Near Bath, 1780
Miss Araminta Giles was nobody’s fool. She prided herself—at one-and-twenty—on having an exceptionally sharp wit. It had been honed throughout her formative years and she thanked God for it. There was no one else in the world to care for her. It was that wit which had first alerted her to the prying nature of her travelling companion today.
“Have you no chaperone with you?” asked the woman sitting opposite her in the stage coach.
Ary did not miss her accusatory tone, nor the way the middle-aged woman raised her nose a little and sniffed.
“No,” Ary replied, wishing for the umpteenth time that she had taken a seat on the roof of the carriage rather than inside.
Outside the carriage was not a desirable location, and a kind man travelling from Sussex had offered her his seat inside when she had joined the stage in Ludgershall. She had taken up the offer, happy not to be subjected to the elements, not knowing she would be subjected to the interrogation of one Mrs Dibley instead.
“Well, well, well.” The woman sucked in air between her teeth. “My husband, who is the vicar of St Mary’s Charlcombe, would never have me travelling alone. No, my dear, not I.” Mrs Dibley shook her head in a patronising manner. “That is why you came with me, isn’t it, Lily?” she said, turning her beady eyes on the timid, young girl sitting next to her.
The housemaid nodded but was precluded from speaking by her mistress’ next question to Ary.
“And where is it that you are travelling alone, young lady?”
The memory of Ary’s school teacher came vividly to her mind. Miss Drench had used a similar tone when addressing her pupils.
The thought of her old school mistress set Ary’s mind on a different course from answering Mrs Dibley’s prying questions. If Miss Drench could see her now, travelling to be a lady’s companion to a gentleman’s daughter near Bath, she would be thrilled. Though she would not have shown it. Miss Drench had never revealed her emotions to her charges. She was as stern a woman as Ary had ever met, but she had also been frank with her opinions, and had assured Ary that she was made for more than scrubbing floors and banking fires.
“Near Bath,” Ary replied, unwilling to give in to this woman’s questioning and also rather curious as to what her reaction would be when Ary gave her less than helpful answers.
She was rewarded with another sucking in of breath between Mrs Dibley’s teeth and a look akin to that which someone would wear when smelling something foul. Ary kept her countenance impassive and turned back to the window.
There were times she missed her old school teacher. Miss Drench had plucked Ary from the ranks of the Foundling Hospital’s orphans at the age of nine, seeing in her a promising mind. She had delivered all Ary’s schooling before installing her young charge as a teacher herself in the charity school.
Ary had left all that behind when she had been appointed a companion to Mrs Stanaway of Edge House. Being that Ary had neither enquired after the position nor knew the lady to whom she was to be engaged, she had been sceptical of the offer of employment.
But Miss Drench had said, in her pragmatic way, that Miss Giles should be grateful for the opportunity and show less of a mind to question it. Ary had agreed with Miss Drench. It was too good an offer to pass up, so she had accepted the position.
After little more than eighteen months, Mrs Stanaway had taken ill and expired. Ary had been sorry for it. The woman had been sharp and demanding, but a fair employer, and had exposed Ary to the social mores and niceties of polite Society. Not only that, Ary had even received a wage. It was meagre, but more than the bed and board she had received at the charity school. She had been trying to save it, though it barely stretched further than weekly items she came in need of.
The loss of her employer was also the loss of her home and security, and Ary had been fearing she would have to return to the charity school when an unexpected letter had arrived. A respectable family was looking for a companion for the young lady of the house, to accompany her in Bath Society before she made her debut in London. A mutual acquaintance of Mrs Stanaway had recommended Ary to them. Another providential happenstance, and Ary had again taken Miss Drench’s words to heart and accepted the engagement. It might only be for a short period—they may not even like her—but it would do for now.
So here she was, travelling alone to her new employment. After all, an orphan left at the Foundling Hospital as a babe was still an orphan at one-and-twenty, and had no means to travel with company even if she should wish it.
“Ah, not further on to Gloucestershire then,” Mrs Dibley said, breaking in on Ary’s thoughts after only a few moments. “My husband and I are very familiar with the Bath area. Where is it you’re travelling to? I’m sure we will know of it.”
As if that would make any difference, thought Ary. After this journey she would likely never see Mrs Dibley again. With that in mind, and seeing the keen look on Mrs Dibley’s face, Ary finally relented.
“Duriel Hall,” she said.
“Duriel Hall.” Mrs Dibley gasped the words. “Duriel Hall,” she said again, this time with a tone of reverence.
Ary withdrew her gaze from the window and looked with a little more interest at Mrs Dibley’s unfolding reaction. Her destination was well known then.
Mrs Dibley rocked on her seat, Ary presumed with glee. “What a place to be going. My husband was great friends with the old Mr Derringer,” she said. Her chin came up proudly. “He has known the young Mr Derringer and his sister since they were babes in arms.”
Ary recognised the name. The young Mr Derringer in question was the gentleman who had written to offer her employment—as companion to his sister.
It was an unusual thing to move from foundling to companion. Miss Drench’s practical words came back to mind. She must not question providence. But it felt impossible not to. It had been a great blessing for her to be chosen as a companion to the elderly Mrs Stanaway, but that woman at least claimed a vague friendship with her mother. Mr Derringer knew nothing of her. The question which had gnawed at her, and she had been persistently batting away, came back to mind. Why had he chosen her as a companion for his sister?
The uneasy feeling led Ary to one conclusion: she should not trust that this engagement would offer any more security than the last. All good things—Ary had learned in her short time on this earth—came to an end. And that was if any good thing came at all.
“You are to be a scullery maid, perhaps?” Mrs Dibley asked, looking disapprovingly at Ary’s patched cloak, and the faded fabric of her day dress peeking from beneath it.
Mrs Stanaway had only allowed Ary two plain dresses to be made up at the old woman’s expense. One for daily wear and another for Sundays or when they went into company. Ary’s employer saw no sense in spending money on anything but what she considered essential, and Ary’s small wage had not been sufficient to pay for any more items of clothing. After a year and a half of solid use, the only dresses Ary owned were showing their age.
Ary had wondered, when she had read the name Duriel Hall, whether a hall was very much bigger than a house. Mrs Stanaway’s home, Edge House, had seemed a grand place when Ary had first arrived. From Mrs Dibley’s response to her destination, Ary imagined the Hall would have an equal effect on her. Perhaps she might turn the tables and gain information of her own from this woman.
“I am engaged for employment,” she said evasively, allowing a lilt into her voice to disguise the elocution Miss Drench had been so insistent on during her schooling. “Is it a very big place? Only I ’ave had trouble before, finding my way around some ’ouses.”
Ary smiled inwardly. She had always enjoyed participating in small performances they had put on at the Foundling Hospital to occupy the children.
“Very large, my child,” said Mrs Dibley, a tone of condescension in her voice.
Good, thought Ary. That tone showed Ary that her little ruse had been accepted. Mrs Dibley now ‘understood’ where Ary sat on the social strata, and it was decidedly lower than herself.
Underestimation, Ary had learned from a young age, was a unique weapon when facing the world.
“It dates right back to the 1400s, before Henry VII, though the house that is there now was built in the 1720s by the late Mr Derringer. It is a fine building, a fine one. My husband has been there above three times, you know.” She took on the appearance of a cat who had just brought in a dead mouse to its owner. “It has been home to the Derringers throughout that time. Though you will likely not see much of them below stairs.” Mrs Dibley sniffed again, and Ary realised it was the action she took when setting someone else down.
“Would you be able to tell me then, what the master is like, as I’m not like to see him when I am there. Be they good people?” The phrasing of that last question made Ary cringe, but the play-acting was entirely convincing the vicar’s wife.
The woman smiled patronisingly at Ary. “The best of the quality, or so my husband says. Mr Derringer is a God-fearing man and a kind master. You should consider yourself excessively fortunate to be engaged in such a place.”
“Oh, I do, Mrs Dibley, I do.” Ary nodded vigorously, so that it looked as if her head might fall right off her shoulders. “Thankee for making me aware of how thankful I should be.”
There was the glimmer of suspicion in Mrs Dibley’s eyes. Was her game up? Ary turned back to the window before Mrs Dibley could stare at her any longer. It was just as well for her stomach was lurching again.
Through the grimy panes of glass she saw buildings passing by. At some point during the interrogation from the inquisitive Mrs Dibley, they had arrived on the outskirts of Bath. A short time later they reached the staging post, and the large creaking carriage came to a halt.
There was a great deal of shouting outside the carriage as ostlers came out. The clipping of wooden soled boots on worn flagstones. The hollow thuds and scrapes of trunks being removed from the roof of the vehicle.
In the midst of this cacophony, one of the ostlers appeared on the other side of Ary’s window. They opened the door, a gust of fresh air a welcome relief to Ary, and handed down Mrs Dibley, her housemaid and finally Ary.
“It will be a long walk to Duriel Hall for you, child,” Mrs Dibley said, turning to Ary after snapping at the groom to handle her luggage with more care.
In all fairness, he had just dropped it worryingly close to a pile of horse manure.
“Thankee, Mrs Dibley, I shall find my way.”
“It will no doubt keep you healthy, all that fresh air. My husband will be picking me up in our little gig.”
As if on cue, a pony and cart came around the side of the inn, driven by an excessively round-faced gentleman.
“Geraldine!” called the gentleman, not paying attention to where his pony was going and allowing it to dive straight towards a pile of hay thrown out for the stage horses.
One of the inn’s grooms shouted from an open stable, running out to shoo the animal away from the food. There was a general commotion while the cart was moved away, which the gentleman driver seemed unperturbed by, smiling all the while. Once the cart was settled on the far side of the yard, Mrs Dibley’s husband climbed down in an ungainly fashion and came towards his wife with open arms.
“Husband!” said Mrs Dibley, stretching out her hands.
For a brief moment Ary forgot the woman’s irritating qualities and the corner of her mouth pulled up into a reluctant smile. How pleasant it must feel to arrive home and be welcomed by family.
She watched over the next half an hour as Mrs Dibley’s luggage was unloaded from the stage coach and placed carefully in the back of the cart. Ary wondered how the little vehicle would be able to accommodate the trunk as well as its generously proportioned owners and servant. She soon saw the maid climbing up to perch precariously on the trunk and felt sorry for the poor girl.
“…a maid to the Derringers…”
The snippet drifted across the yard to Ary. She purposely gazed at a water trough and directed her ear to the ecclesiastical couple, attempting to hear the rest of the conversation.
“We will pass there on our way home. Why don’t we take her up, my dear?”
“Oh no, Matthew, that would hardly do. Delivering a scullery maid to her new employment? It would not look at all well.”
“But it’s near on five miles to Duriel Hall, Geraldine.”
“Matthew, I know you have no sensitivities to these niceties, but it really will not do. We cannot deliver scullery maids and expect to be invited to the Hall for a visit. No, my dear. She will do very well stretching her legs after such a journey.”
The charitable thoughts Ary had allowed to dampen her dislike of Mrs Dibley evaporated. She looked directly across the yard and caught the eye of the vicar’s wife, giving her the unrelenting hard stare she usually reserved for disobedient pupils.
Ary gave a smug smile when the overly confident woman looked away. She would have continued to stare had someone not called her name.
Ary turned to see a man emerging from the tap room dressed in livery. She moved forward as the man called her name again.
“Are you Miss Giles, for Duriel Hall?”
“Mr Derringer has sent the carriage for you. I beg your pardon for not being here when the stage arrived. I had a time of it trying to find space for the carriage and had to pay a lad to hold the horses’ heads on the road outside. There’s a fair amount of traffic hereabouts.”
Ary felt an immediate liking for this friendly man and pointed out her portmanteau when he asked her for her luggage.
“That all, Miss?” he asked, a little surprised not to be directed to a trunk as well.
“Yes, that’s all.”
“Very well.” He bent down and picked up the portmanteau and then led the way out of the yard and around to the front of the building.
Ary could not resist directing a condescending smile towards Mrs Dibley as she passed her.
“Thank you for your conversation, Mrs Dibley,” she said with perfect pronunciation.
The woman looked startled and was staring between Miss Giles and the coachman leading her out of the yard. Ary turned away and hoped she would not come across Mrs Dibley again.
“It’ll be about half an hour’s journey, miss.” The coachman paused outside the door to the taproom. “Will you be wanting to rest at all before we set off? Mr Derringer instructed me to order you whatever refreshment you might require before going to the Hall.”
Ary’s fine dark brows rose. She would not have expected such solicitousness from her employer.
“I think I should like to carry on, if we may?”
“Of course, miss.”
The driver handed her up into a mercifully empty carriage. Ary noted the fine upholstery and appreciated the cleanliness of the interior in comparison to the stage. They set off, the Derringer’s carriage retracing the stage coach’s route until they were back in the Somerset hills.
Shortly after, the vehicle turned off the post road. The smaller byway made for a distinctly less comfortable journey. Ary had not travelled a great deal and her inability to absorb the bends and rises showed her greenness. Quite literally, in fact. For she was sure her complexion was far greener than normal. Another steep downhill came, and she gripped at the window frame to steady herself. At least on the declines the speed was substantially slower.
When the carriage was level again she ventured a look outside the window. The only view she was afforded was that of trees and the muddy banks of the road rising up beside the vehicle. They turned eastwards, the carriage hitting a rut in the road and sending Ary crashing against the side wall of the interior. She felt her stomach lurch and clapped her hand over her mouth. She breathed—in and out, in and out—willing the nausea to subside.
“Here it is, miss. Beyond the rise,” the driver called from outside.
Ary shuffled closer to the window again. She released the lock and it dropped down with a clatter. A blast of fresh air hit her, cooling her face. When she opened her eyes again she caught sight of a house sat atop the rise the carriage was journeying around. A flutter of misgiving ran through her. She realised Mrs Dibley’s over-enthusiastic words had not done the place justice.
The house rose three stories from its square footings, the neat red bricks and stone frieze above looking proudly out over the manicured lawns. As they drew nearer Ary could see more sash windows than she could count and a stone terrace stretching out on the west side. She thought she saw someone standing on it, but as they passed into the avenue of oak trees that led to the Hall’s entrance, the trunks obscured whoever it was.
Ary looked down at her patched cloak and faded skirts and felt a clammy sweat breaking out on her palms. Duriel Hall was far grander than Edge House.
The sound of beaten track beneath the carriage wheels changed to gravel crunching. The sick feeling came back into her stomach, but this time it was not from the motion. She scolded herself inwardly, balling her hands into fists and looking again from the carriage window. She had borne far worse than a little luxury. She would not allow such a place and such people to overawe her. After all, they had chosen her, had they not? They knew she was a nobody from nowhere. Surely that was what they were expecting?
The carriage drew alongside a classically designed portico that stood on the north side of the Hall. A man and a woman stood outside, waiting to greet her. Before she could stop herself from the childish instinct, she jerked back against the carriage seat so that she would not be seen.
Unballing her hands, she reached for the little wooden heart she always wore around her wrist and pressed it between her finger and thumb. The familiar action soothed her and then, when the carriage drew to a halt, she took a deep breath.
The door opened and the steps were let down. She released the heart at the same time as her breath, and took the driver’s hand to descend from the carriage and face her new home. All the while she reminded herself that a lack of fortune was not shameful. A lack of character was.