The House Awakes
6.58 a.m. Tuesday, 24th October 1899
IN LATE OCTOBER of the year 1899 a tall, thin, nervy young man ran up the broad stone steps that led to No. 17 Belgrave Square. He seemed agitated. He was without hat or cane, breathless, unattended by staff of any kind, wore office dress – other than that his waistcoat was bright yellow above smart striped stove-pipe trousers – and his moustache had lost its curl in the damp air of the early morning. He seemed both too well-dressed for the tradesman’s entrance at the back of the house, yet not quite fit to mount the front steps, leave alone at a run, and especially at such an early hour.
The grand front doors of Belgrave Square belonged to ministers of the Crown, ambassadors of foreign countries, and a sprinkling of titled families. By seven in the morning the back doors would be busy enough with deliveries and the coming and going of kitchen and stable staff, but few approached the great front doors before ten, let alone on foot, informally and without appointment. The visitor pulled the bell handle too long and too hard, and worse, again and again.
The jangling of the bell disturbed the household, waking the gentry, startling such servants who were already up but still sleepy, and disconcerting the upper servants, who were not yet properly dressed for front door work.
Grace, her Ladyship’s maid, peered out from her attic window to see what was going on. She used a mirror contraption rigged up for her by Reginald the footman, the better to keep an eye on comings and goings on the steps below. Seeing that it was only Eric Baum, his Lordship’s new financial advisor and lawyer, Grace decided it was scarcely her business to answer the door. She saw to her Ladyship’s comfort and no one else’s. Baum was too young, too excitable and too foreign-looking to be worthy of much exertion, and her Ladyship had been none too pleased when her husband had moved their business affairs into new hands.
Grace continued dressing at her leisure: plain, serviceable, black twill dress – a heavy weave, but it was cold up here in the unheated attics – white newly laundered apron, and a pleated white cap under which she coiled her long fair hair. She liked this simple severity of appearance: she felt it suited her, just as the Countess of Dilberne’s colourful silks and satins suited her. Her Ladyship would not need to be woken until nine. Meanwhile Grace would not waste time and energy running up and down stairs to open the front door to the likes of Mr Baum. A sensible man would have gone round to the servants’ entrance.
‘Bugger!’ said Elsie the under housemaid, so startled by the unexpected noise that she spilled most of a pan of ash on to the polished marquetry floor. She was cleaning the grate in the upstairs breakfast room. Grey powder puffed everywhere, clouding a dozen mahogany surfaces. More dusting. She was short of time as it was. She had yet to set the coals, and the wind being from the north the fire would not draw well and likely as not smoke the room out.
This was the trouble with the new London houses – the Grosvenor estate architects, famous as they might be, seemed to have no idea as to where a chimney should best be placed. At Dilberne Court down in the Hampshire hills, built for the first Earl of Dilberne in the reign of Henry VIII, the chimneys always drew. No. 17 Belgrave Square was a mere rental, albeit on a five-year lease. The servants felt this was not quite the thing; most of the best families liked to own and not rent. But the best families were also the landed families; and land was no longer necessarily the source of wealth that it had always been since the Norman Conquest.
Elsie, along with the majority of the domestic staff, lamented the annual migration to London for the Season, but could see its necessity. The Dilberne children needed to be married off; they were too troublesome single. The young Viscount, Arthur, needed a wife to grow him up, and to give him the children he needed for the succession to the Dilberne title and estates: he was nearing twenty-six, so at least had some time to spare. Rosina, at twenty-eight, most certainly did not. The urgency was greater since she was no beauty and had recently declared herself to be a New Woman and resolved never to marry. London was the place for them to be, but the Season ended in August and here they all still were in October. The change in routine unsettled everyone.
Everyone knew Lady Isobel much preferred giving balls and dinner parties in town to hosting weekends in the country. The rumour also was she hated hunting, being afraid of horses – though otherwise fearless – and was out of sympathy with the male passion for shooting birds. This year the shoots had been let out to neighbouring estates. And also his Lordship had found himself obliged to spend more time in the House of Lords since the trouble in South Africa had flared up. Apparently he had business interests in the area. Neither Mr Neville the butler, nor Reginald the footman had discovered quite what these were: short of steaming open letters when they arrived (which Reginald wanted to do but Mr Neville forbade, for in his view reading letters left around was legitimate, steaming was not) there was no way of finding out. Mr Baum the lawyer carried documents away with him, or his Lordship locked them safely in the safe. And Elsie had overheard his Lordship say to her Ladyship that he could not forever be travelling up and down from Hampshire to attend the House, so they would stay in London until the New Year.
Elsie, personally, thought the smart new gambling dens in Mayfair and the company of his new friend the Prince of Wales was probably a greater attraction for his Lordship than politics. Elsie had been with the family for some fifteen years and knew as well as any what went on.
‘Three monkeys, three monkeys!’ Mrs Neville would urge – ‘hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil’ – in an attempt to tamp down the servants’ hall gossip, though in fact she was as bad a culprit as anyone. And Grace, her ladyship’s personal maid, would point out that since upstairs saw so little need to preserve their privacy in front of the servants, any more than they did in front of their dogs, they hardly deserved any. All wished Grace would not say this kind of thing; it smacked of disloyalty and the servant’s hall, no matter how much it grumbled and complained, knew that by and large it was well off, and happy enough.
Elsie was not prepared to open the front door, no matter how hard and repeatedly the caller pulled the bell: there was smut on her face and she was not yet in her cap and apron. Anyway it was Smithers’ job. Elsie would wait for a direct instruction from someone higher in the hierarchy. This overlong stay in London meant she missed her sweetheart. Alan was a gamekeeper on the Dilberne estate; they were saving to be married. The sooner that happened the better if she was ever to have children. On the yearly trips to London, as it was, Alan, back in Hampshire, consoled himself with drink and frittered the money away. By the New Year there would be precious little left. Elsie was not in a good temper these days, and she was tired of working in a cloud of ash.
There were few cabs about at this early hour, and since receiving the morning telegrams from Natal, Baum had taken a bus, but half-walked, half-run much of the way between Lincoln’s Inn Fields where Courtney and Baum had their offices, and the Square. He did not grudge the effort, since on the whole he wished the Earl of Dilberne well, and had certainly lent him enough money in the past to want the debt repaid, and the sooner his Lordship’s affairs were in order the sooner that would happen. But while Eric Baum pulled and pulled the bell and no one came, he began to feel aggrieved.
Copyright © 2012 by Fay Weldon