March 16th 1853
Dearest Mrs Doughty
I can hardly write, I am so shaken by what I have seen. I am compelled to make contact with you since you are so generously caring for LB, but I fear I will make little sense in this letter. Please grant forbearance – what you are about to read will no doubt be an outward manifestation of the turmoil I find myself in.
I was happily sitting in Sydney Walk just a few short days ago – and yet it seems a lifetime away in truth – when a messenger arrived at our door with an urgent missive from Mrs Cornbench, our neighbour back in the village. I confess I have found her nothing short of meddlesome in the past so I was not inclined to read her letter at first, but the man was insistent that Josiah should be fetched fom his work and should read the message forthwith. Oh, Mrs Doughty – the news it contained, I can barely bring myself to put in words…
Blindingham Hall, my beautiful home, has been burned beyond all recognition – and we fear that Cook has perished in the flames!
It seems that Jennet awoke one night to see the East wing ablaze. He rode straight into the village and managed to raise a goodly crowd of local men to come back with him. How lucky we are to have such standing with our neighbours that they will leave their beds to help us. Jennet arranged a string of them to pass buckets of water from our lake up to the house while he himself went inside to find Mrs Everdown and the staff. I shall make sure he is well compensated for his trouble when we are more settled – without his brave actions we should surely be homeless and without a servant to our names.
By the time Josiah and I reached home – after perhaps the most terrifying journey anyone could be expected to undertake – we happened upon the sorriest sight. The whole of the East Wing has crumbled, the Orangery is in tatters and the lawns are blackened, all shrubbery destroyed. The main Hall and West End are – by the mercy of God – intact and Jennet’s lodge, being some distance from the hall itself, has been spared. We cannot spend a night in the Hall, though, until all burning ashes are extinguished and the roof has been made safe. Josiah is calculating the cost of all this as I sit here describing it – he is in a state of utter devastation, poor man.
Oh, Mrs Everdown and the undermaids are safe, but there is no sign of Cook! Her rooms were in the East Wing – did she set herself ablaze in a fit of madness? By mistake? Perhaps she thought she was back in the kitchens and was starting to prepare Supper. It is all the most dreadful mess.
I shall write more when we have found her, or at least any sign that she was there – if I make myself clear. I cannot bear to contemplate what may have happened to her. If she was not consumed in the fire – where is she?
We are staying with the Cornbenches for the present – it is strangely comforting since much of their furniture reminds me of home. I do believe I detect a little satisfaction on that woman’s face but since I am at her mercy I must remain silent, for now.
Give LB a kiss from me and tell Villiers that Jennet asked after him,