Authors: Lizzie Church
Lizzie Church 2013 all rights reserved.
Cover illustration by John Amy,
, based on a painting
by Robert Field (1769-1819) of Lieutenant Provo William Parry Wallis R.N.
The sudden snowfall had caught everybody by surprise. Even the mailcoach had
become stuck in a drift as tall as a person and the four passengers recruited to help dig the stricken vehicle out. They were arriving at the inn that very moment – wet, hot and cold at the same time, all looking flustered and exceedingly put out.
‘Remind me always to travel by post chaise in the future, Mor
eton,’ said one, divesting himself of his elegantly draped, silk-lined boxcoat and handing it to his man. ‘I had hoped the mail would be more than adequate for a simple journey to Bath, but I find myself spectacularly wrong, as usual. And now, see where it’s got us after all – the wretched guard riding off with the mailbag and leaving the rest of us stuck here like so many castaways in some God-forsaken inn.’
It was obvious to Lady Cecily Seymour, watching the scene with some amusement from behind the security of a thick black veil,
that the gentleman in the boxcoat was a little out of curl that day. But whatever did he expect? After all, it wasn’t the guard’s fault that the snow had appeared just when it had been least expected. She, too, had been caught completely unawares, and it looked as though she would have to make do with an uncomfortable night in a shared room in a most indifferent wayside inn in the middle of nowhere instead of the rather more comfortable and refined chamber she had expected to be in, afforded by one of the best town houses available for rental in the elegant city of Bath. The thick black mourning veil through which she was watching the proceedings wasn’t strictly necessary, you understand, for she had actually moved into half mourning for her father, the late third Earl of Cerney, several months before. Indeed, one of her unstated motives in joining her relatives in Bath had been to ascertain the current state of genteel fashion and prepare herself for a welcome launch back into the world of normality as soon as convention – and her conscience - would allow it. But, knowing that she was travelling with only her maid for the normally easy journey between Hungerford, where she had been spending the Christmas holidays with an old friend of hers, and Bath, where she was due to meet up with her Aunt and Uncle King, she had taken the precautionary measure of donning her full mourning clothes once more to provide her with some extra protection on the way. And as things had turned out it was probably just as well. After all, she had not expected to have to put up at a wayside inn overnight. The distance from Hungerford to Bath, particularly travelling post, was usually easily managed in a day, even in winter, and she would certainly not have ventured out on her own, with only her maid for company, had she felt it at all likely that she would have to break her journey on the way. But stop she had been forced to do and, as she sat in an alcove near the roaring log fire, surveying the busy scene as gentlemen, locals, servants – waiters, barbers, boot blacks, washerwomen, stable boys - dogs and even the odd goat (wherever had he come from?) milled about incessantly in an ever-changing scene, she felt heartily grateful that she had had the foresight to retain her mourning clothes for just such awkward a situation as this one.
The young man in the box
coat had made no greater impression upon her than any of the other dozen people who had been milling around at the time of his arrival. It was only a little while later, as the inn emptied itself of people and evening drew in on a snowy world outside and she sat with her embroidery in her secure little hideaway, that she spotted him again across the gradually darkening room. And now that she had time enough to look at him she could not help but be struck by the elegance of his bearing, by the proud but handsome look upon his face, and by the almost child-like aloneness of his demeanour as he sat, indifferent to everything that was happening around him, peering at an old newspaper with an intelligently studied air. A mangy-looking lurcher found its way to where he was sitting. She could see how he leaned down absently towards it to tickle its head. The firelight was flickering on his face in the darkness. It was an interesting face – a strong-looking, dark face set off by a crop of jet black hair and equally dark lashes. Cecily could hear the crackle and spit of the logs, and the rustling as they settled themselves more comfortably in the iron grate nearby. She could smell the familiar choking smoke as it curled its way slowly into the room, the fumes of stale beer and long-gone pipes, and the rather more tempting aroma of lamb as it roasted on the spit. She could see the scraps of mud, and winter leaves, as the firelight caught them on the grey flagstone floor by his feet. Suddenly, sitting there in the darkness, under the security of her heavy black veil, feeling the warmth of the fire as it glowed brightly on one side of her, and the chill of the air on the other – suddenly she felt comfortable, calm and very, very secure.
Her maid, sitting next to her, was following her gaze.
‘Fine looking young gentleman that, if I may say so, my lady,’ she whispered appreciatively, sizing him up in a glance. ‘Very elegant. A little proud, maybe. Obviously quite genteel.’
‘He is indeed, Browne. I wonder who he is?’
‘I’ll see if I can find out, my lady. I’ll have a word with his man.’
The maid’s enquiries were so successful as to establish
that the rather intriguing looking gentleman was a Mr Forster, from Suffolk, who was travelling down to join his family for the rest of the winter in Bath. So much had been learned from a swift exchange of pleasantries resulting from an accidental encounter on a grimy staircase at the back of the inn. But what manner of man he was – whether he was as genteel as he looked, whether he was a married gentleman or not – had proved teasingly impossible for Browne to ascertain. The valet was in a hurry, it seemed, and disinclined to talk. So when, after a restless night spent with her maid in an unpleasantly grubby and evil-smelling room, accompanied by a slow drip-drip of melting snow from outside her ill-fitting window, Cecily arose shivering the next morning to find the snow so far dispersed as to allow for onward travel, and when she appeared in the lounge bar which doubled as a dining room to find the place totally deserted, she could only conclude that he and his master had long since departed the inn and were now, in all probability, half way along the turnpike on their journey towards Bath.
It was not too long before Cecily herself was on her way and though the snow remained
deeply drifted in several places she was so well able to pursue her journey that it was only a little after three that same afternoon when the horses relinquished the turnpike and began to clatter their way through the grey cobbled streets of Bath. The streets were muddy and grimy from the winter weather, with patches of forlorn yellow snow drifting in corners and on the flags. The air was thick with smoke from hundreds of tall chimneys, making the light drizzle turn black as it descended from the heavens. It was not a very elevating sight and Cecily was more than pleased to catch her first glimpse of the abbey buildings and to feel the gentle lurch of the carriage as it pulled up at last outside an elegant terraced building on Great Pulteney Street just east of Laura Place.
unt had apparently been looking out for her, for no sooner had the horses come to a floundering halt than she appeared in the doorway even before the butler had reached it, and was to be seen gesticulating enthusiastically in a flurry of lace and ribbons in a bid to get her inside.
‘Oh my dear Lady Cecily,’ she
was gushing, even before her niece could reasonably be expected to hear her. ‘Thank goodness you’re safe. Oh, the palpitations.... I was expecting you yesterday... I think... was I not? - and not a word nor a sound from anyone to tell me where you were. Why, I was only saying to your uncle not two hours ago that he should certainly set off along the road in search of you, but he... and see, you are in full mourning again. Only a precaution, I hope? Nothing has happened...? I cannot think that...’
Cecily, released from the carriage at last,
ran laughingly up the steps and gave her aunt an almighty hug.
No, no, no-one else has died,’ she reassured her, allowing herself to be fussily ushered inside. ‘I wore these things purely as a precaution. You’ll never believe it, but we were snowed in, aunt. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life before – the snow was so sudden and so thick and the wind was so strong that it drifted about in no time at all. It was as much as we could do to reach an inn on the way – and such a grimy, poor sort of a place as you could never imagine. Even the mail coach was halted overnight. But here I am – and with Browne, too – both of us as safe and well as ever we could be and looking forward to getting out of these ugly mourning clothes and having a cosy chat with you to catch up on all the news.’
There was plenty of news to be
caught up on. On Cecily’s side there was Christmas with her friend, the newly married Mrs Charterhouse, and her genial husband, in their beautiful vicarage overlooking the new canal. On Mrs King’s side there were all the pleasures of a five week sojourn in Bath. She chattered on, happily and inconsequentially, as she gave her niece a tour of the rather grand and very elegant property that she and her husband had taken for the three months from December. Its rooms were tidily decorated and well proportioned, with high ceilings, tall windows fully curtained to keep out the cold, and bright chandeliers just that moment in the process of being lit, and views – so Cecily was assured - of all the comings and goings on the busy Great Pulteney Street. Mrs King treated her to an exhaustive account of all the acquaintance she had happened upon in town so far – Mr and Mrs Robson, here in an effort to ameliorate Mr Robson’s gout; a Mrs Springfield, whom Mrs King had known as Miss Sarah Franklin in her somewhat unproductive, though horrendously expensive, days at school and who was now a wealthy widow with lodgings in the upper part of town; Mr and Mrs Allen; Sir James and Lady Asheton – several others, few of whom Cecily knew anything about at all but about whom she pretended a polite, though uncurious interest. Her questions, she knew from past experience, were not entirely necessary, for Mrs King would continue to regale her, whether invited to or not, with all the odd and miscellaneous details of each person that happened to be lodged just then in the forefront of her brain. ‘For you must know, my dear, that old Lady Asheton will insist on wearing her light summer sandals wherever she goes in town, even in all this mud and... Her husband must despair, for she will most certainly have wet feet the whole of the time! Pattens, you know – pattens would most certainly...Whilst poor Mrs Robson had the ugliest bonnet on her head that ever you might... I cannot imagine where ever she got it from.... But how pleasant it is, now that you have returned – it only wants for Alfred to...’
listened with a respectful, if somewhat amused, affection as she navigated the vagaries of her Aunt King’s constantly shifting mind. Her aunt reminded her of the friendly little robin whom she had fed on crumbs all the previous winter back at Cerney Park. He had come to her window for his breakfast on every morning for weeks. And then one morning the crumbs had lain uneaten. The poor little chap had never once returned. The thought made her sigh momentarily. Her poor papa had still been with her a year ago as well. There had been no thought of him, then, being carried away by the fever. But carried away he had been and, having no direct male heirs of his own, had done so in the sorry knowledge that his family home – and that of his only child Cecily – would henceforth be placed in the hands of a reclusive half-cousin, Mr Peter Seymour, and from him, most likely, out of the Cerney line for ever. Luckily the female line had been replete with money. With what she had inherited from that side of the family Cecily should never be in need of an income, and her kind aunt and uncle had willingly given her a home. Amidst all her sorrow at losing both parents before she had reached the age of nineteen this was, at least, a somewhat comforting thought.