“Thy fate is the common fate of all; Into each life some rain must fall.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When told of my intention to retreat to Sarah’s Estate immediately, Mother was furious. One moment, I have an exceedingly eligible man – a firstborn, no less! – requesting my presence in private, and the next I’m off chasing after my dreadful Cousin’s legacy. This anger, of course, transitioned into self-pity, and I could plainly hear Mother’s laments over how poorly she’d raised me as I ascended to my chamber to ready my effects. When I returned to the main floor for tea, Mother had replaced her ravings with embittered silence. Throughout the meal, Father tried to talk me out of leaving, but I would not be swayed. Having little experience negotiating with women, he was quickly put out by my resoluteness, and instead conceded his defeat by joining Mother in solemn quietude.
Just after tea, as promised, the Coachman arrived at the door. While he graciously collected the trunk and several smaller bags I had packed for my extended leave, Mother found her voice long enough to admonish me. Rather, to admonish Sarah, insofar as she told me to tell her, to whom she referred as “that insufferable Cousin of yours,” that she found it reprehensible that anyone would call a girl of my age away from home when my priorities should be firmly fixed upon procuring a suitable husband. (She was still delusional enough to believe that an age of twenty-three not only meant that I was not yet a woman, but also that there was still hope of me being considered for marriage by any seemly gentleman. I found the idea laughable, at this point, as most gentlemen I’d met had done nothing whatsoever to prove their worthiness of even feigned interest.)
After brief goodbyes, I followed the Coachman down to the street and into his waiting vehicle, drawn by a team of dark horses. The hour was becoming late, and what little sunlight could penetrate the cloud cover was beginning to fail, yet the Northdon Estate was several hours away. As the coachman cracked his reigns, I knew we would not make it before dark.
It was little more than halfway through the journey that we ran into a dull but persistent rain that continued all the way to the facade of the ancestral Chamberlyne Great House. There, the Coachman escorted me to the door, where he lit the lanterns from his own, and provided me with the time-blackened key. I unlocked the house and made way for him to bring my luggage into the vestibule, where, when that task was accomplished, he gave me Sarah’s second letter. I thanked him thoroughly for his services rendered and hoped aloud that he would not be making the return trip to the city in the dark under such conditions as this. He bade me good evening with the assurance that he had already set up lodging at the nearest inn, several miles down the road. The sound of hooves was drowned by the rain as he turned and made the journey back down the drive.
Alone now in the darkened entry of this magnificent and centuries-old Manor House, the rain and the dark suddenly became much more eerie than they had been in the presence of the Coachman. I hurried to close the door, which I then barred against the elements, and light the rest of the candelabra on the credenza before I gathered only my most personal bag and ventured further into the house. I had not been inside the Northdon Estate since my childhood, and it seemed now much larger and more empty than it had then. Beyond the vestibule was the Great Hall, from which several rooms branched off – the public reception rooms to the left and the private rooms to the right. I dared not yet venture up the stairs, so made my way to what had been Uncle Abram’s Study, which, it seemed, Sarah had claimed for her own.
Inside, once again I barred the door behind myself, then set to the task of lighting the fireplace, which was a task much more easily accomplished than it would have been without the light the Coachman had shared with me. With the hearth crackling and warm, I settled myself into the sofa before the fire to read Sarah’s next letter.
Thank you for making the journey to our ancestral Estate on such short notice. I apologize for any theatrics Mr. Feldsmith may have used to convince you along this path – he stands to make more money if you had chosen to come than if you hadn’t – but I am so glad you are now here. With any luck, you made it before dark, as the house staff has already been dismissed and there will be no one to aid you.
Please take your time to gain your bearings. I know it has been such a long time since you’ve last walked these halls, and the House is quite large. I’m confident you’ll pick up the layout quickly. You were always so bright.
When you’re ready, further instructions await you in the ledger at my desk, which was once Father’s, in his Study.
Good Night. Sleep well.
I looked over to the desk, an elaborately carved and mammoth wooden antique, and for the first time truly grasped the greatness of the task to which I had obliged myself. Its top was strewn with paperwork, which seemed to overflow from the massive ledger book that lay open across it. I sighed heavily and set Sarah’s second letter down on the side table, suddenly realizing the depth of my exhaustion. There was no sense in wandering around the House in the dark, so I drew the draperies over the windows on either side of the fireplace and readied myself for sleep, which I did on the sofa.
I was awoken the following morning – according to the large clock at the corner of the room – by a loud thunderclap, to discover that the rain had grown worse in the night. I thought briefly of my Coachman, and hoped he would make the return journey safely. Then my thoughts were pulled back to the room in which I stood, and the House in which the room stood, and the sprawling Estate on which the House stood, and the Coachman’s problem seemed small in comparison. I opened the drapes again for what light there was outside and dressed myself. It was going to be a long day.
I went through the House, wrapped in a heavy shawl against the chill in the stone construction, opening drapes and closing draughty chimney flues. Most of the rooms seemed to suffer habitual disuse, and were covered in a fine layer of dust. Aside from the downstairs Study, the only rooms which seemed clean and lived-in were Sarah’s Bedchamber and the Library. While the Bedchamber was largely unremarkable, the Library was a different matter altogether.
Since Northdon had always served as the family Estate, many of the volumes were antique, including an entire bookcase full of handwritten manuscripts of family history. Beyond that, nearly anything a person could ever want to read was stuffed into shelves, some so full as to sag beneath the weight. English classics – Shakespeare, Chaucer – foreign publications in Celtic, French, and Russian, the Greek epics, both original and translated, medical journals, botanical guides, and contemporary poetry from Walter Scott and the Lake Poets, among others. I could have spent the entire day categorizing the unbelievable range of literature collected there.
Outside the library, there were more books scattered and stacked through odd places in the House. A different subject on every chair in the Dining Room, a collection of fairy stories leaned against the wall in the stairway up to the second level, piled into a disused bathtub, lined up against windowsills, in cabinets in the Larder, in several floor clocks’ cases, and all the way around the perimeter of the Ballroom. I wondered if Sarah had spent her last fifteen years reading, stowing herself away in so many books that she had neither time nor care to find proper places to store them. It certainly seemed plausible.
That afternoon, I moved my luggage up to Sarah’s Chamber, after finding a spare set of linens and duvet tucked in a linen cabinet and relatively free of dust. The rain subsided, and after a meager Luncheon of scones and jam yet left in the larder, I decided to retreat to the Study to write Mr. Feldsmith for a delivery of dry goods to the Estate. As I was doing so, a resounding knock came from the main door, nearly scaring the life from me. So far out, I had expected no callers or even lost travelers to find their way to the Great House.
As it were, the knocker was in fact the local Grocer, who had already been informed of my impending arrival and been paid for the delivery of a month’s worth of foodstuffs. He carried in several crates, and I unloaded them into cabinets, shuffling Sarah’s books around in the process. The Grocer kindly offered to make a return trip the following day if there was anything else which I required, but the order had been quite complete, and I instead thanked him and wished him a pleasant evening.
Relieved that I would now be able to cook for myself rather than starve for the next week, I found myself finally prepared enough to sit down at Sarah’s desk. Her third letter read:
You have my sincere apologies for the state in which you find my affairs. I have been so busy recently with so many things that tidying this enormous House has become the least of my priorities, as perhaps you have seen by now.
The most important thing you should know about is the pending arrival of the Undertaker and local Priest. A good Christian burial cannot be put off too long, as you well know. They will arrive to inter me at the graveyard Friday morning. My headstone has been ordered by Mr. Feldsmith, and can be installed at your convenience once it is finished.
Regarding Mr. Feldsmith, should you need anything at the Estate, you will need write him, as he is the executor of my Will until the following things have been accomplished:
- The updating of this Ledger. Although he has control of my finances, Mr. Feldsmith does not have access to anything within the House, including the paperwork regarding my debt. All the bills are here, but will need to be organized by contractor and the state of the account. All paid invoices will need to be filed, and all yet unpaid forwarded to Mr. Feldsmith, who will return them to you when they have been settled.
- The organization of the Library. I have come to neglect both the Family collection and my own, and both will need to be addressed. None of the books are to be sold. Should you require additional shelving to be installed in the Library, there are several capable Carpenters listed in Father’s Contacts. The construction will be paid for from my accounts. This is the only expenditure outside of your necessities that has been approved.
- The reconstruction of the Conservatory. Unfortunately, our beautiful collection of specimens has become quite unruly and will need to be addressed. It has been family tradition that the woman of the house and none else attend the plants. As I recall, Great-Grandmother Adelaide had a particular affinity for toxic specimens, so you will need to study and be careful what you touch, or eat.
- The restoration of the Cemetery. I have scoured the family Histories and discovered a carefully documented catalogue of the family members buried at the Estate. For the ones I could find, I have ordered new markers, in addition to my own. You will need to ensure that each one is applied to its proper grave.
- The procurement of my next letter, which details one final request I dare not write here on the slight chance that the Feldsmiths are not as honest as I had hoped. That request will also need to be completed.
I have faith that these things will not be too difficult for you, though perhaps they will be take some considerable time. Mr. Feldsmith has been charged with conducting a yearly examination of the property to determine whether or not your tasks have been completed with satisfaction. That is not to say, though, that you are trapped here until then. If you ever wish to leave the Estate, you certainly may, but the key must be relinquished to Mr. Feldsmith should you choose to do so. However, any absence from the Estate longer than one year while your tasks remain incomplete will result in a liquidation.
Best of luck, my dear. I shall speak to you again soon.
I had not yet perused the grounds of the Estate or set foot into the Conservatory. Perhaps this task was yet greater than I had imagined. Thunder rolled again in the distance.