Ringside Seat

Screenshot 2020-06-25 12.54.09

April 15th  1860

It has been an absolute age since I last committed my thoughts to paper! There is much to say and much that has been forgotten, but the call to set down my thoughts once more has been strong, of late.

I must confess that it was the sight of the newly widowed Mrs Cornbench – alone and seated shrunkenly at the service this past Sunday – that has brought me to a sensation  I feel I must lay down here, in private, where no one will censure my thoughts.

I envy her.

She sat without her husband, whose burial mound is still not sunken, and without her children. I do not know where they were – I trust being cared for by another until she is able to return to them – but as I watched her sit there, unburdened and untouched, I wished that she were me.

She held her hands in her lap, her wedding band clearly loose on her finger. Loose, worn-down and dull as a mid-March morning. As I stared, I felt my own band pinching the skin on my left hand, causing my finger to swell slightly and wish me to be rid of it.

Oh, how wicked this thought is!

I feel the constraints of my wedding ring as keenly as I do my marriage. God strike me, I wish Josiah were as liable to imminent loss as Mrs Cornbench’s ring. To slide noiselessy from sight and touch, its absence more likely to be noted by observers, than by her or me.

 

 

 

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

 Blindingham Hall

October 3rd 1854

5604d-villiersrest  I am beside myself with joy! My most fervent fantasies could not have foretold the unutterable rapture of the past few days – my man, my rock, my most dependable friend and guide has been returned to me by the Gods of forgiveness and servitude.

Villiers is once again at Blindingham!

Papa had made no mention of who his new manservant was to be – I am as yet unable to determine whether guile or senility is responsible for his silence on the matter, he is so frail of late. But that is of no concern just now. 

I had agreed that Papa was to be met at the station, so I despatched Jennet with clear instructions to speak plainly to him and to repeat himself if necessary. He does not have the sort of face one might remember, so I was worried that Papa may be disconcerted by his approach. I told Jennet that there would be a new man in attendance – bless him, he seemed quite cheered by the thought that Papa was being cared for – and that he must bring them directly to the Hall with no stoppages at the Inn or the market (I was particularly keen that the Welsh woman was not to meet Papa before I had had chance to smooth his hair and trim his nose).

The Cook and I waved Jennet off and then set about preparing the sort of lunch which would make Papa feel welcome but not weary – I chose asparagus soup with fennel, followed by curds and spiced apple. Whilst up in Town I had heard that a man’s diet says much about his character and as I have always believed Papa to be of clean habits and a sharp mind, I chose a lunch to reflect that . I hope his weakness is temporary, but if it proves not to be I shall stem its progress with Cook’s help, I am sure.

 

At the appointed time – calculated on trusting Jennet to drive slowly for comfort but speedily enough for Papa not to feel inconvenienced until he reached his own quarters – I positioned myself at the entrance to the approach. As I saw the carriage breasting the hill I began to wave – quietly at first but with increasing enthusiasm as they drew nearer. Then I saw Jennet’s stricken face as he drove the horse into the gate. He was ashen, as if his cargo were spirits of the departed – what on earth was the reason for his tears? My heart jumped about under my bodice – had something dreadful happened to Papa on the way here?

The cart halted, Jennet leapt down from the seat and began to unstrap the baggage he and his party carried with them. Papa’s gloved hand emerged gingerly from the window and as I moved to help him step down I almost fainted at what I heard.

‘Sir, please stay seated until I am in a position to receive you. I must be ready for you as you reach for the exit’

I knew that voice! I would recognise it anywhere! I have dreamed more nights than I care to mention of hearing that voice again. As the carriage door flung open I lurched forward and pulled at it as if to fling it from its hinges,

‘Papa! It is me, Effie!’ I shouted, ‘Who is with you?’

‘What did you say?’ called Papa, sounding vague.

‘Papa! Who is your servant?’

‘What a question! What does it matter who I have brought with me? Give me your arm, my dear, I wish to see my rooms as soon as I can!’

Before I could reach forward to take Papa’s hand, my gaze was met by the happiest of sights. Villiers alighted from the carriage as a pony steps on coals, carrying my Papa in his silk-sleeved arms. I nearly died of happiness at the sight of my father and my favoured servant, together and approaching my home.

Villiers smiled at me and said,

‘Madam, I am delighted beyond measure to be once again in your company and your father’s employ. I look forward to giving you my best attention and assure you that I shall look after my master  – your father – with my life.’  

Then he walked Papa into the house, handing Jennet a note as he did so. Jennet read the note, nodded to Villiers and  immediately remounted the driver’s seat.  He swept away, in the direction of the village, wiping his eyes as he went. I was pleased to see him so moved by my good fortune and trusted that the note he was holding in his teeth would survive until it reached the village shop – it must have been a list of urgent supplies for Papa.

We have spent two glorious days settling in together and determining our new way of managing the Hall. Garforth is a little in awe of Villiers, I am sure of it. That pleases me very much indeed.

I am truly the luckiest woman alive to have two men so precious to me in my home at last – only Josiah’s presence could make my happiness greater.

 

 

 

Papa has a brand new Footman

 

 

7ed8b-papaBlindingham Hall

October 29th 1853

 

Papa has sent word that he will spend the rest of the Winter here at the Hall with me – I am so relieved. Josiah came home three days ago (I have been too busy being wifely to keep up with this journal until tonight) and handed me a note from him. It was the briefest of written communications, as is Papa’s way, but gave sufficient information for me to be able to prepare his rooms.

He is bringing a manservant with him, it seems, as he has become increasingly frail – which in truth I had determined already from his handwriting. Josiah knows nothing of Papa’s affairs, save that he is coming here, so I shall have to wait until I see him to hear his news. I hope he is not too feeble in body to raise interest in the Welsh woman, I should very much like to see him made happy again. So, Jennet will collect them from the Huntsman’s Arms on High London Hill a week from this very day! I am sad to say that that same journey will see Josiah returning to London, but at least I shall have the company I have been craving since I arrived here.

I shall put Papa in the Chinese room and give his servant a low bed in the dressing room so he can be close by at all times. For his breaks, I shall allow the servant to sit downstairs – he may even be of use to Garforth at times when Papa does not need him. Garforth is certainly in want of guidance and whoever this person is, he cannot be worse.

I profess myself quite excited!

Fresh Meat

4c8e8-dauncey

Blindingham

October 7th 1853

I fear Dauncey has become depressed. He mopes around more than he did in London and seems to show no interest in exploring the Hall any further. I think he may be lonely, not unlike his mistress. I cannot bear to think of him sad and joyless, with no light in his eyes.

So I have had the brilliant idea of finding a companion for him! As he is my comfort, so shall he have one. On my next visit to the village I shall ask the Post Office woman, from whom no-one has secrets, whether she knows of a Queen approaching her confinement. And if she does, I shall  stake a claim for the first kitten of the litter! Or even two!

How Dauncey will love a new friend or two to skitter up and down the gallery with and to nuzzle at night. Another beating heart to hear in the dark. I am quite envious of him already.

Dog Breath

Blindingham Hall
October 3rd 1853

Great news! Papa has expressed interest in coming to the Hall for a visit, on condition that I do not invite any of the neighbours to dinner during his stay. That is no trial for me at all, indeed it is a blessed relief in truth, but since I am keen to introduce him to the the Welshwoman at the Post Office I shall have to find reason to present ourselves on her doorstep. I will ask him to accompany me to the Inn on some pretext and shall design a chance meeting – how clever of me!

No word this week from Josiah – he is such a hard working husband and I am very proud of him, but I find his absence from home very wearing. I am becoming quite the Mistress in matters of the staff now, so it is his company I miss, not his mastery.

Dauncey has a cough, which worries me a little. His tiny ribs do strain so, it is an alarming sight – I have taken to warming the water in his bucket so he is not forced to draw breath without warning. There are a hundred decisions to make in a day here – I am a grown woman but would so enjoy the help of another. Perhaps Papa will take pity on me – Garforth is no use to me and I need a man for some things, after all.

Going Postal

Blindingham Hall

September 9th 1853

Josiah has sent word that he is to stay in London a while longer. I am almost unable to bear it! I cannot run Blindingham by myself. I have begged him to come home but he is adamant that his business needs him more than his wife does. Wife? I may as well be a widow!
I want to  invite Papa to stay with me in the hope that he is so enamoured of the Hall and the village that he changes his mind and decides to accept my offer of permanent residence here. I fancy that the woman who runs the Post Office may prove useful to me in that regard. She is pleasant, well dressed and not married, which is convenient.
When I called in yesterday she showed great interest in my affairs – as befits a woman who deals with communication, I suppose – and I discovered more about my neighbours than ever they would have told me. It seems that Mrs Cornbench is in regular contact with a gentleman in Eastbourne, unbeknownst to Mr Cornbench – this knowledge will enliven our next meeting considerably.
It is decided, then. I shall write to Papa this afternoon and speak well of him when I go to send the letter. I must ask one of the staff to remind me of the woman’s name – she did introduce herself but I am unable to recollect what she said. I have a feeling she may be from Wales, but I don’t think Papa will mind much about that.

In Plain Sight

Blindingham Hall
September 7th 1853


My diversion around the grounds with Jennet has left me in a state of apprehension. He seems saddened, more weary and dejected than when I last spent time with him on gardening matters – I did not feel it right to question him about his marriage to that ridiculous woman but I cannot help feeling that he has not been made happier for it. He was reticent when speaking about anything other than the grounds – which is right and proper, of course, but a little frustrating – and said nothing at all when I mentioned how heavy the loss of Villiers sat with me.

We have planned a beautiful shrubbery and lawns, though, so I must not mind his quietude too much. He did mention some talk in the village that they wish to view me now that I am back. I do have some letters which it would not kill me to take to the post office myself, I suppose. It may seem wrong for someone of my rank to line up with everyone else, but it will give me a chance to find out what the Italian plans to do and where he intends to set up his studio. Oh! How stupid of me! Of course I must allow him to work in the Orangery now it is restored – perfect light, plenty of room and naturally I will be able to help him choose his sitters and their poses. Josiah can not possibly object to my spending so much time with a true artist – especially in a room whose interior can be seen from all angles and at some considerable distance. I shall gather my correspondence and make my way to the village without delay.

Lost in Transition

Blindingham Hall
September 5th 1853


I awoke with the startling realisation that I can no longer trust anyone to look after me. I have for far too long relied on the protection of my husband, the care of my closest friend and the paternal instinct still just present in Papa. I must grow up!

The Italian in the village has stirred up a good deal of rivalry amongst Blindingham folk and I, as Lady of the Hall, must show leadership. I must set the tone for the village’s dealings with this man and must, above all, ensure that my place in Blindingham society is reflected in the portrait he will paint of me.  I may ask him to paint me here, in the Chinese Room –  it is surely the most beautiful room in the Hall and will provide permanent evidence of the tasteful refurbishments Josiah and I have made. The light in the mornings is perfect for my skin tone, but I fear my hair may be too subtle against the darkness of the hair on the oriental women depicted in the silks.  I am once again plunged into despondency in the absence of Villiers. He would know exactly where I should sit and how I should dress. This is too much!

I breakfasted well enough but the staff are still becoming familiar with the new kitchens, so my kedgeree was almost cold. I had not the will to go down and complain. I shall allow the cook some time to get to grips with her domain and will observe the route the serving staff take to reach the dining hall – it may be possible to save some seconds that way to ensure the food arrives at a palatable temperature. I have arranged to see Jennet this afternoon to discuss the winter maintenance plans and will walk the grounds with him. I shall enjoy his company, I expect, since he will not ask too much of me except some agreement and general encouragement.

There is so much for me to consider now I am returned! How shall I direct the staff? Which rooms should be made ready for guests over the coming months? What linen has survived the fire? What shrubs are people planting now? Where will I sit for the Italian and would Josiah prefer me to be chaperoned, and by whom?

Oh, I am quite giddy with the responsibility! The resolve I had at breakfast to behave in a more adult manner is slipping away from me even before luncheon…

The Village of Garcia Fortuna

Blindingham
September 4th 1853

I am sitting with Dauncey on my lap, drinking morning coffee on my own terrace at last. I am glad no-one is with me to chatter and bewilder my mind still further  – last night’s supper with that woman was enough to send me mad. I shall have to tell Josiah what she said, of course, but for now I must order my thoughts and work out what it is that he must know and what I must keep to myself (and Boo).

As the boy drove me up the lane to Lydiatt House, the whole drab collection of Cornbenches idled out to meet me, like a herd of docile cattle. I alighted from the trap and was dragged pathetically into the house by the children – who showed as much spirit as could be expected, I suppose, from those borne into dreary dullness. Mrs Cornbench clasped my arm and said,

” Oh my dear, how pleased we are to see you back in your rightful place! Blindingham is empty without you. Do come and eat with us while we tell you everything that has happened here while you have been up in London. You might not think the City so exciting when you learn what goes on in the country!”

She babbled on in this tiresome manner throughout the whitebait and right up until the end of the soup. Eventually Mr Cornbench hushed her and we endured some greying beef in relative peace.

The Cornbenches are very modern people who believe their children should dine with company – I can only imagine how quiet they are when alone – so it was not until they had been sent to their beds that I began to understand the reason for all the faddle about village news.

“My dear Mrs Hatherwick, permit me to speak with freedom in the interests of your continued happiness, now you are returned home.” (Mr Cornbench addressed me as if I were at the Assizes; I became quite unsettled at his tone) “You will be pleased, I am convinced of it, that we have taken it upon ourselves to apprise you of recent events.”

He paused, waiting for what I don’t know. I adopted an expression of puzzled interest in the hope that he would carry on speaking without me having to bother to request it. He took my hint,

“Someone has arrived to take lodging in the Village. A very interesting character – he is from Italy by all accounts and is every bit as exotic as his provenance would suggest.”

Exotic? What on earth could he mean? And it would only take  two cloves in an orange for Mr Cornbench to declare a whole fruit basket exotic, so I was not expecting a great deal from this story.

” He is called Mr Fortuna. Mr Garcia Fortuna from Naples. Naples is in Italy.”

“I guessed as much,” I said. “And do you know why has this Mr Fortuna come to live in the village?”

“He is to paint our portraits – every one of us! He has a commission from a very honourable patron; we are all to become famous in the Galleries of Rome!” Mrs Cornbench squealed and bounced around in her seat, til I was forced to address her, too.

“Paint our portraits? Who on earth should wish to see the residents of Blindingham preserved in oils?”

I was quite perplexed by the news and by the degree of excitement it warranted, until I heard the answer to my question.

” My dear! We are to hang in the halls of the Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef! Mr Fortuna is to spend a year observing us ordinary village folk (I bridled a little at being included in that group, but bit my tongue in the presence of Royalty…) and he is to send his works to Italy where the Emperor is regaining power from the Revolutionaries! Now, tell me that is not the most exciting news ever to have reached your pretty ears!”

Mrs Cornbench had quite forgotten herself as she reached for my ears to tweak them in her frenzy. I recoiled enough to save my dignity, but I was extremely exercised by the whole business.

I could not – and can still not – fathom why an Emperor of Austria should wish to furnish his Italian acquisitions with images of rural Surrey. But if Signor Garcia Fortuna is to paint portraits for the Royal Houses of Europe, I should like to ensure that one of them is of me.

My concern now is how much of this news to convey to Josiah. He is quite capable of living an entire six-month at Blindingham without knowing anything of local activity or gossip, but if I am to sit for a painting I shall have to spend some time with this Mr Fortuna. If he is an unmarried gentleman, Josiah will not hear of it, I am sure. I will write to Boo and ask her advice – she is quite shrewd where my husband is concerned and has often steered me to the best course of action in my dealings with him. Bless her, she must listen as closely as any friend could when I speak of him – she almost knows his thoughts as well as I do myself!

Gossip Girl

Blindingham
September 2nd 1853

Here I am – as Mistress of Blindingham once more! If the past two days of travel and travail are typical of my fortunes I swear I shall never leave this house again. It is beautiful and it is my own!

As usual the servants were lined up to see me in and some of the girls were obviously pleased to watch Dauncey as he investigated – he did look small when he stood on the doorstep for the first time, bless him.  I remembered fondly the days when Villiers and Cook were at the head of the line but I cannot wish history away – if things never changed at all I would still be happy, playing with my dolls and dreaming of my future, instead of being Josiah’s wife. Which is the greatest happiness, of course.

Jennet was present, not in the welcome party but foraging somewhere close by and his new bride was smiling rather too brightly, I thought, as she watched me pass. She suits a highly coloured outfit far better than she does a laundry apron, I must confess. Still, I shall most probably never see her unless I venture into the washrooms – and I do not think my hair would survive too many forays there.

I fancied that Jennet watched me with some sadness, but I was so happy to be on my own doorstep I chose not to care much about him.

To be at Blindingham without Villiers – or any butler for that matter – will be a trial of sorts, but I shall press Josiah for a solution when he returns. I shall busy myself with teaching Dauncey where he is to sleep and which areas of the lawn he must not dig up. Watching him fall in love with this house will be a delight.

As I was being brought tea in the afternoon, the footman gave me a note from the intolerable Cornbenches, inviting me to dine with them tomorrow. Such tedium! She wrote that she has much to tell me about the goings on in the village this Summer – I can only hope they serve strong coffee after dinner, else I shall fall dead asleep on my plate with boredom.