The Widow: Chapter 1: A Missing Captain

Nell examined her reflection in the cracked looking glass. The bruises had almost disappeared, and perhaps in another two days she could set aside the high, ruffed chemisette and the large cap with lappets in favour of more refined garments. By the time of the Sherrards’ ball she would be completely healed, and need not fear to wear full evening dress. She sighed. Her velvet gown would do for one more outing, perhaps, but then… yes, this might be the last ball she would ever attend.

But she had made her choice, and would not repine. Her punishment was fitting, after all. She who had been the acclaimed beauty of the parish… of several parishes… of the county, even. Helen of Hampshire, she had been called, and it had been gratifying, even if the epithet did not resonate quite as strongly as Helen of Troy. Suitors had fluttered around her like butterflies in their brightly coloured coats. Would they even recognise her now, so thin and pinched as she had become? If only she could curl her hair properly and afford new slippers and stockings.

No, she must not regret. She had so much to be thankful for, after all. Her son, her home and a husband who loved her… sometimes. She slapped her cheeks to bring some colour to them, adjusted her ruff slightly, then turned away from the unflattering glass, head high, ready to face the day.

The two hours before breakfast were the most pleasurable of the day. With all the other occupants of the house busy elsewhere or still abed, she had her son to herself. Louis had been a sickly, undergrown child from the moment of his birth, and no amount of nourishing food had succeeded in giving him stature or the energy that came so naturally to most children. But when there is a deficit in one quarter, often there is an overabundance elsewhere, and so it was with Louis. He had such a quickness of mind and contemplative nature that he bid fair, at eight years of age, to leave his mama behind him before too long.

After morning prayers, he read aloud from the Bible, and Nell answered his questions on the passages covered as best she could. Then they moved on to Italian, which he had begun to learn after discovering a book of Nell’s in that language on the shelf. Finally, Nell read three of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which rested her own brain somewhat, for Louis had no time for poetry, regarding it as pointless, but he would listen quietly while she read it aloud. And finally Louis insisted that they pray again, this time solely for Papa, who was currently plying the Irish Sea as captain of the Brig Minerva,  and therefore in constant danger, in Louis’ mind, from storms and winds and powerful waves and tides and all the destructive majesty of the high seas.

“When will he be home, Mama?” he asked, as he did every day.

“In a few more days, or a week perhaps,” she answered as she tidied away the books in the morning room, and laid out the slates for the ciphering lesson later.

A week perhaps, and then Jude would be home, smiling and holding her tight and calling her his dear love, and then her insides would tie themselves into knots until he went away again. But she would not repine. There was no point.

Breakfast was in the grandeur of the dining room, since the breakfast parlour was in the Lloyds’ part of the house. All three families dined together, but at breakfast Nell and Louis were joined only by the widowed Maria Delanoy and her daughters, who had moved in after being swept up in the great disaster of five years ago. Since she could not afford to pay rent, Maria had taken upon herself the rôle of cook/housekeeper.

The two mothers discussed domestic matters while they ate, deciding on dinner, determining what needed to be bought that day and wondering whether they needed to order an extra quarter chaldron of coal to see them through to Lady Day.

“We have been rather lax about fires, I fear,” Nell said. “Or rather, the Lloyds have been lax. Lydia is forever lighting fires in the bedrooms.”

“Her boys have been greatly plagued by the grippe this winter, poor things,” Maria said in her soft voice. “One cannot begrudge them the warmth while they recover.”

“Those boys have been greatly plagued by mischief, more likely,” Nell said robustly. “I do not think there is anything much amiss with them that a box around the ears would not cure. Lydia is too gentle with them.”

“Oh, Nell!” Maria said. “She is hardly well herself just now, with another mouth to feed by summer, and she has been very unfortunate with her nursery maids. One must be sympathetic.”

Nell paused and gazed at her friend. Maria was a gentle soul who thought well of the world, despite the world not seeming to smile upon her in return. It had not occurred to her that perhaps Lydia would retain her nursery maids more readily if she were to refrain from shouting at them.

“I suppose they pay good rent for their half of the house, and coal is included,” Nell said in milder tones. “Well, if we run short of coal, we shall just have to eat our breakfast in the kitchen. That would save one fire a day, which would help.”

“Aye, it would, and Jude will be home soon with money in his pocket. Perhaps he will not mind paying for a little extra coal this year, do you think?”

“Perhaps,” Nell said colourlessly, but they both knew that she would never dare to ask him for such a thing.

At ten o’clock, Becky, the housemaid, came in to clear away, and Maria scurried away to the kitchen to begin her preparations for dinner. Nell took Louis and the two girls upstairs to the morning room for their lessons. The morning room was handsome, although small, since most of the frontage of the house on this floor was given over to the drawing room. Still, it was easy to keep warm, and it always felt pleasantly cosy on a cold winter’s day. February was such a depressing time of year, but next month the weather might permit a day or two without the need for a fire. And the end of March brought Lady Day — the Lloyds’ rent money and Jude’s salary. Then it would not be long until summer.

After Louis’ quickness at his lessons, Lucy and Jane were rather a trial. They were docile enough, sitting side by side in their matching aprons, with matching ribbons in their hair. Maria had an annuity of only twenty pounds a year, and contributed half for her keep, and sometimes Nell wondered if she spent every penny of the remainder on ribbons for the girls. They were pretty enough, with wide blue eyes, long lashes and the sort of dark, tumbled locks that would drive men wild in a few years, but they would need more than looks to get them through life unscathed.

Nell sighed, and handed out the slates. “Today we will practice money,” she said. “Lucy, Jane — you will write down the amounts to be added together on your slates and work out the answer. Louis, you may write the answer directly, but do not say it aloud, if you please. First addition — if I buy three pounds of sugar at eight pence a pound, two pounds of meat at seven pence a pound and a quarter pound of tea at eight shillings a pound, how much will I need to pay for it?”

A quarter pound of tea… oh, if only she could afford tea! She closed her eyes for a moment, as the three children tapped away on their slates. Tea… and the best china cups, which were presently packed in sawdust and stowed in the cellar. And her drawing room back again. All the best rooms had been given over to the Lloyds, and although it had been her own idea to take in paying lodgers and it had saved them from having to sell the house, she could not help but resent it just a little.

“Are you quite well, Mama?” Her son’s voice was sharp with anxiety. He worried about her, she knew that, but there was not much she could do about it. There was not much she could do about anything.

She opened her eyes to find all three of them staring at her. “Perfectly well, thank you, Louis. Lucy, do you have an answer?”

“Six shillings. I think.”

“Jane?”

“Ten pounds.”

Louis burst out laughing. “Ten pounds? You could buy half the shop with that much.”

“No, I’d get change. Mrs Caldicott asked how much I’d need, and I couldn’t work out the exact amount, so I decided I’d take more than enough. Is it a lot more?” she added, suddenly anxious.

“You would only need five and tuppence,” he said. “I tell you what, Jane, if ever you have ten pounds, you may send me to do your shopping for you.”

“May I?” she said. “That’s very kind of you, Louis.”

That set him laughing again.

“He did not mean it as a kindness, Jane,” Nell said. “He meant that he would pay five and tuppence for the goods and keep the remaining amount, which is—”

“Nine pounds fourteen and tenpence,” he said at once, before starting to laugh again.

“Another one,” Nell said wearily. “Perhaps something a little easier. I need six yards of muslin to make a gown, and muslin costs one and six a yard. How much will it cost me altogether?”

Oh, for a new gown! If only—

The knocker sounded below. The girls at once scrambled from their chairs and raced to the window, peering down at the street below.

“It is a gentleman!”

“With a red coat!”

“And a great tall hat!”

“It will be for Mr Lloyd, I expect,” Louis said.

Becky’s quick steps were heard on the stairs, then the front door opening, followed by the murmur of a man’s voice. Then silence. Becky’s footsteps returning up the stairs, more slowly this time. There was a quick scratch on the door of the morning room, before she entered.

“Beg pardon, madam, but there’s a gen’leman to see you. Askin’ for you by name.”

By name? Someone she knew? One of her brothers, it must be! “Did he give you his name?”

Silently Becky proffered a card. It had been so long since anyone had called with a card that the girl had forgotten to bring it on the silver salver that lay in the hall for the purpose.

‘Mr Nathaniel Harbottle, Davygate, York’, she read. No one she knew, then. Her excitement waned a little. But a gentleman visiting was still something, even if it was not anyone from her former life come to rescue her. No, she must stop expecting rescue. Such foolishness. Well, whoever Mr Harbottle was, she would see him, but not alone, and three children were not sufficient protection.

“Is Mrs Delanoy still in the house?”

“Yes, madam. She found some nutmeg left in the pantry, so she don’t need no shopping today.”

“Ask her to step up to the morning room, if you please — without her apron. Then show Mr Harbottle in.” With a bob of a curtsy, Becky hurried off, leaving Nell to be thankful that she had not let her standards slip by a single iota. The servants got their uniform quota each year, so that Becky always had a clean gown to wear, and Nell and Louis looked respectable, if not exactly fashionable.

She and the children abandoned the slates on the worktable, and rearranged themselves according to Nell’s hasty instructions. Again, she regretted the loss of her drawing room, purposely designed for just such eventualities. There were so few chairs in the morning room. However, there were enough to make a tolerable circle for conversation, and a window seat where the children could sit, rather squeezed together. “Not a word to be spoken, or you will have to leave,” Nell told them sternly, and they nodded solemnly.

Maria hastened in, her cheeks rather flushed, and took the seat on the sofa next to Nell moments before the door opened.

“Mr Harbottle, madam,” Becky said, in her very best announcing voice.

Nell rose smoothly to greet him. He was young, handsome and stylish, a man one might meet at a fashionable rout or ball. Well-shaped legs, broad shoulders needing no padding to enhance them, a warm smile and a pair of roguishly twinkling blue eyes… all of this Nell observed appreciatively as he entered the room.

He looked from Nell to Maria, and then settled his gaze firmly on Nell. “Mrs Caldicott? Wife of Captain Jude Caldicott?”

“I am, sir. This is my friend, Mrs Delanoy.”

He bowed. “Madam.” Another bow, fractionally less deep. “Mrs Delanoy.” The two women curtsied in response. Then he spotted the children. “And these must be… no, no, let me guess, if you please. I think… the Miss Delanoys and… hmm, Master Caldicott?”

“That is so,” Nell said, with a small smile. Lucy and Jane were clearly Maria’s, for they had her dark curls, but Louis was more difficult to place. He had his father’s blond hair, but his nose and mouth were all Nell and his eyes were his grandmother’s. “Please sit down, Mr Harbottle.”

She sat herself, and he then took the chair opposite.

“Thank you so much for agreeing to see me, Mrs Caldicott. Were your husband available, I should not have dreamt of troubling you, but I understand that he is at sea, and not expected home for some days yet.”

“That is so. He commands the Brig Minerva, which is due to return in a few days, but with the vagaries of the weather and so forth…”

“Oh, quite, quite. Then perhaps I may be permitted to address my enquiries to you, in his absence?” She nodded her assent. “You are most gracious, madam.”

He made her a small bow, and there was a brightness in his eye as he looked at her that she recognised. Such looks had once been very familiar to her. She had danced or moved about or talked or simply walked into a room, and men had looked at her with just such admiration. It startled her to realise that she still had that power. How gratifying that, at the age of six and twenty, she could arouse such a response in a passing stranger. She was aware of a little bloom of pleasure inside her, for who could not delight in having an admirer, even one so fleeting as Mr Harbottle?

He went on, “Let me not try your patience with useless chatter, but get straight to the point. I am searching for my cousin, one Felix Harbottle from Yorkshire, who was a naval officer at one time with the rank of captain. There was a breach with the family some twenty years ago when he married against the wishes of his family. We lost touch with him, although he wrote to his mother every year on her birthday — each time from a different port. So we know he is still alive, and still hearing the call of the sea, although no longer with the navy. Now his mother wishes to set aside the past and reconcile with her son, so she has charged me with the task of finding him. For two years, Mrs Caldicott, I have been searching diligently, but so far in vain. The navy has no trace of him, his former friends have had no word of him, and so I have moved from port to port, enquiring.”

“From port to port? There are a great many ports in England, sir.”

He laughed, and again Nell noticed those deep blue eyes, and his hair just that colour she so admired — like pale honey. But she had been driven astray by fair hair and amused blue eyes before, she reminded herself sternly.

“Indeed there are a great many ports, and sometimes I feel as if I have ventured into every one of them. However, most are fishing ports only, and I cannot feel that a former naval captain would be commanding a trawler, so I have restricted myself to the major ports only. I began with those from which a letter had arrived, and have now extended my reach to others, and here I am in your fair town, Mrs Caldicott. Southampton is a charming place and has… many attractions…” Here he paused and looked at Nell in a manner which there was no mistaking. “However, in one respect it differs not a whit from every other port in the country, in that no one has ever heard of Captain Felix Harbottle. May I hope for better tidings from you, Mrs Caldicott? Has your husband ever mentioned such a person?”

“My husband? I am very sorry, Mr Harbottle, but he has not.”

“I am told that Captain Caldicott was also in His Majesty’s Navy at one time, is that so?”

“He was, but it is a very large navy,” she said with a smile. “I do not imagine Captain Caldicott knew more than a small number of its officers. Besides, he rarely speaks of his time in the navy. One or two of the battles, sometimes, with Louis, who has an interest in such things, but nothing of the people he knew.”

It was a thing she had always thought odd, that he could talk impersonally of this battle or that, almost like an account in the newspaper, yet never mention the men involved. She had supposed it was his way of coping with the horrors of war, and had never pressed him.

“Do you know of any man, any officer on a ship and formerly in the navy, answering to my cousin’s description? A man of three and forty, with fair hair and blue eyes?”

Nell considered that. “Captain Walker?” Mr Harbottle shook his head. “Captain Phillipson, then. Oh, but he was never in the navy, I believe.”

“Neither of them has graced His Majesty’s Navy.”

“It is a common combination of features, but the navy… so few men leave the navy entirely. And then there is the age. My own husband would fit that description precisely, except for the age. He is not yet forty. Also, he married only nine years ago, not twenty, so his history is very different from that of your cousin. I am so sorry I cannot help.”

“There is just one more chance. May I show you my cousin’s likeness? Just in case you have ever encountered him under a different name, perhaps, or passed him by in the street.” He produced a small framed miniature from a pocket, and handed it to her. “It was taken when he was but fifteen and only a midshipman, almost thirty years ago, but it is all we have of him.”

She gazed at the boy’s face, youthful and optimistic, and remembered the time when Jude had been just as hopeful of life, his eyes bright and lips curved into a perpetual smile, before disappointment had soured his disposition.

“I am very sorry,” she said. “I do not recognise him. Maria, you go about the town more than I do — do you know anyone like this?”

Maria examined it, but then she shook her head. “He is a fine looking young man, but I don’t know him.”

“Ah.” Mr Harbottle sat back in his chair, disappointment written on his countenance. “That is a pity. But perhaps you would be so good as to tell your husband of my enquiry, Mrs Caldicott? He may write to me if he has any information.”

“I shall certainly tell him, sir. May I offer you some refreshment, Mr Harbottle? I am afraid that I have no tea or wine, but there is ale and cake if—”

“You are too kind, madam,” he said rising gracefully to his feet. “I have taken up too much of your time altogether, and will now leave you in peace. And you three,” he added, looking at the children, “may return to your studies. What is the lesson today?”

They sat mutely, staring at him.

Nell laughed. “Do not imagine them to be ill-mannered, Mr Harbottle. They have been given the strictest instructions not to speak a word while you are here, on pain of— Well, I shall think of some dire penalty, I daresay.”

“Then they are exceptionally dutiful, and I commend them,” he said at once. “And their mamas, who have instilled such obedience into them. But may I examine your slates and see if I may guess the topic?”

Permission granted, he bounded across the room and picked up one of the slates. “ ‘Six yards of muffin at one and six the yard’. Muffin? Oh, muslin. That should be easy… let me see… that will be… four and fivepence three farthings… no, wait… twelve guineas… no, no, that cannot be right…”

The children giggled, and Nell smiled, too, and exchanged a glance with Maria, who was trying not to laugh.

“No, I cannot work it out,” Mr Harbottle said. “You will have to tell me the answer.”

“You are just funning, I can tell,” Louis said. “You do know the answer. It is nine shillings.”

“Is it?” Jane said. “Is that correct, Mr Harbottle?”

“It is indeed,” he said, “and a very pretty gown it will make for one of the ladies. Let me see now… green, I think, if it be for Mrs Delanoy, and for Mrs Caldicott… blue, to match her eyes, do you not agree, Miss Delanoy? Or even white, if there be some blue upon it also, and a shawl of gold, with a gold chain about her neck, and sapphires on her fingers. Yes, that is what you should be wearing, Mrs Caldicott.”

He smiled at her so charmingly that she could not possibly take offence. Nevertheless, she was very glad that Jude was not there to hear such flirtatious words.