A Winter Visit
‘I do hope you don’t mind,’ apologized Mrs Barrett, ‘but I’ve put you in the Print Room.’
Penny made a small grimace. ‘Oh Mummy, can’t Julia stay in the Nookery ?’
‘I would have suggested it, my dear, but the heating . . . and until those pipes are sorted . . .’
‘I’m sure the Print Room will be lovely,’ said Julia as brightly as she could. At least it sounded as though the room would be vaguely warm. Secretly she just longed to curl up in bed and go to sleep. There had been a long journey, followed by last minute changes and delays, unforeseen obstacles – and now weather had dictated that she stay a night, or more, with the Barrets before finally reaching Aunt Iz for Christmas.
‘Don’t worry about it darling, we’ll keep plenty of mince pies for you,’ said Bunty in her usual relaxed way over a crackly line before handing the receiver over to Aunt Iz, who was more worried about whether Julia had enough warm clothes with her.
Julia actually found the Print Room rather charming and wondered at the Barretts’ concern. It had pale yellow walls, the original prints from a hundred years before still adhering to them, with new-ish looking buttercup curtains which had evidently been chosen to match the background colour.
Mrs Barrett and Penny still looked a little uneasy, however, as they left her to change for dinner, and both told her to let them know the minute she needed anything.
There was a bathroom. Hot water. Encouraging amounts of steam. Even bath salts, so kindly pointed out by Penny. Julia soaked gratefully.
It had all started with Penny’s invitation to lunch, as a break on the long journey up from London – her mother was an avid reader of Julia’s novels and was only too delighted to meet her. A blizzard had set in unexpectedly, all attempts to start the admittedly uncertain motor engine had failed and here she was, an added extra to an already full house. Hence the lack of choice as to bedrooms. It was only for a night or two. She felt quite at home already and wondered again at the Barretts’ solicitude.
She threw her dressing gown on and hurried back through to the bedroom; any minute now the gong would surely go or there would be a tap at the door . . .
‘Oh!’ she exclaimed softly.
The woman sitting at the dressing table appeared not to hear her. Dressed in cream white, with a rather daring neckline and a bouffant hairstyle, she was smiling slightly, at some distant thought.
Perhaps Julia was expected to share the room? Although surely they might have mentioned that. More likely the woman had simply mistaken her room.
Now the gong sounded in the distance, giving off a soft, golden chime.
Julia glanced over to where she had laid out her evening dress; it had slipped to the floor. She darted over, picked it up and dashed back into the bathroom.
The woman had gone by the time Julia returned to the bedroom. The gong would no doubt be sounded a second time any minute now . . . she hurried through the rest of her toilette and fairly ran downstairs – only to find she was actually the first.
‘Gong?’ said Penny as they went in for dinner, ‘but we don’t use a gong – haven’t done for centuries; it’s cracked so it doesn’t sound.’
‘Penny!’ Another guest descended on them, arms outstretched. Penny was briefly enveloped in chiffon and perfume, and conversation moved necessarily onto other topics, such as the latest designs from Paris, the appalling weather and what to do with unwanted presents.
‘Bit of a turn-up, all this snow, eh?’ began one of the male guests amiably, at Julia’s elbow.
‘Yes, it is rather. Mrs Barrett has kindly put me up in the Print Room.’
‘Oh yes? Been a while since they used that room. Hope it’s warm enough. These old buildings can take quite a lot of heating.’
‘It certainly feels very comfortable. I rather like it.’
‘Yes? How long are you staying?’
‘It depends on the weather. I was on my way home.’
‘Oh well, that should be . . .all right then.’
‘Ah, you’ve met our resident novelist, I see,’ Mrs Barrett caught up with her duties and introduced Julia properly. ‘This is Mr Frobisher, one of our oldest friends – does quite a bit in the way of writing himself, don’t you? Local historical research and customs.’
‘All published a little while ago now, though. Now looking into the archaeology side of things. Was on a dig the other day, they’d just unearthed a stash of Roman rubbish hah! – old boots and letters on wax, amazin’ stuff, really.’
Conversation went swimmingly enough, and it was a while before Julia remembered to look around to see if her unexpected intruder was at table. Nobody remotely resembling the woman in cream appeared to be present, however. Perhaps on realizing her faux pas, she had elected to stay in her room from sheer embarrassment. Julia briefly noted a couple of empty seats at table and put it out of her mind.
‘Are you sure Ethel wouldn’t care for something sent up? It’s no problem at all, really, Mrs White,’ she overheard Mrs Barrett saying to a faded female in peach silks.
‘That is most kind, in fact I was thinking of going up to see how she is – it’s most unlike her to be taken badly.’
As Julia passed the library on her way upstairs, she noticed the door ajar, and caught a glimpse of the woman in cream, standing at a bookcase, gazing up at the shelves.
It was a little odd, she thought, for Miss Ethel to feign indisposition and then sneak downstairs to the library after. But then she recalled the other empty chair. Still, equally strange. But people could be quite unexpected in behaviour.
Mrs White had already gone upstairs to see how her daughter was; a matter of minutes later, the whole house was in uproar; Miss Ethel had vanished, and in her place on the pillow lay a note begging pardon, but that she had eloped with young Mr Edwards. Mrs White had to be put to bed, in an extreme state of mortification. Brandy and hot water and smelling salts were duly applied.
Snow had fallen again during dinner meanwhile, removing all traces of footprints.
‘She’ll catch her death,’ moaned Mrs White burying her face into a lavender-scented handkerchief, ‘I know she will.’
‘My dear Julia, do you think you could give us any ideas?’ Mrs Barrett was quite helpless in the face of this domestic incident. Her training in etiquette had not quite equipped her for vanishing daughters in the middle of dinner.
‘Well, I am not a real-life detective, but . . . if I were writing this in a book . . . I think I would add the snow as a convenient last-minute distraction.’
‘My dear, what do you mean?’
‘I mean that it looks like the elopement was a spur of the moment thing – nobody could have predicted the snow would fall to such a degree; whatever the original arrangement, it rather looks like the couple decided to take advantage of the weather to cover their tracks. Surely Mrs White had her suspicions?’
‘She’s always been intent on marrying poor Ethel off to money and property,’ snorted Penny.
‘My dear, if it turns out you knew anything –’ began Mrs Barrett ominously.
‘Oh nonsense Mummy, even you could tell it was going to happen sooner or later. Good luck to the pair of them, I say.’
‘Well, I think they could have considered Mrs White’s feelings a little more.’
‘She’ll be all right after a night’s sleep.’
‘Really, my dear, how can you be so callous!’
Penny shrugged. ‘Well, I don’t see quite what we can do. And I’m sure Ethel will be all right. Tommy Edwards is a good enough chap.’
Later, after things had quietened down a bit, Julia asked Penny ‘I suppose Mr Edwards was waiting for her nearby?’
‘Probably on skies. He’s quite an expert.’
‘Would they have been in disguise, do you think?’
‘Disguise? Goodness, I don’t know. That would be . . . fun. Wouldn’t have said Ethel was that imaginative, though.’
Despite the nonchalance, Penny had a strained air. She asked Julia again if the room was ‘all right’.
‘Of course – it is lovely.’
Penny looked slightly relieved. ‘Well, if there’s anything at all – let me know.’
The night passed uneventfully and a blue sky over a crisp snowscape greeted the inhabitants the next morning.
Mrs White remained in bed in a state of continued mortification and the doctor was sent for.
Julia, at the combined requests of Mrs White and Mrs Barrett, went into Ethel’s room to ‘look for clues.’ More to humour them than out of any illusion of discovering anything. The wardrobe, half open, suggested the girl had indeed packed in a hurry. Only a very few dresses had been taken – and little of any real use in cold weather. The chest of drawers was tidy enough – hardly any underwear or stockings. No slippers – and the nightdress was gone.
There was a writing desk in the corner. A quick inspection revealed a blotter. Julia held it up to the mirror for a while, then went down to the kitchen.
‘Susan ?’ replied the cook. ‘Why, she’d be Miss Ethel’s maid, miss. You’ve just missed her though – went out a few minutes ago.
‘Really ? I don’t suppose you know where ?’
‘Not me, miss, it’s all I can do to keep an eye on the meals. But she was quite nervous, – dropping things.’
‘What sort of things ?’
‘She had a brush in her hand, and she dropped that, then it was a pen or something, and after she’d gone, I found a small bag on the floor, I put it on that table over there for when she comes back . . . though what she wants with walks in all this snow I’ll never know, all wrapped up like an esquimaux she was, hardly recognized her . . .’
‘Well, the sun is out after all. I rather think I’ll do the same. Perhaps I can give her the bag if I see her.’ And so saying, Julia took the bag and fetched her coat.
The tracks left by Ethel’s maid were not hard to find and led in a nice clear line down the drive and turned a definite right in the direction of the village.
‘But how on earth did you find us here ?’ blurted out Ethel, still holding her wedding bouquet. Julia noted the narrow gold band on her ring finger.
‘You left the blotter on the writing desk. Only a couple of words, but they were enough. The name Susan and the Old Feathers. On inquiry downstairs, Susan was your faithful maid, who I imagined was bringing you extra little items you had forgotten, and on following her tracks down to the village, I had only to look for the Old Feathers Inn – and there you were. Of course, the poor girl was so nervous, she can be forgiven for dropping a few things . . . here is your bag, by the way. Motor still won’t start ?’
‘Frozen solid, I’m afraid,’ admitted Tommy Edwards ruefully, unwrapping his scarf.
‘Still, you got married in the meantime.’
‘Yes, but you won’t give us away, will you? Not until after we’ve got away?’ Ethel, pleading.
‘You make it sound like we’ve committed a bank robbery,’ chuckled Tommy. He had a wide smile and good eyes, and didn’t look too worried about anything. Julia could see why Penny had said he was a good enough chap. Ethel, though not as faded as her mother, was of a similar nervous disposition, already terrified at what she had done.
‘It’s not for me to do anything,’ replied Julia reassuringly, ‘but I feel I should mention your mother has remained in bed, and that they have sent for the doctor.’
‘Just what Susan said – she’s close to revealing all anyway,’ said Tommy. He turned to Ethel. ‘Well, old thing, what do you say ? Shouldn’t we at least say hello before trundling off into the sunset ?’
It was now lunch time, and Mrs White was able to sit up and take tea and dry toast. The curtains had been drawn back, letting in the brilliant sunshine, and offering a view of the front garden and driveway.
Penny was looking through the long windows of the morning room, brow puckered again. Her face suddenly cleared and she waved. The trio of figures advancing across the white blanket waved back.
Mrs White could hardly believe her eyes.
‘What was she doing ?’ she kept saying, even after all the fuss and explanations and greetings had subsided. ‘Going out in the cold like that – must have been terribly chilly.’
‘Who do you mean ?’
‘That woman – in a white dress, very revealing, no coat on . . . walked right across the lawn, straight past you. Didn’t you see her ?’
Julia thought for a bit then asked : ‘Was her hair done up ?’
‘Well, yes, it was – quite extravagant, I thought. Who on earth could it have been ?’
Julia looked at Mrs Barrett and Penny, who both looked discomfited.
‘Oh dear,’ began Mrs Barrett. ‘I fear that may have been Georgina.’
‘And who is Georgina ?’ asked Mrs White in astonishment. Julia continued to look at the Barretts.
‘Georgina . . .was . . a distant relative. Stayed here for a while. Her favourite room was the Print Room. I hope she didn’t disturb you.’ Here Mrs Barrett looked apologetically at Julia.
‘What happened ?’ asked Julia gently.
‘The story is, she had arranged to run away with a young man, who was also a visitor at the house. The arranged signal was the sounding of the gong for the evening meal. After the young couple had escaped, her father took the gong and threw it at my grandfather. Luckily he missed, but he cracked the gong, which has never sounded since.’
‘And . . Georgina ?’
‘She died a few years later. Diphtheria, I think. All very sad. But I believe she was very content here, which is perhaps why she tends to appear before a happy event.’
‘She was smiling, when I saw her,’ said Julia.
Mrs White gave a mild squawk and fell back against the pillows.
Later again, Julia was standing in the library, looking up at a portrait. The sitter was female, dressed in cream white with a daring neckline and her hair in a bouffant style. The artist had painted the year 1860 in the bottom right corner.
Neatly engraved on the frame was the name ‘Lady Georgina Cardew-Barrett.’