Aurelia Gammersgill sat near the window in her parlor and pushed aside the lace curtain. Hilltop House was situated at the top of the village of Bloxley Bottom and afforded her an unobstructed view of all that transpired upon the road that sloped gently upwards towards her doorstep before it took a sharp turn westward. Aurelia required that her chair be placed in the path of the window’s natural light in order to attend to her needlework. The fact that this placement of her chair also afforded Aurelia an unimpeded view upon the village's inhabitants and their daily business was secondary. Or so she told herself. Whilst Aurelia sat here, however, she rarely missed seeing who was to-ing and fro-ing, who went into the bakery or who led horses to the blacksmith at the bottom of the road or who entered the Crowing Cock Inn.
Aurelia rarely observed much excitement. Most mornings found a small bustle of activity in and out of the bakery. Mr. Turner’s cinnamon-laced buns fed many a village household, not to mention anyone who happened to drop in at the Inn’s coffee room. And when the nearby shop received a new shipment of goods, word spread throughout the village in a trice. Many were the times Aurelia and Millicent had snatched up their bonnets in order to be amongst the early visitors to the yard goods counter or to inspect a newly arrived collection of colorful ribbon spools.
The road that wound its way through the village and past Aurelia's home was tree-shaded and bordered by flower-laden gardens and white-washed cottages along its upper reaches. The goose girl and her brother drove their flock to the green every morning, complicating the flow of carts and wagons in front of the blacksmith shop. The twice daily arrival of the coach from Canterbury on its way to Walmer and Deal brought the mail. If there were letters for Aurelia or Millicent, someone from the Crowing Cock Inn could be counted upon to deliver them within an hour of their arrival, though Millicent often sent their kitchen-girl to fetch the post if she were expecting a package. Millicent spent a great deal of her time and a fair share of her meager resources ordering goods from near and far, although the farther the better, and she relished receiving parcels in the mail. Whether they contained soap, confections or fabric notions, the contents of the parcels were more often than not a surprise to Millicent, who would have forgotten placing her orders by the time they had arrived.
This bright morning, Aurelia noted a lone horseman coming towards the bend in the road and she watched as he touched his hat to the various people who stood in the shop doorways. Long before she was able to make out his face, Aurelia knew it was the Duke, no doubt on his way to visit the dowager baroness, whose house stood less than a quarter mile west. Ah, the most excellent Duke of Wellington. How fortunate they were in their little village of Boxley Bottom to have him visit so often. Aurelia herself had taken tea in his presence several times when he’d arrived at Lady Louisa’s unexpectedly. Such a fine, erect figure of a man, and so courteous to everyone. It made her heart flutter to think she knew this national hero, the very man who had led the army at Waterloo. Let’s see, she thought. That would have been sixteen, no seventeen, years ago next month.
Down the hill, the Duke stopped to speak to someone and Aurelia’s thoughts drifted back to the year 1815. Her husband had still been alive and representing clients in Crawley, just south of London. But he already suffered ill health. Two years later, she’d been left alone, long before she had ever expected to be widowed, especially without much in the way of means. Why he had not made provisions for her … she’d never understood. It had been necessary for Aurelia to sell their home and to withdraw to rented rooms in Tunbridge Wells where she lived for several years, enduring a long string of inelegant dishes – her landlady, Mrs. Scarcely, had lived up to her name, serving greasy mutton and limp cabbage for Sunday dinner.
How fortunate that she and Millicent had been able to combine their resources and find this comfortable home together, with a lovely church and unexpectedly agreeable company nearby. Millicent had her precious silver and Aurelia her fine china, which gave their little gatherings a particularly elegant touch. They were both happy with their quiet lives, gardening and working on silk-embroidered hangings for the church or for others in the village. Yes, Millicent was a worthy woman, and she always meant well, even if she more often than not spoke more than she ought. There were some who might consider Millicent a good natured gossip, though Aurelia would never say as much.
The Duke's horse was moving along again, the Duke on his way to the Dower House to see the Dowager Baroness Bloxley. Lady Louisa lived along the road to Bloxley Park and the Hall itself. She had an imperious manner sometimes, Aurelia mused, but she was an earl’s daughter and probably had moved in more exalted circles when she was young, certainly more exalted than Bloxley Bottom’s collection of residents. But her loss was Aurelia’s and Millicent’s gain. They visited Lady Louisa at least once a week, when she had her Afternoons. Which reminded Aurelia that she and Millicent would be visiting the vicar and his wife today. She hoped there would be no disagreements over the upcoming rose festival among the ladies of the parish. Oftentimes, it seemed to Aurelia as though Mrs. Miriam Newton, the vicar’s wife, was wont to find amusement in the little contretemps that errupted among the ladies. My, Aurelia chastened herself, but that was an uncharitable thought. Quite unworthy indeed.
A much safer topic of conversation might be receipts for seed cake. She tucked this thought away in the hopes of being able to call it forward should a diversion be needed. The endless variations of seed cake receipts were always good for a comfortable chat, and rarely led to controversy. Aurelia reminded herself to pick some newly blooming early lavender, the French variety for which Millicent had sent away. One hesitated to admit the French could outgrow the English when it came to such a basic plant as lavender, but perhaps their milder climate in southern France caused improvements. A superior variety would have nothing to do with the contentious nature of the French people whatsoever.
The Duke was almost at the top of the hill. After he visited Lady Louisa, Aurelia was certain he would continue on to Bloxley Park in order to discuss important matters with the baron. Not that Aurelia was able to imagine what these might be, as men did have their little ways of arranging things to their own satisfaction. Whatever his goal today, the Duke was a welcome visitor to Bloxley Bottom.