At Bowerly Hall-15

I TOOK a candle to light me to my rooms. The hall was dark. Perhaps the footmen had forgotten to light the sconces. Whatever the reason, the space was dim with dark shadows in the corners.

My heart clenched. I was fearful but I wasn’t sure why, just a sense of something not quite right, a sensation of being watched.

I was about to go upstairs when I heard voices. They were low and muttered. It was the furtive edge to them that made me hesitate.

I tiptoed gently over to where the servants’ staircase descended. I couldn’t see anyone from that angle.

It was late but, of course, the maids and other staff worked long days. There was all the clearing up of our dinner crockery to do. Besides, Francis was down there visiting Mrs Bell. I knew I should go upstairs.

Instead, my feet took me slowly down. I decided, if I was challenged, I’d say I was visiting Peggy.

I didn’t particularly want to see Francis Williams again and hoped he was busy charming Mrs Bell in the kitchen.

A footman rushed past me with a murmured apology. He held a stack of dishes. The butler was instructing another footman. He didn’t look at me as I went past.

I tried to think where the voices had come from. There was a small extra pantry off the main kitchen. The kitchen itself was empty. That surprised me. Where was Mrs Bell?

She came out from the small pantry. I ducked out of the kitchen and pressed against the far wall of the staircase. Francis followed her out.

I couldn’t make out what they were saying. There was too much noise from the maids in the rooms beyond.

Francis looked annoyed. Mrs Bell was shaking her head. Then he spoke briefly.

Whatever he said, it had an effect.

The cook froze then nodded. Her round, ruddy face was unhappy.

What was going on? It didn’t look like a fond reunion between the cook and her employer’s nephew. I was stuck in the dark corner between the stairs and the wall.

I waited until Francis left. Mrs Bell went back into the kitchen. Her broad back was rigid. I heard her shout at the maids. Whatever Francis had said, she was as angry as he had seemed.

I went softly upstairs, meeting no-one. I put my candle carefully beside my bed.

I undressed quickly as it was cold in the room. I blew out my candle and pulled the covers over me.

As I lay there, trying to sleep, images of the evening flooded my mind. The good meal that Mrs Bell had provided. The beautiful room with its decorations and golden light.

Francis’s unexpected arrival as a guest. Charles’s disapproval of his cousin which was so obvious. Lady Anne’s fondness for her nephew.

Something nagged at the back of my head. A thought so thin it was like the early morning mist. I tried to grasp it, to make it solid, but couldn’t.

There was a creaking noise outside my door. I sat up in bed, all hope of sleep gone. My senses were sharp. I waited.

After a long moment in which I believed I’d imagined the noise, it came again. Then I heard footsteps receding. Someone had walked up to my door, listened at it and then gone away.

I stayed sitting up for a long while, until I was certain there was no-one outside. I watched the door handle, barely visible in the ray of moonlight coming from the window.

What horror if it should suddenly move!

But it didn’t.

Who had listened at the door? And why?

Eventually, I sank back on to my pillows, exhausted. I couldn’t stay awake.

As sleep claimed me, the wispy thought condensed. It was about Lady Anne.

After Francis had left to see Mrs Bell, she’d been tense. So agitated, in fact, that she’d spilled her glass of wine.

Why was she so nervous?


*        *        *        *


“I’m hungry. Why hasn’t Peggy brought my breakfast?” Mary asked, pressing her fingers to her stomach.

“I don’t know,” I said. “She is rather late today.”

Peggy pushed open the door to the nursery and Mary clapped her hands at the sight of boiled egg and hot buttered toast.

“Sorry,” Peggy said, “I’m rushed off me feet today.”

There were dark circles under her eyes and her freckles were brown against her white face. Her hair was more unruly than ever.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“I’m OK. It’s Edna and Lil, the kitchen maids. They’re not well. Both of the footmen have it and all. Mrs Dane’s rushed off her feet. Now Mrs Bell’s complaining of a sore head. The breakfasts aren’t ready and there’s no-one to serve it up.”

“What illness have they got?”

I had some small experience of nursing my father through various ailments. Maybe I could be of use.

“It’s a fever, a bad one,” Peggy said, shaking her head.

“Has the doctor been called?”

“He’s just been. He’s left instructions on what to do for the patients. Not much, in my opinion. Just keep them cool till the fever breaks. Plenty to drink and lots of rest until they’re better. You should’ve seen Mrs Dane’s face when he said about the resting!” Peggy managed a laugh. “She’s none too happy to see her maids lying in bed.”

“Oh, dear. I must come and speak with Mrs Dane,” I said firmly. “Mary, after breakfast you are invited to visit with your grandmamma for a little while. I will fetch you for your luncheon.”

Mary brightened. She loved spending time with Lady Anne. She also loved her food.

I noticed the healthy pink tinge to her skin and thought she had put on some weight, to her advantage. I was glad she would be kept occupied all morning. I had things to do.


Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!