I previously worked as a newspaper reporter - just the facts, ma'am. This is my first foray into any kind of creative writing. Criticism is WELCOMED. I'm particularly concerned about the pacing of the story - please let me know if it starts to draaaaag.
There it was. Wrenfield Hall.
The small, cloaked figure stopped as she rounded the bend in the road and caught first sight of the stone country house, standing imposingly large and dark in the waning light. It was near nightfall and the two-mile walk from the village seemed too short. Could she already be there?
The girl resumed her walk, her heart minutely heavier with every step. Rock crunched underfoot as a lonely wind suddenly flattened her cloak against her back and legs, propelling her forward. The early September day had been warm but the night had turned chill and held the promise of colder nights still.
As the distance to the great house shortened, the girl lifted her chin, straightened her shoulders and ascended the stairs to the great front entrance.
Edward Masen tossed the small leather-bound volume on the wooden table at the side of his gold colored wing chair and stood up, a picture of restlessness and frustration. He approached the large fireplace in which a fire burned brightly in the richly appointed room. He loved this room, with its scarlet walls and deep walnut wainscoting. It was his favorite room for after dinner reading, letter writing and reflection.
But tonight, Edward found it hard to concentrate. His earlier conversation with his younger brother, James, weighed heavily on his mind. The solution James had proposed was distasteful to Edward, but he was not in a good position to bargain.
Edward shook his head, as if to clear his mind. He crossed the room, poured himself another scotch and returned to the warmth of the fireplace. The flickering light highlighted the tall man's slender yet muscular frame and threw golden light on his defined cheekbones and furrowed brow. A lock of his unruly bronze hair fell on his forehead and he absentmindedly raked it out of the way. He stood, again lost in thought as he heard the efficient click clack of footsteps in the great entrance hall, just outside the open door. A moment later, the latch opened and the front door groaned as it swung open.
"Miss Swan?" inquired a clipped voice.
"Yes ma'am," came the reply, almost too soft to be heard.
"In future, do not use the front entrance. Go around back to the servant's entrance."
"Pardon me," came the soft voice again. "I didn't know."
"You'll learn," the voice said. "Follow me."
Two sets of footsteps crossed back through the great marble hall with its checkerboard floor. Portraits of generations of Masens stared down at the new arrival from their lofty spots on the walls.
Absently, Edward lifted his eyes from the orange flames to observe the two figures walking hurriedly through the hall. His housekeeper, Mrs. Mallory, stout and stern with a ring of keys at her hip strode along. As he watched with disinterest, the smaller dark figure who followed along, clutching a small black case, turned her head to look into the warm and glowing room.
Two dark eyes stood out brightly in her small pale face and her red lips were pressed together as if to keep some emotion under control.
Edward's green eyes narrowed slightly and his head tilted a fraction. Who? he wondered. Oh, yes, Mrs. Mallory mentioned a new housemaid.
The sound of footsteps echoed and disappeared as the two women exited the hall. Edward returned his attention to his glass, threw the amber liquid down his throat and set down the heavy glass.
Isabella Swan followed Mrs. Mallory and her flickering lamp through a long corridor lined with rich paintings and tapestries, broken by the occasional door. Bella imagined she would soon become familiar with what lay behind those doors…the floors that would need scrubbing, the mantles that would need dusting, the windows that would need washing…she sighed.
Down a flight of stairs and through another corridor, plain now, not like the hall upstairs. This was clearly the domain of those who hauled buckets of coal and cleared breakfast dishes.
Soon Mrs. Mallory turned into a doorway, indicating Bella should follow. Inside was a large room with long wooden tables on which stood large knife blocks and baskets, the kind used for gathering carrots and potatoes, apples and pears. Two large brick ovens took up the entirety of the opposite wall and dozens of copper pots and pans hung from racks, gleaming in the firelight.
"Well!" a cheery voice called from behind Bella and Mrs. Mallory. "Who do we have here?"
Bella turned to see a small, softly rounded woman with bright dancing eyes. Her smile was punctuated at either end by round, rosy cheeks.
"Miss Isabella Swan. New housemaid," said Mrs. Mallory "Feed her if she needs it. I'll be back shortly to show her to her room." She turned and left.
"I'm Mrs. Cope," the woman said. "Hungry, dear?" and she bustled off without waiting for an answer.
Bella stood, her black case at her feet, uncertain if she should sit or remain standing. She decided on standing, but began removing her bonnet.
"What a fine day, wouldn't you say, Miss Swan? Oh, that sky was so blue! Thomas - he's the gardener – has just started the apple harvest and there's not much more I love in the world than a crisp new apple under a bright September sky! Then of course we'll have apple dumplings and sauces and puddings – oh I love autumn! Of course the nights get cold but with a warm cover they can be quite cozy and pleasant, I think. Don't you?"
Mrs. Cope turned to Bella, plate in hand, with an expectant smile.
"Well? Sit down, dear, over there by the fire and tell me all about yourself."
Bella took the plate of bread and cheese and sat down where indicated, on a wooden stool worn smooth by years of use. Mrs. Cope settled down in a rocking chair and took knitting out of a basket on the floor.
"Who are you? Who are your people? Are you a local girl or have you come from away?"
Bella took a bite of cheese and chewed slowly. Firelight flickered on her face. After a moment she spoke.
"I come from the village. My father was Constable Charles Swan."
Understanding and sympathy crossed Mrs. Cope's face and she slowly lowered her knitting to her lap.
"Oh, dear…I was so sorry to hear about your father. He was a fine man. I met him just a few times and he left a good impression. Fair, he was, and just."
Bella nodded. The dull ache in her heart that had been there for the last month since her father died sharpened to pain as she thought of her dear, quiet father…
Mrs. Cope sighed and looked at Bella full in the face. She gave a small smile and reached over to pat her hand.
"Well. We're glad to have you, anyway. Mrs. Mallory has been having a right terrible time finding another proper housemaid and everyone worked so hard last week when the Cullens were visiting. Thankfully they've all gone back to London, as has Mr. James, and we can catch our breath. You'll be able to ease into things a bit."
Bella nodded. She didn't know if she should respond more, but Mrs. Cope hardly noticed as she continued.
"It's just Mr. Edward here now. He likes it here in the country better and he'll stay for some time now, likely."
"Is that Lord Masen? Did I see him in the front room?" asked Bella. She blushed slightly, embarrassed that his piercing eyes had been at the forefront of her mind for the last twenty minutes.
"Oh yes. Though I have a hard time thinking of him as 'Lord Masen.' I've known him since he was three years old! That was 25 years ago, when I first started as a scullery maid here at Wrenfield Hall. Been head cook here now for 15 years," she said with satisfaction. "My Joseph has been here 30 years. He works in the stables – the groom."
"Yes, years ago this house was full of activity! When both James and Edward were boys and their cousins Emmett and Alice would come to stay, we could hardly keep up with them! Food at all hours, running and shrieking through the halls, games in the gardens, picnics…"
Mrs. Cope trailed off. She gave a sad smile and little shrug.
"Oh well. No matter. I'm just pleased to have Edward here as often as possible, and he's always so much happier when the Cullens come to stay. Now James…"
She shook her head, then smiled brightly at Bella.
"Had enough? Alright then, let me take your plate."
Bella surrendered her thick crockery plate and stifled a yawn.
"I hear Mrs. Mallory coming now, dear. Look smart and get straight to bed. Morning comes quickly!"
Morning did come quickly. Bella felt she had scarcely closed her eyes when she heard a sharp rap on her door.
"Bella! Breakfast in fifteen minutes!" Mrs. Mallory called and clipped away down the hall.
Bella raised her sleepy head, her dark hair a curtain around her face. She groaned and let her head fall back down to the pillow.
Could she really be here? Could she really have left her own cozy home in St. Mary's village, the only home she had ever known?
Really, Bella had no choice. After the death of her father, it was either leave her home or accept the marriage offer of her second cousin, Michael Newton. She shuddered at the thought of Newton. He showed up, days after her father's death, ready to claim the house as his own. Legally, he could. Bella was a woman and, since her father had not specifically left the house to her in a will (he had in fact left no will – his death came unexpectedly), it went to the next closest living male relative. Newton.
Newton made what he thought was a generous offer – marry him and she could stay in the house as long as she liked. But Bella hadn't been tempted, not even for a
moment. His eager smile and his overhelpfulness coupled with the way he looked at her whenever they happened to be alone made her want to run screaming to the woods. The thought of sharing a life with him, least of all a bed, covered her with a feeling of panic and suffocation. She had to find her own way.
And she would. Armed with a recommendation from her best friend Angela's father, Rev. Webber, she secured a position here at Wrenfield Hall. She would work hard and give her best to her employer until she decided what path to next take.
As she lay in bed, Bella wondered what the day held. Would she work alone would Mrs. Mallory pair her with another girl? Would she be able to keep upright until the end of the day? Work as a housemaid could be nearly intolerably exhausting.
Then, the thought of Lord Edward Masen crossed her mind. Somewhere, in this very house, he probably lay sleeping. Perhaps he lay sprawled out on a bed, linens twisted around his torso, hair tousled around his face, falling over his sleeping eyes as his lips parted and regular breath came in and out…
Ashamed of herself for imagining her employer thusly, Bella shot up out of bed and began her day.
By noon, Bella wondered if she had made a wrong choice. The Webbers had begged her to stay with them – they were practically like family to her, they reasoned, and her father would have wanted her to live with them in the village. Angela pleaded with her, tears in her eyes. But Bella remained unmoved. She wanted to – oh! how she wanted to! – but her pride would not let her. Besides, Angela was to be married in a month and planned to move to another village twenty miles away where her betrothed, a minister also, had a little church. Much as she loved Rev. and Mrs. Webber, she did not want to be a burden.
But had she stayed with the Webbers, Bella mused as she rubbed her shoulders, sore from four straight hours of washing impossibly tall windows, she probably wouldn't be so close to a complete breakdown. The work was hard and non-stop. Before the window washing was an hour of carrying heavy buckets of coal up stairs.
The only bright spot in the morning was her companion, a bright, friendly housemaid, Lizzie, who was assigned to help her learn her duties. Lizzie, a cheery girl with red curls and a round freckled face, was chatty, and in whispered tones filled her in on all the servant gossip.
As Lizzie guided her to the servant's dining room, Bella wondered aloud what the afternoon's chores would be.
"Don't you know, Bella?" laughed Lizzie. "Windows! We've done but twelve and there are near forty on the first floor alone!"
Bella groaned inwardly but would not think of complaining aloud. She gave Lizzie a small smile and sat down to her bowl of autumn stew.
Windows, windows, windows. Bella and Lizzie had moved on from the dining hall to the front drawing room, the room where she had seen Lord Masen the night before. As she walked in she got a small thrill from walking past the fireplace where he had stood and looked at her.
Stop it! she chided herself. Foolish girl! She silently ridiculed herself for having allowed herself even a moment's reflection on his appearance. She was a servant girl! Plain, penniless…she didn't even have a pretty way of speaking or girlish charms that might cause a man like Lord Masen to overlook her unexciting appearance. No, she was more likely to be overlooked entirely, she thought.
Bella shook her head and firmly told herself to spend her time thinking of something more worthy of her mind. She had a fine mind, and she knew it. That was one thing that Bella always stood confident in.
As she stood steadying the ladder while Lizzie carefully climbed, rag in one hand and bucket in the other, she slowly ran through the catalog of verse she had committed to memory until she came to one that pleased her, "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats.
"My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness, -
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease."
Carried away by the beauty of the poem, Bella was in her own silent reverie when suddenly Lizzie called down from the top of the window in a loud whisper "Bella! Look!"
Bella followed where Lizzie directed until her eyes rested on Lord Masen himself, riding easily up to Wrenfield Hall on a beautiful black horse. As he approached the great house, the horse slowed and he dismounted. Handing the reins to a young stable boy, Masen took off his black riding coat and untucked his white linen shirt. The sun shone bright and his forehead glistened with sweat as he ran his fingers through his messy hair. A glass of water was offered and accepted and Bella watched, open mouthed, as he drained the glass in one long drink, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
Then, as if he knew she was there, Lord Edward Masen turned directly to the window where Bella gaped and looked straight into her eyes.
Flushing a deep crimson, Bella turned away quickly, shaking the ladder on which Lizzie was precariously balanced.
"Bella!" cried Lizzie in a panicked voice.
"Oh! I'm sorry!" said Bella, apologetically and steadied the ladder.
Lizzie looked down and giggled at Bella.
"I know!" Lizzie said, indicating the space outside where Masen had stood.
But when Bella gathered the courage to surreptitiously glance out the window again, he was gone.
The next three days passed and Bella only caught one glimpse of Lord Masen from a distance as he crossed a hall from one room to another. He didn't look up and see her, and for that she was glad. She was hot and sweaty and awkwardly carrying a newly upholstered, heavy ottoman into a sitting room. Reaching her destination, she nearly dropped the ottoman on a thick carpet and flopped down on it to catch her breath.
Silly, silly girl! she once again lectured herself. Stop looking, stop thinking!
But that was easier said than done.
The bright kitchen fireplace illuminated the hoop that Bella held on her lap. In it was stretched a piece of cloth onto which she was carefully stitching tiny crosses that slowly formed the letters of a verse of scripture:
"Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another."
It was to be a wedding present for Angela and Benjamin and Bella had only three weeks left to complete it.
"Really, what was Mrs. Mallory thinking?" complained Lizzie to her companions. "It's just not possible to wax the entire hallway in one afternoon and if anyone walks on it too soon it will ruin the finish!"
Mrs. Cope sighed. "Now Lizzie, just keep your head. The last thing you need is to call attention to yourself. Mrs. Mallory is a fine housekeeper but her temper is nothing to meddle with."
"I know," said Lizzie in a resigned voice. "I just can't help but think it's unfair to put all that on Bella, as new as she is! It's hard enough for someone who is experienced to get it all done, let alone one who is still learning!"
"It's fine, really," said Bella, giving Lizzie a grateful look. "I need to get faster and Mrs. Mallory's frosty stare is as good a motivation as any."
Mrs. Cope smiled at the two young women. She had so enjoyed their company in the kitchen this past week. The evenings had been spent in friendly banter and needlework sharing. Lizzie supplied most of the conversation while Bella smiled and listened, occasionally offering a succinct observation or appropriate remark. Her kind and careful manner reminded Mrs. Cope of someone but she could not settle her mind on whom.
"Tea, anyone?" she asked, laying down her knitting and rising to her feet.
"Yes, please," both young women said in unison, then turned and laughed at each other.
For a moment the kitchen was silent as one dark, smooth head and one curly, red head bent over their handiwork. Mrs. Cope busied herself at the other end of the kitchen with pouring three steaming cups of tea as the door to the kitchen swung open.
"Nanny - how are you?" said a deep, quiet voice. Bella's head snapped up as Lord Masen approached Mrs. Cope.
"Well! Mr. Edward! I haven't seen you in here in some time!" beamed a pleased Mrs. Cope as she smoothed out her apron. She loved it when he used his childhood nickname for her. It brought back memories of all those years when the growing boy would dash into the kitchen for a piece of cheese or slice of pie. "What can I get you?"
Masen leaned against one of the long wooden tables and selected a red apple from a basket that sat upon it. "This might do it," he said. "I just wanted a little something." He gave Mrs. Cope a small smile and took a large bite of the apple.
"How is your son?" he asked, when he had swallowed.
"Oh, he's fine!" Mrs. Cope answered. "He's got a little medical office over in Goudhurst and Julia is expecting their second baby. We all hope it's a girl this time but if we have another boy like little Peter that will suit us fine, too!"
"Please give him my regards next time you see him," said Masen easily, taking another bite of apple.
"Oh I surely will, Mr. Edward!"
Just then Masen noticed the three cups of tea that Mrs. Cope was preparing. He stood up straight and turned around to face the fireplace, seeing for the first time the two young women by the fireplace. Bella and Lizzie stood.
"Lord Masen, this is Lizzie Reed, who's been with us for some time, you may recognize her, and Bella Swan who just started this week," said Mrs. Cope.
Bella drew in a breath as he looked at her, a quick glance up and down the length of her.
Masen set the apple down and made his way around the table to approach the fireplace.
"How are you finding Wrenfield Hall?," he asked Bella in that velvet voice that made her heart jump a little.
Bella gave a small curtsey.
"Fine, sir," Bella answered
"Good," said Masen. He looked at her again, as if he was trying to figure something out, then gave a small shake of his head.
"Needlepoint?" he asked, indicating the hoop in Bella's hand. "May I see?"
Wordlessly, Bella handed it over. He took the hoop in his long, slender hands and traced a finger over the words.
"That was my mother's favorite scripture," he said quietly. He looked up, and with the briefest of smiles, handed the hoop back to Bella.
As Bella reached out to take it, the tips of her fingers gently brushed the backs of his, and she nearly gasped. A charge surged up her fingers, through her hand and into her forearm as their flesh touched.
Masen pulled his hand back quickly, a strange look on his face. He frowned slightly as he looked at Bella, then down to her hand, now at her side with the hoop gripped tightly, and back up to her face.
A dark look passed over his face. He quickly nodded his head at each of the three women in the room and swiftly turned and left.
"Well!" said Mrs. Cope, a little uncertainly. "Well!" She filled a tray with the three cups of tea and came back over by the fire.
Bella sat down heavily, a slightly confused look on her face. After a moment she picked up her needle and with unsteady fingers stitched a small, careful X in the fabric.
Lizzie looked from one woman to the other.
"He didn't even ask to see mine!" she said with a good-natured whine.
Edward lay in bed some hours later, fingers laced behind his head. It was all wrong. Yes, he had noticed her. Yes, he had thought about her a few times, perhaps while eating his breakfast or while riding down one of his favorite trails. But he worried little. It wasn't the first time he had noticed a pretty servant girl. There had even been a time or two, in his youth, when he had convinced a maid to spend a moment around a hidden corner with him. James had been even more aggressive – he was lucky there were no lasting consequences of his indiscretions in the form of wailing babies.
But this was different. The shock that had passed between them startled him, confused him. He couldn't be sure, but he thought she had felt it, too. The look on her face suggested so.
He was in no position to feel anything of this sort for anyone – except one specific person. And that person was most certainly not a lowly housemaid, sitting by a kitchen fire, needlework in hand, dark, intelligent eyes burning as they looked at him, porcelain skin with a slight flush high in the cheeks, dark hair shining…
Stop! he growled to himself. He pulled the pillow from behind his head, boxed it forcefully and slammed it down to the bed again. He shifted, punched the side of the pillow to reshape it under his head and closed his eyes, willing himself to go to sleep.
Bella lay perfectly still in her narrow bed, hands folded calmly over her ribcage. To an outside observer, she was the picture of serenity.
But inside, her thoughts raced, unfocused and wild.
Slowly, her mind stilled until she finally drifted off to sleep, with one singular thought that had sifted itself apart from the rest.