The clock strikes one. Mrs. Eckhart rises to leave. I hear Julia greeting John by the front door in the same moment, and am glad for his return. But the squeaky floorboard and subtle click of the lock in John’s study tell me he’s made a hasty retreat. I smile, knowing he is shielding himself from Mrs. Eckhart’s inquiries and continued conversation. She is droning on now, asking me to contact a distant cousin who lives in Leeds. I decline. “I’m afraid I’ll be quite bound to the manor, Mrs. Eckhart, or I would be delighted. Perhaps another time.” Being civil is required of me, as the social representative of my husband, but sometimes, when I allow myself, I daydream of being too caught up in a society of painting or poetry to care.
Mrs. Eckhart is safely out the door, down the stairs and helped into her carriage before John peers from the study. “Are we free to leave now?”
God help me, I am hopelessly in love with my husband. At thirty-five he has just enough gray in his chestnut hair to afford an air of authority and distinction. His mind in sharp and clever, his stature tall, thin and fit. I run my hands beneath the tweed collar of his jacket pulling him close. I love the smell of him and the way my face fits in the warm nest of his neck. How is it, I ask myself, that after five years of marriage we have not a single child to show for our love? These thoughts rise from a dark place in my heart, landing like a knife in tender flesh. I push them away.
“My dear husband,” I demand. “How can you be such a fearless advocate in the House of Lords and cower before the likes of Mrs. Eckhart?”
He laughs. “In her majesty’s government reason and science dominate, which makes us ill prepared for ladies tea and gossip. Mrs. Eckhart, for all her finery, I believe would be just as comfortable attending a public hanging at Tyburn Gallows.”
We are interrupted by a parade of porters coming to hoist trunks for transport to Paddington Station. They will be sent ahead and unpacked by attendants at the estate. Our London house will be closed and shuttered, with John living at The Gentleman’s Club when he returns. Unfortunately, affairs of government will require his return with regularity. Those are the details. But my mind has already arrived at our new home, where I imagine myself bounding into the countryside with the sole purpose of gathering grand bouquets of bog rosemary, wild heather and bracken. Our house will be awash in colors and aromas from the highlands, and in no time at all, if I am fortunate, I will learn to put those colors on canvas.
A forgotten valise peers from the hallway, as I stroll toward the dining room. “Julia, come quick. See if you can catch the men. They have over looked one of John’s trunks.”
She hesitates. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that Madame. The men have already set out. To call them back would be unlucky.”
“Nonsense. They are still in range and must be held responsible for all items they were contracted to carry.”
Julia bounds down the walk, her apron catching the breeze, just in time to flag the men. They unwillingly rein in the horses. The biggest man is coarse with roughly sewn clothes. He gets down, makes a cross-mark in the dirt and spits in it. He is reluctant. The sound of Julia’s voice travels back to the door. “I told her that but the Misses doesn’t care. She wants you to come back.”
The men look at one another. “That does not bode well.”
They whisper among themselves. Begrudgingly, one of the smaller men walks in, picks up the valise and leaves, averting his eyes.
John is making final arrangements for the servants in the parlor. I weave my arm through his, whispering. “The peasants are so full of superstitions; it is difficult to get anything done. I hope it is less so in the north.”