Dear Julia – Opening Chapter
Dust swirled out in a thick, choking cloud as plaster and debris crashed to the floor. The cloud cleared, and Rosalie lowered her handkerchief from her face and coughed. In the yawning hole where the monstrous Victorian mantelpiece had been, a pile of broken bricks now lay in their own ashes. Something pale caught her eye amongst the rubble.
“What is that?”
One of the workmen bent to pick it up. “It’s a letter, miss.”
He handed her the envelope, and she wiped her handkerchief across its grimy face to reveal paper yellowed with age and a name printed in a neat, square script, a man’s handwriting: Julia.
Not just a letter. In one corner she felt the distinctive weight of something else. Curiosity growing, she turned the envelope over. No name or return address. She frowned. “It must have fallen behind the mantelpiece.”
The man shrugged, disinterested, and she forced her attention back to the room. “Clear the bricks, and tomorrow you can install the new mantel.”
They began the clean-up, and Rosalie moved to the window, holding the letter up to the light.
Against the sharp autumn sunlight she could see a shape silhouetted within the envelope. A ring. Even through the paper she could tell it was very old, delicate and ornately filigreed. And undoubtedly valuable.
That settled it. Whoever the letter had been intended for, it had to be delivered.
Anna sat at the kitchen table, shelling peas. She shook her head as Rosalie entered. “I hope you haven’t ruined that pretty dress.”
Rosalie looked down at herself. She was covered head to toe in a film of grey dust. She shrugged. “It’s just a dress. Look what we found.”
She held out the envelope to Anna. “Do you have any idea who Julia is?”
Anna shook her head and took the letter. “No idea. But Mrs. Wallace in the post office is sure to know. She knows everything about everyone around here.”
“Excellent idea. It’s the perfect afternoon for a walk into town.”
“Not in that dress, you won’t.”
Rosalie grinned. “I guess not. And I’ll have to wash my hair, too, before I go.”
“I’ll put some water to warm by the fire. Why your father couldn’t have got the plumbers in before we moved in, I’ll never know.”
It was a familiar grumble, and Rosalie laughed. “We’ve lived in worse places. And I’ll have this place shipshape in no time.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “I have no doubt of that, Miss Rosalie. And the rest of the village too, I’m sure. Heaven help them.”
The tiny Somerset village of Stogumber lay amidst green fields, almost within sight of Exmoor. It was a pretty place, soft and sleeping beneath the pale sky, a world away from the bustle and noise of London.
Rosalie strode across the cow pasture that lay beyond their tangled garden, her heeled boots sinking into the soft earth, then climbed the stile into the narrow and winding lane that led into the village. Dappled light slanted down between the trees, casting intricate patterns across the ground, a reminder of the ring and letter she’d locked carefully away in her jewellery box.
A bell chimed as she entered the general store that doubled as a post office, and the grey-haired woman behind the counter looked up. “Good afternoon, Miss Stanton. How may I help you?”
Rosalie smiled engagingly. “I’m looking for a little information on our house, and my housekeeper suggested you might be able to help.”
The older woman leaned forward across the scarred wooden counter, eyes bright with undisguised interest. “I hear you’re installing electric lights, and an electric water heater.”
If she’d already heard about the water heater, then Rosalie had come to the right place. Mrs. Wallace was without a doubt the village gossip.
Which meant she had to tread carefully. She’d tell Rosalie what she wanted to know, but she’d also spread the news of the ring around the village before Rosalie had walked home. And Rosalie had no intention of facing down a line of doubtful claimants.
So instead she perched on the high stool before the counter, as if settling in for nothing more than a cosy chat. “It’s the history of the house I’m interested in. I gather it’s stood empty for a couple of years. Before that, who lived there?”
“Alice Peabody stayed there a few years, before she got sick and went to live with her son, down Devon way.”
“Did she live alone?”
“There was a companion. Now what was her name?” Mrs. Wallace’s nose wrinkled as she thought.
“It was a flower name. Violet, or Ivy, or something like that.”
“And before them?”
“Before them was the Fortescues. Gentry, they were. Old Grandfather Fortescue built the house with money he made out of the railways.” Mrs. Wallace dropped her voice, as if discussing something scandalous. “He’s the one who insisted on the bathrooms.”
Rosalie sent up a prayer of thanks for the long dead Mr. Fortescue’s forethought. And for Mrs. Wallace. At least now she knew Julia must have been a Fortescue. But how could she ask outright without arousing Mrs. Wallace’s curiosity? “Where are they now?”
“Mr. Fortescue died during the war, after a nasty riding accident, and his wife soon after in the Spanish Flu epidemic, though many of us thought she died of a broken heart.”
Rosalie’s heart sank. How old might the letter be? And what if Julia no longer lived? She brushed aside the threatening disappointment. She would not give up so easily. “Did they have any children?”
Mrs. Wallace smiled, her eyes warming with memory. “Just the one daughter, Julia. Such a sweet girl, so pretty, and lively as a bean.”
Rosalie’s heart thumped against her ribs. Victory at last. “Do you know where I can find her?”
A cloud crossed Mrs. Wallace’s face, and she sighed. “Last anyone in the village heard, she’d gone to live in America with her new husband. Of course, he might know…”
“Who might know?”
Mrs. Wallace shook her head. “No, perhaps not. You could ask the vicar.”
Now why hadn’t she thought of that?
“Thank you, Mrs. Wallace. This has been very interesting.” She hopped down from the stool.
“Any time, Miss Stanton.” Then, as Rosalie headed for the door, Mrs. Wallace added, “You remind me of her, you know.”
Rosalie turned back.
“Same fair hair and bright blue eyes. And you have the same smile.”
She smiled now. “Thank you, Mrs. Wallace.”
Rosalie took the short cut to the vicarage, through the graveyard, where lichened headstones stood tall above the freshly mown grass. The scent of drying grass hung heavy in the somnolent air.
The vicar himself opened the door, a man built lean and tall like his church.
“Good morning,” she said brightly.
“Good morning, Miss Stanton. Would you care to come inside?”
She followed him into the living room and perched on the edge of a heavily brocaded armchair.
Now that she was here, she wasn’t entirely sure what to say. Or whether to tell him about the letter and the ring. The vicar settled himself on the sofa across from her. “I suspect this isn’t purely a social call?”
“Not entirely, though in a village this size it’s good to know one’s neighbours.”
“Indeed.” His eyes sparkled with amusement. He reminded her of her favourite uncle.
“I found some items during the renovations that seem to belong to Julia Fortescue, and I was wondering if you had any idea where I could forward them?”
His face clouded, just as Mrs. Wallace’s had done. What was it about this woman that her memory caused such sorrow?
“She married an American during the war, I believe, and moved there with him. I’m not certain anyone around here would know where she is now, or even what her married name might be.” A thoughtful look crossed the vicar’s face, and Rosalie watched with interest as he debated with himself before casting aside whatever idea had occurred to him. “She was the last of her family, you know.”
“Mrs. Wallace said I look a lot like her.” She didn’t know why she said it, but she was glad she did. A startled expression sparked in the depths of his eyes, and he peered at her through his owlish glasses. “Yes, I suppose you do. She’d have been a little older than you, of course, but there’s an interesting resemblance.” He sighed. “There are some things, Miss Stanton, that belong in the past. Julia Fortescue is one of them. He…”
Rosalie’s skin prickled. When Mrs. Wallace had said “he” she’d thought the older woman meant the vicar. But perhaps there was someone else in the village, someone who had been intimately tied to the Fortescues? Someone neither Mrs. Wallace nor the vicar wanted to involve. Rosalie’s curiosity spiked.
The vicar pulled himself together. “I suggest you throw those items away, Miss Stanton. If Julia did not value them enough to take them with her when she left, then she wouldn’t care for them now.”
She wanted to tell him that Julia probably never knew of the letter’s existence, but she bit her tongue.
There was a finality in the vicar’s words that she wasn’t about to argue with. Not when she had a new idea growing.
“Thank you, Mr. Hemmings.” She rose from the seat. “I will see you in church on Sunday.”
“Feel free to visit any time, Miss Stanton.”
She returned home through the woods, walking slowly and thinking deeply. How could she find out who this mystery man was, without starting the village gossiping?
“What am I to do now, Anna?” Rosalie asked her closest friend and confidante over a breakfast of toast and tea in the draughty kitchen.
“I don’t suppose you’d heed if I say you should do nothing at all and just let it be?”
“Of course not.”
“Then my advice would be to discuss it with your father.”
Rosalie frowned. “He’s all wrapped up in writing this book. He wouldn’t want to be disturbed.”
“What you mean is, he’d tell you to let it be, too, and you’ve already made up your mind not to.” Anna sighed, resigned. “Mrs. Wallace told you the Fortescues were gentry. Perhaps then Julia Fortescue made her debut in London, and if she’s only a few years older than you, then someone there is sure to remember her.”
Rosalie clapped her hands in excitement and rose from the chair to circle the table and drop a kiss on Anna’s brow. “You’re a gem. And you are so right. Aunt Frances would know. She’s like a walking Debrett’s. I’m going upstairs to write to her right now.” She paused on the threshold. “You’ll let me know when the workmen arrive?”
“I doubt you’ll miss them,” Anna grumbled. “Stomping all over the house in their great big boots, with the master trying to work in the study.”
“He’ll survive.” Rosalie sent her a cheeky grin. “When he’s writing, he doesn’t notice a thing that happens around him.”
The letter from Aunt Frances arrived less than a week later. Rosalie carried it out into the sunshine of the garden, where she sat on the old stone bench at the edge of the lawn to read. A week of sun had wrought a miracle in the garden. While the workers stripped and sanded the hardwood floors indoors, she and Anna had cleared the tangled flower beds, and a lad from the village had cut the knee-high grass. Now it was a blank canvas, ready and waiting for her to paint it with her beloved bold strokes, bright swathes of colour against a backdrop of green foliage, with all the drama of a Van Gogh artwork.
She slit open the envelope, and sighed at the pages and pages in her aunt’s large, loopy scrawl.
With gathering impatience she skimmed through the letter, searching for a name. It was on the third page.
I remember Julia Fortescue well, Aunt Frances wrote. A pretty girl, but flighty, with dozens of suitors to choose from.
No wonder Mrs. Wallace and the vicar thought she resembled Julia. She’d been accused of being flighty often enough. Usually by people who didn’t know her well enough to have met her stubborn streak.
I remember she surprised us all by settling for a rather serious young man she’d grown up with. Can’t remember his name, but he was in the navy. That was before the Great War and seems so terribly long ago now.
Then her aunt moved on to more current news; parties and fashion advice, and the scandalous gossip that Frances had seen the Prince of Wales out dining with Freda Ward. With my very own eyes! In public, and she a married woman with two children!!
Rosalie set the letter down and stared unseeing at the garden before her.
So Julia had been betrothed to a local Somerset man. A marriage that clearly hadn’t happened, if she’d ended up married to an American not many years later. Had the war intervened, as it had for far too many?
No. Rosalie shook her head. He had survived the war, of that she was certain. She knew without a doubt now who that mysterious “he” was. All she needed was a name. And the answer to the burning question of why Julia hadn’t, after all, married the man she’d grown up with.
Rosalie popped her head into her father’s study. “I’m off to the Women’s Institute meeting. Is there anything I can get for you from the village?”
He looked up from his newfangled typewriter. “No, thanks, love. Do take care.”
Rosalie laughed. “You are aware that we are now in the depths of the country? What harm could possibly come to me here?”
His blue eyes, mirrors of hers, twinkled. “I meant that you should take care not to disturb the peace of the village too much.”
“Really, Father, I don’t create disturbances! Between you and Anna, you make me out to be the most tiresome, meddling person. You know I’m not. I just want to help people.”
His eyes softened. “I know you have the best intentions, love, but you’re also as single-minded as a bloodhound with your nose to the scent.”
She could hardly deny it, since cracking the mystery of the letter had been at the forefront of her thoughts all week. She laughed instead. “Don’t work too hard, and try to get outdoors for a little. This sunshine isn’t going to last forever.”
Before she shut the door he’d already returned to tapping at the typewriter keys.
Rosalie placed the last of the summer roses in the antique silver vase and turned it to check the arrangement from all sides.
“Thank you so much for helping out today,” said Mrs. Ferncroft. “And for agreeing to join the WI committee. We really need fresh ideas, and your harvest festival suggestion is pure inspiration.”
Rosalie smiled. “I can’t take the credit. My aunt’s parish did something similar last year.”
“Frances Weatherby,” Rosalie explained. “My late mother’s sister.”
“Oh, my poor dear, do you miss her terribly? Your mother, I mean.”
Rosalie handed the unwieldy vase to one of Mrs. Ferncroft’s daughters to carry over to the church.
“Not at all. I was very young when she died, and I scarcely remember her at all.”
“And your father never remarried?”
Here was the opening Rosalie had hoped for. “He was so in love with her. I don’t think he’d ever be able to love anyone else as he loved her. Some men are like that, you know.”
Mrs. Ferncroft’s voice dropped to a dramatic whisper. “Just like poor Commander Cavendish. He never recovered after Julia ran away with that American. Lives all alone in his big old house and won’t have anything to do with the outside world.”
Rosalie fought back a surge of jubilation. She had a name!
“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” She prayed she sounded convincing, as if none of this was news.
“And he was such a good-looking man. Such a waste!” Mrs. Ferncroft placed a hand over her heart and sighed, for all the world like a young woman swooning over a young man.
Rosalie suppressed the urge to giggle, and hopped down off the stool. “I really must get back before the workmen drive Anna insane. I’ll see you in church tomorrow.”
Armed with a name, it was easy for Rosalie to discover more. One of the advantages of a house in disarray, and being cooped up indoors by several days of unending rain, meant she spent more time in the kitchen with Anna than usual. While Anna potted around making tea for every caller, including the post boy, the milkman, and the butcher who called twice a week, Rosalie was free to chatter with the visitors.
She discovered that Commander William Cavendish lived all alone with just one manservant in the old manor house on the far side of the village, a house that had been in the Cavendish family for generations. He had been in the navy, serving on the HMS Dartmouth, in the Indies when war broke out.
He hadn’t returned home until after the war, and had shunned all polite company since then. Every mention of his name was accompanied by a great deal of head-shaking and “What a shame,” though no one was entirely certain whether it was the war or returning home to find his sweetheart had run off with another man that had sent him into seclusion.
It was apparent the entire village held him in some kind of awe. And it was also apparent to Rosalie just who had left that envelope on the mantelpiece for Julia to find. And just who she should return it to.
On the first sunny day after the rainy spell, she dressed in her prettiest frock, a frosty pink silk and lace concoction, and set off across the fields towards the Manor. The sun warmed her bare head and arms, birds sang in the trees, and her spirit soared.
Her objective was in sight.
The Manor lay beyond the village, hidden from the road by a veritable forest of trees. It seemed isolated, cut off from the village by a will of its own. Whatever she expected, when she rounded the curve in the drive and the house appeared before her, she wasn’t sure. But it wasn’t this.
From Mrs. Ferncroft’s description of the “big old house,” she’d expected a ramshackle Elizabethan sprawl, something draughty and dilapidated.
Instead, she faced a stately double-storey Georgian house, gracefully symmetrical, with bay windows on either side of a porticoed entrance.
The windows stood open to the sunlight. A neat lawn ran from the last of the trees right up to the door, cut in two by the straight gravel drive. In the bright morning sunlight, the house’s stone walls turned a mellow gold. It was the most welcoming house she’d ever seen, and not at all what she’d imagined as the home of two confirmed bachelors.
She pulled the old bell pull beside the door and chimes echoed behind the door, then slow, measured footsteps. At last, the door swung open.