Lady Alicia glides across the polished, wooden floor of the drawing room and stands by the tall windows. Mist creeps across the ornamental lake and shrouds the deer park built by her husband Henry’s ancestors in the style of Capability Brown.
It is, undeniably, lovely.
She rests against the table, a masterpiece of the Italian pietra dura stone marquetry technique, using stones from all over England: Blue John, fossil-filled Frosterley Marble, some lovely quartz. She is careful to avoid the broken part, smashed by a drunk groom, reeling with his bride, having stayed too long at his party.
But what is all this beauty worth, when your heart is wrung, your world rent asunder, your bones ache, and you are without issue?
‘If someone offers you a castle, best to say no.’
She had heard the words recently, voiced in male tones. They floated around her head like ether. Like a spirit. She should have heard it sooner, when, as the young Alicia Robertson, she had married Sir Henry Day Ingilby Bart.
It had been very good match for both families. And they had passed a good life together, she and Henry. Good except, of course, for the awful, awful things: the passing of dear little Henry Haggertson, taken before he grew out of his skirts, following so closely on that of his sister Mary Alicia, gone only a year before her brother, aged just nine.
All of this. All these riches, this responsibility, this upkeep, this band of servants to look after, this duty. For what?
And then, decades later, husband Henry – who never was the same again, not really – blows out his poor, cankered brains in this very room.
Left for her to find him, and all the mess.
Best to say no to that castle. Lead a simpler life. Without expectation.
Her heart and head heavy with all the sadness of a gilded, yet broken life, Alicia sighs, and shimmers. Then a sudden interruption startles her.
She turns to see Dorothy, who has frozen in the doorway, looking towards her but not at her, not quite.
‘Is that you, Poor Lady Alicia?’ Dorothy says, as usual.
‘It is me,’ Alicia says, but, as usual, no one hears. She bows her head, gracious as ever, and disappears.
Gently, Dorothy ushers the tour group in and shows them the marquetry table, mended with sellotape after a drunken guest fell across it at one of the weddings that frequently take place at the castle.
‘Why allow them then?’ a grey haired gentleman in a neoprene cagoule and walking boots asks. ‘Drunkards among all this lovely stuff.’
‘It costs a fortune to keep a place like this afloat,’ Dorothy says, and goes on to tell the group about the current Lord Ingilby’s ambivalence upon inheriting the estate, and what he said, jokingly.