September 1920 - The Radley Estate, just outside Oxford in the United Kingdom
It was warm by the river that divided us from the town. It babbled and winked with tiny beaded bubbles as it tripped and fell over the rocks and stones and I liked the watch on its merry journey. That river is, of course, the Thames, but it seems so bizarre to think of such a little thing leading to London, but I suppose little things always start in places like Radley. Follow this river and you would end up in Oxford, keep following and you’ll end up in London.
As a child growing up but a mile from here, I always imagined that one day after the boat races some young academic would wash up on my parents’ estate and I would get to nurse him back to health only to find he had the physique of a greek god and the money and titles befitting a girl of my rank, which was most likely a better idea in theory than in practice, but then (perhaps even luckily) no academic ever did. But that was utterly fine by me, for soon I was not sitting by the Thames a mile south east, for I had found my perfect man in the form of Ainsley Legare and needed no more fantasies about rivers or gothic novels filled with terror and supernatural things that hide in the dark passages of old estates.
The Castle of Otranto - yes, that was a good one. So was The Romance of the Forest which I had only accessed by pretending my mother had written it, for before my marriage to Ainsley, I was Adelaide Radcliffe and my mother by some bizarre twist of fate had herself known as Anne Radcliffe, not the author herself, of course. She had never read any of her books, it was simply that for her, Annalisa was too many letters to write and so she had become known as Anne shortly before becoming a debutante or something of that sort. After some began to make the connection between her name and the author, she promptly attempted to make herself known as Anna, but in vain, for Anne had already stuck. My father knew her then. They never quite tell me how, but he did and they married in 1901 and I was born in 1902.
Last summer, that is to say, the summer that had just passed us by, was my first summer away from the Radcliffe Estate which did not particularly bother me as the Legare Estate was far bigger with better neoclassical architecture (more arches etc); yes, here we had the esclestiastical niche of neoclassical features. From the old tower on the grounds of the estate, if one looked hard enough, one could see both Oxford and the Radcliffe Estate like little tiny insignificant patches of grey and brown in a sea of green British landscape. It often made me smile to think that before, the cities, no one really noticed the countryside for its beauty, for it was not the countryside, it was simply England. I was half tempted to climb up there again, but there seemed no point.
I stood from my seated position by the river and stretched squinting a little into the distance towards the house itself which stood in all its grandeur in the late afternoon light. I caught sight of a little spec rearing towards me.
“Mistress!” it called. “Mistress!” The spec was waving its little arms as it grew closer. I thought to duck behind a magnolia tree, but I had definitely been spotted.
“Oh, Nell, it's you!” I called back, thankful that it was the one maid who was at least minorly helpful.
“Mistress, your husband is looking for you.”
“Oh, oh dear, well, you can be sure to tell him where to find me.” I smiled.
“No, no, his sister is arriving, she’s coming up the driveway now, they just opened the gates.” she said panicked.
“Ah, is it too late to say I’m ill?” I asked, laughing.
“Maybe a little.” she smiled.
“Ah well, it was worth a try, I’ll make my way towards the house for her horsiness’s arrival.”
“Very good.” Nell smiled. We had both encountered Ainsley’s sister before; she was a thoroughly annoying girl whose father (that is to say, Ainsley’s father) had attempted to marry off on many occasions to no avail and now she seemed to be an old maid, wandering the other (much bigger) estate owned by the Legare family. Having failed in his attempts, they began to attempt to palm her off on any available relatives for evenings and days, it seemed that tonight we were his latest victims.
I began back towards the house, shaking my head a little, knowing that this evening would be thoroughly irritating as Helena (Ainsley’s sister) would be sitting and talking and talking and talking and generally saying nothing while we were all expected to listen intently.
The walk back to the house, that inevitable stroll from my patch of grassy river bank to the colossal castle of what most called Radley Manor, was a long one; the grounds seemed to be talking so very loud and yet saying very little of any substance. Yes, the grounds around this part of the estate were vacuous, utterly, utterly vacuous if ancient lands can be considered devoid of meaning. They almost reminded me of Helena, ha! No, no, but on a serious note, as I approached the manor, I found my ears affronted by the most awful of sounds, it was as if out of the radio that man who had not been able to attend our wedding, Ainsley’s brother’s friend, the man I can never remember the name of when I am inclined to, had bought us for God knows what was screaming at us. Its shrill trilling was earsplitting and almost impossible to block out and yet no one seemed to be shutting the damn thing up. Yes, that was it; his name was Lawrence Walters. Lawrence’s radio sat in its usual forgotten place upon a Victorian boudoir chair of Ainsley’s mother’s along the edge of the conservatory attached to the side of the manor, acting as half overgrown greenhouse, the odd glass panel cracked by the spraying of the ivy roots and the odd cricket ball thrown in.
“Chester!” I shouted, hoping the groundsman would hear. “Chester!”
“Yes, Madam?” he replied almost instantly.
“Chester,” the sweaty little man toddled into view from behind a large fern.
“What is that awful racket?” I asked, half shouting over the noise.
“Its the radio madam.” he said matter of factly.
“I guessed, why does it sound so terrible?”
“Well, I think that is how it sounds,” he said.
“And people buy those things? God, turn it off.”
“Aw, I thought it might be good for after dinner tonight, you know, a little music.”
“You call that music? And no, after dinner, I’m going to fake a headache and get Helena to go home, she is too irritating for me” I asked in alarm.
“It's jazz!” He stated excitedly.
“Is it? Well it's awful, make it be quiet again.” and with that I left Chester and the awful shrieking of that awful wooden crested thing. I walked through the conservatory and into the main house with all its elaborate furnishings and found it alarmingly empty, no servants even, and as I found my way to the front double doors I could see why; every one of them was standing on ceremony on the stone steps outside. “What on earth?” I whispered to myself, seeing my husband standing with them. “Darling!” I called gaily “What’s all this?” I forced a vague smile knowing exactly what it was and, more irritatingly, why it was there. He didn’t reply, instead, I quickly stood beside him and repeated my question rather more softly.
“It's for my sister, you know she likes a little ceremony.” Ainsley whispered as if he were talking about a young child, pretending they couldn’t hear, some vague pretence of politeness or other such grace.
“She’s not even here, she’s late, as usual.”
“So were you.” Ainsley smiled. And with that, Helena Legare was late no longer, at least it seemed that something was arriving, wheeling up the tree coveted pathway of our drive.
“Don’t tell me she’s coming in one of those things.” I said.
“Yes,” he said, a little embarrassed “it does seem that my sister is coming in an automobile.”. The jet black vehicle halted abruptly just before crashing into the steps. Hurriedly, a man leapt from the front and opened a black door for Miss Helena, allowing her out, like a footman would, only this was decidedly not a coach.
She had been at our wedding, crying of course, but even in her crying she seemed utterly annoying for she cried almost loud enough to drown out the orchestra. Looking back, I don’t know why she did it; ha, so much for the benefit of hindsight, for it has shown me nothing of Helena that I did not already know. Even as she stepped from her automobile, the door opened by the ‘footman’ or whatever he was to be called, I saw all of Helena that there was see; arrogance, wealth and stupidity.
“Sister!” Ainsley welcomed her jovially.
“Ainsley.” she attempted a wonky curtsey, hoisting her scarlet skirt clumsily.
“I trust you had a pleasant journey.” he continued.
“Yes.” she replied, a little shakily before straightening up and taking overly large steps towards us.
“It was only a few miles, how unpleasant could it have been?” I laughed. Helena stood awkwardly beside me, facing me on the diagonal as she finished ascending the stone steps.
“Do come in,” Ainsley gestured to the wide double doors.
“I’ve never been here before.” she smiled, gazing around blankly.
“Really?” I asked surprised, for the Legares had owned the Radley Estate for generations.
“Such a strange twist of fate, isn't it? The youngest son takes up the estate that would usually have fallen to the eldest.” I laughed.
“Well Barrett was hardly going to inherit it.” he paused. “In any case, he has no need for it.” Ainsley led Helena through the vast stone hallway and into the dining room.
“Its set for the Empire.” she laughed, gazing over the silver cutlery laid out over the entire length of the rosewood dining table.
“Its how we like it.” I smiled.
“It must be lovely to be the mistress of a house like this.” she whispered, forcing a smile.
“It is.” I smiled.
“Yes, Adalaide and I have been settling in rather well here.” Ainsley remarked. “We have Nell, she acts as -”
“Oh!” Helena cut him off “Our Nell?”
“Yes.” he replied, “Oh, Nell was our wetnurse.”
“Wonderful,” I said, realising I would never again be able to look upon our matronly housekeeper without being reminded that Ainsley had once fed off her, like some kind of tiny vampire. That thought made me omit a little giggle. Helena sat down in the seat just down from the head of the table where Ainsley placed himself. I sat opposite her in my usual seat. “Have you read Dracula?” I asked.
“Is that a book of some kind?” she asked vaguely.
“No, it's a magazine.” I laughed. Ainsley shot me a displeased look.
“Helena, we haven’t seen you since the wedding, how have you been?” Ainsley asked hopefully.
“Not great, Ainsley, I - I” she stammered.
“Did you enjoy the London season?” I asked. Helena swallowed and looked away.
“Barrett visited us the other day - that is to say, father and I.” Helena smiled.
“Really? He’s back from Sheffield?” Ainsley said.
“Yes, I think he’s come back to see Lawrence mainly.”
“Or he’s come down for some fresh air; I have heard that those smoke towns up north have such awful air that tuberculosis is on the rise.” I said.
“He did say it was hard to breathe up there.” Helena said “I suppose he must be glad to return to the countryside.”
“We romanticise the countryside so much.” I laughed “It's such a quintessentially English thing to yearn for one’s countryside roots, is it not?”
“Lawrence longs for the countryside.” She continued. “I found a letter from him to Barrett; he sent it from Littlemore.”
“Lawrence is back in Littlemore.” Ainsley said, a distinctly depressed look falling across his face.
“Maybe he has tuberculosis.” Helena said.
“Oh I don’t think it's that.” I paused. “He’s been in and out of that hospital since the end of the war.”
“Yes, an old injury.” Ainsley said, waving the subject away.
“You could say that.” I said, looking away, for all of us at that empired table knew from what exactly Lawrence Walters suffered.
“And anyway, you must not read his letters.” Ainsley said.
“Oh I know, but it's hard; Lawrence has such beautiful handwriting.” she sighed, turning slightly to the crystalline window pane stained lightly with a rose the colour of wine which allowed her a glimpse over the manicured lawn. She placed her chin on her palm forlornly, gazing half wistfully, half melancholic.
“Here comes the rain.” I laughed, for as the skies darkened with the impending night, the greyish clouds finally broke, cascading thick, heavy rain out over Radley. The sound in the dining room was tumultuous; rain beat against the windows so hard that Helena screamed, causing Ainsley to hurriedly call for Nell to fetch her some milk and brandy to calm her. It didn’t do its job, or, rather, it did it a little too well for no sooner had she drank it she fainted and Chester had to be called in to carry her upstairs for some rest. I headed off into the conservatory for that was where one could hear the rain the loudest and I had no intention of secluding myself from the elements, unlike some.
I sat alone in the conservatory for a while (having carefully placed my chair away from the brackage in the roof), generally pondering an awful lot of things and occasionally allowing my eyes to flick to the radio, almost as if I was expecting it to spring to life upon my glance. I wondered what it would be like to be so hopelessly weak as Helena; unable to survive even a rainstorm without screaming and fainting. Indeed, in so many ways Helena was the perfect damsel in distress from some gothic novel. That thought made me laugh a little.
Not long after my laugh permeated the conservatory did Ainsley join me.
“I thought you might appreciate a light.” he said, raising the lanturn he carried a little, then placing it down on his mother’s old chair.
“Certainly.” I smiled “How is our Orphelia having been so affrighted?”
“Well, that’s the thing, Adelaide, I have been up there talking with her; she can’t go home.” he said, looking away.
“What do you mean? From a little fainting she can’t return to the Legare Estate?”
“No, I don’t mean that. Father, he,” Ainsley paused “He won’t let her return home.”
“What?” I asked in alarm.
“He has sent her away.”
“Why?” I shouted.
“Look, I don’t know. She has to stay here at least for the night until we can sort all of this out.”
“For the night only.” I said.
“She won’t interrupt us, my darling,” he smirked. “I mean, if she heard you moaning she would assume a ghost before she would assume… well, sex.”
“Oh Ainsley I don’t half want to punch you sometimes.” I laughed.
“Do it.” He laughed, “We can fight each other if you like.” and with that, he lifted me over his shoulder and slapped my thigh. I kicked him between his legs in return, causing him to drop me down on the floor before grabbing my hand and running with me down through the corridor that leads to the conservatory, past the dining room, past the drawing room and up the stairs towards our bed.