by Lucy Barton
An aristocratic Frenchwoman's removal to England and the results.
|The steamer pulled into the quay at six o'clock in the evening one chilly winter's eve. Onboard as a passenger was Madame Raina Arronax, the widow of the late Monsieur Phillipe Arronax. who had been one of the French nobility until his tragic passing in a carriage accident. Madame Arronax was herself only half French, she had been born to a French father and an English mother.
As she disembarked onto the quay, a footman came to carry the trunks and load them into a carriage. Madame Arronax had inherited a country house that had once belonged to her mother's family. This aristocratic lady swept up the quay, looking elegant in the rich sable furs that kept her warm. A second carriage was hired for her own use. The luggage would follow in the other carriage.
Madame Arronax had travelled with two maids and the housekeeper for escort. The rest of the staff from her chateau outside of Paris had been paid off and dismissed. The two maids went with the luggage, and the housekeeper, Madame Dupont, accompanied her mistress in the other carriage.
"Sacre bleu, madame, I did not think it was this cold in England!" The housekeeper shivered and stuffed her hands further into her muff. The wind tossed the black ribbons of her bonnet as she entered the carriage. "Are we headed for a hotel, or straight for the chateau?"
"We go to the chateau, of course," answered Madame Arronax without hesitation. "Only, it's simply a cottage here, not a chateau. I remember going there once as a child. Only my grandpere was alive then. Grandmere had died before I was born. I remember the cottage was not very large, but it was large enough to hold two families, albeit snugly."
"Oui, madame. It must have been a nice time. I've never been to England but once, when I was newly employed by the older Monsieur Arronax. He had a business in London, I remember. Then you married his son, and of course, we all know the rest. Well, here we are, and it is good to be here, madame."
"Yes it is, Henrietta." Madame Arronax said nothing further as their carriage rumbled over first cobbled streets, then over slushy roads. The small fishing village gave way to open spaces, covered in snowy patches. The landscape was grey and grim, but for Raina Arronax, this was her home, or at least it would be her home.
The cottage they finally pulled in front of was indeed a smaller one, and the windows were darkened, save for two in the front of the house. A caretaker-gardener lived there, and he had lit a welcoming fire for the incoming resident of the cottage. "Aleheart Tavern" was carved onto a sign by the gate, and Madame Arronax gazed at it in disdain. Her heavy serge skirts swept over the door-step and she glanced around the room with some concern.
The cottage had been only just maintained, and sheets covered the furniture that was scattered about. The sheets, of stuff once white, were now a dingy grey. The floors were swept, but the staircase looked rickety. Madame Arronax set her hand-case onto a small table and called for the caretaker-gardener, Alan.
A lean man with a scarred face entered the room. It was impossible to determine his age with any certainity. He had a mop of grizzled grey hair and wore a tweed coat and cap, along with brown velvet knickers. He removed his cap and took on a respectable air.
"Hullo, Missus Arronax. There's a fire lit nice for ye. There's no cook here, but I tried my hand at a bit of something to eat. I hope it'll suit ye. Poached eggs and toast with tea, it is. I also got some smoked herring, if ye want some of that, too." Alan indicated a door just off the great room, and this turned out to be a small dining room. To be sure, six people would be a tight fit in this room. The paper on the walls was a rust-red colour, and the carpet was brown-and-gold. Madame Raina sat down and ate sufficient enough of the simple viands to please Alan. Afterward, she ascended the stairs to inspect the bedrooms.
There were four bedrooms, each was small and furnished sparingly. The master suite had a small library and a dressing room, making it the most luxurious. Downstairs came a noise of the two maids coming in with the luggage. Madame Raina rang the bell and the maids entered a few minutes later, carrying the smaller trunks with them.
"Set the trunks down. You two will share a room, pick one and make yourselves at home. Henrietta is downstairs with Alan, getting a list of agencies that have servants for hire. I'm afraid we have no cook. Melissa, you shall take over until we get a new cook. Evalina, you will continue your usual duties. That will be all for this evening."
Madame Raina removed the heavy veils and sank onto a chair. It had been a long and exacting day. Evalina remained with her mistress whilst Melissa scurried to find a suitable room. The prim maid hung up the bonnet and veils, along with the fur-trimmed cape. She laid out a night-dress and hung up others into the small wardrobe, then curtsied and departed.
Raina Seville had married Phillipe Arronax seven years previously, and was widowed two years ago in the spring. Monsieur Arronax had inherited a title and several small businesses within months of their marriage. Despite efforts, their marriage had been childless. Phillipe Arronax had died in an accident on a street at night, and his wife inherited a small but considerable fortune, enough to keep her in comfort all her days.
The inheritance of the English country house came as a slight shock to Madame Arronax. She had been out of touch with her English relations for some time. Her parents had both come from moderate families, but her father's relatives were rather distant, and her mother's people had perished over the years following an outbreak of cholera. They had slowly died off in the last twenty years or so. Only a handful of cousins remained.
Madame Arronax glanced around her small apartment. It was plainly furnished and the wall were papered with the same hideous paper as on the walls of the dining room. The old house had not been lived in for a number of years, and much of it was in a state of disrepair that was a sad sight to see. The young Frenchwoman pursed her lips and decided that something would be done starting as soon as the next day had arrived.