Behind the broken, leaded windows, the past lingered.
Forsaken portraits lined the damp walls, their subjects obscured by layers of grime and aged beyond their years. Period furniture, once proud and lovingly polished, lay muted beneath opaque sheets of dust. From the blackened fireplaces, the stench of old ashes, a reminder of the life that had once been, seeped into the stale air.
Only the dull echo of rain water, dripping relentlessly through the cracked roof tiles onto the flag stones, marked time as it passed.
Eloille left the stable block and hurried towards the tradesmen’s entrance at the rear of the Hall. There would be no confrontation by the staff, but the same could not be guaranteed from her father. She could hear the returning hounds baying in the distance, and knew the large search party was, once again, returning empty-handed. Only James could claim success. She prayed he would be discreet.
Leaving a wet trail on the stone floor behind her, Eloille crept through the scullery and across the adjoining kitchen. In a corner of the dim light, muffled giggles were quickly hushed. She paused and turned. Guiltily, the junior staff dropped their faces. Only Mrs Maudy, the Hall’s plump house-keeper, met her eyes. But there was nothing but pity in her expression.
At the door leading to the long hallway, Eloille hesitated. Satisfied the way was clear, she ran to the foot of the wooden staircase, hitched her long skirts to her knees, and, clearing two stairs at a time, bounded upwards. Running the length of the first floor landing, she flew into her room, carefully closed the door behind her, and leant back against it with a sigh.
“Oh my,” a voice declared, “what a sight you are to behold!”
“Who’s there?” Eloille demanded.
A familiar figure emerged from the shadows, moved to the oil lamp flickering by Eloille’s wash stand, and adjusted its flame. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” it replied, “but I do wish you’d light this before you venture out.”
“It was a last minute decision, Aunt.”
Lady Kaymoor turned to Eloille to reply, but paused. Judging by her niece’s appearance, now was not the moment to press the matter further. “You’re a little damp,” she remarked instead.
“Summer seems to have abandoned us,” Eloille muttered.
“Yes. That does usually happen in October.”
Eloille draped her damp cloak over her dressing table stool, and prayed that her aunt would leave. She knew Lady Kaymoor was staring at her, and she was in no mood for the conversation she suspected would follow.
“Is that a cut on your cheek?” Lady Kaymoor asked, hurrying towards her.
“Something worried Flight,” Eloille replied, staring down at the floor. “We came closer to a tree than I had planned.”
Lady Kaymoor cupped Eloille’s face and tipped it upwards to scrutinize the wound. “I don’t like the look of it,” she said. “We should send for Dr Ramsay.”
“Will he know the way?”
Slowly, Lady Kaymoor withdrew her hands from Eloille’s cheeks.
“Oh, Aunt, I’m sorry,” Eloille whispered.
“You are forgiven.”
“I saw Ramsay’s coach leave.”
Lady Kaymoor nodded. “I know.”
“He was here about me again, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, he was.”
“So, do they still think that I am mad?”
“No, they do not. In fact, Dr Ramsay gave a very compelling reason for why you should feel the need to venture out.”
“Yes. And I am inclined to agree with him. These arguments are upsetting for us all. At points even I am tempted to escape.”
“He blames the arguments?” Eloille asked. “Did he say the same to father?”
“Yes,” Lady Kaymoor replied, “he did. And your father listened. Eloille, you have to believe me. Your father only sent for the doctor because he is concerned.”
“Why? I sometimes wonder why he is not relieved when I flee. At least I am no longer here to disappoint him.”
“Come now,” Lady Kaymoor said, taking her niece’s hand, “your mood is as dark as the night. Let’s get you out of those wet things before you catch a chill.”
With an awkward smile, Eloille slipped her hand from Lady Kaymoor’s hold, crossed her room, and opened her door. The skin beneath her dress was muddied and scratched, and she had no plausible explanation for either. “I can manage, Aunt,” she said. “But would you check on father? Make sure he hasn’t paced his way through the study floor.”
Lady Kaymoor followed Eloille to the door, reached for the brass handle in her grip, and pushed her door closed. “Your father and his study floor are absolutely fine,” she replied. “I am more concerned about you. At least let me help you with your hair?”
Eloille sighed, removed her cloak from the stool where she had dropped it, and sank down before the dresser mirror. She recognised Lady Kaymoor’s tone and knew there was little point refusing her help. After a period of awkward silence, and knowing she could no longer avoid her aunt’s eyes in the mirror’s reflection, she looked up.
“How was your ride?” Lady Kaymoor asked.
“I don’t really remember,” Eloille replied.
“You were gone for some time.”
“It was no more than an hour, Aunt. I’m not that thoughtless.”
The brush in Lady Kaymoor’s hands stilled. “Eloille, it was nearer three. It’s almost midnight.”
Eloille’s locked fingers twisted in her lap, and she swallowed. “I must have gone further than I thought.”
Lady Kaymoor quietly laid the brush on the dresser, placed her hands upon Eloille’s shoulders, and stared at her niece’s reflection. “Why must you go to the moors, darling? Surely you can escape to some quiet corner here? If you need a friendly ear, I am always close. From what I gather, you find no comfort in your escape. And I can’t bear to hear that you cry alone.”
Eloille could not answer, and was no longer able to return her aunt’s steady gaze. And although her focus had dropped back to the damp rug beneath her feet, she did not see it. Her mind raced. It was not the thought of being followed, or even the dread of what James may have said that troubled her. She simply had no recollection of how she had got to the moors, or worse, how she had left the Hall unnoticed. Her last memory, before she had fled, was lying on her bed after the angry exchange with her father. “How do you know I cry?” she finally whispered.
“Oh, Eloille, don’t pretend you don’t know your father has you followed. James has returned to the Hall on more than one occasion and told him-”
“Told him what? It is not enough to have me hunted by his staff and the hounds. Now he is sending out his game-keeper as well. I wonder he doesn’t ask me to wear a tail. At least he could profit from my antics.”
Lady Kaymoor squeezed Eloille’s shoulders, and sighed. “Your father simply wishes the best for you,” she said, “and every time you take flight, he fears for you.”
“Fears for me, or for his own reputation?” Eloille demanded, leaping to her feet and rounding on her aunt. “Time and again he reminds me of the damage I have inflicted upon many of his friendships, and that he could not bear to see another of his acquaintances spurned or another of their proposals declined. And yet, he will not leave matters concerning marriage alone.”
“Your father loves you, Eloille,” Lady Kaymoor implored, “and he wants you to be happy.”
Eloille placed her fingers-tips at her temples, and laughed. “But this concept of marriage being the epitome of happiness seems curious to me, when both parties swearing by it have been unmarried for quite some time. Why, Aunt, if it is such a great institution, has neither you nor my father re-married?”
For a moment Lady Kaymoor was silent. She moved away from Eloille’s dresser, perched at the foot of Eloille’s bed, and nodded. “Yes, I suppose it does seem rather odd doesn’t it? Please, darling,” she whispered. “Please sit back down.”
Facing her back to her mirror, Eloille sank back down onto her stool opposite her aunt.
Lady Kaymoor smiled, turned away from Eloille, and gazed into the night beyond the large windows. “I was so happy when I moved to London to live with Elizabeth,” she said. “Life in the country seemed positively dull by comparison. Elizabeth and I would spend hours planning what we would wear, where we would go, who we would talk to.” She paused and shook her head. “Very often, we would continue our discussions when we should have been studying. Our long suffering governess almost gave up on us. It was only the Duke of Portmond, Elizabeth’s father, who persuaded the woman to stay.”
She turned to Eloille and smiled. “I had always doted on Lionel,” she continued, “and living with his family meant I was fortunate enough to spend almost every day near to him. Our friendship blossomed into love, and although I was worried Elizabeth wouldn’t approve of my marrying her brother, I eventually did marry him, she eventually did approve, just, and those years as wife to the Marquees of Kaymoor were my happiest yet.”
Lady Kaymoor’s serene expression slowly faded. “When Lionel died,” she said, “it was so sudden, so unexpected. And despite Elizabeth almost demanding that I remain in London to advertise my position as a young widow seeking comfort, I yearned for solitude, to grieve angrily alone. I came back to the Hall as much upon your father’s request, as for my own recovery. But not a day has gone by when I have not thought of Lionel. And not a year has passed when I have not gathered rose petals, as he had done on the day of our engagement, and placed them on a china saucer by my bedside.”
She turned away from Eloille, and sighed. “I very much enjoyed marriage, Eloille. It was the grief I could not bear.”
An unexpected tear fell from the corner of her eye. She tugged a lace handkerchief free from her sleeve and dragged it over her glistening cheek. “Fancy crying after all this time!”
Opposite her, Eloille knew better than to speak. Her aunt would be embarrassed, and a sympathetic word would only make her condition worse. She silently reached for Lady Kaymoor’s free hand, and enclosed her fingers.
“Your mother died when you were seven, Eloille. Whilst I was busy cavorting around London, your father was here taking up the family reins after they had been relinquished by your dear grandfather. The Estate and its success is such a thing of pride to the Falshaw family. We have not always been so fortunate.
“When your mother died,” Lady Kaymoor continued, “your father was so wracked with grief that the Estate almost failed. Understandably, you had become demanding on his affections, but his inability to cope with your strong will, coupled with his own sorrow, ultimately led to arguments. Shortly after your mother passed, you ran away to the moors. It was the first of many escapes to follow. That is when I returned.”
Lady Kaymoor squeezed Eloille’s fingers, and gave her a small smile. “Your father loved your mother dearly, Eloille. They were not similar, but I feel sure they would have enjoyed a very happy life together had circumstances been different. But your father always blamed his immersion in the family business for your mother’s death, and promised that from that point forward, his one priority in life, above anything or anyone else, would be you.” She paused. “Your father could not have married again, Eloille,” she whispered. “How could he break one promise in order to make another?”
A splinter of guilt pierced Eloille’s heart. Yet she couldn’t help but feel that if only her father had re-married, his concern might have been more focussed on his own future and less on hers. “At least he has you, Aunt.”
“And I have him,” Lady Kaymoor said. “Despite what you may think, Eloille, your father is a truly wonderful man. Almost as wonderful as Lionel.”
Eloille rose from her stool and took a seat on the bed beside her aunt. “How did Lionel die? You have never told me.”
Lady Kaymoor paled. “Under the wheels of a carriage,” she uttered. “It was a terrible accident. No-one’s fault.”
“But it has been years, Aunt. Has there never been a time when you thought about re-marrying?”
A small smile lifted the corners of Lady Kaymoor’s mouth and her strained face relaxed. “As you get older, you become less forgiving. Time is precious and spending that time in the best possible way, paramount. Since Lionel, there has never been anyone for whom my patience could extend past a week.
Lady Kaymoor grinned. “My darling. When you look forward to a future of twenty or more years together, the odd irksome morning is neither here nor there. However, when you realise the best of those twenty years are behind you, every morning counts. Besides,” she whispered, “if I were to marry again, I’m not sure Elizabeth would forgive me. She does so like to have me to herself!”
“Of course she would,” Eloille answered. “She adores you as much as I do… I’m sorry, Aunt. I hope I haven’t upset you by asking about Lionel.”
“You haven’t,” Lady Kaymoor said. “And your father and I are at fault here for not explaining our positions on the matter earlier. All that aside though, have I managed to persuade you at all? You are such a beautiful young thing and have at least another fifteen years tolerance left in you. It would be such a shame to waste them on your ill-tempered aunt and father.”
“You are not ill-tempered,” Eloille answered. “And it’s not that I don’t want to marry, Aunt, it’s just -”
“Oh good,” Lady Kaymoor declared, “I am glad. And you have had some rather handsome gentlemen to consider. Certainly one or two Elizabeth and I remember, quite clearly.”
Eloille arched her brows. “If it is to the same two gentlemen that I think you refer, then you are both very much mistaken. The first couldn’t see past his own reflection, and the second was as vacant as his expression.”
“Vanity and stupidity,” Lady Kaymoor answered. “To some degree, not uncommon traits in any man.” She looked sideways at her niece, and giggled. “Oh don’t look so horrified, darling. Can you think of any other species that would think it perfectly reasonable to get dressed up in order to ride a clumsy horse through a muddy field?”
“Horsewomen do the same.”
“Of course they do,” Lady Kaymoor protested. “But a woman’s sole purpose is to preserve the species and therefore she must always look her best. There is nothing vain or stupid about that.”
Eloille laughed, but curiously, by her side, Lady Kaymoor did not.
“What is it, Aunt?”
Lady Kaymoor peered at her. “Was there someone who took your heart, Eloille? Stole your affection? Left you indifferent to the attention of all others?
Eloille dropped her aunt’s hand, and stared down at the floor.
“Eloille?” Lady Kaymoor urged. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Eloille whispered. “Really.”
“You can tell me. It might help your father and me to understand.”
Eloille closed her eyes and shook her head. She knew it would not. “Please trust me, Aunt. There is someone perfect for me and I know I will recognise him as soon as I meet him. I just have to wait a little longer.”
“Well,” Lady Kaymoor answered, pushing a strand of Eloille’s hair behind her ear, “if you find him, and you seem sure you will, you must marry him immediately. But please, darling, don’t waste a lifetime waiting for this prince of yours. There are others, perhaps not as perfect, who would love you just as earnestly. You may just have to imagine the rest.”
“Others, Aunt? I know of just one.”
“Is he really that bad?” Lady Kaymoor whispered.
Eloille faced her aunt, folded her arms, and narrowed her eyes. “I should have known, the moment I found you standing in my room, that Lord Dulcie’s name would enter into conversation sooner or later.”
Lady Kaymoor grinned. “Oh, Eloille, I know William lacks a certain amount of grace, and that his mother takes far too much interest in his affairs, but he is well educated and very well placed. You would never want for anything. Is contemplating life with him really so awful? He adores you. He always has. You could ride naked across the county, and he would still adore you.”
The colour fell from Eloille’s cheeks and she waited silently in readiness for James’ indiscretion. However, her oblivious aunt simply stared back at her with disappointment, that her comment had not raised a smile.
“I have an idea,” Lady Kaymoor suggested. “Why don’t we play a little game?”
“Darling, our walled garden, is full of blooms. And yet, so many of the individual flowers go unnoticed because the overall effect is so, um, overwhelming…” Lady Kaymoor paused. “Oh dear. You are frowning, and I am obviously not making much sense. Look, Eloille, what I am trying to say, and probably not very eloquently, is that the general impression you have of William does not take into account the individual parts of his being, Some of which are really quite… endearing.”
“Did you just compare William to our walled garden?”
“What would you prefer? The vegetable plot?”
“It might be more appropriate,” Eloille muttered.
Lady Kaymoor laughed. “Have it your way,” she answered. “Come, Eloille. Humour an old woman. I wager you that for every rotten cauliflower you can see, there is an equally appetising carrot you cannot.”
“Oh, Very well, then.”
“Wonderful!” Lady Kaymoor cried. “Well, go on. Begin.”
Eloille reluctantly stood. “Firstly,” she said, “I know that if I were to marry William, I would be amongst the most envied women in this part of the country. But, can the splendour of Grangemoor, and the title I will ultimately hold, truly compensate for the boredom?”
Waving a dismissive hand in the air, Lady Kaymoor shrugged. “He is rich. Any void could be filled by spending his money. Continue. Continue.”
“Secondly,” Eloille said, “William and I have been acquaintances since we were small. But, I regard him more like a tiresome brother, with whom I have little in common, than a potential love for life eternal.”
“Well, yes,” Lady Kaymoor concurred, “but with diversity comes excitement. How dull your life would be if you both liked the same things. I understand that William is something of a chess maestro. Perhaps he could teach you?”
Eloille’s chin fell. “Chess? I would rather take up flower arranging.”
“Now there is a pursuit William’s mother would approve of.”
“Which side of the wager are you on, Aunt?”
“Ah yes,” Lady Kaymoor answered, “Good point. Let’s forget about William’s mother for the moment.”
“If only it were that easy,” Eloille muttered.
“Come on,” Lady Kaymoor prompted. “That’s only two. Carry on.”
“Thirdly, were he left of his own, William Brocklebank, The Most Honourable, The Marquees of Dulcie - and incidentally, he never tires of reminding anyone who will listen to him, of that - would bore himself to death.”
“I’m afraid that is men for you, darling,” Lady Kaymoor said. “My best defence with Lionel was to turn the conversation around. Talk about fashion or society gossip. Worked a treat. And? What?”
Eloille’s shoulders dropped, and she sighed. “Oh Aunt, William’s friends are awful, his mother is overbearing, and despite its impressive exterior, Grangemoor is unwelcoming and quite frankly, terrifying. I couldn’t ever see myself being happy living there.”
“But, darling, you would not be marrying William’s mother. And as for Grangemoor, well, it really is just a building. It’s what, or more importantly, who’s inside it, that makes the difference. And I know that William’s friends are far from genteel, but on his own he can display some of the better traits of his breeding. I am sure that under your steering he could learn to be… bearable.”
“And bearable is your best attempt at enticement is it? Aunt, would you marry William?”
“Oh heaven’s no.” Lady Kaymoor answered. “But I would not have married your father either. And you are your mother’s daughter.”
What relevance the last point had to anything, Eloille was not sure. But rather than argue the point any further, she accepted the patted invitation back to the edge of the bed beside her aunt, and re-took the outstretched hand that sought hers. “It’s not that I despise William, Aunt,” Eloille whispered. “I just don’t love him and I’m not sure I ever could.”
“Then let’s speak no more on the matter,” Lady Kaymoor answered. “At least we understand one another.”
“I’m glad you think so!”
The mantle clock over the stone fireplace steadily marked time. Hand in hand, the two women remained comfortably and silently lost in their own private thoughts.
“The hunting season begins in earnest less than two weeks from now,” Lady Kaymoor said at length. “Soon these sleepy corridors will be ringing with the laughter of old friends and new acquaintances. We won’t have a moment even to think of marriage. And who knows,” she whispered, “amongst the newcomers, you might even find your prince.”
Eloille peered at the side of Lady Kaymoor’s face, and frowned. “Are you scheming, Aunt?”
Lady Kaymoor faced her. “Scheming?” she repeated. “How could you?”
“Give me your word that you are not. Or a firm promise, that should I prove otherwise, you will join the opening hunt.”
“I will promise no such thing,” Lady Kaymoor huffed, turning away.
“Why, Aunt? Father says you were once an accomplished horsewoman. I should love to ride with you, scheming or not.”
“Oh, darling,” Lady Kaymoor answered, “in my younger years I was renowned for my equestrian abilities. But I found my enthusiasm increasingly dampened. All that mud, and the company… You know” she said, “for all their finery, put even the noblest man on a horse and the immature nonsense excreted from his lips is no more savoury than what his animal treads under hoof. I can assure you, it was without any regret, that I made the very conscious decision to leave them to it.
Lady Kaymoor faced Eloille again, and giggled. “Oh come, don’t look so astonished. Men and horses are, after all, very similar. Bloody-minded, clumsy, and prone to leaving an unsightly trail behind them wherever they go, which incidentally, they expect to be cleared away by another. No,” she said, “I have neither the patience nor the time for them now. Especially when my efforts are bound to receive little of any use in return.”
“And yet you still wish me to consider William’s proposal?”
Lady Kaymoor rose to her feet, bent over Eloille, and planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Why not, darling? If nothing else, your acceptance will incense his mother, and that has to be reason enough.”
Still voicing concerns about the cut on Eloille’s cheek, Lady Kaymoor made her way to Eloille’s door. Only when she had grasped the brass knob, did she inhale and turn back into the room. “All this talk of hunting, and I forgot to mention the reason I was here in the first place! Eloille, your father has decided to herald the beginning of this new season with a Hunt Ball, which I think is a truly wonderful idea, but which will, of course, require a great deal of organising.”
“A Ball?” Eloille repeated. “There simply isn’t time to arrange such an event, Aunt.”
“Of course there is. And it may yet provide the solution to the unfortunate predicament we currently find ourselves in.
“Your father has promised to leave matters concerning William’s proposal alone in the hope that the ball will present a suitor a little more to your liking,” Lady Kaymoor answered. “In return he asks only three things. Firstly, that you assist me with the arrangements. Secondly, that you cease your nightly outings to the moors. And thirdly,” she carefully said, “that should the ball pass without - success - you in turn promise to give William’s proposal due consideration during the weeks that follow. Do we have an entente?”
“Is that really a firm promise from father?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Then yes, Aunt, of course I will help. And yes, I promise to give William’s proposal further consideration. Although, I am not sure any amount of deliberation could change my mind.”
“Then, for all our sakes, let us hope the night is a success… And your forays onto the moors? Eloille?”
Eloille stared down at her entwined, whitening fingers, and swallowed. “I will make every conscious effort to cease them,” she whispered.
“Thank you,” Lady Kaymoor said. “Now, get some rest. We have a great deal to achieve in the next few days. I will send Rose up with something for that cheek. Oh, and darling?” Lady Kaymoor added, pausing at the door. “Take time to tell your father you love him. He is, after all, a man, and therefore has a terrible habit of forgetting what’s important.”