Excerpt of Habits of the House by Fay Weldon
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The House Awakes
6.58 a.m. Tuesday, 24th October 1899
IN LATE OCTOBER of the year 1899 a tall, thin, nervy young man ran up the broad stone steps that led to No. 17 Belgrave Square. He seemed agitated. He was without hat or cane, breathless, unattended by staff of any kind, wore office dress other than that his waistcoat was bright yellow above smart striped stove-pipe trousers and his moustache had lost its curl in the damp air of the early morning. He seemed both too well-dressed for the tradesman's entrance at the back of the house, yet not quite fit to mount the front steps, leave alone at a run, and especially at such an early hour.
The grand front doors of Belgrave Square belonged to ministers of the Crown, ambassadors of foreign countries, and a sprinkling of titled families. By seven in the morning the back doors would be busy enough with deliveries and the coming and going of kitchen and stable staff, but few approached the great front doors before ten, let alone on foot, informally and without appointment. The visitor pulled the bell handle too long and too hard, and worse, again and again.
The jangling of the bell disturbed the household, waking the gentry, startling such servants who were already up but still sleepy, and disconcerting the upper servants, who were not yet properly dressed for front door work.
Grace, her Ladyship's maid, peered out from her attic window to see what was going on. She used a mirror contraption rigged up for her by Reginald the footman, the better to keep an eye on comings and goings on the steps below. Seeing that it was only Eric Baum, his Lordship's new financial advisor and lawyer, Grace decided it was scarcely her business to answer the door. She saw to her Ladyship's comfort and no one else's. Baum was too young, too excitable and too foreign-looking to be worthy of much exertion, and her Ladyship had been none too pleased when her husband had moved their business affairs into new hands.
Grace continued dressing at her leisure: plain, serviceable, black twill dress a heavy weave, but it was cold up here in the unheated attics white newly laundered apron, and a pleated white cap under which she coiled her long fair hair. She liked this simple severity of appearance: she felt it suited her, just as the Countess of Dilberne's colourful silks and satins suited her. Her Ladyship would not need to be woken until nine. Meanwhile Grace would not waste time and energy running up and down stairs to open the front door to the likes of Mr Baum. A sensible man would have gone round to the servants' entrance.
'Bugger!' said Elsie the under housemaid, so startled by the unexpected noise that she spilled most of a pan of ash on to the polished marquetry floor. She was cleaning the grate in the upstairs breakfast room. Grey powder puffed everywhere, clouding a dozen mahogany surfaces. More dusting. She was short of time as it was. She had yet to set the coals, and the wind being from the north the fire would not draw well and likely as not smoke the room out.
This was the trouble with the new London houses the Grosvenor estate architects, famous as they might be, seemed to have no idea as to where a chimney should best be placed. At Dilberne Court down in the Hampshire hills, built for the first Earl of Dilberne in the reign of Henry VIII, the chimneys always drew. No. 17 Belgrave Square was a mere rental, albeit on a five-year lease. The servants felt this was not quite the thing; most of the best families liked to own and not rent. But the best families were also the landed families; and land was no longer necessarily the source of wealth that it had always been since the Norman Conquest.
Elsie, along with the majority of the domestic staff, lamented the annual migration to London for the Season, but could see its necessity. The Dilberne children needed to be married off; they were too troublesome single. The young Viscount, Arthur, needed a wife to grow him up, and to give him the children he needed for the succession to the Dilberne title and estates: he was nearing twenty-six, so at least had some time to spare. Rosina, at twenty-eight, most certainly did not. The urgency was greater since she was no beauty and had recently declared herself to be a New Woman and resolved never to marry. London was the place for them to be, but the Season ended in August and here they all still were in October. The change in routine unsettled everyone.
Copyright © 2012 by Fay Weldon