‘You know those horse-drawn tramways? There are iron or wooden rails and the horse can draw a heavy load quite easily along them?’ Hannah did not wait for an answer. ‘To move from that exact track would need huge effort and would most certainly overturn the cart, injure the horse, possibly kill the driver. Should the driver try to leave the tracks, drive a new path, risk that injury, just on the off chance it might work?’
The silence stretched on. Tess looked up and found Hannah’s eyes were closed, her breathing slow and deep. She had fallen asleep, worn out, perhaps by emotion.
Tess uncurled herself and put on her shoes, found her things and tiptoed out.
* * *
‘I don’t think Mrs Semple is well enough to come back to work, not this side of Christmas. I know it is almost three weeks away, but there is all the preparation to be thought of.’ Tess folded back the notebook she was using to keep lists of things to be done. Now a fresh page was headed Christmas?? and she had caught Alex just before William Bland, his secretary, arrived. She was determined to pin him down for some answers.
‘I thought she was not seriously ill.’ He stopped mending the end of his pen with a pocket knife and looked up. ‘I must send the doctor round again.’
‘She is getting better, but the infection seems to have settled on the lungs of all of the sufferers and they are worn out with coughing. She needs a holiday somewhere she can be looked after. What would she usually do at Christmas?’
‘Go back to her husband’s family in Kent. It’s a big family and she’s very fond of them.’ Alex squinted at the pen nib, then stuck it in the standish. ‘I could send her down early, in the coach with rugs and hot bricks and one of the men to escort her.’
‘That sounds like a good idea. Shall I arrange it?’
‘No. I’ll go and talk to her, if that dragon of a landlady will let me, a dangerous man, into her female fortress. Anything else in that very efficient little notebook?’
‘I need to know exactly what happens here at Christmas. What the arrangements for the rest of the staff are, whether you’ll be entertaining, whether you’ll be out much. I need to plan for meals, shop for provisions,’ she added when he looked at her blankly. ‘Phipps and MacDonald tell me they don’t have family in the south and then there’s the coachman and your grooms.’
‘What happens is that I don’t expect to see them from the morning of the twenty-fourth until the evening of the twenty-sixth. They fill the coal scuttles and leave the place tidy and I eat out at my clubs. I can cope with making my own bed once a year,’ he added, presumably in response to her opening and closing her mouth like a landed carp. ‘I told you—I spend Christmas by my own fireside with a pile of books and a bottle or so of good brandy. All of my friends of a sociable disposition will be out of town.’
‘Then, you do not mind what happens below stairs so long as it does not disturb you?’
‘Or burn the house down or bring in the parish constable. Exactly.’
‘Right.’ Tess closed her notebook with a snap. This house was going to have a proper Christmas regardless of what his lordship expected. ‘And above stairs you just want appropriate preparation made?’
‘Certainly. You can manage that?’
‘Oh, yes, especially if you are out most of the time.’
‘That would be helpful, would it?’ Alex asked absently. He was already running one finger down a column of figures. ‘I’ll be at the club a lot of the time.’ He flipped open his desk diary and made a note as there was a knock at the door. ‘Come in!’
‘My lord?’ Mr Bland looked in, his arms full of papers. ‘I have the auction catalogues from Christie’s you wanted, but I can come back when it is convenient.’
‘No, we’ve finished, haven’t we, Mrs Ellery?’
‘Indeed we have, my lord.’
When she went down the indoor staff were all below stairs. ‘MacDonald? Please ask the stable staff to join us. All of them. Annie! Leave the scullery cleaning a moment and come in here.’
They crowded into the kitchen, Annie still clutching her scrubbing brush, Byfleet the flatirons he’d been about to set on the grate. The grooms brought the rich, warm smell of horses to mingle with the aroma of baking bread as they stood awkwardly by the back door.
How long had she been here? Tess wondered as she surveyed their faces. Scarcely a week? It was hardly much more since she had staggered in, battered and exhausted, and yet this was beginning to feel like home, and she was gaining a confidence she never expected to find. In the new year, when Hannah was well again, she could set out on her quest for employment feeling so much better equipped.