Thursday, May 17th, 2018
“We entered the gates fully ten minutes ago, Mama, and all I can see are oak and chestnut trees, and a few elms. I still have seen no sign of a house.”
Her mother smiled. She had anticipated this. “Patience, Charlotte, we are almost there. I told you it was a large property.”
She was interrupted by her youngest daughter. “Mama. Look.” Sophia pointed. She was the first to see the Mansion of Brooklands nestled in among the trees and surrounded by acres of lawns and flower beds. She and Charlotte, who were facing the horses, seemed almost as excited as each other. “Oh, Mama, it is magnificent. Such a large, white house. Why, there must be hundreds of rooms. It must be easy to get lost in it. So this is where William lives and where we are all to stay?”
“Yes, we are. There are more than fifty rooms my dear, perhaps even as many as a hundred all told, so William says, and I have been in most of them at one time or another when his mother lived here. William is now the master of it all.”
‘As I was briefly just a short time ago’ , was the thought that entranced her
Sophia was bouncing with excitement. “More rooms than at Underby, and undoubtedly all larger too. I hope I shall be allowed to explore them. I do not know how many rooms we had, for I did not count them, but I shall do so in my head before I fall asleep tonight. Oh, Captain Cat would have enjoyed it too, but I was not allowed to bring him.” She sounded disappointed.
“Cats need to stay in an area they are familiar with, my dear. The rats and mice do not take a holiday at Underby just because we are absent for a while.”
“Yes. I suppose so.”
Annis had held her mother’s hand on first seeing the property, and her mother noticed her clasp tighten in some surprise, though she had become more attentive to everything about her as she also took in the extent of the massive estate, for it really had been ten minutes since they had bowled into the driveway. The horses had not only kept up their gentle clip but may also have increased it, sensing that they were about to find comfortable shelter and food before they would be returning to Underby with Thomas.
Annis looked at her mother with a strange look on her face. “Having lived in such a fine place, he must have found it confining to have lived with us as long as he has, for our house is small by comparison. He must have many servants, so why would he occupy himself almost as a common laborer might as he did when he was helping Thomas?”
Her mother smiled. She had expected there to be some considerable surprise at what was displayed before them. She spoke so that only Annis might hear her easily. “You will find out eventually, if you have not already, that William is a different kind of man than the usual run-of-the-mill wealthy landowner. He is not so proud that he will ignore a plea for help or refuse to pitch in to help-out where there is a real need as he did for us. Don’t forget that he came to us from the continent and the hardships of war. I doubt that Underby presented anything like hardship for him by comparison to that, no matter how he may have lived as a boy and a youth.” She paused for a moment before she continued. “Another thing you and your sisters need to learn is that a house, even a grand mansion, is not a home without children, and love, and those in it we can love.”
She held her daughter’s hand and patted it. “I fear he had a difficult childhood. His father was a strict naval man. His mother was a nervous wreck while he was growing up. She still can be if things become confusing for her. I like to think that we showed him that we welcomed him into our home, despite all of the difficulties we had, and he appreciated that more than anyone else might. Before you take me to task for not telling you more about him, I did not have the time or the inclination for I had greater concerns, but I did assure you that I did know more of him than you might give me credit for, except you chose not to believe me.”
“But where is William?” Charlotte was looking around to see where he might be. “He was following us.”
“Once we entered the gates, he took a shortcut, my dear, and has arrived ahead of us to give notice of our arrival, I expect.”
William had indeed arrived some minutes ahead of them and was even then being greeted by a servant who well remembered him.
“Master William.” William took the older man’s hand and took in the pleasantly surprised look on his face.
“We saw someone approaching, sir, but did not know it would be you. There is also a carriage following you and another cart some way behind that too. I assume they are of your party?”
“Yes, they are, Jerome. But we have a minute or two before they arrive. Too little time to catch up, but we will do that later. I am so glad to see that you are still here. But then I have only been away five years, and though it seems a lifetime considering where I have been, I suppose it is not so long. I expected to see you in the London house, but then my mother is in Bath, and I thought you might have accompanied her there even.”
Yes, sir, I am still here. I did not accompany your mother. She decided that I should stay here and keep everything in order until she was able to return, or you did, and to look after your sister when she was here, and she is here now. We—that is, your sister—expected you last week or even earlier, and the next we heard, was of your marriage and then your unfortunate loss, and all at the same time. Too much going on, and too fast.”
“Yes. Bad news always travels fast. As for the carriage and cart, they belong to my late wife’s family and are carrying them and their luggage. They will be residing with us for some time. Three delightful ladies and a young girl who will set the place on its ear much as I used to, I think.”
A stable hand saw to the horse and mule after receiving the usual cautions about stabling arrangements. William and the butler moved over toward the house together, reminiscing in the brief moments they might have until the carriage arrived, and Jerome would then meet the new guests.
“Your father’s death hit your mother hard, sir, and she did not feel she could stay here in such a large house with no one to talk to or socialize with, being so far from London. She and Lady Seymour have picked up their association once more.” He did not give any indication of approving of that. “She needed to be distracted, and with friends and other people about her, and to relax better than she might here. Your sister visits her often wherever she is, except that she can’t stand Bath.”
“And you say that Elizabeth is still here?”
“Yes, sir. She might be aware of your arrival by now. Excuse me, sir, I need to assist the ladies.” They both moved out to meet the carriage.
William greeted them all as though he had not seen them for a week or more. “Welcome to Brooklands, Ma’am. You must please feel free to make yourselves at home, and we will see to getting you settled in, once I learn the state of affairs with our unexpected arrival. I think Elizabeth may be aware of our having arrived, so she should also join us shortly.”
He turned back to Jerome. “I know we look under the weather and may even smell of smoke, but we had to quit Underby because of a fire—little damage, fortunately—and may not have been able to repair the minor deficiencies in ourselves as we might have liked.”
Jerome led the way into the house, carrying some of the luggage, followed by William and his guests, who relinquished their coats and bonnets to one of the servant girls, who had been called upon unexpectedly and still had some flour on her apron.
“I am sorry that we have all descended upon you unexpectedly like this, Jerome, but I felt it the best course of action. If we are short on staff for the moment, and I am sure that we must be, then the three girls might share one of the larger bedrooms for this day anyway, and we can get them settled in their own tomorrow.”
Jerome helped Mrs. Barristow out of her coat, as the girls got rid of their own or helped each other. “I’ll get the housekeeper to see to it, sir. She is still in the house and did not yet head out as she had planned. She will be mightily pleased to see you, Master William.”
“And I, her…but I would rather not spoil her outing.”
“She won’t care about that, sir. I know she has much to talk to you about, for as I say, you were expected some time ago. She has been looking for you to arrive any time, and then got news of other things delaying you.” He noticed a bandage on William’s hand and had earlier noticed a raised bruise upon his forehead. He also saw that the older lady of the party needed assistance by one of daughters to move about on her stick. It may not have been so light an issue as Master William made of it, but then they all seemed healthy enough otherwise.
“No serious injuries, I hope, sir?” He noticed that William had helped the older lady to a chair in the hall to take the weight off her foot. She was obviously favoring it and probably should get it into hot water. He made a mental note to see that a bowl of hot water was brought to her as soon as it might be arranged, and then perhaps a visit to the special bath downstairs that his father had seen constructed to ease his own discomforts in his last year or two.”
“Some minor cuts and scrapes, but Mrs. Barristow has a sore ankle where it was twisted during her escape. The doctor said that she will need to rest it for a day or so, and we don’t need another doctor to fuss about us. I am not used to giving orders here Jerome, and I would hate to be too brusque with anyone, being used as I am to rough army manners, so I will leave everything for you to organize.”
William was relaxed enough in his own setting that he did not seem to notice that he had a rapt audience, where everything he said was being listened to and absorbed carefully. He treated his butler as though he were a close childhood friend. But then why would he apologize for any possible brusqueness of manner and offending servants when he had never shown either brusqueness or impatience with anyone at Underby, except the Thackerays? But they didn’t count.
“I do hope Mrs. Gordon will not feel too put upon too quickly. We still have a cook, do we? Mother didn’t take everyone else off with her, did she?”
“We still have Mrs. Abernethy, sir. She was soon made aware of everyone’s arrival even as you rode up, and we could see a carriage behind you. We are shorthanded for the moment, but I can send into the village for whatever we might need, and we can soon have other help within an hour or so.”
“Obviously, there will be five more for dinner. We require nothing special and will eat downstairs without any formality as I am sure Elizabeth does. No need for any other table staff. None of us was able to eat much of anything today yet. I recall that soup or cold cuts were always available. Fresh bread and cheese sounds good at this moment after our journey, so we can probably best help ourselves in the kitchen if we will not be underfoot. Mrs. Abernethy is quite capable of putting us out if we become a nuisance.” Jerome agreed with him there. Mrs. Abernethy ruled her domain with a kindly but iron hand. “I am not used to the formality that father insisted upon, so I do not expect all of that faradiddle and such, or dining in style, and I never did like it.”
“That might be the best plan for the moment, sir. But you were never underfoot, for you used to do that often enough yourself when you were a lad, and cook always made sure you had enough food.”
William well remembered her kindness to him. “Yes, she did, and yes I did tend to get it for myself when no one else was there, and can again. I never did like being waited upon.”
“Please, ladies, I had the freedom of your house and your unstinting hospitality, so now I can offer mine. At least I think it is now mine. We seem to be short of servants at the moment, so we may have to fend for ourselves. Wander about as you will and explore, for I fear that food may be delayed unless we help ourselves, which I think is the best plan, so I will show you where the kitchen is first, though I am sure hot water will be provided in short order when we require it.”
The two youngest girls needed no further invitation to explore such a large house with so many promising adventures and things to see, but headed out.
“We still have Pilmore, do we?”
“Yes, sir. He is seeing to the garden wall at the moment.”
“And what about Armitage?”
“No, sir, he is with your mother in London. We have a new carpenter now, and a good one too. He is re-enforcing a rafter up in the attic, or if he has finished that, is replacing a window in the stable. He always has something to do somewhere and knows his job well.”
“Good. I will need to see them both when it might be convenient. Probably after they have eaten their own lunch. I have some challenging work for them. You should do what you need to do, Jerome, with us descending upon you suddenly as we did, and ignore us for the most part. I will see to getting us downstairs and looked after.” He looked about himself to refresh some older memories. “My, but it is good to be home.” He recognized some of those memories beginning to come to the fore again—a slight crack in the window over the door and the wood chip missing from the hall table when his father had thrown something at him as he fled laughing, out of the door.
“It is good to have you home too, sir.”
Annis attracted his attention. She seemed overawed by it all. “If you will tell us what room my mother will be in, William, I will help her upstairs. I think she would prefer to lie down before she does anything else, and I can wait upon her. It has been a hectic few hours—even days—for her as well as for all of us.”
“That is thoughtful of you, Annis, but as for you helping your mother to get upstairs, I have a better plan. We shall all go downstairs. I think that can be accomplished more easily and with less discomfort for your mother, and I know, at least it might still be there. There is a comfortable chair down there that your mother can sit back in and relax by the fire with us, and it will certainly be warm. I slept in it enough myself when I wished to avoid a tongue lashing or more painful punishment from my father, which was often. I used to live in the kitchen when I was a boy and even made myself useful from time to time, so the servants and cook may not completely despair when so many of us appear down there.
“If you do not object Ma’am, I will carry you.” He stooped, and as Mrs. Barristow put her arm about his neck, he lifted her and carried her into the hallway and then off along it and down the stairs to the kitchen and scullery, to be met by old familiar smells of cooking and of recently baked bread and the gentle aroma of a rack of herbs, freshly-picked, drying-off in one corner.
An older lady dropped some cutlery into the sink when she saw him and wiped her hands on her apron to dry them off. Once he had deposited Mrs. Barristow in what he regarded as the most comfortable chair in the house, she walked quickly over to greet him.
“Oh, I knew it was you I saw riding, for no one else would dare take a shortcut over the lawns.” She threw herself into his arms and kissed him unashamedly as the tears rolled down her cheeks. It was not the restrained greeting one might have expected from a servant to a master, but more that of a mother to a son.
He returned her affection without reservation and kissed her unashamedly on the cheeks as he lifted her off her feet and then held her close as he looked at her. “Mrs. Abernethy. You have not changed but are just as I remembered you. Ah, the wondrous memories. I missed you cruelly, especially your cooking. You kept me alive all of these years. I dreamed of it all of the time I was on the Peninsula, for we were half starved most of the time, eating things I dare not describe to anyone, and not sure what half of it was anyway. I swear it was the thought of returning to your kitchen that kept me going and that brought me home again.”
She was not impressed by any tales of hardship considering what she could see of him. “Ye great lout. You don’t look half starved. Not the way you can throw me around like a spring chicken. Now put me down, I still have bread and pies to see to. We missed you too, Master William, sir. Though we often heard of what you were doing.” She recalled her words. “Oh, sir, I am sorry, I forgot….”
“No apologies, Mrs. Abernethy. Now, I know that I am home. My name is William or, tha’ great lout will do. I have not changed, and I am glad to see that you have not either. I have had my fill of pompous formality and want none of it. I shall be offended if you call me sir, too many times. I have not changed. I am the same man that went away, despite the changes here in the interim.”
The two missing girls had appeared behind them. Annis and her mother had silently looked on, surprised by the outpouring of such affection for the prodigal son if various hints he had let drop of the events that had seen him sent away were true, and they probably were. Sophia was busy paying attention to a cat by the fire. Charlotte was hungrily looking at a pot simmering upon the large stove and filling the air with a delightful aroma.
William noticed cook looking inquiringly at the other ladies that had invaded her kitchen.
“Oh yes. I had better introduce everyone before my manners totally desert me. This lady is my most favorite cook in the whole world.” He kissed her. “She is Mrs. Abernethy, or Cook. She was a second mother to me and used to give me a rare scold when I stole her cooking, though she didn’t really mind. This is Mrs. Barristow, my mother-in-law, whom you already have met, though I doubt that you know her daughters.”
He looked suddenly thoughtful. “My sisters-in-law now.” He introduced each in turn with a gentle and even flattering description, and then mentioned that the youngest daughter Sophia had gone again, but from the sounds of it, she had discovered the harpsichord.
“They will be staying with us for as long as they wish and certainly for the next week or more until repairs are done at Underby, their own home. We will help ourselves to food, if you do not mind? You will have your hands full with dinner I expect, and the usual things you do, and we do not expect anything special that we cannot get for ourselves. The room situation will be sorted out soon enough, and then we can get luggage unpacked and everyone cleaned up and changed and settled.”
He looked about. “I half expected Elizabeth to have joined us by now.”
“She saw you arrive from the garden and rushed off in a panic to change, even as I took that ham down. She was put out that you had not warned us of your arrival to have allowed us to have been better organized.”
“I couldn’t, or I would have done.”
At that moment, a tall young lady, older than William, breezed through the doorway. “William. You wretch. I knew I would find you down here where the food was.”
“Speak of the devil. Elizabeth.” His actions belied his questionable greeting, for he swept her into his arms and kissed her too.
“Devil indeed if you do not have a letter for me, or I am likely to injure you more grievously.” She could see his bandaged hand and his bruised forehead.
“All in good time, my dear. I knew what your priorities would be. You may ignore me as you think only of a stupid old letter, but you must not ignore our guests.”
“I suppose not.” She was obviously well known to all of the ladies and greeted them all and hugged them as though they were family even, which did not surprise him, considering what he had learned of the friendship that seemed to have long existed between her and all of the girls, including Mrs. Barristow.
Within seconds, the kitchen had become a hive of activity, with the three girls (Sophia had returned yet again.) actually putting on smocks over their dresses and helping out to prepare a luncheon for them all. Far from being offended by any of it, with so many invading her kitchen, Mrs. Abernethy began to be pleasantly astonished at how readily the girls and everyone seemed to blend in so well and did not scorn to make themselves useful. She also watched the gentle interchanges between all of them and realized that there was more to be told here, than she might have heard at a distance, bereavement or not.
William saw two plates of food disappear out of the door for Thomas and Ned to dine upon before they returned to Underby with the carriage and cart.
Elizabeth took him to task. “There is a smell of smoke about you. What have you been doing now? Oh I do hope it is not serious.” Her eyes flashed to the girls and then to Mrs. Barristow sitting in the kitchen chair with her feet up. She began to notice little details that had escaped her up until then.
“Bad enough, Elizabeth.” Mrs. Barristow had watched the exchange for a few seconds with considerable pleasure as she watched both the reception that William was getting, and especially the way in which Annis was viewing it too. They were all well enough known to his sister that there might be no hesitation about entering the conversation or even feeling settled in almost immediately, despite the imposing size of the house or it’s overwhelming magnificence.
“But fortunately not too serious, my dear. There was some smoke and fire damage to our home this morning but, thanks to your brother, we are all safe and sound.”
His referring to Underby as ‘our home,’ did not escape her. “So, Sir-knight-to-the-rescue once more, I see.” Her eyes were misted with unrestrained pleasure at seeing him again. “An ingrained habit with you and from which you never manage to walk away without some souvenir of it.” She glanced again at his bandaged hand and the bruising to his forehead. “If only our godmother might see you as I do and as you really are.”
“Don’t put me on that pedestal, Elizabeth. You know what the Greeks said of that, or was it the Romans? Putting them the higher that they might fall the further or the harder, and there are those who intend to bring it all about one way or another; our godmother among them.”
“Yes, I got your letter about that. Oh never mind that, come here, you foolish boy.” She hugged him again. “It is so, so good to see you after all of these years. We waited expectantly forever for that heart-skipping hoof-beat with news of your being wounded, or worse, dead. Fortunately it never came.”
“Admit it, Elizabeth. You were more concerned for news of John than of me.”
“And why should I not be concerned for my husband as well as my brother? You have been avoiding and evading me, you naughty boy. I waited at Mama’s for days, and you did not come with news that I wanted, for you did not come at all. Then I went to Cousin George’s for a couple of days and still you did not come, and he had commitments elsewhere, in France, so I had to come here. I knew you would get here eventually. But then I got your news and could not leave. Another day however, and I would have set out for Underby. I am only just up and about after a dreadful cold, or I would have been at Underby a week ago.
“I couldn’t settle anywhere, William. It was quite a shock to hear that you were married. Oh William. Mama has been plotting it ever since you left, but with never a hope of bringing it about and look at what you did within hours of your arrival. Marrying as you did and not letting me know so that I might be there, but then you couldn’t, could you? You were even married to my best friend too, as we had hoped you would.” There was a sad look on her face. “But not as we had planned or with the desirability of you both getting to know each other as one expects. Poor Bella. Poor William.” She brushed a hair from his face and winced at his yellowing bruise.
“Such a tragic loss, for I was friends with Bella for so many years, and I would have been there in a trice had I been able. Had she lived, she would have made you a wonderful wife, and you would have got on so well together, except you knew nothing of her, and she was learning more of you from me. But this is far too sad and upsetting at the moment and I am sure we all need to get our minds back into other, more pleasant things. Does anything uneventful or pedestrian ever happen in your life, William? You seemed to bounce from one escapade to the next all the time you were growing up, with never any dullness in between that I could detect, and now you are doing the same again.”
She mentioned the other things about him that she had already noticed but need to know more about. “I suppose you have a perfectly good and innocent-sounding explanation as to why your hand is bandaged and your face is as bruised and cut as it is?” She valiantly tried to get the conversation and thought away from the recent tragedy. She would speak of it more privately to William when the others were not there to be so upset by such a tender subject so recently put behind them.
“No, Elizabeth. It’s nothing. I got cut getting out of a broken window and walking into some awkward, uncooperative doors.” He dismissed it with a wave of his hand.
“Oh, is that all. Just the usual things then. But you have been home all of ten minutes and you have studiously managed to avoid telling me what I wanted to hear, and you know what that is. What news of John?”
She playfully struck at him while laughing and crying at the same time as the others looked on in amused amazement at the easy familiarity that existed between them and the freedom she was taking with her brother. This was a side to her they had not seen before and a more relaxed brother too than they might have expected. But then without brothers themselves, it was all strange, for he had not behaved that way with them, except perhaps for Sophia.
“Oh, him. John. My companion at arms for the last two years. You showed great restraint in not bearding me immediately you walked in upon us, but then you did immediately accost me, didn’t you, until I reminded you that our guests come first.” He smiled at her. “Yes, Elizabeth, he is as in love with you as ever, I would say. No. I am wrong. More in love with you than ever. He sends you his love, of course. I caught him on many evenings staring into the campfire, and I could speak to him and get no response at all, for it was easy to see where his mind was, and it was not with me or with our predicament.”
As they spoke, and with some help from Mrs. Abernethy who let the two girls know where everything was to be found, food had been laid out on the kitchen table for them, by the two elder Barristow girls, with the instructions to everyone to begin helping themselves.
“Is he well? He is as likely to avoid telling me anything that might cause me concern, as you were. Too tight-lipped, the both of you.”
‘Of course he is well. You would soon have learned otherwise by now. I gave him my blessing for your marriage by the way.” He looked at her strangely.
“Thank you. But as we are already married, to the devil with your blessing, for I don’t need it any more than you needed mine.”
“No you don’t, do you? Not now. Does Mama know?”
“No. None of it. I could not tell her for fear of her response at the suddenness of it. I will allow her to make preparations for a proper wedding when he gets back, and I will have told her most of it by then. If she ever comes back from Bath.”
“Best keep it that way, Elizabeth. John was a few days behind me, I think, for I got the last sloop ship out while he was still doing some organizing. He should land anytime, if he has not already.”
“We should call a truce, William. The girls have laid out a wonderful luncheon for us, and we should not let it go to waste, though I see that it won’t.” She watched as everyone helped themselves, with Annis serving her mother. The ladies were eating well by then, but William only picked at the food, for he had more important things on his mind. They were all happy to eat and listen to the interchange between brother and sister. That alone, and the obviously easy relationship between him and the servants, especially with Mrs. Abernethy, told them so much more of their benefactor than they might ever learn in any other way.
After satisfying their immediate needs, they helped tidy things away, and then the girls left William and his sister to themselves, as they gradually drifted off into other parts of the house to explore their new environment. Only Mrs. Barristow remained, and she was ready to fall asleep, it seemed, after the turmoil they had all gone through.
William looked at her in his favorite chair. “Good. It’s about time she rested.”
He turned back to his sister. “You owe me, Elizabeth. You have no idea how difficult it was to keep that husband of yours alive for you for these last two years. He had no thought of safety nor sense, and led me into the worst possible scrapes and into the thick of battle when my instinct was to go in the opposite direction with all possible haste. It had worked so well for me for the previous three years.”
“Fiddle. He said the same of you in his letters. Neither of you were so well decorated for shirking your duty, though Winthorpe worked his vicious ways against you both for a while. Fortunately, only a short while, until more reliable voices were heard to relieve our anxiety.”
“But I thought I had intercepted all of his letters to you, Elizabeth. As well as yours to him. They were too damned distracting. He was a dull dog and moping to death if he did not get a letter from you every week.” He patted his pocket and extracted something. “No. Only the one.”
She tried to snatch if from his hand, but he was quicker than she was and held it away from her.
“William. It is not fair to torment me.” She spoke gently, but he could see tears lurking.
“Here, my love. He entrusted it to me to give to you personally when I first saw you, but you have led me a merry dance.”
“Thank you, William.”
She gave him a swift kiss on his cheek and a hefty but friendly smack on his rear. She tucked it into her dress. “I shall read it later, in private. I take it Mama still does not know you are home?”
“I don’t know. She must by now. I met up with Uncle David just after I rode away from the house. He said that she was still rusticating in Bath. However, I would not be surprised if she may not have guessed that you were married by now with all of those letters John wrote you and with her undoubtedly itching to read them. Uncle David may be married by now too, from what he said. Come to think of it, from what I heard from Horace, when I was in London a few days ago on a lightning visit to the lawyers, I think mother may have seen some of John’s letters to you that you left behind on your last visit to her and before she left for Bath.”
“Oh dear.” Elizabeth knew that she had misplaced them somewhere. “So now she shall blame us both for disrupting her nerves. I knew I had lost them somewhere. Then she is keeping away from us both and feeling quite angry with me too.”
“I would say that you have nothing to worry about. She has had time to consider how she must behave properly to him or risk losing you. I will tell her that myself when I see her, for he saved my life more than once. However, that may not endear him to Mama.”
“William. That is not true. She was as concerned for you as I was. No, I am wrong, she was more concerned for you, though she had but one to worry about while I had two. She will know you are returned by now and I am sure that she is undoubtedly recovering well.”
“Probably. I hope so. But not if she gets any letters from our godmother to stir her up. Despite that slight negligence on John’s part about that marriage thing, without consulting her, she will still deal with him graciously, I think.”
“I expect so. She was as afraid of losing you as I was about you both, and fretted about you all of the time. She does love you, you know?”
“I know. As I love her, but like most sons, I could not show it for fear of being thought too soft and a mother’s boy. She is my mother, but I led her a merry dance. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. It did with me. Perhaps she believes better of me than she used to. I think I may not have appreciated how much of a burden I must have been for her.”
“You didn’t, but you are now in a position to make up for it and let her see that you love her.”
“Yes, I do know it. But boys are not so open with their love as girls can be at that age. In fact, they strive to deny any such weakness, and yet, I am discovering that it is actually a powerful and endearing trait, and that just a little consideration and thoughtfulness with the gentler sex gains such immense rewards.”
She had seen the truth of that for herself over the last few minutes, as the ladies had been attentive to everything said, and they had all been curious about William in this new setting, but in the nicest way. “About time you recognized that, William. I’ve been telling you for long enough.”
“I know, Elizabeth, but I was not listening. I was a sore trial for her as well as you. I am sorry for that. But Mama could not understand me any better than I could understand her, and especially when she dissolved into tears when she often did. I think I can make a better job of it now. I shall try to make up for my deficiencies and confess my love for her when I see her. She will be relieved to have succeeded with both of us, and so soon and unexpectedly. Though in my case, I had rather it had come to a better conclusion. Married and then a widower in the blink of an eye. I must also thank you for your letters warning me about the various plots that Mama seemed to be hatching around me. She has been matchmaking for me behind my back ever since I left, and I could not understand why.”
His eyes flickered to Mrs. Barristow. “I realize that I have no secrets now from anyone, but we should still be cautious.” William took his sister’s hand and kissed it. “So, what will happen when Mama finds out that we are both married, do you think? She will be hurt and immensely disappointed to find two of her…her only two children married, and she was unaware of both marriages. She will return to Bath instantly and never speak to us again.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “She couldn’t easily be present at mine for it was a spur of the moment thing in Lisbon, but at least, John and I had a week together before everything was assembled for war. I don’t think Mama missed me from England even. I never dared tell her.”
“Well, she certainly could not have been aware of mine either, not at the time, for that was a complete surprise for me too. I only learned of it about an hour before it happened. Do you think she will wash her hands of us both?”
“No. For we will both of us celebrate proper church weddings when John returns. She will now be able to dream of grandchildren again, for she constantly roasted me about my lack of suitors. If only she had known.”
“You are forgetting something, my dear. I am a widower.”
“Oh, William. I am sorry. Yes I had forgotten. But you are still young. Your life did not end. From what I have seen, you will marry again eventually, and I suspect, sooner than you might think.” She looked at him in a way that suggested she knew more than he might have believed.
“Be careful, Elizabeth. I hope you are right, but I am not out of the woods yet. There are great difficulties ahead of me still.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. So my eyes and instincts did not deceive me after all. Two marriages for both of us. That must be some kind of a family record when it happens.”
His voice dropped. “I suppose I should see all of this tragedy differently, for there are still three—well, two—eligible daughters, and even Mrs. Barristow herself is available.”
Elizabeth knew what she had seen. There was only the one daughter—the one marriageable daughter that is—that captivated him, and his feelings there, were returned. Yes, there would indeed be difficulties considering what had already happened.
“I am sure we will manage to think of something to set the tongues a-wagging. I have a reputation with our godmother to maintain.” He looked across and checked that Mrs. Barristow was indeed resting. She was even breathing quite heavily. “Exhausted. Just as well.”
He smiled at his sister, and they quietly got up from the table and walked out along the corridor to the stairs. “She will be all right for an hour or so, and there is always someone in and out of the kitchen to keep an eye on her until we return.”
He took his sister’s arm and threaded it through his own. They strolled to the stairs and climbed them to the main level of the house. “I was heading well away from London. Our godmother had summoned me for a meeting with her, and against the popular recommendations of everyone, you included, I decided, in a moment of rash bravado, to take the bull by the horns and see what she wanted. I was in one of my more rebellious moods, and was feeling brave and decided to get it out of the way. But I was damned if I was going to let any hint of her dictatorial ways and stigmatizing views of me creep into my first day home, so I resolved to say as little as I might. I am not sure I succeeded in that plan, so you will undoubtedly be regaled with some new vicious gossip involving me, I expect. But let us go out into the garden. It is a fine day. But mostly we should be out of the house so that we can talk more easily.” He looked about. “Those girls are everywhere and into everything. They miss nothing. They are wonderful. I did not realize that younger sisters might be so interesting.”
“Wonderful? Interesting? This does not sound like you, William. You have matured and changed.”
“I have been away from women too long, Elizabeth, especially such assured and mature young ladies, and beautiful too. All of them. The Spanish and Portuguese ladies are beautiful enough, but the society was thin and not welcoming to any of us foreigners.”
They strolled together arm-in-arm about the flowerbeds. “Why did I not have younger sisters too? I did not realize such young ladies could be so entertaining or even interesting and so damnably tormenting in their ways, and attractive. No, Elizabeth, I have not suddenly lost my mind. Or have I? One was somewhere close by earlier and perhaps not deliberately eavesdropping, but they tuck themselves away and read or write and sketch, and before you know it, all of them know your innermost secrets. They read my journal too when I was not there and even saw some of my own sketches of them and the war.”
His sister was satisfied just to listen to him. He had changed and for the better.
“They know everything you do from morning ’til night, for they watch me so closely. I am sure it will be the same here. Quite unnerving, but then I seem to have become a stable male presence in their suddenly disrupted lives. Quite a strange role for me. The only time you know for sure where any one of them is, is when they are rattling away on the harpsichord or the piano forte, or is arguing with her sisters about something or is sitting where you can see her.”
“So what was it that got you out to Underby, William?”
“The usual. A plea directed at me and that I could not refuse. I was at George’s, relaxing for the first time in five years, when I got a letter out of the blue, and I got dragged into this plot quite without seeing where it might lead, thinking I was helping cousin George. I even married. But then you know that. Willingly too. I could not believe what was happening to me, and I am sure that no one else who knew me might either. When I realized what had happened and how things had happened….” He paused and decided to not elaborate on too much. “Gradually, I began to see that there was a strangely deceptive twist to it all that I may tell you about later, and I could not just rush away and abandon them. Besides, I found the family needed me, and by then, of course, they were growing more and more interesting, and I needed them too.”
Elizabeth decided not to comment upon his use of those words—interesting (again) and wonderful as well as entertaining—to describe her friends. She had seen as much for herself. He seemed as much at ease with them as he was with her.
“Will I survive? I am not so sure. Oh dear. I see Jerome is looking for me, so I think he may have me meeting with our carpenter and mason as I requested; or Gossett. Why don’t you check in on Mrs. Barristow, my dear, if you don’t mind, and I will return shortly.”