by Nicki J. Markus
Monday, 23 December 1822
“That’s as far as I can take yer, miss.”
Startled, Catherine turned in her seat and stared at the stagecoach driver. So absorbed had she been in her thoughts, she had failed to notice when the juddering vehicle came to a halt. The driver waited patiently by the open door while she gathered her faded mantle and her reticule and clambered out. She was grateful for the man’s proffered hand. It was not her most elegant exit, but her legs were stiff from the arduous journey. In order to reach Wiltshire on time, she had taken few breaks, trapped inside one crowded coach after another, with only brief stops to water or change the horses en route between counties.
She opened her purse and paid the remainder of the fare, noticing how much lighter the bag was than when she set out. The coins Lord Grovely sent to cover her travel expenses dwindled, but thoughts of the regular allowance that awaited her at her destination reassured her.
As she cast the mantle about her shoulders, she glanced around, trying to get her bearings. By good fortune, the driver noticed her confusion and pointed to a nearby gate, beyond which she perceived a gravel path leading into the woods.
“Brougham ‘all’s down that way, miss. I ‘ated the thought of a young woman cuttin’ cross-country alone, and since me route was done fer the day and you me last passenger, I figured I’d bring yer the extra ‘alf mile to save yer legs.”
“Thank you, sir; that was most kind.”
The driver dismissed her gratitude with a nod. “Yer can reach the main ‘ouse on foot from ‘ere.” He paused. “Taking up a serving position with Lord Grovely, are yer, miss?”
“No.” Catherine tore her gaze from the woods. “I am here for the end of the wedding celebrations. Lord Grovely is a distant relative of mine and I was invited here to be companion to his bride.”
“Begging yer pardon, miss. I meant no offence.”
The man’s assumption did not surprise her, given her appearance and attire. Not to mention her mode of travel. Indeed, she believed herself to be the more shocked of the two. The arrival of the invitation to Brougham Hall had been unexpected. Lord Grovely’s branch of the family had diverged from hers long ago, and the two had never been much in contact, being, as they were, of different social standing.
“Will yer manage all right wi’ this?” The driver gestured to the small bag he had lifted out of the boot. “I can walk ‘lon’side fer a bit, if yer need me.”
Catherine considered the offer, but decided there was no need to inconvenience the man further. She had but a few dresses, so the bag was not heavy. She was used to long, country walks and could manage a short stroll through the woods unaccompanied. The path looked traversable, if a little cluttered by dead leaves.
“Thank you, but I will be perfectly fine on my own from here.”
“Farewell then, miss,” the driver said, tipping his hat. “I ‘ope yer enjoy the celebrations. Folks say wedding in t’ village church last week was quite the event.” With that, he returned to the coach, climbed up, and turned the horses, heading back towards the main thoroughfare.
Catherine watched until the vehicle disappeared from sight around a corner; then she set off in the direction the driver had indicated. The rusty iron gate stuck when she tried to open it. She adjusted her grip on her bags and pushed harder. It inched back with a shuddering whine. Was this a rear entrance? It had to be. Lord Grovely doubtless had many highborn guests coming and going every day and would not leave the main approach to his estate in such disrepair. The driver must have brought her the back way under his assumption she was in service. She slipped through the gap and set her bags on the ground. With both hands, she forced the gate shut behind her, then gathered her meagre belongings and headed down the path.
The trees on either side were a jumble of dark, twisting, leafless branches that climbed skyward before converging to form a canopy overhead. The woodland was so dense she could not see far, and she was grateful for the last, weak rays of afternoon sun. Not much of the light made it through the crisscrossing roof of branches, but it was enough for her to see by. Enough to prevent the woods from seeming too sinister and forbidding. No doubt in high summer this forest would provide a pleasant place to walk, full of wildlife and woodland flowers, but now, in the dead of winter, she did not care to venture through it after dusk. At least not unaccompanied.
That was if her cousin’s guardianship allowed her such liberty. At home, with only her mother and their maid, Maria, for company, she had enjoyed certain freedoms to which she had grown accustomed. She went out alone on long walks, spoke with whomsoever she pleased, and dressed with scant regard for fashion, keeping to none but the most rigorous conventions for suitable attire. Somehow, she doubted Lord Grovely would look on with an indulgent eye were she to return to the hall with her petticoat muddied, or address a man prior to a formal introduction.
In coming to Brougham Hall, Catherine knew, and her mother had oft repeated, that she would have to curtail her adventurous spirit and pay attention to her manners. During the four weeks prior to her departure, she had studied hard, revising the etiquette she would need to observe while with her cousin and his family. The mere idea of having to obey so many rules was stifling. How much worse would it be once she arrived and had to live by them?
The path continued on and on. The only sounds were the whistle of the wind through the trees and the crunch of dead foliage beneath her feet. The longer she walked, the more Catherine’s spirits weighed her down, and her bags, light as they were, seemed a heavy burden. How much farther was it? Had the driver made a mistake? Was this not the correct way? She was beginning to wonder if she should turn back when she noticed a patch of light up ahead, brighter than any that had filtered through previous gaps in the tree line. She scurried towards it, and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the edge of the wood and the open terrain beyond.
She emerged onto a gravelled driveway flanked by a dead, overgrown lawn. Something glinted in her peripheral vision and she glanced to her left. The sunlight reflected off the surface of a lake and, at the water’s edge, a figure stood silhouetted. Catherine was about to call out a greeting, hoping the woman could assist her, but another fierce burst of mirrored light forced her to shield her eyes, and when she looked back, the figure was gone. It must have been a trick of the light. Either that or a hunger-vision. The thought of food made her stomach rumble and, upon reflection, she realised she had not eaten since breaking her fast at dawn. All the more reason to hurry to the house and make the acquaintance of those within before the dinner bell sounded. Turning from the lake, she looked ahead and took in her first view of Brougham Hall.
Lord Grovely’s seat was not what she had expected. She had envisaged bright white columns and large windows. In reality, the house rose out of the ground like a lump of dark, misshapen stone. One wing looked closer to current architectural style, but the other appeared more a ruined castle, complete with turret and shadowed ramparts. It probably had been a castle once. She had anticipated a modern residence, fitted with every comfort of the age, but that was an absurd assumption now she thought about it. The Brougham family had resided here for several centuries, so of course, the original hall was old, with additions and repairs carried out in different styles by each subsequent generation.
The quality of the light changed as the sun dipped towards the horizon and, with the thought of dinner forefront in her mind, Catherine pressed on in the direction of the house.
Brougham Hall grew ever larger the closer she got and she acknowledged she had underestimated its size from a distance. It towered to three floors and, though lacking the marble columns she had imagined during her journey, possessed a rundown magnificence. She could imagine it as an illustration in a lurid novel of ancient curses, virginal heroines, and dashing heroes. And to think this was to be her new home. It would take hours to see all the rooms, let alone the gardens and woods.
It was only as she mounted the three steps to the front door that it occurred to her the stagecoach driver had brought her to the main entrance. She reflected again on the rusty, creaking gate and leaf-strewn path. Perhaps Lord Grovely did not entertain often after all. If so, her mother would be sorely disappointed. Although, if Lord Grovely were reclusive, it would explain why he had insisted Catherine make the long journey unaccompanied and why no one had come to meet her upon arrival.
Her mother’s parting words came back to her, and remembrance of her duty subdued what initial excitement she had experienced at the thought of exploring the strange house and grounds.
“Ingratiate yourself.” Her mother had insisted.
She had advised Catherine to please her relatives in any way possible, in the hope of raising her fortunes. As far as her mother was concerned, this was an excellent opportunity for Catherine to land herself a rich husband. Her mother’s final comment as she boarded the coach had been—“Lord knows it would not kill the man to share some of his wealth and connections with his relatives.”
Catherine had no plans to carry out her mother’s wishes—she was no money-grabber, and thoughts of marriage could not have been farther from her mind—but the commandment lay heavy on her heart and enhanced her lethargy. A year ago, her mother would not have advocated such a plan either. Indeed, Catherine doubted she would have acquiesced to Lord Grovely’s request and let Catherine go at all. However, she had been troubled with a lingering illness of late and was anxious to ensure Catherine, her only surviving child, would have financial security and a home when she was gone. Memories of her mother’s wan face brought with them a feeling of melancholy and Catherine gave a small shake of her head, trying to dispel such thoughts.
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Nicki J. Markus (aka Asta Idonea) was born in England but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has loved both reading and writing from a young age and is also a keen linguist, having studied several foreign languages.
Nicki launched her writing career in 2011 and divides her efforts not only between mainstream and MM works but also between traditional and indie publishing. Her works span the genres, from paranormal to historical and from contemporary to fantasy. It just depends what story and which characters spring into her mind!
As a day job, Nicki works as a freelance editor and proofreader, and in her spare time she enjoys music, theatre, cinema, photography, and sketching. She also loves history, folklore and mythology, pen-palling, and travel, all of which have provided plenty of inspiration for her writing.
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