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Authors: Lindsay Ross

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The Mortification of Isabel

BOOK: The Mortification of Isabel
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The Mortification of Isabel

by Lindsay Ross
A Pink Flamingo Ebook Publication

Copyright © 2007, All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from the publisher.

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Cover Image © Ludovic Goubet
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Part One – Isabel


Chapter One
My arrival at Drydon Hall where I take up a Position and learn about Mortification of the Flesh


If we imagine that every boy and girl who enters this world as a naked newborn babe begins life on equal terms we delude ourselves. Whether by God or fate, each of us is allocated our individual bundle of blessings and curses to take on our journey through life and much of the contents are decided before the moment of our birth.

I was greatly blessed in one respect and will always be grateful for my good fortune in having loving parents and a strong family circle. I thought about them constantly when I was far from home. My father had lost his money and his good name in one short period of misfortune because he could not recognise roguishness in others and subsequently he struggled to provide for me and my brothers and sisters when they followed me into the world.

It would have been convenient if fate had decreed that father’s first born had been a son but I was the first of his progeny to draw breath so I felt it incumbent upon me to go out into the world in the hope of returning one day in a position to improve my parents’ present lot and to provide for their old age.

But a young woman just turned twenty without visible protection is easily deceived and disappointed and though I am less innocent now, I was quite without knowledge of the ways of the world when I set out. Perhaps I inherited the spiritual naivety my father possessed leaving me exposed to the unscrupulousness of others just as he was deceived.

Through all the trials and tribulations that were to beset me, I clung to thoughts of my family like a St. Christopher medallion and found consolation and perhaps some protection through that long and difficult journey despite many mishaps.

My adventures began when I applied for a post as an amanuensis for the explorer and writer, Laurence Povey, who had been blinded in a terrible accident though I was never told the exact circumstances. His successful career as adventurer and anthropologist had made him famous as a younger man and I looked forward to working for him.

I arrived at Drydon Hall by coach at dusk with lightning illuminating the turrets of the great house, feeling that the omens might be set against me for the horses were greatly disturbed and the driver had trouble controlling them in the high wind and raging storm.

It was pleasant enough in the hall, however, where a huge log fire battled with the draughts to some limited effect. It being the festive season, the housekeeper offered the driver mulled wine and he was glad of it, stamping his boots on the patterned tiles and blowing out his cheeks quite theatrically.

When he was paid and sent out to brave the elements once again, the housekeeper announced herself as Miss Brady and I informed her I was Isabel Dance and had come to take up the post they had advertised.

“If I knew you were otherwise I wouldn’t have let you in,” said the housekeeper not sarcastically but in a humorous tone. “I thought the storm might have delayed you longer. They say many trees are down and hen coops blown over and much damage besides.”

“It’ll be a wild night for anyone still travelling,” I replied.

“I’ll call for John to carry up your trunk,” said Miss Brady. “Come with me to the kitchen. You must be very cold and hungry. We don’t want you catching a chill.”

“You are very kind,” I said in keen anticipation of the meal.

She was a woman of maturing years but her face looked as though it had once been unusually comely and she had the high cheek bones that are such an advantage when a woman begins to age.

A nourishing looking stew was placed before me along with freshly baked bread, and, relieved of my cloak and bonnet, I sat at the huge kitchen table to devour the food beside another roaring fire. I was so hungry I had to make a conscious effort to slow down afraid Miss Brady would think me badly brought up.

“Our master can be taciturn and sometimes he is quite bad tempered,” began Miss Brady drawing up a chair. “But it was a tragic misfortune and he was still quite a young man, very virile and adventurous by all accounts. You will have heard of some of his exploits. You will be a boon to him. On more than one occasion I have offered to write down his words but for some reason he is not content with that suggestion. He tells me I have enough to do but I think there may be other reasons. Not many of the other servants are sufficiently literate to understand all his vocabulary or they’re too slow in their writing. You have the education to understand all his words and will be able to set them down more speedily.”

“I hope so, Miss Brady.”

“I’m sure you will be a great success. After your meal I’ll take you upstairs to meet him.”

“What does he write about?” I asked.

“I don’t really know, to tell the truth. I think he may write about his many travels and adventures.”

“Have you read anything he’s written?” My curiosity was genuine.

“I haven’t, my dear. There has been some strain between us over recent months. I think he regards me as being rather fussy and superficial. He can be quite critical but you learn to bear it because of his affliction. If he seems rude to you, Isabel, please do not take offence.”

Half an hour later I stood by Miss Brady’s side in the presence of the great Laurence Povey.

“Describe the young lady,” he demanded of his housekeeper in a peremptory tone.

“She is very pretty, sir.”

“Are you simply being polite or is she truly beautiful? Describe her in detail.”

“Isabel has dark silky brown hair and soft clear skin. She is quite tall and has good posture, carries herself like a lady. She has blue eyes and soft features with a slightly retroussey nose and full lips.”

“And her figure?”

“She is a slim girl, sir.”

“But womanly?”

“I am only twenty, sir,” I dared to intervene.

“Ah, your voice is not entirely displeasing,” he said. “I was afraid it might sound like a foghorn. Come closer.”

I came near him and when he reached out a hand I took it.

“A tiny delicate hand,” he said. “Please kneel.”

When I obeyed him he patted the top of my head then leant forward and it seemed he was taking deep breaths. It may sound indelicate but I fancied he was trying to catch my particular smell. It struck me how important this sense must be to someone who is blind adding greatly to their perception of the world around them.

And how should I describe my new master? Was he handsome and physically pleasing? The truth was that a mask hid the upper half of his face and I surmised the scarring round his eyes must have been too gruesome to be revealed. I wondered if he ever took the mask off, perhaps when he washed. Miss Brady had described my lips as full and it struck me that Laurence Povey had a most sensuous mouth. His body might have been strong and upright before his accident but as I looked at him he was bordering on the portly probably because of enforced idleness and he was no longer a young man.

When I was eating my meal in the kitchen before coming upstairs, Miss Brady had informed me that one of the pleasures Mr. Povey missed most of all was taking long walks with his Irish Wolfhound, named Pilot, and one of his greatest regrets was that the dog had to be put down.

“I cannot see my own shape,” he said, “but expect by now I am grotesque.” It was said with irritation rather than self-pity. “Yet that should not trouble Miss Isabel Dance who is here to make herself useful not to gape at me.”

“Indeed I am, sir,” I assured him. “I am ready to begin work as soon as you tell me.”

“Have you put Miss Dance in the pink rose room?” he asked Miss. Brady. “She needs to be close by whatever the hour as I never know when I will wish to write something?

“I have carried out all your instructions to the letter, sir.”

“I work best late at night, Miss Dance. There will be plenty of opportunities to catch up on your beauty sleep. I expect you are as vain as most of your sex?”

“I don’t believe I am particularly self-regarding, sir. No more than most people, I believe.”

“We’ll let that pass. Leave me now and I may call for you later.”

“Yes, sir,” we said in chorus.

My bedroom, which was across the corridor from my master’s, was tastefully furnished with curtains matching the pink rose wallpaper. When I pressed my hand down on the single bed it appeared to be comfortable with a sound mattress. Whoever John was he’d deposited my trunk on the rug and I set about unpacking my clothes and storing them in the cupboard drawers and in the wardrobe. The wardrobe had a mirror, slightly silvered round the edges, and I caught sight of myself and wondered if I was worthy of Miss Brady’s flattering description. I looked rather pale and drawn from the journey but my master would never see my face let alone discern subtle changes of disposition written there. In addition to feeling tired I was apprehensive about whether I could perform for him as he wished, or rather demanded. It was already clear that Laurence Povey didn’t suffer fools and would be intolerant of shortcomings or mistakes.

I worried that I might be in a deep sleep when he summoned me or I might vex him in some other way.

I knew he would not be able to check my writing himself for accuracy in my spelling and grammar but he might call on others to do so and I imagined he would ask for sections to be read back to him. It would be risky to be slovenly in my work nor would I wish to be careless and slipshod. I have always been conscientious in tasks I have undertaken though I have never been paid for my labours in the past. The thought that I was now to command a salary added to my nervousness.

There came a light knock on the door and I opened it to see a rather handsome young man carrying a tray.

“Miss. Brady said to bring your supper to your room madam, as the master may call for you.”

“Please place it on top of the cupboard there,” I told him. “Are you John?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you, John. Good Night.”

“Good night, ma’am.”

It was a supper of cold meats, cheese and pickle with more wedges of the delicious bread I’d eaten with my stew in the warm kitchen. After it, I felt sleepy and decided to prepare for bed with a view to snatching a few hours of slumber before I was summoned. My master had said he worked best late at night but I had no way of knowing to which hours of the clock he was referring. I turned down my lamp in the hope I might enjoy at least a few hours of rest.




I woke in the morning feeling greatly refreshed, realising I had not been called at all during the night. My only concern was that Mr. Povey might have formed the opinion that I was too delicate to cope with being roused in the small hours or that I would not be competent to do his work.

It was a fine sunny morning though cold and when I looked out I was surprised by a light covering of snow. There were broken branches lying about as testimony to the storm that had raged through the night but now everything was calm and still.

I was looking out on a magnificent garden. I could see a lake in the distance but couldn’t tell if it was frozen over. There were many trees and shrubs, dusted with white icing, including evergreens that would provide decoration for the Christmas festivities; some trimmed into hedges with clever topiary, overall a happy blend of the formal and informal. I felt up-lifted and full of optimism about my situation as I descended the staircase.

Miss Brady introduced me to Mrs. Troake, the cook, and a couple of young maids who flitted in and out of the cheerful kitchen as I ate my porridge. Then John appeared and told me that Mr. Povey wanted to see me.

“It is a beautiful crisp morning, sir,” I said by way of greeting, then wondered instantly whether I had said the wrong thing. It seemed hurtful to remind him of the sights of which he was deprived yet how else was one to hold anything like a normal conversation?

“Sit down beside me, Miss Dance. I will give you a little background to the story I wish to write.”

“Do I need pen and paper?” I asked, looking round.

“Not at this stage unless your memory is very bad which I would not expect in someone so young. You simply need to pay attention.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I will set this story in medieval
when religion was taken much more seriously than in our own God-forsaken times. We have religion neatly parcelled in a box, one decorated with bows and fripperies at this particular time of year. Are you fond of Christmas?”

“Yes, sir. It is a happy time especially for children,” I said, realising my answer would not please him.

“Nonsense! We have banished Christ from Christmas in favour of the worship of Mammon. Do not misunderstand me, I am not a believer myself but I see clearly what has happened. You must get used to blind people saying they can see things, Miss Dance. It means we have insight rather than out-sight, if you
what I mean?”

“I do, sir.”

“We will follow our heroine into a convent and see what life is like for her.”

I asked him if he meant to write a history of the religious houses. I had really expected his book to be reminiscences of his great adventures in
and other remote parts of the world. A cursory look round his rooms had revealed trophies like elephant tusks and there were many pictures of my master in tropical clothing. I could see various display cases which probably contained souvenirs of his journeys but I could not see into them.

BOOK: The Mortification of Isabel
11.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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