Crab apples can prove very sour...
Lily Tudor! She had once thought her fortune made when she joined Mary Sheffield’s nursery staff at the Castle. It was far better than serving as a scullery wench to some doctor or parson. But the Berkeleys’ eccentric ménage intrigued her. Miss Tudor seemed to be the mistress of the Castle, in every way you could think of, but was never addressed as the Countess. Lily had once made a terrible gaffe when the Earl was returning from Stowe, home of his sister, Lady Buckingham. She was crossing the yard when he strode out of the stables with gloomy aspect. “Where is your lady?” he demanded.
She flushed deep as beetroots and sprang a deep curtsy. “Please you, my lord, Lady Berkeley’s in the Pleasure Grounds. That’s where I saw her minutes ago.”
His response made her quake in her shoes. “You fool!” he thundered. “I have no Lady Berkeley! Not unless she be the Countess Dowager!”
“Sorry, sir. Ever so sorry,” said Lily, tears welling. Before he could repent of his anger and say something more emollient, she had swiftly ducked another curtsy and fled.
Why he felt the need to go after her he could not have explained. Even among his peers, he seldom stooped to justify himself. But something needed to be righted. Women! Tears! Had he not caused enough of them? The stab of remorse at his denial of Mary echoed Peter’s denial of the Lord. He caught up with the maid in the spinney behind the stables where she was sobbing her heart out, afraid someone would see.
“Dammit, wench, I was too hasty,” Berkeley huffed. “You’re new to the household, I perceive.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And is this your first post?”
“Y- yes, my lord.” Lily let out a halting breath and tried to control herself.
“Your first taste of the world? Your first time away from your mother?”
“She went to her grave last Michaelmas, sir. The tide snatched her away.”
He thrust a handkerchief towards her, revisited by familiar sensations. “There,” he said, “dry up your tears.” He had made the same gestures, used the phrase so many times with Mary. The irony of Lily’s surname added its own charge to the situation.
Acquitted, she turned upon him a smile of such cogent indebtedness, his knees began to tremble. Maturity bloomed in her bearing. There was a subtle change in dynamic so that when he leaned forward to bestow an obligatory kiss, she was, if only by instinct, poised to respond. Fire braced his manhood, that escape into wild irresponsibility where Nemesis did not pursue and pure lust was king. Hastily fumbling the preliminaries, he bonded to her beneath a tumbling of skirts and held her up between himself and the gnarled torso of a crab apple tree. She murmured and moaned and gave vent to a long whimpering wail. He had to smother her mouth with his coat. It was her first encounter with men. Her blood was upon him. She was his, this Earl of England, and no power on earth was going to let him forget it.
Lily smoothed her skirts and set her cap and pinafore straight before hurrying across the courtyard to her menial duties indoors with the countenance of one startled by a vision of something pleasing rather than otherwise. Mrs Sheffield noticed at once.
“Why, Lily, what’s afoot? I reckon you’ve seen the ghost of Dicky Pearce,” she laughed.
Lily humphed in an actressy fashion, adroitly disguising her confusion. “I ran into his lordship in the yard and he wanted to know where the mistress was. When I called her Lady Berkeley, he gave me a right earful. Swore he had no Lady Berkeley saving his mother. Well, I wasn’t to know!”
“He’s a temper on him, that one, when things don’t suit. But he’s no leave to go scolding newcomers. God knows, their setup’s a Chinese puzzle to older hands than you.”
“Some whisper they’ve wed on the quiet and don’t want the Dowager to know.”
“Tell it to the marines! Miss Tudor’s no more his wife than you are, Lily. Aye, and I doubt not you’ve better title to that name than she has.”
Mary Sheffield was not to know how this glowing endorsement of the nursemaid’s status in the scheme of things would fly home. Lily gloated upon it in secret. The lord of the castle, who moved among royalty, was her lover! The only difference between herself and the other Miss Tudor was that she had given him sons. That was what bought her neat gowns and high estate.
When Master Fitz took his governess to task for not addressing his mother as ‘my lady’ it brought matters to a head. That dame had tartly replied that it was a title reserved for Lord Berkeley’s wife. This had caused a furore above and below stairs. The bewildered Fitz had thrown a powerful tantrum and the exasperated Lily, bearing the brunt of it, could not refrain from blurting out that his mother was no better than she should be. The mistress ended up in floods of tears and Fitz had to be punished. There was dissension between her and his lordship at the time which played right into Lily's hands. Only the week previous she had informed him that she was with child and must quit his employ. She was terrified of her family and could not face the village folk of Quedgeley. Her brother-in-law would beat her senseless and want to know the child’s paternity. He would worry the truth out of her like a terrier.
“I am not so base a fellow as to shun my duties,” Berkeley said grimly. “There’ll be no cause for the serving of bastardy bonds!”
“Why, no, sir,” replied Lily, appalled, “not with you a Justice of the Peace an’ all.”
Berkeley mulled over the problem for a full five minutes and concluded that Lily should go to earth in London until her confinement. He owned vast tracts of Mayfair but ordered Mr Boodle to take lodgings for her above Morley’s Hotel, at that time in Cockspur Street. The gossip was that Lily Tudor could not cope with the Berkeleys’ crazy household and was seeking to further her prospects in Town. Miss Tudor was forbearing and tried to prevail upon her to stay. Lily was pretty and likely to attract the wrong kind of attention. The mistress knew from experience how easy it was to be lured into vice and didn’t appear to have the faintest idea what was going on within the ramparts of her own home.
The first child was stillborn. Lily saw that she would soon lose her claim upon Lord Berkeley if she didn’t continue to exploit his weakness for the fair sex and his reluctance to be branded a cad when her health was below par. She sensed all too acutely his guilt at the awkward position of Miss Tudor and his children by her. During that period, they lost two daughters and a son themselves and it seemed for a while that his progeny were jinxed.
Within a few months, Lily was pregnant again. She gazed down at the crumpled infant and determined that he should not be overlooked. He was an Earl’s son and as much an ‘Honourable’ as any of Mary Tudor’s.
“I want him to be baptised,” she said. “I want him to know his proper place in the world.”
“You must do as you see fit,” Berkeley had replied, unsuccessfully trying to smother his weariness. He had neither a spiritual nor a social interest in the child. Wasn’t it enough that he was sentenced to a lifetime’s ransom for his sins? The event had underlined just how precious his ‘real’ family was and in the light of this revelation he grew ashamed of how shabbily he had treated Mary. It had been the final trigger in his decision to marry her. By then, her disreputable sisters had forsaken England for good and a major barrier to social acceptance of Mary had been removed.
“I know there’s some vicars who take a high tone in these matters,” declared Lily, regarding him from under her lashes. “And some who are open to persuasion by persons of rank.”
“I am sure you can exert your charms to good effect, Miss.”
“There’s Mr Ferryman, of course. He comes calling when he’s in Town.”
“Does he, by God?”
“He thinks to rescue my immor’al soul, I reckon.”
“Fellow’s a fantasist!” The clergyman’s make-up was so variegated that nothing surprised Berkeley. His abject need of income was the motive for certain of his ventures but was by no means an overriding one. Hence his poverty.
Berkeley’s fingernails tattooed the windowsill as he considered this. Ferryman had done very well out of him. It would be the simplest way of ensuring discretion. “I will speak with him on the subject. I hope that may please you.”
“Thank you, sir. Be sure, it does!”
“But mind this, Lily: though I mean to grant an annuity for your needs, I don’t intend to be a grey eminence or any other kind in your lives from now on.”
There had been tears. Oh, those tears! But they came not from the same springs as Mary’s.