Deception by Proxy: Chapter ten.

Thursday, January 25th, 2018



Some Confidences Disclosed.

 

William saw the table cleared from the noonday lunch, and decided that it might be a suitable time to find out in what way he may have helped them the previous night, and how he might help them going forward. It might also help take their thoughts from those overwhelming emotional matters which would undoubtedly weigh them down for the next few days and even weeks and months.

“Please forgive me for asking, Ma’am, but if you have time, if it is not asking too much, I would like to know in what way I have helped you by what I did last night. I know nothing of the affairs that required any of this, and I am naturally curious.”

Mrs. Barristow recognized that omission. “Oh dear. Of course you are, and we will need to address it sooner or later.” She took a deep breath as she gathered her thoughts. “I am not entirely sure myself, sir, but I will tell you what little I think I know. We can retire to the parlor and discuss it there and let the servants clear away. The girls have their own things to do at this time, and they do not need to overhear any of this.”

She saw that both Annis and Charlotte disapproved of that plan but did not go against their mother’s wishes. They would learn enough from her later if she chose to tell them, and she usually did.

He followed her to the parlor, where she sat herself in front of the fire. “Now, where to begin? We lived here with Mr. Barristow’s elder brother until he died, and then Mr. Barristow inherited it from him and took on management of the property, though he had been doing most of that already. His brother had said nothing of the confusing history of the property by way of warning us, for on his death we discovered a veritable mountain of papers concerning at least ten or twelve earlier properties that had gradually become this estate, and we ourselves added to it and created more confusion, I think. There seemed to be a history of confusion and controversy about most of them, as with any property.” She was pleased to note that he was an attentive listener.

“The real confusion, however, concerned this smaller core property of Underby, on which the house stands, from long before the other additions were made to it. In his brother’s papers was an old copy of a will from long ago in which this was a property passed along family lines, from father to son and so on, which is how it came down to us. Though I do not know how the Barristow’s came to be the recognized owners, for ours is not a French name as far as I am aware.

“We had no surviving son, and regretted that omission, especially yesterday. We had briefly discussed, perhaps even flippantly joked, about what might happen if I were left alone, but nothing was ever clearly resolved. With no son, we left ourselves open to challenges by other male descendents, and we have seen those already. They might be able to contest not just Underby but the entire property.”

It was clearly a worrisome situation that she faced. “By rights, I think the property should come to me, for there is nothing unusual about any of it. But nothing is certain, and it might just go the wrong way. However, there seemed to be a strange clause in there from the original Norman-French which had survived to more recent times, and that nagged at us both. It made no sense to us then or now. It seemed as though one of the original owners, some considerable time ago, had sought to keep some undesirable male, still resident in France, out of the succession and had somehow written some strange clauses into the will that seemed to apply to all subsequent owners. We could make no sense of it other than that in the absence of a direct male heir in the resident family, the property may be transferred to the eldest daughter, provided that she were married at that time. The intent seemed to be to make sure that there was a male in the immediate family, even someone not a direct heir, rather than having only women. As I say, we could make neither hide nor hair of it, and it seemed more of a peculiar curiosity of the original French, that we felt we had time to deal with. Until this. Indeed we had consulted lawyers from time to time, but they seemed of no help whatsoever and could clarify nothing for us. A needless expense. Or so it seemed at the time.

“Failing that, it passed to the next legal male heir, unless of course, I am the next legal heir of my husband, though, as I said, that does not seem so certain at all anymore.” It seemed confusing to William too. “We had often thought about it and its meaning and what we would do if anything happened to my husband. We laughed over it then and noted that we should ensure that Bella should marry and possibly avoid having it all thrown in disarray if there was ever a question raised of the true succession. As I said, we joked at the time, but I am not sure that I can joke about it now, faced with possibly losing it to some undeserving and distant relatives who feel that they have every right to it, even though my husband assured them that they did not.” She seemed to be referring to the Thackerays. “Your marrying Bella as you did may have saved us from that difficulty. Or it may not have, for unfortunately, she died immediately after. The marriage might mean nothing now as far as that will is concerned.”

She studied his face to see what he might make of it, but could read nothing in his expression.

“I know it all seems complicated. Certainly, it is to me even. I hope you can forgive us, William. It seems that we rushed forward and maneuvered and coerced you into a marriage that might have achieved nothing.” Much more had been achieved than she was sure he might be aware of, from what she had seen. “How could I have been so stupid. I should have told my husbandmore clearly about Bella’s outlook and admitted it to myself even and saved you from being caught up in such a promise to us, but I dared not overload him more than he already was. We all hoped that none of it might go as it did, and that some miracle would intervene and that they both might live despite what the doctor said, for he has been wrong before. Would that, he had been wrong this time too.”

He tried to reassure her. “No matter, Ma’am. In the heat of the moment, I doubt that anyone might think clearly about it. What is done is done. I was not harmed by it, and I don’t think anyone else was either.” He said nothing about there beingmore to this than anyone other than he seemed to have realized. If any of the Underby estate had come to Bella by her father’s death, with William marrying her—a strange circumstance indeed—then none of them appeared to have considered that upon marriage, all of a woman’s property became the property of her husband. His. Yet he did not see the validity of any of it. In the normal state of things, Mrs. Barristow now was the likely owner of Underby and not him. He said nothing. She did not need to consider that possible upset to everything, as temporary as it would certainly be.

Mrs. Barristow seemed not to have considered any of that herself and continued as she had begun. “Yes, and old wills get contested all of the time, and I am sure that this one will be. But we will at least buy ourselves some breathing space, though how we may have done so, I cannot know. However, I fear what the outcome will be. The other heirs have been constantly nipping at our heels for the last few years.” Something else still seemed to nag at her. “The other—larger— concern that my husband had was in the description of the property, for the designation ‘Underby Manor’ has gradually come to apply to thelarger estate. We could lose everything, without any part of it being retained by us for our use.”

William mulled over her words. It all did indeed sound strange and unusual, but his knowledge of legal matters was almost nonexistent. “Ma’am. It sounds strange and confusing indeed. It does not sound regular, though I am not familiar with such things as wills, especially from Norman times, except that my grandmother had full title to all that her husband had, including her London house, for she left it mostly to my sister. It may be that it passed to you in any case, no matter what we might have done. However, I know someone who is familiar with such things and should easily be able to sort it all out. Might I suggest that you allow me to consult my father’s…now my own lawyers in London about this, to unravel this confusion? They are highly recommended and are widely respected throughout the city for fair dealing, unlike the usual run of lawyers that one hears about. I was just with them, briefly after I landed, and they seemed enthusiastic about helping me with my own affairs of property. My family has trusted them for many years, and I believe we have never found cause to be concerned over their actions on our behalf. Perhaps I can persuade them to assist you in this one.”

“Oh, Mr. Devane. If you would do that for us, sir…We did not know who to consult or who might be relied upon. We seemed to encounter only the worst of that breed. In that regard, I know that Mr. Barristow had accumulated and put together many documents concerning this estate in his study as well as in some small chests stored in the attic. At least those documents he could find, for they seemed to be in so many places when he first took on that task. They were all to do with old wills and many estates, which were consolidated into this one, along with papers dealing with bequests, charters, royal…land grants, rewards for services rendered the crown, or confiscatory punishments for supporting the losing side” She threw her hands up in confusion. “What is not there?

“As I said, the present manor and its grounds are the melding of many other large estates and countless smaller properties, some with their own retinue of would-be claimants and problems of clarity of ownership. Now we can expect some of these old claims to be revived once more now that we are all thrown into confusion with his death. He found them all confusing and frustrating enough at the best of times and had put off dealing with them. Now, it can no longer be put off. If you would not mind unraveling that, I would be grateful to you.” She looked at him with tears starting in her eyes. “But this other…I hope we have not blighted your future prospects in any way, and we clearly have no right to expect you to remain after what happened.”

He took her hand. “Pay it no mind, Ma’am. There were no rosy prospects in my immediate future other than for more trouble to descend upon me considering the various welcomes I got when I landed. You welcomed me where others did not. I was needed at that time. I also did marry your daughter. Suddenly, that does mean a lot to me, and I confess I do not fully comprehend it.” She seemed grateful for his kind words and could say nothing. “I had never believed that I might ever marry so soon or in such a way or with such thanks or expectations of achieving miracles. So we shall just have to see what miracles we can work. There are no urgent calls upon my time elsewhere now. I shall draft a letter this afternoon to my lawyers, with your approval of what I might suggest they do and see that it goes off with another letter to my sister at Brooklands for some of my clothing.”

“There is one other thing that you could do for me, sir, if you do not mind. Though I should not load all of my troubles upon you.”

He smiled at her. “I would be pleased to help you in any way that I can, Ma’am.” At least her mind was now considering other things than allowing her thoughts and emotions over their recent tragic losses to overwhelm her.

“Thank you. I think we have time to discuss this before we need to depart for the service. And if I ask it of you now, you will know how to deal with it, for it will slip my mind again I am sure, if I do not tell you of it now.”

She struggled to find the words to begin. “I find that I am caught on the horns of yet another dilemma. That will, is one thing, but there is another issue that I will need to understand as soon as I may. In brief, I do not understand the true nature of the financial position in which we find ourselves. My husband was a careful manager of the estates, but I left him to deal with all of that himself while I managed the house and the home garden and marketing, and neither of us thought that anyone else might need to know any of the broader estate also. So I am not entirely sure of the state of our financial affairs, though they always seemed solid for Mr. Barristow to expand the estate as he did. There is a ledger on his desk that contains all of those transactions and accounts that I am aware of concerning tenants, income, expenditures and so on, and that might be a fairly simple and straightforward task for someone familiar with all of that, but I am not. I do not have a head for figures of that complexity or import. The finer details of my own kitchen I can understand well enough, but not that.

“As far as the existing estate itself goes, its boundaries are fairly well defined after that Inclosure Act, with the possible exception of the side field.” She hesitated for a few moments. “There is some dispute of the claim of a close neighbor, Mr. Pendleton, but that is still relatively minor. My husband saw to the broader affairs of the estate and often took Annis with him, and though I am aware of some of it, I did not expect that I would be so soon thrown into the thick of it.”

She rummaged in the pocket of her dress. “These are the keys to the desk and other places where he stored his papers. Better that you have them now.” She passed over keys to the desk and to the other trunks to him to begin his task when it might fit in with other things he had taken upon himself.

“I believe they are all unlocked at this time. When you finish working, it might be wise to lock everything up. There are others who may seek to remove them or change things if they have the opportunity to do so.”

Annis, who had overheard most of what her mother had proposed when she had brought them both a tray, tried to interject a note of caution as she poured them tea. “Oh, Mama. I am sure I can sort things out easier than anyone unfamiliar with them might. They are only boring papers. Only father understood them fully, though I have quite an extensive knowledge of the estate as I often accompanied him. I am sure much of it might not be at all clear to a stranger.”

Her mother sighed at her daughter’s over-cautious attitude. “Then rather than oppose this, you will help him, my dear. You make it all sound so simple, and I know that it is not.”

“Mother.”

“Please, Annis. Now is not the time to be difficult. Life must go on. There is so much we need to understand now for ourselves and with some hurry, I think. We are given little choice in the matter, except to deal with what we find now. I never thought I might encounter this and never so soon or with such urgency.”

“Yes, Mama.” She sounded resigned to having to do so, and decided that it was undoubtedly for the better that she would be close by, for she could then keep an eye on him and see that everything that was done, was done properly and honestly. Unfortunately, he now had the keys to everything important. Mrs. Barristow watched as Annis left the parlor.

“Annis is only trying to be helpful I think. I must trust someone at this time, William. It may as well be you. I would like it to be you. You do not have the shiftlessness of one who might not be trusted—not like some of our own relatives—and Thomas related of last night and how you helped him in that too. He said that he was ready to lose his mind until you appeared. Apart from that, we do know more than just a little of you, as I said, for Sophia found your name and other things about you in one of the newspapers, and you even show up in the navy list, which Mr. Barristow occasionally got. Most unusual to see an army major listed in those. It seems that you were not only highly regarded by the navy but also became a hero. Yet Thomas said you were a major in the army, and he believes that you are a man to be trusted, but I think I already knew that from your sister and from what I have seen of you.”

Annis, who was lurking just outside of the parlor door, itched to leap into the conversation at that moment and interject a note of caution but didn’t. Her mother was putting everything into the hands of someone who might seek to ruin them in every way imaginable.

“Yes, Ma’am. I am—was—a major. I did not realize I was in the navy publication.”

“And why not? I am sure that it is not a common occurrence for an army major to commandeer a French warship, and in its home port too, and make off with it under their noses. I gather it impressed the admiralty from what my husband said, for he did relate some of it. He said that your father was proud of that, and him a well-decorated navy commander, for your father was still alive when you did that, and they frequently exchanged letters and mentioned you often. They are all in there somewhere.”

“I did not know.” It was obvious that there was a lot he did not know. “But yes, Ma’am. I returned with that ship to London. The navy threatened to sink me off Southampton, where I would have headed—they thought we were French—so we had to give them the slip. There were some red faces at that when they found out that an army major had out-sailed and escaped the British navy for a while. I think they would rather have sunk me out of sight of land than have that embarrassing circumstance happen.”

“Your father said something similar I think. He was beside himself with pride over that, a poke in the eye of the navy, and from a son of his. He must have taught you to sail.”

“Yes, Ma’am. He taught me to sail when I was a boy and even let me command a small sloop—his, mine now—from time to time not so long ago, so it was all second nature to me. There were times when I lived on board that small ship and did not set foot on land for a month or more. My father’s….” He stalled and corrected himself. “My late father’s estate is on the coast not so far from here.”

“Yes, I am familiar with your father’s estate. Is it true that you were a smuggler then?”

He looked up in surprise. “Yes, I was, from time to time. But I thought only my closest relatives knew that, but then you would have heard it from them, I expect. That was one of the many reasons my father sent me off. It had become too well known, and his own careful efforts in that regard needed to be abandoned as a result of my clumsiness. So my father was a smuggler too, while trying to preserve the dignity of a naval officer with a son like me careening across the map. I was an unruly youth and had grown worse the older I got, it seemed. How did you know that?”

“We have few secrets, sir, and I am sorry to say it but nor do you, unfortunately, from our intimate little gatherings and other disclosures. I hope that does not make you uncomfortable. Surely we are also closest relatives ourselves now?

“I should confess to you more openly how I know so much of you, and it was not all from either your mother or your sister. I should warn you that I have inquisitive and alert daughters. Nothing is hidden from them. It can be quite unnerving at times. I also think you were the one who carried me and put me into my chair and draped a blanket about me while I slept, and all without waking me. And I thank you for that, for the house can be draughty, and the table was hard. You must have caught me at the only moment I did sleep, for I am normally wide awake at the slightest movement.

“However, the other…When you did find Bella and even speak to her…yes, I know of that too and am touched by it, more than I can tell you.” She sobbed at that thought and hesitated, unable to contain herself. “When you did that, I think you did not notice two silent, at first frightened of course, but then attentive and curious young ladies sitting off in the shadows. They could not sleep after that set of events, any more than any of us could and had gone to keep Bella company. They listened attentively as you shared your secrets and innermost feelings with…with their sister.” She broke down into tears at that moment, no longer able to restrain herself.

William knelt by her and gathered her into his arms and let her weep a while. Annis resisted the impulse to rush in and displace him. He was being kindly, no matter how poor his character in other ways.

“Oh my. Emotions. Emotions. You men are lucky in some ways to be able to control them and put them aside, but I cannot. I have struggled to bottle them up around the children when I felt like tearing my hair out.” She dabbed at her eyes. “They dared not let you know they were there, for they knew so little of you and did not wish to earn your anger at being discovered. But they were soon quite impressed and even touched I think, and gained a favorable impression of you. Though they did not entirely hold back their tears, they stayed silent enough that you knew nothing of them being there. Two sisters who had slipped out of their makeshift beds to keep their sister comforted. After their initial concern, they were entranced by your conversation, even curious, and were obviously touched by it. Please do not think ill of them for not letting you know they were there and for telling me of some of what you said.”

“I don’t, Ma’am. I won’t. One is not responsible for what one overhears. I regret nothing that I disclosed. I spoke from the heart. Others might be quite surprised to learn that I have one.”

Her eyes shone at his kind words. “You have gained two adoring admirers by what you did and said so kindly to their sister. Do not be offended. I told them that whatever they had heard was in total confidence and to relate it to no one, not even me. I told them that your feelings would be bruised if they betrayed that trust, and their sister would not rest easy as a result of it. But that was after they had blurted some of it out and confessed to where they had heard it. I will ask you to try and forgive them.”

“Yes. I had no right to do any of that.” He analyzed what he had confided to his dead bride and recognized that he had not divulged anything beyond a sketch of himself and nothing that might be too revealing or disturbing to anyone who might have overheard him. He resolved to be more careful in his confidences without checking next time, for an audience of young women seemed to be everywhere. He was well aware that the second daughter was lurking outside of the door to the parlor at that moment so that she could overhear their conversation without interrupting her mother.

“Nonetheless, I am glad that you felt able to do that.”

“So am I. But I felt an overwhelming sadness that I had never met your daughter or, indeed, yourself or your husband before last night. From what I am finding out, Iregret that deficiency, but I knew nothing of any of you, and now I am finding that I wish I had. Too late for Bella and your husband, I know that. But not too late for the others, if they will not mind and will allow me to trespass and try to share or even displace some of the burdens. But it is a lot for me to ask on such short acquaintance.”

Annis did not like the sound of that. An encroaching and crafty schemer with a silver tongue whose intentions were undoubtedly of the worst kind from what little she knew of him, and them at their most vulnerable.. She wished she had paid more attention to both Bella and his sister when they had been discussing him.

“However, I think I am the one who must ask your forgiveness, Ma’am. I could not sleep, and I had no right to wander about the house as I did and possibly cause concern to you and your daughters, for you know so little of me. I would have gone outside into the garden or have walked further afield, but I was in my stocking feet for fear of clumping about the house and waking everyone. I made enough noise, anyway, and I thought that the added noise from the doors being opened might also have awoken others.”

“The doors are never locked, and the hinges are well greased as both Mr. Barristow and I were early risers. But the roses might have caused you some discomfort had you stepped on one of the branches that had been laid down by the wind last night. I think my daughters are already aware that you are not to be feared. I think they are beginning, even at this early stage to regard you as an elder brother. Oh dear. Quite a frightening thought for you possibly.”

“Not at all, Ma’am. The one sister I do have was quite protective of me, and I do love her dearly, for she saved me from some severe punishments. Perhaps I can return that favor to the sex generally.”

Annis doubted that such protection—as he described it—would be his intention. How could her mother be so trusting of a relative stranger whom all reports, and that letter, painted in such a scathingly poor light?

“They will be shy with you at first. But that will soon pass, I expect, and you will then heartily wish to be rid of them and be elsewhere. Their father and Thomas and various stable hands were the only males they were familiar with. You are now being cast into the mould of a strange elder brother who has been abroad and seen many things and encountered some unusual adventures that young ladies might never learn of other than by eavesdropping. I am beginning to think that we are privileged to have had you enter our little family in some way for however brief a time.”

“I am beginning to think, Ma’am, that the privilege has been mine that you allowed me to be here.”

She was relieved by his relaxed responses in the face of so much curiosity. He, for his part, recognized that she found relief in filling her mind with small and recent details and chattering on about them and being in the company of others, rather than sitting alone and having her grievous situation alone occupy her mind.

“The girls were quite taken by your confessions of being a smuggler. Mr. Barristow was fond of Brandy as am I on occasion, especially when we can pour some of it on the Christmas pudding and light it. My daughters and I also like French lace. With the ruinous taxes on those and on tea and other things from abroad, especially with embargos. And in wartime, we never discouraged anyone with a living to make, supplying people with those things they wanted and at a favorable price even if it was an endeavor the government did not approve of and tried hard to close off. Bad laws deserve to be broken.”

 

Annis raised the subject with her mother when they were alone later, and William had already begun on his task. “Mama, do you think it wise to let a complete stranger become privy to our financial affairs so easily, indeed, to our existence? We are putting ourselves more deeply into his hands at every turn. It cannot be wise. We know nothing of him.”

Her mother rounded on her and seemed quite put out by her lack of trust. “You may not. I do. We are caught in a difficult enough situation without you finding more difficulties. As you get older, you will learn who it is that you might trust and who not, and soon, too. Mr. Devane is one that I choose to trust. He may have been rambunctious in his earlier years, and was clearly difficult for his mother, but then everything can be made to seem difficult for her, dear soul, but he is a man I understand well. So like your father was.” That thought was a painful reminder of too many things.

Annis decided that she could not argue with her mother in her present mood and recognized that she should not yet produce their godmother’s letter. It would be too upsetting to her mother on top of what had already happened. It could stay misplaced for the moment. She would take matters into her own hands as might be needed.

“But we should not spend any more time discussing this. We need to get ready for this afternoon. Little as I like the process, we must put a strong front upon it and be there to see it all through as it should be. There will be more than enough time to think upon it all later. Too much, I fear. Better let Charlotte and Sophia know that they should be getting ready.”

“Yes, Mama.”

 

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