The London Bride
He rested before the fire with a book and the house rested, all quiet, around him. It was not quite early spring, a raw season in the north of England. Eager for the end of winter, he had underdressed on his weekly ride to review his estates and a chill had settled in him that would take more than the fire to dispel.
She sat at his feet despite the vacant chair beside him and slowly rocked a cradle of richly carved mahogany on the deep Syrian carpet. Arranging the bedclothes in the cradle, she began to sing.
'Sleep, baby, sleep, our cottage vale is deep: the little lamb is on the green, with woolly fleece so soft and clean-- sleep, baby, sleep. Sleep, baby, sleep. Down where the woodbines creep; be always like the lamb so mild, a kind, and sweet, and gentle--'
'Clare. Must you?' he protested. 'I'm trying to read.'
'You do nothing but read.'
'And you do nothing but coo at that stupid cradle,' he said sharply. 'Take it upstairs, please.'
She turned her face to the fire, smarting under his remark. Her sumptuous chestnut hair was crowned with firelight and her gown billowed around her, a luxuriant cushion. He had selected the fabric, bought it, had the gown made and given it to her. He used to rest his head on that cushion on chilly spring evenings past. She turned and looked up to him. His vantagepoint presented him the valley between her breasts. He knew where that passage led and he shut the door on it, keeping his eyes on the volume in his hand.
'You're a brutish man, Lane Durant,' she hissed.
'You're the expert on brutish men, my dear,' he replied and casually turned an unread page.
She raised her bosom with an exaggerated breath, gathered the cradle into her arms and got herself up. She swept past him without a glance. But she took care to pass as close to him as possible.
Her gown brushed his boot, light silk over a muslin shift. He thought his boot would tear the fabric and he moved his foot aside. She saw his withdrawal, his avoidance, and paused by his shoulder.
'Couldn't you bring yourself to be civil to me just once?' she asked the back of his chair. She was not harsh with him, but neither would she plead.
Her voice had a musical quality he loved. He always listened to the sound of it before the words sank in. The brogue was soft on her tongue; he could almost taste the blend of Gaelic and Romany.
'I'm trying to read,' was all he permitted himself to say. She did not move, refusing to be dismissed. He thought she might reach for him and he steeled his shoulder against her touch. But the cradle was in her arms and she did not reach out. Eventually she rustled away. He did not hear her cross the entrance hall or go up the stairs, though he listened intently.
He released his breath when he knew she had gone. There was quiet again with only the merrily chatting fire. Then the door slammed to the upstairs nursery. He started at the sound. He closed his eyes and angrily reclaimed command of his nerves as the echo died out through the house like a distant canon shot.
'Fitz. My brandy.' Durant addressed the man who had come to close the library door.
'Beside you, sir.' He looked at the table where the snifter stood. He held the fragile bulb in his hand, the glass thin as paper, the brandy dark as dried blood in the firelight. He was suddenly exhausted and took the liquor in one swallow without nosing the bouquet. The steward stood nearby.
'Thank you, Fitz. That will be all.'
'Goodnight,' and Durant buried his gaze in his book.
To Sir George DeLisle
From Collis Weylin
3 April 1817
I am writing this moment as I know you will agree we may both profit from this matter. I need not remind you we have been gentlemen in business this twenty year and there is no man in London can fetch a better price on my wool than yourself.
I have the good fortune to purchase a choice tract of grazing land at a strange price. There is a farmer hereabouts by name of Angus Sutton whose property backs onto mine. He keeps a small flock, for he is not much inclined to livestock. The land between us has long been in dispute as his grandfather won it from my father at gaming. This good man will return my birthright if I in turn procure him a bride. Having no daughters of my own, I remembered you told me last year you have four and you wished your eldest would marry.
This ideal tract of land will allow me to more than triple my herd and I shall reduce my price to you forty per cent. I shall be installing a new breed, the Cheviot, which makes the venture doubly attractive. The wool is extremely hearty and they are growing well in Scotland. You will be familiar with the name in the marketplace. I think a fortune is to be made here over the course of time.
As to the particulars of the young man, he is young. They tell me he is handsome. He is of a family well known in these parts. He is not a man of fortune, but he eats well.
If you are agreeable, choose that daughter you think most plain and capable of living among us rustics. Send her to my half-sister, Mrs. Devona Morris at Alcott House in Leighton. I shall be honoured to provide a dowry of no less than a hundred pounds and you shall enjoy the profits of such a match.
I hope this letter finds you well. I send my regards to your lovely wife and bid you come north to enjoy the shooting next season.
I remain your obedient servant, Collis Weylin
Mister Collis Weylin
Sir George Arthur DeLisle
Ten April Eighteen Hundred Seventeen
My dear Mister Weylin,
I am in receipt of your letter dated the third April and I am disposed to find favour with your Terms. More astonishing, so is my daughter. I am sending my son, James, to you. He will see to all the Arrangements. He accompanies my eldest, Aileen, this morning. You are kind to offer a dowry for her, but I can not be so obliged to you. For the present I shall settle on her, in addition to the prospects of her own Income, a few thousand a year.
You may find her somewhat renitent, but I beg you to use her with gentleness. It is natural for one so young and accustomed to Independence to express some trepidation upon entering the Marriage State.
Miss DeLisle is partial to Music in all its forms, especially the pianoforte; she sings and plays to distraction. She is distressed to leave her instruments behind. Please be so good as to see she receives something fine on her Wedding. James will arrange it, I am sure. I hope in that way she may provide many an evening's lively Entertainment for your and your sister's family.
I am sorry to inform you the Family here will be unable to attend the Ceremony as urgent Business calls me to the Continent. Nor will Miss DeLisle's sisters be able to attend her. This year sees my wife more than extremely Ill. Our second daughter, Helena, shall remain with her and my two youngest are far too young to be out and travelling abroad. You will understand there is much I must arrange before my sailing.
James will see to everything; I defer to his Judgement in all matters. You may consider him my Representative and his signature as my own. But he is to join me in Bruxelles as soon as time permits, so I pray you, do not keep him long.
My thanks to you for the Generous Invitation to shoot. My acceptance must depend on the improvement of Mrs. DeLisle's State of Health for which we daily pray. We hope to prevail upon this new connection to see more of you in Leeds.
Until that time,
Sir George Arthur DeLisle
Durant rode into Leighton on business, to hear the news, and because once a week he came out of the hills to civilise himself with a dinner in town. He received two shipments, one of books and one of liquor at Henley's, the importer. He bought some trifles for Clare from the milliner and confectioner. He met with his banker and a representative of his London solicitor and then posted some letters. His errands were made all the more tedious by a persistent rain. At last he stopped at The Prince's Rest where he met William Finlay, called 'the younger' even though the man's father had been dead nearly eight years. Young Will was his tenant and foreman at Durant Farm and Grass Mill.
The Prince's Rest was a small inn on the shore of Durantwater situated to catch the ferry traffic. It was the first and last stop for every traveller in and out of town. Durantwater was the long lake that separated Leighton from nearby Bryceton and the Sca Fell road not to be confused with its larger cousin Derwentwater to the north and east.
The Prince's Rest had stood to the astonishment of all on the same spot for nearly four hundred years and was reputed to have been a stopping place for Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and their disinherited son, Prince Edward of Lancaster, on their flight into Scotland during the Wars of the Roses. It was a low-ceilinged structure with robust furniture worn to a comfortable roundness by the abrasion of time and many bottoms. And the inn was tight quarters when it was full of rowdy guests.
By the time Durant arrived Young Will's eyes were bright with drink and 'The Rest' was in an uproar. Pipe and cigar smoke combined with the roaring heat from the smoking fireplace to make an oppressive blanket. Many would say they found it a comforting atmosphere, but Durant always felt compelled to change his jacket after a visit there before he could feel respectable again.
'Mr. Durant, Mr. Durant!' Young Will hailed him, thrusting a mug into his hands. 'Angus Sutton's got a bride!'
'Our Angus? I didn't think there was a girl in the county that would have him,' Durant replied good-naturedly.
'She's not in the county, yet,' said Angus from behind him and the room rocked with laughter.
Angus was a quick, spare man with flaming hair and merry eyes that narrowed when he smiled. He was stronger than a man twice his size and smarter than he looked. He was short and shorter still when he was doubled over supported by his two best friends: his identical twin brother, Andrew, and another man, named McCarthy, of no known connection to the family apart from friendship. 'She's coming this ferry.'
'It's the most enormous joke,' said Andrew.
'Old Collis Weylin came to us,' Angus explained, 'and asked us again if he can buy the Draw, you know, sir, that bit of land between his farm and ours-'
'Our grandfather won it fairly fifty years ago,' Andrew added.
'Well, it's too steep for tilling and we've been looking for a way out of it for years.'
'But Weylin's price never suited us.'
'So Old Weylin comes to me,' Angus' story began to grow as his audience expanded. Durant somehow felt a part of the show and disliked the feeling. 'And he nearly gets on his knees to beg me for that land.'
'He said it was a part of his family heritage and honour,' his brother cut in, 'that his bornéd house is on that land and I don't know what-'
'-Wouldn't we reconsider-' Angus reclaimed his own narrative. 'Finally he says, "I'll say to you what I've never said to another living man. Name your price," he says.' Andrew laughed with his whole belly.
'I wanted to know what dead man he's been talking too--' he added. Angus had to fight to be heard above his brother and the merry din of the dining room.
'So I says to him, "Alright, I'll give it you --if you get me a London bride."'
'Well, we meant it as a joke. Weylin's got no children.'
'And no daughters. But in a fortnight he tells me she's coming this ferry.'
'And Old Weylin wants the match so badly he was ready to give her a hundred quid but her father tells him she's already got a fortune coming to her.' Andrew wiped away giddy tears.
'So, I'll be a gentleman-farmer, just like you, Mr. Durant, with me hounds and me books.' Then he said to his brother, 'All I have to do is learn to read--' and they both burst out in their mugs.
'Well done...' said Durant, nodding with a polite smile, 'Congratulations, Angus.' He shook Sutton's hand then to the host he called, 'Cobbs, a round of drinks in honour of Sutton's bride.'
'And my new fortune!'
'Angus, have you got a likeness of her? Is she pretty?' Angus settled into a stupor. His mouth floated open while he thought about it.
'No... No, sir, I haven't. I don't know.'
'What does it matter so long as she's got all her parts-an' you take my meaning, sir.' McCarthy grinned lasciviously just above his cup.
Durant raised a toast, 'To your London bride,' and drank.
'You'd drink to my wife, Mr. Durant?' Angus asked. 'I'm touched by that, I really am.'
'It's the right thing to do.' Durant put his mug down on the bar and started for the door. Young Will stopped him.
'Aren't we dining, sir?'
'No, Will. You and the lads will have a lot to celebrate when the ferry puts in. I think I'll ride back tonight. We'll dine Friday.'
'Friday is the Landringham's Assembly. Won't you go?'
'I don't think so.'
'Go on, sir, you know the talk when you don't go out.'
'There's more talk when I do go out. And all I'll have to do there is smoke and play chess. I can do that at home,' Durant said firmly. 'Moreover, I'm sure to win at home. I'll come to the mill tomorrow and we'll talk over your idea.'
'Steam is the future, sir.'
'I don't see why not.'
Stepping out from The Prince's Rest Durant inhaled deeply, grateful for the cool, rain-rinsed air off the lake. He exhaled and brushed out his coat and then set off on foot. Durantwater lay a void before him with just the thin lights of Bryceton drawing out the eastern shoreline.
In the street, in the dim and flickering light of a solitary lamppost, he saw the figure of a woman carrying two heavy bags and a hatbox. She approached him politely and without reserve.
'Excuse me, sir. Have you come from the inn?' she asked. She was drenched and shivering with the recent rain. Her coat was too light for the weather, but he was surprised to notice she wore a bonnet of the latest London fashion. Her face was delicate and her figure more trim under her sodden clothes.
Behind her he could see the ferry had arrived and its passengers milled about the quay. A young man struggled with a trunk and Jack Hadden, the ferryman, helped him unload it from the deck. She waited expectantly for his answer, her clear eyes openly accosting his. He guessed immediately who she must be.
'Yes, miss. May I assist you with your baggage?' Durant volunteered, holding her gaze.
'I don't need any help. Thank you just the same,' and she looked at her feet with a sudden attack of modesty. 'Is there a Mister Collis Weylin within?'
'I did not see him. Please, allow me to inquire for you.'
'No, I wouldn't put you to the trouble--'
'It's no trouble.'
'He will be expecting us. I'm sure he will--'
'DeLisle! DeLisle!' Weylin shouted as he crossed the street. The young man with the trunk put it down with pleasure and greeted him. They said a few words to each other. Weylin shook his hand eagerly and they walked over to the young lady.
'Aileen, may I present Mr. Collis Weylin. Mr. Weylin, my sister, Miss Aileen DeLisle.' Aileen leaned slightly toward him in a modest curtsey which Mr. Weylin misunderstood. He took her firmly by the shoulders and quickly kissed both her cheeks. She was visibly affronted by his familiarity but she made no reference to it; she was speechless. Durant cringed for her first impression of rustic society.
'You're not embarrassed are ye, girl?' Weylin asked. 'Wait for your wedding night, you'll put up with worse than that.' She could not endure such an offensive remark, but she did endure it. She refused, however, to dignify it with a response and only shot him a fiery look which Durant admired.
Weylin's eyes lifted to Durant and made out his face in the unsteady light. Something like a steel trap closed quickly over his features as he recognised him. He was suddenly cool and withdrawn.
'Sir,' he nodded without offering his hand or raising his hat.
'Weylin,' Durant returned with equal chill. And he could not resist a certain measure of sarcasm when he said, 'Welcome to Leighton, Miss.' He made a formal bow to her. Weylin swept her away with an arm about her shoulders and made no effort to help her with her luggage.
Durant walked on to Tom Lewis' livery stables where he had left his horse to be shod. He tried to shrug off his misgivings about the unpromising marriage even as he remembered the lady's easy, unaffected manner and open countenance.
Durant found himself walking by the lake, deep in his thoughts. He had passed the livery stable and walked all the way out of town which was not a great distance. He sometimes walked to a place nearby where the shore was gentle and a grassy little hillock overlooked a stony stretch of beach. It was black night, but he knew the way.
He found the road by walking under the break in the trees where he could see the stars. On the shore he skimmed a stone which plopped at last into the water making very little impression.
By the time he returned to the livery Tom Lewis was asleep in a chair and the stable quiet. Lane did not wake him, but saddled his horse himself. He left a little money there and trotted up the high road into the hills, to Thayerleigh.
At home, his own stables were quieter still without the strange horses stirring and without Tom Lewis snoring in the straw. The windows of the great house were all in shadow. No one greeted him. Even his hounds did not mark his arrival but laid down their heads as he passed them. He entered by a side door and left his cloak, hat and gloves on the newel post at the bottom of the grand staircase in the hall. He went into the library and was surprised to find it warm with candlelight.
Fitzsimmons stood at the sideboard pouring brandy in his nightcap and dressing gown. Lane sat in his chair without a word and allowed himself to be served.
'Fitzsimmons, "thou art e'en a man as e'er my conversation cope withal,"' he said.
'Sir?' Fitzsimmons looked questioningly at him.
'Hamlet.' When his master explained no more, he shrugged it off.
'I heard you ride up, sir.'
'Pour one for yourself, Fitz.'
'Thank you, sir.' They sat in companionable silence before the cold fireplace.
'Do you hear that?' Durant asked.
'Hear what, sir?' Fitzsimmons asked back, straining his ears.
'That is the sound of a sleeping house.' Lane smiled, listening. 'You put up with a great deal from me, don't you? You're as constant as the stones of this house,' he said.
'And nearly as old,' Fitzsimmons added. 'Aye.' He chuckled to himself but Lane's mood was serious.
'When they all quitted me you stayed on.'
'And Mrs. Primm. And Cook. And John's in the stable--'
'Yes. I suppose they're here, too. But from a house of sixty servants to less than a dozen --I remember when this house never slept... But you stayed on at least.'
'Servants are strange folk, sir, some say superstitious. Some won't stay the week, some will stay to bury you. I've nowhere I want to go. This is my home. I was born here and I've had my family here and I've walked almost three score years under this roof. Do you think you're the only one that lives in this house?'
'Isn't that odd? I do feel like I live alone.'
'I served your mother and your grandfather and your great grandfather in this house. I was naught but five when fire took the west wing. And I remember when your father brought your mother home a bride. God be with them.'
'God be with them... Were they happy, do you think? I mean, did they love each other when they were married, my parents?'
'Oh, aye. It was an arranged match but they were equal. In fortune, in conversation and on horseback. The whole county danced at their wedding, sir.'
'Angus Sutton's to marry.'
'Aye. Got himself a London wife, they say.' Fitzsimmons leaned out of his chair and stood up.
'How do you know that?'
'News travels faster below stairs, sir. They say she's sure to be a beauty on account of Angus' luck.'
'She is a beauty.'
'Well, I hope she's not his equal. We have too many Suttons as 'tis. O'course, money, talk and horses aren't everything. Then again, compared to gaming, whoring and drinking--'
'Fitz,' Durant noticed Fitzsimmons was making up the daybed in the corner, 'is Clare in my bed?'
'The lady expected you would spend the night in town, sir.'
'Thank you, Fitz. That will be all.' The old man laid on the blanket with care and went to the door. 'And, Fitz... Thank you...' Lane added sincerely.
'You're welcome, sir. I heard you ride up.'
Mrs. Devona Morris was an ample woman, warm and generous, and not without a statuesque beauty of her own. She received the DeLisles without ceremony but with attention to all that was proper. Supper was waiting in their rooms when they arrived and she entertained her half-brother in the little drawing room downstairs while her guests refreshed themselves from their wet and tiresome journey.
'She's terribly pretty, Collis,' Devona told her brother while pouring out the coffee. 'I do hope you have done right by her. Angus Sutton is such a rough young man.'
'Is she pretty?' asked Mr. Morris who was completely blind.
'Yes, Mr. Morris, she's a lovely creature with honey-coloured hair and hazel eyes.'
'She has a beautiful voice; does she sing?' Mr. Morris asked.
'I expect so,' Collis said sourly. 'Devona, what's not to like in Angus? He's stalwart. He will feed her.'
'He will neglect her like one of his livestock,' Devona snapped.
'Only when he's sober,' Collis chuckled. Mr. Morris frowned.
'I should not like her to be badly treated,' he said wistfully.
'She'll grow at hard work,' Weylin insisted.
'My dear brother, you have brought this young lady into our home. She is twenty-two years old of an affluent family accustomed to real society. She's never known a day's hard labour in her life. I am responsible for her as my guest and I'll not see her degraded by the like of Angus and Andrew Sutton.'
'Devona,' Collis soothed her with her Christian name. 'Nothing will happen to her. Angus just needs a reason to settle, and she'd do well to have her conceit knocked down a peg.'
'And it wouldn't hurt you to have a few bob in your pocket?' Collis was about to protest when she checked him. 'I know you, Collis Weylin. And I know only one reason in the world why you would agree with Angus Sutton on anything--'
'Pray, let us be easy,' said Mr. Morris, 'they're coming down.'
A moment later Devona heard them also. She passed one more nervous glance around the room at her simple country furnishings and rested a stern eye on her brother. He shrugged back at her, as though to ask, 'what have I broken now?'
'Mr. Morris, Mrs. Morris, good evening.' James DeLisle bowed on his entrance. 'You have a charming home. Mr. Weylin, good even, sir. I trust you are well and I thank you for your escort. May I present my sister, Miss Aileen Alexandra DeLisle.' Aileen curtseyed to the company collectively.
'Thank you for your kind hospitality, ma'am,' she said to Devona. 'I hope you are in health, sir,' she said to Mr. Morris. To Weylin she said, 'So good of you to stay.' James seated his sister and stood attentively behind her chair.
'Miss DeLisle, is your room comfortable?' Devona asked.
'Quite comfortable, indeed, thank you, ma'am,' Aileen answered. 'But is it always so cold this time of year?'
'We've had a year of rain together. I hope you've not caught a chill in your travel.'
'No, I assure you. I prefer a bracing wind to the closeness of London.'
'Everything is filthy with mud. You must forgive the appearance of the house, Miss DeLisle.'
'On the contrary, your house is delightful and very comfortably appointed.'
'Well, 'tis not so grand as that you must be accustomed to but we like it here. Was your supper to your taste?'
'Perfectly so, ma'am, thank you,' said James. 'You must not make yourself uneasy on our account.'
'And how do you find Leighton?' asked Mr. Morris.
'Everyone has been excessively obliging. However, I am sorry, in the darkness I could not see the town,' said Aileen.
'The streets are very good and I'm sure there must be many fine vistas. The mountains on the journey were spectacular,' added James. 'I thought I would take Aileen out in a carriage tomorrow for a proper view. Do you know where a gig is to be hired?'
'Tom Lewis runs the livery stable,' Devona informed him.
'Won't you all join us for an outing tomorrow to see the town? Mr. Weylin?' James addressed his question to where Collis sulked in a corner chair.
'I'm afraid, Miss DeLisle will not have time tomorrow,' Devona said sparing her brother a response. 'Tomorrow the town shall come to see her. All the local families of consequence are expected to call on you, my dear.'
'I informed no one I was coming.'
'Nor have I. But I've stocked up reserves of tea and biscuits all the same.'
'I shall look forward to making every new acquaintance,' Aileen said, 'and our outing will have to wait,' concealing her disappointment.
'Didn't I tell you, Aileen, you would make quick friends here?' James took her hand in reassurance. 'Aileen is well-liked wherever she goes, Mrs. Morris.'
'James--' Aileen admonished him.
'There can be no doubt of that,' said Mr. Morris.
'But you must be sorry to leave your home and family behind,' said Devona sympathetically. Aileen squeezed her brother's hand and then deliberately released it.
'I'm keen to make new friends now,' she said. Mr. Morris heard in her voice how she forced a smile.
'Collis tells me you are an accomplished player of the pianoforte,' Mrs. Morris changed the subject tactfully.
'My sister is excessively musical,' James crowed. 'She sings and plays and flutes and harps and we all write poetry.'
'Dear brother,' Aileen begged him blushing, 'I see the journey has not taxed your good spirits. Pray, do not tax mine. Mrs. Morris, James mocks the time I devote to my practising.'
'May not a younger sibling admire his sister's proficiency?' James ignored her protests. 'I long for you to hear her, Mr. Morris, and she is an excellent reader.'
'Ah, won't you read for us, Miss DeLisle?' Mr. Morris implored. 'I love to have a good book read aloud. Poor Mrs. Morris reads herself hoarse for me, I think.'
'I am sorry, I shipped all my books ahead. I haven't anything with me.'
'What's your bent, Mr. Morris?' James asked. 'She does Christabel with all the voices. We were reading it on the trip and I just happen to have it upstairs in my bag.'
'Ah, a local poet. By all means, lets have a reading of that then,' and James fetched the book from his room.
'I fear he will mislead your anticipation,' Aileen warned in his absence.
'He so clearly adores you it must be a deception of affection,' Devona replied.
'No, I assure you,' Aileen said. 'He fetches the book because he longs to read himself and I never grant him the opportunity at home.'
The rest of the evening passed in pleasant entertainment. The candles burned down slowly. Aileen and James took turns reading out Coleridge. Aileen began the poem.
' "'Tis a month before the month of May and the spring comes slowly up this way..."' They followed it with Kubla Khan. Then they sang an impromptu duet a cappella. At midnight Mrs. Morris broke up the party.
'Miss DeLisle will be exhausted for tomorrow's engagements if we do not retire,' she insisted.
Collis was the first out of the room and let himself out the door to walk immediately to The Prince's Rest. Angus and Andrew Sutton were still there with McCarthy. They had joined John Lyde and other friends at cards. Everyone had grown subdued with drink and absorbed in the game but Angus hailed Weylin loudly and Collis joined him.
'I thought I'd never leave that parlour alive!' Weylin exclaimed. 'So much poetry and polite conversation can drive a man to his grave.'
'Poetry?' Angus snorted.
'God-awful, it went on all night, something about a "murky old niche in the wall..."'
'Well, here's a mug, you old bastard, to help you forget,' Angus pushed the beer into his hands then thought better of it and pulled it back from him. Taking care to conceal his cards with his other hand, he demanded, 'Tell me first about my bride...'
Aileen awoke wide-eyed with the sun. She could not stay in bed, she could not stay still, but she was not ready to go down to breakfast. She threw on her dressing gown and swept the curtains aside to a brilliant morning of sun and colour. Her windows opened onto the street and the lakefront. The quay was empty as all the fishing boats and skiffs reached out on the wind and into the water. She leaned halfway out the window, discarding propriety. The streets were still quiet at that early hour and hardly a soul was about.
Pulling a low stool over to the window sill she sat with her chin in her hands and all of glittering Durantwater lay before her. She could barely see Bryceton, a lump of grey stone and whitewashed cottages snuggled down in the crooked Cumbrian Mountains. Leighton had the aura of a sea-town with dots of white sail on the lake and a few housewives in the street on their early way to market.
Somewhere high above the town where the gorse bushes bloomed golden in the rugged fields, she caught a drift of music. A bagpiper played not far away. The wind carried off most of the pining tune but when the air was still, she could hear the clear drone of the chanter. She moved to the small writing desk and composed a letter to her sister.
Miss Helena DeLisle
Tuesday, 15 April 1817
My dearest sister, Helena,
I have arrived. Leighton is a lovely lakeside village on Durantwater surrounded by steep moorland hills. It is more beautiful than I ever thought imaginable, like a faerytale kingdom with severe mountains that rise like great troll's castles in the air.
Everyone has been excessively kind. Mr. Weylin, although over-familiar, seems friendly enough in his own way though I understand why Father has never introduced us to him before. His sister, Mrs. Morris, is totally his opposite and she and her husband, Mr. Morris, have made James and I very welcome. I think I shall grow to like them very much.
Leighton is a Rural area. There are none of the grand constructions of London, or even Leeds, no bridges or castles. I'm sure one may order whatever is required but I shall depend upon you to keep me abreast of all the London fashions, art exhibitions and lectures. You must also send me all the latest books from Lackingtons for I am sure to have ample time here for study.
I have not yet been introduced to the man I am to marry. Mr. Sutton did not figure at all in last night's conversation and I thought it unbecoming to inquire. How curious I am of his character! Mrs. Morris advises me to expect calls from some of the local families today. Perhaps I will learn more of this Angus second-hand.
While this is new with the promise of adventure, and while I have James with me, I am pleased to be here. But it grieves me terribly to leave my fond family and dear friends behind. I miss you all so much. I wept in the coach even as the greys took us farther and farther from dear Grove Park. James was beside himself trying to console me. You know he is hopeless with tears.
You can not imagine how very far away I am. I despair to think on it myself. It does not take so long to reach Leighton as London, but one must cross mountains to get here. Along the road there stretches miles and miles of stone enclosure of the most inhospitable land ever to be seen.
You will say that to be so utterly removed from society must be a great misfortune. And so had I thought when first I departed. But I do not fear it now. I do hope, however, Leighton has at least got an opera. A town possessing an opera can not be completely devoid of civilisation. But without an opera, or even a theatre, I shall never pass the time. There is only so much embroidery one can conjure in one's lifetime. I suppose, if pressed, I could resort to watercolour. The landscape here lends itself beautifully, but I doubt my poor skills could ever do it justice.
Tell Father I miss him if he is not yet gone away. I look forward to his coming. James tells me they may visit en route from Brussels, if business does not take them on to Paris. I hope Mama is improving. Do send word of any change in her condition.
To Eva, you must practice at least an hour every day in my absence if we are to play duets when you visit us here. In this way our talents shall equalise for Mrs. Morris has no pianoforte and I am likely to forget all I have learned by the end of the week.
To little Lily, my bonny sweet lamb, I miss you as much as the depth of the sea. You must learn your letters quickly so you can write me here.
Oh, Helena, I miss you all so dearly. You may tell Father I will do my duty here, but it brings me no joy to be so torn from all I love. Perhaps our wedding trip will bring us south to you. I will speak to Mr. Sutton about it (as soon as I meet him). And you must come north when time allows.
Your Reginald must be returned from France by this time. I forget how long I have already been away! You must ask Eva to do a likeness of you both and send it me. I am so bitterly sorry I can not be there to make him welcome, but I daresay you will have that well in hand. And I dearly hope you may soon tell Father of your engagement. We are assured of his consent once I am quickly married.
I am doing this for you, my sweetest sister. You and Reginald have been so thwarted and I have done nothing to help matters. You deserve every happiness. You must have no cares for me here. I am determined to please and be pleased by my husband. I have had much time to think on my journey and I am resolved to mend My Headstrong Ways. If Mr. Sutton can but dance and treat me kindly I will be content. Like Juliet, I'll 'look to like, if looking liking move.' And if I can not love the man, I will respect him with good grace.
Your loving and affectionate sister,
Aileen's day was taken up in calls as Mrs. Morris had predicted. After breakfast She sat in the drawing room poised and pretty and received her callers with a natural grace answering the same questions over and over and each repetition as if it were the first time.
She had to apply herself to the task of keeping the histories and inter-relations of some forty families straight in her mind. It required a good measure of concentration and a measure more to conceal the effort. She imagined she was an actress and these were her lines. James stayed by her and they quizzed each other on the facts of the departing guests before each new arrival.
In the afternoon James rode out with Mr. Weylin to be introduced to the Suttons. While he was gone callers continued to visit Alcott House. Of those visitors, the Landringhams were the last to arrive. They were acknowledged the most refined and elegant family in the neighbourhood which reputation earned them an invitation to stay to tea.
Mrs. Landringham and the three Misses Landringham, Mariah, Catharine and Constance made energetic companions. Aileen and Mariah were of an age and made quick friends. The young ladies soon elected to walk outdoors together and ambled by the quayside. Mariah pointed out all the best sights and all the best shops along the way. They passed Henley's and the other establishments on the green, Parson's Drygoods and Notions, Goldsmith's, the goldsmith, and The Bakery. They passed The Prince's Rest and turned around at the ferry dock before starting back.
'I daresay you've been here before,' Mariah laughed.
They arrived just before tea was served and found James returned and curiously silent. The introductions were made all round and James paid special attention to the eldest Miss Landringham, pouring out her tea and passing it to her with deference.
Charmed by his manner, Mariah informed them her family was to give a ball the coming Friday marking her younger sister Catherine's coming out. Mrs. Landringham then extended the invitation to Mr. and Mrs. Morris and the DeLisle's who happily accepted. It was their first social engagement in town and at the apex of society.
After the tea party was dispersed, James and Aileen finally found occasion to ride out and get their first glance at the countryside. The sinking sun touched the chiselled hilltops with an amber glow and the late snows reposed along the mountain spines looking like spilt milk on the high horizon.
On their return they stopped at the post house. They had sent their trunks on ahead to avoid arriving with an awkward quantity of luggage. There were a great many things Aileen would need on her marriage, silver, crystal and china, but she considered it indelicate to descend on her hostess with a wagon full of baggage. While James saw everything accounted for and marked for delivery Aileen sent their letters. James had written a letter to their father's offices in Brussels. Aileen posted her own to Helena.
Aileen stood out of the wind in the shelter of the wide overhang of the post house roof that formed a sort of porch for loading and unloading. A large crate, taller than herself, stood by her. While she waited for her brother she began to examine the crate more closely. It was stuffed with straw that fell out through gaps in the splintered slats. On one side it had almost completely blown away and she peered inside when it seemed like no one was looking.
Within, Aileen could see one long arch and a perfect grey-white curve that ended in a hand. She leapt away from the crate with a sudden gasp. The limb had an unearthly pallor and she thought at first she had seen it move, so lifelike was its quality. A number of gruesome possibilities sprang into her mind.
After another moment, curiosity prevailing, she approached again. The crate was covered with foreign postal markings and she could not decipher the original address for the handwriting was very careless. The recipient, however, was clearly marked. Lane Durant. The name meant nothing to her. She searched her memory of all her morning visitors. No one had mentioned a connection named Durant. Yet, she thought the family must live close by as she stood nearly on the verge of Durant-water.
She gathered her courage to examine again the appendage that had startled her. On closer inspection she discovered it to be of no human origin but made of marble, the veins of the stone artfully incorporated into the composition. She stretched her hand into the crate cautiously to finger its smoothness and confirm her conclusion. She laughed at her own anxiety then. 'No monsters in Leighton,' she reassured herself, 'and I should be a gothic novelist.'
'We were not sure when it would arrive, sir,' rose a voice behind her. A wrinkled man with a face like a dried apple rounded the corner. He was followed quickly by a well-dressed gentleman of not yet thirty years. The gentleman was tall, slim in the waist and walked with ready confidence.
'A horseman,' Aileen thought immediately and something about him was unaccountably familiar. He wore neither hat nor gloves, despite the public setting, but in every other detail bore himself with impressive deportment. His hair was black and unruly, not from curls, but from the constant lake wind. His face was hard-set with relentless grey eyes for he was a man who had not yet learned to look away. It was his eyes, she decided, she had seen them before.
He ran a hand through his untamed hair and saw her.
At first his eyes were bright and a greeting was on his lips, but when she did not offer the first recognition he prevented himself from addressing her. Aileen finally recognized him as the man who had greeted her at the inn the night she arrived. But they had not been formally introduced; she did not know his name.
Then the moment passed and his look was different, almost as though it saddened him to look on her. She was sure an expression of pity came over his face, the kind of defeated pity reserved for the most hopeless of charity causes. In the end they said nothing to each other. Aileen stepped aside and the gentleman turned his attention to the crate.
'And there's no damage?' he asked Christopher Priestman, a young man with earnest features, who ran the post house.
'None I can see, sir,' he replied.
'Let's get it into the cart, then.' He called another man to help them and the four of them carried the crate away, Christopher Priestman, the old man, a stocky, well-built young farmer and the gentleman she presumed was Lane Durant.
James called to his sister and she went to him. He handed her into the hired gig and rather than get in beside her he paused and they watched together as the four men laboured with the cumbersome package.
'What do you suppose they've got in there?' he remarked to Aileen without expecting an answer.
'I think it's some kind of monument,' Aileen replied unheard.
With great effort the men muscled one end of the crate into the cart. The old man offered what assistance he could from one side but was less a help than a hindrance.
'Will, get in and pull it toward you,' Durant said. James took a step toward them, about to offer his service, when one of the men jumped into the bed of the cart. The sudden thud of his landing startled one of the horses and it pulled forward. The other horse balked in response to the first, jostling the cart violently. The crate was pulled out of Christopher Priestman's hands, then pushed back to knock the older man off his feet. It would have crashed to the ground crushing the older man but Durant grabbed him by the shirt collar with both hands and hauled him quickly out of the way. The man in the wagon was sent off his feet and sat heavily. The crate first dropped one end then the other over top of it.
'Fitz, are you alright?' Durant asked the older man. Fitzsimmons found his feet and nodded standing uncertainly. 'Will? Christopher?' All were unhurt. But the crate had broken open and straw packing flew in every direction.
The exquisite marble figure of a woman was excavated by the wind. She was dressed in a classical gown like a Greek goddess, pouring out water onto a young child who smiled into the mouth of the pitcher in her hands. The treatment of the stone was masterful, the grace of her drapery and the transparency of the water were fully achieved. But the statue was in half a dozen large pieces and a score of smaller ones. The woman's head and arms were broken off, the pitcher lay to the side, and the child's head had rolled a distance away into a puddle left over from the last rain.
Durant went to the figure as though it were once a living body. He swept aside the remaining straw like ringlets of hair and carefully collected each fragment nestling them one by one in what remained of the crate. The other men helped him. Traffic in the street stopped to watch but no one offered any assistance or said a word, even among themselves.
Durant lingered lastly on the child's head; no one else had bent down to pick it up; and it lay in his palm like a smiling piece of fruit. He brushed his fingers over it, over its eyes and disfigured nose, before interring it gently beside the other pieces.
'Mr. Durant, I'm dreadful sorry. I'll pay the damage, sir,' Young Will Finlay said white as a sheet. Durant was not angry.
'You have no idea what this was worth to me,' he said simply.
'No, sir, but I'd like to make it right.'
'Keep your money, Will. This will never be right again.' He frowned and looked down into the crate. Christopher Priestman brushed off the back of Fitzsimmons' coat. James approached them hesitantly.
'I saw what happened, sir. Is everyone alright?' he asked.
'Yes, fine, thank you,' Durant answered.
'May I be of any assistance?' With James' help, the crate was loaded once again without incident. Durant quickly threw a cloth over it.
'Thank you, sir.' Durant shook hands with James without asking his name or offering his own.
'DeLisle, yes.' James sought for something more to say.
'If I had offered you my help earlier this might not have happened.' He paused. 'It was unlucky,' he said finally. Durant looked piercingly into his eyes at the remark.
'Yes. Luck runs out, Mr. DeLisle, remember that.' Then he mounted his horse, a fine chestnut hunter.
'Sir?' Will asked him at a bit of a loss, 'What shall I do with it?'
'Throw it into the sea,' he ordered and took off at a gallop through the busy High Street.
'What an odd fellow,' James rejoined his sister climbing up to sit beside her.
'What a beautiful statue. What a pity it should be so destroyed.'
'I do not think it really upset him.'
'No? How differently we see him, then,' Aileen said, 'I thought he looked...' then looking in the direction he had ridden, '...almost overcome.'
© 2000 Copyright held by the author.
Back To Novel Idea