A Countess Below Stairs

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson Read Free Book Online

Book: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Eva Ibbotson
    Rupert frowned. Had he known it? Had he ever been in the attics in which his servants slept? Well, this was just the sort of thing which, from next month on, would be most competently dealt with. And, remembering the good news he was bringing his mother, and resisting an urge to offer the new housemaid the use of his own bathroom in the master suite, Rupert moved on up the stairs.
    - - - -*
    ‘Oh, my dear, I’m so happy for you! So terribly, terribly happy!’ The dowager’s eyes were misty as she looked at Rupert. ‘It was what I wanted for you so much, someone to share your life.’
    Mrs Park, remembering Rupert’s light appetite, had sent up a meal as exquisite as it was delicate: salmon in oyster sauce, croquettes of leveret with peas, and wild strawberries which Anna had found and picked in the woods behind the lake. With it they had drunk the Leitenheimer 1904 which Proom had saved for just this day and now the family was alone, taking coffee and liqueurs in the library.
    ‘I know.’ Rupert smiled at his mother and tried for the fifth time to push Baskerville off his feet. ‘And I know you’ll like Muriel. I can’t imagine a more suitable mistress for Mersham. Not that she will want to oust you.’ He stretched a hand out to his mother. ‘Mersham’s big enough for both of you, heaven knows!’
    ‘No, dear.’ The dowager shook her head. ‘There’s no house big enough in the world for two women. But you know I’ve always meant to move into the village when either of … when you got married. Colonel Forster’s promised to rent me the Mill House and I shall be very happy there. Now tell us about Muriel. Everything. Where did you meet her?’
    ‘In the hospital. She was a VAD and truly, mother, I think she saved my life. The other nurses were sweet but they all seemed to be straight out of finishing school.’ Rupert grinned ruefully, remembering curly-headed Belinda Ponsonby who had perched on his bed half the night smoking and sobbing about her boyfriends; Fiona Fitz-Herald who had dropped a scalding hot water bottle on to his gauze dressing and tiny, tender-hearted Zoe van Meek who had stuck a hypodermic halfway in his arm and fainted. ‘Muriel was always so calm and efficient and in control. You’ve no idea what it meant to me.’
    ‘I can imagine.’
    ‘I didn’t dream that she had come to care for me,’ he went on, and the dowager smiled for Rupert had always been unaware of the charm he held for women. ‘It wasn’t just that I knew she was an heiress - you know how people gossip in a hospital - but she’s also extremely beautiful. And an intellectual! She has this passionate interest in eugenics.’
    ‘Fair or dark?’ asked Uncle Sebastien, that life-long connoisseur of women.
    ‘Fair. Truly golden-haired with deep blue eyes. I don’t know if I’d ever have dared to propose with Mersham in the state it’s in, but she made it so easy for me.’ And Rupert frowned a little, trying to remember, for it had all been rather dream-like, his courtship of Muriel from his hospital bed. So much so that he couldn’t actually recall how they had got engaged. He’d just woken from a disturbed and pain-filled sleep and she’d been there beside him, holding his hand, promising to care for him and make of his beautiful home a place of which he would be deeply proud. ‘She’s so generous, too. She wants to see to the indoor running costs straight away - not even wait for the wedding. That’s why I asked you to engage only temporary staff.’
    ‘It all sounds delightful,’ said the dowager, ‘and of course completely explains why the sexton’s wife didn’t want him to give away his top hat. Now tell me, dear, when’s the wedding to be? And where? Because I must go at once and call on her parents.’
    ‘Well, mother, that’s the point. You see, Muriel’s an orphan.’
    ‘Oh, my dear! The poor, poor girl.’ Though genuinely devastated, the dowager was not averse to the removal of

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