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I picture you, Gentle Reader, as being somewhat like myself. My old self, that is. You are gentle born, or you would not be able to read well enough to tackle a book. (A fate worse than poverty!) Not so high in society that your taste has been perverted to saucy French novels, nor so frivolous that you favor the gothic nonsense of Mrs. Radcliffe, with her pseudo-haunted castles and Satanic characters.
Let me issue you a warning before you turn the first page--I am no swooning heroine, equipped with acute sensibilities and a turn for passivity. But still I am a romantic, as you are, I think, looking for a touch of vicarious gratification for those yearnings that bedevil one as she goes about her chores. I know the feeling well, am kin to you at heart. I have experienced that unsatisfying life of the perpetual onlooker. No more! We were not born for so little. What is to decide our role in life after all but our desires, and the degree of fortitude we are willing to exert to gain them?
There's the rub--fortitude. Endurance, if you like, to give some point to my title. You must be ready to grasp your chance when it comes round. It might not come but once. What a sad thing it would be to miss out on all the excitement only because of lacking fortitude. If you learn one thing from my confessions, let it be that. Take your chance when it comes; recognize it, grab it. The rewards you gain will well merit the little inconveniences you will meet along the way.
Well, to be fair, let us admit they are large inconveniences, huge, palpable, at times almost overwhelming, but never quite. He (I mean God) is up there, helping us. Absolutely theonly embargo I would place on you is that you not break His laws. As to those other man-made ones--pooh! Break them if you must, and if you can--but only if you are sure you can get away with it, of course. "For a good cause, wrongdoing is virtuous" is a maxim from the old classic scholars, of whom my brother is a friend. I shall add a maxim from a friend of my own, Miss Sage. Thou shalt not get caught. Always bear it in mind. It would be a sad reflection on my philosophy if you should end up in Bridewell only because you wanted a fuller life, some romance, perhaps a husband. Certainly a husband, in fact. When all is said and done, I expect we would pass up the rest of the adventure fast enough if we could be assured of a good husband.
I nearly ended up in prison myself, for it was necessary for me to bend the man-made laws a little. It happened like this. When my father, who was a gambling magistrate, died, he left my brother Andrew and myself not only parentless, but virtually penniless as well. I say virtually because he had just been paid and had not yet gambled away his quarter salary. It was sufficient to see him decently buried with a nice headstone, a polished granite cross it was, with a pair of doves, to include Mama as well in the symbol. My mother is not even a memory to me, only a name. Andrew has some feeling she was like myself in appearance, but Papa never said so.
The fine home in which we had lived all our lives was so heavily encumbered with mortgages that nothing remained after we had paid up the local bills and a rather large debt Papa owed to Squire Porson, my father's most favored gambling partner, but to sell Fern Bank. It was like parting with a piece of ourselves. I would as soon have cut off an arm or a leg, but the property was in Andrew's name, of course, and the wishes of a female were little heeded. He sold it too cheaply too, in my opinion.
It was picked up at a great bargain by the Everetts, retired merchants from Kent, who had sold their shop and wished to get far enough from home that they might set up as gentle folks. The wife was the shrewdest haggler that ever set foot in a gentleman's house. Her busy fingers were poking holes in the window frames, pointing out wood rot and termites, her calculating eyes didn't miss a scratch or chip on a single piece of furniture, but missed the rather obvious fact that what was scratched was a Queen Anne bureau-bookcase, or a Kent commode. I had to hint we would be happy to remove this worthless lumber before she came down to any sort of acceptable terms at all.
All that remained to us after the deal was closed was a gig and a farm horse, Babe, to pull it. We took our clothing, and I a strand of pearls, Andrew my father's gold watch, a very fine Gruebet, from France. We also took (it was not stealing, for the library was catalogued omitting them) several tomes in Latin and Greek.
"Now, where are we to put all our worldly goods?" I asked Andrew the night before we had to leave. Andrew is my older brother, twenty-one he was at the time. He is tall, dark-complexioned, shortsighted and bookish. I am short, blond, eagle-eyed and not at all bookish, though I dote on a novel. I am eighteen. It is said locally that I am pretty. My mirror tells me the same, which is a great blessing in a potential heroine.
"Have to take rooms," he answered. Andrew would not much care if he lived in a rabbit warren, so long as he had a good light to read by. He had his nose in Virgil as he spoke. This at the turning point of our lives! But then he was very immature, despite his years at university.
"Rooms! Are Magistrate Anderson's children to take up rented rooms like Miss Plum?" I haven't a thing against Miss Plum but that she is uncommonly common, poor soul. She is called genteel, but a spinster living in a hired room on twenty-five pounds a year is only genteel in deference to her more favored relations, the Blythes, who could well afford to take her in if they would, but they won't.
"Mmmm," Andrew answered, not listening and not caring.
"Andrew, listen to me! I refuse to live in furnished rooms next to Miss Plum in a boardinghouse. I shall go out and work first." In fact, I was beginning to think I must go out and work in any case. Andrew was my natural provider, but it was becoming increasingly clear he was not ready even to provide me a partner in conversation.
"Oh, as to that, Mab, Squire Porson is coming to call," he mumbled.
Let me tell you a little about this gentleman. Gentleman--bah! A misnomer if ever there was one. He possesses a gentlemanly income (five thousand a year, they say hereabouts), and the instincts of a weasel. He is what folks call a squarson, to indicate he is a squire so clutch-fisted and so little interested in religion that he acts as his own parson instead of giving the living to a real minister. His double role does not by any means indicate a regard for the church, though he took holy orders in his youth. It was an effort on his late father's part to try to reclaim him. An unsuccessful effort. He is a libertine. When he gambled with my father, he was comparatively well employed. His more usual occupation was ruining the local wenches. Every second parish child you meet on the street has his nose (long and misshapen) and his hair (copper red if it were clean, usually mud red in the youthful version).
"I shan't let him in," I told Virgil, who was keeping me from telling Andrew.
"You know what he'll have in mind. He'll want me to be his housekeeper or accountant, which is French for mistress." The squarson had been casting lecherous eyes on me since I put up my hair and let down my skirts. Even for a few months before the skirts came down he had been admiring my ankles.
"No such a thing," Andrew muttered.
"Don't be an ass, Andrew. We are not going to live at Holy Hell." Porson's place is called Holly Hill, but is more widely known in the village as Holy Hell, due to his churchly position and his vile nature.
"Must," he said. "Mean to say, wants you to marry him."
Now you may think that if I followed my own advice, I would snatch at this chance for a wealthy husband. Not so. Naturally we must use a little discrimination in our adventures. A red-nosed libertine of fifty years was not what I had in mind. "I would as lief marry the chimney sweep. Liefer." Our chimney sweep in Salford is Toby Kiley, who is a knock-in-the-cradle. He was dropped on his head by his mother the day he was born, they say, but actually the whole family is a little retarded, including the mother, who has distressed the village with thirteen of these moonlings or near moonlings. Five of them have red hair, but never mind. They got their brains from their mama, who had not an iota to spare.
I chattered on to myself angrily for a quarter of an hour, at which time Squire Porson was admitted. Looking at Andrew, he jerked his head toward the door. Without so much as saying good evening to either of us, if you please! Andrew, like a demmed puppy, walked out the door, his nose in his book.
I was ready to spit fire before our caller opened his mouth.
"I've come to tell ye I mean to make ye my missus," he said, in an uncouth, provincial accent, smiling genially.
I was expected to go down on my knees and thank him for this insolence. "I am not at all interested, thank you," I said.
"Eh, the word was missus, not mistress, lass," he returned, laughing.
"I heard you, sir. I am no more interested in the one role than the other."
"With the gold ring and ceremony and all," he went on, as though I were one of his simpleminded by-blows, who could not understand the King's English.
"I am still not interested."
"A diamond ring then, miss," he said, regarding me through narrowed eyes to be sure I was worth the price, as he upped the ante.
"You may take your diamond ring and stick it through your nose, Squire. I wouldn't marry you if I had to live on a bone."
The bold beast laughed merrily and hauled me into his arms, after chasing me around the settee twice, and catching hold of me before I could get safely out the door. He kissed me, with his brandy-soaked lips, and his unshaven face prickling me. He was strong as a bull. I fought to get out of his arms, till I was thoroughly exhausted and no closer to being free than I was at the beginning. Finally I wrenched my head aside and screamed as if my life depended on it.
A few of our servants had been kept on by the Everetts and were still on the premises. It was the butler, Hackley, who came galloping to my rescue. Lord only knows where Andrew was in my hour of need. Frolicking in his mind over the ruins of Pompeii, I daresay.
Hackley is built like St. Paul's Cathedral, with enormous shoulders and a rounded head not unlike Wren's dome. He made short shrift of the squarson. He picked him up bodily--and Porson is a large man too--but Hackley got one hand on his collar and another on the seat of his trousers and tossed him bodily out the front door. I followed behind and threw his hat and cane out after him. Then Hackley dusted off his hands and said in a perfectly unperturbed voice, "Tea, Miss Mabel?"
"Thank you, Hackley. Tea in the saloon, if you please," I replied, and kissed him on the cheek. He blushed like a Bath miss, but bowed very formally before going to fetch my tea.
Andrew never did remember to come and take his tea that evening. I had it alone, which provided as good company as if he had been there. There was a certain sense of satisfaction accompanying having delivered Porson to his just desserts, but it solved nothing. My brother and I were still twelve hours from being on the streets, with nowhere to put our books and necklace and watch.
I settled down, with my chin in my hands, to read the flames in the grate for some clue to our salvation. Andrew was educated and intelligent, not without some hope of gainful employment in the near future. A tutor's job, for instance, he could fill well enough. But what was to become of me? No employer of a tutor expected said tutor to be accompanied by his sister.
There was a dame school in the village where I might make myself useful. Old Dame Aldridge ran it, and she was getting on in years. She had a largish house, lived alone but for a couple of servants. Something might be worked out there.
You will think it remiss of us to have waited so long to solve our housing problem. As things worked out, we had very little time. Our father's death came on very suddenly. Between the funeral calls and arrangements and winding up the estate to find ourselves destitute, we were in no position to be thinking of the future. The very day after we learned we must sell Fern Bank, the real estate agent was at our door with a purchaser. Any persons of decent feeling, which the Everetts unfortunately lacked, would have given us a month or two to get settled elsewhere. Nothing would do that witch of a woman but she must have occupancy immediately. I have wondered since whether they were not being run out of whatever town they came from for some crooked dealings. I certainly think they pulled the wool over our eyes, rushing us as they did, and both Andrew and myself young and untrained in business matters.
I had made some tentative inquiries around the village without turning up a thing. In the back of my mind there rested the thought that an appeal to Porson would give us a lease on the minister's house at a nominal cost, as he had so much of my father's money stashed away. He did not live in the house, of course. My somewhat abrupt treatment of him now made that course impossible. We had an aunt, Mama's sister, living in Devonshire, but such a tediously long distance away that I disliked to go to her. We hardly knew her either, except for letters.
I did not want to leave the neighborhood at all. I had never known any home but Fern Bank, any village but that of Salford, four miles away. I like everything about the Salford area amazingly. It is on the east coast of England. There where Felixstone sticks like a toe into the ocean you will find it on the map, halfway up the arch of the foot, nestled among the cliffs and dunes.
The sky of Salford, as with the rest of East Anglia, is a beautiful pearl blue shade seen nowhere else. At least it was not so at London when I was there, choking on the smoke fumes, nor did I see such skies during my one trip to Devonshire. I like the fenland fields, which foreigners will call marshes still, though they have been drained and cultivated since the seventeenth century. (A foreigner, in these parts, need hail from no farther afield than the next county.) The countryside is not at all flat as you may think. We have beautiful hills and valleys, caught on canvas by some of the best painters of this century.
But most of all we have the sea. No one who was reared up here on the coast could be completely happy elsewhere, I am convinced. The regular old East Anglians have an independent spirit surviving still from the days when we were cut off from our neighbors by the marshes. This independent spirit caused me to stick at writing to Mama's sister, Mrs. Harvey, begging for charity.
In the morning, Andrew and I loaded up the gig with our few belongings and went into Salford. We stopped at Miss Aldridge's place, where I dropped a few loud hints as to my dread at taking up lodgings at the boardinghouse with Miss Plum. "You must not think of it, my dear!" she exclaimed at once. "Tell Squire Porson of your plight. He will let you have the rectory. I made sure it was settled long since. Why, I never thought anything else for a moment. Young Andrew can help him out with the church-business, and you will keep house for your brother. Your papa was one of the overseers of the poor; the post must go to Andrew surely."
"Sir Elwood Ganner will have something to say to that," I answered. I have little experience in political or business matters. I don't know how it may be elsewhere, but I expect it is not much different from Salford. Here, Sir Elwood Ganner, KBE, runs the town. If you want to get a job or permit for anything, if you want to hire a parish child for a servant or apprentice, if you want a road opened or closed, if you want any improvement made in the town, or in your taxes, you speak to Sir Elwood. He is the parish officer, and a number of other things as well, including the husband of Lady Ann Burack, whose late papa was a gentleman of great importance. This last is more than a coincidence, I expect.
"A new overseer must be chosen. Certainly he will pick Andrew. Go to see him at once. Meanwhile, you must speak to the squarson."
I explained in vague terms that this was impossible. So vague was my explanation that she misunderstood it entirely, and leapt to the conclusion I feared only his advances if harbored under a roof belonging to him.
"He is a shocking flirt to be sure, but would never make improper advances to Magistrate Anderson's daughter."
"To be expected to marry him is worse," I replied.
"Unthinkable!" she laughed. "He is ancient enough to be your papa, child. What a ninny he would look, making up to a slip of a girl. A rare laughingstock; he is much too proud to risk it. Stay right where you are, and I'll send a note off to Holly Hill this minute telling him what you are about. You'll be in the rectory before nuncheon. See if you ain't."
I opened my mouth to object, but thought better of it. He had got the lion's share of my father's considerable income out of him over the past decades. It was no more than just that he pay the small interest of letting us have the use of an empty house. If it could be done, I wouldn't say a word against it. I doubted he would announce to the village he had been turned off by me. Refusing to let us have the house would make him look as mean as he is, which would not please him, for he makes some attempt at a good reputation.
Miss Aldridge was slightly out in her reckoning. We were not into the house till three. We took luncheon with her, and while we were at table, Porson arrived. I did not go into the parlor to meet him, but let Andrew do it. Within a quarter of an hour, he was gone, and Andrew told us with a great deal of disinterest that he had been appointed church warden, and was to help the squire write up his sermons, keep up the parish register, and perform other such functions. The house, sans any servants or salary, was to be ours.
It seemed a small, mean and crabbed little cottage after the grace and spaciousness of Fern Bank. But then next to the boardinghouse, it was a mansion. In actual fact it was a decent whitewashed house two stories high, with eight habitable rooms. There was a parlor done in oak paneling, rather like my little sewing room at home. But comparisons are pointless. It was a roof over our heads--that was the important thing.
The church sits at the east edge of town, the rectory about two dozen steps away from it, toward Salford. On the other side of the church stands the bell tower. The bells have not been played within my memory, but Miss Aldridge thought a few of the old men might still know the method. The church itself was not pretty. Interesting architecturally is the strongest praise overheard in its honor. It is rather low and dark, dating from a very early age. The nave, folks say, is from the fourteenth century, the huge baptismal font at the front fifteenth, the pulpit (dark, oaken and very high), late sixteenth. A hundred or so years later the horsebox pews (the cause for the high pulpit) had been replaced by more modern boxes. There was a strange set of carved stairs at the back of the church that went halfway up to the ceiling, then stopped, leading nowhere at all. Andrew thought they were rood stairs, leading in days gone by to the rood loft, demolished by Edward VI.
The most modern item in the church is a sumptuous organ in the gallery, which has not been there but three years. It is a gift from Lord Aiken, an earl who has a summer home nearby. They do say he collected it in payment of a gambling debt and had nowhere else to put it. Inasmuch as there is not a single person in the parish who can play it, and as a gift it was particularly inappropriate, one is inclined to believe this story.
Andrew amused himself with this expensive toy while I set to the chore of bringing our house to order. It had stood vacant for more than ten years, which will give you some idea of the gargantuan task before me. My hands, white as a lily, became red and roughened from the strong soaps required to clean the place up. When Dame Aldridge noticed this, she sent me over a couple of girls to help. I scrimped on household finances to buy a few bits of bright curtain material, while I regretted we had not had the foresight to bring some of our own furnishings from Fern Bank to make us look respectable.
We settled into our new home, becoming familiar with all its nooks and crannies, its drafty windows and creaking doors. We discovered there was an old crypt beneath the church, a thing I had never known before. While investigating the grounds behind for the possibility of growing a vegetable garden, I espied an old slanted door. Curious to see where it led, I tried all the keys till I found the one that fit it. Later I also discovered a door to it from the vestry, hidden under the parish chest.
We had taken the giant step of getting a roof over our heads, but there was very little money to live on, only the pittance paid to Andrew as overseer of the poor. It was my turn to pitch in and raise a wage. There was an old piano in the place. I gave lessons to some of the local girls, but it provided only a mite. Many's the night we went with only bread and cheese for dinner, too proud to beg and too accustomed to better fare to be satisfied. Folks visited us, trying to be sociable, but giving them even tea and cake was a strain on our budget. It got so that I dreaded to hear the door knocker sound. Five times out of ten it would be Mrs. Everett too, complaining about some new fault she had unearthed at Fern Bank, and never offering us a basket of vegetables or fruit or a thing, though she knew very well we were needy.
I asked her quite pointedly on one visit what she was doing with all the fruit from the succession houses. "When my father was alive, we used to distribute many baskets to the poor," I told her.
"Succession houses? I don't know how your poor father ever contrived to grow a thing. Jerome says they will have to be rebuilt before they can be used. He has an architect coming in to see what can be done with them. We have let those puny orange trees and pineapples wilt away and will set up a proper orangery one of these days."
As summer turned to fall, I began taking in a little embroidery, claiming I did it for amusement. It paid for fuel, but still it was clearly not enough to live on. I needed a regular job.
The squire never came next or nigh us. On Friday Andrew took the gig up to Holy Hell to deliver the squire sermons he could scarcely pronounce, and on Sunday they both remained after church juggling the books and discussing church business--i.e., Andrew told him what parishioners stood in want of christening, marrying or burying.
I said "How do you do?" in arctic accent when I met him in the town. He lifted his hat and nodded, without smiling. His pride had been dealt a blow, and I had some misgivings the situation between us would not remain forever so peaceful. In short, he was plotting a revenge, but what form it might take was impossible to tell.