Who would believe the roads could be so bad! Tess said.
This is the country, Alicia reminded her friend, not Bath or London.
And I have been wishing that I had never left Bath.
We must be nearly there. Its over two hours since we left Tonbridge. Mr. Martin told me Brookden is ten or twelve miles from there. Even on these roads, it cant take much longer.
I hope not, Tess replied. Im longing for a cup of chocolate. And a blazing fire. And then a comfortable bed. I declare, that mattress at the Crown last night was stuffed with rocks.
There may not be any chocolate, Alicia said. I have the impression my grandfather was a port and brandy man.
There will be. I brought some with me. And some tea. I spent a week in the country once--I know what its like. You laughed at me for bringing so much luggage, but youll thank me yet.
Alicia wondered how Tess would cope with country life after Bath, and what their new neighbours would make of her friends fashionable appearance. She, herself, was plainly garbed in a lavender, grey- and white-striped dress under a dark-green redingote; since she had never met her grandfather, she had thought it inappropriate to go into full mourning. Her mid-brown hair--which some people called mousy--grey-green eyes, and fine, pale skin with a few freckles were less striking than Tesss golden curls and voluptuous figure, but Alicia had never been envious, valuing Tesss generous and affectionate nature.
She looked out the carriage window. The lane wound its way through woodland. The ground was covered with fallen leaves and there was a hint of mist between the trees. They had not passed through anything resembling a real village since leaving Tonbridge, only isolated houses. The day was overcast; soon it would begin to grow dark. Alicia wished they had left Tonbridge earlier, but Mr. Martin, the solicitor, had not been able to see her until late in the morning and then kept her longer than she had expected. Tess had then insisted on a luncheon before setting out.
Tess was also looking out of the window. Do you think the driver really knows the way? Im beginning to think we shall drive on forever and never arrive!
The landlord at the Crown said he was a very reliable man, Alicia replied.
He also said it was a very comfortable coach--and look at it!
Well, I dont suppose-- Alicia began, then broke off. Weve passed that inn before, I remember that odd-shaped tree next to it. We are lost! She reached up and pulled the cord to stop the carriage. The horses came to a halt, but the driver did not climb down from his seat to see what was wanted. After waiting a couple of minutes, Alicia opened the door and climbed down into the road. The sticky clay clung to her shoes, and she carefully held up her skirts.
Are we lost? she called up to the driver.
Maybe, he replied.
What do you mean maybe? Do you know the way or dont you?
Im not from these parts myself.
Why dont you go and ask in that inn if theres someone who will come with us to show us the way.
Cant leave the horses, the driver replied. His manner was not rude or surly, merely uninterested.
Ill go and ask, then, said Alicia, impatiently. Pausing to tell Tess what she was doing, she picked her way along the lane to the inn.
With some anxiety, Tess watched her go. With every mile that had passed since Tonbridge she had become more convinced that the two of them had been bird-witted to set out on this journey with so little knowledge of what they would find at the end, but she knew that trying to persuade Allie not to do something only made her more determined to do it. If she had refused to join Alicia on this journey, Alicia would have been quite capable of setting out alone, and Tess had been glad enough of an opportunity to escape the situation she had been in.
The inn was an ancient, dilapidated building. The tiled roof sagged alarmingly, the casement windows were small and low. A faded sign told Alicia that this was the Red Lion. She opened the door and found she had stepped straight into the taproom. There were ten or a dozen men in the room, mostly farm labourers, to judge from their clothing. Complete silence fell as she entered; all heads turned toward her. One man in an apron, presumably the landlord, stopped in the act of lifting a tankard from a tray he carried. Several of the men were smoking long-stemmed clay pipes; the air in the low-ceilinged room was acrid and smoky. Alicias eyes smarted. There were no women in the room.
Good afternoon, Alicia said, generally addressing the company. No one replied. Im afraid our driver has lost his way. Can anyone give directions to Brookden Manor? Still no one replied, but Alicia sensed a change in the atmosphere. Men looked away from her, hiding their faces in their tankards, or studying the opposite wall of the taproom. Someone must know Brookden, she persisted. I will gladly pay if one of you will come to show us the way. As soon as she had spoken, she wondered if it had been a mistake to mention money. She and Tess would be helpless if these men decided on robbery--or worse.
Everyone looked, either openly or sidelong, toward a man sitting by the wall farthest from the door. Alicia could not discern his face, for he sat in the shadow of the chimney breast, and the fire dazzled her. She could only see boots and riding breeches under a greatcoat, the folds of which hung to the floor. Everyone seemed to be waiting for him to speak.
You go, Jem, he said at last. He spoke quietly, but in the voice of a gentleman. He did not rise from his seat, however, nor take any further notice of her. Such deliberate discourtesy annoyed Alicia. In other circumstances, she would have been tempted to make a pointed comment. Now, she was merely relieved to be able to leave the taproom and its odd, uncomfortable atmosphere. A young man of about twenty, presumably Jem, had stood, draining his tankard, and was coming toward her. Alicia preceded him out of the door. She had barely crossed the threshold when several voices broke into agitated conversation.
Alicia led the way to the coach, where Tess was anxiously looking out of the window. She told Jem to sit with the driver to give him directions, while she herself thankfully climbed back in.
Did you find out the way? Tess asked.
I have found someone to guide us. But it was odd, Tess. Nobody seemed willing to help us at first.
I expect they are just wary of strangers. I dont suppose they see many in these parts. And I dont suppose they are accustomed to seeing ladies in their alehouses!
Perhaps you are right, Alicia said, but for the first time she wondered whether she had been wise to take this journey with only Tess and Matty for company. Mr. Martin had seemed shocked to hear they were travelling without escort; Alicia had been obliged to explain that she had no close male relatives.
Another twenty minutes drive brought them to Brookden. The coach halted while Jem jumped down to open a pair of iron gates, then swung into a short driveway. In the fading light, Alicia, looking eagerly out the window, had the impression of an old timber and brick house of two stories, with a long sweep of steeply-pitched tiled roof interrupted by a single gable in the centre.
Jem had banged on the solid oak door, but no one answered it. No welcoming light showed at any of the leaded casement windows. Alicia descended from the coach and banged on the door herself.
There doesnt seem to be anyone here, Tess said, leaning out of the door of the coach.
Theres a housekeeper, dont you remember? Alicia asked. Mr. Martin told me so in his letters. I wrote to her before we left Bath to say we would probably arrive today. She banged again, and tried to turn the heavy iron ring that formed the door handle. It was immovable.
Go and find the back door, she said to Jem. If no one answers, get into the house however you can.
You want me to break in, Miss?
Yes. This is my house, and we cant stand here all night.
Yes, Miss. Jem disappeared around the corner of the building, and Alicia was left waiting in the rapidly-gathering darkness. No one spoke, and the only sounds were those made by the occasional movement of one of the horses.
After several minutes, Alicia heard the clunk of a key in the lock, then the door swung open to reveal a small, elderly woman, who stood silently, waiting.
Are you Mrs. Crowhurst? Alicia asked. I am Alicia Westwood, Roger Ashendens granddaughter. This is my friend, Mrs. Farringdon. Tess had now descended from the coach. I you we were coming. Didnt you get my letter? Mrs. Crowhurst made no move to invite them in, so Alicia stepped past her into the house. The front door opened directly onto a large hall, too dark to see clearly.
We need lamps or candles, Alicia said, and a fire, and something to eat. Then well see about bedchambers. Are you all alone here, Mrs. Crowhurst, or do you have someone to help you?
Matty can help, Tess said, following Alicia into the house.
And could you see to our driver? Alicia asked the housekeeper.
He cant stay here, Mrs Crowhurst said hastily. The stables are all shut up--we cant have his horses here.
Very well, but perhaps you could offer him something to eat, and direct him to an inn if he doesnt want to drive back to Tonbridge tonight.
Jem, who reappeared, began carrying in the luggage. Do you want it upstairs, Miss?
With no idea what bedchambers were available, Alicia told him to leave it.
Matty took charge as he carried in the boxes and stacked them in the hall. Not there, you daft haporth! Well be falling over them.
Blushing, Jem moved the boxes to a spot Matty approved and repiled them. Meanwhile, Mrs. Crowhurst brought candles and placed them about the room, and as they removed their hats and outer garments, Alicia and Tess were able to look about. By candlelight, the hall proved to be the principal room, with a large fireplace set in a deep brick chimney breast, and a solid oak staircase at one end. There was no plaster ceiling above their heads, just low oak beams bearing the floorboards of the rooms above. The hall floor was also of oak, as was the old-fashioned furniture, with the exception of two high-backed leather armchairs near the fireplace.
Later, after a plain and rather inelegantly-served meal, Alicia accompanied Mrs. Crowhurst on a tour of the house. There were other, smaller rooms on the ground floor, but she decided to wait until morning before inspecting them. Each of them carrying a candlestick, she followed the housekeeper up the stairs, leaving Tess sipping tea beside the fire.
Upstairs, Mrs. Crowhurst led Alicia along the passage and opened a door. This was Mr. Ashendens room, she said. A four-poster bed dominated the long, low-ceilinged room. There was a slightly musty smell. Mr. Ashenden died in that bed. He lay there for nearly a week after they carried him home.
A riding accident, Mr. Martin said?
Yes. Broke his head and never spoke another word. Doctor said even if hed lived, hed never be the same man. Up to that day, he was the halest man you could hope to see, for all he was seventy-three.
Had you been with him long, Mrs. Crowhurst?
I came here forty-five years ago with my Miss Mary when she married him.
Then you knew my mother?
She was the prettiest child. You dont favour her. Alicia was accustomed to hearing that.
She always said that I take after my father.
Nearly broke Mr. Ashendens heart when she ran away with him.
I believe they were happy together. And my mother didnt want to be estranged from my grandfather. She would have come to see him if he had asked. Alicia looked around her grandfathers room. I dont think well use this. Are any guest chambers ready?
They never had guests, Mrs. Crowhurst said.
They? Alicia repeated. Who are They?
I dont know what you mean, Miss. Mr. Ashenden never had guests to stay.
You said they, as if there was someone besides my grandfather.
Mr Ashenden never had guests, Mrs. Crowhurst repeated.
Alicia dropped the question, thinking perhaps the woman had used some local dialect, or she had misheard. Show me the other rooms.
Mrs Crowhurst led the way to the end of the passage. This was Miss Hettys bedchamber--your mothers bedchamber, Miss, she said, opening the door. This room was smaller than old Mr. Ashendens, but with a higher ceiling. It seemed clean and well aired, although the bed was unprepared. The floor was bare, but the furniture was more modern than elsewhere in the house. There was a washstand with a pretty china jug and bowl, and a dressing table with a looking glass. Mr. Ashenden had it all done new for Miss Hetty when she came home from school, and in three months shed gone off with that--with your father, Miss.
Next came a smaller, partly-furnished room. On the landing, a rough staircase, little more than a ladder, led upward, presumably to the attic. Another good-sized room sat at the other end of the house. Though more plainly-furnished than her mothers, it seemed well-aired, and the bed seemed the newest..
Ill sleep here, Alicia said. Mrs. Farringdon can have my mothers room. Can you find somewhere for Matty to sleep? Well need fires lit, and the beds made up, and some hot water later.
She went downstairs to rejoin Tess. Ive chosen rooms for us.
Rooms without bats or rats or cobwebs or secret entrances or headless spirits?
You have been reading too many novels. You have my mothers, quite the nicest in the house.
Allie, that should be your room! Tess protested. Youre always too unselfish!
Im being quite selfish, Alicia assured her, laughing. If you are comfortable, you are less likely to rush back to Bath!
I wont desert you. But, Allie, do you really think you can live here? Its such an old place, and we havent exactly been made welcome, have we?
You said they probably arent accustomed to strangers around here. Mrs. Crowhurst seems to have been very attached to my grandfather, its natural she should be a little wary of us.
But its so far from everywhere, and we dont know anyone. Now you have an independence, you could live very comfortably in Bath, or even London.
I didnt really know anyone in Bath, except you, and some of the governesses and girls at Miss Kirkbys, and some of the places I went to give piano lessons.
If you come back to Bath, Ill take you about and introduce you to people. I mean to start going out into society again soon. Walters Mama cannot expect me to stay in mourning forever.
There must be other ladies and gentlemen living in this neighbourhood, Alicia said. They are bound to call, if only out of curiosity.
As they spoke, floorboards above their heads creaked as Mrs. Crowhurst moved about. Mattys lighter, quicker footsteps passed along the passage from Tesss room. Then, coming down the stairs, she said to Tess, What shall I do about the luggage, Maam? I dont think I can carry it upstairs, not even the smaller boxes.
You mustnt attempt it, Tess said. Just take out what Ill need for tonight, and well think about the rest tomorrow.
Yes, Maam. She set to work.
Tess yawned. And when you are done, I think Im for bed. Allie?
Alicia agreed. She, too, was tired, and all the uncertainties about their situation could wait until the morning.