As I perused the pages of Blackwell Hall, I became ever more convinced that its setting was none other than Somerset—but there is no mention of a Blackwell, Thrushford, or Finch family in the region, at least not as masters of any hall or Park. It is my belief that these names are ciphers for other places which Ms. Bracken knew well, but wished to disguise for some reason or another. She refers several times to her condition, which will become clearer in this chapter. It may account for her mysteriousness about the location; for a long winter season, when she was younger, she removed to an undisclosed family friend's house in Somerset to recover her strength from a malady which is not quite clear in any of the other accounts.
Blackwell might very well be the friendly home where she retreated, albeit through the dark mirror of Ms. Bracken's memory.
There are several other Blackwells in England, two of which are in Derbyshire, but there is no record of a Blackwell Manor, Blackwell House, Blackwell Hall, or Blackwell Park in Somerset.
You can read Chapter 1 of Ms. Bracken's memoire here.
Allow me to resume: my occupation at Blackwell Hall. I was first recommended to the Finches by my aunt, who was the Lady Dorothea Longspur, and whom you have already met in the preceding pages. She was the eldest of her siblings and also the shining star of the family; she married Lord Claude Longspur, 11th Baron Strange, cousin to none other than His Lordship George Murray, Duke of Atholl. Scotts, you see. They have very little prejudice about marrying into the lower gentry of England, or so I gather. This is how my aunt, who I knew as Lady Dorothy, became a baroness.
Lady Dorothy was well-known throughout the whole countryside and her friendships reached into many little houses and manors that were otherwise unknown amidst the London quality. Blackwell Hall was one that my aunt visited with some regularity, for she was a dear friend to the Finches. Mr. Finch had studied at All Souls with my uncle, the baron.
When I was first appraised of my condition, my aunt Dorothy recommend that I spend a winter at Blackwell for the air. This, you will recall, was one of the reasons that I chose to make my way by foot from Thrushford. There were other health benefits touted by my doughty aunt, but I was uncertain as to what they were meant to be. To be honest, the arrangements were all put together by my aunt and mother in a secretive cabal of the womenfolk designed to spirit me away from London before the height of the winter season—for which I was not ungrateful. My autumn would be much better spent, thought I, in the rustic comfort of some country squire's hall than in the townhouse.
Before I continue with my tale, I should also take account of the other quality that were present at Blackwell when I arrived and those came shortly thereafter, at least before the winter blanketed the wood. The Divers, Misses Rail, and the Crakes were all present; Mister Diver was an ironmonger from the Scottish highlands; Misses Rail was a poetess prone to weeping fits and hysterias. The Crakes were a different pair altogether—a theologian and an historian. This was the circle, though the Crakes were yet to arrive at the time when I stumbled into the hall.
Mister Diver was a short highlander with a head of curly black hair and a lecher's eye. His wife was of that loud breed of northerner who thinks her nose belongs in everyone else's business. As for Misses Rail, she came without her husband. She claimed to be very much in love, but her waifish waisting told another story—all gloomy was she, with mooning looks backwards cast.
These three are those who were in the hall, along with my aunt Dorothy, the servants, and the Finches. They swamped me and asked me many questions; all but Mister Finch, who as I noted remained back and aloof, pretending to read his book.
"My dear girl," Dorothy chided. "You must be half dead!"
The servants—Elizabeth, Taylor, and the chef Margaret being chief amongst them—hovered near at hand. I told my aunt that I was not half-dead, nor even a quarter-dead if it came to that. Mister and Misses Diver tut-tutted and patted my hand in turn. I made it known that I was in dire wont of supper, and we adjourned to the dining room. Only Mister Finch declined to accompany us.
Nothing of interest was said at supper, save that I was introduced to those of the Finches' circle who had already arrived. Misses Finch presided as hostess, making excuses for her husband. It was Misses Rail who spoke of the others. She introduced herself to me as we passed into the dining room by lightly touching my arm. Misses Rail wore gauzy white dresses that accented her sickly figure. Dinner was held by candlelight as the westering sun was obscured by heavy cloud cover. Misses Rail played the harpsichord afterwards—an old but traditional past time.
I was shown to the suite that would comprise my rooms, away in the back of the house. They were paneled with dark wood and looked out at the deep forest from the ground floor. To myself I thought them the kind of thing one might suspect exists in a convent. I wondered if it was my Aunt's manner of reminding me of my duty to marry; whether she had requested I be placed in such an austere chamber with only a bare cross for decoration. I soon found, however, a small collection of journals stored in a basket by the hearth. I confess I could not help but read one: it was simpering stuff, the childhood ramblings of some lonesome little girl. I put it away and went to sleep shortly thereafter.
The following day, I rose late. I suppose it was due to the long walk I had taken on the afternoon prior. Mister Finch was alone in the house with the servants, reading again by the fireplace. "Good morning, Miss Emily," he greeted me when I made my first appearance after tending my toilette. He was every bit as polite and deferential as last evening, and made quite the dashing figure by the fireplace in his weskit. The fire was going, and a great hound was sleeping by his feet. Two of the house cats—for the Finches kept four of them—were drowsing languidly with the beast.
"I take it your sleep was sound? The wind did not disturb you?" As if on cue, the leaded windows rattled with the gusts.
"It did not," I admitted. "But has everyone vanished?"
Mister Finch shook his head. "Not quite," he said. "They've gone off to shoot on the moor. Wolves need thinning this time of year, you know, else they get into quite big packs."
I examined him from the doorway. "You aren't shooting, though," I said.
"That I am not," he agreed with a smile. He put his book down on a side table. "Sit, if you like." I did. "I don't enjoy it, I find. Something about the buck of the gun. Or maybe its just Allan." He chuckled to himself, but I could see he was watching me very keenly for a response. I allowed myself a polite and ladylike smile. This apparently pleased him, for he nodded ever so slightly and went on. "I didn't think you'd find it much fun, either, and what with you still abed I did not want you to waken and find the entire house deserted."
Indeed, thought I, and there might yet be other reasons he wished to remain alone in Blackwell Hall. "Tell me a little of this place, Mister Finch," I asked him. "It's very quaint." He began to speak and I took the time to surreptitiously dab my lips with my kerchief.
"Well, you know," he said, stretching his long legs and then, at length, standing with care not to rouse the dog, "Blackwell is a very old house. Very old! First built in the time of William Rufus, I believe." He strolled to the fireplace and leaned on the mantle, I suspect so that he might make a romantic figure framed against its light. Indeed, though he was an older man, and though he had run to fat, he still boasted a well-turned calf. "That's just this room. It was a hall of some kind, for the holding of the march. The rest wasn't built until the fifteenth century. Still, the lords and squires of Blackwell Hall have built on to it, bit by bit, in their own way up until the very present. The old Blackwells themselves used to live here. There's was a great and mighty tree, when it blossomed."
"And when its autumn came?"
"Well, we may pray never to see such an autumn ourselves," quipped Mister Finch.
I found this more than passing interesting, despite my better inclination. I knew I should be quiet—let him return to his book—but instead I cocked my head and asked, "And you, Mister Finch? How did your family come into the Hall?"
Mister Finch looked pleased indeed. "Well, it's interesting that you ask, Miss Emily. As it so happens, my own family line is, well... a rather shabby shrub compared to the ancient Blackwells, but still, descended from men who played quite a role in history if I dare say so myself. Sir James Finch served King Edward the Fourth, you know. He was given Blackwell as a sort of place of exile by King Richard the Third for being a bit too... zealous in his support of the old king. Some say he was even involved with the boys in the tower." He waggled his eyebrows. I, of course, was quite tired by his banter by now and gave him no more play to feel superior at. It is amazing how, simply by the withholding of a laugh or a smirk, one can move a man who thinks himself in all ways superior to the lowest depths of dejection.
Finch returned to his seat and shrugged. "That, in essence, is the story of Blackwell Hall. But that's not why you're here, to learn all about our history."
I shook my head. "No indeed, Mister Finch," I said. I paused and let the atmosphere grow thick with awkwardness before I spoke again. "But it did not hurt to learn it," I offered him at last. I saw him settle more comfortably into his seat. "I thought I might take a stroll, if you don't mind."
"Mind?" he asked. "No, not at all. I do believe Misses Rail is about somewhere. She cannot stomach hunting, either."
With a little curtsey, I left the squire's presence in search of the weeping poetess.