get here?’

‘No, the ale is a good idea and you may as well go now. Goodness knows how long it will take them to get here from King’s Langley if Miss Prudhome’s persuaded the postilion to go slowly the entire way.’

He shot her an anxious look, but took the coins she handed him and went out. Of course it is all right being here alone, Hester told herself firmly. What are you afraid of? Ghosts?

Her stomach rumbled at that point, effectively putting paid to all thoughts of spectres or earls. What time was it? The old longcase clock in the kitchen had last been wound years ago, but her pocket watch said clearly that it was two of the clock and that breakfast at the inn at King’s Langley where they had stayed overnight was many hours away.

Jethro had thoughtfully drawn a bucket of water, which stood in the slate-lined sink. Hester dipped some out into a bowl, found an ancient scrubbing brush on the window ledge and attacked the kitchen table. It would need hours’ more work before it became white again, but at least they could eat luncheon off it without a qualm.

She spread a cloth from the top of one of the hampers, found bread, cheese, ajar of pickles and a packet of butter, then turned her attention to the contents of the kitchen cupboards.

Jethro returned after half an hour with a vast earthenware pitcher of ale, heavy enough to make him gasp with relief when he set it down on the table. ‘That’s a ploughman’s pot, that is,’ he remarked, mopping his brow. ‘Part of the ploughman’s wages is his daily ale and his lad goes to fetch it for him. Often as not he’ll empty it down, then break it on the plough handles and send the boy back for another one with a cuff on the ear for being so careless.’

Hester put down the stack of plates she had been scouring in cold water and regarded him, head on one side. ‘That is interesting, Jethro. How did you know that?’

‘Don’t remember,’ he muttered, opening the other hamper and starting to lift things out. ‘They’ll send the cask over later today, but I thought we’d need some for now.’

Hester sighed. She had found him unconscious in the gutter in Old Holborn over a year ago, starved thin as a rake and with the marks of old beatings on his back. Taken back to the house in Mount Street, he had been quiet, polite and obdurately silent on anything but his name. He attached himself with dogged devotion to Hester and obeyed her in everything but the request to tell of his past. His accent had a burr, which had largely vanished under the influence of London speech and Hester’s cultured tones, but she suspected country origins and that little story seemed to confirm it.

‘Here is some cutlery.’ She pushed it over the table, abandoning any thought of probing further. If and when he wanted to tell her he would do so. She had enough bad memories and secrets of her own not to pry into his.

Finally they sat down to eat in front of the range, which was slowly beginning to take the chill off the air. Hester put down her ale, which she was drinking out of an earthenware beaker for want of any more suitable vessel, and observed, ‘I hope the glassware arrives safely with Susan. We are having a gentleman caller tomorrow and I must offer wine.’

‘At least we’ve got some good wine,’ Jethro remarked. The disturbing memory had faded, leaving him bright eyed and interested.

‘Yes, and fortunately I put a few bottles of the Madeira and port into the baggage that is on the chaise. The rest will be coming with the carrier.’

Bless John for having left her his wine cellar. An unconventional thing to leave to a woman, but they had enjoyed a glass of wine together so often. Of course, it was only one of the numerous scandalous things that could he laid at her door, And his relatives had not hesitated to enumerate every one.

This time it was Jethro who pulled her out of painful reverie. ‘What gentleman is it, Miss Hester?’

‘No mere gentleman… an earl, no less.’ Hester pushed the card across to him. Jethro read it, eyes wide.

‘You won’t have Susan answering the door, will you, Miss Hester? Not in the afternoon?’

‘No, Jethro. A female servant in the afternoon? That would never do.’ Hester repressed a smile. ‘I shall require you to put on your best suit and be the butler.’

His wide grin was not in the slightest reduced by the intelligence that, as well as setting the bedchambers and kitchen to rights today, they must all work tomorrow to clean the hall and make one of the front reception rooms decent before their visitor arrived.

‘It will take all the furniture we can find to furnish up the one room.’ Hester bit her lip thoughtfully. ‘The carrier’s cart will not arrive tomorrow and what there is here is sparse, to put it mildly.’

‘And old-fashioned.’ Jethro’s ambitions in life caused him to be surprisingly aware of such details.

‘Good quality, though, and very feminine. Perhaps the last person to live here was an elderly single woman, or a widow.’

Further speculation was cut short by the arrival of the post chaise in the yard. Susan Wilmott-plump, good natured and just now looking delighted to have arrived-jumped down and held up her hands to assist an older woman. Miss Prudhome, Hester’s companion of two weeks’ standing, and decidedly green in the face, tottered from the vehicle and into Hester’s arms. ‘Never again, Hester dear, not if I have to walk a hundred miles! Never again in one of those yellow bounders.’

‘There, there.’ Hester patted her back while trying to ignore the postilion’s rolling eyes. ‘You made very good time considering,’ she added placatingly to the man. ‘Jethro, show the postilion where he can water his horses while we unload the chaise.’

Hester placed her companion firmly in a chair in the kitchen with a glass of water and joined her two staff to bring in the contents of the post chaise.

Susan dumped an armload on the table and looked around her with interest, ‘Nice house, Miss Hester, hut it’s awful big for just two staff. Are you going to hire in anyone else?’

‘I hope so, Susan.’ Hester lowered her end of a hamper of house wares. But I need to find out how much I must spend to get the house in order first and then I will see what we can afford. Until then we will just keep the downstairs and three bedchambers in order.’

‘Now, you find yourself some luncheon and then we will decide what to do first.’ She regarded Miss Prudhome dubiously. ‘Do you think you could manage a little luncheon, Prudy?’

A pitiful groan greeted the question. Miss Prudhome was thin, forty-eight years of age and, Jethro was unkind enough to remark, closely resembled a hen. ‘One of those worried-looking brown ones, you know, Miss Hester.’

Hester did know, and unfortunately could not get the image out of her head whenever she looked at her recently engaged companion with her pointed nose and anxious little eyes behind precarious pince- nez.

She was, in fact, a governess but, as Hester’s limited budget had ruled out all the superior companions who presented themselves in answer to her advertisement, she was the only affordable candidate. Her halting tale of being dismissed from her employment of ten years because the youngest boy had gone to school wrung Hester’s kind heart and she had accepted her application against her better judgement. She had even yielded to Miss Prudhome’s wistful request that she call her ‘Prudy’.

Jethro marched in, arms loaded with broom, mop and bucket and clanked past. ‘I’ll just get the worst of the mess sorted upstairs, Miss Hester, and light the fires.’

By seven o’clock the four of them were collapsed in a semi-circle of chairs by the range, which Jethro had managed to keep going, although with an ominously smoky chimney. ‘Full of nests, I guess,’ he observed. ‘I’d better find a sweep tomorrow and have all the fires done.’

‘Never mind,’ Hester said cheerfully. ‘We each have a comfortable bed to sleep in and a clean kitchen to cook and eat in. And tomorrow we can see to the hall and front room.’

Prudy twittered nervously, Susan sighed gustily and even Jethro looked a little daunted, presumably at the thought of all the other rooms, to say nothing of the garden, the stable yard and the outbuildings. But Hester felt nothing but peace and a sense of home. If she had been a cat she would have turned round several times and curled up in front of the fire with her tail over her nose; as it was she got to her feet, rolled up her sleeves and reached for a saucepan.

‘Dinner and bed for all of us. If we do not eat soon, we will be beyond it,’ she said bracingly. ‘You peel the potatoes, Jethro. Susan, shred some of that cabbage and slice the onions and I will fry up those collops of veal.

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