Authors: Janet Todd
Lady Susan had not wished for children. Indeed, she went to some trouble to avoid them by urging her spouse to use a pig's bladder. Frederick protested â it was a device fit only for prostitutes â but he did what he was told. He proved inept and Frederica Susanna was the result. After this, Lady Susan had every right to disoblige her husband and he was too well bred to make improper demands.
To her acquaintances in town, she lamented the absence of more children, declaring the joys of the one she had though, as some remarked, seeing little of her. It had recently become the fashion to dote on children, and fashion, Lady Susan knew, must be followed.
A boy might have suited better. A lad away at Eton, returning with other well-born youths only for holidays, might have reconciled her to motherhood, but little good could come of a daughter. When, after considerable pain to the mother, she had been born, Frederick had wanted to call the child simply Susanna, to remind him of his love for the parent. It was not a gesture his wife appreciated and, with some irony lost on poor Frederick, she'd countered with âFrederica'. He was touched.
Locked away in the country the girl had grown up shy and affectionate. Frederick adored and spoilt her, giving her his time and attention to an extent his wife found comical. Happily she rarely encountered it. When she did visit, Frederica tried to please her, as she'd been taught. Lady Susan found the efforts unappealing.
Now at sixteen the daughter was of an age to prove the mother not in the bloom of youth, which Lady Susan's admirer Lord Gamestone had been kind enough to assume. She herself knew well that manner was youth's main constituent, and of the pretty youthful manner she was mistress. But a great girl hanging on her train gave a lie to the most artless gestures.
Lady Susan had just had her hair dressed by Barton, her lady's maid. Barton was fixing the black ribbons onto her mourning bonnet and veil when there came a timid knock at the door.
Frederica, her eyes red with weeping, crept in. Lady Susan turned away. The vulnerable expression was unseemly: the face might as well be made of glass.
âEverything is ready, Mama. They are taking away Papa.' Frederica choked back the tears, smeared her hand across her broad white face then wiped it unthinkingly on the black silk of her dress.
Lady Susan sighed. Mourning did not become her daughter. She'd sent Barton to dress the straight brown hair, to frizz it and form it into fashionable curls, which were now reined in by the new satin bandeau her mother had bought her. Frederica should have looked elegant.
âWell, of course,' replied Lady Susan. âFunerals are very upsetting â they should be quick. Stop fiddling Barton and see that the servants are ready and waiting. Tell Jeffrey to spruce himself up. He looked shabby when I last saw him. He should close his mouth when standing. Hurry.'
Barton was not one of those ladies' maids who fling down the comb at a peremptory word â her mistress would not have tolerated it â but she did allow herself to flounce out, brushing past Frederica. She admired Lady Susan in spite of her sharp tongue, but despised the insipid daughter. She, Sally Barton, was worthy of better things and was annoyed to see someone with advantages she couldn't use. She enjoyed the idea of berating Jeffrey, he was a compact willing lad with strong arms and a weak head, and, given her mistress's small establishment, he was all Barton had to command.
âGive me your arm, Frederica.'
The girl looked at her mother in surprise, but moved towards her, stumbling over loose threads in the Turkey carpet. âAnd do stop snivelling. It's blotching your face.'
âYes, Mama,' mumbled Frederica as two large tears oozed from her eyes and streaked her cheeks.
The governess Mrs Baines, a curate's plain daughter, had been chosen by Frederick for her presumed morals; in Lady Susan's view she'd been a sad failure. Frederica's morals might be impeccable, but her manners were not: she could as well have been raised in the nursery by rheumatic old Nanny or by Cook in the kitchen.
Lady Susan despaired of all the Someyton servants. To Frederick's credit he'd ensured their daughter did not mix too much with them. Frederica would have enjoyed sitting in the cosy scullery during dark evenings, but her father believed too much association below stairs made a girl superstitious, and it might expose her ears to scandalous gossip fit only for servants. The cooking was of course execrable â as Lady Susan had remarked to Barton as she sent back yet another inedible soup. She'd been amused to find dinner had been set for four in the afternoon, but in the event it was probably as well to get it over.
Miss Davidson, the housekeeper, a waif in her ladyship's view, had little time for anyone since she needed all her energy to breathe. She didn't know whether she had asthma or was heading towards
consumption, whether the damp Norfolk air simply didn't agree with her or whether something else was to blame. Whenever she showed a housemaid how to feather dust the master's books or move the papers in his study she grew worse and had to retire to the attic to sneeze and hack. She dreaded to enter some rooms: to her they had a musty smell but no one else seemed to notice. She was still a young woman but she had worried what would become of her if her tolerant master died. Of all the inhabitants of the house she had contemplated his death more often than anyone else.
Her wheezing and coughing sessions went on into the night, prompting the governess, whose room was not far distant, to determine to say something to Mr Vernon about replacing so sickly and disturbing a domestic. But in the morning Christian charity warred with irritation in Mrs Baines's breast and the former narrowly won: she was displeased with the outcome and gave an icy half smile as she passed the exhausted woman on the stairs. Miss Davidson had no interest in Mrs Baines although she envied her the forty pounds she knew she was paid. She herself earned twenty pounds a year â not enough to take a cure at Cromer with the sea bathing or keep up the regime of asses' milk she'd been recommended. She wished Mr Vernon would pay more but she sensed he could not â he'd been owing her last quarter's wages when he died.
Arm in arm, slim elegant mother and chubbier daughter went down the main staircase to the hall past portraits of placid, flat-faced Vernons in dim gold cartouches. To Lady Susan they'd looked dreary at Vernon Castle. They looked worse in the pokier stairway of Someyton. Indeed the shabbiness of the whole house struck her. There was a patch in the dining-room curtains and the great oak table had been damaged, though a maid had tried to polish over the scratches but had simply made them show darker against the unspoilt wood.
The few servants and farm hands Mr Vernon had employed were lined up on the steps and along the sweep, together with Barton and Jeffrey. The men had removed their hats and their heads were getting gently damp in the late-summer drizzle. A small group of more respectable black-clad mourners stood by, chatting quietly. They fell silent as the two women appeared.
âOh I wish he could stay. To go like this and be left all alone. It's so terrible.'
âHush, child,' said Lady Susan. âHe has been above ground long enough.'
, she thought to herself. If she had to stay one extra day in Norfolk she too would die â of boredom.
âYes, I know, Mama,' said Frederica, still weeping. âBut he has not been by himself. I have sat with him.'
Lady Susan shuddered. The girl was morbid as well.
âAll respect has been paid.' She spoke loud enough for the mourners to hear. They inclined their heads.
The horses, adorned with plumes of ostrich feathers, stood waiting in front of the funeral carriage as the coffin was carried out to the sound of a single slow, not quite rhythmic, drum. Lawyer Burnett, bewigged, powdered, and unctuous as ever, came up to talk to Lady Susan and Frederica, who were still standing at the top of the steps.
âA sad day, your ladyship,' said the lawyer, âa sad day for us all.'
Can I discern,
thought Lady Susan,
a glint of pleasure in his eye
? She smiled and nodded slightly towards him, then looked past him down the row of servants and farmhands. Some of them were red-faced from crying, and the effort had made Miss Davidson more than usually breathless. Lady Susan wondered why the lower orders had such little self-control on these occasions when they had to control so much in their daily lives. Perhaps she had credited them with more inner life than they had.
âOh Mama,' cried Frederica, âI do wish Papa was going to rest near Vernon Castle. That was his home and his own papa and mama are there, and dear Aunt Sarah.'
âShsh, Frederica,' replied her mother. âVernon Castle is a long way away and he was happy here.'
Mr Burnett looked up and smiled at Lady Susan, exposing his closely set teeth.
Odious little man
, she thought.
How dare he look at me so?
âBut not as happy as at Vernon Castle, Mama,' Frederica persisted. âIt always made him sad to think of it. I know it did.'
âI dare say,' replied her mother.
Lady Susan's mind was elsewhere. She had wagered with herself that the bearers would trip on the third step. And they did.
The coffin was now in the carriage and the men set off with it out of the gates, the mourners â including the lawyer â walking behind. Lady Susan had not at once noticed who was in the group of mainly local gentry and professionals but now she recognised Mr Gurney, Mr Alderson and the Hon. Mr Hobart. Standing a little apart from them was a broad thickset man she hardly knew: Sir Philip Valmain, the purchaser of Vernon Castle. He had paid a very satisfactory price â and that despite the fact that half its timber had been sold off already. What had brought him so far? He hadn't to her knowledge visited Someyton since the day the purchase was finalised. She hoped Frederica wouldn't notice him and ask questions.
In fact the girl was crying too hard to see anything except her beloved father's coffin vanishing from sight. Her free hand clutched convulsively at her black dress.
âDo try to stop, Frederica,' said her mother, âit really is indecorous.'
There was little chance of her doing so. Mrs Baines, who had a methodistical tinge, had taught Frederica the need for grace, but, despite the teaching and repeated Sunday confessions of faith in the local church, she couldn't believe that she and her father would be reunited. Without him her world was sunless.
Lady Susan held her daughter's arm tightly and propelled her back indoors. Together they went into the library, where since the day was damp a large coal fire was blazing. She ordered tea to be brought to them. It was one of the few times when mother and daughter were forced to be alone â a good opportunity, Lady Susan had earlier thought, to talk seriously to Frederica about her future. The men, who alone were expected to attend at the grave, would soon be back; so there would be a limit to this intimacy.
After a few minutes Lady Susan abandoned the attempt. When her leaving Someyton was raised, Frederica simply burst into tears again and moaned about her dappled pony Spots and the
walks with âPapa' as he quoted his beloved Cowper. Thinking of these happy days she almost forgot the present and between gasps began to mutter the verses he'd so much loved in his final weeks: â“This glassy stream, that spreading pine, Those alders quiv'ring to the breeze.”' She swallowed. âThey were so sad, Mama.'