This week, we offer a first glimpse of the first volume of Flora Chase‘s young adult Edwardian saga, The Strattons. Set in the English countryside in the autumn of 1913, the teenagers of Stratton Hall are about to find their lives changed forever…
To find out more about the novel, visit Flora’s page.
‘Did someone die?’ exclaimed Blanche Matchingham, as she twirled through the doors into the Drawing Room at Stratton Hall. The peach muslin layers of her dress floated around her most satisfactorily, although frankly the effect was wasted on the others. Her older sister Julia was sitting ramrod straight and prim-as-you-like in the high-backed chair nearest the fireplace, dull and demure in ivory broderie anglaise with barely a dip in the neckline and her arms covered. Opposite Julia stood their brother Freddie, his hands clasped behind his back, the oldest of the three of them and, at least in age, just a man. But his stiff white collar was a teensy bit too high and grazed his chin, his thick, dark hair was refusing to lie down beneath the slick of brilliantine, and he wore the hand-stitched suit from London as though it were a hand-me-down suit of armour.
‘You’re late,’ said Julia in her mousy voice.
‘I couldn’t find my shoes and I was ringing and ringing the bell, but no-one came.’ Blanche looked indignantly at the row of housemaids arranged neatly along the wall, their faces as pale as their aprons against their black dresses. ‘Look at me! My outfit doesn’t match!’
She lifted her skirt in just the way that annoyed Julia, especially in front of all The Staff, and wriggled her foot. Of course, the tiny white shoes looked adorable anyway, and they were her favourites — this week. She glanced slyly at the chauffeur, Charlie, whose eyes were cast down so as not to catch her gaze, but his lip surely twitched around a smile. Of course, he never gave her the satisfaction of knowing she had made him laugh, and he had that way of looking right through her as though she were the least important person in the world, not the attractive sixteen-year-old daughter of the 4th Marquess of Stratton. These House gatherings were So Dull, all this ridiculous formality, The Staff looking so hopelessly out of place against the handprinted Venetian wallpaper while the three Matchingham offspring, the same age as most of the housemaids and footmen, pretended they weren’t there. Blanche sighed noisily, and glanced at the ugly ormolu clock on the mantlepiece. Only eleven o’clock. Ronnie wasn’t expected until lunchtime, but perhaps there was time to run out and call her on the telephone downstairs and beg her to come-over-here-quick-and-stop-me-dying-of-boredom!
‘Please sit down, Blanche,’ implored Julia, her palms hot and damp in her lap. Her stocking-tops were itchy, and the panels of her corset felt even tighter than usual.
I shouldn’t have chosen this chair, she thought suddenly, panic surging through her, this is the chair Papa sat me in when he told me that Ralph had broken off our engagement.
But she couldn’t move, not now all The Staff were here, arranged like sightless statues.
She glanced at Freddie. He was standing exactly where Papa had stood that morning, just out of reach, surely a little ashamed of her. Stiff and awkward, disappointed, bowed over.
Ralph. Julia swallowed her sigh, gulping his name back down into the pit of her stomach where all her misery lay. It had been five long months of hating the staircase down which she had swept on the glorious spring evening of the Easter Ball in her glistening new pale blue ballgown, her fan fluttering coyly in her fingers, picking Ralph out of the crowd of guests who mingled in the Hall. She had sworn she would never go into the orangerie again where she had waited an hour for him, while music and laughter filtered through the leaves, strains of other people having fun. And she had never looked again at the summerhouse where she had finally found him, seized her courage to run to him, take his hands in hers and lift her mouth to his for their first kiss. And where Felicity Farrass had stepped out of the shadows, sneering as Ralph lurched away from Julia, stumbling back with embarrassed haste.
Sitting in this chair, the Spinster Chair as she now thought of it, was a humiliation only to Julia, but suddenly she couldn’t bear it any longer and she stood up as Blanche approached. But pretty, lively, witty Blanche snubbed the Spinster Chair for the plush pink love seat next to Freddie and draped herself on it, as elegant and decorative as Julia was graceless and clumsy, her ankles visible through the sheer muslin hem. Julia tugged self-consciously at the cutwork cuffs of her day-dress and glanced at Dinah, the first housemaid, who had helped her dress this morning. Dinah who had found her sobbing in the garden after Ralph had so utterly shamed her with Felicity, Dinah whose autumn-red hair made even the tight white housemaid’s cap look stylish. Dinah’s kind hazel eyes were waiting for her, they always were, dear, friendly Dinah, who didn’t seem to worry about anything at all, for whom nothing was ever too much trouble—
Freddie dared not look at Dinah again, not in front of everyone like this, for his cheeks already felt like they were burning the colour of her hair, and his neck was throbbing against the wretched collar. His jacket jerked as his heart pounded beneath his shirt, yet all she’d done was hold his gaze for the shortest moment before it passed to Julia. She hadn’t even lifted her soft lips into that familiar smile.
Out on the landing he could see Harte, the butler, talking in a low voice to Mrs Lowe, the housekeeper. Mrs Lowe had the same red hair as her daughter, but it was streaked with grey in its tight bun at the nape of her neck, and Freddie wondered if Dinah’s hair would eventually turn the same way. Not that he could imagine her ever getting old, he couldn’t even imagine himself getting old. He didn’t even feel grown up. He might be eighteen but he felt more like an eight-year-old boy dressed up in his father’s clothes. He shrugged awkwardly, trying to settle the jacket more comfortably on his shoulders, but it still sat like the heavy wooden yokes on the horses that ploughed the tenant farmers’ fields.
Right now, he couldn’t even imagine being at university in Oxford this time next year, leaving everything he had ever known for everything he didn’t know but desperately wanted to learn. He would go to the same college as his father – that was the privilege of being the Marquess’s son to follow so unquestioningly in your father’s footsteps. And getting a place to study engineering – machines, bridges, engines, anything you could build – would be a formality, his father had said, so long as he passed the entrance exam. The mathematics was no problem, but he was already waking up in night sweats at the ancient Greek, his tongue thick with words he could never remember how to read, let alone say. He had no idea what use Greek would be in designing a water pump or a motorised vehicle, but still his father wrote a paragraph in each of his monthly letters home in Greek, just to make sure that Freddie was still keeping up with his studies. His tutor, Mr Creswick, stood at the opposite end of the Drawing Room, reading from a book as though this gathering were an insignificant interruption to the greater good of training the mind, and Freddie wondered whether he was really clever enough. Oxford would please his father, but really Freddie just wanted to mess about with stuff in a workshop.
I’d be better off with an apprenticeship down at the forge in the village— no, better still, in a factory somewhere up in London where no one knows me. I could change my name to Freddie Match, and I could live in overalls and heavy boots and Dinah could bring me my lunch in a pail—
Freddie jerked out of his daydream as the doors to the Drawing Room closed behind Harte and Mrs Lowe, who were now walking with funereal slowness towards him. He glanced at Julia who had stood up with that startled look on her face she always seemed to wear since that rogue Ralph Prideaux had dumped her.
Look at us, he thought. Only Blanche seems to be at home in her own home. The servants look more comfortable here than Julia or I.
He sighed inwardly.
I wish Father were here and not in Europe.
Freddie moved to allow Harte to take centre stage, but Harte was determined that Freddie should be at the focal point, so they shuffled awkwardly until Freddie understood what he was supposed to do. Mrs Lowe murmured to Julia to sit down again, but Julia gave a brittle shake of her head and moved a little closer to her brother. Harte was clutching a folded yellow page in his hand and seemed even stiffer than his usual stone-faced self. Freddie glanced at Dinah, in case she knew why they were gathered together
like this, but she was watching her mother, a fine frown just creasing her forehead between those expressive eyebrows that Freddie could watch all day.
She doesn’t know what’s going on any more than I do, but she looks worried.
‘What is it, Harte?’ yawned Blanche from the love seat. ‘You know I never normally get up before luncheon.’
Normally this would have raised a smile from someone, thought Julia, but there was no gentle scolding from Mrs Lowe, nor even a smile from Charlie the chauffeur. It was as though Harte had brought in some dark cloud with him that threatened to smother them all.
‘Yes, what is it?’ she heard herself say.
Harte looked at her, then at Freddie, then at Blanche. ‘Your Lordship. Your Ladyships.’ His voice was gravelly, harsh, and he coughed to clear his throat.
It’s like Ralph Prideaux all over again, thought Julia, glancing at the Spinster Chair. Papa’s voice broke just like that because he didn’t want to hurt me.
‘We have received a telegram this morning.’ Harte was gasping for breath, fighting to control the words. ‘From London.’
‘Is Father coming home again?’ asked Freddie.
‘Is that all?’ wailed Blanche. ‘You got me out of bed to tell me I can’t have any more late nights? I don’t know why he bothers coming down here,’ she said crossly, turning her feet this way and that to admire her shoes again. ‘He comes home, he talks about his work, he thinks about his work, he locks himself in his study writing about his work, and then he goes away again. Why doesn’t he just stay in Vienna or Paris or Sarajevo or wherever it is he’d rather be?’
‘Blanche.’ Mrs Lowe’s voice was so quiet it wouldn’t have been heard outside the room, but it had a hollowness that turned Blanche ice cold.
‘What?’ she answered in a odd, high voice that sounded like a little girl.
Harte fussed with the paper in his hand and as he opened it, Freddie saw it was a telegram. He read it as Harte spoke the words, the bold anonymous print giving no more away than Harte’s deliberately steady voice.
‘“Deeply regret to inform, 4th Marquess Stratton killed in motorcar accident, French-German border, night 8th September. Details to follow. Condolences to family. Sir Xavier Young.”’
‘He’s dead?’ said Blanche, impatiently, staring up at Harte. ‘You thought we should be told in front of The Staff? What were you thinking of?’
‘You can’t keep secrets in a house like this,’ muttered Freddie, tugging at his collar which had suddenly grown unbearably tight. ‘Father always says the House is—’
‘The House is a Whole,’ chorused Blanche. ‘He said, Freddie, said not says. He’s dead. He won’t be coming back.’
‘Blanche!’ protested Julia, but her voice was somehow detached from her body and she was only vaguely aware that her knees had given way beneath her. The broderie anglaise puffed out around her like torn doilies as she crumpled to the floor. Someone grabbed her but the room was swimming and hazy and she didn’t want to open her eyes again. Something wet brushed her cheek, and she felt fingers on her skin, smelled the warm familiar scents of ironed cotton aprons, beeswax and coal dust. Somewhere, an animal was howling, no, it was Mrs Nudge, the cook, wailing—
The clink of glass, the sharp odour of smelling salts—
Julia jerked her face away from the salts but they wouldn’t go away and she forced herself to open her eyes. Mrs Lowe was cradling her, just as she had after Ralph had shamed her so much, and Dinah was holding the loathsome vial.
‘I’m never coming in this room again,’ Julia murmured.
‘For God’s sake, Julia,’ snapped Blanche, peering down at her sister with blazing eyes. ‘It’s not as if Papa were ever here anyway. He hasn’t been home since Ralph took off with Felicity, so nothing’s really changed, has it?’
She flounced down the room, glad of everyone’s eyes on her, delighted that in all the disarray a footman still remembered to open the door for her. ‘I hope lunch isn’t going to be late. Miss Veronica Friston will be here, ravenously hungry, to eat at one.’
‘How can you be so—’ Julia’s breathless cry fell into coughing, her corset digging into her ribs as tears flowed uncontrollably down her cheeks.
‘Let’s get you up to your room, Your Ladyship,’ said Mrs Lowe, ‘out of this dress and into something more comfortable.’
Julia allowed Harte and Mrs Lowe to help her to her feet, but she couldn’t keep her eyes off Freddie. He had sunk onto the love seat abandoned by Blanche, his hands clasped to his head, his fingers driven into his hair, staring glassy-eyed across the floor.
‘My Lord,’ gulped Julia, a childhood defined by manners and decorum surfacing unexpectedly through her misery. She bowed as much as she was able towards Freddie. ‘My Lord Marquess, the 5th Marquess of Stratton.’
‘My Lord Marquess,’ echoed Harte, stiffening beside Julia as though he was appalled at his own forgetfulness.
‘My Lord—’ chorused The Staff.
‘Don’t—’ muttered Freddie. ‘Don’t!’ He leapt to his feet and strode out of the Drawing Room, and a moment later they heard the front door flung open and his feet pounding down the gravel driveway.
Copyright © Flora Chase 2012; All Rights Reserved