About The Hollow Ground – Episode 22

“The sun has come out. I could have used the phaeton after all,” Daniel remarked, pouting in annoyance as the carriage left the farmyard.

He made an attempt at straightening his face.

“But there, I forget myself. May I say how charming you look, my dear? How well the mauve becomes you.”

“Thank you.” Nan smiled.

Money was easier at Cross Lanes, but did not yet run to funding new clothes, and she sent a silent word of gratitude to Mercy, whose nimble fingers had transformed another of her mama’s gowns into an acceptable style of the day.

She sat back in the plush-covered seat, musing. This was her first visit to Vinewood and she had no idea what to expect.

The carriage bowled along, splashing through puddles, making short work of the journey. Vinewood was approached along a winding drive of stately hornbeams.

When the house finally came into view, Nan stared in astonishment.

Set majestically against a backdrop of woodland, it was an imposing structure built in the very latest fashion, with tall windows and a wide, pillared porch gained by a tall flight of stone steps.

To the left an ornate clock-arch led to the stableyard, and all around, grassy swathes gave way to formal gardens where follies abounded and fountains played.

It shouted wealth from every stick and crevice.

The carriage pulled up on the gravelled forecourt, where the coachman alighted to open the door, pull down the portable steps and assist Nan to disembark.

The double doors of the house opened, and the grandiose appearance of a footman was tempered by the fact that, as a boy, the man had once been given a rousting by Nan’s papa for helping himself to apples from Cross Lanes orchard.

The memory brought an amused twinkle to Nan’s eyes and a rush of scarlet to the footman’s face.

But if the general arena was designed to impress, Edwin Harrison’s greeting seemed genuine enough.

“My dear Miss Vessey – Nan. How well you are looking.”

“My thanks, sir,” Nan replied, knowing that the glow on her face was due to much outdoor activity on the farm and in her garden.

Her roughened hands were satisfactorily concealed within a pair of soft kid gloves.

They lunched lavishly, and afterwards Daniel gave her a tour of the grounds as the afternoon drifted by.

Before leaving, while Daniel made a great fuss of sending the carriage back in favour of the phaeton, Edwin Harrison pressed Nan to attend an evening function he was holding the following month.

“I know you are officially still in mourning, but would your papa have objected to you taking a little enjoyment?”

“Why, no, but . . .” Nan broke off uncertainly. She never had been one to flout the rules.

“Then come, I beg of you. Your cousin Charlotte will be here, and there will be others known to you.”

“You are persuasive, sir. Let me ponder on it,” Nan replied.

During the journey home her mind was swamped by the eternal cry of all womankind.

If she were to put convention aside and accept the invitation, what in the world was she going to wear?

*  *  *  *

“No, I insist. Not another foray into your mama’s coffer,” Charlotte begged. “Old silk fades and people will know. Let me have my mantuamaker run you up something.”

Nan shook her head.

“Let us not be premature. I haven’t said I am going yet. People will talk.”

“Let them. Uncle Henry would not have expected you to sit moping at home on his account.

“Anyway, not everyone bows to the dreary dictates of protocol,” she continued. “Remember Cecie Pollock? Out and about before her spouse was cold in the grave, and no-one batted an eyelid.”

“Would that I had her nerve,” Nan replied.

Charlotte rolled her eyes, sighing.

“You underestimate yourself, Nan.”

Nan might have known her cousin would not let matters rest.

A few days later Charlotte turned up with an exquisite length of spider muslin, so filmy it gave the appearance of dusky lilac mist, and some silk taffeta in a deeper shade for an underskirt.

Charlotte had drawn a sketch of a gown that brought a sparkle – and perhaps a hint of envy – to Mercy’s eyes.

Avoiding the exaggerated puffs and ruffles of the day in deference to Nan’s mourning status, the gown was deceptively simple, with only a modest fullness to the skirt and delicate rows of pleating in the bodice giving it style.

The effect was charming and would suit Nan to perfection.

“Well?” Charlotte asked, brows raising.

Nan fingered the filmy fabric longingly. It was irresistible, and conscious of a guilty stab of pleasure, she gave in with a breathy little laugh.

“Excellent,” Charlotte said. “If anyone dares to breathe a word about bereavement, they shall have me to answer to.”

She turned to the beaming maid.

“Mercy, I suggest you request time off from your household duties for the next days and apply yourself to your needle.”

“I’ll be glad to, miss. Madam will look a treat on the night, or my name’s not Mercy Dale!” the girl said emphatically.

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.