Sara looked around the ivy-draped walls, between the fallen floor joists and up at the clouds which scudded across the sky where the roof had been. A small sapling protruded from the chimney, waving gently in the breeze. Clumps of ferns and other weeds poked out of crevices in the walls where the plaster was gone. Small fireplaces in the upper levels of the walls looked like cavities in a tooth. She picked her way cautiously towards the ornate marble fireplace, the only recognizable object left in this large room. She wondered what her gran would make of it now. Would she be satisfied to see that the mighty had indeed fallen? Suddenly she tripped and pitched forward onto her face, landing on the slimy, leaf-littered floor. She maneuvered into a sitting position, ruefully looking at the stains on her slacks and wincing as a pain shot through her ankle.
“Oi! What are you doing here? Can’t you read the signs? You know, the large obvious ones on the fence telling you to keep out?”
She started as the voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, echoing off the bare stone walls. A young man in work clothes emerged from a doorway near the fireplace. His look of irritation changed to concern as he noticed that she was massaging her ankle.
“Are you okay?” he said. “You’re liable to get hurt here, as you just found out.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have climbed in,” said Sara. “Though by the looks of things, I’m not the only one.” She indicated empty beer bottles on the floor and graffiti scrawled on the walls.
“True,” he said with a sigh. “Trying to keep the teenagers out is like playing whack-a-mole. As soon as I fix up one hole in the fence, they find another way in. The parents would be the first to sue if one of the little darlings got hurt. May I?”
He crouched down beside her and gently probed her ankle.
“I don’t think you’ve broken anything. What were you doing if you weren’t here to drink and smoke?” He grinned.
“My sneaky teen years are long gone, as you can see. I don’t have the excuse of youthful folly,” Sara said, smiling. “My grandmother worked here when she was a young girl. Her diaries recently came to me. I wanted to see the place for myself. It doesn’t look exactly the way she described it in her day. Curiosity got the better of me.”
“I’m the caretaker. My name’s Rob,” said the young man, proffering a hand. “That’s interesting about your gran. I like local history myself. I can tell you something about the Duke and his family. The Castle was very elegant in its day, though that’s hard to imagine now.”
“Having a vivid imagination is one of my problems. My grandmother came here as a kitchen maid in the early 1900s. It was the only thing a working-class girl could do in those days. When I heard she’d worked in a Duke’s house, I was thrilled. Too many romantic novels and period soap operas on the television. I had visions of her being whisked off her feet by some young aristocrat. She shut those fantasies down quickly. How did the place end up in this state?”
“Where to start? The family have been around for a few centuries. This house was built in the 1850s. The Duke owned most of the land around here and had the money and influence that went with it. Things started to go downhill after the first World War. They sold a good part of the land in order to pay taxes and death duties. It was a hotel for a while in the 1930s, but commerce wasn’t exactly the Duke's thing. Running a hotel isn’t the same as inviting your aristocratic pals for shooting parties. There were some bad investments and gambling debts as well. It was too much of a white elephant to sell. The heirs gave up and moved on. Time and neglect took care of the rest. You mentioned diaries?”
“Yes. I found them when my mother died, and I was clearing her house. This was the morning room, wasn’t it?”
Rob looked at her in surprise.
“It was, as a matter of fact. How did you know that?”
"I recognized the grapes."
Sara indicated the fireplace. Elegant marble carvings of grapes and vine leaves could still be distinguished under the blotches of moss and mold.
“My grandmother described the carvings in detail. She had never seen anything like it. She was intrigued and wrote about touching the carving because the grapes looked so realistic. Usually she was not even allowed in the front of the house. As a kitchen maid, she was the lowest form of life. She came from a poor local family. That was the closest she'd ever come to something beautiful."
Sara's eyes filled with tears and she hastily wiped them.
"I'm sorry. What happened next makes me so angry. That morning explained a lot, such as why my grandmother married a man old enough to be her father and why her oldest son, my uncle, looked so different from his siblings.”
Rob looked intrigued.
“The suspense is killing me. What happened?”
“My grandmother was a pretty girl. She was also naïve, and as I said, she was at the bottom of the pecking order. There had been a grand party the night before. She wrote about how much work it was for the kitchen staff. Her hands were bleeding by the end of the night from the soda they used to scrub the pots. She didn’t get to bed until late and early next morning she was sent in to clean the fireplaces. No appliances, of course. A brush and dustpan. She was on her knees sweeping ashes up when she was attacked by a drunk party guest from the night before. I’m reading a lot between the lines here. She was only fourteen. She didn’t have words for it, and at first she didn’t connect what had happened with the fact that she found out she was going to be a mother a few weeks later.”
Rob looked aghast.
“That’s terrible. Why didn’t she tell anyone?”
Sara laughed drily.
“Who would she have told and what good would it have done? Who would believe a village kitchen maid over the Duke’s guest? It was always the woman’s fault then, as it still is too often now. You can’t believe what a disgrace an illegitimate pregnancy was then. She’d have lost her position and she couldn’t go home. My grandfather was a greengrocer who delivered vegetables to the house. She married him. A very convenient solution. Whether he guessed what had happened or not, we’ll never know. She had three more children with him and then he died. At least he left her a little money and a house, so she got by. But it was a hard life.”
Sara got to her feet, cautiously testing her ankle, refusing Rob’s assistance.
“I’m fine, thanks. I’ve seen what I came to see and I can’t say I’m sorry about what happened to the Duke and the house. Overall, I’d say Gran would be satisfied with the way things turned out.”
“I’ll drive you back to the village,” Rob said. “Enough mishaps for one day.”
“I appreciate that, thanks,” said Sara. “No more trespassing, I promise.”
Rob grinned as he offered his arm and guided her through the elegant ruins.