I could not trace quite.
Her curls were like fir-cones – piled up, brown —
Or rather like tight-tied sheaves;
It seemed they could never be taken down…
And her lips were too full, some might say:
I did not think so. Anyway,
The shadow her lower one would cast
Was green in hue whenever she passed
Bright sun on midsummer leaves.
by Thomas Hardy
The great bastion of Micklegate Bar loomed white and hazy in the gathering blizzard: dwarfed beneath its portals, two figures, very similar in height, trudged slowly homewards.
The man’s hat and cape and curling beard were thick with snow, the young woman’s enveloping cloak already dragging heavily. Holding his umbrella over her, he guided every step, following a sheltering path within the walls.
By the old railway station, gas lamps flickered, dimmed by whirling, waltzing, moth-like flakes. Where that Italianate facade blended into mist, it was easy to imagine a religious house, ghostly friars still pacing empty cloisters, still tending, between those snowed-up tracks and the city wall, their long-vanished garden. Recalling a story heard in childhood, the woman stared hard and, shivering suddenly, moved closer to her companion.
‘Ghosts,’ she murmured.
He nodded; for him too, the place was charged. He thought of his youth, when prosperity had made that mean little street one of the busiest in York, when it seemed the world trod those worn pavements, and the shriek of trains in the night had come like a punctuation to every dream. Those days were gone forever, no more than shadowy memories, as ghostly as that vanished cloister.
Ahead of them, from a narrow alley an ill-clad figure emerged, sliding unsteadily towards a group of almshouses on the corner. Between those low roofs and a more imposing gable stood a tall building, once fine, which had been their childhood home. ‘Elliott’s Temperance Hotel’ was now a somewhat seedy-looking eating house, its peeling paint and greasy windows a poor reflection of the neighbourhood. Not even the snow could disguise that its period of prosperity was over.
Swamped by a sudden wash of memories, Edward Elliott sighed. ‘Do you remember, Louisa?’
‘How could I forget?’
Together they paused and looked up. Louisa shivered again, wondering why her cousin had chosen this route, with a well-lit thoroughfare running parallel only yards away.
‘I haven’t been this way in years,’ she confessed, knowing she never would by choice. Here, in Tanner Row, lay the remains of childhood, its mysteries and uncertainties dredged up with too little pleasure. With her eyes on the recessed doorway, she recalled secret anxieties and the reassurance of her cousin’s arms.
Then he had been the most important person in her young world: guardian, brother, confidant and friend. Their mothers were always too busy, engaged in seemingly endless toil; the servants less concerned, and Louisa’s two sisters too young at that time to understand the basic cruelties of life. Even her father, large and jovial, had been no more than a transitory visitor. Loaded with presents like an unseasonal Father Christmas, smelling of tobacco and raw wool from his business in the West Riding, he was kind and affectionate and Louisa adored him. But the significance of his brief visits had escaped her for many years. Accused at school of being fatherless, Louisa had always hotly denied it, providing fuel for further accusations.
In those days, she thought, nothing was ever satisfactorily explained. Even her father’s death might have gone unremarked, except for her mother’s tears, and the attendant minor scandal of his will. The outrage of his childless wife had known no bounds, although the will was eventually proven, the bequests handed over.
The events of that year, which was Louisa’s eighth and Edward’s twentieth, had prompted acrimony and ill-feeling and a departure from Tanner Row. The anxiety of those last days came back with sudden force. ‘I remember crying,’ Louisa confided softly, ‘because I thought you were leaving us too.’
Edward turned to look at her, the wistfulness of her expression catching him unawares. For a fleeting moment he was tempted to take her in his arms and kiss the pain away, as he had all those years ago; but she was no longer a child. With a small, awkward smile, he wiped a snowflake from her nose. ‘I know. My mother never forgave me for staying with you.’
‘But you went to live with her in the end,’ Louisa said, a small edge of resentment in her voice.
He shrugged. ‘There wasn’t much choice, then.’
It was a subject which had once been raw between them; on her part at least, the cause of much youthful heartbreak. With a click of her tongue, she said: ‘You’d be better off on your own, Edward – you don’t even get on with her.’
‘She’s my mother.’
And what has she ever done for you? Louisa wondered. With forced lightness, she said: ‘So what would you do if you were on your own?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he smiled. ‘Take a cottage in the country, write romantic verse for a living, lots of impractical things like that.’ Seized by the idea, he added: ‘And when you finally grow tired of looking after other people’s children, you can come and minister to me, instead.’
Laughing then, Louisa shook her head. ‘As soon as I can afford to — I’ll do that!’
‘I’ll hold you to it,’ he murmured; but the wind, as they rounded a corner, whipped his words away.
In the open reaches before the river, where strong gusts clutched at her skirts, she clung to him, glad of the shelter his body provided. She watched every footfall, steps uncertain in the treacherous leather boots she wore; but Edward’s eyes were less concerned, taken more by the transforming beauty of the blizzard.
Like some misplaced remnant of a Rhineland castle, the round tower of North Street Postern sat dredged with snow, its crumbling tiles capped by a perfect cone of white. Once part of the city’s defences, it squatted by the river’s edge, overshadowed by the cast-iron span of a new bridge across the Ouse. Below, the crusted masts of boats and barges loomed, each spar and halyard ghosted against the river’s obsidian depths; on the far bank, bowed by the snow, huge trees bent their branches earthward. Edward’s soul was stirred, too affected by the city’s everyday grime not to feel the power of that silent magic.
Lifting his face to the tingling flakes, for a moment he forgot the reason for their journey and gave himself up to delight. He had seen so little of Louisa while she had been working away, the thought of sharing her company regularly made him feel quite ridiculously young again.
‘It’s so good to have you back,’ he said with heartfelt sincerity. ‘When the summer comes, we must spend more time together — like the old days.’ Fumbling in his pocket for coins for the toll, he asked: ‘How’s the new job going? It seems weeks since we had a chance to talk.’
Reluctant to admit that she was far from happy, Louisa sighed. ‘It is weeks.’ Edward’s recommendation had secured the position, and it seemed churlish to complain that the hours were long and her duties onerous. Perhaps she had been spoiled in her last place, she thought; but with their profligate ways, her old employers had been forced to leave for Italy, where the living was cheap, if less convenient.
In describing her new employer, not quite jokingly, as a tight-fisted old skinflint, she made her cousin laugh. He knew the family well, having been indentured to their senior bookbinder as a boy. He was now in that position himself, a valued right hand when Albert Tempest was away on business.
‘I know the old man barks a lot,’ he admitted, ‘and I dare say he finds the girls a trial since their mother died, but I rub along with him all right. I’m sure you will too, once you get to know him better.’ A moment later he asked: ‘Do you regret not going abroad with your other people?’
With a wistful smile, she shook her head. ‘I miss them — and I imagine the weather’s better in Italy! But no, I don’t regret it. Especially now, with Mamma suddenly ill like this… Tell me honestly –is she very bad?’
‘Well, she’s taken to her bed — never a good sign with your mother. Apparently, one of the guests went down with something a few days ago – but he’s recovering now.’
She turned to look at him. ‘It’s the ‘flu, I suppose?’
Gravely, he agreed. Influenza was sweeping the country, rapidly reaching epidemic proportions: many people were dying of it. ‘She has a marvellous constitution,’ he said reassuringly. ‘Don’t worry — she’ll be up and about in no time.’
At the confluence with Lendal there was a muddle of carriages, horses and coachmen having difficulty negotiating the tight corners in the snow. Edward and Louisa tramped on, past the theatre where jewelled coiffures vied with foyer lights, across Bootham to battle with wind and snow sweeping down the straight northern length of Gillygate.
Bessie met them at the front door, pulling off their wet things, fussing over the umbrella and ushering them through into the large kitchen at the back. A rich aroma of beef broth assailed their cold-sharpened senses, while coals glowed red beneath the simmering stew-pot, and the black-leaded range shone beneath a fringe of utensils hanging from a cluttered mantelpiece. Before the fire a tabby cat snoozed, regarding the newcomers with one half-open yellow eye before returning to its slumbers. There was a scrubbing brush resting on the massive, part-scoured wooden table, its accompanying bucket of cold water beneath on the quarry-tiled floor.
‘Mind that bucket,’ the old servant ordered as Louisa hugged her. ‘Sit yourselves down while I make a pot of tea. You must be starved through.’
In spite of the circumstances, Louisa thought, it was good to be home. Breathing the aromatic steam of the broth, she was reminded of her mother’s sumptuous dinners, and her mouth watered. Meals at the Tempests’ were stodgy, tasteless and unbearably repetitive. Like their arguments, she thought grimly, recalling the most recent confrontation between her employer and his elder daughter.
She was tired. With a sigh she acknowledged the fact and bent to examine her steaming skirts. The cat, disturbed, rolled over and stretched ecstatic paws towards the swaying hem of her dress. Its soft, mottled underfur was too tempting; she bent to tickle its stomach, and, affronted, the cat righted itself, reassessed its surroundings and took a graceful leap onto Edward’s knee.
‘Daft creature,’ muttered Bessie. Pushing past Louisa, she reached for the tea-pot and poured a cup for each of them. Cutting two hefty slabs of Christmas cake, she silenced Edward’s protests with a wave of one enormous, reddened hand. ‘You don’t get enough down you, Mr Edward — far too thin, always were. How’s your dear Mam, God bless her?’
‘Not so well at the moment, Bessie. This weather doesn’t do a lot for her bronchitis, I’m afraid.’
‘Aye, she’ll have to keep indoors, especially with all this ‘flu about. You mind you take good care of her, Mr Edward — it could carry her off, you know.’
Catching Edward’s glance, Louisa shook her head. ‘Take no notice,’ she silently mouthed. Edward simply smiled and pulled his chair closer to the fire. ‘I’ll do my best,’ he said, and sipped at the scalding tea.
A few minutes later, Louisa made for the door. ‘I must go up and see Mamma, and let Emily know we’re here.’
‘I shall have to be going,’ Edward said, glancing at the clock. ‘But I’ll call first thing in the morning, on my way to work. The old man will want to know the latest news.’
‘When I’m coming back, you mean,’ Louisa observed with some asperity. ‘Anyway, give my regards to Aunt Elizabeth. And thanks for coming for me,’ she added with a warm smile. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’
Look out for chapter two in the next few days