I am not dead.
Elsie recited the words as her carriage sluiced through country roads, churning up clods of mud. The wheels made a wet, sucking noise. I am not dead. But it was hard to believe, looking through the rain-spattered window at the ghost of her reﬂection: pale skin; cadaverous cheeks; curls eclipsed by black gauze.
Outside the sky was iron grey, the monotony broken only by crows. Mile after mile and the scenery did not change. Stubble ﬁelds, skeletal trees. They are burying me, she realised. They are burying me along with Rupert.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. They should have been back in London by now; the house thrown open, spilling over with wine and candles. This season vivid dyes were in fashion. The salons would be awash with azuline, mauve, magenta and Paris green. She should be there at the centre of it: invited to every diamond-spangled party; hanging on the arm of the host in his striped waistcoat; the ﬁrst lady escorted into the dining room. The new bride always went ﬁrst.
But not a widow. A widow shied from the light and entombed herself with grief. She became a mermaid drowning in black crêpe, like the Queen. Elsie sighed and stared into the hollow reﬂection of her eyes. She must be a terrible wife, for she did not long for seclusion. Sitting in silence musing on Rupert’s virtues would not help her grief. Only distraction could do that. She wanted to attend the theatre, to ride up and down on the rattling omnibuses. She would rather be anywhere than alone in these bleak ﬁelds.
Well, not quite alone. Sarah sat hunched on the squabs opposite, poring over a battered leather volume. Her wide mouth moved as she read, whispering the words. Elsie despised her already. Those mud-brown, bovine eyes that held no spark of intelligence, the pinched cheekbones and the lanky hair that always dribbled out of her bonnet. She’d seen shop girls with more reﬁnement.
‘She’ll be company for you,’ Rupert had promised. ‘Just watch her while I’m down at The Bridge. Show her a few sights. The poor girl doesn’t get out much.’
He wasn’t exaggerating. His cousin Sarah ate, breathed and blinked – occasionally she read. That was it. There was no initiative, no yearning to better her position. She’d been content in her little rut as companion to a crippled old lady until the crone died.
As a good cousin, Rupert had taken her in. But it was Elsie who was stuck with her now.
Yellow, fan-shaped leaves came swooping down from the chestnut trees and landed on the roof of the carriage. Pat, pat. Earth upon the cofﬁn.
Only another hour or two, and the sun would start to set. ‘How much longer?’
Sarah looked up from the page with glazed eyes. ‘Hmm?’ ‘How long?’
‘Until . . .?’
Dear God. ‘Until we arrive.’
‘I don’t know. I have never been to The Bridge.’
‘What? You haven’t seen it either?’ It was incomprehensible. For an ancient family, the Bainbridges didn’t take much pride in their ancestral seat. Even Rupert, at the age of forty-ﬁve, had possessed no memory of the place. He only seemed to recollect he owned an estate when the lawyers were ratifying their marriage contract. ‘I cannot believe it. Did you not visit even when you were little?’
‘No. My parents often spoke of the gardens, but I never saw them.
Rupert took no interest in the place until . . .’ ‘Until he met me,’ Elsie ﬁnished.
She swallowed back the tears. They had been so close, hadn’t they, to creating the perfect life together? Rupert had gone up to make the estate ready for spring and the heir who would arrive to inherit it. But now he’d left her, with no experience of running a country
house, to cope with the family legacy and an impending child, alone. She envisaged herself nursing a baby in a mouldering parlour with tattered, pea-green upholstery and a clock on the mantel swathed in cobwebs.
The horses’ hooves squelched outside. The windows began to mist. Elsie pulled down her sleeve and rubbed it against the glass. Dreary images lumbered past. Everything was overgrown and shabby. Remnants of a grey brick wall poked up from the grass like tombstones, while clover and bracken swarmed around. Nature was coming into its own, reclaiming the space with brambles and moss.
How could the road to Rupert’s house be in such a state? He was a fastidious businessman, good with numbers, balanced in his books. So why would he let one of his possessions degenerate into this mess?
The carriage rattled and stopped abruptly. Peters cursed from up on the box.
Sarah closed her book and placed it aside. ‘What’s happening?’
‘I think we’re getting near.’ Leaning forward, she peered as far into the distance as she could. A light mist snaked up from the river running alongside the track and shrouded the horizon.
Surely they were at Fayford by now? It seemed as if they had been jolting along for hours. Boarding the train at London in the smudged, whisky-coloured dawn felt like an occurrence of last week, not this morning.
Peters snapped his whip. The horses snorted and strained in their harness, but the carriage only swayed.
The whip cracked again. Hooves sloshed in the mud.
Knuckles rapped on the roof. ‘Hello in there? You’ll have to get out, ma’am.’
‘Out?’ she repeated. ‘We cannot get out in this ﬁlth!’
Peters jumped off the box, landing with a splat. In a few wet steps he was at the door, swinging it open. Mist swept in and played around the threshold. ‘No choice, I’m afraid, ma’am. The wheel’s stuck fast. All we can do is yank at it and hope the horses do the rest. The less weight in the coach, the better.’
‘Surely two ladies do not weigh so very much?’ ‘Enough to make a difference,’ he said bluntly.
Elsie groaned. The fog pressed against her cheek, damp as a dog’s breath, carrying the scent of water and a deep, earthy tang.
Sarah tucked her book away and picked up her skirts. She paused, petticoats lifted above her ankles. ‘After you, Mrs Bainbridge.’
In other circumstances, Elsie would be pleased to have Sarah defer to her. But this time, she would rather not go ﬁrst. The mist had already built with surprising speed. She could just make out the shape of Peters and his hand, reaching towards her. ‘The steps?’ she asked, without much hope.
‘Can’t get ’em down at this angle, ma’am. You’ll have to jump. It’s only a little way. I’ll catch you.’
All her dignity had come to this. Heaving a sigh, she closed her eyes and sprang. Peters’s hand touched her waist for an instant before he set her down in the mud.
‘Now you, miss.’
Elsie stumbled away from the carriage, not wanting Sarah’s big feet to land on her train. It was like walking on rice pudding. Her boots slipped and stuck at strange angles. She could not see where she placed them; the mist ﬂoated up to her knees, obscuring everything below. Perhaps that was as well – she did not want to see the hem of her new bombazine gown edged with ﬁlth.
More chestnut trees appeared in patches through the fog. She had never encountered anything like this; it was not yellow and sulphurous like a London Particular, it did not hang, but moved. As the clouds of silver and grey slid to the side, they revealed a cracked wall by the line of trees. Bricks had fallen from it, leaving gaping holes like missing teeth. About halfway up there was an empty, rotting window frame. She tried to see clearly, but the images dissolved as the fog glided back.
‘Peters? What is this ghastly building?’
A cry ripped through the damp air. Elsie spun round, her heart pounding, but only white mist met her eyes.
‘Easy now, miss.’ Peters’s voice. ‘You’re all right.’
She released her breath and watched it seep into the mist. ‘What’s going on? I cannot see you. Did Sarah fall?’
‘No, no. I caught her in time.’
Probably the most excitement the girl had experienced all year. A jest was on the tip of her tongue, but then she heard another sound:
lower, more insistent. A deep, stretched groan. The horses must have heard it too, for they jinked in their harness.
‘Peters? What was that?’
The noise came again: bass and mournful. She didn’t like it. She wasn’t used to these country sounds and mists – nor did she wish to be. Lifting her train, she tottered back to the carriage. She moved too fast. Her foot slid, the ground slipped beneath her and her shoulder blades smacked against the mud.
Elsie lay on her back, stunned. Cool slime oozed into the gap between her collar and her bonnet.
‘Mrs Bainbridge? Where are you?’
The blow had knocked the breath from her. She wasn’t hurt – she had no concerns for the baby, but she could not ﬁnd her voice. She stared up into the billowing white. Moisture soaked through her gown. Somewhere, in a distant part of her brain, she cried over the damage to her black bombazine.
That groan came once more, closer now. The mist moved like a restless spirit above her. She sensed a shape over her head, a presence. She croaked feebly.
Elsie cringed as she saw them, inches from her face: two soulless eyes. A wet nose. Black wings like a bat. It sniffed her, then it lowed. Lowed.
A cow. It was just a cow, tethered by a length of frayed rope. Her voice came ﬂowing back on a tide of embarrassment. ‘Shoo! Get away, I have no food for you.’
It did not move. She wondered if it could – it was not a healthy creature. A stringy neck supported its head and ﬂies hovered over its jutting ribs. Poor brute.
‘There you are!’ Peters moved the cow out of the way with a few kicks. ‘What happened, ma’am? Are you all right? Let me help you.’
It took four attempts before he managed to heave her up. Her dress left the bog with a sticky rip. Ruined.
Peters gave a crooked smile. ‘Not to worry, ma’am. Don’t look like a place you need to dress up, does it?’
She peered over his shoulder, where the last tendrils of mist were twisting away. Surely not. Surely the village ﬂoating into view could
not be Fayford?
A row of tumbledown cottages squatted beneath the trees, each with a smashed window or battered door. Holes in the walls had been hastily patched over with mud and dung. Broken thatch made a pathetic attempt to stretch over the rooftops, but it was ﬂecked with mould.
‘No wonder we got stuck.’ Peters gestured to the road ﬂowing before the cottages. It was little more than a brown river. ‘Welcome to Fayford, ma’am.’
‘This cannot possibly be Fayford,’ she told him.
Sarah’s pale face appeared beside them. ‘I think it is!’ she breathed. ‘Oh, heavens.’
Elsie could only gape. It was bad enough to be trapped in the country, but here? Marrying Rupert was meant to lift her above her station, provide her with well-fed cottagers and humble tenants.
‘Stay there, ladies,’ said Peters. ‘I’m going to get this wheel out while the mist is clear.’ He walked back carefully over the mud.
Sarah crept up next to Elsie. For once, Elsie was glad of her presence. ‘I hoped for pleasant country walks, Mrs Bainbridge, but I fear we will have to stay indoors this winter.’
Indoors. The word was like a key turning in a lock. That old, trapped feeling from childhood. How could she take her mind off Rupert if she had to stay indoors?
There were books, she supposed. Card games. It would not take long for them to become tedious.
‘Did Mrs Crabbly ever teach you how to play backgammon, Sarah?’
‘Oh yes. And then of course . . .’ She froze, eyes widening. ‘Sarah? What is it?’
She twitched her head at the cottages. Elsie turned. Grubby faces hovered by the windows. Wretched people, worse than the cow.
‘They must be my tenants.’ She raised a hand, feeling she should signal to them, but her courage faltered.
‘Should we—’ Sarah squirmed. ‘Should we try to talk to them?’ ‘No. Stay away.’
‘But they look so miserable!’
They did. Elsie cudgelled her brains for ways to help. Visit them with a basket and read a Bible passage? That was what rich ladies
did, wasn’t it? Somehow she didn’t think they would appreciate the effort.
A horse whinnied. She heard a curse and turned to see the carriage wheel burst from the quagmire with an almighty gurgle, spraying mud over Peters.
‘Well,’ he said, casting a wry glance at Elsie’s gown. ‘That makes two of us.’
The carriage rolled forward a few paces. Behind it, Elsie saw the battered ruins of a church. Its spire had disappeared, leaving only a jagged spike of wood. Yellow, sparse grass surrounded it, crammed close with headstones. Someone watched them from the lychgate.
Bubbles ﬁzzed in Elsie’s stomach. The baby. She put one hand on her muddy bodice and used the other to take Sarah’s arm. ‘Come on. Back in the carriage.’
‘Oh, yes.’ Sarah scrambled forward. ‘Let us get to the house as soon as possible!’
Elsie could not share her enthusiasm. For if this rat’s nest was the village, what on earth would they ﬁnd at the house?
The river whispered to them; a rushing, disembodied sound. Moss-speckled stone formed a bridge across the water – it must be the very bridge from which the house took its name.
It was not like any of the bridges in London. Instead of modern architecture and engineering, Elsie saw crumbling arches teased by foam and spray. A pair of discoloured stone lions ﬂanked the posts on either side of the water. It made her think of drawbridges, the Tower of London – Traitors’ Gate.
But this river was not like the Thames; it was not grey or brown but clear. She squinted, her eyes catching a ﬂick beneath the surface. Dark shapes, swirling. Fish?
When they reached the other side, an old gatehouse sprang up as if from nowhere. Peters slowed the carriage, but no one came out to greet them. Elsie put the window down, wincing at the sensation of her clammy sleeve moving against her arm. ‘Carry on, Peters.’
‘There!’ cried Sarah. ‘The house is there.’
The road sloped down across a range of hills, where the sun was beginning to set. At the very end, crouching in a horseshoe of red
and orange trees, was The Bridge.
Elsie put up her veil. She saw a low-slung Jacobean building with three gables on the roof, a central lantern tower and redbrick chimneys looming behind. Ivy poured out of the eaves and engulfed the turrets at either end of the house. It looked dead.
Everything was dead. Parterres lay prostrate beneath the soulless gaze of the windows, the hedges brown and riddled with holes. Vines choked the ﬂowerbeds. Even the lawns were yellow and sparse, as if a contagion spread slowly throughout the grounds. Only the thistle thrived, its purple spikes bristling from amidst the coloured gravel.
The carriage drew to a halt on a gravel sweep, opposite the fountain that formed the centrepiece of the decaying grounds. Once, when the stone was white and the sculpted ﬁgures of dogs on top were new, it must have been a handsome structure. No water sprang up from the jets. Cracks wiggled across the empty basin.
Sarah drew back. ‘They’re all out to see us,’ she said. ‘The entire staff!’
Elsie’s stomach plunged. She had been too busy staring at the gardens. Now she observed three women dressed in black waiting outside the house. Two wore white caps and aprons while the third was bare-headed, showing a coil of iron hair. Beside her stood a stiff, formal-looking man.
Elsie looked down at her skirts. They were patched like a rusty iron gate. Mud made the bombazine heavy and caused it to cling around her knees. What would her new servants think if they saw her in such a state? She would be neater and cleaner in her factory clothes.
‘A mistress must meet her household. But I had hoped not to do it caked in mud.’
Without warning, the carriage door swung open. She jumped. A young man stood before her, his slim ﬁgure clad in a black suit.
‘Oh Jolyon, it’s you. Thank goodness.’
‘Elsie? What on earth happened?’ His light brown hair was swept back from his face, as if to highlight the dismay written there.
‘An accident. The carriage wheel got stuck and I fell—’ She gestured to her skirt. ‘I can’t see the household like this. Send them back inside.’
He hesitated. His cheeks ﬂushed beside his whiskers. ‘But . . . It would look so strange. What am I supposed to say?’
‘I don’t know! Tell them anything!’ She heard the brittle sound of her own voice and felt dangerously close to tears. ‘Make up some excuse.’
‘Very well.’ Jolyon closed the door and stood back. She saw him turn, the breeze lifting a curl of hair at his collar. ‘Mrs Bainbridge is .
. . indisposed. She will have to go straight to her bed. Set a ﬁre and send up some tea.’
Mumbles sounded outside, but then there was the welcome crunch of feet trudging back over gravel. Elsie breathed a sigh of relief. She did not have to face them – not yet.
Of all people, Elsie found servants the most judgemental: jealous of their master’s station, since it was tied closely to their own. Rupert’s London household had turned their noses up at her when she arrived from the match factory. Her confession that she hadn’t kept domestic help since her mother died had sealed their contempt. Only respect for Rupert, and Rupert’s warning glances, made them civil.
Sarah leant forward. ‘What will you do? You’ll need to get changed straight away, without being seen. And Rosie isn’t here!’
No. Rosie was unwilling to leave her London life and wages to live in this backwater. Elsie could not blame her. And to be honest, she was secretly relieved. She’d never felt comfortable changing in front of her lady’s maid, having strange hands against her skin. But she would need to hire another one soon, if just for appearances’ sake. She did not want to get the reputation of being one of those eccentric widows populating the countryside.
‘I daresay I’ll manage without Rosie for now.’
Sarah’s face brightened. ‘I could help you with the buttons at the back. I’m good at buttons.’
Well, that made one thing.
Jolyon appeared back beside the door, opened it again and extended a hand. ‘The staff are safely inside. Come on now, climb out.’
She struggled down the steps and landed awkwardly with a sprinkle of stones. Jolyon raised his eyebrows at her dress. ‘Good heavens.’
She snatched her hand away.
While he helped Sarah down, she looked over the house. It revealed nothing. Curtains were drawn across the windows in an unrelenting screen of black. Ivy ﬂuttered against the wall.
‘Come. The trunks you sent ahead are in your room.’
They climbed a shallow ﬂight of steps to the open door. Before they crossed the threshold, a musty tang reached out and forced its way up Elsie’s nostrils. Someone had tried to cover it with a softer, powdery note. There were scents of a linen drawer: lavender and green herbs.
Jolyon walked briskly on, as he did in London, his footsteps tapping over a grey stone ﬂoor set with lozenges. Elsie and Sarah dawdled behind him, keen for a look at the house.
The door opened straight into the Great Hall, a cavern of antique splendour. Medieval details stood out: a suit of armour, shortswords displayed in fans on the wall and worm-eaten roof beams above.
‘Did you know Charles I and his queen once stayed here?’ asked Sarah. ‘My mother told me. Imagine them, walking right across this ﬂoor!’
Elsie was more concerned with the ﬁre blazing in a black iron grate. She hurried towards it and held her gloved hands out to the ﬂames. She was used to coal; there was something unnerving about these crackling logs and the deep, sweet smell of their smoke. It reminded her of the deal they used in the match factory to make the splints. The way it split under the saw.
She looked away. Either side of the ﬁreplace stood two heavy wooden doors, embossed with iron.
‘Elsie.’ Jolyon sounded impatient. ‘There will be a ﬁre in your room.’
‘Yes, but I—’ She turned, and the muscles in her face set like wax. Under the stairs. She had not noticed it before. A long, narrow box lay on a table in the centre of an oriental rug. ‘Is that . . .?’
Jolyon hung his head. ‘Yes. He was in the drawing room at ﬁrst. But the housekeeper informs me it is easier to keep this room aired and fresh.’
Of course: the smell of herbs. Elsie reared back, feeling her insides curl. She wanted to remember Rupert smiling and dapper, as he had always been, not as a lifeless doll on display.
She cleared her throat. ‘I see. And at least the neighbours will not have to traipse through the house when they come to pay their respects.’ That dreadful listlessness which had possessed her when she ﬁrst heard of Rupert’s death started up, but she pushed it back down. She did not want to be swamped by grief or bitterness – she only yearned to pretend it had never, ever happened.
‘There do not seem to be many neighbours.’ Jolyon leant on the banister. ‘Only the vicar has come so far.’
How terribly sad that was. In London, men would be honoured to see Rupert one last time. She regretted, once again, that they had not brought him back to town for a ﬁne burial, but Jolyon had said it was impossible.
Sarah walked to the cofﬁn and peered in. ‘He looks peaceful. Dear man, he deserves to be.’ She turned to Elsie and held out a hand. ‘Come, Mrs Bainbridge, and look.’
‘It’s all right. Come. It will do you good to see how serene he is. It will help with the grief.’
She severely doubted that. ‘I don’t want to.’ ‘Mrs Bainbridge—’
A log exploded in the grate. Elsie yelped and jumped forwards. A shower of sparks dusted her skirts and melted to ash before they reached the rug. ‘Goodness.’ She put a hand to her chest. ‘These old ﬁres. I could have been set alight.’
‘Hardly.’ Jolyon ran his ﬁngers through his hair. ‘We must get you upstairs before the servants come and – Elsie? Elsie, are you listening to me?’
The leap away from the ﬁre had done it. She was close enough to see the peaks of Rupert’s proﬁle rising over white satin: the grey-blue tip of a nose; eyelashes; curls of salt-and-pepper hair. It was too late to look away. She inched forward, each footstep placed with the care she would use to approach a sleeping child. Gradually, the high wall of the cofﬁn receded.
Breath left her in a rush. It was not Rupert. Not really. What lay before her was an imitation, as cold and featureless as a stone efﬁgy. Its hair was perfectly greased in place, with no hint of the curl that always fell over Rupert’s left eye. The broken veins that had adorned
Rupert’s cheek were a mere smudge of grey. Even his moustache looked false, standing out prominently from drying skin.
How that moustache had tickled. She felt it again at her cheek, under her nose. The way she had always laughed when he kissed her. Laughter was Rupert’s gift. It felt wrong to stand around him solemn and silent. He would not have wanted that.
As her eyes travelled down to his chin and the dots of stubble that would now never grow, she noticed small, blue ﬂecks on the skin. They reminded her of childhood and sewing needles, sucking hard on a ﬁnger.
Of course, they were splinters. But why would he have splinters on his face?
‘Elsie.’ Jolyon’s voice was ﬁrm. ‘We must go up. There will be time enough to say goodbye tomorrow.’
She nodded and rubbed her eyes. It was not hard to drag herself away. Whatever Sarah thought, staring into a cofﬁn was nothing like bidding farewell to her husband. The time for that had passed with his last breath. All they had in the casket was a pale shadow of the man who had once been Rupert Bainbridge.
It took two ﬂights of steps before they cleared the beams of the Great Hall and emerged onto a small landing. Only a few lamps were lit, ﬂaring in patches and revealing red ﬂock wallpaper.
‘This way,’ said Jolyon, turning left.
Puffs of dust rose beneath Elsie’s feet as she followed, her damp skirts swishing against the carpet. The corridor conveyed an air of shabby grandeur. Tapestry sofas lurked against the walls with chipped marble busts dotted in between. They were horrible things, watching her with dead expressions, shadows creeping over their cheekbones and sinking into the sockets of their eyes. She didn’t recognise any as famous writers or philosophers. Perhaps they were previous owners of The Bridge? She searched their impassive faces for a trace of Rupert but found none.
Jolyon took a turn to the right, then another quickly to the left. They came up against an arched door. ‘This is the guest suite,’ he explained. ‘I thought you would be comfortable here, Miss Bainbridge.’
Sarah blinked. ‘A suite, just for me?’
‘Yes indeed.’ He gave a tight smile. ‘Your box is in there. I will sleep down the hall by the servants’ stairs.’ He gestured with a sweep of his arm. ‘Mrs Bainbridge is in a mirror suite on the other wing.’
Elsie raised her eyebrows. A mirror suite. Was that the level to which she had sunk? ‘How thrilling. We’ll be just like twins.’ She tried to keep the tartness from her voice but feared she did not succeed.
‘I will just settle in,’ Sarah said awkwardly. ‘Then I will come and help you dress, Mrs Bainbridge.’
‘Take all the time you need,’ said Jolyon. ‘I will show my sister to her room. Then we will enjoy a late dinner together.’
Grabbing Elsie’s arm, he frogmarched her back the way they had come. ‘You must not treat Sarah like a servant,’ he grunted.
‘Indeed I won’t, for she does no work to earn her living. She is a spinster here on my charity, is she not?’
‘She was the only family Bainbridge had.’
Elsie tossed her head. ‘That is not true. I was Rupert’s family. I was his next of kin.’
‘Oh yes, you managed to convince him of that.’ ‘What on earth do you mean?’
Jolyon slowed to a halt. He peered over his shoulder, checking there were no servants loitering in the shadows. ‘I am sorry. That was crass of me. It is not your fault. But I thought Bainbridge and I had agreed, before the marriage, exactly what would happen in this situation. It was a gentleman’s agreement. But Bainbridge . . .’
Unease crept into her stomach. ‘What are you saying?’
‘He did not tell you? Bainbridge changed his will a month before he died. His solicitor read it to me.’
‘What did it say?’
‘He left it all to you. Everything. The house in London, The Bridge, his share in the match factory. No one else beneﬁts in the least.’
Of course he did. A month ago – that was when she told him about the baby.
To think that after all she had been through, she had managed to marry a considerate man, a prudent man – and lost him. Careless, Ma
would have said. Just like you, Elisabeth.
‘Is it strange that he should change his will? I am his wife, I am carrying his child. Surely the arrangement is perfectly natural?’
‘It would be. A year or two down the line and I would have no quarrel with it.’ Shaking his head, he moved off down the corridor.
She tried to keep up, unable to concentrate on the path he took; the wine-red walls seemed to billow like cloth. ‘I don’t understand. Rupert has acted like an angel. This is the answer to my prayers.’
‘No, it is not. Think, Elsie, think! How does it look? A man everyone thought was a conﬁrmed bachelor marries a woman ten years his junior and invests in her brother’s factory. He changes his will to make her the sole beneﬁciary. Then, a mere month later, he is dead. A man who appeared as strong as an ox is dead, and nobody knows how.’
Glacier crystals formed in her chest. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. No one would suggest—’
‘Oh, they are suggesting it, I assure you. And whispering it. Think of the match factory. Think of my good name! I have to steer through this storm of gossip, alone.’
She stumbled. That was why Jolyon wanted her in the country, why he refused to move Rupert’s body back to London for burial: scandal.
She remembered the last scandal. Police ofﬁcers in their iron hats, taking down statements. The whispers that buzzed in her wake like a trail of ﬂies and those hungry, pointed looks. Years of it. It would take years to fade away.
‘Dear God, Jo. How long will the baby and I have to stay in this place?’
He ﬂinched. For the ﬁrst time, she noticed the pain shining in his eyes. ‘Damn it, Elsie, what is wrong with you? I am telling you about a stain on our name, on the factory, and all you can think about is how long you will be away from London. Do you even miss Rupert?’
She missed him like air. ‘You know I do.’
‘Well, I must say you do a good job of hiding it. He was a good man, a great man. Without him we would have lost the factory.’
He stopped at the end of the corridor. ‘This is your room. Perhaps once you are settled inside, you will have the decency to grieve.’
‘I am grieving,’ she snapped. ‘I just do it in a different manner to you.’ Pushing past him, she ﬂung open the door and slammed it behind her.
She closed her eyes and leant back, both palms ﬂat against the wood, before she exhaled and sank to the ﬂoor. Jolyon had always been so. She should not take his words to heart. Twelve years her junior, he had always been at leisure to feel, to cry. It was Elsie who endured. And hadn’t that been the point? To keep little Jolyon in ignorance of what she suffered?
After a few minutes, she was mistress of herself. She rubbed her forehead and opened her eyes. A clean, bright room lay before her with windows on either side, one facing out to the semicircle of russet trees that embraced the house and the other angled across at the west wing, where Sarah was staying. Her trunks lay heaped in the corner. A ﬁre sizzled in the grate and Elsie was relieved to see a washstand beside it. Strands of steam rose from the ewer. Hot water.
She heard Ma’s voice, clear in her ear. Silly girl, making such a fuss.
Let’s wash all those bad thoughts away.
Climbing to her feet, she stripped off her gloves and went to splash her face. Her sore eyes instantly felt better and the towel she used to wipe her skin was wonderfully soft – whatever the ﬂaws of the place, she could not fault the housekeeper.
A heavy four-poster bed carved in rosewood loomed against the far wall. Cream bedclothes embroidered with ﬂowers were spread across it. Then came the dressing table, its three-piece mirror swathed in black fabric. She sighed. It was the ﬁrst looking glass she had seen since leaving the station. Time to assess the damage done by her tumble in the mud.
Placing the towel back on its rail, she walked over and sat on the stool. She drew the black material aside. It was a foolish superstition: covering mirrors to stop the dead from becoming trapped. Nothing was held inside the glass except three blonde-haired, brown-eyed women, each one a sorry state. Her gauze veil ﬂuttered at the nape of her neck like a netted crow. Windblown curls frizzed around her forehead and, despite her brief wash, a smear of mud remained on
her right cheekbone. Elsie scrubbed until it melted away. Thank goodness she had refused to see the servants.
Slowly, she reached up her weary arms to remove her bonnet and cap, and begin the long task of unpinning her hair. Her ﬁngers were not as nimble as they used to be – she had grown accustomed to having Rosie do it. But Rosie and all the comforts of that past life were miles away.
A pin snagged on a tangle and made her gasp. She dropped her hands, upset beyond reason at this small annoyance. How did this happen? she asked the dishevelled women before her. They had no answer.
The glass here was cold and harsh. It did not contain the smiling, pretty bride she had stared at such a short time ago. Unbidden, a scene rose up in her memory: Rupert, standing behind her that ﬁrst night and brushing her hair. Pride in his face, ﬂashes of the silver-backed brush. A feeling of safety and trust, so rare, as she considered his reversed image. She could have loved him.
The marriage was a business relationship, cement to secure Rupert’s investment in the match factory, but that night she had truly looked at the man and realised she could grow to love him. In time. Alas, time was the one thing they did not have.
A tap at the door made her start. ‘Buttons?’ Sarah’s voice.
‘Yes. Come in, Sarah.’
Sarah had swapped her travelling dress for an evening gown that had seen better days. Black dye mottled it in uneven patches. She hardly looked presentable, but at least she’d plaited her mousy hair. ‘Have you chosen a gown? I could ask one of the maids if there is a ﬂatiron . . .’
‘No. Please just dig out a nightgown.’ If Jolyon wanted her to grieve, that’s what she would do. She would act exactly as he had, after Ma. That would serve him. He would see how irritating and useless it was to have her whimpering upstairs.
Sarah’s reﬂection twisted its hands in the mirror. ‘But . . . dinner . .
‘I’m not going down. I have no appetite.’
‘But – but I cannot have dinner alone with Mr Livingstone! What
would people say? We are barely acquainted!’
Irritated, Elsie rose to her feet and went to ﬁnd a nightgown herself. Had Sarah really been a lady’s companion? She should know better than to stand and argue with her mistress. ‘Nonsense. You must have spoken to Jolyon at the wedding.’
‘I was not at your wedding. Mrs Crabbly was taken ill. Do you not remember?’
‘Oh.’ Elsie took a moment to pull a nightgown from a trunk and arrange her face before she turned. ‘Of course not. You will have to forgive me. That day . . .’ She looked down at the white cotton in her hands. ‘It all passed in such a happy blur.’
Honiton lace, orange blossom. She had never thought to be a bride. One put aside such fancies after the age of twenty-ﬁve. For Elsie, the prospect had seemed even less likely. She despaired of ﬁnding someone she could trust, but Rupert had been different. He carried something in the air around him, an aura innately good.
‘I understand,’ said Sarah. ‘Now come here. Let us see about that dress.’
Elsie would rather have changed by herself, but there was no choice. She could hardly tell Rupert’s cousin that she owned a buttonhook – only whores were meant to use them.
Sarah worked deftly, her ﬁngers moving over Elsie’s shoulders and down her waist like the lightest taps of rain. The gown fell whispering into her hands. ‘Such ﬁne material. I do hope the mud will wash out.’
‘Perhaps you can take it downstairs for me. There must be a scullery maid who will put it in the copper without telling for a crown.’
Sarah nodded. She folded the gown and hugged it to her chest. ‘And . . . the rest?’ She shot a coy look at the cage of petticoats, spring steel and hoops holding Elsie in. ‘You will be able to manage
‘Oh yes.’ Self-conscious, she put her hands to the tapes securing her crinoline. ‘I didn’t always have a maid, you know.’
It was Sarah’s silence and stillness that made Elsie’s ﬂesh creep. Her eyes ﬁxed on Elsie’s waist and expanded, darker and strangely glittering.
Sarah shook herself. ‘Yes. Very well. I’ll be on my way.’
Elsie looked down at her body, confused. What had made Sarah stare? With a painful jolt, she realised: her hands. She had taken her gloves off to wash her face and revealed her hands in all their chapped ugliness. Work-hardened hands, factory hands. Not a lady’s hands.
But before Elsie could say anything in her defence, Sarah opened the door and walked out.