Anaïs Nin, Henry and June.
It begins with a letter on a late English summer morning in the year 1813. Sunlight invades the windows of the drawing room as Lady Jane Malcom receives the communication. She peers from the large pane, watching the pace of city life below her from the sanctuary of the grand townhouse. Slowly and deliberately, as though she can tell it contains foreboding news, she draws the fine paper from its seal, allowing her fingers to caress its edges before permitting her eyes to read the words. Lady Jane takes a moment to absorb the content, before moving to her chair in the far corner of the room. Her thin face pales as the reality of the news settles over her—her brother, the Earl George Franklin has passed away whilst serving in the Royal Navy. This information, she muses, will change everything. The earl’s estate must be processed; the townhouse will have to be sold, and what of Lady Lydia, his daughter? Who will step forward to take responsibility for such a wilful young woman?
In another part of the city an attractive young blonde sits in an expensive milliner’s shop. Her fingertips thrum the table in front of her, illustrating her growing impatience. “How long will this take, sir?” she snaps, her golden curls bobbing with her obvious irritation.
The older gentleman at the other side of the room pauses, swallowing down her impertinence. “Rest assured we are working as swiftly as we can, Lady Franklin,” he replies, an exasperated expression on his mature face. “Our hats are of the finest quality, and the best does take time.”
The young lady sniffs at his answer, turning her face to look into the street outside. “That’s as may be,” she says brusquely, “but I have more matters to attend to than merely the delivery of your latest creation. Please ensure it is sent to my father’s residence as soon as it is ready.
“Of course, My Lady,” the milliner replies. “I will endeavour for it to reach you by this Friday, but…”
His voice trails away as he watches the young Lady Franklin rise and stalk from his shop without so much as another word. He sighs and shakes his head as her young maid scurries after her, sending the small bell above his door chiming in her haste. That young lady is spoiled to the point of ruin, he thinks as he makes his way back to his workshop. What she needs is a gentleman with a firm hand…
Chapter One: Markham Hall
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
I peer from my carriage window, watching as the contorted branches of ancient-looking trees rush by me. The swirling wind forces them into strange and unusual shapes as we speed past, sending a wave of unease through me. Outside the light begins to fade and within a short distance, what little remains is just a slim line of sunshine on the horizon beyond the woods. I clutch the letter in my hand to my chest, as though it is going to offer me some reassurance about the road ahead. Relaxing a little, I run my fingers over the paper, feeling its weight and substance.
This correspondence is for Lord Thomas Markham, a man with whom I have never made acquaintance, and indeed never laid eyes upon. Yet this man is now to be my guardian and responsible for my person until I either marry or reach the age of twenty-one years old. I twist my fingers around the corner of the letter, bending the paper a fraction as the defiance within me resurfaces. Looking back to the window, I am shocked to see the night now snugly surrounding the carriage as its wheels hurry on, taking me onward to Markham Hall.
A loud noise from the roof above me makes me jump, and is followed by the gruff tone of my driver, Smithers. “We’re nearly there, M’Lady,” he shouts from overhead. “Markham Hall lies just west of this road.”
“Thank you,” I call out, uncertain if my voice will have carried over the sounds of the horses and the wheels, but answering him all the same. I look to the west, transfixed upon the direction which points toward my new home.
I have known about this day for some weeks. Ever since my father, the late Earl Franklin passed away, and his will was read, I have known of his wish for me to be sent to Markham Hall. I resisted of course, predictably reluctant to accept the words of my father’s last will and testament, but my protests had met deaf ears. My aunt, who was always kind to me in her brother’s absence, demanded my compliance, and I recall her passion as she spoke to me on the subject…
“Lord Markham is your second cousin, Lydia. He is a gentleman, with his own titles and estates, who will not be interested in stealing yours. Your father—may the Lord rest his soul—has chosen well for you!”
“But, Aunt Jane,” I protested as I watched her embroidering in the sitting room. “Lord Markham is a man I have never met—a stranger! How can he know what is best for me?”
My aunt paused her needlework to look upon me, exasperation etched into her face. “He is a good man, Lydia and a relative—he will no doubt be a decent guardian until you come of age, and that is only a few years now.”
I sighed, the resentment I felt on the subject evident. “But, Aunt Jane…”
“Enough, Lydia,” she snapped from the chair next to me. “The decision has been taken and Lord Markham has already been written to. He will receive you on the third day of October.”
And that—I had realised—was that. The decision was made, and my fate was sealed. Now hurtling toward that fate, I feel no more inclined to acquiesce with the future my father set out for me, than I did that day in the sitting room. Angry at having my fine, comfortable world turned upside down, my insolence simmers beneath my calm exterior. As the carriage bears from the main road to the left, I wonder who this Thomas Markham really is. No doubt he is equally displeased at the notion of having me thrust upon him. Perhaps I can reason with him? Maybe he will see what a capable young woman I am, and will consent for me to travel back to London and reside at home? Perhaps I shall give him no choice, and simply make the return journey after all.
I close my eyes as I formulate my plan, confident that any decent gentleman would be more than happy to see me on my way, rather than have me impose upon his private estate. I resolve that I will just have to let my contrary nature persuade him. As the earl’s only daughter, I know I am indulged, and am all too used to getting my own way. I see no reason why this should now change. The carriage slows, and I open my eyes again to peer into the blackness beyond my window. The drive to the hall is narrow but seems endless. It is lined either side by tall trees, the high branches contorting in the strength of the autumn wind. Eventually we round to the right, Smithers bringing the horses to halt outside of the house. I shift to my left and take my first glance at Markham Hall.
It is a grandiose dwelling, far greater than the modern townhouse I have known. From this angle I can only make out the imposing entrance and four or five large downstairs windows, and yet there is no doubt the house is far more superior than I had been led to believe. By the time I can process this information, Smithers is opening the door to the carriage.
“Here, M’Lady,” he says, bowing slightly as he addresses me. “Watch your step.”
I smile at his concern, and duly take the hand he offers as I disembark from the carriage. Reaching the ground, I look up, absorbing the gigantic household which now lies before me. The large black front door opens from its elevated position at the head of five solid steps and a number of servants come rushing to meet us.
One young maid, probably not much older than I, skips gracefully down the stone stairs, before bobbing in front of me. “Lady Franklin,” she says, clearly out of breath. “Welcome to Markham Hall.”
A gust of wind catches the blonde curls which refuse to be pinned beneath her bonnet, and I get a good view of her young and pretty face. Her blue eyes stare up from her curtsey, clearly eagerly awaiting my response.
“Thank you,” I reply sternly, irritated that no one had been waiting here to receive my carriage.
She rises slowly, still assessing my responses. “Please come in out of the cold, My Lady,” she says, gesturing with her right hand for me to take the lead. “His Lordship would not want us to linger here.”
I turn to Smithers who is off-loading my luggage to a young man who I assume to be the footman. “Thank you, Smithers,” I call to him directly as I turn to ascend the stone staircase.
I can just about make out his reply as I reach the summit, and pause to watch the old man resume his place at the front of the carriage. As he drives the horses away, a sting of pain lurches within me. The last fragments of my life in London are driving away, and all at once I feel abandoned. I take a deep breath as I consider the reality, swallowing down the sudden stabbing emotion.
The voice of the young maid brings me back to the here and now. She waits on the elevated stonework, eager for me to enter the house and allow us all to be free of the chilling wind. I nod my head and take my first step into Markham Hall, not daring to risk a final glance back.
Chapter Two: First Impressions
The interior is every inch as grand as I had expected based on the striking visage of the front of the building. The entrance is huge, and dominated by the dark imposing staircase cutting through its very centre. My eyes scan the place, drinking in the rich wood of the rails and bannisters lining the stairs and the upper galleried landing above. The steps are dressed in a rich crimson rug, which runs all the way to the floor before opening into an enormous carpet at my feet. The colour matches the surrounding hues of the drapes and tapestries lining the walls around me. All of the soft furnishings are warm majestic shades of gold, emerald, and ruby, set against the wood panelling which otherwise governs the space.
My father had been a man of wealth, and I have always enjoyed expensive, beautiful possessions, yet I find myself impressed by the sheer indulgence of Markham, and this it seems is just the entrance hall. As I move inside, a tall, young gentleman greets me with a low bow.
“Lady Franklin, please allow me to take your cape?”
I unclip the fastening at my chest and release the length of fabric from my body, before handing it to him as the large door behind me is finally closed. “Thank you,” I answer, my voice clipped after my rather unceremonious reception on the steps outside.
From behind a tall grandfather clock to my right strides an older-looking man. He is tall and debonair, yet his expression seems guarded as he approaches. He addresses me with immediate authority. “Lady Franklin,” he says, bowing. “May I welcome you to your new home, Markham Hall. Allow me to introduce myself—I am Gregory, His Lordship’s steward, and butler to this fine household. Lord Markham is unfortunately not able to receive you at this time, so please allow us to help you settle into the hall in his absence.”
I stare at the man, taking in his mature face and dark hair. “My gratitude, Mr. Gregory,” I reply, looking around me at the line of young men and women—the staff of the house—who now stand to my left. “May I ask where His Lordship is?”
Gregory smiles and takes a step back. “Lord Markham has been called away on urgent family business, My Lady,” he answers. “He sends his apologies, and has invited you to dine with him at supper this evening.”
I stand, gaping at him as I try to process his words. What business could have called him away at this hour? Am I not Lord Markham’s family? It seems as though my guardian is too busy to meet his new ward, and an odd betrayal slices through me at the prospect.
“In the meantime, let Lucy show you to your rooms and Carson will bring your luggage there for you.”
I nod, feeling suddenly weary from the hours of travel and the surge of unusual emotions I am experiencing.
“And Lady Franklin,” he says, moving a step closer and dropping his voice just a little. “Please accept my own apologies for Lucy’s late arrival at your carriage. She should—and does—know better.”
I acknowledge his harsh tone, watching Lucy drop her head at his admonishment.
“Thank you, Mr. Gregory,” I reply, glad that he has noted and raised the matter. “I did think it unusual not to have been greeted upon my arrival.”
The tall man nods his understanding at me, and then turns, his attention focused on Lucy. “In this house we have explicit standards, and young Lucy did not meet them on this occasion. She is aware of the consequences of this.” He gestures with his left hand and Lucy appears to my right at once. “Is this not correct, Lucy?”
“Yes, Mr. Gregory,” she whimpers, dropping her eyes.
The snub at having not been welcomed properly burns within me and I feast upon the scene. Indignant and tired from my travels and the odd reception, I relish the way Gregory dresses the maid down, watching as she comes to heel at his command.
“You can rest assured that she will be adequately punished for her transgression, My Lady.”
I nod, smiling as the maid hangs her head in shame. Glancing from her to the butler, I note a strange energy, which is now evident in the hall. There’s a low-lying tension about the place, and for a brief moment it seems palpable. I turn my head to the left and see the other staff hanging on Gregory’s words, the expectancy evident on their faces.
“Please see that you do,” I reply to Gregory. “I do not like to be kept waiting.” My tone is brusque, demonstrating some of the frustrations I feel.
The butler bows before clapping his hands together. “Now Lucy, Carson—carry on! Everyone else, back to work, please!”
The entrance hall, once as still as a mausoleum, now bursts into life around me. I see the strong footman, Carson, carrying the majority of my cases up the grandiose-looking stairs, and Lucy dashes behind him.
“Please follow me, My Lady,” she says breathlessly, as she pauses to address me.
It is with a strange mixture of emotions that I do so, lifting my skirts to make the climb.
Chapter Three: Lucy
Beyond the staircase the house is a labyrinth of hallways and large, imposing doorways. I follow Lucy’s assured footsteps, amazed at how she can ever recall her way around this massive house. Finally, she pauses outside a doorway to our right, and turns to face me. “Here are your rooms, Lady Franklin,” she says, curtseying politely as I pass her into the open doorway.
The first thing I notice is that Carson has already made the journey. My cases are piled neatly by the wall to my left. As I step further into the room I am struck by the sheer beauty of the place. It is decorated in lush gold and creams. Indulgent fabrics hang at the long windows and adorn the large centre-piece bed. I move toward it, tracing a finger idly over the pale lace at the foot of its exterior.
“Is everything to your liking, My Lady?”
I spin toward Lucy, waiting for me in the doorway. “Is this all?” I reply, deliberately choosing to stamp my authority over the pretty young maid. “I am used to quite larger rooms in London.”
This is a partial untruth. Some of the rooms in the earl’s house had been wondrous in size, although my sleeping quarters had not been so different to this. For some reason though, I desire to laud my influence and exact my own penance for Lucy’s tardiness on the doorstep.
She tenses, concerned at my remarks. “There is a reading room through this door, My Lady,” she explains, holding out her right arm to indicate which direction she means.
I move toward it, opening the door to reveal a smaller, yet cosy space, filled with book-lined walls and a sturdy-looking writing desk. It is not as grand as my old library at home, but certainly I could make use of it.
“And this, My Lady, is your private bathing room.” Lucy now stands on the other side of the large bed, her body pointed toward a third doorway.
I move slowly past her to acknowledge the entrance with a nod. “Very well,” I respond. “I will explore later. Now I think I would like to rest. Please unpack my dresses and prepare the peacock gown for supper.”
“Of course, My Lady,” she smiles, dipping into a small curtsey as she scurries away to my selection of luggage.
Wandering toward the bed, I slip the small slippers from my feet, allowing them to fall to the golden rug at the side of the bed and recline fully against the soft covers. Lucy continues to work without a word, and within a few moments I drift into an uneasy slumber.
By the time I open my eyes again, I find my clothes unpacked and a neat pile of luggage where Carson had left it. I stretch my arms above my head, moving from my warm, comfortable position.
“My Lady,” Lucy says softly. “I hope you are rested?”
Her voice is gentle, and she smiles at me. In spite of my earlier irritation, I decide that I may like her after all.
“Thank you, yes,” I answer, raising myself into a seated position. “I assume that supper will be served soon? Please help me to dress.”
She nods as I stand. “Yes, My Lady,” she replies. “Supper is served usually at nine o’clock in the dining room. I will escort you there once you are ready.” She moves lithely to where my peacock gown hangs waiting.
I stand, feeling the fibres of the soft rug between my toes as I move toward the dress. Lucy releases it, laying it gently across a lounging chair away to my right, before coming to assist me from my travelling attire. She is fast and polite, helping me from one garment to the next. I enquire as to her age as she fastens my lacing, and she informs me that she has just turned nineteen. I am surprised as she looks much younger than her years, but I say nothing further on the subject. Within a few moments I am adorned with the chosen blue gown, and Lucy steps back to admire her handiwork.
“So, will I do?” I ask wryly, knowing full well how lovely the outfit makes me look.
“You are quite beautiful, My Lady,” she answers politely. “The gown really complements your eyes.”
I smile, and mean to continue on my mission for more praise when our attention is interrupted by three sharp taps at the door. Lucy moves at once, opening the wooden structure a few inches, before peering around it to see who the visitor is.
I recognise the tone of the young man who had previously brought my cases to the room… Carson, I think was his name.
“Mr. Gregory requires your attention downstairs… now.”
Lucy jumps at his words and there is something about his tone which makes even my eyebrow rise. What exactly is the urgency which means Lucy must leave this instant?
“But, Mr. Carson,” Lucy stammers, visibly distressed by either the order or the intonation of its delivery. “It is nearly time for Her Ladyship’s supper. I mean to escort her to the dining room!”
She implores him with her hands as she speaks, but he seems not to notice. “I think delay will only lead to more issues for you, Lucy…”
I watch with interest as her face reddens at this news, before deciding finally to save the fate of poor Lucy myself. Stepping forward toward the doorway, I approach Carson. “I am sure I can spare Lucy for the time being,” I say matter-of-factly. “Mr. Carson, would you escort me to the dining room in her place?”
Both of their heads spin toward me, as though they had quite forgotten I was even present.
“Of course, My Lady,” he says, bowing his head.
“Then you should go, Lucy,” I insist. “Do not keep Mr. Gregory waiting…”
Her face pales at my closing words, but she curtseys before heading down the long wood-panelled corridor which leads away from my rooms. I watch her departure, wondering fleetingly what all of the fuss had been about, before collecting my sapphire fan and choosing a matching pair of slippers.
“Ready, My Lady?” asks Carson.
I turn, offering him a small nod as I close the tall wooden door behind me.