CHADWELL PARK, HERTFORDSHIRE; THE FIRST DECADE OF THE 19TH CENTURY
Sir Owen Plummer had commanded his entire family to assemble in the library at Chadwell Park. Not that he would ever be so ill-mannered as to express himself so. He would be greatly obliged if they would attend him, or some such, but to James, the clipped, brisk tones of the former military man always sounded like commands. No more than ten years in the army and thirty out of it, but Sir Owen was still a soldier at heart.
They were all there, at any rate. Mother was weeping, of course. She wept constantly these days, trickles of tears flowing gently down her face to fall unheeded onto her bosom, perpetually replaced with more of the same. Where did all that water come from? It was a mystery to him. Michael looked ill, but then he always looked ill nowadays, a thin, pale shoot of a man. Letitia looked angry and her husband worried, but since those were their habitual expressions, James took no notice. To complete the array of his predictable relations, Patricia’s face was as blank as a slate, and Uncle Morgan was topping up his brandy glass already and it was only eleven o’clock. Lord, what a boring lot they were!
James wondered briefly what they thought of him. Nothing, probably. He doubted any of them thought about him at all, and certainly not now. He, after all, was the only one unaffected by their impending doom, with his snug rectory and his ample tithes and no one but himself to support or to please.
Precisely as the clock struck eleven, Sir Owen entered the room, his eye raking over the assembled Plummers, lingering only momentarily on his wife. He took his position in front of the fireplace, the fire still unlit at this season. Not until the first day of October would the merry sight of flames gladden the eye of the shivering Plummers. It was the rule now.
“All here, I see,” Sir Owen said. “Good. I have news from Simons. He has found a buyer for the Park.” Mother gave a convulsive gulp, but Father continued without so much as blinking. He was used to it by now. “It is a Mr Fletcher, from a place called Sagborough. Near York, seemingly. Simons went up there to talk to the fellow, but I chose not to mention it to you in case nothing came of it. Simons has now talked to Fletcher and they have agreed terms. Firstly, he is prepared to pay the full price for the Park, no quibbling or caveats. He has the money, too. Simons has talked to the bank. The other consideration is that he will take the Park exactly as it is, with the furniture and art work, and will retain all the servants, apart from the few we will take with us. That is a huge relief to all of us, I am sure. He will take over the village cottages, leaving us with all our tenant farmers, and he will very generously allow us to shoot and hunt and fish on Hall land for our own table. That will please you, James. All things considered, it is an excellent agreement for us.”
“What sort of a man is this Fletcher person?” Letitia said. “Please tell us that he is a gentleman.”
Sir Owen hesitated long enough for Mother to utter a low moan.
“He is — or was — a mercer, a highly respected man in his home town, who has now relinquished all his business ventures. He has recently remarried and his wife is a gentlewoman, so he wishes to keep her in a suitable manner. Simons tells me that Fletcher himself is tolerably well educated, considering his position in society, but his children have all been properly educated. His sons attended Harrow and Cambridge, and his daughters had governesses and masters of art, music, dancing and so forth. The usual things.”
“Hmpf! Not a Whig, is he?” Lord Charles said. “Never do to have a Whig in the house, sir. M’brother would be mortified.”
“Your brother has nothing whatsoever to do with this, Charles,” Sir Owen said tersely. “Mr Fletcher has no political allegiance, seemingly, and it would hardly matter to me if he were a screaming zealot. He has the money to buy the Park and get this family afloat again, so buy it he shall.”
“But a mercer, Papa,” Letitia said. “The shame of it! You will not expect us to receive them, I trust.”
Mother uttered another moan of distress.
“I not only expect it, I shall insist upon it,” Sir Owen said. “We cannot take the man’s money and then snub him socially, and if you and your husband dislike it, Letitia, you are quite at liberty to find someone else to support you. Go and ask Charles’s brother to provide you with a house and put food on your table and educate your children. It is hardly unreasonable to expect a marquess to take care of his own brother’s family.”
Letitia bristled. “You know perfectly well why we cannot, Papa.”
Hoping to forestall a repetition of a very tired family argument, James said quickly, “When does Mr Fletcher want to take possession, Father?”
“Not before January, and the weather may delay him further, but we must be out of here by Christmas, I feel.”
“I do not know how we are all to squeeze into the Manor,” Letitia said fretfully. “It will be far too crowded. It was by no means over-large just for Charles and me, but with so many extra, and the disruption…”
Sir Owen’s tone became even more clipped. “Patricia has already contrived the disposition of the rooms to minimise the inconvenience to you, and to repeat, if you dislike the new circumstances, then you are perfectly free to make alternative arrangements at any time.”
“Are there young children, Papa?” Patricia’s soft voice was a striking contrast to Letitia’s shrillness and Sir Owen’s brusque tones.
“Hmm, let me see.” He leafed through the several pages of the attorney’s letter. “The eldest daughter is married… there are two sons, grown… ah, here we are. Four younger daughters… the youngest is fourteen.”
“Almost grown up,” Patricia said disappointedly.
“But the older girls are not without interest. Listen to this. ‘All the daughters will have very good dowries of twenty thousand pounds apiece from their father, and the eldest, who is a rare beauty with the most charming manners, has an additional thirty from an aunt. I cannot understand why she has not been snatched up already, but dare I suggest that this presents a wonderful opportunity for Mr Michael Plummer? I do not scruple to say that the young lady will be a sensation in town, and since it is Fletcher’s intention to participate in the season next spring, it is highly recommended that your son move swiftly to secure the lady’s affections to himself.’”
Michael snorted in disgust. “A mercer’s daughter! I should hope I am not so desperate as all that!”
“I tell you now, Michael, and this applies to all of you who may be thinking upon similar lines,” Sir Owen said, his voice growing harsh, “I will not have this supercilious attitude from any of you. We are not so high in the instep as to refuse Fletcher’s cash, so we will treat him with every courtesy. Such men are the very backbone of England, sterling men of worth, honest and loyal and hard-working, helping to keep the country prosperous and thriving. They provide both goods and employment, and they frequently go on to be become mayors and aldermen and justices of the peace and members of Parliament and even knights of the realm in time. So we will deal kindly with the Fletcher family, even if we do not choose to make intimate friends of them, and Michael, if you disdain a pretty and well-behaved young woman with fifty thousand pounds merely because her father was once in trade, then you are more foolish than I gave you credit for.”
“Father, I beg your pardon,” Michael said, his pale cheeks flaming up at this reproof. “I spoke intemperately. I will get to know Miss Fletcher, and if she should be all that she is described, then I will consider the prospect of matrimony seriously, you have my word on that. Beyond that, I cannot undertake to venture as yet.”
“I ask no more than that,” his father responded in genial tones. “You may find that she will do very well, and since James shows no inclination to secure the succession in your stead, and Morgan must be regarded as a confirmed bachelor at this point, I should be glad to see you settled. It would be a weight off my mind, to be sure.” He chuckled. “One of you had better make a push for the baronetcy that your great-grandfather worked so assiduously to obtain. No one wants Cousin Philip to have it, after all this. Well now, that is all settled, and I shall write today to instruct Simons to draw up the papers. Michael, James, you may stay but the rest of you may go. Letitia, Charles, you will dine with us tonight?”
“Thank you, Papa,” Letitia said colourlessly.
One by one they ambled out of the room, too well-bred to whisper to each other until the door was closed behind them, but James knew that Mother and Letitia would have their heads together before they reached the morning room. Uncle Morgan refilled his brandy glass before he left.
Sir Owen poured three small glasses of port, of identical amounts, and handed them around.
“I suppose it is useless to ask whether you might reconsider before taking such an irrevocable step,” Michael said.
“Quite useless,” Sir Owen said.
“If the Park could be let instead of sold, if only for Mother’s sake…”
“My mind is quite made up, Michael. We still have the Manor, after all, which is the Plummers’ ancestral seat. The Park means nothing to us — an extravagant monstrosity built on vanity, which I shall be glad to be rid of.”
“It is our family home,” Michael said. “We grew up here, and Patricia was born here. Mother adores the place.”
Sir Owen said nothing, for the arguments had been gone over a hundred times already.
“This is my fault,” Michael said glumly, and that, too, had been said a hundred… a thousand times.
“It is not your fault, brother,” James said, before their father could speak. “No one blames you, not in the slightest. It was not to be, that was all.”
“But if I had done what was expected of me—”
“You would have been desperately unhappy,” James said. “Let it go, Michael. What is done is done. You will all move back to the Manor, the Fletcher family will fill this house, by the sound of it, and we will all grow accustomed to the change.”
James and Michael walked to the rectory together, as was their wont after any family gathering, so that Michael could relieve his mind of its accumulated grievances and James could soothe his brother’s restless spirit. So it had been since they were barely out of leading strings, and so it would no doubt be as they descended into old age. There being only two years between them, and having suffered the indignities of tutors, school and university more or less in tandem, they were as close as any two brothers could be.
“Will they be dreadfully vulgar?” Michael said. “They are bound to be, I suppose. It cannot be otherwise.”
“The father, possibly,” James said, “but the rest of them will be perfectly genteel.”
“How can you say so? You cannot possibly know that.”
“Unless matters are very much amiss at Harrow and Cambridge, the sons will be gentlemanlike, and the daughters have no doubt had the best governesses the north of England can provide. The stepmother is a gentlewoman, according to Simons. So that leaves only Mr Fletcher himself.”
“The mercer,” Michael said in sepulchral tones. “Chadwell Park occupied by a man in trade. It is beyond belief.”
“Formerly in trade,” James said. “He is retired now, and wants to see his family rise in society. Such men are everywhere, Michael. Naval men return to shore with fortunes in their pockets, the East India Company is turning out nabobs by the score and men of industry turn their mills and manufactories into cold, hard gold. Meanwhile, the sons of the aristocracy lavish their inherited fortunes on mistresses, horses and games of chance, or in our case on a grandiose country house in the Palladian style. Are we to spurn those who have risen to fortune by the sweat of their own brow? Our own ancestors were no better, they just got their foot in the door a few centuries earlier, that is all. The Fletchers may not talk quite as we do, or know how to bow to a duke, but they are not to be despised on that account.”
“Ah, there speaks the man of the cloth,” Michael said.
“I hope I would say as much if I were not ordained,” James said. “I shall not despise the Fletchers, at all events. I shall judge them by their actions, and at least they will bring fresh faces to our stale society. They will liven us up, I am sure, and if the eldest daughter is all Simons describes her to be, with fifty thousand pounds to her name, well, I have a very pretty little rectory that she may be mistress of, if she wishes.”
“You would not marry one of the mercer’s daughters,” Michael said, although he said it half as a question.
“Why should I not?”
Michael spun round to face him, grabbing his arm in a painful grip. “Because if you had been minded to marry an heiress, you could have done so any time this past two years and spared us the grief… the humiliation of giving up our home. But then you have never cared about the Park, have you? You do not lie awake at night wondering how we will survive the shame. You do not dread seeing strangers in our home. You do not have to struggle every minute to appear not to mind. Damnation, James, you have not the least sensibility.”
“Well, no, not much, I admit it. But if I do not care greatly about the Park, I do care about my family, brother, and I know that Father will be relieved of that dreadful desperation now. He hides it well, but financial worries have ground him down remorselessly since Grandfather’s death, and now he will be free of all that. For the first time, his income will exceed his expenditure, and there will be a little money to set aside for Patricia, perhaps. And we still have the Manor, which is our real home.”
“I shall hate it,” Michael said morosely, shoulders hunched, as they began to walk again. “We shall all be cooped up together, all six of us, and Letitia’s horrid infants. What a life!”
“There is plenty of room at the Rectory,” James said.
Michael’s eyebrows lifted. “Truly? Are you in all earnest offering me a home?”
“Of course. Why not? I did wonder about Patricia, for Letitia will treat her just like a servant, you may be sure, but the horrid infants are a great attraction to her, for some peculiar reason. But you are always welcome, you know that.”
“You have never mentioned such a scheme before,” Michael said, eyes narrowing in suspicion.
“I never thought you would be interested.”
“Of course I would be interested! Although… it would be cruel, do you not think, to leave Father to the tender mercies of Morgan and Charles? I should never be able to enjoy an evening at the Rectory, knowing they would have to call upon one of the women to make up a four for whist.”
“You could walk over there every evening after dinner,” James said. “In fact, there would be little walking to be done, since I dine there more often than not.”
“No, I could not abandon Father. It is important in the hour of his great loss to support him in every way that I can, do you not agree?”
James sighed. “Of course.”
“And I am the eldest son — the heir. It is my duty to be there.”
“I am sure you are right,” James said.
“Well, there is the Rectory now, so I will leave you, little brother. Au revoir.”
And with a quick wave, he was gone, leaving James to shake his head in affection. His brother would never change.
Whistling, he continued on to the Rectory.
SAGBOROUGH, WEST RIDING OF YORKSHIRE
Julia had endured fourteen farewell dinners, each more tedious than the last. As if it were not enough that every day must be spent kneeling before a trunk or box or portmanteau, folding and tucking and wrapping, but every evening they were all to don their finery, or what remained unpacked, and venture out to be congratulated or condoled, according to the opinion of the person offering the sentiment. There were those who thought they were entirely mad to leave the blessed country of Yorkshire to venture into the decadent south. There were those who envied them their opportunity to climb the ladder of society a little. And there were those who were no doubt glad of their going, or foretold catastrophe, or wished them gone long since. They all offered good wishes, but Julia took leave to doubt the sincerity of many of them.
Their final evening at Sagborough was spent in their own home, but if they had expected a quiet time, a respite before the rigours of the journey, they were mistaken. Everyone who regarded himself as a particular friend came to wish them a final farewell, and it seemed they had a great many particular friends, for the drawing room was full, and the parlour next door almost so.
Allie was cross, of course. The house should have been solely hers, as she whispered to anyone who would listen. As the eldest daughter of the family, the abandoned family home should rightfully have come to her, and not to Ted, who wasn’t even a legitimate son, for all he’d taken the Fletcher name. Now they were all to live together, Allie and Jack, and their three bairns, and Ted and Cathy with their four, all crammed in together, and Cathy ruling the domestic sphere. But Pa had been unmoved.
“You’re a Ewbank now, Allie,” he’d said, smiling ruefully at her. “You made your choice, and you must live with the consequences. Ted’s my son and my blood, just as much as you are, and he bears the family name, too. I want a Fletcher to have this house that’s been ours for so long. Four generations of Fletchers have lived here, and it’s right and proper that it should pass to a fifth. Will won’t need it, for he’ll inherit this grand estate of ours down south, and Johnny’s well set at Cambridge and needs nothing from me, so Ted’s the best person to have it. He’s got the warehouses to manage and the business to tend, and he can do that better from here. He’s the only Mr Fletcher of Fletcher’s Import and Export Company now, and he needs to live according to his position in this town.”
“But it will be so crowded, with two families living in a house intended for one.”
“It’s generous of Ted and Cathy to offer to share,” he said. “It’ll save you all a bit of money, and you must approve that, the good little housewife that you are. In time, Jack will have enough saved to buy you a house of your own, but it’s a good arrangement for now, and I shall be glad to think of you all living in this house, where we’ve all been so happy. Be content, Allie.”
Ted and Cathy seemed rather stunned by their good fortune, but the papers had been drawn up that day, with the whole family watching.
“Bridges are burned now and no mistake,” Will had whispered in Julia’s ear as Pa signed his name with a flourish.
“You ought to be cross about it,” Julia whispered back. “You’re the eldest legitimate son, the family house should be yours.”
Will had shrugged. “I’ll get a better one. Chadwell Park… I shall be master of Chadwell Park, in the far distant future, and I shall like that very well, I assure you.”
That evening, the two stood a little aside from the crowds thronging the drawing room.
“Aren’t you the least bit sorry to be leaving?” Julia said to him. “You have friends here, and favourite rides, and… and female friends.”
Will laughed. “I have other friends, friends I made at Harrow and Cambridge, and I shall make more. And there are females in Hertfordshire, I am certain. What about you? What will you miss?”
“My walks, I suppose, but there will be hundreds of acres of walks in Hertfordshire. I can’t wait!”
“My real friends are going with me — Rosie, Angie, Bella, you, Johnny. Pa and the new Mama, too. I shan’t be leaving anyone behind that I regard as an intimate friend. Unlike Rosie. How will she manage without Belinda Jupp? Look at them, weeping together over there.”
“They will write each other huge letters, every page double crossed,” Will said with a shrug.
“It’s not quite the same,” Julia said thoughtfully. “And poor Ricky!”
“Ricky Jupp? Ricky the apothecary?”
“He’s been in love with Rosie for years,” Julia said. “You must have noticed it.”
That brought another shrug of Will’s elegantly clad shoulders. “Half the young men of Sagborough have been in love with Rosie for years. The Star of the North, they called her in York, remember? She is by far too beautiful to be constrained by Yorkshire, and especially she should not throw herself away on an apothecary. She will be a huge success in London, and have the eligible men of the Beau Monde at her feet, you may be sure. Rosie will marry very well indeed, or I am a Chinaman.”
“What about you, Will?” Julia said slyly. “Are you going to marry very well indeed, too?”
“Certainly I am… but not yet. I am only six and twenty, Jules, and I want to enjoy myself before getting leg-shackled. I shall not even consider matrimony until I am thirty. At least!”
“Well, I don’t plan to marry at all,” she said robustly. “After all, who would have me? I have no accomplishments, I trip over things and always have a tear in my gown. Oh, and I speak my mind. What man of sense would want a wife like that?”
“Plenty of men want a wife with some spirit in her, little sister,” Will said, affectionately flicking one cheek. “You may be surprised.”
“Perhaps, but not these high-born southern men. They won’t want a mouthy Yorkshire lass.”
She laughed, and Will laughed too, although he shook his head at her. “We shall see. Marriage comes to all of us in the end, it seems to me.”