The sound of her horse’s hooves on the road was Philippa’s favourite. As Udolpho trotted briskly up Castle Street, she felt her heart race to match the beat. One or two people – shopkeepers mostly – bowed or curtsied as she passed them, and she graced them each with a passing nod, but pitied them deeply for their ignorance. For she was full of such scandalous news as the town had probably never heard before, and never would again, and her only object was to impart it to an acquaintance. Really, any acquaintance would do so long as they acted suitably shocked, but since today was the day she met her friend, Isabella, this proved as good an opportunity as any. Udolpho needed no guidance, but turned into High Street and as his mistress didn’t check him when they reached the river, he floated across the new bridge, his shoes tapping smart and even on the cobbles.
Isabella’s footman was waiting by the road opposite the Abbey, and Philippa slid elegantly down from the saddle and handed him the reins. Upon returning from her second season in London, she had absolutely refused to be accompanied by a servant wherever she went, let alone for such a short walk as Isabella had to make, from The Crescent on Town Walls, but she had to admit to the convenience of having someone to walk Udolpho, and find him a spot to graze along the edge of the field. She gathered the train of her riding habit and dove into the overgrown garden – really just a wilderness. Isabella was waiting by the holly tree, and Philippa gripped her friend’s arm.
“Issy, prepare yourself, I have absolutely the most shocking news, and you are the first person I’ve spoken to of it.”
“Ow! What is it?”
“Lord Berwick is married! He was married only two days ago, and my aunt wrote to tell us as soon as she could. No doubt he will be bringing his bride to Attingham any day now.”
Isabella gasped. “Then there will surely be a ball. Lots of balls!” she squeaked, hopping up and down like a little girl. Philippa was only glad that there was no one to see them. She linked arms with her friend and drew her further along the path, towards their favourite haunt.
“Oh, how exciting,” continued Isabella. “We will have to order new dresses. Have you decided on yours yet? Since we are not going to London this season, I thought I could get by and alter my dresses from last year, but if there’s a new Lady Berwick at Attingham, that won’t do at all! Oh, we shall have to get our orders in quickly, before everyone else.”
“Yes, we will, Issy, but listen, there’s more.”
They continued walking, heads together. The morning was cold but bright, and the sun cast dark shadows under the dense thickets and evergreen shrubs that grew around the ruins of what had once been the Abbey refectory.
Philippa stopped just before they reached the steps of the stone pulpit, and turned to face Isabella. “You must prepare yourself,” she warned. “It is quite shocking.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Lord Berwick has married a courtesan. And she is half his age, at least twenty years younger, if not more. About our age, in fact. Can you imagine?”
Isabella’s mouth formed a perfect, ‘o’. “How perfectly villainous!” she exclaimed. “How horrid for her. She can’t have wanted it one bit. Why, he must be forty!”
“Forty-two,” said Philippa, knowingly. “I checked in Debrett’s.”
“And she is a… that is… what is a courtesan, exactly? Doesn’t it just mean that she attends the court?”
“Issy, don’t be such a simpleton,” she said, but finding herself unable to offer a definition she continued hastily, “well, at any rate it means that she is quite beyond the pale, and not at all well-born.”
“I see,” said Isabella thoughtfully. “But she must still be very fashionable, to have lived in London and made Lord Berwick fall in love with her. Do you think we shall meet her? I do hope so. For him to marry so far beneath him sounds very romantic, and I -” She started suddenly, looking with wide eyes at the pulpit, almost as if she’d seen a ghost.
Philippa followed her gaze. There was a young man leaning against the stone archway at the top of the steps, regarding them nonchalantly over the top of a book he held open in one hand. His silhouette had mingled with the shadowed ivy so that they couldn’t see him until they were quite close. And he’d made no sound…
“Infamous!” said Philippa, turning to face him. “How dare you eavesdrop on our private conversation.”
He studied them for a moment longer, then without a word, resumed his interrupted reading.
Philippa was outraged at his rudeness, and ignored Isabella’s suggestion that they walk down to the River instead. “I beg your pardon, sir,” she said. Whatever his manners, the young man’s dress, and the leather-bound volume he was reading betokened a gentleman. “This is where my friend and I come for a quiet conversation.”
“Really?” he said, closing the book, but keeping his page with a finger. He continued to lean insolently at the entrance to the pulpit, and Philippa did not at all like the feeling of looking up at him. “And this is where I come for a quiet read.”
Philippa frowned. In London she had favoured the witty snub as a defence against incivility, but she was suddenly curious about this young man who she had never seen before. Apparently he didn’t know who she was, either. “What are you reading?” she asked. “Is it a novel?”
He smiled, and stepped forward into the light. “You could hardly expect me to own it if it were.”
“I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with gentlemen reading novels,” said Philippa.
“Pippa,” whispered Isabella, “ought we to be talking to him. I mean, we haven’t been introduced.”
The young man heard this, too. “Shall we ask the master of ceremonies?” He looked around him. “Ah, perhaps this good abbot will do the honours.” Holding onto the doorway, he pivoted around the side of the pulpit and pulled back the ivy to reveal one of the reliefs.
“That is blasphemous,” said Philippa, severely.
The young man pretended to contemplate the carving. “No-o, I think it is Beuno,” he said.
Isabella positively chortled. Philippa glared at her with pursed lips. This stranger had ruined her enjoyment of the story of Lord Berwick’s scandalous marriage, and now he was making fun of her. Clearly, a snub was the best retort after all.
“Is it indeed?” she said sarcastically. “And yet not even he could raise my opinion of you. Come, Isabella.”
The stranger must have thought that a good joke, for he was still laughing loudly as the ladies returned to the street and the waiting footman.
The two friends lost no time in choosing their new gowns, but rode back to Sundorne and huddled over the latest Ackermann’s to analyse the pictures. Philippa ordinarily read every word that the magazine presented on the subjects of politics, furnishings, and architecture, but now she flipped hurriedly on to the fashion plates.
“Oh dear, such a lot of trimming,” said Isabella, reading the description for a ball dress.
“Hmm. I’m sure the styles were much plainer last season. Do you think Mrs. White will be up to the task? I do hope she can finish our dresses in time.”
“It depends when the newly-weds come down. This week, or the next?”
“I hardly know, but I imagine it will take them a few days to organise their affairs.” Philippa sighed. “You will look lovely in these gathered bodices and sleeves,” – she quoted, “‘caught up in the centre of the arm’. You are like a fairy, Isabella, but I’m far too… square.”
“But you are so tall, Pippa, you cut a fine figure in anything.”
“I wish I could wear a riding habit,” she said. “I think I look best in a riding habit.”
“You would,” said Isabella.
Within a few days the town was humming with the news of the nuptials, although Philippa supposed that most of the townsfolk were ignorant of the new Lady Berwick’s shocking history. She wondered whether Mr. William Hill knew, or their younger brother, who was a rector somewhere in Salop. She supposed that Mr. William must at least, for he lived in London, and many mistresses were so well known that even as a débutante, her aunt had pointed one out to Philippa at the opera as though it were nothing out of the ordinary.
“Yes, they’ll be arriving quite soon now, I reckon,” said Mrs. White, when Philippa went in for her fitting. “Mr. White said he saw a procession go by this morning – two carriages, full to bursting with cases and servants all jumbled together, and several riders too. There’ll be plenty of work for the town before the Hall’s fit for a lady. Not that his lordship doesn’t keep it in excellent style, but a lady’s bound to want improvements made.”
“Are you very busy, Mrs. White? When do you suppose the gowns will be ready?”
“Don’t you worry, Miss Corbet, you’ll get your dresses before anyone. And what a fine choice you’ve made in style. I know everyone wants to keep up with the London fashions, but more often than not it makes people look a fright. Much more important to dress to suit your figure, I say, but I can’t convince everyone.”
“You’ve had a lot of orders, then?” asked Philippa anxiously.
“Yes, all the town wants a new frock to meet Lady Berwick. Thank the lord the Luddites haven’t come down to Salop, or I don’t know how I’d find enough thread and material.”
After her fitting, Philippa decided to visit The Crescent to see if Isabella had any news. She found her friend engrossed in trying to solve an intricate puzzle-purse. Philippa had forgotten that it was Valentine’s day, and suddenly felt quite downcast that she had no admirers. At this time last year she had been in the thick of the London season, attending parties every evening, holding protracted debates with a couple of old Tories who had formed the small circle of her gallants, and looking hopefully for the tall figure of Mr. William Hill wherever she went. Even she had to admit that her two seasons had been a failure, and although she had not been sorry to return to her spacious country home, she was beginning to feel, at eighteen, that only a very strategic campaign would win her a husband that she could at all bear the sight of.
“My goodness,” she said, taking off her bonnet and sitting down next to her friend. “If anyone took this much trouble for me, I would marry them directly.” She began trying different folds.
“I might marry them too, if I could only figure out who they were,” said Isabella. “I won’t know what response to make any gentleman until I know who sent it.”
Philippa was trying to match up the edges of writing. “Have you no idea?” she asked.
“None at all,” said Isabella. “And it has come from London, so it could be anybody.”
“London!” exclaimed Philippa. “So it is someone you met last season.” She tried to think, but Isabella had had many admirers, and even one or two offers, although none that her parents had approved of. “I think these two parts line up. Let me see… ‘I am as wild as Otranto for love of Isabella.’ Well, I am not sure that is such a good allusion, considering Otranto’s infamous behaviour, and Isabella’s suffering.”
“No, but it does mean that he is fond of novels. Oh, I wish I knew who it was. I’m half in love with him already.”
Philippa put the letter down in defeat. “I hope he will send you a clearer declaration of his love, before you both pine away,” she said.
“I wonder if it’s a test, to see if I’m clever enough?”
“If it is, then rest assured he is too stupid.”
“Oh, I almost forgot! Biddy said that a young gentleman was inquiring about purchasing Montford Farm. I wonder if it could be him?” She gasped. “I’m sure I saw something about a ford in the puzzle. What if it’s my secret admirer?” She snatched up the piece of paper again.
“The marriage of the Right Hon. Lord Berwick was celebrated on Wednesday last in this town, by large and respectable parties of his lordship’s friends and tradesmen, who dined at the Fox and Raven and Bell inns. After the health of the Prince Regent had been drank — Lord and Lady Berwick, and prosperity to the House of Attingham; the Hon. William Hill, MP; the Hon. and Rev. Richard Hill, and his family…”
Philippa folded the journal and tossed it aside with a sigh. She had read it enough times already.
Her mother looked up from her needlework. “So Mr. William Hill is here with the party,” she said. “And still unmarried.”
“Don’t tease me, mama. You know I did everything I could to attract his notice in London.” She stood up and walked to the window. It had been over a week since Lord and Lady Berwick had arrived at Attingham, and although her father had called on them to welcome them back to the county, the ladies had as yet received no invitation. Philippa had ridden into town every day in hopes of chancing upon Mr. Hill, but it seemed that he preferred to remain in the Park. Since parliament was in session, she did not suppose that he could tarry long in the country, and if a ball was not announced soon, she knew that she must give up all possibility of seeing him until the summer. She worried the fringe of the curtain, and looked out onto the beautiful prospect of rolling hills, woods, and lake without seeing any of it.
Her mother joined her, and gave her daughter’s shoulders a gentle squeeze. “Cheer up, my darling. We have a visitor due today who I hope will take your mind off the odious Mr. Uphill.”
Philippa gave a little sniff, and turned eagerly to her mother. “Who is it?”
“It is Mr. Harvey, the architect who is coming to talk to us about the alterations. Isn’t it exciting?”
“Oh, mama, but I thought papa was to ask Mr. Nash!” said Philippa, her shoulders sinking. She had wanted to meet Mr. Nash, and to be the talk of the county when everyone learned that the Corbets had been able to secure the famous architect for their grand house. It was not very grand yet, of course, but it would be.
“Your papa did write to Mr. Nash,” her mother explained. “And Mr. Nash sent his apologies. He is too busy. But he wrote to Mr. Harvey to make the introduction, and assured us that although he is young, he is a very capable architect. And local too, which is nice. He is making some improvements at Attingham for the new Lady Berwick.”
This mollified Philippa. If Mr. Harvey was good enough for Attingham, and represented Mr. Nash, then he would be good enough for her. As if on cue, the ladies saw a carriage come sweeping along the drive skirting the pool, and draw up at the front door where it was hidden from their view.
“This must be him,” said Mrs. Corbet.
Philippa gasped. “I must get my sketches to show him!” She hurried out of the drawing room, across the hall and into the library. When she returned, her mother and father were already in conference with the guest. They were standing around the marble table, flicking through a book of specimens.
“Ah, Philippa, may I present, Mr. Harvey. Mr. Harvey, my youngest daughter, Miss Corbet.”
The stranger turned, and Philippa at once recognised the insolent young man from the Abbey gardens. “You!” she said.
He gave no sign either of recognition or surprise, but bowed. “Philip Harvey, at your service.”
“Have you met?” asked her father.
“No,” said Philippa. “Well, yes. This is the person I told you about, who eavesdropped on my conversation with Isabella and then refused to leave the pulpit so that Issy and I could talk.”
Mr. and Mrs. Corbet didn’t know what response to make to that, but Mr. Harvey smiled. “Ah, yes,” he said, as if just now recollecting the meeting. “And I believe you told me that not even Saint Beuno could raise your opinion of me.”
Mr. Corbet chuckled. “He was the one who raised people from the dead, wasn’t he? What a good joke.”
Mrs. Corbet frowned at her husband before turning back to her daughter. “Philippa, really!” she said. “I’m surprised at you. Please apologise to Mr. Harvey. We are indebted to him for taking time to help us.”
“Well, I am sorry,” said Philippa, ashamed now, that her temper had got the better of her. “But I was much provoked, and I do think that it is proper for a gentleman to remove himself if he is accidentally in a position to overhear a private tête-à-tête.”
Mr. Harvey was unmoved. “It seems to me you had the high ground all along, Miss Corbet,” he said. “But I wonder whether you noticed that the pulpit has an excellent view of the Abbey? I was thinking about the size and shape of the tower. I assume we are all in favour of having a tower?”
This met with a definite assent from all of the family.
“We can hardly have a gothic house without a tower,” said Philippa’s father.
“Not a house, Mr. Corbet, but a castle,” said Mr. Harvey, to great effect.
Philippa’s grievance was forgotten in the excitement that this proposition engendered. “A castle! Sundorne Castle! How gothic that sounds.”
Mr. Harvey smiled at her. “Well, let us turn vision to reality…”
The next couple of hours were spent in going over the specimen book and sketches, and noting down the designs they liked. The different styles of arches alone made Philippa’s head swim, and after an hour her poor father retreated to his rooms, leaving the ladies to talk to Mr. Harvey and submit the plans to him when they were more or less decided. “Women are so much better with these little details,” he said. “Just give me a castellated turret at each corner, and I shall be well satisfied.”
But Philippa could not be satisfied with the day’s work. It felt as if they had achieved very little, and narrowed down their list of favourites not at all. She said as much to Mr. Harvey as he was leaving.
“On the contrary, we’ve made excellent progress,” he said. “You can hardly expect to create an entire castle in the space of a couple hours, but I have a clear enough idea to draw up some plans, and we can make improvements as we go. Indeed, often a building does not much resemble its initial impression, but I promise you it is always better upon completion.”
“That reminds me,” said Philippa, “now that we have got over our initial impression, will you tell me what book you were reading in the Abbey garden?”
That made him laugh. “I suppose I can tell you, now that I am sure of your approval. It was The Castle of Otranto.”
The long-anticipated invitation to a ball at Attingham arrived the very next morning.
“I’m sure I dreamt of gothic arches and vaultings and domes and I don’t know what, all night,” complained Mrs. Corbet at breakfast.
“Yes, me too,” said Philippa. “I could hardly sleep. To think that this time next year we could all be living in a castle! A perfectly gothic castle out of a gothic story.” Isabella may have her admirers, but Philippa would trade them any day for her own Strawberry Hill.
Attingham Hall was as far from the antique intricacy of Strawberry Hill as it was possible for two houses to be, thought Philippa, as their carriage approached the classical, symmetrical façade. There was no denying the beauty and grandeur of the portico with its slender Ionic columns and plain pediment, but it suggested neither story, nor mystery. The people within, however, more than made up for this deficiency. Lord and Lady Berwick were greeting the guests in the entrance hall. Lady Berwick was not at all what Philippa had pictured. She looked very young, and very nervous, and having heard her timid welcome, the Corbets were very willing to believe that the accounts they had heard of the girl’s history were mistaken. As they entered the drawing room, Philippa, from her privileged position, took in at a glance that Mr. Hill was not there. The rest of the county, however, was present. She threaded her way back to the entrance hall, and thence to the picture gallery. He was not here either, but as she squeezed towards the middle of the room, she almost collided with Mr. Harvey.
“What a crush!” she said. “I think you should convince his lordship to add a ballroom.”
“Yes, I fear he may have been a trifle too liberal with his invitations. Do you wish for a ballroom for Sundorne Castle?”
Philippa considered. “I don’t think so. A ballroom doesn’t seem very gothic. Perhaps a large, draughty hall, however…”
He chuckled. “I am glad you don’t want a glass ceiling, at any rate, for this one leaks whenever it rains.”
Philippa looked up. “Oh dear.” She had never been in the picture gallery during daytime, but she tried to imagine the effect of light streaming in through the windows. “It is very beautiful, but I don’t think it would be very good for the furniture, with or without the rain.”
As she lowered her eyes, her gaze fell upon Mr. William Hill entering the room.
Mr. Harvey turned to see who she was looking at, and then turned back to study her face.
She felt herself blushing, and knew that he must have guessed her secret. She hurriedly excused herself, and made her way towards her object. Mr. Hill had already been accosted by a young woman – a stranger to Philippa – but as she approached, he took up his quizzing glass, and looked down the length of his straight, aquiline nose at her. Philippa felt herself shrink under this inspection, but after what felt like a whole minute, he said, “Miss Corbet, I believe. How do you do? We last met in London, did we not?”
He had remembered her! She strove to keep her excitement in check, but she was eager to relive the memory. “Yes, indeed, just outside the House of Commons, in fact,” she supplied.
“Outside the House of Commons? How… uncommon!” He laughed, and the two ladies joined in.
“I always pride myself, Miss Whitcomb, on the fact that I never forget a face. It is a great boon in my profession.”
“That must be very difficult, considering how many people you meet,” said the flattering Miss Whitcomb.
“It is not easy, but I have found the science of phrenology of great help. Take Mr. Harvey there, for instance.” The ladies turned to look in the direction he was indicating. Mr. Harvey was not looking at them, but was visible in profile talking to Dr. Darwin. “He has a wide forehead,” explained Mr. Hill, “which speaks to frankness, and a distinct curve at the back of his head, where it meets the neck, which marks him as amative.”
Philippa couldn’t help stealing a glance at Mr. Hill’s neck, but it was hidden by locks of hair.
Mr. Harvey seemed to feel himself being watched, for he joined them in a few moments. “Mr. Hill, Miss Whitcomb, Miss Corbet.”
“Mr. Harvey. I was just telling the ladies about the methods I use to remember faces. I never forget a face. I recall meeting Miss Corbet for example, outside the House of Commons. Isn’t that uncommon?”
Mr. Harvey didn’t recognise the joke, but turned to look at Philippa. “It is indeed, for I believe most ladies prefer the House of Lords,” he said.
“Hah hah, that is very good,” said Mr. Hill.
Philippa couldn’t resist an opportunity to boast. “I had been listening to one of the sessions in the House of Commons. It was a very interesting debate about the Luddites.”
“Oh, but I thought ladies were not allowed into the gallery,” said Miss Whitcomb with false curiosity.
“They are not allowed into the gallery, no. But it is still possible to listen to the proceedings from the ventilator shaft,” Philippa informed her.
“The ventilator shaft?” echoed Mr. Hill, looking at her through his quizzing glass, as if trying to ascertain whether he had heard her right.
“Yes, it is just above the chandelier. Since ladies are denied the privilege of the gallery, we must make do with the attic, I’m afraid.”
“I see…” said Mr. Harvey, “you were, in fact, eavesdropping.” A triumphant grin spread across his face as he watched her open her mouth, and then close it again, unable to think of any retort.
Mr. Harvey spared her by changing the subject. “It is a pity that the House of Lords has no gallery, for I would have liked to hear the debate on the frame-breakers. I read in Hansard’s that one of the lords held forth against the Act quite forcefully.”
“One of the lords? Which one?” asked Mr. Hill.
“Lord Byron, I believe.”
“Lord Byron? Never heard of the fellow.”
I hope I’m not cheating by making this story a two-parter, but I spent so much time researching that I don’t feel I could have done it justice in one week. Also, I’m really enjoying writing it! :)
WORD COUNT: 4320