About The Hollow Ground – Episode 24

“Did I mention that Papa was here?” Charlotte’s tone was less exuberant.

Even she was subdued by the bewildering rift that existed between their two houses; a rift that even the family bereavement had done nothing to breach.

“Uncle James?” Nan tried to keep the tremble from her voice and did not quite succeed. “What of Aunt Amelia?”

“She is present also. Dear Mama. There was a time when she adored functions, but nowadays her health does not allow her to stay long.”

Charlotte leaned closer.

“Remember, Nan, not a word about my visits. Here’s Reggie now, and with Daniel, no less. We shall all go in together.”

Next moment Daniel was at Nan’s side, her name was announced, and she was entering the ballroom on Daniel’s arm, with Charlotte and Reginald behind them.

High in the flower-decked minstrels’ gallery, the musicians struck up with an opening gavotte and Daniel led Nan away to dance.

He was a skilled dancer and Henry Vessey had not lacked in parental duties, having made sure that his daughter was well tutored in the art, back in more affluent times.

Caught up in the flow and the lilt of the music, Nan felt the beginnings of enjoyment.

During a pause in the dancing she was introduced to some of her host’s immediate circle.

Daniel was a desirable catch for an unwed daughter, and there was a degree of close scrutiny from fond mamas, with a few barbed comments as to her identity, and Nan had to guard her responses.

About halfway through the evening Daniel went to fetch some refreshments.

Nan was standing by a window, fanning her face with the lace fan that had been her mama’s, when James Vessey materialised from the laughing groups of people. His wife Amelia was on his arm.

Nan, mustering a brave front, gave them a smile.

“Uncle James. Good evening. And Aunt Amelia. How do you fare?”

Before her aunt could reply, James Vessey cut in.

“My wife is not strong. We are looking for our host to inform him we are to take our leave.” He paused. “I am surprised to see you here, Nanette, given the circumstances.”

The use of her given name struck a formal note that Nan found offensively disconnecting.

“Cannot the same be said of the speaker, Uncle?” she said sweetly, with an undercurrent of steeliness that brought a tightness to his face.

He made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“I take it you are still at the farm. You would be wise to sell and find somewhere more suited to your situation.”

“Perhaps so, but is that not up to me?” Nan responded.

Amelia spoke, her voice quavery and low.

“My dear, your uncle speaks with your best interests in mind.”

Nan looked at her. Once a beauty, her face showed the ravages of anxiety and persistent insomnia. She was far too thin and Nan’s heart softened.

“I’m sure, Aunt. But you are weary. Will you not be seated while my uncle seeks out Mr Harrison for himself?”

“No need,” James replied stiffly. “I see him by the doors. Come, my dear. Let us catch him. Nanette.”

He hustled his lady off, and Nan was left standing there, a solitary figure in a great chattering throng.

She was relieved to see Daniel approaching, goblets of wine in hand.

“There you are. I couldn’t find you. I’ve brought you Chablis, no less.”

At that moment a fortifying dark Rhenish would have been Nan’s preference, but she accepted the white offering with grace.

“Is all well? You seemed a little put out.”

“Just a disagreement with my uncle. It’s nothing new, I fear.”

“I’m sorry. I understand Mr Vessey has mills in Manchester. One feels for the wife. She does not appear to enjoy the best of health.”

“No. A nervous disorder, I believe.”

Nan took several restorative sips of wine.

“Are you in touch with your cousin? Now there’s one who makes the most of life, I would say.”

“Charlotte was ever the same,” Nan replied evasively, and went on to talk about the ball.

An attendant came up with a tray of brimming goblets. Daniel exchanged Nan’s almost empty glass for a full one, and did the same for himself.

“Shall we partake of some food? Chef has excelled himself tonight. He’s French, you know. Came on the best recommendation.”

Nan smiled and nodded.

The evening wore on, but the confrontation with her uncle had cast a cloud.

What, she wondered not for the first time, could have happened to create such ill feeling?

Granted, he and Papa had never seen eye to eye, but surely some measure of harmony could have been reached for all their sakes?

Events on a more personal level were also making themselves felt. Daniel was showing great interest in her and Nan was seized by a sudden sense of confusion and panic.

If wedlock was in the offing, what then? It was all happening too fast.

With no mother to guide her, the problem felt insurmountable. This led to a question that haunted her. How could a mother have gone off and left her child the way she had?

The anguish such thoughts evoked surfaced savagely, making Nan catch her breath. For the life of her she could think of no answers to any of it.

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”.