Tess had no interest in domestic matters. The eagerness with which Alicia had taken to housework rather amused her. Even at twenty-three, there was still something childlike about her friends enthusiasm. Although only a little over a year separated them, Tess had always felt herself to be considerably older than Alicia, even before her marriage had further widened her experience. Privately, she thought no amount of dusting and polishing could make this house comfortable, and she did not know how Alicia tolerated the housekeepers conduct. Her own family was not wealthy, but still contrived to live in a better style than Alicias grandfather seemed to have done.
The only good thing that had happened since their arrival at Brookden had been making the acquaintance of the Langleys, and if they did not soon return their call, Mrs. Langley would be justified in concluding that they did not wish for her acquaintance. Tess picked up a shawl, discarded it, picked up another, and went downstairs to impress upon Alicia the importance of her social responsibilities.
Alicia was in the study. She had moved a small table and chair close to the window and sat there furiously polishing a pair of pewter candlesticks, which normally stood above the fireplace. Tess settled on the couch and took up the paper she had left there the day before. There was silence, apart from the crackling of the fire and the rustling of the pages as Tess turned them. After a while, she yawned and allowed her head to fall back against the cushions. The paper slid to the floor.
Alicia looked up. Is there anything interesting in your paper?
Some riots somewhere. Some property burned. Loyal subjects of His Majesty against Jacobins--or it might have been the other way around. She yawned again. But it is old news, Allie. I bought that paper when we were in London on our way here. War could have begun since we arrived here, and we would not know!
Alicia breathed on her candlestick and gave it a final rub, then set it aside and took up the other one. I think we would hear if we were at war.
Your hands will be so sore! Tess exclaimed. Remind me to give you some of my lotion. How would we hear? We have seen no one except the Langleys.
We have seen the man who brought the wood yesterday, and that boy who was taking his cows to pasture, and that peddler woman--
You know what I mean. Allie. We must call upon Mrs. Langley, or she will think we do not wish for her acquaintance. We dont want to find ourselves ignored by the neighbourhood.
Alicia agreed. Could we walk there?
Walk? Tess exclaimed, her horror not entirely feigned. My dear, this is the country! There are no pavements! Besides, Mrs. Langley told me it is about three miles from here. We could not walk so far, and back again--at least, I could not.
It would do you good, Alicia said mischievously. You have hardly been out of doors since we arrived. If you spend all your time on the couch drinking chocolate, you will get fat!
You will have to think of a better reason than that for me to go out of doors. There is nothing interesting out there, only trees and mud, and I can see those from indoors!
I will tell you something interesting that happened out of doors this morning, Alicia said. She related her encounter with Miles Ashenden.
Tess sat up. Why did you not tell me before? What is he like? Did you ask him about the horses?
Come, Tess, I could hardly begin our acquaintance by asking him if he had stolen my grandfathers horses!
It is odd that he should have been skulking in the stables.
Not skulking, precisely; he did not attempt to conceal his presence, Alicia. replied. She had not felt in any danger during the encounter, merely annoyed at his rudeness and her own failure to maintain her dignity.
Still, it is an uncomfortable feeling, that anyone may be wandering around outside. Im glad we have Slater. And thats another reason why we must visit the Langleys, to thank them for sending him. Now Allie, be serious, how are we to do it?
Perhaps it is possible to hire a conveyance, and a man to drive it.
How can we find out?
Ill enquire in the village. Thats not too far to walk. If they found a man who proved reliable on short journeys, Alicia thought, they could then perhaps venture on a trip to Tonbridge.
Waistlines much higher--open robes really seem to be going out--look, Celia, what do you think of this? Celia, engrossed in some reading matter of her own, did not reply.
Justin stood looking out the windows, his back to the room, barely hearing his mother as he gazed at the long curving sweep of the lawns. The trees his father had planted had come to a pleasing maturity and the eye was guided on and up to the small classical temple at the end of the vista. Justin congratulated himself, as he did every time he saw it, on having had it placed, not in full view in the centre of the greensward, but to one side, where the trees formed a dark background for the pale stone.
I shall need some new carriage dresses--and my evening gowns will seem quite-- his mothers monologue continued at the edge of his consciousness. A movement at the edge of the trees on the left caught his eye. One of the men was sweeping the fallen leaves off the grass. The man, quite ignorantly, of course, had placed himself in the ideal place relative to the house, the trees, and the temple. Justin frowned slightly, considering. How could he recreate that effect permanently, and more elegantly? A piece of statuary, perhaps? His pleasant musing was interrupted as he became aware of what his mother was saying.
Really, I think I shall have to go to London, there is nowhere else that--
You do not need new gowns, Mama.
But I have just been telling you, Justin, the new fashions are--
No one here will know the difference.
But if we go to London-- she explained patiently.
We are not going to London, or Bath, or anywhere else.
But, Justin, you know how low-spirited I get here during the winter. There is nowhere to go and no one to see.
Now there are two new young ladies for you to see. I think, Mama, you should invite them to dinner to welcome them to the neighbourhood.
Dinner? Oh, I dont think I can, all the arrangements, it is so fatiguing.
You have nothing to do except give the orders to the servants.
And who are we to invite to meet them? There are no young gentlemen at all, and I dont think--
There is no need to invite anyone else.
Why not? Celia asked. Are you afraid someone may be your rival for the affections of one of them? Which is it? The girlish enthusiasm of the heiress or the voluptuous charms of the widow?
Dont be vulgar, he said impatiently.
I really cant understand why Miss Westwood would want to leave Bath and bury herself here, Mrs. Langley said.
Celia shrugged. Young women like her are ten a penny in Bath--a little money, less looks, no family. Here she may expect to be noticed--at least, it seems that Justin has noticed her.
Justin ignored her. Mama, I want you to write a note to Miss Westwood inviting her to dine with us.
Well, if we are to have guests, then I must have a new gown, so we must go to London, she finished triumphantly.
You dont need Justin to take you to London, nor his permission to go, Celia said.
I couldnt possibly travel all that way, nor stay at a hotel, alone!
Then you must resign yourself to staying at home, for I have no intention of escorting you to London, nor anywhere else! Justin said. The next thing would be tears, he knew, and reproaches for his cruelty, followed by a retreat to her bedchamber, where she would declare herself prostrate with a headache. The only difference this time was that her sobbing departure from the room coincided with the arrival of the servants to clear the table. Now the whole household would know that there had been a disagreement, and from the household to the neighbourhood was a short step.
Willinghurst was about a mile from Brookden. Alicia stepped out briskly, swinging the basket from her hand. The hood fell back from her head and the breeze pulled short wisps of her hair free and blew them about her face. Looking about, she took in her surroundings. It was pleasant not to have neighbours crowding in on one, to have fresh air instead of the mixture of coal fires, brewing, tanneries, and less pleasant odours which on some days hung over even the best quarters of Bath. Here, the autumn colours were at their best and she appreciated the red, brown and gold shades against the clear blue sky.
Willinghurst had one main street about a third-of-a-mile long. The sandstone church stood at the top of a rise, and, between the trees that grew around the churchyard, Alicia caught glimpses of a distant view over fields and woods. Before the churchyard, the street widened into a triangular space with a small green. At one side stood a respectable-looking inn, the Kings Head. The main street straggled down the hillside away from the church. The buildings were a mixture of brick, tile, timber, and weatherboard, quite unlike the stone townhouses Alicia was used to. There were two alehouses, a blacksmith, a charity school, two or three shops and, at the opposite end of the street from the church, a Baptist chapel. Beyond the church, Alicia saw a gabled roof and tall chimneys, suggesting a large house.
The inn was the most likely place at which to hire a conveyance, but after her uncomfortable experience at the Red Lion, Alicia did not feel inclined to enter it unaccompanied. Instead she entered one of the shops, and by making a few random purchases, managed to engage the shopkeeper in conversation. The woman was not effusive, but she was not unfriendly or openly hostile. The landlord at the Kings Head did have a conveyance which he sometimes hired out. But as for a carriage fit for ladies . . . Her voice trailed away doubtfully.
I dont want a fine carriage, Alicia insisted.
No, Miss, but--well, the carriers wagon is covered, and folk ride in that sometimes, but it wouldnt do for you, would it? Alicia was about to say that she would not mind, but the thought of Tesss horror prevented her. She told the woman she would think about it, and, wishing her good day, left the shop.
Passing the churchyard, on a sudden impulse, Alicia opened the gate and went inside. The churchyard was above street-level, and three steps led up from the gate, which was overhung by two ancient yews. Alicia walked among the gravestones, noting the names of past inhabitants of Willinghurst.
Near the west end of the church, freshly-turned earth marked a recent burial. Alicia read the inscription on the headstone;
Mary, beloved wife of Roger Ashenden, born 1724, died 1762.
There was space on the stone for another name to be added. Other nearby stones recalled older generations of Ashendens. So this was where her grandparents were buried. Alicia stood in silent contemplation for several minutes, thinking of these two, whom she had never met, and of her own mother and father, gone five and ten years ago.
Movement caught her eye. Miles Ashenden was coming around the corner of the church, following a well-worn path that led to another gate on the further side of the churchyard. On seeing Alicia, he hesitated, then came across to speak to her. Standing on the opposite side of the grave, he greeted her quietly and civilly, and she responded in kind. This was clearly not the place for a verbal battle.
So this is my grandfathers grave, she said, realising she was stating the obvious, but unable to think of anything else to say.
I hope--Mrs. Langley said he didnt mix in local society--were there enough people to see him buried?
He had a good send off.
Good. She looked at the headstone. I suppose . . . his name should be added now. She chose her words carefully; she was not afraid of Miles, but she did not wish to suggest that she had a greater right than he to attend to it.
Would you like me to see the stonemason about it?
Yes, please. It was the sensible thing; she had no idea where to find a man to do the job. And I was wondering . . .
Whether the stonemason could put my mothers name there, too. Would he have enough room? Her parents were commemorated in the burial ground in Bath, but Alicia thought it right that her mother should also be remembered here, among her own family.
Why dont you write out what you want, and Ill ask him.
Thank you. Since he seemed disposed to linger, Alicia asked a question about the other Ashenden graves. He pointed out her great-grandparents, and recounted some family anecdotes he had heard from Roger. Her great-great-grandfather Simon, it seemed, had been married four times and had eighteen children.
In wedlock, that is, Miles said. There were supposed to be others.
Now she had more time to assess him, Alicia found it difficult to imagine Miles as a threat. His gaze was direct and steady. His speech was not so genteel as that of Mr. Langley, nor quite so rustic as that of the country people and servants she had met since coming to Kent. As he continued to speak quietly, she realised there was something familiar about his voice.
It was you, wasnt it? she said abruptly. In the Red Lion, the day we arrived? His hesitation told Alicia she was right. Why did you not speak--introduce yourself?
I didnt think it was the right time or place--I wasnt sure if Mr. Martin would have told you about me. I thought that if he hadnt, the explanations would have been too complicated. It sounded reasonable, but, recalling the atmosphere in the Red Lion that evening, Alicia could not help feeling there was more than he had said.
After a few more minutes, Miles excused himself. They parted amicably, Alicia glad to have established friendly relations with the man who was to all intents and purposes her closest relative.
Alicia had covered nearly half of her walk back to Brookden when she heard horses behind her. Turning, she saw a fine phaeton, pulled by a pair of handsome trotting horses, driven by Justin Langley. He pulled up beside her with a flourish of his whip.
Good afternoon, Miss Westwood!
Good afternoon, Mr. Langley. Alicia knew little about horses, but she appreciated that Justins pair were beautiful animals, their coats toning perfectly with the autumn shades around.
Where are you going? Can I offer you a ride?
Alicia would have been content to continue on foot, but to refuse his offer seemed discourteous. Explaining that she was on her way back to Brookden, she handed up her basket, which now contained a copy of the Maidstone Journal, several pieces of gingerbread, a paper of pins and some ribbon, a cake of soap, and a large round cheese.
He looked at it quizzically. Are you setting up in business as a hawker, Miss Westwood? I believe you need a licence to do so.
Alicia laughed, took the hand Justin held out to her, climbed into the phaeton, and settled herself beside him. Im sure I must look like a gypsy, at any rate, she replied, knowing that her hair was windblown and mud had splashed her cloak around the hem.
You look charming, Miss Westwood, he said, giving her an admiring look.
She did not know how to respond, and, as he set the horses moving, told him that she and Tess had been wanting to return his mothers call, but had no means of doing so.
She would be delighted to see you. I would take you to visit her now, but my mother is not receiving visitors today.
I hope she is not unwell?
She is not robust. That is why we do not visit Bath and London as we used to. My mother would never admit it, but her constitution is not suited to a continuous round of parties and assemblies. Alicia made an appropriate reply. And you, Miss Westwood? I gathered, from the improvements you were talking of making, that you intend to live at Brookden permanently.
Once again, Alicia felt unable to admit that she and Tess had been joking. I havent made any definite plans yet.
I hope you decide to stay. I must tell you, Miss Westwood, that a young lady such as yourself will be a welcome addition to the neighbourhood. Your grandfather, you know, didnt go into society, but I hope you dont mean to shut yourself away.
No, we hope to meet all our neighbours, Alicia said. Do you visit many families in the district?
Justin mentioned several houses, and went on to tell scandalous stories of some of the local residents.
Alicia was soon laughing. No, no. I cannot believe that! she protested at one outrageous anecdote.
I assure you, Miss Westwood, it is true! He declared that his horse had more sense than all the women in his family, and had it brought to the dinner table every night, so that he might have one companion who did not contradict him nor talk nonsense!
I cannot understand why my grandfather was thought to be eccentric, if that is how his neighbours were accustomed to behave!
My mother is hoping to invite you to dine, Mr. Langley said after a brief pause. Er--does Mrs. Farringdon go into society?
Oh, yes, Alicia replied. Its a year and a half since her husband died. She is quite ready to go into society again. She smiled inwardly at the understatement, recalling the increasing frustration with which Tess had endured the atmosphere of unrelieved mourning in her elderly mother-in-laws household.
By this time they had reached Brookden. Begging Mr. Langley not to take the trouble of getting down to open the gates in order to drive her to the front door, Alicia alighted from the phaeton in the road and waved farewell to him before going inside.
Justin drove back to Langley Place and left his horses and carriage at the stables. Entering the house, he enquired for his mother, and was told that she was resting. Although the footmans manner was faultless, Justin was aware that all the servants knew the details of what had taken place earlier. The frustration which his drive had been intended to dispel rose up again as he recalled the scene. He considered whether to go upstairs immediately and urge his mother to write the invitation to Alicia, but anxious as he was to pursue his acquaintance with her, he knew he would achieve little by approaching his mother too impatiently.