Considered a troublesome burden, Evelyn Talbot is banished by her family to their remote country house. Tall Chimneys is hidden in a damp and gloomy hollow. It is outmoded and inconvenient but Evelyn is determined to save it from the fate of so many stately homes at the time - abandonment or demolition.
Occasional echoes of tumult in the wider world reach their sequestered backwater - the strident cries of political extremists, a furore of royal scandal, rumblings of the European war machine. But their isolated spot seems largely untouched. Often, life is hard - little more than survival, but there are times when it feels enchanted, almost outside of time itself. The woman and the house shore each other up - until love comes calling, threatening to pull them asunder.
Her desertion will spell its demise, but saving Tall Chimneys could mean sacrificing her hope for happiness, even sacrificing herself.
A century later, a distant relative crosses the globe to find the house of his ancestors. What he finds in the strange depression of the moor could change the course of his life forever.
One woman, one house, one hundred years.
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Ratton was perhaps ten or twelve years my senior, a man of few personal charms but large ambition; I took an instant dislike to him. He had round, lashless eyes and a small, misshapen blob of a nose. Nothing escaped him, not the least suggestion of an extra bucket of coal in the servants’ hall or the hint of a purloined hare in a ploughman’s pot. He sniffed out and came down hard on any perceived misdeed, reducing housemaids to tears for the smallest misdemeanour and dressing down farm-workers in a voice which carried from the estate office, behind the stables, to the morning room without any tempering of volume or expletive colour. While parsimonious with others, he denied himself nothing, living, while George and his wife were in town, as de facto owner of the house, lording it over the servants and tenant farmers, occupying the second best suite of rooms and wolfing down the choicest of comestibles and the finest wines in the cellar.
The first evening of my residence we dined together, he at the head of the table, me at the foot – a ridiculous and anti-social arrangement which made conversation difficult and made extra work for the servants. It soon became clear that these things were entirely by Mr Ratton’s design. He enjoyed sending the staff scurrying hither and thither, rejecting dishes and then changing his mind about them so they had to be brought in again. He spoke to me as though from a great height as well as a great distance, emphasising my extreme smallness and insignificance.
‘You are lucky,’ he stated, heavily, to me, ‘that your brother and sister in law are prepared to accommodate you here. Many girls in your situation would have been placed elsewhere and expected to make their own way. Perhaps in the end you will think it might have been preferable.’
I told him in a quiet but prideful voice that I felt my good fortune. I would make the best of being allowed to return home.
‘One wonders,’ he mused, swilling wine around a heavily embellished goblet, ‘why they did not accommodate you in town. Perhaps,’ he gave a twisted, almost suggestive grin, ‘they consider the tone there unsuitable. They do entertain some rather… outré guests.’
I made no reply to this observation.
‘The house is sadly depleted since you were last here and George is here but rarely,’ Ratton went on to observe. ‘You will lack for company. You will be lonely. It is hardly suitable. Some might say it is hardly respectable. You ought to have a female companion.’
The idea of the smug, porky individual at the far end of the table posing any kind of threat to my maiden reputation was laughable, but I restrained myself from saying so. It was on the tip of my tongue to suggest that, if he felt the delicacy of my situation so keenly, he ought to move into the agent’s quarters which I knew were provided for him above the estate office. ‘I will use the time to improve myself,’ I said instead. ‘I shall enjoy the outdoors when the weather is fine. When it is not, the library is well-stocked.’
‘Indeed.’ He nodded. ‘No doubt your education has left you lacking in real knowledge. Girls are taught accomplishments, merely. I cannot think your schooling will be much use to you here.’
I felt stung. This accusation was unfair; my schooling had been pretty thorough in arts and humanities although rather coy on the subject of science.
'While your brother is from home, I run the house very frugally,’ he told me. ‘I told Jones to serve dinner tonight to celebrate your arrival, but after this we will take it separately, in our , unless there is company. You will not find it very convivial.’
I wanted to laugh at Ratton’s idea of a celebratory meal; nothing could have been colder or less hospitable than the atmosphere at table. The prospect of dining alone, even in my rooms, which were dour enough, was a preferable prospect.
‘Of course,’ I agreed. ‘I shall try to incommode your arrangements as little as possible.’
Clearly, having gained his object, Mr Ratton lapsed into silence.