Following on, we find Rebecca in 1853, hence the dialogue.
Incidently, you decide; is she dreaming, met a ghost, or gone back in time. I am trusting you to make your own mind up.
She stood there while her eyes adjusted to the darkness. On the far side of the room, she could just make out what looked like a window. She took a couple of steps allowing her eyes more time to focus. The floor felt spongy under foot, and mindful of the dust she’d disturb earlier she crept forward. Half way across the room, she tripped on something, and hit on the floor with a thud. Coughing from the dust, she groped around in the dark, trying to regain her breath and her bearings. With one hand over her mouth, and watchful of her steps this time, she made her way towards the window. Just as she was about to pull at the curtain, an icy chill brushed her left cheek followed by the door slamming shut. Even if she wanted to move, she couldn’t. The silence was deafening, broken only by the sound of her pulse pounding in her head. She closed her eyes and tried to steady her nerves. There was light, she could see light through her closed eyelids. Frozen to the spot, she opened her eyes just enough to see. Her nerve endings were already jangling but went up a thousand notches when she heard a woman’s voice.
Panting, she thought, what is going on?
Who’s calling me?
‘Rebecca.’ The call came again.
‘M Mumm... is that you?’
‘Whom did you expect, my dear? Did I hear you coughing, and did you refer to me as Mum? That is unlike you.’ the woman said, her tone inquisitive, yet smooth and well mannered.
She released a nervous breath, and forced herself to turn. The curtains were drawn, the windows wide open, and the bright sunlight made it difficult to see. ‘What is going on,’ she muttered. As she focused, she could see a single bed with a white lace edged cover, a tan, frilly edged pillow, and a long green dress, neatly placed on the edge. Next to the bed was a small wooden desk with what appeared to be a newspaper. She made her way over, but before she’d reached the desk, she heard the voice again, much closer this time.
‘Rebecca, are you talking to yourself, again?’
Rebecca was feeling somewhat confused. This woman sounded like her mum, but at the same time, it didn’t. Uneasy, she called out, ‘This room. It looks new.
‘Rebecca, your room is newly decorated. The Blacksmiths son, young Timothy completed it only two days since.’
Rebecca was thinking, Timothy, Blacksmith’s son, which Blacksmith? Then she heard the door open and could sense someone standing behind her. Turning, she took a sharp intake of breath. A petite, dark-haired woman, wearing an oddly familiar white dress was looking inside a small cupboard by the doorway.
The woman turned around and Rebecca’s eyes nearly pooped out of her head. So shocked, Rebecca could hardly hear what the woman was saying. This is not happening she thought.
‘Come along, Rebecca, luncheon is almost ready. Then after, we must change into our old clothes before tending the stables in preparation for tomorrow’s hunt. Now please, put on your dandy green dress, so we are suitably dressed to eat. Hurry now.’
Rebecca couldn’t stop staring at the woman. It looked like Meredith from the painting. She knew it couldn’t be, but... She then regained her senses and realised the woman was starring at her, waiting. ‘Ummm, green dress, okay.’
‘Are you okay, Rebecca? You have goose bumps. Perhaps you should have worn suitable clothes for this time of the year, instead of...’ the woman looked Rebecca up and down. ‘Where did you acquire those absurd clothes?’
Rebecca’s mind was going in circles, dancing from one thought to another. She hesitated for a moment, aware the woman was frowning. Trying to sound routine, Rebecca said, ‘No, I am okay, thank you. I just felt a strange shiver, err, Meredith.’ She shook her head and looked down at her drills, not having a clue what to say. ‘Ummm, I found these under my bed.’
The woman shook her head. ‘Oh, first you refer to me as Mum, and now you call me Meredith, are you sure you are okay? As for your clothes...’ She then pointed to the green dress.
How can this be, it is Meredith? ‘Err, sorry, I was going to wear the green dress, but I thought as we are going to the stables perhaps it wasn’t a good idea.’ In her head, she was thinking, where did that come from?
‘Hmm, indeed, well I prefer Mother. Nevertheless, as you wish, Meredith or Mum either would be fine. Now, come on, let us eat our luncheon, suitably dressed too.’ She then pointed again at the dress. ‘After luncheon, your father’s horse, Nadine, needs checking. Remember, he has brought forward the hunt for tomorrow. We must make sure we have everything spick-and-span just as George expects it to be.’ The woman then glanced at the floor before continuing. ‘It is such a shame we are not invited. I do so love those events.’
Rebecca had so many questions she wanted to ask. Not having a clue where to start, she paused for a second, thinking, Nadine... The woman was again starring, waiting. She took a deep breath and shook herself trying to get a grip. ‘Okay, mother,’ she muttered. ‘Umm, I am sure you have told me, but why are we not invited?’ In the back of her mind she kept thinking, am I dreaming? She knew she wasn’t dreaming, but even so.
‘Normally, when I refer to George as your father, you inform me directly that you only had one father, and that we lost him to that horrid disease. Does this mean you are warming to George? Moreover, Rebecca, please refrain from asking such questions, we have discussed this before, and you know these events are not for us. Our job is to make sure everything is just so, then we can enjoy the event from afar.’
‘Warming to George, I dunno,’ she said hesitantly, thinking, George sounds like a stepfather of sorts. ‘Tell me, I know we may have discussed it before, but why are these events not for us?’
‘What was that word you just used, don what?’
‘I do not know, Meredith, Mum, whatever, dunno is slang for do not know.’ She knew something very odd was going on, and although she’d initially dismissed the idea that she’d travelled back in time, she was beginning to think this was the only answer. And why does this woman call me Rebecca, have I somehow replaced her real daughter, and was she also called Rebecca? She shook head, her wits somewhat bewildered.
‘Rebecca, you seem so remote and indistinct. In addition, where has all this slang speech come from? Have you again been chatting with the gardener’s son? Now where is that carbolic soap?’
Rebecca thought, carbolic soap, you’re kidding me, which made her smile and settled her nerves a little. She then nodded to Meredith, and asked, ‘Mother, please tell me why aren’t we invited?’ It appeared the woman was hesitant, but Rebecca was determined to find out what was going on.
‘Oh, my lovely, must I explain it to you again. George agreed with my father – for a substantial sum of money, I might add – to take us as his family. There were strict arrangements put in place by the men. Our job is to look after the house and such things. In return, he has taken me as his wife, by which he protects the family name and reputation. I do not know why you bother yourself with such things so often. I have informed you before that in this modern society it is acceptable practice.’
I so knew I was right. She then nearly laughed thinking, modern society, glancing at the green dress. ‘But m, m, Meredith, how do you live like this, how do you put up with it. Have you ever sat and discussed the situation with George?’ A little angered, Rebecca shook her head. ‘I take it that you do talk to George.’
‘I find your question's unusually churlish, Rebecca. However, I do indeed talk with George, although much of his time is with Millicent. Therefore, I am discreet and select my time to speak with prudence.’
‘Prudence, seriously, arranged marriage or not, it just isn’t right. And, you said, Millicent. She is the woman in the other painting, in the hallway, right?’
Meredith raised her eyebrows and asked, ‘Of which hallway do you speak?’ She then shook her head. ‘You sentence construction and language is deplorable. I am finding it difficult to understand you. What has gotten into your head today, Missy?’
‘The hallway in the main house,’ Rebecca said, thinking I need to think about what I am saying here. Then she realised the paintings may not be there. So many questions, so many questions, but I must find out.
‘Rebecca, you know we are forbidden from entering the main house. More importantly, I know of no paintings in the hallway. Now be done with you, young woman. Come and have luncheon, and then we must go and ready the stables.’ Beckoning Rebecca, the woman left through the door by which Rebecca had entered.
With her mind still going in circles and without thinking, Rebecca slipped into the green dress, amazed when it fitted perfectly. She then followed the woman through the door. In an instant, her thoughts came crashing back to reality. The spiral stairs had vanished and in their place was a small wooden staircase. Finding it difficult to focus her thoughts, she headed down stairs. In the back of her mind, she was wondering how she would get back home now that the spiral stairs had gone. Even though she’d hoped and believed that she wasn’t dreaming, she was beginning to have doubts. As she entered a tiny room towards the back of the summerhouse, she banged her elbow on the doorframe. The intense pain that shot up her arm diminished any dream notions.
The woman was sitting at a small wooden table. She looked up, signalled Rebecca to join her, and pointed at a plate of bread and cheese. ‘Rebecca, please sit here and eat your food.’
Rebecca sat at the table with so many questions popping in and out of her head. Thinking one question at a time, she glanced at the woman and said, ‘Mother...’
‘Tell me, Mother...’
‘What should I tell you, Rebecca? Come along with you, what question do you have for me?’
Rebecca paused for a moment, thinking carefully about what she wanted to say and importantly how she would say it. Realising the woman was waiting, she looked up. ‘So, how do you live in such a loveless relationship? How do you put up with it, and why do you not challenge him? Most of all, how do you allow him to have that lady friend, or should I say that slapper Millicent, around all the time?’ Oh dear, too many questions, she thought. To say the woman looked miffed was an understatement and Rebecca knew she really had to slow down.
‘Well, first of all, Rebecca, I am happy because I had all the love any woman could need in one lifetime from your beloved Father, Anthony. Then of course, I have the love of you and your brother. Secondly, I am not in a position to challenge him as I explained. I must always consider my Father’s good name. Lastly, please do not call Millicent those horrid names. What was the name you used, slap something?’
‘Slapper, Mum, coz that is what she is, a cheap tart, whore you might say.’ With the dream notion now dismissed out-of-hand, Rebecca knew she was on some bizarre journey. She recognized it was a daft idea, but was starting to believe that by some means, she’d travelled through time. Her thoughts returned to the spiral stairs, and she wondered if they were somehow a doorway back. Then she panicked again thinking they had disappeared. Once more, her mind leapt from one thought to another. Regaining her composure, she could see Meredith was staring again. Thinking one question, she asked, ‘Why do you put up with all this crap?’ And then knew she shouldn’t have said crap.
Meredith narrowed her eyes and said with a forthright tone. ‘Rebecca, as horrid as she is to us, she is not a whore. Well...’ She hesitated for a moment and continued, ‘I do not understand what has got into you, and where all this unusual language has come from. Anyways, my situation is what it is, and we must accept the conditions. As for Millicent, I know of her past and well...’
Anyways, Rebecca thought this is getting silly, only my mum says anyways. She looked at the woman and frustrated by her obvious acceptance of her outrageous situation wasn’t sure what to say. She shook her head and thought for a moment. ‘Mother, for heaven’s sake, why do you put up with... I know you said it’s for your Father’s blinking name, but even so?'
‘There you are again, another harsh word. Hush now, Rebecca, and please refrain from using such foul language.’ Meredith looked down at her food, and then glanced through the window. She looked again at her food, touched her cheek with the back of her hand, and forced a smile.
Unable to believe what she was seeing, Rebecca found herself watching this woman’s actions. Meredith was gazing through the window, and appeared oblivious to Rebecca. She had a sadness etched into her eyes that was all too recognizable. Rebecca touched her on the arm and said, ‘Mother, please talk to me. You cannot live like this. It really doesn’t matter about your Father’s name in the scheme of things. He will get over it. In a hundred years, no one will know either way. This I know. She then thought; better not go there just yet. Certainly, you shouldn’t put up with living on the outside looking in.’
‘Indeed you are right, Rebecca. I spoke with my Father only four days since. He also said that if I was unhappy I should change my conditions.’
‘He is right. You should change things, and after all it is your happiness on the line’
‘Yes my dear,’ she said looking strained. ‘I should challenge George for a better relationship. The problem is, I suspect Millicent wants rid of us, but then George couldn’t agree to that.’
‘What do you mean?’ Rebecca asked, mulling over what Meredith had just said.
‘My Father signed an agreement, which states that George will encompass me as his wife until death. In return, my Father pays him an annual amount. George, although wealthy, lost a vast amount of money through his ship building exploits. Therefore, he is now somewhat dependent on my Father’s money. However, if there is a separation, or anything untoward occurs, George will lose everything.’
Rebecca could hardly believe what this woman had just said. She knew she had to be careful with her response. ‘So if that is the case, then how did you end up becoming an outsider?’
‘It is a marriage of convenience, no more.’ The woman appeared to be thinking. ‘We have discussed this before, Rebecca.’
Rebecca thought, convenient for him, having his tart and all. ‘This situation is completely unreasonable, especially when you add Millicent into the equation. It is outrageous.’
The woman shook her head. ‘Rebecca, you, your brother and I have a roof over our head. We have groceries, provisions, and we are together. That is paramount.’ She then shook her head again.
‘It wouldn’t be so bad, but allowing him to have a whore living in the house. The house that we should live in, I might add, is preposterous.’ She thought for a moment. ‘You suggested you know of Millicent’s past, what is it exactly, and have you tackled her about that? I bet George doesn’t know. Have you spoken to him about her, or this situation?’
‘Millicent was a lady of the night some years ago and that is all I am prepared to say on the matter. I spoke with her this very day, pointing to this secret from her past. She was not happy. Moreover, she said nothing in response, instead scowled and walked away cussing.’
‘Cussing, really, what did she say?’ Inside, she was thinking, bloody hell, she really was a tart.
‘She said damn you, woman.’
‘Mother, that is not cussing, cussing is...’ Rebecca decided not to swear, aware of Meredith’
s sensitivity towards bad language. Then just as quickly, she changed her mind but chose a different example. ‘Sod-off, now that’s swearing, Meredith.’
Meredith appeared startled. She widened her eyes. ‘Rebecca, what has gotten into you? Your language is awful, and the like of which I have never heard you utter before. You should act as a lady at all times.’ Her appearance then mellowed. ‘Now where is the soap?’
‘Stop going on about the soap, you sound like my m, m...’
‘Rebecca, I sound like what or whom?’
‘Nothing, Mother, take no notice, I am waffling. Sorry I interrupted you, please continue.’
The woman appeared a little perplexed. ‘I also spoke with George the last day.’
‘Last day, do you mean yesterday?’
‘Yes, what else did you think I meant, Rebecca? I am becoming increasingly concerned by the nature of your questions.’ Meredith frowned, and continued, ‘I advised George that this arrangement is at best, uncomfortable. Initially, he frowned and appeared to be listening, then directly changed the subject and asked if I had arranged for the completion of the jetty in time for his boat delivery. He paused for a moment, and without looking up from his book, suggested that if I were unhappy with the arrangements, I should speak with my Father.’
Rebecca wasn’t sure what to say. She could see the woman was having enough on this subject. On top of this, she had the boat and jetty spooking her thought process. ‘Hmm, did he indeed?’
Meredith picked up her drink and stared out of the window. After a minutes silence, she looked back, and said, ‘Can we please talk about something else now? I would like to talk about your real Father. I was so lucky to have had such love, even if it was for such a short time. His love will live in my heart for all time, as it should yours. That keeps me happy, and that, my fair lady, is why I accept the way things are.’
Rebecca could see Meredith had become a little troubled and decided to drop the subject of George and Millicent. Meredith spoke briefly about Anthony but quickly became upset. She finished her food and suggested to Rebecca that they should head towards the stables. After they’d changed clothes, she led Rebecca along an unfamiliar tree-lined path. Unsure where she was, Rebecca was feeling a little uneasy, and then as they turned the corner, she could see the main house to her right, which settled her anxiety. As they approached the stables, Rebecca noticed a slight built, dark-haired woman. As they got closer, the woman turned, and distorting her pretty face, waved her hand beckoning them towards her. Meredith walked towards the woman, quickening her steps.
Taking a step backwards, the woman spoke with a dialect that was virtually unrecognisable. ‘Make sure ya’ sort the ‘orses proper. Vat’s, if ya’ capable of doin’ anythin’ proper.’
Although Rebecca was sure she knew who this was, she turned to Meredith and asked, ‘is this Millicent?’
Meredith nodded once, and then smiled and nodded towards Millicent.
Having noticed Millicent take a step back, Rebecca turned and narrowed her eyes. Even is spite of what she knew, Rebecca took an instant dislike to this woman and felt this odd need to test her resolve. Using the same derisory tone, she often used on her brother, said, ‘Who do you think you are talking to.’ The way the woman flinched, Rebecca knew she was in the driving seat. ‘And are you unable to speak correctly?’ Realising English wasn’t Millicent’s strong point, decided to through the woman a curve ball. ‘I must say, your choice of vocabulary is at best, awful. The adverb you should have used is properly, not proper, which is an adjective. As for the remainder of your comments, well, at best it was incoherent.’
Millicent blinked several times, and then glared.
Rebecca could see she looked confused and probably hadn’t understood a word of what she’d said.
The woman then reacted, and snarled. ‘I’m talking at ya’ girl and ya’ muvva’ for vat matta’. Ya' alta watch ya’ mouf’. I will ‘ave the pair of ya’ ‘frone out. Now be off with ya’, both. Be sure I will tell Georgie of ya’ nature ta’ me, and he will cut your rations, right ‘way.’ She then waved her hand, but took another step backwards.
Having learnt so much slang from Roxy, Rebecca could just about understand what the woman was saying. Knowing she had her right where she wanted, she glanced at Meredith. Rebecca took a deep breath, and banged her eyes. ‘Your threats are weak. Speak to George. I don’t care. I really just don’t care.’ She said elongating her words. She then gave the woman one of her stares, normally saved for Tommy.
Millicent looked startled, averted her gaze towards Meredith. She then turned back to Rebecca, huffed, and snapped. ‘Are ya’ challenging me, girl?’
From the corner of her eye, Rebecca glanced again at Meredith and could see she appeared uneasy but nonetheless wide-eyed with intent. Rebecca wasn’t in any sort of mood to back down. With the bit between her teeth, she nodded once to Meredith, turned, and moved closer to Millicent. In her most stubborn tone, she said, ‘Yeah, I am challenging you. Why, what are you going to do about it, you skinny bag of bones in your fancy dress done up to look fake and cheap?’
‘How dare ya’, I’ll slap ya’, and have ya’ sent to the shed in the woods on tuther side of lake, where ya’ belong.’
The way the woman was unable to make eye contact, Rebecca knew she was disarming her. ‘Go for it, slap me. If that is how you deal with difficult situations, with violence, slap me. You’re just showing your true colours.’ Rebecca stepped so close that she could feel her toes touching the woman’s feet. ‘Do you think I look frightened?’ She then pinched her nose and added, ‘and your breath smells awful.’
Millicent blinked here eyes several times but was still unable to maintain eye contact. She then turned to Meredith and appearing a little tearful spoke in an almost inaudible dialogue. ‘I sugges’ ya’ talk at ‘vat kid. Be sure, I will slap ‘er. Then she started to stutter, and was unable to get her words out. She stepped back. Then her face changed, she stepped forward and raised her hand in the direction of Rebecca.
Meredith growled, stepped forward, and pulled Rebecca back. She stepped up close and glared at Millicent. ‘Raise your hand in the direction of my daughter, I think not. Let me inform you, Millicent Black if you ever threaten my daughter again, you will have me to deal with. Now be off with you, whore.’
Millicent again averted her eyes, clearly shaken by Meredith’s sudden outburst. She glanced at Rebecca, turned, and slunk away, muttering under her breath. She then kicked the floor, waved her arm, and without turning back headed towards to the main house.
‘Way to go, Mum, high five.’ Rebecca gestured with her hand, but Meredith just looked at her blankly. ‘High five, Mum, look, hold up your hand.’ Rebecca then gave her a high five.
Meredith smiled. ‘Oh, my word, I enjoyed that, the high, how did you refer to it? A high five, might I have another.’
Rebecca grinned, delighting in Meredith’s reaction. ‘I loved it when you called her a whore.’
‘Well perhaps I should not say. Although I touched on it briefly, maybe I should explain. She was still working as a woman of the night when she met George and continued with this for at least a few months. She knows that I am fully aware of her past too.’
Rebecca beamed, nodded, and waved her hand frivolously in the direction of Millicent. ‘So you are saying she...’ She stopped mid sentence, suddenly aware something was oddly different about the main house. Trying to work out what it was, she realised Meredith was waiting for her to finish her sentence. She nodded with a slight grin and continued, ‘Sorry, Meredith. I was distracted. That is your chance to challenge her and keep her on the back foot. Some would call it blackmail, but hey, who cares. Meet fire with fire as they say, especially when you have something to put the fire out, as you do.’
‘You are using funny language today Rebecca, but I must say I am finding it humorous.’
Rebecca still had one eye on the main house, barely listening to Meredith. She shook her head. ‘Hey, Mum, what is this shed in the woods she was talking about?’
‘So many questions you have today, Rebecca. It is the old bear hunting lodge on the other side of the lake. Rebecca, surely you remember that we stayed there when we first located here. I know you were little, but you must recall.’
As soon as Meredith had said, ‘bear,’ Rebecca’s attention jumped up a notch. ‘So, bear hunting lodge, do they still use it as a lodge for bear hunting?’
Rebecca, please do not be silly, there are no bears in these parts. It is just a name.’
‘There’s none that we know about, Meredith, none that we know about.’
‘Oh bless you, Rebecca.’
Rebecca was inclined to refer to this woman as mum since she’d defended her. It just seemed right in her head even though it felt a little odd. ‘Err, Mum, who is that up at the window?’ Rebecca said, pointing towards the first floor.
‘That is George, who did you think it was?’
Rebecca only half heard what she said; her attention was again on the house. Looking around, she was trying to work out what was different.
‘Sorry, miles away. I suspect George was watching us while Millicent was here, I think he saw all of it.’
Appearing a little apprehensive, Meredith turned, glanced up at the window, and then quickly looked away. Rebecca could see she was mulling something over in her head, she seemed anxious. Then Meredith’s whole body language changed. She banged her foot on the floor, turned, and starred intently in the direction of the window. Rebecca noticed that George then moved back from the window, almost as if he was backing away. She couldn’t help thinking he’d seen Meredith looking angry and now wondered if he was as tough as she’d first thought. Briefly, she thought about her dad, and flicked her eyes knowing he certainly wouldn’t have backed away like that. She noticed Meredith was still staring up at the window. Now though, she had her right hand open with her palm upwards in an obvious questioning pose.
She then turned to Rebecca with a grumpy look on her face. ‘He has been watching us, has he indeed? Well, he can watch all he wants. I suggest we leave the horses for today and instead go for a walk in the crocus wood?’ Again, Meredith’s mood changed as she smiled at Rebecca and continued, ‘It is a lovely day to walk. Then, if he is still watching us – which I am sure he will be – he will see us walk away. Let us see how he reacts to that.’ She then clenched her lips and nodded several times
‘Way to go.’
Meredith raised her eyes and smiled. ‘Way to go, indeed.’
The two headed down the path towards the wood. They had taken only a few steps, when Rebecca heard a man’s voice calling out.