannah was in her forties. The object of her affections was a bachelor in his fifties. Nothing, on the face of it, could have been more suitable. But the
object of her affections was none other than Sir George Clarence, brother of her late employer, the employer who had left her a legacy in his will and therefore enabled her to say goodbye to her days of servitude. That had been at the beginning of the year, this brand-new year of 1800.
She had used some of the money to go on four journeys in the Flying Machines, as the stage-coaches were called, and had acquired a faithful footman, Benjamin, and the friendship of Sir George.
But that friendship showed no sign of blossoming into anything warmer. When she had returned from her last expedition, to Brighton, Hannah had suffered a blow. Sir George had been on the point of proposing to a Miss Bearcroft. When Miss Bearcroft had been unmasked as a lady of doubtful reputation, Sir George had retreated, feeling himself lucky not to have made a terrible mistake, but the very fact that he had proved himself to be so vulnerable to the opposite sex had struck Hannah like a hammer-blow. Instead of giving her hope, it had given her gloomy thoughts of a Sir George susceptible to the next doubtful charmer who set her cap at him.
These dismal thoughts were going through her head as she waited in the yard of the Spread Eagle in Gracechurch Street for the Dover coach. Should she have stayed in London rather than taking the pain of her newfound love off to the English coast? And yet Sir George enjoyed hearing about her adventures, and how could Hannah Pym have any adventures to tell him if she ceased her travels?
The coach, the
, was brought round into the yard. Benjamin helped the guard stow their luggage in the basket, assisted Hannah in boarding the coach, and then climbed up onto the roof to take his seat with the outsiders.
Hannah was the first passenger on the inside. She wondered vaguely what the other passengers would be like, but without any of her normal sharp interest. She had already brought about several successful matches between couples she had met on her travels, but a lady who now desires more than anything else in the world to be married herself cannot turn her mind to other people’s romances. Hannah decided to mind her own business and try to enjoy the scenery and think up descriptions to tell Sir George: Sir George of the piercing blue eyes and silver-white hair.
One by one, the other passengers began to board the coach. There was an army captain, a grim-faced man, wearing his pigtail and scarlet regimentals; a plain young lady, in a depressing bonnet, guarded by what appeared to be her mother; and an elderly clergyman and his mousy wife. A dull lot, thought Hannah uncharitably.
The hour was six in the morning and an angry dawn was rising above the jumbled chimneys of the City of London. A high wind was blowing and the cowls on the chimney-pots spun round and round, sending snakes of grey smoke down into the streets.
The coach was to go to Dover by Rochester, Sittingbourne, Ospringe and Canterbury. It rumbled its way through London and down through the turnpike at New Cross. From there, under
increasingly black and threatening skies, it made its way to Deptford;
, where in 1581 Queen Elizabeth went on board Drake’s ship, the
, in which the greatest of English seamen had circumnavigated the globe. On board the
the queen dined, and after dinner knighted the captain. Twelve years after this famous dinner, the playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed at Deptford at the age of twenty-nine in a tavern brawl.
Immediately beyond Deptford, they began to travel across Blackheath. Hannah, who had read many history books and guidebooks, recollected that it was at Blackheath in 1381 that Wat Tyler had marshalled his one hundred thousand rebels. That other rebel, Lord Audley, had also gathered his troops at
, having brought them all the way from
, and he had suffered a defeat immediately afterwards by Henry VII.
Blackheath was full of memories of kings and queens. In 1400, Henry IV met Manuel, Emperor of Constantinople. Henry V, after a long triumphal procession from Dover, was met on Blackheath by the mayor and five hundred citizens of London. And it was on Blackheath that the already much-married Henry VIII received his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and on Blackheath where the crowds cried, ‘Long live King Charles!’ as the restored Charles II rose between his brothers, the Dukes of York and Gloucester.
Hannah brought her thoughts back to the present when the coach finally rolled into the yard of the Bull at Dartford, where the passengers were to breakfast. It
was a fine old galleried inn. From the archway hung a veritable forest of game, banging into the faces of the outsiders on the roof as the coach swept underneath.
Hannah climbed stiffly down. For the first time she could ever remember, she felt vaguely unwell and wondered if love, like a sickness, ate into one’s very bones.
She found herself the focus of interested attention because of Benjamin, her footman, who stood punctiliously behind her chair, dressed in black-and-gold livery. Hannah felt uneasy every time she thought about that livery. Benjamin had bought it in Brighton and she knew he had purchased it with his winnings from gambling. For the hundredth time Hannah thought she really must do something about Benjamin’s gambling. What if he were to lose heavily and she had to pay his debts? Her legacy of five thousand pounds had seemed such a fortune a short time ago, before she moved up in the world, away from her little room above the bakery in Kensington to her now smart and fashionable apartment in the heart of London’s West End. Admittedly, thanks to Benjamin, she had not had to dig very deep into it, for the enterprising footman always seemed to have a supply of ready money from gambling for coals and candles and food.
Hannah’s conscience stabbed her. She was living off his earnings,
earnings, she told herself severely.
The breakfast was superb. Hannah dismissed Benjamin, who went to take his own meal with the
coachman and guard. She glanced across the room and stiffened in shock. There was a large mirror over the sideboard and she saw her own reflection clearly.
Now Hannah, like a lot of middle-aged ladies, hardly ever looked at herself closely in the glass, preferring to carry about with her a manufactured picture of her own appearance. But there she was, the real Hannah Pym, fortyish and spinsterish from her flat-chested, spare figure to her sandy hair and crooked nose. Her only beauty lay in her eyes, which were like opals and changed colour according to her mood.
How, thought Hannah bitterly, could she ever expect the handsome and distinguished Sir George Clarence to become enamoured of such as she?
‘Have you had a Spasm?’ asked a voice next to her. Hannah controlled her features and turned to face her companion, the mother of the young girl on the coach. ‘I am very well, I thank you,’ said Hannah politely.
‘I am Mrs Conningham,’ said the lady, ‘and this is my daughter, Abigail.’
The young lady, Abigail, threw Hannah a tentative smile. Warmed by good food, the passengers began to relax. The soldier turned out to be a Captain Beltravers, and the clergyman, a non-conformist minister called Mr Osborne, introduced his wife, who blushed furiously at having to speak to anyone at all.
Hannah began to revive. Her interest in her fellow passengers sharpened. As long as one could be interested in people and their problems, then one could manage to ignore one’s own, thought Hannah. ‘Are we all going as far as Dover?’ she asked.
Mrs Conningham, her daughter, and the captain were all going the full length of the journey, but the clergyman and his wife were leaving the coach at Rochester.
Hannah wondered why Miss Abigail Conningham looked so sad. She might not look so very plain if she were happy, thought Hannah. As it was, her little face was white and pinched, and her eyes looked very small, although there was a suspicious puffiness about them as if she had been weeping. And why did the captain look so grim and old? Studying him, Hannah reflected he must be only in his early thirties, and that was followed by a sharp pang of memory of the days gone by when Hannah Pym would have regarded anyone in his thirties as old.
She asked Abigail whether she were still at school and Abigail answered shyly that she had left a seminary in Chiswick over three years ago. Hannah judged her to be twenty, older than she had first thought. ‘And what takes you to Dover?’ asked Hannah, her eyes turning green with curiosity.
‘My uncle resides there,’ said Abigail bleakly. ‘We are to live with him.’
Her mother threw her a warning look and she subsided into miserable silence.
When they boarded the coach again, the heavens opened and the rain came down, steel rods of rain, drumming on the roof and cascading across the glass. Hannah hoped her footman would not catch the ague. There was no let-up in the rain. From Dartford, they ploughed through Gravesend and so towards
Rochester. The inside of the coach was damp and cold, and the passengers shivered and wondered if the rain would ever stop.
Hannah thought of her previous adventures and reflected gloomily there would be nothing to tell Sir George about this journey except a tale of damp and discomfort. There was no handsome aristocrat, no pretty heroine, nothing but a grim captain and a plain, sad girl. But there was one beautiful lady shortly about to cross Hannah’s path, although if Hannah had seen her at that moment, she would have doubted very much if a match could be made for such a creature.
Lady Deborah Western looked out at the pouring rain, yawned, and swung her booted feet, which had been resting on a console table, down onto the floor.
‘Damned flat, ain’t it?’ she said to her brother.
Lady Deborah and her brother were twins. Often they were mistaken for brothers, for Lady Deborah affected men’s clothes. Her golden curls were cut short and she had the same firm jaw and straight nose as her brother and the same large blue eyes. Their father, the Earl of Staye, was off on his travels again, Turkey this time. The countess had died giving birth to the twins, and they had looked after each other from the day they were both old enough to toddle and begin their career of routing any servant from nursery maid to governess who tried to thwart them. They hunted, rode and shot and fished together, recently with an added pleasure, for their father had threatened that the next time he returned, Deborah
was to be presented at her first Season and brother William was to join a regiment, although neither could quite believe their indulgent parent would carry out such a dreadful threat.
‘Have you heard that Ashton’s back from the wars?’ asked Lord William, taking a sugarplum from a box and tossing it to a mangy wolfhound who was lying on one of the drawing-room sofas.
‘What!’ Lady Deborah looked interested. ‘Not Puritan Ashton?’
‘Yes, returned from the wars to take up the title and do something with that crumbling family barn on the other side of Rochester.’
‘He’ll have enough money,’ said Lady Deborah. ‘The old earl never spent a penny if he could help it. Left a fortune.’
‘Don’t envy him the task of putting his place in order all the same,’ commented William idly. ‘He’ll be in his thirties now.’ He looked at his sister slyly. ‘You know Papa has hopes for you in that direction.’
‘Pooh! Ashton’s too old,’ said the nineteen-year-old Lady Deborah. ‘I remember him. How old were we when he came here? Ten or eleven? And he told Papa a good thrashing was what we both needed.’
‘You put mice in his best boots,’ said her brother reflectively. ‘Wasn’t he mad!’
‘And stuffy,’ said Deborah, wrinkling her nose. ‘Do you remember what he said to Papa? “You cannot let these children run wild and behave any way they like or they will grow up to be monsters.”’
‘And he was right,’ said William with a grin. ‘You
must admit, Deborah, you’re a sadly unnatural female, wearing men’s clothes and hunting and shooting. You’ll have the dowagers at Almack’s fainting with horror.’
‘I am not going to Almack’s. I can always talk Papa round,’ said Lady Deborah. ‘Why should he bother? I don’t need a rich husband. We have plenty of money. I like it here.’ She looked happily around the cluttered drawing-room, full of discarded books, game bags, fishing poles and guns.
She loved their home, Downs Abbey, with its dark old rooms and twisting corridors and smoking fires. The drawing-room looked out on a prospect of green parkland and ornamental lake. The earl employed an excellent head gardener. Despite their careless ways, the twins helped the estates manager to see that everything was in order when their father was away, and knew as much about the running of the estates as he did himself.