It is late afternoon when the steam engine finally whistles to a stop at the station in Bath. The shadows are long and the air is chilling down. All up and down the platform, carriage doors swing open and passengers alight. The air is full of cries for porters, news vendors hawking their papers and the occasional wail of child separated briefly from its mother.
Gabriella descends regally from her First Class coach and has no trouble attracting the attention of a platform porter. Her clothing and ticket promise a better tip than the families and business men traveling third class. The uniformed flunky collects her luggage into a wheeled cart, somewhat like a large, flat bottomed wheel-barrow, and pushes it ahead of her towards the exit. She gives over her ticket stub at the gate at the end of the platform, and suddenly she is in the vast hall of the station proper with a sea of busily hurrying commuters. She looks around, a bit lost at the commotion.
“Bunny! Bunny!” she hears her name called and sees a swish of elegant skirts. The crowd parts to let through her old school friend. Jane is an attractive woman, though not as lovely as Gabriella. She is fair where Gabby is dark, and not quite as tall. But both young ladies were raised to be poised and well-dressed for every occasion. In Jane’s case, the combination has won her a catch for a husband. Sir Brian Leatherby is tall, dark and handsome. He is a dozen years older than his wife, but still a man in the prime of his life. His estates are wealthy and he has brought Jane much happiness over the years they have been married, though the couple has not yet been blessed with children.
He takes charge of the situation, as men are wont to do, and guides their small party with the porter and his cart in tow, towards the large gate that opens on to the street beyond.
“We’ve brought the motor car,” says Jane excitedly, clinging to Gabby’s arm as they press through the crowd together. “So much more fun than the carriage. And oodles of room for us all.”
She looks up at Gabby and her features crinkle for a moment in the smile she remembers so well from school days of pranks and secret pantry raids.
“I’m so glad you’ve come, Bunny. The house is full of men – Brian’s friends and colleagues. They’ve made a discovery of something and everyone’s so excited about it. But the place is so dull without my own friends to keep me company. I’ve been lonely and dreading spending Christmas on my own. Now you’re here, and Eloise arrived last night. She’s a new friend I met in London last summer. You’ll like here. And the three of us can have such fun over the holidays.
“Do say you’ll stay with us until the New Year. I shan’t accept a refusal. I simply shan’t.”
Sir Brian oversees the loading of her luggage into the motor car, a gigantic horseless carriage of polished wood and gleaming brass piloted by a chauffeur in tall boots and a peaked cap. He tips the porter, hands the ladies up into the cabin and clambers inside himself. With a shifting of levers, a grinding of gears and a sudden lurch, the vehicle shoots forward onto the street. Horses shy away from it and pedestrians shake their fists as they are forced to step aside from the lumbering four-wheeled monster.
I am so happy the train ride was over and I am finally here with Jane and Brian. The car ride is so much fun and only the second time Ive ridden in one. While Brian loads my luggage, I whisper to Jane how handsome her husband is and that she is so lucky to have him.
Once they are out of town, the driver shifts gears again and now the motor car moves forward as fast as a running horse, bouncing over the rutted roads and making Jane laugh as she clings on to her friend for support. Sir Brian smiles indulgently at his wife and makes small talk about the weather and how well the harvest has been this year.
“Do you like to shoot, my dear?” he asks Gabriella as they come to the top a long hill and begin down on the other side into a picturesque green valley. “We have a partridge shoot planned for Boxing Day, and of course the hunt is on New Year’s Eve.”
We make small talk during the ride. I almost jump out of my skin when asked if I like to shoot. “Of course I like to shoot. Growing up as a girl, my father would take us duck hunting. It was an expensive sport, so it didnt happen often.” Sitting on the edge of my seat with excitment. “Id love to stay until New Years Eve for the hunt, but Im not sure I can. I have to get in contact with my publisher to make sure I can be afforded the time off. However, you both have me for Christmas.” I say with a smile. I lean over and hug Jane thanking her again for the invitation and how excited I was to change scenary.
Even as Gabriella responds to his question, she is astounded to see the Sir Brian leap to his feet inside the carriage and thrust his head through one of the open windows.
“There they! Those beggars! See them, Machin? See those thieving bastards?”
He is pointing at a group of swarthy looking ruffians leaning on a fence watching the motor car sail past. They are dressed in colorful motley and Gabriella realizes instantly that they must be Gypsies.
Sir Brian calls to his driver to stop the car, and the vehicle rocks to a halt as the athletic master leaps out of the door while they are still moving. Gabriella sees him pull a large pistol from his coat pocket – a Webley revolver she knows from her research into weapons of murder – and fire it over the heads of the Gypsies. They scatter and run in all directions as Sir Brian hurries up to the fence, firing all six rounds in a series of loud concussions. It does not seem to the novelists eye that he is aiming at the men, but it must be a terrifying sight to have this wild devil suddenly leap out of the car and try to kill them.
“We’d heard that there were Gypsies in the woods,” says Jane quietly. Her eyes are wide as saucers as she watches her husband firing his gun. “Brian says they are all thieves who steal our sheep, or whores who spread diseases among the village men. I rather like their clothes and those funny colorful wagons they live in.
Sir Brian has emptied his gun and returns slowly to the car now. Standing on the road, he speaks to the chauffeur and then to his wife.
“Go on ahead without me. I’m going to follow them, see if I can’t find out where they’re camp is. If I can catch up with them, I’ll have Machin and Dobbs round up some of the villagers and we’ll see them off tonight. Burn them out if have to.”
He waves the car on, and they start up again, rolling down the hill towards the Hall. Behind them Gabriella sees Sir Brian loading another six rounds from his pocket into his revolver.
When we stop to confront the Gypsies, Im a little taken back. Im not sure how to react when I see Brian so angry and aggressive towards those people. When he gets out of the car and shoots into the air, I yell his name. Fearing someone might get hurt. I realize Im the only one who is worried. Then I watch him fire the remaining bullets into the air and the Gypsies run into the forest.
“Are you sure we should leave him?” Watching him through the back window as we begin to drive away. I turn to Jane. “I dont think we should leave him alone.”
Sir Brian looked embarrassed at Gabriella’s obvious concern about the shooting, but he set his jaw and walked off reloading the gun anyway. It seemed to her that she heard him muttering something along the lines of “Meddlesome women! . . .” But she couldn’t be sure.
“I’m so sorry, Bunny, “said Jane.”He gets so angry about these Gypsies. Sometimes I think he’s almost afraid of them, but I do not think he will actually shoot one of them. He might rough them up a bit if he can find them, but he’s been looking for days now with no luck.
“Let’s just forget about him and get home. Have a nice cup of tea and meet my friend Eloise. He’ll be home in time for dinner and very apologetic – you’ll see.”
The car rolled on down the hill and turned in to the long driveway that lead up to Leatherby Hall. Just through the gate, behind a screen of ancient yew trees, Gabriella spotted an old chapel off to the right that looked disused. Jane noticed her glace and commented on the place.
“It’s been out of service for fifty years or more,” she said. “It used to be the Leatherby’s personal chapel, St. Martin’s, and many of the villagers attended Sunday services there. But there’s a story that the place is haunted and now no one goes there anymore. Brian has let his confederates use the place to store the findings from their dig. That’s what they’re all so excited about, traipsing mud in and out of the house every time they go down there to gloat over their finds. Nothing but little boys really.”
Sweeping on up the curved driveway, the motor carriage came in sight of the ancient Hall. Built originally in the time of Queen Elizabeth, the old stone building had mellowed with age and become part of the landscape, elegant, homey and dignified all in one with the feeling that behind each leaded glass window would be a comfortable room with a warm place by a cheery fire to settle in. Gabrielle felt the charm of the place settle on her as they clattered up to the front door and the butler steeped forward smartly to greet them and open the door.
“Welcome home, Lady Jane, Miss Middleton. Dobbs will take your bags, Miss. We’ve put you in the St. Ives Room, at Lady Jane’s suggestion. The upstairs maid is lighting the fires right now and there are fresh flowers as requested.”
Jane beamed at him and he smiled a little in return.
“This is Meadows, Gabby. He really is a treasure. Keeps our house running like clockwork so that I don’t have to do a thing.”
Meadows bows slightly in acknowledgement of the compliment and snaps his fingers. A handsome young man, dressed in the smart livery of a footman steps forward quickly and unloads Gabriella’s bags from the trunk strapped on to the back of the car. He whisks them around the side of the house and Jane leads the way inside through the front door, pointing out details of the garden and the architecture.
“You must be tired, my dear,” she says inside the front hall, two stories high decorated with racked guns and hunting trophies. “I’ll show you up to your room. The St. Ives room has its own bathroom attached. Brian had the plumbers in a year or two ago. You can wash up and have a rest if you like. We’ll have tea and sherry in the drawing room in half an hour, if that suits you?”
“Thanks so much Jane.” Stepping out of the car. ” Your home is simply beautiful. Maybe tomorrow you can take me through the garden for a closer look.” Walking past it to the front door. I dip in a poor effort to curtsey when I meet Meadows. Trying to be funny in an over polite way. I do notice the handsome man that takes my bags. As he carries them ahead of us, I give Jane a wide eyed smile and gesture towards the handsome man from behind. “You will definitely have to introduce me to him.” I whisper in her ear.
We walk up the flight of stair to the St Ives room. Following the young man and Jane into the room, I hole my hand over my mouth. “It’s absolutely breath taking Jane. Maybe I’ll stay forever.” I add with a laugh. I walking to the bathroom and notice the detail on the marble.
“If it’s alright with you, I would like some time to get cleaned up and rest. Could we say an hour? It’s been such a long trip. But then Id love to catch up in the drawing room. Sherry sounds lovely.”
After you both leave, I open my suitcase and find another change of clothes. I run the bath water and slide my shoes off. While waiting for the water to fill the tube, I slowly walk around the room inspecting my new surroundings. I take in the view from the windows and the details in the woodwork inside the room. When the bath is ready, I remove my clothes and put my hair up. I slide into the tube and relax. I close my eyes and and breath the steam in deeply. Within a few minutes, I find myself almost asleep. I quickly finish bathing, wrap a towel around me and move to the bed to lay down. Oh if I had the time to take a nap. I lay here for the remainder of the time, careful to fall asleep. I do want to ask Jane about the old church. How fun would that be to get a closer look.