“The duration of passion is proportionate to the original resistance of the woman.” Honoré de Balzac.
A Fateful Encounter...
It was into this microcosm over which Mary had gained some degree of mastery, that Lord Berkeley made his incursion in gold lace and heavy regimental boots.
One misty November afternoon when the merest wafer of sun had vanished and the rhythmic click of the crib on the bare floor had lulled both the nursery’s occupants to sleep, Mary moved to the window embrasure to take up her sewing. A pile of her brother-in-law’s shirts awaited her and many of the buttonholes begged repair which was a particularly wearisome task. Lifting her needle to the light and threading it, she chanced to glance down into the street and there espied the familiar clique of officers, stunningly bright among the drab cloaks and broadcloth of Gloucester’s bustling citizens. To her astonishment, she saw that they were all gazing up at her window in demonstrable amusement. The highest-ranking, who had an air of diffident heroism about him, stepped forward and kissed his hand to her, doffing his hat in a sweeping bow. His build, fairly tall but inclined to portliness, was not that of some courtly swain accustomed to overblown manners, so that he appeared a trifle ludicrous. Perhaps it was because of this that Mary felt peculiarly touched: her whole being blushed and she shrank, with a vague gesture of acknowledgement, from the panes.
The half-hour sounded its warning chimes, an inevitable downbeat stroke.
Just then, Ann’s tripping step could be heard on the stairs. She burst into the room, beaming breathlessly. Mary had rarely seen her so jubilant.
“Only fancy! You’ve made a fine conquest! There’s a gentleman in the parlour who wishes to meet you, Mary.”
“I….I can’t come now,” Mary faltered, conscious of her patched skirt and the unruly locks escaping her neat lawn cap.
“Take off your apron and come as you are. You always look prettier when you’re flustered.”
“Who is he? What can he want?”
“His Lordship of Berkeley, no less! As to the rest, we shall see!”
The Earl of Berkeley! Had it indeed been he who had saluted her just now? Though the gentleman’s identity was unknown to her, the reputation attaching to it decidedly was not. “Pray make my apologies. I am not well today.”
“Nonsense! You’ll come down if I have to sling you! The Lord Lieutenant of the County waits upon you and all you can do is take a fit of the vapours!”
Henry began to toss and frown, Liam to whimper, and all Mary’s crooning was undone. Frustration tied her protesting tongue. Will appeared in the doorway, his pale eyes glinting like a nervous rabbit and full of importunity. He was a short, obsequious man who had not the presence to make up for what he lacked in stature. Why had Ann married him? His apron was soiled; raw fetor of blood hung about him and introduced a primordial note to the innoxious smells of the nursery.
“You’ll take no ‘arm, girl. He’s a nice-mannered fellow. Come down and work your charms on him, on both of them. I beg you won’t vex Cap’n Willy, for there’ll not be a farthing to spare in the kitty by the end of the week.”
What could be more natural than a social visit to pass the time of day, Mary asked herself briskly? If she was angry at Will’s incompetence and her sister’s feckless ways, the children could not be forgotten. Her acquiescence could mean bread in their mouths, crusts for Henry to cut his teeth upon and milksops for Liam’s supper. The Captain might even stretch Will’s credit. She fumbled to loosen the strings of her apron, smoothed the folds of her gown, and followed Will downstairs, dumb as a lamb before the shearer. Henry’s forsaken howl rent the upper room behind them and Mary was torn in two by an irrational sense of innocence betrayed.
Will fussed and fawned over the introductions, then shot off into the shop, vowing that his customers would by now be forming a queue halfway down Westgate. “Praise be!” cried Willy, mindful of promissory notes. Mary skimped a curtsy and looked Berkeley in the eye with a most appealing candour. “I’m honoured to make your lordship’s acquaintance. Yours, too, Captain,” she managed steadily.
“So you are the fair Dorcas on the other side of the glass,” the Captain said.
“Egad! You’ve a flowery turn of phrase, Willy.”
“More decorous, perhaps, than your own, my lord. ‘Delectable jade,’ wasn’t that how you put it?”
The Earl coloured. “Stop playing Tom Fool,” he commanded with some asperity. “Referring to a piece in Mayer’s window!”
“His lordship, you’ll appreciate, Miss Cole, has a fine eye for a gem.”
Daniel Willy’s keen grey eyes shone mischievously. Mary gathered that his pointed, and not entirely tactful, remarks were intended as a gentle warning. He apologised for the intrusion and disclaimed any responsibility for bringing the meeting about. His Colonel-in-Chief had spotted Mary on several occasions at her needlework and, knowing his comrade’s dealings with the Farrens, had requested an introduction, which the gallant Captain had firmly refused. “What, expose an honest maid to your toils? I’ll not answer for that, Colonel or no!”
Yet, for the life of her, Mary could not see in this bulwark of a man, blanking out the draught from their shrunken sills, anything to excite her fear. On the contrary, with his disarming touch of buffoonery, he seemed the kind of fatherly fellow a woman might instantly trust. His distinctive features were good-humoured, his high brow calm, quite a contrast to the spare handsomeness of Willy whose fatal chivalry was far more beguiling. Lord Berkeley’s eyes were an unusual shade of blue which defied clear description. Periwinkle, Mary decided. The sorcerer’s violet.
“Mary, be good enough to offer the gentlemen a dish of tea,” chivvied Ann, bidding their guests make themselves comfortable and not wait for the ladies to sit down. They tossed their bicorne hats on to the dresser and spread themselves upon Ann’s newly-brocaded sofa.
“Mrs Farren has a nice sense of priority,” observed Willy, stretching out his long legs before the fender so that the pinchbeck buckles of his shoes gleamed like molten gold in the firelight. “The coffers might echo but the tea-caddy don’t!”
This insinuation of debt did nothing to mortify Ann. “Why, I swear, Captain, those heifers you sent last month were all rib and no beef.”
“Bless you, ma’am, I’m a man of business and can’t afford to give my fatlings away!”
While Mary lodged the kettle safely on the fire and took down their best china from the cupboard, Ann disappeared to fetch lardy cake.
“Miss Cole,” began the Earl, “you’ve been away in London, I hear.”
“In service, my lord, in Berkeley Square.”
“Indeed? And was life there agreeable?”
“No, sir. I badly missed the country.”
“I’d lay odds,” ventured his lordship, “that your situation formed your view.”
Did Mary imagine it, or was there some purpose in the drift of this exchange? Captain Willy was watching with avid interest. Mary scooped out the tea, trying to control her shaking hand.
“The work was hard and the hours long. London’s a lonely place, sir.”
Lord Berkeley leaned forward. Something complex was encoded in the Viking eyes. Mary’s heart leapt. An intimation of the unknown brushed against her….and was gone. In a single moment, she left girlhood behind.
“Come now, what have the provinces to offer a winsome girl compared to the attractions of the Great Wen?”
“We were merry as crickets at Barnwood.”
“Some pretty frocks, a smart equipage to cut a dash in the Park, a servant or two to do your bidding and you’d change your tune, I’m sure.”
“This is where I belong,” replied Mary soberly, although she did not feel quite at home.
“Westgate does not deserve you, by God!”
The blackened kettle hissed and sang. She turned her face to the fire and the heat was intense. “I like the society of those who earn bread from the land and the loom and strive to keep the Commandments.”
Captain Willy stifled a snort at seeing his colleague put out of countenance. Berkeley shuffled in his seat. He was used to light-minded females who giggled at his mordant wit and did not unseat him from composure.
“You are of this Evangelical persuasion sweeping the land, perhaps?”
“Indeed, no, sir. Mother was a cradle Catholic: her family were Jacobites. To be truthful,” added Mary, “she is a little lapsed since then. She had us christened in the Parish Church.”
“Uncommon glad to hear it!”
It was when Mary said with such devastating simplicity: ‘I try to tread the path of virtue,’ that Fred knew he must have her. The feeling was like a razor wound. In the beginning, it was not the urge to topple her that smote him; it was the wanting to cherish her unworldliness. He needed it for himself. This strange and sudden alchemy had invoked a place where they were equals. He admired Mary for being undaunted by his rank, for the welcome steel of her character. The Dowager, his mother, had imposed no discipline upon him, being signally unacquainted with the concept herself, and his favourite sister, the bubble-headed Lady Craven, was of much the same mould. The Earl could take neither seriously, though he doted on both.
But on that dim November afternoon, in the butcher’s homespun parlour, his conditioned brain did not tumble to the truth.
“And does virtue pay the bills, Miss Cole?” he asked.
“We make shift.”
“Forgive me, but your brother-in-law is not – shall we say? – in good odour with the merchants of Gloucester, nor with the farmers who supply him. Were they to foreclose….”
There was no mistaking the Earl’s intentions now. Mary noticed his stubborn chin and his complacent expression. She wanted to hammer against his breast with her fists, to rail against her sisters who played into the hands of such men and perpetuated their grip. Why, even here, the black pulse of the world throbbed while the babies looked for succour. The water was bubbling and the kettle-lid trembled. She took a folded cloth and grasped the handle, steam rising about the chestnut spirals of hair. “Tis to be devoutly wished they don’t, sir!”
“Why be bonded to fortune, Mary? There is another way.”
She turned a dovelike gaze upon him that was tinged with sadness. “God will provide,” she answered quietly.
“Even he needs his instruments,” commented the Earl. “Come, let us be in charity with one another.”
“I’d find that easier, my lord, if you did not press your attentions.”
“Then I shall cease, Miss Cole, if it pains you,” he said. “I shall strive not to put myself into a taking over your debts if you don’t!”
It struck Mary that Ann’s absence was overlong and that she had probably devised it so. The suspicion that there was a conspiracy under the family roof made Mary feel even more vulnerable and alone. While the tea brewed, she made her excuses to leave the room and find her sister with the cake.
“Upon my word!” exclaimed the yeoman, laughing. “I think your lordship has met his match!”
THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS, Book Two...