Friday, October 16, 2009
Excerpt from my new Regency Rules of Conduct
Two days passed before the girl opened her eyes and looked up at the embroidered damask of the festooned valance and bed-hangings. Bewildered, her gaze moved to the snowy bedclothes covering her body. She threw them back, finding herself dressed in an unfamiliar night rail.
Alarmed, she sat up too quickly. Where at first her head had only been wooly, it now rang with misery and a dull ache thudded in her temples. Moaning, she sank back onto the pillows.
Her fingers found a sore lump under her hair. Sitting up more carefully this time, she looked around the room. There was an Aubusson carpet on the floor, a mahogany chair and desk, a commode, and a large, gilt looking glass over the fireplace. She was sure she’d never seen it before.
Through the open window came a birdcall. The girl stood and stumbled to the window. She leaned out.
“I must still be asleep, or I’ve died and gone to heaven,” she whispered to the empty room. The scene she looked on was certainly her idea of paradise.
Yellow roses climbed a trellis on the honeyed stone walls below her. Rolling green hills dotted with daisies stretched away to the distant sparkle of sunlight on water. The sweet perfume of honeysuckle was carried in on the breeze and stirred her hair.
The bird called again. A male peacock strutted into view, his elegant tail feathers spread out like a painted fan of vivid blues and greens. Despite her fears, the girl found herself smiling.
A horse and rider appeared from a distant grove of trees, covering the ground fast. A high gate barred his way. The girl held her breath as he sailed over. In a few short minutes, he was below her, a raven-haired, broad-shouldered man, sitting tall in the saddle.
He dismounted in one graceful movement and glanced up towards her window. She scuttled back, but curiosity got the better of her, and she peered from behind the curtain, watching him throw the reins of the chestnut stallion to a stable boy.
“Make sure he’s well rubbed down, fed and watered,” she heard him say, as he vaulted the steps and disappeared inside the house.
The girl rushed to pull the bell sash, catching sight of her reflection in the glass. An untidy halo of tangled hair and pale, gaunt face gazed back at her, with eyes that registered confusion and terror. Panic closed her throat, threatening to suffocate her. Nausea brought tears to her eyes and the face in the glass blurred, as unanswerable questions filled her throbbing head. Who was she? Where was she?
A knock at the door startled her, but it was a welcome distraction. Surely, she would now have answers.
A young maid entered with a dress draped over her arm. She carried undergarments, cotton stockings, a pair of garters, and a pair of black silk house slippers.
“Please, Miss,” she said, giving a quick curtsey. “Mrs. Moodie has sent a gown for you to wear.”
“Who is Mrs. Moodie?”
“She be the housekeeper, Miss.”
“What has happened to my own clothes?”
The maid giggled from behind a small hand. “They be men’s clothes. Do you not remember?”
The girl shook her head. “Do…do you know who I am?”
The maid looked puzzled. “No, Miss. I only know they found you and brought you here.”
“Where…did they find me?”
“Lying on the road, Miss. You were up near Molton’s Cross a pace.”
The girl grabbed the back of the chair for support, curling her fingers around it. “Whose home is this then, if you please?”
“Why, this be Vale Park, Miss. Everyone knows that. It’s the largest estate in the district. It belongs to the Duke of Vale.”
“Thank you for the gown,” she said, reaching for it. It was faded, the cambric worn thin from long usage, and would be much too big, but she was grateful for it.
She accepted the maid’s offer to comb the tangles from her hair, but came to regret it as every tug brought fresh pain and tears. The maid had no knowledge of such things and drove the hairpins almost vertically into her tender scalp.
“When you be finished your toilet, Miss, the footman will show you the way to the Master. He be breakfasting below.” With another bob in the girl’s direction, the maid left her alone.
The girl pulled the night rail over her head and forced herself to look in the mirror again. Oh, I’m so thin! The thought came to her from somewhere deep in the recesses of her mind. There lay the answers to who she was, but they remained maddeningly out of reach. She turned around, studying herself. There was a yellowish purple bruise on her hip. Apart from that her body was unblemished, but her belly was sunken and her hips bony protuberances, thrusting against her skin. I need to eat, she thought. She vaguely remembered sipping soup offered at some time, but it remained a mystery how long it had been since her last proper meal. She turned and quickly donned the clothes reacting with distaste to the stays and well-darned chemise. At least they were clean.
Hunger drove her to hurry and pull the bell. Several minutes later, a neat lady of middle age appeared, with a severe expression worn on her face and a bunch of keys hung at her waist. Behind her stood a footman, resplendent in sky blue and gold livery.
“I am Mrs. Moodie.” Her voice held a note of disapproval. She cast a critical eye over the girl’s appearance, and a malicious gleam appeared in her eyes as she took in the ugly, ill-fitting dress. “Good. You are ready.”
“Might I have a girdle to raise the skirt a little?” the girl asked. “Tis too long.”
“The gown is a trifle large,” Mrs. Moodie admitted, offering no remedy. “It will do.” She stood aside and motioned for the girl to follow the footman.
The girl hesitated, but to stay and argue the point with this fierce looking woman would delay her meal, so she nodded politely. She had to run to catch up with the footman, who was already moving away down the hall.
The house was a maze of immense proportions and confusing passageways. They passed doors that opened onto spotless, well-ordered rooms. A tribute to Mrs. Moodie’s efficiency. She followed the footman along a portrait gallery where gilt framed paintings of family members hung in solemn splendor. Formidable men, handsome ladies and the occasional rosy cheeked child gazed down at her, but not a one seemed the least bit familiar. Who were they? And who was she? She would have liked to stay to examine the portraits more thoroughly, but there was no time. The footman proceeded down a stone staircase without lessening his pace. She clutched the skirts of her gown, fearing she would catch her slipper and fall to her death. Safely reaching the bottom, she ran a few steps to make up for the time spent negotiating the stairs. Next, they entered a huge, flagged hall. Crossed swords, shields, and tapestries depicting scenes of hunts and distant battles hung around the walls and armour guarded the doorways. A vaulted ceiling rose to a great height above them. The hollow echo of the footman’s shoes upon the stones sounded like the beat of a distant drum that kept pace with the pounding in her head.
Without slowing, the footman continued through another set of doors, and the girl blinked into sunlight. They had come into a large courtyard with the walls of the great house towering above them.
Her breath caught in her throat as a thought occurred to her. What did this powerful man, this Duke, want with her? Did they know each other? Her feet faltered on the flagstones, but the footman had crossed the courtyard and already entered the building again. Fearing she might lose him, she quickened her pace.
The footman stopped at a door and stood waiting for her. His cold, impersonal glance swept over her before he turned to knock.
A deep voice answered, “Enter.”
Throwing the door open, the footman paused and the girl realized he had no name with which to announce her. “The woman ye found on the road, y’grace,” he said finally.
The girl winced as she was ushered into the room. She was glad to see the last of him, but when the door clicked shut behind her, she felt strangely abandoned.
The room was warm and inviting. A rich, Turkey carpet covered the parquetry floor and a fire burned in the grate. The late morning sun shone through diamond-paned windows, offering a pleasing view of distant woods. She couldn’t help wishing herself there despite the comfort of her current surroundings. To be anywhere but here was, at this moment, her heart’s greatest desire.
At the far end of the room, the source of her discomfort rose from his seat at the table. Reluctantly, she faced the man who had apparently saved her life. She couldn’t help but dread what he would expect in return.