The Girl In The Great House
Chapter One (extract)
Elaine was climbing the track to Cymberie. The leaves of the oaks swayed above her head and sang; the mossy bank was velvet beneath the soles of her feet. A cock crowed some way away. She could just hear the voices of the men in the harvest field, the swish of their sickles through the stalks of ripe wheat.
She was sweating slightly. A horsefly settled on her cheek and she slapped at it. She felt scared on her own, incomplete, as if there were only half of her here. Will Samuel be safe with Mistress Margery? she worried. He’d almost leapt from her arms into the hedged garden of hollyhocks and pink crawling babies, he’d settled by a cabbage sucking a stone. Margery had said: Don’t concern yourself about him. I’m used to caring for infants. Trust me.
I’ve no choice, Elaine thought. I have to have money. But this – this thing I’ve said I’ll do today – I can’t bear to do it.
The moss came to an end and she stepped down on the track. The earth was warm, the pebbles hard but they didn’t bother her; she’d walked barefoot for months, ever since March. She skirted round the horseshit. What will Cymberie be like? she wondered. She had never been to the house before. She’d heard tell of it in the village, how huge it was, with its many windows paned with glass and white swans floating on the lily lake. A tall fountain showered silver water, people said, and the kitchen overflowed with food: roast venison and quail, gingerbread and marchpane. It was two days since she had eaten even plain stale bread.
If only it were not him, she thought, if only it were some other man. I could bear to do this for any other man. I could manage it. I wouldn’t mind. But him…
She stretched out her arm, looked at how thin her wrist had become, saw that the skin had sunk into the fan of bones in her hand. That it was almost translucent. She had to have food. She wouldn’t have cared for herself, wouldn’t have minded if she lived or died, but Samuel – he changed the matter.
In the palm of her left hand was the scar of the cut she’d got when her husband Thomas’s chisel had slipped. She’d been working on a carving of Cupid and he had leant across to neaten a feather on the young god’s wing. She had turned to kiss him; his attention wavered. It was her fault, truly, not his. The cut had healed well. It was the last relic of his love left on her body, and she kissed it.
At the top of the hill the woodland came to an end. The great oak at the edge spread its branches over the level scythed grass; Elaine stayed in its shade. Solid in front of her stood Cymberie, a block of dull brick beneath a steep slate roof. Octagonal chimneys twisted into the sky. Smoke rose from one of them, blue smoke that drifted toward her. Apple wood: she recognised the sweet smell instantly, and grieved for the tree that had been felled for fuel when it might have grown on to provide food. Crisp apples, red-skinned, yellow-fleshed, running with juice; her mouth ached with longing for the taste. All she’d had to break her fast this morning were a few currants she had snatched from bushes at the side of the road. Her belly rumbled and she hoped it wouldn’t when she was with him, when his head lay close against her chest.
I can’t do it, I can’t do it, she had said to Mistress Margery in desperation this morning, as if it were something that could be avoided. I don’t know how to do it.
Nothing could be simpler, said Margery, who had arranged it all, who was going to take a half share of her payment in return for looking after Samuel. Anyone can do it. It’s instinctive.
Elaine stepped out into the July sun and half-closed her eyes against its dazzling brightness. The heat burned through her bodice, into the linen shift next to her skin. The scent of lavender gusted toward her from bushes that rocked in the breeze like grey waves of the sea. Bees hovered over them, sucked nectar from the flowers. The garden hummed. White butterflies flapped. Up in the blue sky larks sang their high song.
This is a voyage I am setting out on, she thought. Exploration of an unknown land. I’m afraid of what I may find.
The leaded casements of an upstairs room were latched open. But no-one was around. No gardener was trimming the low box hedges, or carrying water to the fountain that was parched dry. The marble statue in the empty pond glared in the sun.
I wish I were made of marble, she thought; if I were made of stone, if I didn’t have feelings, this would be easy. How easy to be a statue here in the sun where no-one is weeding the borders or sweeping the gravelled alleys, no-one is anywhere at all.
The house seemed uninhabited, unreal, a mirage in the heat. But its main door beckoned her on, its massive oak door with arched moulding, set in a square frame. A huge keyhole that when she bent to it, she found was blocked, so she couldn’t see through. She tried the latch but the door didn’t budge; it must have been locked, or bolted on the inside. There was a great bell but she didn’t ring it. This isn’t the right door for me, she thought, this entrance is for the fine folk, there will be a small door somewhere for people like me. She released the latch as quietly as she could and followed the path under the gloomy hollies at the side of the house until she came to a cobbled yard, where there were stables: the stink of horses. Black hens pecked between the stones. Straw; tufts of grass, dog shit. A ginger cat snoozed on a ledge. Housemartins swooped low on purple wings down from their mud nests under the eaves, almost colliding with her.
The house walls here were of stone, and clearly older than the brickwork at the front. The windows were arched rather than rectangular. A plain door stood wide open at the top of two steps.
Elaine peered in. A long passage paved with stone and deep in shadow lay before her like a lime-washed cave. She hesitated; combed her hair with her fingers and coiled it up neatly, shook her skirt, pulled her sleeves down to her wrists, squared her shoulders. ‘Good morrow,’ she called out.
There was no answer. She entered, stood still a few seconds for her eyes to get used to the lack of light. The flagstones were cooler under her feet than the stones outdoors. A fustiness hung in the air, a smell of damp though it had not rained in days. Muddy clogs of various sizes were spread out in pairs on a low rack; a few sacks, a worn bridle and an axe hung from hooks on the wall.
No reply. She stepped past several closed doors. Her feet made no sound. The whisper of her linen skirt seemed like thunder in the silence; she held it up to try to make it quiet. Birdsong seeped in from outside.
The door at the end of the corridor was ajar, letting in a sliver of light. She knocked on it but there was still no response. Again she called out, ‘Good morrow,’ then gently pushed the door open and stepped through.
She was in the kitchen. It was empty of people but full of the fragrance of food. Flour spotted the stone floor. Soot-black pans stood on the unlit grills below the window; baskets of onions and feather-flecked eggs slouched beside them. The oven door hung open. A kettle simmered by the fire, which was very low, almost all ash. Someone will have to relight it if it goes out, Elaine thought, I will save them the effort; and she placed two fresh logs on it from the stack at the side. A little thud; a puff of grey punctured with sparks. It’s so quiet here, she thought. All the servants must be down in the harvest fields, they will be cutting the wheat. Raking it into stooks, to dry while the fine weather lasts.
The top of the scrubbed oak table was covered with a white muslin cloth weighed down at the edges with scarlet beads and swarming with those little black beetles she didn’t know the name of, that when they sat on your bare arm nipped through the skin and brought a bubble of your red blood to the surface; also with iridescent green flies. She lifted a corner of the cloth and saw pies and bread – huge meat pies glossy with egg glaze and ornamented with leaf and corn-sheaf shapes, beef gravy oozing brown under the lids, blackcurrant pies where the pastry was stained purple, and great loaves marked with crosses on the top, sprinkled with caraway seeds – they were cooling on racks – and pasties with thick crimped edges where the pastry swelled with chunks of lamb, turnip and onion. There was a vast round cheese there, with just a wedge out of it: how she longed to cut a slice with the knife at her side. She couldn’t help but imagine the cheese crumbling in her mouth, its salt filling taste.
But all this belonged to Sir Richard Belvoir. She couldn’t touch it. Not when he had done that to Thomas. She lowered the cloth. Her mouth was dry; she longed for a drink. She looked at the beer-barrel, touched her mouth with the side of her finger, licked her lips. But she turned away, lifted the latch on the inside door of the kitchen, and stepped through.
© Maggie Freeman