Friday, March 9th, 2018
The next week brought never-ending rains which kept them all close to the house, pouring over books and playing various games, though they soon lost their attraction, and the girls drifted off to find other distractions or settled by the fire to catch up on reading or mending.
“Will this rain never cease?” Charlotte was looking through the rain-streaked window. “Even the ducks have taken to sheltering in the barn with that wind. We can go nowhere in this, and there is no chance of getting into the garden for the raspberries. The birds will get them all again, or they will go moldy or even drop off.”
“Oh, mama. Look. Here is that bonnet I was telling you about.” Annis showed her mother the drawing of the dress and the bonnet in the ladies magazine she had been reading, and took note of the directions for putting one together just like it. She was pleased to see that such minor things could be distracting even if only for a while.
“Well, it is to be hoped you stick at it longer than you did your knitting.”
Annis grimaced at that criticism. She felt more than just foolish the way that had worked out, but William had said nothing about it, and everyone else had been in the village or busy elsewhere so had not heard the shots or had chosen not to inquire about them.
She put the magazine aside. “The weather may intimidate the ducks, and certainly the hens, but it does not seem to stop either Thomas or William, for they seem as busy as ever in the outbuildings considering the hammering, and Sophia does not seem to leave their side. She has become a ragamuffin and does not seem to care how grubby or muddy, or even wet, she becomes.”
“Yes, William takes good care of her, doesn’t he.” Their mother ignored the unflattering description of her youngest daughter, thankful that she had distractions enough to fill her every waking moment and to keep her mind off the other for a while; unlike her elder sisters and mother. He was also close into all of their lives, as an elder brother might be. The usual cautions that a mother might throw at her daughters in the close company of a strange man, were never uttered. She saw no danger or difficulty. He seemed unmoved in any awkward way by the usual habits of sometimes careless daughters, in the way they had grown used to relaxing with each other, and careless of the way they sat as they were engrossed in something to take their minds off the tragedy, that constantly hung over them. She knew that, as a man, he did notice such things, indeed he was helpless not to do so, and was entranced by their revealing carelessness in each other’s company, or when they had just arisen from their beds and were not properly dressed, nor him either—of which they also took more than just a passing interest in turn—or were combing or washing their hair, and were ill-attired and more on display than might be acceptable in other company, and all without it being too obvious to anyone but her. She seemed to be the only one that was cautious about such things. What she glimpsed from time to time as they sat carelessly with each other, or rose from their recumbent state on the window seat, she did not openly disapprove of, as she perhaps should. William noticed. She said nothing. Only a fool would choose to frighten off the only bright light to have descended on them in their time of need, and that, almost by accident.
“Is it only a week since the funeral?” Their mother’s disturbed thoughts were still inescapably drawn back to that. “Yes, it is.” She stared off into the distance. She would never be free of that particular pain and its constant reminders. She wrenched herself out of that mood as she needed to do many times each day, and to put her mind into other channels. “I am surprised that we have not received a visit from London, for the Thackeray’s must have heard of our loss, and I thought that they would be unable to refrain from hounding us. I have dreaded his showing up. When your father fell ill two years ago, he seemed to express a great deal of interest in that, at least until your father recovered his health and told him to stop his foolishness and to mind his own business and to stop hovering and take himself off.”
Charlotte did not raise even her head from her mending to enter the conversation. “If you mention the devil like that, Mama, I hear he is just likely to appear. But Mr. Thackeray will not be coming again.” Charlotte was too engrossed in mending the hem of a dress at that moment, having become depressed at seeing so much rain, that she did not see the signs and signals that Annis tried to send her way to stop her from relating any such thing.
“And how do you know that, Miss? This is the first I heard of Mr. Thackeray being here.”
“I overheard Molly saying how he had been trespassing and poking and prying here last week while we were in Church but had been sent off in no uncertain way and with a….” she paused to get the accent right, and looked at her listeners, “…a right proper thick ear—as she said in her Yorkshire twang—and had a rare punishment, a beating that was long overdue and a treat to watch when he had been caught snooping through father’s papers in the study. Or so she said. I wonder if those teeth I found by the trough and those sovereigns and watch were his?” She focused on her needlework again. “Who else might they belong to indeed? Well he shan’t have his sovereigns back. I intend to keep those. I don’t know about the watch. I may give it to William for his pains. But I cannot approve of his fighting like that.”
“Really?” This was all news to their mother. “What beating? What teeth? What sovereigns? Indeed, what watch? What fighting? I knew none of this, Miss. I did hear of a slight contretemps when William discouraged some bad behavior about then, but no name was mentioned and no one thought enough of it to say more. I thought it might have been the squire he told off about his letting his cows run loose in our field.”
Charlotte glanced momentarily at her mother. “No, mama. You would not hear the full details of it. The servants were told to say nothing of it for fear of upsetting you. I showed you the sovereigns, and you said I could keep them.” Charlotte still had her head in her work and could not see Annis trying to quiet her.
“I said nothing of the kind. I saw no sovereigns. Who administered this beating?” Their mother still had not learned of any of it. Until now.
“Oh, Mama. Need you ask?” She glanced at her mother again in some disbelief that she did not know, and then re-immersed herself in her task. “You noticed the blood on his shirt and cheek at the Church that day, for you wiped it away for him, and his hand was bandaged for a day or so afterward. Surely you noticed it when you sat down with him and those other two gentlemen from London.”
He mother blanched. “Well, yes, I did. But he had a ready explanation for that. He said nothing about a fight.”
“It wasn’t the squire. It was that Thackeray man. Have you also not noticed that the squire got his cows out of our field about that time too and has never put them back in there again either, and even seems to have repaired the fence that Papa was sure he had weakened deliberately? Surely you have noticed the difference in the servants’ demeanor toward William? I have.. They cannot seem to do enough for him.”
“Well, yes, I have noticed that.” Their mother began to wonder what it was that she did not know, that everyone else seemed to know all about. “No more than is his due though. He is a gentleman with them, as he should be, and thanks them most kindly when they do anything for him, and he helps them out too with the more difficult tasks. He has no need to do any of that. I am sure I don’t expect it any more than they do. He even helps Thomas. They have worked wonders, the pair of them, on so many things we seem to have overlooked and neglected.” She looked up from what she was doing. “But where is William? I must learn more of this. I have not seen him all morning.”
Annis saw a means of diverting her mother. “Best not to disturb him, Mama. He is working with Thomas on a particularly difficult task if Sophia is to be believed any more. Besides, I have something I need to ask you.”
“Very well, I will ask him later. What do you wish to ask, dear?”
“My father was never a violent man, was he?”
She sighed. There could be no leaving some things aside. “Lord no, child. Your father was a gentle and kind man, at least for the last few years, mostly he was, and quite calmed down a lot when we settled here just after we married, bless him.” Her eyes misted as she looked into the fire for a few moments. “Whatever would have made you think that? Oh, but it was not because he could not be violent when the need was there, for he was not at all gentle when he showed Thackeray off the property that time, but then it never did get out of hand, for Thomas was also close by, and I recall he had a pitchfork in his hands.
“It almost degenerated into a violent situation with the squire on that one occasion also. All very minor. It seems that some men will not take a hint and need to see that violence will erupt if they do not change what they are doing. They are just like roosters that way, facing up to each other until one of them backs down or not. If not, then the feathers will fly, and the spurs get used, and the winner can then be declared. I think your father prevailed without going any further than he needed to.”
She reflected again upon the question and qualified it. “No. Your father was not violent, unless it was absolutely necessary. So I suppose there were occasions when it was called for but never too seriously.” The other still nagged at her. “I must get that tale out of Molly if it was not as I assumed it was. It seems that the servants and my daughters know everything, and I know nothing. Your father always warned me that the servants know more of what is going on about us than ever we might.”
Annis then took a part. “But what if there is more to it than just necessary violence, Mama? What if a man seems to be violent for violence’s sake and without cause?”
“Oh.” She looked over at Annis. “I see you read your godmother’s letter to me then? I imagine it did not paint a glowing complimentary picture of William, for I know her opinion of him and her belief that he is an inherently violent individual, even with womenfolk. Well he isn’t.” She was adamant on that issue. “You must watch what you believe my girl. Half of what she says is untrue, and the other half is exaggerated or misinterpreted. She has been liberal with her opinion of him every time we saw each other in the last few months, anticipating his return. She does not approve of him and hasn’t since he was a boy growing up, nor of what we had been planning in the last year or so—his mother, sister and I.”
“Mama. How do you know of what she might have said of him? I was the one who read her letter, and I know you have not seen it.”
“I am not entirely stupid, though you may think I am. I know Addie’s opinions of William, my dear, and her repertoire of ills and complaints against the boy, for she regales us with them at every opportunity. I set no store in gossip, my dear, and nor should you. I had no intention of reading it until I was better able to deal with it. She can be aggravating and infuriating at times with her opinions of everything, and never sees the need to change or learn what the truth might be where men are concerned.” She sighed. “Yet she is one of my dearest friends.”
“But it is surely more than gos—”
“No. It is not.” She interrupted her daughter. “Young men can be testy and argumentative and sometimes get drawn in deeper than anyone would like. That is their way of preparing for their adult battles with other men. If a man is not prepared to do battle for his rights and property or for the woman he loves, then he will lose both them and his own self-respect and will never be able to hold his head high in society again. It is no different than that rooster we put in the pot. He had lost his place and was incapable of treading hens or of laying eggs, so he had to go, as we all do when we lose our purpose in life.”
Annis heard Charlotte repeat her mother’s words with a laugh. “Treading hens. It’s a good thing Sophia is not here to demand to know what that means.”
Her mother seemed taken aback. “Well, that’s what they do. She knows what it means, for she sees it often enough for herself. If they did not, we’d get eggs enough but no chickens out of any of them. I cannot imagine you have not paid attention to that. That’s why we have roosters, remember? Sophia already knows more than you think about such things. She’s not shy about asking questions of anyone, even about some of the personal things. She even asks William in front of everyone. Quite embarrassing for the poor man. But he handles it so well.”
She sighed heavily. “Your father did all that he needed to do on my behalf when we first met and solved a difficult problem that I faced with one particular suitor who did not know what the word ‘no’ meant and would not be easily put off. I did not approve in the slightest of what he did, but I, nonetheless, was quite impressed in a way I could not relate to anyone, for that had been quite violent and saved me from an awkward marriage contrived by my parents. He overturned all of that.
“No. I shall not tell you any more of that at this moment. We can save it for a time when it is likely to cause less heartache. But I will know where William is and what he is doing.” She stared at Annis waiting for an answer while Charlotte concentrated more on her mending.
“He is shoring up the stable, Mama, with Thomas, under the supervision and watchful eyes of our now, never-present-with-us, sister Sophia who lives in his pocket and seems far too worshipful of him. She never seems to leave his side and even insists on going off with him on his horse when he needs to head into the village for anything. They have been lucky enough not to get wet so far, but it is just a matter of time.”
“I noticed. But I am thankful for that. She was the one I worried for, with…” She fought that memory and the pain it brought, “…with her father gone. I know we all feel it cruelly, but I feared that she would be the one most upset, and now she seems not to have a care in the world. I was concerned and hurt at first, but now I am thankful for that. But I did not tell him to do anything, and I certainly did not expect him to look after her so well as he does, and never a word of complaint, and never impatient with her. He does not mind at all for he told me himself that he enjoyed her company, and it is obvious that he does. I should have remembered that he would be repairing out there, for he did tell me what he planned on doing. He usually suggests what needs to be done or asks if I had other tasks for him first and, if not, then…and off he goes and does everything.”
Annis put her magazine to one side for a few moments, and stretched, while no-one other than her sister or mother might see her. “When you are not here, Mama, he also finds things that need to be done all by himself and says nothing of any of it, as when he fixed those windows and replaced some tiles on the stable roof while Sophia supervised from the pigeon cote. She had climbed inside of it now that it is more sturdy and did not seem to care that she was then covered with droppings. Then he took down that tree that was threatening to block the driveway, or worse, if it had come down across someone. He seems to know how to work with tools. I would probably cut my feet off if I swung an ax the way he does when he was taking those branches off. He says there is another tree to go, that is just as bad. They cleaned out the drains and unblocked the stream, which was just as well or it would have been running down the driveway after all the rain we had. He and Thomas work well together, especially on the barn. It settled under the weight of hay last summer, and father never did get around to seeing that it was repaired.”
“Yes, I remember. Your father was debating whether or not to pull it all down and rebuild.”
“No need now, Mama. It has been raised and repaired. Fresh hay and all, and at least two new support posts, shaped and put in and made from that same tree that he took out, so Sophia tells me. She seemed impressed by the ingenuity that went into doing it too, with some kind of frame support and pulleys to raise the main beam and even some levers too at work. She was excited to discover that someone as small as she could pull on a rope and raise such a massive beam more than two extra feet into the air while they put in new support posts. They were all singing some kind of sea shanty when I walked in on them with Sophia and Thomas pulling on the rope in time to the song. She was having a rare old time of it. We shall never hear the last of it I fear, except she does not seem to leave his side for long enough to tell us all about her most recent accomplishments.”
Charlotte entered the conversation once more. “She came in earlier and was spouting off at how William had taught her that a little bit of brain work can beat any amount of brawn, and now she knows all about pulleys and levers and such things.”
“Harmless enough thing to say, for it’s true. Your father used to say the same thing. Now what was it that Mrs. Rogers used to say about that son of Welch’s? That great strong lad with no more wit than a fence post.”
“Mother.” Annis laughed, though she was shocked. “I do not think it polite to repeat it, for it was not at all flattering to the poor boy, and he did have a little more wit than that. But not much.”
They had not noticed that Sophia had entered the parlor and was munching on something. “Molly said he was ‘strong in’t back and thick in’t head and like a great daft lass.’” A broad Yorkshire twang was evident in her pronouncement which did not meet with her mother’s approval, for she frowned at her as she took in the crumpled state of her dress and hay still attached to it and in her hair.
“Yes, she did, didn’t she. My, what a mess you are in. One might think you had been rolling in the stream and then in the hay.”
Sophia ignored her. “Thomas says that too. She is full of sayings like that from Yorkshire, and she must have taught him some when they laugh and cud—” She faltered and colored up, but her mother did not ask her to continue what she was saying. Annis was looking at her with an alarmed look in her eyes and a barely perceptible shake of the head to stop any continuation of that particular indiscretion, and others far more shocking, concerning how Molly and Thomas might conduct themselves when they believed that they were alone.
“Yorkshire does not sound like a polite kind of place, and I hope none of it sticks. But I don’t think any of that applies to William, that is certain. You should tidy up, dear.”
Sophia ran off outside again at that moment once she saw that William was walking off across the yard and before she landed herself into trouble or was made to go and change and bathe. Again. He hesitated and smiled down at her as she caught up with him and took hold of his hand as she skipped along beside him and avoided the mud puddles.
“No. He seems to be a soft-spoken man with everyone, despite what we have learned about him and Thackeray.” Charlotte had put aside her mending and was then was maneuvering her graphite stick at that moment to try and capture a particularly thoughtful expression that had just shown on her sister’s face as she looked out of the window. “He is so patient. Do you know that he sings to her at night?”
“Sings? I thought I heard something like that once she had gone to bed.”
“Yes. He has some gentle little lullaby kind of songs that he sings in a low voice so that no one else might hear him. She was singing it to her dolls later while she was playing with them, and I asked her about it. He even reads to her and tells her nursery rhymes too. He is full of them.
“Did you know that Humpty Dumpty really did fall off that wall?”
“Come now, Charlotte. It is a nursery rhyme.”
“Yes, but there is a story behind each of them, you know? They are satirical or lyrical renditions of real social circumstances and political too, as with Jack Horner and pulling plums out of pies—sometimes quite humorous, foolish, or even grisly, I learned, as with Mary, Mary, quite contrary and her garden. Queen Mary. Bloody Mary who had all of those people burned at the stake. It will never sound quite so harmless to me now, for I did not know about her ‘garden’ or those dreadful cockleshells.” She shivered at the memory. “Though he did not tell Sophia the story behind that one, and I am sure he would not have told me either. I knew that one myself from one of father’s books that I was not supposed to read.”
Her mother looked sharply at her “I thought those were locked away.”
“You cannot shelter us forever, Mama.”
“No, I suppose not. Not now.” She nonetheless made a note in her own mind that she would check on where she had put them, along with her sketch books. It would not do for them to be in general circulation.
Charlotte was still rambling along. “Humpty Dumpty was the name given to a large cannon. When the foundations crumbled under it on the wall, it fell off and they couldn’t get it back onto the wall again. So you see there is a real story behind it. He even encourages her to play the harpsichord. For he got her to give him a lesson.”
“But she is only beginning herself.”
“Yes. Clever of him, wasn’t it? It was becoming harder to get her to practice until he began to show an interest.”
Charlotte yawned. The weather was getting to her. “I might almost suspect that he knows how to play himself, the way he was asking her some things and struggling quite creditably to show her how to achieve something while carefully giving the impression that she had shown him, for he asked some clever questions of her. She also does not regard her freckles with quite as much dislike now that she knows that they are fairy kisses.”
“Oh yes. She had mentioned that if she could change anything in the world it would be to bring…well you know…both of them back.” She regretted saying anything of that, even as she said it, for it weighed heavily upon them all, much of the time, but continued quickly. “But then had mentioned that she hated her freckles and would change those too. Everyone made fun of her over them, and she did not like to be made fun of. So he told her that she was privileged to have them and that those who made fun of her were jealous, for they were special, and only few children ever had them. That caught her attention, and she wanted to know why.”
Her mother was suddenly interested. “I think I would like to know why too, for I had freckles when I was her age and still have them at times.” Her mother brushed a tear from her eye, and Charlotte regretted her thoughtless tongue and thought to steer the conversation into slightly different channels, but Annis took over the conversation at that point.
“I believe he told her that while she was asleep as a baby, the fairies had come in to see her and had kissed her. And wherever they kissed her, there was a small freckle left to show what they had done.”
“Well, I never!”
“Oh yes. Now she searches for them in her bath, wherever they are, and points them out proudly. Even to William, whom she now insists helps bathe her as she chatters along to him artlessly. He should have properly declined her offer to help bathe her, but he did not. I believe he saw that we disapproved, so did not decline as he should have. It is embarrassing where she manages to find them and is not shy about pointing them out wherever they are, but he does not care in the slightest what Charlotte or I might think about it all, nor how embarrassed we are, but just smirks. There are times I wish we were elsewhere when she does that, for she has neither any sense of modesty nor embarrassment, either in her bath nor afterward as she parades about quite naked and cares what no one might think, least of all William, who smiles through it all as he dries her.
“And why should she? She is but six years old and not at all shy. But then six may be old for that kind of behavior. No matter. No one will be offended. William isn’t, I am sure. She is too young to be deliberately coquettish and we should leave her with her childhood as long as we can. I was afraid she might have to grow up too fast.”
While her mother was distracted, Annis continued with their observations. “William has a mischievous side too. He pointed out that everyone living here has one leg and that all of the animals have three legs. Sophia could not believe him with that one, and nor could I, until he went further with it and pointed out that though Thomas has only one leg, he also has another, a second one, to go with it. Sophia did not know what to make of it at first and then saw through it all and has been playing that game with everyone now too. He also calls the sheep, bleating chickens. The cows, he insists, are horses with horns and vice versa and gets her quite annoyed with him. I must admit I was quite confounded by it at first too, then she told me what he had said of Thomas….”
Their mother’s thoughts were obviously far away at that moment.
Just then, there was the suggestion of a rumble of thunder, and there was a general scurrying to join the servants, to bring in the washing before it might rain again and to get it hanging up in the washhouse, where it was at least warm enough to get it dry.