Wednesday, January 10th, 2018
Within seconds of William’s head touching his pillow once more, he was asleep.
When he awoke just after dawn, fighting down the sudden fear that he was still in enemy territory and had overslept and put himself in danger from a sudden surprise attack, he found the youngest daughter sitting in her nightdress in a chair in his room. She had her legs hugged close to her and up under her chin, with her feet resting on the edge of the chair, in the careless, innocent manner of a child, giving no thought to appearances.
No enemy here.
He relaxed as his momentary panic subsided, and watched her.
She seemed to have been waiting for him to awaken. He observed her for a few moments as she momentarily had turned away to see outside of one of the windows in his room. She had a nut brown complexion and freckles standing out on her face. The effects of the sun and an open-air style of life seemed to characterize the entire family and showed their love of being outside. He could see the rising sun playing upon his hand beside his pillow from the window behind him, and he moved his fingers to cast a shadow upon the bright pool of sunlight on the stark white of his bedroom wall. He made different shapes as he saw that her attention was caught, first by the shape of a rabbit with its long ears, and then of a strange face of a man with a peculiar hat upon his head, and then that of an old hag with hooked nose and chin and seemingly cackling. He animated that face and gave her movement.
The observer was fascinated. He brought his other hand up into the sun and made a rooster with his comb, and then a deer with antlers. She suddenly realized that he was now awake and had made those shadow-shapes for her.
When he stretched and smiled sadly at her, though saying nothing, she quietly unwound herself from the chair and left without saying anything.
Although he was typically an early riser—even before dawn, despite his lack of sleep that previous night—the youngest girl had beaten him to it and had then disappeared.
When he was adequately dressed, he retrieved his toilet kit from his bag, picking up a towel that had been left for him on the dresser, and went downstairs. Mrs. Barristow was no longer to be seen in the parlor where he had left her. He pulled on his boots, noticing that they were cleaner than when he had removed them on the previous night. There were sounds of an active kitchen from deeper in the house, but no one was obviously to be seen. He quietly let himself out and decided to shave and wash himself before others might appear.
He walked over to the trough and proceeded to lay out his gear before he stripped to the waist and prepared to shave. He had propped his small mirror at the back edge of the trough and had filled his pewter cup with water and raised a lather, which he spread across his whiskers and under his neck. He would not be able to sharpen his blade as there was nowhere obvious to hang his strop. He had almost completed shaving when he had the feeling of being watched. He gave no sign that he might be aware of it but continued what he was doing as he adjusted his position relative to his mirror to see behind him. He could just make out a figure standing at one of the upper windows watching him, but he could not make out which of the family it might be.
He rinsed off his razor in the overflow from the trough and then began to wash himself in the cold water—much colder water than he had grown used to in Portugal and Spain, but then this was England and he was lucky that he did not have to break ice off the water before he might do anything.
He dried himself, put his shirt back on, and after leaving his toiletries by the side of the door to pick up when he returned, he strolled off to walk about the kitchen garden and then moved further afield into the larger garden behind the house and then even further about the grounds to get his first look at the entire house and garden in daylight. The gardens were all extensive and well kept, yet there did not seem to be any gardeners involved in doing so—at least not just yet. It was still probably too early with everything still damp from the previous night’s rain and the overnight dew. The house itself, though old and from an earlier time, showed no signs of neglect or of being run-down in any way, so his few remaining fears of the night before had been groundless. It was all an exceptionally well-kept and prosperous property.
On his return to the house, he heard hammering from the coach house and found Thomas busy putting two coffins together. Without a word, he joined into what he was doing and helped him for an hour or so to the point where they were almost finished. He quite surprised the older man, who had not expected any help, by showing that he knew what he was doing without being told and was no stranger to a plane, a drill, or any of the many tools lying about, nor the finer points of joinery. Clearly, he might be described as a jack of all trades, having learned by bitter experience, to fend for himself and his friends, to make life easier and more comfortable under the worst conditions while on campaign. There was a lining for the coffins already prepared for the two still upstairs, to rest upon. Others must have been busy working at that the previous night.
“We are almost done, thanks to you, sir. If you do not mind my asking, where did you learn to work with wood? One does not expect a gentleman to know such things.”
“William will do. I dislike formality. There are those who might argue with that description of my being a gentleman. It will take me some time to learn the rules again. I spent most of my youth, when I was not with tutors, with my father’s grounds men, joiners, masons, or at the dock with my father’s sailors. None of them tolerated an idle youth watching them, and had me working with them. In short order they soon trusted me enough to help them. I was a fast learner.”
“You learned well, I would say. I had not expected to be done before lunch.” His eyes drifted into the rafters above, as pieces of hay were dislodged from the planks above. “So you decided to show up at last, did you, my mousing friend?” He castigated the cat. “The Captain, as we call him,” he explained to William. “Captain Cat. Sad day for all, my furry friend, though you are untouched by it all. No, we are not making a comfortable bed for you to discover when we leave.” The cat was sitting above their heads and licking his paws while perched precariously on a narrow piece of wood. He had seemingly fed well. “They were busy looking for him last evening.”
“He spent part of the night on my bed, but we were both restless. Did you manage to get any sleep.”
“Yes, sir, William, I did. Mrs. Barristow came in shortly after you left and told me to go and rest, as she knew what I needed to get done today. She was surprised that you had come and sat with me and grateful of it, I think. But if Captain spent the night with you, then you were rare privileged, for he is often found with the girls and usually keeps clear of those who are not well known to him, especially men. He ignores me except when I feed him a mouse or two from the feed bins when they fall in there and can’t get out, but he gets enough of those for himself.”
At that moment, a rider came along the roadway at a steady canter, breaking only to a walk as he turned into the gate and approached up the driveway. His horse had not been pushed too hard, but he had clearly come some distance with the mud thrown up onto the horses legs. William thought he recognized one of Lady Seymour’s own grooms. Now what mischief was the old dear up to?
Thomas put his hammer down. “I’d better see what it’s about afore he wakes the rest of the house up. If we didn’t already with our hammering.”
William watched as some few words were exchanged and a letter handed down. “Thank you. I will see she gets it.”
The rider listened to what was being said to him, undoubtedly the offer of some refreshment before he returned, but he shook his head, and then turned and left as he had arrived. Lady Seymour had obviously told him not to impose upon the family, for a messenger from any distance away might expect some refreshment before he returned.
Thomas looked at the folded paper and turned it over. “From near London no less.” He squinted at the nearly illegible name on the folded paper.
“From Se….” he struggled to decipher the scrawl, “Semont? No…Seymour, Lady Seymour.” He did not say what seemed to be going through his mind, but the look on his face said it all. “Aye, bad news travels fast, but she was told of this last night by the lad, as were others. He must have left at first light to have got it here by now, and his instructions were to return promptly. I’m surprised he didn’t get lost.
“Well, I wonder what urgency demanded that he be here with this so early and leave just as soon as he arrived and without wetting his whistle? No doubt sends her commiserations but is unlikely to provide comfort to them, considering what has already happened, but she means well I expect. He should have stayed, for grub’s about to be served up from what I can smell.” They put the liners inside and then covered the coffins to keep the cat out. “You go and eat, sir. I’ll join you shortly. I’d better see missus gets this first.”
William retrieved his gear from by the door and entered the house, with Thomas not far behind.
“A message, Thomas?” She took it from him. “The first of many, no doubt. Good morning, William.” She put a hand on his arm to warmly thank him again.
“Ma’am.” Her eyes were red and swollen from far too many tears, but she strove to be civil and attentive to what was required, no matter how little she might feel to be that way.
She looked with some difficulty at who might have sent it and recognized Lady Seymour’s hand. She sighed heavily; there would be many more like that as the days wore on. She dropped it on the hallway table, unopened.
“I cannot handle this at the moment. You should both come and eat. There will be a more substantial breakfast later when the girls are able to get about. I shall not disturb them just yet. I could hear you working out there, and you cannot work on an empty stomach. I fear I overslept, but I shall leave the girls longer. They must be exhausted too.”
A little later, as he was about to go back to the coach-house, he encountered Annis coming down the stairs. He was pleased to note some gentleness in her attitude toward him for she did try to smile.
She had obviously spent a tearful night, as he could see that her eyes were reddened with crying and were swollen. She seemed quite different, and appeared to have retreated from the more severe and critical, even angry reception that he felt had been his on the previous day. However, that may have been her helpless response to the injustice of what was happening about them, and to them, and her sorrow had been directed at all and sundry about her, rather than targeted at him as it had seemed to have been.
Her eyes took in his easy and careless manner of dress, with his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows and the neck open. He had obviously been making himself useful somewhere. His eyes were direct, and his hair seemed almost to be even more unruly than it had been the night before when she had first seen him.
“Yes, sir, it is, but alas, I can see nothing that is good about it?” She perhaps was taking him to task for his thoughtless adherence to custom. It was understandable considering the grief that they all had to bear.
He swore inwardly at his forgetful ineptitude and his speaking without having thought of the impact of anything he might say under the circumstances. “Indeed, yes. I am sorry. I did not intend to be clumsy that way. It was a manner of expression.”
She inclined her head to acknowledge his apology. “You should call me Annis, sir, as everyone else does.”
“Thank you, Annis. My name is William. I am sorry that a complete stranger to you such as myself, and one so gauche and stupid, has intruded so badly upon you at such a time as this.”
“It cannot be helped. We must all put up with some inconvenience it seems. You must pay me no mind, sir, and I beg your pardon. For I spoke rudely and with lack of patience when you meant only good. I think your intrusion was welcome and perhaps even necessary for all of our sakes.”
He smiled. “I am also sorry that I blundered into your bedroom last night, for I think I may have disturbed your rest.”
She acknowledged his second apology but could not meet his eyes, for her own were misted. It seems she had known of his presence. He continued. “Please forgive my clumsiness. I shall stay out of your way as far as I can.”
She looked at him and blinked back her tears. “You married my sister, sir. We must also be complete strangers to you too, so I suspect we must learn to live with a little discomfort with each other’s presence for a while until other plans are made. But do you intend to stay? I am sure we do not expect it of you under such awkward circumstances as these must be for you. There is no setting that is likely to be less relaxing or comfortable for you, than to be privy to the grief of so many women in such a confined circumstance as here, when you do not need to be. You were not obliged to do what you did, yet it seems to have been a great help to us. Mama was relieved, and I must thank you for that, though in what way you helped, I do not understand. We should not ask more of you. You must have a good deal to do on your own behalf without having to deal with our grief, and that must have sidetracked you so suddenly from more important things.”
It was difficult to gauge her mood or opinion. She seemed to be offering him reasons and an excuse to go, if he needed one. A few hours earlier, he might have been relieved to have been offered that excuse, but no longer.
“If I am not in the way, I will stay and try to be useful as I may be able to. For a while, anyway.” He said nothing about his promise to her father. “I have no need to rush off, provided I can locate my clothing before I destroy what little I have with me.”
She could see a small separation of the sleeve at the shoulder where he had strained the seam in some activity that morning or even earlier.
“My own late father’s estate has been well managed for the past five years and certainly since my father’s illness over the last years and, indeed, since his death some time ago now. I could be mistaken, but I doubt I am needed there. I may prove to be of more use here at the moment.”
He seemed gentle and well spoken, but she already knew that from the little she had seen of him on the previous night. But to shed tears at their loss as he had—for even her sisters had noticed it and commented upon it with some confusion—was quite surprising. Most men would never dare show such feelings openly and could not feign tears or emotions as some women could.
Somehow, he was different from other young men she had encountered. He was more mature, more assured of himself, and had not appeared too uncomfortable with their grief but had joined it. He had also spent some time privately with her father at her father’s request, and she could not help but wonder what they might have discussed that was so important, with her father as close to death as he had been, and him a complete stranger to them all. She did not know him well enough to ask him directly about any of that just yet.
“At least I hope I may be of some use, though at the moment I am at a loss to know what it might be. I shall stay, unless I appear to be overstaying and trespassing where I am not needed. But then, your mother will let me know if I am, I think.”
“Yes, I expect so.”
“I find myself in an awkward quandary. If it would not be too much to ask, may I request that—when there is a more suitable moment, and it is far too early I know at this time—that you tell me something of your sister when all of this is behind us, though I know I ask far too much of you to consider it at this time. It would be truly a tragedy if I were the only one who knew nothing of my wife.” He deliberately avoided referring to her as his late wife. “I find that I need to know more than I do.”
She was surprised at his request that he might like to know more of her sister, for he had come out of nowhere and might depart just as quickly and conveniently without becoming any more deeply embroiled in their grief. Why he might want to learn more of her dead sister was puzzling, for there had been no affection on such short and tragic acquaintance. He would be wise, and it would be better that he departed at the earliest opportunity and leave them to grieve in peace. He had done what had been required of him, and if he left as quickly as he came, it might be better for all concerned. However, it did not seem that that was likely to happen as soon as it might, for her mother wished him to stay.
“Yes, sir. I shall do that if you wish it. But when that might be I do not know, for there is much to occupy us over the next few days.”
“Of course. I understand.”
“Please excuse me. I need to help Mama.” She had heard the sounds of activity from the scullery and her mother’s voice.
He stepped aside and let her go about her business.
Sometime later, while he was in the small study continuing his letter that he had started at Kellands to his sister, he overheard a subdued conversation between Annis and her mother, complaining about a relative—a male, and one who believed that he was directly in line to inherit the estate now that their father was dead. They were concerned that this gentleman was sure to call upon them now that their father could no longer deflect him as he had needed to do in the past to defend them from him.
He listened and learned more of their remarkably poor opinion of the individual. His name was Thackeray; and they seemed to dread his anticipated appearance, for he had the reputation of being an unpleasant individual, with little respect for a woman. Thomas had told him of the man and his father while they had both worked in the coach-house and had painted an unenviable portrait of the pair. It seemed that they had been the ones that Mr. Barristow had felt concern about.
He decided that, if possible, he would probably help them to avoid him and his father, though how to do so was not yet clear, unless they obviously tried to intrude where they were neither welcome nor wanted. He felt guilty overhearing such a personal exchange of views but felt that it would not harm to listen and to learn what he might.
Unfortunately, the conversation turned to him at that particular moment; and though Annis’s voice had dropped, knowing that he might not be far away, he could still hear what was said.
“Mama, I know you try not to think ill of anyone, but Mr. Devane is also an entirely unknown quantity to us. We know so little about him. He may turn out to be quite as bad as either of the Thackerays.”
“Hush, my dear. No, he is not. I did learn something about him from his mother and his sister, remember, even if you did not? Your father said only good of him at the last, and had known his father well, some years ago.”
“Yes, but knowing the father is no indication of the merits of the son, Mama. You and Bella may have learned of him from his sister, but you did not share what you knew with me, and I was not always privy to your conversation. I doubt that his mother or sister are disinterested enough to share any of his failings with relative strangers.”
“They are not strangers to me Annis, but are like sisters. But then no, you are right. We do not know him quite as well as we should, I expect, but we were given precious little choice in doing what we had to do. Whatever his failings may be as you say, they are the least of my concerns at this time. Before you wonder about him being let loose in a house with four vulnerable and grieving females and no male to protect us, I will have you know that I am aware of many of the various earlier accusations that had been raised against him before he went off to war, and I firmly believe them to be without merit. I had the full details from his sister.” He could sense her looking hard at her daughter. “He is not a threat to any of us in that way.”
Annis chose not to argue the point with her mother. “I suppose it must be some small consolation to realize that he cannot possibly be as bad as what we know already of the younger Mr. Thackeray. For he is insufferably arrogant, rude, offensive, insulting—even stupid—as well as dangerous for us. He is an extremely dull kind of person, who cannot take a hint but is likely to try and inflict himself upon us without our father to discourage him now. I did not like him creeping about the house as he did when he was last here and snooping into everything. So, better the devil we know a little about, than the one we know everything about.”
“Oh hush, Annis. Let us not visit there. We have troubles enough without anticipating more, and they are just begun, I fear.”
Annis felt strongly about something. “But there is no adjective scathing enough to use that can do sufficient justice to his poor character, for he is all that I said and worse. He bullies everyone he can, and ignores common decency. He can blunder in where he has no business and openly interferes in situations that do not concern him, for he tried to go through father’s desk until he found it locked after that. He was not suited after making that discovery.
“Now that father is not in his way he will strive to work behind our backs in ways sure to achieve what he wants without any of our interests or needs being protected. He is a weasel. He last came with some obscure intention of asking Papa’s advice upon something, but his clumsy and stupidly transparent intent was obvious to father, and he was firmly steered off and sent away. I doubt that Mr. Devane will put himself out so much to discourage him. Why should he? He knows nothing of us.”
“He married your sister, my dear. He blindly trusted me to allow that to go forward, as I trust him, but not so blindly. He did not have to do that. I think that counts for far more than you might believe.”
“I hope you are right, Mama. That Thackeray individual and his father cannot be trusted. They may even more openly try to sell off that large piece of ground to the squire. Squire.” She went off on another tangent. “He has no right to call himself that, for Papa is—was—by far the bigger landholder and is…was, better considered in the local area.”
“Gently, my dear, gently. Do not get yourself worked up over nothing. We have enough on our plates at this moment. Too much to deal with easily, I fear. Now is not the time for argumentation and brangling. A rose by any other name, my dear.”
“A midden by any other name, more like.”
“Oh, Annis. If it makes him feel good and important to puff himself up in that way, I am sure it cannot affect us in any way, call himself what he will. Your father was more amused than offended by it and gave it no thought and nor should you at a time like this. You should remember that if you cannot say something nice about someone….”
“Then say nothing.” She interrupted and finished off what her mother had taught her many times. “Yes, mama, you are right. I am sorry. I am not making things any easier.”
“He always hoped your father would give that field to him, in the expectation that it would eventually come to him anyway, no matter how many times your father told him that there was no question of the succession—when there may have been, for his persistence put your father’s back up over it—and you know what a complete schemer the squire is to get what he wants. I fear it will all be revived again now.” She paused. “Oh dear. Here was I telling you off and I fall into the same trap. But indeed it is not all misplaced, for it is true. He will have broken the fence down again, claim that his cows did it, and has seen his cattle stream into that pasture already, thinking that no one would notice or dare say anything now that your father has gone and no one to defend our interests.”
“He did that once before, Mama, and father had to go and see him about it and tell him to remove them, or he would shoot them and be well within his rights. They had a dreadful argument about who owned that land, but it was settled well enough—until the next time. Which is probably now. I believe Thackeray may have come that time with the expectation of developing a relationship with Bella and ensuring his so-called ‘rights’ through marriage—so he did start out to be as well intentioned as he might be or at least strove to give that impression, but I don’t believe he seriously considered marriage. She turned him off severely when he persisted, and yet he persisted further, despite what she said to him before he was shown off by Father. He wandered the house the only night he spent here, snooping in and out of everyone’s bedroom. That was too much when he startled Charlotte, and she raised the house telling him to leave her room instantly in a loud enough voice that could be heard out to the road I expect, so you and father insisted he leave before first light. His intentions cannot have been honorable.”
“That was your father that showed him off, dear. But we cannot know he intended any mischief. He was just used to getting his own way. I am so relieved they did not come to blows, for there were some harsh words spoken. But we cannot lock ourselves away nor lose a year in mourning, with all of our futures hanging in the balance and still to think about and resolve. Mourning is a luxury for the rich and foolish who can afford to see a year of their life pass them by. Your father was adamant in his words about that, for he had no patience with such folly as he told me at the end. Made me promise.” William heard her sniff loudly and could almost see her brace her shoulders to fight on.
“Get over it, and get on with life,” was his way of expressing things when the going got rough, and there were times when it was hard and difficult for us in the early going, but we weathered it all. We will weather Mr. Thackeray and his father too, just as we will weather this turmoil, and I do not think that you will find Mr. Devane to be quite as bad as he might have been painted by others, for I do know more than just a little of him.”
“I really do not know enough of him, Mama, to be negative or otherwise, but we should be on our guard. I suppose we can expect them all to descend upon us now and try to turn us out on one pretext or another.”
“All? I don’t think so. The Thackerays—father and son both—are the only ones. I doubt that any other half cousin—or whatever the relationship was—will be likely to show up now, for the one that might, has taken an interest in a rich widow over Lonton-East way and seems to be meeting with some small success from what I heard.”
“Mama, I should tell you that Mr. Devane wandered the house last night too.”
“I know, my dear. He could not sleep either. I do not know how I slept, but I must have done. For I was at the table one moment and then in that chair by the fire the next, with the fire made up and a blanket over me and a cushion under my head, and I did not get there by myself.”
“Oh. Then that was kind of him mama. But he did come into my room too, and most others in the house from what I could hear with floors creaking and doors opening. I think he expected to find Bella, but when he didn’t, he soon left. Most strange. I do not know what he expected to find. He also spent some time with Thomas. He was comforted to see him, I think. I could hear them next door talking together. I could not sleep and listened to some of what was said, yet it seems that I did sleep, or at least dozed off, for I do not know when he left.”
“He visited Bella too, so I hear.”
“So he did eventually find her, did he?” Her daughter sounded surprised to hear that. “Why would he need to do that?”
“He had just married her, my dear. He was curious and could not sleep. Yes. I doubt you might approve of that either. But neither did I get the impression that anyone felt in any danger from him.” For some reason, that feeling did not surprise her. She recalled again her surprise and sudden brief contentment at finding herself in the chair she had intended to spend the night in, and with a blanket over her and not at the table as she had last remembered. “It does not surprise me that he could not sleep either, with all of our grief keeping him awake and other strange noises in a house he did not know, and comings and goings and what had just happened to him. It was a pity we had to embroil him in our grief as we certainly did.”
“Yes. But he shouldn’t have wandered like that.” Annis was speaking. “But I suppose that was different and might be excused as you say. I would say he had no motive that might be questioned. Not from what I observed, for he looked quite sad and then confused when he saw that I was not Bella, whom he expected to find in that bed. But then, men are all the same that way, a law unto themselves, careless of others, always showing off, seeking to intrude and dominate and overrule, and show how superior they are. Though father was not like that.”
“He was your father. That’s different. We depended upon him far more than you seem to know. William is not like that either. A family of women without a man they might trust to look after their interests is like a rudderless ship. You may not like it any more than I do, but this is a male-dominated world where a woman by herself counts for little. But what would you know of men to be so cynical miss?”
“Only what I saw of London society and the little social interactions here in the village. Those Thackerays. They were the worst by far. Insufferably arrogant, encroaching, and argumentative.”
“Annis, I can assure you that William is nothing like the Thackerays. If you look for comparisons, I think you would be wiser to think of him more in the mold of your father, little as you may like that. We may be as dependent upon him in that way now. I can only hope that he does not resent what has happened and feel that he must rush away. In truth, I am not even sure what we accomplished by doing what we did. But we should be careful of what we say. The servants mean well, but we must be careful.”
“Yes, Mama. No. He is nothing like Thackeray. Maybe worse. But he is nothing like father either. Thackeray had the house in turmoil with his outrageous explorations. Especially after one of the house keys was found to be missing Father had told us to place a chair under the door handle to our bedrooms soon after, and I know I did that time, but I forgot last night. But yes, William is different, I will grant you that. For some reason, I did not feel threatened by him as I might have been when he walked into my room. He had not expected to see me there, and he was suddenly confused and almost hurt, I thought. I also remember that he shed tears with us as we all did when he married….” She could not easily continue for a few moments. “He looked so sad and confused, for he held a candle to look down at me, and I tried to make it seem as though I were asleep. Then after he had gone to the other bedroom next to mine where father was laid out, I overheard him comforting Thomas, and Thomas was obviously relieved by his words, so I must thank him for that. No, he is not all bad, I will grant you that, but that is no reason to be so trusting of him so soon.”
“I am afraid we are not out of the woods yet, my dear. There is at least one aspect of this that I find most uncertain….” She sighed heavily, “…that the marriage might be challenged and overturned.”
“How so, mama?”
“Because it was not properly done at the last.” Her voice lowered. “It was not consummated as it should have been, and society seems to place such store by that. There are those who say that there is no marriage at all in the proper sense until…no matter. It is a delicate subject. Oh why could she not have lived for a few more days, weeks, and preferably lived on as she should to avoid all of this? But it did not happen. That could be grounds for challenge and annulment, and would be, if these upstart Thackerays get wind of it, and then we would be back where we started and them buzzing like hornets about us.”
Just as they seemed unaware that William was close by and overhearing more than he was intended to hear, so was Sophia sitting quietly in the window embrasure of the parlor, drinking it all in and not sure what any of it might mean but able to sense that her mother was obviously worried about their future in the home that was all they had known since they were born.
“Better call everyone to breakfast, my love, though William and Thomas already ate before they went back to the coach-house. How I am to eat anything, I do not know, yet I must.”
Annis began to see more than her mother might of those circumstances. Perhaps it might be better if that marriage were overturned. A problem had nagged at her concerning that marriage and the estate. Exactly who did their property belong to now? If it passed to Bella upon her marriage and her father’s death, did that not mean that it had now become the property of her husband? Perhaps they had disinherited themselves in their foolish rush to see Bella married. She felt a headache coming on and could no longer think about such a disturbing possibility and would certainly never dare raise it with her mother. Perhaps it would somehow sort itself out as her father had always told her it would, when she had worried over so many other things and then found that they had never been quite as bad as she had feared.
Mrs. Barristow encountered William sometime later as he entered the house from finishing off in the coach-house with Thomas, as they both returned for a proper breakfast.
“I took your coat, sir, if that is what you are missing. Molly is seeing to it at the moment. There was a burn mark and a speck of older blood on the sleeve and another smudge on the side. I feared at first that the blood might have come from…our tragedy.”
“No, Ma’am. They came earlier than that.”
“Well, Molly will do what she can. Neither mark was so obvious, but blood must be seen to before it dries if possible and, if not, then before it gets too old. What a pity we did not notice it last night when you arrived, but it was not to be, with everything going on as it was. I just hope she was able to do something with it. Nothing serious, I hope?” She looked concerned, though she had more that needed to occupy her than a speck or a smudge on his coat.
“No, Ma’am. Nothing serious. A small and unfortunate disturbance just outside of Inchdene yesterday afternoon. Of little consequence, and soon resolved.”
During their more formal breakfast some little time later, he noticed that he was being regarded with some interest ranging from outright curiosity to perhaps reserved judgment by all of the daughters, but mostly in a kindly and curious way. They were not sure what to make of him just yet, for he was almost as much a stranger to them now as he had been last night. If they expected to find him unused to the gentle manners at table after being on the Peninsula, they would be disappointed. He had washed up carefully before appearing at the table and had tidied himself up as much as he might, considering his limited wardrobe, even to the extent of brushing his unruly hair with little success. He did not slurp his hot coffee or drink noisily from the cup; he used a napkin—in fact, he had assisted Sophia with hers as well as helped her cut her ham—and he did not eat with his knife or his fingers. Nor did he reach across the table and load his plate beyond reason as another relative had done when he had been there, but had passed plates as required and had made sure that Sophia was looked after, and even the others too, before he began himself. He ensured that all were sufficiently well-fed before he or Thomas might consider any additional servings for themselves, for they both had the appetites of hungry men. One never knew how they could eat so much and not get fat. All of these things were carefully noted.
They were not to know of the violence of hungry men, half starved, or the not-so-rare fights over the distribution of food that had sometimes accompanied their impromptu dinners during campaign, over a share of the meager rations that had been perceived to be excessive on someone else’s part.
So began an informal mental cataloguing of those small personal observations of the one upon the other four, and of the four upon the one, as they curiously learned of each other.
The youngest girl seated next to him was still shy of him, regarding him with the greatest curiosity, but then he had recognized that she had followed him around after he had returned to the house the first time after helping Thomas and had seemed not to leave him since, but had always been close by. He did not mind. He found it amusing, but recognized that she needed to be distracted as much as he might be able to achieve, so he had spoken kindly to her and showed her what he was doing and why, and had even got her to help him where she might be able to. He began to feel a sense of belonging, when he noticed that she stood close to him and that her hand had intruded into his own from time to time. He began to pay her more attention.
“You will need to forgive my daughters’ attention, sir. They are not used to a relative stranger, a gentleman, dining with us, even though he is…even though you are now their brother-in-law.”
He liked that thought, and that appellation. “Pay it no mind, Ma’am. I used to receive the same scrutiny when I was pied-a-terre, that is, I was billeted with different families in the early stages until the action picked up, and then I found I sorely missed the usual comforts of table and the kindly attention.”
They seemed to listen attentively to everything he might say. They had even watched as he and Thomas had washed up before sitting down at table, almost as though they had never seen a grown man washing before.
It was off-putting to be at the focus of such interest. He knew he would have to get used to it, and it far beat the alternative that he had left behind him and had almost forgotten in this new setting. He had lived with his fellow soldiers in rough conditions for the last few years, devoid of all family life and civil, gentle exchanges. He had had to get used to their coarse language and pointed, sometimes personal, banter and hectoring, and their indifference to good manners and formality; for with the need to cooperate and pull together and fight for each other’s safety under the most taxing and severe of conditions, there had been little formality in their closely confined society. In the heat of battle, with ever-present violence and death, ranks soon disappeared. One ate when one might. They were often so hungry that no one inquired too closely what it might be, but accepted it and ate it appreciatively, often on horseback as they moved under cover of night. Beef was not available, yet it had seemed like beef to hungry men, though there had never seemed enough of it to feed everyone. He had never believed he might relish horse meat, but tough as the meat was, and relatively tasteless, it was not to be scorned, and there was an abundance of it at times after some of the furious exchanges. Changes of clothing were not to be thought of, though in the rainy season or by the larger streams, there was an abundance of water to bathe with and wash out their clothing.
The society at Underby, by comparison, was a pleasant change. To be surrounded by so much gentle and even refined beauty in a proper and more relaxing and peaceful setting without fear of snipers, was restful, despite the recent upset, and he was naturally curious himself. He had never been at a gentle table before with more than just his mother and sister, and now he was surrounded by three beautiful and mature ladies and a young girl. He even seemed to be the centre of attention from time to time when they thought he might not notice, and was being waited on by gentle females rather than his gruff comrades. The society of women had been thin over there, and those few had often been as violent as the men, and different from the women he had been used to at home.
However, the intensity of their scrutiny at this table was at times disconcerting, though they tried to make it not so obvious. Had he cut himself shaving perhaps, or missed some hairs on his neck or under his chin, as he often did in his usual rush to shave? Perhaps he was not dressed as formally as they were used to—and he certainly wasn’t—for his good clothing had gone ahead of him. He did not mind being dressed at this time in only his trousers and shirt with its sleeves rolled up to his elbow and open at the neck, for he had been helping Thomas, who was also dressed that way at table too. It was to be hoped his sister was still at Brooklands to see that what he needed would be sent along.
“My daughter mentioned some damage to your shirt, sir. If you do not mind, I can sort out some of Mr. Barristow’s things for you. He has no use of them now, and some of his larger shirts may fit you.”
“Thank you, Ma’am, but please do not go to any trouble for me. When I can, this afternoon if possible, I will send off to my sister for some clothes from Brooklands. I am working on a letter for her.”
Annis inquired at that moment. “What are your plans, sir—William?” That was the first time she had been able to use his name without prompting, and it had not come easily for her. “We can have no further calling upon your time or patience after helping us as you have.” It seemed that Annis still had reservations about his need to be there.
Her mother leapt in and looked pointedly at Annis. “You have already been more help that you might realize, William. Again, I must ask you to excuse my daughter, sir. She can be abrupt at times and speak without consideration of what is needed.” Annis blushed at being corrected in that way. “You are not required to desert us so soon, and we do not expect it. You are more than welcome to stay for as long as you wish. I am sure you have as many questions to ask of us as we will have of you.”
Annis flashed her mother a glance that was not entirely approving. William noticed her glance and a slight tightening about her mouth. She did not seem to approve of him.
“Thank you, Ma’am. I would like to help where I can, and I can see where there is much that I might do, but Annis is right to be cautious. I am little more than a stranger to you, and I would not care to be an additional burden at a time like this to any of you.”
“You would not be a burden, sir. More of a welcome deflection and distraction at the moment, I think, as you have been already with many things, including my youngest daughter. I hope she will not make a nuisance of herself in that way. We need some point of stability in our lives.”
He smiled down at his young companion and nudged her leg with his own to reassure her. “She is good company rather than a nuisance. She reminds me that I am once again in a more gentle society than I ever seemed to remember. But in any case, I have no significant calling upon my time elsewhere that cannot wait, and provided I do not trespass or impose upon your hospitality too much, I think I would like to be of use in some way that I can see might be of benefit to you. I have seen some things where I might prove to be useful, though I will ask your permission first, of course. There is a pigeon cote in danger of coming off the barn roof with the next strong wind, and there is an old tree about to shed some more branches into your gate with the next wind as it did last night.”
“Yes, there are some things that one does not notice readily when one lives with them all of the time. Please do what you believe is necessary.”
“Thank you. You will be receiving visitations and condolences from many people. So if necessary, as I am not really family, I can keep clear, but I will be close by if you need me.”
“Yes, there will be visitors. But you are now family, William, no matter how recent that is, nor how tenuous at the moment it might seem. You married my eldest daughter and are now a part of my family. But we should not subject you to our grief more than we have already. A strange predicament and situation for all of us. You took a step blindly, based upon more trust than any of us had a right to ask of you, considering how little you knew of us. We arein your debt. You are a recent and welcome addition at a difficult time when all we have seen are losses. I think we would like to get to know you better once this turmoil settles down as it inevitably will.” She sighed heavily. “Life does go on despite all the upsets, as Mr. Barristow was fond of saying.”
Annis had to be satisfied with that and decided not to persist in her cautioning her mother.
“Those who are my friends will be at the service either this afternoon or this evening and the funeral tomorrow or, if they miss those, will not stay long anyway and will confine themselves to the usual hours at such a time. They will be made as welcome as we can.” She looked at Annis as she said that, “for they will offer their help honestly and with genuine sincerity and concern. Others may not, but may seek to see what can be turned to their own advantage. It is them I would like to avoid, but it will be difficult. I do not wish to give offense.”