There isnt none, Miss, Matty said bluntly, when she appeared from the kitchen.
Mrs. Crowhurst said we cant light the fire yet.
Whyever not? Alicia ventured into the kitchen. Mrs. Crowhurst was standing at the table, kneading dough. Mrs. Crowhurst, why wont you let Matty light the fire?
Mr. Ashenden, he didnt have fires in all the rooms at all hours of the day. She turned her dough and slapped it down on the table.
I understand that, but Mrs. Farringdon and I need hot water in the mornings.
Mrs. Crowhurst gave her dough a final turn, placed it in a bowl, and covered it with a cloth. I daresay, Miss, but I cant call firewood up out of thin air.
What do you mean? Alicia asked.
Mrs. Crowhurst gestured out of the window. Thats all there is. With all these fires, enough for a week, maybe a week and a half.
Alicia saw a pile of logs and a smaller pile chopped into shorter lengths. What did my grandfather do about firewood?
He didnt use much, Miss, he didnt have all these fires and hot water.
But when he did need wood, where did he get it? Who fetched it and cut it for him?
I couldnt say, Miss.
Well, do you know a man who would cut up the rest of that wood for us? And where we can get more?
I couldnt say, Miss.
Alicia gave up. The stone flags on the kitchen floor were cold to her bare feet, and she was aware that, in her nightgown, with her hair hanging loose down her back, she hardly looked the dignified mistress. She told Matty to light a small fire, and returned to her room to wash in cold water. When she had dressed in a plain dark-green gown, she went to look in on Tess. Her friend was still asleep, but Peppy, the little dog, ran out and accompanied her downstairs.
After she had breakfasted, she went outside and walked all round the house, while Peppy ran around in excited circles. The house seemed about two hundred and fifty years old; at the back was a one-story extension, including the kitchen and Mrs. Crowhursts quarters.
There were no formal gardens, just some shaggy grass, tress, and roses which had grown wild. On one side stood an orchard, on the other a small wood, which Alicia knew were also her property. The driveway, no more than a muddy track, continued past the house to another building--the stables, Alicia supposed. Beyond, the ground sloped down to the brook--which presumably gave the house its name--then up again. Alicia could see across two fields in which cattle were grazing, then a belt of trees cut off her view. Smoke rose above the trees, as if a house lay beyond.
She went to the stables. There were stalls for four horses, space for a carriage, and a ladder going up, she supposed, to a hayloft. Since Mrs. Crowhurst had said that the stables were shut up and could not be used, Alicia was surprised to find hay in the manger of the first stall, and a bucket of fresh water. Outside, there was fresh manure on the dungheap. A horse had certainly been stabled recently. Still, Alicia reasoned, there was nothing suspicious in that. Mrs. Crowhurst had probably had a visitor.
Indoors, Tess was breakfasting in the hall. She had set aside her normal fashionable townwear in favour of a plain dove-grey and white-striped gown. Matty had opened Tesss trunks and boxes and was taking things out and carrying them upstairs, an armful at a time. Downstairs, apart from the hall, the only room that seemed to have been in regular use was a small study or parlour opening off the hall. It was furnished with a leather couch and two chairs, a table and some shelves. A wooden chest stood against one wall. There were some books, a jar of tobacco, and several clay pipes.
When Matty had finished Tesss unpacking and also dealt with Alicias far more modest possessions, the three of them looked at the pile of empty trunks and boxes in the hall.
I couldnt move them on my own, Matty said. Not the big ones.
I suppose we could leave them there, Alicia said. Theres plenty of room--if they were pushed into that corner--
But it would look odd, Tess objected.
Whos to see? Alicia said.
Visitors, Tess said. You said yourself, people are sure to call.
Two people might manage, Matty ventured. If you was to ask Mrs. Crowhurst, maybe, Miss . . . Her voice trailed off uncertainly, as she evidently considered Mrs. Crowhursts likely reaction.
Nor did Alicia much like the idea of approaching the housekeeper with such a request. She grasped a handle of one box and began tugging it toward the stairs. Take the other end, Matty, she said. Thats right. Now push it, and Ill pull. She went backwards up the stairs, occasionally catching her heel in the hem of her dress, pulling the box with both hands, while Matty pushed energetically from below. Tess followed, giving encouragement and warning them when the box seemed about to become stuck against the banister. There was no room for the box to rest on the landing, so they dragged it into the nearest room.
When all the luggage had been moved upstairs, and Alicia had recovered her breath, she completed her inspection of the houses upper floors. Coming downstairs again with a cobweb clinging to her skirt, she went into the kitchen to find out what Mrs. Crowhurst planned for their meals that day, then found Tess in the study, where Matty had lit the fire. Tess reclined on the couch, one shawl around her shoulders, another over her knees, reading a novel.
Well have to be careful with that chocolate and tea you brought, Alicia told her. Mrs. Crowhurst says the only way to get what she calls fancy things is to send an order by either the Tonbridge or the Maidstone carrier, and they only go once a week.
I feared as much, Tess said. Allie, if you are going to live here, the first thing you must have is a carriage and pair, and a man to drive them, so you can go to Tonbridge, or whatever is the nearest town, whenever you wish.
Ill bear it in mind. On her knees, Alicia investigated the contents of the wooden chest. This is full of old papers. Accounts--legal documents-- She struggled to refold a large sheet of parchment which seemed to have a will of its own. Some are so ancient I cant even read the handwriting. Im not even sure theyre in English. Ill have to ask Mr. Martin to go through them for me. She returned to what Tess had said. Actually, I thought I would buy--is that a carriage coming up to the door? They both scrambled to the window. A handsome carriage and pair was drawing up outside.
Our first callers already! Alicia said.
News certainly spreads fast! Who is it?
A gentleman and two ladies--I cant see properly, this glass is so thick and dirty. Should I let them in?
No, no! Tess said. The mistress mustnt answer her own front door. Mrs. Crowhurst will go.
But we must go and meet them. Alicia led the way into the hall just as Mrs. Crowhurst ushered in the visitors. Before the housekeeper could formally announce them, the older woman, small, fair, and fashionably dressed, broke into speech.
We heard you had come, and just couldnt wait to meet you. I wondered how you were managing. I mean, the house isnt--you having come from Bath--and Mrs. Crowhurst--so when we heard this morning that you had arrived, Celia suggested we should--oh, this is Celia. Oh dear! She laughed in what Alicia considered to be an affected, girlish manner, unsuited to a woman of her age. I should have told you my name first, shouldnt I? Im Kitty Langley, this is my daughter Celia and my son Justin. She looked enquiringly from Tess to Alicia, obviously unsure which of them she should be addressing.
Alicia stepped forward. Im Alicia Westwood, Roger Ashendens granddaughter. This is my friend Mrs. Farringdon, who keeps me company here. She shook hands with the three visitors.
Justin appeared to be in his late twenties. He was tall, with a good figure. His light-brown hair was cut short and carefully styled, his clothes expensive, his features handsome. He bowed gracefully over her hand. As you can see, my mother is overwhelmed at meeting two young ladies from Bath! His blue eyes sparkled merrily. He seemed as lively and talkative as his mother, but his countenance and his conversation showed evidence of good sense.
Dont be silly, Justin, you make us seem absolute rustics. You must know, Miss Westwood, that we used to visit Bath, and London, too, frequently! Mr. Langley--my late husband, you know, he sadly passed away eight years ago--no, of course, you couldnt know, could you? How silly of me! Now, what was I--oh, dear, I have quite forgotten what I meant to say! She gave another trilling laugh.
Out of his mothers line of vision, Justin Langley caught Alicias eye and assumed a droll look of exaggerated patience.
Mrs. Langley disentangled her thoughts and continued. Anyway, Mr. Langley hired a house in London for three whole seasons when Celia was a girl, and we went to Brighton for the summer, too. That was where Celia met that young man, now what was his name--Celia? Not that it ever came to anything. Miss Langley looked calm, but Alicia thought she must be uncomfortable at the trend of her mothers conversation. Now, we never go anywhere, Mrs. Langley continued, and how Celia is ever to--
Mama, Justin interrupted.
Yes, dear? Now, as I was saying, we never go anywhere, except the Wells sometimes. Justin says I am too--
Mama! This time he spoke more sharply, and she abruptly stopped, her mouth half open. You dont need to tell Mrs. Farringdon and Miss Westwood our entire history at our first meeting, you know! he said teasingly.
Alicia thought it time to change the subject. Conscious of dust on her skirt, her grubby hands, and a wisp of hair trailing over her forehead and into her eyes, she attempted to make some apology for her appearance. I have been in the attics, and looking in some of the disused rooms.
You will find a great deal that needs doing, Mrs. Langley said. Everyone says that old Mr. Ashenden neglected the house dreadfully--well, I always say, that a house needs a mistress to care for it properly--and he never mixed much in society, nor entertained, so I suppose he thought--well, being so isolated as you are here--
I was telling Allie just as you arrived that she should have a carriage and pair, Tess said.
I had thought of a piano, Alicia said.
And you should have the grounds landscaped and gardens laid out, Tess went on.
Yes, and a bay window put in here to give more light, Alicia said, then stopped. This was a game that she and Tess often played, but their guests looked bemused.
If you are going to keep a carriage, you will be using the stables, I suppose? said Celia Langley, her tone abrupt. Youll find them in an even worse state than the house, I expect. She was a tall, thin, pale woman of about thirty, with neither her brothers looks nor her mothers vivacity. Alicia thought she would often be overlooked in company. Alicia did not like to say that the carriage and pair had been a joke, so she made some non-committal remark.
Mr. Langley had wandered over to the fireplace, which, Alicia grew annoyed to see, still had the cold ashes of last nights fire spilling out of the grate. If a humble man may venture an opinion on domestic matters, Miss Westwood, I should say that you need more servants.
Being a stranger to the neighbourhood, I dont know how to find anyone suitable.
Perhaps I--or we--can be of some help, he said eagerly. My sister knows most of the cottage families.
Thank you. What we really need is a man for the heavy work--cutting wood and other outdoor jobs.
It shouldnt be difficult to find someone. God knows there are always enough fellows claiming to want work. You will want a man who is good with horses, I suppose?
I dont know yet whether I shall keep a horse. I dont want to decide anything in a hurry, Alicia said, becoming embarrassed at the tangle the joke had created.
Of course not. But what about your grandfathers horses?
Horses? Do you mean there should be horses, Mr. Langley? What happened to them?
A good question, Miss Westwood! Tell me, have you encountered Miles Ashenden yet?
Miles Ashenden? Who is he? A relative of my grandfathers? But I understood that I was the only one!
As to who he is, no one quite knows. Your grandfather adopted him about twenty years ago, gave him the name Ashenden, and always treated him like a son or grandson.
Miles Ashenden? Mrs. Langley broke in. His origins are quite a mystery. I suppose old Mr. Ashenden knew, but he would never say. Some claim he has gypsy blood--he was certainly wild enough! Old Roger sent him to school, but never succeeded in turning him into a gentleman. Well, the old man himself wasnt exactly--still, Miles was a little savage. I will never forget, Justin, how you came home that day with your eye all swollen and blood streaming from your nose--
We were only twelve, Justin said stiffly. He was stronger than I then. Alicia sympathised with his obvious discomfort. No man liked to be reminded of such an incident, especially by his mother and in front of ladies.
What happened to this Miles? she asked. Does he still live in the neighbourhood?
That is the whole point! Mrs. Langley said. He lived here with your grandfather, until the old man died!
Yes, Justin Langley said. But since your grandfather didnt make a will, and as he isnt a blood relative, Miles Ashenden--I suppose we must still call him that, since no one knows what his real name might be--had no claim on the estate.
And you think he might have taken the horses as some sort of--of compensation? Alicia asked.
Possible. But the point is, Miss Westwood, Justin Langley continued, that he may well feel some resentment toward you, and he can be unpredictable. He seemed to be waiting for some response from Alicia, but these revelations were so surprising she had nothing to say. I hope, he persisted, that you will feel able to call on me for any assistance I can offer--since you have no one to protect you-- Alicia thought his tone was questioning, but she did not choose to discuss her personal circumstances with a near stranger, and after making some acknowledgement of his remarks, she allowed Mrs. Langley to turn the conversation to other matters.
The normal, polite twenty minutes appropriate for a first call had stretched to nearly forty before Mrs. Langley, with much exclamation and promises of future meetings, began to take her leave. Alicia, doubting that there was any suitable refreshment in the house, and having much that she wished to discuss with Tess, did not attempt to detain the visitors, but walked with them to their carriage and waved goodbye as they drove away.
What did you think of Justin Langley? Tess wanted to know as they descended the stairs again.
Im not sure.
My dear Allie, he is the most handsome, best-mannered man I have seen in a long time, and he gave you his undivided attention for nearly half an hour!
Precisely--he hardly spoke to you. Usually when you are in the room, gentlemen do not notice me!
Weve been through this before, Allie. Some gentlemen may prefer you to me!
With your looks--
Oh, my looks! Tess shrugged. They will not last past my thirtieth birthday, whereas you will still look elegant and refined when you are sixty!
Alicia laughed. I shall remind you of this conversation when we are both wrinkled old hags!
Very well. They had returned to the study, and Tess settled back on the couch. Now, what about this Miles?
That was a surprise. I wonder why Mr. Martin didnt mention him.
He certainly should have, if he is likely to be dangerous, as Mr. Langley suggested.
He did not exactly say that.
But Mrs. Langley said that when he and Mr. Langley were boys--
A schoolboy affair, Alicia said dismissively.
Come, Tess, if we are to assume that every schoolboy who ever fights another will grow up to be dangerous, then we may be in danger from every man we meet.
But this Miles Ashenden may feel resentment toward you, Allie!
If he does, it is understandable. I wish my grandfather had made a will. It seems unfair that I, a complete stranger, should get everything, while this Miles, who had lived with him for twenty years, should receive nothing. I think Ill speak to Mr. Martin.
Youre not thinking of doing anything foolish, are you?
Tess, my grandfather must have meant to provide for him. Mr. Martin may know what he intended. And there may be other people who should be considered. Mrs. Crowhurst has been here forty-five years--you must agree that she should be provided for.
Youll do what you want, regardless of what I say. But please listen to Mr. Martins advice, and dont do anything in a hurry.
I cant do anything at all until we can get to Tonbridge, and goodness knows when that will be. After yesterday, I dont feel like trusting a strange driver again.
Later, Alicia questioned Mrs. Crowhurst about Miles Ashenden. The housekeeper confirmed that he had been living at Brookden until the receipt of Alicias letter announcing her imminent arrival. Mrs. Crowhurst was vague about where he had gone; He knew folk down in the Marsh, and she supposed he might have gone there.
The Marsh? Alicia queried.
Romney Marsh, Mrs. Crowhurst replied, as if surprised that Alicia did not know. Out beyond Tenterden. Alicia, not knowing where Tenterden was, was little the wiser.
On the day after the Langleys visit, Alicia was surprised when Mrs. Crowhurst called her into the kitchen to speak to a man who had been sent by Mr. Langley. She had not expected such a prompt response to her request. The man, Ned Slater, was a solid looking fellow in his forties. He seemed civil enough, and Mrs. Crowhurst knew of nothing against him, so Alicia engaged him. He would sleep in an outbuilding adjoining the kitchen; Mrs. Crowhurst undertook to provide everything that was needed.
A few mornings later, Alicia went out for what was becoming her regular after-breakfast walk with Peppy. For no particular reason she strolled toward the stables. As they approached the building, Peppy raced ahead of her to the foot of the ladder leading to the upper floor and began a frantic, high-pitched yapping.
What is it? Alicia said. Is there something up there? Peppy, quiet! Scuffling came from above, then a young man stepped onto the ladder and swung himself to the ground in front of Alicia. Peppy stopped barking and sat down with a satisfied air. Alicia looked at the man. He was about the same age as Justin Langley, but a little shorter and stockier. He was dark-haired and brown-skinned, his hair cut short, but only roughly combed. Although he wore the normal gentlemans country dress of coat, breeches, and boots, instead of a cravat, he had a kerchief knotted round his throat. His attitude was unthreatening, but neither did he seem embarrassed at having been caught trespassing.
I suppose you are Miles Ashenden, Alicia said.
Yes. I suppose youre the granddaughter. Alicia had expected to feel some awkwardness at her first meeting with this man. Annoyance at his dismissive manner, however, overcame all other feelings.
I am Alicia Westwood, she said in the tone she normally used to crush an impertinent pupil.
He was clearly not impressed. I suppose you want fancy Bath manners. You want me to say how happy I am to make your acquaintance at last, or some such nonsense.
You could have made my acquaintance at any time in the last week if you had called at the house in a civilised manner.
I thought youd be too busy entertaining the cream of local society, he replied. What do you think of Justin Langley? Do you find him the perfect gentleman?
I thought his manners were excellent, yes, Alicia said.
I suppose he couldnt wait to tell you about me.
He informed me of your existence, of which I was previously unaware. She had not meant to sound so haughty, but that was how it came out.
What a lot o fine soundin words, and I understand every one of em, Miles Ashenden said, in an exaggeratedly rustic accent.
Theres no need to pretend to be a yokel. Mrs. Langley told me my grandfather sent you to school.
And Id wager she said it didnt make a gentleman of me. Didnt she? When Alicia hesitated, undecided whether to be polite or truthful, Miles Ashenden laughed. I see she did.
Yes, she did, Alicia retorted. And from what I have seen so far, she spoke no more than the truth! Peppy yapped, almost as if he agreed with Alicia.
Miles Ashenden looked at Peppy with disfavour. Only a town-bred person would have a dog like that--if you can call it a dog--and bring it to the country.
He belongs to my friend Mrs. Farringdon, Alicia said, and was immediately annoyed with herself for sounding defensive.
Hes ridiculous. Look at him, sitting there looking as if hes done something clever.
That is how he looks when he has caught a rat, Alicia said, but either the insult was too subtle, or he was not sufficiently annoyed to react.
Tell your friend to take care of him. A real dog would probably take him for a rat, and that would be the end of him!
Im sure she will be obliged to you for your advice. Alicia turned, intending to walk away with dignity, having had the last word, but had only taken two steps when her right foot sank up to the instep in a patch of oozing mud. In grim silence, she withdrew it and, holding up her skirts, walked squelchily to the nearest grass. There, wobbling precariously, she stood on one foot and tried to wipe her shoe.
Dont you have mud in Bath?
Without looking round, Alicia replied crossly, I wish you would stop harping on Bath. It isnt a crime to live there.
But it doesnt prepare you for life here. My advice to you is to return to Bath now, before winter sets in. You have no idea what winter is like here. The roads are so bad that coaches sink up to their axles in the mud--if you can find a driver willing to risk his horses. If it snows, there can be drifts up to your waist. Youll have no trips to the Wells for shopping or assemblies, no visits from your neighbours. If the carrier cant get round, you wont be able to get your tea or chocolate or the latest novels. Youll be stuck in the house for days or weeks, seeing no one, going no where, eating only potatoes and salt meat.
Alicia turned to look at him. What a dreadful prospect. One might almost think you were trying to drive me away. Since Im not, however, the feeble creature you evidently think me, you wont succeed. Good day to you. She turned around, and this time succeeded in walking away. It was only when she had nearly reached the house that she realised she had not asked him what he had been doing in the stable loft.
Miles watched Alicia go, admiring her straight-backed walk. So she was spirited and stubborn. Well, that was not surprising, when one remembered what the old man had been like. But she would obviously not be easily persuaded to leave; he might have to try a different approach.