Read on for an exclusive extract of Heather Atkinson’s new book The Missing Girls of Alardyce House — out 15th June!
Alardyce village, just outside Edinburgh, Scotland – September 1878
Amy caught tantalising glimpses of Alardyce House as the carriage climbed the long, winding driveway – drab grey stone, dull windows, slate roof shiny with rain. The entire estate was as cheery as the cold, relentless drizzle. In her fragile, grief-stricken state she felt as if it were playing hide and seek with her behind the trees, refusing to reveal itself fully. The trees were dense and thick with red-gold leaves, so weighed down by the recent rain that they hung over the drive, scratching the top of the carriage with their gnarled limbs. Amy shivered as a sense of foreboding settled in the pit of her stomach.
Hot tears shone in her bright blue eyes, which burned with anxiety. She had hoped this place would be welcoming but already she felt as though it didn’t want her.
A turn in the drive brought them around the tree line and finally Alardyce House had nowhere left to hide. It was revealed to her in all its dreary, depressing glory. The house was large and – from what she’d already gathered – filled with all the modern comforts but it was just a square grey box. She was put in mind of a prison and shuddered.
Two figures stood in its doorway – a short, round man and a tall, slender lady, the latter standing as rigid as the pillar beside her. Amy hadn’t encountered her aunt and uncle in ten years, since she was seven years old, but she had the vague notion that he was boring and pompous and she haughty and cold.
Amy wiped her eyes on the backs of her gloved hands. As she was in mourning the only colour she was permitted to wear was black, which depressed her spirits even more. Refusing to show any weakness to these people who were nothing more than strangers, she tilted back her head and held herself proudly.
* * *
‘Amy’s gone through a terrible time of it lately so I want you to make her feel welcome,’ Sir Alfred Alardyce whispered to his wife, having to go up on tiptoes to reach her ear.
‘That girl has the devil in her,’ Lenora whispered back, eyeing the elegant, black-clad figure as she was helped down from the carriage by one of their footmen. ‘I can’t help but worry what we’re letting ourselves in for.’
‘It would be unchristian of us not to take her in – she’s just lost both parents.’
‘She’s of an age to marry. I shall set about finding her a husband as soon as possible,’ she replied with a cold smile.
‘Then I anticipate she will soon be settled,’ said Alfred. ‘But please remember she’s in mourning and can’t even think about marriage for a year.’
‘I haven’t forgotten,’ she said, her mind already mulling over ways she could get round that particular obstacle. A pair of blue eyes coyly swept up to them from beneath the black bonnet and Lenora felt nothing but loathing.
‘Amy, welcome to Alardyce,’ said Alfred amiably.
‘Thank you, Uncle, and thank you, Aunt Lenora,’ she replied. ‘I appreciate you having me to stay. These past few weeks have been awful and it’s comforting to be among family again.’
She said it very sweetly but Lenora’s jaw remained set; she was as yet unconvinced of her sincerity. She looked Amy up and down, assessing her suitability for the marriage market – thick chestnut hair coiled into a neat bun, creamy skin. Her waist was narrow but her breasts were unfashionably large. Lenora anticipated it wouldn’t be difficult to make a good match for her.
Alfred stepped aside to allow Amy to enter.
‘You must be parched after your long journey,’ he said with forced cheer. ‘You must take some tea.’
‘Thank you,’ replied Amy, removing her bonnet and handing it to a waiting footman. She was surprised by the number of servants lined up in the hallway – having three footmen wasn’t convenience, it was downright lavishness. Her uncle was rubbing the city’s nose in it that he was a wealthy man.
Also lined up were a dour woman dressed in grey, who Amy assumed was the housekeeper, a doddery old man dressed in a butler’s uniform and four young maids, all po-faced. She was very conscious of the portraits of forbidding ancestors staring at her from the dark walls. Amy felt centuries of disapproval pressing down on her.
A memory came upon her so suddenly she faltered. She was seven years old and she was walking down this very corridor with her mother and father, both young and beautiful and full of life. She hadn’t been scared then because they’d been with her, her mother’s gloved hand clasping her own. Amy was appalled when she thought she might actually start to cry in front of all these strangers.
‘Amy, are you well?’ said Alfred. ‘You’ve gone awfully pale.’
She snapped herself out of it. ‘I’m fine, just a little tired after the long journey,’ she replied, forcing a smile.
They entered the drawing room, which was a huge vulgar monstrosity, every available space stuffed with expensive, tasteless furniture and trinkets. Each painting hanging on the wall had been created by a master. The house had been commissioned by Sir Alfred after he’d made his fortune in industry. Despite his declaring himself a good Christian who preached abstinence, his home was a gaudy temple to wealth.
Two young men of approximately Amy’s own age rose to greet her. Both were tall and slender with dark hair and eyes and very pale skin, a striking combination. One was smiling and friendly, the other cold and arrogant, just like his mother.
‘Amy, these are my sons,’ introduced Alfred. ‘Henry, my eldest,’ he said, indicating the proud one.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ Amy said politely with a small dip.
Henry didn’t speak, confining himself to a stiff bow.
‘Lovely to meet you.’ Edward smiled, stepping forward and shaking her hand, making her smile back.
‘Edward, calm down,’ chided Lenora.
He rolled his eyes behind his mother’s back, broadening Amy’s smile.
She was instructed to sit on a hideously ornate suite alone while the rest of the family took the remaining seats, forming a semicircle, surrounding her. Amy was handed tea and cakes, which she nibbled at daintily, doing her best not to spill any crumbs.
There was an awkward silence followed by stilted conversation as everyone was so busy trying not to mention Amy’s recent loss that they couldn’t think of anything else to say. Her parents had both been lost after their ship went down in the Atlantic while returning from France a few weeks ago and now the Alardyces were the only family she had left in the world. A family of strangers, she thought miserably. How she wished she’d been permitted to remain in London where she’d been born and raised, where she had friends, but the terms of her father’s will dictated she was to come to Alardyce House should she lose both parents before she was married, a situation her father had never seriously considered might actually happen.
On the bright side, their gentle Scottish accents did provide some comfort. Her mother had been from Edinburgh, her father from London. They’d met when her father had come up north to do business with Alfred and he had fallen for her immediately. They’d married six months later and she’d moved down to London with him.
Amy liked Edward immediately; he was amiable and the only one who seemed comfortable talking to her. Henry was the handsomer of the two brothers, a striking-looking man with lovely brown eyes that glittered in the light. He remained quiet and sullen and stared at Amy as though she were a curiosity in a museum, his penetrating gaze making her intensely uncomfortable.
Her uncle was rather sweet in a bumbling sort of way but she despised her aunt immediately. She was proud and arrogant and her once renowned beauty was fading, turning her bitter. Amy had a large pair of breasts that not even the stiffest of corsets could conceal and Lenora kept looking at them disdainfully. Amy ignored the looks, but Henry’s brooding eyes kept shifting to her chest, making her furious. What right did he have to stare like that? Amy’s temper, always close to the surface – even more so since the death of her parents – snapped.
‘You must excuse me, Cousin Henry, if I’ve spilt something on myself,’ she said icily, making a pretence of wiping the front of her dress.
‘Spilt something?’ said Alfred, genuinely confused. ‘I see no spillage.’
‘Neither do I, Uncle, but I think it’s the only reason why Henry’s eyes must continually slip to my chest.’
Embarrassed silence filled the room. Henry’s white skin turned bright red and he looked away, eyes glimmering with suppressed anger while Edward sniggered.
Lenora was incensed, eyes flicking towards the two footmen standing sentry at the back of the room, gauging their reactions to this humiliation of the prince of the house. They were far too experienced to betray any emotion and continued to stare ahead in solemn silence. Lenora turned her attention back to this niece who she already loathed. ‘You must be mistaken Amy,’ she said, voice cold. ‘Henry was not looking your way, he was looking past you. As you’ve only just arrived we’ll forget all about your misguided comment but here at Alardyce House manners are never forgotten. Have I made myself clear?’
‘Yes, madam,’ said Amy, her cold hauteur matching Lenora’s own. ‘Forgive me if I caused any offence. It was not my intention.’
‘It’s up to Henry to forgive you, not I,’ she retorted, green eyes flashing.
Henry forced his gaze to meet Amy’s, humiliation and pride vying for supremacy. ‘There’s nothing to forgive, dear Cousin,’ he said magnanimously. ‘A simple misunderstanding on your part. Let’s not mention it again.’
His voice was smooth and deep and not at all unpleasant to Amy’s ears but eerily it was devoid of any emotion. Amy was acutely aware that she’d already made two enemies in this house. She’d only arrived an hour ago.
Desperately needing to escape, she got to her feet. ‘If you’ll excuse me, I would like to change.’
‘Ah yes, of course.’ Her uncle smiled, relieved. ‘Mrs Adams, the housekeeper, will show you to your room.’
Amy left the drawing room with an inward sigh of relief and followed the sour-faced woman upstairs.
‘The family wing is that way,’ said Mrs Adams, gesturing to the corridor leading to the left.
Amy started to turn that way, naturally expecting her room to be down there. Instead the housekeeper turned right and Amy had to hurry to catch up.
‘You’re down here, miss, in the guest wing.’
‘Guest wing?’ Amy frowned.
‘Lady Lenora thought it best you have privacy because Master Henry’s and Master Edward’s rooms are in the family wing. You have this whole corridor to yourself.’
Amy was both hurt and amused. Obviously her aunt and uncle had heard about the Mr Costigan scandal and assumed she was a whore who would try to seduce their innocent sons but it hurt that she was being treated as a guest rather than one of the family.
Her room was large and pretty, overlooking the gardens at the front of the house. Waiting for her was a bonny maid of eighteen arranging a vase of flowers on the windowsill. When Amy entered the room she turned to give her a curtsey.
‘And who are you?’ said Amy.
‘Nettie, miss. I’m your maid.’
The frail little blonde shifted uncomfortably beneath Amy’s assessing stare.
‘Nettie will take care of all your needs,’ said Mrs Adams before leaving. Amy surmised she was going back to her usual duty of haunting the house.
‘I’ve already unpacked your clothes, miss,’ said Nettie. ‘I didn’t want your dresses to crease.’
‘That’s very efficient of you, thank you. Please assist me to change.’
‘Yes, miss. I’ve laid out the Henrietta cloth dress.’
Amy stared at the depressing black garment. She’d have to wear hideous items like this for a full year. The heavy material only served as a reminder of her pain.
She unfastened the mourning brooch that was pinned to the front of her travelling dress containing locks of her mother’s plaited blonde hair. Both her parents’ bodies had been lost at sea but her mother had given her a lock of her hair when she was very young and placed it inside a locket. Amy had transferred it to the mourning brooch and wore it constantly. Her eyes stung as she gazed at it, running her thumbs over the glass casing before handing it to Nettie. ‘Pin that to the front of the dress and be very careful with it.’
‘I will, miss.’
Amy watched with approval as she pinned it respectfully to the dress before smoothing out the material.
‘Are you privy to all the downstairs gossip?’ said Amy as Nettie assisted her to change.
She flushed. ‘Well, I hear things, miss.’
Amy dipped into one of the compartments of her portmanteau to fish out a small velvet purse of monies, which she handed to her. ‘If you hear anything of interest, no matter how trivial, I would be grateful if you could relay it to me.’
Nettie peeked inside the purse and her eyes lit up. ‘Of course, miss.’
‘And we’ll keep this arrangement between ourselves?’
‘Of course, miss.’
‘You know, Nettie, I think you’ll prove to be a treasure.’ Amy smiled. She might just have found herself an ally in this awful house.
* * *
At dinner that evening Amy got a more accurate reading of what her extended family was like. She hadn’t had much to do with them before as her mother and her aunt had despised each other. Now Amy discovered why. Lenora was a spiteful, venomous banshee who behaved as though she were the man of the house, her uncle seemingly happy to bend to her stronger will. Amy knew her uncle and mother had been very close until Lenora came along.
Henry and Alfred were discussing politics in very serious tones while Lenora and Edward talked quietly together. That left Amy sitting alone at the bottom of the table with no one to talk to and a ton of grief bearing down on her. A veritable army of servants cleared away their plates, Amy’s meal hardly touched. In this house full of people she had never felt so alone.
Taking up the entire wall to her left was a portrait of the family – Alfred, Lenora and their sons – gathered together to listen to Alfred read from the Bible, suitably devout expressions on their faces. The artist must have been good because he’d managed to eradicate all trace of conceit from Lenora’s image.
It was Edward who distracted her with a lopsided grin. Concluding his hushed conversation with his mother, he said, ‘So, Amy, what’s London like?’
She sighed wistfully. ‘Loud, full of life, exciting.’
‘Decadent and amoral.’ Her uncle frowned.
‘No, not at all. There are wonderful museums, libraries and art galleries,’ she replied, eyes lighting up as she spoke about a place she loved.
‘And brothels and opium dens,’ said Lenora.
‘I’m sure there are but I can confidently say I never saw any.’
‘I say, how disappointing.’ Edward smiled.
‘Edward, I will not warn you again,’ said Lenora, making him sigh and fling himself back in his chair.
‘Amy, do you enjoy the theatre?’ Henry said pleasantly, surprising her.
‘Yes, very much. I used to go to the Adelphi and the Gaiety in the Strand every week.’
‘We do not approve of the theatre,’ said her uncle. ‘All those disreputable actors and actresses. It’s not a place for a person of proper moral character.’
Amy looked at Henry and wondered if he’d only asked her that question so she would incur her uncle’s disapproval but his expression was inscrutable.
Some impulse urged her to look up and she found herself staring at one of the footmen, really noticing him for the first time. He was tall, dark and handsome, which wasn’t a surprise as footmen were chosen for their good looks and strong builds. However this one had something extra that she couldn’t define, something that drew her. His mouth could be described as sulky and his eyes were so dark they were black, reflecting back the lamplight. Amy looked back down at her plate but, unable to help herself, she glanced up again and found he was looking directly at her. Amy couldn’t help but smile inwardly. This house wasn’t all bad.
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