Rosemary Griggs banner

Mistress of Dartington Hall

An excerpt from 'The Dartington Bride'.
Roberda's first steps as the new Mistress of Dartington Hall

Chapter Eleven

Mistress of Dartington Hall

Spring 1572

My mouth fell open and I froze on the threshold, letting my eyes drink in the splendour of Dartington Hall. A soaring forest of carved oak beams supported the huge span of the roof high above my head. I slowly let out my breath as I watched the banners fluttering gently from the beams and took in the stone corbels, each with an angel bearing the arms of some great knight on a painted shield. Wispy tendrils of smoke rose from a fire smouldering in a fireplace even larger than the one Papa had at Ducey and long tables stretched the length of the hall, enough space to seat a multitude. I could see why Sir Arthur was so proud of this place. It was as splendid as the queen’s Great Hall at the Palace of Westminster.

Lost in wonder, at first I did not notice Gawen. My husband was well built and tall. He looked over the heads of most men. But he faded to insignificance in the grandeur of that lofty hall. He had almost reached me before I realised he was there, a sharp-featured little man hovering at his elbow.

I thought I caught a momentary flicker of recognition, even of welcome, in Gawen’s steel-grey eyes when he paused in front of me. But if I did it was gone as soon as it came. His fingers felt cold as he took my hand, as courtesy demanded, but he turned quickly away so I could no longer see his eyes

‘My wife is tired from her journey,’ he announced in a lordly voice. ‘Rist, will you see my lady to her chamber. Father, we must speak. There is news from France.’ Undeterred, I put my hand on his arm.

‘Is there news of my family? I have heard nothing since they left me in London months ago. Did you bring letters from my mother?’ He shook my hand away as a horse shakes to rid itself of a fly and rapped out a short reply.

‘I did not. Go with Rist, if you please. I must speak with my father.’

Such a curt dismissal quenched all my hopes, all the joy I might have taken in my new home, as surely as if he had thrown a pail of water over me. My head dropped and I came within a hair’s breadth of meek obedience before a vision of my mother rose up in my mind; Isabeau, Countess of Montgomery, mistress of her household, imperious and commanding. I’m her daughter. I’m mistress of this household now. I’ll not be told when I’m tired and sent to my room!

I threw back my head, drew myself up in imitation of Maman at her formidable best, forced my lips into a smile and whirled around. ‘How kind and considerate you are, husband,’ I said, honey- sweet, but firm. ‘But I am not at all tired and would see more of this household which is now mine to manage. Master Rist, is it?’ I favoured the rodent-faced servant with a withering stare. ‘If you please, conduct me to the kitchens and the storerooms. I take it they lie beyond the passage?’ I’ll swear I heard Sir Arthur stifle a chuckle, or perhaps it was Bess. Rist looked questioningly at Gawen.

‘As you wish,’ my husband ground the words through clenched teeth, then recovered himself a little. ‘Yes, Rist, off course, you must do as your mistress orders. Bess, will you go with them?’
‘Oh yes, brother, I wouldn’t miss this for anything,’ she chortled as we passed through the opening.

‘Do the gardens lie that way?’ I asked brightly, pointing to a door that stood ajar. Rist grunted in reply. As I stepped forward I felt a rush of wings over my head. A swallow was making a nest high on the wall just within the door lintel. ‘Well, well. I see others are making a new home under this roof,’ I laughed. ‘Be sure not to close this door, Master Rist. Some say birds in a house bring bad luck, but I deem it an honour to share my home with this pretty fellow.’ Bess gave me another encouraging smile, but Rist looked at me as though he thought me mad.

I stepped outside and found myself in a second courtyard to the rear of the hall. Mellow grey stone walls enclosed a pretty knot garden with beds planted with flowers. The far range of buildings looked neglected, but the effect was rather charming. To the left of the door an area had been left unplanted, save for an apple tree. Away to the right, past the hall, I could just see a church tower rising up in the shadow of an enormous yew tree.

I walked a few paces enjoying the sweet, lemon-tinged fragrance of early apple blossom. Out of nowhere, two boys came hurtling along the path, giggling and laughing, egging each other on to run faster. They veered sharply into the doorway and nearly knocked Rist off his feet.

‘Scurvy little imps!’ he growled, as they ducked under his flailing arm.

‘Now, Rist,’ said Sir Arthur, who had ignored Gawen and come to stand beside us. He watched the boys’ retreating figures as they burst out through the other door and raced across the courtyard. ‘Let ’em be. Boys will be boys! They’re the cook’s lads, aren’t they? As likely a pair as you’ll ever find! Good for them to let off steam a bit. They already practise at the butts every Sunday. Soon they’ll be put to work or to fighting for the queen.’

Rist grunted and Sir Arthur gave me a searching look.

‘It would do my heart good to see another Champernowne youngster running through these gardens,’ he said with a sigh. I felt my cheeks flaming and suddenly found the flagstone path beneath my feet fascinating.

Go to The Dartington Bride