ROSAMUND PLATT sat behind a desk of polished rosewood in the library and fixed Emma with a gimlet glare. She was a stately figure in whispering black silk, a cap of gossamer Honiton lace upon her crown of iron-grey hair.
“Emma Verity Trigg, madam,” Emma replied.
There was the briefest pause.
“What age are you, Trigg?”
“Hmm. You are very young for the position.”
“With respect, madam, I cannot help my years. I was brought up to manage a home efficiently. I know how to keep the household accounts, how to deal with tradesmen and how to cook and clean.”
“Do you indeed?” Faint amusement crossed the autocratic face. “And where, might I ask, were these commendable skills acquired?”
“It was at my grandfather’s house . . .” Emma broke off, and then launched into the narrative she had prepared. “I left under trying circumstances and took a position as housemaid at an inn. I was moving on to better myself when I met with an unfortunate accident, and –”
A flap of the thin, beringed hand silenced the flow.
“Yes, yes, I was aware of all that. The shepherd’s wife made sure I was suitably informed. You are a fluent reader, I take it? I shall expect to have the newspaper read to me each morning. My eyes, you know. I also have a liking for the works of Miss Jane Austen. You are familiar with her novels?”
In fact Emma was not, but she felt she was about to have the matter redressed when handed a copy of “Jane Eyre” and instructed to read a passage aloud, which she did in a voice that was sufficiently expressive as to bring a nod of approval from across the desk.
Rosamund Platt gave her a searching look, which brought a stab of unease. Emma had been under the impression that the position was assured on the grounds that nobody else would want it. All at once she was having doubts.
The moment passed. She was sent a semblance of a smile.
“Well, then, Trigg, I think you will suit me well enough. We are not a large household. My cook, Mrs Bates, will provide you with a set of house keys and your uniform. There are two maidservants and Aston, the outside man. Aston sees to the horses. You can handle a trap?”
“Oh, yes’m!” Emma replied eagerly. “I ride, too.”
“Is that so?”
There was another small, loaded silence, after which Emma was directed to the kitchens to acquaint herself with the staff there.
“Thank you, madam.” Emma remembered to drop a dutiful curtsey before making her escape.
Outside the heavy wood-panelled door of the library, she found that her legs were shaking. But she had done it! She had got the position.
For better or worse she was now housekeeper-companion to the indomitable Mistress Rosamund Platt!
* * * *
Right from the start, Emma loved the old house filled with family treasures. Plump and plodding cook Martha Bates took to her readily, as did housemaids Faith and Lettie.
Even Aston, a surly individual who had been there longer than anyone could say, found a smile for Emma once he had the measure of her ability with his great passion, the horses.
All in all, life was improving. Emma found the management of Hillside House well within her capabilities. Her elderly mistress was not the easiest, but she could cope with that.
What did give rise to concern was the odd unexpected probe into her background. Whereabouts had she been raised? What of her family? Was there no-one she wished to visit on her afternoon off?
Emma answered as best she could, ever conscious of that unfathomable gaze, weighing her up. In the main, however, Hillside House kept her fully occupied and she was able to overcome her fears and get on with the practicalities.
Rosamund Platt spent the greater part of the morning writing letters to distant acquaintances and associates. One afternoon Emma was handed some of these to post.
“The walk will do you good, Trigg. You may take your time. I’m going for my nap and shall not need you until teatime.”
Emma fetched her bonnet and set off readily in the early spring sunshine. The posting box took her past the shepherd’s cottage. She might see Sarah and the children.
She had reached the end of the drive when her gaze fell on the topmost envelope in her hand. The direction, written in the mistress’s large script, gave Emma pause. The name of the addressee meant nothing to her but the famous port, Plymouth, seemed somehow significant. Why it should be so was a mystery.
She smiled at her foolishness and continued on her way.