It was morning but the bedroom was still as black as pitch when Eve Williams opened her eyes. Wednesday, she thought. Nearly payday, and it couldn’t come a moment too soon. The housekeeping tin on the kitchen shelf was already empty, except for a button that was still waiting to be sewn on to Eliza’s pinafore. Miserable business, buttons in the housekeeping. They made the tin rattle and then sat there, worthless, when you opened it.
She lay still for a while, pressed flat by the weight of the blankets, staring into the blackness. There was the merest sound beside her, the soft and steady rise and fall of Arthur’s breath, but that was all, and from the quality of the darkness and the depth of the quiet, she could tell it was early, probably too early to rise, though that had never stopped her before. She gave herself a few seconds longer in the warm hollow of the mattress, and listened for clues. Nothing. Even Clem Waterdine wasn’t about yet, shuffling on bandy legs along the terraces, knocking up the day shift. He was generally the first soul out in Netherwood on these merciless winter mornings, but Eve was almost always awake to hear him and however reluctantly she might leave the warmth of her bed, there was always a particular pleasure to be had by stealing a march on the day, pottering about in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil and the tea to brew.
The cold hit her like a wall when she slid from under the layers of heavy wool, going carefully so as not to wake her sleeping husband. Her bare feet made contact with the linoleum floor and she winced, noiselessly, thinking for the umpteenth time that she needed a rug there. It was only ever first thing in the morning that it crossed her mind. Speed was of the essence now that she had left the protection of the bed, and she groped blindly on the floor for the thick stockings she kept there for just such emergencies as these. They were coarse and heavy, the sort of wool that pricked at the skin and that the children hated to wear, but they gave instant relief from the shocking cold. On they went. Next, a shawl, which she wrapped and tucked tightly around her upper half like swaddling. Then, suffi ciently well clad to risk the journey, she moved carefully across the bedroom floor, sidestepping the loose boards and making her way through the inky darkness. In her head she held the coordinates for the bed, the dresser, the known creaks and the exact position of the doorknob, so her progress across the small room was effi ciently managed even though her arms remained pinned to her side by the shawl. At the door, she released a hand to turn the knob and pull it open, but then she stood still for a moment, listening. Arthur’s breathing continued regular and undisturbed, and she stepped out of the bedroom and on to the small landing where all her strenuous efforts to be silent were almost undone because right behind her a small voice whispered: ‘Mam.’
It was Eliza, so close that she almost knocked her over. Eve, heart hammering, managed to hold in the scream but took a few moments to recover herself, then crouched down to the same height as the little girl. Still Eve couldn’t see her, but Eliza’s breath was on her face.
‘You scared me ‘alf to death,’ Eve said, whispering too.
‘I ‘ad a bad dream. Is it morning?’
‘Not for you. Back to bed. T’dream’s gone now.’
”as it? ‘ow do you know?’
‘Because they do when you wake. Especially when you wake and tell your mam.’
‘Let’s give ‘im a shove on our way past then. Come on, back you go.’
Eve stood and, finding Eliza’s shoulders with her hands, she steered her into the children’s bedroom. Seth was indeed snoring, though very softly. He slept the way his father did, flat on his back, like someone had just knocked him out in the ring. She gave his shoulder a gentle shake and he protested sleepily, but shifted position and the snoring stopped. Eliza, back in bed, said:
‘Shhhh. Quieter. What?’
‘Is there stewmeat gravy?’
Only Eliza would think of her next meal when the house was in darkness and dawn was still some hours away. She was thin as a lath, but was always first at the table and last to get down.
‘Not if I don’t get downstairs,’ said Eve. ‘Go to sleep now, else you’ll be droppin’ off in t’schoolroom.’
‘See you in t’mornin’ then,’ said Eliza.
‘You will.’ She found the child’s head, and kissed it, then navigated her way carefully out of the room. Nothing much could wake Seth when he was sleeping but the baby, Ellen, seemed always to be on red alert, determined not to miss anything. It was a wonder that Eliza hadn’t already woken her, with her night-time wanderings. Again, just as she had in her own room, she paused at the open door, listening. Then she turned and went downstairs to the kitchen.
Eve and Arthur lived with their three children in Beaumont Lane, a short terrace of eight stone houses without front gardens, but backing on to a cobbled yard, which was shared by the residents of Watson Street and Allott’s Way. The streets ran at right angles to each other, forming three sides of a square, the fourth side being completed by the privies, which were housed in a long, low-roofed building divided into separate stalls, one for each family. A narrow entry part way down Watson Street led into the yard, enabling residents and visitors to enter the houses via the back. Nobody used the front doors. They could have been bricked up and not be missed.
The houses had been built in 1850 by William Hoyland, the fifth Earl of Netherwood, father of the present earl, and a man whose great fortune was matched by a desire to do good. He had thrown himself with philanthropic zeal into the expansion and improvement of Netherwood town, and had conducted exacting interviews with a number of architects before settling on Abraham Carr, who demonstrated by word and deed his belief that the working classes were as entitled as anyone to finials, fan lights and front steps. Mr Carr drew up plans for several hundred new dwellings for the folk of Netherwood, and while all his terraces differed subtly from each other, they shared the same sturdy integrity and solidity that seemed to declare an intention to stand there for ever.
Eve loved her home from the day she moved in, even though there was a full five days’ cleaning to be done before she felt she’d made it her own. She and Arthur had taken the tenancy when they married, she a lovely girl of seventeen, him an old man of thirty and a miner at New Mill Colliery. They were filling a dead man’s shoes, taking up residence two days after the burial of old Digby Caldwell, who had clung on to life for some years longer than his neighbours expected him to, and for many years longer than they would have liked. He had stubbornly sat out his dotage with an unapologetic disregard for health or hygiene, leaving for Eve the charming housewarming gift of twenty-five makeshift chamber pots in varying shapes and sizes, each one brimful and reeking and dotted at random through the rooms. Arthur had been all for keeping some of the vessels as there were one or two decent saucepans and basins among them but Eve had given him short shrift. She would rather manage with what little they had than picture Digby Caldwell relieving himself every time she steamed a pudding.
And then there’d been the kitchen range, turned through disuse into a devil of a job, the iron rusted and the flue cracked. There was a dead crow up the pipe; Arthur had felt it as he groped up there checking for blockages and had pulled it out by one wing, stiff and sinister, its beak open in outrage. At the time it seemed to Eve a portent of sorrow, but she’d long ago forgotten it. The estate sent a welder to mend the flue but the rest was up to her, and she had scrubbed at it inside and out with wire wool and sandpaper until her fingers bled, then had black-leaded it back to a showroom shine. She’d made a good friend that day, though; she and the range were allies. It performed for nobody as well as it performed for Eve.
Arthur had watched in bewildered silence as his wife went through the house like a dose of salts. He couldn’t step out of the back door without some small, womanly improvement springing up behind him. His young wife had some fancy ideas. Deep lace curtains around the base of the brass bed to conceal the pot underneath. Brodded rag rugs, made not from the usual dreary mud colours but in brighter shades, blues and greens and yellows, worked into clever designs from a collection of carefully hoarded scraps. Jolly little jugs and jars of wild flowers made a seasonal appearance in unexpected places, and at the windows were pretty curtains made from a bolt of cloth that Eve had been given by the draper in exchange for two of her meat-and-potato pies. Her ingenuity astounded Arthur, though he never told her so because he felt foolish for noticing, and anyway he lacked the language of compliments and endearments. But he admired her silently and treated her well, and he never sat down to a meal in his muck from the pit but sluiced it off in the tin tub first, no matter how famished he was. These small acts of kindness were his way of showing appreciation, and for Eve, who knew this, they were enough.
She had been downstairs for over an hour this morning before she heard the distant tattoo of Clem’s pole. Turnpike Lane, she thought, head cocked, listening. No, Brook Lane. In this stillness before dawn she could track his movements and if the kettle wasn’t on by the time he reached Watson Street, she knew she was running behind. She moved quietly around the small kitchen, going about her business, performing the rituals of early morning. This was her domain. She had mended the fire in the range, coaxing the barely smouldering coals back into life until she could safely pile a proper shovelful of new fuel into the hatch behind the bottom door. Now the water in the vast copper set pot was slowly heating, shuddering with new warmth, promising comfort. On a floured board, under clean linen cloths, three softly plump mounds of risen dough were waiting for her attention. Taking up a broad-bladed knife, she sliced a quick, deep cross in the top of each then opened the top door of the range and gingerly popped in a square of newspaper from a tin on the dresser top. The paper curled in the heat and began, in a leisurely way, to turn golden brown – not bucking and blackening as it did when the oven was too hot, but gradually colouring over the course of half a minute. Eve fetched the loaves and slid them into place in the oven. Then she set a pan of stewmeat to reheat at the back of the range, filled the kettle from the set pot and placed it to boil on the heat.
By now the sound of Clem’s stick on his customers’ windows was loud enough to raise the dead, let alone the sleeping. Hard of hearing, that was his problem. A whack sounded like a tap to Clem. Really, thought Eve, he’d be cracking the panes at this rate, spending the few coppers he earned on repairs. She wrapped the thick shawl tighter around her shoulders and pulled back the bolts on the door. Bracing herself for the cold she stuck her head out into the morning and waited for the old man to pass the entry. And there he was, bent against the chill, pole in his right hand, an oil lamp in his left.
‘Clem,’ she hissed. ‘Clem!’
She startled him and he stopped dead, peering suspiciously towards the sound.
‘It’s me, Clem. Eve,’ she whispered, as loudly as she could.
He came closer, and in the feeble light from his lamp was able to pick out the extraordinary sight of Eve Williams in a nightdress, shawl and woollen stockings, standing on her doorstep.
‘Ey up, lass,’ he said, astounded. ‘Tha’ll catch thi death!’
‘Never mind me,’ said Eve. ‘It’s you! Shoutin’ an’ ‘ammerin’. Pipe down!’
Clem grinned at her, toothlessly. His walnut face was pinched and blue-tinged with cold, in spite of the heavy overcoat, thick scarf and old flat cap he’d been wearing for half a century, but his rheumy eyes were full of pleasure at seeing Eve. She looked pretty as a picture, he thought to himself, with her long brown hair loose and that stern look in her bonny eyes. Aye, even in a temper she was a fine-looking lass.
‘Just doin’ my job, flower,’ he said. ‘If I don’t wake ’em, no bugger else will.’
He sniffed the air and nodded towards the kitchen behind her. ‘That’s a grand smell comin’ from in there,’ he said, his artful old face adopting a wistful look. And Eve, who was fonder of Clem than she chose to let on and who never could resist a plea for food, ushered him in.
A stranger walking the streets of Netherwood, hoping from there to find Netherwood Hall, would almost certainly fail unless he resorted to asking directions from a local. Unlike many great country houses, the hall had been built not on high ground with commanding views of its own parkland and beyond, but in a wide, shallow valley whose gently sloping sides sheltered the house and its inhabitants from prying eyes.
A stone wall, mellowed over the years by lichen and more than ten miles in length, encircled the park and gardens of the house, although it by no means marked the limits of the Hoyland family’s ownership, which extended for many square miles beyond. Within the walls lay the usual trappings of wealth and power – gently undulating pasture and parkland dotted with coppices and cattle and leading eventually to a majestic garden of many different elements, each one more charming than the last. A network of paths led the visitor on a tour of the varied delights; an oriental water garden with a miniature pagoda at its centre and a collection of ancient goldfi sh, whose lazy circuits of the pond gently broke the stillness of the dark green water; a rose garden with numerous fragrant blooms of every possible hue, whose blowsy heads graced silver bowls in the entrance hall of the great house; a circular maze of dense yew, which successive generations of young Hoylands had mastered by sheer perseverance, but which always foxed the unsuspecting newcomer; a shady grove of rhododendrons and azaleas with flowers as big as Sunday hats and branches old enough and tall enough to climb; hothouses that cocked a snook at the northern climate with their abundant display of exotic blooms and tropical fruits; and lush acres of sweeping lawns, immaculately kept, bordered on all sides by wide paths of dusty pink gravel, swept daily into soothing stripes by one of the thirty-five gardeners employed at the hall.
The house itself could be reached from the outside world by any one of four tree-lined avenues, one north, one south, one east and one west of the property, and each one leading from massive ironwork gates bearing the Hoyland crest. The avenues were each a mile in length and each, at its end, converged on the same broad circular carriageway that surrounded the house. The four avenues had been planted with their own different species of tree, and were named after them; Oak Avenue was perhaps the most frequently used and therefore the most admired, leading as it did from the gate closest to the town of Netherwood on the south side of the estate, but Poplar, Lime and Cedar avenues, though less often seen by visitors, were stately and handsome, and maintained to the same lofty standards.
As befitted the splendour of its grounds, Netherwood Hall presented a magnifi cent face to the world from whichever direction you chose to view it, although naturally its front aspect was the most impressive. To the family who dwelt there, the Earl and Countess of Netherwood and their four children, this was simply home, but to anyone else it was a glorious, grandiose masterpiece. Built in 1710 for John Hoyland, the first Earl of Netherwood, whose forebears had ensured his fortune through judicious marriages and the canny acquisition of land, the hall was the largest private house in England. An earlier, humbler, timber-framed manor house built in Tudor times by an ancestor was pulled down to make way for this new and potent symbol of the family’s wealth and status. At its furthest extremities, the east and west wings were identical, massively built square towers which jutted forwards like vigilant stone sentries. At the top of each tower was a cupola housing a great iron bell, and when both were rung together, on high days and holidays, their peals were said to be heard as far away as Derbyshire. Between the east and west towers, the main body of the house ran flat and simple, with two long rows of eighteen windows, each one identical to its neighbour. At the centre of the building stood a proud, eight-columned portico with curved stone staircases left and right leading up to a gallery from which one could view the gardens, and also to four towering French windows, each giving potential access to the fine reception rooms on the first floor. However, these doors were rarely used for any practical purpose, the portico being intended primarily to declare to the world the full pomp and circumstance of the noble family inside. Instead, the house was generally entered through a pair of great brass-studded wooden double doors in the shady recess beneath the portico. They opened on to a pillared entrance hall with a marble floor that rang out underfoot and a domed, painted ceiling depicting richly coloured images from the lives of the Roman emperors. Many a titled guest, visiting for the first time and being themselves the owners of a fine country estate, were nevertheless rendered temporarily speechless by the grandeur.
To enter the gates and progress through the park and grounds of Netherwood Hall was to leave behind all trace of the corner of northern England that it inhabited. There were stately homes up and down the country where visitors gasped at the splendour of the estate yet barely noticed a change in the landscape as they left the great park for the Surrey – or Sussex or Worcestershire or Norfolk – countryside beyond. But at Netherwood Hall, the contrast could not have been more marked between the worlds within and without the perimeter wall. In a thirty-mile radius there were just short of a hundred collieries, so that whichever direction you journeyed as you left, you were before long assailed by the scars inflicted by heavy industry on the hills, fi elds and valleys of this corner of the county. As their barouche or landau rattled its way north towards Barnsley or south towards Sheffi eld, the traveller’s view through the carriage window would be of slag heaps, headstocks, smoke stacks and railway tracks. Only with the blinds of the carriage window pulled down was it possible to imagine the verdant meadows of the agricultural past.
But verdant meadows never made anyone’s fortune; it was the stuff beneath them that counted here, and which was the continued source of the now-fabled fortune of Edward Hoyland, sixth Earl of Netherwood. Because in 1710, when the building of the great hall began, John Hoyland unwittingly laid the foundations of the family seat on a wellspring of seemingly limitless wealth. At the end of the eighteenth century, when the prosperous family already wanted for nothing, their Yorkshire estate was discovered to include, far beneath it, one of the richest seams of coal the country had to offer.
New Mill, Long Martley and Middlecar. These were the three collieries owned by the Earl of Netherwood and mined by his
men. They were small pits by some standards – just over six hundred miners at each of them – but they were productive, yielding half a million tons a year of fine quality coal to help stoke the fires of industrial progress. The third earl, Wilfred Hoyland, had named the collieries back when they were sunk, and nobody knew where or what he was thinking of, except that by leaving Netherwood or Hoyland out of the matter he hoped to distance his family from any socially ruinous associations with industry. Of course, everyone knew anyway and rather despised him for it, and in any case his efforts went unappreciated by subsequent earls of Netherwood, who had the good sense to recognise the truth of that old Yorkshire maxim: where there’s muck, there’s brass.
Certainly Teddy Hoyland, the present earl, saw no conflict between his status in society and the fact that his vast fortune was increased daily by the efforts of the eighteen hundred men and boys employed at his collieries. And the mining of coal was truly a profitable pursuit. When his father died in 1878, Teddy had inherited a legacy of dazzling proportions; a private fortune of £2.5 million, a mansion in London’s Belgravia, a small, sturdy castle in Scotland and twenty thousand acres of the West Riding of Yorkshire, with Netherwood Hall at its heart. His prestige and position were unassailable and he saw no reason on earth to curtail what his wife considered a vulgar compulsion to speak openly about business matters. In the countess’s view, one’s wealth was a given, and the source of it neither interesting nor relevant, but Teddy Hoyland was proud of his collieries and proud of his men and, broadly speaking, he was liked and respected by them for his fairness and decency. It has to be said that Lady Netherwood was less of a favourite, though this gave her not a moment’s unease. A true daughter of the aristocracy, she was entirely defined by her impeccable pedigree and found there were quite enough people of her own class and position to provide diversion without having to bother much about those at the bottom of the heap. Even the county set, those neighbours and acquaintances whose situation was less grand than Lady Netherwood’s but nevertheless whose lives ran along the same lines, didn’t get much of a look in. Clarissa preferred the stimulation of London society: the attack, feint and parry of cocktails in Cheyne Walk or dinner in Devonshire Place. Still, the countess was known to have a heart; it was she, after all, who forbade the Netherwood Hall kitchen staff to throw away leftover food after supper parties and banquets, and ordered instead that it should be distributed among the needy of the town. This was a mixed blessing, since devilled eggs, sole bonne femme and chocolate parfait, while all individually delicious, were not necessarily as palatable when slopped together in the same tin. Her motives were good, though. And her beauty and elegance, when she did deign to appear in public in the town, always caused a stir of excited interest, as if a rare and endangered bird had flown over Netherwood.