She's in the sleepy village of Upper Wellsford (not Upper Slaughter, no matter what Cecilia thinks!)
from Chapter 2
Friday, 27 February
Herbert Pollard ran the Hook and Line Pub with a strict hand. From under thatchy brows threaded with more silver than his sandy hair, he stared at the small watercolor easel that Isabella had brought on the train. Beside it on the bar lay her sketchbook, sliding out of her artist’s tote, a leather satchel confiscated from Madoc. Isabella fished in her purse for the three envelopes sent from the dowager Lady Malvaise, introductory letters to Mr. Pollard and the prep school’s headmaster and young Edward Malvaise, the subject of her portrait.
“We don’t approve of the wild goings-on that painters do,” Mr. Pollard said heavily. “Specially American painters what call themselves artistes.”
“We run a nice establishment,” his wife interjected from the end of the bar where she worked on ledgers.
The whistle for the departing train blew.
Chilled from the late February wind, Isabella stopped hunting in her purse and turned to the satchel. “Of course not. I mean, I’m reassured that you don’t approve of wild goings-on. A woman alone—.” She trailed off, letting them complete the sentence with the clichéd responses. Her icy fingers finally felt the three letters forwarded from Lady Malvaise’s secretary-companion. She withdrew them and removed the red cord that bound them. Mr. Pollard’s letter was on the bottom. Fighting shivers from her walk from the train station, she handed over his. “Did you receive the large easel and canvas and box that I sent? Those were supposed to arrive this morning.”
He stared at the letter as if he didn’t know what to do with it. “Aye, brought to us this morning they were. I put them in the room you hired.”
Isabella winced, thinking of small rooms offered by pubs and the size of the easel and the canvas. The box, the size of a milk crate, had her paints and brushes and turpentine and palette. Would the room hold her?
“What’s in this?” He tapped the envelope on the bar.
“Lady Malvaise has promised to pay for my room and board. She writes of the arrangements for you to draw the funds.” At least, that was the agreement in her own letter from the secretary. She hadn’t opened any letter but her own. “I don’t know all the particulars. Will there be a problem with my staying the length of time that I mentioned in my letter of the fifth?”
“No, no problem.”
His wife left her stool and came behind the bar to take the letter her husband handed her. “When you wrote, we thought you were a momma worried about her son. His first time away from home and all that. We didn’t know you were an artist from America, not until that easel arrived.”
“Oh. A momma with a son at Greavley Abbey School. No. I’m not really all the way from America, either. I live in England with my husband. He’s Welsh. Madoc Tarrant. The reason that I’ve come here, to Upper Wellsford, is that Lady Malvaise’s grandson attends Greavley Abbey School. It’s his portrait that I am to paint.”
“The dowager Malvaise?” Mrs. Pollard slanted a look at her husband as she unfolded the letter then dropped her gaze to read. She looked two decades younger than he. Her pale brows pinched in, then she turned to the second page. Whatever she read there turned her incipient frown into a wide smile. “Why, that’s fine, then.” She turned to her husband. “We’ll have no trouble accommodating Mrs. Tarrant. It’s as she says. Lady Malvaise will cover any charges for her room and board.” She tucked the letter back into the envelope. “And her grandson’s at the Abbey School. Has he been there long, Mrs. Tarrant?”
“I think he has attended for several years. I’m not certain, though. I suppose it is too late to introduce myself to Mr. Filmer the headmaster or to Edward Malvaise.”
As a bar maid appeared, Mrs. Pollard waved her husband back to his work. She rested an elbow on the bar and watched Isabella tuck the remaining two letters and her sketchbook into the leather satchel. “As to the boy, it’s much too late. He’ll have Friday Evensong and Compline to attend. Dean Filmer usually comes in after the service. That’s late,” she added.
Isabella nodded and smiled and murmured her gratitude. Everything they said was helpful. If that meant pretending that she knew nothing about Church of England services, then so be it. Her father had enjoyed what he called “high church liturgy” and the prayers of the canonical hours. A professor of history, he’d relished steeping himself in ritual and music and a setting with a strong weight of centuries.
She missed him terribly sometimes.
Not so much since her marriage to Madoc—although now she missed her husband.
“Will Mr. Filmer come to the pub after ten o’clock?”
“Closer to half-past. You better call him Dean Filmer. That’s what he goes by. The dean. The teachers are masters. Some kind of Greavley foolishness, but you know public schools and their traditions.”
That reminded Isabella that she’d hadn’t seen any women in the pub. “Do you have any policies that I should know about?”
“We have quiet nights here. No ladies in the pub after tea-time unless accompanied by their husbands or sons or a man of the village. Since you wish to meet Dean Filmer, I suppose that gives you permission to be in the pub, but not on a regular basis, Mrs. Tarrant.”
“I will keep that in mind. Will I take meals in my room?”
“Bless you, no, Mrs. Tarrant. We have a small sitting room reserved for guests. Mr. Pollard calls it the lounge. We have seating there and tables to serve dinner and breakfast to our paying guests. We keep city hours,” she added, sounding proud of that. “Lunch here in the pub, of course. If you’re to miss a meal service, be pleased to let us know several hours in advance.”
“That suits me perfectly.” She and Mrs. Pollard exchanged smiles.
After their original quick judgement, Isabella hadn’t expected to like the Pollards. She’d gradually revised her opinion of Mrs. Pollard. The husband remained a mystery.
Isabella slung the strap of Madoc’s satchel over her shoulder and gathered up her small easel and purse. Then she bent her knees to pick up her bulky suitcase.
“Sibby!” Mr. Pollard called. “Sibby! That girl!” When no one appeared at the pass-through door behind the bar, he pushed it wide, offering a view into a busy kitchen. “Sibby! Get in here.”
The bar maid came out, tucking loose strands of hair behind her ears. With her dark hair and trim figure, she would have been pretty, but a scowl marred her sharp features. “What am I to do now?”
Mrs. Pollard rolled her eyes and returned to her ledgers. Mr. Pollard rapped out several sentences about “come when you’re called” and “work for me at whatever I say”. He finished with “Don’t be frowning at me, or you’ll be looking for another position.”
Sibby kept her gaze on him throughout and nodded or shook her head at the appropriate moments. When Mr. Pollard wound down, she crossed her arms over her bibfront apron. “What’s to do?”
“This is Mrs. Tarrant,” his wife said calmly from the end of the bar. “Take her suitcase, and show her to the room we’ve prepared. Freshen the water in her pitcher, and give her extra cloths.”
Sibby came around the bar. “This it?” and she reached for the suitcase.
Having lugged it from the station along with her small easel and satchel while the February wind bit through her, Isabella happily relinquished it.
For all her slenderness, Sibby had no trouble with the suitcase on the steep stairs to the first floor. The hall had windows at either end. Light filtered through lacy curtains. The uncarpeted floor looked oiled rather than waxed. Isabella’s city pumps clicked on the wood while the bar maid passed more soundlessly in plain brogues.
Sibby stopped at the last room. “This room looks onto the back. You’ll like that. Not so noisy as the front.” She swung the suitcase onto the bed.
Isabella winced, for the coverlet was a pale printed quilt with interlocked rings in pink and rose and purple. “Do they call that pattern ‘wedding ring’?” She peered around the room. The large easel and canvas that she had shipped were just inside the door, leaning against the wall, taking up the scant walk-space on this side of the bed. Madoc had knocked out the easel of rough wood and left it unsanded since it would be freighted. Brown paper wrapped the canvas, protecting it during transport.
“I have no idea. I’m not much for sewing.” The bar maid edged around the bed to a square table tucked into the front corner. She claimed a transferware pitcher adorned with a country scene. “I’ll get your water, ma’am.”
Isabella pressed against the bed to let Sibby pass, then she placed her purse and satchel beside her suitcase. She propped the little easel under the large one.
This room would be her home for the next twelve weeks. Surely the painting will be done by then! The little square table for the pitcher and basin took up the corner, with a small round mirror hanging above a shelf. A man who had to shave would devolve to many gyrations to see his face. She stepped over her box of paint supplies, shoved against the foot of the bed. Once around, she found that the other side had much more room. Under the window was a narrow table and a single chair. She switched on the japanned metal lamp, and the room took on a muted glow. Lace curtains half-covered the windows, but there were also heavy drapes pushed aside to reveal the misty landscape. After peering at the twilight-dim back garden, she drew the curtains. She was examining the shelves and hangers of the wardrobe between the bed and the outside wall when Sibby returned.
“Will you have dinner in the lounge or up here, Mrs. Tarrant?”
“Below, please. I intend to start as I mean to go on. Do you think we’ll have snow in the morning?” That didn’t bode well for her paints. Hopefully, she would soon have her preliminary sketching done, on paper and on the canvas.
“Weather report says Sunday will be warm and sunny, then we’re back to cold and rain. There’s towels in the bathroom. That’s down the hall, right next to the stair. The WC is across from it. Do you think you’ll need more cloths for washing?” Sibby had taken to heart Mrs. Pollard’s order to give her more cloths, and she crammed the stack onto the little shelf of the triangular corner table.
“Not for a few days.”
“I work afternoon and evening. In the morning till afternoon it’s Nuala. She’ll have your morning tea at 7 sharp. Breakfast a half-hour later. You have a couple of hours before dinner.” She nodded abruptly, remembered to smile, then retreated.
With the door shut, Isabella towed her suitcase across the coverlet and set to unpacking. Her few clothes which had crammed the suitcase looked lonesome in the wardrobe. She arranged and re-arranged them then decided to empty the contents of the satchel onto one shelf. Her sketchbook, pencils and eraser, sharpening pen knife and charcoal fit very neatly on the eye-level shelf. A long jacket, two good frocks, and her blouses hung neatly from the short rod. Folded skirts and jumpers and jodphurs filled the other two shelves. Her spare shoes, one pair for walking, the other pair in case of a special dinner, tucked easily onto the bottom shelf. Staring at the empty top shelf, she turned about, wandering what else would fit in the wardrobe and give her more room.
She stubbed her toe on the paint box. In a trice she fit her watercolor paints and brushes and palette, papers and clips neatly onto the top shelf. The small easel fit neatly under the table.
Tomorrow was her first meeting with Edward Malvaise. She also needed to cart to the school the large easel and canvas and paint crate with everything she needed to work with oils. Lady Malvaise had stated positively that the headmaster would provide a room at Greavley Abbey School in which she would work, and the paint crate would store there easily.
Full dark had fallen while she unpacked. Catching the time on her wristwatch. Isabella hurried into a plain taupe frock and tugged on a warm cardigan patterned with gold and bronze overblown roses. She finished her look with eardrops of seed pearls in a gold setting and the single twisted gold strand that Madoc had given her after their marriage. Sliding into a pair of mahogany pumps, she locked her door, slid the key into her purse, then clattered down the narrow stairway and turned down the hall that Mrs. Pollard had indicated with a wave of her hand when she’d mentioned the lounge.
There she encountered Sibby, carrying a tray with covers.
The bar maid gave her a jaundiced look that repulsed any greeting. “Mrs. Pollard says you are to linger over your dinner. You can use the lounge as a sitting room. When Dean Filmer arrives, she’ll send him there so you can meet with him.”
“That’s considerate of her.” She held the door then followed Sibby into the room.
The lounge was dim, with only three lamps providing a weak glow. The only welcome was a cheery fire. Three round tables with heavy chairs were set for dinner service. Well away from the fireplace were a settee and two club chairs. The curtains were drawn against the night. They didn’t create a cozy ambience. Their dark color absorbed the light, adding to the dimness.
Sibby set the tray on the first table, well away from the fireplace. She removed the covered dishes then departed.
Isabella barely waited for the door to close before she dragged a table closer to the fire and scooted over its chairs. Then she transferred the covered plate and dessert coupe and bread plate. Covers off, she could see the steam rising from the steak and kidney pie. The dessert coupe had an apple crumble that surprised her by being delightful, with cinnamon sprinkled on the custard portion.
When Sibby returned an hour later, Isabella had rearranged the whole room, one table dragged to the window that overlooked the garden with its low wall and view of the trees beyond and the other table relegated to the far end of the room, in front of a set of low shelves, sparse of books yet rich with curios. She’d dragged the settee from the wall. With the club chairs it created a conversation circle on the other side of the fireplace. The circle caught the fire’s heat and became cozy. She had claimed the club chair nearest the fire and was flipping through an old magazine when the door opened.
Sibby stopped short when she saw the changes but said nothing. She gathered the dishes onto her tray. “Will you be wanting coffee now?”
Should I risk coffee in the countryside? American born and raised, she’d acquired a coffee habit early, and English tea didn’t quite replace it. Only Middle Eastern restaurants could brew it properly, but sometimes their incarnations of coffee were too strong. “Yes, please, and thank you. My compliments to whoever baked that apple crumble. It was an unexpected joy.”
The bar maid smiled, a true smile, not a fake one. “That’ll be Mrs. Halsey our cook. I’ll tell her you liked it.”
“Thank you, Sibby.”
“Will you be wanting anything else? Cream and sugar for your coffee?”
“Black, please. I suppose it would be an imposition were you to tell me when the headmaster arrives? I think Mrs. Pollard intended to do so, but I doubt she will bring him immediately.”
“He’ll be late. Close to eleven. He comes in his auto. Too much trouble to walk from the school. I’ll be happy to give you a head’s up.” She hesitated then, “He likes to be called Dean Filmer.”
“Yes, Mrs. Pollard said. I appreciate this, Sibby.”
“You’ll be here?”
“Yes. I thought I would investigate the books on that shelf.”
Sibby lifted the tray, took a step, then paused. “Will I come back to more changes in the room?”
“I hope not. I thought I would leave the sideboard and the shelves where they were.”
“Mrs. Pollard may not like it. Is this one of those London room arrangements, furniture out in the room and not against the wall?”
“The dowager Malvaise is paying handsomely for my stay here, for over two months. I would like to have a bit of comfort in the evening. These chairs were too far from the fire.”
“You needn’t explain to me. I suppose you found cobwebs and dust bunnies.”
She shrugged. “It’s Nuala what cleans this room. You’ve given her more work of a Saturday morning.” Then she walked out the door she’d left ajar and hip-bumped it closed.
Isabella hoped Mrs. Pollard was not too upset with the changes.
How was Madoc enduring his changes? He would be on board his ship by now, with a narrow berth in a cabin shared with other men. A ship mess for his dinner, likely without any sweet dessert.
She tugged out a handkerchief to dab her eyes.