BARTHALL HALL

It was late November 1983 when I drove my battered Morris 1100 through the frost shrouded grounds of Barthall Hall. I parked in one of its outsize car parks, a relic of its recent past, when the place had been open to the public. The new owner’s financial position allowed him to indulge his desire for privacy however, and the hall was now closed to visitors, and mine was the only vehicle in sight. I opened my car door and the freezing air which had turned the lawns around the Hall into crown icing overnight, immediately attacked my ears and nose. I forced myself out of the Morris’ warm interior and jogged across the gravel to the path.

Three weeks prior to that freezing morning I had received the letter which brought me to the Hall. I had left university, without finishing my doctorate, following my parents’ death two years ago. My supervisor, Doctor Morrison hadn’t given up trying to persuade me back into the academic fold however, and this letter was her latest attempt to rekindle my enthusiasm. She wondered if I would like to do a little privately funded research to “keep my hand in”. I waited a couple of days to make it appear I wasn’t desperate before I rang her to find out what was on offer.

A county archivist, a friend, from her days researching Lollardy in the provinces, had asked if she knew of a reliable researcher who would be available immediately to examine and catalogue the family papers and manorial court records at Barthall Hall. The new owner had offered the county all the papers no longer required by the family, but first they wanted to know exactly what they had.  Straight away she had thought of me. All I needed to do was contact the new owner. I asked for the address and she gave it to me, and for good measure dictated the outline of the letter I needed to send.

I paused on the path, despite the temperature. Framed against the clear blue winter sky the black and white Tudor building was magnificent. It was a style common in that part of the county where there was no decent quality building stone. A few miles away and the hills of the southern Pennines provided limestone and gritstone, but here there was clay for bricks, and trees for timber and laths. It wasn’t the first time I had seen the place, but I was still impressed. After my parents’ death I had spent several months researching bits of family history for the Percivales of nearby Thornton Hall. My researches had brought me to Barthall, the seat of the senior branch of the Percivale family. It had still been open to the public then and the tour guides had claimed the Hall was built around a medieval core. In my experience tour guides claim a lot of things, but in this instance they were correct. The hall took its current form in a spate of building activity in the late Elizabethan period. This branch of the family had not fared well in the Civil Wars however and as a result it had fallen into financial doldrums in the late seventeenth century. Consequently, unlike the Thornton Hall Percivales, and many of their wealthier neighbours, the owners of Barthall had been unable to sacrifice native style for Palladian excess in the eighteenth. An ‘A’ frame, riven single oak cruck, supporting one interior wall of the main hall, had therefore survived. This was almost certainly a relic of the original mediaeval construction around which the current building had grown.

I walked up to the house and rang the decidedly non-medieval door bell. There was no answer so I rang again. No-one appeared. This was very peculiar and I pulled the letter of invitation from my pocket and read it again to make sure I had the correct time and date.  I was five minutes early on the correct day. I wondered about peering in at windows but thought that was probably not the best start to a working relationship. I rang again and for good measure raised the large iron knocker on the front door and rapped hard three times. Almost immediately a young woman opened the door and looked expectantly at me. I couldn’t help notice she was very attractive. I told her my name and that I was expected by Sir Edward. She seemed surprised but invited me in.

‘Have you travelled far?’ she asked. I explained I had and hoped I hadn’t made a mistake about the time and date of the interview. I took the letter Sir Edward’s personal assistant had sent me arranging the meeting and showed it to her.  The woman read it and shook her head.

‘I’m sorry there seem to be a mix up here. Sir Edward is away at the moment.’ I was confused and more than a little annoyed. I obviously didn’t hide it well. ‘Let’s have a look in the office and see if we can find out what’s going on.’ She handed me back the letter.  ‘Let’s see what we can do for you.’

I followed her across the main entrance hall and down a panelled corridor. On the right one of the rooms had been converted to a modern office. She sat at the desk and waved me to a seat opposite.

‘Let’s have a look.’ She said picking up a desk diary. ‘Ah yes, here we are. She spun the diary around and there was my appointment, a red line through it with a scribbled note underneath. I peered at the tiny handwriting. “Rearrange.” It said. The week was blocked out down the margin with the word “Ottawa”.

That made some sort of sense. The new Sir Edward was Canadian. His great grandparents had left England some eighty years before, but a couple of wartime deaths, and various legal arrangements of the eighteenth century, made him the current lord of the manor. The latter title was a courtesy and no peerage went with the house and land. A baronetcy did pass with the tax bill however hence Sir Edward, the tenth owner of the house to bear the name.

‘Ah. I see.’

‘I must apologise, you should have been told.’

‘I went to see friends in Oxford over the weekend, perhaps there was a letter or something I missed on Friday or Saturday.’

She flicked over the page of the diary and a sad smile drifted across her face. She spun the book around again. Sure enough, there was my name reinstated with an appointment for next Monday at the same time.

‘Somebody should have informed you.’

I shrugged. ‘Like I said, I wasn’t at home for a few days. Maybe someone rang and I missed it.’ A thought occurred to me. ‘Did you book the appointment?’

She looked slightly confused for a second before replying.

`Me? No, I’m just looking after the place while they’re all away.’

‘You’re…’ I struggled to think of a proper description, ‘… a caretaker?’

She laughed. The room seemed very bright as she did. She seemed to have to think about what she was as well. ‘Call me a housekeeper, perhaps.’

‘Well’. I tapped my finger on the page of the diary. ‘I suppose I’d better come back next week.’

‘Yes, I suppose you better had if you want to see Sir Edward.’

I made to rise from the desk but she interrupted me. ‘Are you thirsty? Stay a while. I haven’t spoken to anyone for ages and you must be tired from your journey. I can get you some refreshment before you leave.’

I had stopped at a service station on the way up, and if she hadn’t been young and attractive and obviously quite interested in me I would probably have cut my losses and gone home. As it was I said.

‘Well, that’s very kind. Thank you.’

She stood now and looked thoughtful.

‘Let’s see what we can find in the kitchens.’

She led off and I followed her.

‘Can I ask what business you have with Sir Edward?’

I was surprised. I don’t know why. It made sense that a housekeeper wouldn’t necessarily know the business plans of her boss. But she seemed to fit the place so well somehow. It was hard to think of her as not knowing everything that was going on there. As she’d asked however, I told her.

‘All the papers?’ she asked as we walked down a long half panelled corridor.

‘All those not directly important to the ownership and legal rights of the hall and its owner. Yes.’

‘And who decides importance?’ she muttered.

I knew it was a rhetorical question but I couldn’t help but answer her. ‘Well me, if I get the job.’

She stopped and I almost bumped into her as she spun on her heel to look at me. There was a delicious scent of roses wafting gently from her. I took a step back. I didn’t want her to think I was being too forward.

She looked at me for a second, it felt longer. Then she smiled. ‘Yes, you’ll make a good job of it, too.’

With that she marched on up the corridor.

‘Do you know if there are many records, papers that is?’ I asked.

‘Oh hundreds. It will take you ages to work through them all properly.’ She flashed me a smile over her shoulder. ‘I can probably help you there. Point you in the right direction.’

‘Oh you know the place well then?’

‘Pretty well, yes.’

‘How long have you been here, you know, as a housekeeper?’

She pushed a door open at the end of the corridor and led us into the kitchens.

‘As a housekeeper? Oh, not long. Now what have we got here?’

I joined her in the hunt for tea or coffee. I found a jar of instant coffee in a cupboard while she put the kettle on. I looked in a huge fridge and found half a pint of milk that didn’t smell too odd.

‘I wondered what you were doing here.’ She said as I spooned coffee into two cups.

‘Oh?’

‘Yes. Not outside staff.’ She nodded at my hands, ‘too clean and soft. Too young for a butler and anyway there hasn’t been a proper butler since the war. I wondered if you might be, what do they call them these days, you know, working in here?  A chef.’

I poured the hot water into the cups.

‘I thought they were always called chefs.’

‘Oh no! New fangled nineteenth century term. Chef de cuisine. When all things French became fashionable. Odd after all those years fighting them. Good old cooks before that.’

I smiled. ‘Are you a historian?’ She cocked her head to one side at that. ‘Not many people think the nineteenth century is new fangled.’ I explained.

‘Oh. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.’ She said, taking the cup I offered her. She pulled a face as she drank. ‘Maybe it is a good thing you aren’t trying to be our chef.’ She laughed.

‘Sorry! Did you want sugar?’

She nodded and I began another search.

‘Next to where the coffee was.’ She said. Would you like some food? I think there’s cheese and crackers.’

I shook my head. ‘I’ll be fine thanks. I can eat on the way home.’

We sat at a large scrubbed table and I passed her the sugar.

‘Are there many other staff?’ I asked her. ‘I take it there isn’t a cook in residence at the moment.’

‘No, no chef. There’s someone comes over from the village to mow the lawns and tend the flower beds, not at the moment obviously with all the frost.’ She stirred the sugar into her drink. ‘Sir Edward has what I think of as a secretary but who he calls his PA?’

‘Personal Assistant.’ I filled in. She seemed to have lived an oddly cloistered life.

‘And there is a chauffeur but he isn’t here either at the moment. I think they’ve all gone to Canada. They’ll be engaging more staff I suppose when they settle in properly.’

‘So you’ll be looking after them when they get back?’  I asked, really hoping the answer would be yes. Being stuck out in the country working through old documents was okay, but it would be a lot more fun with her around. There was a pause.

‘Oh, I’ll take good care of them.’ He shot me a glance from under her long lashes, over the rim of the cup. ‘And you of course, when you get the job.’

‘That sounds good. If I get it.’

‘I’m sure you have all the required qualities.’

I was starting to really look forward to this job. We talked some more about the weather and what it was like here. She didn’t seem to think there was much to interest a young man in the area but no doubt I wouldn’t have much free time with all the work that needed doing with the papers. I said I hoped I would have some and perhaps she might show me something of the area. I wasn’t much for clubbing and nightlife but I would welcome a walk through the grounds and the surrounding country some time. She smiled and thought that ideal. Eventually ee finished our drinks and I washed the cups and spoon and left them to dry.

‘Can I use a bathroom please?’ I asked. She raised an eyebrow. ‘Long drive, cold weather, all that coffee…’ I elaborated.

‘Oh the closet. Of course. Come with me.’

We walked back the way we had come and she showed me a door just before the office. ‘I’ll be in the main hall,’ She said.

The toilet had obviously been modernised for the people working in the office. I took the opportunity to wash my hands and face while I was there. There was a frosted glass window that didn’t seem to let much light in. I took my watch off to stop getting water on it as I washed and I noticed the time. It was well after noon. It was not surprising there was little light coming in a north facing window on a winter’ afternoon. Where had all the time gone? I splashed my face and used the clean towel on the rack to dry myself. I put my watch back on and stepped into the corridor. I walked into the hall but there was no-one there.

‘Hallo! Hallo?’ I called. She hadn’t disappeared had she? Had I offended her somehow? I was going to shout for her by name, but I realised I didn’t know it. I tried again. ‘Hallo’

She emerged from the shadows by a large fireplace, unlit unfortunately and I realised how cold it was in there.

‘Yes, Mr Ferguson?’

‘Oh! I didn’t see you there’

‘I presumed not, given the shouting.’

‘Sorry. I guess I had better be going before it gets dark. I hadn’t realised it was so late.’

‘It does that sometimes, time. When we are enjoying things.’

‘Yes, I suppose so. I have enjoyed talking to you.’

‘Good, we shall do it again, soon no doubt.’

‘Right. Oh. What do I call you? You know my name but I’ve no idea of yours.’

‘No, you don’t. You can call me Dorothy. Dorothy…Furnivall. I look forward to seeing you again Mr. Ferguson.’

‘Please, David.’

‘Very well. Cheerio David. Safe journey.

She stood and watched me make my way back to the car. I wanted to find an excuse to stay. I had some mad idea we might just fall into each others arms, even though we had only just met. I kept moving though and the car started first time, not always a given, and I drove off. The front door was shut and there was no sign of life.

Back home, I found the letter on the mat. Ms Alvarez apologised for the sudden departure of Sir Edward and his staff to Ottawa for the week, but if I would present myself on the following Monday we would discuss the terms of engagement.

That following Monday the frost had disappeared. The weather had warmed a little and brought with it rain and mist. Gone were the sun and crisp blue skies, and greyness cloaked the Hall. I parked in the same place and walked rather than jogged to the door. I had wondered whether to bring flowers for Dorothy, but decided it might look too cheesy.

The door was opened by a smart, severe looking woman in a suit. I introduced myself and she told me she was Ms Alvarez, Sir Edward’s PA. She walked me through the main entrance hall.

‘We’re in the drawing room.’ She said.

I looked around. There were logs crackling in the fireplace now. ‘Bit warmer than last week’. I offered.

‘Yes, Ottawa’s really cold this time of year.’ She replied.

‘I meant here, you know with the fire.’

She looked over her shoulder at me and offered a half smile and a wrinkled brow. ‘Well, yes. The place was shut up last week so I suppose it is.’

‘I was surprised the housekeeper hadn’t lit one. We had our own cold snap you know. Not up to Canadian standards, but pretty chilly.’

The half smile disappeared and the brow wrinkles grew deeper.

‘There isn’t a housekeeper at the moment. That’s why we shut the house last week. We’re advertising for one.’

Before I could explain or question her further she opened a large door and ushered me into a modern furnished room. I shook hands with the newly knighted Sir Edward. He didn’t look like how I had imagined him. I had met the previous Sir Edward and I had mentally taken a few years off his appearance to produce an image of the new incumbent. I was expecting someone in his fifties at least, with a bluff manner, grey hair and possibly a stoop. This man was twenty years shy of that, dark haired and stood ramrod straight. He gripped my hand in welcome and steered me towards the sofa. We exchanged a few comments about my trip up, the weather, and agreed how pleasant it was to have the large fire roaring in the grate. Then he apologised for the change of date. I said it was not a problem and he went straight into it before I could think of a way of asking about the previous Monday.

It was all very straightforward. My recommendation from Dr.Morrison was excellent, his relatives at Thornton had gushed about my sensitivities and understanding and he had read the reports I had written for them. Now he’d met me it seemed I had already got the post.

‘Now.’ he said ‘Accommodation. We’re a bit off the beaten track here so, if it is acceptable you can stay here. Some of the rooms in the west wing have been converted into a small suite with an office attached, and you’ll save time and be more comfortable and more private than any local hotel. You can eat with the staff if you wish. There’s no restaurant in the village, only a cafe and the pub doesn’t serve food.’

I nodded my assent. ‘That sounds good.’

‘As for duration, I have no idea how long this will take, though I’m told there is a mountain of stuff in the Manor Court records alone before we even look at the library and the various trunks in the attics. I hope your diary is clear for a few months?’

‘Er, nothing I can’t put off.’ I said. This was all going rather swiftly. I had been expecting more searching questions to ascertain my suitability. I was glad there weren’t as I was actually rather agitated. I had expected Dorothy to open the door when I knocked and to have a few words with her to settle my nerves before I got this far. It was silly but I had developed quite a crush on her over the last week waiting to come up here again. And Miss Alvarez didn’t seem to be aware of her.

‘Now, money.’ He mentioned a sum for the job which was very generous, even if it did take several months. In addition I got free board and lodging and he would pay all research expenses. Plus he realised I probably had payments on my own accommodation to keep up, so suggested a weekly sum towards those for the duration of my stay. All reviewable if I was still here after three months.

I tried not to look too grateful. He was rich and this was presumably not a big deal to him. It was for me.

It wasn’t long before we were standing up and Ms Alvarez reappeared to take me off to sign contracts. As I turned towards the door I stopped dead in my tracks.

‘Who’s that?’ I managed to ask, pointing at the portrait on the wall by the door.

‘Didn’t you come across her last time you were here?’ Sir Edward asked. I tried to work out how I could possibly answer that before realising he meant the previous year.

‘No. No I didn’t.’

No. Probably not. These are private rooms, and in any case you were concentrating on the Hundred Years War weren’t you?’

‘Yes.’ I managed. ‘Fourteenth Century.’

‘That explains it. She was three hundred years later. Her Sir Edward died at the Île de Ré expedition in 1625. She had one son at the time luckily, or I wouldn’t be here.’ He walked up to the painting. ‘Bit of a looker wasn’t she? By all accounts she didn’t lack for male company after Edward’s demise. Liked her gentlemen did Dame Dorothy.’

‘Dorothy?’

‘Yes, Dorothy Percivale nee Furnivall. It’s her apartments you’ll be taking while you’re here. They’ve been modernised of course. Very comfortable.’ He grinned. ‘I’m sure she’ll take good care of you.’

End

This started out as an homage to MR James. It grew, shrank, changed eras and ended differently than I had anticipated. There are bits of previous story arcs and plot plans still lurking in there and if I had the energy I might go in yet again and change things. The fact Sir Edward’s Canadian is probably irrelevant now except for explaining his absence for a week and the change of dates. It was tied to something else in another version of the story in my head but I see no reason to alter it now. I think it could be chopped back and tightened in other areas perhaps but f one isn’t careful one gets to a three line synopsis which has the merit of brevity but little else. So there it is!