A Matter of Choice
"Lady Devenham's dinner parties are always so dull," whispered Miss Maude Winston to her best friend, Miss Penelope Bridgeview.
"Insipid!" Said Miss Penelope, eyeing the door. "How long the gentlemen are over their port."
"You are pining for Lord Prescott, I declare. Oh declare, that is a good one. And when will he declare himself?"
"Just one half hour alone is all that is needed. His heart is mine, I assure you."
"His heart and his money both!"
"What good is his heart without his money?" asked Miss Penelope, motioning across the drawing room. "Just look at Amelia Barrington. She is all blushes and sighs. Lost her heart to a mere Baronet with no fortune to speak of!"
"Sir Arthur Warrington is very handsome. You were quite taken at one time."
"I was quite taken? It was you who was in raptures all evening after one dance with him at your first assembly"
"But he is so very handsome, even if he is quite old. Two and thirty!" said Miss Maude, blushing daintily at the memory of that dance.
"And Amelia only seventeen! In ten years he will be old and stout, his hair all gone and only five thousand a year."
"Stout and bald? I should not like that," said Miss Maude, looking quite shocked at the idea.
"It happens to them all. Just look when the gentlemen come in. The older ones are bald and fat, every one!"
"Sir Jarvis is skinny as a rail."
"With hair sprouting from his ears! No my love, do not be taken in by looks, they fade. Money and position are all that matters. Do not sigh over the loss of Sir Arthur Warrington to silly Amelia Barrington. They will go off to his country estate and become nobodies. We shall find you a husband that will be deserving of you. You are not yet nineteen. Your beauty will hold for a few more years, and your portion is ample. We should find someone with at least twenty thousand a year, maybe even a title." Miss Penelope Bridgeview, one year senior to Miss Maude Winston, and much more in the know, had taken her under her wing upon their first meeting.
"Oh, Penelope, I do hope so!"
"Indeed! Look how Lord Bringham was following you around until his mama came along."
"But he was such a cold fish! If only Colonel Stanton were rich, I could have accepted his offer. His eyes were so blue!" Miss Maude looked appealingly towards her friend.
"Colonel Stanton! You are not still crying over him, Maude? A fortune hunter if there ever was. Your father was smart to send him on his ear!" Miss Penelope smoothed her gown in impatience and looked again towards the door through which the men were to come.
Miss Maude was not to be put off by her friend's disapproval. "Why is it the handsome ones are all ineligible? Excepting Lord Prescott. He is quite handsome. You are so lucky, Penelope. Money and looks! Oh how shall I manage when you are married and I have no-one to guide me?"
"Well, I know what I am about. You have to keep your head about you in this game. But don't despair, I have a plan for you. When I am married you will come and stay with me at Wilverton, and I will find you a husband among my husband's friends."
"That would be lovely! And I could settle close to you, our families could grow up together."
"We shall have it all arranged. Two fine fortunes!" said Miss Penelope, getting quite animated by the idea of being indispensable to her naïve friend who was in so much need of guidance. "Our children will be betrothed from birth and combine the land and the money!"
"You are joking now. What if we were both to have daughters?"
"I am going to have a son, the next Lord Prescott. And you will have a divinely beautiful daughter. She will have to play the piano like an angel and come and play for me every afternoon. Listen to me going on in such a romantic way! You have found me out, Maude. For all my sense I have this absurdly romantic heart. But I am going to marry a fortune so I can afford to be romantic. Oh look at Amelia, how anxiously she awaits the gentlemen. Her heart is in her eyes for all the world to see. It is silly to be so in love when so little money is concerned."
"Here come the gentlemen at last. Look, he sees her, and is directly by her side. Penelope, Penelope, did you ever see anything like?"
But Penelope was not attending. The gentlemen were approaching and she looked up, smiling oh so sweetly as she caught the eye of Lord Bernard Prescott, and the poor man was lost, drawn irresistibly into her web. He approached and gazed down at her. Maude was forgotten, there was only Lord Bernard with his gentle smile, his golden curls, and his thirty thousand pounds a year.
Miss Maude Winston looked about her. The older gentlemen were balding, their waistcoats stretched tightly over their girth, their cheeks florid. Sir Jarvis' whiskers curled from his ears. Amelia Barrington and Sir Arthur Warrington were deep in conversation. Maude looked at him and sighed. She could not imagine him without those dark curls or the tall and elegant figure. She could not imagine him with hair sprouting from his ears. A callow youth with an underhung jaw approached her, and begged her for the first two sets of the evening. Maude accepted and then sat back and sighed. Lady Devenham's dinner parties were always so dull.
Eldest sons, through the good fortune of being first born, have little need to worry about their future. They inherit title, estate, and the bulk of the family fortune. They can have their pick of the young and pretty daughters from the good families of their acquaintance, who generally come to them with large fortunes of their own. For the younger sons there is less fortune, and they cannot always marry where they chose. Large families can cause fortunes to be divided up in such a way that after a few generations, even families of title and quality can find themselves quite impoverished, unable to provide much more than the bare minimum to any children other than the heir. Such was the case of the family of Sir Arthur Warrington, baronet in the county of Huntingdon.
The young baronet married Miss Amelia Barrington, a lovely girl who brought with her a fortune of ten thousand pounds and a fine country house in the neighbouring county. He had no other lands than his ancient estate with its stately manor house in which they lived, and a grand mansion in Grosvenor Square, both of which were entailed directly to his heir. They happily, if somewhat improvidently, raised a family of five healthy and lively children, three sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Randolph, grew to be a fine specimen, handsome and proud, and in his twenty-fourth year married a young lady of equally fine breeding and pride, and the requisite fortune. They took over the London house and came little to the country. Randolph was proud of the estate for the stature it gave him but had little interest in its management. The second son, George, was to have the fine country house from his mother. His father bought him a set of colours in the 9th Hussars and thus his future was secured as Captain George Warrington of Tynestead House. The two daughters, Anne and Mary, were to have five thousand pounds apiece, had the good luck to be pretty, and were taught all the accomplishments that were desired in a well-bred young wife. Though the youngest was barely out of the schoolroom, it was commonly held that neither girl would have a problem securing her future.
The third son, James, was also to have five thousand pounds. Although this sum was adequate for his sisters, for a man it was little indeed, as it provided him only 200 pounds a year to live on. You may question his father's decision in giving the same to the daughters as to the son, but James' parents had very respectable plans of their own for his future. It was his mother's fondest wish for her youngest son to enter the church. To this end he received an excellent education, first at Eton and then at Oxford, where, at the start of his twenty-second year, he was to take orders. In a few years the incumbent of their own parish was set to retire, and the living was promised to him. In the meantime there was a living not fifteen miles away that would become vacant soon after he sat his final exams. This would provide an additional sum of 300 pounds per annum. This was often as not the lot of younger sons, and this was all set to be James' destiny.
As a boy James developed a great fondness for the outdoors. When not at his books studying Latin with his tutor, he would take his pony over the meadow to catch frogs in the pond, or creep through the hay fields in search of grasshoppers. He enjoyed talking with the farmers as they worked their plots, and on many a spring afternoon could be found hoeing a row with a young farm boy, much to his older brothers' and parents' displeasure. Later, when he went off to Eton, he missed the country terribly. Although he was a good student with a quick, intelligent mind, and enjoyed his studies, he yearned for the end of term when he could return to ride freely over the estate. He often planned changes and improvements he would make if it were his, but he knew it was destined for his brother who had no real interest in it other than the prestige and fortune it provided. He tried to talk to his father of his ideas, but his father told him he had best pay attention in church and go around with the rector on his visits to the poor to prepare himself for his real future.
At Oxford, James enjoyed his
classical studies but he also attended lectures on agriculture and read all the
farming journals he could get his hands on. Although agriculture was not taught
at the university, improvements in farming methods were currently being
developed at a great scale by many prominent peers on their own estates, and he
searched out all the knowledge he could find. His interest in the land deepened
and also his interest in the people on the land, not as subjects to minister
to, but as people whose lives could be improved through better living
conditions and farming methods. And all this, in turn, would benefit the
landowner. On a midterm visit to London he tried to impart some of this
information to his brother, Randolph.
After luncheon he and Randolph retired to the study.
"So, you have two days at your disposal. Are you ready to kick up your heels for some lark, or are such things beneath the good parson?" teased Randolph.
"You must know me well enough now, brother, to know that I am not a paragon of good behaviour, but the type of a lark you are referring to, no, I think not."
"I wasn't suggesting a gaming den, merely a little cards among friends at reasonable stakes, some good brandy, and the added pleasure of female companionship." Randolph poured himself a drink. "It's high time you found out what you've been missing locked up with your books. No, don't looked so shocked, I'm only funning, you know. Lucy has planned a small dinner party tonight and invited some promising young girls that would make a young parson a good wife. She has your interests at heart. One or two of them can't help but be dowdy, but they are all of good family, I promise you, and I am sure they will feel the honour that they should to be invited to one of Lucy's dinners."
"Please, Randolph. You must know that I am not casting about for a wife. A man of my means should not marry until he is well settled. It would not be fair to the lady. But when I am ready, I will do the looking for myself."
"For a man in your position, a young wife with a few thousand pounds is just what is needed. She won't be pretty, mind, but for a parson's wife a quiet, biddable dowd is ideal. After you are set up you can start up flirtations with the beautiful married ladies of your parish. There's many a wife left to rot in the country while her husband is off on his own pursuits who would gladly take up with the available young parson."
"What you suggest is not only unthinkable, but insulting."
"I was afraid you might think it so. Then suffice to say, you will just have to be content with a plain woman for your domestic felicity."
"I am not here to talk of my future domestic felicity, brother. I have something of much more import to discuss. You know that I have a great interest in the management of estates."
"An unfortunate interest for a third son with no estate to inherit."
"Your steward, I feel, does not use the best methods in running your estate. His treatment of the farmers is harsh and I believe he is lining his pockets at your expense. Also, something must be done to counteract the higher taxes that are being levelled at the gentry."
"You have always coveted my land, have you not? Remember, boy, it is my estate and I run it as I chose."
"Please hear me out. I would only like to be your steward. I do love Huntsfield, but I do not desire it for myself, only to see it managed well and not run down. With the new methods I have learned applied to the estate, your fortune would increase and the lot of the peasants would be improved. We could take advantage of the new corn laws and set more land to the growing of grain."
"What care I for the lot of the peasants? Your suggestion is insupportable. That my brother should be my steward? I would be a laughingstock. How could I go about society with my head held high? And as for the accusations you heap upon my steward, how dare you? He was born to be a steward. His father was our steward before him. It is in his very blood and bone and you think that a stripling like yourself can do better than him with only book-learning? If you want an estate so much, marry one. You are not precisely handsome, but you are not ill looking, and you have impeccable family connections. There is one young lady, somewhat past her prime and with a squint, who has just come into ten thousand pounds and a tidy estate in the north. She has no conversation and no looks, but what is that to name, fortune, and land? I am sure that she would jump at you; being a third son should not weigh with her."
"You have unusual ideas on what I should like," answered James coldly.
"There, I have upset you again. Be realistic, boy. You know you don't have a choice, and remember, in all that you do you have the family name to uphold."
Randolph Warrington drank his brandy, smoked his cigars, and continued to lecture his younger brother, James, until it was time for both to retire to their rooms to dress for dinner. James left his brother's study with a pounding headache brought on by the cigar smoke and the fortitude he expended in not arguing with his brother's proud and arrogant advice. The last thing he wanted was an evening of idle entertainment spent in company he was sure could hold no interest for him, but he knew he had to do his duty by his hostess. The evening proved to be as bad as he had anticipated.
His sister-in-law, Lucy, had invited three young ladies with their mamas, two elderly gentlemen, the parson, and a callow youth who was the brother of one of the hopeful maidens. Most of the company was already assembled when James entered the drawing room, the late arrival being a Miss Smythe, with her formidable dowager of a mother.
Conversation had already been lagging before her entrance because the two old gentlemen, both being hard of hearing, needed everything repeated twice, while the parson felt it was his duty to sit and drink the sherry. The two other young ladies, Miss Layton and Miss Stanley, were overcome with shyness and barely uttered a word beyond their first greetings. Their mothers sat back and talked together in loud whispers to Lucy, while Randolph stood by the fireplace with a demeanour of utter boredom. James had tried to converse with Mr. Robert Stanley, a young man of about his age, but had discovered quickly that their interests were totally dissimilar. The young man could barely turn his head for his shirt points, and he wore a vivid waistcoat covered in fobs. After James had repeated to the old gentlemen the amazing statement that the weather was quite chill for the time of year, to be responded by their affirming nods once they had made out his words, Miss Smythe made her entrance.
Her short, but not petite, figure was dressed in a gown of quite a bright pink, embellished with flounces, lace, and ribbons. Her strawberry blonde hair was done in an elaborate coiffure, and she was wearing an amazing array of pearls. Lucy went up to her and greeted her and her violet robed mother who followed closely behind. When the introductions were made, Miss Smythe stuck by her target and proceeded to bombard James with conversation filled with gossip, fashion, and idle raptures about nothings.
James politely listened, gave short unheeded answers, and wished himself anyplace but where he was. When dinner was announced he hoped to be able to make his escape, but alas, his sister-in-law, Lucy, had been too cunning for him. He found himself with Miss Smythe on his left, Miss Layton on his right, and a beaten looking Miss Stanley across the table. James attempted to make conversation with Miss Layton, but she answered only in quiet monosyllables, so he gave up and let Miss Smythe regale him with the menus of all the other dinners she had attended that season, complete with guest lists and an itemised wardrobe of each person present. By the end of the dinner James wanted only his bed and a cold compress for his head, but the evening's entertainments were not yet over.
They repaired again to the drawing room and the instrument was opened. After much demurring, the three girls were prevailed upon to perform for the company. Miss Layton sat to play as Miss Smythe and Miss Stanley sang a duet. The playing was beyond reproach, but the singing was difficult to bear. The one girl sang so quietly her part could barely be heard, and the other sang in such a high voice that many notes could not be reached. After the singing, cards were quickly announced, much to Miss Smythe's disappointment for she had wanted to sing again and had been occupied in choosing a tune. The old gentlemen pronounced the performance as delightful, and were able to say so in all sincerity because they had barely been able to hear more than a vague melody.
James was hoping to stick with the old gentlemen and make up a table of whist with the parson, but Lucy steered him over to the other side of the room to play loo with the rest of the young people. He spent the night in silent agony, watching Mr. Robert Stanley try to force his attentions upon Miss Layton and her ten thousand pounds, while Miss Smythe chattered on about all the other loo parties she had ever attended and Miss Stanley sulked. He debated going to the rescue of Miss Layton but was held back by one consideration. He didn't want to raise any hopes she may have had regarding himself, and if she had no hopes in his direction, he did not want her to feel that she had another unwanted admirer dangling after her money.
When the evening was finally over, and the door was finally shut on the last of their guests, he turned to his brother and said, "Please spare me any more of your well meant favours." And with that he left the room and took himself off to bed, hoping that he need never set eyes on any of the visitors again.
"I had to put up with all those ingratiating mushrooms, only because I wanted to help your brother improve his fortunes and that is the thanks I get! I have never spent a more intolerable evening, and in my own home too." wailed Lucy, casting herself on the sofa.
"Don't take on so, my love. You were wonderful and thoughtful, and he is an unfeeling cad. Any one of those girls would make him a satisfactory wife, except maybe the plump one who never stopped talking. I have a feeling she is unsuited to be a parson's wife, but the plain one with the squint and ten thousand pounds, she is just my idea of a perfect parson's wife."
"And he ignored her completely all evening. After all we have done for him, I swear, Randolph, that I am about to give up."
"Then we had best leave him to his own resorts. Mark my words, Lucy my love, after a few years in a small parsonage with little money and the boredom of country life, he will come around to our way of thinking and will come back to town looking for introductions, and in the meantime we won't have to suffer through another such evening."
"My love, did you note the sickly colour of the Stanley girl's gown? And she thought to interest a Warrington dressed like that!"
"She was in high sulks all night. I almost burst out laughing at the look of chagrin on her face when Miss Smythe arrived all decked out in her finery!"
The two went on to discuss all the inadequacies and misfortunes of their guests, and thus were able to divine some pleasure out of what had been a most dull and insipid evening.
Three months later found James returning to his childhood home after finishing his Oxford studies. He rode a bay gelding, an intelligent and responsive horse that his father had given him four years earlier when he had started at Oxford, and now they were on their last trip home together, a home that James knew with certainty was his no longer. They came upon a rise and stopped where the whole expanse of Huntsfield spread before them. This was one of James' most loved spots. The stately home was not quite visible, hidden behind the home woods. What he could see was the stream that curled through undulating meadows, and the distant fields all planted and thriving in the early June sun. Beyond the woods were the formal gardens and wide, green lawns that lent grace and beauty to the proud mansion, but these were not the things that called to James' heart.
James urged his horse down the gentle slope, and galloped through the meadow grass. The wind swept his hair back as they rushed across the meadow and came to a trot by the stream. Here was a path worn along the bank and James let his horse slow to a walk as he gazed about, overcome with memories. There, across the stream, was the spot where, five years ago, his father had met with an accident that had changed his life and left the estate under the care of his heir.
Arthur Warrington had been a bruising rider, and even at fifty-five, he had not held back. It was the beginning of a hunt and he had taken the stream as he always did, at breakneck speed. The opposite bank had become undercut, and gave way under his horse's hooves, causing the horse to founder. Arthur's leg was so badly broken in the fall that he remained crippled and in pain to this day. He no longer went out on his estate, even in a carriage, as the discomfort was too great.
James walked his horse along the stream for some time, lost in thought. He felt soothed by this place that he loved, but he could no longer put off the inevitable. To the house he had to go, to see his parents and face them with his news. He loved his parents dearly, and he knew what he had to tell them would disappoint them, but he had to live his life as he saw fit, no matter the repercussions. He turned his horse and headed up, through the meadow once again, quickening to a canter until he reached the trees. He guided his horse through the spinney, skirted the pleasure gardens, and rode around behind the walled vegetable gardens to the stables, where he was greeted with surprise and delight by the old retainer who tended them with the help of two sturdy young lads.
"Aye, master James, it does me old eyes good to be seein' ye agin."
James took his proffered hand and shook it as he handed over his reins.
"Thank you Jacob. It is good to be home again. See that Sophocles gets a good rub down, and extra oats. He's earned it today." James unbuckled his bag from behind the saddle and gave his horse a fond pat on the neck before he was led off.
A cobbled path led up from the stables, past the outhouses, and to the kitchen door. This was the route James took to the house rather than following the broad sweep of the drive that led round to the front entrance. As he entered the kitchen, he was greeted by the shrieks of Cook, who ran over to him and engulfed him in her embrace.
"Bless me! Master James lad! ‘Tis really you! For shame, coming without word like this. How may I cook yer favourite meal now, I ask ye?"
"Any meal you cook will be wonderful."
"Save yer sweet-talkin' boy, and get out o' me kitchen. I've got work to be doin' and don't need your disruptions, that's for sure," she said, wiping her eyes with her apron.
James made his way from the kitchen to the front of the house where he greeted Thomas, the footman, handed him his coat and bag, and then proceeded to the drawing room where Thomas had told him his parents were sitting. He entered the room unannounced.
His father was in his big armchair with his leg on a footstool, gazing out the windows at the rose garden beyond. In his large chair he looked small and pale, older than his sixty years, a dim shadow of his former self. In the year since James had been home Arthur Warrington had aged considerably. His skin stretched taut over the fine bones of his prominent nose, his cheeks hollowed, and his once formidable jaw simply jutted forward. His mother sat at an embroidery frame in the embrasure of a tall bay window. She was still only forty-five, but she too looked pale and drawn. Her hair was starting to grey beneath her cap, but her features were still elegant, holding a remnant of her former beauty.
James' heart wrenched. He felt almost like backing out and leaving the room, going back to Oxford and doing that thing that he hadn't done, so as not to burden them further. But he could not. Maybe all would be well. Maybe they would not be shattered by his news. That was his only hope. He stepped forward, and at his movement both his parents looked towards him. It was as if a light had been turned on in his father's eyes. He reached out his hand to James, who rushed across the room and knelt by his father's chair, taking his hand.
"What a surprise you gave me, son, to see you suddenly standing there. I had been just thinking of you."
Lady Amelia Warrington came over and gave her son a hug as he knelt by his father. "James my love, you gave us quite a start. You are early by two weeks."
"Yes mother, I am."
"It is good to see you my boy, by any means," said his father. "A year is a great length of time, and you have been missed."
"Yes indeed. Would that you had written to let us know," said his mother, "but you were always a little thoughtless in that respect."
James pulled a chair close to his father's side, and sat. His mother sat on a corner of the footstool, taking care not to disturb her husband's leg.
"I thought it best just to come," said James. "Am I not better than a letter? Are my sisters home?"
"They are in the garden, gathering roses," said Lady Amelia. "But son, I must know. I can tell by your looks that something is amiss. You are two weeks early. By all accounts ordination was to take place next week. Can I have been wrong in the dates? If you are here, ordination must have already taken place."
"Mother, Father, hear me out. I have some news to tell that may cause you pain, and the sooner I say it, the better, I suppose."
"So do not keep us in suspense, let it out boy," said his father, his expression becoming severe again, the joy having left his face.
"Oh, do not say you have failed your exams!" cried his mother.
"No mother, I have done very well in my exams. It is just that I have decided against taking orders. Ordination was to have taken place next week, but my plans have changed and I am come home to tell you of my decision in order that you hear it from me first."
"But . . . how will you live?" cried his mother in distress.
"What is to be done?" asked his father. "All is in readiness for you at Ellendshall to take over the parish. Have you not thought of the consequences of your rash decision? Look at your mother in tears. You have brought her to this." His voice was shaking as he tried to control his emotions.
"Please let me explain. I have written to Ellendshall with a recommendation of a fellow student of mine, a very steady, respectable young man who was in need of a place. They have accepted him as a curate, and may even grant him the living if they should be pleased with him."
"That is all very well for him, but what about us? For you to be a clergyman and settled close was your mother's greatest desire. To have you well established was mine. You know that I am able to provide you with no more than a pittance. How are you to get on in the world?"
"Father, you must know that I want to have the management of an estate. I have asked my brother if I can replace old Dodson and manage your own lands for you, but he has refused. I had thought I could resign myself to being a parson and running a parish, but I cannot. It is not in me . . . the only thing that holds meaning for me is the improvement of the land and the improvement of the farmers' lot, but not the improvement of their souls."
"It is your lot that is of importance here, and your duty to your family. The idea of your becoming steward here at Huntsfield is unthinkable and insupportable. How should we look?"
"And from where does this abhorrence of giving sermons come?" asked his mother, through her tears. "You have been of mind to become a parson for the last ten years or so. It has been your plan and your dream for so long."
"It has been your plan and your dream, mother. It has been some time since I knew my heart leant in another direction, but I wanted to please you. I thought that I would be able to resign myself to that life, but it is impossible. I cannot live a life of pandering to the rich and being condescending to the poor."
"Oh, how can you say such things!"
"Forgive me mother, but it is no more than the truth. Although there are many who care only for their financial security, eating and drinking and socialising at the expense of their parishioners, with little thought to their Sunday sermon, I still respect the clergy. There are also many honest and dedicated men in the profession, but I have seen too much of the way of life to know it is not for me. Do you not want me to be happy?"
"How can you be happy, sir, when you have dashed your parents' hopes and set yourself on a course that will lower you in the eyes of the world? Your brother has informed us that you spurned all his and Lucy's attempts to fix your fortunes through marriage. And now you want to lower yourself to become a steward? A veritable servant?" asked his father.
"What care I for the good opinion of the world, if this is how it judges? To be a steward and restore an estate to good operation, to revive the land, to bring the tenants out of squalor, that is good and honourable occupation. To marry for money may be socially acceptable, but to my mind it is dishonourable and despicable, and I will never bring myself to do so. I would rather live in poverty." James paced around the room in an attempt to calm himself. His father had become very red in the face, and his mother was sobbing bitterly. This was as bad as he had anticipated. He stopped pacing and looked imploringly at his mother. "Please, don't take on so. It wrings my heart to see you cry and know that I am the cause of it."
"Please leave me now, I can't bear it any longer," said his mother looking up into his face.
"See what your mother suffers," said his father. "Go and rethink your decision. I'm sure there is still time to undo all that you have done. You can be ordained next week, and it will be as if this had never happened. Go now, and return for supper in a more conciliating frame of mind." He leaned back on his chair, spent, a look of extreme pain on his face.
"Father, you are not at all well. Shall I call Thomas?"
James ran out of the room in search of Thomas and, upon sending him to his father, went out of the house to the garden to look for his sisters and apprise them of the situation. He found them sitting in the shade of a bower, baskets of roses at their feet. They made such a picture, their pale muslin dresses, their honey-coloured ringlets, and the bright profusion of blooms and dark green of the leaves. His younger sister, Mary, looked up and cried out in delight.
"James, you are come!" She ran towards him and threw herself into his arms, laughing. The other sister walked over more sedately and gave her brother her hand in a ladylike manner.
"Mary, Anne, it is so good to see the two you. In a year you have both grown into such beautiful young ladies."
"I thank you brother," said Anne. "But as you can see Mary does not deport herself like a young lady."
"James, take no note of her," cried Mary. "How I have missed you. There has been no fun without you. It is all propriety and manners. Painting, sketching, flower arranging, music lessons, deportment. How I miss riding through the meadows with you."
"If you want to marry well, you must be accomplished. No one will look at a young scamp who has messed her hair and torn her gown climbing trees in the orchard," said Anne in a most superior tone.
"Oh, you are just cross because I came upon you and a suitor walking in the park and I still had a twig caught in my hair. You needn't have pointed it out, he wasn't looking at me anyway. Oh, James! It is so droll. She has so many suitors and they are all such toads, or dreary lovesick mooncalves."
"You would think a girl of sixteen would have more sense of shame!"
"And I would think a girl of eighteen would not already be quite such a simpering prude."
"James, I am so glad you are finally come," said Anne. "Maybe you can do something about your youngest sister. She has no sense of propriety and causes me much embarrassment."
"I am glad I am come as well," he answered, "but I have to tell you that I brought some news that has quite overset our parents. I believe that our father is in a bad way, and our mother is overcome with grief over what I had to tell. They will not see me any longer, but I was hoping you could go to them and give them comfort."
"Oh no! What is the bad news? Has something happened to George or Randolph?" asked Mary.
"No. Do not distress yourself. They are both well to the best of my knowledge. It is all my doing, I am afraid. I have acted selfishly, and in so doing have greatly grieved them both. I have put my interests over theirs and given up on entering the clergy."
"You have not become a fusty old parson!" cried Mary. "I am so relieved. I never wished you to become one, although I would have still loved you if you had. You still would have been my favourite brother. I am so happy for you! Oh, our poor mother. What she must feel. I will go to her at once and cheer her up. Should I say I will marry a fat lord and share my fortune with you? Would that help?"
"You will say no such thing and have no thought of doing anything as outrageous as that. I mean to become a steward and support myself quite nicely, thank you very much."
"Oh, I am so glad, because I, for my part, would hate to marry a fat lord, even for you,' said Mary with a laugh, and with that she ran off to the house.
"I am most shocked," said Anne. "I thought you had more sense. Who could be induced to marry you now that you have no prospects? I would think it would have been a small thing to become a clergyman and please our parents. After all, once you had married a lady of fortune, you need no longer be always at the parsonage, giving sermons. You could take on a curate and go off to London for the season."
"Is it only marriage that you think of, Anne? I have no intention to marry until I have established myself and can provide for my wife. And when that time comes, I will only marry if I truly love and am loved."
"Then I can see that you are destined to be a bachelor, dear brother, and will have to learn how to mend your own socks," she retorted, smugly.
"If that is the case then I will, and with pleasure," he answered. "Now I think you should go to father and ensure that he has not suffered a severe setback. I need to walk and think on this. I will return for supper."
"I don't know what use you think I will be, but I will go. Oh look. Mary has left her basket of roses, and now I will have to carry both. What a thoughtless child she is!"
"She ran of in such concern for her parents, I believe, that she forgot her flowers. I see that as caring rather than thoughtless. Don't worry yourself over her basket, I will carry it back to the house, and yours too if you like."
"Oh would you? It is so fatiguing." Anne walked off, leaving James to go back into the bower and retrieve the baskets. As he carried them back to the house, the heavy blooms loosed their fragrance. The sweet scent rose up to him and helped lift the melancholy which had begun to descend upon him.
That evening, supper was a quiet affair. Both parents had retired to their rooms early, Lady Amelia with a sick headache, and Sir Arthur, fatigued beyond endurance by the argument, had given in to the constant pain in his leg and taken a dose of laudanum, which brought painless sleep until the morning. Mary tried to liven up the meal with her chatter, but James was consumed by his thoughts and fears for his parents' well-being, and Anne was forever trying to put a damper on Mary's spirits.
Anne had had a trying day. In the morning, one of her suitors had presumed too much and she had given him a set-down. Another, a Mr. Samuel Hastings, had given her a snub which had vexed her to no end because he was hardly even worthy of her, with almost no estate to speak of and only about three thousand pounds a year, and it was a pity that he was more handsome than he deserved to be. After that, of course, came the nonsense with James and his silly notions. Having a brother like him was quite a trial for her; he was unlike her other two brothers who cared what the world thought of them, and who were well on their way to becoming people of note in polite society. Having to bear with her father's crotchets for a half an hour had severely tried her patience. Even though she had agreed with every point he made, he still hadn't been content. He had almost even intimated that James did have a right to decide his own future, regardless of how it would reflect on their social standing. And social standing was all-important, especially if you wanted to make a good marriage, and she was going to make the best catch she could. These country suitors meant nothing to her. Even Samuel Hastings, or, I should say, especially Samuel Hastings. Just wait until she got to London. Her sister-in-law, Lucy, would introduce her to the best families, and she, with her beauty, breeding, and accomplishments would do the rest. Oh, to be out of the country was all she could wish for! And now James had done this most selfish thing. If people should find out that he intended to become a steward it would hurt her chances for the success that she knew she deserved.
After their supper they retired to the drawing room where Anne played a sonata, James attempted to read, though he looked more at the fire than at his book, and Mary took up a basket of needle-work. In a few moments she threw it down in frustration.
"What a very dull evening. There is nothing more insipid than embroidering initials onto a hankie! James, you can't possibly be reading that book."
James looked up at his sister, "Why ever not?"
"It is Fordyce's sermons!"
"Oh, I hadn't noticed. I am too caught up in my thoughts to know what I am reading."
"Don't worry so," said Mary, coming over and sitting on the floor by his feet. "They will come around, you will see."
"I worry that I have harmed my father's health and destroyed my mother's happiness."
"Father will rally. He looks very weak, but remember, I am at home all the time and understand his ways better than you. He has strength of mind that overcomes his physical deficiencies. And I have talked to mother and assured her that you should never be a boring old parson. It would not suit your nature."
"And what said she to that?"
"Oh, she only cried all the harder, but that is a good sign, I am sure."
James laughed. "You have a very happy nature. I wish I could look on it as you do. But my mind will only dwell on the pain I have caused."
"It will pass, I promise you, and then they will see that you must be happy. It is your life after all. I have been thinking. When you get a position as steward may I come and live with you?"
"I would only have a small house, with one or two servants. I would live a quiet country life. That would not do for you. You must go into society where you can meet someone to marry."
"All this talk of marriage is too boring. That is all Anne thinks of. I thought you had other ways of thinking. Listen, I have quite made up my mind. I shall go and live with you, and the lord that you are steward to shall have a handsome son, and we shall fall madly in love and marry, if that is what you wish."
"That is not what I would wish, nor very likely either. Only think, if you went off to live with me, what would our mother do? She would not survive two of her children turning their backs on society. She has great hopes for you."
"Oh yes, but you have made your own choice and I will too. Do you know that Anne is to go to Brighton to stay with Randolph and Lucy, and then on to London for the season? They will find her a husband, and then next year it will be my turn. I would like to go to the plays and recitals, but not to have all those fools follow me around as they do Anne. It is beyond all bearing."
"But it doesn't follow that they all should be fools."
"True, but for the most part they are. You should see how silly they are. They read her poems, bring her flowers, and gaze up at her with half-sick looks on their faces. They do her every bidding, and fall into sulks if she pays more attention to one than the other. I was all set to come and live with you in your parsonage, even though it would have been most boring, it would be better yet than that."
"You have cheered me up immeasurably, Mary, and I would love to have your happy company in my solitary home. If you are still unwed and of the same mind when you are five and twenty, I shall not say no to it."
"By that time, brother, you will have made yourself a good living, have a loving wife, and a fine brood of children, and you would not want me any more."
"I should always want you, but now, I think, you are too young and your mother needs you. She will not be in such a hurry to marry you off as she is your sister. She will need you for comfort and consolation with all her other children gone."
"You are right, I had forgotten that. So I will sit by her side an old maiden, and embroider initials onto hankies. It is a nice life you have planned for me brother," said Mary, the twinkle in her eyes belying her words.
"No. You shall run in the meadows and climb the trees, and one day you shall be sitting in an apple tree eating an apple when a stranger will chance to come through our orchard, and upon seeing you know instantly that you were meant for him."
"Well, I do hope that he shall be handsome, and not a fool, and have a fine horse, or I shall be very disappointed in life," said Mary. "And now, dear brother, I shall say goodnight. Anne has finished her playing and it is late."
She rose from the floor and kissed his cheek then left the room with Anne, who said her goodnights. James looked after them and smiled. He went up to his own bedchamber, more hopeful than he had felt in the whole day.
As the weeks went by, Mary's words were born out. James parents slowly came to realise that the decision was his to make. They were not happy with his choice, but they were reconciled. His eldest brother had written, denouncing his plans, but that did not weigh with him. That his brother should be angry with him was to be expected. His only problem now was to find employment. His parents were in no hurry for this to take place. They enjoyed having him at home again. His mother planned picnics and dinner parties for all the young people in the neighbourhood, and was happier than she had been for a long time. James was able to watch all of Anne's many swains as they tried to outdo themselves to win her favours, and in the evenings laugh with Mary over their foolishness. He and Mary went for long walks and rides in the meadows, often accompanied by one or two of the young men and girls who made up all their parties.
One morning, James and Mary walked in the Beech grove, before a luncheon that their mother had planned as a send off for Anne. She was going the next day to Brighton and could talk of nothing else, so they had escaped outdoors.
"Well the good thing is that we shall no longer have all those silly young men in our parlour ever day," said Mary.
"No indeed. I believe most of them will find that their plans take them to Brighton at this time of year."
"Although, I must say that I can't see why that Mr. Hastings is always coming to Anne's at homes. He barely says two words to her. Did you see yesterday when she asked him what he had to say about her new dress which all the other gentlemen had been complimenting her on, and he said, ‘I had not noticed your dress, but as you point it out, I see nothing amiss.'? I almost exploded with laughter. She was so affronted. He told me later that he had not meant to be impolite, but that he had not been attending and so had been taken by surprise. What can he mean by coming here so often?"
"You silly goose, you must know that he comes to see you."
"What strange ideas you have, James. Why would he come to see me? They are all Anne's suitors. I do not want any."
"Yes, but compared to Anne you are by far sweeter and kinder, and I think more than one young man has noticed as much. Don't be surprised if after she is gone we still have gentleman callers in the mornings who are not come to see me."
"Well I have noticed quite a few young ladies looking your way too," she retorted, "although their mamas give them very stern looks because it is well known that you have no prospects."
"Their mamas are correct not to encourage them. I have no prospects, and until I do, I shall look at no girl."
"Take care or you shall fall flat on your face."
In the next few days it was evident that James had not been mistaken. Anne went off to Brighton, but still there were callers who came and tried to entice Mary with their deep looks and their sighs. She was disgusted and made a point of attempting to be out most of the mornings. Instead she rode across the meadow with her brother, and visited the farms, inspecting fields of wheat, grazing sheep, and hay, or walked in all the more remote spots of the garden where the servants would not find her. Her mother was losing all patience with her, but she had no interest in the young fellows who were mooning after her, and, as none of them really measured up to her mother's idea of worthiness, she was allowed to enjoy her mornings one day out of two, her mother not wanting her to give up the society all-together. One young gentleman, however, used different methods than the others, and enjoyed a much higher degree of success.
One morning, while James was out for a ride by himself, he met Samuel Hastings and the two fell into conversation. Although Mr. Hastings was only two years his junior, they had never much contact when they were younger. Their properties were situated about seven miles from each other, the estate of Samuel's family being much smaller and less prestigious.
"I understand that you have just completed your studies at Oxford?"
"Yes. You may have heard that I was to have taken orders but changed my mind. My interest lies in estate management and I mean to become a steward, when a suitable position is available," James answered with diffidence, looking at the young man to see his reaction.
Samuel Hastings did not blench or step back in distaste, but rather continued eagerly, "That is capital! I am in need of some good advice in respect to my own lands, or am I being presumptuous?" He looked at James who had begun to laugh and hesitated. "Have I said something I ought not? I was being quite serious you know."
"Forgive me," said James, choking back his laughter, "but all my family, bar one, have given me the impression that anyone of merit will turn from me in disgust when I say I am to become a steward, and yet the first person that I tell finds it a capital idea."
"Well so it is. I wish some attention had been given to my estate. Unfortunately my studies at Cambridge were not to the purpose, only classical, and of no use at all when it comes to the muddle my father made of things."
"Any help you want, I will be glad to offer."
"As I said, I was up at Cambridge, but last year my father fell gravely ill, and upon his death I had to leave my studies and take over my inheritance. My father was a kind man, and intelligent, but he was given over to sport and cards, and thoughtless to his properties. He enjoyed spending his money, but neglected the lands that produced it. If he had lived any longer, I fear that we should have been done up. As it is, I am not ruined. The land is good and with the right methods, I believe, the estate can become more profitable than it ever was. Unfortunately the retainer who has the running of it has no more clue than I how to proceed in setting it to rights. I know it is much to ask, but if you could accompany me on a tour of my estate and give me advice as to what measures I could take, I should appreciate it deeply."
"I should like that of all things. I have so long wanted to have someone's ear for the ideas that I have."
"Would tomorrow suit you? We could lunch together and then go about the estate with my steward."
"Tomorrow it is. I'll see you then, Hastings," said James, and he rode off through the fields to call on some of the tenants of his father's estate. Maybe he could not at present do something material to help them, but at least he could see how they did and provide what little help was in his power to offer.
© 2002 Copyright held by the author.