Ivy and Intrigue: A Very Selwick Christmas

Prologue

The Uppington Hall visitor website had claimed the house was walkable from the train station.

But, then, websites claimed a lot of things. As I had sternly lectured the undergrads in my Western Civ section the year before, you can’t trust everything you read on the internet. Excellent advice, if only I had listened to myself before getting on a train to Kent in subzero weather, armed with nothing but my mobile, a book to read on the train, and a Cadbury fruit and nut bar.

I turned up the collar of my pea coat, wishing I had worn something more substantial. A fine dusting of snow had fallen the night before, crisping nicely into ice overnight. It looked very pretty on the ground. It felt very slippery under my high-heeled loafers. From what I had seen so far, the concept of shoveling was not one widely known in the old country. I had the direst forebodings as to what this portended for my flight back to New York the next day. Snow and Heathrow don’t exactly go together like peanut butter and jelly.

I had one day left before I flew back to New York for Christmas, one day to kill before I descended back to the bosom of my family for presents, gingerbread and familial sniping. I suppose I could have gone to the archives—they were still open—but I was already on vacation in my head, even if the archives weren’t. Colin and I had held our own private Christmas celebrations the night before, quaffing spiked cocoa and exchanging presents in my tiny basement flat, under the benign auspices of a miniature potted fir tree I had picked up for ten pounds at the local Marks & Sparks.

It was a farewell party as well as a Christmas one, the last time we would see each other until 2004. Colin had something going on in Sussex that night. And I? Theoretically I was meant to be packing, but since all I was bringing home was a satchel full of bulky and badly wrapped Christmas presents and my computer, that had taken me all of half an hour. In short, I was restless. Restless and bored and feeling just a little sorry for myself at the prospect of a lonely evening with no one to talk to but Oliver, the mini-tree. I needed a diversion, and I had the very one in mind.

I was going to take a day trip to Uppington Hall, historic seat of the Marquesses of Uppington.

As I had noticed over the course of my researches, the Uppingtons tended not to be terribly creative with their choices in nomenclature. The London mansion, which had survived the Blitz but succumbed to financial crisis, had been called Uppington House; the country estate, Uppington Hall. No surprise that a nineteenth century daughter of the house, Lady Henrietta Selwick, had named her stuffed bunny Bunny. Anything else would probably have seemed uncomfortably revolutionary.

The house had stayed in the hands of the Marquesses of Uppington, but like so many others they had found it necessary to open it to the public, using the proceeds to do useful things like keep the roof in repair and halt the steady flow of paintings and objets d’art to the Sotheby’s showroom. They couldn’t make that much money off it; as historic houses go, this one was not as well known as Blenheim or Chatsworth, and it was a bit too far off the beaten track for the casual tourist trade.

Just how far off the beaten track, I was in the process of finding out.

I had taken the train to Upton Station on the commuter line that ran down past Maidstone. Upton, in case you haven’t guessed it, was a corruption of Uppington. At least, that’s what the website claimed.

I wasn’t sure how much faith I had in that website anymore. Shoving my gloved hands deeper into my pockets, I hunched my shoulders against the cold, sinking my chin into the folds of my scarf all the way up to my nose. I had been walking for a good fifteen minutes now and I still hadn’t seen any sign of anything that remotely resembled a massive marble mansion.

A signpost at the station had read “To Uppington Hall”. The fact that it had been hand-lettered ought to have filled me in that this was not exactly one of your more professional operations.

Instead of a sidewalk, the pointy end of the sign indicated a path. Someone had graveled it at some point, but most of the gravel had worn off, leaving a twisty trail of frosted mud between winter bare hedgerows. The sign hadn’t bothered to indicate just how far it actually was to Uppington Hall. Halfway to the next county? Somewhere over the rainbow? Hadn’t they heard of such things as shuttle buses?

A taxi, a taxi, my kingdom for a taxi.

Just as my toes decided to part company with the rest of my feet, I spotted it, the rounded top of a dome poking over the trees like a hiccup in the winter gray landscape. There were lights burning in the windows, glorious yellow lights with their implication of inhabitation and warmth. If the house had been closed, I don’t know what I would have done. Cried, perhaps. Candles, electric ones from the look of it, had been placed in all the lower story windows. There were evergreen wreaths decked with red bows hanging from the twin gateposts that guarded the drive. The gateposts looked too new and too close to the house to be original; my guess was that they were a twentieth century addition. The nineteenth century drive had undoubtedly been much longer, with a proper gatehouse to guard the entrance. I wouldn’t be surprised if the gatehouse was now someone’s country house, sold off with most of the surrounding property as death duties had taken their toll in the 1920s and 30s.

But it was pretty and festive and I felt relief seep up to warm my cheeks as I trudged up to the front door, shaking icy bits off my shoes and trying to stamp the feeling back into my feet.

Before I could reach for the handle, a uniformed footman in livery and periwig swept open the door, and I wondered, for one bewildered moment, whether I really had stumbled back in time, into a Christmas long ago. Maybe those candles weren’t electric after all. The air smelled delightfully of mince and cinnamon and evergreen branches. Young ladies with their hair in bunches of curls on either side leaned together to gossip behind their fans while white-wigged footmen stood impassive at each entryway, looking neither left nor right.

That’s when I spotted the reception desk.

Reality snapped back into place. Beside the desk, a large easel read “Uppington Hall Regency Christmas, 15-23 December”, with a clumsily drawn picture of the house beneath it. Superimposed over the house, in much smaller print, the poster went on to list the various activities available: costumed re-enactors, a traditional caroling session, Christmas pudding stirring in the old kitchens, a dress-up selection for the under-twelves.

Now that I knew to look for them, I could see other visitors roaming about, looking as out of place as I did in their jeans and sneakers, making faces at the costumed actors and elbowing one another as they leaned over the exhibit cases. I shouldn’t have felt disappointed, but I did. I knew the house was open to the public now. I wouldn’t be there if it weren’t. But it was still a weird sort of letdown to see other public there, too.

I wandered inside, feeling a bit off-balance, my ears still ringing from the cold and my head swimming from the bizarre juxtaposition of past and present. Then, of course, there was the house itself, although to call it a house did it less than justice. If I had found Selwick Hall impressive, Uppington Hall was in another league entirely. It made Selwick Hall look like what it was; a relatively modest gentleman’s residence, the sort of place that could be comfortably passed on to a younger son.

The entry hall soared up three stories to a great dome decorated with pictures that were so high up that they appeared as little more than a brightly colored blur. Two branches of a splendid, curved staircase swept up from either side of the hall to meet at the second story, the landing forming a circle around the entire circumference of the dome. Longer hallways branched off to myriad wings, which stuck out from the center like the spokes of a wheel. The staff had closed off the base of the stairs, looping greenery from one post to the other. It was festive, but it was still a barrier.

I wondered if the family still lived in those upstairs rooms. I wondered if they looked like Colin.

That was silly. Of course, they wouldn’t. This side of the family was descended from the direct male line, through Lord Richard’s parents to his older brother, Charles, to Charles’ oldest son Peregrine, and so on down the line, all of which was a very long way of getting around to the fact that Colin’s branch had split off a full two hundred years before, with the marriage of Lord Richard Selwick to Miss Amy Balcourt. It was their line, intermarried at some much later point with that of Lord Richard’s best friend, Miles Dorrington, that had inherited Selwick Hall and begat a son who begat a son who begat and begat until someone finally begat Colin.

As you can tell, I really hadn’t paid much attention to the more recent bits of Colin’s family tree.

What it all came down to was that Colin’s relationship with these Selwicks, the current Marquess of Uppington and his family, was so tenuous as to be practically nonexistent. Even so, I still felt a bit like Elizabeth taking a tour of Pemberly behind Darcy’s back.

That was the problem of spending too much time in the early nineteenth century. There were times, I admitted to myself, loosening the buttons on my coat as the warmth of the house began to seep through the fabric, when I did fall into the trap of conflating Colin with his notorious ancestors, linking him in my head with the activities and surroundings of people who had died well over a century before.

Was that why I hadn’t wanted Colin here with me? Because I didn’t want to see him as out of place as I was in the house that, in my head, was still partly his home?

Grimacing to myself, I fumbled in my bag for the three pounds for my ticket price, my chilled fingers clumsy among the coins. If anything should kill off that fantasy, it should be the having to pay for admission. I doubt the Uppingtons had charged Amy when she arrived there for her first Christmas celebration.

Nor would she have been wearing her coat inside, like any other museum-goer. Dating an off-shoot of an off-shoot of an off-shoot did not make me a member of the Uppington clan, at home in their hallowed halls. I might be immersed in their family papers, but, when it came down to it, I was just another American tourist with a red nose from walking from the train station and shoes that spread slush across the crackling brown paper that had been spread out to protect the old marble floors.

It was a good thing I was going home to New York for Christmas. I needed a dose of reality, something to bring me back down to earth. Dating a descendant of the Purple Gentian was wonderful in a vast number of ways, not least of which was the man himself, but it didn’t do much to help me sort out that tricky line between daydream and reality.

Surrendering my three pounds, I was handed in return a cheaply printed pamphlet, with a rough sketch of the floor plan on one side and hours for the museum and gift shop on the other. “There are no guided tours today,” the friendly woman at the desk informed me, her ponytail bobbing as she rammed shut the register drawer. “But the re-enactors are there to answer your questions.”

Huh. I had thought they were there to lend a period feel. Apparently, they were multi-purpose items.

“You can go to any of the rooms marked as open on the map,” she continued. “The blocked off areas are still used by the family.”

Thanking her, I glanced down at my map as I wandered away to make room for the next person in line, a harried looking woman with two small children, one of whom could be heard plaintively wailing, “Why do we have to go here? Those people look funny!” The larger part of the map was blocked off. The only bits open to the public appeared to be the main reception rooms on the lower floor and a series of smaller rooms that branched off them. And the gift shop, of course. There was always a gift shop.

Too bad I had already given Colin his Christmas present. I could have gotten him an Uppington Hall tea towel and really freaked him out.

Probably for the best that I had played it safe and given him a scarf instead. By coincidence, he had gotten me one, too. We were still in that phase of the relationship where generic gifts were safest. We would have the warmest necks of any couple in London. It could have been worse; it could have been slippers. Or soap on a rope.

Grand double doors had been propped open on one side, revealing a reception room vast enough to double as a high school gym. The carolers were congregating there, clustered in one corner, their music stands very small and spindly against the massive proportions of the room itself, with its high ceiling, intricate plasterwork, and glittering display of Venetian mirrors. Long settees lined the walls, interspersed with busts of dead monarchs and marquesses resting on chunky columns of matching marble.

Matching fireplaces on opposite sides of the room were topped, not by mirrors, but by an imposing pair of portraits, far larger than life, of a couple in formal dress. The lady wore a towering confection of egret plumes in her high-piled hair and enough emeralds to keep a small Latin American country in business for some time. The artist had painted her eyes the same vivid green as the gems at neck, ears and wrist. There was a mischievous quirk to her lips, as though she had just spotted a joke that everyone else had missed. The man on top of the opposite side of the room had an amused air about him, too, but in a calmer way. His lips were still, but his eyes were smiling. It didn’t take peering at the brass plates at the bottom of the paintings to guess who they must have been: my very own Lord and Lady Uppington, presiding over Uppington Hall in paint as they once had in the flesh.

One could almost picture them stepping out of their frames to play host, sweeping aside the tourists and signaling the silent harp into song.

The re-enactors were all wrong; from their costumes, they were late Regency, 1820 or so, rather than the pre-Regency period in which I was interested. There was a wide gap between the two, in style and in outlook. But the servants would probably have looked very much the same, in their livery in the Uppington colors, and so would the pre-Victorian Christmas decorations. If I ignored the “party guests” and the other tourists, it was just possible to picture what it might have been like two hundred years ago, when Lord and Lady Uppington had held Christmas at the family seat.

I paused, struck by the symmetry of it. It would have been almost exactly two hundred years ago, wouldn’t it? December 1803 to December 2003.

It would have been Colin’s ancestors’ first Christmas together after the mad upheaval of their marriage the previous spring. There would have been candles, just as there were now, and the smell of oranges and cloves.

There would have been gaily gowned ladies and excited children and tables laden with ratafia biscuits and dried fruit and the inevitable sticky sweet slices of mince pie….


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