Chapter 3 - "River Cottage"
Benjamin Jameson had spent the whole morning wondering when and how he was going to catch Lady Catherine alone so he could discuss the problem with the attic room with her, without anyone else overhearing.
His dilemma had been so overwhelming that even his Lordship had commented that he seemed distracted as he prepared his clothing that morning. And that was before he almost dropped the porridge tray as he made his way to the dining room, and then when Lady Catherine walked into the room to join her husband for breakfast, Jameson’s head spun with anxiety so much he almost spilled hot tea in his Lordship’s lap, so jagged were his nerves.
Later that morning, after overseeing the clearance of the dining room, preparing his Lordship’s wardrobe for the remainder of the day and consulting with his Press Secretary about his upcoming travels, Jameson managed to organise a couple of hours free. On the pretence that he wanted to advise Lady Catherine of her husband’s travel plans he made his way to her rooms. Tiggy Carter was just leaving her sitting room as he, uncharacteristically, burst in through the door. Taken aback by his lack of manners Tiggy raised a disapproving eyebrow as she pushed past him on her way out. Jameson wiped sweat from his brow. His heart was pounding heavily in his chest. How would Lady Catherine react when he broke the news that her daughter was ensconced in the old attic upstairs? Worried that he might have made a mistake hiding the girl away as he had, he froze when she turned to greet him with such a naturally genuine smile. His hesitation confused her and a curious frown made him realise there was no going back now, he had to tell her the truth.
Might she have a moment to discuss a very delicate matter with him that was not for anyone else’s ears, he’d queried. Given their unspoken history, Lady Catherine considered Jameson to be one of her dearest friends and always had time for him though today she was disturbed to see him looking so uncomfortable. Worried that he might be ailing some serious health condition she closed her sitting room door and invited him to take a seat with her by the window. As she sat herself opposite him she noticed how his hands were wringing a handkerchief in his fingers. She placed a comforting hand over his and told him not to worry as there was nothing that they couldn’t deal with together. “I hope you still believe that to be true when you hear what I have to tell you” he warned as he began to relay the events of the previous night and the predicament they faced in the cold light of the morning.
“We had a visitor last night, Ma’am. A young girl arrived, asking for Tiggy - Tiggy by name, Ma’am, she didn’t ask for Mrs Carter, as I would have expected” he emphasised. Lady Catherine’s expression was one of interested curiosity as he continued. “She had in her possession a letter which she gave to Mrs Cater but after reading it, Mrs Carter gave it back and told the girl to leave”.
“and did she go?” Lady Catherine asked.
“She was going, Ma’am, but this is where I must admit to my secretive behaviour. The young girl looked so broken, Ma’am, and there was something else, another reason why I could not stand by and see her tossed out onto the streets at that time of night so, I’m afraid to say that without Mrs Carter’s knowledge, I installed her into the old attic at the back of the house for the night where I knew she would be safe until I could work out how we might be able to help her”. Lady Catherine paused, taking in the information Jameson had just revealed.
“Are you telling me this young girl is still here, in this house?” she asked. “
Yes, Ma’am” he replied.
“And what are you proposing to do with her?” she queried.
“Well, that’s just it Ma’am. That is what I needed to talk to you about. You see, she gave us some other information last night, too, some sad news. She told us that her mother had just died. I was stunned when I heard the news and when you hear who it was you will understand why I did what I did, and why this is such a dilemma that needs to be handled so delicately”.
Lady Catherine stood from her chair and nonchalantly peered out of the window at the gardener as he set about cutting back the climbing rose trees beside the Orangery. “That’s very sad, I’m sure, but you seem to be implying that there is something more to this story, so please, just spit it out Jameson, who is this person that has you in such a tizz”.
“Her mother was someone we both knew and loved very dearly, Ma’am. Her mother was Polly O’Brady. I’m afraid Polly is dead. The girl’s name is Katy”. He stopped speaking and waited for the relevance of the news to sink in.
Lady Catherine stopped still. Polly was dead! Her head whipped round to look at Jameson as the realisation of the girl’s identity dawned on her. Shocked, she reached out for the arm of the chair and lowered herself back into her seat. She stared directly into Jameson’s eyes, seeking confirmation of what she already knew.
“My dear Polly is dead?” she asked.
“And her daughter is here? Katy is here?”
“Yes” “My Katy is here?” she ventured cautiously.
Silence ensued as the girl’s estranged mother began to make sense of the fact that the baby she had so reluctantly given up so long ago was back and was hidden away here, in her house. Her mind raced with a million questions and she began to shake.
“I must see her”.
“No, wait”, Jameson stopped her train of thought. Now it was his turn to place his hand over hers and attempt to reassure her everything would be OK. He cautioned that the matter had to be dealt with properly from the outset, because it was such a delicate situation there was no room for error. They needed to think carefully before they took their next step. Once she met the girl, their connection would be obvious and the girl would have lots of questions and possibly expectations. After a little thought, she agreed that Jameson was right. She needed to be ready to explain everything to this young girl, who was her daughter. Clearly, the girl needed them or she would not have come. Obviously, she could not and would not, abandon her again but the girl would want to know what was going to happen to her and they needed to have a plan, something to reassure her with.
Her mind had cast back 15 years to the day she had given Polly the letter, the promise that she would always be there for her and the child, should they ever need her. And now, poor Polly was dead and the child, now most likely all grown up, was here with the very letter in hand that she had written and handed over herself.
Of course her promise would be fulfilled. This girl was her own child, her own flesh and blood, and though she was not yet aware of it, she would soon realise that she was the most important thing in Lady Catherine’s life. She had never forgotten her, not for a single day. Every day of the last 15 years Lady Catherine’s life had been tinged with regret and an underlying sadness that she had been forced to give up her own baby. Every day she had imagined what she would be doing, what she might look like, if she was a happy and healthy child. When she and Polly parted and went separate ways that day, not only had she lost her child, she had lost Polly, too, her maid but also her dearest friend, who had been her closest confidante for so many years.
After a moment of reflection, Lady Catherine shook her head and decided that the situation that she now found herself in was a situation that she had secretly hoped would surface sooner or later. But this time she could deal with it more positively. This time, things would be different. She would not turn her back on her daughter again. This time she would keep her close so she could take care of her herself.
Jameson was relieved at his Mistresses reaction and felt reassured that he had made the right decision in that moment the previous night. But he saw the excitement building in Lady Catherine’s eyes and though 15 years had passed, the threat of the girl’s existence remained the same now as it had done then. Though he too, wanted to celebrate the girl’s return and welcome her into the fold, he knew he was going to have to keep her mother’s feet firmly on the ground.
He agreed that they should try to find some way to keep the girl at the castle but, he respectfully reminded her, because his Lordship could never find out who she really was they needed to work out what to do with her.
Lady Catherine was gazing out of the window beyond the Orangery, towards the stable yard, her memory casting back to that February night, long ago, when she had spent a few wonderful hours in the cover of darkness there, in the arms of her lover. Now, in the morning daylight, she watched her stepson Simon as he lead one of the new mares out towards the exercise yard.
She had a suggestion, Katy could work with Simon. He was always complaining that he didn’t have enough staff in the yard. Jameson agreed. Yes, that would work but where would she live? She couldn’t stay in the house, how would they explain that to His Lordship? Lady Catherine contemplated the problem and realised it was going to take some deeper thought and planning. She rang the bell for Tiggy and ordered tea for two. A few minutes later Tiggy returned with a tray and placed it on a table between the two armchairs, her disapproving glance at Jameson was met with a polite nod. As Jameson poured the steaming brew into the two china cups he remembered the little cottage by the stream at the back of the north wood. It would need tidying up but it should work well, being hidden away as it was. Lady Catherine agreed that it was perfect.
The midday sun was now blazing down on the castle and Jameson was concerned that he needed to get back to Katy and check she was OK. Lady Catherine was keen to join him but he advised against it.
“May I suggest that we just take it one step at a time, Ma’am, after all, Katy has just lost her mother and for all we know she might not be aware of you. Damaging the memory of her mother might be too much for her to bear, given her current vulnerability” he suggested.
Of course, Lady Catherine agreed, he was right. She had waited 15 years for this day, she could wait a little while longer.
Jameson promised to look after Katy and keep her Ladyship informed of where she was. He thanked Lady Catherine for her understanding and took his leave.
Katy had spent the morning waiting, waiting for Jameson to return and waiting for an explanation of why the woman in the picture looked so much like herself. When the sun was high in the sky, the creaky door opened and Jameson finally entered the room bearing a tray of sandwiches and tea. Katy’s stomach suddenly rumbled, she hadn’t eaten since the previous day and she realised she was now feeling sick with hunger. She thanked the butler for his kindness as he laid the tray on a table in the middle of the room.
Jameson watched as Katy lifted a ham sandwich from the plate and took a hungry bite from it. He explained to her that he had found a little cottage she could stay in for now and he was sure he would be able to find work for her, here at the castle. Katy’s eyes filled with tears and a huge weight lifted off her shoulders. She was grateful but still curious. She showed the picture to Jameson and asked him if he saw the resemblance between herself and the character in the portrait. Jameson smiled sympathetically. “I can see how you would think that and you never know, one day you might find out there is a connection” he teased “but for now, eat up your lunch and I will take you over to the cottage”.
In a haste to leave the confines of the dusty room Katy immediately rose from the table holding one sandwich between her teeth and another in one hand. She picked up her mother’s picture from beside her temporary bed and returned it to her small brown suitcase then closed the lid, locked it and lifted it from the bed, mumbling through the bread in her mouth that she was ready to go. Jameson laughed and took the suitcase from her.
“Quietly now” he advised “I’ll just check the way is clear”. Katy followed the butler down the back stairs and out into the brightness of the day. They set off at a steady pace, around the back of the house, behind the stables, through a field of grazing horses and deep into a wood where an overgrown footpath led the way to a stream and what looked like the derelict remains of an old cottage.
“This is it” Jameson announced, almost apologetically, as he opened an old wooden door and led her into the tiny cottage. Inside, the single downstairs room was full of dust and cobwebs. A small amount of light broke through three dirty windows. At one end of the room a stone fireplace framed a once-blackened hearth with a cast iron pot to the side, two moth-bitten armchairs sat on either side of the fireplace. An old, battered, wooden table sat in the centre of the room with two wooden stools, one which clearly had a broken leg. There was a small cupboard built into the wall opposite the fire and a bigger cupboard at the other end of the room, that Katy suspected might be the pantry. Beyond the pantry, a stone sink and pump tap stood below one of the windows with another table beside it with shelving above. The remaining contents of the kitchen end of the room consisted of a wash tub with dolly stick and an old mop and bucket. The back door of the cottage led out towards the stream where a wooden shed housed a privy. There was no running water but there was a basic irrigation system, rigged from the stream that fed water directly into the kitchen tap. Two oil lamps hung from the ceiling, one at each end of the room and a dirty clip-mat rug adorned the floor between the armchairs.
It really was the most basic of properties, dark, dirty, old and broken and the smell of mould and vegetation filled the room. There was no wallpaper on the walls, or even plaster, just bare bricks with heavy wooden beams stretching across the ceiling and the raggy remnants of old curtains hung from the windows.
“There’s a bed upstairs, the staircase is through the door in the corner there” he indicated over to what Katy had thought was a built-in cupboard on the wall opposite the fire. The bottom of the door stood a good foot from the ground.
She opened the door and ventured up the stone staircase into a single room with a window at one end. A stained mattress sat on top of a large wooden bedstead. The only other furnishings in the room were a dilapidated wash stand and another dusty clip-mat on the floor by the bed. But on top of the wash stand Katy saw the most beautiful, large china pitcher and bowl. She leaned down to look out of the low window, rubbing the dust from the pane of glass to see the view back up the footpath to the wood. It was the most beautiful little cottage she had ever seen.
“You have the basics of everything you need here but as you can see, it does need a bit of a clean-up. I’ll see if I can get one of the stable lads to come over and give you a hand with it. I’ll be back later with some laundry and some supplies for you but in the meantime, you’d best set to with the bucket and mop that should be just beside the back door”.
Expecting the girl to be horrified by the state of the place, Jameson was surprised to see the excitement in her eyes.
“My own cottage?” she asked “really and truly?”
“Yes, your very own cottage, so mind you look after it”
“Oh I will, Mr Jameson, I promise I will look after it like it’s never been looked after before”.
Then just as suddenly as it came her smile was gone. “This is very kind of you but how am I going to pay for it, I have no money” she informed him.
“I know, and you’re not to worry. Her Ladyship knows all about you and she is going to find you a job so leave the worrying to me and you just get on with getting settled in. I’ll be back later”.
And with that, he was gone and she was alone in a dilapidated cottage by a stream in a wood. It was a long way from comfortable but it was hers and she was happy, well, as happy as she could be without her mother. She had no idea what the future would hold but for now, she had a roof over her head and she was safe. Although it didn’t seem so at the start, her mum had been right to send her to this place. Katy rolled up her sleeves and headed for the back door and the mop and bucket.
As Jameson headed back along the path through the woods, a pair of blue eyes watched him go. The eyes belonged to a blond haired young man, leading a horse by its reigns. This was a regular route of his and he loved it because it was deserted and peaceful. There hadn’t been anyone here for years and now suddenly, a stranger was inside the cottage, cleaning it up. He might have thought she was an intruder if he hadn’t seen Jameson showing her around and leaving her there. Simon knew everyone at the castle, his father was the Lord, but he didn’t know this girl. As Jameson disappeared out of sight, he tied his horse to a tree and quietly approached the cottage. Through the window he could see a young girl inside. She had filled the bucket from the stream and was brushing and washing the floors and walls of the old cottage. For a long while he just stood watching, entranced by her beauty. She looked familiar though he was sure he’d never seen her before. He smiled to himself as she started to hum and sing happily as she cleaned. Who was she?
Katy turned to clean the front of the room and saw the figure of a young man peering through the window, she screamed with fright and held up the mop like a weapon. Simon opened the door and held out a welcoming hand.
“Hello, I’m Simon Penderley, Lord Penderley’s son and who might you be?” he asked.
Katy pulled the mop close to her and curtsied nervously.
“I’m Katy” she replied “Katy O’Brady. I’m supposed to be here, I’m not an intruder” she volunteered.
“Yes, I realise” he replied with a smile. “Well, I’m not sure who you are or why you are here but welcome, anyway, and please …” he indicated around the room “… don’t let me stop you, I’m just passing through, I walk my horse this way every day”.
Katy’s eyes lit up. A horse? In an instant, she had dropped her mop and dashed outside to find the horse. She approached it skilfully, held it by the bridle and ran her hand smoothly and confidently down the side of the horse’s face. The horse whinnied happily.
“You’re good with him. Have you handled horses before?” Simon asked.
“All the time. I used to ride when I was at school” she replied “the Master used to let me ride one of the horses from the stables at home. His name was Herbert and he was my best friend in the world”.
“This is Red Star. You can ride him if you want to”
He didn’t have to offer twice. He’d hardly finished saying the words before Katy had niftily leaped up onto Red Star’s back, taken the reigns and was riding him around the trees with confidence. Simon could see that the horse clearly liked her.
As she pulled the horse to a stop Simon stepped forward to help her dismount but she was down before he reached her. She handed over the reigns and he turned the horse ready to continue his trip through the woods.
“You’ve a good way with horses. Come along to the stables anytime. I’d be happy to show you around”.
“Thank you, I will” she called after him as he left.
As Katy went back inside the dusty old cottage she decided that today was a good day.